Get Going on Gardening – Part 1, by St. Funogas

If you seriously think we’re going to be facing some kind of a TEOTWAWKI situation sometime in our future then you can’t get started soon enough on learning how to garden.

Among preppers, the majority of us probably don’t have a two-year supply of food on hand, even if any friends and relatives show up. And if most states lose 18-25% of their deer population every year in a managed 10-day hunt, I’m guessing that in the free-for-all that will ensue after the SHTF, most big game will quickly become nearly extinct — like it was in most states by the 1920s. So unless you live near a well-stocked lake, or have some livestock that is safe from the roving hordes, I’m betting that anyone who makes it to the second year after a TEOTWAWKI event is really going to wish they had spent more time perfecting their gardening skills when they had the chance.

Even experienced gardeners will have regrets. I’m going to wish I had spent more time learning to depend on my garden and less on the grocery store. That would force me to maximize my garden for as many of the weeks of the year as possible, for as many different crops as possible, and to change my diet to revolve around those crops as much as possible. That’s one of my goals for 2020.

If you look at the cover of any gardening magazine, it looks like it’s the simplest thing in the world to just throw some seeds in the ground and the next thing you know, you’re harvesting enough food to feed Attila and his Huns on an extended foray across Montana. There’s nothing to it! To further perpetuate the no-experience-required myth is the concept of the heirloom seed vault. This is where you buy a #10 can, or an ammo can, sealed with heirloom seeds inside. When the SHTF, you merely break open your seed vault, throw them babies in the ground, water them in, and all is well! The Garden of Eden shall burst forth and in no time at all you’ll have so much food from your garden you’ll need someone on full-time duty just repairing the fences that keep popping at the seams from all the overflowing vegetables.

Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings but I think those heirloom seed vaults should come with nutrition labels on the side because most folks would get more value out of eating the seeds than they would by actually planting them.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But not by much. Buy your seed vault but like everything else, know how to use it before you need it. You don’t get your Colt 1911 out of the box and start reading the instruction manual when there’s an intruder kicking down your front door. By the same token, know how to grow those seeds you’re socking away for TEOTWAWKI.

Two Big Reasons Why You Need to Get Gardening in 2020

If you haven’t started gardening yet, the reason why it is so important to get started as soon as possible is twofold: First, because gardening is one of those skills that is ALL about experience. And second, because your garden soil needs improving and the sooner you get to work improving it, the better shape it will be in, and therefore the more productive it will be by the time the SHTF. It takes years to get your soil ready to be on the cover of Organic Gardening magazine. So the sooner you start, the better.

Even if you’re renting, if your landlord will allow it, put in a garden this year. I have lived in several places where the landlord allowed me to do just that. Anything you can do to get some experience will be helpful in the long run. If your landlord won’t let you garden, get some grow boxes instead.

There are more reasons to begin gardening ASAP so here are the top five reasons if you are not gardening already:

  1. To start getting experience. Gardening is fun but there is a lot to learn
  2. To begin improving your garden soil. It gets better each year you garden
  3. To figure out which varieties perform best in your exact location
  4. To figure out the crop timing for your exact location
  5. To figure out the best weed strategies for your location

By your “exact location” I mean the precise piece of real estate that you will be gardening. You are no doubt familiar with the USDA zone maps which can be used as guides for last-frost dates and lowest-freeze temperatures. These are rough guides only and are good for planting perennials such as orchard trees and ornamentals. When it comes to your particular garden spot, there are a lot of other variables to be considered as well.

One thing I quickly learned about gardening here at my homestead is that gardening knowledge doesn’t necessarily transfer well from one location to another. Everything here is radically different from other places where I have lived and gardened: the pests, soil type, amount of rainfall, humidity, organic matter, altitude, sun intensity, pollinators, raccoon density, you name it. So even if you are an experienced gardener and you’ve relocated to a new area to build your survival retreat, you should probably get going on your new garden as soon as possible to figure out what curveballs Nature will be throwing your way.

