The Survival Gardener Book of the Week #2: The Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners

gardening books

Last week I told you why you should get Gardening When it Counts by Steve Solomon.

This week, we’ll cover a book by another one of my mentors – a man I’m also lucky enough to call a friend.

Let’s face the dirty truth: gardening books are often boring. And good gardening ideas are few and far between.

Sure, there’s the occasional laughter-inducing tome, such as Ruth Stout’s epic Gardening Without Work… or the infectious enthusiasm for geometric horticultural engineering found in Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening.

But most gardening books do little to stir the mind.

How many time do we need to be told the proper C/N ratio of compost? Or the spacing of beans? Or the cold-tolerance of kale.


We Gooders are looking for more. We need the burning vision of a Sepp Holzer to stir us… or the green vistas of Geoff Lawton’s food forest Edens.

Today’s book nestles in the sweet spot somewhere between the down-to-earth and the skyward-reaching tendrils of imagination.

If you’re looking for gardening ideas, this is the book for you.

This book = pure idea generation

Herrick Kimball is the inventor of the Whizbang Chicken Plucker, the Whizbang Wheel Hoe, the Whizbang Cider Press the Whizbang Garden Cart and he’s the maker of Classic American Clothespins that are better than their high-strung ancestors.

He also runs the excellent blog Upland Gardener… and he’s now started a regular vlog on his YouTube channel titled This Agrarian Life.

But… on to this week’s book!

I first had the chance to read The Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners during the cold days of winter back in 2014 and found it to be a great inspiration for the upcoming gardens of 2015.

Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners Cover

This is truly a book of ideas. If you’re a DIY person, a dreamer, a tinkerer or an experimenter… Kimball sets forth a big batch of homemade and home-tested ideas and basically says “Here – take these gifts and build with them and on them!”

Gardening ideas covered include remarkably inexpensive and sturdy T-post trellises, tri-grown carrots, refurbishing antique garden hoes (which I have done myself with great success!), creating biochar, building solar pyramids, siphon-tube rain barrels and a lot more.

Along with the many ideas and profuse illustrations, Kimball includes snippets and essays from vintage gardening books, letters, almanacs and bulletins. The wisdom of the past twines through the pages, reflecting Kimball’s Christian Agrarian philosophy of working with his hands and caring for the land generationally.

Mineralization, tool design, insect control – the gardening ideas are introduced to the reader one after the other, daring him to set down the book and get out in the workshop or garden with a brilliant new plan.

The Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners is my kind of book – and I think you’ll like it too.

You can get a copy here.


Plastic in the Garden: Good or Bad?


Craig (of Permie Flix) asks about plastic in the garden in the comments of my video on making potting soil:

“I noticed you used a plastic tarp, bag, and bag pots. Most gardeners are cheap skates and do similar. What are your thoughts on plastic use in gardening?”

I answered:

“I go back and forth on plastic. I hate throwing it away. I do like the DeWitt/Sunbelt woven nursery fabric for occultation of new beds/no-till. Water comes through from the top but not light. Plus, the stuff will last a decade or so. It’s a pretty good trade-off. As for pots, discarded metal soup cans with holes punched in them work okay. Clay is too expensive. I just don’t see anything other than plastic for nursery work being feasible at this point. These plastic bag pots last for a few years and cost a few cents.”

Craig in turn raises some good points:

“Plastic is so useful in ag, and everyone seems to be using plastic green houses, plastic mulch, and fabric row covers like the DeWitt/Sunbelt. Plastic fertilizer bags, plastic pots, fabric pots, plastic trays, plastic irrigation, plastic totes. That’s a lot of plastic in ag. I’ve just been wondering what the Earth’s carry capacity for plastic might be before ecosystems are irreversibly damaged, and how much is acceptable, because I can’t see it’s use going away, only accelerating. I’ve read that the doubling time for plastic is around every 11 years. And that there are end-of-life problems like toxic materials such as heavy metals that leach out of the plastic as the products decay over a span of years. Tad at KIS organics wrote an interesting post about fabric pots last year containing lead and BPA among other things: This week I’ve read two articles, one on the isolated Henderson Island that was found to have 671.6 items per square metre of debris on North Beach, 99.8% of which were plastic. And another that showed of 17 brands of sea salt only one had no microplastic in it. Previous studies in Sydney harbour showed >30% of the mullet sampled had microplastics in their guts, and over 90% of seabirds feast on plastic and then defecate it on land. It’s also entering our soils through ag and municipal compost. I know that worm growth rate is significantly reduced at 28% w/w microplastics and that they distribute microplastics in their casts throughout soils. Considering that plastic was only synthesised in 1907, I’m on the go back side of plastic use and planting directly in the ground where possible. But like you mentioned there aren’t many other options for nursery work if you want to save your back and pocket. And I can’t see consumer demand for biodegradable products making a dent in regulatory or commercial practices anytime soon either.”

