Archives for posts with tag: storage space

We’ve been using the east planter as a storage bin for most of the summer.

Unbelievably, there are carrots and beets there that we planted in May. One might think that they would be overripe and woody by now (four months later) but one would be wrong. We’ve been slowly harvesting them on an as-needed basis (just enough for the night’s meal) and they have been perfectly delicious, not to mention beautiful.

But enough is enough.

While the roots are just fine, the beet greens—which we savor as much as the roots—are starting to show their age. Increasing numbers of them have turned yellow or wilted and if we leave them much longer, they will become inedible.

Also, the mat of leaves is providing a safe haven for caterpillars and who knows what other varieties of insects whose intentions are questionable at best.

So, out they came, every one of them.

We had a nice haul: half a dozen carrots and twice as many beets. Their colors have not faded one bit and after a quick rinse with the hose, shone brightly at the Roy end of the spectrum (you know, Roy G. Biv).

The carrots and beets will now go into a more traditional form of storage, the refrigerator.

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The deadly night shades (tomatoes, bell peppers, and eggplant), the cucurbits (squash and cucumbers), and the legumes (string beans) continue to toil away in the mid-summer sun, slowly extending their stems, unfurling new leaves, presenting blossoms to eager pollinators, and fattening their fruits. Their harvest times remain weeks away.

Meanwhile, the members of three families of root vegetables—the crucifer (turnips and radishes), the goosefoot (beets), and the umbel (carrots)—bide their time until we decide to pluck them from the soil. They have matured for the most part and only slowly enlarge with each day’s dose of sunshine and water. We could harvest them all but they are safer in the ground than in the refrigerator, at least in the short-term.

In fact, in the ground is where these root vegetables like to be. Their purpose is to store energy over the winter so that the plants can flower and go to seed in their second spring. The roots will keep a long time and that is why many people store them for winter consumption. Doing so requires that they be kept dry and out of the sunlight, which, somewhat ironically, can harm them as well. Being buried in boxes of sand or soil and placed in the basement protects them until they are needed in the kitchen.

We don’t grow enough of them to feed us over the winter—hence, we do not put them in the cellar—but we do grow more than we can eat at one time or even at the rate that they mature. The icebox is one alternative but it is too cold and too humid, conditions that would foster mold or rot. Therefore, we keep the root vegetables on figurative ice.

We have to be careful, though. If kept too long in the soil, they can become woody or tough and will lose flavor. And if forgotten or neglected, they might decay or provide a feast for insects.

We won’t let that happen. When we are ready to eat them, we’ll them pull up, wash them off, and separate their greens. The roots we will roast and the greens we’ll sauté. And if we don’t eat them all, we will share them with others, which is perhaps the best approach to the abundance.

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.

A couple of weeks ago, I read a gardening article that might be the first one I have ever seen that makes a case for not starting plants from seed (see “Roots and Shoots: How Homegrown Is Necessary?” which appeared in the February 14, 2014 issue of Philipstown.info The Paper).  Pamela Doan’s column does include simple and useful instructions for starting a garden indoors in winter (with an emphasis on tomatoes) but starts off with her reasons why she doesn’t do it.

It’s nice to see someone bucking the conventional wisdom, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.  I’m a complete believer in starting from seed when possible but I recognize that doing so can seem like a lot of effort.  If the choice were between buying seedlings or doing nothing, I would buy the seedlings (as I did in 2011 and 2012).  Like most gardening projects, however, sowing seeds requires intermittent bouts of close attention—often accompanied by intensive activity—but little effort otherwise.  Once the seed trays have been set up and are safely tucked into a warm and well-lit location, they take care of themselves for the most part.  Only a modest investment of time is needed.  Potting up requires another infusion of time but the task is not much different from setting out, something that must be done whether the seedlings are home-grown or store-bought.

Similarly, the financial investment needn’t break the bank.  Unquestionably, one can spend a lot of money on seed starting apparatuses, depending on size, features and aesthetic appeal.  And the cost of specially formulated grow lights and heating coils specifically designed for seed trays is ridiculously high (a case, I think, of commercial opportunism).  Expensive whistles and bells will not necessarily be of benefit to so basic an operation.  Fortunately for one’s pocketbook, for example, plain fluorescent lights and utilitarian heating pads work just as well as their high-end counterparts.

