Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Growing Stuff in Small Spaces, part II

Ok. As promised, today we're going to plant our indoor veggie starts. Yesterday we selected three good candidates for planting at this time of year and in this locale. The winners were cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, and onions. Yummy!

Planting your starts is straightforward, simple and shouldn't take more than twenty minutes. You should be successful if you follow the steps below:

Step 1: Prepare the soil.
We are going to use a seed starting mix for our starts. The mix we selected is high in peat moss, which accounts for 70% of the mix. Peat moss helps young plants fight disease, particularly fungal infections, so it's important you start indoor plants in a similar mix.

Place the soil loosely into the container you've selected for your starts. We're using 1" x 2" x 2" deep "ice-cube tray" type containers for our starts, allowing us to plant each seed in small and tidy compartments. Under these containers we've placed a drip tray to collect excess water and soil. Our landlord will appreciate this, as the tray should protect the floor from damage during the plants' stay indoors.

Step 2: Water the mix
With the container cubes filled, gently mist the soil mixture in warm water until it's lightly wet. Easy.

Step 3: Plant your seeds
Everything we're planting today calls for placing each seed 1/4" deep and covering loosely with the starter mix. Follow the instructions on your seed packets for each different item you're planting.

Now is a good time to think about the end result of all this work. Ask yourself how many plants you want to end up with for transplant outdoors in a couple months? For instance, we only have room for a maximum of six mature tomato plants in our deck container garden, but we're planting a dozen. Why? We're leaving room for error and assuming some won't make it. We figure if more than six of them do well as starts, we can sell or trade the extra plants on Veggie Trader. ;)

Tip: Don't forget to mark the containers somehow to note what you've planted where. A black marker and those little white plastic stakes are handy here.

Step 4: Water again.
Gently mist the soil again. Make sure you use warm water. Mist until the soil is moist. Don't directly water the soil or you'll possibly disturb the seeds, pushing them in too deep.

Step 5: Set your starts out
As discussed in the previous post, select an area that is warm and gets plenty of light. If natural light is a problem, try setting your starts directly under a fluorescent light, or better yet a grow lamp. Warmth and light are essential to getting your plants off to a good start.

That's it! Now you just keep your plants warm, well lit, and watered while you wait for them to sprout. In our case, with any luck the tomato plants will pop out within a couple of weeks. The onions and peppers will take a little longer.

It should be noted here that starting plants indoors isn't necessarily the only way to maintain a nice container garden. If you don't want the hassle
(or don't have the space indoors), you can always buy starts from the nursery when they're available in spring and then grow them outdoors once the chance of frost has passed in your area.

Good luck, and check back later for updates. Fingers crossed that we'll all raise happy and healthy starts!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Growing Stuff in Small Spaces, Part I

With more urban dwellers becoming interested in growing food in limited spaces, we thought it would be fun (and hopefully informative) if we start relating our own efforts at growing veggies on the deck of our 900 square foot condo. We are relatively new to the world of urban gardening ourselves, but hope those of you just wading in can nevertheless learn something here. If you're already a seasoned gardener you probably won't discover much you don't already know in these posts, but any tips or thoughts you can share along the way would be much appreciated.

So today we'll start the process by planning our early spring container garden. Planning a successful container garden begins with five steps:

Step 1: Assess your space
I guess it's obvious, but you can only grow so much in any given area. If you have a large deck you have more options, but even with only a fire escape there are still plenty of things you can grow. Think about produce that might do well in the area you have available. If you're not sure how much space a particular type of produce needs to grow successfully, search online or visit your local nursery and ask someone for help. If you describe your available space, a good nursery employee should be able to point you in the right direction.

Another seemingly obvious but important point: you need a space that gets some sun. At least a little. Plants can't grow without it. ;)

Step 2: Learn the growing schedule in your area
This is super important. In gardening, timing and location is everything. What and when to plant vary considerably depending on where you live. We moved to the Portland area last fall. With a relatively mild climate, you can start planting things relatively early in the season here. In fact, even though spring is a month away, now is probably just a tad bit on the late side to start planting some of the earliest spring veggies. So depending on where you live, it's time to get moving! Do a quick web search to find out what grows best and when in your area.

Step 3: Learn what to plant outside, and what to start inside
Many things do best when planted directly outside in the soil. But other plants need to be started inside and away from the elements before they can be transplanted outside later. If you are looking to grow things that are started inside, make sure you have a good growing space indoors. This means finding a warm spot near a window that gets some sun. If sun isn't available, you'll need to grow your starts under fluorescent lights or grow lamps. We are lucky in that our condo has a row of floor to ceiling south facing windows, making the place a pretty
passable greenhouse.

Of course, there are sometimes other considerations as well. Animals and pests are one. Yes, such gardening enemies can even be found indoors. For instance, I live with an extremely curious lovebird who loves to poke his beak into tiny green things growing in soil. Be sure you have a spot where your indoor starts are safe from such dangers!

Step 4: Get some seeds
Thinking through steps one through three above should help you decide exactly what you can plant where you live. The next step is to adjust for personal taste and get some seeds. Again, pay a visit to your local nursery. Most seed packs available for purchase will provide you with plenty of seeds for growing things in limited urban spaces. You'll end up with plenty extra. Be sure to save the excess seeds somewhere safe for the next season.

Step 5: Get the right equipment
Growing things in containers doesn't require many tools. Things like shovels generally can sometimes come in handy, but basically you'll only need proper containers and a small amount of good soil. If you are starting plants indoors you'll also need indoor containers along with good seed starting mix. Plants are best started indoors in small "ice-cube tray" type containers (see image above) and in a starter mix instead of soil. A good starter mix should contain a high percentage of peat moss, an ingredient that helps protect young plants from disease and fungal infections.

Something to think about here is drainage, especially if you are planting indoors. Be sure to think about what you’ll place under your containers to collect excess water and occasional bits of soil. Most commercial containers offer drainage collectors or drip trays which fit snugly underneath the container. Be aware these collectors are usually sold separately. that's basically the plan. The next step is to actually do the planting. We bought seeds today for onions, cherry tomatoes, and red peppers. All of these are good candidates for planting now, and all will need to be started indoors. We plan on planting them tomorrow or the next day, so check in later for the blow-by-blow. We also plan on planting some sugar snap peas directly into a 1' X 3' container outside within the next six weeks, once the chance of frost has pretty well passed. Our lovebird is hoping for a bountiful harvest of peas this year. If we could only get him to do some of the work, we would really be in business...

Monday, February 23, 2009

And the Winner Is...

Maybe it's just me, but does anyone else think Miley Cyrus looked a wee little bit like a cabbage in her crazy outfit at last night's Oscar Awards?

Hope Springs Eternal!

Trying to Grow Food in a Limited Space, take two...

With spring officially just one month away now, I figure it's time to start thinking about what to plant in our condo deck container garden this season. Having just moved to the Portland, OR area, I plan on visiting the local nursery soon for advice as to what might thrive planted early in the spring season here. My wife and I want to document the experience of growing food in a limited space in the hopes people who find themselves in similar urban environments to ours (cramped apartments or condos) can learn from our experience. As soon as we start our spring garden, we'll begin sharing our efforts as they progress...

In the meantime, I must report our attempt at a winter garden has resulted in nearly complete failure. Maybe it was a rare and unexpected snow (we had to bring the peas and mesculun greens inside for several weeks just after planting due to the Portland area receiving its most snow in nearly thirty years), or maybe it was just bad luck. But our attempt resulted in disappointing looking pea sprouts (see sad photo), and much more disappointing salad sprouts (dead). This despite lots of love and care. I'm still holding out some hope the bean sprouts might take off as the weather warms, but I'm not holding my breath.

Live and learn, I guess. But, hope springs eternal, so I'm excited for better results this spring! At least our orchid delivered a full bloom this year...

Friday, February 20, 2009

Victory Gardens Go Modern

Have you planted something for your nation recently?

In the depths of World War II, households all across the country turned to their frontyards and backyards to provide much of their own food. Victory Gardens popped up as a way of increasing self-sufficiency and supporting the war effort in an era of tight rationing.

Of course the vast majority of these gardens disappeared after the war, replaced by lawns and landscaping as food became abundant.

But now with the economic crisis picking up steam and more people in need of food assistance, are we about to see a return of the old style Victory Garden? If so, it won't be war encouraging people to re-examine how gardening can help them obtain some level of self-sufficiency, but instead the reality of scarce jobs and higher food costs, paired with a growing sense that the nation needs a more sustainable agricultural system.

It's an idea that seems to be gaining steam. The city of San Francisco recently turned part of it's civic center into a vegetable garden and is encouraging people to start growing food where they live. There's even an online petition to convince President Obama to create a vegetable garden on the White House lawn.

Is it time to rip up some of your front lawn to make room for veggies? It's at least something to consider. Victory Gardens may soon be making appearances at lawns near you...

Monday, February 16, 2009

Total Recall

Anyone paying even half-attention to the news these days is probably tired of wondering if their food is safe. Yes, I'm talking about the dreaded peanut recall here. It seems the list of potetntially salmonella contaminated peanut products is growing each day, but while most everyone is talking about re-examining food safety regulations (and rightly so), it seems to me a potentially larger issue isn't being discussed.

You see, the peanut recall/scare is one of the best examples I can think of showing the dangers of shipping food across great distances. It highlights yet another reason why trying to eat locally whenever possible is important. The thing is, no matter how carefully food plants and farms are regulated, mistakes and accidents happen. That's life. Food sometimes becomes contaminated. It's unfortunate, but when it happens, it should generally be a relatively small problem. But obviously it turns into a BIG and national problem when a safety breakdown in a plant somewhere in Georgia is able to affect the safety of a good chunk of the country's food supply. It seems kind of silly when you think about it: one processing plant in Georgia has caused an entire nation to fear peanuts. If that plant had served only the local area or even only Georgia, the problem would have been much more limited, and much more controllable.

Things like this happen with produce too. Produce grown in California ends up in South Carolina. It ends up everywhere. And if a salmonella problem (or some other problem) develops on that California farm, it quickly becomes a national issue.

Maybe in all the national debate about the peanut recall, the question of shipping our food across the country (and often across the world) should be given at least a little bit of discussion. After all, it doesn't seem to necessarily be the safest way of doing things.

Just sayin'.

By the way - If you just can't live without peanut butter but simply don't trust what you find in stores, you can always make your own.

Seed Buying Tips

Much of the country is still in the grip of winter, but it's already time to start looking forward to the arrival (hopefully soon!) of spring. This means of course that it's also time to start thinking about the spring planting season if you're a gardener. If you're considering ordering seeds by mail-order catalog this season, you may want to check out these useful tips to make sure you end up getting what you're looking for.

Sustainable Cities

Portland, OR is pretty well known as one of the greenest (if not the greenest) cities in the country. Saw this announcement today on their website. Let's hope Portland continues to do good work, and that other cities big and small across the country follow suit:

On January 7, 2009, Portland City Council approved the merger of the Bureau of Planning with the Office of Sustainable Development to create the new Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

The Bureau of Planning has had an outstanding record of guiding Portland's growth and development toward the thriving, livable city that it is today. The Office of Sustainable Development has pioneered many policies and programs that integrate environmental, economic, and social benefits. By merging the Office of Sustainable Development and the Bureau of Planning, Portland will ensure that sustainability principles shape the core of everything we plan and do.

The merger strengthens Portland's position as the global epicenter of sustainable practices and commerce. This new bureau builds on the outstanding history of planning in Portland, and will ensure that sustainability principles are thoroughly integrated into the core of Portland's planning, urban design and government operations.

Please pardon our virtual dust as we merge the former Bureau of Planning and Office of Sustainable Development's web sites over the coming months.

Check out some of what the city is doing for food sustainability here.

This is super useful if you live in the area and are looking for local food.