Prepping: The “Donner Party” Garden

I don’t reference the “Donner Party” lightly.  Because prepping and survival are the most serious topics a person can address; even more so than money or mating.

As we laid it out on the Peoplenomics side earlier this year, the ideawas that I would put in a simple “two veggetables” garden and conduct “The Great Tomato Race.”  

There was a “science angle” to it (being a measurement freak and all):  I wanted to see whether deep water culture hydroponics (DWC) would outproduce simple “dirt gardening.”  And how this would compare with “greenhouse potted plants.”

Mistake #1:

Here’s a picture of the dirt garden at 10-minutes before high noon.  Far too much shade.  Remember that solar meter?  It had been telling me for months that I wasn’t getting enough sunshine for effective gardening.  But, I went ahead and watered-away, hoping that there’d be enough light…

There wasn’t.

Mistake #2:

If I had been paying closer attention to the tomatoes (the ones in the dirt), I would have noticed some creatures were getting into the garden at night and munching away leaves…

Mistake #3:

This one should have been obvious:  I over-watered.  And that set in motion a terrible succession of moss/algae blooms and this turned into what?  Tomato leaf wilt…

Since I also over-watered the tomatoes in pots in the greenhouse, they “got the rot” too.

There’s one survivor but it’s not looking good….

Mistake #4:

Back out in the dirt garden, there was a wild fungus eating into the squash…Talked to the county AgLife extension fellow (Truman) and he informed me “You are not alone…”  Hard year for gardening around here.

Useful Insight #1:

After cutting one of the low-lying shade-giving evergreen branches, I “rescued” one squash plant.  I’m hoping to get a few veggies off this guy:

Useful Insight #2:

Mother Nature is prodigious in her programming of survival.  Off to the side of the “loved” (and over-watered, over-fertilized, staked, and nurtured) tomatoes was a plant I totally ignored.  So far, this is the ONLY tomato to come in (the term “so far” indicates my inability to deal with reality):

I’m almost afraid to pick it:  Since it’s the only tomato, ALL gardening (and chemical) costs this year make this little sucker a $265 tomato…

Mistake #5:

Next time around on the hydroponics, I will put in a larger “feeding port.”  Reason?  The plants that I poured fresh nutrient over (even when rinsed) burned causing their early demise.  On the other hand, the plants that didn’t get fertilizer burn grew like hell…

Mistake #6:

Until I got the skylights opened, put the air movement fan on high (instead of low) the HUGE hydroponic tomato plants weren’t setting fruit. Note to self:  When I expand the greenhouse, bring the chiller from the shop up to the greenhouse.

Since figuring out why the airplane is trying to crash is one of my survival skills (!), I have a fair number of dime-sized “tomatolings” again…

Mistakes #7 through (Lot Count):

I got a tremendous number of things “right” but shot myself in the foot in numerous ways.  Starting with an incredibly late start and a very (extremely) wet spring that caused fungus to appear on pine trees…

More (dumb, stupid) mistakes to learn from?

  • If you’re going to start hydroponic plants, do so in starting sponges.  I left a bit of soil on the seedlings and before long, that clogged up the water-change pump.
  • If your water-change pump clogs up, change the water every couple of weeks anyway.  Going without a water change for four weeks probably didn’t help my plants.
  • Do a better job of anticipating “table sink.”  The 300+ pounds of hydroponics gear sank that table out of level which contributed to the die-off of the uphill-most plant.
  • Don’t use “tap water” for hydroponics.  On the agenda here is the install of a permanent 150 GPD reverse osmosis pump.  That will remove the trace algae from the water supply and will end having to use chemmies to push pH around.
  • Install hydroponics systems  on the ground not on tables.  Reason? My roots were getting too hot.  When roots get hot (>75-77F) they stop soaking up as much Oxygen and this, in turn, slows growth.
  • If you do overheat the roots, you can increase O2 uptake by adding food grade hydrogen peroxide to the nutrient.  One tablespoon per gallon. Don’t tell Elaine where all her peroxide went!
  • Put a garbage can in the greenhouse to hide the evidence in.
  • Take the time to calibrate your Water-testing meters.  I still have this on my “Round Tuit” list.  But, when your local water is pH 8.3 and has a TDS (total dissolved solids) north of 800 (all good minerals, but just really hard water), starting from 7.0 off the R/O and a TDS of 50 makes it a lot easier to do DWC systems and using calibrated instruments will keep nutrient levels closer.
  • Witth TDS 800 water, I ran nutrient in the 2600 to 3000 range and called it good, but when the R/O system goes in, that should help results.
  • Buy a $30 (or more) TDS meter.  I have a collection of a half dozen  each of cheapo pH and TDS meters now, and no two will give anything even remotely similar in the way of readings.
  • Try using the plain-jane (no batteries to store) pH test strips.  Cheaper and give you the same results.  Then you only need the TDS meter.
  • Store the nutrients (MaxiGro and MaxiBloom) in the shop or in an air conditioned (low humidity) area.  Left outside in the Texas steam-oven summer, I  have a new daily task of scrapping nutrient off the day’s ration from a 40-pound solidified block of MaxiBloom.  Nice, light Himalayan salt pink, though…
  • Never pour nutrient concentrate onto a growing plant, even if you rinse.  “I thought it might help upper root structure” the plant is another useless over-think.  Until fully diluted nutrient mix is death to plants.
  • Apply  Neem Oil before the insects eat everything, not after.

