Intensive Gardening Introduction


Bruce of Red Gardens has a good video on his experiences with both double-dug and no-dig intensive gardening:

Though I love what he’s doing here and enjoy double-digging, if you have more land go with wide spacing. Intensive beds are very resource intensive compared to spacing widely. If you don’t water a tightly planted bed you lose your plants quickly, whereas widely spaced crops can often subsist on rainfall alone.


More Small Farm Advice


Brad shares some suggestions on my “Small Farm Advice” post:


“I would say plant in tiers. Everybody recommends fruit and nut trees but few think of that coupled with bushes. I tend to think of food in paradigms of Fruit/nut trees, bushes, perennials, and annuals in those four categories. Don’t sell out in any one of them unless your an expert at it. Become an expert in at least one thing if not two but don’t sell out on it. EX look at all the huge apple orchards and that is all they have. Why not plant 10 pecans where your horse cattle graze, chickens around them, then move to another pen when pecans drop. Blueberries, currants, gooseberry, and blackberries where your at. I would get two good varieties of corn, one for dent and grits/scratch for chickens the other for fresh eating and plant on opposite sides of your property. Throw in a couple of bee hives when you generate enough capital. Then I would rotate vegetables in 1/4- 1/2 acre parcels “if I had 6 acres” like my grandfather did. Cover crop for three/four years that way your planing on soil only once very 4-5 years. You wouldn’t believe the yields, quality, etc. vs mass planing and systemic fertilizer. Move a mobile chicken coop after tilling under cover crop 6-12 months before your next 1/4-1/2 acre planting. I find 1/4 acre to 1/2 are far easier to manage or pick by hand, don’t stand out much, are better for fresh market picking, and are easier for pest management. Hope some of the ideas help.”


Good ideas. What I’ve also found is that if you start with a crazy variety of things and try almost everything, you’ll soon start to realize what works and what doesn’t.

We grew raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and strawberries before discovering that mulberries blew all the competition away in productivity and ease of care.

We also discovered that bees, as much as we loved keeping them, were not profitable for us.

And that guinea fowl were incredibly loud and annoying.

You don’t know until you try. So get out there and try!


Waffle Gardening – A Method for Arid Climates


Last week The Grow Network posted an article on Pueblo farming methods which included a video on “waffle gardening.”

Though the video doesn’t have much practical information, it did point me along a new line of research with its reference to waffle gardens.

This is not a method with which I was previously familiar, though I have encountered other water-saving kitchen garden techniques including sunken beds and zai pits.

I found a further post on the method, which has this food overview:

“Since the time Zuni was inhabited their survival was dependent on what the land provided. They developed different types of farming methods that enabled them to contest the variable water availability and inadequate soil quality that is common in desert soils. These methods include terrace gardening, a type of farming that allowed them to use the hillslopes of the mesas to divert water among several stair case terraces. On a larger scale is a type of agriculture known as dry-land farming or run-off agriculture which farmers used to grow important staple crops such as maize, squash, beans, and cotton. These agricultural fields were strategically placed on alluvial fans, which allowed farmers to capture and divert runoff and nutrient rich sediment from upper watersheds (Homburg et al.).


On a smaller scale, “waffle” gardening was maintained by each household.”

And the author follows by describing how she built a waffle garden of her own.

If I were in a low rainfall climate, I’d experiment with waffle gardens. Unfortunately, I can only live in one place at a time.


Keyhole Gardens vs Row Gardens

keyhole gardens vs row gardens

Elizabeth considers keyhole gardens vs row gardens:


I enjoy your practical approach to organic/permaculture. I currently garden annual vegetables in rows on borrowed land. I styled the rows with narrow paths across the hill. This works great for me but not for my husband and friends. Anyone else walks on the planting rows. I have permission from the land owners to plant anything in any way I choose. 
Is it practical to transition to keyhole design? The keyhole design reduces the area of paths. I prefer the look of circles instead of rows. I could slightly raise the downhill side of the circle. In your videos you do make mounds on the downhill side of some plantings. 
At this time I mostly use hand tools. The only power tool I use is a string trimmer. I have dreams of using a BCS.”
A BCS tractor, I assume. Yeah, that would be nice. I could use one of those myself.
Let’s take a look at keyhole gardens vs. row gardens.

Keyhole Gardens vs Row Gardens

Keyhole gardens are cool. I’ve mentioned them before, but never built one.

That’s because at heart I am really lazy about digging and building things. I also like to plant large spaces when I can.

This is a pretty typical keyhole garden:

I mean, it’s really cool and all that – but the labor involved! Holy moly. You could plant a quarter acre of row gardens with that amount of labor in the same amount of time. To me, keyhole gardens are what happens when engineers get overly clever.

It would take me a day to build one. I cleared, dug and planted a half-acre in about six hours with the help of a local farmer earlier this year. Row gardens are easy to weed with a hoe, can be built rapidly and don’t need all the digging, piling up and materials. I’m also not sure that a plot of land covered with keyhole gardens would have less path space than one with row gardens, as you lose the space between the circles. Perhaps someone has done the math on that already – let me know in the comments if you have an idea.

Beyond that, don’t get me wrong: there may be a good place for keyhole gardens. Beds close to the house for herbs and salad greens where you can dump your daily kitchen scraps – great! Build ’em!

But your row gardens are already doing well – so why change? Ah! That’s right. We need to face –

The Real Problem

Your husband and your friends are terrible people.

No, I’m just kidding.

The lack of obvious paths in some of my garden beds have led visitors astray. Just because I know how I laid something out it doesn’t mean that my wife, children, neighbors or the police detectives searching for bodies in my compost pile do.

Why not stick some sticks in the ground to mark paths? Or just mulch some paths with straw? Or put down a few stepping stones? You could string strings between sticks to mark areas off in just a few minutes. Sure, it’s less convenient for you – but it would be a lot easier than building keyhole beds.

Even if you made dirt-mound style keyholes without bricks and sticks, it’s still a lot of digging – plus you lose growing space in between those circles.

If you’re really keen on some keyholes, I would go ahead and build a few on part of your land and see how they compare with what you’re doing. You’ll probably be tired after that – but, if you find you love them and they work great, great! Convert the rest. I’ll bet you stick with rows, though. When you look at the keyhole gardens vs row gardens fight in terms of labor, row gardens will win. And labor is big when you’re farming.

Just my two cents. Thanks for writing and good luck. If you do build those keyhole gardens and have luck, drop me a line and send pictures. I’d be happy to be proven wrong.


Slithering Death Monsters


Carol writes:

“I found your site after purchasing your book ‘Create Your Own Florida Food Forest’. I’m not in Florida, but thought your book would be helpful for my climate. It has been and has given me many ideas to adapt to my garden. I’m in the wet tropics of northern Australia.

FloridaFoodForestsCoverNewBLwebOne line in your book really resounded with me, it was where you referred to “slithering death monsters”. I love that line, and I take it to heart. My garden is full of ‘slithering death monsters’. Some of the most venomous snakes known to humanity, live in my area and regularly visit my garden. Coastal Taipan, Eastern Brown Snake, King Brown Snake, Red-bellied Black Snake, to name a few.

As you can imagine safely establishing a food forest under these circumstances can be challenging. Piled up branches or prunings could conceal slithering death monsters at my toes. So positioning such mulch must be carefully thought through. Being older I can no longer get to my feet quickly, so no kneeling, all gardening must be done from a standing position for a quick get away when needed (and there have been a few). Harvesting amid lush leafy growth requires its own strategies. I was once chased from a garden bed by a snake that did not appreciate my seed harvesting activities. I also do not recommend setting foot outside after sunset.

Oh yes, ‘slithering death monsters’ resonates within my being.”

While researching Costa Rica one day a few years back, I soon came to realize that my food forest designs for Florida didn’t necessarily carry over to the more exciting ecology of the tropics.

