Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

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?


  1. Darlene

    My list is quite similar to yours, except I have no luck growing squash, but I can grow Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans and Provider Bush-style green beans like it’s going out of style….I plant them in the spring and in the fall! (I’m a little farther south than you are.) I grow more mustard greens than collards because we like them better.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      I’m always amazed at how much things can vary from one garden to the next. There is someone with a You-Pick blueberry farm just about two miles from here, yet I’ve tried and failed several times. I’ve had good luck growing figs, yet others in this area have no luck at all. That’s why it’s so important to develop your own “Last Ditch List” for the garden rather than relying on mine or anyone else’s. That only comes from experience.

  2. J. Stephen Conn

    Thanks so much for another excellent post. I learn and am inspired by all of them. Here in the mountains of East Tennessee green beans are excellent producers. Rattlesnake Pole Beans give us outstanding yields. We’ve tried four different varieties of sweet potatoes, but only Beauregard does well for us on our mountaintop homestead. Yukon Gold is our best yielding potato. We also have several rabitteye blueberry bushes which do very well, but we have not had much luck with the northern highbush varieties. Purple Hull Field Peas are another favorite vegetable in our garden.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      The bean situation here really has me puzzled. Years ago, when I first started the garden, I had Blue Lake pole beans. They produced so heavily that I bought a scale just so I could keep track of how much I got from them. I was bringing 5-gallon buckets full to friends and family – and the beans were delicious. Now I get just a few plants that produce while the rest of them produce nothing. The ones that do produce are soft and “airy” and have very poor taste and texture. We ended up adding them to the compost pile – couldn’t even eat them. The ones I have now are Kentucky Wonder bush beans, but those did well also back then. I haven’t given up on them, but I’ve got a lot of testing to do to get it right.

  3. Don Setzco

    I never thought of selection in these terms. I’m in central Texas where year round production has been my focus for the 6 years I have been here.

    Tomatoes is top of my list. They have never failed me. I intensively plant 12 in a 4 x 8 ft raised bed in early Feb with three raised PVC rods so that I can cover with plastic sheet for frost protection if/when needed. I eat the early May ones and then start to bulk refrigerate for about 3 weeks (end of May and early June) for canning project and then go back to eating until late July. I then replace with Butternut squash. Seeds of both are easy to save reliably….

    I also cycle Jan planting of white and red potatoes of any kind (in bed with no fall manure added) intensively planted in raised bed to get 100+ lbs; then change over to sweet potatoes; then back to white and red potatoes for fall crop of another 100 lbs. Rotate to different bed the next year.

    Done well with Okra last couple years now that I use plastic mulch followed by Kale for the winter but no kale seeds yet.

    Thank you for egg plant info; I will try next year and give some thought to other LAST DITCH candidates for my area.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      My tomatoes did well in my raised beds, but I’m now just using the raised beds for cool weather crops and the conventional garden for hot weather crops. Next week is when I plan to pick up some gypsum that I’ll use in the Fall. Tomatoes (and peppers) should do well next year once I get the Calcium up in the soil.

  4. Wyandotte

    What an interesting list plus the others’ replies, too. I’m in Zone 3, with long, long, mostly warm-hot days for months. Things grow fast, here. If I knew bad times were around the corner, I’d go with:

    *Broad Beans:
    All varieties. (Windsor, Black Russian, Crimsoned flowered) for fresh eating and storage.

    *Bush & Pole beans:
    I prefer Woods Mountain Crazy Bean – for fresh eating and storage. But any old bean, either pole or bush, will grow nicely.

    Any kind. Green Mountain are nice.

    *Winter squash:
    Many good varieties grow here which store well.

    *Leafy greens.
    I love bok choy, collards and gai lan, and similar from the cabbage family, but in recent years we have been inundated by flea beetles. Probably they are attracted to large mustard crops nearby? Trying to outdo them is hopeless. So I have to resort to Bietina (a.k.a. Italian swiss chard and Perpetual Spinach, but it is not a spinach).

    *Wild berries. Of course, when push comes to shove, other people will be wanting to pick them, too. There may not be enough to go around. On the other hand, modern folks are so spoiled that they would not be bothered to go picking, which can be hard work on some terrains.

    They grow well here. If it gets too hot, you have to cover with a shade cloth.

    For medicine. Grows well here if you plant in the fall.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      I’ve never tried garlic. I’m not too fond of it most of the time, but the health benefits of it are beyond question. I really need to check into that.

