Once in a while I stumble upon a free resource that’s so good I want to get it into the hands of all our readers. I didn’t actually “stumble upon” this one. I’m a subscriber to Melissa Norris’ excellent blog on pioneer living. (The “city kid” in me still shakes his head in amazement when I say things like this. What a long, strange trip it’s been.) Melissa has a number of valuable resources available for download through her site. Today she’s out-done herself with the Preserve Food at Home Ultimate Resource Guide.
I’m a snake-bitten skeptic. When I see superlatives like “ultimate” bandied about, my BS radar goes on full alert. But hey! It’s free, and you know what I always say — “If it’s for free, it’s for me!” So I punched the link for this so-called “ultimate resource guide” and loaded it. All nine pages of it. And that page count includes the front cover. Another over-blown pamphlet that calls itself an “ultimate guide”?
Not this time. This ultimate guide really delivers. After you get past the attractive front cover, you’ll find that it’s a true resource guide, chock full of links to other sources — web sites, articles, videos, product reviews, books, online courses, etc. Be advised that not all of the resources that the Guide links to are free, but if you’re looking to learn about these topics and will need to buy some of these things, the Guide is a real time-saver. It covers the most common means of food preservation (canning, freezing, and dehydration) and some lesser-known practices like salt curing and using alcohol or oils to preserve foods and make your own extracts.
It’s no secret that we here at The Approaching Day Prepper aren’t experts in the topics that we discuss. We are perpetual newbies. That’s why I love it when someone like Melissa not only does all the heavy lifting for me, but then she freely gives away the fruits of her labor. There are a lot of links in her Guide that I want to dive into. Things like:
- Which pressure canner is best? The budget-priced Presto or the spendy All American?
- How to can meat
- How to make your own vegetable powders
- How to dehydrate cantaloupe (say what??? )
- How to cure and store onions and garlic (you can NEVER have enough onions and garlic in your preps)
- How to dehydrate ground beef safely (I presume that the operative word here is “safely”)
I’m pretty jazzed about this resource guide. So much so that I stopped what I was doing as soon as I found it and posted this blog. Click here to link over to Melissa’s site and grab a copy of it for yourself.
In my previous article, I shared my journey into essential oils by presenting a series of questions and answers. As promised, in this blog I’ll share the contents of my starter kit, my experience thus far, some of my personal recipes, and you’ll be able to download some helpful EO cards or information sheet. Enjoy!
I’m afraid I have to add a medical disclaimer to this blog. The information provided in this blog is not offerred or intended as medical advice. Consult your doctor before using essential oils.I am simply sharing my experience and research. I am not a doctor. I’m a desktop publisher, preacher, blogger and prepper (not necessarily in that order).
My Starter Kit and Experience
The components of my starter kit were determined by two factors – the oils most often recommended as good, general-purpose oils (because I knew my starter kit would be limited and I wanted to get the most bang for my buck) and the conditions we were most likely to use the oils to combat. I’ve already mentioned that I sometimes have difficulty sleeping. Phil and I both suffer from sinus congestion, especially in the winter. While I was doing my shopping, I had an upper respiratory variety of the crud that was going around last winter, so I’m sure that impacted my decisions. I occasionally suffer from asthma and headaches, and both Phil and I sometimes experience anxiety, stress, and a bit of the blues. Phil also has a touch of arthritis.
I’m sharing my experience using the oils in my starter kit, but keep in mind that it’s only been a few months. While my experience has been generally positive, it’s also been somewhat limited.
My starter kit included the following oils:
- Eucalyptus – With antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antiseptic properties, this oil has tons of uses. I was most interested in its effectiveness against congestion and inflammation. We use the eucalyptus in a diffuser most evenings and Phil and I both notice that about half an hour after starting the diffuser we are breathing better and our sinuses are more open. They don’t just feel “minty” —our sinuses are actually open more than they were before. Phil hasn’t been able to breathe through his right nostril for years, but it is opening up since we started diffusing eucalyptus. We’ve also used it in a massage oil to ease chronic muscle inflammation. We didn’t notice any relief from this.
- Lavender – As a “balancer” this oil would help my sleeplessness and could be used to perk me up on those afternoons when a nap after lunch is appealing. I have in fact found it to be very effective in encouraging restful sleep as well as helping one remain alert during the day. Yeah, I know – how can that be possible? Read about it in my previous blog. Shortly after buying my lavender oil, I started to get a cold sore. Lavender is also supposed to be good for skin rashes and it was one of the few oils I had at the time, so I put lavender on the cold sore. Surprisingly (to me) it really helped – the cold sore developed, but it was significantly smaller than when it started and it was short-lived.
- Frankincense – This oil helps strengthen the immune system, and who doesn’t need that? It can also be used to combat depression and stress, as well as upper respiratory infections. We use it in our night-time blend and sometimes in the office.
- Lemon – Lemon has antiseptic and antibacterial properties. It stimulates the digestive system and can be safely used to add flavor in small quantities. Its clean citrus aroma makes it a nice addition in blends. And in our household it doesn’t hurt that lemon is one of Phil’s favorite scents. Happy, happy, happy.
- Peppermint – Said to be effective against headaches and nausea – two conditions I suffer from. I dabbed some on my temples when I had a headache recently, and the headache was gone in fifteen or twenty minutes. I’ve suffered from nausea regularly throughout my life. I don’t actually get sick, I just feel “yucky” frequently. I haven’t had a chance to test the peppermint oil for this condition yet, which is unusual. Could it be because of my regular use of eucalyptus and lemon each evening? Or maybe the peppermint that is in a common blend I diffuse in the office? I don’t know, but my frequent “yuckiness” hasn’t been so frequent.
- Tea Tree (also known as Melaleuca) – Great for small cuts and scratches. In all honesty, I haven’t noticed that mine consistently heal faster with tea tree oil, but everyone recommends it. I probably don’t have the discipline to use it frequently enough.
- Four Thieves (sold by Edens Garden)/Thieves® (sold by Young Living) – This blend is sold under various similar names. It’s based on a legend that during the bubonic plague four men would rob those who had died from the plague. To everyone’s surprise they didn’t catch the disease. They were reported to use a blend of spices that protected them. The most common ingredients in today’s version of the blend are clove, lemon, cinnamon, eucalyptus and rosemary. This blend has very strong antibiotic and antiseptic properties. It was one of the last oils I bought and I haven’t used it, except as an occasional alternative in my night-time blend.
- Patchouli – This isn’t in your typical starter kit, but my husband loves the smell of it. It’s very musky. Some people love it, some people hate it. It has antibiotic, antiseptic, and antifungal properties. It also combats depression and congestion. It promotes the regrowth of skin cells. I use this primarily in my night-time blend (see below), but I want to try it in place of tea tree oil on scratches and cuts.
- Jojoba – Carrier oils (also called base oils or vegetable oils) such as jojoba are used to dilute highly concentrated essential oils so they can be safely applied to the skin. I didn’t do as much research into carrier oils as essential oils, but chose jojoba because it has a long shelf life and is easily absorbed into the skin. It’s been nicknamed by some as the “king of oils.” Kinda like the Budweiser of the carrier oil world. Seemed like a good place to start and I’ve been happy with the blends I’ve created using it.
