Supercharging Garden Beds with Biochar and Compost

DaveTurningCompost

Biochar and compost, my friends. That’s what I’m doing this time.

And… freshly tilled garden beds are irresistible to chickens. Little punks.

biochar and compost and a chicken

Yesterday I shared how we started working the garden beds, along with a video. Today I have a follow-up video, plus a deeper look at my experiments.

After seeing Steven’s success with biochar and leeks – and after getting really sick and tired of how gluey the clay can get here – I’ve decided to make lots of charcoal to add to my beds.

biochar and compost

I did an open burn and managed to get over 15 gallons of biochar. It’s mostly from fast-burning materials like palm fronds and bamboo, with a big of hardwood and random sticks thrown in.

Charging Biochar

If you throw charcoal directly into your beds it soaks up the minerals for a time, lowering or even eliminating your yields; however, if you “charge” it first with some minerals and nitrogen, it acts like a reserve in the soil. Or that’s the theory as I understand it.

Being rather insane, I decided to soak the biochar in seawater and Epsom salt. And urine. And some compost. I only soaked it for a couple of hours, though, which may not be enough.

Biochar wasn’t the only amendment I added to the garden beds. I also sifted some compost with my redneck compost sifter, AKA a carefully bent hunk of hardware cloth:

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redneck-compost-sifter

Some of the compost is being reserved for a new batch of potting soil I’m going to make to pot up some of my compost pile fruit trees, but some of it we put in the garden beds along with the biochar. Biochar and compost – what a wonderful combination!

Rachel helped with this part, even after all her vigorous broadforking.

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There are few things I enjoy more than working in the garden with my wife.

Having a task in front of us and getting it done together is better than watching a movie or hanging around smoking a hookah. I think. We’ve never actually smoked a hookah together, so that’s just conjecture, really.

Next on the agenda is planting… when we do that, I’ll share it as well.

Stay warm and have a great Sunday. We’ve been unable to make it to church for weeks now due to our car and I really miss it. I hope you are part of a good fellowship… and also have a working vehicle. Eventually we’ll be back to our normal Sabbath routine. Not worried. We have food, gardens, a beach within two miles walk… hard to feel too bad about a busted car.

And we definitely have “two or more gathered together” in the name of Jesus here on our homestead.

 

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

Carving Out a Florida Food Forest From the Palmettos: Possible?

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I recently received a quite interesting question in my inbox relating to pine scrub food and Florida food forest planning:

David,

FloridaFoodForestsCoverNewBLwebI recently found your books, bought and read the (ones) for Florida, and have handed them off to my home school children to get them started! We were blessed and got a great deal on some 15 acres – 3 is wetland – in St. Augustine surrounds. The uplands was cut and left to regrow about 30 years ago. I’m struggling with palmettos everywhere.

I have a small tractor and have been bush hogging some – and now know I could use this for compost – but overall I have acres of palmettos – and a VERY SMALL tractor lol. I have called to have the land pillaged to dirt, and this is very expensive – and I’m not sure ideal after reading your works. I’ve also looked at chemicals – maybe planting as I went to roll in as I try to poison them – but it takes horrible poison, and lots, and I want to grow food…

I searched your site (not yet your videos).

If you have written on how to start a food forest from solid palmettos, I’d like to read it.

Totally_Crazy_Easy_Florida_Gardening_350Your time is precious, and you can’t answer all the emails – and I feel guilty even dipping into your time – but I’m hoping you may already have a simple answer that is different than the rest. I’d rather have acres of food forest. I have time – I have only just found your thoughts, and will be fixing the area I have cleared (with my daughter taking the guiding role – why not, talk about random!). It will be beautiful – but right now I have about an acre clear with all the rest palmetto (though I’m searching your notes for an image guide to find the good that must be mixed in out there).

So the specific question: do you know of a decent way to either eliminate palmettos without going nuclear, or rolling them back somehow to get to food-forest state?

If you don’t have time for specific questions, I’ll still be a fan – and understand – so peace, and keep spreading the good news and writing books even my kids enjoy reading!

Les V.
St. Augustine Fl

Les also wrote a couple of follow-up emails and sent me photos of what they are dealing with:

(It looks) mostly like this – lots of palmettos, islands of gallberry(?) and small trees, pines.

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I’m using your books and videos trying to entice my daughter into loving this stuff – is there a Florida image heavy field guide? We would like to know what treasures might already be here – hard to know which to buy. It may be on your site – I will look.

Some places you must machete thru, but most has trails. Only one bad/aggressive snake (water moccasin) killed to date – in wetland. Rattlesnakes avoid us.