What are the “next steps?”

Well, gotta bring down some big trees when  Oil Man 2’s forestry-whiz-kid has time (and temps are back into the 80’s  fahrenheit, not centigrade).

The greenhouse will be expanded.  I’ve never had a bad idea I learned from the first time…On all such projects, I aim for twice the size, four times the budget….

Oh,  and with the lack of food from the garden, Zeus the Cat is worried that this whole gardening experience will give us a new appreciation for cultures where eating  cat  is acceptable.  He’s been leaving kashrut and  halal notes laying around the office…

I’d suggest he’s paranoid, but with a cat, how do you tell?

Oh…if TS does HTF and someone invites you over for dinner to talk about gardening problems?  Don’t go!  Or, bring the cat.

Sprout off when you get rich,

44 thoughts on “Prepping: The “Donner Party” Garden”

  1. FROM oxyman 19 there are two kinds of sense..common and learn by N.CAR. last year everyone had trouble w/sguash.this year i planted in pots just flowers and 3 bell pepper enough peppers to feed an army. 6 palm trees large zinnias,hibuscuis(should do good in your hot weather.ony saw 1 hummer,1 old bumble bee,he would sleep on the flower get strength back fly away,and 1 honey bee.good luck and just do it to watch things grow.

    • James…we didn’t have any bee’s.. yet the neighbors had tons of tomatoes.. which I don’t quite understand..then you get someone like larry that has twelve foot tall sweet corn..there wasn’t any farmers with stands this summer either..

  2. I had a raised bed vegetable garden for years. It was always fun looking forward to buying the plants in the spring and watching them grow. Then the majority of them would produce the final product within about a 3-4 week window beginning in mid August. I was always overwhelmed with vegetables in that timeframe. My neighbors loved me for my generosity though.

    Ultimately I weined back how much I planted, because the water bill and all the other cost far exceeded what I could buy these same vegetables at other growers, that had a better economies of scale.

    So to cut to the chase, it was much cheaper to buy at my local store and even higher priced farmers markets.

    I think back in my parents and grandparents days, it was economically feasible to grow your own to can or freeze them. It’s not nowadays, unless you’re just doing it for the personal enjoyment.

  3. Interesting summer it has been. We suffered many of the same challenges here at El Rancho de Chaos in the state of Mizzery.

    Using a hoop house has worked well. It allows me to do the majority of the heavy lifting of growing during much cooler periods. All of the growing is done in large 25 gallon containers in a soil mix, not dirt, and irrigated with drip equipment. When the temps begin reaching tater baking levels around the end of May I found it best to remove the plastic and replace it with 40%shade cloth. May start just rolling up the sides next spring though since wrestling a 75′ roll of plastic aint as easy as it used to be. Shade cloth is even heavier. Hoop house is the answer though.

    Gathering materials for growing maters a la Kratky method in 35 or 50 gallon barrels. Tried a few using 5 gallon buckets but spent too much time replenishing used solution. Had success with cukes in those though.

    Didn’t keep track of harvest weights so I can’t do any arithmetic and gazintas to figure any cost per mater.