Since then I’ve added the following oils. I chose these largely because others say they’re essential to a starter kit. I haven’t used any of them yet.
- Rosemary – Antimicrobial and antiseptic, balancing and calming, this oil is also used to ease respiratory issues and skin conditions. I haven’t used it yet but bought it for those times when my asthma is bothering me. It also seems like it would be a great starting oil for a relaxation blend. I’ll have to work on that! Be careful with this one, though – it should not be used if you have high blood pressure.
- Clary Sage – Its unique feature is that it’s good for PMS and menopause relief. Hmmm. I think it would be good to combine with that Rosemary blend. It is a sedative with slight narcotic properties and shouldn’t be used before driving or doing other things that you need your full attention for. I’m thinking that a rosemary and clary sage blend is the perfect thing to diffuse in the bathroom while taking a warm bath before bed. But it’s new to my arsenal and I haven’t tried it.
Reputable Essential Oils Companies
Wow, what a hot topic! People seem to have strong opinions about the best companies from which to buy essential oils. I found reading people’s opinions helpful, but try to stay out of the fray. After spending quite a few hours reading reviews (and rants and raves) on a variety of blogs and shopping sites, then spending more time reading about various companies and how they handle their essential oils (from harvesting to storing), I created a spreadsheet listing the oils I wanted to buy and the various companies that sold them. I added prices to that spreadsheet and made my purchasing decisions. I ended up buying my oils from a couple of different companies.
With that background, I am comfortable recommending the following companies. If you recommend others, please share them with us. If you’ve had negative experiences with any of these companies, share that, too. But I truly don’t want this to become a forum for ranting against companies simply because you sell essential oils for a competing company.
- Mountain Rose Herbs – www.MountainRoseHerbs.com Besides having some good essential oils, Phil has been very pleased with the affordable loose leaf teas that he’s bought from them. High praise from a tea snob.
- Edens Garden – Available at Amazon.com
- Aura Cacia – Available at Amazon.com and Abe’s Market
- doTerra – www.doterra.com (If you’re looking for a consultant, we recommend purchasing from www.mydoterra.com/kathycasto)
- Young Living – Available at Amazon.com
Before long you’ll also need supplies – dark bottles with lids and droppers (don’t store your droppers in your oils). I’ve bought from a couple of sources, but be careful to read what you’re getting. My first purchase was half a dozen teeny-tiny bottles. They work great except they really are small. So I’ve found that they’re good for giving a sample of an EO to a friend, but not very good for my intended purpose – mixing my own blends. A second purchase of larger bottles was required.
Using Your Oils
There are a number of ways to use your essential oils. Typically you’ll blend them with a carrier oil, but they can also be used “neat” (that is, undiluted). We use them three different ways:
- Direct inhalation – When I’m traveling I put a couple of drops on a cloth (I use a wash cloth) and wave it in front of my face periodically. I’ve done this with peppermint to stay alert on long car trips and with eucalyptus or peppermint to relieve allergies or congestion.
- Apply topically – I’ve applied a variety of undiluted oils on scratches or cold sores. I also apply a small amount of lavender to my feet many evenings for a more restful night’s sleep. I’ve also applied peppermint to my temples and back of the neck to relieve headaches. Phil and I use a blend we’ve created for massaging away sore muscles and stress.
- Diffuse – Diffusers disperse oils into the air, much like a humidifier puts out steam. The best diffusers use ultrasonic technology. You should not use heat to diffuse most oils. We purchased this medium priced diffuser for our bedroom and were happy enough with it that we purchased a second one for our office. I’d like something more decorative for the main floor of the house but haven’t been willing to shell out the extra bucks for it yet.
Some oils can be taken internally, but be careful that they are safe for that purpose. You can also place some in a bath to relax or detox.
The Aromatherapy & Essential Oils Handbook by Rashelle Johnson – This book is comprehensive and an excellent resource. It lists more essential oils that I could use in several lifetimes. For each one it provides an average price, identifies the plant source of the oil, recommends other oils that it blends well with, defines the therapeutic properties and gives a paragraph or two about its general uses. If there are warnings associated with the oil, you’ll find that front and center. What a treasure trove of info! I got the Kindle edition last week when it was free for a short time, but am seriously considering the print version because it’s so helpful. [Note: We occasionally post notices about free Kindle books on our Facebook page. We use Facebook for these kinds of things because it's more timely than a blog posting. Find us on Facebook by clicking here.]
The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy: Over 600 Natural, Non-toxic & Fragrant Recipes to Create Health • Beauty • A Safe Home Environment by Valerie Ann Worwood – This book is recommended by many sites. Available at Amazon, this book is excellent because of its breadth. Not only does it offer over 600 EO recipes, it also organizes oils by how they can help you. It includes chapters covering EOs for the office, for sports enthusiasts, for beauty (to replace skin and hair care products), for babies, for women and men, for “help in the maturing years”, for cooking, gardening, and cleaning. It also addresses using EOs on pets. What I don’t like about this book is that it doesn’t list the oils and define their properties. You’ll have to get the first resource for that.
I’ve developed a few blends that I use regularly. I make them in large batches (usually at least double the recipes below), and store them in dark, one-ounce bottles.
First, here are some helpful measurements. All are approximate because drops.
1 ounce equals approximately 30 milliliters
1 ounce equals approximately 600 drops
1 ounce equals approximately 6 teaspoons
Allergy Blend #1 – Equal parts Lavender, Eucalyptus, and Peppermint
- Lavender for balance and aroma – I find that the lavender makes the scent of the eucalyptus a bit less prominent. Sometimes I get tired of the eucalyptus smell.
- Eucalyptus for decongestant, sinus issues, and aroma – Having just said that I get tired of the smell, let me also say that when my allergies are bad, I find that strong scents help a great deal. And eucalyptus does a great job of clearing your sinuses.
- Peppermint for alertness, headaches, and aroma – When my allergies are bad, my sinuses are full and my head feels like a balloon. Anything that makes me more alert and inhibits headaches is wonderful.
Office Blend #1 – 20 drops Frankincense, 6 drops Eucalyptus, 6 drops Peppermint
- Frankincense for fighting infections, general good health – Don’t you want to breath in something that makes you healthier instead of the just smelling the equipment you’re using all day long?
- Eucalyptus for decongestant
- Peppermint for alertness, headaches
Night Time Blend #1 – 50 drops Eucalyptus, 30 drops Lavender, 5 drops Patchouli (optional) – Phil and I notice a significant difference when we diffuse this blend at night.
- Eucalyptus for decongestant, anti-mucus
- Lavender for good night’s sleep
- Patchouli for woodsy smell, anti-depressant, aphrodisiac – if you don’t like the smell of patchouli, you might substitute frankincense (see recipe below).
