(written by Jackie)
Full Disclosure: After my original review of the 4 Foot Farm Blueprint by Crisis Education, I was contacted by someone from the company. I fully expected them to ask me to soften my review or to take it down, but surprisingly, they did not. They asked me to preview their 2014 version of the 4 Foot Farm eBook before it went live to the public. I agreed. Once I gave them my pre-market notes, they sent me the final product for review. So we did not pay for the 2014 edition of the 4 Foot Farm Blueprint by Crisis Education. We were not compensated for our review and our opinions remain our own, as always.
Crisis Education and I emailed back and forth a bit. I spotted a few simple grammar and spelling issues, but knowing that wasn’t the point of me previewing the product, I tried to focus my attention on the content of the eBook itself. If you recall, the 2013 edition focused on vertical gardening using either garden towers or a wall of recycled plastic bottles used for vertical container gardening. This would work most easily outside, but they suggested you could also bring it indoors if you were able to provide artificial lighting and so forth.
The 2014 version is two-fold, with both an indoor and outdoor system. The indoor system focuses on a hydroponic wall for growing greens and herbs year-round. The outdoor system focuses on square foot gardening, companion planting, and succession planting for everything else you may want to grow.
The Outdoor Plan
I use square foot gardening in my own garden. I love it. I also use some companion planting techniques. I can spend a month planning and re-planning my spring garden layout. However, here in the upper Midwest, succession planting is a little harder to pull off, since our growing season only spans from about mid-May to the end of September. But in general, these techniques are wonderful for space saving in the home garden. Vertical gardening is another great technique when well-placed. From allowing vines to grow up instead of out to strawberry towers to hanging plants, vertical gardening is another way to save space when your growing area is small.
My biggest concern with the 4 Foot Farm Outdoor Plan is that it assumes you live in growing zone 7 or warmer and can plant seeds outside from April 1 until September 1 and still have time to harvest that last planting. The author offers both a garden layout for your 4’x4’ bed and a calendar, but neither takes into account plant hardiness zones. So if you live anywhere in the Midwest or Northeast, or even in more moderate areas like Missouri or Virginia, you’ll need to research and plan your own calendar and planting chart. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing your own research, I’m merely pointing out that it’s not as plug-and-play as the author seems to suggest and oversimplifies the process.
The author similarly oversimplifies gardening as a whole, glossing over light and soil quality and barely mentioning pests or weeds, the biggest problems I’ve had in my own personal garden. Grasshoppers and Creeping Jenny have taken out entire crops for us. Gardening has a steep learning curve. It can take years to learn the ins and outs of your particular location. Even avid gardeners that move to a new state will tell you that it’s a whole new learning curve in the new area. Gardening is hard. There’s always something new to learn and always new problems arising. It’s also wholly rewarding and the yields are delicious. I don’t say any of this to dissuade readers from gardening, only to point out that any book that claims to give you step by step foolproof plans in 50 pages or less is oversimplifying the process. (This particular eBook is 26 pages plus you get access to 4 appendixes. The step by step outdoor square foot garden plan appendix is a single page.)
To further claim that you can grow everything a family of 4 needs in a 4’x4’ space is also glossing over any learning curve or yearly issues like drought or heat waves or early frosts. You’ll have some years when none of your tomatoes ripen and other years when you get a bumper crop. You’ll have years that something nibbles on all of your beautiful seedlings overnight and you have to replant. That same year you’ll have one single plant that gives you so much eggplant that you’ll be scouring the internet looking for new recipes and begging people to take some off your hands.
The Indoor Plan
I should start off by saying that I’ve never tried hydroponics myself. I’ve dabbled in aquaponics, making a very simple a small desktop system with my kids, but hydroponics has always seemed expensive and complicated to me when compared with more traditional indoor container gardening.
So when I previewed the 4 Foot Farm Blueprint, I could only express my concerns and speculate about how the system would work based on what I’ve read about hydroponics.
In a nutshell, this a freestanding frame that you build yourself with your growing medium hanging down like a tapestry. A water reservoir sits below and a pump on a timer runs water up to the top of your “wall” and allows it to drip down the growing medium.
Upon initial review, my concerns were:
- The cost of this wall and yearly maintenance costs, which I will delve into further later.
- The author doesn’t explain very well how to fertilize or maintain this system. The directions seem to cut off shortly after the “getting started” phase.
- The author directs you to harvest plants every 4 months and then plant a new crop right next to the old space. My concern is that pulling the roots from the base growing medium will damage it, weakening the wall, and requiring your base growing medium to be replaced yearly, which would require disassembling the wall.
- The wall itself doesn’t seem terribly sturdy. There are no braces to keep the wall from tilting forward as plants add weight to one side of the wall, or to prevent the plants from being jostled right off the wall if the system is knocked by a dog, child, or clumsy gardener. The author writes that you can expect to harvest 44 pounds of greens and herbs from this wall every 4 months. The weight of this would surely tax one side of the wall, especially when the extra growing medium to that side is wet.
- If this yields 44 pounds of greens and herbs every 4 months, will the average family consume all of that? The author even suggests that you’ll likely get more yield than your family can consume and suggests selling or bartering the excess. So then this begs the question: if you do not sell the excess, is the cost of this system and the time you’ll need to devote to it worth the yields you will consume?
That was my initial take. But again, I’m not a hydroponics expert, nor an expert in construction. So I talked to my friend, Carrie, who has degrees in horticulture and landscape design. She’s taken some college level classes in hydroponics, so I felt she was a good resource in our Colony. We talked over coffee about hydroponics in general and this setup in particular. She voiced similar concerns, but added new ones as well that I wouldn’t have considered.
- Fertilization is rather touchy in a hydroponic system. Too much fertilizer can kill your entire system very quickly. And the author’s assertion that you can just add fertilizer to the water you add to your system is dangerous to your plants as well. Your system should be flushed weekly with plain water and your reservoir water changed out since plants leach out toxins as they absorb nutrients. This is confirmed by the author’s recommended fertilizer’s website here.
- Plants in a hydroponic system are very sensitive to pH. When she began talking about this and I admitted that the author hadn’t even mentioned pH, she was very concerned.
- Starting seeds on the actual wall will be difficult at best. There is a reason that all seed starting trays come with a clear lid. Seeds need humidity and warmth to get started. The author does say that you can start your seeds separate from the wall and add them later. So Carrie definitely recommends this method over trying to grow them directly on your wall.
- That said, humidity is another issue to consider, especially in winter. Do you have a way to keep the humidity up in the area where your plants will be?
- Lighting and the timing of the lighting is also important and is glossed over in the instructions. Carrie recommends trying to mimic summer daylight hours as best as possible using a timer. She’s also concerned that even with 2 sets of lights and space blankets to reflect light back on your wall, some plants will inevitably get more light than others. Those further away from the light will get leggy and won’t produce as well. This is probably something that will just require some trial and error.
- Also the book does not touch on pest prevention or how to deal with pests. In fact the author claims you won’t have to deal with pests, but Carrie reminded me that fruit flies and other flying pests can still wreak havoc on your plants, even indoors.
Overall, Carrie was not impressed and we went on to spend the next hour talking about hydroponics and aquaponics and the pros and cons of those over traditional gardening. It was a wonderful conversation and I learned a lot!
Later, I showed the system to Dennis (my husband and co-founded of SurvivalColony.com), who has some experience in construction and is constantly building things out in our garage. His first comment was, “Where are the plants?” There’s not a single picture in the entire eBook or accompanying appendices of the hydroponic system with plants growing on it. It’s rare to see a gardening book without numerous pictures of the suggested systems teeming with plant life. (The photos in this post are from my own garden.) Then he proceeded to look at the plans, furrow his brow, look at the plan some more, scowl a bit, and then turned the paper over (I’d printed it out for him) and started to redesign the whole thing. I reminded him that our job was to review the plan as-is, not to re-design it. He just looked at me like I had three heads and said, “But this plan makes no sense. I can do it better.”
Then I said something all men want to hear. “Let’s go to the hardware store.”
We priced out the components of this system. This is where I should point out again that the way the system is engineered, you will need to disassemble even the wood frame yearly. My guess is that this will at the very least (best guess) require replacing the top of the frame and the top cross-supports yearly as well. They are made of 1x4s and 1x2s that would likely not hold up well to disassembly and reassembly.
We were able to find lumber, snow fencing, gutter, lighting fixtures and bulbs, screws, etc. at the hardware store. However, the snow fencing had too fine a grid for what the author calls for, so that price came from Amazon.com. I also sourced the hydroponic supplies from Amazon. I could not find the polyester quilt batting called for as a base medium without using a double thickness that may or may not hold up as well as a single sheet of the called-for thickness, so I priced that out with Sure to Grow growing mats, intended for hydroponics usage. This only cost $6 more than the double thickness of the quilt batting anyway. (By the way, the instructions call for 2 yards of this batting, but the project will require 4 based on the dimensions of the project. I mentioned this to Crisis Education, but at the time of this writing, the error remains.)
And now we’re getting into the math section of this review. As you might recall from my last review, I like math.
Overall, this system will cost you roughly $385 to build if you buy everything new from either Home Depot or Amazon.com. This will last you about 10-11 weeks before you need more fertilizer (unless you don’t do a full flush weekly as Carrie suggests – as the author suggests the fertilizer will last longer, but I’m going with the company’s suggested usage here). In 4 months you’ll also need to purchase more growing medium for your second planting (around $56 on Amazon). Your first year will cost you roughly $600 to build and maintain this system. Admittedly, some of this cost is wasted because you need to buy 50’ rolls of this or that and only need 10’, but without a way to buy shorter lengths, it’ll still end up being a startup cost. My projected costs also do not include any tools you might need like a saw, drill, tin snips, etc. We’re going to assume that you either have these or know someone who does.
After that, yearly, this system will run you approximately $370 to maintain. This includes replacing the 1x4s and 1x2s mentioned earlier (unless you, like Dennis, redesign this portion…which I made him stop doing). Also the fluorescent bulbs recommended should last you around 2 years, so I added in half their cost per year. You’ll need new starter plugs (growing medium) every 4 months and a new growing mat yearly. And again, this is assuming you flush your water weekly per the fertilizer company’s suggestion and buy new fertilizer every 10.5 weeks. (You could also buy larger bottles which will likely save you a few dollars over time.) This also ignores any chemicals you may need to maintain your water’s pH levels, since that isn’t called for in the plans. And we’re going to further assume that you can get your seeds free or cheap.
Let’s then go back to the claim that this will produce 44 pounds of greens and herbs every 4 months. That’s 132 pounds a year.
Year One: $600 startup costs / 132 pounds of greens and herbs = $4.54/lb
Years Two – ?: $370 per year / 132 pounds of greens and herbs = 2.80/lb
I don’t know how long you can expect this system to last. My guess is 5-10 years if you take care of it, thus the “?” above.
That’s actually not a horrible price for organic lettuce or herbs, assuming you were already planning to consume that much (though not quite “pennies on the dollar” as the company claims in their promo material). Our family of 4 would not consume this much. We certainly don’t spent $300+ on greens a year. Nor would anything beyond lightweight greens and herbs be able to be supported on a wall like this. And honestly, I question if the design of this wall would support even that. But without building the system myself and testing it, I can’t know for sure. Frankly, I don’t have $385 lying around to find out. Again, the lack of photos of plants on this system just adds to my doubt.
You really need to consider your family’s needs, current diet, and so forth to see if this plan would be advantageous to you. It’s not a cheap undertaking. Can you afford to burn this kind of cash if it doesn’t work for you for whatever reason? Do you have the time to monitor this system and to troubleshoot any problems that arise? Will your family truly consume enough to make it worthwhile? Will you realistically harvest and sell or barter any surplus crop?
Anyway, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out places were you could save money if you did want to replicate the 4 Foot Farm hydroponic system. You can get creative here and likely shave the startup costs in half. Most people probably don’t have a pump or hydroponic tubing laying around, but a pond pump might work. And PEX line or even PVC leftover from a plumbing project might also work, especially since you need only a few feet. Maybe a thrift store quilt will provide you with a decent base growing medium. You probably also already have a storage tub sitting around you can use as your water reservoir. Be creative and think critically before running out and purchasing all of the necessary supplies. I’ve seen Dennis do some amazing things with scraps of lumber.
The Bottom Line
After reviewing this COMPLETELY different eBook than the 2013 rendition, I was dismayed to see that their online infomercial ad is nearly identical to the last, despite the drastic changes to the text. And as you probably already know, I don’t like online infomercials to sell eBooks anyway. At least on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, when you look at eBooks, you can read a description of the product and read reviews by customers before making any purchasing decisions. These online infomercials (not just by Crisis Education, but others as well) often use fear tactics and arbitrary time restraints that claim that a price or a product won’t be available later. And they rarely actually explain what it is you’re buying. Where in the Crisis Education infomercial does it say you’re getting directions for a $385 hydroponics wall? So many of our readers from our prior review admitted that they live on very little and don’t have $7 to spare, but were hoping this was the answer to their food budget woes. Can they afford to spend their last $7 only to find out that they’ll need to shell out an additional $385 to actually implement the plan?
That’s why I’m writing this review. Not as some sort of internet police. But because we’re a Colony here. We have to look out for each other. Prepping can be expensive. None of us can afford to waste money on gear, services, or products that aren’t worth their salt.
Have you seen a product you’d like us to review before you buy it yourself? Please send me your suggestions.
If you are interested in hydroponics or aquaponics (using fish to fertilize your hydroponic system), Carrie highly recommends The Aquaponic Source website for information. She says you’ll learn all you could ever want to know from their forums if you have the time to search it out. If not, she recommends this book, written by the owner of the website: