I used to wait for spring with bated breath. I would watch for a good day for tilling, go out and buy a bunch of transplants and seeds, and then have a wild and crazy weekend tearing up the earth and putting everything in the ground.
Thinking ahead? Naw… I had Spring fever! I wouldn’t think much about gardening until the seed catalogs started arriving… and then I would mostly browse and dream.
My nice garden beds were a good supplement to our diet but they weren’t a huge part of it. I was playing around with pretty beans and purple peppers, a few garlic plants, an heirloom corn I wanted to try… but it was haphazard and not planned for a long-term food security situation.
About a decade ago I realized how shaky the world was getting and knew things had to change. I also realized that just tearing up the ground and tossing fertilizer around wasn’t the way to ensure our piece of land was going to be healthy and strong enough to grow all of what we might need in a crash.
Even if you do work hard to build the soil, growing “all you need” is a tall order and it’s one even I haven’t reached yet… though every year I get closer. In 2015 I hit 1,000lbs of produce from our gardens (counting the random produce my children ate before it hit the scale) for the first time and the curve keeps going up.
The reason? I now work on preparing year-round by clearing and digging new patches of land, producing compost, planting fruit and nut trees and testing crops to find varieties that will go through the cold, the heat, the pests and the many diseases that want to rob us of our gardening sweat and toil. Much of this knowledge and experimentation culminated in my Survival Gardening Secrets course.
This fall, Chet and I want you to get ahead of the curve and get growing on a larger scale that takes less money out of your pocket and puts more produce on your table.
Here’s how you can build a fall garden – and an upcoming spring garden that will keep you fed through the year.
Let’s start with chickens.
Chickens Are Gardening Machines
When you pull out the gnarled remains of your summer tomatoes and squash, why not let chickens do the hard work of preparing your fall garden plots?
Get a good chicken tractor or fenced area in place around that plot and let those claw-footed tilling and manuring machines go!
My friend Larry built this simple chicken tractor for about $150:
He raises a good portion of his large family’s meat in there while improving his lawn. If you did the same thing with a garden plot, you’ll reap the benefits of all that turning and manuring. Chickens will compost in place while ridding your garden plot of stinkbugs and cutworms. I’ve pulled out a mess of spent vegetable plants from a garden bed and have been amazing to see just how many destroying insects are crawling around in the suddenly uncovered shade area beneath the brown stalks. Chickens turn those pests into eggs!
While this is a GREAT approach if you have a flat lawn, this sucker gets real heavy to pull through loose garden soil, up hills, in and around tightly planted Orchards or over raised garden beds, which is why Chet created these plans for a more light weight chicken tractor:
The Ultimate Portable Chicken Tractor
That is a sweet setup.
Paul Gautschi of Back To Eden fame has a different approach.
He uses his chickens to make good soil in their pen, which he then sifts and takes to his garden beds. If you have a big problem with predators snagging your Kentucky Fried goodness, this is another approach worth considering:
Kill the Weeds While the Sun Shines
I used to avoid using plastic in my gardens. Then I discovered its power for weed killing and I haven’t looked back.
If you have an area you’d like to garden but you haven’t gotten around to tilling it yet, summer and fall are the time to use the remaining heat of the sun to get it ready for later.
Get yourself some thick sheets of clear plastic and put them over the area. Pin down the edges with rocks or logs and let the sun create a weed-destroying greenhouse effect that will kill what you don’t want without removing the good biomass of all those weeds. They’ll bake and put humus into the soil beneath that plastic, then you can get out there and loosen the soil with a broadfork (this one from Meadow Creature is my favorite) or spading fork, then get planting when you’re ready.
When you till you turn up a lot of seeds that are waiting in the ground. When you kill with tarps this is less of a problem. I used to prefer black plastic until I saw some tests that were done side-by-side. Now I’m in the clear plastic camp.
An Alternate Approach
If you want to kill the weeds and really improve the soil long-term (and if you don’t have a big problem with pests like snails and slugs in your area), sheet-mulching is a good approach. The downside of sheet mulching is how much material it takes to cover a large area. If you have a friend with a tree-trimming company, great. If not, it’s not easy to get everything you need.