In fact, as we found out last year (see February 18, 2013), a spacious and efficient seed starting apparatus can be put together for very little money.  Our modified shelving unit (including lights, pads, and seed trays) cost less than $200 and can accommodate 432 seedlings on three shelves (with two shelves left over).  A smaller apparatus would be proportionally less money.

The unit should last essentially forever; there will be no new expenses year to year so the effective cost, amortized over its expected life, is even less.  Further, it can be used for storage off season (a mixed blessing; see January 8, 2014).  Existing shelves similarly modified would be more economical and a sunny windowsill, for those lucky enough to have one, is even cheaper.

The most eye-opening of Ms. Doan’s arguments against starting from seed is her primary contention that most seed companies put too many seeds in each packet.  To her, this means planting more of any given vegetable than perhaps she would like.  The result, given overall constraints of time and space, is a lesser variety of vegetables.  Either that or wasted seeds.

I’ll admit that last year we started more seeds than we needed (72 basil plants; really?).  But that was due to inexperience and pessimism.  With no idea of what rate of germination to expect and a firm commitment to planting only our own seedlings, we erred on the conservative side.  We didn’t let that impact our decisions about what to grow, however.  Instead, we gave away as many seedlings as we could foist off on people and, with some regrets, cast what we couldn’t use onto the refuse pile (see, for example, May 4, 2013, part 2).

The startling part of the surfeit-of-seeds concept, though, is the implication that all of the seeds in a packet must be planted at once.  This notion never occurred to me.  I am frugal (some would say cheap) about many things (but by no means all) and always intended to save the seeds I did not plant last spring to use again this year.  The average seed life is printed on each packet and most are theoretically good for two years or more.

I say “theoretically” because, of course, seed life depends on how the seeds are stored between planting seasons.  We kept our seeds safely inside a small box in the basement.  There, they were protected from light and excessive heat and moisture.  It can get warm and humid here in July and August—and last year was particularly torrid—but the basement is partially underground which mitigates the extreme weather conditions.  The small volume of the box should have further minimized the effects of summer.  (Some would suggest storing seeds in the freezer, as we did with seeds from two years ago; unfortunately, they are too easily forgotten that way, by which I mean that I forgot about them.)  Even after a year, the seeds should still be viable.

So now we’re in the process of finding out whether they actually are.  Our plan this year is to sow fewer seeds of each type of vegetable and, possibly, to plant additional varieties (this would require buying more seeds or, later in the season, seedlings).  So far, we have only planted herbs (six seeds of six varieties) and lettuce (six seeds of two varieties).

The lettuces are sprouting at about a 50 percent success rate while only two herb varieties (basil and rosemary) have germinated.  Herbs are notoriously slow to get started but I should note that all of the herbs except the basil have an average seed life of only one year.  I may be pushing my luck—and the limits of my faith (see February 19, 2014).

Contrary to the Roots and Shoots article, there is more than bragging rights to be gained from growing plants from seed.  It is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to get the garden started and to jump back into the gardening spirit, even in the midst of winter.  And for a control freak like me, it is the only way to grow exactly what I want and to know everything about my plants.  The bragging—and blogging—rights are a nice bonus.

Often, the execution of a task is dependent on the completion of another.  This condition can occur for a variety of reasons.  At the general end of the spectrum, for instance, a set of skills or body of knowledge might need to be gained before a specialized task or further study is possible (the former might be called prerequisites in this case).  Before learning to design cars, one must learn basic engineering.

More specifically, especially in a multi-step process, an operation cannot take place until the item to be processed is physically created.  An automobile cannot be assembled until its component parts are first manufactured.  Of course, the manufacture of individual components is not usually dependent on the others; this process is parallel rather than serial.

There is nothing wrong with the serial approach until a step in the progression becomes delayed or stuck.  When this happens, everything that follows the stalled task must come to a complete stop, even if the stalled task is minor.  On an auto assembly line, for example, something as simple as a shortage of bolts or washers means that production must be halted.  The result can be a logjam of thwarted activities that is annoying at best and catastrophic at worst (see the famous chocolate factory episode of I Love Lucy for a humorous depiction of the consequences).  Not surprisingly, industrial engineers spend a lot of time studying ways to prevent this from happening.

I frequently experience this phenomenon, partly because I tend to set projects up as series of dependent tasks and partly because I am prone to procrastination.  The most recent occurrence of this was the clearing off of the seed-starting apparatus (see January 8, 2014).  One group of items temporarily stored there was a set of wood-working clamps generously handed down to me by Rachel’s father.  The clamps are the old-fashioned variety which use two wooden threaded rods to control the wooden jaws.

