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


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


Help! Gardening in the Shade in Zone 6/7


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:


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

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.



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!

Best Composting Toilet System?

Boonjon Best Composting Toilet

This guy invented the best composting toilet I’ve seen yet.

I recently discovered the best composting toilet system I’ve seen yet.

Today’s post may go outside of the comfort range of my more delicate readers, but remember… I literally wrote the book on extreme composting.


There’s a gap in our thinking when it comes to our own waste. For some reason, recycling banana peels and coffee grounds is “great” but recycling sewage is “oh heck no I’m not doing that! Gross!!!”

I understand, really. It took me quite a while to come around to the idea of composting everything.

The first guy that changed my thinking on the subject was Joseph Jenkins, author of The Humanure Handbook. I built one of his “lovable loo” composting bucket toilets and installed it in our Tennessee house for a year as an experiment. It worked decently, but had problems with attracting some flies and odor. Close, but not quite what we wanted.

The_Humanure_Handbook_CoverGranted, the problem wasn’t really in the design so much as the fill material we had available. Peat moss worked great, but it consumed too much peat moss. I couldn’t find any safe sawdust locally, so that option was out, leaving us stuck with wood chips. Not great.

There are other composting toilet designs, ranging from quite expensive dehydrating Biolet models to the collection of cool outhouses Paul Wheaton covers in this video.

Now I have a new favorite… and have to say, I think it’s the best composting toilet system I’ve seen for both ease-of-use and simplicity of design.

The Best Composting Toilet System?

A few years ago, a man named Sandy Graves dropped me an email after finding my old Florida Survival Gardening website. He told me he’d developed a different composting toilet system and that I ought to come out and see it at some point.

I get emails from kooky people now and again, so the idea of going to see a stranger’s toilet wasn’t really all that high on my list… until I did some more research and realized he had something new and interesting going on.

Before the videographer who was helping me on the Crash Gardening series quit, I was going to go over with him to see Sandy’s system so we could film a pro-looking video. That never happened… and time moved on. I corresponded with Mr. Graves a few more times via e-mail but no solid plans ever firmed up. His office was about an hour from my homestead and it never seemed to be a good day for me to pack up and head off out of town to look at composting toilets.

Until a couple of weeks ago when we sold our homestead.

I’d loaded up a trailer with all our worldly possessions and we were heading down 40 towards I-95 when my wife says, “Hey – isn’t this where the guy with the composting toilets has his place?”

“Yes,” I said, “I should just stop now and see what he has going on… we could just film a spontaneous video!”

Rachel thought that was a great idea, so when we spotted the sign for “C-Head, LLC,” I pulled in.


Out front was a U-Haul trailer remarkably similar to the one being pulled behind my van, and I noticed it was being packed by a solidly-built, gray-haired man with glasses.

“Are you Sandy Graves?” I asked.

“Hey – I know you!” he replied, “David! Welcome! We’re just packing up for the Mother Earth News Fair!”

I asked if he had time for a video, so leaving the packing behind, Sandy took me to see the best composting toilet system I’ve seen yet.

Check it out:

The system began as an experiment on Sandy’s boat… then moved to land… then became an entire business with a variety of models.

Row of the best composting toilets I've ever seen


The BoonJon composting toilet system ties in nicely with a backyard compost bin. Sandy encourages soldier flies in his compost piles and told me he keeps discovering new things about the species that makes him appreciate them more.

I was amazed how little fill material was required for a BoonJon composting toilet. Quite affordable! Back when I built my composting toilet, it consumed a lot of fill material.

A Unique Way To Fertilize With Urine


The diversion of urine into a separate receptacle is also a very good thing. That allows you to use it as a liquid fertilizer in your garden or orchard.


The way Sandy irrigates his beds with urine is quite clever (don’t you dig inventors?) and grows some of the biggest tomato plants I’ve seen in a Florida garden.

He also grows some good-looking raspberries:


Final Thoughts

When you think about how much water we waste – plus all the fertility we literally flush away every day – composting toilets make a lot of sense.

Why would we use clean water to dispose of… fertilizer?

Everything is upside-down when you think about it. I’m glad for people like Sandy Graves who are using their talents to make a difference in the world through simple technologies. Decentralizing waste management makes a lot of sense.

Imagine how much water we could save!

How many gardens we could feed!

How many wastewater plants we could close!


What do you guys think – is this kind of composting too crazy for you?

Bananas Growing in Standing Water


Bananas love as much water as you can give them.

When I was younger, I remember seeing bananas growing right at the end of a canal in South Florida, the water reaching a foot above their root ball during high tide, then receding again during low tide.

They were flooded half the day, every day. Probably longer than that during times of heavy rainfall – yet they were happy, healthy and bore heavily.

That is, until one of the neighbors decided to “clean up” the canal by ripping out the entire clump.


I took a picture of a banana right on a canal in Eustis just this last month.


There was a larger clump as well but I couldn’t get a good picture.

Bananas. Love. Water.

Water is the top limiting factor for bananas. After water, they love nitrogen.

Give them a wet spot with tons of fertility and they’ll go crazy. Plant bananas in the middle of a dry sandy yard and you’ll be lucky if they live.

