Sunday, January 27, 2013

Seed starting the Living Low way, part 3

In the first two parts of my series on seed starting, I discussed creating a good environment for starting seeds and purchasing or preparing a good medium for seed-starting. In this, the last part of the series, I’ll discuss containers in which to hold the seeds and growing media and the trays that will keep leaking water from damaging anything. As before, I will stress using what you already have or can make or scrounge for free, and also consider what is best for the scale you are working at (anywhere from raising a few tomato plants up to raising a thousand or so seedlings, scales that I have experience with). Finally, I will briefly consider other aspects of seed starting in which my experience is different from conventional seed starting advice and tell you why I do things differently so you can decide what to do in your own situation.

I’m not going to get into the details of sowing seeds since those have been well treated elsewhere. The best single book on seed-starting, one I recommend to anyone who intends to start at least a few seeds every year, is Nancy Bubel’s The New Seed Starters Handbook. For an online guide to seed-starting, see here.

Let’s suppose you are just beginning to grow from seeds and plan to grow something along the lines of a few tomato or lettuce seedlings. You’ll have to purchase the seed packet (unless someone you trust gives you a few seeds), and if you don’t have any compost or want to avoid “weed” seedling confusion you’ll need to purchase a small amount of a seed-starting mix. But you won’t have to purchase anything else as long as you have on hand or can scrounge a smallish plastic garden pot or similar sized plastic container. If you save plastic containers such as those that, say, onion dip or ricotta cheese or margarine or any number of other processed foods come in, you have excellent containers in which to start and grow on seeds. Any container with a depth of around 2 to 3 inches will work for starting seeds (it needs to be this deep to accommodate the seedling’s root system). I rummaged through our kitchen cabinets and found three such containers of a size to hold about 16 ounces of food. Each is a bit more than 2 inches deep and a little over 4 inches in diameter. Imagine them sectioned into quarters, as if you were dividing them into pie slices, with a seedling growing in about the middle of each section. You could grow four seedlings to transplant size in one container like this. Or you could use a container like this to start a larger number of seeds, later removing each seedling and replanting it into its own container to grow on to transplant size. Gardeners call the removing and replanting pricking out; you can use a repurposed chopstick to carefully tease out each individual seedling (a table knife would also work). You can avoid the pricking out operation by sowing a few seeds into the middle of each of the four quarters of the containers of my example, then thinning to one seedling per quarter and growing the remaining seedlings to transplant size. To remove them, use a knife to section out the quarters of mix and remove each quarter with its seedling; plant the seedling with its quarter of mix clinging to its roots. If you have 8 ounce plastic containers like those used for yogurt, you could plant three to four seeds in each, cut out the weaker seedlings after each seedling has at least 4 leaves, and grow the remaining seedling to transplant size. This size container would grow a fine tomato seedling as well as something like lettuce that has a less-extensive root system.

If you have a gardening hobby and have a collection of various sizes of pots as a result, you can use those pots to start or grow seedlings. You can start a number of seeds in a larger, say 6 inch pot, and prick each out into a 2 to 4 inch pot to grow on to transplant size depending on the size of the seedling when it is transplanted, or start a few seeds in enough of the smaller parts and thin to one seedling per pot. As a general rule, things planted in cool spring weather, like lettuce and cabbage, are usually grown to smaller sizes than tomatoes and others that are planted after the last frost. Smaller-sized plants need less root room and can be grown in smaller pots. You can use terra-cotta or ceramic pots as well as plastic pots; just be aware that the mix in a small terra-cotta pot can dry out rapidly in your heated living quarters or on a warm sunny day on a glassed-in porch.

If you don’t have any of these sorts of things on hand, check with folks you know for extra garden pots or processed food container or save the right size of processed food containers when you purchase such foods. If you live someplace where trash is put out on the curb or in dumpsters in the alleys, check for these in the discards, or ask someone you know who lives in an area with alley dumpsters to look for you. You might think that recycling centers would be a good place to scrounge this sort of thing, but at least around here, you’d be wrong; materials in recycling centers are considered the property of the recycler.

If you are repurposing a processed food container, you need to poke drainage holes in it so the mix doesn’t get waterlogged. Poking four holes in the side a quarter to half inch up from the bottom, using a knife or scissors blade, should be sufficient for the size containers mentioned. It’s best to poke holes in the sides rather than the bottom; holes on the bottom that are in direct contact with whatever is holding leaking water often will not allow proper drainage through them.

Unless water leaking out from your containers or pots won’t damage whatever they are sitting on, you’ll need to put them on a non-leaking tray. The pot trays you can buy at garden centers will work, but almost certainly you have something on hand that will work just as well. Pie plates are about the same size and shape as pot trays; you could use the thin aluminum pie plates from commercially-purchased pies as long as you didn’t poke any holes in them while getting the pie out, or if you bake your own pies, you can use glass or metal pie plates you have on hand. Anyone who bakes has a collection of different sized containers (8x8 and 9x13 inches are common sizes); as long as these don’t leak, you can put your seed-starting containers inside them. Similar sized containers you may have on hand for leftovers would work just as well as long as they don’t leak. If you are raising a number of seedings on a tray table in front of a window and you have a cookie sheet with raised sides, put the cookie sheet on the table and your seed starting containers on the cookie sheet. (You could as well put the cookie sheet on your glassed-in porch or under a fluorescent light fixture.)