  5. Brad Ford

    Excellent post and topic. Central Texas here, we plant only heirloom varieties and have been saving seeds for years. Our Last Ditch list:
    TOMATOES: Reliable producer here, Romas for processing into canned tomatoes, ketchup, tomato sauce, etc., and Big Reds (a pleated tomato grown since before the Civil War) for fresh eating.
    BEANS: Tonk pintos, good for green beans when picked early and prolific producer of excellent dried pintos. Produces 1# of dried beans for each 3 to 4 feet of row, depending on year.
    OKRA: Hill Country Red, produces and grows well here.
    PEPPERS: Anaheim and Poblano for roasting and chili powder, Jalapenos for heat. Takes lots of warmth to sprout from seed but hardy once established.
    CORN: Bloody Butcher for fresh eating or corn meal when dried, produces more than 50# of shelled dried corn for each 1000 square feet of plants (about 33′ by 33′).
    SPINACH: Malibar, a distant cousin of spinach which grows as a vine on a trellis or fence. Very prolific and tasty all summer up until freeze, unlike regular spinach.
    GARLIC: Metechi and Music, plant Oct 1 and harvest early summer.
    We’ve tried lots of things and had luck with some, like potatoes, black eyed peas, and cabbage, but the above list is reliable and produces the most for the amount of work involved.
    And, of course, someone one county over may have a completely different list and experience 🙂

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Brad, thanks for the input. Question – any particular advise for growing garlic? I’ve never tried it, but want to give it a try.

      The way next year’s garden will be set up is in four sections, each approximately 20′ x 30′. Three will have one crop each: okra, eggplant, and sweet potatoes. The fourth will have an assortment – white potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and whatever else I decide to try. This will be rotated each year and will have a cover crop of winter rye over the whole garden. Cool weather crops are grown in my raised bed.

      Edited to add: Never mind about garlic. I just learned that propagation requires storage for 9 months at 50 degrees. That violates one of my rules dictating what I grow. If I can’t save seed and continue growing something, then I don’t start. Requiring refrigeration disqualifies that.

      • Eric

        For whatever it’s worth, I grow garlic in zone 7 North Carolina without ever refrigerating anything. I harvest garlic more or less in June, hang up the heads in an outbuilding without heating or cooling, and replant what I want to use for “seed” about early November. Most heads of garlic will keep even longer than that for eating, but garlic an also be dehydrated for very long-term storage (garlic powder…) and it can be efficiently harvested for fresh use for a couple months before it’s fully mature and ready to dry for storage.

        • Stephen Clay McGehee

          Eric – thanks for the reply. I planted some garlic that I picked up at the local Tractor Supply, so the experiment is “in progress”. Good to hear about your success with it.

          I haven’t dug any up yet. Am I correct in understanding that it’s ready to dig up when the tops dry out and turn brown? This is definitely a new one for me.

          I enjoyed your Milk and Honey Farm blog! I’ve added a link to it on our Links page.

  6. Brad Ford

    You only have to store seed garlic from June thru Oct 1, then it’s replanted. We store them in our pantry, no refrigeration.
    Individual cloves are planted about 4-6″ apart, we plant down both sides of soaker hoses. Compost well and water as needed thru the winter and spring. Plants will start to wither late May early June, dig up plants, dry them for a few days, then braid leaves together to make strings. We save biggest and best for fall seed, and use the rest as needed.
    If you plant in early spring, cloves won’t form and it will look like a small onion, that’s why they’re planted in fall.
    Metechi and Music work the best here, supposedly do better in hot areas. Google search should show suppliers.
    Hope this helps.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Thanks, Brad. I’ll give it a try and see what happens.

  7. Brad Ford

    Good deal. Enjoy your blog, this topic is excellent: When the chips are down, what do we plant? Perhaps the most important question.
    Another topic perhaps: Variety and numbers of each type of tree in our orchards. Also fruiting vines and bushes.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Excellent topic for a post, and a great compliment to the Last Ditch List. A quick list that I’ll flesh out in the post:
      Fruit trees: Pomegranate, avocado, peach, apple, pear, nectarine, lemon, persimmon, fig, plum
      Other fruit: Pineapple, banana
      Some do well – some not so well. I’m looking forward to writing that one. Thanks for the suggestion!

  8. Thomas

    Sweet Potatoes, Tomatoes(especially cherry tomatoes), eggplant, okra, turnips, bell peppers, carrots, onions, collards, green beans of various types, seminole pumpkins/and various other types (pumpkins seem to grow well in Alabama), radish, cucumbers, zucchini, and cabbage as long as I keep it covered. These would be my list of go to plants.
    You really should consider turnips, carrots, radish, and onions. They are very easy to grow and other than the turnips, the bugs really don’t bother them that much. Any time I get discouraged about my garden I go pick a few radish and immediately feel better about my ability to garden well. Plus the greens on every one of those plants can be eaten except the onions.
    I’ve had terrible luck with corn myself and I’ve been trying out some melons with minimal success. I’ve never grown potatoes but they seem worth trying at some point in the future.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      I’ve tried carrots in the past, and they were good. Perhaps I’ll try them again. I have a few onions and white potatoes, but they were basically an afterthought and were planted between rows so they have been shaded out by other plants. Both were also planted way too late. My corn is laughable at this point. What little there is, the squirrels are enjoying. The main function of the corn now is as a structure to support the velvet beans. I’m thinking about pulling up the remaining tomato plants tomorrow and maybe tilling up some of the garden. No need to feed the nematodes.

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