  4. I used to be pretty handy at gardening until my hours and social schedule spiked. These days, I have trouble keeping a house plant alive. One thing though that is gaining steam around here is a concept called free organics. It’s where businesses, municipalities, schools etc donate their space for organic farmers to sell their harvest. Booth space fees are the reason why farmers market prices are high. And, a booth space fee coupled with a bit of nasty weather can ruin a farmers chance to make any money….thus causing the farmers to slightly raise prices on the produce they didn’t sell that day.

    While our weather here is pretty predictable, many established and wealthy municipalities use farmers markets as a way to boost city revenue. Some of their booth fees are outrageous. So, businesses and schools fought back by providing Free booth space. Businesses see it as community service and a bit of free advertising, The schools just have a voluntary donation pot for those that appreciate the gesture and want to support our local schools.

    The prices are well below what other farmers markets charge and it’s a great alternative to those that want fresh organics but just don’t have the time to grow…like me

  5. Got our tomatoes from the Amish this year. 30 lbs for $24. Nicer tomatoes than I can grow. Made enough juice, hot salsa, and relish to last a couple years. I have the land, equipment and know how, but seems I can buy cheaper than growing my own.

    • That is where I want to go for mine.. Gary.. they will be the ones to survive in a catastrophic event.. they don’t have to learn the old ways.. they live them already..

  6. I feel your pain. In NY I could grow giant tomatoes where one slice covered the entire sandwich. Five years growing in NC & all I have are Cherry Tomatoes grown in pots. The subdivision was built on an old Tobacco Farm & the soil can’t grow anything. My blueberry bushes finally started producing fruit & the birds ate them all.

    I have to go to the farmers market for the large tomatoes & Aldi’s for blueberries. My wife makes a great blueberry coffeecake & pie.

    • Eating healthy is more important when you are over 70. Stay away from the Big Macs & Whoppers and eat at home. A small steak with 5 shrimp & a small salad cooked at home is much better for you than a steakhouse dinner & it is delicious. If you order a pizza, eat 2 slices & save the rest for another day. You do not need to become a Vegan.

      • Totally agree – except for one binge meal per month.
        Why here in Texas, though we don’t eat “…a small salad cooked at home….” We eat ’em uncooked.

      • “Eating healthy is more important when you are over 70.”

        At seventy the days are numbered.. what ten years.. or more.. my historical ancestors were under eighty.. the oldest 83 add ten years because of modern medicine..max ninety..
        twenty years.. a drop in time.. each year your body changes a little bit as well..
        EAT THE CAKE first.. and don’t buy Green Banana’s is how I feel about it..

      • “just fresh-mushy-like”

        That’s the sad part about growing old…
        In the not to distant future all of us old coots will be sitting in a half way reclined chair while some kid talking to another kid a out their hot date the previous night is shoveling that in our mouths. All while we are sitting there praying that we can get to the toilet before we soul ourselves. Afterwards we will sit and look out the window or wait by the hallway telling someone about our children or family that we expect to come walking down the hallway.
        I will never forget one day I came up upon a famous and important legislator.. (part of my personal supreme court) and he was crying. I asked him what’s wrong. He said not to many years ago I was pretty important I wrote laws and made huge decisions. Today I cant even get a bowl of cheerios without having my kids involved to make that decision. I told him you make a list and as long as I’m here it will happen.
        I went to each and everyone of those I took care of and did the same.
        The person working that area now told me after I left they stopped letting them do that lol lol .. all because of a bowl of cheerios..

  7. for soil and ‘ponics. buy the quart size, then make your own. increased sugar production in the plants make them pest resilient.

    i’m going to attempt to keep the budget down this winter by using grow bags lessening the cost for grow media in large beds. water is cheaper,imho.

    hope this helps.

    • I did the grow bags this year as a test.. I am not satisfied with the results.. when I did dirt gardening.. I averaged three hundred pounds of spuds.. then I tried the potato tower.. and got five pounds.. this year I attempted grow bags.. and got twenty pounds..
      Now Larry Hall in brainard Minn.. he had tomato plants that took a ladder to pick the tomatoes.. his garden does extremely well and he uses rain gutters and walmart bags five gallon pails etc.