When I bought my homestead, even before starting construction on the house, I brought my compost pile over from the rental house and plotted out where the new garden was going. I rented a tiller, threw some tomatoes in the ground, and planted some strawberries. Then I ignored it all while I worked on building the house. The tomatoes never even got staked but I did manage to throw some straw down to keep the weeds from taking over and to keep the tomato fruit up off the ground. A volunteer squash came up from a seed in the compost I had spread and I ended up with 13 beautiful butternut squash for the winter, as well as 66 quarts of tomato sauce. Some key points:

  1. Gardening is not hard but there is a lot to learn

Gardening is not overly difficult as long as you take notes and follow some basic rules. If you’ve never done any gardening, there are a lot of books and websites available. Gardening is best learned by experience so after you’ve done some basic reading, you’ll have a rough idea of what to plant in the early spring, and what to plant later on once you’re past your last frost date. Keep in mind that no matter how much you read, nothing is going to prepare you for all the peculiarities of your particular garden. You’ll need to experiment with different things before you figure out exactly what is going to work best in your location, for your particular tastes. The sooner you get started making mistakes, the better. That’s how we learn and there’s no way around it when it comes to gardening so the sooner you get started, the sooner you can become more proficient. And don’t worry, you’ll have lots of fun along the way and there are no tickets and fines for making mistakes.

  1. Your soil is going to need improvement

Your soil will almost certainly need improvement. Your gut tells you when you pick up a handful of soil whether this is great stuff or if it leaves something to be desired. Rocky soil creates one set of problems, sandy soil doesn’t hold moisture or nutrients very well, and clay soil goes from holding too much water one day to turning concrete hard a week later as it dries out. If your earthworms are weak and sickly, then your soil still has a long way to go. When they can bench press your cobs of corn, you’re definitely making headway. Most soil composition problems can be remedied by adding more organic matter. Every survival retreat and homestead should have a compost pile for numerous reasons, but mainly for creating organic matter to add to the garden each year.

It seems to be common knowledge that gardens should be rototilled each spring. I wholeheartedly disagree with this philosophy. Natural soil has an important property known as structure. When you dig a hole, you’ll notice when you put the dirt back in there’s never enough to fill it completely up. And when you add water, the dirt sinks even lower. That’s because by digging all the dirt out, you ruin the soil structure just as you do when you rototill a garden. The soil structure consists of all the air pockets and all the worm and insect tunnels created by the millions of macro- and micro-organisms in the soil. That soil structure is very important for growing plants as they are putting down roots. The only time I rototill is after I spread compost and I need to mix it into the soil, or if I am breaking virgin ground to turn into more garden.

You may start out with pretty good soil. But it’s more likely you’ll have soil that will take years to get to its optimal condition. That’s one more reason to get started gardening ASAP and another reason why waiting for the SHTF before opening your heirloom seed vault is a supremely bad idea: you will have lost all those years of improving your soil. If Safeway is still open, it’s no big deal if your entire tomato harvest only amounts to six tomatoes. It will still win you the participation trophy. But on the other hand, if the SHTF last November then your Italian mother-in-law is going to be cutting you out of her will if you can only come up with six tomatoes. For Italians, tomato sauce isn’t food, it’s a transfusion! Have the experience and the know-how to grow her 66 quarts of tomato sauce after the grid goes down and you’ll be achieving sainthood before your next birthday.

