Garden Lessons – Part 2, by R.R.

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

There are numerous videos on the web about this process in building your seed-starting set up. It’s simple and again a one-time effort and expense. I’ve never even had to change a bulb after three years. I also have a surge protector that the three lights and three seed mats are plugged into. I then plug that surge protector into a timer so the lights and mats turn on/off automatically for around 10-12 hours each day.

The next thing you have to plan is: when to start what  seeds or seedlings. I’m just going to offer up what I do and what I’ve seen and what I plan to do going forward, based on what my family eats. I mentioned tomatoes  and peppers. Peppers take much longer to get going and I suggest starting those around six weeks earlier than your tomatoes. Tomatoes take around six to eight weeks for me, and they are quite bushy and healthy (6-8” and up) and ready to transplant to their final maturing place. Planning a calendar around when to do what will help immensely. I can fill up all my three shelves with starts of just different types of tomatoes and peppers (hot, sweet, etc…).

Containers: We use lots of containers for placing our starts in. Again, you can control the soil easier but they do dry out quicker than garden beds. If you plant tomatoes in containers, be sure to put the stakes in when you plant so you don’t disturb the root system later. I’ve also decided that I will only plant determinate type tomatoes in containers going forward. Look at your seed packets and find ones that are determinate as they grow bushier and less tall and leggy than indeterminate tomatoes.

I direct sow zucchini, squashes, beans, and cucumbers as well as spinach and lettuce. I’ve also sown corn, but haven’t had much luck in getting much of a return on the corn investment. Corn takes a lot of space and I just haven’t had much of a harvest that made it worth it. Plus, it’s two ears for a dollar at the farmer’s market, sometimes less.

Some Problems

Onions, potatoes and garlic: I’ve only been experimenting with this recently. The garlic was crazy. I planted a few rows in the raised beds and it went absolutely crazy. I then went to harvest and found little to nothing. Maybe I tried to harvest too early but it was massive and taking tons of space; not worth it to me. Potatoes went in the side garden and did just south of fair. We had a crazy wet summer last year and that caused numerous problems. I don’t know if that was it or if it was the soil work-in-progress that caused issues. The onions were slightly better (same garden) and we had a decent harvest. There are numerous videos out there on how and when to harvest onions and potatoes that I suggest you check out before this article becomes a novel. This year I did a little extra in the side garden with the tiller and made sure the soil was better when I planted the onions and potatoes.

I also bought a few potato grow bags this year and they are going crazy so far. Again, search for some videos in growing potatoes in growing bags and you will get the idea pretty quickly. I imagine in an apartment or urban setting it would be really helpful to grow in bags (and containers for that matter.)

I Tried Straw Bale Gardening

I also went down the Straw Bale Gardening path for two years before I decide to build the raised beds. There are tons of videos and web sites dedicated to this method. I had 30 bales of straw (not hay) delivered for about $150 and gave it the ‘ole college try. I flunked out. I had a few wins, but mostly losses. I guess the best output I got was the compost from the rotting bales that I spread around. It was a debacle for me. It would look promising at times and then go downhill quickly. Some of the video and websites show great success with this method so good for those of you that can do it.

Another suggestion: Get some fruit trees and berry bushes that you like to eat and can grow in your area. Plant two of each fruit tree and keep them within 20 yards or so of each other to help in pollination. Fruit trees take years to get mature enough to develop enough fruit to make an impact. If you go to your local big box store you will likely see a variety of options for around $40-$60 depending on the caliper (circumference of the bottom trunk). The bigger the caliper, the bigger and more mature the tree, and this will usually dictate the cost as well. Get what you can afford and get them in the ground now. It could take 4+ years to get them going. START NOW! Berry bushes are a little easier, but plant in pairs and get them in the ground. Keep in mind some berry types (blueberry for example) have more bush or tree type growth patterns. Read the label, know where you plan to put it, and get what’s best for you. Dig the hole about 50% minimum bigger than the root ball and place some good soil in the hole and then place the plant/tree. Do it right the first time and you’ll have a better success rate.

