The Southern Agrarian

Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Tag: planning

The Southern Agrarian Last Ditch List

Okra pods and flower

Most of us garden primarily for pleasure. It’s what we do because – well, because we are Southern Agrarians. Yes, what we grow ends up on our table or given to friends and neighbors; however, what our garden produces generally does not determine whether we eat or starve.

But what if it did? What if our very fragile system were to collapse leaving the grocery store shelves empty and the streets too dangerous to venture out in? Part of Southern Agrarianism is being independent of that complex system, so this is very much a topic for discussion.

My garden tends to be planned more around what we enjoy eating and growing rather than for maximizing food production when lives depend on it. The Last Ditch List is what I would be planting if lives did depend on it.

 

The Southern Agrarian Last Ditch List

Sweet Potatoes (Centennial)
Incredibly easy to grow; I’m still growing them from the very first slips that I got about eight years ago. I keep moving them around to avoid soil-borne pests and diseases, and they will take transplanting without any problem.
ꔷ The taste is delicious
ꔷ High in nutritional value
ꔷ Will last for months if stored in a cool, dark place
ꔷ The leaves are edible

Okra (Clemson Spineless)
ꔷ Continuous production through hot weather
ꔷ Very resistant to disease and pest
ꔷ Each plant will produce one or two edible pods about every two to three days
ꔷ Easy to save seeds
ꔷ Delicious when fried

Eggplant (Florida Highbush)
ꔷ Highly productive through hot weather
ꔷ Easily prepared and makes a good, filling meal
ꔷ Minimal problems from disease or pests
ꔷ Relatively easy to save seeds if you know the technique
ꔷ Should plant a fairly large number to maintain genetic diversity in seeds

Seminole Pumpkin
ꔷ Fruit can last up to a full year when properly stored
ꔷ Almost impervious to disease or pests
ꔷ Huge vines that drop roots along the way making the plant very resilient and able to thrive on relatively poor ground
ꔷ Lots of organic matter at the end of the season to keep the ground rich
ꔷ Needs good care and lots of water to get started; once established, requires almost no care

Collards (Georgia Southern)
ꔷ Winter crop
ꔷ Other greens will not reliably produce seeds in this area

 

Second Tier crops

These are ones that I am still working with but don’t have enough experience yet to put them on the Last Ditch List. Nothing other than lack of a well established track record keeps me from putting them on the Last Ditch List.

Potatoes (Yukon Gold)
This is only my second time planting these, but all indications are that they should make the Last Ditch List in the next year or two.

Squash (Tromboncino)
The variety makes all the difference. I have given up on the more typical yellow squash; bugs have destroyed them every single time I have tried. Tromboncino, on the other hand, is highly resistant to pests due to its tough outer skin. The fruit is pale green, long and thin, and grows on a vine. I have them growing along a fence.

 

Not On The List

These are crops that I grow now, but they don’t meet the criteria for inclusion on the Last Ditch List.

Beans (Kentucky Wonder or Blue Lake) – Too many poor results. Sometimes I get a good crop, and other times it’s a poor crop. Inconsistent. May be moved to the Last Ditch List once I learn more, but not yet. Good potential once I learn more.

Corn (Reid’s Yellow Dent) – Low yield for the amount of space it takes up. Heavy drain on the garden soil. If any crops would be available for purchase following a collapse, it would be grains. They are well suited for large scale, highly mechanized farming, and they transport and store well. I keep some seeds on hand for use in corn meal or for chicken feed – just in case.

Tomatoes (Homestead 24) – Too easily damaged by bugs or disease or blossom end rot. They stop producing when the weather gets hot.

Peppers (Carolina Wonder) – Susceptibility to Blossom End Rot keeps peppers off the list. If I can get the calcium deficiency solved, this might be moved to the Last Ditch List.

 

Final Notes

Vegetable gardening is very location-dependent. This Last Ditch List is what works for me here in north central Florida. There is a really good chance that your Last Ditch List would be different. Maybe very different. Perhaps the most value from this list is in the criteria – why I chose what I did for this list.

What is on your Last Ditch List – and why?

One Acre Makeover

At some point last year, it became clear to me that I needed to make some major changes here on our one acre homestead. If your place is already exactly what it should be, then you might want to skip reading this post. Otherwise, perhaps you’ll find a bit of inspiration here.

The Problem:

  • The garden was not set up for efficiently maintaining it. As the years start adding up for me, making it easy to maintain becomes more important.
  • The garden irrigation system had underground pipes through the garden area, and that’s a really bad idea when using a powerful roto-tiller. Running over a pipe creates quite an interesting fountain in the garden.
  • The trees that provided some shade were old water oaks. In this part of the country, they are really more like giant weeds. They don’t produce anything and they tend to rot from the inside out (just as nations and cultures do), and it goes unnoticed until a storm comes along and blows it over – sometimes taking other things with it.
  • The bee hives that I set in the garden were OK until the bees got in a cranky mood at the same time that I needed to work in the garden. Keeping bees means you’re going to get stung once in a while, but you never really get used to it no matter what anyone says.

 

The Solution:

  • The patchwork garden design became a single rectangular block. The duck pen, the bee hives, the bananas, and the pineapple patch – gone. The duck pen was moved back out of the garden area, the pineapple plants were transplanted to a single row along the perimeter fence, the banana plants cut down and dug up, and the bee hives were moved away from the garden.
  • The irrigation system now consists of two rows of overlapping sprinklers along the sides such that every part of the garden is covered by at least two sprinklers. All the irrigation pipe and one electrical conduit were removed from the garden area.
  • All of the oaks were removed. It wasn’t cheap, but it takes heavy equipment and it needed to be done. With the yard now opened up, I planted peaches, apples, pears, pomegranates, persimmons, figs, avocado, and plums. I would rather spend my time here watching the young fruit trees grow up than watching the old water oaks rot and die. At this stage of life, watching the young grow up is one of life’s greatest joys. Think grandchildren.
  • The bee hives were moved to the side of the house. It is an area that is otherwise unused, and there are no doors on that end of the house. The bees are happy and so are we. I also reduced the number of hives from ten down to three – plenty enough for pollination and some honey.

 

Future posts will detail things like planting the fruit trees, the bee hives, etc. For now, I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

 

The Water Oaks come out


The buried pipe comes out


Banana plants are next to be removed


Stakes mark where a row of fruit trees will be planted


Fruit trees being planted

One Thing Leads to Another

It’s been quite a while since I have added a new post here. It’s been far too long, so here’s a quick overview of what we have been doing for the past few months. I’ll be posting details of these projects and more.

IMG_1970_phatchTree Clearing – We had over twenty old water oak trees and a few palm trees removed from the property. Water oaks are like weeds – they grow quickly, drop branches, make a mess, then rot and die. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life watching old trees rot and die.

IMG_2016_phatchTree Planting – With the water oaks removed, I now have open sunny areas to plant fruit trees. There are now rows of pears, apples, peaches, persimmons, figs, and pomegranates. I’ve planted plenty of trees in the past, but most of them were planted the wrong way. I learned how to correctly plant a tree to assure that it doesn’t have problems several years later.

IMG_2825_phatchHoney Bees – With the prospect of having fruit trees that will need pollinating, and a vegetable garden that needs pollinating, I’m now a beekeeper with five hives. I’ve joined the local beekeeping group (there were about 40 members present at the last meeting). My wife and I attended the two-day Bee College, put on by the University of Florida.

IMG_2450_phatchDucks and Chickens – After many years of keeping chickens, I have switched over to ducks. I had planned to keep both, but the ducks have worked out so well, it just made more sense to only have the ducks. We’ll have some posts about the pros and cons of ducks and chickens. It’s probably not the best choice for everyone, but it might be for you.

Garden Experiments

Experiment_IMG_1961_phatch
If you’ve been growing your own food for any length of time, you already know that there is a whole lot more to it than putting seeds in the dirt and waiting for harvest time. Those who buy a can of “Survival Seeds” and set it in a closet “just in case” are going to be severely disappointed – and hungry.

I have a nice collection of books about growing food and raising small livestock. They are the starting point, not the final authority. I routinely discover that what works great for one person (or the author of one book) just doesn’t work when I try it. The answer to that is experimentation. You have to try it yourself. You have to compare different groups with only one or two variables. You have to keep careful notes. None of these things are particularly fun or easy, but the results are always worth the effort.

Do you test your soil? Do you keep notes on what you have added and how the plants react? Sometimes it is almost impossible to keep track of (What went into that last batch of compost you added?), but make notes anyway. The notes might not be used, but wouldn’t you hate to end up with that perfect season and not know what was in the soil, when the seeds went into the ground, what the variety was, and where you got the seeds?

One of the keys to effective experimentation is to reduce the number of variables to as few as possible. That’s one reason why I like to always start my seeds in individual pots. I always plant more than I anticipate using; that way, I can plant only the best seedlings and they are all relatively uniform. The ones that look weaker than the others are culled. Any that are remarkably more vigorous than the rest are tagged in the garden to see if they carry that trait through to maturity. If so, that’s a plant that I’ll save seeds from (and, of course, make a note to that effect).

Don’t just plant a garden – improve your garden. Make it your goal to have each year’s garden better than the last year. Experiment, test, take notes, and adjust.

What have you experimented with? How do you keep your notes organized? Leave a reply about something you’ve tested in your own garden.

Eat What You Grow

This Black Beauty eggplant is a reliable producer here in The South.

This Black Beauty eggplant is a reliable producer here in The South.


Most of us tend to plan our gardens, at some point, by leafing through a seed catalog and picking what we like to eat. While “Grow what you like” is certainly a good way to start, a more realistic plan is to “Like what you grow”.

I have heard it said that there are places where one can grow just about anything. Unfortunately, I have never lived in such a place, so the best plan for me is to find what grows well here and focus on that. Once I find what grows well here, the focus then shifts to finding ways to prepare it so that we enjoy eating it.

I was never really fond of eggplant, but in the hottest part of the summer, eggplant is one of the very few things that thrives in the heat. I have never had any problems growing eggplant. It seems to repel bugs and I’ve never seen any disease. Aside from very mild heat wilt in the hottest part of the day, the heat doesn’t bother it. In addition, it produces a lot of fruit with just a few plants. Another plant with similar characteristics is okra. Since that is what grows well here, our focus then shifted to finding ways to make the best use of those crops.

Laura always seems to find a way to prepare a meal that I am sure to love. With eggplant, she slices it into thin slices, coats it with flour, then dips it in egg, then in seasoned bread crumbs. She then fries it in a cast iron skillet (cast iron is a requirement for any Southern kitchen worthy of the name) until the outside is nice and crispy. Add a bit of coarse-ground sea salt and serve. It is delicious.

Okra is even simpler – she cuts it into sections, fries it in oil, then salt and serve. Fried and breaded okra is, of course, one of the classics, but this is such a simple and delicious way to prepare it that it has become our standard. For a bit of variety, try okra gumbo – the acid in the tomato cuts the “slime” that makes many folks turn away from okra.

The key here is to shift the focus from trying to grow “favorites” that don’t do well where you are, to finding ways to really enjoy what does grow well at your location. Our next experiment will be Seminole Pumpkin – a staple of the early Seminole Indians here in Florida.

How Much Okra?

Sometimes it just helps to see how much a given area can produce rather than reading numbers on a spreadsheet. Okra, beside being something I thoroughly enjoy, is a very prolific producer. Here are two photos – the first showing the area planted, and the second showing a typical yield. I pick okra about every 24 to 36 hours. Anything more than that, and you’re going to have okra that is past its prime.

Lessons Learned – Part 1

I’m titling this one “Part 1”, not because I have a “Part 2” in mind, but because learning new things is an on-going process. I’ll write “Part 2” (and 3, and 4, and …) as soon as I have more lessons learned that I want to record.

More Plant Spacing – I have been planting too closely for most plants. By the time the plants mature, they are so densely packed together that the inner leaves do not get sufficient light, so they just yellow and die. There is not enough air circulation to dry the inner parts of the plants, and though I can’t prove it, I suspect that the plants would be healthier with more room to “breathe”.

Use Plant Cages – Primarily for tomatoes, but also for plants like peppers, some way to stabilize and contain the plants is a major advantage. Some of the tomato plants have grown over the sides of the garden and down to the ground. When they grow that big, they are much more difficult to work with, and much more susceptible to broken branches and other damage. We haven’t had any high winds yet, but plant cages will keep the plants from being blown over by the wind.

Prune Where Needed – The tomatoes ended up putting too much energy into growing branches and leaves rather than in growing fruit. Although pruning tomatoes is more commonly done in the northern parts of the country, I will be pruning my next crop of tomatoes. This is also related to using tomato cages to contain and train the plants.

Upon doing some more reading, it looks like this year’s poor blackberry crop may be due (in part) to not having done any pruning on them. I’ll do that next season. I also neglected to give them the fertilizer and water that they should have gotten.

Grow Up – Not Out – I had planned to use bush beans and determinate variety tomatoes and plant in stages, thinking that I would then get enough beans in a single flush to be able to can the surplus. Somehow, that just didn’t work out as planned. I’ll be going back to pole beans and indeterminate tomato varieties so the harvest is spread out over the life of the plant rather than one large flush of produce and then the plant dies. This also allows for better utilization of the available area in the garden. The various trellis designs that I have been experimenting with look very promising.

Better Planning – I have been pretty much planting wherever there was an empty space in the garden. That kind of haphazard planting just doesn’t work very well in the long term. I will be dividing the garden into 4 sections, and making sure that crops are rotated so that it will be 4 years before a section contains the same type of plant. That should help reduce soil-borne disease and balance out the nutrients in the soil.

Earlier starting – I did fairly well this year, but I still want to start my seeds for the Spring garden around the end of December or first of January. In this part of the country, with the seedling setup that I have, that should work out just fine. There may be some risk of a late frost, but the plants can be covered if needed. I usually try to have at least twice as many seedlings as I plan to use in case of a problem like that. If they aren’t needed, there are plenty of folks eager to take them.

Color Makes a Difference – This year, we planted both yellow squash and zucchini. Both grow about the same, both taste about the same, but both look very different. I discovered that the dark green zucchini is very easy to overlook among the dark green plant. Several times, I have discovered huge zucchinis that are far bigger than I wanted (although they do quite well when baked). They got that way because I overlooked them. Next year, we might be growing yellow squash and not zucchini, we’ll think that over carefully before planting. The bright yellow squash stands out and is a lot easier to see when it’s time to pick them.

Mix it up – I have noticed some differences in the sections of the garden that I can only attribute to not having mixed the growing mixture up well enough. When the hot weather garden is finished, I will be adding some more compost and doing a better job of mixing it up. Just to make sure though, I’ll be doing some soil testing.

How Close to Plant?

These tomatoes were planted about as close as I would ever attempt. The results of this planting will determine whether or not next year’s crop is planted this way or not. The advantages of close planting are mainly from better utilization of space, but for tomatoes, it also means that they support each other. Staking is only needed for the plants on the outside edges. Disadvantages include less air flow which could mean greater potential for disease, and more difficult to pick from the inner plants.

My guess is that this will prove to be too closely planted, but it’s an experiment, so it’s not always supposed to work. No matter what a book or web site may say, you never really know what will work for your situation until you try it yourself.

Gardening is experimenting. I take notes and adapt as needed.

Planting in Stages

Looking from back to front in this photo: Tomatoes, the first batch of beans, the second batch (planted 2 weeks later), and dirt where the unsprouted next batch of beans will be coming up in another day or two. These are the Blue Lake variety – our all around favorite.

Bush beans tend to produce in one large flush of beans, followed by a few sparse beans later. By planting in stages, we get fresh beans while also having them ripen in a large enough quantity to make it worth cranking up the canning operation.

Pole beans tend to produce regularly throughout the life of the plant. Those are great when you have a good place to plant them. We have some planted so that they climb up the water tower that supplies water for the chickens (more on that project in another post).