If you have money in the budget, you can speed up your soil improvement by adding commercially available soil amendment products such as peat moss, bagged compost, bagged manures, etc. What you don’t want to do is spread uncomposted material such as sawdust or grass clippings in your garden and till them in. This will only tie up the nitrogen in your garden and steal it away from your garden crops that need it. That will screw your garden up for a couple of years so don’t even think about it. The only exception to this are “green manures,” which have nothing to do with fecal matter, but I’ll let you web search that topic on your own.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)




26 Comments

  1. I’m glad you mentioned about rototillers being detrimental to soil structure. Most gardeners way overdo it with their use. I agree on your philosophy of only using them for initial site preparation and mixing in compost, etc. Another very important point (perhaps your most important one) is that way too many “would be” gardeners have a stash of seed they purchased that has been sitting on a shelf for way too many years all the while the germination going down each year and not getting out and getting first hand experience. There definitely is a learning curve ahead.

    I’ve been interested in gardening for about 50 years, been saving my seeds for 40 of those years, been breeding plants for 30 years and soil testing for 10 years. Every year that goes by I learn something new.

    Thanks for a great article – looking forward to the second half.

  2. I suggest to anyone with the means to build some type of greenhouse/hoop house. It can be done affordably. We’re still eating greens from our hoop house that were planted last fall. When everyone is freaking out at the grocery store, we just walk to the back yard. The ability to grow year round is very important in times like these.

  3. Thanks for a timely article St. Funogas!
    You made me laugh thinking about the first time I threw bean seeds in the soil and after very little work, I felt like a genius when they began sprouting up. It was only after a reminder from my daughter, “Daddy, we did that in 2nd grade in a styrofoam cup” and the subsequent death of those sprouts that I realized it takes years to learn even a fraction of basic gardening skills. That was 11 years ago and I’m still learning. Thank you!

    1. Hi D.D. Thanks for the best laugh I’ve had all week. 🙂 I’m glad to hear you’re still at it after 11 years. Gardening is definitely rewarding and there’s no penalties for failures. I was about 7 when a neighbor gave me some seeds and my folks turned me loose in the backyard. Just like you, I felt like a “genius” and the wonder of it all has never let go of me. Fortunately the successes have far outweighed the failures and the successes are pretty tasty too.

  4. Hey David ‘n’ Goliath, sounds like we have a lot in common. I’d love to hear some specifics on your soil testing. That’s something I need to start doing for my tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos.

    1. St. Funogas,

      Thanks for your comment. I used to work for the University of Minnesota in the horticulture department and I also volunteered my time in their Master Gardener program. My first soil test that I ever took was sent off to their soil testing lab. After all where else would I send it? Right? In my reading and researching I came across other soil testing labs and various methods. Since I have always had a “hunger” for science, even as a small child, I decided to try some of the “alternatives” to the “University Method”. I’m glad I did. I once read the following statement on the back of a book on alternative agriculture: “Disease and pests are the sign of a failing crop, not the cause of it.” The first time I read that I thought to myself, “That doesn’t make any sense”. Well it does now. Perfect sense. It is based on reproducible science. Most, if not all, modern agriculture / horticulture, etc. falls into one of three categories:
      (1) Conventional. Mostly synthetic chemicals of various kinds, whether it be fertilizer, insecticide, fungicide, herbicide … (Monsanto anybody?)
      (2) Organic. None of the above nasties allowed. Mostly natural methods and to be “official” must be certified by the USDA or some other regulatory authority to be advertised and sold as such. (note: some of the “ORGANIC” produce from China is NOT organic. They have been caught before with intentional mislabeling. But they have paid the fee to be “Organic”. “Follow the money” as the saying goes.)
      (3) Sustainable. This method ignores the above two categories if it does not fit into a scientifically reproducible model. It relies on soil testing and amending with what is needed, not what is assumed to be needed either by tradition or what someone one the other side of the globe did. Most people that use this method do not rely on any university testing or at home (do it yourself “shake and bake”) type testing method as they are very incomplete. If a soil testing lab does does not provide a readout for calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, iron, manganese, zinc, copper, phosphorus, sulfur, boron, pH and CEC I will not waste my time and money on that lab. Under some conditions (initial testing on a new piece of ground usually) I will also have the lab test for cobalt, selenium, chromium, molybdenum, arsenic, nickel and cadmium.

