Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Starting Seeds Under Grow Lights

The mortality rate of seeds that I plant directly into the garden is high. I blame it on the arid climate, because it is difficult to keep the soil moist for the time it takes to get the seeds well-sprouted.  The solution is to start seeds inside in soil blocks and plant them out when they have a couple of good leaves and some roots.

LED grow lights are fabulous for this. They are low-power and don't produce much heat so they don't cook the plants.

Don't let articles about basements full of reflectors and lights scare you off. There is a difference between growing plants all the way to flowering and fruiting and just getting seedlings started.  My setup won't get tomatoes from seed to harvest.  It will get them from seeds to seedlings and do it inexpensively.

This was the first "OMG, I need LIGHT, and I need it NOW" setup.  Two inexpensive grow lights are dangling from some steel tubing over my workbench. They have a timer set to provide about 14 hours of high intensity light every day.
Temporary Grow Light Area
You can see the mini greenhouses of salvaged transparent pastry and salad green boxes labelled with painters tape and permanent marker pens. The seedlings are in the boxes, protected from drying out.

The next version will have two more lights and more space, but will not be any fancier.

Why I don't use a sunny window

Sunny windows are for cats, not seedlings.
Read more!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Starting Seeds in Soil Blocks: Part 3, After They Sprout

They sprouted!  Now what? 

Unless you want the seedlings to die from lack of space for their roots, you have to do something with them.  You have three choices:
  • Direct planting out to your garden
  • Moving the sprouts to a larger soil block to grow larger
  • Moving the sprouts to a pot, either permanently or to grow larger

Read more!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Starting Seeds in Soil Blocks Part 2, Making and Planting the Blocks

Collect your trays for the soil blocks.  I use salvaged  clear plastic containers that salad greens or pastries are sold in. I also use small freezer containers to hold a 20-block set of seeds.  If you will be making large quantities of blocks, cafeteria style trays or nursery trays would be convenient if you have some way to retain moisture in the blocks.

You will also need a sturdy trowel, a drywall mudding blade, and a pair of tongs with flat 1-inch tips.
The tools: drywall knife, mason's trowel and salad tongs

Read more!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Starting Seeds in Soil Blocks Part 1, Making the Mix

Soil blocks - just a cube of compressed dirt - have advantages for gardeners who grow their vegetables and flowers from seed.
40 lettuce seedlings in 3/4" soil blocks
in a scavenged plastic deli tray
There is no plastic except for the reusable, perhaps scavenged, trays for the blocks.  The micro blocks shown here take a very small amount of space compared to other seed starting methods. If a seed fails to sprout, the block can be tossed into the garden or compost bin. When well-sprouted, after a couple of true leaves have developed, the seedlings are ready for planting out or moving into a larger soil block or a pot.
Read more!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Raised Bed: REV 2.0 Bigger and Better

The first raised bed was done in a hurry because it was already October and I needed to get something finished for winter vegetables.  It was about 6x9 feet, occupying the available space between a fence, shed, and compost bins.
Six feet is as deep as it can be without getting in the way of traffic through the side yard. However, six feet is too big to weed in the middle without crawling into the growing area. Four feet wide would have been much better, because a comfortable reach for me is 2 feet.

Geometry to the rescue! The new bed is a fat E-shape, 6x16 feet, with two indented areas to keep the entire growing area in my reach distance. It is, however, no longer "tool-free".
Old (top) and new (lower) bed outline

Read more!

Monday, April 10, 2017

My Father was a Passover Goy. Was Yours?

What do an atheist family's children do for Passover? If the children are lucky, there will be a nearby observant Jewish family with "chametz" that is also in need of a "Passover goy".

What is "chametz"? When I was a child, I thought chametz was Yiddish slang for cookies, rye bread, and bagels. It's really almost any product that contains one or more of these five grains - wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye. Chametz includes not only bread and bagels, but the flour they are made from.

According to their religion, Jews may not own, eat or benefit from chametz during Passover. They must consume it, destroy it, or sell it before Passover starts. Not a single crumb can remain in a house (except for a few that are hidden for Jewish children to find and bring to be destroyed), or a warehouse, or a business.

