Garden Lessons – Part 1, by Greenthumb in the West

There is an old saying:

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”

We had this proverb in mind when we bought our retreat property five years ago, and started work on the garden and orchard immediately, even before we started on the house. The past five years have been a steep learning curve of lessons in taking raw land to (semi!)-productive land. We have had the blessing of not needing to rely on our garden for sustenance during this time.

I wanted to pass on what we’ve learned and purchased along the way in the hope you can benefit during this time of plenty when mistakes and lessons learned are not life-threatening. If you think the #10 can of magic survival seeds that you stored will just need to be sprinkled in the dirt for instant food, you are mistaken.

For some background, we were not new to gardening. In our hometown, there is a community garden named after my grandmother. We moved from a warmer climate where we had numerous citrus and avocado trees, as well as yearly vegetable gardens. My grandmother and mother ran a mail-order iris business in the pre-Internet days. I tell you this so you understand we had fair reason to believe we knew what we were doing. Like many others reading this, to us, a garden and orchard are a cornerstone of our long-term plan for success and survival — both every day and post-SHTF. Here, in no particular order, are some of the lessons we learned:

One of the most important things is to learn and write down your frost dates, both latest and earliest, as well as your garden climate zone. Our latest frost date is May 27th. Our earliest is October 11th. We are around 5,200-foot elevation. After having two gardens freeze in two years from Memorial Day weekend frosts, we learned our lesson and now respect this. Both of those years, the weather was perfect, skies were blue, and days were warm. The cottonwoods on the nearby creek had greened out, which was a long time local guide to planting dates. We were wrong, and it cost us another few days of work, seed, and plants. Luckily we had all to spare.

Now, we are more strategic about planting. Some plants are more frost resistant than others. Those go in before the frost dates, usually mid to late March. All the rest wait till after the frost date.

Keep in mind, your micro-climate will be unique depending on exposure and the layout of your property. Our garden and orchard are fairly exposed to maximize sunlight. The trade-off for the sun exposure is that frost hits us hard. Our nearest neighbor keeps a smaller, more protected garden that’s sheltered fairly well between two buildings. He has weathered some frosts much better than we did. Keep this in mind when deciding where to plant.

That works for seasonal plantings and frost, but what about trees? We use dormancy spray if the winter is mild to keep trees from budding out too early. We have had success with tiki torches and freeze cloth protecting plants during freezes. Smudge pots would work also, on a different scale. Keep in mind the fuel needs for both of these options and the likelihood they will be in short supply when the balloon goes up. Battery-powered incandescent lights at the base of the trees, or strings of Christmas lights can have the same effect, especially if under a freeze cloth or frost blanket but obviously need electricity to work. Invest in freeze cloth while you can if your climate may need it, along with stakes to keep the cloth off of trees. Get the cloth large enough to reach the ground.

We respected frost dates last year. We got the early budding and blooming trees through a few frosts in the spring. All was going well. We had some great early harvests of numerous plants. At the end of July, we got hit by a freak hail storm. IN JULY! These were shooter-marble sized hail, and it looked like snow in the creek bed. The vegetable garden was destroyed. It looked like someone took a baseball bat to every plant then stripped the leaves. The potatoes survived, along with some zucchini. That was pretty much it of the annual plants.

The moral of that story was the best-made plans of mice and men often go awry. You can do everything correctly and yet still have disastrous results. Our food storage had always been planned at being enough for a year, with the idea that in that time frame we would be able to rely on it while we transitioned to self-sufficiency and stretch the food storage as needed. After the late hail, we upped our food storage to two years. Yes, it cost more money and space, but the realization a year may not be enough slapped us in the face. The only adjustment was to make sure FIFO rule was obeyed so nothing was wasted.

We have had to deal with numerous garden pests. The interesting part has been they have changed over timed.

Deer and Elk- For them, we fenced the orchard and garden with two sections of 4’ hog fencing, for an 8’ total height. We put smaller grid hardware cloth along the bottom foot of the fence and the gate, and extended it out (Picture an L) from the fence then staked the horizontal side of the L down to help keep out smaller pests like rabbits. We have had zero elk or deer get in the garden or over the fence. When we built the gate, we built it wide enough to fit a truck/tractor through which has come in handy numerous times.

