Wednesday, March 14, 2018

How To Plant Peas

How to plant peas? Easy, with one caveat.

You’ll need a trellis. 

But you probably knew that. Peas grow up, and even the dwarf varieties will lean into and fall over and climb on each other if you don’t provide them with a trellis.

The good news is, building a pea trellis is as easy as sticking two five- to six-foot stakes in the ground and stretching chicken wire or bird netting across both stakes (tie whatever trellis material you choose to the stakes with metal ties or nylon string, not with those fall-apart-in-your-fingers-after-five-months plastic ties).

And now, to the nitty-gritty:

How to plant peas

I grow sugar snap peas, because I love eating them right off the vine, or raw in salads. But the following instructions refer to any kind of pea.

First, never start peas inside. They are directly sown into the soil. However, if you want to speed up the germination process you can soak the pea seeds in water over night and wait a day or two for them to grow little tails. Rinse the peas once or twice in the meantime.

Second, plant peas when you’re within two or three weeks of your last average frost date. Pea shoots can take a mild frost, and if you live in a hot-summer (mostly above 85 degrees F) climate the peas won’t be any good by mid-June or so. Thus, you don’t want to wait too late in the spring to plant them.

Third, plant the seeds about a half inch to an inch deep, right under the trellis. If the seeds are less than a year old, plant one seed per hole, because probably at least 90% of them will germinate. If more than a year old, plant two per hole, because the germination rate might have gone down.

Fourth, space the holes about three inches apart. Unless you’re growing enough peas to feed an army, you’re only going to have one trellis, or several in a row right next to each other. So no worries about how far apart the rows should be.

Finally, thoroughly water the area where you planted the peas, then keep the soil moist until you have three-inch tall shoots. In other words, water them once or twice a day if you don’t have any rain or heavy dew. Once the peas have grown a few inches, you can back off on the watering, giving them a thorough drink whenever the soil is dry two inches down.

Also, if you plant two seeds in each hole and both germinate, cut off one of them at its base before it gets more than three inches high.

That’s it! Watch me plant my crop of sugar snap peas in the garden vlog below.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The EASIEST Way To Grow Lettuce EVER!

What’s the easiest way to grow lettuce? Back in this post, I talked about how difficult it’s been for me to grow lettuce in the soil here because it doesn’t hold water for very long. Even if you live in an area with good soil for gardening, thirsty lettuce needs to be watered more frequently than most other crops – the cucurbits (cucumbers and melons) being the possibly even thirstier exception.

Sure, you can set up an irrigation system and a timer, but most backyard gardeners are going to be growing their lettuce together with other crops, which would end up getting watered as much as the lettuce.

This would equal a waste of water.

The easiest (and least wasteful way) to grow lettuce

Last spring I came upon the Kratky method of growing. It’s a hydroponic method that doesn’t require pumps. You fill a small container with a growing medium (not dirt from outside!), put a seed or seedling inside, then set that small container on the rim of a much larger container that contains water with hydroponic fertilizer dissolve into it.

As the plant grows, it “drinks” the water. And as the water level goes down, the ever-growing roots of the plants are exposed to the air they need on order not to drown.

During the past year, I’ve discovered the hands-down, best crop to grow using the Kratky method is lettuce, mainly because lettuce roots don't mind algae growth nearly as much as other kinds of roots.

Making the Kratky method even easier

Ever heard of a floating garden? That’s the easiest way to grow lettuce using the Kratky method. Unlike the roots of most other plants, lettuce roots don't mind mostly sitting in water.

Do you have a backyard pond with fish or some rotted plant material in it? Even better!

If you don’t have such a pond, just buy a few Styrofoam coolers, fill them most of the way with water, and add the appropriate amount of hydroponic fertilizer to it.

You can use underbed storage boxes wrapped in panda film (white side out, black side in), too, if you want. The only thing is, the weight of the water will push the sides of a storage box out. That's okay if you don't mind the look, and you don't plan to move it from it's location during the entire growth of the lettuce.

If you use a cooler, you can cut the lid down so that it floats in the water inside the cooler. If not, you can use foam board, or Styrofoam blocks that you save from packing.
This is a very lightweight piece of foam that came with an LED grow light I purchased.

Whichever way you go, cut a hole big enough to hold the small container the lettuce is going to grow in by tracing the rim of the container and cutting just slightly inside the circle you trace. If you have a big block of Styrofoam, or are using foam board, cut four equally-spaced holes for every square foot.
These are 2-inch holes for the 2-inch net cups the baby lettuce are growing in.

