If I had remained in Florida, the tree crops really would have been coming into their own at this point. Yet here I’ve rented a location with mature and maturing trees that are bearing well, so we’ll call that a good trade.
The real test of my growing ability will be the vegetables field crops. Last year’s gardening was cut in half thanks to my machete injury. That also messed up my writing schedule, as it was very hard to type with only one working hand. This year, Lord willing, I will be able to garden without severing any tendons.
This coming week I hope to get some irrigation set up and a large area down the hill cleared. Slopes, clay and pests will all test my skills… but I think in the end I’ll pull this off.
I’m going from April 2017 to April 2018. Anyone else want to join me?
Last week I created a video on the top 10 tropical staple crops.
It took me way too long to write and edit, so I hope you find it incredibly helpful.
Let’s run through them here, along with a few notes.
10: Grain Corn
Stick to dent corn varieties in warm, hot climates. Corn needs decent soil and plenty of nitrogen but it’s the best grain for production and processing. Much easier to process than small grains like oats, rye and wheat. You need to nixtamalize it with lime or eat it as part of a balanced diet to avoid pellagra, a niacin deficiency which will mess you up.
9: Pumpkins/Winter Squash
These are one of my favorite plants to grow. In the tropics, most of the pumpkins grown are C. moschata types, though there are others too. Pumpkins take up a lot of space but make big, storable fruit. On the downside, they’re not that calorie dense and it’s easy to get sick of eating pumpkins.
Breadfruit is delicious and productive, plus it’s a tree so you don’t need to plow and plant like you do with annual staples. They are tough trees though they can’t take any cold. The downside is that the breadfruit come in seasons instead of spread out through the year.
So long as you don’t cut through your hand while opening them, coconuts are very good. They are high in good fats and nutrients, grow easily even in terribly soil, plus require very little work to maintain. The fronds are also useful for crafts, thatching, baskets and more. The downside of coconuts is they are a pain to open.
6: Bananas and Plantains
It’s a fruit! No, it’s a starch!
Unripe bananas and plantains can be cooked and eaten like potatoes or fried like chips, making them a good way to fill in the caloric cracks. Though they are non-seasonal, they do produce better in the rainy season unless you keep them watered. And they like a lot of water! They also like a lot of nitrogen. Plant them around the septic tank and you’re golden.
5: Malanga and Taro
Malanga, AKA dasheen, has edible leaves (when cooked ONLY) and tubers (ditto). Its cousin taro needs more cooking to neutralize the oxalic acid in the roots. They like a lot of water and grow like weeds in a drainage ditch or shallow pond.
4: Pigeon Peas
Pigeon peas are a very easy-to-grow nitrogen-fixing tropical staple crop. The dry peas are a good source of protein and the younger peas can be eaten like common green peas. If you have marginal ground, hack holes in it and plant pigeon peas. The downside is that shelling the peas takes way too long. I also find them a bit hard to digest.
Cassava is a carbohydrate bazooka. It’s productive even in bad soil and has roughly twice the calories of white potatoes. Unfortunately, it’s almost devoid of real nutrition. It’s just a blast of carbs. This makes it great for a crisis but not good to eat all the time. The leaves are edible when boiled and are nutrient-rich, so it makes sense to eat the leaves and roots together.
2: Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes have edible greens and roots, produce abundantly in a small space, plus they’re high in calories and nutrition. An excellent choice for survival and non-seasonal.
1: True Yams
Yes, I am prejudiced. Yams (Dioscorea spp.) are my favorite staple crop. The flavor is good, they take almost no work to grow, they’ll live on the margins of a food forest and they’ll even grow and produce when guerilla planted in the woods. Grow some – you’ll be impressed.
Any combination of these ten tropical staple crops could keep you alive in a crisis. I recommend planting more than one of them for variation in diet, plus redundancy. IF cassava does badly one year, you’ll still have pigeon peas. If the malanga doesn’t get enough water, maybe the corn will come through. Experiment and see what grows best in your area.
Did I miss one of your favorite tropical staples? Leave me a note and let me know.
“This plan is THE fastest, cheapest and easiest way to start a food storage program. You are done in a weekend. AND there are no hassles with rotating. Pack it and forget. It’s space efficient – everything is consolidated into a few 5-gallon buckets. You’ll sleep content in knowing that you have a one-year food supply on hand for your family should you ever need.
With the exception of dairy and Vitamin B12, this bean soup recipe will fulfill all your basic nutritional needs. It won’t fill all of your wants, but using this as your starting point, you can add the stuff that you want.
All of the food and storing supplies listed below plus 2 55-gallon recycled barrels to be used for rain catchment cost me $296, including taxes. I purchased rice, bouillon and salt from SAM’s Club. You can buy small bags of barley at the grocery, but if you don’t mind waiting a few days, special ordering a bulk bag from Whole Foods was cheaper. All of the beans I purchased from Kroger’s in 1-lb bags. Buckets, lids, Mylar bags and rain barrels were from the Lexington Container Company. Their prices are so good, with such a great selection that it’s worth a drive even if you are not in the local area.”
Hey, bean soup might get tiresome but it would keep you full. It’s a great idea to have plenty of food stored away in case of a crisis. Consider it cheap insurance in an increasingly unstable world. Additional greens could easily be grown or wild foraged for nutrition. Fresh or dried moringa leaves are also good for adding to soup. Maybe some Bidens alba, too.
I actually miss that prolific “weed.”
If a year of nothing but bean soup isn’t up your alley, my book Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening has what you need to know about survival gardening, plus information on what grocery store seeds and plant material can be used in a crisis to grow a serviceable garden if things get tough.
* * *
O Lord my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me, lest like a lion they tear my soul apart, rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.
O Lord my God, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands, if I have repaid my friend with evil or plundered my enemy without cause, let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground and lay my glory in the dust. Selah
Arise, O Lord, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake for me; you have appointed a judgment. Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered about you; over it return on high.
The Lord judges the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me. Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end, and may you establish the righteous— you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God! My shield is with God, who saves the upright in heart. God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.
If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts. Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.
I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.
Hey! Let’s do a list post! How about “8 Reasons Why You Should be Growing Chayote Squash?”
Oh shoot. Now I have to come up with eight reasons, which is a number I picked arbitrarily. That shouldn’t be hard, though, as chayote really is an excellent addition to the garden. Also known as christophine and mirliton, they are a Mesoamerican crop which is now available around the world. Costa Rica exports tons of them to the EU and the US every year as the taste for this tropical squash-that-doesn’t-taste-like-a-squash has grown.
Ready? Let’s see if I can come up with eight reasons for growing chayote squash… here goes…
1. Chayote is Productive
No lie! This squash is likely to be the star of your garden in 2017 if you get them planted this spring.
Here’s a photo-manipulated shot of a bag of them I picked in my North Florida garden at the beginning of 2016, just before the first frost of the winter (which was a very late one – January!):
It looks artistic, doesn’t it? I added an “artistic” filter in Photoshop!
You can see me harvesting these squash in this video (along with a few other goodies):
They are a wonderfully productive plant – but don’t think this productivity lasts for only one gardening year. Oh no – the story gets better!
2. Chayote are Perennial
That means they come back year after year. Look at this one growing back:
I love perennial vegetables. (You might be surprised at how many great ones there are – if you want to dive down the perennial rabbit hole, Eric Toensmeier’s excellent book Perennial Vegetables will get you dreaming.)
If you live in a colder climate, mulch over chayote’s roots to make sure they don’t freeze in the winter. My bet is you’ll be able to keep them going all the way into zone 7 if you’re clever with frost protection.
3. Chayote Taste Good
There is a highly productive vegetable that starts with a “z” which I don’t wish to mention, as it is a hateful and vile thing.
People grow this, then throw them away.
Unlike that abomination, chayote are good enough that you’ll want to eat them. They are much like a dense cucumber and some call them a “vegetable pear.” If you play pretend, they are somewhat like a mild pear but without the grittiness.
How do you eat them? I need to make a another point, obviously, or I won’t hit eight. So…
4. Chayote are Versatile in the Kitchen
Chayote can be sliced and eaten raw like their cousin the cucumber, or they can be peeled and cooked. we discovered through experience that if you don’t peel them the skins get quite tough in cooking.
Chayote can be made into pickles and relish and can also be sauteed. One of my favorite ways to eat them is right off the vine, like a fruit.
They are denser than a cucumber and hold up better in cooking. They’ll also absorb the flavor of whatever you cook them in, so they’re a good filler for the pot.
