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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Extra Veggies? Feed the Hungry!

I enjoy gardening a lot more than I actually enjoy eating vegetables.  Certain things I like eating more than others, like I really enjoy FRESH cucumbers and zucchini, but I'm not a huge tomato fan, and I really don't eat hot peppers at all.

And yet, in my garden at home, I've got 13 tomato plants and 11 hot pepper plants.  Why?  Well, because they're fun to grow!

But instead of pawning my excess vegetables off on neighbors, I think this year I'm going to donate my extras to the Inter Faith Food Shuttle's "Plant A Row for Hunger" program.  They gladly accept donations of fresh produce, with only a few restrictions (primarily, no pesticides in the 2 weeks prior to harvest).

I found out about this program by doing a simple google search for "donate produce durham".  Maybe your area has a similar program!

Container Gardening at Work

(originally posted to the forum, you can go there to view comments by other gardening addicts)

My office building is a converted tobacco warehouse in Durham, NC. We've got a covered patio that gets direct sunlight from dawn until about 2pm due to the NE/SW orientation of the building.

I'm going to try doing a little container gardening out there in 3 gallon pots. Right now, I've got three peppers (Habanero, Cayenne, Anaheim Chili) and 2 tomatoes (Celebrity, which is a determinate variety and Supersweet 100, an indeterminate cherry variety).

I might also get a couple more pots and try some pole beans and cucumbers. There is a nice steel rail out there for some support.

L-R:  Celebrity Tomato, Anaheim Chili (not yet transplanted), Cayenne Pepper, Habanero Pepper, Supersweet 100 (Cherry) Toamto

These pots will most likely NOT get watered on the weekends, although I do have one co-worker who lives in the complex and may be willing to water my veggies on hot weekends. The summer temps often exceed 90 degrees here (in fact last summer we set a record with 93 days of 90 degree highs!). So hopefully a good dose of water on Friday afternoon will get them through the weekends.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Garden Update - Pretty much done planting!

So, I got home from the beach this afternoon and headed straight out to the garden!  I'd brought my peppers home from work, and it was time to put them in the ground!  Here many of them are in "Raised Bed #3", along with one jelly bean tomato, an eggplant, some Mississippi Silver Cowpeas (5 of them), and a variety of companion plants (basil, chives, oregano, parsley, white geranium, rosemary, and marigolds).

Here is my completed container garden - buckets from left to right are two jellybean (grape sized) tomatoes, 1 eggplant, and 2 cherry tomatoes (Super Sweet 100).  Plastic pots are 4 hot peppers - jalapeno, serrano, habanero, and anaheim chili, plus a bell pepper (California Wonder).  The sides of this "bed" are some of the leftover wood from last year's garden beds that were dismantled, and the green stuff you see in there is just trimmings from the Arborvitea that line or property behind them.

Leftovers from the planting - some tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, and one cowpea.

And yes, I'm doing the Topsy Turvy Tomato again, this one has a roma in it. I have a few more on the way that I ordered from either Woot or 1SaleADay, and I'll probably put Celebrity Tomatoes in those and hang them from the shed.

Hydroponic Basil Harvest! 21 days

So, just a quick update here.  I was out of town this weekend and when I got back my basil had grown up to the top again, about a half inch below my light, so it was time to harvest again.  I bravely cut back an enormous amount of foliage.  Here's what's left, what I harvested, and today's "Roots" picture.  Click on any image for a closeup!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hydroponic Basil Update: 18 days

My last hydroponic basil update was 10 days ago.  The plants were getting quite tall except for the one that had experienced some insect damage while it was still a seedling in the peat pellet.  A day or so after I posted that update, I decided I had to punch the plants back to try to keep them  shorter - after all, I only have a single 24" T8 grow light and not much sun in my window.  So I pinched the top set of leaves off each plant, and I've really been amazed at the growth over the last week.  They're nearly as tall as they were before but each plant's stem split into two new stems.