If you are growing more than one variety of plant, you will need some way to label containers so you know what is in them. Garden centers have materials you can use to make labels. Homemade versions could be writing the variety name on the side of a processed food container with a waterproof marker, cutting similar plastic containers into the size you want and labeling them with the variety name, repurposing a popsicle stick or making a wooden stick from scrap wood and labeling them, or in my case, repurposing the metal slats from discarded venetian blinds (plastic blind slats would work as well) and labeling these. In the last three cases you’ll put the marker next to the seeds of that variety if you have more than one kind of seed in the container. Use a pair of strong scissors or tin snips to cut blinds into smaller pieces. I use a special marking pen that can withstand sunlight because I re-use many of the labels from year to year, so I want the name to be legible for years. You can use an ordinary waterproof marking pen, but the writing will fade over a period of weeks or months when exposed to sunlight. That may not be an issue if you are writing on wood or plastic that itself rots after a period of time. If you want something more permanent and you can scrounge metal or plastic blind slats, a non-fading pen is best to use. Be sure to cap it tightly after each use! A china pen might also make a long-lasting mark; if you have one, try it and see.

If you get to the point where you are starting several tens to a few thousand seedlings of many different types of plants, cell packs and other specialized seed starting equipment will begin to look attractive to you. It’s a lot easier to handle one tray with 36 plants or a single wooden flat with 300 or so onion seedlings than multiple containers with smaller numbers of plants. You could buy these new, but you may be able to scrounge or make some or all of what you need. The four or six packs that garden centers sell seedlings in can be re-used for many years if you take care to not rip them when you remove the plants and you store them under cover when you are not growing plants in them. Even ones with a rip or three from previous rough handling can generally be reused for a few to several years, until the rips get so large that the individual cells no longer hold the seed starting mix. I started with the equivalent of a few hundred seedlings’ worth of different sizes of four and six packs and various sizes of trays to hold them, all scrounged by me or gardening friends who already had enough. I still have about half of the packs, and all of the trays, after several years of re-use and keeping them inside when they don’t have plants in them, some of them with rips they have always had. You probably know someone who buys and plants annuals that are sold in these packs; ask them to save the packs and trays for you if they don’t need them. Those of you who live where there are alley dumpsters should be able to find them in or around the dumpsters during prime annual-planting months (April and May around here). Until I started to collect these, I didn’t realize that six and four packs come in many different sizes, as do the trays that hold them. You may need to mix and match packs and trays that you scrounge.

Now that some of my scrounged packs have deteriorated so much I cannot use them, I have purchased a few sheets of six packs from Fedco as replacements. These should last much longer than the scrounged packs because I am very careful not to rip them and I keep them in the basement until they are pressed into service and upon removal of all plants.

Because the plastic the packs and trays are made from is processed out of oil, I think it’s imperative to take the best care possible of them and to re-use them as many years as you can. They may seem as if they are cheap and disposable, but in actuality they come at a high cost. Use them in a way that respects that cost.

At the several tens to a few hundred seedlings scale, you may find it easiest to start and grow all of your plants in a motley collection of packs in trays. You can start a few seeds to each cell of the pack, thin to 1 seedling per cell, and put markers in individual cells or packs as needed to distinguish plants from one another. You’ll want to check each tray to see if it has drainage holes or not. Trays come both ways. If you put the trays on top of something that will be damaged by leaking water, be sure that the trays do not have drainage holes. If they do, you’ll have to put the trays on top of something larger that won’t leak. A large cookie sheet might do.

If you are starting several hundred to a few thousand seedlings, as I now do, you will probably want to start the seedlings in flats (boxes in which you start rows of seedlings, like a miniature raised-bed garden; the photo at the top shows one of mine from last February). You may want to start one or more flats with all of the seeds that need cooler temperatures to germinate and grow, and one or more flats with all the seeds that need warm temperatures to germinate and grow. Then you can put the flats in different places that match the environment each seed needs to grow well. As seedlings become crowded in the flat, you can prick them out into individual cells of a pack and keep the packs in trays, moving the trays as needed so the seedlings grow in the right conditions. This is what I do now. I start the flats on the glassed-in porch during winter or early spring. The flats with cool weather seeds like lettuces and cabbage family plants get put on the floor where it is cooler. The flats with tomato, pepper, eggplant, and other seeds needing warmer conditions for germination are put on the heat mat and the heat mat is turned on for the two or three weeks that it takes for all the seeds that will germinate into healthy seedlings to do so. As I prick out plants into cell packs I put the cell packs in their trays into the cold frame, or keep them on the porch if it is too cold in the cold frame. Seedlings that grow too large for the cell packs get potted-on into individual 2 or 3 inch pots. I prick out a few more of each kind of plant than I need in case some of the plants die before it is time to transplant them to the garden; the remainder of the seedlings get eaten if they are edible in that state or composted. Onion and leek seedlings stay in the flat until they are large enough to plant directly into the garden. This system is economical of space and of the various components and it allows me to care for many seedlings easily.

If you want to use wooden flats like the ones in the photo to start seedlings in, as always, you can buy them or make them yourself. The flats you can purchase from Bountiful Gardens are made from repurposed redwood and should last for many years. I have one and like it. Since then Mike has made five more of the half size flat out of scrap wood, and I now start most of my seeds in these flats plus a few smaller wooden and heavy paper flats I purchased some years back. I suggest using the half size flat, about 11x14x3 inches, as larger flats will be very heavy when full of mix and plants. You can make flats from any solid, untreated scrap wood you have lying around. As long as you remove the soil and dry the flat when all the plants have been removed and store it in a dry place, scrap wood flats should last a long time. You need to have a little space between the bottom boards to allow water to drain out of the flat; about 1/4 inch of space is sufficient. Before you put seed starting mix in the flat, line it with paper you would otherwise recycle to keep the mix from falling out the bottom. The paper doesn’t prevent drainage and it will slowly rot away as the seedlings grow. To sow seeds into a flat, you can put a sheet of 1 inch chicken wire on top of the flat and use the wooden end of an unsharpened pencil to make a shallow hole in the mix at the center of each hole in the wire, then remove the chicken wire and plant seeds into the holes, labeling each row as needed. Or use the edge of a thin board to make a shallow depression in the soil of a filled flat and sow your seeds into the depression, again labeling each row as needed with the seeds in the row.