It really is a conundrum. I would certainly like to go without using plastic, yet sometimes there really isn’t a better option.

What About Other Options?

Back in Florida people used to ask me “what about soil blocks for transplants?”

They’re great… except Florida’s “soil” won’t hold together. You have to get some clay from somewhere else to make them stick. And the time involved… well… might as well just get some plastic trays.

When I ran my plant nursery, many of my pots were scavenged from other nurseries. I reused pots over and over again and would give extra plants to people that brought back pots after planting my plants in their gardens…

…yet eventually those pots would wear out and be thrown away.

I don’t like the large amount of plastic ending up in the environment. It’s everywhere. Even recycling may not make sense as I’ve read it takes more energy to recycle plastic than it does to just throw it in a landfill.

Yet try building a greenhouse without plastic! If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to scavenge old windows, but still – the construction is much more time-consuming than just throwing up a plastic sheet.

And eventually, that plastic wears out and is discarded.

Getting Rid of Plastic?

It’s tempting to burn plastic to get rid of it, but that releases some nasty toxins into the air.

“Current research indicates that backyard-burning of waste is far more harmful to our health than previously thought. It can increase the risk of heart disease, aggravate respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema, and cause rashes, nausea, or headaches, damages in the nervous system, kidney or liver, in the reproductive and development system.

The burning of polystyrene polymers – such as foam cups, meat trays, egg
containers, yogurt and deli containers – releases styrene. Styrene gas can readily
be absorbed through the skin and lungs. At high levels styrene vapor can damage
the eyes and mucous membranes. Long term exposure to styrene can affect
the central nervous system, causing headaches, fatigue, weakness,
and depression.”
Yeah, that’s no fun. You can also burn yourself if you run through the ashes barefoot. My little brother did that when he was a kid, stepping on a piece of molten plastic and burning his heel badly.
Takeaway: don’t run through molten plastic and ashes barefoot.
no-bare-feet-on-fire plastic in the garden - dont burn it
That brother is a fire-fighter now. No kidding.

All burning of plastic may not be bad, however. There may be the possibility of using plastic as fuel in the near future, though:

“Burning plastic in the traditional manner creates extremely polluting byproducts, as evidenced by the black smoke produced by the cup. But this didn’t thwart Levendis, who noted that plastic contains the same amount of energy per pound as premium fuel.

“We wanted to tackle the problem by preprocessing the plastics,” said Chuanwei Zhuo, a doctoral candidate in Levendis’ lab. Toward that end, the team developed a combustion system that adds a simple step to the burning process that allows for turning plastic into a fuel that burns just as cleanly as natural gas.

That simple step has a daunting name: pyrolytic gasification. Instead of directly setting the cup aflame with a match in the open air, the team’s reactor heats the material to a whopping 800 degrees Celsius in a completely oxygen-free environment. This causes the plastic to become a gas, which is then mixed with air before it is burned as a clean fuel.”

So is Plastic in the Garden Good or Evil?

Realistically, it’s probably evil – yet it’s an evil without good alternatives right now, at least that I can find.

I like it when people like Craig ask “have you thought about…”

I’ll keep thinking about plastic in the garden. I’m still on the fence. I don’t like the environmental impact but I also don’t know what else to use.

What are your thoughts?


Pineapple Cultivation in Britain


Did you know pineapples were once grown commercially in both the Netherlands and Britain?