Night Time Blend #2 – 50 drops Eucalyptus, 30 drops Lavender, 15 drops Frankincense
- Eucalyptus for decongestant, anti-mucus
- Lavender for good night’s sleep
- Frankincense for fighting infections, general good health
Massage Blend #1 – I use a 2-5% dilution (i.e., 2-5 drops of EO to 5 ml of carrier oil) – so my recipe varies but here’s a good starting place: 200 drops Jojoba oil (2 teaspoons), 2-3 drops Frankincense, 2-3 drops Lavender, 1-2 drops Patchouli
- Jojoba oil (or other carrier oil – sweet almond makes a nice choice)
- Frankincense for cell regeneration and arthritis relief
- Lavender for stress relief and good night’s sleep
- Patchouli for aroma, anti-depressant, and aphrodisiac affects
Travel package: When I travel, I take small bottles of at least eucalyptus, lavender and peppermint. Sometimes I throw in frankincense and patchouli.
EO Info Cards
I’ve created two sets of EO info cards. The first set helps me remember what the various oils I have can be used for. The second set helps me find the oil I need to meet a specific ailment.
You can download the cards and/or the information sheets below.
After you enter your email address, you will be taken back to the top of this blog.Scroll down to this point and a button to download the files will appear in both boxes below. Click on the button(s) to open either (or both) PDF(s). When the file is opened, save it to your system and then print the file(s). After printing the cards, simply cut them along the dashed lines.
Enter your email address to download Essential Oils 101 Info Cards
Enter your email address to download Essential Oils 101 Information Sheets
I’ve been writing this blog for a couple of months now – sometimes life gets hectic and I wanted this to include some free helps. We’ll get to that. I’m releasing this as a partial blog today because…BIG NEWS – the excellent book The Aromatherapy & Essential Oils Handbook by Rashelle Johnson is currently available for FREE (as of this writing) as a Kindle book from Amazon.com. Get your copy here. What – you say you don’t have a Kindle? No problem! There are free Kindle apps for computers, tablets, and smartphones. Read our blog about that here: http://theapproachingdayprepper.com/free-prepper-book-downloads/
Now, on to my essential oils blog. Because I’m rushing this to post, you’ll only get Part 1 today. I’ll publish Part 2 with some free downloadable helps in a few days.
Essential Oils 101, Part 1
I’ve always thought of aromatherapy as nothing more than making your house smell good. In my ignorance I considered it a waste of time and money. Then on a whim I bought a nice-smelling orange spice oil…which proceeded to make my eyes swell from an allergic reaction. Nope, essential oils weren’t for me…or so I thought.
About eight months ago I was having trouble sleeping and a friend gave me some lavender oil. She told me to rub a small amount on the bottom of my feet before I go to bed, then inhale the residual that was on my hands. Rub oil on your feet to help you sleep better? What kind of voodoo is this? With a bit of trepidation I tried it. To my surprise, I found that my sleep was consistently more restful when I used it. I convinced Phil to try it…same result for him.
Hmmm…maybe there’s something to this after all.
So about six months ago I started doing some research on essential oils. I spent a lot of time reading about them and within a few weeks I assembled a “starter kit” of oils. After looking at a number of pre-packaged starter sets, I decided that I could get a better price by buying select individual oils from a number of different vendors. Since then I’ve added a few and I’ve been putting all of them to good use. More about my starter kit in my next blog.
Now that I’ve studied the topic and applied what I’ve learned, it’s for a first blog on essential oils. It’s so hard to know where to start because there’s so much info to share. Let’s start with some Q&As.
Q. What makes essential oils a prepper topic?
A. It’s a prepper topic because essential oils are a great alternative to western medicine, and we seem to be drawing closer and closer to a time when access to doctors and medicines will not be as easy as it is now. For example, if you can’t get antibiotics for an infection, there are essential oils that may work just as well or even better. (Not to mention that the more I read about essential oils, the more I think they could be better solutions to many of our health issues than western medicine, but that’s another blog.)
Q. If I’m using the oils in a massage before bedtime, won’t they stain my sheets?
A. Good question. I was concerned about that. But guess what! Essential “oils” are not really oils at all! They are actually liquids from various parts of plants. They aren’t greasy. You will mix them with a carrier oil that really is an oil (certain types of vegetable or nut oil), but the purpose of the carrier oil is to dilute the highly concentrated essential oils and to help your body absorb them. The carrier oils you’ll mix them with will quickly absorb into your skin. No stains!
Q. Preppers store things for future use. Can essential oils be stored for long periods of time?
A. The shelf life of essential oils varies quite a bit, but most will maintain their properties for at least two years if stored properly. Some have a shorter shelf life, and since the carrier oils that you frequently mix them with are true oils, some are good for only nine to fifteen months.
Q. I’ve seen some wild claims about what essential oils can do. Can an essential oil really do so many different things?
A. As I began to study about essential oils, I was a bit put off by the many claimed benefits of various oils. For example, eucalyptus oil is a favorite of many and considered a “must have” in your first kit. I’ve read many sites and seen it recommended for the following:
- Improve the circulatory system
- Help with respiratory issues including asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and pneumonia
- Help with alertness
- Help eliminate congestion and coughing
- Cools your body temperature and is therefore good in treating fevers
- Its antiviral and antibacterial properties make it great for infections and for adding to cleaning products
- Helps with digestive problems and diarrhea
- Combats sore muscles whether they be from over-exercise or the flu
- A natural insecticide
- Help with sinus issues including rhinitis and sinusitis
OK, seems like we are solidly in snake oil territory. How can one oil accomplish so many different things? As it turns out, essential oils contain an average of 100 different “constituents” – components or elements that make it up. Many of these constituents have some serious therapeutic value. With that being the case, I can understand how it can do so many things.
Because each oil has so many constituents, man-made reproductions are totally inadequate substitutes. They may approximate the smell and perhaps even have a few of the qualities of the oil it approximates, but they can’t come close to the real thing.
Q. How can the same essential oil do things that seem to be exact opposites – for example, help me relax and perk me up when I get the afternoon blahs?
A. This one really bothered me. Lavender oil is a favorite of many because it can be used to help you relax (hence it’s great at bedtime) or help energize you (so it’s the great afternoon pick-me-up). OK, now we’re really talking snake oil, right? Well, no. It turns out that there are oils that are called “balancers.” Lavender is one of those oils. What they do is bring your system into balance – so it makes sense that it can either help you sleep or keep you awake in the afternoon.
Q. How can smelling something really improve my health?
A. Yeah, at first thought that didn’t make much sense to me either…but then I thought again. You may remember the anthrax attacks from a few years ago. Simply coming in contact with the anthrax spores – breathing them in or having them come in contact with your skin – can kill you. Well, if there is stuff that can kill us simply from breathing it in, I can believe there is stuff that can make me better simply by breathing it in.
As it turns out, essential oils work much more efficiently than taking a pill. Medicine that is taken orally must first go through the digestive system which (1) takes time and (2) breaks down some of the medicine’s properties. Essential oils, on the other hand, are often applied topically to the source of the ailment or are inhaled, which gets them into our membranes and blood much more quickly.
And if I still doubted that inhaling thing…I only need to remember what I do when I have the occasional asthma flare-ups — I inhale medicine through a nebulizer and almost instantly breathe more easily.
Q. Why is there such a difference in price for the same kind of essential oil?
A. That’s a challenging one. The short answer is that it’s a combination of quality, marketing, and greed. It turns out that some companies that sell essential oil at a premium advertise their products as “certified” or “therapeutic grade.” The truth is that there is no regulatory agency that certifies essential oils and there is no official category called “therapeutic grade.” These are just made up terms that have no official meaning. Some companies that capitalize on such terms are doing so to both justify higher prices and gain market position. For example, one well-known brand of essential oils is doTerra, I have no doubt that they sell high quality products, but in their marketing they use a registered trademark phrase, “Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade® (CPTG)”. It’s just a marketing gimmick. It means whatever they want it to mean. There is no organization that has certified them but themselves. It’s a promise to the consumer that their oils adhere to their own standards, not some authoritative third party. Like I said, I have no doubt that their standards are high and their essential oils are good – I just take a bit of exception to their misleading marketing. [End of rant.]
Other companies may use the term “therapeutic grade” simply because their competition use it and they want to communicate that they provide high quality oils. Again, there is no organization or governing body that certifies oil or classifies them by grade. So if no one is doing any certifying, how do you know what you’re getting? It’s not easy.
Key words to look for are “perfumed oil” and “fragrance oil” – stay away from them. “100% pure” is a good thing, but it still doesn’t speak to where the plants are sourced from or how they are inventoried. Quality essential oils are sourced from quality plants, are processed properly, and are stored properly.
“Quality plants” – We’ll leave that for another time because each oil comes from a different plant and many times the plants are grown in many regions. If you are a tea enthusiast, as Phil is, you know that tea can have different shades of flavor depending on where it’s grown and how it’s harvested or processed and stored. Essential oils are a lot like that. If you’re just getting started, stick with reputable retailers. You’ll find a few listed in my next blog.
“Properly processed” – Generally you want to purchase essential oils that have been steam distilled with no added chemicals and undiluted with carrier oils. You can select your own carrier oils for your particular preference or application.
“Properly stored” – That’s pretty easy, at least at the basic level. Essential oils should be stored in dark colored glass bottles. Yes, glass bottles. If the place you’re buying from provides them in plastic, you’re probably not buying high quality oils – unless you’re buying in bulk. When buying in large quantities, the shipping cost for glass bottles is prohibitive so most vendors ship in plastic or aluminum. You should transfer them to dark-colored glass bottles as soon as you receive them. Store your oils in a cool place that is not subject to temperature changes and out of direct sunlight. Do not store with a plastic/rubber topped eye dropper as a lid. Essential oils do not turn rancid like vegetable oils, they simply lose their effectiveness.
Those were my top questions. If you’ve got others, post your question on our The Approaching Day Prepper Facebook page (“like” us while you’re there) or as a comment on this blog and I’ll do my best to respond.
In my next blog, I’ll share the contents of my starter kit and my own experience. I’ll also identify resources – both companies and books. And, I’ll share some of my own essential oil recipes and a set of cards I created to help me remember how to use each oil. You’ll be able to download the cards for your own use.
For now, check out the FREE (as of this posting) Kindle book.
As preppers, we believe that is highly likely that life as we know it is going to be interrupted – it’s going to go crazy. We might not agree on what will cause that craziness, but we prepare so that when it happens we’re among the less crazy people.
At TheApproachingDayPrepper.com, we want to always remember that the first and best preparation is spiritual. I posted a blog today at ApprehendingGrace.com about staying grounded in God.
My life has been crazy over the past couple of months. As it begins to return to normal, I am enjoying routines that ground me – dissipate the negative energy of the world and refresh and recharge me with positive energy from God. I’m also recognizing the importance of those activities that we maintain in times of chaos that keep us grounded.
Friends, if we don’t learn to stay grounded before chaos ensues, we’ll be hard-pressed to develop patterns that keep us grounded in the midst of chaos. Check out my blog on ApprehendingGrace.com for symptoms of needing to be grounded and ways to accomplish it.
I just bought a new rifle. I could cut to the chase and just tell you what I bought, but I like letting you in on my thought processes regarding why I bought the one I did. There will be a bunny trail or two along the way. Here goes.
One of my first steps into prepping was the purchase of a handgun for home defense. When I started prepping, in addition to storing water, food, and other basic necessities, I reluctantly came to the realization that when the going gets rough I’ll need to be able to discourage others from taking the supplies I’ve invested in. If (when) things get ugly, I might need to be able to defend my life or the lives of others. So I got some training and bought my first handgun, a full-sized Springfield Armory XD in .40-caliber.
Yeah, my “first” handgun. The mighty XD-40 is a great gun for home defense, but a bit on the large size for concealed personal defense, so it was back to the store to buy another. (Sandy wrote a really excellent piece on this site some time ago called “How Many Handguns Do We Need?” which chronicles her side of that chapter in our lives. It’s a good read.) Needless to say, I’ve gotten a couple of other handguns since then, and if I don’t make it out to the range to practice at least twice a month, I start to get cranky.
For those of you who have the proper mindset (a combination of maturity, self-control, wisdom, and determination to use a gun if the situation warrants it) I strongly recommend that you get training, get a handgun that is appropriate for you (different strokes for different folks — there is no one “best” overall handgun), and get lots of regular practice. In that order.
But the question arises, is a handgun enough gun? While it’s a good option for home defense and your only option for concealed carry, a handgun is not a “one size fits all” solution to my prepping needs. If you can become a reliable marksman at 30 feet with a handgun, you’ve done well. When you need to extend your reach further than that, you need a long gun.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and we hope that you will enter your email address in the block near the top left corner to subscribe), you know that we approach prepping in stages. Once you’ve met your basic needs in any of the many areas of prepping, you’re ready to step up to the next stage. These stages won’t be the same for everyone. If you’ve grown up in a rural area and been a hunter for most of your life, you probably have a nice selection of rifles and shotguns. That would be Stage One for you, and moving into handguns could be your Stage Two. Being a “townie” who has never hunted a day in my life, my firearm acquisition stages came in the reverse order. For the past several months I’ve been in the process of learning about and clarifying my values regarding long guns. I found a couple of very popular options.
The Gold Standard
Many people consider a 12-gauge pump action shotgun to be the premium home defense piece. Just the sound of it being racked will give any reasonable, prudent bad guy second thoughts about their intended course of action. It holds anywhere from 5 to 14 shells at a time, and it’s good for hunting, too, as shells can be loaded with anything from granular birdshot to solid lead slugs. One downside of shotguns is that they aren’t good at longer distances. Because shot pellets spread out as distance increases, the effective range using shot is only about 25 yards. Solid slugs are good to about 100 yards. This might be a good, logical, and appropriate Stage Two gun choice for you, but we already have a Mossberg 20-gauge shotgun. It’s a nice little gun and a decent option for home defense, but it only holds three cartridges in the magazine and one in the chamber (3 + 1). I want more ammo capacity than that and I wasn’t sold on the idea of a second shotgun. I had a rifle in mind.
A Real Crowd Pleaser
For many, the choice among rifles is almost a no-brainer. Get an AR-15 and you’re good to go. ARs are hugely popular and, like the shotgun, they hold multiple rounds. 30-round magazines are standard equipment on most ARs. (Thirty rounds for an AR is not high-capacity – it’s standard capacity.) I’ve only shot an AR one time and it was fun. That’s not my highest criteria for a gun, but why would I want one that I don’t like to shoot? There are a lot of advantages to an AR-15. They’re light, easy to maneuver with, holds a lot of rounds, and are endlessly customizable. Just like you may know a computer guy who builds his own PCs from parts and pieces that he cobbles together, there are a lot of people who build their own ARs the same way. And let’s face it — ARs look bad-ass. Cradle one of these babies in your arms and you’ll look like you’re ready to go commando.
And that’s why I stayed away from the AR (or as gun enthusiasts call them, an MSR — modern sporting rifle). People are afraid of ARs. Not just the guns themselves, but also those who use them. As the gun control culture picks up steam, there is a continual cry for an all-out ban on these types of guns. Some states are passing this kind of legislature right now. Places like New York, Connecticut, Illinois, and California are unfriendly environments for people who own ARs.
Do I care what other people think of me and what I do? You bet I do! I want to have as much control over how people evaluate me as I possibly can. Sometimes I want to send the message that I’m not a guy that you want to mess with. But other times (probably most of the time) I want people to grossly under-estimate me. I don’t want to telegraph what I know, what I have, or what I’m capable of doing. That’s part of OPSEC (operations security). We don’t practice a lot of OPSEC here at TADPrepper because our mission is to get the word out that we need to get ready for hard and potentially dangerous times to come, and that means being open and transparent about sharing information that we would much rather keep private. But just as I carry a handgun concealed so as to not alarm anyone or let those around me know that I’m equipped to stop a threat, I want a rifle that would fly under the radar as well as possible while still meeting my needs.
I wanted a rifle with more effective range than I could get with a handgun. I wanted a rifle that held a decent number of rounds of ammo. I wanted a rifle that met multiple purposes — suitable for both defense and hunting, usable by both Sandy and me, fairly economical to shoot, easy to reload the ammo, and that didn’t scream “bad-ass commando (wannabe)” to anyone who saw it. So where do you find something that meets all those criteria? I found mine 122 years in the past.
Here’s something that I’ve found to be a general (but not entirely universal) rule of thumb about prepping. The solution to many of your prepping issues is to go as old school and low-tech as you can get. If the electricity goes off, you don’t want all of your preps to be computer-controlled. You want to be able to thrive in semi-primitive conditions. For me, that meant no gun that looks like it was used on the set of Battlestar Galactica. I went for an antique, a cowboy gun designed by John Moses Browning (the most brilliant gun designer of all time, IMHO) way back in 1892. I chose a lever-action rifle made by Rossi, a clone of the classic Winchester Model 92.
When I arrived at this conclusion there were still some decisions to be made, most notably which of the calibers that it’s available in would I like. I was initially drawn to the .357, with the hopes and dreams of someday pairing it up with an excellent .357 revolver. Seemed like a good idea at the time, with one notable problem. You can’t find them anywhere. I asked for one at my favorite gun shop and the man laughed in my face. He said they get a shipment of them once in a while, but they sell out in no time. I found none of them at any of the big online gun dealers, either. Time to go to Plan B.
Plan B wasn’t a bad option. I was getting excited about it. It was the venerable .30-30, the cartridge credited with harvesting more deer and elk in North America than any other round. Some of the reloading forums also said it was an ideal round for beginners to start with. And availability wasn’t an issue. Every store that sells lever-action rifles carries it in .30-30.
With my mind firmly made up, I made the pilgrimage to a gun shop about an hour’s drive from my house. I had never bought from them before, but I had visited once and was greatly impressed with their inventory. They have things that you only see in magazines but are never available in any other gun shop I’ve been in. And their prices are rock bottom. What’s not to love? Sure, they had the lever-action .30-30 that I had decided upon, but there was another little beauty in the rack, a .44 Magnum with a stainless steel barrel. I love stainless steel guns. Love ‘em. I know that they’re not as discrete as a blue barrel, but I love ‘em just the same. And they don’t rust.
Plan C — or was it Plan A?
I was just about to call an audible and buy the .44 when something caught the corner of my eye. It’s not easy for me to read those little tags they have on guns from my side of the counter, but I could have sworn that one of them a few slots over from the .44 said .357 Magnum. Naw. Couldn’t be. You can’t get them anywhere, as the past six months of Internet window shopping had abundantly proven to me.
But there it was. Brand new. Calling to me. “I saved myself for you, Phil. Take me home with you.”
No stainless steel barrel, but it was $80 less than the .44, it holds four more rounds than the .30-30 (10 + 1 versus 6 + 1), it’s cheaper to shoot, and easier to reload. The action was so smooth I could cycle it with just one finger and the trigger was fantastic. And here’s the kicker — the shop owner said that it’s illegal to hunt deer in the great state of Ohio with a .30-30 because it’s too high-powered, but they’ve recently changed the law to say that you can hunt deer with a .357. I don’t know if I will ever set foot in the woods with this gun, but I wasn’t going to let this Holy Grail moment slip away from me. The .357 went home with me that day.
I haven’t fired it yet, for all the same reasons that we haven’t posted a new blog on this site for the past three weeks — our life has exploded a bit and we’ve been swamped, but soon I’ll get it to the range…and hopefully, often. I’ll let you know how it goes when I do.
I don’t know about you, but where we live, we had a LONG, COLD winter. The weather’s starting to get nicer, but it’s been too long since we’ve been able to get out to our outdoor range. Sure, we could have gone to an indoor range, but that holds almost as much appeal to me as going to the outdoor range in 10°F weather. I’ve been told by a number of instructors that you should get some kind of practice at least once a week and I wasn’t about to make weekly treks to either an indoor or outdoor range between November and March. That left me with a problem. What to do?
If you ever find yourself in a similar situation for any of a number of reasons (perhaps you’re short on money or ammo, or your schedule just doesn’t allow time for the range this week, or you’re laid up with an injury), the answer to your dilemma and mine is dry fire training.
What is Dry Fire Training?
Dry firing is when you go through the motions of firing your gun, but with no ammo in it. If done properly, it helps reinforce the muscle memory you’re building up to be able to draw your weapon, get it on target, and squeeze off an accurate shot in a minimum amount of time. It can be especially helpful for new shooters as they learn the proper stance and become comfortable handling their gun without the possibility of the bang and recoil you get when you pull the trigger.
“Without the possibility?” Well, that’s the key. Safety first. Dry firing can be very dangerous unless you focus on safety first and always. An overwhelming majority of gun accidents occurred because the gun handler thought the gun was unloaded when in fact, it had at least one bullet in it. So let’s talk safety.
Safety First (and Always)
Dry firing can be completely safe if you follow a precise set of steps every time – every time – you begin and end a dry firing session. While we’ll add to this list, first let’s review our six rules of gun safety and discuss how they apply to dry firing.
Rule 1 – Get enough training to be proficient and keep your skills current.