Many seed starting directions say you should cover the container with plastic after you sow the seeds, then remove the plastic once you see tiny plants emerging. I don’t cover the containers, however, except for those on the heat mat. The very humid conditions on the surface of the mix in covered containers will encourage molds or diseases that can kill seedlings. The only reason I cover the flats on the heat mat is because the added heat dries them out faster, but this year I am planning to try growing them uncovered and monitoring the moisture level more closely as I sometimes have trouble with seedlings in these flats dying from disease. Most seeds should be planted with something like 1/8 inch of mix over them to keep them moist (and dark if needed). Some seeds, mostly the very small ones and often those in the aster family (lettuces) and the mint family (basil), germinate better in sunlight. These should be covered, if at all, with the thinnest layer of mix you can manage. Check with the seed retailer or garden books like the one I linked to above for more information on the needs of the seeds you want to grow.

As for watering, you want the mix to be moist but not soaking wet. Using a watering can to water your carefully planted containers risks dislodging the seeds, a serious problem if you have planted multiple kinds of seeds in a single container and depend on their staying where you put them to know what they are. It’s much better to water your containers from the bottom. Just put them in a larger, water-holding container (a stoppered sink is convenient) and add water carefully, avoiding getting it into the container with the seeds, till the water level is just below the top of the mix. You may need to hold down the container with the seeds while you add water as dry mix will be less dense than water so the container will float. Once the mix has absorbed enough water so that the top surface of the mix is moist, remove the container and let it drain in a safe place; in a sink you can remove the stopper and let the container drain. After the seedlings appear and grow a couple of leaves, they will be well enough rooted that you can water from the top with a watering can if you prefer. The bigger the seedlings grow, the more often you’ll need to water.

Finally, many garden books and sites say that if you are re-using containers from year to year, you should soak them in a mild bleach solution to kill “germs” that might harm your seedlings. I never do this. Chlorine bleach is very energy-intensive to prepare and ship, and the gaseous chlorine from which it is made is extremely hazardous. If you are worried about carrying over “germs” on the containers, try washing them in soap and water and letting them dry in sunlight. I don’t even do that much, however, and I don’t have excessive problems with seedlings dying. Generally I sow enough extra seeds to make up for any seedlings that die. The best prevention for “germs” and disease is not to over-water the containers and not to cover them.

This completes my series on starting seeds. Happy growing!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Seed starting the Living Low Way, part 2

In the previous post I discussed how you can create a good environment for growing seedlings in a number of different ways, with attention to how to do this using no or a minimum of fossil fuel energy. In this post I will look at appropriate growing media (soil or a soil-like mix) that will allow you to grow the strongest seedlings you can.

You might think that the best medium for seed-starting would be the soil right outside your door (if you own the property and can legally dig up that soil, of course). The advantage to using soil is that it is free and costs only your own energy to dig it up. Presumably it is already growing something, or did so at one time, so it should be able to grow the seedlings you want. And that might be true if you have a very light, loose, fertile soil. However, most of us, myself included, find that soil straight from the yard does not work well in containers; it is too heavy and often is not fertile enough. For those of you who have not grown seedlings before, another disadvantage of using soil is that it harbors lots of seeds of various kinds of plants already in it - you may call them “weeds” - that are as happy or more so to germinate as the seeds you planted. You may find it difficult to determine which are the seedlings you planted and meant to grow from the forest of others that pop up.

If you have not grown seeds before, or if you have but you cannot obtain the materials mentioned below for homemade media, I suggest you stick with the seed-starting media that are available for sale through a trusted local garden center or through a good mail-order site like those I have mentioned in previous posts. These media are formulated to work well in small containers and they harbor very few, if any, weed seeds. The lack of weed seeds is the major reason I recommend them to new seed-growers. Buy only as much media as you need and change over to a homemade mix once you are confident that you can recognize the seedlings you want to grow. With the commercial seed-starting mixes you will need to pay careful attention to the proper moisture level in the mix. Some of them are very difficult to re-wet if they should dry out. (If this happens, put the container in a larger container of water that comes almost but not quite up to the top of the mix, and leave the container in the water until the mix is moist again.) Also, it is best to purchase seed-starting media as opposed to a mix formulated for potted plants. Seedlings have somewhat different needs than established plants. Some seed-starting media may not have high enough nutrient levels to sustain seedlings for several weeks, so you may need to water occasionally with a dilute solution of (preferably organic) fertilizer. The better mixes may not be an issue in this regard. Check the label and ask garden center staff or the staff of your favorite mail order company what they recommend in this regard.

Once you are confident you can recognize the seedlings you mean to be growing, whether from having grown them before or from photos (search using a phrase like "picture of tomato seedlings"), and if you have access to the needed ingredients, you can make your own seed starting mix for free. At a minimum, you need well-made compost. By well-made compost, I mean compost made from a reasonable mix of dry, highly carbonaceous materials like autumn leaves or paper and wet materials like fresh grass clippings, food scraps, or garden weeds. The compost should have aged enough that you cannot recognize the individual materials that went into it and and it should have an earthy smell. Any good gardening book including the ones I discussed in last winter’s posts, and probably your state Extension office on the web (see here for Missouri’s), has directions for making compost if you don’t already know how to do this. Someday I might write a post on how I make compost as it seems to be good quality compost and requires little effort on my part. But for now, let’s assume you have your own compost on hand and go from there.

