Friday, April 22, 2011

Plant a Container Garden with Old Dresser Drawers

I saw this article at Organic Authority, and thought I would share this, for those that want a creative way to make planters.

Classic box-shaped dresser drawers--reclaimed from a dresser on the curb bound for the dump or your own worn out dresser--work perfectly as planters. As a repurposing junkie, I adore the idea of reusing well-loved (i.e. worn out) furniture for new purposes in the garden.
Alongside the usual terracotta and clay containers used to hold plants, repurposed old dresser drawers can add diversity to a deck or backyard. Picture them filled with soil and brimming with your favorite flowers or homegrown vegetables.
Before you get planting, check out these tips to make your dresser drawer container garden a success.
Make a plan
I know you’re more than ready to get growing, but making a plan for your container garden can save you unnecessary stress. (If only this worked in all parts of our lives.) Although much of gardening requires learning through trial and error, making a plan is a good start.
Consider where to plant. Most plants do better in sunny areas, where they can get six to eight hours of sunlight a day. Although certain plants, such as mushrooms, do better in shady areas. Find a corner of your backyard or deck that receives the appropriate amount of sunlight for the plants you want to grow in your drawers. Speaking of that…
Consider what to plant. Fruits and veggies that grow well in shallow containers include herbs, lettuce, onions, cucumbers, carrots, radishes and strawberries. Don't forget to add flowers to your container garden. Flowers that grow well in containers include weigela, begonias and black and gold cannas. Check your local nursery for more ideas for plants that grow well in shallow containers and in your climate.
Check out the drawer
Solid wood drawers, not newer lower quality versions made from particleboard, will hold up well to weather and wear. If the drawers you have seem a bit feeble, reinforce them with a drill and screws. Yes, a drill. I promise you can operate it, or you could always ask your hubbie or a power tool savvy friend to do it for you.
Before you start planting, make sure the wood is untreated. You don’t want chemicals leaching into your soil and plant roots. If the drawer has been painted or stained, use some sort of liner to cover the bottom and sides of the drawer before planting.
I say leave the knobs or pulls on the drawers to add fun ornamentation to your garden.
Start gardening
Get your rocking container garden going! As you go along, consider a few necessities.
Drainage. Drill some holes in the bottom of the drawer for drainage; otherwise the plant roots will rot. And how sad would that be?
Potting soil. Fill your dresser drawers with an organic potting soil. You could also blend it with some of the soil from your compost pile for a mix that your plants will eat up.
Spacing. When you go to plant your seeds or starts, look at the directions. The spacing directions on seed packets may be meant for gardens with a larger area. Check with your local nursery for more information.
As your garden develops, it doesn’t matter if the drawers start to look worn. The shabbiness will only add character to your garden. Water your miniature garden daily and soon your plants will begin to sprout.
If you love these ideas, but don’t have a green thumb, keep a pretty dresser drawer inside the house to hold potted plants. Make sure to place the box near a sunny window. Happy gardening!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

First Success: Seed Sprouts to Seedlings

When we first started gardening in Telluride, back in 1998, we had a sad little garden that was about 3-4 feet long, and maybe 2 feet wide.  It was just some soil-like space between some rocks.  We planted seeds in that garden, but with a June 15 last frost combined with very low soil temperatures (even in mid-summer), it was hard to get anything to germinate.

I've been unable to locate a picture (pre-digital days) I remember showing the tiny little carrot and two pea pods that came from our first year, but sometimes such is the yield from experimental first-time gardeners.  Trust me, you'd laugh at how little we got from all of our work - a story I hear over and over from those making their first foray into gardening.

In the following year, we had some small planters on our condo patio, and we actually got useable herbs from them.  I think this is how it starts out for many people - little spaces and pots filled with starter hopes and dreams.  And, those little successes inspire you to try more the next year.

Deb in our first planter garden on the deck of our condo in Telluride, CO

In 2000, we moved to Ft. Collins, and we anticipated having an easier time in 2001 with the longer season and warmer temperatures.  For certain things, this was true. We planted 14 Zucchini, and they all sprouted and grew to mature plants for sure.  Took over the entire middle of the garden, and we quickly learned all Zucchini recipes known to mankind.