      I’ve found that a lot of the soils in the Redoubt region are high in magnesium, which precludes the use of any dolomitic limestone or epsom salts. They are also typically low in the micronutrient selenium. They are however usually fairly good in the rare earth elements that aid in human and animal health and longevity. Can you say ytterbium or zirconium? Unfortunately there are no books for home gardeners or preppers that do justice to this subject. Agriculture? Yes. Gardeners? No. I actually would like to write a few articles for the blog on this subject. I’m more of a researcher than a writer, though, but I guess I need to be an “old dog that learns a new trick”.

      David

      1. Hi David, thank you very much for this detailed response. Your statement, “disease and pests are the sign of a failing crop, not the cause of it,” makes a lot of sense.

        I’d love to see you put an article together on your research of this topic. I’m a researcher as well, I only write articles so I can help myself sort it all out and keep it organized. I’m getting too old to find anything in my notes anymore so if I don’t summarize, it’s lost. 🙂

  5. Thank you!
    Just what we needed. It is spring and time to get some dirt under the nails,
    Truth be told we have already started and I appreciate this article.

    Your comment about “gardening knowledge doesn’t necessarily transfer well from one location to another” is important. I have found in my case it does not even transfer from season to season.
    I have also found that just because my grandparents were all farmers their knowledge did not transfer through the DNA. Wouldn’t that be great?
    I must work at understanding the whens and whys to be successful. It is incredible how seedings can lift your spirits. I know mustard seeds are small but so are tomato seeds. Truly gifts from God.
    I have also found that small local farmers often willing share their knowledge as long as you respect their time and space.

    Now if I can just get a plum this year……

    1. “I have also found that just because my grandparents were all farmers their knowledge did not transfer through the DNA. Wouldn’t that be great?”

      Hi Lee, their knowledge doesn’t transfer but I’ve often wondered if the desire was genetic?

      One of my grandfathers was a great gardener. He took a waste area on a hillside and turned it into the most beautiful garden in the neighborhood and for over 50 years I don’t think anyone realized he didn’t actually own the property. He had a wonderful raspberry patch which he tended to with great skill and care. He taught me how to stake and tie them up, cut out the two-year canes after they had produced berries in order to make room for the newcomers which would bear next year. So 40 years later I used to feel unimaginable pangs of guilt when I just mowed my own raspberry patch with a mower in order to save time, using a fall-crop-only system. My blackberry hedge, on the other hand, needs tending like my grandpa used to do with his raspberries. One day last summer while tying up the canes (just like he showed me on raspberries), and feeling guilty for the umpteenth time about the raspberries, I heard my grandpa whisper in my ear, “It’s okay, you be the blackberry meister and I’ll be the raspberry meister. It’s all good.”

      For me, gardening is so much more than just planting seeds in the ground and harvesting natures bounty at the end of the summer. It’s so many things on so many different levels, even allowing me to spend time with my long-past grandpa every year when I’m pruning the blackberry hedge and tying up the new canes. And it’s all good.

      1. I often think of my Dad and the conversations we had when working outside around the house. I think this is how we keep them in our thoughts & in our hearts. And by sharing these thoughts with our children & grand children, pass on so much knowledge to our kids in this way.

  6. This is a fun article. Thanks for posting. The book Eating On The Wild Side was a game changer for our family.

    We stopped growing the varieties of overly sweet fruits like golden raspberries and Golden Delicious apples that bring on pre-diabetic health issues and switched to varieties like Marionberries and Grannie Smith apples.

    Each year we try to plant multiple varieties of things such as three types of beans, three types of tomatoes, four types of potato, fivectyoes of squash.

    Soil testing and quite often is cheap and available. Most counties have a program available.

    Two nutrients commonly deficient for our food crops are nitrogen and lime or gypsum. In wetter areas both are often missing. Lime is just 10 bucks per 40 pound bag which can do your whole garden.