What or who is the Passover goy? There is a loophole in Jewish ritual law big enough to fit wagonloads of chametz through. The Passover goy is a reliable non-Jewish person who takes posession of chametz for the duration of Passover.

Why would my father, a well-known atheist, choose to be a Passover goy? Why not? Helping neighbors is a mitzvah. Looking back, he was also the only person in the community who was not a member of a church that actively sought converts. If you want a no-hassle, no sermons Passover goy, atheists and pagans are probably better choices than someone from the high-pressure Christian religions.

I also realize now why there were fresh-made cookies, challah, and rye bread in the boxes the Jewish families brought to him. It's not as though the families were unaware that Passover was coming and accidentally made bread. It was an unspoken "thank you" for respecting their beliefs.

What are the duties of the Passover goy? Every year, my father made room in our house and garage for the chametz, and did the following:
  • Bought and stored their flour and leavening agents. 
  • Bought their baked goods. 
  • Bought and stored any other goods that had chametz in the ingredient list, such as the wheat noodles in canned ravioli, or the wheat starch in a condiment.
  • Bought and stored any wheat-based liquor and beer. 
  • Stored their dishes and cooking utensils that were used during the year, because the Jewish family was using their special Passover set. 
  • Sold it all back after Passover ... minus the baked goods. We ate those.
He had to buy the chametz? Yes. The payment was a tiny amount, but it ritually passed ownership from the Jewish owner to my father. As I recall, a dollar bill changed hands for each family. Read more!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Weed Control Methods: Herbicides Series

I will be publishing a series of posts on herbicides for weed control, explaining in a non-technical manner how to select the correct one for your problem and use it effectively.

It's a bit more complicated than grabbing a bottle of "weed killer" and spraying the yard.
WARNING: If something will kill "weeds", it might also kill "flowers", "lawns", "vegetables", "shrubs", "trees", "animals", and you.
Read the labels before you buy a product or open the container. Follow the instructions. What has been sprayed can't be unsprayed.
As I complete the posts, I'll update this, or click on the tag "herbicide" to see them and any other posts on herbicides. Read more!

Friday, April 7, 2017

PRO and CON: Expanding Pot-Pellets for Seed Starting

I sometimes start seeds in expanding starter pots. The most widely available brand is Park Seed Company "Jiffy-7" pots. The Jiffy pots are widely available in garden centers, the garden section of large retailers and hardware stores. They don't work for all seeds, but it's a product that is worth considering for starting some of your seeds.

The poker-chip size disks inflate into seed starting pots when you soak the discs in warm water. After the disk has soaked up water and is about 1 1/2 inches tall, drop a couple of seeds into the hole in the pot and wait for something to grow. I haven't had this much fun since I was a kid and had those flat animal sponges that puffed up into horsies.
Expanding Pots: as purchased on the left, after soaking on the right

Read more!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Why you need a garden journal

I know what date I took a picture, because the camera dates them for me, but when did I plant those things? That's why I need to start a garden journal - if I'm going to make garden experiments, I need to document my projects better.
Nice lettuce on February 20, but when did I plant them?
Here's where I should wax rhapsodic over the joys of using a hand-bound journal with a vintage nib pen for my botanical musings, or launch a discussion of which garden journalling software works best for Mac, Windows and Linux or my smart phone. Or maybe discuss my search for an app that keeps my gardening data in the cloud, whatever and wherever that is.

But I'm not going there.

My main computer lives in my office and my gardening all happens outside or in the workshop. I have a not-so-SmartPhone and I don't want to risk my laptop in the garden.  I already have the property dimensions on graph paper, and the Weather Underground keeps track of weather history for me. I don't need to track every weed I pull, just a few significant dates like when I plant seeds and when I need to do certain tasks, such as check on the seeds I have chilling in the refrigerator.

The simplest solution is a calendar page with enough room to make notes, in a clipboard that hangs in the workshop. At the end of a month, the loose page will be archived into the big binder that has all my house notes.

Here's the journal page I picked, from a wonderful group I know nothing about except that they provide free calendar templates for Linux, Mac and Windows.  Download what you need and print them out.  If I need more room for notes in any month, I will staple a piece of lined paper to that month's calendar.
Monthly calendar with note area
2017 Calendar Template Download 
And here it is, in front of my extremely sophisticated grow light system. The upcycled lettuce and pastry containers have soil blocks and seedlings in them.  ("Upcycled" sounds so much better than scavenged.)
Garden journal at work, collecting notes.
Read more!

Monday, March 27, 2017

DIY Pet Pill Pusher for Cats

Dogs are easy to give pills to - toss them a few treats and then the pill wrapped in a bit of lunch meat ... snarf, and it's gone.
Cats are different. When one of our cats, a muscular 9-pound adult, needed medication  twice a day for 10 days we quickly realized that we needed tools as well as hands.
They'll be too busy on Facebook to find me here!

So I made a pill pusher to make the process easier for us and her.

Read more!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Using a Seed Starting Heating Pad


Many seeds require a warmer soil temperature for germination than the seedling needs to grow after germination.  This ensures that the seeds germinate when the weather is warm enough for the plants to survive.
Frost on my lettuce seedlings.
For most seeds, directly planting the seeds in the garden is the preferred method, but many gardeners start some of their plants indoors with "bottom heat" to provoke germination and get an early start on the season.
  • They want to harvest as soon as possible, whether for market stalls or just bragging rights.
  • Their growing season is too short for this plant.
  • By the time the soil is warm enough, the remaining growing season is too short to get any harvest.
  • Their soil never warms up enough to germinate the seeds, but transplants will grow.
  • Their area for starting seeds indoors is too cool for germinating.
  • They need to get the plants germinated and seedlings established before hot weather arrives.
  • They want to get their garden work done before hot weather arrives.
I'm gardening in several of those categories, especially the last two.  I want to get the chili peppers and tomatoes in the ground to avoid the coming hot weather, and my workshop is too cool.
Read more!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Improved Frost Cover Support


The frost cloth was working, but rain made it sag and I was afraid the weight of the wet cloth would rip itself.  I added support lines between stakes to support the cloth in more places. It worked well after a moderate rain and a light snowstorm.
Support lines shown in yellow

It's easier to put on and off, and the cloth doesn't snag around the support posts.

The lines use clove hitches around the base of the mushroom cap on each support - it's an easy knot to make and unmake, easy to adjust in the middle of the line, and one of the few that can be made in the middle of a line without untying one end.
Supports with the added guy lines (orange garden twine)

 Possible Variations and Improvements

I don't have time to try these, but they would work.
  • Alternate supports ... use PVC pipe with end caps.  PVC pipe can be cut at home, is not as rough and is less likely to snag the frost cloth than rebar.
  • For a removable but convenient support system, pound in pipe big enough to hold the supports so you can drop them in quickly. Plug the pipe holes with something between uses to keep dirt, dead leaves, and critters out.

Read more!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Watching Grass Grow: Sprouting the Buffalo Grass Seeds

Instead of waiting until nights are reliably above 60 before seeding, I'm pretending that the grass seed is in Kansas and experiencing a nice wet spring.  I'm watering it every few days, and letting the jute mesh keep it moist.  Nights here are starting to be above freezing with days in the 50s and 60s and even 70s, so it should be happy to sprout.

(Feb 21)  3+ weeks after scattering seed and upholstering the lawn, a few days of rain, a couple days of snow, and temps ranging from highs of 45-75 and lows of 25-45 I have grass sprouting. 
 Tiny little shoots, but it's grass.
I don't know if this is buffalo grass or blue grama.
I also have weeds and perhaps some of the wild flower seeds are sprouting.  This area will take some time to sort out. Read more!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Curb Appeal #1: Getting From Curb to Door

Your first thought about your house's curb appeal should not be what color to paint the front door, where to hang hand-crafted wreaths, or what to plant under the windows.
Neglected house

Having the cutest front door on the block doesn't matter if it's hard to get from the curb to the front door.  I'll expand these bullet points later into posts with examples, explaining why they are important, but for now, here's some things to think about.
Read more!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Jute Erosion Mesh As a Seed Cover

Lawn Upholstering? 