I bought almost no sod, but did plant Bahia around the house in “normal” fashion – where I have planted trees they have not grown – I’ll start feeding them. Soil is sandy, has clay, and is often wet 30″ down due to clay.

Would like to start large trees in front, not sure what – would love pecan, but don’t know if the possible wet feet ends that. Some medium live oaks – I have found 36-40″ stumps at near ground level rotting from their razing some thirty or more years ago. Jerks could have planted something – but then I wouldn’t have afforded the land!

Thanks for your thoughts, I will watch your site!

 

A lot to cover here but I’m going to give my unvarnished opinion on converting this land to food forest, though Les may not be happy.

First let’s analyze what nature is doing here, so ask the question:

What Type of Ecosystem Is This?

 

The answer is “Pine Flatwoods.”

This type of ecosystem is quite common in Florida and has its own rough beauty.

According to UF:

“Pine flatwoods are characterized by:

  • low, flat topography
  • relatively poorly drained, acidic, sandy soil
  • and in the past, by open pine woodlands with frequent fires.

The USDA Soil Conservation Service classification system divides the pine flatwoods into two distinct groups: 

North Florida flatwoods are typically open woodlands dominated by pines.  This ecosystem is most commonly used as woodlands (timber, wildlife, recreation, etc.). 

South Florida flatwoods are typically savannas, a type of vegetation community intermediate between grassland and forest.  This ecosystem is used extensively for range (cattle grazing).”

Les has some aspects of both ecosystems in my opinion.

There are dense areas:

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And more open areas:

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Unfortunately, this is a very difficult environment for most fruit trees and vegetables.

The soil is acid and the alternating dry and wet of baking-hot sugar sand and sodden clay can wreak havoc on root systems.

Even the weeds don’t really look happy in most Pine Flatwoods.

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The happiest plants you’ll see are usually the pines, turkey oaks and of course, the palmettos along the ground.

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You can only push nature so far without having a serious uphill battle on your hands. I urge people to “buy the soil,” then the house, if they are interested in gardening.

This is a beautiful piece of property but it is, frankly, a rough row to hoe for building food forests and gardens. Not that it’s impossible – it’s just that the construction of the soil and its nature fights against growing most of the pampered food-producing trees and plants we love.

Should It Be Cleared?

 

I would argue no, except for perhaps the acre you are working on. I don’t see any reason to take down all the palmettos (or even many of them) in order to try out a food forest. Instead, I would conduct more testing near the house with various species of trees. Les remarks that the fruit trees currently there are not growing – this does not surprise me! The ground is not good for most fruit trees. Don’t expand into new areas until you really figure out how to conquer a small piece of this ground. Your hard work will likely come to naught as the palmetto re-conquer and the trees fail due to harsh conditions.

Instead, if this were my property, I would cut some nice trails through to interesting areas and let nature run free all around the edges. Up close to the house I would do some major composting. I would also have the soil analyzed for nutrients by a good lab, then do exactly what they say to amend it around the fruit trees.

If truckloads of tree mulch from another environment could be found – like a live oak/hickory/wild plum/bay hardwood forest – I would dump those in a quarter to half-acre area a foot deep and start my food forest experiments there. Do a whole acre if you desire, but know it will be hard work!

Whatever you do, DO NOT bring in any manure, hay or straw – or even factory compost – as they can all poison the land for a long time.

My friend The Scrubland Avenger has done some deep mulching and made a pretty darn nice garden in a scrub area similar to Les’s. It took a lot of work, though – and the trees farther out struggle.

Is There Anything Worth Foraging Here?

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Yes, fortunately.

I have led foraging walks in scrubby areas and in pine flatwoods. The best wild edibles are blueberries and their edible berry relatives, along with occasional native passionfruit (Passiflora incarnata).

Sometimes you find good edible cactus as well, plus some edible yucca, pawpaws and maybe even the occasional persimmon tree.

Hawthorn may also be present, with their fruit being good for jam and their trunks being a possible rootstock for pear. I also often get smilax and even wild grapes occasionally.

Before you cut anything down, hunting over and over again until you really know the land is a good idea.

In the article quoted earlier, UF also mentions these species as being in the Pine Flatwood ecosystem (which meshes perfectly with my own observations):

Four Dominant Trees Characteristic of Flatwoods

  • slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. elliottii)
  • south Florida slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. densa)
  • pond pine (Pinus serotina)
  • longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) 

Understory Shrubs

  • saw palmetto (Serenoa repens)
  • gallberry (Ilex glabra)
  • fetterbush(Lyonia lucida)
  • wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera)
  • dwarf live oak (Quercus minima)
  • tarflower (Befaria racemosa)
  • blueberries / heath (Vaccinium spp.)

Minor or Infrequent Hardwoods

  • live oak(Quercus virginiana)
  • water oak(Q. nigra)
  • sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
  • red maple(Acer rubrum)
  • ash (Fraxinus spp.)

As you probably noticed, most of these are not particularly edible, though you can eat palmetto fruit if you really desire to do so.

You can usually manage to hunt some game in the Pine Flatwoods, too. That’s a bonus.

Florida Foraging Books

Les asked about Florida foraging books so they can hunt wild edibles.

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I recommend these:

The Shrubs & Woody Vines of Florida

Shrubs-woody-vines-florida-gil-nelson

Gil Nelson knows his stuff and as the publisher states, “more than 550 woody vines and shrubs native to Florida are covered in this easy-to-use field guide with line drawings and color photos.”

Though not focused on edibles per se, The Shrubs & Woody Vines of Florida will help you nail down almost everything you are likely to see, then you can go hit up the internet for edible, medicinal or practical uses for those plants.

To find just the edibles, I have two other suggestions.

 

 

Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants Eastern/Central North America

PetersonWildEdiblePlants

Though not focused specifically on Florida’s unique and wide-ranging ecosystem, this field guide is helpful and covers plenty of species.

As the Edible Wild Plants description notes, “More than 370 edible wild plants, plus 37 poisonous look-alikes, are described here, with 400 drawings and 78 color photographs showing precisely how to recognize each species.”

The downside of this guide is that the illustrations and photos sometimes just aren’t enough for a good ID. I own and use it, though – and would want it with me.

 

Florida’s Edible Wild Plants

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Though I still haven’t managed to get my own copy of Florida’s Edible Wild Plants by Peggy Lantz (dang it!), I have a copy of the author’s previous work with Dick Deuerling titled Florida’s Incredible Wild Edibles. That is another book you should have if you have any interest in Florida plant foraging, and knowing its enjoyable nature and good info I have no problem recommending this second book sight unseen.

This book comes highly recommended from multiple sources and if I still lived in Florida, I would definitely pick up a copy right now, before I even finished this article.

 

What CAN Be Done With This Land?

After starting an intensive little food forest with deep mulch and amendments as recommended by a laboratory, I would look further into what else could be done with these difficult pine flatwoods.

Though you may not like any or all of these options, they would be easier and more suited to the ecosystem than traditional gardening.

You will be going with the grain more than against it.

Beekeeping

Beekeeping isn’t really all that easy anywhere any more, but the bees do like palmetto blooms and will appreciate the nearby wetlands. Some people don’t like palmetto honey but I do.

Blueberry Farming

Blueberries like this environment, provided their roots aren’t flooded. My friend Bill Hall at B & G Blueberries in Ft. McCoy has beautiful acres of berries growing on his U-pick located on clay and sand much like yours. He dug furrows and planted on mounds. His best luck has been with rabbiteye types in that area.

Cattle Raising

These areas are better for grazing animals than for most other forms of agriculture as goats and cows do decently on rough areas. Running goats to lower brush and then planting grass for cows can work and it will also improve the soil over time.

Chickens

Chickens are a good meat and egg source to raise and they don’t mind the pine flatwoods. I would keep them in very good housing, however, as there are many predators in Florida that will see freerange chickens as an all-you-can eat buffet.

Pond Gardening

Malanga, taro, cattails, duck potatoes, kangkong and even the terrifyingly invasive water hyacinth can be useful species, though I wouldn’t introduce the last two on purpose as that’s… illegal. If you have deep enough areas or can dig them, I would definitely look into stocking with catfish and bluegill for easy-to-raise food. You can also go the hot tub pond route for smaller gardening spaces.

Pine Logging

There’s a reason Florida produces a lot of pine timber. It has a lot of areas like yours that are well-suited to pine trees. Dedicating a few acres to this renewable resource isn’t a bad idea and it’s a long-term monetary investment that takes little work once established. Or so I have heard, since I have never tried farming pines myself since I lacked the space and soil.

What Edible Plants Might Work?

Try the following and see how they do:

Loquat

Persimmon (Native and Japanese)

Sparkleberry, Rabbiteye and Native Blueberries

Black Cherry

Pecan (on higher spots)

Chestnut (on higher spots)

PawPaw (Asimina parviflora)

Spineless Prickly Pear (on drier ground)

Passionvine

Muscadine Grapes

Cassava

Malanga/Taro (in wet areas)

Sand Pears (“Pineapple” in particular is good)

Mulberry

Black-eyed peas

Yard-long beans

Chaya

Bananas (in wet areas)

Yams (planted to climb trees)

Yaupon Holly (for home-grown caffeine!)

Conclusion

A few final thoughts:

This is tough ground for traditional gardening, orchards and food forests. Only clear a bit and test. Don’t dive all the way in and take big risks… let nature run most of the ground until you know what will really do decently. You’ll likely need irrigation, mulch and lots of nutrition to get trees and plants established. Build out from “islands” of improved soils with happy plant communities which you’ve gotten to take.

If need be, try container gardening with mulch, compost and decent soil.

Biochar may help, as may planting lots of nitrogen-fixers and other nutrient accumulators you can “chop and drop,” like Mexican sunflower (annual Tithonia rotundifolia and the robust perennial Tithonia diversifolia), Enterolobium (spp.), Leucaena leucocephala, Autumn olive (Eleagnus umbelatta), cassias and even the dreaded “mimosa” (Albizia julibrissin). These can be planted heavily in areas you hope to reclaim from the scrub, then used to feed the ground from above and below. You can also cut back and drop the native scrub plants and trees around your desired species and planted edibles.

Machete gardening!

Good luck, Les. It may not be exactly the answer you hoped for but I want you to have the best chance of success. Great work being a homeschooler – hurray for homeschooling!

May your thumbs – and your Pine Flatwoods – always be green!

 

*        *        *

 

Finally, I do in-depth direct food forest and land consulting like this for a fee, so if you are a gardener or hopeful food forest planter reading this and want help on your own property – get in touch at the link. My goal is to save you lots of work and get you growing in the most appropriate way possible.

 

Update 11/3/16:

Linda Duever just shared a report on Palmettos she wrote – it’s a must read. Get the PDF here. I had no idea they could live for centuries or that so many creatures relied on their fruit. Another thing to consider as you plan your site!

The Scrubland Avenger Builds a ChickShaw

The Scrubland Avenger just built a ChickShaw potable chicken coop based on Justin Rhodes’ plans. He writes:

“Here’s my version of Justin Rhodes chickshaw. Still waiting on the wheels coming in from Northern Tool. Probably on back order because of Justin’s blueprints. Came out way heavier than his because I used materials from around the house where I could on this project. Next step, set up electric fencing and bring in the chickens. Fun project and I can’t wait to put it to work.”
The chickshaw looks great – check it out:

Scrubland-chickshaw-1

He sent me that photo earlier this week, along with this one:

Scrubland-chickshaw-2

Justin’s design is a nice one but The Scrubland Avenger really classed it up by adding camouflage.

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If he sends pics of the chicksaw completed, I’ll post ’em here.

This would have helped a lot back when I was keeping chickens on my homestead back in Florida. I don’t feel like building anything here yet since we already have a coop and I lack the needed powertools, but these chickshaws are really a great solution to predators and rotation.

As for right now, I’m randomly chasing roosters through the jungle:

By the way, I’m currently working on a Survival Gardener’s Guide booklet covering the various ways I’ve raised chickens. I hope to offer it soon on Amazon, so stay tuned.

What Killed My Chickens?

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Justin Rhodes asks this question with hilarious results:

…and I get a cameo.

Enjoy.

Chickens AGAIN!

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I’ve written at least one “chickens are back” post in the past. Maybe two!

Chickens!

That is our little flock.

A rooster and three hens, lovingly gifted to us by a friend.

Rachel is quite happy:

Since moving, we have had to buy all of our own eggs. We have also had only the compost pile to deal with fallen fruit. Not all the mangoes look like these when they fall from above:

Mangos

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Though a pig might be more efficient for scrap disposal, chickens are also a formidable gardening tool.

They till the soil, manure, weed and eat bugs. I’d like to go the whole Justin Rhodes route with these birds even though there are only four of them.

By the way, Justin is offering the chance for a limited amount of people to join in on his “10 Hour Homestead” course and learn directly how he was able to grow 75% of his food in just 100 days of gardening… for less than 10 hours a week.

You can sign up here.

He is also doing a free webinar tonight only on “The Tools of the Ten Hour Homestead.”

The chickens we now have are not really a breed such as one might have in the United States. Instead, they are a scrappy little local yard fowl, suited to foraging and living in the tropics. Unlike many of the birds I’ve had in the past, the hens of this variety are good mothers. As Rachel says in the video, none of these birds started its life in an incubator.

I will let you know how these chickens work out. Stay tuned.

LeHigh Acres is Fighting for Backyard Chickens

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Lehigh-acres-chickens-backyard-chickens-legal

Residents in LeHigh Acres, Florida are fighting to make backyard chickens legal.

From this article:

“I came here because I didn’t want to live in a HOA (homeowners association) community, you come out here because you want people to leave you alone,” said resident Teresa Park.  “I have a half acre, I’ve never owned chickens because I’ve watched my friends get busted.”

Another homeowner with backyard chickens in LeHigh Acres was told to get rid of his birds back in May:

Charles Edwards has two options: get rid of his seven chickens or pay $250 each day in fines.

“I think I should have the right to do as I please on my own property, especially if I’m not harming anybody,” said Edwards. “I want them happy. These are my pets.”

He built the chicken coop himself.

His seven chickens together produce about a dozen eggs each day. He doesn’t sell them. He says he shares them with his neighbors.

“These eggs are fantastic compared to store-bought eggs,” said Edwards.

He may soon have no choice but to go back to the grocery store because he’s violating Lee County’s code.

A dozen eggs a day from seven chickens is… epic, and unlikely; however, that’s beside the point.

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Never have enough of the good stuff?

CLICK HERE to get David The Good's free booklet Stretch & Grow Your Compost!

You'll transform your garden forever!

The levels of government now in play in much of the US have made home food production much more difficult than it should be. County restrictions on chickens are just a symptom of a greater societal sickness where private property and individual rights are trampled for a collectivist “greater good” that usually ends up only benefiting a small portion of the population while restricting everyone else.

I laughed at one comment below this article from Jane, a disgruntled LeHigh Acres resident:

“I think it is absolutely ridiculous that we have to petition to have chickens to feed ourselves on our own property, but they (commissioners) can spend $500,000 to put a traffic circle in on Beth Stacy Blvd, and Frank Mann told me at the “meeting” for the circle that and I quote, “half a million dollars, that’s nothing honey!” Not only was I offended he called a constituent “honey” but that he thought spending half a million dollars was chump change. Having laying hens in our backyards, doesn’t cost them anything, but loss revenue when they fines those of us that have them illegally! I call BS Frank Mann, vote him out, his time has come!”

Frank Mann, chairman of the board of county commissioners, is the guy who stated:

“If you can get a groundswell here that really demonstrates strong community support, and you’re a community of 85,000 to 100,000 people, that would be a jumping-off point to approach the county commissioners.”

Nice. That would “be a jumping-off point to approach the county commissioners.”

Sounds like he is really interested in the little guys. Not.

I helped with a chicken battle in Smyrna, Tennessee (may the town be buried in ashes and forgotten to time).

We lost.

The town council was completely uninterested in anything that would rock the boat or expand freedom. They were enjoying their fiefdom and real estate deals and viewed our requests with contempt. I could tell you some stories…

I wish the residents of LeHigh Acres the very best in their requests. Even being left alone by code enforcement would be a good start. It’s going to be a long fight, though, unless they can get the ear of someone willing to allow chicken owners to live and let live.

My two cents: run for office, folks. Get in. Then dismantle all the county power you can.

Feed Chickens Without Grain: 20 Ways to Cut Feed Costs by 100%

Chickens

feed chickens without grain

I spent a lot of time trying to feed chickens without grain. I fed them air potatoes, kitchen scraps, sweet potatoes, beautyberries, scraps from church dinners… and didn’t have all that much luck. They would quit laying because they lacked enough protein in their diets.

So I tried letting them free-range, growing corn and amaranth, feeding them moringa and even letting chickens into my compost pile to pick out maggots.

Still, I found myself either buying chicken feed… or going without eggs.

That’s why I’ve been quite interested in what Justin Rhodes has been doing with his birds.

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Never have enough of the good stuff?

CLICK HERE to get David The Good's free booklet Stretch & Grow Your Compost!

You'll transform your garden forever!

On Sunday Justin continues his series of live workshops with a look at feeding chickens… sometimes even for free.

I hate buying feed I know is filled with GMOs and slaughter wastes.

Feeding chickens from your own homestead is the Holy Grail of chickendom.

Sign up here to join the workshop.

I know Justin’s knowledge is going to save us all a lot of money and I’m pleased to throw my support behind the good work he’s doing for backyard homesteaders. His film Permaculture Chickens is worth every penny and I am glad to have a copy.

Gardening in Virginia Shade, Chicken Coop Water Catchment and Lots More!

Chickens!

Today let’s cover a bunch of stuff all at once!

First:

Help! Gardening in the Shade in Zone 6/7

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I recently received this comment asking for help shade gardening in Zone 6/7:

“Hi David, I don’t know of a way to contact you will questions so, I am sending this email/comment.

I live in Northern Virginia zone 6/7. I have been proceeding nicely with numerous failures in the garden and have discovered lots of things not to do. I have a mostly shaded back yard and would like to plant something under the shade of my mature maple tree. Is there any food crop you can recommend? I am new to the gardening and don’t know if I can plant anything in the shade of a tree and expect it to grow. Thank you. I love all the things you do and can’t wait for more.” -Jason D

 

I love questions like these because they make me think. I gardened in Tennessee for five years at the edge of Zone 6 and 7, so I can speak to this question with a bit of authority; however, I’m sure there are plenty more options you readers out there can add in the comments.

Most of our agricultural food crops have been targeted towards sun-grown annuals such as corn, lettuce, beans, peas, etc. Yet there are some lesser-known edible (or medicinal) options you can plant in the shade. A few I can name right now:

Mayapples, PawPaw, Ginseng, Gooseberries, Violets, Shiitake mushrooms, Chives, Mint and even Jerusalem Artichokes, provided they get sun for at least half the day.

Questions like these are particularly good for the new Survival Gardener Forums, since they allow people to post on and on in a big string without the answers being buried by time as I post new posts here on the blog.

Jason, you may also have some luck with various greens in the shade. Full shade is tough but half-shade isn’t game-ending for most salad ingredients. Getting beans, peppers, tomatoes or corn to grow will likely be impossible, however.

One plant we used to harvest regularly from the shade of our hackberry trees in my Tennessee backyard was wild violet. We used the leaves in salads and the flowers to make a violet tea. Very nice plant, and it’s perennial.

Good luck!

Compost Everything: The Movie

I’ve updated the Compost Everything: The Movie trailer to send folks to the download link for the film, which is available on gumroad here.

If you enjoyed the book, you’ll definitely enjoy the film. I’m no Kubrick, but the film did turn out well enough to be very popular at this year’s Homegrown Food Summit. Just using one or two of the ideas it contains can save you hundreds – or thousands – of dollars over your gardening career. Seriously. Ever look at the price of fish emulsion? Or buy a truckload of compost or top soil that turned out “blah?” This is a game-changer.

Chicken Coop Water Collector

Shane writes in:

“Just thought I’d show you a cool way to use a chicken coop as a garden bed and water catchment device – something to show your blog audience.

My coop has a flat-roofed run covered in chicken wire with a tarp on the top. This tarp catches water in it when it rains. The main part of the coop, where the chickens sleep, has a roof that I use to put my plants on away from the weeds, bugs, and slugs.ChickenCoop-GardenBed_WaterCatchment

So, when it rains, I have all the water I need to water my plants. I use a plastic drinking cup and simple scoop out the water on the tarps and dump the water into the plant pots.”

That’s some good redneck ingenuity there.

Little-known fact: I used to be a total redneck. Here’s me from those redneck days:

Redneck_David

(That photo is totally going to get me kicked out of the Christian Agrarians Facebook Group – I just know it.)

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Never have enough of the good stuff?

CLICK HERE to get David The Good's free booklet Stretch & Grow Your Compost!

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Okay, enough silliness. I wrote back to Shane recommending he add some wicking grow bags… and he informed me he was already on it. Awesome.

Related: Justin Rhodes’ live chicken coop building webinar is this Sunday afternoon, so if any of you haven’t signed up, you can go do so here.

Help! What’s the Best Book on Raising Goats?

I received another email this week from C.B. who was gifted with some dairy goats and is looking for help raising them:

Hi David,
I was wondering if you knew any good books for getting into goats for a beginning homesteader (aka, one with no land but neighbors that let him use theirs)? I originally planned on starting with chickens, but one of those awesome neighbors gave me and my wife two goats that just had three kids! Anyways, the original owner is a decent go-to, but only from experience and regularly explains she only knows from trial, failure,  and going to other neighbors. I’d like to get some info, so I am not as reactionary and waiting for emergencies,  but having healthy goats and good goat milk!

I once gave a friend some goats and he hasn’t forgiven me yet. He still has them and they’re still eating away his financial resources to this very day.

The thing with goats is this: you need to stay on top of their management. C.B. is right to seek out knowledge right at the beginning. Rachel and I kept goats for a year, learned a lot, then sold them. She’s a voracious reader and consumed lots of information. We got to drink fresh goat milk, see babies born, castrate and later butcher a buck, plus learn a lot about how much land and resources it takes to raise goats properly. Rachel was also quite good at milking:

They’re pretty tough animals, yet they are hard on the land. After a time we realized we just didn’t have the space… plus one of the goats got out and pulled up an orange tree I just planted. That was the last straw – don’t mess with my orange trees!

Storeys_Guide_To_Raising_GoatsMy recommendation to C.B. was to go get Storey’s Guide to Raising Goats. That’s the classic book and it will get you started well.

