4 Secrets to Becoming a Successful Gardener

Editor’s Note: This is an updated and revised edition for 2018.

Gardening is a skill and anyone who tells you something different is not being totally honest.  That being said, having a successful gardening experience depends on many outside factors including, but not limited to soil conditions, available sunlight, the length of the growing season, seed quality, pest control and even a bit of luck.  Still, many of these factors can be overcome with skill, perseverance, and experience.

In this article, Dan Chiras shares his time-proven tips on what it takes to become a successful gardener.

4 secrets to becoming a successful gardener | Backdoor Survival

If Dan’s name sounds familiar, it is because he is the author of two Prepper Book Festival titles, Survive in Style: The Prepper’s Guide to Living Comfortably through Disasters and Power From the Sun: A Practical Guide to Solar Electricity.  Today, however, the focus is on gardening and on acquiring a much-converted green thumb.

Growing a Green Thumb

Over the years, many people with whom I’ve discussed gardening confess to lacking a green thumb. My response is always the same: gardening is a lot easier than you’d think. With a little knowledge, anyone can graduate into that elite cadre of green-thumb gardeners.

If you’d like to be one of them, read on. I’ll let you in on the main secrets of successful gardening.

Green Thumb Gardeners are Soil Builders

Individuals with the greenest thumbs are typically those with the richest soils. Although a gardener may have purchased a home that came with a yard endowed with rich topsoil, the excellent soil in which they grow their fruits and vegetables is most likely due to the fact that they’ve spent several years building it. That is, they have enriched their soil with good old organic compost.

Great gardeners are also avid “mulchers.” Mulch is a layer of organic material like straw or bark that reduces the evaporation of water from the soil. This, in turn, helps plants meet their needs, even on blisteringly hot days. It also helps you by reducing the amount of water you need to apply to your garden. It saves energy, water, and time.

Mulch also helps hold weeds at bay. If you’ve applied a thick enough layer, mulch will prevent weeds from growing. They can’t get the sunlight they need. Those weeds that do manage to pry their way through the mulch are much easier to pull. Weeds come up more easily when yanked from moist soils.

Moist soils also increase the likelihood you will remove most, if not all, of their roots when you pull them out. If severed, roots of weeds often give rise to new plants. Whatever you do, don’t cut weeds off at the base of the stem and leave the roots in place. Some weeds (like Russian thistle) come back with a vengeance. So, be sure to pull weeds root and all.

Mulch decomposes over time, adding to your soil’s fertility. There’s no need to dig it in. Just keep adding mulch on top of old mulch that’s breaking down and becoming part of your topsoil. That’s the way Mother Nature builds soil.

Remember this green thumb aspirants: nourish and protect your soil with compost and mulch and it will return the favor many times over.

Dan Chiras Green Garden | Backdoor Survival

Here is a photo showing Dan’s bountiful green garden.

Green Thumb Gardeners are Vigilant

Another key factor that contributes to a green thumb is vigilance. In my experience, the most successful gardeners are the most attentive. They’re in their gardens every day or two pulling weeds while they (the weeds, that is) are still young. They also keep an eye on their plants for signs of disease or insect damage. When they spot a problem, they address it quickly.

Attentive gardeners also pay close attention to weather and soil moisture and use these parameters to determine when watering should occur. They don’t necessarily follow a watering schedule. That’s because how often you need to water your garden and how much water you need to apply depends on many factors, such as the temperature, rainfall, and humidity, the organic content of your topsoil, the water requirements of plants, and how much mulch you have applied.

An accomplished gardener doesn’t water because it’s been five days since he or she last hauled out the sprinkler. He or she waters when the soil and plants say “How about a drink?”

The best way to determine when it’s time to water is to dig into the soil with your hands or a trowel. If the soil’s moist an inch or so down, and your plants have established deep root systems, you can probably hold off on watering. If the soil is dry, retrieve the hose and sprinkler from your garden shed and take care of things.

An ever-vigilant gardener pays attention to his or her plants for wilting leaves. They are a tell-tale sign that the soil is drying out. Water immediately. Better yet, pay closer attention to soil moisture content and weather so plants don’t have to cry out for emergency action.

Dan Chiras Tomatoes | Backdoor Survival

These tomatoes are mouthwatering!

Vigilance is important at harvest time, too. Overlook a zucchini for a day or two and it will transform into a log suitable for building a small log cabin or carving out a dugout canoe. If you don’t check your green beans during the harvest season very often, you’ll find those tender green beans have grown large and become leathery.

A Green-Thumb Gardener Knows Plants

Successful gardeners understand that not all plants are created equal. Some like acidic soil. Some like sandy soil. Some like lots of sunshine. Some thrive in partial sun or shade.

While that seems like a lot of information to hold in your cranium, it doesn’t take long to understand the requirements of common vegetables and flowers. Seed packets can help you learn about the requirements of fruits, vegetables, berries, and flowers you’d like to grow. Read the information that comes with seedlings you purchase at your local nursery. Books on gardening also contain a wealth of information on the topic.

Armed with this knowledge, head to your garden to plot a strategy for successfully planting sun lovers and the rest of the gang. Veggies that grow well in partial sun, are typically delegated to the less sunny locations in a garden or are planted in the shade of taller plants like tomatoes and corn.

