The ABCs of Homesteading: H is for ‘Horticulture’

Reader Contribution by Tasha Greer and Reluxe Ranch
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This is the sixth post in the ABCs of Homesteading series. Click hereto read the rest of the series.

Have you ever had an experience when something small changed the course of your life? You may not have appreciated it at the time, but later, when sorting through your personal history you see it. Ah ha! That’s where it all started.

That happened to me during a winter vacation in France when I noticed that many residents had plants growing in their gardens. I was not a gardener at the time, but learning that beauty bloomed year-round ignited my desire to become one.

I bought an armful of French gardening magazines and hauled back contraband like cuttings and root divisions from herbs, seeds, and bulbs. Stateside, I started seeds in a sunny window, buried cuttings in unprepared soil, and fantasized about how my garden would look.

My only successes from those early efforts were mint, French tarragon, and Muguet. But my failures put me on the path to becoming a “homestead horticulturist”. After wasting all that effort, I realized I had a lot to learn about gardening. So, I hit the books, bought some garden soil, and tried again. And again. Each time I had more success, but it took a while.

Read the Right Books!

Now, years later, I realize my biggest mistake as a new gardener was in reading the wrong books and planting in lifeless soil. If I had a do-over, I’d start with these (available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store).

How to Grow More Vegetables, 8TH Ed. by John Jeavons

Four-Season Harvestby Eliot Coleman

Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway

Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy

Aquaponic Gardening by Sylvia Bernstein

All New Square-Foot Gardening, 2nd Ed. by Mel Bartholomew

Straw-Bale Gardens Complete by Joel Karsten

This sampling of great gardening books provides an overview of the common and effective techniques to help you choose best methods for your available space and resources.

What  is Horticulture?

Horticulture is broadly defined as the applied science of growing vegetables, flowers, and fruit and nut trees for human use. It generally refers to garden and greenhouse environments that are often located close to a home. Agriculture, it’s close cousin, relates to growing crops or animals in a field or mono-crop environment.

For example, growing lavender in a mixed herb garden is horticulture while growing a field of nothing but lavender is agriculture. I don’t want to get hung-up on semantics, but thinking of your homestead from a horticultural, rather than agricultural perspective, is important in helping you create a diversified, sustainable, and ecological growing environment.

Horticulture from the Ground Up

All good gardens start with good soil, which is why we started with soil preparation using ducks and cover crops in The ABCs of Homesteading: E is for Edible Landscaping. We also established worm bins in F is for Fodder, and expanded on composting in G is for Goats.

If you’ve been following along, then you may already have a plot or two growing and some good experience under your belt, so now it’s time for fine-tuning. If you are just picking up the series here, please view those previous posts for information on soil and composting.

As important as soil is, it takes a lot more than good soil to grow a great garden.

Grow What You Need

Horticulture is about growing plants for human use. So a big part of homestead horticulture is identifying what you need to grow. Note, I say “need” not want. I want to grow Avocados, Bananas, and Cacao trees, but these won’t grow well in Lowgap, North Carolina, so they don’t make the list. What I need to grow are:

• “Calorie crops” (e.g. sweet potatoes and onions)

• Nutrient rich fruits and vegetables to keep us healthy (e.g. berries and leafy greens)

•Long-storing fruits and vegetables to eat through winter or in the event of weather, insect, or other gardening catastrophes (e.g. nuts, winter squash, dried beans, and apples)

• Flowering plants that attract and feed pollinators and provide habitat for beneficial insects year-round

• Herbs for medicine and flavoring

• Cover crops for soil improvement

• Animal pasture and storable winter feed

• Plants for erosion prevention and creating microclimates

• “If all else fails” food sources (e.g. for us elephant-nose amaranth and lambs quarters)

You may need all or only some of these items on your homestead. And these categories do not need to be distinct. In fact, the more crossover you achieve, the better. For example, yarrow is an herb that attracts parasitic wasps, prevents erosion, and is used in herbal medicine (categories: 4,5,8).

Sweet potato tubers are a long-storing calorie crop, the vines are high-nutrient leafy greens, and if you leave some tubers and vines in the ground over winter, they make a great cover crop (categories: 1,2,3,6).

Tomatillos are easy to grow, self-seeding, long-flowering pollinator-attractor that produce edible fruits loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fiber (categories: 2,4,9).


Plant Selection

Once you’ve identified your growing needs, it’s time to choose plants that meet your needs and that grow well in your climate, weather, and soil conditions. Just like reading the right books, choosing plants wisely in advance works better than failing your way through ill-adapted plant selections.

As an example, I love Sepp Holzer. He’s the man when it comes to permaculture (a.k.a. horticulture on hydrological steroids). Wanting to be like Sepp, I planted a bunch of perennial lupines on our steep hillsides. I tried for two years. Even with precise care, not a darn lupine would grow here.

When I finally gave up on lupines, I discovered the power combo of cowpeas and hairy vetch to fill that plant niche (categories: 3,4,6,7,8,9). Hairy vetch is fall planted, and begins growing again in early spring to crowd out weeds. As soon as it gets hot, it sets seeds and dies back acting as protective ground cover.

In the meantime, cowpeas love hot conditions, so I scatter dried cowpeas in the shriveling hairy vetch vines and they start growing just in time to fill the void. Neither of these are perennials, but frankly cowpeas taste better than lupines, so I don’t mind saving the seeds.

In the vegetable garden, varieties really matter. For example, in my area Golden Acre cabbage is grown in spring because it only takes 65 days to mature. As we tend to have late frosts and then go straight to scorching hot, long-growing cabbages just won’t do well here when spring planted.

On the other side of summer, we tend to cool off towards the end of August (though not this year) and have long comfortable cool-weather growing conditions that last into December, so big ballheaded cabbages do better when fall planted.

To make good plant selections read plant descriptions and growing instructions carefully, pay attention to number of growing days and ideal conditions, and check around to see if the varieties you are considering have been successfully grown by gardeners near you. Also, look for descriptors like “adaptable” to different soils or heat-tolerant or cold-tolerant if applicable to your homestead.

Plant Placement

Plants are picky about placement. Some plants get along well together, others don’t. Some tolerate a little shade or wet roots, others — not so much. Many plants don’t transplant well and need to be direct seeded to grow well.

Before you dig in, do research to identify your plants preferences on soil, light, water, and other special requirements. And identify and co-plant good “companion plants” to encourage new plants to make themselves at home.

Also pay attention to how each plant performs after you plant it. Planting guidelines are just that – guidelines. They don’t work in every situation and sometimes the dynamics of your garden defy normal plant logic.

For example, most resources say elderberries love moist soil. This is true for most of my elderberries, but I’ve got a Black Lace and Cut Leaf elderberry that hated the loamy, moist soil I started them in and were happier in drier clay soil.

Plant Propagation

Obtaining seeds and starts from sources growing in similar conditions to yours also helps. Planting seeds adapted to loamy soil in newly amended clay soil will not work as well as planting seeds saved from plants grown in a similar clay and compost vegetable garden. Seed exchanges and making friend with experienced gardeners are a good way of finding well-adapted seeds for your conditions.

Once you find varieties that work, save your own seeds or take cuttings and propagate new plants on your own. And remember to share the plant love to build good will among your community (see F is for Fodder for details). For more information on seed saving refer to Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth, available at

For other forms of propagation, many agricultural extension offices and Master Gardener volunteer groups offer courses on plant propagation and online videos and resources related to specific plants.

Learning how to save seeds correctly and propagate by a variety of methods helps you develop plants adapted to your conditions and saves you money long-term.

Pest and Disease Management

Part of your horticultural training should include pest and disease prevention. The number one way to do this is to raise healthy plants. Healthy plants can fend for themselves against many germs and pests. Of course this starts with good soil, plant selection, and placement. But it may also means culling weaklings for the health of your garden.

Many problems can be solved with consistent watering, a handful of worm compost, or more mulch. But if these methods don’t work, keep in mind that weak plants are an invitation to bigger problems. Once you’ve got problems in your garden, even your healthy plants can become susceptible in stressful conditions (e.g. a hot or dry run, overly wet conditions) and then your problems can multiply.

So, diagnose and care for weak plants early. Be ready to yank (and burn) plants that don’t recover quickly. But also keep in mind that to achieve ecological balance, sometimes you need to let nature take its course.

For example, if the tomato hornworm on your half-dead tomato vine is covered in white parasitic wasp cacoons, leaving the plant and letting the braconid wasps emerge can help keep future hornworm populations in check. If an aphid covered plant is also covered with lady beetles, give the lady beetles a shot at controlling the problem for you. Just remember to keep tabs on the situation and don’t let it get out of hand.

Diversify what you grow and use crop rotation for annuals. Large groupings of the same plant or plant families (e.g. all brassicas) amounts to rolling out the red carpet for pests and diseases.

So, try interplanting to break up pest habitat. And develop a 4-year garden plan to keep pests and diseases from building up in the soil.

Keep Track

As much as we all love to think we have great memories, science has proven repeatedly how flawed our mental retention systems really are. The best gardeners I know keep great records and refer to their favorite reference materials often to maintain the health of their gardens.

Horticulture as an area of academic study is fairly new, but as a life skill, it’s been critical to human survival for most of our civilized history. So whether you decide to use your horticultural skills commercially, as we’ll cover in “The ABCs of Homesteading: I is for Income,” or you stick to growing what your family needs for food, medicine, and pleasure, it’s a necessary skill to keep on growing!

Tasha Greerspent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina where she currently raises pigs, goats, poultry, bees, worms, vegetables, herbs, trees, shrubs, and mushrooms. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Find Tasha atThe Way Back and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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