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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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.
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.
I don’t know what the weather is like where you are, but I’m guessing that for many of you it feels like gardening season is a long way off. I have good news and bad: It’s really not. It will get warmer and the snow will change to rain and plants will come back to life…sooner than you think…but perhaps not as soon as you’d like. The flip side of that, of course, is that it’s going to be planting season sooner than you’re ready for it if you don’t begin planning for it now.
Seems like a perfect time for a series about making gardening easier. If you’re a regular reader of The Approaching Day Prepper, you know that we are novice preppers. We come from a totally unprepared background. So the bottom line is we’re just learning, folks. Last year was our first foray into gardening. Even with our late start we enjoyed fresh green beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers with many meals. Our other plants didn’t like the late start so much, so we didn’t get a lot of action from them – a few squash, onions, carrots, and beets.
But that was last year. We intentionally started small so as to not become so overwhelmed that we didn’t want to try it again. That worked – this year we’re raring to go and looking forward to expanding upon what we learned from last year. We’ve been researching many topics and plan for this to be a year of experimentation with many different types of gardening techniques.
This blog is the first in a six-part series on ways to make gardening easier:
Part 1 – This introduction — Were introducing the upcoming blogs and sharing some tips for starting out the right foot.
Part 2 – Introducing the RowMaker – This blog will be directed toward traditional gardeners — folks who have the space to plant a medium to large garden with farm-style rows. We’ll be reviewing a great new gardening tool called the RowMaker. It will significantly – and I mean significantly – cut your garden prep time. More on that tomorrow. If you want a preview, head over to their site, but here’s a spoiler alert – don’t buy from their site unless you want to pay the full introductory price. They’ve given us a special discounted price that is even lower than their introductory price, and it will be available in our next blog.
Part 3 – Raised bed/Square foot gardening – “Square foot gardening” is really just a refinement of raised bed gardening principles, so we’ll talk about both in this blog. This was how we did most of our gardening last year. Loved it. Now we’re ready for some modifications to it and to try new things.
Part 4 – Container gardening – Phil’s sister gardens extensively year-round in Florida and she does more and more of it in containers. Container gardening is a great approach for apartment dwellers, but Phil’s sister has a big yard and has simply found container gardening easier than traditional gardening.
Part 5 – Straw bale gardening – Gardening without dirt in bales of straw! Using bales of straw as your growing medium, you can plant a garden with no soil at all. We recently attended a seminar on this and are looking forward to trying it this year. Initial start-up costs are minimal, it’s flexible, portable (how many gardens can say that?), and very low-maintenance. We’ll be doing at least a few bales of straw bale gardening this year.
Part 6 – Vertical gardening – Another favorite of city dwellers, vertical gardening allows you to grow a lot of plants in a small space. You can train many plants to grow vertically instead of spread out over the ground. We incorporated a bit of it into our square foot garden last year, but we want to learn more. Now’s the time.
Who knew there were so many approaches to gardening? And this is by no means a comprehensive list. But it’s probably more than anyone can start with – although I think we’ll be doing a nice combination of most of them.
We have some recommendations for getting started, and it all starts with having a plan. Yes, this is part of making gardening easier, because establishing a good plan ahead of time will get you off to a good start and keep you on track through the growing season. Planning as you go isn’t really planning at all. It’s more of a knee-jerk reaction, and it often leads to re-doing work you’ve already done because halfway through you realize that you didn’t think through the potential pitfalls.
- Start small – Especially if you are a novice gardener. Starting with a large garden is a recipe for failure regardless of the approach you take. You will find that it is more work the first year than subsequent years and you may quickly become overwhelmed. That leads to a neglected garden, a lot of effort put in for little results, and quite possibly a negative attitude towards gardening that keeps you from enjoying food picked from your own garden for years to come.
- Decide what plants you want in your garden – Think first about the food you eat and/or would like to eat. If you’re a novice gardener, you’ll want to start with plants that are easy to grow. Tomatoes and beans are great vegetables for beginners. Cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, squash, and peppers work well for most folks, too. OK, we’ve had no luck the two whole years we’ve planted peppers, but they grow like weeds for other people. I think the rabbits have always gotten ours.
- Consider what gardening method(s) most appeal to you – Traditional, square foot, vertical, container, etc.? We’ll discuss each of these in upcoming blogs.
- Create a planting layout:
- Consider the best area of your yard for direct sunlight and for ease of watering. (Lots of people forget the ease of watering part and get really frustrated dragging a hose across the yard every day.)
- Consider how tall your plants will grow as they will provide shade for things planted near them. Shade may be a good thing or a bad thing. It’s usually a bad thing in vegetable gardens.
- You can download a grid here to use in developing your layout.
- Create a schedule for preparing your soil and planting your garden. Timing is an essential element in gardening. It’s why we’re doing this series while it’s still winter.
- The easiest way to create your schedule is to start with your desired planting date and work your way backwards. The best way to determine your planting date is to ask other gardeners in your area. They’ll have the best answers for you. Bear in mind that different vegetables like different starting dates. Some are cold weather crops and others need the soil to be warm before they will grow well. We’ve provided a scheduling assistant with the grid layout. Download it here.
- Whether you start your plants from seeds or you buy starter plants from a nursery, you don’t want to get a late start (like we did last year). A late start will mean a smaller harvest or perhaps no harvest at all because you’ve run out of growing season.
- If you are using starter plants and wait too long to buy them, it’ll be slim pickins. The best plants will be gone and all that will be left will be the less popular and less healthy ones.
- Allow enough time in your schedule to prepare your garden plot, containers, raised beds, or whatever other method you choose.
- Properly prepare your soil. We’re not going into detail about that here, but suffice it to say that it can make you or break you. In some of the options we’re going to talk about, local soil conditions aren’t a factor at all, specifically raised bed, straw bale, and container gardening. This can be a huge factor in making gardening easier. Stay tuned for more.
As we said at the start of this blog, we’re still newbie preppers, as are most of you. We spent a lifetime avoiding prepper-type things like gardening, but now we see the need for it so clearly that we can’t stay on the path of blissful ignorance that we once enjoyed. Storing food is good and necessary. We hope you have a ton of it, but it will eventually run out. You need sustainability, and that means being able to grow your own food. That’s what’s got us out there digging in the dirt. We’re looking forward to this growing season. Check out the coming blogs in this series and you’ll find ways to make gardening easier.
EDIT: This bundle is no longer available. It was a great deal, but the consortium of prepper authors who put this together were true to their word about this being a very limited time offer. They’re talking about some other products in the future. We’ll let you know of any worthwhile specials that we find.
We don’t do a lot of selling on this site. That’s not what we’re about. The purpose of this site is this:
- To inform people of the potential dangers we all face in these unstable days we live in
- To motivate people to take steps to prepare themselves for an emergency
- To educate people about what they can do to make those preparations
But sometimes the best way to accomplish one or more of those goals is to recommend a product. This is one of those times.
A group of preparedness authors have banded together to offer a package deal of their books and instructional materials at a discount so deep it’s too good to pass up. It’s only $29, but that price is only good until this coming Monday (September 23, 2013). I don’t know what the price will jump to then, but it is an absolute steal at this introductory price of $29. They say the retail value of the package is $700. I haven’t done the math, but a cursory glance at the wealth of materials will confirm that they’re darned close. I bought one for myself right away. It was a no-brainer. I got enough stuff in this bundle to keep me learning and prepping through the cold winter months to come.
The Ultimate Survival Bundle is a collection of downloadable books, videos, and audio presentations that covers most of the critical areas of emergency preparedness or survival. Included in the package are a couple of books that give a comprehensive treatment of preparedness and it is well worth the bundle price of $29 just to get those two books. They are Making the Best of Basics (edition 12.5) by James “Doctor Prepper” Stevens, which sells on Amazon for $28.99 (one cent less than this entire bundle); and The Untrained Housewife’s Guide to Getting Prepared (also sold on Amazon).
Topics covered by resources in the Ultimate Survival Bundle include food storage, gardening, alternative energy, security, homesteading, medical preparedness, raising animals, and ethical issues. A total of 46 resources from 36 different authors. Some are very broad while others are highly specialized. Here are some examples:
- A 150-page book on dehydrating food, written by the author of a book on the same topic for the “Complete Idiot’s Guide” series that you’ve seen in bookstores
- A 101-page guide to herbal medicines, which sells for $29.67 on Amazon (I’ve looked up all of these Amazon prices myself to get a sense of the value of this package)
- A 266-page book about wind power from a consumer’s point of view
- A 106-page book on “apartment gardening” – growing your own food in limited spaces
- A book on solar energy that sells for $19 on Amazon
- A 40-page booklet on how to build a fire
- A 228-page book on raising goats
- A 62-page book on building and living in a yurt (after browsing this bad boy I am really wanting to get me a yurt!)
Click on this link to go to a page that gives details about all of the many products included in this package.
Besides books, there are also a few videos that you can download. Two of them are instructions on how to build a greenhouse, companion videos to a book on that topic that is also a part of the package. These video files are very large and will take a while to download. One is two hours long (2 gigabyte file size) and the second in a little over an hour long (1 gigabyte). Another video is a half-hour presentation on hand-to-hand self-defense techniques.
I could go on, but I’m going to try to contain my enthusiasm. The bottom line is that if there’s not something in the Ultimate Survival Bundle that gets your juices flowing, you’re not a prepper. At $29, this is one of the biggest bangs for the buck that I’ve encountered in a very long time. I can blow that much on pizza in a week. This is a deal that will give me something to chew on for much longer than that. When you’re ready to order, click here. Get it while you can get it cheap.
And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:19 (NIV)
It’s easy to become fearful as we begin to prepare for a day when life is no longer as it is today. We can look at all the experts say we should do to prepare and see how little we have prepared. And if we’re not careful, fear can creep into our hearts. When you are tempted to become anxious, do two things:
Remind yourself: Our hope is in God, not our preparations. Our hope is in the Lord. Yes, we prepare, just as we buy car insurance – for that time when things don’t go as planned. But our hope is in the Lord.
Remind yourself: God is faithful and He provides for our needs. He is good. A good way to do that is to remember the times He’s been good to you and read about times He’s been good to others. Here’s an update from a ministry to orphans in Mozambique. I was so blessed and instructed by this testimony. Most of us have our daily needs met many times over. In Mozambique, Bush Bunny Brenda (BBB) ministers in true life and death situations regularly. She can’t just go out and buy what she needs. Often, she is truly dependent on the Lord to provide. Let her story bless you and encourage that God will provide in your time of need.
From the 4/19/2013 Bush Beat Blog, the ministry update of Bush Bunny Brenda Lange
CALLING IN THE BEANS
A TEACHABLE MOMENT
Might sound a bit weird to some of you, but the Lord Jesus tells us in the Bible to ASK ANYTHING IN HIS NAME, and it shall be done as long as we do not ask amiss.
WE ASKED for beans for our orphans, and God is answering in a very unusual way.
THE NEED IS FOR 100 TONS of beans if we are to help the 2,800 orphans that are registered in our program.
Capena, our Project Manager visited the 6 villages that “ordinarily” are able to grow the ENTIRE 100 TONS. It was a bit disturbing when his report showed that they “might” have 10 tons to sell. Too much rain is the culprit, as most of the crops drowned.
THEN GOD STEPPED IN to surprise me with the fruit of my teachings from last year.
Yesterday, the 2 Pastors from the villages of Namara and Pequaria came to tell us that their church members, along with some of the villagers, had almost 21 tons they could sell! This is not a normal growing area for beans, so this took us all by surprise!
When I was teaching in Namara last November (planting time), I showed those members how to walk their fields PRAYING as they planted. Their prayer was to be very specific—ASKING JESUS TO BLESS THEIR FIELD WITH A 100 FOLD HARVEST as they planted their seeds. From these reports it is obvious, they did just that!
WOW, to go from a normal harvest of just enough to feed their families to a SURPLUS of over 21 tons is truly a blessing of the Lord.
My objective when teaching was to help them achieve a maximum harvest that would sustain their family and give them extra to sell.
I had no idea it would be OUR ORPHANS who would benefit from their obedience and the blessing that God placed on them.
What a God we serve! I’m so thankful we can trust Him to provide for our needs when life is going awry. Our hope is in God!
If you would like to donate to Orphans Unlimited, you can do so on their website or by sending gifts to:
ORPHANS UNLIMITED, INC.
11152 WESTHEIMER RD., PMB 391
HOUSTON, TX 77042
Sandy and I are city kids, through and through. Despite our urban upbringing and having spent the first ten years of our post-college life in Los Angeles and Chicago, we feel well prepared for life in a small town. I mean, hey! We’ve seen every episode of Green Acres. If ever there was a real-life Lisa and Oliver, it’s Sandy and me. But now that we’ve decided to start to prep, we’re really glad for God’s provision in moving out of the city to a small town several years ago. That’s God’s plan and wisdom, not ours. And like Oliver from Green Acres, we feel a need to get in touch with the land and grow some of our own food. (This coming from a guy who only strays into his yard to cut the grass once a week.)
A big part of prepping is learning useful skills, things that will help make us less reliant on outside sources. How long can I last if (when) the grocery stores get picked clean? The canned food I have in the house won’t last forever. I have to find a means of producing more of it. That’s where planting a garden comes in. In all fairness, we did plant a small garden once before, and we were stunned at how much food we were able to grow from it, but we’re just not “yard work” kinds of people, so any time the urge to plant another garden reared it’s head, we laid down until the feeling went away.
Not this time. We no longer view gardening as a “take it or leave it” pastime. It’s become more of a life-or-death necessity. So we’re going to take the plunge again this year, but we don’t want to over-extend ourselves until we get a better handle on it. We want to expand as we learn, so we’re starting small. And when it comes to small gardens, there are two very viable approaches that are wildly popular right now — container gardening and “square foot” gardening. We may do a little container gardening this year, but we’re going to focus our efforts on square foot gardening.
What Is “Square Foot” Gardening?
Square foot gardening is an efficient method of growing vegetables and herbs in small, organized spaces. So-called “square foot gardens” are raised beds divided into individual sections that are (wait for it…) a square foot each. So what’s wrong with conventional “row” gardening? Mel Bartholomew, the creator of the Square Foot Gardening Method, says it’s all wrong:
After looking at other people’s gardens, it was usually very predictable. Here’s what I found out about single row gardening: Too big an area, too much time, too much work, too much effort, too many seeds, too many weeds, too many plants, too many problems, too costly, too much harvest, too many tools. IT’S JUST TOO MUCH OF EVERYTHING!
People can grow 100% of the crops they used to grow in large plots in just 20% of the space. These smaller, more organized gardens are easy for beginner gardeners, can be located close to the house, and are easy to protect from pests and frost.
What You Can Grow
Herbs and bulbs are great for square foot gardens, as are beans and most vegetables. (You can grow flowers, too, but I don’t think you’ll want to eat them.) The only things that don’t work well are bulky vegetables like artichokes, ground spreaders like melons, and root spreaders like blueberries. Good picks are:
- Cherry Tomatoes
Picking a Location
- 6 – 8 hours of sun a day
- Away from trees where shade and roots can interfere
- Close to house for convenience
- Good drainage
Making the Raised Beds
Raised beds are made from frames or boxes that should be 6 inches deep and 4 feet x 4 feet square with no bottom. (We’re framing ours with concrete cinder blocks.) Actually, your beds can be as long as you like, but they shouldn’t ever be more than 4 feet deep. You need to be able to reach into the raised beds to tend the plants. If you have access to all sides of a bed, making it 4 feet deep will mean that you only need to reach in 2 feet from either side. If you are placing your bed against a wall or other barrier, make it only 2 feet deep so you can reach all the way into it.
Square foot gardening doesn’t require to you till the soil before you plant. Instead, you fill the boxes with new potting soil, ideally a mix of 1/3 blended compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 coarse vermiculite. So even if you live in an area with crummy dirt like hard clay or light sandy soil, no problem! You’re not using the dirt from your yard. Your plants will grow great in this “potting soil” mixture. Each box should have a permanent grid on top that divides it into 1 foot x 1 foot squares. Don’t skip this step or you’ll miss out on many of the benefits of square foot gardening!
Planting and Care
You plant a different “crop” in each square foot. Some crops grow one plant per square foot — others 4, 9, or even 16. If you’re growing from seed, plant seeds sparingly. Water the entire bed gently by hand with tepid water (never cold). As you harvest each square foot you can add a little potting mix, then replant it.
Of course, you’ll have to deal with insects and critters just like you would in any garden, but it’s much easier in a square foot garden. To keep hungry critters like deer and rabbits out of your garden, it’s easy to build a removable wire mesh cap. If you end up with garden pests, use organic pest control methods so your food stays safe to eat.
For more information on Square Foot Gardening, check out Mel’s excellent website at www.SquareFootGardening.org. Other great resources for small format gardening are RaisedBeds.com and Eartheasy.com. EarthEasy is very slow to load, but it’s a great site. Your patience will be rewarded.