Garden Lessons – Part 2, by Greenthumb in the West

(Continued from Part 1. This concludes the article.)

Grapes are a relatively fast maturing plant as far as fruit production (compared to trees) but even for them the vines that bear fruit grow off of last year’s vines. Unless you are already growing or purchase “primacane” variety berries, most of them are the same way. Asparagus and rhubarb need to be established a year or two before they can be harvested. You have time to deal with that year of start up time now, so take advantage of it.

Established fruit trees and plants can produce excessive amounts of fruit. New trees don’t. Plant now.

Pay attention to the varietals you are planting. It matters. Choose ones that match your growing season, climate, and challenges. If you have a shorter growing season, choose early harvest varietals. With a longer season, you might be able to fit in two harvests. Disease resistance, number of frost hours required, etc all can be important factors to plant survival and production. Outside of the plant and growing characteristics, fruit type matters too. If you are planning on making sauce from tomatoes, cherry tomatoes may not be the best for you! Are you choosing heirloom varietals?

Not to contradict myself, but while varietals matter, local knowledge and plant stock also matter. Don’t reinvent the wheel. If your neighbor has amazing fruit trees or a great garden, go talk to them. See what they are growing. See how often they water them. See what their fertilizer regimen is. Learn what you can. There is no need to repeat mistakes someone else has already learned from! Some gardeners don’t like to give up secrets, but most will help a neighbor out, especially if the interest is genuine. We have had good luck, not coming empty-handed. If they have iris growing somewhere, we have brought a few bulbs of a different color flower and a dozen eggs from the hens to help break the ice. In our neck of the woods, people are not only neighborly but happy to help and have other self-sufficient families around. When we run into them later, we have always made it a point to tell them how the garden was doing and let them know that their advice paid off.

Our berry cuttings came from a nearby farm. The owners were out by the fence one day and we stopped to ask them about the huge blackberry thicket they had growing on a creek drainage. An hour of conversation later, we had new friends and permission to make cuttings from the berries when we wanted. They had no idea what varietal they were but the berries love the local climate and you can’t argue with that. This may not always be possible, but take advantage of local plants when you can. If your garden zone is supposed to grow apples and peaches, but no one is growing peaches, ask around! There may be a good reason why not!

Our garden has a gradual slope, so that the northeast corner is the highest and the southwest corner is the lowest. One of the things we noticed was that we tended to have water drainage towards the western fence, and then south. Because of the natural water flow, this was where we established our berries. They love it.

Try to take advantage of the natural layout of your garden. We have made a habit of tossing a few seeds of whatever is left in any area that has water drainage after watering and the plants have almost always done well. Pay attention to what direction your sun comes from and don’t put tall plants in front of short plants. Likewise, If you have grapes, hops, or other plants of a similar vine form, plant them on the furthest fence from the sun (North for us), not the nearest, so the sun isn’t blocked. Plan the garden so things with a similar watering schedule are near each other. Make your life easier.

Try not to mix annuals and perennials in the same bed. This helps with prep for next year, as well as watering. We have a bed of rhubarb, asparagus, and all of our perennial herbs. This way, we aren’t trying to dig around established plants to prep the rest of the bed for planting. Let your garden be your guide. Work with what your garden wants to do, not against it. One side of our orchard gradually becomes more rocky and clay. The trees on that side of the yard didn’t drain and died. We replaced them with blueberries that do great in the spot. Likewise with the blackberries in the drainage, taking advantage of the natural run off.

We tried a variety of melons as well. Watermelons just did okay, but the honeydew and Crenshaw melons have been prolific. We haven’t given up on the watermelons and are trying some new varietals, but will plant more honeydew and Crenshaw’s this year. The peppers love the corrugated metal raised beds and the hotter soil. Take advantage of the garden space. Grow squash and beans with your corn. Grow peas with your potatoes. Take advantage of the different height growing zones of different plants to maximize your space, time, and harvest. Figure out what grows best and what grows where now, while your life and that of your family do not depend on it.

Use Machinery

Maximize your productivity and work hours. Use machinery while you can. If you can swing it, get a tractor. If not, consider a tiller at a minimum. Get a bigger tiller than you think, either a mid-tine or rear tine. Ideally, we would have a tractor, but we have not found the right deal. We tried using ATV attachments initially but they were of mediocre effectiveness with our soil. We found a used Honda Mid-tine tiller at Home Depot for more than 75% off of the normal retail price. It was an ex-rental that was in great shape. The tiller had just been serviced, and the blades had just been replaced. This has been a game-changer, both in speed and volume. (On a side note, pick up spare/replaceable parts now while you still can!)

When we were converting new ground to garden ground, the tiller was essential. If you have plans to double or triple your garden size post SHTF, invest in the tools now to make it possible. Depending on your area and if you were so inclined, you could rent out a tiller or tractor a few times a year, develop an income stream, and probably pay for it before too long.

Buy good garden tools, and buy spares. Buy what you need for now and what you will need if fuel and power is gone. Hand saws, sycthes, horse-pulled implements. We found we use 5-gallon buckets routinely in the garden and have put up some more. Save your old pots small plants come in to start next year’s seeds. Re-purpose other containers for the same idea.

When we bought the property, it had a pad poured for a pump house and a small diameter well in place. We drilled a new larger diameter well and converted the old well to a hand pump back up. We also used the pad and built a greenhouse to maximize the growing season. By starting seeds early, we can add 4-6 weeks to the growing season. If your retreat is in an area with a later early frost date, consider a greenhouse. If you cant build one now, consider storing the materials to build one along with plans. I have seen people build them from old 2-liter soda bottles stacked up as walls.

In order to maximize your harvest, consider successive plantings. There are two main ways to do this. With faster-maturing crops, you can plant them again immediately after harvest. With the 28 day maturity of radishes, these are a good example of one after another.

Successive Plantings

Another method of successive planting is to space multiple plantings by a week or two. This helps prevent everything ripening in the same week and reduces spoilage and workload. Corn is a good example of this. Depending on your frost dates and the maturity of the plant, it is often possible to get at least four weeks of harvests. Another way to do this is with different varietals of the same plant. Some corn matures at 90 days. Some mature at 110. These could be planted at the same time and would have different harvest times.

With corn, keep in mind some types are made for eating (like sweet corn) and some are made for drying (like flint or popcorn.) When sweet corn and flint corn mix, you can end up with a sweet corn that is very bland and starchy. Space your corn out (distance-wise) if you are growing different types, with the sweet corn upwind. If you cant space the corn and want two varietals, choose one with different maturity dates or stagger the plantings. We learned the hard way that we didn’t give enough space or time and ended up with that bland starchy corn.

We use black ½” tubing and smaller 1/4” tubing to water most of the garden. We have stored rolls of tubing and buckets of assorted attachments, drippers, etc. Buy more than you need. Then buy more. You will have to change the layout of your garden at least once and will go through more hose than you think. You will cut lines with a shovel or hoe. Whatever method you use to water, buy a spare. Then buy another few spares. Then buy some for charity and some for trade.

Pick up extras of any parts that will break or wear out. Hose attachments seem to break or clog for us, and the head where the ½” tubing attaches will sometimes break as well. Both are stored in bulk. We use five-gallon buckets to cover the irrigation heads and have had to replace them twice now as they crack in the sun. By starting now, you can learn what you need to store in-depth.

Get Underlayment

Grab some rolls of black garden cloth. Then grab more. We use it to help heat up soil in the early season and to keep weeds down and we go through it faster than we thought we would. Old carpet or old rugs cut into strips can be used the same way, but only if you have them!

Not all fertilizer is the same. Cherries take different fertilizers than berries. Research what you need for the plants you are growing and buy in bulk now. Obviously, a mild fertilizer can be used in a pinch but I have a difficult time planning for a sub-optimal outcome, especially when you have time to plan and get things right.

It was eye-opening to process and can all of the extra produce from the garden the first few years. We had a ton of mason jars, lids, and rings. We thought we had enough. We didn’t. Without knowing this, we would have been in a rough spot post SHTF with a lot of wasted food.


Start your compost pit now. An established compost pile can produce wonderful soil, but it doesn’t happen overnight. And while compost is not rocket science, there are tips and ratios and things to add and avoid that really make a difference. You have time to learn now. Take advantage of it. An interesting thing with unfinished compost is how often seeds make it through to that stage if it hasn’t fully broken down. We had filled an extra pot with compost last year and forgot about it. Soon we had tomatoes and squash come up from seeds that made it through. In a pinch, I would be confident we could get a fair amount of plants started from unfinished compost. Our first year, the tomatoes suffered from blossom rot. This comes from low calcium in the soil. We added more eggshells and bone meal to the compost and the problem was solved. I knew it came from low calcium in the soil by being able to look it up online. We may not always have this luxury so start learning now.

I strongly encourage everyone to keep a garden journal. You will forget what varietal it was if you don’t write it down. That plant that came up and was super bountiful? That trick that worked on the squash bugs? Write it down. Write down what crops were planted where so you can rotate each year. We also make it a point to try something new in the garden every year and take notes on it. This year we tried both mounds and rows of squash to see what did better for us. We tried tomatoes in straw bales last year and they did great. We have better luck with melon seeds planted directly in the ground then transplanting them Try soaking some seeds the night before versus not soaking them and plant both. Plant an old seed pack and see what germinates. Explore, learn, prosper ….then document it.

Get Extra Seeds

After some of the seed shortages last year with COVID, we decided to buy double or triple the seeds this year and just keep a year or two ahead, using a FIFO approach to seeds. We personally have found minimal difference between this year’s seed packs and last year’s seed packs in terms of growth and production when we have grown them side by side. We always have had extra seeds around but have now committed to a more systematic approach and storage. If your long term plan is to save and use the seeds from last years harvest, start practicing that now. Make sure you are choosing heirloom varietals. Get the process down while you have resources to learn from so you can perfect the process.

I hope some of you find these tips useful and they save you some time and money and effort. I have been amazed at the hardiness of some plants and where they will grow. I have also been amazed at the difference in production a few small factors can have on a garden. When it comes to feeding your family, start stacking the odds in your favor. Even if you do not live at your retreat full time and cant garden there, practice where you can. If you didn’t plant the tree 20 years ago, go outside and plant one today.


  1. just a note about ur buckets for covering irrigation heads – paint the outside with acrylic or latex paint/primer and they will last a lot longer. It’s mainly the UV rays from the sun that makes the plastic brittle (cold temps will also impact it) and painting will protect the plastic. Use white or a light color if mainly for warm weather use (can use a darker color in cold weather)(have tried both and didn’t notice any difference in cooler weather but u never know – ur conditions may get different results). Do not use oil based paints or stains as some contain solvents that will degrade the plastic.

    1. Indeed. Very fine insights. As you say, “They had no idea what varietal they were but the berries love the local climate and you can’t argue with that. This may not always be possible, but take advantage of local plants when you can.” Look, also, for what is already growing and proven hardy. In my area, mulberries are prolific. They have a similar nutrition profile to blueberries. A friend make mulberry wine. I just love foraging them. Yum.

      My sweet spouse turns up her nose at them. So it goes…Goes into my mouth, that is.

      Carry on

  2. As an experiment I once used a few lbs. of winter wheat from my stores and broad cast it in an unused part of my property and to my pleasant surprise I ended up with a large amount of wheat with no effort. The effort was in cleaning the crop, but using primitive methods I was able to obtain wheat ready for grinding. With the way things are going I am going to revive this practice on a larger scale. One other thing that I wanted to know was if this wheat would reproduce it self and further experimenting over a couple of years proved that it would. I would like to try this with some other grains but in our climate summers are dry and irrigation impractical for large grain crops.

    1. @Joe,
      I like your idea of experimenting with winter wheat and have some friends in British Columbia that grow wheat in their garden and grind it into flour for their own bread. You might also want to try your luck with grain sorghum – sometimes called milo sorghum in some parts of the country. My grandfather raised it in Missouri, but I know some folks in Minnesota also grow it successfully and it is also grown commercially in Nebraska and South Dakota. It is generally more drought hardy than corn and has been touted by some agronomists a being “the grain of the future”. I actually plan on having both grains as an experiment, in addition to some others in my garden this coming summer.

