Family Survival Gardening


Lisa asks about family survival gardening:

Hi David

I think I’ve found the right place to ask a question or two.

I live in South-East Queensland, Australia – very luck, I know – with my husband and 13 year-old son.  We have 40 wonderful acres of almost bare, slightly undulating land with heavy clay soil in the middle of an agricultural area.

I have wanted to grow my/our own food for as long as I can remember, but until recently never made it a priority.  We have been given the push that we needed to begin due to our poor financial experiences over the last 12 months.

It is summer at the moment.  February is usually our hottest month.  We currently have a small aquaponics system with a few food plants and a few gold fish.  We are having some trouble with rodents eating our food in the aquaponics garden beds.

Finally, I get to the question:  which plants should I start with, and how, to get healthy food fast with little to no spending?  I know – that’s more than one question, and it’s a lot to ask.

Notes:  I am planning to put together a couple of wicking beds (we have 2 spare IBCs) and a reed bed or two (another IBC).  The reed bed is because we don’t currently have a grey water system, and I hope to use the water from that for the wicking bed.

I am currently studying permaculture, which I love, but feel totally out of my depth and don’t know where to start.

Any suggestions you can provide will be very much appreciated.


Good work on getting that 40 acres! The fact that the land is inside an agricultural area means the market has already pre-selected your ground as being decent.

Clay isn’t fun to work but it is often fertile.

And feeling out of your depth is perfectly fine. There are about a zillion methods you can work with. Personally, if I were sitting on 40 acres of agricultural land, I wouldn’t bother with wicking beds, aquaponics or any of that stuff. I would go old-fashioned, wide rows.

As I write in Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening:


“If you have a lot of space, tilling up a big patch and planting row crops makes a lot of sense. If you have limited access to water, this also makes sense since wide rows with wider spacing are more tolerant of low water than raised or double-dug beds. If you plant your corn 6” apart in 12” wide rows, they will wilt if they go without water for a couple of days because all the roots in the bed are competing for a limited resource. If they’re spaced wider, the roots have more area in which to hunt for moisture.

I’ve grown corn without irrigation in a sandy field at 3’ spacing between rows of corn planted 12” apart. I was amazed by how well it did. That same corn would have done terribly in a square foot garden without supplemental water.

The other benefit of growing like a farmer with long rows is that you can grow a lot of food without having to put in borders or spend a lot of time digging. Hoeing the rows is easy in a big garden if you have a wheel hoe (more on those soon) and a stirrup hoe (ditto) to get in close around the base of your plants. On the downside, some needier plants definitely do better in a highly improved intensive garden. For straight up production, though – garden like a small farmer with nice long rows.

If you have a smaller space, raised beds and biointensive plots make more sense. They allow you to cram a lot more plants into less ground. Add creative trellises to let some of your gardening go vertical and you’ll really be rocking the yields. Also, if you don’t have a tiller or a tractor (or the gasoline to run them), smaller beds mean less work to maintain. The close spacing of your crops actually helps keep the weeds down by shading the soil and choking out the competition. The downside is the need for more water along with the labor involved in preparing the soil. Even with those considerations, biointensive beds in particular are much easier to feed efficiently than larger row gardens. It takes a lot less compost for the same results. If you were to try and feed a giant row garden with manure, you’d be doing a LOT of shoveling for a LONG period of time. Smaller, tighter, plant-packed beds take some of that time-consuming materials handling out of the picture.

In my gardens I mix multiple methods but generally stick to double-dug or at least broad-forked (we’ll get to broadforks soon!) beds because of our lack of space. When I borrow larger patches of ground to grow corn and beans, I like wide rows.

The key to gardening success is practice, patience and experimentation. Get started now and try a few different methods and you will find success.”

I love open spaces and a wheel hoe for growing calorie crops.


family survival gardening

What to Grow for Family Survival Gardening

And calorie crops are what you should grow if you want to save money on food. Roots, in particular, and perhaps grain corn and pumpkins/winter squash. Beans may be good for your area. I’m not sure if you’re inland, where the weather is more temperate, or near the coast where the climate is mild. If the latter, definitely plant true yams as a staple calorie crop.

Along with that, plant some high-nutrition salad/health crops such as kale and herbs.

