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.
Exclusive Offer for TADPrepper Readers
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.
We interrupt our regularly scheduled gardening series to bring this announcement:
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Read on for details.
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So whether you want to improve your on-the-job skills, learn a new hobby or increase some prepper skills you’ll find some courses at Udemy.com to help. We found courses on aquaponics, growing medicinal plants, aromatherapy, self-defense and gardening (as well as some business courses we’ll be taking). When you purchase a course at Udemy.com you have lifetime access to the videos.
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When I’ve thought about container gardening, I haven’t thought of it as “serious gardening.” I haven’t thought of using container gardening to grow enough food to make a dent in your grocery bill. Container gardening? That’s like a petunia in a pot, right?
I’m learning that my thinking has been wrong, because that’s exactly what a growing number of people are doing. Phil’s sister was the first to introduce us to serious container gardening. She has containers all over her porch, along the back of her house and throughout her yard in Florida. She doesn’t do it because she has to; she does it because it’s efficient, effective, and so much easier than traditional gardening. And that’s what this series of blogs is about – making gardening easy.
In fact, container gardening might be the easiest of all approaches to growing food. But there are other reasons to consider container gardening.
Why Container Gardening?
- Looking for a way to start small? You can’t get any smaller than this.
- It’s great for city dwellers because you can garden on your patio, balcony or porch.
- It requires less weeding (the most time consuming part of gardening).
- If you move, you can take your garden with you! You will not have lost all the effort associated with making a traditional garden plot or raised beds.
- As with raised beds, container gardening can make gardening accessible to people with handicaps.
- Get your kids involved with gardening by giving them each one or more containers to tend. It’s way better than a pet rock.
- It allows you to extend your growing season in a number of ways. The soil in your containers will warm up faster than the ground soil, so you can plant sooner. You can move the containers around as the growing season progresses, taking advantage of the sun and shade appropriately. Covering your containers may be easier than covering a traditional garden so you can grow later in the season.
- Because you can locate containers in areas shielded from harsh weather or even inside your house, you can grow plants that are outside your growing zone.
- Try out new vegetable varieties on a small scale by planting them in containers. See which ones do best in your climate and go all in next year.
- Container gardening can add decorative elements to your home and yard.
Container gardening probably isn’t new to you. If you have any house plants, they’re probably in containers of some sort. But growing food in containers may be new to you. Imagine, though, growing cherry tomatoes in plastic milk jugs. Just step outside and have a tasty, healthy snack or pick some tomatoes to add to your salad. Or how about growing potatoes in a stack of old tires? If you can let your imagination go a bit further, imagine that you are growing a significant portion of your vegetables in containers.
It’s All About Pots, Baskets, and Other Containers…
Your container can be anything that holds soil and will allow water to drain. Anything. Be creative – you can grow plants in anything from a beautiful glazed pot to a piece of an old gutter. If you’re creating your garden on the cheap, search your home and thrift stores for pots, baskets, and other containers. I’ve seen pictures of people growing plants in plastic shopping bags filled with soil. Your containers can sit on the ground, hang from a stand or beam or attach to a structure (like a window box). Large containers will cost more to fill, but you won’t have to water them as often. Drainage holes are a must. Without them, you’re plants will drown. Terracotta pots will dry out more, causing you to need to water more frequently.
You’ll want to match your plant to the container. For example, a tall or heavy plant requires a container that won’t tip over as the plant grows and a spreading plant will need room to spread. Don’t use a container that is too narrow. Similarly, you’ll want to adjust the number of plants in the container to the size of the container. Remember, the roots of your plants will need room to grow.
…And It’s All About Soil
Your ground soil is may (or may not) be fine for traditional gardening, but it doesn’t work well for container gardening. It just doesn’t provide all of the air, water, and nutrients that potted plants require in order to be healthy. A better idea is a mixture of peat moss, vermiculite, potting soil, and compost. This mixture will give your plants a loose soil that is ideal for the spreading of plant roots, and holds a good amount of moisture while still allowing for good drainage.
Everything has its downside, and container gardening is no exception. Here are a few things to watch out for.
