Monday, April 28, 2014

Potatoes in a Barrel, Update I


About this time next week, we'll add our first layer of dirt, probably with a little straw mixed in, as it's already extremely heavy when wet. Plus, I made a couple discoveries* that might change this science project as we test.

I have not been able to confirm the rumor that pole beans drive off potato beetles, so while we're going to plant some anyway once we add our last layer of dirt, we will be adding a couple other plants as companions as well.

Horseradish apparently provides pretty good protection from the bugs that harass potatoes, so I will be adding at least one of those, maybe more. That's easy since I now have two full patches of the stuff.

Marigolds deter beetles.  I've got marigolds everywhere this year - in fact, I'm hoping that it can become my replacement for Sevin dust.  I suspect that planting seeds might produce plants too late to be of use to my potatoes, so I'll have a few full-grown plants in waiting.  Hopefully next week I'll have a post that will reveal that strategy.

One item of note: I did not plant all of my potatoes in the barrel. Because there just wasn't enough room for them all, I dropped a few in a raised bed that was ready for seed.**  While the barrleeled potatoes took off almost immediately, the ones in the raised beds did nothing: so much nothing that I had forgotten I put them there until I accidentally dug them up today planting radishes over them.

* Or non-discoveries.  Science is not an exact science.
** I usually give my raised beds a couple weeks to sprout all their weeds before I hoe and plant.  Though after today, I have no more waiting for plants even though I still have plants to plant.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Bugging out on $20 a day


By now y'all know I'm not a big fan of bugging out.*  That said, I'm not so clueless that I don't realize it's the only option for a very large number of people.  After all, though danger is where the people are, jobs are also where the people are.  So for many, if they want to pay their bills and raise their kids, they don't have a lot of choice but to live in an area they would flee were things different. And for most, a secluded cabin in the Ozarks that they visit once a year is just out of the question.**

Giraffe made a comment yesterday that I think is right on: Oil isn't just going to stop.  I would also argue that the dollar isn't just going to die, the lights aren't just going to go out, even the banking system is not going to collapse with no warning.  Though I live in a place and a way that (I think) could handle the new reality if those things happened, I don't think they are going to happen that way. They are, IMO, pretty long odds. So assume it's not going to happen out of nowhere.

But let's say we had 2008 again and rather than the Fed backstopping every bankrupt bank, automaker, and insurance company in the northern hemisphere, a high-ranking source in the Bundesbank leaked that the bloody Fed had sold all of their - German and American - gold to the Chinese while no one was looking. The euro dives, but the dollar does too while interest rates spike.  The Russians invade Ukraine and overrun half of it in a day, then threaten to sell ALL their natgas to China if Europe complains. The drought rages on, causing Phoenix, Las Vegas, and LA to strictly ration water.  A medium-sized earthquake near San Diego causes some minor but real damage to nuclear electrical generation, just as a record hot spell bakes the west. Rolling brownouts result, not just in California but all the way to Kansas. It's not TEOTWAWKI, but a lot of crap is piling up really quickly, and it looks like a few more straws are about to be loaded upon this tired old camel. It might be time to jump, or at least send the family someplace safe, at least for a while, and await events.  But to where?

I am happy to report that societal inertia is your friend.  Whatever happens in one geographic location, others gawk and talk but go about their business as best they can.  People go to work and grill brats and cut their lawns. They did during WWII, they did during 9/11, they did in 2008 while the Dow was losing 5% a day and deflation looked to be sucking the life out of commodities from oil to gold to FCOJ and when the Treasury Secretary was threatening Congress with tanks in the streets if they didn't cough up $700b for his Wall Street buddies.  You can expect that outside any physically affected area, life is going to go on pretty much as normal, and in small towns in rural America, people will talk about it but it won't affect them for a while.  And they have houses for rent. And they're cheap.   

You can rent a decent-sized house in small town America for literally $6k a year plus utilities.  If you can find a farmhouse where the owner is simply looking to monetize a house he doesn't need, you might be able to swing $4k for a year if you paid it all in one payment.***  They are not new houses. They are not even pretty houses.  But many of them are big houses with big yards in quiet places far from highways and close to farmer's markets. They are safe places with neighbors who are kind but not too close and not too needy.