  3. You can get free buckets of all sizes from most grocery store bakeries – even Costco. I use these for harvesting, weeding, moving plants, storing fertilizers, etc. They are very useful!

  4. Wow Greenthumb, excellent article.

    Sounds like your garden and your growing methods are well engineered if I can make an understatement!

    A question from yesterday on your raised beds: is the bottom of the corrugation in contact with the original ground soil underneath and are you seeing any rust yet where the zinc in the galvanizing has been degraded by the soil? I talked to a friend last week who is putting some in this year and I thought I’d try the same with some older corrugated roofing I have and that was the big question we had. She lives out west with alkaline soils and I have acidic soils so we were just wondering.

    On asparagus, it grows wild every place I’ve ever lived from the desert towns out west to wetter climates back east. It especially grows under power lines where birds sit and poop out the seeds. The tops are dead and brown right now but the feathery look is unmistakable and some even have the distinct orange seeds pods on them. This is the best time of year to look for them in right-of-ways and dig them up. It speeds up how soon you can harvest and how big the spears will be when you do make the first harvest.

    Also, great adivice on seeing what others are growning in the area as far as fruit trees go, I wish I had done that and not wasted so much time with orchard trees that have so many issues they don’t produce. I bought two apricot trees on a trip out west because they don’t sell them here and one of them got a trunk problem the second year and died. The second one has the same issue, splitting and branches dying, and will probably not make it another year.

    Amen on used tillers. Briggs and Stration engines are so simple a 12-year old can fix them if he has a book on small engine repair. They come with lots of photos and easy explanations and will pay for itself in short order. This past year I resurrected a tiller had been sitting in my woods for five or six years and was probably 30+ years old when I bought it at an auction for $5 to $10. It runs like a charm, starts on the first pull every time.

    Even though I only rarely till the garden to avid breaking up the soil structure, a tiller is a must-have for getting compost worked in.

    And amen on talking to neighbors and strangers about their gardens. I haven’t met a gardener yet who wouldn’t want to talk about their garden with anyone willing to listen. I’ve had complete strangers stop and ask and now I barter with some of them and it’s always good to have one more friend. I stopped at a complete stranger’s house once and asked if I could take some ginkgo cuttings and we blabbed for so long I could hardly get out of there. 🙂

    Again, great article and I hope you do some more in the future.

    1. Thank you for your kind words! We have some discoloration on the metal but no rust . It was left over from another project, as were most of the bed materials. This is year three for those beds. I will say the edges are sharp if not protected.

    2. Growing up in Michigan as a young child we used to drive around in country roads and harvest wild asparagus. When we moved to upstate NY we never found asparagus but we frequently went mushroom hunting.

    3. StF, you are a man who pays attention.

      On asparagus, it grows wild every place I’ve ever lived from the desert towns out west to wetter climates back east. It especially grows under power lines where birds sit and poop out the seeds. The tops are dead and brown right now but the feathery look is unmistakable and some even have the distinct orange seeds pods on them. This is the best time of year to look for them in right-of-ways and dig them up. It speeds up how soon you can harvest and how big the spears will be when you do make the first harvest.

      I never thought of that. Time to get over to the powerline tracts.

      Carry on

  5. Greenthumb,
    One of the best SHTF garden articles I’ve read in a long time. Thanks for your time in writing it. One observation / suggestion I might make is regarding squash bugs. I’ve grown a lot of different squash in the past and have discovered that the butternut squash are usually pretty good at out running the squash vine borers. I know there are at least three different bugs that bother squash: Cucumber beetles, squash bugs and squash vine borers and the butternuts are better at surviving all three pests. Some of the butternuts are also tolerant to powdery mildew as well, but the heirloom “cheese” squashes are usually resistant to both the bugs as well as the fungus problem. The cheese squash get their name from their shape being like an old-fashioned cheese box.

    1. I will look into butternut for sure. Thank you. We usually do zucchini, straight neck and crook neck or patty pan and pumpkins. We relied on manually removing a lot of them and it was very time intensive

      1. Something I just thought of that I should have mentioned in my first comment and your mention of growing pumpkins made something go click in the back of my mind. If you grow pumpkins for pie you might be pleasantly surprised that butternut squash make the best “pumpkin pie” and they usually last longer in storage with less spoilage as well. A win-win situation.
        Adaptive Seeds currently have 5 squash in the butternut species (Cucurbita moschata), 3 of which are actual butternuts. The Butternut Early Remix one they have would be the best choice of bunch for short season areas. Canada Crookneck or the Doran Round (which they say will keep for a year), would be good choices for gardeners that have a full length growing seasons.
        Burpee’s Butterbush can reliably produce smaller size butternuts on bush plants. I’ve grown them before and they have good taste, but I prefer the larger and longer keeping types. An experienced market gardener in Maine claims they are the best butternut ever for flavor.

        1. Adaptive Seeds web page:

          We have temporarily paused taking new orders.
          Due to unprecedented demand we have paused accepting new orders starting January 19th. We will resume in a week or two so we can catch up with the current order fulfillment queue. In the meantime, feel free to browse our offerings. Thank you for your support.

          Shucky darns, I’ll will have to track those folks in the future.

          Thank you for the link Northern Prepper.

  6. So many good ideas in this article! I’m not surprised that some seed companies are already sold out considering how many new preppers got created this past year. One of the companies that advertises on this site, , has a fantastic “Super Survival Pak” which has heirloom varieties that will not cross pollinate in the garden, ensuring viability of the seed you save for future years. I bought one of their seed collections for my bug out bag in 2011 and didn’t plant it until 6 and 7 years later. It still had a very high germination rate and the plants were strong and happy.

    One thing that surprised me in the master gardener class I took was how technical seed saving is. I had thought that you just basically let a plant go to seed and collect them in a baggy. Oh no, not so. Even if you don’t have time to study the proper procedure now, at least print out some detailed instructions and keep it available for later reference.

    Last year someone gave me a big bag of the most delicious potatoes. I put some of them out on my back porch and they started to sprout in the sun so I thought oh well, I’ll just plant them. I dug a trench and threw them in and covered them. I have never grown potatoes before but it was so rewarding! I’m sure I did everything wrong but still ended up with a nice little crop and have been enjoying them all through the fall and winter. In days to come, we’ll be looking at calories with a different point of view, so now I’m all gungho about potatoes. I watched a guy on youtube describe how he grew potatoes in 8 gallon pots, and ended up with twice the amount of harvest from planting in the ground. Can’t wait for spring!

  7. I have read a couple of places recommending not tilling the garden yearly, and many dry-land wheat farmers in eastern CO don’t disk. Any thoughts on garden tilling, yea vs. nay?

    1. We don’t till the raised beds yearly. For the garden in the ground we’ve tilled yearly but we’re still adding amendments and things like that to help improve the soil. The point of tilling is to break up the soil aerate the soil and mix in amendments. Every time we’ve tilled we’re doing one of those things. For beds or areas that don’t need those things we don’t till. If the ground has never been planted, That is where the tiller really shines and just saves on the labor. Hope that helps.

  8. As most here have known for years, gardening is one of the prime reasons that enables a somewhat comfortable survival, or even an enjoyable way of living, plus it’s fun to watch things grow, (the wonders of Gods world never cease to amaze me). Provided you have the room to actually have a garden.
    It appears more and more people are seeing where our present circus is leading us as I found this yesterday and its a bit disturbing.

    It’s the end of January, a full 2 months before prime garden seed acquiring begins, and already there are warnings about a shortage of seeds. One site even reporting the closing of their website due to inability to keep up with orders.
    I’m seeing this as a very good indication of just how much faith more and more people are placing in this corrupt circus we are calling gummint…..

    For those who already have seeds, good on ya, and for those trying to purchase for the year, get on the stick, and in my humble opinion I would think it wise for everyone to learn how to save seeds from their own garden for future years. We are fast approaching “A World Made By Hand”….

  9. Apologies for posting another long blabby comment but speak of the devil, I was just out walking a right-of-way that runs through a small corner of my property to figure out when to plant sorghum millet/milo and to check to see if the birds had eaten any from a few seed heads I purposely didn’t harvest. I’m hoping to produce 200+ lbs of millet grain from it this year. To chime in on Joe and Northern Prepper’s comments, I’d love to see some articles from real first-hand experience growing different grains, what kinds of yields they got, and how easy it was to thresh.