A Garden Journal

I recommend keeping a garden journal and keeping track of as much as you can. I make sure I keep dates on when I start seeds, how long they take, the size and make notes and suggestions on what to do differently next time. It’s a process folks,and I need a journal to look back and keep it fresh. I like to mark or number my seeds and start pots and track germination rates. That can tell me when my seed pack might be time for the circular file cabinet. I also mark my starts and track during the growing season so I can track what does well or not so I know what grows most effectively. I’m working on a calendar now so I know when to start the peppers, tomatoes, buy and plant the onion sets and potato starts, direct sow the beans, squash/zuch’s and cuc’s, etc… I’ve also learned in this journal that I’ve done the same things and had different results. A few examples:

• I threw some spinach seeds in the raised beds as a “let’s see what happens” moment and had great success. I’ve done it intentionally and got little to nothing.
• I accidentally grew some awesome pumpkins one year after throwing out old pumpkins after Halloween and had a great harvest the next year. I’ve never been able to intentionally grow them. I’m going to try this year again, why not.
• I’ve had great success with containers and tomatoes and the next year has been mediocre at best. Each season of each year brings micro-climates that can change things. We had a very wet year last year in the mid-Atlantic and it brought lots of disease and rot to the tomatoes. The cucs and zucs did great though, as well as the beans. This year may be different.
• I’ve got some tomato starts that are 6” plus and some are 2” but have the same soil, same container and were started at the same time. Make a note and know that when you start them again the next year so you can start earlier on the ones that need it.

In closing, control what you can and don’t fret over what you can’t (like the weather). This is difficult. It can be frustrating and leads to bug bites and sweat. Therapy, right? There is an absolute sense of accomplishment when you can provide your family a bounty and know it all started with a tiny little seed. It’s God’s miracle. Yes, it’s a challenge but have a sense of humility about it, have some fun and get started. Start small and get some experience. Just start. It’s not like your life depends on it…..or does it?


  1. My investments is mostly in my gardening. I invest in the fertility of what I garden. My source is “The Ideal Soil” by Michael Astera. available on Amazon. What i started out with is SAND. I am in the Adirondacks. and this was a beach front. And there is a pine barrens. But. So I do soil tests using Mehlich 3 methods. and then I try to admend my soil. I use a refractometer. a EC meter made by Horiba and a pH meter also made by Horiba. The EC meter shows how many ions are available in the soil. If not enough (and they have to be the right ones) crops won’t grow very well.
    A crop with a high refractometer reading will be better than a crop with a lower Brix reading. a crop that reads 12 will taste better than one with a reading of 4. It also will
    be more resistant to disease and insects.
    The pH meter will show in plant sap. — and what we want is a pH of 6.4. if it is higher,
    then we want more anions,–sufates, phosphates, and if it is lower we want more Ca, K,
    AcresUSA is quite a good book source
    If I have destructive insects or plant disease, then I am doing something wrong–not right plant nutrition, not enough sun, or water. or something else.
    The higher the Brix, the better.
    One of the Best foliar fertilizers is made by Growers Mineral Solutions, it has ALL the nutrients a plant needs. I would like to remember where or how I found them, but the distributor called on me one year when the potato bugs were eating all my potato plants, and He said to me. GMS will raise the Brix of the plants, and the potato bugs will disappear. and they want you to put down Calcium. Calcium is more important than the fertilizer they sell. Calcium, Calcium. and Calcium. I make no money from GMS. and Nourse Farms, and Schlabach’s Nursery use it. They have been around since 1955, I think.
    Get your soil right. the right elements in the right order.
    It will help your health.

    Dave Rogers

  2. My soil is clay and it has been recommended the best method before planting anything is to ‘double dig’ the hole. I have not planted a vegetable garden, but have put in berry bushes and two hazelnuts using the double dig and putting into that hole some decaying trees (feels spongey and crumbles when squeezed) and leaves I found on my property. Then mix in the clay soil, compost/manure mix with this organic matter followed by watering with minerals in powder form. We’ll see, but for now all looks healthy. My fruit trees, on the other hand I dug 3’x3′ holes last season and filled them with dead tree trunks first, branches and twigs on top of that and leaves then I filled the hole in with the clay. These mounds sat over winter and in the spring I dug to find not much had broken down, but pulled out some of the branches and filled the holes with compost/manure before placing the trees into this mixture. I would love to start a vegetable garden but the thought of double digging the entire plot of land has me shying away from this. My question to you is does a tiller in essence double dig or do you have to till, dig out the soil then till again, dig this soil out then add your organic matter?