      The aztecs and Mayans did raft gardening.. I knew a man that farmed at the turn of the century he said during the dirty thirties.. they lined up old branches along the ground piled straw on top of them then put dirt on top of that.. planted their potatoes.. I tried that five years ago and got so many weeds I didn’t know what to do with them all..I am still clearing them up..Yet.. my two cup plant container with its own UV led light in it and water supply does real good… and it is just two cups one inverted over another with an led uv light on top..

      I am going to try window garden this winter to see if that works.. I have thought about a grow room.. to.. with the uv lights..

      Then I think about Stew.. and his site the age of desolation..

      and the things written by Nostradamus and a few others..

      Century 1, Quatrain 67

      The great famine which I sense approaching
      Will often turn (up in various areas) then become worldwide.
      It will be so vast and long-lasting that (they) will grab
      Roots from the trees and children from the breast.

      Century 2, Quatrain 75

      The voice of the unusual bird is heard,
      In the pipe of the breathing floor:
      Bushels of wheat will rise so high,
      That man will devour his fellow man.

      Century 6, Quatrain 5

      Very great famine (caused) by a plague-ridden wave,
      Will extend through long rain the length of the Arctic pole:
      “Samarobryn” one hundred leagues from the hemisphere,
      They will live without law, exempt from politics.

      Samarobryn….. ( taken from the Russian words, Sama and robrin meaning self-sustaining, self-operating, self-sufficient. in other words .. Preppers)

      and a hundred leagues from the hemisphere.. Hmm.. does the efforts of Patrick come to mind here.. ( another faithful reader and commentator)

      Just some deep thoughts on the donner party garden.. or any other part of society as we know it.. we have materials now.. but what if.. it happens.. an emp.. for an example right now we have parts and equipment raw and finished resources.. in a true shtf scenario.. we would have a lull time while we use up these resources.. then the true effects would hit.. just my take on it..

  8. Don’t tell Zeus, but the American frontier “Mountain Men” of the 1650s to 1850s regarded “cat” as the “best eatin’ there is…”

    IMO you overthought and overworked the ‘maters. The best tomatoes in the world grow in Indiana (Nuh Joiseyites disagree, but what do they know? They can’t even pronounce the name of their State…) The Ag resources at Purdue University are probably the best there are for tomatoes. (Many folks believe Purdue is tops for corn, too, but IMO Iowa State and University of Minnesota might be better…) Still, Purdue is absolutely top-shelf for info on growing anything. You might read a bit at TAMU also because they might have a better insight on Texas soil and aquifer specifics than Purdue. I suspect though, that all the “Agricultural & Technical” colleges, even the ones like Oregon State and Michigan State which never discuss their “A&M” or “A&T” backgrounds any more, extensively share their Ag knowledgebase…

    • I picture G____ reading your comment aloud while Zeus sits with his back to him, ears back, twitching his tail.

    • Understand how a tomato propagates in the wild: The fruit drops or some bird pecks a bug off a fruit and craps a seed out two days later. If the soil where the seed drops is not hard-packed clay, is fairly sunny, dry but not baked, and slightly acidic, the seed sprouts. The sprout develops a root, which takes hold. The next year, the cycle repeats. If the periodic rain was sufficient for the original plant to flourish, it’ll be sufficient for that crapped seed to grow, also.

      If your soil is packed clay, sew some hardwood sawdust, Vermiculite (or crumbled Styrofoam would probably work), deciduous tree leaves, maybe even some white oak or hickory mulch (no dyes or added scents, please) in with a tiller, then forget about it until next year. If it’s principally sand or loam, go with just the leaves. Tomatoes prefer a soil with a ph that’s between 6.0 and 6.2. The quick & dirty way to fix the ph in a tomato patch you’re preparing for next year is to dump an ounce of vinegar or a half-ounce of muriatic acid (I’m a cheap bâtard and keep a supply of HCl laying around to clean concrete, so you know what I use…) in a gallon of water (in a PLASTIC watering can – duh) and moisten the patch. Repeat once a month until the acidity is right, then leave it alone! ‘Maters are an acidic fruit, but depend on the soil in which they’re grown for their acid content. If it ain’t there, they might still grow, but they’ll be acutely anemic…

  9. When I saw the title, I thought you were referencing this:

    Scientist Says Eating Human Flesh Will Save Planet From Climate Change. A Swedish scientist suggests that it may be necessary to turn to cannibalism and start eating human flesh to save the planet (giving new meaning to the expression bite me) And NO this story is not from The Onion.A conference about the food of the future called Gastro Summit being held in Stockholm Sweden featured a presentation by Magnus Söderlund claiming that we must get used to the idea of eating human flesh in the future, as a way of combating the effects of climate change.