When deadly creatures lurk in brush and brush piles, trees and rock piles, well, creating a wild jungle of food isn’t the best idea, as it can get you killed. Going for an orchard with lots of shorn grass is safer.

The snakes of Florida aren’t a big deal, with the exception of water moccasins and diamondback rattlers, both of which are only common in certain ecosystems. Even the very venomous coral snake is an inoffensive creature with few deaths to its credit.


That one was wandering between my garden beds back in North Florida.

But when you have a list of snakes like “Coastal Taipan, Eastern Brown Snake, King Brown Snake, Red-bellied Black Snake” – yeah, a food forest design needs to take these creatures into account.

As much as you might love nature, nature doesn’t always love you. Actually, nature is a total jerk sometimes.

Plan accordingly.


Herrick Weighs in on Tire Gardening

tire gardens toxic

After getting an email from one of my readers, I recently wrote an in-depth post on the potential toxicity of tire gardening, followed by a video built upon that post:

My friend Herrick Kimball comments beneath the video

“From my observations, life in the soil (which equates to the health of the soil, which equates to health of the plants in that soil) appears to be unaffected around a tire in the garden, as long as there is mulch, and organic matter, and moisture, and live roots, which soil life needs to thrive. There is, undoubtedly, some degree of breakdown in the rubber of a tire over time, just as there would be with any material, but this breakdown appears to be negligible. As for leachate of chemicals from the tires, yes, probably, to some degree, but It seems to me that any leaching of chemicals from tires used in a garden is going to be extremely minimal. Probably no more than you would get from using plastic mulch, or plastic lumber for raised beds. I think the bigger question here is if a minuscule amount of chemical leachate is taken up by the plants. I’m not a molecular biologist, but my understanding is that plants do not take up the molecules of most toxins. They do not have digestive systems like humans, which can be so adversely affected by molecular toxic intake. It is the biological life in the soil that makes nutrients available to the plants. If the soil biology is healthy and active, it is going to give the plants what they need to grow. The soil biology is not going to pass on any leachate chemicals. If, however, the leachate chemicals kill the soil biology, well then, that’s a different story. We are talking about VERY minuscule amounts of chemical l leachate from a tire.  I’m confident that the soil biology can deal with such substances, and wholesome food can be grown in a tire garden.”

I’d take Herrick’s guesses over most people’s. It’s possible that plants won’t take up the toxins, though I do know some things are picked up easily by plants – such as aminopyralids.

But I’m no biologist, so the tire gardening debates continues.


*Image at top by Tony Buser. CC License.


The Three Sisters Garden: September Update


My three sisters garden has been less than impressive in its performance, yet it’s still bearing me a decent crop of corn right now as you can see in my latest video:

The big fail was the beans. Something devours beans here either in the ground or shortly after they come up. By the time I got some to germinate and grow, the corn had outpaced them and they languished in the shade.

The pumpkins are struggling along, some better than others. I have a feeling they’ll do better after I harvest and cut down the corn.

I don’t believe it’s the three sisters concept that’s failed here; rather, I think it’s a combination of lack of knowledge of the original design mixed with varieties which aren’t necessarily adapted to the method.

We’ll see how things turn out in another couple of months. I do think I would have been better off planting all three sisters in their own plots rather than interplanting.


Three Sisters Garden Updates


I planted my first three sisters garden this year and have been posting videos as the project continues:

After seeing my videos, Yolanda shared a picture of a three sisters garden she created:


Hers looks nicer than mine.

I planted the corn twice only to have the seeds fail to emerge. Too old. So I bought more corn seed and planted that and it came up. Then I planted the 7 Hubbard squash seeds I had. Four emerged. Vine borers almost killed two of those, but the remaining ones look okay. Once the corn was starting to get tall, I planted beans at the base of each stalk. I did this three times, as the beans kept emerging and then getting eaten. It’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t look like we’ll get more than a few bean pods if we’re lucky.

Fortunately, the corn is doing well and I do think we’ll get some pumpkins. I might have to switch varieties around. The local corn does well but the local beans keep failing. The local pumpkins do better than the Hubbards but I really, really want Hubbards. Keeping my fingers crossed!


Are Tire Gardens TOXIC? The Case For and Against

tire gardens toxic

Are tire gardens toxic?

In a newsletter a couple months ago I shared some thoughts on tire gardens along with this video:

In response, one of my readers wrote:

“Hello David,
Tires do leach toxic, carcinogenic chemicals in to the soul and plants grown in them. No time to research this? Then do not show pictures of plants grown in tires. That is irresponsible and bad karma as you pass on injury to others. Look in to it. Fact. Tire gardening and straw bale gardening are bad if you do not want toxin-suffused vegetables.”

And Sheila writes:

“One year my father and I planted potatoes in tires. Just put on another Tire and add dirt we had lots of potatoes with seven high.PVC pipe with holes in it to water the plants.  Problem was that they tasted like tires. Since then I am not a fan of tires for living or gardening.”

Vegetables tasting like tires? And bad karma! Oh me oh my, I just want to give up.

Actually, I don’t care about tire gardens, though I do like the idea of recycling a waste product into a gardening bed.

But growing vegetables in tires isn’t a method I have any personal stake in.

Unlike Joel Karsten, the Straw Bale Gardening Shill, I’m happy to drop this method if the evidence is against it.

So – are tire gardens toxic? Let’s do a little digging.

Are Tire Gardens Toxic: The Case For Tires

Tires are, of course, cheap and widely available even in the third world. ECHO uses them in their urban garden demonstration area. You can set up tire gardens on driveways, roof tops, rocky lots and in tight spaces.

They’re convenient, too. But are they toxic?

When Patrice at Rural Revolution blogged about their tractor tire gardens, she got a similar response to that which I got but even harsher.

Someone wrote:

You could have created a floral landscape, a Dutch Masterpiece, an English Rose Garden, a French Formal Garden, and you chose Fords-Ville, Michelin Man, and polluted Mother Earth. Scrap timber is everywhere, so are bricks, tiles, even rockery stones, but tyres no. Are you sure the food grown will be free of carbon rubber tyre oil moisture? A carcinogen?

You can read Patrice’s response and entire defense of tire gardening here, but most of it boils down to what she wrote here:

“Tires have a lot of nasty things bonded into them, things that arguably ARE carcinogenic. But it’s the term BONDED that must be considered. Intact tires are distressingly inert (that’s why they’re everywhere rather than quietly decomposing into Mother Earth).”

She then quotes extensively from research done by Mr. Farber of (which now redirects to an Etsy site so the original essay appears to be missing):

Used tires already exist and in their solid state they are as safe or safer than any other construction material. The process and the result of this global discard nightmare being recycled by industry, whether grinding them up for road base, burning them as fuel, or recouping the oil, releases more hydrocarbons while costing the global economy billions of dollars for tire cleanup and commercial recycling. Modifying tires to create green space and home gardening available to everyone would not only absorbs hydrocarbons, it could well be the key to salvation for practically every family on the planet that is otherwise excluded from adequate sustenance. Personal tire recycling potential benefits far outweigh all perceived hazards.

Still, I am not convinced. After all, if vegetables are tasting like tires, well, that doesn’t inspire confidence. Yet I do love what Patrice has done at Rural Revolution. In her case, it made sense.

Are Tire Gardens Toxic: The Case Against Tires

According to Brighton Permaculture Trust:

“Due to commercial secrecy, it’s difficult to find out the exact ingredients of a tyre, and there are lots of different types. The list below is from a ‘typical tyre’:

  • Natural rubber
  • Synthetic rubber compounds, including Butadiene – known carcinogen
  • Solvents: Benzene – known carcinogen, Styrene – anticipated to be carcinogenic, Toluene – has negative health effects, Xylene – irritant, & Petroleum naphtha
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: Phenols – some are endocrine-disruptive, Benzo(a)pyrene – linked to cancer
  • Heavy metals: zinc, chromium, nickel, lead, copper & cadmium
  • Carbon black – possibly carcinogenic
  • Vulcanising agents: Sulphur & Zinc oxide
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls – known carcinogen
  • Other synthetic chemicals”

Again, though, these terrible things might have off-gassed during the tire’s usable life or been stabilized and made inert during manufacturing.

