Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sunshine on my Shoulders

Now that the sun has started shining again, I can finally see where it’s not shining.  Getting the plants some sunshine has proven to be a bit more of a challenge than I expected.  Part of this is because my windows are just above ground level so as the sun rises the angle makes it disappear more quickly.  Another issue is that I have shrubbery outside my window, which further cuts into sunshine’s narrow window of opportunity.  This wasn’t a problem until about a week ago when the shrubs finally started leafing out.  I never noticed this issue before because when the blinds are open and I’m walking around the apartment in the morning, the sun gets in my eyes.  So my hope is that as the plants get taller, the sunshine becomes less of an issue.  Holding the plants up to the sunshine is yet another way that my microwave cart has come in handy.  I spent Sunday morning logged on to the Dansville Baptist Church live stream and moving the plants around to catch as much light as possible.  Obviously, this won’t work on weekdays when I need to be at the lab.

After consulting with my dad (a biology teacher and former plant nursery worker), I have come up with a couple solutions to this problem.  First, I figured out on Sunday where best to arrange the plants where they could get maximum lighting.  I also pulled out another shelf to arrange the plants on, and as an added bonus, it is more space-efficient!  This still only gives them a maximum of a couple hours of direct sunlight each day, so I bit the bullet and set up some artificial lighting.  I made the trip back to The Home Depot and picked up two 8.5” clamp lamps (i.e., heat lamps/brooder lamps) and two 120-watt plant light bulbs for them (both pictured below).  We have a couple decorative shelves in the kitchen, which made a handy place for the lamps to attach.  

There are a few points that I’ve kept in mind while setting up my lighting scheme.  For one, I can rearrange plants!  This is one of the perks of container gardening.  I don’t have to worry about the tomato growing up and shrouding the other plants yet.  When that is about to be an issue, I can simply move it.

Another thing that Dad told me is that cucurbits need less light than other plants, which made no sense to me until he informed me that cucurbits are a plant family that consists of the vining plants (cucumbers, squash, etc.).  The logic behind this is that vining plants are designed to need less light because they live under things so they could climb.  Knowing this helped me prioritize my lighting scheme.  I have two cucurbits, the cucumber (Cucumis sativus) and the zucchini (Cucurbita pepo), so I don’t have to worry as much about whether or not they are getting enough sunlight.  According to gardenguides.com (link in the list of references on the right side of the page), plants need AT LEAST five hours of direct sunlight per day, and as a rule of thumb, leafy plants can tolerate the most shade while root vegetables need the most sun.  So once my carrots sprout, I will have to prioritize them to get as much light as possible.  I can already tell how much the beefsteak tomato loves the sun; he contorts himself to get as much as possible!  Fortunately, with my new artificial lighting system, I can give them as much light as I want, so I’ll be letting them get what they can during the day and giving them about 5 hours of artificial light once the sun goes down.  Go, chloroplasts, go!

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Apparently every garden has them.  At my parents’ place, we always have domestic ducks wandering around the yard for 4-H projects and our general amusement because ducks are some of the happiest and most entertaining animals alive (except maybe otters).  One summer, we had no bean harvest because this group of ducks would get in a line and walk up and down our rows of bean plants, picking the beans off.  The no-till garden had a rabbit issue, which is another story altogether.  And my container garden has a puppy problem.

Meet Leonidas.  He is a 10-month-old Lab-ish mutt that I adopted from an unwanted litter at a cattle ranch in NW Minnesota this past fall.  He is the apple of my eye, but he is also frequently a devil child, as most puppies that age are.  I knew he was going to be a challenge when I started the garden.  So far, he has discovered that potting soil is delicious, and it is loads of fun to pick the plant labels out of the dirt and run around the apartment with them.  Later I heard the sound of his collar jingling in the kitchen and found him systematically pulling the leaves off the pepper plant.  (Like I said in the previous post, he has identity crises sometimes, and right now he thinks he’s a grazing animal.)  He only got about half of them off before I found them, so I’m hoping that I don’t need to replace that plant already.  He also shoveled out the zuke with his nose, and it looks like I will have to replace that one because the roots look pretty torn up.  I’m going to give it a couple days first, so fingers crossed!

Cast of Characters

So I started the container garden today, and I have a few general observations to make before I describe what exactly went down.

General observation #1:  Please note the list of references off to the right.  Right now, that reference list only contains one website, and if you are at all interested in container gardening anything, I highly recommend checking it out!  It’s really been helpful to me for planning.

General observation #2:  My apartment smells like dirt, which smells like summer vactation, and I love it!

General observation #3:  There are some perks to not gardening outside.  For example, today is May 14 and it is 45°F and raining outside.