You can use straight compost as a seed-starting medium if you sift it or otherwise remove the large lumps. Some garden suppliers offer a screen that fits on top of a bucket for this purpose. You load compost onto the screen and push it through the screen with your (gloved) hands. The sifted compost falls into the bucket. Continue till all that is left on the screen are various pieces that are too large to go through the screen. You use what is in the bucket to start seeds and dump what is on the screen either back into the compost pile to further decompose or elsewhere in the yard where it can re-enter the ecosystem. You can fashion a sifter of your own by constructing a shallow bottomless box that will fit over a bucket or, for larger quantities, over a wheelbarrow or garden cart and attaching 1/2 inch square hardware cloth to the bottom of the box.

Although you can use the sifted compost by itself for starting seeds, it can be extended and improved by mixing it with garden soil. John Jeavons’ book discusses making seed starting media from a mix of garden soil and compost; this is the method that I use. You don’t need to double-dig to get the soil as he does; just dig some up out of your garden when you need it. You may need to experiment to find out how much garden soil you can mix with the compost and still have a light enough material to work well in small containers. We have a silt loam soil and I find the best mix is about two parts compost to one part soil. If you have a clayey soil you may need to use a higher proportion of compost. If you have a very light sandy soil you may find a higher proportion of soil works better. I keep large plastic containers of garden soil and sifted compost in the basement, where they will be unfrozen in winter when I begin making seed-starting mix. To make the mix, I measure out the components into a bucket, using a plastic cup as the part measure, and mix them together in the bucket, using my hands and a cultivating tool that fits in the bucket to get the components as thoroughly mixed as possible. I don’t sift the soil because we have so few rocks in our soil as to not be an issue; you may find you need to sift the soil as well as the compost to make a non-lumpy mix. I do remove any sticks, rocks, and other debris that I see and crush big lumps of soil before and while mixing.

Before I had a worm bin, I made all of my seed starting mix with only compost and soil. Plants like lettuce and cabbage that don’t need a highly fertile soil did well enough in this mix. Tomato seedlings, however, grew quite slowly and had a purplish cast characteristic of lack of phosphorus. Because worm castings are high in nitrogen and phosphorus, I started adding them in small quantities to my homemade seed-starting mix. It made a big positive difference in tomato and pepper seedling health and growth. If you have access to homemade worm castings, use it in your seed starting mix (it’s worth keeping a worm bin going if you grow a lot of seedlings or container plants so you always have a free source of castings). A good ratio is one part of worm castings to a total of 8 to 12 parts of other ingredients; worm castings can burn your plants in too high a concentration. If you don’t have enough castings to make sufficient mix for all the seedlings you want to start, add castings to only the mix for plants that need a lot of nutrients to grow well (for vegetables, this includes tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, probably okra as well). Some garden centers sell bagged worm castings if you don’t have your own and find that your seedlings need the nutrient boost.

Looks like I had enough to say on media that I need to make a separate post on containers. So be it; I’ll plan to write that post over the next week.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Living Low approach to seed starting, part 1

Almost a year ago I promised a post on low-cost, low-resource ways to start and grow any seeds that you have determined will do better with an early start under controlled conditions. Now that seed starting time is approaching for those of us who garden in the St. Louis area or other places with similar climates, here is that post, the first of however many it takes me to give you the information I would have liked to have when I began.

I’ll be starting onion and leek seeds this week (crops I didn’t discuss in my earlier post on direct sowing versus starting seeds inside, but they are also good candidates for indoor starting and transplanting because they take a long time to sprout and grow and need to be planted early to grow well, in late March to early April around here). Some other seeds, such as cabbage family plants, can be started within the next few weeks. So purchase your seeds if you haven’t already, and start collecting materials you’ll need for growing them.

In order to start seeds early, you need these things (besides the seeds, of course):
1. A suitable environment in which to grow them;
2. Soil or a soil-like medium in which the seeds can germinate and grow; and
3. Containers to hold the soil and seeds that will fit into the environment in which they will grow and not cause damage to anything you care about in that environment.

I will deal with each of these in turn, emphasizing using what you already have on hand or can obtain free or at low cost. This post discusses the environment seeds need. I’ll discuss the next two issues in the next post, planned for later this week (if needed I will continue into a third post next week).

A suitable environment is one which can be kept at the temperatures at which your seeds germinate and/or grow best (these are not necessarily the same), has sufficient lighting for good seedling growth, is not damaged by water leakage from the containers, and is easy for you, the gardener, to work in. Very generally, you want an area that you can keep above freezing and not so warm it cooks your seeds or plants (40F to 90F works for most seeds and seedlings; some seeds need 70-90F to germinate but the seedlings grow best at somewhat lower temperatures), is lit brightly by sunlight or artificial lighting, and is protected from water by some means or will not be damaged by leaking water.

If you want to start seeds early and you don’t have any space except a windowsill, first make sure that you have a suitable window. Seedlings need a lot of light to grow well; that means a south facing window or at least whatever window faces most nearly south that you have. That window should not be shaded by outside plants and you should be willing to not cover it during the day. If your windowsill is very narrow, place a shelf or a small table (a tray table works well) next to the window that extends out from the window about two feet at most. Any farther from the window than that will not have enough light to grow seedlings well. You’ll want to turn your seedling containers every few days to keep your seedlings growing as close to straight up as possible, otherwise they will lean in toward the window and their stems will elongate as they grow. They won’t grow as stocky as will plants grown on a sun porch or in a cold frame because of the dimmer light even a south facing window has, but they will do OK. Since your south facing window real estate is limited, decide what is most valuable to grow as seedlings based on your gardening goals and what will do best in the conditions inside your living space. Often this will be tomatoes. They are a good choice for windowsill growing because you don’t need many plants to get a lot of tomatoes, they grow well inside most peoples’ homes in March and April, and you have a much wider choice of varieties available from seeds than from started plants. However, you can as easily start lettuce or cabbage or many kinds of herbs or annual flower seeds, for example, on your windowsill. Make sure that any water draining from the containers will not damage the windowsill or any extensions out from it and water the containers as needed. You’ll need to harden off the seedlings (acclimate them over a week or two to outside conditions by putting them outside for an increasing number of hours each day, then bringing them back inside for the rest of the day) before planting them. If you don’t, they will sunburn and dry out in the wind and may die from too-rapid exposure to harsh outside conditions.

If you want to start lots of different kinds of plants from seeds, you will likely need more space than a south facing window provides. If you have a glassed-in porch of which the longest wall faces anywhere but north, you have an ideal setup to raise a lot of high-quality seedlings. Most such porches will stay within the 40F-90F range without your attention during March and April except on the warmest days when you will probably want to open up the porch anyway. (If you do open the porch windows, be sure to close them again at night if the temperature will drop below freezing!) To start seeds like peppers that need more constant warmth than a sun porch provides in winter to early spring, you will need to use a heat mat. A heat mat is a rubber or plastic sheet with a wire embedded in it that is connected to a plug; electricity traveling through the wire heats up the wire and thus the mat. Containers with seeds are placed on top of the mat so they are heated from the bottom. A heat mat requires a fair amount of electricity (though much less than heating the whole porch!) so you will want to limit its use to just those seeds that most need the extra warmth for good germination (peppers, eggplants, maybe tomatoes, and certain herbs and flowers) and just during the time that you are germinating the seeds as the seedlings prefer growing on at ambient porch temperatures. Keep an eye on all the containers, especially any containers on a heat mat, to make sure they stay moist enough, and water as needed. If you are just beginning to raise plants from seeds, choose one or a few types of plants to try while you work out your system. If your porch has large air leaks to the outside, fix those before starting seeds so you can keep the environment more constant. Your plants will do better the closer you position them to the glass, but you won’t need to turn your plants often if at all and you can grow farther back from the windows than two feet because most porches have a lot more light entering than does a lone window. If you open your porch windows when it is warm enough, your seedlings will not need to be hardened off. Now that I have a south facing glassed in porch, I start almost all seeds on it except for the ones that need exposure to winter conditions to germinate.

If you don’t have a porch but you do have a reasonably flat and sunny space outside, you can build a cheap and effective cold frame for starting seeds. A cold frame is a bottomless box on which the top face is angled away from the horizontal (the north end is taller than the south end to catch low-angled early spring sunlight) and covered with glass or plastic. The cold frame becomes quite warm on sunny days and stays warmer than outside conditions at night. Below is a picture of two cold frames we used to have. Our current cold frame is located behind our garage and is about the same size and shape as the front frame in the picture.

Each cold frame in the photo was about ten feet long by three feet wide. On the frame in front the rear side was about eighteen inches high while the front side was about six inches high. The rear side of the frame in back was about three feet high as it was used to overwinter tall crops. The frame in front was only used for seed starting so it is closer to what you might want to construct; our current cold frame has its rear side about two feet tall, which I think works better. We constructed each frame from scrap plywood and 2x4s and salvaged glass windows and screens, so the openings fit the windows we had on hand. In order to hold the windows or screens on the frame when it is windy, I use salvaged bricks as weights, placed near the corners. You will find lots of design ideas by doing an internet search or looking at gardening books. The frames last a few years before the wood rots if you do not use any wood preservatives. Linseed oil might make a good nontoxic preservative, but I have not used it so far (maybe on the next one I will). If built from a rot-resistant wood the frames would last longer but we did not have any on hand when we built any of our frames. You could use UV resistant plastic instead of glass if you don’t have access to salvaged glass; check local gardening supply stores or catalogs or building salvage yards for this. Some gardening catalogs sell cold frames but you can make your own for a lot less money. Size it to fit the space and materials you have on hand and the number of seedlings you want to grow. A frame the size of ours holds a lot of seedlings (I grow about 300 seedlings each year). Build a one window frame if you are just starting out and expand as needed later on.

To use a cold frame, put it down on the ground or on whatever other bottom surface you have, put your seed-starting containers inside, and cover the openings with glass or plastic or window screen as needed, held down against the wind. The pictured cold frames sat on the ground in our back yard. Our current frame sits on a blacktopped area behind the garage. I prefer the blacktop because it holds heat better and doesn’t get moles tunneling under it or have as much insect or disease pressure as might be the case for a frame sitting on the ground, but either way works. You’ll cover the frame with glass or plastic for growing most seeds, but if you are starting seeds of native plants that need cold, moist conditions to germinate, cover them with screens like the front cold frame in the photo and start them by early January. You should monitor the cold frame daily (unless you are growing native seeds under screens during winter; you can leave them alone until warm spring weather dries the seed starting medium enough to need watering). The need for daily monitoring is the biggest disadvantage to a cold frame covered with glass or plastic. On sunny days such a cold frame can get very hot, up to 100F or higher, if you don’t ventilate it. Temperatures that high will kill seeds and seedlings. To ventilate, I push heavy windows like those shown on the rear frame either up or down a few inches to expose some space at the top of one or more openings and at the bottom of one or more, which allows cooler outside air to enter at the bottom and warmer inside air to flow out the top. Or I remove the windows entirely and cover the openings with screens. Or I prop up either the low or high end of the window to leave space for air circulation. You will find ideas for props in cold frame design publications. You must pay attention to the weather and replace the windows before the outside temperature drops below freezing! It’s best to replace the windows before sunset but it can be done afterward. Usually by early April it is warm enough most of the time that I replace the windows with screens except when the occasional below-freezing night is forecast; in that case I put on the windows at night and take them off the next morning. I also cover the cold frame with a tarp to keep heat from radiating out through the glass. The other thing you need to monitor is the moisture level of the growing medium; water as needed for the kind of plants you are growing. Sunny days that heat up the inside of the frame will increase your seedlings’ need for water.  Currently I move seedlings from the sun porch to the cold frame as I prick them out into individual cells of a cell pack or into small pots. In this way I can control the environment better during critical germination and early growth periods, moving seedlings to the frame when they can better take the more changeable conditions in the frame and leaving room on the porch for other plants and seeds.