In other news, I've had to adjust the pH once, but I haven't added any more nutrient solution.  The water level has dropped about an inch, but the roots are hanging right down into it and the air bubbler helps spray some bubbles up onto the roots as well.

Here are some new pictures.  This first one is a closeup of the plant that had the insect damage and was somewhat stunted.  You can see the cut and where the stem split, and look at how much it's grown!  It's bigger than the other three now.

Here's a full picture of all four plants:

 And it wouldn't be a hydroponic update without a picture of the roots!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Secondary & Container Garden Update

Good morning!  It's a beautiful HOT spring day here in Sunny North Carolina!  It's already 72 degrees on its way to 88 today, well above our average high of 73 degrees.  Well, my freshly planted gardens will love it I'm sure.  I watered them all this morning.

I wanted to write a little update about what I'm calling my "secondary gardens."  In addition to my three raised bed gardens, I've got some other plans for plants scattered around my yard.

A few days ago, I wrote an article about how to build self-watering planters out of 5 gallon buckets.  Well, I now have plants in them!  Two cherry tomatoes (Burpee Super Sweet 100 Hybrid), two grape tomatoes (Jellybean Hybrid), and one Black Beauty Eggplant.  Not sure if I'm going to cage, stake, or string the tomatoes.  To be determined I guess!

Over in my side yard, I've planted a variety of things that I don't really care how well they do.  These areas get limited sunshine (5-7 hours) and the soil isn't so great, even after I amended it with a couple truckloads of compost blend garden soil.  I planted two large hills of pumpkin seeds (6 seeds each) and one hill of canteloupe (6 seeds).  This is also where I have some of the basil planted, and a bunch of Caladium bulbs.  Neither my canteloupe nor my pumpkins did very well last year but this year the canteloupe is in the ground in a sunnier location and the pumpkin was in a 12" square pot last year which is not suitable for pumpkins.  I think both will do better this year.

Also, in the 2'x8' raised bed that I grew the birdfeeder gourds in last year, I planted a couple of zucchini and a roma tomato.  This garden gets a decent amount of summer sun because it doesn't get shaded by the house in the late afternoon.

In order yard-related news, my Indian Hawthornes are blooming, the Catnip is looking great and starting to bloom, and the Frost Proof Gardenias survived the winter extremely well and are looking great.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Raised Bed Garden Update

It's a beautiful warm day here in sunny North Carolina! The weekend's tornado outbreak put a slight damper in my weekend plans, but I did manage to get to the farmer's market Saturday morning to buy some plants - I picked up some oregano, chives, parsley, rosemary, white geraniums, marigolds, zinnias, zucchini, eggplant, cucumber, Celebrity Tomatoes, and some Mississippi Silver Cowpeas.  After the bad weather passed and the sun came out, I was left with an hour or so of daylight to do my planting.  I also picked up some bean incculent and started my Kentucky Wonder pole beans soaking in a cup of rainwater.  These I planted Monday morning after sprinkling the beans with the innoculant (which helps the beans put nitrogen back in the soil).

Finally, I got some mulch spread around the gardens - here are some pictures!

Top left - 4 cucumber plants (and a white geranium)
Bottom left - 2 zucchini
Right - a whole bunch of kentucky wonder pole beans, surrounding a bamboo teepee
Bottom Right - two zinnias and one zucchini.

Two Big Beef tomatoes (top left), and three Early Girl tomatoes (top right, plus two Celebrity tomatoes (bottom right).
Two Black Beauty eggplants (bottom left)
Plus some basil, chives, parsley, white geranium, and marigold.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Weekly Pepper Update

Look at these beautiful pepper seedlings!  They're still spending time at my desk at work, underneath a pair of standard T8 fluorescent lights.  But they spend at least 4 days a week for 6 hours each of those days out on the porch soaking up direct sunlight from 8am to 2pm.  So they're not leggy at all - nice and green and healthy looking.  I had transplanted them a few weeks ago from the small jiffy peat pellets into these 4" square pots, and there are roots coming out the bottom of the pots now.  They're totally ready to transplant into the ground!

HOWEVER, it's not time yet.  According to the N.C. State Vegetable Garden Planting Guide, hot and sweet peppers both like soil temperatures of 65 degrees and should not go into the ground until early May.  That being said, I'm probably going to keep these here at work for another week to week and a half, and then take them home to plant the weekend of April 30, though I might do it as early as Tuesday April 26th.

I've been watering these plants (through the tray liner) a couple times a week.  When they sit out in the sun they soak up the water pretty good.  I gave each try 48oz of water this morning and both tries are dry now with the top of the soil in each pot being just a little moist.  Perfect.

How to make a cheap, self-watering bucket planter

I don't know about you, but I've found that pots of any kind are expensive - self-watering pots even more so.  Last year, I grew some of my plants in 12" plastic pots that I purchased at Home Depot.   Unfortunately, a 12" pot isn't anywhere near big enough for the root system of a tomato plant, and what you end up with is a pot that dries out after a few hours in the 95 degree summer sun here in North Carolina.  Self-watering pots help with this quick dry problem, but store bought containers like the Earthbox or the Autopot are $50 or more.

Fear not, cheapskate gardeners, there is a solution - and it might even be better!  Here's what you need to make a self-watering 5 gallon container:

  • (2) 5 gallon buckets
    preferably food grade buckets.  Your local fast food joint will often have pickle buckets that they just throw out.  Ask them to save some for you.  Home Depot sells nice orange buckets for less than $3 each but that's a bit pricey compared to free if you can get them.  Try Chick-Fil-A, they go through a lot of pickles!
  • (2) feet of 1-1/4" or 1-1/2" PVC Pipe
    You can get this from your neighborhood hardware store, Home Depot, plumbing supply, etc.  You need about 2' for each planter.  They sell 2' sections at Home Depot for like $2 but you can get a 10' section for less than $4 if you want to make multiple planters.
  • (1) 5" net cup / mesh cup
    This is a little harder to come by, but the 5" size is just about perfect for this application, and they cost around a dollar.  Home Depot or Lowe's generally won't carry these, but you *might* find them at a garden supply nursery - but more likely you're going to need to find a local hydroponics supply store, or buy online from Amazon or eBay.
Here's how you do it:

Step 1, 2, and 3.
  1. Cut a 5" hole in the center of one bucket.  It's easiest to do this with a 5" hole saw, but at $35 or $40 at the local hardware store, if you don't own one of these you probably don't want to go buy one.  My dad actually rigged up his router to cut my buckets for me, but that's an even more expensive tool if you don't have one!  There are two more options here - use a reciprocating saw, some kind of small bladed hand saw (like the kind used for ripping drywall), or just a good sharp utility knife.  The plastic bottom of the bucket is pretty thick so please don't cut your fingers off trying this last method.  I did one bucket this way and it worked, but it was a little scary.
  2. Drill a 1-1/4" or 1-1/2" hole near the edge of the bottom of the bucket.  Your PVC pipe will fit through this hole.  I would definately recommend using a hole saw for this.  Make sure you use the right size so your PVC pipe fits through it snugly.
  3. Using a small drill bit (3/16" or 1/4") drill a bunch of small drain holes in the bottom of the same bucket.  This will allow excess water to easily drip back into the outer bucket.
  4. Place the bucket with all the holes in it inside the other, as yet unblemished bucket.
  5. Figure out where the bottom of the inside bucket is, and drill two 1/4" holes just below that point on the outer bucket.  These are your overflow drain holes.  When you pour water into the container, you'll know when to stop when water starts to flow out these holes.
  6. Cut a notch in one end of the PVC pipe so that it doesn't sit flush on the bottom of the bucket.
  7. Place the PVC pipe into the hole in the inner bucket.
  8. Place the net pot into the large hole in the inner bucket.
  9. Fill the bucket with moist potting mix - pre-moistening the potting mix is an important step to making sure the self-watering process works properly.
  10. Plant your seed or transplant your seedling and fill the reservoir with water using the PVC pipe.
  11. If you have a lid for one of the buckets, Cut a 1" hole in the center, and thread your plant through the hole - OR cut the lid in half and just put it on underneath the plant.
Here are pictures of the complete process:

Materials Used

Close up of the mesh pot or net cup.

