Archives for posts with tag: do-it-yourself mindset

Yesterday, we made a run up to the Adams Fairacre Farms store near us.  They have a well-stocked garden center, open all year, and we went there to procure seed starting mix.  We also found an amazing selection of seeds, including those of the Hudson Valley Seed Library about which I wrote last year (see January 5, 2013).  Good to know in case we decide to buy more seeds this year.

They had at least three brands of seed starting mix on offer, all different from the brand we used last year.  The ingredient lists looked similar and included a combination (in proportions not disclosed) of peat moss, vermiculite and/or perlite.  Some also contained compost or other fertilizers (most notably, the Miracle-Gro product which boasts both Miracle-Gro Plant Food and MicroMax nutrients).  These are superfluous for seed starting; the seed itself contains everything the plant needs from germination until leaf growth.

After browsing the available mixes and looking over the extensive array of soil components and amendments also for sale, I decided to make my own seed starting mix this year.  I recalled from my previous research that all that is really needed is peat moss, for structure, and vermiculite, for water retention.  I have more than a bale of peat moss left over from last year and picked up a bag of vermiculite to add to it.

Today, I decided to do a bit more research to determine what the best ratio of materials might be.  I didn’t find any definitive answers—as with most topics, there are a lot of opinions out there—but I did perceive two common threads.  First, many gardeners recommend adding perlite to keep the mixture lightweight and to facilitate drainage.  Second, several others suggest including a small amount of lime to balance the low pH (high acidity) of peat moss.

I made another trip to Adams (luckily, it is not far away) to buy the perlite and lime.  A definite advantage of the do-it-yourself approach is that all of the mix components are cheap.  For less than $20, I will have enough mix for this year’s seedlings, including potting up.  The lime will last substantially longer (in fact, I will probably never have to buy it again).

When combining the components, I will initially mix two parts peat moss to one part each of vermiculite and perlite. One recipe called for a quarter teaspoon of lime per gallon of mix, which seems low but is as good a starting point as any.  After that, I will adjust as needed to produce a consistency that seems right.

This is a case where my intuition will have to guide me.

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Theoretically, we could be starting our outdoor planting today but even if the weather were sufficiently hospitable to accommodate outdoor activity—and it isn’t—it wouldn’t be anywhere near warm enough to initiate germination.  So instead, we turned our attention indoors and put together our seed-starting apparatus.

The first step was choosing a location for it.  We had originally thought to put it near the oil burner to take advantage of excess heat (I like to think of it as a variant form of cogeneration).  Based on the arrangement of our basement, however, there is no excess space there.  Also, there is no outlet nearby to plug in the lighting fixtures.

On the other hand, the spot in our storage room (or, as we lovingly call it, the Mouse Room) where we had temporarily stacked the components is directly in front of a south-facing window.  There is plenty of sun there and even on a cold day like today, it feels relatively warm.  As luck would have it, the extra height of the shelving unit we purchased (see February 18, 2013) elevates the three seed-growing levels to window height.  And what’s more, there is an electrical outlet under the window.  Without having to look too hard—really, without having to look at all—we found our spot.

We next assembled the shelving unit, the design of which is simple and ingenious.  The number of different parts has been minimized by making all of the shelves and post sections identical.  Therefore, there is less risk of a missing part and it is much easier to supply it if necessary.  The only other parts are the post bases and caps (and, strictly speaking, the latter are not required) which connect to the unit in the same way the posts and shelves connect to each other (and without fasteners).  The unit went together quickly and easily.

We then drilled holes in the sides of each shelf to connect the S-hooks from which the light fixtures will hang.  The shelves, constructed of heavy-duty plastic, have a double-wall design so rather than punch all the way through, we drilled only the outer face.  This meant making the S-hook connection blind (as a steel erector would say).  To get them into the holes, we had to slightly open one end of each hook.  Even so, they fit snugly and securely.

In the online and package illustrations, the chains for the light fixtures appear to connect about six inches inboard of their ends.  This would have been perfect so I was not surprised to find that in reality, the connection holes for the chains are only an inch or so from the ends.  To make our design work, we had to drill new holes.  To do this (and probably void the warrantee in they process), we had to remove the covers from the light fixtures, mark the locations, start each hole with awl and then drill them, being careful not to cut through the wiring.

For each S-hook, we drilled two holes, one for each end of the bottom loop.  As for the shelves, we had to unbend the S-hooks to feed them into the holes but because these connections were not blind (we had access to both sides) we were able to rebend them to make them tight and secure.

We hung the first light fixture using the lengths of chain provided and installed the two fluorescent bulbs.  We then tested the light’s operation and adjustability to make sure our measurements and techniques were practical.  Everything worked well and we quickly repeated the process for the remaining two light fixtures.

Now we needed power.  I have a big bin full of extension cords and it often seems that I have every conceivable variation except the one I need.  But I got lucky this time and found a relatively short one with receptacles for three grounded (i.e., three-prong) plugs.  We plugged the fixtures into the extension cord and then, using zip ties (how did I ever survive without them?), fastened the cords to the shelves and posts.  Finally, we plugged the extension cord into the conveniently-located outlet and switched the fixtures on.

The rig is now ready for seeds.  The sun will provide light and warmth during the day, hopefully enough to initiate germination of the seeds.  Once the seedlings emerge, the light fixtures will supplement the sun’s light and extend the length of the growing day (I did forget to get a timer with a grounded outlet so another trip to the Home Depot will be needed).

Independently, Rachel and I both came to the conclusion that we should collect and use our rainwater.  She got the idea reading through a gardening book (the very useful and practical Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook by Ron Kujawski and Jennifer Kujawski).  I came to thinking about it after flipping through a garden supply catalog (I don’t remember which one).

We often get a lot of rain here, especially in the summer when passing thunderstorms can dump several inches of rain in a very short time period.  Sustained rains are great for gardens (assuming they do not cause flooding or damage anything with the force of the falling rain) and keep the plants’ thirst quenched for several days.  Theoretically, a garden that receives an inch or rain per week (on average) does not need any other irrigation.

But during the heavy storms, most of the rain goes down the drain, soaks into the lawn or washes into the ravine.  (Or, sometimes, fills the pool with roadway material.)  Three inches of rain, delivered all at once, does not keep the garden moist for three weeks.  If we can capture some of the excess rain and use it to supply the garden’s irrigation system, we can reduce the amount of water that we draw from our well.

We could buy a turn-key kit but, fortuitously, we have two old plastic garbage cans—don’t worry; they are very clean—that would be fine as reservoirs.  To convert them, we will need some sort of adapter to connect the downspout (from a roof gutter) to the cans.  We will also need to buy pipe and fittings to connect them to each other and to the garden hose.  Our house is located uphill of the garden so it would be a gravity-fed system.  We’ll be moving the adjunct herb garden from the stoop (see February 8, 2013, part 2) and if we locate the rainwater storage there, we will get an additional eight feet of pressure head.

Now, we must consider (optimistically) that some of the time, rainwater will accumulate faster than we can use it.  This means that there should be an overflow mechanism to allow excess water to spill out when the cans get full.  It might be as simple as a hose tapped from the top of the cans to direct the water to the lawn (where it now goes all of the time).  Or, we might make it fancy and attach a sprinkler head or fountain fixture.  Either way, the trick will be to keep the water under control.

And giving due respect to Murphy (and his law), we must also consider that we will not get enough rain for it to be useful.  This means that we should be able to easily connect the garden hose to the house’s hose bib to keep the vegetables watered during dry spells (or worse, a drought).  Convenience is a key factor here because if we fail to revert to the well supply, the garden could dry out.  I will look into ways to automate this but diligence will still be required.

Collecting our rainwater is something that we ought to do, like maintaining a compost bin.  I’ll add it to my list of projects…

Okay, so we’ve decided to start seeds indoors.  It’s time to design a place to grow them.

We could buy a fancy, specially-designed rack with built-in lighting and heat but that can be very expensive.  Also, a pre-fabricated unit might not fit our needs exactly and would probably not be easy to modify.  Furthermore, it wouldn’t fit in with our do-it-yourself mindset regarding the garden and its appurtenances.  Instead, we’ll put one together from items we can buy at the Home Depot.

Most of the rigs we’ve seen in catalogs are based on free-standing shelf units so that’s where we started.  Because we do not have a lot of room in our basement, the unit will have to be of modest size and more vertical than horizontal.  Also, because there will be water (probably everywhere), the shelves should not be metal (which could rust) or wood (which might rot or get moldy); plastic would be the ideal material.  Browsing the Home Depot website, I found an 18” x 36”, 4-shelf unit for less than $20.  It is made of plastic and is listed as heavy-duty which sounds ideal.

The next component of the seed growing apparatus is the lighting.  My first impulse was to do a search for “grow lights” to see what came up.  What I found was a bit shocking, pricewise.  At the low end there were fluorescent fixtures starting at $25 dollars for a single two-foot bulb and at the other end were LED grow lights starting at almost $200, again for a single bulb.  I need three 4-foot-long fixtures with at least two bulbs each making these alternatives much too expensive.

And from what I’ve read, ordinary fluorescent fixtures are just fine for bathing seeds and seedlings in cool, white light.Also, the fixtures do not need to be beautiful (even if they needn’t be ugly, either) so ornamental or otherwise decorative models are out.  Basic, utilitarian shop fixtures seem like a good choice and, sure enough, I was able to find a 4-foot, two-bulb unit for around $20.  This fixture is supported from two chains—spaced, fortuitously, at about three feet apart—which will allow us to adjust its height above the seedlings as they grow.  We’ll get three and at least six 32-watt T8 cool white bulbs (like batteries, they are seldom included).

We next turned our attention to the trays in which we will plant the seeds.  Again, there are a lot of designs available, many of them customized for the purpose.  For instance, some of the trays are compartmentalized to make transplanting easier.  The compartments come in different sizes as well with the smaller ones being better for sowing seeds.  The larger cells may be needed for potting up those seedlings that are not ready to go into the ground.

The compartmentalized trays seem like a good idea but I think they might be harder to fill with soil.  Instead, we will plan on simple, non-compartmentalized trays.  My search came up with a lightweight plastic model that is 11 inches by 22 inches in area and 2.5 inches in depth.  We can fit two per shelf and even though they will extend beyond the ends of the shelves, they will still be completely covered by the light fixtures.  We will need six trays.  If we need to pot up, we will look at possible alternatives at that time.

At least two companies sell trays with each compartment filled with a pellet of compressed seed starting mix; when moistened, the pellet expands to fill the compartment.  This is another good idea but it is much more expensive.  And eventually, we will need loose soil (for potting up) so why not start with it?  Our gardening books tell us that all we need is a balanced mixture of milled peat moss and fine vermiculite so we will buy some of each and mix it ourselves.  Or perhaps we’ll get lazy and buy something pre-mixed.

Some seed starting rigs include heating pads to keep the soil and seeds at the optimum temperature.  We could get one sized to fit our trays (8.5 inches by 20.5 inches); however, at $20 each, the cost for six ($120) would exceed the total cost of all of the other items combined.  To avoid this, we’ll locate the seedling rack in the warmest part of the basement, near the oil burner.  The thermostat is usually set at 55 degrees down there but adjacent to the furnace, it is easily 10 degrees warmer.

To help the soil retain its heat, we will get clear plastic bags in which to ensconce the trays.  The plastic will allow the light (and its warming radiation) to reach the soil surface while keeping in the heat (and moisture, for that matter).  To ensure that we are maintaining an appropriate temperature, we will also get a simple soil thermometer.  Speaking of moisture, we will get a spray bottle to gently water the soil and the seedlings when they emerge.

With potentially hundreds of seedlings—most of which will look nearly identical to each other—we will need to identify what we planted and where.  As a final component of our seed starting apparatus, we will buy row markers to keep everything straight.  Ideally, these will be something simple and cheap (e.g., popsicle sticks) and, preferably, re-useable (therefore, probably made of plastic).

We now have our shopping list.  Onwards to the Home Depot!  (Our local garden center does not open until March.)