If your garden space grows beyond what you can plant with seedlings grown on a windowsill and you don’t have a suitable porch or space for a cold frame, using artificial lighting in a basement or spare room to grow seedlings can make sense. To do this cheaply, purchase or salvage a 4 foot long fluorescent shop light (far cheaper than the specialized lights the fancy garden catalogs sell for the purpose). Use one warm fluorescent tube and one cool tube in the light; the combo gives light close in quality to the expensive grow light tubes and costs a lot less. Plug the shop light into a timer and set the timer to keep the light on for 16 hours each day. Suspend the light over a table or shelf about 4 feet long and about 2 feet wide, the largest area one light can illuminate well enough to grow seedlings. We hung two lights on adjustable chains from the basement ceiling and put an old, fake wood rectangular dining room table covered with two 4 foot long and 2 foot wide trays (the kind sold for the very expensive grow light systems for sale in garden catalogs; you might be able to find or make something similar for less money) under the lights. You need to adjust the height of either the light or the plants so the plants are within a couple of inches of the light as they grow. You also want to protect the surface of the table or shelf from leaking water, hence the trays, and to supply the seeds and seedlings with the temperatures they need. In our unheated basement I could only start seeds preferring cool conditions to germinate without using a heat mat to heat the bottom of the containers. Those mats suck up a lot of electricity, as do the lights, so you will want to start no more seeds than absolutely necessary in order to minimize the material and electricity cost. You will need to harden off all the seedlings you grow under artificial light as described for growing seedlings on windowsills, and the seedlings will not be as healthy as seedlings grown on a porch or in a cold frame. I no longer start any seeds under artificial light because I have a porch and a cold frame that produce much healthier seedlings and lots more of them. But before I had either I started seeds under artificial light because I had insufficient window space for starting them.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

More plans for 2013

In the previous post I described garden plans for 2013. In this post I’ll look at some ways that we hope to increase garden resilience to the effects of drought and reduce our usage of electricity and natural gas.

Reducing the impact of drought

St. Louis suffered from the drought of 2012; in fact, the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor continues to show the metro area in moderate drought. As I mentioned in this post, we used an excessive amount of water last summer compared to the same period in previous years. Even in a normal year we typically have anywhere from three to six weeks of hot, dry weather sometime in the growing season during which I rely on municipal water supplies to sustain my vegetable garden. That’s fine as long as the municipal system can reliably deliver the water and we can afford to pay for it, but we cannot count on either continuing to occur every year. Last year the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers from which most of our municipal water is drawn had good flows from sufficient rains in the previous few years. This year, however, both rivers are at low levels, and there has been little snowfall so far this winter in their watersheds. Should we experience drought this summer, we might be faced with water restrictions. I’d rather design the garden to need less water and meet a higher percentage of its needs through the rainfall we do get. At the same time, 2008 had the highest yearly precipitation total and 2009 the fifth highest measured in St. Louis, so whatever I do needs to be resilient for possible above-normal rainfall as well as drought.

While I haven’t taken a permaculture design course, I have tried to design our yard according to my understanding of permaculture principles. A permacultural viewpoint suggests increasing our ability to catch and hold rainfall where my garden plants can access it. Increasing the organic matter content of soils, mulching, and designing swales to catch and soak in rain that hits the ground are all included in the permaculture toolkit. Since the biggest need for municipal water during drought periods is for the vegetable gardens, I am considering how I might do a better job in all three areas.

With regard to organic matter, some complications arise from sustainability requirements. I could add more organic matter to the gardens than I have been doing, but I’d have to import it from other locations. I’m trying to use only what compost and other organic material I can make or have on hand. If I rake more leaves from the front yard to make compost, those leaves won’t be mulching my front yard plantings and they might need watering in that case. I do, however, have a pile of plant stems from past years’ herb and flower gardens slowly decomposing elsewhere in the yard. I might try to make more compost from the pile materials for use in the vegetable gardens, as the herb and flower beds require very little if any irrigation. I have also sown some of the vegetable beds to crimson clover for the winter, which should hold more nutrients in the soil (and hold the soil during windy periods). The clover can be dug in or composted before planting the next crop to increase organic matter content. In 2013 I plan to try interplanting each bed with crimson clover seed to further increase nutrient cycling, reduce weeds, and increase organic matter content over time. However, I will have to watch in case the interplanting increases water needs in summer; if so, I’ll remove the clover and compost it, then return the compost to the soil later on.

As for mulching, I use mulches (wood chips, autumn leaves, and/or a living mulch of violets and other groundcover plants) on the herb and flower gardens, but mulching doesn’t work in my more traditionally managed vegetable garden, which I cultivate with a broadfork or shovel and weed with a hoe. The crimson clover interplant may, however, act as a living mulch if I can plant it at the right density. Permaculturists look askance at digging for its disruption of the soil’s mycelial network, but a traditional vegetable garden in full sun might be best viewed as a disturbed meadow which is prevented from succeeding to forest by further disturbance. In this case a mycelial network does not form. However, if I can get a crimson clover living mulch established in the vegetable garden, I might be able to reduce or eliminate digging and weeding and also increase the capacity of the soil to hold water.

While I have been collecting information on designing and digging swales, so far I have not put this information to practical use. I will be looking more closely at the situation this year.

