Wednesday, April 18, 2018

It's looking like the growing season has actually begun

and the weather has finally turned a corner, into more normal temperatures for this time of year.  After a dusting of snow and some miserably cold temps on Monday, the ten day forecast looks pretty good.  Today it's 70 F and I'm seeing a lot of trees blooming and the bushes leafing out.  Nature was just biding its time, and now it's full speed ahead.

Yesterday I transplanted about 120 onion seedlings into a bed, also about 10 cole crop seedlings.  I had better success with the onion seedlings this year.  Last year there were problems with a lot of the seedlings, especially tomatoes.   I'm sure it was the potting mix that I used, a name brand from the big box store.  It was also used in the Earthbox to grow lettuce, and that was a bust too.  Most of the onions are Pontiac, a yellow storage variety, along with Ruby Ring and Red Cippolini.   I left about a foot on one side of the bed unplanted.  That area will be planted with cucumbers later.

This year I bought a bag of ProMix for starting seedlings and for the Earthbox.  ProMix is good stuff.  It is compressed into a 2 cubic foot bale, and expands to 4 cubic feet.  It's actually a better deal than the more common name brands.  The only downside is you have to add fertilizer.

There are now 2 sets of brassicas in the bed.  The second set will likely mature shortly after the first set, due to the weather, even though they were started nearly 2 weeks apart.  There's Green Magic and Imperial broccoli, Gonzalez and Point One cabbage, Kolibri kohlrabi and Minuteman cauliflower.   The screened frame keeps out the neighborhood dogs.

The overwintered spinach is very late this year, and much of it was lost last winter.  I've gotten spinach as early as mid-March, and almost always harvest some by early April.  Not this year, but I expect to pick soon.  I seeded some spinach in the empty spaces, which has germinated now, and hope to get more spinach after these heads are picked.  I have never had much success with spring-sown spinach, it usually bolts.

The lettuce in the Earthbox is growing rapidly now, and I expect to pick some very soon.  The next set of lettuce and brassicas has been moved into the coldframe, now that the nights are not so cold.

With more plants moved outdoors, there was room to re-pot the tomato seedlings into large pots (JIffy cups with holes punched in the bottom).  The pepper seedlings were re-potted last week, and okra was seeded directly into the large pots but hasn't germinated yet.  Eggplant hasn't been re-potted yet, and cucumbers don't get seeded for another week or two.  At this point there are 3 trays under the lights, with room for one more.  I don't know if there will be any need for the fluorescent light this year.

I bought 6 more pepper plants from May's greenhouse today, and will re-pot them later, so it looks like I'll need that fourth tray very soon.

The future tomato/pepper/eggplant beds have a developing cover crop of oats and field peas growing through a layer of compost, as does the squash bed.  The cover crop took a long long time to germinate.

The planting schedule calls for potatoes to go in today, but that's not going to happen.  I just picked up the seed potatoes today.  I expect to get the potatoes in early next week, after the soil warms a little more.  Otherwise it seems like things are mostly under control, for the time being.  I am trying to buy the vacant lot adjacent to mine, and split it with my neighbor on the other side of the lot.  If I get the property I intend to expand the garden on the other side of the pond.  More on that later.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Too cold to plant and the LED lights updated

It's April 10 but the weather has been more like February.  There's 10 cole crop seedlings under the lights that could have gone into the ground a week ago, but with some nights reaching into the low 20 degree F I've chosen to leave them inside until the weather improves.  That will be tomorrow when the temperatures go to something like average and stay there for awhile.

I bought another LED light and added it to the two in place.  That required removing the frame and reconfiguring it a bit.  Now the lights are almost touching and the plants will not be in any 'dead zones' with inadequate light.  As a unit, the three lights together are about 13" by 40" in dimension, about the same size as two plant trays end to end.  With the increased light, my point and shoot camera just couldn't seem to find a proper adjustment for the picture.

In a recent post I expressed some concerns about the lights burning lettuce, which I attributed to the two UV lights in each unit.  With raising the lights over 20" above the plants, and turning the lights so the UV lights were not in line down the center, that doesn't seem to be a problem anymore.  In fact, since adding the third light, the plants appear to be doing better than they did under the fluorescent lights.

This is the set of cole crops which I hope to set out tomorrow, and tomato seedlings that have just recently germinated.  For a while the cole crops were leggy, usually an indication of inadequate light, but with more leaf area as they grow they appear to have thickened their stems and are much stouter now.

The other tray has pepper seedlings, two more sets of cole crops at different stages of growth, and some lettuce.  All of it looks healthy at this point.