After those, go for luxury items like lettuce, tomatoes and peppers. I have a ton of crop-growing info in Grow or Die, and I would also add Steve Solomon’s book Gardening when it Counts to your library.

Also, since you have 40 acres, I highly recommend researching fruit and nut trees for your area, provided the climate supports it.

One way to narrow your plant options down is to consider which produce you like and spend the most on, then grow that.

And, as always, ask questions any time – I’m happy to help.


Homemade Furniture


Weekend projects:

Tomorrow I’ll share a video on planting vanilla orchids – I just popped 6 or more into the front yard.

In a few minutes, though, I’m off to visit my friend with the sawmill.

Yesterday afternoon I took my family to the beach to watch what we could see of the eclipse. We only got a little over a 50% decrease in the solar disc here but it was still fun to see the world go darker than normal, plus it was an excuse to visit the beach.

While there, I noticed the local resort had cut down part of a large tree with red wood. It looked like nice lumber, so I called my friend to see if he’d want to cut it up for me. After some extended research, I finally nailed the tree down as Albizia saman.

He agreed to cut it for me, so we’re off to pick up the log this morning and send it through the saw. Ought to be really cool.


Till Like it’s 1899!


I was published recently over at with a quick rant about off-grid garden tilling:

“For years I rented rototillers or—more expensively—owned gas tillers of my own.

There’s nothing like tearing up a big patch of ground until your hands are so numb and tingly you can barely hoist a glass to celebrate your gardening rampage.

Many of us feel like we should cut back on our gas usage. Others don’t like tillers because they really don’t loosen soil that deeply. Still others just don’t want to shell out the big bucks on a machine that’s likely to get a buried brick stuck in the tines just before sunset when you’re half-way through the spring garden you really, really, really want to plant the next morning.

The more paranoid among us (author raises hand) figure we should go low-tech now before civilization is wiped out by an EMP, prime-time TV, an asteroid or all of the above.

Yet it took me a while to really get a solid tool set that allowed me to park the tiller for good. Sure, I borrowed John Jeavon’s “double-digging” method of creating deep, laboriously loosened beds with a spade and fork … but what if you don’t have serious time to put in a garden and you just want to chop some earth and pop in tomatoes?”

You should enjoy the entire post. They’ve been kind enough to publish two of my articles so far.

Garden Rant is one of the largest gardening sites on the web, as best as I can tell, and it’s great getting a Good Article(TM) in over there now and again.

Staying on top of my posting here and on YouTube makes it tough to write as many magazine articles and guest posts as I’d like. I’m thinking of building a little office for myself so I can have a quieter space to write books and record YouTube videos.

Maybe an 8′ x 8′ done in sections, so I can disassemble it when we have to move. That would probably be a good investment. As it is, I have my computer in our bedroom but the house is wide open, as are the windows, so there’s a lot of noise and distractions.

Part of this is my fault, as it’s more fun to sit on the bed with my three-year-old and pretend we’re catching fish off a boat than it is to write gardening article.

Ah well, such is life.


My Trick for Picking Up Quality Hoes


It’s not much of a trick, really, as ebay has been around forever, but it’s my go-to source for quality vintage tools.

Look at two of my recent scores:

vintage-hoe-heads vintage-potato-hoe

Sweet, eh?

Right now, there’s a plethora of great hoe heads on ebay.

Check it out!

I actually resisted putting this post up because I want to buy every single hoe for myself, but no… I am generous.

Actually, I’m not that generous. If you buy through any ebay link on this site, I’ll make a few cents on each purchase. I make a few bucks a month that way, but not enough to put many links around. Amazon does better for me… but you can’t get vintage tools on Amazon!

The two listings I won are being shipped to me by my parents and I look forward to fitting them with new handles. The “potato hoe” ought to work great in the hard clay here.

The old steel is a lot better than the new junk you get from the hardware store. Seriously – it’s amazing. Put a sharp edge on and old hoe and it cuts through weeds like a knife. A new hoe just doesn’t “have it.”

I posted a video on my favorite vintage hoe just over a year ago:

That’s the tool that changed my whole perspective on hoeing.

I just didn’t know what a real weeding tool was like until I got a good old American steel hoe working for me.

Half the time, the vintage hoe heads end up costing the same as a crummy new one from China… or less! I used a mop handle on one of my hoe heads and it works great. Some of my other ones were re-handled here by a local farmer who cut wild coffee wood to make solid handles. Those look really cool and work quite well.

