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Subsistence Gardening: Starting a Garden

Starting a garden can be a daunting task. In this article, ISG author and master gardener Barry V. gives his some thoughts on how to start a subsistence garden.

March 28, 2020
Barry V.


The title sounds intimidating, right? No worries. While you might not become completely self-sufficient in food production, there is much you can do. The old saying goes that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so here goes.

Obviously you will need a plot of land for your garden. The size of your garden plot depends on what is available to you and how much food you want to grow. Your garden needs to be in full sun; that’s important.

Once you have a suitable garden plot, your next step is soil preparation. When you build a cabin, first you construct the foundation. It’s the same with your garden plot. First, take the time to properly prepare the soil, before you start planting. Some patience and labor are required.

Decision time.

Soil and Compost

What kind of soil do you have? It is mostly clay or mostly sand? There is much to know about soil. There is sandy loam and loamy sand, and many other variations. If you have poor soil or even little or no soil, you can amend it or even replace it as needed.

If you have the time and inclination, double-digging your garden plot is highly recommended. Rather than my launching into a tedious explanation, check out “double digging a garden bed” on YouTube, and view the several videos on that topic. That’s way more entertaining and useful than reading about it.

Depending on the quality and workability of your soil, this is the ideal time to add soil amendments. You want to add organic matter to your soil. Compost is excellent if you have access to quality compost. Avoid the cheap stuff in bags that you find at big-box stores. Check with your county extension office to learn about compost availability in your area. If there is a Master Gardener association nearby, ask a Master Gardener volunteer and you’ll get sound advice. Some Master Gardeners are willing to make a site visit to assess your situation and make valuable suggestions.

In addition to compost, you can add peat moss, which is considered a non-renewable resource. Coir — ground up coconut fiber — is a great alternative and it is renewable. If you have eggshells, fruit and vegetable scraps from your kitchen, add those to the soil, buried at least a few inches down. Rotted leaves (leaf mold) are good — add them if you have them.

A good size for each of your garden beds is 4 feet wide by 25 feet long. That’s 100 square feet, which makes calculations easier. To maximize your garden’s yield, you need fertile soil. Proper soil preparation provides fertile soil initially, but keeping it fertile requires periodic soil amendments. The plants take nutrients from the soil, and these nutrients need replenishing.


Bio-intensive Gardening

The best method of in-ground gardening I have found in 10 years of research is John Jeavons’ Grow Biointensive system. Again, rather than my attempting to explain it in words, it is more interesting to view the several interesting videos about the system.

It is a multi-step system, and each step is important. Under this system, you place your plants very close together, so the leaves overlap. It is a precise system, that should be closely followed for best results. You will need lots of compost to feed the soil, and Jeavons explains that in his videos. John Jeavons has a national reputation and is highly regarded.

Some of the vegetables grown under this system are especially nutrient-dense, such as potatoes. By the way, potatoes are a healthy and nutritious food, unless you slather them with sour cream, cheese and butter. Try slicing and boiling them, and putting a little cracked pepper on before serving. Yum.

Conventional in-ground Gardening

If Bio-intensive Gardening is not for you (hard work at first, but it gets easier over time), conventional in-ground gardening is time-tested.

Prepare the soil and amend it as needed to create rich, fluffy soil. Get rid of big rocks and stones. Double-digging is recommended but lots of gardeners do just fine by loosening the top 12 inches or so of soil. If you do go that route, carefully avoid allowing a “hard pan” to form beneath your soil layer. It is okay to use a rototiller for initial garden preparation, but don’t use one after that. Not only does it chop up valuable earthworms, but it encourages that hard pan to form.

If you decide to loosen and amend only the top 12 inches of soil, by all means at least break up the subsoil below to encourage good drainage. You can do this with a pickaxe, broadfork or gardening fork. You want good drainage so your plants don’t get “wet feet” and rot.

Here is another valuable tip: Avoid walking on your garden bed. If you must do so, put down a wide piece of plywood to distribute your weight evenly and avoid packing down the soil.

Pesticides vs. Organic

Think in terms of organic gardening, which avoids the use of herbicides and most pesticides. There is a USDA approved list of products that you can apply to your crop and still meet organic growing standards. Neem oil, Spinosad and Bacillus thuringiensis (“Bt”) come to mind, but there are others. That said, try to avoid using any such products at all, if possible. That usually works for me, though I may lose some of my crop to insects. This will vary by region.

By the way, even if you follow pure organic growing methods, you cannot represent to others that your crop is organic, for that requires a rigorous certification process — expensive and impractical for most. You can tell people that you follow organic growing methods, which is perfectly okay (as long as you actually do). If you have a surplus, you might be able to sell it at a local farmers market. Rules vary by jurisdiction.

The actual gardening part is pretty straightforward once you complete your plot preparation. Basically, you plant seeds or seedlings at the appropriate times, tend them and harvest when plants are mature. For a list of vegetables that do well in your area, check with your local extension office, a local plant nursery or an area Master Gardener. You can also get advice on when to plant and how to plant (depth, spacing, etc.).

Climate Zones and Growing Seasons

On the back of each seed packet you should find planting instructions. Planting time varies depending on your USDA climate zone (USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map). Some seeds are barely covered with soil, while others are planted at various depths. The seed package should tell you.

Once the little seedlings emerge, you thin them according to seed package directions. This ensures that each plant has sufficient growing room and is not crowded out. Some vegetables are not well suited to direct seeding. Start seeds in trays and gently transplant them into your garden when they are big enough. Some plants do well in colder weather, while others prefer warm weather. The seed packet will explain when to plant, based on your USDA climate zone.