Insert the container (net cup, yogurt container, whatever) with the growing medium and seed or seedling into the hole you cut. Then, set the piece of foam into your pond or water-filled box.
The net cups fit perfectly!

DONE! No watering, no fertilizing. Ever.

The one thing you might want to do, if you have summers where the temperature regularly soars above eighty-five degrees F, is locate the growing system in an area that will be shaded in the afternoon.

In the video below, I show you how I added lettuce to the kale I already had floating in our pond. It’s a vlog, so you see peeks into other areas of my homesteading life. Enjoy! (And subscribe to the channel if you have not yet done so and want to keep up with all our goings-on.)

Friday, March 9, 2018

Look What Germinated! Plus, The BEST Way To Grow Carrots?

I’m so excited! All six of the yellow pear tomato seeds, and one of the two Principe Borghese tomato seed, that I planted five days ago have germinated!!

Why is this so exciting? First, the potting mix the seeds are in had started to get a little moldy on top. Second, I didn’t have any homegrown tomatoes last year.

Generally, I’ve been a busy beaver in the garden the past week, what with getting strawberries planted on our new vertical garden, planting a bed of carrot seeds, and transplanting all the kale and broccoli seedlings.

The bummer this week has been running out of my sweet potatoes, thanks to the sweet potato weevil ruining my large crop. The non-organic sweet potatoes at the local grocery are tasteless compare to either mine or the ones we buy from Whole Foods. They also are often at the point of going bad – yes, even this time of year, when they still should be fresh.

The best way to plant carrots?

In the second of two garden vlogs that follow, I talk a bit about my experience with growing carrots. Long story short: the results so far have been dismal. Based on the cost of carrots in the grocery store, you’d think they’d be easy to grow. But I get a lot more production from the vegetable-fruits (cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers) – which are considerably more expensive than carrots.
Here are some things I’ve learned about growing carrots.

  1. Loosen the soil, then smooth it out in preparation for planting.
  2. Broadcast the seeds. Don’t kill your back trying to plant just two or three seeds every three inches. At least half the seeds aren’t going to germinate, and you will have put all that time and effort into planting for nothing.
  3. Sprinkle organic dry fertilizer over the whole area, and water in the seeds and fertilizer.
  4. Water the seeds two to three times a day until at least half the seeds have germinated. If there’s dew or frost on the ground in the morning, just water around lunchtime and suppertime.
  5. If possible, if a thunderstorm is predicted before the seeds germinate, cover the seeds for that day or night when it’s supposed to storm. Use row cover, cardboard, or big plastic bags, and weight them down with old boards. If you don’t, the pounding rain is going to wash a frightening number of the seeds either right out of the growing bed, or cause them to accumulate in one small spot.
  6. Be sure to thin carrot seedlings to three inches apart once the plants are an inch or two tall. Yes, even if you grow them in wood chips or a loose potting mix. Unless you want carrots so thin that a wisp of a breeze will blow them out of your hand.

Enjoy the following two videos, for more goings-on of my garden the past couple of days!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The DEFINITIVE Way To Keep Cabbage Moths Off Your Kale (and broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, etc.)

How to keep cabbage moths away from your cabbage family plants?

Those little yellowish butterfly-looking things flying around your kale and cabbage are almost cute. Aw, look, they’re so small. And pretty.

But if you’ve been gardening for more than two weeks, you know what they really are. Nasty scoundrels looking for a place to lay their eggs. And the place preferably will be a plant belonging to the Brassica – or cabbage – family: cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, and kohlrabi. Why?

Because that’s what their little green babies like to eat!

Cross-striped cabbageworms and cabbage loopers can destroy your precious crop in a matter of days. And it only takes a couple of days for a couple of hungry grasshoppers to obliterate a small crop of broccoli or kale seedlings. When cucumber beetles can’t find cucumber plants, they’ll migrate to any other crop that tastes halfway decent to them – including the Brassicas.

You can spray, but who wants to eat homegrown food that’s been soaked in chemicals? And the natural pesticides only kill what’s there right now. And if you miss a single caterpillar – too bad, so sad! It will keep on munching happily.

If you want to keep pests away from your kale and broccoli and any related plants, the best way is to cage them.
Kale seedlings underneath cage. Take that, grasshoppers!

I recommend either PVC or treated lumber for the frame. I speak from experience: if you use scrap wood that’s not treated, it will rot after the first year or two.

