Archives for posts with tag: solar heating

The temperature did drop into the 30s overnight but there was no frost this morning nor signs that anything froze. It has gotten very easy to throw the plastic tarp over the planters so “better safe than sorry” is my philosophy.

Timing remains critical, however. I must wait until the sun has set (or is about to set) before placing the black plastic sheeting over the planter and in the morning, I need to get outside early and remove it before the sun’s rays fall directly onto the garden. Otherwise, the planter would become a solar oven and in no time, we would have roasted beets and carrots.

We’re leaving on a road trip tomorrow which motivated me to do more potting up this afternoon. The basil was ready to go—the seedlings are about three inches in height—but the other herbs are coming along much more slowly. The rosemary is growing at a particularly leisurely pace. Despite three months under the lights and over a heating pad, the seedlings are still mere wisps with only a few leaves each. I potted them up anyway, along with the sage, oregano, thyme and spearmint.

I also moved the eggplant and red bell peppers into pots. Like the planting before it, the second try at orange bell peppers yielded no seedlings. Clearly, this lot of seeds has lost its viability—and much sooner than expected. In general, the germination rates of last year’s seeds are very low, leading me to conclude that saving seeds is probably not worthwhile after all.

To wrap up the potting, I transplanted the second batch of lettuce heads into another pair of window boxes. This presented me with a storage problem because although I can fit two drainage trays onto each shelf of the seed-starting apparatus, there isn’t enough room in a tray for two of these larger planters.

So I ditched the trays and doubled up on the window boxes. The boxes that contain the soil and lettuce have their drainage plugs removed while the boxes into which they are nested do not. The lower boxes act as water catchment devices without taking up much more space than single planters. And even better, four of the compact units fit crosswise on a shelf. I may have figured out how to have fresh lettuce year ‘round.


One of the ways I know that spring has arrived is that for the next few weeks, the sun will shine directly through my office windows. With no leaves on the trees to filter it, the bright light makes it difficult to see the screen of my computer but the solar heat on my face feels great.

Another indicator that spring fever has hit is my desire to get out into the garden and start doing something. The draw is getting stronger every day as more snow melts to reveal another task that needs attending to. This was a rough and stormy winter and consequently, the yard is in disarray. Order must be restored! In other words, it is time for spring cleaning.

Most of our work over the next week or two will be in the ornamental gardens. We don’t do a lot of cutting back in the fall—usually, only enough to facilitate leaf removal. In particular, we leave the black-eyed Susans and butterfly bushes in their bare-branched state to provide decoration and keep the garden from looking too empty. It is pretty, especially against the neutral background of winter white (i.e., snow), but as a result, the gardens are filled with dead wood.

To make matters worse, heavy snow came early this year and buried some of the plants we might otherwise have tidied up in the fall. These include the hostas, Siberian and bearded irises, and day lilies. In other years when we have left them, the faded leaves look crumpled and haggard by spring; this year, being crushed by snow for three months has done nothing to improve their appearance.

The first order of business, then, will be to trim everything back to make room for new growth. Clearing away last year’s detritus will also allow the sun’s warmth to activate the bulbs and rhizomes that have been lying dormant since the fall. In fact, small, spiky leaves are already poking up amongst the matted clumps of spent bearded iris leaves and I spy, with my little eye, a crocus peeking out through the cloud of desiccated Russian sage bushes.

I have some reservations about jumping back into it. Yard work is physically demanding and can be overwhelming (it sometimes feels as if the entire world needs tidying up after winter). But I know that it will also be immensely satisfying, a literal cleaning of the slate as we start the new gardening year.

So, the melting has begun.  It is going slower than I expected, mainly because it remains very cold.  Even on a day as warm as today—with a high in the 50s expected—the snow only melts at the fringes of the still-covered areas, where solar radiation heats the pavement, or roof shingles, or exposed rocks, and the heat absorbed slowly conducts its way under the snow (snowpack melts mainly from its underside).  The few warms days we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy have been bracketed by nights with temperatures in the 10s and 20s.

As the drifts recede and the heaps shrink, the world is expanding again.  A month ago at the height (literally) of the season, we were hemmed in by a thick blanket of snow and the towering moraines left by snowplows and shovels.  Our narrow dirt road, constricted at the best of times, became truly one lane; passing a car in the other direction was tricky.  Simply walking around the house was impossible.  It was not necessarily an uncomfortable constraint—the minimized outdoor world was cozy in the way that a small room can be, or as cozy as snow can be, anyway—but it was very limiting.

Now the road is back to its normal width.  The stone walls that border it are again visible, as are the rocks that have fallen from them here or there.  Mileposts, “for sale” signs, political posters—most things shorter than four feet in height—have emerged from hiding even if they are somewhat the worse for wear, having been shoved around by unknowing snowplow drivers.  Indistinct white lumps in the lawn or on the patio have morphed back into landscaping boulders, chaise longues, and charcoal grills.  In the distance, the hills have lost their understory of white and the bare trees, once standing out in sharp contrast to the snow, have faded into a uniform brown background (we have few evergreen trees around here).

In short, the accessible environment is returning to its normal state.  Time to embrace the great outdoors again!

Trees are a treasure, a joy to have around.  They provide a habitat for birds, insects and other critters; act as a buffer against wind, rain and snow; and are the main generator of atmospheric oxygen and consumer of carbon dioxide.  Plus, they are beautiful to behold.  If they are not the focus of a picturesque view, they are probably framing it.

But sometimes they get in the way.  Usually, this is merely an annoyance, such as when they block the view (see, for example, August 12, 2013).  Other times, though, trees can block solar exposure, often to detrimental effect.  I’ve become painfully aware of this phenomenon in the garden as the summer has wound down.

I noticed this morning, for instance, that the garden is still in the shade long after 8:00 am, the hour at which it came into full sun at summer’s peak.  Two months after the summer solstice, however, the sun is already quite a bit lower in the sky and as a result, the tall trees to the east of us are obstructing its direct rays.  It is light in the early morning but it is not exactly sunny.

Similarly, this afternoon, the tips of the fir trees on our neighbor’s property, just to the southern side of our pool fence, are casting a shadow on the south wall of the planters.  The inclination of the sun will only get lower as the days pass while the trees will only get taller with each passing year.  Soon, the shadows will pass across the vegetables shortly after midday, further shortening the growing day.

This is in spite of the fact that we removed two large trees in the spring (see May 17, 2013 and May 17, 2013, part 3).  Their absence has made a huge difference in the garden’s afternoon sun exposure but as it turns out, the impact’s duration is limited to the period starting a month before the solstice until a month afterwards.  Outside of that two-month range, we will feel the effects of the changes in solar exposure in the house more than in the garden.

Which brings us around to the beneficial aspects of solar shielding (to end on a positive note, lest anyone think that I am hostile to trees).  In warm climates, properly placed trees prevent solar gain within buildings and reduce their cooling load.  Where the weather is warm the year round, evergreen trees maintain a constant screen.  Alternately, where winters are cold, deciduous trees conveniently drop their leaves, allowing solar radiation to pass and provide natural heating.

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).

As discussed before (see, for example, June 10, 2012, part 2), the trees around our house and garden are constantly growing and because they are so closely spaced, they are growing not outwards but upwards.  The result?  Their canopy is getting higher and denser and we are falling ever more deeply into the shade.

Last year, I observed that the solar panels on the roof (with which we heat the swimming pool) do not get any direct sunlight until sometime between 10:00 and 11:00 in the morning and move back into the shade starting as early as 2:00 pm; by 4:00 pm, the upper panels are completed shielded by trees.  This greatly diminishes their effectiveness at heating the pool water.

The planters have a longer solar day (see June 20, 2012) but even in the garden, shade begins to have an impact as early as 4:00 pm as the shadows start to creep across the west planter.  The area to the west of the planters, where we plan to grow squash this year, is fully shaded by 3:00 pm.  This may not be enough sunshine for a vegetable as needy as zucchini.

There’s not much we can do about increasing the morning sun—all of the trees to the east of us are on a neighbor’s property—but we do control the woods to the west.  In particular, there are two tall maples just outside the pool fence that are casting most of the afternoon shadows.  They will have to go.  We are fortunate that the ground slopes down steeply just beyond our pool and many of the trees that might otherwise be a problem need not be considered.

Widening the exposure of the solar panels, on the other hand, will require more drastic action.  The main culprits in their obstruction are the old oak tree that hangs over the west side of our house and a huge maple about twenty feet beyond it to the west.  Each is very tall and has already lost its lower branches.  And because they are on the edge of the woods, the two trees have reached outwards with their upper limbs, unlike their more constrained siblings located further into the woods.

Both of these trees have caused us trouble in the past:  We had the maple cabled many years ago to restrain a splitting trunk; the oak tree most recently dropped two large branches on the house and patio after a snowstorm a year and a half ago (see October 30, 2011, part 2).  So far, we have limited our approach to pruning but at this point, any pruning we might do would leave only barren (and funky-looking) trunks.

No, if we do anything they must also be removed.  But doing so will leave a noticeable void behind.  I’ve been resisting it for years because I know I will feel their loss.  A ranger at Yellowstone National Park once asked us (while we were gathered around a campfire) whether we had ever had an experience with rocks.  It took me a few years to grasp what she was getting at—the idea that the natural environment has a presence, an identity—and even if I have not had any experiences with trees, per se, I definitely feel their presence.  Losing these two will be a sad event.

And it will be a big project.  We brought in our long-time tree man, Jerry, to take a look at all of the trees we are planning to take down.  He’s done a lot of work here (see, for example, October 31, 2011) but this would be larger than any other takedown he has done for us.  The two maples at the end of the pool will simply be cut and allowed to fall down the hill (much more difficult and dangerous than it sounds) while the larger maple and oak will have to be carefully broken down, branch by branch and section by section.  Removing the wood once the trees are down will be a major undertaking all by itself.

It will be a great sacrifice but I think it will be for the greater good (of the house, garden and environment).