Although your container garden will require much less weeding, your plants will require a bit more attention. Plants aren’t accustomed to growing in containers. They’re accustomed to spreading their roots to provide stability for the plant and to search for nutrients and water. Since they can’t do that in a container, you’ll have to take care, especially when the plant is young, to manage the plant and soil. Because there is less soil in the container, it will warm up faster than the ground soil – that’s the advantage. But the reverse is also true. Less soil also means that the soil will cool more rapidly when the temperature drops, so precautions have to be taken to keep your plants warm.
Because you will be watering your plants frequently in containers with drainage holes, the plant nutrients will get washed out of your soil and will need to be replenished. That means using fertilizer on a recurring basis.
Container gardening is as easy as it gets. With a very small space and some TLC you can soon be enjoying the fruits of your labor — without much labor at all.
“If it’s for free, it’s for ME!” Those are words that I live by. That’s one of the reasons why I’m such a big fan of the Amazon Kindle e-book reader. There are tons of free books available for the Kindle. Don’t own a Kindle? No problem. Amazon has free Kindle software that will allow you to read Kindle-formatted books on your computer, tablet, or smartphone. Sandy and I both own Kindle devices, but we also use the free Kindle apps on all the other devices. Your Kindle account and library can be shared by several different devices, so all of your books can be available to you on every device. You can also share an account with family members or others. Click here to link to the Kindle app download page so you can tap into the treasure trove of free books.
The reason for this blog posting is that last night I found a bunch of good looking free Kindle books. A word of caution here: Kindle books that are free right now might not be free tomorrow. Authors will sometimes make their book free for a short time to bump their rankings on Amazon, then switch it back to the retail price. That’s why if you’re a freebie skimmer like I am, you have to look at what’s available for free frequently, because it’s always changing. And for any book that you think is free, you need to make sure that it still says, “Kindle Price: $0.00”.
With that said, here are links to a number of interesting looking books I found in the Kindle freebie bin last night that had some bearing on prepping:
Prepping 101: A Beginner’s Survival Guide. 90 pages. Retail price $8.99
Modern Rustic Greenhouses and Gardening: A Homesteader Guidebook. 77 pages. Retail price $2.99
Jerky: The Ultimate Recipe Guide. 66 pages. Retail price $12.99
Growing and Cooking Your Own Herbs. 82 pages. Retail price $2.99
Things Mother Used to Make — A Collection of Old-Time Recipes. 120 pages. Retail price $7.58
50 Natural Remedies to Prevent and Heal Everyday Sicknesses. 31 pages. Retail price $2.99
Tabletop Aquaponics. 74 pages. Retail price $2.99
Container Gardening: Secrets for the No thumbs Gardener. 31 pages. Retail price $2.99
Backyard Vegetable Gardening in Winter. 47 pages. Retail price $12.99
Hunting with the Bow & Arrow. 181 pages. Retail price $6.99
The Big Book of Camp Cooking. 134 page. Retail price $3.99
I haven’t actually read any of these books. They might be worth exactly what I paid for them. But sometimes the best things in life are free.
In our last blog, we talked about raised bed gardening. Square Foot Gardening is a refinement of raised bed gardening. It uses high-intensity gardening methods to get the most production out of a modestly-sized raised bed garden plot.
Square Foot Gardening is the brainchild of Mel Bartholomew. Mel is an engineer by training. After retiring, he started gardening the traditional way. Here’s how he described his experience with planting a small garden in rows: “To an engineer [it] was so obviously inefficient, wasteful, and just too much work.” His search for an easier and more efficient way to garden blossomed into a new career. He founded the Square Foot Gardening Foundation to share his methods with the world in the goal of ending world hunger by enabling everyone to grow their own vegetables. His book, All New Square Foot Gardening is both interesting and informative. The book gives you all the details, but his website www.MelBartholomew.com, provides a summary of the process, which can be broken down to into four main steps:
- Build a frame to contain your garden
- Fill the frame with Mel’s recommended mix of soil components
- Overlay the frame with a grid of one-foot squares
- Plant each square foot with its own crop
Traditional farming plants in rows, allowing space between rows for walking. This wastes space – lots of it. In square foot gardening, you plant in the raised beds, allowing space for walking between the beds. You will save space – being able to grow the same amount of produce in about 20% of the space. You will save water – because you won’t water all that space between the beds where you’ll be walking. You’ll save time and effort by not needing to weed all the area that you walk on to prevent the weeds from taking over your planted rows. And you’ll experience all the benefits of raised bed gardening.
