Archives for posts with tag: unlimited variety

Yesterday, we drove up to Saratoga Springs, New York, for a quick getaway, a mini-vacation, a brief respite from the everyday.  We haven’t planned much—our idea is to keep it simple—and spent yesterday afternoon walking up and down the main street in town, Broadway, and taking a nap (I never claimed to be the life of the party) before going out for a delicious pasta dinner at Wheatfields (highly recommended).  The heat wave finally broke and we were actually able to eat outdoors.

One of the things we did plan was a visit this morning to the gardens at Yaddo, an artists’ community founded in 1900 by a wealthy couple who, sadly, lost all four of their children.  Without heirs, they decided to convert their estate into a sanctuary where young artists, writers, composers and other promising creative types could work without interruption or concern for such mundane matters as room and board.

Most of the 400-acre property is off-limits to those who have not applied to the organization, been reviewed by its trustees and found qualified for residency.  However, the gardens, which comprise a formal rose garden and more rustic rock garden, are open to the public on a daily basis.  The gardens are tended by the volunteer Yaddo Garden Association, several of whose members were busily at work during our walk-through.

We were a bit late for the roses which probably peaked about a week ago.  Nonetheless, most of the bushes were still in bloom, even if the flowers were becoming a bit ragged.  I am always amazed by the sheer variety of roses whose flowers exist in seemingly infinite combinations of color, size, shape and scent.  My favorites are the more delicate pinks and peaches, especially the clusters of diminutive tea roses.

The rose garden is carved out of a stand of spruces which shield visitors from the unfortunate presence of the Thruway, only several hundred feet to the east.  Unfortunately, the trees are not dense enough to attenuate the constant drone of trucks and automobiles racing by at 70 miles per hour.  One has to use some effort to imagine oneself at the turn of the last century when the surrounding countryside was less populated and much quieter.

The rock garden, located west of the rose garden and divided from it by a classical colonnade, is somewhat more serene and much more shaded (fewer trees were removed to create it, apparently).  The flora here are much more familiar to me (in appearance if not in name) and include an impressive array of hostas, most of which were in full bloom.  The dense canopy of the woods must have protected them from the merciless sun of the last few weeks.

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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.)

With a big snowstorm approaching, we sat down with the seed catalogs today to continue—in a much more concrete way—our planning for the upcoming growing season.  We intend to start just about everything from seed this year and having made that decision, our options are much, much wider than they were last year.

Instead of being limited to the seedlings at our farmers’ market or garden center, we can choose from scores of different varieties of each type of plant.  And given the number of seed catalogs out there, the possibilities are practically unlimited (or let’s just say that they are only limited by our time and patience).

We wiled away an hour or two flipping through the pages of the John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog, trying to keep in mind what vegetables we actually eat (as opposed to what sounds interesting) and what our experience was last year.  When we had gone through every page, here is what we picked:

  • Sugar Ann Snap Peas
  • Amethyst Purple Filet Bean
  • Roma II Bush Beans
  • Black Opal Eggplant
  • Rainbow Carrot Mixture (Atomic Red, Purple Dragon, Red Samurai, Royal Chantenay, Snow White and Yellowstone varieties)
  • Tanja Slicing Cucumbers
  • Alibi Pickling Cucumbers
  • Gourmet Rainbow Radish Mixture (Flamboyant French Breakfast, Feugo, Hailstone, Helios Yellow, Pink Celebration, Plum Purple, Roodkapje and White Icicle)
  • Jericho Romaine Lettuce
  • Red Salad Bowl Loose-Leaf Lettuce
  • Chioggia Beets
  • Touchstone Gold Beets
  • White Lady Turnips
  • Cavili Zucchini
  • Supersett Yellow Crookneck Summer Squash
  • Country Taste Beefsteak Tomatoes
  • Aunt Ruby’s German Green Tomatoes
  • Brandywine Tomatoes
  • Yellow Brandywine Tomatoes
  • Sungold Cherry Tomatoes
  • Black Cherry Tomatoes
  • Naguri Kabocha-Type Squash
  • Zeppelin Delicata Squash
  • Quadrato d’Asti Rosso Bell Peppers
  • Orange Sun Bell Peppers

Listed longhand like that, it seems like a lot of different vegetables.  However, there are only two more different types of vegetable than we had last year (the carrots and turnips).  Of these, the tomato, cucumber, eggplant and bell pepper seeds should be started indoors (and soon!).  Seeds for the rest can be sown directly in the garden, starting in early April.

We are also considering a few vegetables that we have never grown before but think might be manageable (and that we would actually eat):  Asparagus, Broccoli, Cauliflower and Bean Sprouts.  We can wait to start broccoli and cauliflower until mid-summer while beans can be sprouted indoors, anytime.

Asparagus would be a lot of fun to grow (and it will grow here; we have seen it at Stonecrop Gardens).  And yet, it would be a long-term commitment as it must be grown in a protected spot its first year and then given several seasons to reach harvestable production.  But it would be worth it to have this harbinger of spring growing in our own garden.

Our goal is to get the seed trays, lighting, heat (if needed), etc., prepared by the end of the month so that we can start sowing—and watering and lighting—at the beginning of March.  This will give us at least two months of indoor growing before transplanting the seedlings outdoors in May.