I cover creating a banana circle as one part Compost Everything: The Movie that’s soon to be released during the Home Grown Food Summit (GO SIGN UP HERE RIGHT NOW RIGHT NOW RIGHT NOW!!!) in just a couple of weeks. The combination of high fertility and lots of water makes them go nuts… or should I say, bananas.

I was at a friend’s house recently and had to film this particular patch of bananas growing in a year-round swamp.

Check it out:

For more on growing bananas, check out my plant profile on them here.


7 Survival Crops You Can Grow Without Irrigation


Did you realize that many vegetables will grow without irrigation?

Like us, most plants thrive when they get plenty of water – but some crops are also very good at mining for the moisture they need and hanging on to whatever falls from heaven.
When it comes to survival gardening, ensuring a good supply of water should be a top priority, yet there are times when it isn’t easy to drag water around or get irrigation to a field. If that’s the case, you might need to think differently about both how you grow and what you grow.
Steve Solomon wrote an excellent book on gardening without irrigation that really nails down some techniques, plus shares the great potential of dryland farming. You can read it for free here. Just a heads-up: typical intensive raised bed production is NOT the way to grow crops without water. Go read Solomon’s book if you’re interested. Seriously.
For now, though – let’s take a look at seven survival crops that are pretty easy to grow without irrigation. Let’s attack them in alphabetical order. Just because.


Amaranth - a crop you can grow without irrigationAmaranth is an ancient “grain.” (It’s not a true grain… it’s actually a “psuedo-cereal,” in case you were wondering). If you’ve read many of my gardening articles, you know I have a love-hate relationship with grains. Grains are generally not the best option for long-term survival for a number of reasons, but a couple of them stand out: amaranth and corn. (We’ll cover corn next, since it comes after amaranth in the alphabet.)
The reason amaranth stands apart as a grain is that it’s also a good leaf vegetable. It also requires minimal processing to be edible. Sure, the yields are low, but it’s easy to grow and it will usually yield abundantly even without being watered by man. I planted some a few years ago and it’s reseeded and come back again and again without any help from me… I just pop out and harvest it when I think about it.


Corn will grow without irrigationThis last year I conducted my first experiment growing corn without irrigation and was quite happy with the results. It wasn’t quite a fair test since we had a wetter spring than usual, but there were a couple of weeks in a row that went by without rain. Though folks often think of corn as a “needy” crop, some of the old heirlooms are true survivors. They were bred in an era before high-pressure sprinklers blasted water fifty feet into the air. Corn was a big part of Southwestern agriculture before the Spanish arrived… and you can bet the Aztecs weren’t that interested in hauling big clay pots of water around.

Jerusalem Artichokes

I’ve never had to water Jerusalem artichokes, either here in Florida sand or up north in Tennessee clay. They go through long stretches of low rainfall without complaint and always produce more tubers than you can eat. As a bonus, they’re perennial…
(CLICK HERE to keep reading over at The Prepper Project)


Gardening without irrigation


Gardening without irrigation? Are you mad?

No.. I don’t think so. Though you may not be able to garden completely without irrigation, I do believe you can lower your garden water usage considerably by changing your methods.

The key to getting more out of your garden while watering less seems to be adding extra space for each plant’s root system. We live in the Age Of The Raised Bed, so this sound nuts… but there are solid reasons to grow in rows with wide spacings.

Check out what Steve Solomon, author of Gardening When It Counts, has to say:

As recently as the 1930s, most American country folk still did not have running water. With water being hand-pumped and carried in buckets, and precious, their vegetable gardens had to be grown with a minimum
of irrigation. In the otherwise well-watered East, one could routinely expect several consecutive weeks every summer without rain. In some drought years a hot, rainless month or longer could go by. So vegetable varieties were bred to grow through dry spells without loss, and traditional American vegetable gardens were designed to help them do so.

I began gardening in the early 1970s, just as the raised-bed method was being popularized. The latest books and magazine articles all agreed that raising vegetables in widely separated single rows was a
foolish imitation of commercial farming, that commercial vegetables were arranged that way for ease of mechanical cultivation. Closely planted raised beds requiring hand cultivation were alleged to be far more productive and far more efficient users of irrigation because water wasn’t evaporating from bare soil.


I think this is more likely to be the truth: Old-fashioned gardens used low plant densities to survive inevitable spells of rainlessness. Looked at this way, widely separated vegetables in widely separated rows may be considered the more efficient users of water because they consume soil
moisture that nature freely puts there. Only after, and if, these reserves are significantly depleted does the gardener have to irrigate. The end result is surprisingly more abundant than a modern gardener educated on intensive, raised-bed propaganda would think
(read the rest)


Until I did more research, I had always assumed the wide row spacing of traditional gardens had more to do with the need for using tractors and mechanized equipment than anything else. Apparently, I was wrong.

gardening without irrigation

Check out the wide row spacing. Original image here.

This spring, to test the idea that plants need much less water when spaced further apart, I planted a big patch of corn at 6″ spacing in 3′ rows. I haven’t watered it (except for the liquid fertilizer mix I poured along the roots every week or two) and it’s doing excellently thus far on nothing but rain. I also planted bush beans spaced 6″ apart in rows spaced 18″ wide. Though they’re not as happy as the corn, only some have kicked off.

I’ll keep you all posted on my results. I’m going to do further tests on gardening without irrigation, since one of the biggest drawbacks of modern gardening is the time it takes to water, not to mention the water itself.