How important should gardening be to the survival of your character? What preparation will your character do to prepare for their garden? Want to learn how to weave gardening into any season of your story? What about dead fish? Find out on this episode! 

Welcome to Writing Rural with Alley, the fiction writer’s weekly inspiration station for rural life and lifestyles, from historical to post-apocalyptic, helping you bring your rural stories to life! I’m Alley, and this is episode #68, Gardening Overview. Stick around to the end to find out all the ways things could possibly go wrong. Now, let’s get into this.

Gardening is as intertwined with rural life as trees. Many places today, historically, and I assume in an apocalypse, garden to grow food to eat now, and to save food for the winter. In many cases, if they fail at saving enough food for winter, there is a good chance they will starve during the winter. Our stories need to reflect the importance of this task. 

Granted, it is possible to buy food from the store today, but many homesteads and off the grid homes along with the Amish use this as their main source of food, if not their only source. In fact, many people today do this because they can’t afford the food at the stores, and they only buy the things they can’t grow easily. This normally includes flour, sugar, baking soda, vanilla, and things of this nature. Actually, many people in history bought these same things and grew the rest. 

Side note: this is about gardens, so I am sticking to fruits and vegetables, and not meat today since you don’t grow meat on a plant. 

First things first, let’s cover the steps and tasks needed to start a garden. I will start at the beginning, but keep in mind many characters will already have a garden plot when your story starts. 

There is normally a pre-start step of planning the garden. Noone randomly picks a spot, or what they plant. Your character is going to decide based on how much sun the spot gets and more. They do not want it in mostly rocks, or in a place that is prone to floods. Some plants need shade, so they might opt for two different gardens. They must decide how much to plant to have food in not only summer and fall, but enough to store for the entire winter. If they are growing animal feed, that will also need to be calculated. It is always best to over plant and reap an abondance than plant to little and be hungry. 

They also must decide what is planted, where it is planted, what plants are planted together and what plants are not planted together. This is because some plants do well together and others do badly together. Some examples are tomatoes do well with basil, basil does will with peppers, and cucumbers do will with dill. There are many lists of companion plants online, and I will leave some links in the show notes on my website. 

However, the most well known of the companion plants is what the Cherokee call the three sisters. These are corn, beans, and squash. The corn is a great support for the beans to grow up. The squash will grow along the ground, shading the roots of the plants helping to hold in moisture. The beans will help to replenish the nitrogen in the soil for the squash and corn to use. I first learned about this as a child. My Native American grandmother told me that when she was young, and later when she had her own garden, they would place a dead fish about a foot in the ground under the corn seeds to help them grow. Yes, a dead fish for every single stock of corn that was planted. I don’t know if all the tribes did this, or it was something she did. Either way, planning what and where to plant things is top of the list. 

The next step that needs to be done is the spot where the garden will be needs to be cleared. This means removing all the grass, normally with a mattock. These look like a long hoe on one side (Yes, the gardening tool!) and a pick ax on the other. If there are trees, they will be cut down, and the roots that are close to the surface will be dug up. Stumps are normally burned over a few days. 

After that comes the fun task of removing all the rocks. When I was a kid, we had to pick up all the rocks we could find every time the garden was tilled. There will always be rocks. Always! I have been in nice places that there are only a few rocks, but I have lived in rock country and we were still pulling rocks out of the ground in wheel barrow loads every year, and it was over 30 years of gardening in the same spot when we started. We always said we were growing rocks. Picking up rocks is also a favorite punishment for kids. At least it was in my family, and I did it a lot growing up. 

For gardens that are being tilled (explanations of what that is coming soon), they will need to have their rocks removed as well. Your character will be checking for rocks to remove every time they till. 

Other types of garden prep are raised beds and mounds. Raides beds can be made of many things; plastic, metal, wood, logs, rock, or cement. This takes time and effort to make, plus they need to decide beforehand what shapes they want, and where they will place them. This also involves hauling in dirt to fill the raised beds, or it can be making dirt in a mound shape. 

Mounds are similar to raised beds, except they’re long dirt piles that have no frame to help hold their shape. Plants like lettuce can be planted in these, and it brings it up so your character doesn’t have to bend over or kneel to harvest them. 

Next is tilling or cultivating. This is turning over the dirt to loosen it and let air into the soil. This can be done with a tiller or by hand. Having done both, the tiller is easier, but is still very hard if the ground is rocky. Actually, it was so rocky in a few places I have lived that I could not physically use a tiller, and had to ask my husband or father to do it for me. I have also done this with a mattock. It is a serious workout and will take a lot of time. 

A quick side note. While most people, myself included, till the gardens, the ground doesn’t technically need tilled. People talk about it like it is necessary, but that isn’t technically true. What is true is that it makes it easier to plant, and ripping up the roots of anything that might have been growing there will mean less competition for your plants roots. Although, I’m aware a lot of people disagree with me, and believe that your garden can’t survive if you do not till.

Something most people don’t know is that tilling typically happens during the winter months. I know that sounds weird, but hear me out. If there is nothing in the garden for long periods of time, it gives your character plenty of time to take care of preparing it for next years crops, slowly, at their own pace. Otherwise they will spend days grueling away, and be exhausted. People who do this dread the spring garden. So, instead, most people do this a little at a time, on the nice days in winter. 

After the garden is planned and ready, it’s time to plant. Well, kind of. You see, some plants are cool weather plants and others need to be planted when it is warmer. In our area, lettuce can be planted in winter to be reaped in spring. The same is true for potatoes. However, we can’t plant tomatoes until after the last frost. Or at least we can’t take seedlings out. I think my favorite planting knowledge was passed down from my grandmother. She said that you plant corn when the oak tree’s leaves were the size of a squirrel’s ear. 