Yet as Mischa argues in that article:

“When it comes to growing food in tyres, why take the risk?

Whilst the quantity of toxic chemicals maybe small, we don’t know the exact amount used in tyres because of commercial secrecy.

People generally grow food organically for themselves to avoid exposure to synthetic chemicals. It seems ironic that a ‘Permaculture way’ of reusing tyres could be unintentionally reintroducing potentially harmful chemicals back into the equation.”

And over at Science Daily, it gets scarier:

“Draper’s method has been to make up clean samples of water like those inhabited by several kinds of aquatic organisms — algae, duckweed, daphnia (water fleas), fathead minnows, and snails — and under controlled laboratory conditions, put finely ground tire particles into the samples. By letting the particles remain in the water for 10 days and then filtering them out, she created a “leachate” that included substances in the tire rubber. All the organisms exposed to the leachate died, and the algae died fairly quickly.”

This is not complete tires, of course, but tires will break down slowly over time in the garden – and if it kills ground life, well, that’s obviously a bad thing.

The science isn’t settled, but it is disturbing.


After multiple hours of research, I am now leaning against tire gardening.

If you’re in an urban setting, have terrible soil or no soil and no options, etc., there might be a place for tire gardens. I built mine for fun in a few minutes and have enjoyed them but I now have no desire to expand and add more. Yet digging beds is free – so why use tires at all?

Especially if it’s going to ruin the karma I even don’t believe in.

If you want simple, tried-and-true and even off-grid methods for growing lots of food without much money in tough times, check out my book Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening.

As Sally writes in her review:

great info without a lot of fluff. author has a good sense of humor – i laughed out loud a few times. i would recommend for anyone getting started with a home garden who wants to stick to the basics instead of gimmicks

Check it out – I think you’ll enjoy it.


*Image at top by Tony Buser. CC License.


An Excellent No-Dig Garden Demonstration

no dig gardening demonstration

This no-dig garden demonstration is excellent:

No dig gardening runs the gamut from Ruth Stout’s system (which is unfortunately straw-based) to the Back to Eden wood chips method.

My most recent no-dig garden was the one I built with bamboo, cardboard, seaweed, cow manure, chop-and-drop and compost:

It really works well, almost no matter how you do it.

The layers break down and compost in place and the soil life really gets going like you wouldn’t believe. I used big piles of mulch and leaves in my Tennessee garden years back and was absolutely amazed by the work population after a year. They were everywhere, and the hard red clay transformed into black loam within a year. Awesome!

Compost_960I cover this method among many others in my book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting.

Even though it’s not usually all that practical for large spaces, no dig gardening, lasagna gardening and Back to Eden gardening is perfect for backyard spaces, particularly where the native soil is less than wonderful.

Forking the soil beneath may help make the no-dig garden system work better, but I haven’t done that in the past. I’ve just put down cardboard and newspaper, followed by whatever I have available for compostable materials.

Kitchen scraps, leaves, grass clippings, manure, rotten wood, potting soil, peat moss, mushroom compost, banana peels, eggshells, seaweed… just get stuff that rots.

I also try to get a wide variety of materials for maximum mineral content. Seaweed is quite valuable for this, as is cow manure (provided it’s not the evil kind you’ll find across most of the United States).

Grass clippings! Leaves! Kitchen scraps! Paper!

We have these things all the time. Instead of chucking them, why not build some sweet little backyard beds instead?

Even tire gardens can be built as no-dig gardens:

In Florida I usually just dug beds. Here in the hard-to-dig rocky clay, I’m moving back towards experiments with no-dig gardening.

How has it worked for you?

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