So far I'm happy with the results under the LED's.  We'll see what happens when the tomatoes and peppers get tall.  With three lights my investment is about $90.  A new good quality shop light with 4 T8 bulbs would probably set me back about $60 to $80.  So the initial investment is more for the LED's, but the 6500K T8 bulbs have to be replaced every two years, and the GroLux bulbs last about a year before losing their effectiveness.  With an operating life of 40,000 hours, the LED's should be cheaper in the long run.

Usually by this time of year I am harvesting spinach and lettuce.  With some warm sunny days that should start happening soon.  I hope to set out the onion seedlings in about a week.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

This is always scary

Last night it stormed all night.  This after a round of rains that ended a few days ago.  The ground is saturated and the water drains quickly into the pond.  It over-topped the levee for the first time since the massive rains in 2008.

Most of the water is going through the overflow, but that sheen of water on top of the levee will spill down the backside and create channels.  Given enough time and water, those channels will eat back to the top of the levee and create a channel that will widen and open up a gash.  I don't think it will come to that but the sight of water on the levee always makes me nervous.

The rain appears to be letting up and radar shows most of the system now to the north.  I'm appreciating work that I put into the levee several years ago - removing overgrowth, bolstering part of it with concrete blocks and adding 15 yards of soil to level it - but it looks like it needs a little more work, and the emergency spillway has to be dug out a little more.  I think the worst is over.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Early spring, or is it late winter, tour?

It's snowing right now.  It's not going to snow much, but still, it's April for God's sake. Last weekend, it snowed 3 inches.  Sure, this will be gone tomorrow, but. . . it's April.  The temperatures will be whipsawing from cold to tolerable for several more days.  The mean temperature for March in this area was 41 F, for February 39 F.  Only 2 degrees difference, and February had a few days over 70 F, which March never got near.  At least it has stopped raining.

There's a set of brassicas under the lights that I'd like to get into the beds, but they will have to wait until later this week.  I'd put then in the cold frame, but there's no room in there.  In spite of the bad weather, things are getting accomplished.  The two beds that will get peppers and tomatoes were lightly hoed and seeded with a cover crop of oats and field peas, and a layer of compost was spread over them.  That was two weeks ago and the cover crop still hasn't sprouted.    The large squash bed was seeded with the same cover crop, but no compost.  Today I spaded over two more beds.  One gets brassicas, the other onions, parsnip, carrots and whatever.

Mostly this is about how the seedlings are doing under the LED lights.  So far, not too bad.  The onion seedlings seemed to do OK but they weren't under the lights long enough to draw any conclusions, before they went into the cold frame.  Same with the first batch of lettuce.

Some observations about the lights.  The light spreads out very little, leaving a dead zone for seedlings that are between the lights.  When I moved a pack of lettuce that was in that dead zone to a spot more directly under the light, the plants went under stress and the leaf edges curled.

This is an educated guess about what caused this.  Each light has 2 (out of 225) UV LED lights, and they are both near the center of the light unit.  The manufacturer really should put the UV lights in a different reflector, one that spreads the light over a wider area.  Anyway, I think the lettuce got too much UV and it wasn't happy about it.  Another thing to keep in mind - the plants look very dark under these lights.  That's because most of the lights are red or blue, which is absorbed by the plants.  It's the green and yellow light that passes through.  Anyway, the lettuce, once transplanted into the Earthbox in the coldframe, has been doing fine, albeit growing slowly in these cloudy days:

The solution for the leaf curling problem:  get the lights as far above the plants as possible to allow mixing of the different LED's.  I gave up on the old rope and pulley system used with the fluorescent shop light and fixed the frame that I made for the lights directly to the top shelf of the rack.  When seedlings were started under the T8 fluorescents the light was lowered by two ropes until it was within an inch or two of the seedlings.  That won't work with the LED's because the different lights won't mix that close.  I made some larger reflectors with Reflectix insulation taped to pieces of 1/2" foam board.   I'm hoping the reflectors will contain and bounce around the light so it reaches the lower leaves of the plants. 

Even with the lights that high, the light intensity at the plants is still weaker in the center between the lights and at the ends.  I ordered another light from Growstar to add to these two (hey I'm in it this far, there's no turning back now).  I'll have to remove the light frame and modify it, then install all three lights side by side.   That should eliminate any dead spots for the plants and increase the total intensity for all the plants.  If that doesn't work then I'm out 90 bucks.

Here's another view of the seedlings.  The first set of cole crops has gotten spindly and really needs to go outside.  I don't know that they are any worse than cole crops grown under the T8's.  I'm hoping that the addition of a third light will cure this, if not I may try a small fan to move some air over the plants. Today I seeded tomatoes, eggplant and another set of cole crops, which has filled these two trays.  In about ten days when I transfer the tomatoes and peppers into large pots then space will be at a premium.  I'm hoping that the three lights with the new reflectors will be adequate for four trays side by side.