The problem was that I did not have another place to store them.  I had a place where I planned to store them but it required some minor construction on my part or, in other words, a prerequisite task.  Not a big task—it involved replacing an existing shelf with a thicker, sturdier one—but big enough to keep me putting it off for months.  Making space for trays of soon-to-be-sown seeds was just the stimulus I needed.  The global task of growing vegetables provided the imperative to move me beyond procrastination.

Gardening is largely composed of similar serial activities:  First, find a place to build a garden; then, clear it and turn the soil; construct planters if desired; next, choose what to plant (which might be a parallel task up to this point) and get seeds started; nurture the seedlings (or buy them); set them out; water and feed them; and, finally, harvest the produce.  The same motivation—not falling behind the growing season—keeps the process moving forward.

In the end, rebuilding the shelf for the clamps did not take very long (about an hour) nor did it require much effort.  I had previously acquired the necessary parts (shelf, brackets and lag screws) and already possess the right tools.  (This is a good example of Life teaching me that there is no good reason to procrastinate.)  Once it was completed, the logjam came free and, with Rachel’s involvement, the shelves of the seed-starting apparatus were soon empty.  This sudden clearing of stalled events is another common aspect of dependent serial tasks.

At CVS yesterday, we picked up four inexpensive heating pads (fortuitously, we had a discount coupon to apply) to add to the seed-starting apparatus.  The pads are medium-sized (12 by 15 inches) and should fit nicely beneath the seed trays.  Most important, they do not have an automatic shut-off feature which would defeat their purpose of helping seeds to germinate—without my constant interaction.

Last year, we located the seed-starting apparatus in front of a south-facing window.  The idea was to capture as much light and radiation from the sun as is possible in mid-winter.  What we found, however, is that there is not enough sun this time of year to be useful (the heating pads provide energy until the seedlings break the surface; after that, the fluorescent light fixtures take over).

Therefore, we will leave the apparatus tucked into the corner of the room (in front of a door we no longer use) where it will be out of the way (the window location interfered with access to a refrigerator).  It is now ready for seed trays, the planting of which is the next task in the serial process we call gardening.  I’ll try not to put it off for too long.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  And of all vacuums, the one that Nature abhors most is an empty shelf.  If she encounters one, she seems to exhort (in her inaudible but distinctly perceptible and imperative way), “Don’t just stand there; store something!”

That’s my experience, anyway.  Every bookshelf in the house is full to overflowing; many shelves carry two or three rows of books.  In the kitchen, our cabinets are always groaning with everything from pantry staples to exotic ingredients.  Upstairs, I never have any shelf space in my closet despite the two or three trips to Goodwill I make each year.

And then there’s the basement.

We have several shelving units down there:  one for tools (and whatnot), one for paint (and the like), yet another for seasonal items (such as Christmas tree decorations and pool furniture cushions).  Whenever a space opens up (e.g., when we put the cushions outside in spring), it is soon filled with something else (e.g., a box of the previous year’s records that was sitting on the floor for lack of shelf space).  It’s a good example of what I might call the “Shelf of Dreams” Law which holds that if you build it (a shelf), they will come (items to be stored).

This law immediately became apparent when we began planning our indoor seed sowing for the coming growing season (believe it or not, we should be starting this month) and I made a trip to the basement to prepare.  Recall that last year, we constructed a simple seed-starting apparatus to facilitate indoor growing (see March 17, 2013, part 2, for details).  And what did we use as the basis of our apparatus?  That’s right, a shelving unit.

Shortly after we assembled the shelves, we filled them with seed trays.   A few weeks later, after we set out the seedlings in spring, the shelves became empty again.  That condition did not last long.

First, I started placing miscellaneous gardening supplies there:  spray bottles, sacks of soil amendments, plastic seedling pots.  Then, in mid-summer, we held a big party for our 25th anniversary.  We needed room elsewhere in the basement (for the caterers) and so anything that did not have anywhere better to live moved to the seed-starting apparatus.  By the end of the summer, the shelves were full.

Which was fine through the fall and into the start of winter.  But now it is time to make space for the seed trays again.  It will take some effort—there’s a lot of stuff to relocate—but I’m sure I can find an open shelf or two somewhere in the house.

