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?

The Hidden Danger of Straw Bale Gardening No One is Mentioning

joel karsten straw bale gardening

Straw bale gardening can destroy your garden.

A bold claim, but it’s true. And the evidence is mounting.

Straw bale gardens have taken off over the last decade or so. I’ve seen some really pretty and clever methods of straw bale gardening. Just a quick Google Image Search will show you lots of beautiful straw bale gardens –

Oh, wait! Joel Karsten stopped in to say I can’t use a screencap from a Google Image Search for straw bale gardens to illustrate my point:




He makes you want to jump right in, doesn’t he? Great writer, too.

Unfortunately, straw bales (and hay bales) can DESTROY your garden for years. How? Let’s take a look.

The Hidden Danger of Straw Bale Gardening

Those of you that haven’t read Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting may be wondering why in the world I’d state that straw bale gardening can destroy your garden.

My friend Andi knows.

My friend Luzette knows as well, though her gardens were destroyed by manure, not directly via straw or hay.

When I broke the story of toxic herbicides in manure back in August of 2012 via Natural Awakenings magazine, there were very few people that knew this stuff was around or how pervasive it really was. I wouldn’t have known either… if it hadn’t destroyed about $1000 worth of plants.

Since that first article, the stories keep mounting.


My book covers the problem in-depth

I love the concept of straw bale gardening. It’s great. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a quick way to get a garden going without worrying about improving the soil. You could consider straw bale gardening a form of composting and gardening simultaneously. The soil beneath a pile of rotten hay or straw improves marvelously after a year or so, leaving a patch of humus-rich earthworm-populated earth.

Yet if that hay or straw came from a field that was sprayed with one or more persistent herbicides such as Grazon(TM) or CleanWave(TM), the vegetables in your straw bale gardens will be wrecked. Not only that, you can’t even compost the contaminated straw because the toxins (usually aminopyralid or its cousin clopyralid) stick around and will destroy whatever ends up with the resulting compost.

The reality of modern factory farming is that it’s farming based on poisons. Wheat, oats, barley and other grain fields, as well as hay fields, are often sprayed with herbicides to control broad-leaf weeds long-term. “Weeds” like blackberries, amaranth, etc. The toxins don’t effect members of the grass family (grains included) but they will destroy most garden vegetables quite efficiently. I’ve been thanked multiple times from people that have either saved their gardens from these poisons – or who had finally figured out what had wrecked their crops.


Many people are just discovering the dangers. (Amazon review of Compost Everything)

Around my neck of the woods many farmers have discovered the amazing power of these herbicides to control weeds in their hay fields. They’re sprayed everywhere – it’s incredible.

As the grains/grasses grow, they uptake these toxins without harm. Animals can also graze on the fields without apparent issue.

Yet the resulting straw and manure still contains a potent dose of plant-killing power – and the toxins can stick around for years.

I’ve been offered free manure for my gardens many times. I’ve even been told “We don’t spray anything on our fields.” Yet if those animals are eating hay from the feed store – or if there’s straw bedding in the stables – the chances of contamination are very high.

Just say no. You have to. Otherwise things like this happen to your plants:



If you want to start straw bale gardening, how will you know if the straw has been sprayed at some point? If you have some rotten hay you want to compost, how will you know if it contains deadly toxins or not?

Eventually, it’s going to blow up in your face.


You won’t know, the feed store won’t know, and good luck tracing the straw bales back to a specific field so you can ask the original farmer if he’s sprayed anything within the last couple of years.

I used to sweep up all the loose hay and straw every week or so from the local feed store after I got permission to scavenge it for my compost piles.

No more.

That’s a game of Russian roulette you’re going to lose.


Unless you can verify that the fields from which your straw or hay was harvested weren’t sprayed within the last three years or so with persistent herbicides, you’re risking a lost gardening year… or more!

There was a time when straw bale gardening was a great idea. That time has passed.

Be safe.

Dow AgroSciences Wakes Up?


Dow AgroSciences professes concern for the land they’ve been poisoning.

Did they wake up? Or is this damage control? 99% odds on the latter.

They’re making toxic crap that poisons plants for years, yet they have the gall to claim they’re “Protecting, Conserving, [and] Preserving the Land.”

If they really cared, they’d stop selling this stuff altogether. There’s no easy way to keep track of what manure, compost or hay/straw has been contaminated. EVERYTHING is now suspect, thanks to Aminopyralids.

Remember, employees and owners of Dow AgroSciences:

You will one day stand before God and answer for what you’ve done. (Though you may answer to an angry mob first.)

Make your own compost and avoid getting hit by this stuff!