“European pineapple cultivation was pioneered in the Netherlands. The early success of Dutch growers was a reflection of the trade monopoly the Netherlands enjoyed in the Caribbean in the form of the Dutch West India Company, established in 1621. As a result, plant stock could be imported directly from the West Indies in the form of seeds, suckers and crowns, from which the first plants were propagated.

Agnes Block is believed to be the first person to fruit a pineapple in Europe, on her estate at Vijerhof near Leiden. Many eminent Dutch growers joined the challenge, including Jan Commelin, at the Amsterdam Hortus botanical garden between 1688 and 1689, and Caspar Fagel at his seat De Leeuwenhorst in Noordwijkerhout. Pieter de la Court, a wealthy cloth merchant at Driehoek near Leiden, devised his own system for growing pineapples and many British gardeners were sent to his estate to learn about his cultivation techniques.

Dutch methods of pineapple growing became the blueprint for cultivation in Britain, undoubtedly endorsed after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 cemented Anglo-Dutch relations. William Bentinck, close adviser of William III, is thought to have shipped the entire stock of Caspar Fagel’s pineapple plants over to Hampton Court in 1692. The fruits were, however, ripened from this stock of mature plants and therefore did not count as British-grown pineapples. Pineapples had been ripened in this way before, as commemorated in Hendrik Danckerts’ painting of 1675 depicting Charles II being presented with a pineapple by John Rose, gardener to the Duchess of Cleveland. Danckerts’ painting led to the common misconception that Rose was the first to grow a pineapple in Britain.

19th century drawing showing hothouse and pinery-vinery in section
Illustration of hothouse and pinery-vinery from Loudon’s An Encyclopedia of Gardening


The first reliable crop of pineapples in Britain was in fact achieved by a Dutch grower, Henry Telende, gardener to Matthew Decker, at his seat in Richmond between 1714 and 1716. Decker commissioned a painting in 1720 to celebrate this feat and this time the pineapple takes pride of place as the sole object of admiration. From this point on the craze for growing them developed into a full-blown pineapple mania. The list of gentlemen engaged in this rarefied horticultural activity reads like a who’s who of Georgian society and includes the poets William Cowper and Alexander Pope and the architect Lord Burlington…”


It’s a fascinating article. Even if you don’t have a Victorian hothouse, you can Push the Zone, especially with pineapples. They’re not hard at all.


Gardening in Shells and Mango Propagation


I’ve got two questions from a reader I’ll answer today today: gardening in shells and mango propagation. Let’s jump in!

Deniz writes:

Hope you and your family feel much better since the car accident. It has finally rained today after weeks of drought, I hope it rains in the tropics soon too. I had questions about starting my own mango trees. What do you things is the easiest method to start from seed and can mangoes also be grown from cuttings? I am also planning on making a food forest with mango as the main large tree, the only problem is that that soil was infilled with shells to about a depth of two feet, what would be a easier method to grow trees in this substrate then digging it all up and replacing? The sediment that it produces is white and does not retain water and contain any organic matter. In the summer weeds grow all of the garden except for this area, and this area is the only area large enough to make a food forest as I have a small yard.”

Let’s attack mango propagation first:

Mango Propagation

Growing Mangoes from Seed

Mangoes are very easy to grow from seed.

Take seeds right from fresh fruit and don’t allow them to dry out. Plant them an inch or two deep in potting soil or compost and keep them watered. It usually takes about a month from them to germinate. Years ago when I started my first mango from seed, I read that if the pit sends up multiple sprouts, it will produce “true to type.” If it sends up a single shoot, it’s a wildcard.

Some sites recommend cutting open the husk of a mango seed and just planting the embryo. This may increase your germination rates but I haven’t found it necessary. If you do open it up, you can see whether it’s polyembryonic or monoembyronic, i.e. a multiple or single-shoot type. The polyembryonic seeds have multiple sections inside them.

If it’s a single-shoot seedling you get, don’t worry. It will likely give you fruit, but if you want a specific type of fruit, you’ll have to graft to make sure you get that.

Fortunately, mangoes are very easy to graft. My grafting video demonstrates multiple easy methods, and there are more online.