The basil plants are starting to crowd out the adjacent eggplants, in spite of our frequent harvesting of the large, aromatic leaves.  To clear out a bit of space between them and give the eggplants a better chance to expand (they still have not set any fruit), we pulled out two entire basil plants.  Both had wide and deep root systems; clearly, the conditions below the soil are as good as they are above it.  With the abundance of basil leaves, Rachel made two batches of pesto, one to eat now and one to freeze (and eat later).

The basil plants that have been growing indoors (see May 12, 2013) have become pale and anemic.  Apparently, three stems are too many to live in one small pot.  Therefore, we relocated them to the space in the east planter vacated only recently by the lettuce.  Into this spot we also moved the basil plants that had been living (both in pots and in the ground) in the adjunct herb garden on the patio (see June 29, 2013).  As expected, they had not been getting enough sun.

At the back of the east planter, the tomato vines continue to reach above the top of their cages and, with the development of fruit on almost all of their branches, have become top heavy.  We took another pass at them with the clippers and trimmed the remaining main stems as well as many of the larger branches and suckers.  Even with their main stems truncated, the tomatoes will need additional pruning to keep them in control.

Over in the west planter, something continues to nibble away at the cauliflower leaves, making them look more like lace doilies than vegetable plants.  Whatever is doing it munched a few turnip leaves while they were at it.  I can’t say I blame them; turnip greens are delicious.  For what it’s worth, I sprayed everything with an herbal bug repellent.  It’s hard to believe that something that smells so good to me can be abhorrent to insects.

We’ve been very happy with our seedling growing apparatus.  There is plenty of room on its three lighted shelves, we can conveniently view the seedlings’ progress and, when it is needed (for example, to water), moving the seed trays around is easy.  It is a simple and eminently functional design.

But now that the tomato and squash plants are getting larger, we’ve encountered one drawback:  the fixed height of the shelves.  The shelves are not adjustable and although I can vary the length of the chains supporting the fluorescent light fixtures, I can only move them up so high.  When the seedlings were small this was not an issue but now the tallest tomato and squash plants are brushing their leaves against the bulbs.  This will not do.

Luckily, we have an extra shelf at the base of the unit which up till now we have been using for storage.  To give the squash and tomatoes more room to grow, I moved the seed mix, empty seed trays and spray bottle elsewhere and put the tomatoes and squash seedlings in their place.  There is no light fixture above this shelf to get in the way.

To keep the taller seedlings properly illuminated, I moved the plants that were on the next-to-bottom shelf to the spots on higher shelves vacated by the squash and tomatoes.  Now, thanks to the open shelf design (an unanticipated advantage), the light from the upper shelf’s fixture can shine through to the bottom.  To reduce the shading of the intervening shelf, I moved the light fixture down so that it hangs only just above the shelf.  Diffusion should result in almost uniform illumination of the seedlings below.

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).

We have a small vestibule—it’s about five feet square—at the east end of the dining room.  Its door opens almost directly onto the road and, with the exception of the pizza delivery man, no one ever uses it.  For the last two years, the door has served only as the portal to our adjunct herb garden which is located on a concrete stoop.  The vestibule itself has become a de facto storage room.

But we’ve decided to convert the vestibule into an office alcove in which I can do my writing and other work.  I don’t need much space—I do most of my work on the computer—so the vestibule’s small size should not be issue.  With a modest desk and some shelves, the room will provide the work and storage space I need while keeping the clutter that is inevitable with offices out of view of the dining room.

It’s proximity to the kitchen will be an added benefit (to get coffee and brain food, as Rachel would say) and because work and social hours rarely overlap, my work should not be affected by dinner parties or other dining room events (and vice versa).

The only downside to the plan is that we will lose the use of the door and as a result will no longer have easy access to the adjunct herb garden.  So another of our planning chores this spring will be to decide where to move the pots of herbs.  For instance, they may end up downstairs, in a corner of the back porch where they were located in 2011.

Or, we may move the herbs back to the patio where we grew them prior to 2011 (and where hardy sage, oregano and chives are still growing).  This location has promise due to its convenient location and will be better suited to growing in general once we remove some trees (see February 6, 2013).  We had abandoned this site due to lack of sunlight.

Either way, here are the herbs we’ve decided to grow this year:

  • Genovese Basil
  • Greek Oregano
  • Aromatic Rosemary
  • Extrakta Garden Sage
  • French Summer Thyme
  • Spearmint

All of these should be started from seed indoors (yes, soon).

After last year’s experience, we will leave the growing of parsley and cilantro to the farmers who have acres and acres to devote to it.