Anyhow, go ye forth and hunt.


Why I Don’t Use a Scythe (Am I Wrong?)

scythe vs stringtrimmer use a scythe

I’d love to use a scythe instead of a string trimmer.

Ah, the scythe. The wonderful, beautiful scythe. Compared to the buzzing, rattling, smoking string trimmer… it would be so nice!

I must admit to a long-term fascination with scything. I almost pulled the trigger over at multiple times.

Hand tools – especially for the garden – are wonderful things. In the past I’ve shared thoughts on raising kids to be reliant on themselves rather than empty-headed consumers.

Knowing how to scythe (and maintain a scythe) is a fantastic skill.

And yet, I posted this on Friday:

The terrain of our homestead doesn’t really lend itself well to scything. There may be a way to do it safely on uneven, sloping and rocky ground but I’m an amateur with a scythe already without adding layers of difficulty.

Maybe one day I’ll go for it. For now, I’m afraid I’ll break it. Plus, I just can’t see how it could beat my Stihl on the 2.5 acres we tend.

I like this post from The Walden Effect on the topic of scythe vs. string trimmer:

“A lot of people buy an Austrian scythe because they want to replace their weedeater and/or lawnmower with a hand tool.  Why use gasoline when you don’t have to?

Although I agree with that logic to some extent, Mark has turned me into a realist when it comes to homesteading tools.  If a hand tool takes a significant amount more muscle than a power tool, I might choose the power tool.

On the other hand, I also factor in the long term effort involved.  If I’m afraid of the power tool, can’t get it started easily, or can’t fix common ailments myself, I might find it simpler in the long run to use a hand tool.”

I’m quite comfortable with a string trimmer since I’ve been using one since I was a teenager and used to cut a half-dozen lawns in the neighborhood.

It would be funny to run a lawn service using a scythe, though. You could probably charge twice as much and claim you were an “eco-friendly environmental aestheticist” or something like that.

Enjoy the Lord’s Day. I’ll see you all tomorrow.


*          *           *

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.

In them He has set a tabernacle for the sun,
Which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
And rejoices like a strong man to run its race.
Its rising is from one end of heaven,
And its circuit to the other end;
And there is nothing hidden from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
Yea, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
Moreover by them Your servant is warned,
And in keeping them there is great reward.

Who can understand his errors?
Cleanse me from secret faults.
Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins;
Let them not have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
And I shall be innocent of great transgression.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in Your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.

Psalm 19, NKJV


Preparing and Planting a Bed of Sweet Potatoes


Planting a bed of sweet potatoes is easy.

Preparing a bed for sweet potatoes is a little harder. That takes some digging and loosening.

Fortunately, my trusty Meadow Creature broadfork is always up to the task.

Digging in sandy soil with a broadfork is easy. In rocky clay, it’s not nearly as easy. It’s basically an extreme sport in clay.


It’s not impossible, though. That bed took me perhaps 45 minutes to prepare, mostly because it takes more stomping on the broadfork than I’m used to, plus I had to bust up the big clods.

Sure, it’s work – but it’s work that needs to be done, especially for root crops.

Why Dig a Garden Bed?

The major reason: loose soil. If the soil structure is open and crumbly, plant roots do a lot better. They can dig deep and get the minerals and water they need without having to force their way through hard earth. You’re doing the hard work first to make their lives easier.

Digging garden beds even works well in sand, as I discovered back in Florida.


When your plants have easier lives, they’ll spend more time making delicious things for you to eat.

The Initial Feeding

When I prepare a garden bed I rake in compost right at the beginning. In the past I’ve also used amendments such as lime, blood meal, bone meal, cottonseed meal and kelp meal – all of which are excellent additions to the soil.

Here, though, I can’t get most of those things, so I stick to compost, biochar and sometimes seaweed.

You can see a recent bit of bed prep in this video:

You don’t need a ton of organic matter in the soil. A few percent is fine. I sprinkle perhaps a half-inch cover of compost on a newly dug garden bed and rake or turn it in before I plant. The plants really appreciate compost and it lasts longer and releases its nutrition over time, unlike chemical fertilizer.

When preparing this garden bed I used my Back to Eden chicken run compost, which is probably hotter than compost from a typical backyard pile. The plants don’t seem to mind, though.

Here’s how I made that compost:


Planting a Bed of Sweet Potatoes

This is easy as shoo-fly pie.

Just cut some vines and stick them in.

planting a bed of sweet potatoes

You can start your own sweet potato slips with store-bought sweet potatoes if you don’t have any vines currently growing on your homestead.

Use the toothpicks and a jar method – or – even easier – start potatoes growing by burying them shallowly in a pot of soil, then cut vines off of those to plant.

I use a stick to dig holes, then plant the sweet potato cuttings a few inches deep into them.

They’ll look like they’re going to die for a few days, then they’ll recover as the vines root. Sweet potatoes are tough.

For more on growing sweet potatoes in Florida and why they’re one of my top crops for the Sunshine State, check out my book Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening.

For more on sweet potatoes as a survival crop, plus an in-depth look at various garden designs and their pros and cons, get my book Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening.

I’ll post a video update on this bed soon – you’ll be amazed by how good these little pieces of vine look after a week or two.

Planting a bed of sweet potatoes takes some prep work, but do that preparation well and you’ll be rewarded with abundant harvests.


What is the Best Wood Finish for Tool Handles?


What is the best wood finish for tool handles?

That is a can of worms, but today I’ll give you a few ideas you can test for yourself.

A few weeks ago Steven at Skillcult posted a video on his axe handle oiling system and wrote:

“It took me many years to finally arrive at a very simple but effective system for oiling axe handles.  I’m pleased to say that Author Dudley Cook came to the same conclusion and recommends pretty much the same as I do in The Axe Book.  This is the first of a series I hope to continue of super accessible bullet point videos called 2:00 Minute Technique.  The idea is to deliver very useful information in two minutes or less.  Of course being rather thorough most of the time, most subjects will be covered in more depth as well, but these will be quick start guides with enough information to get to work.  I’m also linking the long version of oiling tool handles where I talk about drying v.s. non drying oils and geeky stuff like that.

This system penetrates the handle deeply.  How deeply I don’t know as I haven’t sliced open a handle to find out yet, but it has to be pretty deep considering all the oil some handles are capable of sopping up.  It probably builds up especially a lot in the outer rind of the handle wood.  I think of it as replacing water that was once in the living tree.  As long as you use a good drying oil, like linseed, it will cure to a tough plastic like substance, the same stuff oil paints are made of.  I use raw oil because it has a slower curing time allowing for deeper penetration before the oil on the surface seals off the pores.  The other reason I use raw is because the product known as boiled linseed oil is not boiled linseed oil at all, but rather a compound containing solvents and toxic metals to the end of decreasing curing time.  I’ve actually gone now to using food grade flax oil only (same as linseed oil,  but food grade is usually called flax oil).  The last can of “pure raw linseed oil” I got smells of solvents, so I just found the cheapest flax oil I could on amazon and ordered that.

There is concern among some that raw linseed will never cure enough and will remain sticky.  I’ve been using it on my handles for a long time and it cures out plenty well.  Whether it will cure as hard and tough by comparison to boiled I’m not sure, but it’s definitely more than adequate.  I can assure you of that.

I see “oil finish” recommended a lot, like Watco or Danish Oil Finish.  As far as I know, they are all cut with solvents and dry quickly.”

He writes a lot more in his post. If you want in-depth knowledge of a topic, Steven is an excellent source. I am a fan of linseed oil as it’s an integral part of my oil painting hobby.

I also used linseed oil to finish the mahogany handles on my beloved Planet Whizbang Wheel Hoe.

But is Linseed really the best wood finish for tool handles?

Well… that’s hard to say.

Herrick Kimball recommends a tool handle finish call Pat Gorham’s Hoe-Handle Rub and explains how to make it in his book, and here on his Classic American Clothespins site:

“In The Planet Whizbang Idea Book For Gardeners I have a short chapter titled How to Make And Use Pat Gorham’s Hoe-Handle Rub. Pat’s recipe for hoe-handle rub is an old-time, all-natural wood preservative. I’m going to explain how to make yourself a small batch of the paste here so you can use it on your clothespins, in which case it’s not hoe-handle rub…. it’s Classic Clothespin Wax!

best wood finish for tool handles hoe-handle rub?