Growing seasons: The further north you are located, the shorter your growing season is likely to be. If you are situated near a coastline, this may extend your growing season. If you live in, say, Alaska, Montana or North Dakota, your growing season may be about 100 days or a little more. In parts of South Texas or South Florida, you may be able to garden year-round. For most plants 100 days is sufficient to reach harvest maturity.

Watering: Here is the rule of thumb: water infrequently, but deeply. If you can collect rainwater from the roof of your house in a bucket or other container, plants love it because it contains no chlorine (do not drink water runoff from a composition roof). Watering with a garden hose is fine, though.

Check for soil dryness every day or so, depending on the weather. Stick your finger in the soil to a depth of a couple of inches. If it feels moist you do not need to water. If it is dry, water deeply. Deep watering encourages deep root growth.

Mulching: Mulching your garden is important. Mulch keeps the soil cooler in summer and warmer in winter, and it helps the soil retain moisture. Mulch also breaks down gradually and feeds the soil. For that reason, use fine mulch instead of large pieces; you want it to break down as a soil amendment. Avoid those attractive looking colored wood mulches. Quality mulch should be available in your area. If you have trees that shed leaves in fall, rake and bag the leaves and store them. Run over them a few times with a lawnmower to break the leaves up, and use the leaves as mulch. Do not apply mulch right up to the plant stems. Allow a few inches of space around the stem of each plant.

Composting: Mulch consists of organic matter that has not decomposed. Compost is decomposed organic matter. So you dig compost into the soil, whereas you apply mulch on top. Both compost and mulch basically accomplish the same thing, but compost goes to work enriching the soil right away, while mulch must break down and and that takes longer.

Composting is highly recommended for serious gardeners. Building a compost pile is beyond the scope of this particular article, but you can learn how to do it by watching YouTube videos.

Fertilizing: Your plant roots will take nutrients from the soil. You can replenish those nutrients in several ways. A prefered way is to add compost topped with mulch at least once annually, watering it in thoroughly. Again, keep it away from the plant stems.

It’s fine to apply bagged fertilizer to your garden, if you find it more convenient. By law there are three numbers on each bag of fertilizer (e.g., 10-10-10). The first number gives the nitrogen component as a percentage of bag contents, while the second number is phosphous and the third is potassium (potash). Check with your county extension office to learn the approximate levels of each that is in your native soil. For a more accurate report, purchase a soil test kit from your county extension office, and follow the instructions. You put samples of your soil in the bag and mail it in. A couple of weeks later you will receive a written report with exactly what nutrients to add to your garden soil, and in what amounts.

While the three principal components are the most important, plants also need small amounts of trace minerals. A quality fertilizer product should contain these, and it will be on the bag label. Apply the product according to label directions.

Fertilizers come in organic and inorganic versions, with organic fertilizers being more expensive. A typical bag of organic fertilizer will contain far less nitrogen, phosphous and potassium than will an inorganic fertilizer — and will probably be more expensive. Here’s a tip: the plants don’t care. Please understand that we are on the subject of fertilizers, not herbicides and pesticides. Once again, try to avoid herbicides and pesticides because they can destroy beneficial insects, and you probably don’t want to eat harvested plants that were treated with chemicals. If you find the need to spray or drench, stick to the products mentioned earlier, which are approved for organic growing.

General Advice

Giving your plants a snack: Make some compost tea and spray it on your plants or use it as a soil drench around the plants every few days. You will probably notice a difference. To make compost tea, fill a 5 gallon plastic bucket with water and let it stand in the sun for a few days to dissipate the chlorine. Then add a generous scoop of compost, stir it thoroughly and let it stand for 24 hours. You can also make manure tea in the same way, but put the manure in cheesecloth and soak it in the water. Discard the cheesecloth and its contents and use the manure tea like compost tea. Caution: Not just any manure is good. Avoid canine and feline manure. And remember that horses, cattle, goats and donkeys may have been fed hay that was sprayed with chemicals while it was growing in the field.

Critters: You will have unintended visitors in your garden. It is important to remember that there are beneficial insects (e.g., ladybugs) and well as annoying ones (e.g., grasshoppers). That is why avoiding use of chemicals is desirable. Pollinating insects are required for the health of your garden and fruit bearing trees.

To keep out deer and small wildlife, put a fence around your garden and line the bottom foot or so with wire screen. Watch for signs of digging around your garden fence. Be vigilant and remember that the insects and animals are just trying to make a living. It’s fine and sometimes necessary to share some of your crop with them.

In-ground gardening requires some stooping, kneeling and hands-in-the-dirt. To protect your skin, purchase a pair of gardening gloves and wear them. A wide brim hat is essential in warm climates and at high elevations. It is a good idea to wear a long sleeve shirt and long pants.

If you have an interest in growing some of your own food, gardening can be highly satisfying, for you will see the results of your efforts. Feeding your family with food you grew is rewarding.

And one final point: Without over-dramatizing this, glyphosate (the principal ingredient in Monsanto’s Round-Up herbicide) has found its way in trace amounts into America’s food and water supply. Researchers have assured us that these are safe levels, but one must always ask who funded the studies that produced those conclusions. Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) is defending lawsuits alleging that Round-Up is toxic to humans.

The World Health Organization refers to glyphosate as a possible human carcinogen, while the state of California goes a step further, labeling the product as a human carcinogen. By growing your own produce, you will know exactly what went into your harvest. When you do shop at the grocery store, it is worth considering the higher cost of certified organic produce. If you shop at a local farmers market, ask each vendor if he/she is part of the Certified Naturally Grown movement, a voluntary self-policing group of small scale farmers who practice organic growing techniques but individually cannot afford the expense of becoming certified organic.

Questions and comments are welcomed.

Barry V.

BSV was a Texas Master Gardener volunteer  for 10 years and is now retired and lives on a Central Texas ranch with his wife.

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