Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Are "plant" lights better than plain white ones?

This year we were lucky enough to scavenge an additional grow light to add to our system, and it already had a plain white fluorescent bulb with it. When we bought our existing light ballast we replaced the white light with a "plant" fluorescent bulb because we heard they gave better results. With both bulb types in our setup now we see quite a difference in results after the first few days.

The left side was exposed to the plant light for the first few days. The other was only exposed to the white light. There is more or less the same mixture of plant types on each side so germination rates is not really a factor.

What is a plant light you ask? Usually sold as "Plant and Aquarium" bulbs, they are full spectrum bulbs meaning that they provide a broader spectrum of light than a traditional white fluorescent bulb and more closely mimic the spectrum of the sun. Plugged in, plant lights throw off a pinkish glow and they include some blue spectrum for leafy growth and the red spectrum for budding and flowering. For starting seeds, the lights that produce plenty of blue light are the most important.

They are usually available at most home improvement stores. We bought our original bulb at Home Depot for about $8 but online they can go for as much as $50 (don't pay that). Sadly our store seems to have stopped carrying the short length bulbs, so I guess we will be on the hunt for a new one at other stores in our area. In the meantime, I am rotating the seed tray every day to help even out the growth imbalance.

Here is what the package of our bulb looked like:

For additional information, check out this great e-how article.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Review of Novella Carpenter's book, "Farm City"

Since I am home sick and just finished a great book I thought I would do a little review. The book is called "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer" by Novella Carpenter.

The book chronicles her adventures gardening and eventually full-fledged farming in a vacant lot adjacent to her apartment in inner city Oakland and doing so on a shoestring. This aspect was appealing to me right away since so many of the "leave the city to start a hobby farm" books focus on people who find the perfect country spot which the pour a lot of money into as they embark on the trials and errors of learning to farm for the first time. Since that isn't real for most of us with the hobby farm dream, it is more interesting to read about folks who do this on the cheap (Kurt Timmermeister's "Growing a  Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land" comes to mind). It is even more interesting to read about someone doing this on the cheap and in a dangerous inner city area.

Novella's account is an adorably honest but very real account of one person's journey to develop a closer relationship with her food, experiencing it from beginning to end. We follow her as she builds a squatter garden that becomes a community focal point (with the constant specter that the owner will raze her garden to build condos), raises and kills her first turkey (after losing her other to a pitbull), learns about keeping and killing rabbits and finally graduates to full-fledged farmerdom when she tries her hand at raising hogs. But of course, this takes place in the ghetto (broken glass, drive bys, and addicts shooting up across the street) so there are some interesting spins:

  • How do you feed two hogs in the inner city? By dumpster diving in China town of course! 
  • How do you get free manure from a Northern California farm back to your urban farm when you have no truck? In the back of your station wagon which you line with a tarp (which it turns out doesn't work well)
  • What do you do when your turkey flies on to your neighbor's roof? Get a ladder out.
She frequently reflects on the back-to-the-woods hippie experience of her parents which provides an interesting foil to her own experiences. Through it all, she and her urban farmette become a central point in her little community, allowing her to build friendships with everyone from her neighbors and local shop keepers to fancy restauranteurs and even disaffected urban youth and the Black Panthers while also raising the local profile for the urban farm/local food movement.

The only downside to the book is that the very last paragraph leaves the future of the "squat lot" garden in question with the specter of it being sold again raising its ugly head. BUT...luckily Novella has a wonderful blog GhostTownFarm which I am now enjoying and it seems that so far, they have been able to keep the garden (see this post for details). A happy ending :)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Super Quick Germination

Here's the deal:  Seeds started on Sunday night. By Tuesday night there are already a handful of seeds germinated and popping up. Did I not say that the Jiffy Greenhouse top was awesome? Others may find this 2 day germination rate kind of 'meh' but for us it is always exciting (especially after the peat pot debacle of 2010).

Popped up so far: 3 kinds of basil (6 sprouts so far), a cucumber, a cherokee purple tomato, and a leek.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Starting Seeds Indoors

Yesterday was finally the day we got all of our indoor seed starts going. Quite a bit late but at least they are done now. In terms of process, we use soil-less potting medium (Miracle Gro brand is the easiest to find). I put it in a big bowl with some water and mix it up until all of the soil is completely moistened.

Then I fill each cell in my plastic cell pack, which I reuse each year.  We tried peat pots one year, and it was disastrous. Aside from being environmentally irresponsible, they kept wicking the water away from the seedlings and then the plants got moldy to boot.  Now I use the Jiffy mini-greenhouse pack they sell at Home Depot. I numbered each slot, and I keep a key so I know which plant is in which cell. It comes with a clear plastic top that I use during the germination phase. I was skeptical of the plastic "greenhouse" cover at first but we got amazing germination rates when we used it last year, much better than with a pack and saran wrap over the top.

Finally when everything is planted I put the pack under our light set up. Hubby is going to make a you tube video about how we built it since it is a vastly cheaper alternative to the commercial ones out there, is collapsible for easy storage and doesn't take up much space when it is put together. See this follow-up post on the benefit of using plant lights in your grow set up.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

St. Patty's Day at the Garden

We spent some of St. Patrick's Day at the garden, enjoying our unseasonably warm weather and getting a jump start on garden clean up and preparation. Hubby created a new garden bed where our asparagus used to be (it has been degrading each year and we decided to sacrifice it for the space). This gives us a 4th, much needed planting bed.

He also cleaned out our remaining beds and composted them all. Now we are just waiting for the water to be turned on at the community garden to get really planting (since bringing our own water is a drag) and hoping the weather stays nice.

We also had some nice garden surprises. We found a parsnip hiding out under some leaves. It didn't germinate last season but apparently our warm winter did the trick. Our rhubarb also has made surprising progress and is much farther along than it normally is this time of year. No complaining here. It is always encouraging to see it peeking up.

Monday, March 12, 2012

First Peas Planted :)

Yesterday was garden clean up day. We ripped up the canola cover crop and were pleased to see how friable it kept the soil all winter. Everywhere that we didn't sow canola the soil was hard and cracked. We planted the first crop of peas for the year. Last year I couldn't get of the peas I planted on the backside of the trellis to germinate so this year I put the trellises flush up against the beds and planted the peas in front. Hopefully nothing will block the sun and our usually poor luck with peas will change. Also since we have had such temperate weather, I took a chance and planted some wax beans nearby. I am trying to get an early start to try and beat out the dreaded Mexican bean beetle which I imagine will be out in even greater force this year given the mild winter we had.

In the meantime I used Skippy's Online Planting Schedule Tool to help me ballpark what I should be doing when since I was excited this time last month to start seeds but I got distracted and nothing has been started yet (yikes!). I plan to start tomatoes indoors tonight (only 2 weeks behind schedule according to Skippy's schedule). Seed onions are out of the question now since I am so late getting started so I guess I need to pick up an onion set.