    1. Karen,

      The broadfork R.R. mentioned will serve you better IMO than a tiller. The tines are long and go deep. For clay, get some organic material on the surface and allow it to mixed in with the clay. The worms will then, ever so gradually, break up that clay and make the soil rich.

      A rototiller looks easy and convenient, until you have to transport it to the garden space (usually in a pickup or trailer), get it started, keep it going where YOU want it to go, then load it back up and transport it to its home. Having done this drill numerous times, I aver that the broadfork is so muck simpler and time economical. Plus, it is affordable enough to own, compared to a tiller. Maybe you can tell I greatly appreciate this broadfork.

      Carry on

    2. I double dug my beds 100 feet long by 3 feet wide by 2 feet deep….7 of them.. by renting a small excavator.

      It is double digging but all in one operation. Then I started mixing in everything to the full depth of the hole… compost, turf on the bottom, grass cuttings and leaves, kitchen waste, fish cleanings, etc.

      It takes lot of work just to fill in, but not near as hard as initially double digging. I did the double dig clear back in 1982-3. I’m smarter now and get more done.

      After you do my method the first year, then the garden fork easily mixes the bed up for planting. That’s what I’m doing now, with the beds I dug two months ago and back filled, now being planted.

      Best wishes.

  3. If you go to a big box store to buy fruit trees be aware that they may not be meant to plant in your grow zone. The better way to get fruit trees that are grown in your area is to go to a local nursery or find fruit tree sales by local gardening clubs.

  4. I highly recommend the indian corn from one of the advertisers here on Survival blog, Seed for Security. I’ve grown their corn several years producing very good yields. The corn can be dried and ground into corn meal for baking and feed for livestock. I plant pole beans with the corn to help with the natural nutrient cycle between corn and beans. You will need a lot of corn, beans and potatoes for calories and then the other stuff for vitamins, variety, flavor, etc: lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, cucs, kale, watermelon, squashes, sunflowers, etc. Dakota black popcorn is also easy to grow and is a great snack. I’m currently trying heirloom indian sweet corn and growing potatoes from seed, not seed potatoes.

  5. Raised bed wood enclosures:
    What is the current consensys on using treated wood which I have heard no longer contains arsenic. Untreated wood ( unless cedar?) invites termites. What about cinder blocks?

  6. (in the article) = ~”I recommend keeping a >garden journal and keeping track of as much as you can. I make sure I keep dates on when I start seeds, how long they take, the size and make notes and suggestions on what to do differently next time.”~ [From Garden Lessons – Part 2, by R.R.]

    >Excellent advice. For anyone getting involved with Gardening. Taking care of a Garden is a lifetime learning process. A journal helps the memory.
    +>Crop rotation is NOT just for commercial farmers. Household garden plants have to be rotated too.

    ” … certain plants attract certain “bad” microbes and also insects that may lay eggs in the soil where these plants were grown in the previous year. By rotating where you plant them within your garden, you may help minimize damage to young plants by making the new plants less accessible to their predators and disease, since they are no longer in the same area …” [From Survivalblog March 27, 2017]
    “Plant Rotation in the Garden Based on Plant Families. ~ Knowing what family a plant belongs to can be useful in making decisions about rotating plants for managing pests and soil fertility in the garden. Plants in a family are genetically related, so they have similar characteristics.” [PennStateExtension]

    Good advice about the Garden Journal, in the article. … If taken, it helps keep track of the garden. Even just a few quick notes are helpful, years later, when (NOT if) problems need to be solved.