If it looks like SHTF might be weeks away, if you are starting to dread what news you'll wake up to, if you are getting the feeling that you can't leave but the family must, consider finding a rental in a small town where your worries don't reach.  Rent it for a year or even 6 months if you can negotiate such a lease.  Send the family there to reconnoiter, to plant, to live. Send half your tools, a little gold, enough of the pantry to round out a small U-haul.  If after 6 weeks the world comes back to rights, you've spent a few grand and can look forward to some really great missing-you sex. If the world goes to pot, well, it's far easier to bug out alone than with hungry, scared kids in tow.

* Rather, I'm a fan of bugging out right freaking now. Getting while the getting's good, so to speak.
** Besides, with no one watching over it, there's no guarantee what you'll find when you arrive. 
***and in cash.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Some assembly required

Brass, atomic weight 223.
Get it into your head early: you cannot store enough finished goods to live the rest of your life just like you live today.

A lot of preppers, subconsciously perhaps, act like if they just set aside enough ammo or beans or whatever, they won't need to worry about whatever the future brings.  Well, you don't have to worry about the future,* but unless you have one foot in the grave already, you're likely going to have to learn to make much of the stuff you'll need or that others will need.

Now, the obvious problem is that there's lots of stuff you need but you can't make. That's the beauty and the Achilles' heel of modern technological society. This means you're going to have to store some stuff until a workaround can be devised.  But stockpiling, other than a small "get-by" stockpile of everything, should be done as efficiently as possible.

As I discussed in the SHTF Stockpile, saving closets fulls of toilet paper is a waste of your space. But saving small, technically difficult to create and replace items is critical. You might be able to fashion a lawn mower blade, but what about a spark plug? The difference between them is more than just how much storage space each demands.

Let's see how this works using ammo as an example, but it will apply to any other product that can be assembled or maintained at home from canned goods to fishing lures to motorcycle engines.

You can store tons and tons of ammo.  It's small, stacks well, trades easily, and so it's good to have a bunch of it in your personal stockpile. But then you have a fire or a flood or a break-in and all your ammo is gone.** When you can't just walk down to your gun store and replace it, what do you do? When the gun that is supposed to shoot that ammo is lost or broken, what do you do?

That's the problem with relying wholly on end products - if you can't buy them, you're stuck. If you have one but it no longer meets your need, you can't use it until you can find someone to trade it to. So let's see if we can find ways to make our storage more efficient, both in terms of space and money, and in eliminating things we don't need.

To start, break your favorite end product down into its component parts.  What are the indivisible pieces?  What are the processes for assembling those pieces?  What is the smallest thing we can and must accumulate in order to re-create the product? What are the parts that break again and again and again?

Modern centerfire*** ammunition is made up of four parts - bullet, powder, brass, and primer.  You can buy and store all of those separately, and so long as have the tools to assemble them, you can save significant space and money.  Plus, thieves are far less likely to carry off a peanut butter jar of cast 9mm bullets than they are a box of finished 9mm ammo.  But in the interest of breaking it down further, let's take a look at each in turn:

Bullets: A bullet is simply a hunk of metal of a proper size and shape to be shot from a gun.  It could be made of lead and tin and antimony. It might be a copper coating over a core of aluminum powder. It might be 100% zinc or even, for werewolves, silver. Maybe it has a little aluminum gas check attached to its bottom.  Maybe it has some lubricant**** in its grooves. But there's nothing complex about it - it's simply metal molded into a specific shape.  We'll later do a post about casting bullets (maybe we'll even get our good friend Giraffe to write it, nudge nudge, wink wink), but suffice it to say that anyone can fashion one. The tools and process are simple. 

Brass: The beauty of reloading your own brass goes far beyond the therapeutic effects of recycling. Because you can use brass again and again, you don't need to store as much of it as you would finished ammo. A thousand rounds of 9mm fills 20 boxes, with quite a bit of space and cost.  But the brass needed to load and shoot those thousand rounds - figure 200 pieces each reused 5 times - can almost fit in a sandwich bag. You probably can't make brass casings yourself, so where do you get them? Save your own brass, visit the range at sunup, buy 500 pieces on Amazon for $20. Free or almost free brass is not hard to come by, and over the course of a year you can probably collect enough to last you a lifetime if you shoot a common caliber. Finding reloadable 7.62x39 brass lying around is a significant challenge. Finding 45ACP is not.

Powder and primers: Until you build your smokeless powder manufactory, these are two items you're just going to have to store. Fortunately, they are both far more compact than finished ammo.  A pound of pistol powder - enough for ~1000 rounds of 9mm - is about the size of a large vitamin bottle. A thousand primers to go with it is about the size of a brick.

