Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Garden Experiments

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.


  1. Peter S Kelley

    As I was growing, I remember my father and mother carefully testing the soil at spot after spot in the garden before planting – and sometimes in the Fall as well.
    The Sudbury Soil Test kit was as much a part of the oncoming crop as were the hoe and rake.
    Much of that was of necessity. In the ’40’s and ’50’s, the garden was a big part of Winter’s comfortable survival. It also contributed heavily to the ham, bacon and pork that carried the family through the barren months by way of pigs fattened on the cullings of the garden and some extra planting. The chickens, as well as the occasional ducks and geese, benefited from the corn and dried seeds that resulted from the harvest (as well as anything else they could snitch during the Summer if not carefully chased off).
    ‘Note taking’ consisted largely of a few words scratched on a seed packet or a caution or two written on the shed wall with the handy lumber crayon and, every now and then, an entry in a diary.
    While not ‘gardens’, the fields were looked after with the same care. The quality and quantity of hay was carefully tracked at each cutting, fertilizer and lime were applied based on years of observation – and the local government agricultural agent was a not infrequent visitor – adding the latest twist of knowledge from the USDA journals.
    The cranberry bog was probably the only thing not tampered with by humans. It was more than large enough, yielded abundantly and was left entirely in God’s care.
    Thanksgiving was the ‘final exam’ of the growing year. With the exception of salt, pepper and a few odds and ends, Mom insisted that every single item on the table be from the soil of the farm. She did bend the rule enough to use purchased flour ( we didn’t grow wheat) but even the pies, cakes, pickles and, of course, every main dish had its origin somewhere on the seventy acres of the farm.
    As I have ‘succeeded’ over the years, the opportunity to garden has ever eluded me but I have the highest respect for the craft and science of the gardener.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      “Thanksgiving was the ‘final exam’ of the growing year. With the exception of salt, pepper and a few odds and ends, Mom insisted that every single item on the table be from the soil of the farm.”
      What a great tradition! I have never read anything that better serves to remind us of the bounty of the land, and God’s rich blessing on us. I suppose we could go with a Roast Duck instead of turkey this year, but we would still come up quite short. I think I’ll just keep that as a reminder for the time being.

      Another point that I forgot to mention in the original post is the need to mark trees when they are planted. I just bought two Pear trees and an Avocado tree. Each will have a copper tag attached which has the variety and the date planted.

  2. Survival Gardener AKA David The Good

    I’ve found that maintaining the daily gardening blog has allowed me to track my experiments meaningfully while sharing results with a broader audience. Before that I often just stored what worked/what didn’t in my head.

    And yes – marking trees is a big help.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      I like the idea of using a blog to track garden experiments! It takes real discipline to keep good records, and far too often I let things slip by and then wonder what I did. I recently added some trace minerals to my raised bed garden, but there was one section that didn’t get any. I didn’t record it, and now I don’t know which one was missed.

      For others reading these comments, be sure to take a look at the RSS feed of David’s blog (found on the right side of this page) and visit his site. I’ve gotten some great information there – the kind of real information that is hard to find anywhere else.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

20 − 6 =