    Short on nitrogen? Dilute urine to a rate of 1 part to 10 parts water and apply to soil, not directly onto plants. Composted animal manure is far and away a much better source of nitrogen as well as other nutrients compared to urine, but use what you have.

    For tomato production, use the wood ashes you save in a metal (NOT plastic… too many fires caused that way!) bucket and spread them over your garden area. Wood ashes also help reduce small insect populations which damage your green leafy crops.

    1. Hi Wheatley, lots of good info in your comments.

      I’m a big advocate of trialing varieties as I will cover in one of the next installments. Since you mentioned squashes, one thing to be aware of is that they readily cross breed which ruins the seed for the following season. Many people are already aware of that but what they aren’t aware of is how to easily prevent it. Here’s the trick, aside from isolating blossoms and all those “labor intensive” methods.

      The majority of squashes that we plant in our gardens fall into three species, which do not interbreed. If we stick to trialing three varieties each year, one from each species, we will pretty much guarantee that we won’t have any cross breeding going on. Most heritage seed catalogs will list the Latin name of the squash variety to help us select our varieties by species if we are trying to be specific. (Pun intended!)

      Here is also a general list of squash by species:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_gourds_and_squashes

    2. I got the online version of Eating On The Wild Side and really enjoy it.

      Please see my above comment about soil testing. It is worthwhile, but it does make a big difference in which lab you use.

  7. Thank you for this article. I’ve been gardening at high altitude on the front range of the Rockies for 25 years and am still learning. Much has evolved over the years and it can be a bit challenging but we’ve adapted to our location. I confess that I’ve often thought about how the settlers survived….I think on a lot of game! Still thankful to have my garden especially now. Agree totally on no till and using lots of homemade compost. I need to continue to get better on seed saving and would’t mind having a second greenhouse to manage season overlap but no immediate plans on that. Blessings to all!

  8. The last two years have been a learning experience for us, so we’re going much bigger this year. We had planned this even before everything went crazy. We’re trying to double our output this year, and we’re looking forward to getting our granddaughters out there and getting their hands in the dirt.

  9. Great article. It’s very true that gardening is a hands-on learning experience, which continues from year to year and from location to location.
    Since we rent and have no yard (we grow a bit in buckets on our balcony), my family has a fairly large community garden (the kind where you pay a small fee for a plot, not the kind where each gardener’s produce is shared between all members [ugh]), and our soil is quite clayey, but we have seen it improve over the past 5 years at our plot with our additions of home compost, manure, and purchased gardening manure bags. We’ve used shrimp compost, chicken and sheep manure compost, and some horse manure. We’ve tried leaves, woodchips, and straw to keep weeds down, and currently use a combination of straw and leaves.
    A lot of our “gardening neighbors” rototill each spring, and we see the effect it has on their gardens- they are less vibrant and lose the ecosystem and life of their soil. We have only rototilled once to break up an old weedy plot.
    I laughed when you wrote about Italians and their tomatoes- it’s very true. I live in a neighborhood with a lot of older Italians, and most of them grow a prolific amount of tomatoes, among other things. A good gardener is almost a saint 🙂

    1. Miss Victor, it sounds like you’re getting gobs of experience trying all kinds of different ideas. You’re a perfect example of no matter where we are and what our circumstances, we can do some gardening and learn from the experience. It sounds like you’ve probably already tried more things than some of my country neighbors who garden. 🙂

      I’ve always found it fascinating that tomatoes are such a national food of Italy, and potatoes of Ireland, and yet those are both New World plants that made their way to Europe after the Americas were discovered.

  10. “The Garden of Eden shall burst forth and in no time at all you’ll have so much food from your garden”

    Now for that you need a G.E.C.K., pretty hard to come by these days.

    A little humor, sorry.