5. Chayote Shoots are Delicious
This is something I discovered while I was visiting the H.E.A.R.T. gardens in Lake Wales and touring the plants with my friend Josh Jamison.
“Have you ever eaten the shoots?” he asked, when I recognized chayote growing on a trellis.
“No,” I said, “I heard they were edible but never tried them.”
“Here,” he said, breaking one off. “You have to try one.”
I did. “These are amazing!” I said.
He grinned. “They really are good – I’m growing this trellis just for the shoots!”
I was impressed. They’re good in the way asparagus is good. Chayote shoots are a mix of subtle flavors, nutty, fresh, green, sweet, delicious.
6. Chayote is Easy to Grow
Some vegetables – like tomatoes – are technically a perennial but practically speaking are an annual. Unlike these fair weather perennials, chayote sticks around happily. I’ve had few problems with insects, disease or nutritional deficiencies… they just like to grow. Strangely, though, I have had multiple chayote rot when they were planted, instead of grow. I found out what I was doing wrong, however, and now plant them differently.
In a video I posted yesterday, I show you how to plant chayote to give them a better success rate from the beginning.
Planting them on their side, not all the way in the ground, seems to be the best way to do it.
7. Chayote are Novel
There is such a thing as garden bragging rights. In fact, once you reach Super Elite Gardener Status(TM), you start competing with other gardeners to see who has the wildest and weirdest things growing.
Super Elite Gardener #1: “So… did you see my mouse melons?”
Super Elite Gardener #2: (yawns) “Oh yeah. I grew those, like, five years ago.”
Super Elite Gardener #1: “Of course. Everyone grows them. But I know you used my guest bathroom earlier… notice anything… interesting… in there?”
Super Elite Gardener #2: “Uh…”
Super Elite Gardener #1: “You did, didn’t you? Yes, you did. Tell me what it was.”
Super Elite Gardener #2: “It was… a… 30-foot…
Super Elite Gardener #1: “Yeeeeeeeessssss?”
Super Elite Gardener #2: “…or maybe longer…”
Super Elite Gardener #1: “Say it.”
Super Elite Gardener #2: “…vanilla orchid with pods on it.”
Super Elite Gardener #1: “Which you wouldn’t think was anything, would you, if it were just a NORMAL vanilla orchid, right? Why is this one so special? Tell me.”
Super Elite Gardener #2: “I’d rather not say.”
Super Elite Gardener #1: “That’s because I win, don’t I?”
Super Elite Gardener #2: “Fine!” (sobs) “You win! It was a VARIEGATED 30-foot-plus vanilla orchid with pods on it growing 1200 miles from the tropics! You win! I hate you!”
Chayote may not be at that level, but it will put you ahead of the typical backyard vegetable gardener.
8. Chayote Vines Will Climb on What’s Available
Unlike some vegetables that need to be tied up carefully and supported well, chayote will happily cover whatever is available.
I’ve seen them growing 40 feet up in oak trees. They’ll climb towards the sunshine and put fruit way up in the air. This is good and bad, of course. It’s great that they are so scrappy, but it’s hard to harvest fruit that high in the air.
If you have a chain link fence, a small tree you don’t care about or a rotting garden shed… plant chayote next to it and let them run. They’ll turn that support into a beautiful green mass of vines in a season. Growing chayote squash over eyesores isn’t a bad idea, actually. Got a burned-out car? Grow chayote on it! An ugly spouse? Chayote!
My chayote vines quite happily grew over an unproductive pomegranate tree and covered it with fruit… albeit not pomegranate fruit.
They make good shade, too, so you could plant them on an arbor over a sitting area for summer shade.
Actually… I could add a 9, too. Let’s do it!
9. (A BONUS! EXTRA POINTS!) Chayote is a Solid Survival Crop
Because of the list above, chayote is a very good addition to a survival gardening plan. Their nutritional profile is good, though they are unfortunately low in calories. The productivity makes up for low caloric yield, though, and they’re a good break from MREs, spam and canned beans!
Now that I made it to 9 of 8, let’s take a minute and look at growing chayote squash in your backyard (or front yard, if you’re hardcore).
Growing Chayote Squash
Growing chayote squash is easy.
First, get a few chayote from a grocery store, a fellow gardener or a farmer’s market.
Leave the fruits out on your counter for a few weeks. Eventually some of them should grow shoots out of the blossom end. (Chayote do not grow from proper seeds. Instead, the fruit surrounds a single embryo in the middle.)
Once they sprout and the vines are a few inches long, I plant them as shown in the video above.
Make sure you have something sturdy for them to climb where you plant the sprouted fruit. They’re not picky, as I said, but they are vigorous.
Chayote like full sun but will take half shade. Morning sun is the most important.
Chayote like compost, nitrogen and mulch. I fed mine with diluted urine (and sometimes undiluted) poured at the base of the plant. My bet is they’ll also appreciate calcium.
My plants produced in the fall after growing vigorously all through the spring and summer.
Have fun growing chayote squash – it’s a worthwhile vegetable to add to your survival garden.
Bob Hansler shares how to make survival cordage from aluminum cans, plastic bags, soda bottles and even a traffic cone – check this out:
I interviewed Bob a few months ago for a post on desert survival over at ThePrepperProject.com. He’s a sharp guy. He also needs our prayers, as his eyesight failed rapidly near the end of last year and he’s in the midst of a series of surgeries and recuperation as doctors try to keep him from complete blindness.
I’ve made quite a few little oil lamps in the past and Rachel and I have lit the house with their smoky flames but the “Bright Betty” is really the best oil lamp design we’ve seen yet.
My friend Herrick never ceases to amaze me – his recent posts on how to make a “Bright Betty” oil lamp are no exception. He also shares how you can build your own oil lamp with readily available parts.
“The basic concept of an oil lamp in a jar is nothing new. You can find similar jar-lamp tutorials elsewhere on the internet. And, as already noted, Lehman’s sells jar lamps for burning olive oil. But the Bright Betty is a bit different than other jar lamps, especially the olive-oil-fueled lamps.
First, my Bright Betty lamps have a fiberglass wick, not woven cotton. Fiberglass is better. The other difference is that my Bright Bettys burn liquid paraffin instead of olive oil for fuel.
The fiberglass wick, with liquid paraffin fuel, puts out more light than a thin-wick olive oil lamp.
Read the customer reviews at the Lehman’s link (above) and you’ll see that their little wicks put out a very small amount of light. But Bright Bettys are vastly better light producers. Not like a lightbulb, mind you, but it’s a downright satisfying and useful amount of light. I’d say one Betty puts out the light equivalent of several candles…”
Then in part two and part three he shares how to build your own Bright Betty oil lamp while including lots of photos.
For emergencies, preparedness, off-grid cabins and other applications, this design looks like a total winner. I also dig the way Herrick keeps them on his emergency shelf with a pack of matches inside the handle of each lamp.
It’s the little things. Honestly, I can’t even remember to put my wallet or glasses in the same place from day to day.
Though is the best oil lamp design I’ve seen yet, I still wonder if it could be tweaked to burn used cooking oil instead of liquid paraffin. Cooking oil is abundant. Would it be too smoky? Or would the wick sputter out?
If you’re not familiar with William, he’s a hard-working permaculture-minded market gardener in Europe who shares his abundant knowledge freely on his site. We first met thanks to our mutual friend Justin Rhodes and now we compare notes regularly and have decided to collaborate on a few projects.
If you’re establishing a new homestead or hoping to make some money off your garden, I recommend you hang around William’s site and sign up for his newsletter to get his permaculture farm guide. His posts are very good, very meticulously researched and make for a much more thoughtful place than my slice of gardening anarchy.
Could You Fertilize After a Collapse?
If you can’t fertilize your gardens, your gardens will eventually fail.
There’s only enough fertility in the soil to last through a crop, or a few if you’re blessed with excellent local conditions – but after a time, your roots, grains and vegetables will simply refuse to feed you.
I once planted a row of corn in some infertile sand to see what would happen. The resulting stalks were ridiculous miniatures, looking as if they were created to complement someone’s model train collection. Worse than that, they failed to bear a single kernel. After lifting a few tiny blooms to the sky to scatter a few anemic grains of pollen, they died.
If I had decided to plant a nice big garden in that space, it would have done terribly… unless I had a way to feed it.
Ideally, a gardener would build up his soil first, then plant later. Sometimes, though, we just want – or need – to obtain a yield quickly.
If the grid collapsed tomorrow and the grocery stores closed, which option would you choose?
Option 1: Take a year to dig beds, observe the land, make compost, sheet mulch and improve the soil… and starve
Option 2: Say heck with the soil, till a huge area, throw down some 10-10-10 and plant a big plot so you can eat
Organic purism often gets thrown out the window when we face a crisis or an economic reason for gardening.
All we really want is food!
Yet the two choices I gave you aren’t really fair. Sure, you can’t build the soil into rich, high-nutrient loam with a perfect amount of organic matter and a wide range of beneficial microorganisms and fungi in a quick period of time… but you CAN feed your crops organically and get good yields with a lot less material and time than you might think…
Identifying plants easily doesn’t happen by accident, though you can definitely speed the process along immensely.
I’ve noticed over the years that the more I’ve worked towards learning wild plant foraging, the more I’ve started to see plants in groups of related species. Even without knowing the specific names of the various specimens I find, I can often nail down the family in which they are members.
This bloom, for instance:
If you were to hazard a guess, what type of tree would you think that was?
It’s a quite distinctive bloom shape, isn’t it?
Not a common pattern to see, which is why I pegged it right away as belonging to Annonaceae.
That family is represented in the temperate world mostly by one species, which bears this bloom:
Know what that is?
Most relatives of pawpaw (Asimina triloba) live in the tropical world. Pawpaws in temperate America are like the legendary Wandering Jew, far from their warm homeland and now scattered across a chilly foreign clime.
There are a lot of plant families that become easy to spot once your eyes have started to see the patterns. Some are easier than others. the rose family, for instance, is easiest to spot when you’re dealing with simple-bloomed plants and not the highly bred roses in gardens.
Is related to this:
You’d never know it, though. The first image is that of a “Bermuda Spice” rose, the second is a peach blossom. Both are in the Rosaceae family.
Fortunately, those highly bred representatives are absent from nature. It’s easier to see, for instance, that this plant’s bloom:
Shows its relation to this plant, which has a quite similar bloom:
The first bloom is that of a pear, the second is a strawberry blossom.
Members of the Asteraceae, or daisy family, are also usually easy to spot:
Those are, in order, sunflowers, perennial marigold, cosmos and thistle blooms.
The ability to spot plant patterns has been useful to me as I’ve been trying to learn a bunch of new plants quickly. I found part of a meal a couple of days ago when I spotted a wild amaranth growing around some of the pigeon peas I planted.
My sons chopped and gathered a bundle in a few minutes, providing plenty of healthy greens for the table:
I’ve grown good varieties of domesticated amaranth before and have enjoyed them both for their edible seeds and their hearty leaves.
It means that you don’t have to start from scratch with your wild plant foraging.
Help With Identifying Plants
With some training, you’ll be able to pick out members of the bean family, the daisy family, the spurge family, etc., and get an idea of what may or may not be edible, useful or poisonous without even knowing exactly what species you have in your hand.
The blossoms and fruit are usually how I nail down most species, but there are others I peg through their leaves, stems or growth patterns.
You’d have to be a savant to truly learn botany or identifying plants and plant families in a single day from the book; however, hyperbole aside, having this book around the house or by your bedside to gaze at now and again and get some plant identification patterns in your head = valuable!
I started seeing the patterns while identifying plants before I bought the book a few years ago. Seeing them illustrated over and over again was a good signpost telling me I was on the right track.
But what is that crazy bloom at the top of today’s post?
We’ve got at least a dozen scattered about the property and they’re really a blessing. Delicious and medicinal.
They’re in bloom right now and some are bearing small fruit. Soon we’ll have plenty for the table. For now I’m enjoying spotting the weird blooms, though they do make me miss the pawpaws of Florida, at least a little bit.
A few weeks ago I learned how the natives go about interplanting corn and pigeon peas…
…then the rainy season kicked into full effect and the weeds went nuts!
Dude, where’s my corn?
I’m sure I planted some in there somewhere.
I spent part of last week learning to weed like a native, crouching with a machete and trying to find where in the world all the corn and pigeon peas we planted went.
But… let me back up and tell you how we planted our intercropped corn and pigeon peas.
