Thursday, February 24, 2011

jump starting spring: seed starting station

We've been hyper-focused on getting seeds started this week and making improvements from our slightly sad, leggy seedlings of last year. Our first task this spring was to do some research and decide how we wanted to set up a dedicated seed area. I really have to give Marc the credit on this one. He did many hours of research, went back and forth on what type of bulbs to use several times, and then diligently hunted down all the supplies. He also played a large part in relaying the technical details for this post. He's awesome like that. :)

Last year, we had a modest set up consisting of two folding tables and two shop light fixtures that used Plant & Aquarium bulbs. I think we only did about six trays of seedlings, and it was mostly effective, but not ideal - especially for the amount we're doing this year. In retrospect, we realize now that the legginess of our plants was caused by the fact that the light was positioned a bit too high. We've since found that, ideally, you want the light to be no more than 2"-3" above the seedlings. Each light fixture, under the best conditions, puts out about 6,000 lumens - compared with the midday sun, which measures about 100,000 lumens (!!!) - so really, the more light the better!

We were also total slaves to marketing on the whole "Plant & Aquarium bulb" thing. These types of bulbs tend to be lower in lumen output and heavy in the red spectrum. That's very useful for blooming flowers, but for seedlings, the key seems to be the blue spectrum with high lumen output. Seedlings prefer a cooler light temperature (around 6500k) that promotes fast, stocky growth. Our research also revealed a heated online debate about mixing a warm & cool bulb together to create a wide spectrum vs. just using a full spectrum, high lumen output bulb. After a good deal of consideration, we opted for the latter since it seems to be producing the best results for others.

While we were brainstorming, I showed Marc this nifty set up from Gardener's Supply Company with an equally nifty price tag:

If you can afford it, this looks like it would be a great system to use and seems to have everything you need to get going. However, I'm lucky to have a handy boyfriend who's interested in this as much as I am and who's first reaction was, "$600? Seriously? I can build something like that in a day or two; and for 1/4 the price." Again, awesome like that.

After a picking the features we liked from other set ups and making a few revisions, we decided to build our system using the following:
  • 5 tier wire shelf from Lowe's (it needed to be powder-coated to avoid rust & have shelves at least 18" deep to fit our standard 20" seed trays)
  • (8) T-8 fluorescent light fixtures (2 fixtures per shelf, 2 bulbs per fixture) We almost went with T-12's but, luckily, found the more energy efficient T-8's for the same price
  • (16) Daylight Deluxe 6500k bulbs at 2850 lumen each, so 11,400 lumens per shelf (A variety of manufacturers make these, so you should be able to find them at Home Depot, Lowe's, or similar store.)
  • (2) Emergency Space Blankets (the kind you use for camping or emergency kits) We hung one on each side of the shelf unit for light reflectivity and heat retention. These are very effective & also make me feel like I'm in a sci-fi movie every time I check on the seeds. (bonus.) You could also use aluminum foil, or any other reflective material to increase the light.
  • (4) inexpensive outdoor thermometers (one for each shelf)
  • Power strip with 8 outlets
    Hanging fixtures
Installing lights

Lights installed & space blanket hung

Completed seed station!
Using this set up, we are able to exceed the lumen output of most of the commercially available seed starting systems out there and for way less money. The whole set up supports 16 trays of starts for approximately $150. We're super excited to fill these shelves in the coming weeks & see how well it works for us!

Monday, February 21, 2011

doing it wrong

One of our primary reasons for taking the time to document what we are doing with the garden is to learn from our own mistakes & to share the experience as we go. In looking back at last year, there were lots of things that could have been done better and would have likely given us a more successful garden, but at the same time, one of the most beautiful things about gardening is that it's pretty hard to really mess it up. Sure, you can plant your seeds too deep, you may not have the perfect soil or the perfect light, or you may not recognize a destructive bug in time to save a plant (we have been guilty of all of the above! :)... but in the end, nature finds a way to create something amazing, despite everything you've "done wrong", and you learn how to improve it next time. It becomes less a case of "good vs. bad" ideas and more a case of "better, and even better than that".