It’s Not about the Tools

A green-thumb isn’t about owning a lot of fancy tools or the latest garden gadgets. You just have to build great soil and then continue to replenish it with compost and mulch each year until you hang up your gardening gloves one last time.

You need to be vigilant, as well, paying attention to weeds, disease, wilting, insects, and soil moisture. A two-minute stroll through your garden each day is all that it takes. It’s a great time to have that evening glass of wine.

A great gardener watches the weather and tends to her garden as dictated by temperature, rainfall, and humidity. Lest we forget, a great gardener plants according to their plants’ needs for sunshine.

There’s more to being a successful garden, but that’s it in a nutshell. If your life is too busy to start a garden, consider hiring someone to help out. Or, enroll your children and/or spouse to help with this task. Kids often love to garden alongside eager adults! If the world goes to hell in a hand basket, your garden will be up and running.

To learn more about food self-sufficiency through gardening, check out my book, Survive in Style: The Prepper’s Guide to Living Comfortably through Disasters.  It is available on my website and also at Lehman’s along with all of my other books.

Additional Resources

There are plenty of great resources available for free on the internet. Here are a few:

The Final Word

In my younger years, I had a reputation for having a green thumb. It came naturally, or so I thought. Initially, I did all of my gardening in containers. Later, as I expanded to raise beds, I realized that having a green thumb was not a natural trait. It was a skill.

Whether you have gardened successfully in the past or are just getting started, Dan’s secrets, and especially his emphasis on building up the soil, are well taken.  I don’t know about you, but I am ready to get started!


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Encyclopedia of Country Living: The Original Manual of Living Off the Land & Doing It Yourself:  The bestselling resource for modern homesteading, growing and preserving foods, and raising chickens, The Encyclopedia of Country Living.

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US Forge 400 Welding Gloves Lined Leather: These well-priced gloves provide complete heat and burn protection. They are perfect for keeping your hands and arms safe while working outdoors or cooking outdoors over an open fire. They also perform double duty as garden gloves.

Morakniv Craftline Fixed Blade Utility Knife: This is a favorite of mine! Also known as the Mora 511, this knife is made of Swedish steel and is super sharp.

Many Backdoor Survival have emailed me indicating this is now their favorite knife too. There is a lot of emphasis on folding knives these days but please, do not forget that a fixed blade utility knife is also eminently useful.  This is a good one and it is bargain priced at about $10.

BYBLight TML-T6: This flashlight is extremely bright, casts wide angle and, when zoomed, a very focused beam.  I swear that if there were a rattlesnake out in the desert outside my back yard this flashlight would find it.  It’s a sturdy thing with an aluminum casing that is not at all heavy.

It has 5 built-in modes including the standard high, medium, low plus a strobe and SOS mode. It includes a rechargeable battery and a charger plus an adapter to hold AAA batteries.  There is also the OxyLED Super Bright T6 LED which is very similar.  I own both and find them comparable to let the price guide you.

BYB Flashlight 250

Just to see it stacks up with my other favorites, here is a photo showing the differences in size and form factor.

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Author Bio:  Dan Chiras has gardened since he was a tot and continues today sowing and reaping the benefits of his gardening proclivities.  He lived off-grid in Colorado for 14 years entirely off rainwater catchment system. He powered his super-efficient home with solar energy and grew much of his own food. Dan continues to live a more self-sufficient lifestyle at his home and farm in east-central Missouri.
He is the author of 36 books on a variety of subjects including residential solar energy, wind energy, passive solar heating, green building, and self-sufficiency. You will find his books at //www.evergreeninstitute.org and at Lehman's.

  1. Good article. New gardeners always want to know how to grow tomatoes, carrots, cucumber, peppers,etc. As an experienced gardener my advice is always the same. Take care of the soil and the veggies will take care of themselves. You can’t buy good soil; you have to make it! It’s the least exciting part of gardening but the absolutely most important.

  2. Thanks for the article. I’ve had some limited success with container gardening but also a lot of failures. We’ve got year round gardening but Insects are hell here in Florida. I’ve never been able to grow cucumbers and squash. I will pay more attention to soil and mulch the garden next time.

    1. This response is very late but may help with next year. Cucumbers and squash (especially squash) don’t like containers all that much. Plant them in soil with lots of organic material. Plant some type of massing flowering plants with your squash and cucumbers. A cover crop of agricultural mustard or buckwheat will bloom profusely, bringing in pollinators to increase fruit set and will also attract predator insects to reduce insect pest problems. Just plant the cucumbers and squash in the cover crop and they will eventually choke out the cover crop. It makes a huge difference.

  3. Feed the worms and they will feed you, rabbit manure and bone meal and Epsom salt and a few other things I use will raise anything ,I mulch very heavy with ground leaves , rabbit waste , aged chicken manure, I have never plowed or tilled the soil, over the 40 years, I have to take soil out of my raised beds to make room for my mulch, I can go on and on, do hope you reader get the point.

    Here’s the important points. Worm waste, feeds the plants , Plus other waste, we raise tons of food ,I have to, with 13 children to feed, no super market food.
    All my other farm animal waist goes on my fields for hay. Do hope I have helped someone.

    And yes we do hold jobs and work like everyone else does. I’m a Pastry chef and baker.

    Thank you::: silverbill

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