    The sorghum I have is a molasses variety but it also produces a ton of grain seed. I used to grow it just to renew the seed each year until I figure out how a practical way to press the canes to get the juice out. After the first year, I no longer plant it because enough volunteers come up to refresh the seed. A few months ago I spent a week with a spreadsheet trying to calculate out realistic quantities of food I need to grow to reproduce my current recipes. When it came to grains, the numbers were disheartening. That’s what got me into researching millet as food since I was already growing it.

    Millet has no gluten so not good for bread other than flat breads. Millet is the fifth most common grain in the world and easy to harvest and thresh so that got me way more interested in it. It would also be a double crop, seeds to eat and sap for molasses, which is closer to honey than it is to store-bought black molasses. I’ve been trying to sprout millet seeds since last Sunday but so far, nothing happening. Wheat will sprout in 36 hours and be soft enough to microwave with butter and raisins for a good breakfast. If anyone has any hints of sprouting millet, please pass them on.

    The wheat bread I made last week got over kneaded in the KitchenAid mixer and it was majorily glutenized. It occurred to me to mix in 25% millet flour next time to see how it turns out. That would make any post-SHTF flour I was able to home produce go a lot further. It’s also supposed to pop like popcorn but I didn’t have much luck with that, only about 20% popped. The good news was, the unpopped ones tasted good and are chewable, unlike popcorn.

    Bottom line is, sorghum millet/milo varieties are high protein and easy to grow and thresh, making it an ideal source of protein as well as flour, and flat bread is better than nothing. It seems to be a crop more of us should be learning how to use if we’re working towards self-reliance or prepping for post-SHTF life.

    1. Some interesting stats I just ran across regarding grain sorghum:
      1960 # per acre dryland yield assuming very poor crop condition
      4424 # per acre dryland yield assuming poor to fair crop condition
      8736 # per acre irrigated yield assuming good crop condition
      The preceding was calculated from the following article from K-State:
      I do have some experience with grain sorghum (from a research perspective), but none with millet. Yes, the two are distinct and separate crops. There are at least two different species of millet, but only one of sorghum, which is not the same as millet. Your comment has prompted me to put a “sorghum grain yield trial” on my “to do list” for this next summer. Last fall I bought 2 pounds of grain sorghum for cooking and about two weeks ago I finally got around to cooking some of it for the first time. It has a heavenly good aroma when cooking and the taste is fairly decent too. It was my first time eating it. I still have about half the bag left and I have decided that I WILL NOT EAT THE REST OF IT. I am saving the last half and will plant it next spring. If things really get bad and the leftists hit the fan I will at least have some seed to plant. The source was Bob’s Red Mill out of Oregon and I purchased it at a local grocery store in the health food section. I should probably do a germination test on the seed – before I get too wound up – like counting your chickens before they are hatched. Using the second figure, above, I could probably get about 63 # of sorghum seed in a 25′ x 25′ foot plot.
      625 (square footage) / 43560 (square feet per acre) * 4424 (which is an estimated yield per acre) = 63.4 # of seed. The soil here is fairly good as I’ve worked with for a few years so I think that I might be able to top 75 # or perhaps a bit more. Time will tell.

      I suppose that I having a 25′ x 25′ plot of corn as a comparison would be a good thing to plan on too. Now if summer would just hurry up…

      Keep the good ideas coming!

  10. Maine Prepper quotes are at the top of my quote list, and they are very apropos after reading this wonderful article.

    “Don’t get discouraged”

    “Don’t let fear that you are starting to late keep you from starting”

    Maine Prepper

  11. Just a little idea on irrigation after SHTF. I have forgotten what they are called but in Mexico and South America they have clay pots that they bury in the soil and fill with water. The water slowly enters the soil. I looked at the price of some of those and determined they we a little rich for my blood. Here’s a new idea… know all those plastic milk jugs that you just end up throwing away? Keep them, do some testing in your soil, put a small size hole in the bottom in each corner. Fill the jug with water and it will slowing percolate through the soil. You can adjust the amount of flow you want by the size and quantity of holes. No cost, no electricity, and very efficient for a very important commodity, WATER!

Comments are closed.