I would also get in touch with ECHO in Ft. Myers and seek out goat-raising resources. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as complex as most Americans make it.

Where I live now goats are commonly tied by a back leg by the side of the road to eat brush all day. They make great road crews.

Often there are ways to do things simply and effectively without much in the way of inputs. Remember: your goats are not your pets. They’re a food source. If you’re paying $30 a quart for the milk once all is said and done, you might as well just buy it for less from someone else.

Finally – goats are a very good place to get safe manure for the garden. I dig that.

Tobacco Book Still Free (Ends Today)

TheSurvivalGuidetoGrowingTobacco-web2As a last point, don’t forget to go grab a copy of my tobacco-growing booklet on Amazon if you haven’t already.

It’s free through the end of today, then it goes back up to its normal price.

As of me writing this post on Thursday afternoon, almost 500 copies have been given away.

That’s not bad, but it would be cool to see over a few thousand copies fly out into cyberspace.

My next book should obviously be on the Kardashians.

Have a great weekend, folks. Get out in the garden and get something done and I’ll be back with a new post on Monday.

 

UPDATE:

Commenter Annie recommends Natural Goat Care by Pat Coleby as another excellent book on raising goats:

Natural_Goat_CareAs another final point for the day, I’m in the midst of totally revamping the forums right now.

We’ve decided to move from the free option we were using to a somewhat expensive but much more user-friendly alternative. It will work a lot better.

If you’ve signed up and posted in the current forums, my apologies. We’re going to lose all that data but the new one is so easy to use that it will all be worth it.

See you there. Soon!

Free Chicken Webinar – Building Better Coops!

Chicken-in-the-garden

No, it’s not a webinar that includes free chicken… it’s a free webinar about chickens.

Justin Rhodes, the permaculture chickens guy, is currently hosting a series of webinars on every homesteader’s favorite backyard bird.

The one coming up this week is on one of my favorite topics: chicken coops!

Stretch_And_Grow_Your_Compost_Cover+sm

Never have enough of the good stuff?

CLICK HERE to get David The Good's free booklet Stretch & Grow Your Compost!

You'll transform your garden forever!

I’ve written before on my struggle to house chickens without losing them to predators and while still giving them plenty of weeds and bugs to forage on.

Go sign up if you even have the remotest interest in chickens. Justin knows his stuff.

Small Farm Advice

CornPatchMay

CornPatchMay

I received this email last week asking for some small farm advice:

 

Hi David,

So my wife and I and the 7 soon to be 8 little ones (OK, the 13 year old isn’t that little, but she is short for her age) seem to be closing in on getting a 6 acre farmette under contract to be bought here at the end of May.
I grew up on a farm, but it was agribusiness/Monsanto model because my parents couldn’t imagine doing it any other way (though they certainly complained a lot about how they did do it).  Anyway,  I was wondering if you had any good gardening/mini-farming book or website recommendations?
I am eagerly looking forward to putting my little children in charge of growing wormies and harvesting “worm tea” or whatever name that was that you gave it.  Not that I’ve got a problem with doing it, but the second oldest daughter (10) and the oldest son (7ish) will absolutely love doing it.  Part of the whole farming idea is giving them the chance to really contribute to the family in meaningful ways that they can own and be proud of.
I’ve got to go back and re-read “Compost Everything” now.  Is “Grow or Die” an argument sort of book or a how-to?
I know I’m in Illinois and you’re in Florida and the climates are rather different, but still, I’d love to hear any advice or recommendations you’ve got.  We’ll probably have 4 of the 6 acres in pasture for a rotation of dairy cows, egg layers, broilers, and pigs eventually, but we’ll be gardening and orcharding as much of the rest as we can.  Though we are planning to leave some of the big maples up to sugar.
-Thomas

 

First of all – congratulations on raising a large family! I wish more homesteaders would do the same. Now let’s jump into resources.

Small Farm Resources

I usually start by learning from mentors – and many of my favorite mentors are books. My favorite gardening books are listed here on a dedicated page.

Out of those, for a small farming situation, I recommend purchasing The Market Gardener along with Gaia’s Garden.

The_Market_Gardener - small farm advice

Quite useful

I’ve also heard good things about The Resilient Farm and Homestead. I own a copy but have it packed somewhere at the moment and haven’t been able to read it yet, alas. The rest of the books on my list will also help give you ideas, but some are definitely more applicable than others.

For websites, my favorite farming-related sites are The Deliberate Agrarian, Permaculture Apprentice and Pa Mac’s YouTube channel “The Farmhand’s Companion.”