    Entire article may be found here:

      • The “elites” have always looked upon us as livestock anyway. Wonder how they’ll grade us? High cholesterol American flab; lean, mean Eastern European; African dark meat; Asian brain food? Hmm. What wine goes with Australian surprise?

      • “The “elites” have always looked upon us as livestock anyway.”

        Whats hilarious Bill.. is we give them that power.. anything other than letting them have their way is anarchy LOL.. a country oppose them.. they send us or some other countries armies in to blast the shizt out of it kill any one they wish killed and destroy homes and communities.. and they do this all while sitting safe at home..
        this is what gets me.. someone like Putin.. Ping. assad. Kim.. and you can count your days.. yet these individuals control and manipulate them as well having them do their bidding.. all without fear sitting at home .
        well except for Kim.. he is the wild card and would go after them.. so far he has only gone after the ones they have bought off

      • Do you remember the commercial long, long time ago that showed a two groups meeting on hill. Two elderly gentlemen face each other, take off their coats and start boxing each other for a while then, I don’t remember if it was a narrator or text across the screen started talking about what it would be like if the leaders fought the wars rather than thousands of military personnel killing each other? I wonder if that old thing is on YouTube somewhere?

      • Lol lol lol..
        I dont remember the commercial but it would be harious.. please send in that congressman that sounds like a duck first.. hes on the news daily definitely has a shizty work record..has been a member of congress forever..
        Give him the good uniform to you know the one with the bullseye on lol

      • Ya mean “laughing death,” or “how to go from good health to Alzheimer’s in 20 minutes…?”

        I just figured folks could run a quick search and find out what the “green” in Soylent Green really was…

    • So, George, I told you ten years (or so) ago about the lucid dream I had, of a diaspora of millions of starving people walking, dragging carts and wagons, from Scandinavia south, into central Europe. That dream still doesn’t make sense to me, but maybe Herr Professor had the same dream…?

  10. The one time I attempted a back yard garden I learned a couple of things. Peppers are a no-brainer crop. Couldn’t kill the plants if I tried and got a decent amount of peppers off of them. The next was never get in a hurry watering your corn. I tried to rush the water down to the end of the rows by spraying over the plants and wound up with only about half the kernels pollinated because I washed the pollen off the silk. What was pollinated was pretty good, though.

    Didn’t get a single peach off the trees at the ranch this year. A squirrel with a sweet tooth must have moved in and left us nothing but naked pits all over the place. Still haven’t found the squirrel so I just keep the trees alive in the burning sun and wait till next year – while keeping the .22 sighted in to a fine degree. The lone surviving apple tree had a few apples on it but they were either attacked by birds or I didn’t get enough water to them. Dry land farming in dusty W. Tx. requires a LOT of attention, more so than raising livestock. With a big garden you can darn well forget about any vacation time in the Summer.

    • NO vaca time is not acceptable. You undoubtedly know more about farming than I, but I get to see tools and techniques from many different places, and if you’re not familiar with any of this stuff, it may give you an idea or two on how to bumper your next-year’s crop:

      The best apples come from Michigan and Washington; the best peaches from Georgia and Michigan. All three States are cooler and wetter than West Texas, and with less Sun.

      I’d get a bunch of orchard netting or used 1″ fishnet and block off strips of it, to cut the sunlight and p!ss off the squirrels. BTW eating the meat and leaving the stone sounds more like birds or bugs than tree rats…

      You might try drip irrigation. Michigan and Wisconsin are sandy, so the soil doesn’t hold moisture well. The big farmers there have these ginormous irrigaters — some 600 to 800 feet long — a drip pipe on wheels which is suspended 12-14 feet off the ground, and floods between the corn or bean rows rather than on the plants themselves. They run ’em before first light, and again after dusk. They irrigate the fruit trees with sprinklers which spray a mist, not a stream, on the trees — again before the Sun’s out or after it sets. Water droplets magnify the Sun’s rays, and will burn leaves and stunt fruits.