We used PVC because we had some leftover from projects we either never built or that didn’t work out. (But see – we’re using it up anyway! Like the good homesteaders we are. ;) ) The trick is to build your cages small enough so that you can lift them easily off the plants when necessary.

The cages for my garden are three-by-two-by-two feet, the last measurement being the height. In the ideal world, they would be three feet high to accommodate their eventual “bolting” height, but that would be a bit heavy for me, and definitely more awkward to lift. Besides, by the time the plants are going to seed, I don’t care all that much anymore if the pests start snacking on the leaves.

The two “front” and “back” bottom pipes connect with the “right” and “left” bottom pipes via “T” fittings, one on each side of each pipe a few inches from each corner, as well as elbow fittings right on the corners.
"T" fitting at bottom.

The vertical side pipes connect with the top pipes via elbow fittings.

We also had leftover elbows and T’s from previous projects, so we didn’t have to buy them all.
The whole cage is covered with beetle netting, which you can buy at Amazon.

It won’t keep out the smallest of insects, of course, but it will keep out the cabbage moths and grasshoppers. To keep out the cucumber beetles, we’d have to use window screen or shade cloth. I may drape window screen over it later in the season; we’ll see how it goes.

I’m looking forward to (finally!) a year when I don’t have to constantly worry about grasshoppers and little green larvae eating down my broccoli and kale!

Build a cage, preferably out of found materials. That’s how to keep cabbage moths off your broccoli and other Brassica plants.

Monday, March 5, 2018

A Peek At Our New Vertical Strawberry Garden

Growing strawberries in the ground is an exercise in frustration when you live in a climate as humid as ours. Can you say, “Mold”?

Then there are the mice. No matter how well you can fence in a garden, there is always a hole big enough for one of those tiny critters to fit through. And they LOVE strawberries. The annoying thing about it is, they are so small that they don’t eat much at a time. So last year, if a strawberry wasn’t moldy, chances were good that it had a few teeny bites taken out of it by a mouse. Even before it was completely ripe.

So last fall, I began to look for ways to grow strawberries vertically. I’d already seen some, like hanging a gutter up, filling it with soil, and planting in strawberries. Or those expensive pre-fab strawberry towers that don’t hold hardly any plants.

Aeroponics? Strongly considered that even earlier, but they say that that method of gardening is best reserved for people already experienced in hydroponics. And for people who don’t mind constantly monitoring their nutrient solution for pH levels and other things.

Sorry, Charlie. I'm looking for less work in my garden, not more.

What I finally hit on was a structure involving PVC pipes hung horizontally on wooden posts. You cut holes in the pipe every few inches and put an elbow on each end. In the pipe goes water, and in the hole goes a couple inches of rope which wicks up the water from the pipe and up into the container that it’s hanging out of it and running through. 

The guy who made the video I found uses two-liter bottles for his containers. We don’t drink sodas, but we do buy a lot of frozen fruit. So I’m using large frozen fruit bags as containers. I cut a hole in the bottom just big enough to run the rope through, place the rope so that it sticks out about two inches out of the hole and runs most of the way to the top of the bag. 

Then, I fill in soil around the rope, one part coco peet to three parts native soil and a heaping teaspoonful of dry vegan fertilizer. You jimmy the rope into the PVC hole, then tie the bag onto the wooden structure (DH attached pieces of hardware cloth to tie the bags onto).

You can see it in the video below. Will it work? I hope so!

In this video, my first garden vlog ever, I also show you how I’m starting a floating green garden, with kale as my first plant. At the end – hooray! Planting the tomato, pepper, and herb seeds for this summer’s garden!
Enjoy the video!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Growing Kale…In A Pond?

For some reason which I’m sure was perfectly logical at the time, but which I can’t remember for the life of me now, I started a kale plant in a two-inch net cup about a month ago.

In case you don’t know, net cups are plastic pots with a lot of holes in them that are used for hydroponic gardening.

net cups upside down
First of all, the only reason I would plant something in a net cup is if I was going to grow it using the Kratky method; that is, suspend it from the top of a large container full of nutrient solution (water with hydroponic fertilizer dissolved into it) and let the roots grow down into the water. Second, a two-inch pot is too small for a kale plant. If I wanted to experiment with growing a kale using the Kratky method, why didn’t I plant it in a larger net cup?

I. Don’t. Remember.

While scratching my head trying to figure out what to do with the thing – it already has a lot of roots growing out the sides of the net cup – I wondered…could I float a kale plant in water? I know you can do that with lettuce.

I decided to try. If it works, it would be a great way to grow some extra plants in the summer. I’m already planning on growing lettuce in the summer this way.

I’ve saved up some Styrofoam packing blocks for this very purpose, and so I finally cut one apart.
I had to cut the height down some, because the bottom of the net cup is supposed to be in the water. Then I cut a two-inch hole in the Styrofoam block.
Finally, I was ready! I put the net cup with the small kale plant inside the hole.
Then, the whole operation went into a plastic pond that Jerry and I bought back when we were still living in the suburbs and thought we wanted a backyard fish pond. Until we killed all the poor goldfish.
The pond is where it is now – near our largest rain tank – because a year ago our son thought he wanted a fish pond. By the time Jerry went through all the time and work of building a hole for the pond, our son had lost all interest in the project.

Good for me. I have somewhere to grow a floating garden! I figure the slowly decomposing leaves that fall into the water will provide enough fertilizer.

The only problem I may have is that the pond is in a shady spot, so as to keep the fish that never were there from boiling in the summer. Will the plants get enough light?

It remains to be seen. But it’s worth a shot. Homesteading is all about experimentation, right?

Now, if we could only not have a late Canadian cold front blow down and bring twenty-degree weather…

Monday, February 26, 2018

How To Grow Lettuce Indoors - Easy!

I have begun a successful indoor garden. Three cheers for me! Hip, hip, HOORAY!

Indoor gardening can get messy and complicated, depending on what you’re trying to grow. What I am growing is the one crop that I can’t get to taste yummy if I grow it outside: lettuce. I am also growing it without any soil.

Why can’t I grow lettuce outside? Two words: sandy soil.

First of all, lettuce likes to drink water all day long. So if the soil isn’t constantly moist, the plant begins to taste bitter way before it’s ready to bolt.

Water seeps through sandy soil like a sieve. As a matter of fact, even when I watered every day, the lettuce tasted bitter before it was even halfway to maturity!

Second of all, the roots of lettuce grow shallow. Unlike other crops, they can’t reach deep down and try to find water that has seeped down. Not that there’d be any water deep down on our property, where in many places you hit bedrock after digging only two to three feet down.

I should mention, as well, that I live in the Southern U.S., where – unless we get a mild winter, which we can’t be guaranteed – we only have a short time in the spring, and an even shorter time in the fall during which the temperature is perfect for growing lettuce.

Fortunately for me, lettuce happens to one of the few kinds of plants that is easy-peasy to grow hydroponically, especially for indoor gardening. Lettuce doesn’t mind if some algae grows on its roots, and it doesn’t care if the pH of the water or the amount of nutrients isn’t perfect.

Let me tell you, was I excited the first time I harvested lettuce from my indoor garden – and it tasted sweet!
My indoor garden-the top two shelves are covered to protect our eyes from the bright LED grow lights.

Materials for growing lettuce indoors

  • Metal shelf (ours came from Wal-Mart).
  • Growing lights (more on that in a moment).
  • Three to four boxes that are about three inches short the length of the shelf. I’m using shallow Sterilite® storage boxes. You could also build boxes out of wood and line the inside with builder’s plastic or 6-mil black plastic (6-mil white is too delicate).
  • Dry hydroponic fertilizer (look around on Amazon; I currently use General Hydroponics® MaxiGro, but it’s not vegan so next time I’m going to purchase a vegan fertilizer).
  • A package of large (at least eight-ounce) plastic cups, at least one cup per head of lettuce you plan to grow (possibly two – see my “optional” comment in a moment)(I squeeze a dozen cups into each box – trust me; it is a squeeze once they start to get big!).
  • A bag of pea gravel.
  • A growing medium – I prefer “coco peet”, or “coir”. You can use a soilless planting mix if you want, or even sand. The best indoor gardening set up is a low-mess set up. ;)
  • Lettuce seeds (duh – but I have to put this on the list or one day somebody might try to sue me because they tried to grow lettuce indoors without any seeds, and it’s my fault nothing grew because I didn’t put “lettuce seeds” in my materials list. Welcome to America).
  • Optional – two-inch net cups. I had already purchased a package of them, so that’s what I use for growing the lettuce. If you don’t have them and don’t want to buy them, use half of the plastic cups you bought for containing the water, or buy smaller plastic cups for this purpose.

A word on grow lights

You have a few options in the world of grow lights for your indoor garden. I recommend one of two, for affordability and efficiency.

The first is the old-fashioned fluorescent light fixtures, with two bulbs that each produce light on one of the spectrum ends. Go to your local hardware or big box home improvement store and ask an associate for a “shop light fixture.” It will probably be longer than your shelf. If you don’t like that, you can try to find something online that fits the length of your shelf exactly.
My 2 fluorescent light fixtures on one shelf. Yes, you need two per shelf if you go this route.

The shop light fixtures - side view.

Then you want to get two bulbs. One should be on the “cool” end of the spectrum, the other on the “warm” end (it will tell you on the label). The bulbs don’t use a whole lot of electricity as long as you’re not turning them off and on (which you won’t be), and you’ll get nice growth. This set-up is also more likely to locally available to you, while the next may not be.

However, I recommend this next one over the basic shop light option for two reasons. First, the lights will allow the lettuce to produce all the phytonutrients in an indoor garden that they would if they were growing in the sun. Fluorescent light bulbs do not. Second, they use even less energy than the fluorescent. They are also a lot easier to handle than shop fixtures with those long bulbs.

I’m talking about red and blue LED growing lights, easily available from Amazon. They’re inexpensive and lightweight. The one big disadvantage of these lights is that they are so bright, looking at them is like looking at the sun. I have the two shelves utilizing LED grow lights covered on three sides (the fourth is against the wall). I can do that because it’s in the bathroom, so it’s not like we have to look at it all day.

Unplugged LED grow light fixture. Looks weird b/c I'm pointing camera up at it from bottom of the shelf.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, you get equal growth from either light set-up. So if you don’t want that bright of a light emanating from your indoor garden, just use fluorescent lights – but understand that you won’t be getting all the nutrition from them you would get with the red and blue lights.

Growing the lettuce

  1. Moisten the growing medium. Or, moisten a paper towel if you want to start the seeds in a plastic bag that way. Sometimes I get better germination doing that.
  2. If you’re not using paper towels, fill your smaller cups or net cups with the moistened medium.
  3. Sprinkle three or four seeds into the medium, and press into it gently. If you’re using a paper towel, sprinkle seeds on one half, and fold the other half over and seal it inside a plastic bag.
  4. Place the cups on a saucer or in some shallow container that will hold an inch of water or so.
  5. Pour water onto the saucer whenever most of the water has been sucked up into the cups.
  6. If using a plastic bag, tear the piece of towel off with a germinated seed and sow it into the growing medium in a cup as soon as you notice a teeny green sprout. Seeds will germinate within a week or two, depending on the variety (I've found that red varieties take longer, for some reason).
  7. KEEP THE SEEDLINGS NO MORE THAN TWO INCHES AWAY FROM THE LIGHT until you move them into the larger cups. Use small cardboard boxes, stacks of magazines, pieces of scrap wood, etc. to hold the saucer with the seedlings close to the light. Keeping tabs on where the seedling is in relation to the light is probably the most complicated part of indoor gardening.
  8. In the meantime, fill up the larger cup (without holes) with pea gravel to the level where, when you place the smaller cup inside, the edge of the smaller cup is right about the same height as the larger cup. (Using net cups will require more gravel.)
  9. Fill up a gallon jug or other container with water, and add the recommended amount of hydroponic fertilizer (this is called nutrient solution).
  10. When the lettuce has at least four leaves, move the smaller cup from the saucer to inside the cup with the pea gravel. 
    Sorry about photo quality. This shows a net cup, lifted up from the pea gravel inside the plastic cup. Notice the lettuce roots growing out the sides of the net cup.
  11. Fill the larger cup with the nutrient solution, until maybe 1/4 to 1/2 inch from the rim.
  12. Place the cup in one of the boxes.
  13. Keep the lights turned on at least eight hours per day.
  14. Refill the cups when the nutrient solution gets below the pea gravel, to where you can’t see it from the view from above the cup.
  15. You can “cut and come again” when the plant is at 1/3-1/2 maturity, or you can wait until it’s completely mature and harvest it all at once.
  16. Rinse the pea gravel and cups out whenever you discard and old plant, to get the algae out.

By the way, I have a cilantro that is growing well using this method, and I know others who have grown basil in this simple, non-circulating hydroponic way, as well.

Indoor gardening is fun! Yes, the initial set-up is expensive, and it will take you awhile to recoup your investment compared to the cost of purchasing lettuce (or herbs) from the store. But this method, once set up, is easy and low-maintenance. And the produce you harvest will be much fresher and more nutritious than what you can even get from a high-end health food store or good farmer’s market.

Now that you know how to grow lettuce indoors, have fun starting your indoor garden!