You’ll also find some good inspiration from Marjory Wildcraft’s site Grow Your Own Groceries… and my friends at the Mother Earth News website share some good information. Permies.com is also a great rabbit hole… and if you really want to see some amazing projects, check out Skillcult.com.

Locally, be sure to visit the county agricultural extension and pick up all the data and handouts they have available. Ask what local farmers and gardeners are growing. Also check Meetup.com for gardening and permaculture Meetup groups. Every time you see someone with a nice farm or garden, try to stop and meet them. Leave a note on their gate if they’re not home!

Property Advice

Six acres is a lot of space to tend. Grazing animals really help keep pastures under control, though, so that’s good.

If you have wild areas and trees (since you already have some maples, it sounds like you may have more species too), don’t cut anything down or pull anything up until you know what it is. You could have wild nuts and fruits, not to mention trees that host edible mushrooms around their roots – some of which are quite valuable.

Chanterelles1

I gathered this basket of delicious chanterelles from around the base of a local oak tree – if that land had been cleared, these wouldn’t be there!

Stretch_And_Grow_Your_Compost_Cover+sm

Never have enough of the good stuff?

CLICK HERE to get David The Good's free booklet Stretch & Grow Your Compost!

You'll transform your garden forever!

There could be valuable native medicinal plants or edible berries you’re not aware of yet. Even after a couple of years on my single acre I was still finding useful plants here and there. Don’t be too hasty to tear anything out!

Also, if you do take down a tree – compost it. All of it. Unless you chop the wood up for your fireplace, that is.

I still regret burning multiple oak trees six years ago when we bought our old homestead. I wanted them GONE RIGHT AWAY; instead, I should have made a pile of the limbs and trunks to feed the soil, edge garden beds and harbor fungi.

Finding Your Focus

Before you jump in to a bunch of projects and burn yourself out, it’s important to figure out what you want to do. Ask questions like:

  1. Is this going to be a profitable farm or just a hobby?
  2. Will my children be able to make money off this farm?
  3. Will I be willing to work like crazy outside?
  4. Are we really good with animals? All animals?
  5. Can I keep a large garden fed and tended?
  6. Am I hoping to feed my family from the farm?

My own farming and homesteading is primarily focused on research, not making money or producing crops for market. I know that a lot of what I try will fail. We raised goats for a while, then decided that wasn’t for us. We tried different breeds of chickens, plus ducks and guinea fowl. We raised meat birds and learned to butcher them, then stopped. One year we tested dent and flint corns in multiple different plots. Another year we spent creating beds of sugar cane and looking for simple ways to make our own sugar. We planted trees in the food forest that were unsuited to the climate, just to see if they’d live.

If I were interested in making money rather than gathering knowledge for this site and for my books, I would go straight to gardening in double-dug beds and growing tried-and-true high value crops.

If I just wanted to feed my family, I’d concentrate on chickens, yams, sweet potatoes, cabbages, pumpkins and some highly nutritious easy-to-grow greens. I wouldn’t bother with fun experiments like trying to grow coffee or grafting nectarines onto wild plums.

Other Small Farm Advice

 

Tip 1: Plant Edible Trees

When I get a new homestead, the first thing I’m going to do is plant fruit and nut trees. They take the longest to get going but they’re some of the very best investments you can make. You’ll have fruit for decades or even generations. Don’t wait on trees!

Tip 2: Garden Well in a Small Space First

Once you master a smaller garden, it’s easy to make it bigger. Tilling up an acre to start with may just end in frustration. Remember: you need to feed, water and feed everything well. You need to be able to deal with bug infestations and keep the soil in good shape. Learn on a smaller plot, then grow!

Tip 3: Secure Water Supplies

Make sure you have water stored up in multiple ways. City water and a well would be great. A tank fed by the roof is good. So are ponds. A creek is awesome. Just know that without access to water, everything else will fail. Build your gardens and animal areas around water sources first.

Tip 4: Keep the Garden Close

It’s best if you can step right out of the back door into the garden. Bonus points if you have to walk through the garden to get to your car. You’ll see problems this way. Wilting, insects, yellow leaves – issues can be dealt with right away. A garden far away will often fail unless you’re very dedicated.

And Finally…

 

Grow_Or_Die_Cover_WebGrow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening isn’t a rant on the end of the world or “an argument sort of book”. It’s a how-to manual on feeding yourself even if things get tough. You can use it as a crash-course in gardening, a way to get started in your backyard, or as a book or tried-and-tested ways to feed and tend your plants when everything around you is falling apart. It also covers the excellent man-powered tools we’ve tested on our own homestead.

If you liked Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, you’ll like this book even more. It’s definitely applicable to a small farm.

Thanks for writing and may God bless your new venture!

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