Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Nobody Here But Us Peppers

When we lived on a half-acre in sprawlburbia*, the garden ran the show.

I had productive dwarf heirloom apple, cherry and peach trees. Thornless canes grew blackberries as big as a kitten's head. Raised beds produced improbable amounts of asparagus and the usual annual vegetables, including, at the peak of obsession, tomatoes from over fifty plants of thirty-five heirloom cultivars.  All started from seed under shoplights in my sewing room, along with plenty of hot peppers and basil because how else am I going to can gallons of marinara and salsa every fall?

Perfesser Chaos seemed to think I had some sort of problem.


Doesn't everybody collapse into stuttering fangirl squee when Dr. Carolyn Male offers to trade seeds?

(Okay, maybe it was eighty tomato plants some years. I didn't see him refusing to eat the marinara sauce.)

Down on the farm, there are creatures that can scream to be fed. Lots of them. They demand time more effectively than the quietly vegetative beings. The garden, though on a larger footprint than my prior spread, has never been nearly as populous or as productive.

One bottleneck has been seedlings. It has not gone well here most years.

Heat cable failure. Bad seed-starting mix. Procrastination. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind because the seed-starting rack was set up in the warm basement. I've ended up buying plants every year, and am barely keeping up with our marinara habit.

So this year, I changed things up.

I have two warm-chambers for germination. The heat source is a couple of rope lights. The old-fashioned incandescent kind, obviously, and good luck finding them these days. (Curse you, you cool, energy-efficient LEDs!).With the lid or a plastic cover on, the lights keep the bottom heat going and the temperature in the bins about 20 degrees higher than the room temps.

Sweater box. Incandescent rope light secured to hardware cloth on bottom. Germinating chambers on top.

As each little tomato or pepper seed sprouts in its space-efficient high-tech germination chamber, I gently slip it out and into a plastic-pack. Later most of them will be transplanted one more time into roomy individual pots, for garden planting at our leisure or for sale at Cider House Farm Market.

Substrate is cocoa-hull planting mix or pro-mix, with seeds covered in vermiculite and kept damp. I plant germinated seedlings in little plastic starter packs every night as they pop up.

If you are local and buy berries or tomatoes, etc. in these little plastic boxes and don't mind saving them, I'm planning to use a LOT more of them next year, and would be pleased to save them from the trash stream.

And I slapped together a seed-starting greenhouse on the deck, mostly with materials I had at hand.

For the main frame, two cattle panels (4' x 16') anchored to the wall of the house with long roofing screws and pipe hangers. I was going to anchor them to the deck rail, but they fit so nice and snug it isn't necessary
I planned to use plastic conduit for this frame, but the cattle panels work much better.

Part of a roll of clear 6-mil plastic from Home Labyrinth wrangled over the top, and secured with binder clips. Lots and lots of binder clips. The plastic is not crystal clear, which is actually better given the southeast orientation of the greenhouse walls.

I found a bag of shittons of binder clips in the bulk section of the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse. Thought "I bet I'll find a use for these bad boys ..."

Then I framed up the end with leftover 2x4s and deck hardware. All this will easily break down with just a screwdriver.

Secured at top with just pipe hangers hooked over the wire and screwed down to the end of the 2x4s. But very solidly anchored to deck and rail.
At first I was going to just have a flap for a door to the rest of the deck, but that did not work well, so I bought some 2x3 lumber and used some old door hinges to make a proper door. The plastic above the door can be moved aside to make a vent. I secured the end plastic to the top with the same binder clips as the main roll, and with screwed-down tack strips to the framing pieces.

I had some wire shelves/racks from Construction Junction that
I'm using to protect the dog/goat zone from incursions.

Shelving, an old banquet table, and finally, the original seed-starting rack that has been in the basement all this time.

Step into my office ...

Conditions are staying temperate in there at night, though this week I will bring the tender ones in for several nights to keep them growing faster. The heathens on the top shelf in the picture above are kale and bok choy and cauliflower and such, and they can suck it. They're going into the ground pretty soon.

Yesterday I was showing the masterpiece to a friend and speculating that, while it has stood up pretty well to recent high winds, a decent hailstorm could be my undoing.

Not an hour later, as if summoned.

It's still fine, knock polyethylene. I had hailstones on my bed, blown in from the west-facing window 5' from its edge, but the greenhouse held up.

Also yesterday, I started some herbs, because you can't have marinara without basil. I labeled each little plastic box with the cultivar name and the date.


It's parsley, man! And oh shit, oregano! No, really.

* When I went by the old place over a year after moving, seeking a misdirected package, the young lackwits who bought it from us had bulldozed all the painstakingly enriched garden beds, including the fully-mature asparagus patch and were worshipping moar lawn.

Also, they stole my package. Larcenous lackwits.