A different approach to decreasing irrigation needs is to increase spacing of the plants in the vegetable beds to be more compatible with available rainfall. While Ecology Action claims that closely-planted beds actually require less water on a square foot basis than traditional row-based spacings and that small amount of water can be supplied through irrigation in many cases, Steve Solomon claims that it is better to space plants much more widely if one is relying on (possibly insufficient) rainfall. The wider spacings mean each plant will not be competing for others and will thus yield more food than the same number of plants grown at closer spacing. A compromise position, one that Steve himself suggests, is to start with the closer spacing but then remove enough plants to create the wide spacings he recommends if rainfall proves to be insufficient and irrigation is not available. This approach makes sense to me. I should have done it last year, but I could not bring myself to rip out plants after I’d put so much effort into them and since we were not under water restrictions. This year I will do it if we get hit with water restrictions, and I will consider doing it if the Drought Monitor shows us at severe or worse drought and the weather patterns suggest that insufficient rainfall is expected to break that drought for a few weeks or more. If I am in the mood for a real scientific experiment, I can increase spacing for a portion of one of my crops and keep separate records of yields for that portion compared to the normal spacing, watering them (or not watering them) the same amount. 

Last month our new tool shed, shown in the photo at the beginning of this post, was installed where a dying silver maple tree had been removed last spring. With the tree gone, the vegetable gardens receive more afternoon sunlight and suffer less competition for nutrients with the maple roots. The tool shed is located closer to the gardens than the garage and the basement and has enough room to hold all the garden tools and supplies that used to be scattered across those two locations. A further benefit is that the tool shed is located at the highest point of the yard. This year we will add gutters and downspouts to the shed roof and direct the rainwater from the roof into a 500 gallon plastic tank. From there we can gravity-feed collected rainwater onto the gardens when needed and direct overflow to mulched garden paths or, if I get swales dug in time, to the swales for infiltration into the soil. The stored rainwater should replace a portion of the municipal water we’d otherwise use for irrigation.

Reducing use of electricity and natural gas

Mike and I cook on an electric stove, cool with a central air conditioner or electric fans, obtain winter heat from a forced-air natural gas furnace that requires electricity to operate the thermostat and the igniter and to power the blower, heat water with natural gas, keep foods cool with an electric refrigerator, and wash clothes with an electric washing machine. Through means such as setting the thermostat to 60F most of the time in winter and 82F for air conditioning, setting the water heater to 125F, insulating the hot water pipes and adding insulation to the walls, attic floor, and basement ceiling, sealing air leaks, and replacing inefficient old appliances with very energy efficient versions, we have reduced natural gas consumption by about three-quarters and electricity consumption by about 40% compared to what we used for a comparably sized house in 1990. However, we’d like to reduce consumption of each further and to be prepared to do without each for periods of time. Our biggest vulnerability is winter heating; our only backup source of heat at this time is a small kerosene heater. We use heat most days from November through March. While we use air conditioning for many fewer days than heating, it accounts for a considerable fraction of our total electricity use and cooking accounts for some of the remainder, so we need to work on these as well.

Our house was built in 1928, when coal-fired furnaces were very popular in our area. Our house has a round platform on the basement floor that supported a coal furnace and an opening in the basement wall through which coal was loaded into the basement. Coal furnaces typically burned hot; I’ve heard most people with coal furnaces kept at least one window partially opened in winter to balance the heat from the furnace. With that kind of heat fireplaces weren’t needed, and our house has none, so we do not have an easy way to add a source of wood heating. The chimney is on the east wall of the house outside of the kitchen and has a double flue. One flue would have been used for the coal furnace. We believe the other was used for a coal or wood stove in the kitchen for cooking; the chimney’s location and double flue suggest this possibility. St. Louis regulated the burning of high-volatiles coal in 1940 to reduce its smog problem; as a result households gradually switched to natural gas, oil, or electric furnaces and cooking stoves. The previous owner told us the house had an oil furnace when she and her husband purchased it in the early 1960s, but she’d replaced it with a natural gas furnace in the 1970s when oil prices rose drastically. We replaced that furnace with a 94% efficient unit that vents into a pipe through the wall. The natural gas service was not extended to the kitchen, so we cook on the electric stove that came with the house. The house had an electric water heater in the basement when we bought it. We’ve since replaced it with a natural gas water heater that vents through an insert in one of the two chimney flues. Nothing vents through the other flue at present. 

For short term electricity outages we can cook on a camp stove and a fire pit, bake with a solar oven, and use flashlights, oil lamps, and a solar lantern for lighting. When we are not using heat we do not find going without electric service to be a burden, especially if we have some ice available so we can hold refrigerated foods in coolers (in the winter we can keep foods cool in our cold storage area). However, lack of electric service in the winter means no heat. For a few days we could use the kerosene heater, but that is a short-term solution at best. If we had a wood-burning stove that we could heat and cook on, we could better handle short duration electric outages and, as we accumulated a supply of wood, gradually reduce use of fossil fuels for heating and cooking. I wouldn’t want to cook inside on a wood-burning stove during the summer, but if we had a summer kitchen set up in a shady location, we could shift some of our summer cooking outside, reducing excess heat in the house.

For 2013 we will concentrate on providing ourselves with a shady sitting area that can double as a summer kitchen. We already have a patio on the east side of the house with a structure on which we can suspend a tarpaulin to provide shade. However, the cheap plastic tarps we’ve used in the past don’t last more than one summer. This year we’ll purchase a canvas tarp that should prove to be more durable. We’d also like to add an awning extending out from the north wall of the house to cover a larger area that would eventually become the main area for summer cooking and other activities. I am planning to build a small rocket stove to see how it works compared to the Weber kettle and hibachi that we already have for summer cooking. I’ll keep you posted as the summer sitting area and kitchen develops! I don’t want to consider replacing the electric stove with a wood heating and cooking stove until we have a summer kitchen set up that we actually use, so this will be the focus of our efforts in 2013.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Garden Plans for 2013

Now that the new year has begun and we are in the middle of winter, I have time to plan for this year’s garden and also to make plans for becoming more resilient overall. Here is a look at garden planning for 2013 at Living Low Acre.