  11. Down South, I encourage folks to garden as much as possible. Spring is here, and with the Virus related isolation,
    now is a perfect time to start one. Who knows what the rest of 2020 will bring…

    I recommend the following two books:
    1) All New Square Foot Gardening, 3rd Ed by Mel Bartholomew
    2) The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times by Carol Deppe

    Build yourself some 4×4 ft squares and plant the following:
    Dent corn
    Seminole Squash
    Beans
    Potatoes
    Herbs

    Try to get some local heirloom seeds…

    Also, install some rain barrels, try some Shiitake mushroom logs, a small chicken tractor, and a couple of bee hives.

    FL now lets folks grow gardens in their front yards:
    http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?mode=View%20Statutes&SubMenu=1&App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=garden&URL=0600-0699/0604/Sections/0604.71.html

    The downside of this is the expense of Mel’s Mix… I wish there was a cheaper substitute…

    1. A quick comment on the Seminole Squash you mentioned. Although I’ve never grown that particular variety of squash I have grown some like it in the same plant species. They typically tend to be good keepers. One online source describes them as being:

      “Resistant to vine borers. Extremely hard rind must be cracked like a coconut. Stores nearly forever. A great performer in the south and along the Atlantic seaboard, it loves hot humid climates.”

      My experience with this species (Cucurbita moschata – see the book titled Seed to Seed for more info on this) is that they are also quite resistant to powdery mildew. Have you noticed this with them where you garden?

    2. Indeed, we’ve been waiting on the seemingly daily deluges to stop here though. ( unwritten rule in Texas, plant anything you want after Easter ) It is hard to garden in a quagmire. 🙂

  12. Thanks for the article St. Funogas!
    I would advise caution with what you put in your compost though as things don’t always go that well. To illustrate: my parents have a garden and we compost for it (sometimes). Some years ago we put some cantaloupe guts in our compost bin. The seeds ended up in the cucumber area and we got cucalopes! They tasted awful! Please be careful!

  13. Yes so true!! I moved from zone 9b to zone 5 – our latest frost date is June 15th. Last year, I used a lot of felt pots on my large deck and everything was going fine, until the squirrels realized there were strawberries and tomatoes. I didn’t realize who the thieves were for awhile. I thought my plants were just not bearing fruit. Then one day I saw this little squirrel pulling, pulling, pulling a tomato half his size!! That little critter scampered over the edge holding that tomato as if his life depended upon it. And I caught him red handed with a large strawberry. LOL. I laughed so hard. We also have lots of deer and wild turkey who love to peruse the currant bushes that grow wild where I live. Sigh… For some reason, the squirrels didn’t bother the lettuce, carrots, or potatoes. Hmmmm… Altho much of our growing is in the greenhouse this year, I have a little curiosity about planting patches in the forest around me on my property rather than in a fenced garden. I think there’s enough sun coming through – it was previously thinned. LOL.

    1. Hey SaraSue, so THAT’S where the term “red handed” comes from! lol. I had a great laugh picturing those guys stealing you blind. Reminds me of my own little bandits. Sometimes I’ve had to set up my game camera to be able to solve the riddles. I have a cold-hardy fig which dies to the ground in most years, and on a good year I’ll only get maybe 50 figs. So I really don’t like sharing them with the wildlife. One branch that reached over the garden fence was visited each day by a large… buck! He kept it picked clean. Each day while mom and the two fawns would graze the pasture, he sneak over and check for any figs. Lots of similar stories as I’m sure we all have. But the entertainment value is worth far more than the food I give up. 🙂

  14. St. Funogas! An excellent article, and a fun read. Thank you so much for sharing this with all of us. We agree completely. It’s time to garden. …and for those of us who already garden, it’s a great time to expand on those efforts. There is always something new to learn whether at the beginning or down the road a bit. We grow both in ground (inside a greenhouse and outdoors) and hydroponically (in the greenhouse). One of our most interesting studies related water temperature and pH to bioaccessibility of nutrients. Get the science right, and VOILA! Healthy and productive plants.

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