Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Wasteland To Garden

November 2019

March 2017 – New garden area with cow manure added, and part of the peat moss added. Note the barren soil in the foreground – even weeds had a hard time growing here.

Can wasteland that will just barely support a few weeds, be turned into productive garden space? Two and a half years ago, I set about to answer that question.

The Wasteland to Garden experiment is going to take longer than I imagined it would, but in the end, I should end up with an additional 600 square feet of productive garden space where I used to just have little more than white sand. If this continues to improve, it will demonstrate that anyone can have a nice garden if they are willing to put in the time, work, and resources to make it happen.

The main problem was that there was almost no organic matter in that area. Rain water would just run right through with nothing to absorb and hold it, leaving it dry shortly after even a good rain. In addition, with nothing to feed earthworms and microorganisms, it was not part of the living ecosystem of the soil that plants depend on. Mixing in large quantities of organic matter is key to making that soil come alive, but it takes more than that. It takes time – time for the living part of the soil to reproduce and become established.

I don’t know this as fact, but I suspect that the physical makeup of the original soil is such that this area will need to be regularly used as garden area in order to keep the level of organic matter up and to replace the nutrients that get washed down below the root zone.

Below this post is the original post from March 2017. Some of the changes since the original post:

  • The fig tree (the near-leafless branches in the upper left part of the 2017 photo) was dug up and replanted in another area and is doing far better.
  • The size was expanded to 14′ x 44′ (from 11′ x 19′)
  • In March 2019, a layer of compost about 2″ deep was added and tilled in.
  • Several gardens were attempted, including a Three Sisters garden with corn, beans, and Seminole Pumpkin. Results were less than impressive, but still a huge improvement over what it was two and a half years ago. Everything grown was tilled into the soil at the end of its season.
  • Sweet potatoes (Centennial) were added at one end of the garden, mainly because I had some that needed to be relocated. They have done very well there.
  • Ground cover fabric was added to surround the garden area to help keep weeds from encroaching from the sides. It is held in place with weights, rather than being staked, so that it can be tilled right up to the edge on the garden side, and mowed right up to the edge on the grass side.
  • A few weeks ago, I added one pallet load (65 cubic feet) of top soil, and tilled it in (photo above). About 30 cubic feet of top soil had been added a month earlier.
  • Earlier this week, I plowed one furrow using a Hoss Wheel Hoe with plow attachment, and planted some potatoes that had been bought for eating, but sprouted in the pantry.

In the next few weeks, when seed potatoes are available locally, I will plant several rows of Yukon Gold. I will probably be starting some romaine lettuce and Golden Acre cabbage in seed trays and then transplanting them. This will be the first “full” garden planted in this test plot.

At this point, it is clear to me that even the most barren, sterile land can be turned into productive land – IF enough organic matter is added. Another important point is that this takes time – not just in hours of work, but years to build up the microorganisms that turn sterile dirt into living soil. I am starting to really understand that good soil is much more than simply chemical and physical components, but rather a complex living ecosystem that must be carefully nourished over time.

Another important lesson learned was that, while getting compost may be a bit cheaper by the dump truck load, the job isn’t finished until it is spread. Evenly distributing a dump truck load of compost required a tractor, and still it was not as even as it should be. Getting top soil in bags made it much simpler to evenly spread it across the garden.

Southern Agrarianism is about a deep appreciation for the soil. It is about nourishing and caring for that soil and the understanding that, with careful stewardship and work, that soil will provide our families with fresh, wholesome food, and our children will truly understand where food comes from. It is sad that so many urban people have no real understanding of what it takes to put food on their plate – an understanding that is deep in the hearts of Southern Agrarians.

Compost by the truck load may be a bit less expensive, but much harder to spread evenly. Part of this had to be moved from the main garden to the test area. Lesson learned.



Original post from March 2017:

(Photos omitted)

As much as I expanded my garden over the past several months, I still ran out of room. The solution? Turn an unused part of the backyard into garden. The problem is that this unused part of the yard is so infertile that even weeds have a hard time growing there. That makes this more of an experiment than just a routine garden project. Here’s what I’ve done:

  1. Used the BCS Two-wheel Tractor with tiller attachment to rototill the area. I went over it twice in both directions. I raked and picked up the assorted roots and weeds (and a beautiful piece of heavy green glass from some long-ago bottle).
  2. Watered it very heavily. In addition to adding much-needed moisture, this greatly improves the ability to work the soil.
  3. The next day, I added cow manure and peat moss. It was mixed in using a Mantis tiller with the tines reversed so that it just mixes things up without digging deeply.
  4. More watering, with the ducks “helping”.
  5. Marked out the rows and planted Seminole Pumpkin seeds.


I had planted some Seminole Pumpkin seeds in the main garden area, but decided I’d rather put more okra in. Seminole Pumpkin can take up a huge amount of space as it spreads out. It won’t hurt if it spreads out in this new garden area, but it would have shaded out other plants in the main garden area.

As I said, this is really an experiment to see what it takes to turn a small (11′ x 19′) patch of barren ground into a fertile garden. We’ll take another look at it later in the year. In the mean time, the main garden is starting to have green where there was once only dirt.

A lesson to be learned here is that if I can turn this piece of barren sand into a productive garden, then anyone can find a place to start one.



  1. Douglas Helms

    I’m so glad to see your blog post, I’m glad to see you’re back!

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Thank you, sir. It’s great to be back. I think the problem earlier was that I was trying to keep up with three different blogs, so I ended up neglecting all of them rather than focusing on one. Lesson learned.

      • Tom Harbold

        I second that motion! 🙂 A pleasure to read this post. And congratulations on your success with this section of land!

        • Stephen Clay McGehee

          Thank you, sir! It’s a real pleasure to hear from one of my favorite writers. I hope others here will make part of their regular reading list.

          • Tom Harbold

            Thank you, sir, for your kind words – and for that “shout-out.” I appreciate the boost!

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      I figured if I could make it work on that area, then everything else should be easier – unless there is some sort of serious contamination (which a friend of mine on the east side of the county is having to deal with).

  2. Joe Putnam

    Hey Stephen,
    That does sound like a harsh little plot of soil to make productive again. I think homestead author Michael Bunker in central Texas had a lot of struggles with his soil (and lack of rain).

  3. Brett Stevens

    Your post shows the importance of understanding ecosystems, and gives us also a metaphor for renewing civilization. When I was restoring waste (clay) land here, I took inspiration from the Norse in Greenland, who carefully used sheep dung to build up topsoil from less than an inch to several inches. Nature is brilliant in that even waste products are valuable.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      There are some great lessons to be learned from the garden that apply to maintaining a civilization. One of my favorites is a lesson learned from weeds. In fact, I’m planning to re-post that one since it is so applicable today. When I first posted it, I got several rather nasty replies and more than a few unsubscribes. Since I’m starting this back up, I may as well offend the easily-offended so they don’t waste any more time coming here. This blog is about Southern Agrarianism – not growing flowers in a window box. It is about our people more than about our vegetable gardens.

  4. Greg Hill

    Mr. McGehee, thanks for the post, you always have interesting agricultural ideas. My latest garden patch started out as a somewhat barren, rock filled area. There were few to none worms in the soil. My solution was to cover the area with leaves from the trees in the yard and grass clippings. I also added compost from kitchen waste as often as I could. One section of this patch I made a layer of shredded paper, which I also covered with leaves and grass clippings in the late summer and fall. All this decomposed over the winter. I now have a more living soil with worms and organics.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Thank you, Greg. I’ve read about using shredded paper, but I’ve never tried it myself. We compost everything that we can, but the volume of compost we get out of the two composters that we have isn’t enough to make much difference (I just apply it directly to individual plants rather than trying to spread it). That’s why I end up having to buy it and spread it. Several years ago, I tried raising earthworms, but it was a disappointment. Perhaps I’ll try it again sometime and give it greater attention.

Leave a Reply

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

8 + nineteen =