A closeup of the most recent set of cole crops, lettuce and peppers. The peppers just starting germinating a few days ago.  Yes the plants look very dark but put them in 'normal' light and they look fine.  The lettuce just doesn't seem to like these lights, but I only start lettuce inside to get it to germinate quickly, then move it to the Earthbox.

I haven't discarded the fluorescent light unit.  The shoplight is still there in the bottom half of the seedling rack with the ropes to raise or lower it.  I plan to use it to start seedlings when there's no more room under the LED's.    

Here's another view of the seedling rack.  I had to remove one of the shelves to make way for a two light setup.  After building this rack, my one regret is that it should have been about a foot taller, which would allow for more storage space.  Still, that top shelf can hold a lot of stuff.

I'll end with a picture of the onions in the cold frame.  These are Ruby Ring, Pontiac and Cippolini.  I'm hoping they can go out into the beds in about ten days.

Monday, February 26, 2018

It's late winter but feels more like spring

Last week's rains finally ended on Saturday, and Sunday I started doing some preparatory tasks in the beds.  The  rain gauge showed 4 1/2 inches last week and with temperatures more like April,  it was unusual to say the least for February.  It was warm like this last February and this pattern is looking like the new normal - a warm spell in late winter then later a killing frost.  Last year most of the buds on the apple trees were killed by the late freeze.

Well Sunday was beautiful although still a bit muddy.  It was time to remove the plastic greenhouse, prop up the strawberry pallet planter and put the mobile cold frame in place.  Here's the big picture:

I usually remove the plastic greenhouse around March 1st.  Warm as it's been, it could have been removed earlier but I wanted to wait until the rains were finished as the soil inside is plenty wet already.  The garlic is looking fine, just a few plants missing:

But the overwintered spinach did not fare so well, and the row of lettuce is completely gone.  Several nights at -12 F will do that.  Still, there's enough spinach to provide some nice heads, and I'll seed in more spinach in the bare spots, although I never have much success with spring sown spinach.

On to the strawberry planter.  Last fall I removed the two props and laid it down on a layer of straw, then covered all of it with straw and burlap:

Yes I managed to insert my shadow in the picture once again.  After removing the straw and attaching the props, it's ready for a new season.

It looks like most of the strawberry crowns survived, and for the ones that didn't make it, a new runner can always be stuck into the potting mix to start a new plant.  All of the old runners were dead and were removed.  This location is not the best, it gets only 4 to 5 hours of light a day.  Eventually I want to design and build a better looking planter that doesn't have to be dropped to the ground  every winter.

Inside under the new LED lights, the onions are starting to germinate and the lettuce has opened up it's seed leaves.  I found that the LED lights have a focused cone of light, that is, the light doesn't spread out much, even at 16 inches above the plants, so between the lights and at the ends of the trays the light falls off somewhat.  I put a reflector at one end and will put another reflector at the open end, but I may have to buy a third light, especially when it gets 4 trays side by side.

Until the lettuce puts out some true leaves it's too soon to know how this is going to work.  I've found lettuce is a good indicator of the quality of light.  If it's inadequate, the lettuce will go spindly.

Lastly I rolled out the cold frame to it's springtime place.  I'm betting that the pond gets another skim of ice before we really get into spring.

Monday, February 19, 2018


With the unusually warm weather in February the parsnips that were grown last year were starting to send up green fronds.  When they do that the flavor usually goes south, so it was time to dig them up.  These are Javelin, from Johnny's.  I've found that this variety outperforms the Harris Model that is commonly seen.

I like parsnips, but they don't produce a lot, especially considering that they have all year to grow.  These came from a 4' x 4' patch, probably about 4 to 5 pounds.  There's a recipe for parsnip muffins that I've been meaning to try out.  It's definitely time for pork roast and parsnip.

To see what other gardeners are harvesting, head on over to

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Introducing the LED grow lights

Hello once again.  I haven’t posted since I broke my foot last fall.  Lesson learned:  watch where you walk when working a leaf blower, because a broken foot takes a long and painful time to heal.  The foot is working better now, spring is on the way, it’s almost time for starting seeds, and I’ve got some new LED grow lights to show off.

For years I’ve used a 4 foot shoplight with 4 fluorescent bulbs to start seeds, and for years there have been times when there were more seedlings than space under the lights.  The workaround was to do a plant shuffle, moving trays out to the cold frame, then moving them back inside if a frost was imminent.  Even with the extra trips between house and coldframe there were times when I had to hold off starting seeds until space opened up under the lights.  This year I knew I wanted another light unit to avoid those extra trips, and I also want to raise some extra seedlings for friends and neighbors.  I almost bought a shoplight at Lowes when they had a really nice one on sale for $40, when a thought came to me: are there LED grow lights available that can be used for starting seedlings?

LED growlights are relatively new but are being adopted quickly by growers.  The beauty of the LED is that it can be manufactured to produce light in a relatively narrow band of wavelength, or it can be made to produce a full spectrum of light, and these different LED's can be combined in a light unit to produce virtually any kind of light.  Some of the fancy units even allow the user to control which lights in the unit are turned on.  Since a plant’s use of light is weighted more in the red and blue parts of the spectrum, an LED growlight can be tuned with a selection of LED’s that produce light at the wavelengths that plants need the most.  In theory, an LED growlight with a light output tuned to produce useful light should use less electricity than other lights and still produce the same amount of growth. 

Several years ago I made a post about lights, and I’ll borrow some of the tables for this post.  The ‘action spectrum’ of chlorophyll A and B is strongest in the red and blue regions.  Which is a little weird because sunlight peaks right between the reds and blues, where photosynthesis isn’t driven as strongly.

Of course, there’s more to it than that, there's always more to it than that.  That action spectrum measures how effective a narrow wavelength band is in driving photosynthesis, then adds it all together to make a chart.  It doesn’t take a holistic view of how the full light spectrum works together to grow a plant.   There are auxiliary pigments that can capture photons in that yellow/green region that chlorophyll doesn’t use and pass on the energy to chlorophyll.  There are phytochromes that require UV and IR light in order to regulate growth and maintain plant health.  This graph gives a more nuanced view of the total absorption spectrum of a plant, showing that the entire spectrum is usable, but some wavelengths are more useful than others.
Bottom line, plants require all of the spectrum produced by sunlight, they just don’t require it in the same proportions that sunlight produces, and that’s where artificial lights can improve on sunlight by making a greater proportion of light that is actually useful to the plant.

I shopped for LED lights on Amazon.  At the cheaper end of the offerings were growlights made of square aluminum plates, about the thickness of a slice of bread and a bit over a foot square, weighing not much over a pound.  Most of these had an array of 225 LED lights of 1/5 watt each (nearly all of these LED bulbs are made by the same manufacturer), for a total of 45 watts.  Each LED is in a cone-shaped depression for focusing.  From these small units there is a big jump to the much more powerful fan-cooled units used by professional growers, and not much in between.  I was hoping for a single unit that would take the place of a 4 foot shoplight, but nothing like that was available, so I decided on 2 of these: 

Most of this type of light unit that were available on Amazon had only red and blue LED’s, in a ratio roughly between 2:1 up to 4:1 (red to blue).  After doing some research, I chose a unit that has not only red and blues, but full spectrum white, UV and IR.  That should cover all the bases.  Although the potential output is 45 watts, the unit’s actual energy consumption is more like 35 watts. Don’t ask me why this is so, I don’t know.

My educated guess is that 2 of these lights will take the place of a 4 foot shoplight with 4 bulbs.  They should use about half the electricity of the shoplight.  The first thing I found out about them is that these bulbs are pinpoints of very bright light.  If I look directly at them, I’ll have after images for several minutes.  I got this photo by first pressing the shutter on the camera halfway down while holding the camera directly over the light, which freezes the aperture opening, then moving to an angle and taking the shot.  It's not floating in space, it's the same light as in the picture above.

Including shipping, the cost for 2 lights was $66, comparable to what I would pay for a new shoplight and 4 T8 bulbs.   The manufacturer is Growstar.  I counted 144 red LED’s, 50 blues, 25 white full spectrum, 4 IR and 2 UV.  According to the maker, there are 2 different kinds of red LED’s at slightly different wavelengths, but they all look the same to my eye.

I built a small frame from 1x2’s to hold them.  With eyescrews installed on the top of the frame, the assembly can be raised and lowered with ropes, just as with the shoplight.  It’s much easier than moving a shelf with trays on it up and down.  You can see just how thin these lights are here.
For both the LED assembly and the shoplight, reflectors were put on the back side of the shelf unit.  If the LED’s work out, they will be used as the go-to lighting unit.  When I run out of space under these lights, I’ll put new starts under the old shoplight.  This picture shows both the LED assembly and the shoplight on the shelf below it:

LED’s turned on.  It looks like there is adequate light coverage for 2 trays end to end, and I’m hoping for enough coverage for 3 or 4 trays side by side.

Looking up, comparing the new technology to the old technology:

The grow chamber that will be used, with a movable reflector installed on the front side.  

I’ll be starting onion and lettuce seeds shortly, and will find out soon enough if these lights are effective or not.  I think they will be, but if they don’t do the job, another light can be added with some modifications to the frame.  I’ll keep posting on the results.  Happy growing season, all