Bottom of the inner bucket.

Bucket Lid with hole in center for plant and hole near side for PVC pipe.

Close up of the notch you need to put in one end of the PVC pipe.

Assembling the planter.

Start to fill the planter, make sure to use pre-moistened potting mix.

Finish filling the planter.

Transplant your plant into the pot (not shown) and put on the lid!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Nasturtium a Day keeps the Rabbits Away....

I was doing some research the other day on a technique called "companion planting" - a method of choosing plants with qualities that benefit each other.  For example, you can plant basil near tomatoes to improve the growth and flavor of the toamatoes.  Geraniums and Catnip repel japanese beetles.  In fact, japanese beetles like to eat white geraniums but eating the foliage kills them!  I found this fantastic resource on all kinds of companion plants, I highly recommend checking it out.

Anyway, in the interests of garden beauty, I was looking at beneficial flowering plants when I came across Nasturtium.  I came across a great article all about growing Nasturtium, and it had the following information about the beneficial effects of this pretty flower:
Aside from being attractive and tasty, nasturtiums are both functional and beneficial. Having nasturtiums planted in strategic spots around your garden will keep rabbits, deer and other critters at bay. Who wouldn't welcome an organic, practical and attractive approach to keeping destructive critters away? They are also ideal companion plants because they will repel aphids, cucumber beetles, squash bugs, whiteflies and root knot nematodes. Plant them around tomatoes, radishes, cabbages, around fruit trees and around cucumbers.
I don't really have a problem with deer, as my gardens are inside a fenced yard.  However, I've seen plenty of rabbits.  At any rate, the article also says the Nasturtium is extremely easy to grow from seed, though I will probably just try to find some at the farmer's market.

I will definately have some Nasturtium and Geraniums in my garden!

EDIT:  Here is another article about Nasturtium as a "companion" plant:

EDIT #2:  Nasturtiums don't like hot weather, so I won't be planting any in my SUMMER garden... but I might throw some into my fall garden in September!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fruit or Vegetable? Ask the United States Court System!

From the interesting facts department...

People often refer to a tomato as a vegetable, but many of you probably know that it's actually a fruit.  Scientifically speaking, that is.  Like all true fruits, it comes from the plant's "ovary" and bears the seeds of the plant (more interesting details here).

But in 1893, the United States Supreme Court upheld wording in the Tarriff Act of 1883 which defined the tomato as a vegetable for taxation purposes.

Well, apparently, something similar happened in 1947, when a U.S. Customs Court reclassified "Rhubarb" as a fruit for the same reason (even though it is clearly NOT a fruit).

Hydroponic Basil Update - 8 Days

My hydroponic basil is doing well but getting "leggy" because I don't have anywhere near enough light on them.  The little Hydrofarm Jump Start grow light that I'm using is only a 2' T5 high output bulb at 24 watts and it's really just meant for seedlings.  I'm going to need a more substantial grow light if I'm going to be doing this.

Anyway, here are some pictures!

Look at those ROOTS!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Garden Update - Basil, Tomatoes, Garden Beds

Garden Beds

I am so far behind this year.  Building the shed has really delayed my preparations this year.  I finally got two of my three garden beds built - and one of them filled with "compost blend" garden soil from a local supplier.  According to their web site, it "consists of decomposed organic material, chicken manure or cow manure, pine fines, and screened topsoil."  It was a hell of a lot cheaper than the gazillion bags of Miracle Grow Garden Soil I used last year.  $26 for a cubic yard, vs something like $8 a bag for a 2 cubic foot bag.  For comparison, a cubic yard is 27 cubic feet.  My 4'x8' garden bed at 10" deep takes about 25 cubic feet of dirt, and as I've always suspected, "one cubic yard" from American Soil & Mulch is quite a bit bigger than 27 cubic feet since I nearly filled about 1/3 of the second bed.  At any rate, let's just say it would take 12 bags of miracle grow garden soil at $8 a bag, or $96 to fill ONE garden bed, so it's a big savings.