This page has a lot on mango propagation, plus grafting.

Growing Mangoes from Cuttings

Mangoes are not normally grown from cuttings.

Seedlings or grafting would be my recommendation, though from rumors on the ‘net some people have apparently rooted them from cuttings.

I tried air-layering my Grandpa’s mango tree without luck and eventually gave up. That’s a more forgiving method than cuttings and if it didn’t work, well, I just don’t want to bother. Seeds it is!

Gardening on Shells

The shell fill sounds like the problem with many gardens in the Florida Keys. High pH, no water retention, almost zero organic matter.

According to UF:

“On our type of lime rock fill soils, with high pH, minor elements will become insoluble in water. This is of concern since unless something is dissolved in water, it cannot be absorbed by plant roots, even though it may be present in the soil in high levels. With the addition of organic matter such as composted plant materials, mulch or leaf litter, the soil pH can be lowered. Over time, the area with added organic matter can be fertilized with minor elements. The elements will stay soluble and plants will produce healthy vigorous growth and happiness for you.”

I’m a member of Steve Solomon’s Soils and Health Group on Yahoo so I sent your question on gardening in shells by them for more insight.

Russel Lopez wrote back:

“I’m not familiar with mango trees, but I don’t think I would go to all the trouble of digging out substrate, unless you have access to heavy equipment and lots of good fill to replace it with. You would essentially be making a pot in the ground.”

He then linked to this article, which notes:

“Early studies of tree roots from the 1930s, often working in easy-to-dig loess soils, presented an image of trees with deep roots and root architecture that mimicked the structure of the top of the tree. The idea of a deeply-rooted tree became embedded as the typical root system for all trees. Later work on urban trees that were planted in more compacted soils more often found very shallow, horizontal root systems. Urban foresters have successfully spent a lot of energy trying to make people understand that tree roots have a basically horizontal orientation, to the point that even many tree professionals now believe that deep roots in trees are a myth. The truth lies somewhere in between deep roots and shallow roots.”

I have read that gardeners in the Keys will hack holes right into the compacted lime rock and shell mix, fill with some soil, then plant. The trees survive and thrive.
I would make a hole a few times the size of the root ball, put in some local earth, then plant. Mulch, keep it watered, and see what happens. Trees are very resilient. If you don’t have rock beneath, the roots should find what they need. Watch for pH issues, though. If the leaves yellow, I recommend adding some sulfur as well.
You can also foliar feed with compost tea and/or a balanced fertilizer containing micronutrients. Steve Solomon recommended Dyna-Gro to me but I haven’t had the chance to try it yet.
Good luck and send me updates! I would love to hear how your mangoes grow.

7 Staple Survival Crops for Northern Gardens


I was conversing online about staple survival crops for northern gardeners recently and it made me think: I need to write more here on what you can grow in cold climates to keep your family fed.

In my recent Survival Gardener newsletter (you can sign up for the newsletter here) I wrote about yams and northern staple survival crops – and I’ve decided to cover the latter in greater detail here.

Staple Survival Crops

There are plenty of staple crops in the tropics (I cover 10 good ones in my Top 10 Tropical Staple Crop Countdown video) but as you move farther north it gets harder to produce a lot of calories on your land. Seasons are short and sunlight is less intense, plus the variety of plants you can choose from is greatly limited.

Yet all is not lost.

Here are a few tried-and-true survival crops for the north, plus one that shows great potential.

7 Staple Survival Crops for Northern Gardeners


Your best bet as a survival staple in northern climates is the trusty potato.

staple survival crops - the potato

Potatoes are really hard to beat on yields and caloric content, plus they take less space and a lot less work than small grains.

I’ve grown wheat, oats, barley and rye. Though they’re pretty easy to grow, processing makes them a serious pain. I outlined the pros and cons in this article – go read for yourself. Potatoes are much simpler.

The Three Sisters

This is a classic method of gardening practiced by the Indians, as seen here.

Interplant corn, beans and pumpkins/winter squash for a three sisters garden. Let’s cover them individually.


I love corn. It’s a ton of fun to grow and it’s much easier to harvest and use than most other grains. It’s also beautiful.

staple survival crops - corn

The variety of grain corn varieties is staggering. Up north, I recommend sticking to “flint” corns, as dent corn takes much longer to mature.


