Posted by: oldsalt1942 | May 24, 2009

Shantyboat Gardener-by Ken Hulme

The Shantyboat Gardener
Ken Hulme

To live the shantyboat life you need to live a healthy life.  And that means eating a good mixture of fish, red meat, vegetables and grains.
Sure, we used to joke that the Vietnamese lived on “fish heads and rice”; and in America “real men eat don’t eat quiche”.  But let’s get real.  Vegetables are a necessity; and when cooked properly (not boiled into submission) are darn tasty.  Shantyboat cooking is something I’ll tackle later!
First you’ve got to get some vegetables.  No, not those things in cans!  Those are e-m-e-r-g-e-n-c-y rations — only to be used when times get really tough.  They’re edible, but have enough salt and other preservatives in them to pickle yer innards!
You’ve really got two choices – buy fresh vegetables, or pick them from your garden.  If you moor near town, buying fresh veg at a local market (especially a farmer’s market) isn’t much work, but it is an expense.
The very best veggies are the ones you grow onboard.  On board?  Yep.  Farmer Brown takes a cruise.  A couple pots of tomatoes on the cabin top.  Potatoes, squash and eggplant growing in pickle buckets on the fore deck.  Lettuces, herbs and other things growing in a styrofoam block hydroponic garden floating alongside the hull, roots dangling in the nutrient rich water.  A combination of passive hydroponics and container gardening can ensure you fresh veggies year-round in a tropical or semitropical climate.  If you’re a snowbird following the river from cool to warm climates you cans stretch a growing season to nearly nine months.  Even if you’re a “summer camp” shantyboater you can enjoy fresh vegetables throughout your local season.
Check out books on the subjects from your local library and practice at home before you cast off for a far horizon.
Another gardening option is to create a garden patch somewhere ashore.  Most shantyboaters have a regular “attachment” to the land; you aren’t a passage sailor staying offshore for weeks at a time between ports of call.
If you’re moored to a riverbank or anchored beyond the low-tide mark it will probably be easy to come to “an arrangement” with the local landowner (if any) whereby you create a garden patch ashore that you ‘work’ every couple days – weeding, nurturing, harvesting…  The disadvantage of a garden ashore is that you inherit all the problems of the local farmers – insects, disease infestations and rapacious wildlife.  Most of those things will not be encountered if you garden onboard.  The main advantage of a shore-side garden is the potential for growing LOTS of a variety and quantity of crops and storing them for winter.  This is especially useful if you are shantyboating in a 4-season climate rather than the tropics.
In a later essay I’ll talk about what you can do with the fruits of your labors, as it were – cooking and preserving those veg.

Back in 1953 Harlan Hubbard wrote the book Shantyboat. He and his wife Anna built a classic shantyboat on the banks of the Ohio River near Cincinnatti. Other than a pair of sweeps (large oars) and a homemade john boat, also powered by oars, their boat had no means of self-propulsion. It drifted with the current of the river.

Harlan and Anna usually drifted in the winter time and spent the spring and summers where they found themselves at the time and the first thing they did was find a piece of ground where they could plant a garden. The fruits of this labor were canned and stored for their winter voyaging. You can read most of the book here:,M1

I remember years ago that wonderful book of hippydome and self-reliance, The Whole Earth Catalog, still available (now online) and I would assume updated.

There was an article that stays with me still about how people living on boats could  help meet their minimum daily requirements of healthy vitimins with bean sprouts. Not only are they healthy and good for you, they taste good when added to a lot of recipies. Growing sprouts doesn’t require a lot of space and can be grown year round. And there are a ton of different kinds of seeds that can be sprouted.. mung beans, alfalfa and barley are the most common, but otherseeds that can be sprouted include adzuki bean, almond, amaranth, annatto seed, anise seed, arugula, basil, brown rice, navy bean, pinto bean, lima bean, broccoli, buckwheat, cabbage, canola seed, caragana, cauliflower, celery, chia seed, chickpeas, chives, cilantro (coriander, dhania), clover, cress, dill, fennel, fenugreek, flax seed, garlic, hemp seed, kale, kamut, kat, leek, green lentils, lupins, pearl millet, mizuna, mustard, oats, onion, black-eyed peas, green peas, pigeon peas, snow peas, peanut, psyllium, pumpkin, quinoa, radish, rye, sesame, soybean, spelt, sunflower, tatsoi, triticale, watercress, and wheat berries.
Bon appetite.


  1. I’m planning to do this. Back in the trailer days, when we were travelling, I used to take those round plastic laundry baskets, put in a trash bag liner and fill with potting soil. They made good grow baskets and were easily moved. I’ve used milk crates the same way. At the very least, folks should grow an herb garden. They are expensive to buy and make a huge difference in the taste of home cooked meals.

  2. I went aboard a timber sloop years ago and the skipper showed me several trays of sprouts that he harvested regularly. Very little space, shallow stable trays and so on. He was sailing on the open ocean at the time.

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