Interplanting Corn and Pigeon Peas
Since I’m new at gardening on a slope and new to growing in a truly tropical climate, I hired our farmhand – a local farmer who’s chock-full of agricultural knowledge – to show me how they plant corn here.
I told him I wanted to grow corn and later put in some pigeon peas somewhere on the hill as well.
He told me that the best way to grow them was to intercrop corn and pigeon peas.
Then he started clearing the weeds with his machete, rapidly mowing everything down to ground level.
After knocking the weeds flat, he started digging planting stations with a spading fork, twisting and loosening the soil and making a little ridge down slope from each pit.
I assisted with my trusty grub hoe, following the pattern he was creating.
After digging the pits, he recommended I toss 4 corn seeds and a couple of pigeon peas into each one. He then kicked the soil back over them, burying the corn and peas at a depth of 3-4″.
“Are those going to come up?” I asked.
Sure enough, they did.
Since I have a lot of my own ideas and knowledge, it was an interesting experience to simply assist a local farmer and do exactly what he recommended.
Back in Florida I would grow corn at 36″ width between rows, without intercropping, and space the corn at around 6-8″ between plants.
That’s not how they do it here. And they don’t bother tilling in between planting stations.
I created a diagram so you can get an idea how this works:
Less than a week after planting, the corn and peas were already up. Thank God for warm, rich soil and a warm and moderate climate.
We probably planted about 1/10 acre of corn and pigeon peas.
The thinking behind planting both at the same time, so far as I understand it through the language barrier, is that the corn will bear first, followed by the pigeon peas later on. You can start chopping down the corn and then the entire plot becomes a patch of pigeon peas, bearing on and on for the next year or more. By planting both at the same time you’re only clearing and planting once.
He also told me that the corn, as they mature, will push outwards a bit and away from each other, finding the space they need to create good ears. They do indeed have plenty of space in all directions.
Weeding a Corn and Pigeon Pea Plot
As you saw in the first picture, the ideal little pockets of corn and peas were rapidly consumed by the bush. That’s when it becomes necessary to chop the weeds down again and lay them in the rows, like so:
I was told by my new farming sensei that after this first weeding the corn and peas will reach rapidly for the sky and start to overshadow the competition, requiring only one more good weeding before the corn is ready to harvest.
That stuff works like magic and has done very well on the corn I planted previously in the beds near the house. Why buy fertilizer when you can make it for free? This particular batch started with Leucana leaves, fish guts, urine and cow manure.
The mosquitoes got into that batch and started breeding, however, so I bought a little cheap vegetable oil to put a “skin” on top they couldn’t breathe through. Now their little larval corpses are feeding my corn.
I’m making another batch right now that’s heavy on moringa leaves, which ought to be very good for the garden and field crops.
Once you let it ferment for a couple of weeks, then you just dip out what you need with a watering can and water away. That’s what I did with the corn and peas right after we finished weeding them. They’re already looking nice.
On Friday I went down there and filmed some of the machete work, plus give you all a look at the beds, including the additional cucumber bed we planted after the corn and pigeon pea plot.
There are multiple reasons for that, but in short: grain corn is easy to grow, stores for a long time, is much easier to clean and process than other grains, plus you can make grits and corn bread from it.
Adding in pigeon peas makes a lot of sense if you’re in a climate where they grow well.
In our old location we’d usually get a frost just as the pigeon peas started to produce, destroying all the pods. I gave up on them after a few years of failure. Down here – and in zone 9/10 USA – they make a lot more sense. Pigeon peas are actually a small perennial tree and fix nitrogen while making food and good fuel for a biomass cook stove.
I’m looking forward to harvesting corn and then peas… and I’m really enjoying learning new ways to farm. Interplanting corn and pigeon peas isn’t something I considered doing before. Sure, I’ve interplanted corn with beans and squash, but putting a big plant like a pigeon pea in the same hole with a big plant like corn? No, never tried it!
No matter how good you get at something, there’s always something new to learn.
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I received this email last week asking for some small farm advice:
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 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.
First of all – congratulations on raising a large family! I wish more homesteaders would do the same. Now let’s jump into resources.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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:
Is this going to be a profitable farm or just a hobby?
Will my children be able to make money off this farm?
Will I be willing to work like crazy outside?
Are we really good with animals? All animals?
Can I keep a large garden fed and tended?
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.
Grow 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.