  7. I’m totally new at gardening. I’m going to take a 10×15 ft piece of my yard and turn it by hand shovel. Before I do that, I’m going to spread dried cat poop and turn that in with the soil. In the past, I dug up fir trees our of my field that were 12-18 inch high and were not growing at all. I transplanted them to line my fence and driveway, and spread cat poop over the ground. Those trees grew 3 feet the first year. Seven years later, the ones who got the poop are 15+ feet high, the others about 6-8 ft high. Clearly, the cat poop is it’s own version of Miracle Grow. I have a cat rescue and we have 25 cats at any given time. The poop collected is mainly from the 5 indoor cats. I’ll let you know how that works.

    1. Cat poop, dog poop and human poop are not advised for a soil amendment if you intend to eat the food grown there. This is especially true if you have children.

    2. DO NOT USE CAT OR DOG OR OTHER MEAT EATING SPECIES poop or urine in your food growing.

      Way too many communicable diseases and parasites. Such as toxoplasmosis and more.

    3. I would consider meat eater or omnivore poop pathogenic. However if I had more than a cubic yard of it with carbon and it got hot then cooled back down near 100 then I could consider that safe for compost worms. For me this comes from the book Humanure and my understanding of degrees of separation.

      A year later that material is not pathogenic cat poop. Its compost and worm castings. The pathogens would have gone a long time without a suitable host and had some inhospitable neighbors in there with them.

      Im not a doc or agronomist. I work in the intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance industry.

  8. Start now, even if you do not intend to plant for 5 years.

    Florida has very sandy soil so I took about 100 bags of yard waste and stuffed them under a hedge to cook for 5 years. When I opened them they contained lots of rich black “mud” crawling with earthworms. I mixed this into the sandy garden area 10 years ago. I have done no amending and no digging in those 10 years except to scoop a small hole for each seedling and add a bit of Miracle Grow vegetable mix. I keep layers of pine straw on top to protect from sun, rain, weeds and insects. The pine straw is clean to walk on even after a rain and weeds are easy to spot and easy to pull in the rich, sandy soil.

    In this spot I get gobs of sun and 4 growing seasons, but I usually only plant in the early spring and late fall. I put tomatoes in the ground on Feb 28th this year, so the spring garden will be finished by late June. I will leave the garden alone in late summer and early autumn, then plant winter crops in November or December. The lapse is mostly a case of gardener burnout but I’m sure it also helps the soil to rest between plantings.

  9. I found garlic does better when put in around October and covered to over winter, then harvest in the summer. Be careful with hay or straw, everyone around me sprays it with roundup. Nothing will grow well if it grows at all. Same with the county leaf/ lawn cutting pile . People spray all sorts of stuff on their yards. I killed my garden by getting some of that one year.
    Good luck

  10. R.R., I so agree with what you said: “It’s God’s miracle. Yes, it’s a challenge but have a sense of humility about it, have some fun and get started. Start small and get some experience.”

    Yes, God’s miracle. And yet, I note many people on this blog and elsewhere say “I grew that garden.”
    Or, “When you grow tomatoes and peppers, make sure they get lot of sun.” Who is doing the growing. Us? Or God?

    I simply plant, water, weed, and harvest. God grows the garden.

    Carry on

  11. I have enjoyed the gardening article and the comments. Gardening across the US is very different. What grows in one area, will not grow in another. Talk to your local extension office, be involved in their ‘master gardener’ program (until you end up teaching it or know all the questions people ask). Soil, as many mentioned is the key. Compost your own produce waste and improve your soil. Like others, I have my favorite books; “The Heirloom Life Gardener” by Jere & Emilee Gettle. These folks live near me, and for the Ozarks their ability to grow food and save seeds is amazing. I convinced one of my employees to purchase seed from them and he said, “I can’t believe it, everything I planted germinated!”. Yes, it makes a difference. If you are not buying from you should be. Jere is a big fan of using straw as a weed cover, here in the Ozarks where we have poor soil and a lot of clay. I have also used the straw bales mentioned above for several years. The key is to get the bales early, at least 2 months before planting, and leave them out in the weather, so they start to decay. They also need to be watered more frequently than plants in the dirt. Gardening is a great hobby and learning to preserve your food is a great survival skill. Get after it! It is well worth it.

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