The Square Foot Gardening Mindset
If you’ve gardened before, moving to square foot gardening will require some change in your thinking, but you’ll quickly adapt. Gardeners typically think in terms of rows of plants and they lay out their gardens accordingly. In square foot gardening, you’ll be thinking in terms of square foot sections in a 4′ by 4′ grids. Generally, each 4 x 4 grid is broken into sixteen one-square-foot sections for planting (like the one in the picture above). Within each square foot section, you’ll place one type of plant (either seeds or transplants) and you’ll plant 1, 4, 9, or 16 plants in it. Yep, you read that right, you’ll plant as many as 16 plants in some of your squares! For some larger plants such as tomatoes, you’ll use multiple squares for a single plant.
Building Your Raised Beds
In your first year of square foot gardening, you’ll find that less work is required than preparing a traditional garden, but you’ll incur more expense. Instead of spending your springtime preparing your soil by weeding and roto-tilling the dirt, you’ll build raised bed frames and fill them with a custom soil mixture, at least some of which you’ll have to buy. After the initial start-up costs associated with building these beds, you’ll find subsequent years to be easier and less expensive than traditional gardening.
One of the great things about raised bed gardens is that you can place the beds anywhere. Don’t feel limited to the spot in the back corner of your yard that had previously been your garden plot. Of course you’ll want to put it in a sunny place, but because the garden will be in beds, you can put it nearer the house and it’ll look great. Putting it closer to your house will also be an encouragement to go outside and grab some fresh produce to add to your meal! And it usually puts it closer to your water source which – you guessed it – makes your gardening easier and more likely to be done!
Mel recommends creating your beds from wood, but you can use anything that will create the squares – bricks, decorative garden edging, or concrete blocks. Last year was the first year we did any square foot gardening and we opted for concrete blocks. They’re not as pretty as the other alternatives, but we wanted the flexibility of creating some beds that were 4′ x 8′ last year, but changing it up to being 4′ x 4′ this year if that made more sense when 2014 planting season came around. (As it turns out, we’re sticking with the 4′ x 8′ bed.) Also, we knew that we wanted our beds to be two blocks high instead of just one high. While this increased the cost of creating the beds, it was kinder to our backs and we were more comfortable growing root vegetables in it. We’ve always been fans of function trumping form so the concrete blocks won out. But we readily admit that wood beds look much better.
Filling the Raised Beds: Mel’s Mix, a Grid, and Some Plants or Seeds
Once you’ve got your raised bed frames made, you’ll want to fill them with soil. Mel recommends a mixture of 1/3 blended compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 coarse vermiculite – equal parts of each, measured by volume, not by weight. You can find all of these ingredients at your local plant nursery. Our nursery delivered everything to us just hours after placing the call to them.
Once your frame is made and you’ve filled it with Mel’s mix (or your own custom soil recipe), an important step remains – you must add the grid to it. It’s not square foot gardening if you don’t have the actual grid in place. You can use furring strips or heavy twine or anything you like, but don’t skip this step. You can’t rely on your ability to eyeball a grid that isn’t actually marked out. Take the time to create the grid and place it in or on your raised bed frame. We used wooden furring strips that cost almost nothing at our local hardware store.
Then comes the planting. The trick is in knowing how many plants each square can accommodate, and that depends on what you’re growing. Mel’s book [INCLUDE LINK] gives tons of details about many vegetables – including info about starting, growing, harvesting, and the all-important number of plants per square foot. If you’re not buying the book, check out this link: [http://www.mysquarefootgarden.net/plant-spacing/].