2010 Garden space - Dug & fenced in April/May, so we were a bit late for transplanting

Basil & Tomatoes - 2010 Garden

Lessons Learned
(I am a project manager, remember... ;)

  • Research, research, research!
    Last year, we jumped in eagerly without much research or a clear plan of everything we would plant, when we should start them, & where they might grow best. We both had gardens before, but not quite on this scale or with the goal of significantly increasing how much of our overall food consumption comes from our own yard. This year, we are planning out what we're growing in a super-duper spreadsheet that would make any project manager beam with organizational joy. Including ideal & actual seed-starting and transplant dates, companion plants & those to avoid, specific info on each variety, and anything else we wanted to see at a glance. Yes, it's even color-coded. *swoon*
    Ours is probably overkill for most, but there are some great online resources for this:
    Skippy's Vegetable Garden calendar:'s%20planting%20calendar.html
    You Grow Girl's seed chart:
    Johnny's seed calculator:
  • Map it out
    It's hard to believe that little tomato start will be 8ft tall, or that the zucchini (assuming it avoids the plague of squash bugs) can become a jungle of vines that creates too much shade for another plant. But, it happens... and faster than expected. We are using online planning software to map things out a bit this year & hopefully that will help. We are planning to use this one:
  • Give them a good start
    After lots of research, tips from fellow bloggers, and many hours of YouTube videos, we decided to try building our own seed-starting station with a standard 5 tier wire shelf from Lowe's, shop lights, & fluorescent bulbs. We also opted to make our own soil mix and try using soil cubes this year. We're very excited about this project and it's been really fun so far! Photos & details to follow soon!
  • Relax and enjoy the process
    Ok, I will admit this can be a challenge for me, especially in the planning stages! :) I find myself getting anxious about the timeline (again, curse of the project manager) and wanting to jump to the next task before we finish the one we're on. I actively remind myself not to rush and to learn to live with imperfections (wabi-sabi, baby!). At the end of the day, all the planning in the world isn't going to stop a frost or a very determined group of cucumber beetles. Perhaps the biggest lesson I've learned from gardening is that I am definitely not in control. But, as I watch seeds sprout from tiny little pods, or how a certain plant attracts a very specific insect for pollination, I'm grateful for the reminder to let go and simply enjoy being a part of this interconnected process.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

garden v2.0

Our first seed order of the season arrived and we are so excited to get going for Spring! Our entire backyard still looks like a frozen tundra, but we are busy indoors mapping out all of our new plans for garden expansion and chicken residence. We have also both come to the conclusion of "who needs a yard?" ... ok, it was actually more like, "f*** the yard. what's it doing for us??" We made the decision that I think a lot of people have - that we, and the environment, would be better served by landscaping most of the yard with edible & native plants - plus no one really wants to mow. ;) It's not going to be a one-season job, but at least we have an evolving plan to inspire us now!

Our first seed order is from Johnny's Seeds and we're anxious to try them for the first time. Most of them are vegetables that we picked up at the Farmer's Market last summer and loved.
  • Borage - This one was recommended as a companion plant for the tomatoes and squash, but is also a great attractor of pollinators. After last year, we need all the help we can get with controlling squash bugs. Please feel free to send any suggestions! Bonus: the flowers are edible! Hello, pretty salads. :)
  • Cippolini Gold Coin Onions - I tried these for the first time last summer in a canning class and loved them. This will be our first attempt at onions, so we'll see how that goes.
  • Romanian Sweet Peppers
  • Yard Long Red Noodle Beans - another market find last year. These are great in stir fry!
  • Carmen Peppers - I have Deep Mudd Farm to thank for my addiction to these. Yum.
  • Sun Gold Tomatoes - another highly addictive market find. These brought us back every week and we ate them like candy. Best cherry tomato I've ever had!

Speaking of seeds, if you are in the St. Louis area, there is a fun seed swap event coming up with Drop.Swap.Grow! I will be traveling that day, but the awesome boyfriend will be there with seeds for swapping.