The picture above shows the three ingredients needed to make Classic Clothespin Wax. They are boiled linseed oil, pure gum spirits of turpentine, and beeswax. The three ingredients are combined in approximately equal parts.”

I really wanted to make this hoe-handle rub and use it on my tools. I had the wax, the turpentine and the linseed oil… and then I moved before mixing it up for a trial.

I think the beeswax would go a long way towards increasing the wood’s ability to resist decay.

Coconut Oil for Tool Handles?

Another option for finishing tool handles is explored in this post over at Dailey’s Wood Works:

“I started with a $3 sledge hammer that I picked up at a garage sale.  It was rusty and the handle was dry, rough, and dirty, but at least the head was still firmly attached.  I sanded off all the original varnish, grim, and filth and got it to smooth bare wood.  Now I started applying the coconut oil.

Coconut Oil is typically solid at room temperature (~75F) and melts at around 80F.  I did this project in my shop in August when it was 100F.  My coconut oil was very viscous.  I applied it with just my fingers.  I wiped on a coat and left the oil sitting on the wood, not wiping it away, this was about 7pm.  I came back in the morning and found the handle dry, so I repeated the process again.  This happened for about 2 days or 5 coats 12 hours apart.  After 3 days the oil took about 24 hours to soak in completely and dry out.  The hickory handle was now a beautiful color and it was silky smooth on my hand.”

I have used coconut oil myself, as well as bacon fat and lard, but – as also noted in the post at Dailey’s – the long-term strength of the finish isn’t known.

best wood finish for tool handles

Linseed oil is also known as a “drying oil,” whereas coconut oil is a non-drying oil. The wood really drinks it in, though, so I never had a problem with my tools being oily. I had to re-oil every few months, though, as the wood seems to be thirsty again at around that time.

I have no idea where the oil goes. It just vanishes. I don’t know how many times I oiled this particular hoe with coconut oil but it drank it.

The hoe in the image is one of my go-to tools.

The handle on it is a reclaimed broomstick which isn’t ideal, as a varnished tool handle is slicker and may take more energy to grip than an oil-finished one.

It also cracks and wears off unevenly over time.

A Final Option

I’ve noticed the machetes sold here in the tropics often have unfinished wood handles. The bare wood provides a good grip.

Interestingly, though – it doesn’t stay unfinished. I’ve handled one of the machetes a local farmer was clearing brush with and noted that the handle had been polished and oiled quite nicely by his hand. Long usage had beautified, darkened and smoothed the wood.

Looked like a pro polish job. I wish I had a photograph.

This may be an option for you, though if you’re like me and sometimes (okay, often) forget your tools outside, well, oiling them or using hoe-handle rub is a good idea.

So – what about you? What’s the best wood finish for tool handles in your opinion? Let me know in the comments. I’m going to try Steven’s method for now, then if I can find some beeswax I’m trying the hoe handle rub.


*Image at top credit. Creative Commons license. 


Machetes are the best


I have some entertaining machete footage in my latest video:

I was given my first machete when I was a kid. It had belonged to my Dad and came from Colombia, complete with a beaded leather sheath.

I wish I knew what happened to it. I believe it was stolen from my parents’ carport down in South Florida. That’s pretty typical for South Florida, actually. People will rip off your mangoes, your aluminum, your newly planted trees, your bike, your license plate… and your heirloom machete.

Today I own at least three machetes and use them all. The cane machete I usually carry has a lot of heft plus a hook at the back for pulling in sugarcane. It also works well for pulling down fruit and branches as well as hooking into tree limbs for support as you try to climb a slope.

In this video, however, I’ve borrowed my wife’s British cutlass-style machete made my Martindale and Co. It’s longer and much better for throwing. As you can see from what it did to the breadfruit, I keep it very sharp.

Learning to throw a machete takes time. You need to learn to calculate the heft and the rotation in order to get a good sweep… and finding the thrown blade after its arc has ceased somewhere in the jungle can be a chore.


Throwing the machete while holding a camera isn’t easy. I hit the mango above on the first try, but what I did to the breadfruit was definitely unintentional, though hilarious.

The machete is one of the tools I recommend to everyone in the book Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening.

It’s not just a good tool for a wide range of tasks. It’s also a formidable weapon and a great way to say “hi” to people sneaking into your carport at night.

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