Basil in the Ground!

When I started my Hydroponic Basil project, I moved the rest of my basil seedlings to another "sunny window" - of course, sunny is a relative term in my house - I have no legitimate sunny windows.  I noticed today they were getting horrendously leggy - they should have been in the ground a week ago and they would've been fine, but sitting in the window without the grow light caused problems, so I did an emergency planting of 12 sweet genovese basil plants out in the front "garden" ... an area which I'd tilled up over the last few weeks and mixed in some of the aforementioned compose blend to go with the three inches of decaying triple shreded pine bark that I'd been putting down for the last 6 years.  Anyway, I planted most of them deep to help with their spindly natures, hopefully they'll do all right.  The remaining basil plants are still in their large peat pellets - the purple basil is growing much slower.  They are now permanently located outside.

Tomate Seedlings

So, my tomatoe seedlings do seem to be recovering from their violent transplant.  They've been outside almost every day and most nights for the last week or so.  Some of the leaves dried up and died but what remains does seem to be looking more healthy now than they did a week ago.  I think they'll survive.  Feel free to comment if you have anything to say about these.

I probably won't get around to planting my gardens until after Easter Weekend.  I could do the tomatoes this weekend, as their destination garden will be completed, but I feel like they'd actually be better off in the jiffy pots for a couple more weeks - as long as they are outside soaking up the sun and as long as I keep them properly hydrated.  Transplanting from the jiffy pots into the ground shouldn't cause them any problems.  I could plant my other garden this weekend, which would contain the cucumbers and the three sisters garden (corn, pole beans, and zucchini squash) but that garden bed is delayed because there are two sweetgum tree stumps I need to have removed.  I've got someone coming to do that on Saturday so I *might* be able to get that garden built and filled this weekend, we'll see.  The other garden that's already completed is the most sunny, and is reserved for the hot peppers and eggplant - which I can't put in the ground until early May anyway.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Hydroponics Experiment Update - 48 hours later

As you may know, I'm doing a little home hydroponics by growing some basil in a home made deep water hydroponic setup (read about it).  Well, after a day I was impressed that the plants hadn't wilted, and this morning (a day and a half) things looked pretty much the same.

But when I got home this evening and took a look at the underside of the plants... here's what I saw:

Look at those roots!  They weren't there this morning!  The long dark one is the one that I threaded through the net cup when I transplanted the plants into this system - but the white roots are all brand new and they all appeared today!

So cool!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Best way to grow tomatoes vertically

Have you ever grown tomato plants that just became a complete mess by the end of the season, where there was far more plant than fruit?  Ever notice that most tomato plants will get 7-10 feet tall, but you can't buy tomato cages that are much more than 5 feet tall?

I've been searching the internet on the best ways to grow my tomatoes vertically without a big mess, and I've decided that this year I'm going to use the "string trellis" method this year for 5 of my 6 tomato varieties.  Why 5 of 6?  Well, 5 of my tomatoes are considered to have "indeterminate growth", which means they will continue to grow and grow until the end of the season.  Most non-bush tomatoes are like this.  The only "determinate growth" tomato I have is a Roma, which will not get more than 6' tall.

Another thing I've never done is prune my tomato plants, and apparently, pruning your tomatoes will allow you to grow them vertically more cleanly and the plants will produce more fruit.  If you don't prune your tomato, it will spend much more energy growing new stems and new foliage, and less energy growing fruits.

Here is a fantastic video from someone on youtube named FrontPorchFarm that makes it really clear on how to properly string trellis and prune - or sucker - your tomatoes:

Monday, April 4, 2011

Hydroponics Experiment - Day One

So, I started my hydroponics experiment today.  I built a Deep Water Culture (DWC) hydroponic system using a 5 gallon storage tote, an aquarium air pump, micropore air stone, 3" net pots, and some expanded clay growing media called Hydroton.