      FWIW too much water is worse than none at all. I had a budding cherry orchard. My yard typically does not dry out until the last week of May. This year, it did not dry out until the 3rd week of August. The cherry trees leafed-out in April, as they should, but did not blossom and are now leafless. I’m going to leave them until spring, on the wildly unlikely chance they “dormantized” themselves. Then next summer, when it’s obvious they’re tango uniform, I’ll replant and add peach, plum, and apricot to the orchard, as I’d originally intended.

      • Thanks Ray,
        The best Texas grown peaches we see around here usually come from Fredericksburg or the Hill Country in general and on East where there’s actual moisture. It’s wetter there by far. The local river bottom is miles away from us so the triple digit weeks we get in the Summer that have, thankfully, abated now takes moisture out of the soil for several feet down. We often turn our cold water faucets on and find it to be quite warm with the supply lines being heated in the ground. Saves on electricity in the shower. Hard to get much to grow at that point unless you can start early and get a crop in before August. The peach trees now have had about 3/4 of their leaves eaten by the grasshoppers but that means there ought to be some really fat turkeys out there this year. There’s a bright side to everything.

        Apricots are one thing you just don’t see any more and I don’t know why. I’m keeping seeds to attempt germination but I’ve got my hands full trying to keep the goats alive plus a family situation is playing itself out. Who do we petition to add about 5 or 6 more hours in the day?

      • Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky are allegedly the country’s prime “apricot region” (before the gummint killed it off, Laetrile rolled out of Indiana and into Mexico for cancer treatment experimentation.) However, I personally prefer California apricots because they’re tangy instead of sickly-sweet (Turkish-derived.) Nearly all peaches, apricots, plums, and nectarines are sexed, but peaches and apricots will cross-pollinate, as will plums and nectarines. I figure with two 6′ dwarf plantings of each, by 2024 (if any of us are still around) I should be ordering neem oil by the drum. There are several food-cos which produce apricot nectar — insanely helathy but bloody expensive! I intend to press my own apricot and cherry juice, and can raisins & prunes along with making jelly or preserves from all of them.

        ‘Been through West Texas a time or two. ISTM the big difference between it and the Mojave is the Desert, at least, has sand mixed in with its dust. I don’t envy you. Maybe underground cisterns you could cap until needed would help?

  11. Check out the video Perry referenced. Paul the old man in the video uses wood chips. He also says to uses leaves and grass clippings. You can get the tree trimmers for the electric company to drop the chips cause they are usually looking for a place to dump. I also get leaves in town nicely bagged up now mostly in paper bags which I use for sheet mulch.[keeps weeds down] I also use manure. The old organic gardening magazines say to use twelve inches of manure and leaves each year. You have to build the soil. Your garden will not fail rain or drought if you build your soil!!!!!!

  12. Gave up on growing tomatoes myself a couple of years ago. The local Amish seem to be able to grow them much better than I can ( and cheaper). Hate to admit this since I (at 68) still actively farm.

    Been a strange growing year in west Tennessee, very wet through July and turned dry and hot in August. I have also noticed that all of the combines harvesting corn are covered with black residue, most likely from fungus due to wet conditions. All the added dust has resulted in one local farmer losing a combine to a fire over the weekend. Machine burned to the ground in the field. The local fire department (2 miles away) responded, but could not save the combine. They did contain the fire and kept it from burning the remainder of the field. Guy was lucky to get out in time, since the operator’s cab completely burned. Very few carry a fire extinguisher, which only works for smallest fires. I have a 15 pound CO2 extinguisher mounted just outside cab door. Found from my years in industry that CO2 works great because it also cools hot parts, and stops re-ignition; but leaves no residue like dry chemical extinguishers. Combine fires are tough to fight, so many moving parts and so much dust. Bearings overheat and ignite the dust/debris, fuel, and hydraulic oil creating a raging inferno.

    Back to gardening, the local Amish grow a wide variety of veggies at a reasonable price. Many of these folks use hoop buildings to get an early start in our area. Most of these hard working people have large families so labor is not an issue. Kids work along side mom and dad. Like many of the other responses and yourself, I found that my cost per pound of tomatoes was 10 times what I pay for them from the Amish.

    Good luck with the continued gardening project.

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