Now for my plants!  I am trying some of my old favorites and also branching out a little bit into things I’ve never done before.  Cucumbers were a must because they are tasty, and I love making pickles.  (My dad calls cukes “pickles cut down in their prime.”)  I also planted one pepper plant.  I personally hate peppers, but I use them for my great-grandmother’s bread-and-butter pickle recipe.  The others that I planted that I have some experience with are tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and zucchini.  My new experiences include carrots, spinach, dill, and mint.  The dill is also for making pickles (but not bread-and-butter pickles), and the mint was my roommate’s request so that we can put mint leaves in our lemonade this summer, which sounds delicious.  I really want to plant peas and melons, but I am still debating if I have the room for either or both of them.  I am (semi-seriously) tempted to plant melons outside my office window so they can climb up the building.  After all, what’s summer without melons from the garden?
The kitchen window in my apartment is facing east, so it catches the sunrise and has full light most of the morning, which I think should be sufficient so I’m not thinking of getting any artificial lighting at this point.  I stopped at GoodWill the other day, and I found an old wooden shoe rack for a dollar that I am hoping to use as a trellis for the cuke or the peas if I decide to plant them.  My neighbors were getting rid of an old microwave cart that I grabbed to put some of the pots on because my puppy randomly has identity crises and currently thinks that he is a member of a grazing species (more on this to come).  Finally, I raided The Home Depot for containers and veggies.  While they have a great container selection, I was disappointed in the veggies they had.  As I was checking out, the lady smiled at me and said, “You have an apartment, I can tell!”
All the plants were garden-ready Bonnie Plants® brand except carrots (Burpee® seeds). 
For cucumbers, I got the only bush variety they had available (Burpless Bush Hybrid) and planted it in a 20” pot. 
My tomatoes are Red Beefsteak Heirloom variety, and I planted them in a 16” pot with a 42” tomato cage. 
My cherry tomatoes don’t get a cage yet because they are specially designed for containers, so I’m expecting for now that I don’t have to stake them.  We’ll see in a few weeks, I suppose.  They are Patio variety and are in a 12” pot. 
The zucchini is a Black Beauty and is also planted in a 12” pot.
The pepper is a Sweet Bell Pepper (green) and it is in a 10" pot.
The spinach is the Bonnie Spinach variety and is planted in a 36” long, approximately 8” deep window box.  I have four plants in there for now, even though the recommendation is to plant them about a foot apart, so we’ll see how that works out.
The carrots  are a Chantenay variety, which means that they are short and wide and are more commonly used for cooking.  I got them because I didn’t want them to grow too long in their short container.  The strain I got is called Short n’ Sweet.  These carrots will be an interesting experiment.  I planted them about ½” deep and about an inch apart in two 1.5 quart containers.  It was almost impossible for my clumsy fingers to grab one seed at a time, so I ended up putting multiple seeds in each hole.  When they are an inch tall, I’ll have to thin them to 3” apart.  I might try thinning them a tid bit closer together and seeing how they do, since I won’t have that many of them in such small containers.  If that doesn’t work, I’ll stick to larger containers in future endeavors.

Finally, the herbs, dill and mint.  They are planted in the same 24” window box.  Hopefully they can become friends!

I have never had to buy dirt and didn’t really know where to start, so I got three bags 2 ½ cubic feet each of MiracleGro® potting soil.  Turns out, two bags would have been perfect.  If I decide to plant peas or melons, I’ll dip into that third bag, otherwise, I’ll find out if The Home Depot lets you return potting soil.

"Springtime belongs to the doers."

For me, summer has always been the garden.  We had a moderate one when I lived in Flint, MI and a big one when we got a few acres and moved to Dansville.  I'm not going to lie, sometimes I hated it.  Picking the long rows of vegetables with the hot sun beating down was not my idea of fun, especially when I could be reading a book or playing in the creek.  But worse than harvesting was picking rocks.  The soil for our garden was so rocky, and even though my brothers and I had to pick rocks all summer long, it seemed like we never made a dent.  But the fruits of our labors were always worth the cost, whether it was freshly snapped peas or the extra ice cream that rewarded us for our rock-picking (an extra scoop for every bucket we had collected)!  Nothing beats garden-fresh veggies, and the fresher the better.  I remember picking corn with Mom, and we would break for corn on the cob right there in the middle of the garden.

After moving to East Lansing into house with a yard, I decided to plant my own garden (pictured on the right) with some friends of mine.  The rototiller turned out to be hopeless for that soil, so we decided to do an experiment in no-till gardening.  That garden turned into a good learning experience for all involved, not to mention a lot of laughs and good stories.  And yes, it did yield!

Now I am a graduate student in Minnesota, and living in my first apartment.  For the first time in my life, summer is coming and I do not have a yard for a garden.  "Springtime is for the doers," The Home Depot commercial reminds me everytime I'm catching up on TV online, and for a while is was just an annoying reminder that I didn't get to be one of those people.  Then I decided to carve out my own garden in the only place I had extra room, my kitchen.

So, that's what this blog is chronicling, my newest gardening adventure.  Not that I was really knowledgeable about gardening in the first place; to me, gardening is planting, weeding, watering, picking, and eating.  I am not a master gardener in anyone's book.  In fact, I destroyed half of my friends' garden last year when I was house-sitting for them while they were on their honeymoon and forgot to water their starter plants.  But I'm doing it, and hopefully someone else can also learn from the mistakes I make along the way!