Your character will now need to care for his garden. This includes many chores. Weeding the garden is the top thing I can think of. This is easier once the seeds have sprouted and grown a bit. However, for a newer gardener, it is easy to misidentify weeds as they sprout from your garden plants and accidentally pull the things they planted. 

Another thing is that they need to make sure the garden has enough water. If it is raining, great! In the summer time, they might need to supplement with watering the garden. However, there are droughts they will need to contend with. They might haul water in and pour it onto the plants roots. Never let your character poor water onto the plant itself in summer as that will cause the plant to burn in the hot sun. 

There is something called an olla that is a slow watering system. This is a clay pot that is buried in the ground up to the opening on the top, and water is added into the top. The water slowly seeps through the clay and into the ground water by the plant roots. This is something that has been used since ancient times and is still used today. Likely it will be used in an apocalypse. Irrigation is another thing that has been around since ancient times and is still used today. It likely would be after the zombie apocalypse. 

The next thing is reaping the crop. This is done in stages. Many plants will have some ripe that day, and some the next. They don’t normally happen all at the same time. This will leave your character trying to save as much as they eat of the food each day. Why? Because not only must they get through the winter, but they have to wait for the first ripe food to grow also. 

Normally, this means they are working for two or three hours a day to can, dehydrate, or whatever other method of preservation they are using. Which can sound like a lot, but if your character is not going to a 40 hour work week, they have time. However, there are times when larger crops are brought in at the same time and it might take a few days to get all the food stored away. This can be normal in fall. In my area these are wheat, corn, soybeans, wild rice, walnuts, acorns, persimmons, and more. 

A vital part of gardening is saving the seeds for next year. While you might think you wait for the very best, that is and is not true. Your character will want to save the first seeds out of all their plants. This is in case of garden disasters; maybe a hailstorm or tornado, locus, or large garden pest like deer and rabbits. They want to make sure they have a way to grow more if disaster strikes. Yes, later, they will then save the seeds from their best plants. 

An important thing I remember hearing the old-timers say was to save at least two years’ worth of seeds. That way, if drought, or other disaster happened, you would have seed to plant the next year. Seeds stored properly were said to be good for up to five years. That is properly, and if no moisture gets on them. 

Another garden consideration is making compost. This is done all year round. Normally by throwing scraps out into the same place. Bunny poop is a good one to add as it is very good for the garden. Dead leaves can be placed in the pile in the fall. It can take dirt about three years to make so many people rotate and make three compost piles to be used every three years. They rotate them often. This means they go out with a pitch fork or similar, and bring the bottom of the pile up, and mix it with the top for even decomposing. 

Testing the soil is more of a modern thing, and can be done at any time of year. There are all kinds of things you can buy to fix any issues, but many times natural ways work better. However, in history, and I assume after the apocalypse, this was done by carefully observing the plants. An example is that if tomato leaves turn yellow, they are likely nitrogen deficient. Things to help can be coffee grounds, manure, wood ash, or bone meal. 

Fun fact: Did you know that tomatoes are technically a fruit? Now you do. 

What could possibly go wrong? 

Before we get to the best part, if you enjoy this podcast, I hope you’ll take a minute to follow, rate, and review on your favorite podcasting platform. And if you are listening on YouTube, subscribe, hit the like button, and drop me a comment; I love to hear from you and answer questions! Don’t forget to share with a friend. As always, you can find episode show notes and helpful links to learn more on my website, Now for everyone’s favorite part! 

Likely to go wrong: Your character is new to gardening and doesn’t know what the sprouts of their plants look like. They mistake the weeds for their garden plants. When they try to remove the weeds from the garden, they unknowingly pull the garden plants, leaving only weeds. 

Likely to go wrong: Your character’s tomato plants don’t get enough calcium, and as they start to ripen, they also start to rot at the bottom of the individual tomatoes. 

Likely to go wrong: Your character is new to gardening and plant incompatible garden plants together, causing both plants to die. 

Possible to go wrong: Your character didn’t make sure the plants got enough sun and they do not flourish as well as they could. 

Possible to go wrong: Your character was waiting for the best plants to get seeds for next year. However, a hail storm came and destroy the garden, and now they have no seeds to replace the plants they lost. 

Possible to go wrong: Your character waits until the last minute to till the garden, and is exhausted afterward. 

Unlikely to go wrong: Your character plants tomatoes too early, and when it freezes on a spring night, the tomatoes die. 

Unlikely to go wrong: Your character didn’t wait for the compost to turn to dirt, and just tossed it right into the garden. This causes the plants to wilt as the rotting scraps cause the plants to mold and then start to rot. 

Improbable but still technically in the realm of possibilities: Your character makes raised beds for their garden. They spend the week planting the garden. That night a rain storm comes up, and when they go outside in the morning, all the raised beds have come apart from the pressure of the wet dirt on their sides. 

Improbable but still technically in the realm of possibilities: Your character planted a garden in a place that was too shaded for the plants and they do not get enough sunlight. The plant’s growth is limited and they have to plant triple the amount they normally would to produce the crop size they need. 

Improbable but still technically in the realm of possibilities: Your character plants a garden on a rocky area. The seeds sprout, but with nowhere for their roots to grow, they soon wither and die. 

Thanks for listening! Until next time, happy wordsmithing.

Helpful links to learn more:

Do’s and Don’ts:

Companion guilde: