Archives for posts with tag: heat retention

You can tell that we’ve finally passed the point at which cold nights can be expected; there is a freeze watch in effect for tonight. I’m not too worried—the National Weather Service does not actually predict sub-freezing temperatures—but I will cover the east planter with black plastic sheeting just to be safe.

The radishes, always first off the starting block, made their appearance three days ago and the Sugar Snap peas, not to be left behind, started to peek out from the soil a day later. There are now seedlings to protect and the root vegetables are particularly susceptible.

With the trellis in place, I cannot fully cover the peas, but I don’t think it is necessary. The pea shoots are quite hardy and even without completely enclosing the planter, the sheeting will capture the heat that the garden acquired during the day.

I wonder what date the National Weather Service uses for last frost in our area? I conservatively use May 5, which has a 90 percent confidence level (i.e., there is only a 10 percent chance that the temperature will fall below freezing). Apparently, the NWS uses an earlier date.

I suspect that they use a lower confidence level, probably at a 50 percent chance of exceedance. Their date—whatever it might be—is less conservative from a freezing temperatures point of view but more conservative from a freeze warning point of view (i.e., its use will likely generate more warnings). Given that the NWS is in the business of forecasting the weather and not gardening, this makes perfect sense.

Not shown on our Seed Sowing Calendar (see March 23, 2013) are the additional sowing dates for root crops such as carrots, turnips, beets and radishes.  We planted the first two rows of them three weeks ago (see March 31, 2013, part 2) and today, I planted two more.

I started by digging out the mulch to expose the soil surface.  It wasn’t easy—the mulch is thick and matted—but when I got there, I was happy to find the soil warm and moist.  The mulch has been doing its job.

I followed the same pattern of planting, sowing first a row shared by carrots (east) and radishes (west) and then a row with turnips (east) neighboring beets (west).  The only difference is that I swapped the locations of the Chioggia and Touchstone Gold beets.  The colors of their stems match the color of the beets and will add to the visual aesthetic of the planter when the plants get closer to maturity.

Some people use tweezers to place seeds and as I was sowing the turnips, I could understand why.  Turnip seeds are almost identical to poppy seeds and are very difficult to sow evenly.  I take a pinch between my thumb and forefinger and then roll them back and forth over the row in a motion similar to salting a hamburger.  It works fine but undoubtedly there will be clumps of seedlings when the seeds sprout.

The carrot seeds are also quite small and I used the same method for them.  The radish and beet seeds, on the other hand, are larger—about the size of ball bearings—and much easier to place, one at a time, with about an inch between them.  We’ll see how well I did when they germinate.

There is still space for one more row which we will plant with carrots and radishes in early May (it’s hard to believe that it’s only a few weeks away).  The west planter is almost full while the east planter looks oddly empty in comparison.  It will remain that way until we plant the lettuces (due this week but probably not happening until next week).  Then, at the end of May (if all goes well), the east planter will become suddenly crowded when we transplant the seedlings that are growing inside.

A watched pot never boils and watched seeds never sprout.  We were away most of the day yesterday and so I did not attend to the seeds.  This morning, I was rewarded to find that three of the six tomato varieties (Brandywine, Yellow Brandywine and Sun Gold) had popped up over night.  Hallelujah!

Later in the day, the Country Taste beefsteak tomatoes started to pop up (leaving Aunt Ruby’s German Green and the Black Cherry tomatoes unsprouted) as did the basil.

I will continue to warm the trays with the heating pad and will keep them covered until the remaining varieties sprout.  When all of the seedlings are safely on their way, I will remove the covers and water them as needed (without a cover, they will dry out).

Now the real work begins!

Using the heating pad with the automatic shut-off proved to be impractical.  It only remains on for 15 minutes.  There’s no way I can be running downstairs to reset it that frequently.

On the other hand, the smaller, old-fashioned heating pad works fine.  I’ve set it on a timer to run for a few hours, followed by a short cooling-off period (to prevent overheating) and repeating for most of the day.  I will move it manually from tray to tray so that everything gets its share of the warmth (and the love).

I may look into inexpensive heating pads for dedicated seed-starting use.  Realistically, though, this may not happen in time for this year’s seeds.

The seeds we planted indoors a little over a week ago (see March 24, 2013) are showing no signs of life.  My thinking had been that with the seed trays in the direct (but diffused) light of a window, there would be enough heat during the day to initiate germination.  Mother Nature has not been cooperating, however, and the daily temperatures have been very cold, more like winter than spring.

It is probably no warmer anywhere else in the basement (with the possible exception of immediately adjacent to the furnace) and if we set the thermostat to a sufficiently high temperature, the entire basement would be heated (which would be wasteful).  Keeping the seed growing apparatus by the window still seems like the best location.

Therefore, we will try heating pads under the seed trays.  We have two of them—one large, one small—but neither is as big as a tray.  That means that at any given moment, only a part of two trays is sitting over a heating pad.  We will have to move the trays (or the heating pads) around so that all of the seeds get some direct heat.

Also, our heating pads are meant for humans, not seeds.  They are intended for short-term, attended operation and, in fact, one of them has an automatic shut-off feature which may need to be reset manually.  Using them will require active participation on my part.

And until the seeds sprout, neither Rachel nor I can do anything that might result in sore muscles.

On our drive over to the Home Depot this afternoon, we noticed a change in the quality of the sunlight:  it is brighter, more direct, and feels much warmer when it falls on our faces and shines in our eyes.  The sun has worked its way, slowly but steadily, higher into the late-winter sky.  We have turned the corner on winter and spring is coming.

Another way to tell that spring is imminent is to visit a garden center (and if it is open, that is the first good omen).  At the Home Depot, seeds have been on display near the main entrance for a few weeks but now they are expanding their selection and moving them into the garden department.  Workers are clearing away the remnants of winter merchandise (snow blowers, ice-melting salt and the like; good luck to anyone who still needs a snow shovel) and making room for seed trays, potting soil and amendments, planters, seedlings and other garden paraphernalia.  The outdoor showroom, stocked only with snow during the winter months, is starting to fill up.

We are here on a quest to acquire the components of our seed starting apparatus (see February 10, 2013).  The first item on our shopping list is the heavy-duty, 4-shelf plastic storage unit that will provide the supporting structure, and it is proving to be elusive.  We started at the Home Depot branch nearest our home but although both the website and in-store computer showed one remaining in their inventory, they could not find it (it was probably a display model).

The Home Depot website indicated that nine shelving units were in stock at the next store up the road.  But they couldn’t find them either.  It turns out that this shelf is not in their usual inventory but had been carried only for a winter storage promotion (not a bad post-Christmas concept).  Coincidentally—or call it bad luck—the promotion ended last week and just this morning, the staff had removed the display from the floor.  The customer service representative assisting us was not sure whether the nine shelving units existed in reality or were only figments of the computer’s imagination.

Either way, we had to make an adjustment to our design.  Back in the storage department, we looked at every other shelving unit that the Home Depot had to offer.  There was very little in the middle ground—most were too flimsy or too fancy—but the choice was obvious:  a five-shelf unit of the same make and design as the four-shelf unit we originally wanted.  My only objection was price (almost twice as expensive for that one extra shelf!).  After considering it further, however, we decided that it is actually an improvement.  We will use the upper shelves for starting seeds—with less bending over—and use the lower one for storage.

We moved next to the lighting department and found the fixtures we wanted with much less difficultly (although for future visits, I will note SKU numbers rather than manufacturers’ model numbers which are harder to find).  Before leaving this section, we remembered to get a 10-pack of bulbs (which are not included with the fixtures).

We had planned to start the seeds in simple trays but could not find them anywhere (once again the online inventory did not seem to match the store’s).  What we did find were a variety of compartmentalized trays, with and without planting medium.  Those that included soil employed pellets or disks of compressed soil which expand upon moistening.  We had to make another change.

After probably too much consideration (okay, we looked at absolutely every product), we chose trays with 72 small cells, each with a drainage hole.  The trays come with separate pans to collect water and clear covers to retain moisture and heat.  We had planned to put the trays in clear plastic bags and had not even thought about how we would deal with drainage, so this is a definite improvement over our initial design.

The trays did not come with planting medium so we purchased it separately.  I had calculated we would need 2 cu. ft. of soil for the simple trays but with the compartments we can probably get by with half of that.  One cubic foot is about 8 gallons or 32 quarts.  The soil is packaged in 10 quart bags so we bought three (close enough).  We also picked up a package of row markers (these will be very important once we sow the seeds) and a spray bottle.

The last item on the list (my mental one; I never wrote it down) was a package of small S-hooks.  We will need these to hang the light fixtures from the shelves.  This led us to one of my favorite places in the world:  the hardware aisle.  The walls are covered with hundreds of tiny plastic packages of fasteners of every sort and I usually find myself happily distracted by the variety.  I could probably spend hours here and indeed it took a while to find the hooks we were looking for.  Finally, Rachel spotted them and we headed to the check-out.

As we loaded everything into the car, we both felt intense excitement for the upcoming growing season.

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.)