Here’s the number of plants in each square foot for the plants we planted last year:
- Pole beans – 8 plants per square
- Carrots – 16 plants per square
- Cucumbers – 2 plants per square
- Bell peppers – 1 plant per square
- Potatoes – 1 plant per square
- Tomatoes – 1 plant in 4 squares with a cage
We loved it. The truth is that we don’t really enjoy traditional gardening. If we had more space, that might be the best way to go, but for our in-town backyard, it just doesn’t make much sense. Yet we thoroughly enjoyed our first foray into square foot gardening. The only down side was that we got a late start. Where we live, gardens should be planted in the last two weeks of May. We got our garden planted in mid-June. It severely impacted our harvest because we ran out of growing season before all of our plants were ready to pick, but we still did pretty well. We planted Roma, cherry, and slicing tomatoes, beets, pole beans, cucumbers, carrots, onions, bell peppers, and lettuce. We had lots of tomatoes (many that we picked green and allowed to ripen after we brought them at the end of the season), lots of pole beans, some beets and cucumbers (they were really good). We also had a few carrots and onions. We have absolutely never been successful with peppers and we weren’t successful with them in our raised bed garden. But we’ll try again because I like peppers but they are so expensive in the store. Also, our lettuce didn’t work at all. We had an extremely rainy season, so that may have hurt our lettuce.
We are definitely going to do more square foot gardening this year. Every gardener continues to learn something every season, and we’re eager to put what we learned last year into place for this coming summer. Growing some of your own food is tremendously rewarding. In our predominantly urban culture, vegetable gardening has become a lost art. The time may come when we need to rely upon it as a primary source of food for our families. Don’t wait until you have to know something to start to learn it. We encourage you to start a garden this year, even if you’ve never done it before.
No series on Making Gardening Easier would be complete without a discussion on raised bed gardening. Raised beds are typically frames built in your yard that are filled with planting soil of some sort. These frames can be constructed from a variety of materials and they don’t have to be very deep to grow a lot of food. Six to eight inches is plenty, and many folks have good results with as little as 4 inches of soil.
But how does gardening in shallow box make gardening easier? Let me count the ways:
- Many yards are cursed with poor soil, whether it be that the topsoil is too thin or too sandy or too much clay or whatever. Improving your native soil can be a lot of work. It’s easier to start from scratch. Raised bed gardening doesn’t use the dirt from your backyard. Instead, raised bed gardening allows you to fill your beds with whatever planting medium you want — topsoil, compost, vermiculite, peat moss, and so forth. Dream big. If you have more than one raised bed you can experiment with different mixtures or you can have custom blends for the specific types of plants that you’re growing in each bed.
- Since you’re not growing in your native dirt, you don’t have to till the garden plot. Even a small tiller, though very handy to have, can be expensive. There’s no need to buy or use one to prepare your soil with a raised bed garden. The growing medium that you fill it with will be loose from the very start. And it will stay loose because you build your beds in such a way that you can reach every part of your garden from the outer edge. That means you never walk on your bed, so your soil doesn’t get compacted.
- Raised bed gardening allows you to have a productive garden in places that you never could before. Since you fill your raised bed with your own soil mixture, you can place the frame on a concrete patio or asphalt driveway if you want to. What’s under the frame doesn’t matter. It’s what’s in it that counts.
- Raised bed gardening is ideal for those who have very limited space available for gardening. This is a city dweller’s delight. While most raised bed gardens are 8’ x 4’ or 4’ x 4’, you can make yours whatever size and shape that works best for you. There are many people who have successful raised bed gardens on the balcony of their urban apartment.
- Raised beds make gardening easier by being more productive and efficient. You will be able to grow more food in less space than you could with a traditional garden. The combination of custom soil, optimal placement of the bed for best exposure to the sun and its small size all contribute to high-yield growing.
- Some gardens are plagued by burrowing critters that chow down on your plants from underground. It that’s a problem in your area, you can construct your garden frames with a wire mesh in the bottom that will keep the hungry critters out, but still provide good drainage.