Before dry firing, be sure you know how to use your weapon properly. You should especially know how to check your weapon to be sure it is unloaded with no bullet in the chamber or magazine.
Beyond that, consider dry firing to be a critical part of your training. Dry firing will help you learn and reinforce of the fundamentals of shooting. The fact that it lets you do that without an explosion occurring at the end of every trigger pull helps you develop a smooth trigger pull, avoiding or helping to eliminate a flinch.
Rule 2 – Never mix guns with drugs or alcohol.
While this would seem to be irrelevant when dry firing, you should view your dry firing session as real fire arms training. Any practice performed with a real gun has the potential to be deadly, and drugs or alcohol have no place in that effort. Guns and drugs or alcohol should never mix — even if you believe the gun isn’t loaded, because drugs and alcohol keep you from thinking clearly, and you don’t want to find yourself with a loaded gun that you believed to be empty. Which leads us to the next rule.
Rule 3 – Always assume all guns are loaded, and act accordingly.
Any time you pick up your handgun you should assume it’s loaded. That means your first step in dry firing will be to check your gun (both the chamber and the magazine) and unload your gun. Kathy Jackson of CorneredCat.com (a site I love) suggests that you also put the bullets in a different room. It’s an extra step to ensure your safety. You’re not going to reload and then take an extra dry fire practice shot by accident when you have to go to another room to get your bullets.
Rule 4 – Never point your gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
When you know your gun is empty and you’re in the process of practicing by dry firing, you’re going to be looking for a target. It can be very tempting to point the gun towards something that you would never want to destroy. Sure, that thing (or person) makes an easy target to focus on while you practice, but if you are unwilling to destroy it, don’t point your gun at it. That’s how a lot of TVs and wall switches have met their demise.
“Why?” you ask – “I mean, I’m only dry firing, right?” Well, there are two very good reasons for not pointing your gun at anything other than a safe target:
- People make mistakes (even smart people like you and me), and if you’ve made a mistake about your gun being unloaded, you’ve just placed that person you’re pointing the gun at in a life-or-death situation. A slip of your finger (or the purposeful pulling of the trigger, because you are, after all, dry firing a gun you believe to be unloaded) may very well kill that person.
- If you let yourself get lazy about where you point your gun when you believe that it’s empty, you’ll get lazy about where you point your gun when it’s loaded. The purpose of dry firing is to develop good habits that become automatic – you are training your mind and your muscles to perform movements that will happen “automatically” in a crisis. You only want to point your gun at another person when your life or someone else’s life is on the line.
Rule 5 – Always keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target and you are ready to shoot.
When dry firing, handle your gun properly (that is, with your finger outside the trigger guard) until you are taking aim at your target and are ready to dry fire. Again, don’t develop lazy patterns when dry firing because they will become automatic every time you pick up a gun.
Rule 6 – Know your target and what’s beyond it.
Bullets can travel through walls, ceilings, and floors. Be sure you know what’s on the other side of the wall where you’re dry firing. If you don’t know what’s beyond your target (you did put a target up, right?), don’t fire. See rules 3 and 4. Don’t just aim at something in the room where you happen to be sitting (remember rule #4). Build a safe backstop where you’ll set up a target. Then let dry fire training begin.
Will Training Without Bullets Really Improve Your Shooting?
In a word – yes! If done properly. Dry firing isn’t just pointing your gun and pulling the trigger. If you ever need to use your gun to defend yourself or someone else, your circumstances are likely to not be ideal. It might be dark. You may be woken up suddenly from a deep sleep. You might be in an awkward position. A dry firing training regimen will help you learn to deploy your weapon safely, quickly, confidently, and accurately. The goal is to make safe and effective gun handling as automatic as possible. Concentrating on each element of shooting will help you learn good habits and gain control and confidence, and those things will translate into improved shooting. Here’s what to practice when you dry fire:
- Get comfortable handling your gun. Pick it up and put it down. Do you always do both actions safely – with the muzzle pointed in a safe direction and with your finger outside the trigger guard? Learn to establish a good shooting grip as you pick it up. You don’t want to fumble with your grip and need to adjust it.
- Learn to ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. As part of your dry fire practice, go through the motions of moving, changing direction, and scanning the area around you while keeping the gun pointed in a safe direction. It’s harder than it sounds. Don’t assume that you already know how to do it and that it will be automatic for you when you need to do it.
- Become adept and purposeful at flipping the safety on and off. Someday you might need to operate the safety while you’re in the dark or while you’re focused on a threat. Learn to tell if the safety is on or off by feel and learn how to operate it without looking at it.
- Practice racking your gun. Learn multiple ways to rack it — overhanded, the “slingshot” method, with either hand, and even with just one hand.
- If you are planning on carrying your gun concealed (assuming you have a permit, of course), practice taking your gun out of your holster or purse, as if you were drawing it from the concealed position. Practice this very slowly at first. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. Doing it slowly will reinforce the proper method and feel so that when you need to do it quickly, you’ll be ready to get it right the first time.
- Give the same attention to learning how to re-holster your weapon. A surprising number of accidental discharges happen while guns are being returned to their holster. The trigger snags on something like the drawstring of your windbreaker and makes the gun unexpectedly go BANG! and put a hole in your leg or foot.
- Dry firing is the key to improving your trigger pull. Your trigger pull is the most difficult aspect of shooting accurately. This is one of the reasons why shooting rifles is so much easier than handguns. Most rifles are much heavier than handguns, but they have lighter and shorter trigger pulls. That, plus their much longer sight radius, makes them a lot easier to shoot accurately. Keeping a handgun that only weighs 2 pounds on target through a 9 pound trigger pull is a real challenge. Practice gently and steadily pulling your trigger while keeping the sights on target. When shooting from a distance of 20 feet, being off-target by just one-sixteenth of an inch will cause your shot to miss your intended target by four inches!
- Do you have a flinch that sends most of your shots low and left? A shooter’s flinch isn’t a response to the noise and recoil of a shot being fired, but is the anticipation of it. We flinch during the shot, not after it. Dry firing helps you identify and overcome flinches. As you slowly pull the trigger you’ll also notice if you tend to pull the gun to the right or left, up or down. Be intentional about correcting these. The recoil from a handgun really isn’t that severe. It’s pretty similar to driving a nail into a board. Practice getting used to the recoil by laying a board in your driveway or patio and banging on it hard with a hammer. Focus on not flinching from the noise and impact.
- Practice your shooting stance. Practice picking up your weapon, holding it properly and getting into your shooting stance without a lot of fidgeting. Practice until the motion becomes natural.
- After you’ve gotten very good at your basic stance, learn and practice other stances. If you need your gun for self-defense, you might not be able to use the isosceles or Weaver stance that you use at the shooting range. You might need to shoot while moving, or from a sitting or kneeling position.
- If you ever need to use your gun for self-defense, it would be best if you could shoot from behind cover. But while cover provides good protection, shooting accurately from behind cover is incredibly difficult. If you can maintain all of the safety rules while practicing from behind cover, do it. Practice dry firing while kneeling behind a table or sofa and shooting around the side of it. Then practice it while not tipping over. (Personally, I’d like to practice it while being 25 years younger than I am.)
