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.

Composting

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.

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