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.
“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.
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.
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.