Yes, the weather is getting better and the range is calling me. I’ll also be training (without the cost of ammunition) between range visits by dry firing. And I’m looking forward to my range visits being more fun and on-target.
Our humble little blog has attracted the attention of a television production company in New York City. While I’m not well-versed in the world of cable TV production companies, I have heard of Pawn Stars, one of the shows this organization is responsible for. They are in the process of casting a new show that will allow participants to showcase their survival skills in the wild and they invited us to audition for the show. While Sandy and I would describe ourselves as “preppers” we are a far cry from being “survivalists.” That’s a horse of a different color. Out of our league.
End of story, right? Nope.
They gave us their contact information and told us, “If you happen to know any exceptional self-reliance experts, instructors, students, or colleagues, feel free to pass it along to them as well.”
Our loss could be your gain. You could be a TV star.
Here’s more of what they sent us by email:
In the real world, survival is not a game and there is little room for failure. Survival is a matter of self-reliance that cannot be faked.
- Are you a TRUE survivor in every sense of the word? Is self-reliance a way of life for you?
- Do you believe that the act of survival has become trivialized in popular culture today?
- Do you want to prove that you have the skills, determination, willpower and strength to take part in THE ULTIMATE survival experience?
No gimmicks. No film crew. No games.
From the producer’s who brought you Pawn Stars and American Restoration on The History Channel and Clash Of The Ozarks on Discovery comes the biggest survival experiment ever attempted. The series will feature a group of self-reliance experts as they battle the elements and fight to survive on their terms with nothing but what they can carry on their backs. Their mission: to survive alone in the wild and document their journey every step of the way.
Whether you’re an outdoorsman, homesteader, adventurist or survivalist, if you’re ready to take on the survival challenge of a lifetime, we want to hear from you!
If that’s got you licking your chops in anticipation, give Natalie a call at 212-564-2607, ext. 2652. Or you could send her an email at Casting@LeftfieldPictures.com.
Been There, Done That
On a similar topic, here’s something that we haven’t told very many folks about yet. We were contacted by another TV production company last fall. This one was the company that does the show Myth Busters and a bunch of other programs for National Geographic Channel, Discovery, and other cable channels. They were shooting a show on “faith-based preppers” and they asked us to be a part of it. After several phone calls and a Skype interview with various members of the production staff, we agreed to do the show.
They sent a film crew out to our house in December and spent two days with us. They came to our church and filmed the entire service on a Sunday that Sandy preached. While they never put words in our mouths or scripted us in any way whatsoever, they were visibly disappointed that Sandy wasn’t preaching about some apocalyptic topic. They had a list of end times related Bible verses and let us select several of them to read and discuss. They filmed us doing everything from taking target practice to walking our dog. The point of the show was to express how our Christian faith impacts our prepping and I know that I didn’t make my point well at all. It was one of those situations where two days after they were gone I went, “Doh! I should have said this!”
Sorry. No do-overs. In the blink of an eye they were on their way to Arizona and Georgia to film the other participants.
We don’t know when the show will air, but we know that it will be on the Destination America channel (DirecTV channel 286), one of many cable channels that Discovery owns and operates. So we’re waiting for our show to air. If they give us any advanced notice, we’ll clue you in as to when it will be on. If you miss it, I know they rerun their shows a lot on Destination America.
So you see, Sandy and I have already become TV stars. Are you up for your 15 minutes of obscure cable TV fame? If so, contact Natalie at Leftfield Entertainment, and tell her The Approaching Day Prepper sent you.
We’re wrapping up our series on Making Gardening Easier with a refinement that can be applied to any of the types of gardening that we’ve discussed — whether traditional farm-style rows or raised bed, container, or straw bale gardening. Vertical gardening can add a whole new dimension to the way you grow vegetables.
The point of vertical gardening is that you grow your garden up, not out. There are a number of advantages to this approach:
- Less space — By growing vertically instead of out horizontally, you can fit more plants into less space. Vertical gardening is a natural add-on to your patio or balcony container gardening, but it also works well with any other form of gardening.
- Less soil and water — People have been using some vertical gardening techniques in traditional row-type gardens for centuries, but when you apply it to container, raised bed, or straw bales gardens, you’ll need only enough soil to grow the plants in and you water a smaller area, too.
- Less weeds, pests, and diseases — Growing your plants up a trellis, mesh fence, or other structure will keep them from dragging on the ground and give the leaves and roots more exposure to air circulation and the sun. This will reduce or eliminate the environment that some garden pests and diseases thrive in, making your plants healthier and more productive.
- Less work (hence making gardening easier) — You don’t have to till and cultivate a large plot of ground to have a successful vertical garden. Or you could, if you wanted to. You make the call. But you can grow a productive garden in very little space, making vertical gardening ideal for city dwellers or for anyone who wants to make the best use of a sunny spot.
There are some plants that are more prone to growing vertically than others. Pole beans come to mind. (Remember Jack and the Beanstalk?) So do peas, cucumbers, grapes, squash, melons, tomatoes, and grapes. Anything that grows on a vine is a natural choice for vertical gardening. These guys will all gravitate toward a stake, cage, trellis, mesh, or chain-link fence. Whatever they can sink their tendrils into. All of these are tasty candidates for your first vertical garden. (Squash and melons in a vertical garden? Yes, it can work!)
Vertical Gardening with a Traditional Row-Type Garden
One of the best ways to integrate vertical gardening with a traditional farm-style row garden is by means of erecting a trellis over one or more rows of the garden. The trellis can be a metal wire fence mesh stretched over a frame, or it could be a lightweight nylon mesh stretched between poles. The trellis could be straight vertical, or it could be an A-frame that allows your plants to grow up at an angle. Any way that you want to do it, just make sure that you’re trellis mesh and frame are strong enough to hold all the food that will be growing on it. Also take into consideration that you’ll want good access to your plants from both sides of the mesh. If you build an A-frame with tight chicken wire for your mesh, you might be constructing a barrier that keeps you from harvesting all of your crop.
Of course, everything that you can do with a traditional garden can also be done with a raised bed garden.
Vertical Gardening with a Straw Bale Garden
In a previous blog with talked about Joel Karsten’s straw bale gardening method. Joel says that one of the keys to a successful straw bale garden is to pair it with vertical gardening. He recommends that you rig up an espalier (yeah, we’re getting fancy with French words now) trellis over your bales. Joel uses sturdy metal stakes at either end of his row of bales and strings wire between the stakes at ten-inch intervals up the length of the stakes. He adds a 2×4 header that he attaches as the top frame on the stakes to keep them from sagging and collapsing inward as weight builds up on the trellis strings.
But what about those edibles that we might call “vertically challenged”? Is there any way to use them in a vertical garden? Lettuce, carrots, broccoli, onions, herbs, and strawberries aren’t exactly good candidates for creeping up a trellis. This is where container gardening fits into your vertical gardening plan.