I successfully knocked out a persistent patch of Bermuda grass by putting down a double layer of cardboard and then stacking a foot of tree company mulch on top of it for a year. Back when I tilled that same area I had a very hard time keeping the grass from invading my beds and sapping the life from my tender domesticated vegetables.
One of my favorite ways to improve the tilth of the soil and reduce the water needs of my crops is to deeply double-dig garden beds. This is hard work but it’s good work. If you double-dig a garden area it adds more oxygen to the soil, improves the drainage and helps your crops delve deeply with their roots so they can get what they need in the soil.
I once did a test where I created a perfect square foot garden bed and a double-dug bed in sand that had only been amended with a half-inch of compost on top. The double-dug bed gave us about the same yields but needed a lot less watering. It also ate up a lot less compost, as a “proper” square foot bed is 1/3 finished compost. That’s too much pile-turning for me!
If you dig a garden bed well and then don’t step on it, it can stay loose and friable for a year or more. Pick areas where you can expand your garden beds while you’re planting your main beds in the fall, then get digging. If you’re not going to plant them right away, cover the area with tarps – or even better – woven plastic professional landscape “fabric” and then they’ll be ready to go when you need them. You can also dig beds and plant them with bags of beans, peas, rye, buckwheat, lentils, fava beans, chick peas, mustard or wheat seed from a local organic grocery store with the bulk bins. That’s a cheap way to cover the ground to keep out weeds while improving the soil at the same time. Sometimes I make a big seed mix from these bins, scatter it on the ground and rake ‘em in. As a bonus, you often get a bit to eat from these beds.
Double-digging is time consuming but when you dig a bed here and there on nice days, you’ll find eventually that you have a lot of long-term space in which to plant.
Get Composting Now
Composting used to be a chore for me. Now that I’ve realized Nature doesn’t care all that much about turning and aerating and that jazz, I’m having a lot more fun. After over a decade of extreme composting experiments, I even wrote a popular book on it. I’ve composted meat, sewage, pasta, paper and all kinds of other naughty things and my gardens just keep getting better and better.
There are two main ways I compost without much work.
The first way is to choose a garden bed that I think could use some help and then start piling up compostable materials there, like this:
The other way is even cooler. It’s borrowed from the Koreans and isn’t anything like most compost most Westerners have seen.
All you do is find materials you want to compost and throw them in a barrel of water to rot down and ferment. I pick highly nutritional items such as urine, manure, moringa, seawater and comfrey to start with, then add whatever else I have around. Like this:
That looks insane but it works.
Let that rot for a few months and then thin it out as a liquid fertilizer for your gardens. It’s the bomb and it grows some danged good corn. Corn is needy, so if that crop likes it… imagine how the others will do!
On the downside, it smells horrible. Get a clothespin for your nose and don’t worry about it. And don’t pour it right on anything you’re about to eat. That’s nasty. It’s best for the establishment phase of a garden up until a few weeks before harvest. It’s also powerful growing magic for fruit trees.
One thing you absolutely DON’T want to do is buy compost or manure for your gardens.
Why? Because a lot – and I mean a LOT – of compost, manure and straw now contains persistent long-term herbicides that will utterly wreck your beds for a year or more. Don’t believe me?
I’ve read a lot of stories like this now and it happened to some of my own beds almost 5 years ago. Don’t let it happen to you.
BONUS IDEA: Plant Fruit Trees!
Fruit trees are really cheap compared to their potential yields.
What is an organic pear worth? Maybe $2? Imagine getting 400 of those from a tree you paid $25 for! That beats the heck out of most investments. Yet many of us don’t want to wait the 5-10 years it takes for impressive yields on fruit trees.
I used to feel that way… and then I got older. I plan on being here in a decade. Don’t you? Then get planting.
Plant more fruit and nut trees than you ever think you’ll need. Every fall, plant more. Go, drop $500 on fruit trees. Seriously. Get them in the ground, mulch around them, water them for the first year or two… and then, each spring as you plant your new garden beds, watch them wake up and grow. Eventually they’ll bear a few beautiful fruit. And then more and more and more. You can dry and preserve them. You can turn them into wine or hard liquor with a still. You can barter with them. You can fatten pigs on the fruit that falls. You can make incredible pies and cobblers, serve your children sun-ripened apples and peaches.
Look – just do it. Don’t wait to plant. Plant now and in the future you’ll look back and thank the “you” that is reading this right now.
Unlike the spring and summer, fall is a time when nature is winding down. Depending on how far north you live, this may be an almost complete cessation of growth with frozen soil and plants buried beneath snow and ice… or it may be in some half-living state where most everything is brown but there are still vibrant green patches of cold-loving weeds such as wild mustard.
Almost all the best staple crops for survival grow in the spring and summer months with many of them ripening in fall. Beans, grain corn, winter squash, sweet potatoes. These are storable calories you can pack away for the cold months of winter.
Fall crops have to produce fast before it gets too cold unless you live in the South or you use this clever device. Even then, many species are not cold-hardy enough to consistently feed you every winter. Carrots and cabbage might do fine one year and be turned into frosty mush the next.
The predominant characteristic to seek in a survival crop for a TEOTWAWKI scenario is calories. The second attribute to seek is nutrition. Both are very important but it takes longer to have problems with nutrient deficiencies in your diet than it does to become very hungry. Planting kale is a very good idea but living on kale would be tough.
Cassava is a good survival crop for warm climates because it’s quite calorie dense. However, if you consume just cassava roots you’ll be dealing with nutrition issues after a while, making greens, berries, meat and other food sources important.
Potatoes are calorie-dense and more nutritious, but a gardener should still throw in beets, carrots, broccoli, etc., to round out his diet.
You get the idea. Throwing all your eggs in one basket isn’t a good idea, especially when gardening for survival. It’s not good for your health or your survival prospects. Just ask the Irish.
Let’s assume this fall garden you are planting is your first garden of the year or that you were not able to plant all you wanted to plant in the spring. Perhaps rats ate your corn (like they did with a lot of my corn this year) or you lost your prize Hubbard squash to blight.
What three high calorie crops would you plant in a fall survival garden to get you through a long winter?
Here are my suggestions.
High Calorie Survival Crop #1: Turnips
Though turnips will keep you alive, if you eat too many of them you’ll wish for death. Not because they’ll upset your stomach or anything; just because they’re painfully boring. I plant them anyway, because they are a bank of calories in the ground you can trust to grow in a crises. We have had them in stews, sautéed and even as an ill-considered pie. In my mind, the best part of the turnip is probably the greens. Those are quite nutritious, but unfortunately lack the caloric load of the roots themselves.
What turnips lack in appeal, they make up for in ease of growth. And they are beautiful.
Plant turnips in late summer or early fall, depending on your climate, and you’ll soon have more than you can eat.
Turnips like loose soil with moderate fertility and they need space to make good roots.
My preferred planting method is to rake out a seed bed and to scatter the seeds across the surface and cover lightly with compost or raking them into the soil. Water well and seedlings will usually emerge in a week or less. Cutworms and other insects will sometimes do some thinning for you so don’t be too quick in thinning out the bed. I usually let them grow at least their first pair of true leaves or a little more before snipping off some of them at ground level with scissors and adding those thinned plants to sautés or even fresh salads. Thin the young plants to about two inches apart. Then when those plants are touching each other and starting to crowd, repeat the thinning process and continue eating the nutritious greens.
If you are planting turnips over a larger space, planting them further apart in rows maybe a good idea as thinning becomes labor intensive in a larger space. A seed planter can help. The awesome seeder attachment for the Hoss wheel hoe designed by my friend Greg at easydigging.com is a marvelous tool I have used in the past – just be aware that it has difficulty in loose sand and needs some tweaking to give you good coverage in those conditions. A cheaper and less precise method is to make furrows with a hoe or by pressing a dowel or tool handle into the ground. Then drop seeds in by hand at about a two inch spacing and cover lightly with loose soil. Don’t plant turnips too deeply.
In two to three months, depending on temperatures, you can start harvesting roots. Final plant spacing should be at about six inches, but with a bed like this, you will likely only have to thin once. Ensure that the seeds you plant are for a root variety and not for greens, as those produce woody and inedible roots. Turnips may not be exciting, but they will keep you alive.
High Calorie Survival Crop #2:
Jerusalem artichokes are a Native American staple which can sometimes be found wild in North America. Some people have difficulty digesting them but they produce a lot of roots for a little work.
To grow Jerusalem artichokes, plant tubers at two foot spacing in Fall, Winter, or early Spring. Though they will not feed you until next Fall, it is a very good idea to get them in the ground so they will be there for the future. In my mind, they are a better livestock feed than a human feed. The roots are delicious raw, with a mild earthy flavor somewhat reminiscent of a light carrot.
Just be careful, they can give you incredible gas. Seriously. Don’t eat many of them until you have tried them out. Some methods of cooking help, fortunately, but boy… they can mess you up if you’re not used to their power.
In the far South they are less reliable but they grow excellently all the way north into Minnesota and are a perennial which is an additional benefit for survival gardeners. Jerusalem artichokes do not require high soil fertility or much care. They prefer full sun but I have had them produce decently in half shade on marginal ground where the topsoil was stripped off by construction the previous year.
Plant Jerusalem artichoke tubers in a place where you don’t intend to grow another crop any time soon as they are very persistent and will regrow from any piece left in the ground. When you plant them in the fall and in the winter, don’t expect them to come up until the following spring when the soil warms. They look just like sunflowers when they emerge which makes sense as they are a species of sunflower. All summer they’ll grow taller and taller, bursting into bloom in the short days of fall.
After they freeze back, you can pull up the stems and harvest the abundant clusters of knobby roots. They do not store well once dug but store excellently in the ground and can be pulled all through the cold months until they start to sprout in the Spring. Then the tubers deteriorate rapidly to feed the new growth.
One final benefit: Jerusalem artichokes make a lot of biomass for the compost pile, often reaching to eight feet in height. That growth can also be cut and fed to cows, goats and rabbits.
High Calorie Survival Crop #3:
Parsnips are an often overlooked high-calorie member of the carrot family.
Parsnips can take some freezing weather and actually improve in flavor after a frost; however, if your weather is quite cold you’ll need to shovel some dirt or mulch over your parsnip bed to keep them in the ground safely until spring; or don’t forget to try this clever invention to keep them growing. They do take almost four months to make good harvest-sized roots, so it’s time to get them in the ground if you live in a mild climate or you will have to wait until spring if you live where frosts are imminent.
Before planting, loosen the soil well so the roots can push deep. Plant parsnips like you would carrots and be careful not to bury the seeds too deeply.
They will take at least a couple of weeks to emerge so be patient. Thin as they grow to give each root about 4” of space, then wait until they get nice and fat and start to push the tops of their roots up from the ground before you harvest.
Other Crop Possibilities
For nutrition’s sake, I would recommend also planting kale, cabbage, mustard collards, beets, garlic and carrots.
Garlic cloves will live in the ground through the winter and emerge in spring to make nice heads, so don’t pull them early.
Some varieties of kale are hardy enough to live through lots of snow and still be dug for leaves in the winter.
One more winter crop I like to plant is the fava bean. It gets damaged when temperatures reach the teens, but it’s a nice thing to grow just for its nitrogen-fixing ability. If you have an unused fall bed, plant it with fava beans. Even if you don’t get a harvest, they’ll make that ground better for the spring. If you do get a harvest, you’ll be enjoying gourmet fava beans. No way to lose!
If you have enough time before frost, you can also plant some potatoes in fall and dig them up before they freeze completely, giving you some roots for the cellar.
Time is ticking away until temperatures end this year’s gardening for good. Get started now – and if it’s already too late in your area for most of these crops, start gathering leaves for spring composting and be sure to plant Jerusalem artichokes before the soil freezes. You may be glad for those in the future.
Any cold-hardy high calorie crops you think we should have added? Let us know in the comments.