First of all, I'm using tap water, because I'm lazy.  So my first step was to fill the tote with water and then run the air bubbler in it for a day or so in order to allow it to evaporate out the chlorine gas (all city water has some chlorine in it).

Preparing the Storage Tote

I'm using a relatively small tote for this experiment.  Make sure it's not clear - neither the lid nor the container itself can be clear.  Light breeds algae, and nobody wants that.  Drill a few holes in the top using a hole saw that is sized appropriately for your net pots.  I'm using 3" net pots, so the 3" hole saw worked perfectly.  Drill a 3/8" hole in the side very near the top for your air bubbler tubing.  Clean it all up and you're done.

Gotta Wash My Balls

I know, everyone makes this joke.  The hydroton grow needs to be washed thoroughly to get all the dust off from manufacturing - they arrive quite dirty.  So I just put them in a bucket of water, rinsed them, dumped them in a strainer, and repeated until the water came off mostly clear.

The Nutrient Solution

The next step was to prepare and pH-balance the nutrient solution.  I added my hydroponic nutrients - I'm using Botanicare Pure Blend Pro Grow solution. I needed about 22.5ml of nutrients to go with what was approximately 12L of water and tested the pH.  I bought a "pH Control Kit" from Amazon that included pH test drops, "pH Down" acid solution, "pH Up" base solution, and a testing vial.  I used the "pH Down" to bring the pH of my nutrient solution down to about 6.0 (it should be between 5.5 and 6.5).

Put the air bubbler in the nutrient solution, connect the air pump, and put the lid on.

Transplanting the Seedlings - From Peat Pellets to Net Cups with Hydroton

I grew my basil seedlings in large jiffy peat pellets.  This worked out great because it allowed the roots to grow fairly deep and after 4-5 weeks of growing in the window, I've got some good roots going.  So I peeled off the cloth and then gently washed away all (most) of the peat, leaving nice, relatively clean roots.  I then strung some of this through one of the openings in the bottom of the net pot, and filled the netpot up with the clean hydroton.  Put the net pot in the lid and repeat until all of the holes have plants in them!

Let it Grow!

I have mine in a window under a Hydrofarm Jump Start Grow Lamp, but it's probably going to just go outside in a sunny location after a few days, once the threat of really cold weather is past (we're having some high winds today and the low is going to be around 38 tomorrow night but after that, I think it's all very spring like!)

I'm about 90% sure that my seedlings will die in a few days and that will be the end of my hydroponics experiment.  But who knows.  I'll be sure to post updates.

Here are some pictures!

Hydroponic nutrients and ph control stuff.

My hydroponic DWC grow system.

Close up of the little plants in their hydroton-filled net pots.

Not a great picture but you can see the roots sticking out there!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Pepper Transplant

This morning, I started transplanting my hot peppers from the small peat pellets into 4" pots.  I am using Miracle Grow Organic Choice Potting Mix, which is very nice compared to some of the other potting mixes I've used in the past.  I got the 4" pots from a guy in Chapel Hill last year who apparently used to run a nursery - I've got hundreds of them (free!).  I had rinsed them off pretty good last fall before putting them away, but I ran them through the dishwasher to get them good and clean.

Anyway, so far I've transplanted 6 each of Jalapeno, Cayenne, and Anaheim Chili.  Here's a picture:

Recently transplanted Jalapeno, Anaheim Chili, and Cayenne Peppers
Later today I will also transplant 6 each of my Serrano, Habenero, and Bell ("California Wonder") Peppers.

I figure these plants are going to need another 4-5 weeks indoors, which is why I've moved them into the larger pots.  It's unlikely that more than 2 of each will actually make it into my garden, but we'll see.  Many of them will be container-grown.  I'll be making self-watering planters out of pickle buckets I picked up from a local Chick-Fil-A restaurant.  More to come on that.