Low-growing plants can be grown “vertically” by using creative ways to arrange their containers vertically. For instance, you could use the blank space on a garage wall or boundary fence to attach rows of rain gutters. These make great containers for lettuce, herbs, and strawberries. Some people have taken a closet-door shoe caddy with lots of pockets for pairs of shoes, filled each pocket with soil, hung it on a sunny wall, and grown food in it. (While this can be done successfully, some garden supply companies have adopted this approach and made fabric multi-pocketed containers that are designed with the specific goal of creating the best environment for growing plants, not storing shoes.) And don’t limit your concept of vertical to just mean growing upwards. You can grow pole beans or peas in a hanging basket and have the vines spill over the edge of the basket and grow downward.
Vertical gardening is a way for you to let your fertile imagination (pun intended) run wild. With just a little bit of nutrient-rich soil and a sunny spot anywhere in your yard, porch, patio, or driveway, the sky’s the limit.
We found an excellent book on vertical gardening by Chris McLaughlin. She covers growing vegetables, fruits, and herbs vertically with specifics about which varieties work best. There is a very helpful section on vertical gardening structures. A great book for those who are just getting started.
Have you ever noticed that some plants grow best in places where they shouldn’t be growing at all? I have some bare spots in my lawn that I can’t get to grow grass, but at the same time I grow a bumper crop of grass in the cracks in my driveway.
Joel Karsten noticed the same thing when he was growing up on a farm. They stored straw bales in the barn, but any broken bales got stacked outside next to the barn. Joel noticed that weeds that took root in the straw bales outside grew twice as big as the same weeds growing in the dirt next to the bales. Curious, eh?
Fast-forward several years. Joel grew up, left the farm, earned a degree in Horticulture Science, and moved into a house in the city. He wanted to plant a vegetable garden in his back yard, but he discovered that he had no usable topsoil. It would cost a bundle to truck in the amount of topsoil he would need to do the planting he wanted. What to do?
That’s when he remembered the straw bales from the farm, and the rest (as they say) is Making Gardening Easier history.
An afternoon we spent at the local Home & Garden Show last month included a seminar by Joel as he taught us about straw bale gardening method. I’d never heard of it, but now I can’t wait to try it. We’re planning to include about twelve bales in our garden this year. In those twelve bales, we’re hoping to grow beans (both bush and pole), brussel sprouts, carrots, cucumbers, okra, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, and strawberries. Hmmm… sounds like a lot of plants to this old boy – but that’s how excited I am about this concept. We’ll see what works best and report back to you. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
How Do Straw Bales Make Gardening Easier?
We have previously blogged in this series about raised bed gardening, square foot gardening, and container gardening. Straw bale gardening bundles all of these methods together and accomplishes it with bales of straw. The bale is the container in which you plant and, by its very nature, is a raised bed –one that is much higher than your typical raised bed. It doesn’t adhere to the square foot grid, but conceptually it is more like square foot gardening than traditional gardening because you will be thinking about planting in rectangles instead of rows. So you are getting the best of all three worlds along with the additional advantages of using straw as your growing medium.
Straw bale gardening evangelist Joel Karsten lists the following advantages he claims his method offers:
- 75% less labor – of course this is somewhat dependent on how extensive your garden is
- No weeding
- Low start-up costs
- Doesn’t require crop rotation
- Is “green” – as the bales are used, they degrade, creating rich compost for the next year
- Holds moisture well, yet is impossible to over-water
- Prevents disease and insect issues
- Extends the growing season because the temperature within the bale will become warmer than the outside air
That’s a pretty impressive list, and one that caused us to take notice. You can learn more from his website, by attending one of his seminars, or by reading his very thorough book Straw Bale Gardens. Or do all three like we have!
For our city friends – straw and hay are not the same thing. Both are baled and to the non-farmer are easily confused. Hay is usually baled alfalfa or grass. The whole plant is cut down (grain heads and stalks), baled, and used to feed animals. Hay will have the heads of grain in it (which become weeds in your bale garden) and won’t hold water as well. Hay usually costs more than straw.
Straw is the dried out stalks of various grains (so it has little nutritional value) with the heads of grain removed. It is baled, then used primarily for animal bedding. Straw stalks are like little drinking straws – that is, they are tubes that hold and conduct water. What a great idea for gardening, right? [FYI, if you like the science of gardening, Karsten’s book is great. He fully explains the science behind the method, including how the straw pulls the water into the tube instead of just letting it run out. It’s kind of geeky and kind of fun.]
So hay is for eating, straw is for sleeping…and planting. For straw bale gardening, you want (… wait for it …) straw bales.
Container Gardening with Straw Bales
So think of your bale of straw as your container. That means, first and foremost, that you will NOT be un-baling or un-bundling the straw. It will stay in its nicely bound rectangular shape. Turn your bales so that the wire or twine that bounds the bale should be on the sides of the bale, parallel to the ground. Once the bales have been placed, you can plant both the tops and sides of the bales. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Once you have your container (in this case, the straw bale), you need soil, right? Well, sort of. If you do your container gardening in buckets, you have to fill the bucket with some kind of soil or growing medium. With straw bale gardening, the straw bale becomes the growing medium. To make this happen, you’ll be doing a process Karsten calls “conditioning” your bales.
Conditioning the bales transforms the dry straw into a fertile growing medium. You don’t scoop straw out of the bake and fill it with dirt. The bale becomes the dirt. And pretty darned good dirt, at that. More like compost, really. But to hasten the process of straw becoming compost, you need to condition it.
Conditioning is accomplished by soaking the bales with water and treating them with fertilizer over a period of several days. As the fertilizer is pushed by the water into the center of the bale, the internal temperature of the bale will rise as it begins to decompose. After about 12 days of the treatment process, the bales will have cooled down to an appropriate planting temperature.
Tips for Successful Straw Bale Gardening
Throughout the straw bale gardening process, you’ll need to keep the bales watered sufficiently. If there is one downside to straw bale gardening, it’s the amount of water that’s required. This will be a deal-breaker for those living in a drought-stricken area. Even for the rest of us, using water from a rain barrel or catchment system of some sort will help to keep our water bill down. A soaker hose is the ideal means of watering bales. Putting a hose timer on it makes it even more low-maintenance.
Joel stresses on his website that another key to making the straw bale method work is the use of a good trellis system. He recommends installing steel posts at either end of your row of bales and stretching wire between the posts. Space rows of wires 10 inches apart as you go up the posts. This gives your plants the support they’ll need as they grow and provide maximum exposure to the sun and air. (More about this in next week’s blog about vertical gardening.)
A straw bale can be used for up to two growing seasons, depending upon how well they hold up. After they have deteriorated to the point where you can’t use them as a growing container anymore, you can then use the entire bale (or what’s left of it) as compost in some other area of your garden.
We’re stoked on straw bale gardening and look forward to trying this method as another way of making gardening easier.
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TADPrepper readers have been given an exclusive offer for a discounted price on an incredible tool for use with traditional row gardeners. Check out our blog on the RowMaker, a tool that makes creating planting rows in garden of any size quick, easy, and fun. Spend minutes instead of hours setting your rows just the way you want them. The cost is just $239 plus $10 shipping (to the continental U.S. only). This tool will let you plant a bigger garden faster and easier than you could ever image.
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