Controlling Bugs

We have had good luck with Permerthrin, Sevin pesticide, and diatomaceous earth (which is handy for your chickens as well) for various pests. Arbico Organics out of Tucson, Arizona sells a wide variety of natural products for whatever pests you are having problems with. We usually grab a few egg sacs of praying mantis, ladybugs, and assassin bugs. The garden pest insects have been under control with this combination. The bugs we have dealt with have not been consistent from year to year. We dealt with squash bugs and white grub larvae this past year for the first time. We are now stocked up and read up to prevent and deal with this in the future. Between the two we lost some potatoes and squash. Luckily it was not what we were relying on it eat. Learn what you need now, and buy control options in bulk so you have it.

Controlling Birds

Outside of slingshots and BB guns, strips of mylar tied to the trees long enough to blow and flash in the wind have helped some, along with a fake owl on a fence post. Even with those measures, we usually end up putting out bird netting to keep the birds away, mainly on the tomatoes, grapes, and berries. If we are really careful, we are able to get a second season out of bird netting but in general they have been one-time use. Stock up in bulk now.

Controlling Ground squirrels and Rats

We didn’t have any issues with squirrels or rats the first three years. The fourth year, as the garden grew in size, both came out in force. Through live traps, snap/kill traps, and rat poison, we got it under control, but only after we had lost numerous melons and squash. We had good success with the tomcat brand rat poison in the marble size green granules. We put a few at the base of each plant on a routine basis until they stopped disappearing. It took about five days for us. The granules come in bulk in hard plastic buckets. We had live traps and snap traps already but we had to make the 2-hour trip (each way!) to the nearest town to get the poison last year. We now keep a few buckets on hand to rotate. Be aware your pets will eat this and it is toxic to them. Keep them out of the garden while treating with this.

Controlling Two legged pests

In a SHTF scenario, the possibility of garden/crop theft goes way up. Out of sight, out of mind if possible. Depending on the layout of your land, neighbors, roads, size of the garden, etc, you may not be able to hide your garden and crops from people passing by. The next best thing is to position the garden somewhere you can keep an eye on it. Don’t forget that in the age of Google Earth, hiding a garden is extremely difficult.

Plan to get a soil test. It is well worth the $20-40 and will help steer what long term amendments you put in your soil to get the conditions right. Even if you aren’t ready to plant the garden, get the test now while you can and labs are still running. Then put the needed amendments aside. It will come in handy later. There are also pH meters and home test kits. (I have heard you can tell generally if your soil is acidic or basic by making a solution of soil and water in two bowls. Add some vinegar to one and baking soda to the other. If the bowl you added the vinegar to reacts, your soil is alkaline. If the bowl with the baking soda reacts, your soil is acidic. I have not tried this but if you are coming late to the game may work.)

Our ground is good dark soil, but it is hard to turn over and has some clay. We solved this by turning up the top layer of dirt and then putting a raised bed on top of it. We usually used 2”x12”s and 2”x8”s, but depending on what was left over from other projects have used corrugated metal siding and large tires. We have had good luck with 4’x8’ bed-size as far as being enough room to plant and grow while still being able to reach everything. There are many plans online if you search for raised bed ideas, from simple to elaborate.

Even with raised beds, we didn’t give up on the ground. It has helped us to have a long horizon for the garden, and time. We started on a 20’ x 20’ patch of ground five years ago. We started with clearing it down to bare dirt, then turned the soil. After adding amendments to get the pH correct, we started adding more manure and compost. We tilled in old straw from other projects. It has taken five years and more manure and compost each year, but the soil is finally great garden soil. You can dig it with your hands and the plants love it. There is no way we could have done that in a year, much less a month or two. By having a longer time frame and not having to rely on it for food immediately, we were able to chip away at it and it has paid off. We made a 4×4 foot frame from scrap wood and hardware cloth to help sift out rocks and improve the soil as well.

We planted fruit trees in the 5-gallon size, trying to save cost. Cherries, apples, peaches, pears, apricots, you name it. All of the trees are continuing to grow and bud and blossom. Last year, we got a handful of cherries, a small peach, and an apple. That was it. Trees take time. You have time to wait now. You may not always have time to wait. Do not delay getting longer-term plants in.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)

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