Recently I created a spreadsheet of the highest yields I have obtained on a square-foot basis over the 12 years I have kept detailed records for each crop. For each crop I listed the variety, garden spacing (in one of three different columns depending on whether I used the square foot method, Jeavons’ triangular spacing, or Solomon’s row spacing for that variety), sowing and transplanting (if applicable) dates, the measured yield in pounds per 100 square feet, and a code of L, M, or H to indicate the correspondence of my yield to what is claimed in the 8th edition of How to Grow More Vegetables. My intention is to better understand the factors that affect yield in my growing conditions. For certain varieties of tomatoes, for instance, I can exceed the best yields in HTGMV by a factor of 2 in the best years. For most of the crops that prefer cooler growing conditions, on the other hand, I have found it difficult to obtain high, or even medium, yields. You can see the results for yourself in the two images below. (I had to print out and then scan each page of the spreadsheet because I don’t know Blogger well enough to determine if I can upload the spreadsheets directly. The column headings for the second image are the same as for the first image. The backgrounds are different colors because I printed each page on the back of previously used paper and the two sheets are of different ages.)

The only crops that met or exceeded my expectations for yield in 2012 were tomatoes, garden peas, blackeyed peas, leeks, and carrots. Tomatoes and blackeyed peas loved the hot, dry summer, and the blackeyed peas matured earlier than the Black Turtle dry beans, thus avoiding fall rains that caused some of the bean crop to mold or germinate in the pod. Garden peas do surprisingly well here, although I have not tried to save seed for them, which would reduce yields as I’d have to leave some of the patch unharvested until the pea seeds matured and dried. I think my success with leeks and carrots had much to do with my planting them at the right time and, in the case of carrots, leaving them to grow for the entire season instead of harvesting them in midsummer and then trying to sow them again in late summer for a fall crop. The carrots that I left to grow all summer long and harvested in fall grew quite large but still remained crisp and flavorful. Leeks continued to grow throughout summer and fall, unlike the onions which had to mature during much hotter weather than they prefer, lowering their yield.

As I looked over seed catalogs and pondered how to improve my garden, several things struck me as worth trying in 2013.

1. I’m going to stop trying to grow kale and collards as a spring crop. We didn’t use enough of them in spring and early summer compared to bok choy, cabbage, and broccoli. Once July hit, a combination of heat and harlequin bugs killed all of the kale and most of the collards. What I plan to do this year is to grow a spring and early summer crop of bok choy, cabbage, and broccoli.  All of these will be harvested in June through early July. Mike will turn much of the cabbage crop into sauerkraut for eating through winter. Then I will remove all brassicas from the garden until I direct-seed for fall crops in an effort to reduce the harlequin bug population. In the fall I’ll try growing bok choy, turnips, rutabaga, storage radishes, and very cold-tolerant varieties of kale, collards, tatsoi, arugula, and mustard greens. I’ll harvest the bok choy, turnips, rutabagas, and radishes before winter and leave some of each of the others in the garden, uncovered, to see if they will overwinter for me. Last winter the low never dropped below 10F at our house; varieties that are supposed to survive to 6F can be found here.

2. I plan to grow more carrots, beets, and parsnips in 2013. I’ll sow all of these in the spring and leave all of them (except for the Cylindra beets) in the ground until after the first fall frosts. My observations from 2012 suggests this should increase the weight harvested per unit area and allow me to store more food for eating in winter and spring of 2014. The Cylindra beets are fast-growing so I hope to get two crops, a summer and fall crop, out of them; if that doesn’t work, I’ll drop them and grow only the sugar beets after this year.

3. With the weird, changeable weather we get it’s hard to know whether to grow Irish potatoes or sweet potatoes. I like Irish potatoes better, but they prefer a longer stretch of cool weather than we get here in the spring or fall. It’s hard to store potatoes during our hot summer weather. Sweet potatoes grow very well during hot summers, but the year we got 12 inches of rain in October, the entire crop rotted before I could dig it up. While they store very well during the winter and I have been able to use stored sweet potatoes to generate the next summer’s crop, I don’t like them as well as Irish potatoes. This year, I’ll try both again, planting 75% of the space to Irish potatoes and 25% of the space to sweet potatoes, and let them fight it out for yield, storage, and kitchen use qualities. May the best potato win ...

4. I used the spreadsheet above to set up my garden calendar and garden plan, in an effort to obtain more-consistent yields from every crop. At the end of next year we’ll see if I was successful; I’ll refine the plan each year so I can provide more of the food we eat every year.

5. New garden crops I’m trying this year include tomatillos, ground cherries, rutabagas, parsnips, and peanuts; two new varieties each of tomatoes, eggplants, and cabbage; and one new variety each of sweet pepper, dent corn, lettuce, Irish potato, and sweet potato. I also plan to try a different trellising system for cucumbers, melons, and squash in hopes of increasing yields for all of these. I’ve set up two new garden areas in which I plan to try some perennial vegetable crops such as scorzonera, Siberian pea shrub, daylily as a food plant (flower buds), perennial onions, and chicory as well as add space for growing pole beans on trellises. I plan to try a few new herbs as well. Finally, I will try again to grow tea (Camellia sinensis) on the east side of our house in place of the bridalveil spiraea shrubs currently in that area. Wish me luck on the last; the tea plants I have in containers suffered from the heat in the summer, but I hope that their roots might stay cooler if planted in the ground on the shadier east side of the house. I’ll put a wind barrier up to protect them from winter winds. The tea plants I ordered are reputed to survive Zone 7 winters, a criterion St. Louis has met for the past 12 years.

I’ll put the rest of the plans in a second, hopefully shorter, post next week. After that I plan to (finally) write the post on low-cost ways to start seeds and then continue the series on how I got here.