Assuming you get your components the cheapest way possible, you can probably assemble 9mm ammo for under 8c a round, or $4 for a box of 50. That's about a fourth of the cost of regular ammo when you can get it.

But besides the reduction in cost, space, and the odds of it being stolen, there's another advantage to storing components rather than finished products: you can assemble the same parts into different products. Accumulating components rather than finished products will give you resilience, flexibility, adaptability.

You can buy the bullets you think you'll need, but you're better off to make the ones you actually need. Any 9mm round you've cast can be re-cast into 357 or 45ACP easily.  With a little kitchen chemistry and the addition of a gas check, they can be re-cast into rifle rounds as well. You can even cast them into fishing sinkers or jig heads so long as you have the right tools and learn to do it.

While your 9mm brass will only work for 9mm,***** your primers will work in all small calibers. .380, Makarov, 25ACP, you won't care, they all use the same primers.

Your powder can be used to charge any pistol caliber and perhaps even shotgun loads depending upon the powder.

So that's the first lesson: rather than storing finished products, gather and store tools and components. Learn to use them to assemble the products you need. You'll not only save yourself space and money, you'll give yourself skills and flexibility in a time when the ability to adjust to circumstances will be critical.

But there is another, complementary one: make an extra effort to find the weak links in your production chain. No matter what you're assembling or fixing or making, those links exist.  Find the critical parts you can't make, like canning lids,****** and store extras. Find the pieces that will disappear first and store those. Especially, identify alternative parts that will work in place of expensive ones and store those. That way when others are scrounging around for products, you'll be able to assemble exactly what they need and trade it for what you need.

* Besides, it does no good anyway - Matt 6:27.
** It needn't be that dramatic. You might just shoot it all, too.
*** If you want to shoot 22LR, you're just going to have to store it. Sorry.
**** Do you have bees? Get a good wax-based bullet lube recipe and you may have customers for life.  You're welcome.
***** unless you get form dies and a brass trimming lathe. Then the world is your oyster.
****** If you don't store them, learn how to seal jars like your grandmother did. Even better, do both.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The 55 Gallon Potato Garden

Smaller than mom's garden
When I was a kid, we had one garden that was nothing but potatoes. It was at a cabin my parents still own in northern Wisconsin, and we spent every summer weekend there, plenty of that time weeding.

Now don't get me wrong, I loved the end result - red potatoes, white potatoes, yellow potatoes, big potatoes, small potatoes, potatoes fried and boiled and baked.  But really, what kid would rather be gardening than riding his bike in the summer sunshine? Not this one. And the number of potatoes we got per square foot of garden always seemed disappointingly small after all that work.

So when I grew up, I subconsciously gave up on potatoes: they were too much work for relatively little benefit. But I have officially taken them up again, because I discovered* a way to grow plenty of potatoes without all that weeding and even without taking up much space. The concept is deceptively simple: you can massively reduce the area you need to grow your potatoes by growing them in three dimensions: grow your potatoes in a barrel.

Here's the way to do it:

The number of the drilling shall be 7
1. Get a barrel.  I prefer heavy white plastic like the one pictured above, but you can use a trash can, half a whiskey barrel, anything that allows you room for 2 or 3 feet of dirt. I prefer white because I can leave it in full sun without baking the contents prematurely.

2.  Drill some holes in the bottom of the barrel for drainage.  Potatoes need moisture, but if you have 6" of sodden soil in the bottom, they'll rot before you get anything remotely resembling french fries. I set the barrel up on a couple of cinder blocks to ensure excess water can escape.

3. Place a screen in the bottom.  This step is voluntary, but since I drill rather large (1") drainage holes in the barrel, I like to line the bottom with a 1/2" metal screen. The smaller holes will hold the dirt inside and let the water out.

4.  Place about 6"of good soil in the bottom. Potatoes like a relatively acid soil,** but if you've grown them successfully in your garden, you should not need to worry about it too much.  I also add some fertilizer/plant food just to provide a little extra boost.

The bottom of a white barrel
5.  Plant your seed potatoes with the eyes up.  Because they'll be growing a lot taller than regular potatoes, feel free to plant them closer together than the instructions recommend.  You should be able to get 2 or 2 1/2 pounds of seed potatoes in a 55-gallon drum.

6.  Cover the potatoes with 3" of soil, then with some mulch to keep the moisture in.  Some folks like to mix in chopped straw and the like, the idea being to reduce the final weight of the barrel.

7.  Give everything a good soaking to start, and ensure that your drainage holes are working.  If you pour 20 gallons of water in there and none comes out, you're going to have a problem long before harvest time. Water it deeply every week.

8.  Once the plants are 9" - 12" above the mulch, add a 6" layer of dirt and mulch again. As they continue to grow, the plants will produce another layer of potatoes in the soil you just added. Keep adding until the barrel is full and the plants are growing out of the top of it.

9.  Once your dirt level is close to the top, plant some bush beans in it.  The beans will keep out the Colorado potato beetle, while the potatoes will drive off the Mexican bean beetle.  Because the potato is set so deep, the plants will not be fighting over resources, so plant as many beans as you can fit. The more you plant, the less you'll have to weed, as well.

10.  Once the plants die off at the end of the year, dump the barrel over and collect your harvest. You can expect to get at least 10 pounds of potatoes for every pound you planted, depending upon your soil, the length of your season, and how many times you cheated and dug up a few new potatoes for a mid-summer meal.   

Four barrels filled with different kinds of potatoes ought to keep your family in hash browns for the whole winter. And it will leave plenty of space in the regular garden for something that your kids might actually want to help with.  Mmmmm... rutabagas.***

UPDATE: Since lots of people seem interested in how this experiment ended, The Disappointing Finale is heretofore linked.

* I didn't discover it myself; I just found some other people who discovered it first.  But it's still new to me.
** As you're adding soil all year, the question of where you will get it from arises.  I get mine from beneath a big dead tree, of which I have plenty within wheelbarrowing distance.  Because it has 100+ years of fallen leaves and bark rotted into it, it tends to be lighter than regular topsoil. And this barrel is going to be HEAVY when it's full. At year end, I'll work it into the gardens or the mulch pile.
*** Someday I'll tell the story of the last time my parents made my brothers and I eat rutabagas. It was a gas, gas, gas.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Bugout Boat

Captain Cathar attempts to make the case:
Because of these challenges along any crowded coastline, I'd like to suggest that your readers consider a small sailing vessel as your bug out retreat. The greatest advantage is that you could get away in short order and with a minimum of sophisticated technology. The power of the wind can take you anywhere in the world...
What precedes and follows is a good list of the threats that might make bugging out necessary and a good argument that bugging out by boat might make sense.  Bugging out by car makes sense as well in some circumstances.

But just as it does not make sense to plan to live in your car, it makes no sense to plan to live in your boat in SHTF.  Here are a few reasons why:
  • The worse the SHTF is onshore, the more isolated you will be.  While it's a pleasure to spend one's time sailing today, today's navigator has access to GPS, weather radio, the Coast Guard, and peaceful, stocked ports. None of which may be available in SHTF. The fun of sailing today cannot be projected into a SHTF scenario.
  • Pirates.  Yes, peg legs and funny hats and, AAAAARGH, Matey. With SHTF taking place in Somalia today, attacks by well-armed pirates have been reported along the shore from Tanzania to Oman and for hundreds of miles into the Arabian Sea.  Do you really want to face a half-dozen motorboats full of armed and hungry pirates in your 28' Pearson Triton
  • Storms. Pray that your flight not be in winter, because if you're sailing off New England, you're in a fix.* If you're in the Gulf Coast during hurricane season, you're in a fix.  In fact, anywhere in the world at any time, you'll have to face the elements with no one to call, no one to come get you if you misjudge or just have a run of bad luck.
  • The Second Law of thermodynamics.  Everything wears out, even your boat.  Your food runs out.  Your patience with that flat blue sea runs out.  There is a reason very few people just float around the ocean until they die.** It's neither a long nor enjoyable life in most cases. 
  • The sea turns significant problems into catastrophic ones. If your daughter's appendix bursts, how close are you to someone who can help her?
The idea of heading out to sea during an SHTF scenario sounds good on the surface, but like bugging out to Belize or Chile, its appeal is based on the experience of those for whom doing so today is a means of vacation and who unconsciously rely on technology and peace to move from place to place.  SHTF, especially in an international scenario, is different. Rather than those who wish to sell you overpriced T-shirts, every landfall in SHTF will be crawling with those intending to sell your stores to starving people on land.

Bug out by boat, sure.  But bug out to somewhere, get off the boat, and make a life where the wildflowers grow. 

* And if you're trying to get out of the Great Lakes, your boat had better be on ice skates.
** voluntarily, anyway.