- One of the best ways that raised beds make gardening easier is that it reduces the number of weeds in your garden. If you build your frame on top of a weed blocker that allows for good drainage, you won’t be getting any weeds from the surface of the ground. The fresh soil that you fill your beds with should be free from weeds. That leaves only airborne seeds as a source for weeds, greatly reducing the amount of weeds that you’ll need to deal with in your raised beds.
- The soil in your raised beds will warm up sooner than the regular dirt in your backyard. This means that you can plant earlier. A longer growing season gives you extra time.
- Raised beds make gardening easier by increasing accessibility to the garden. It’s amazing how much easier it is to pull weeds when they are just 6 inches off the ground. If that’s not high enough for you, you can build your frames deeper and add a ledge around the edges of the bed frame that you can sit on while you tend your garden. Still not high enough? Who says you have to plant your raised bed garden on the ground? You can construct (or buy) a raised bed that sits on a platform, making the garden accessible even to people who are wheelchair-bound. Disabled people can continue to enjoy gardening.
Here’s a tip about the materials that you use to make the frames for your raised beds. Don’t succumb to the temptation to use pressure-treated wood. It sounds like it would be a good idea, but treated wood can leach chemicals into your garden that you shouldn’t be ingesting. There are other materials that are rot and insect resistant. Options include cedar, concrete building blocks, brick, and composite vinyl.
Traditional gardening in long rows is great if you have the space for it, but raised bed gardening is a wonderful approach for many other folks —newbies who want to give gardening a try on a small scale, people with limited space, gardeners with physical challenges who can’t bend over very well – or just folks who want to make gardening easier!
You know the process – before you can get to the fun part of actually planting your seeds or starter plants, you’ve got to till the soil until it is loose and well aerated. When that’s done, you still have the tedious process of making your rows. That’s where the RowMaker® comes in. (Click on any of the photos for a larger view.)
The RowMaker is a one-of-a-kind garden tool that takes the work out of making farm-style rows. It is completely manual (powered by just two feet and a cool drink of water) and you’ll have all your garden rows done in minutes instead of hours. In the video below, after an introduction to the RowMaker, you’ll watch as rows are completed for a 27′ x 19′ garden plot in just two minutes. Yes, two minutes! You simply pull the RowMaker behind you and as you slowly walk backwards, your rows are made. Because you can make them so easily and quickly, if you change your mind, you can simply remake them – without even raking them out if you’re really in a hurry.
About this time last year we were introduced to the RowMaker by its inventor, a retired Army officer from Texas. We were so impressed with it that we’ve helped launch the company’s website. When you watch the video, it’s Sandy’s voice you’ll hear doing the narration. That’s how much we believe in it. Watch rows being made in less than two minutes in this video that demonstrates how to use the RowMaker.
You can learn more, see more images and see alternate ways of planting in the rows made by the RowMaker on the RowMaker website. But…don’t push the buy button from their site because they’ve offered TheApproachingDayPrepper readers a special price. Read on.
The RowMaker is in the introductory phase of its launch. It is available from their website at the introductory price of $239 plus $10 shipping. When the first 100 units have been sold, the price will increase. For a limited time, RowMaker is offering TheApproachingDayPrepper readers a special price of $225 including shipping. Purchase using the link below to get our special price. If you purchase from the RowMaker website, you will pay the full introductory price plus shipping.
The RowMaker uses two defining phrases – “We Make Rows Easy!” and “Powered by two feet and a cool drink of water.” Both phrases say it all – using your RowMaker will make getting your garden ready for planting quick and easy. And all it takes is your two feet (or a helpful 10-year-old’s feet) – then reward yourself (or the helpful 10-year-old) with a cool drink of water.
Remember – to get the discounted price of $225 including free shipping, you must purchase from the buy button below. Visit RowMaker’s website to learn more about the product, but come back to The Approaching Day Prepper and purchase it by clicking on the button below.
This blog is the second in our Making Gardening Easier series. Sign up to receive our blog by email and you won’t miss a single one! Simply add your email address to the subscribe block at the top left of this page. Click here for a previous of the Making Gardening Easier series.