Jute erosion control mesh is not burlap - it's a fabric woven with extremely coarse yarn and large holes.  The mesh is commonly used for erosion control along new road construction while grasses and shrubs are being established. It is biodegradable, and within a couple of years, maybe more in a dry area, will decay and turn into organic material in the soil.

I'm using it like a mulch to protect newly scattered buffalo and blue grama grass seed and native wildflower mix. It should prevent my seeds from blowing away, discourage seed-eating birds and hold moisture.  It is definitely weed-free, which my compost is not.  It supposedly decomposes in a couple of years, so I will write more than this post about how it works.
Upholstered Lawn

It does look like I carpeted the lawn, and the neighbors are looking at me funny.
Read more!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Watching Grass Grow: The Return of the Buffalo

We had heat-tolerant buffalo grass in Phoenix and loved the low maintenance and toughness of it.  The landscape plan in New Mexico includes a xeriscape "meadow" of grasses and wildflowers.  Instead of the plugs, I'm using seeds of a buffalo grass variety better adapted for high desert, mixed with blue grama grass and a small number of other native grasses for accents.
Buffalo cow and calf enjoying a stroll in Yellowstone National Park

The front yard was mostly neglected bare dirt. After the visible weeds were killed off, the seeds were scattered over the bare dirt and covered with jute erosion control mesh as a mulch to keep the seed from blowing all the way to El Paso. When the weather warms up, I'll be watering every few days until the grass is established. I'll also be pulling weeds.

Seed Sources

Western Native Seed of Coaldale Colorado
Xeriscape Lawn Mix, 70% buffalo grass/30% blue grama grass
Because the grama grass seeds are smaller than the buffalo grass, it's probably equal quantities of each seed.
Xeriscape Wildflower Mix  A whole bunch of stuff in this.

Prairie Moon Nursery was the source for some of the accent grasses and wildflowers. I'll be writing about them later.  I put about half of the grasses from prairie Moon into the main lawn mix and the rest will be planted as drifts or specimens

Also, I had grass and flower seed collected from along the roads here that I blended into the grass or flower seeds before scattering them. It will be interesting to see what grows. Read more!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

4 Weekends = Improved Curb Appeal

No matter how great the interior of your house may be, first you have to convince buyers that it's worth it to get out of the car and into the house. That's what "curb appeal" is.  I'm assuming you have a short time to get ready to sell your house, so this advice concentrates on removing negative curb appeal quickly and cheaply, not adding positives.
This would take more than four weekends.

The typical suburban house will take about 4 weekends dedicated to yard work to remove the negatives from the curb appeal before the listing date. That gives the shrubs time to recover from pruning, and the lawn time to green up. If your landscape is exceptionally large or neglected, some steps might take more than one weekend. Evaluate what you can do for yourself and hire professionals for the rest.

Remember:
  • Dead plants don't sell houses.
  • If potential buyers can't see the house behind trees and bushes, they won't want to buy it.
  • Clean and tidy is appealing.
  • Well-maintained is appealing.
  • Closely mowed green weeds have more curb appeal than overgrown or dead lawns.

Read more!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Late winter planting to avoid the spring rush?

The experiment - I'm exploring the possibility of starting leafy greens in late fall and "storing" them in the garden under a frost cloth during the winter so they are out of my way when I need the seed starting space for chiles (we have our priorities in this state).
If it works, I can have a three-planting rotation for leafy greens: Late fall for harvest in early spring, late spring for harvest in spring/summer, late summer for harvesting into the winter.

I planted out seedling butterhead lettuce in soil blocks December 3. Earlier plantings of chard, kale, bok choy and leaf lettuce - set out in beginning in early November - are looking happy and putting out leaves.  I've been harvesting since mid-January.  They are under a frost cloth tent, but it's not heated.
Bok Choi, planted as seedlings in December
Read more!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The problem with USDA Plant Hardiness Zones

Any system that puts Phoenix, Arizona and Orlando, Florida together has a serious flaw.  But they are both USDA Hardiness Zone 10.
"USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones."
What it really means:  The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map helps determine which plants are unlikely to die of cold weather at a location, not thrive.   There are many other reasons your location will kill unsuitable plants.  The picture below shows part of the problem.
Both city parks are in USDA Hardiness Zone 10


Read more!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Cumin Confusion: Black Seed, Black Cumin, Kalijiri and Kala Jeera

The confusion among cumin, black cumin, black seed, kala jeera and kalijiri is a great example of why we should use botanical names, not common names, even in recipes.  By the time the spices reached the English, the culinary names were totally screwed up. And if you buy Kalijiri instead of Kala Jeera, your curry will be disgusting.

Let's start with the edible spices:
Read more!

Monday, January 9, 2017

On-Line Business Owners: Are You Really Ready for Success?

Ewwwww ... My Blog EXPLODED!!! 


EXPLODE!!!!, in boldface with multiple exclamation points, is a word commonly used by those on the shady side of the business of promoting things. Their spam emails tell you they can "Make your on-line business EXPLODE!!!" Or they promise to EXPLODE!!! your website traffic, sales, profits, or maybe even that undersized part of your male anatomy.

What they don't tell you is that it is not always a good idea to EXPLODE!!! traffic or business.
It sounds strange, but businesses can fail because they succeeded, but didn't plan how to handle the success.

Reconstruction of the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot
If it had exploded as planned.

Read more!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

How To Salvage Floor and Wall Tile

If you are remodeling, you might have wall, floor or fireplace tiles worth salvaging for resale or to re-use in the new version of the house.  Or you may need to remove intact tiles from "over here" to replace damaged tiles "over there". Removing tiles intact is not a difficult project. It requires a little hand strength, and a few common tools that can be used on other projects. It takes time more than anything else.

I will explain some tile removal techniques, using a 1980s shower stall as the victim example.

This is a typical wall installation - the wallboard or backer board, some mortar (called "mud) to build the thickness up to match the edge tiles, a layer of wire mesh embedded in the mud, and then the thinset mortar that holds the tile to the mud.   Floor tiles do not usually have the wire mesh, and may be laid right over concrete. 

The typical layers: wall or backer board, "mud", wire mesh, thinset mortar, tile

Read more!

No-Tool Frost Cover Supports for Tender Landscape Plants

We joke that the the classiest house in the Phoenix area looks like a low-class Victorian washerwoman's house when a freeze is coming, because Phoenicians grab anything at hand to cover plants (Check the images. The Superman sheets are fab!) when one of the rare freezes is coming.  King size sheets and muslin curtains are popular, propped up with anything from saw horses to dining chairs to keep the covers off the plants.  Plastic drop cloths are popular, but you can cook your plants under the plastic if you forget to take it off.

If you have a bit more time to prepare, or live where frost protection is needed several times a winter, try this inexpensive solution that won't leave you sitting on the floor with no sheets on the bed. It looks like an old-fashioned circus tent.
Frost Cloth and Rebar Tent
Read more!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Four Cheap, Effective Fertilizers

For Occasional Use by a Lazy Gardener

I seldom use fertilizers, but if I have to, I use the simplest ones that will do the job.  I am reluctant to use combination fertilizer and weed killer or pest killer. If landscaping has weeds or pests, I'll buy the right single-purpose product. I am also reluctant to apply "time-release" products because in my experience, they are timed for the typical Eastern lawn and garden with more rainfall.
1914 Fertilizer Brochure Cover
If a landscape that I'm responsible for needs fertilizer, one of these four fertilizers will be applied: ammonium nitrate, ammonium sulfate, ammonium phosphate, or soil sulfur. In keeping with my gardening philosophy, they are the simplest, cheapest fertilizers you can buy.
Read more!