In the three sisters garden, pole beans are used. For a survival crop, look for types you can shell and save – not green beans.


Beans aren’t super-high yielders compared to a root crop, but beans do contain a good amount of protein.

Pumpkins/Winter Squash

Pumpkins and winter squash will yield you a lot of weight in long-storing calories if you pick the right varieties. Vermont Harvest of the Month has a great illustration and recipes on their site.


In the north, gardeners should mostly stick to C. maxima and C. pepo varieties. In the south, C. moschata usually does better.

Jerusalem Artichokes

Steve Solomon were talking about northern staples a few days ago and I suggested the Jerusalem artichoke as a super-easy root crop; however, he pointed out that the difficulty most of us have in digesting them makes them a lot less attractive in the long run.

I love their productivity but the tubers mess up your digestion unless you’re very acclimated to them. They are likely a better choice as an animal feed, particularly for pigs.

staple survival crops - Jerusalem ArtichokesJerusalem artichokes are beautiful and make a great addition to the edges of a property or in rougher soil where regular vegetables don’t grow.

I planted these along a rough drainage ditch in hard Tennessee clay and rocks and they grew like crazy.


Another option are turnips. I planted big beds of turnips one year and had great success… but eating turnips daily gets old fast.

Turnips: staple survival crops

I knew we grew too many when my wife Rachel presented me with a turnip pie she baked for dessert one evening.

After weeks of turnips in stews, mashed, roasted… then pie… I didn’t want to see another turnip for a long time.

On the up side, the greens are very good to eat and quite nutritious, making them a dual-purpose crop.

Chinese Yams

Some northern gardeners have had luck growing the cold-tolerant Chinese yam, AKA Dioscorea batatas.

a staple survival crop chinese yam

Experiment and see how it does. As a bonus, the Chinese yam produces tiny little roots on the vine. Cook them up like mini potatoes!

See those here:

Try Chinese yams in your garden and tell me how they turn out – they did well for me in North Florida and Eric Toensmeier grew them successfully in Massachusetts. I think they have a lot of potential as a staple survival crop. Just be careful, as they may be an invasive species in some areas.

BTW, I mentioned their invasive nature on my newsletter this Wednesday and reader Sharon wrote back the real invasive species is soy and GMO corn. Wild yam will feed you along with many other weeds.”

I agree. Feeding yourself is of high importance, and if a vegetable grows like a weed and produces calories… I find it hard to demonize.

You can buy Chinese yam bulbils from Sharon in her online store here, along with an assortment of other obscure and wonderful plants.


There you go: seven staple survival crops for northern gardens. Did I miss any of your favorites?

Let me know in the comments.

And check out my book Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening for serious help in a collapse.

Another great title is Carol Depp’s The Resilient Gardener.

And the must-have Gardening When it Counts, by Steve Solomon.


*Beans image by Kenneth Leung. Creative Commons license.


Growing Gardens under Oak Trees?


Growing gardens under oak trees?

Dear David,

I have 10 very mature oaks in my front 
yard. At the base of one of the oaks I have started my food forest 
experiment. I dumped a layer of compost a variety of seeds (squash, 
beans, herbs, morning glories, echinechia, passionflower and i forgot 
what else lol!) and light mulch because of the oak roots, it is growing 
good so far.  So we talked about before i would begin to stop raking 
leaves and let the leaf litter collect.  I would then have a self 
mulching landscape.  From my understanding not much will be able to grow 
as ground cover since the leaves will ultimately smother them out. I 
know i can grow vines that travel up though.  Also any fruit trees or 
bushes will be of low yield since they would only receive dappled light. 
Is the solution to just plant more?? Please tell me if what all I am 
saying is true? Also i am thinking this is a mesic oak hammock since we 
are on a lake but our house is not in a flood zone because we sit up in 
the hammock zone.  Hope that helps.



I like her approach. Compost and a big mix of seeds. My kind of growing.

There are two issues here that I can see. Let’s tackle them both

1: Too Much Shade

Oaks are hard to garden under, but I hate to remove them. I explore this conundrum and my thoughts on it in my book Compost Everything in the chapter on “Stupid Worthless Trees.”

I was joking when I called them stupid worthless trees, but that’s the way many people view big, “non-productive” trees. An oak or a maple or a sweetgum is viewed as worthless by many food growers because they aren’t good sources of food. Sure, you can eat acorns or tap maples, but the work involved with processing makes them a less-than-desirable source of food.

Jennifer has a different approach. She’s letting them drop leaves and feed the soil, which large trees are great at doing. They also support other species such as birds and mushrooms – sometimes even edible mushrooms – so they’re vital parts of the ecosystem.


This edible Lactarius indigo was discovered beneath an oak tree.

The problem is the shade they create. Gardening under oaks isn’t easy unless you’re growing shade-tolerant plants. I grew grape mahonias, pineapples and gingers under mine back in North Florida. Around the edges of oaks you can also grow citrus and other fruit trees provided they get enough light. It takes a lot of solar energy to get fruit-producing vegetables like squash, tomatoes, peppers, beans, etc., to make much worth eating.

Throwing down a lot of seeds is a good idea, though – Jennifer may discover some species which are more tolerant than others of the shade.

Sometimes you can strategically remove limbs and open up the canopy to keep things growing underneath.

Planting a big variety is a good idea. The area may not be as productive as it would be without the canopy, but the oaks will buffer the overnight lows during the winter and can help you push the zone, so there are benefits.

Research shade plants for your area, test lots of species, then see what flies.

2: Leaves Covering Everything

If you are starting plants from seeds, having a lot of leaves drop can crush out young seedlings and make it hard to get things started; however, if you plant seeds when leaf drop is minimal, the plants should get established before the leaves get too thick. Older plants will be fine and the leaves will feed their roots as they grow.


One of the things I love about mature trees is how many leaves they drop. Leaves are great food for the soil and your compost pile. Perennial vegetables are easier underneath oaks, which is one reason I loved ginger. It likes the shade and will grow through leaves without trouble.

Something worth doing: travel to local parks with natural woodlands and observe what is growing beneath the oaks in wild areas. See if you can mimic what is happening in your own yard. Look for species that are edible. Smilax? Try growing its cousin asparagus. Beautyberries? Sure, plant some of those! Violets? They’re a good edible. Wild blackberries? Plant some cultivated types. See if you can find patterns in nature and then put those patterns to work in your oak gardens.

It’s not easy to grow a garden under oak trees, but it’s not impossible. Keep planting and follow your intuition and your observations.

And have fun.




*Photo credit Robert Couse-Baker. CC license.


A Short Garden Tour


Today, in celebration of hitting 15,000 subscribers, I posted an entertaining tour through the little vegetable gardens out back:

The beds and fencing, etc., aren’t the way I would design a garden but the pre-made space works pretty well and has been a blessing. We’re getting some good pumpkins now, as well as greens and perennial cucumbers.

Here, as a comparison, is a garden I designed:

I don’t like raised beds all that much and was mostly phasing them out in my Florida gardens; however, they are more useful here where the soil is filled with rocks and clay.

In the future I hope to dig and sort all the rocks out of the beds which will help even more.

It is nice to get some Seminole pumpkins from the garden but I am quite disappointed they all seem to be the necked variety. That was unexpected – not what I thought I had saved.

Have a great weekend. I’ll be getting some gardening done today.


Double-Digging Success


Bruce at RED Gardens has found double-dug gardens to be more productive:

I have used this method of garden creation for some years now ever since reading John Jeavons’s book How to Grow More Vegetables.

There are concerns with it, of course.

Double digging:

  1. Disrupts soil layers
  2. Destroys microbial and fungal life
  3. Is labor intensive
  4. Is not something you see in nature

Yet I cannot argue with the results. Our double-dug beds have always done well. Always. There has never been a time where I put in the effort to double-dig and then said “man, that wasn’t worth it!”

It may be, as Bruce notes, that double-digging initially to clear rocks and remove soil compaction followed by using a no-till or other method may be a better practice than breaking the soil again year after year.

More experiments – as always – are in order.

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