We tried to get tomatoes and peppers to grow from seed, and we started with Jiffy pellets, but once they sprouted, we let them get long and stringy, and it was just impossible to get them to grow stems that could support the weight of the plant.  So, we'd end up going out and buying tomatoes and peppers at various nurseries in Fort Collins.

Back in 2002, we stumbled into our friend Sue Oberle's business (Oberle Botanical) at the Fort Collins Farmer's Market, and began getting really cool heirloom varieties, all organically grown.  We became quite used to having quality hard-to-find varieties, that we started to actually go straight to her house to get early picks from her crop.  Plus, she has a super-cool backyard garden that is just plain fun to visit.

The Sunshine Systems UFO: Red/Blue LED 
Well, this year, we decided to go back to our old nemesis, and actually get plants from our spouts - and we finally had success.

I attribute the success to two things: Staying on top of transplanting, regular fertilization, and using an LED grow light vs. putting trays by a window.  The last step, of course, being the most important.  We used the Sunshine Systems UFO, and it has been nothing short of a revolution in our gardening.  Instead of watching weak seed sprouts turn yellow, limp, and deathlike before our eyes, we basically had 100% success getting seedlings growing, and actually maturing them - all under this 90-watt, extremely low-heat LED light.  When you see it running, you may still doubt it will do the job.  But make no mistake, this has plenty of power to grow beautiful plants.


Ferry Morse Ultimate Seed Starting Combo

To sprout seeds indoors, I recommend the Ferry Morse Ultimate Seed Starting Combo.  This is a product that has been used for decades by millions of home gardener's and it's arguably fool-proof.  That is, to get seeds to sprout.

The problem is pretty simple: You need to transplant the sprouts into another medium when they are ready, not when you are.  Most people see the sprouts, cheer, and then say for 3-12 days that "tomorrow" they really really need to transplant them.

What most people aren't aware of, is that the next step can be done in the SAME base tray.  We'll get to that step.

First, to get the tray started, you need to put about 10-11 cups of warm water in the tray, and let the peat pellets soak up the water.  Once they are fully puffed-out cylinders, you are ready to plant seeds in the center.  It's best to pull the fabric at the top of the pellet back a bit, and make sure that  you put your seeds down into the little hole that appears in the center.

We typically put 2-3 seeds in each pellet.  If more than one germinates, we call these doubles and triples. We covet this fortune, as we think that we get more yield from the same garden square footage.  Not really sure it works out that way, but it's definitely more vegetation more quickly when you have doubles and triples.  Once the pellets are all seeded, we put labels at the end of rows, using masking tape and toothpicks as markers.

Long stringy seedlings awaiting transplant
After about 1-2 weeks, we see sprouts, and within a few days, they are inches long.  We place our trays by a window, and once they break through the top of the peat, they just reach reach reach for the sun, with only their seed leaves open.

In a 4x4 container
It's within 1-2 days of when your sprouts look like this that it is critical to transplant into a larger container.  We experimented with both 4x4 and 2x2 containers, and found that there was a specific benefit to the 2x2 containers.  First, it uses less soil.  Second, there are trays that hold 24 of these, with a lifter for drainage into the same base tray you start with for sprouting.  They also fit the higher humidity controlled plastic domes that you need for the next stage.

Domed transplants 
Once transplanted into the larger container, I'd place them all under the red and blue Sunshine Systems UFO, with the light on a timer.  It would be set for 18 hours of light, with 6 hours of darkness.  I would water once per day, adding Age Old Kelp and Botanicare Pure Blend Pro Grow at a rate of 1 ounce per 1 gallon mixture.  There were days skipped if there was accumulated moisture.  But, my intent was to ensure the young seedlings had plenty of nutrients to grow roots quickly.

The area we set up to hang the light is actually on a metal shelf, purchased at Lowe's.  It's backed by cardboard with aluminum foil, and then the UFO light hung from above.  There is no heat from the light at all, even though it is putting out the same amount of light as a 400-watt metal halide lamp.  This combination of high UV with no heat is perfect for ensuring survival of your sprouts becoming seedlings.

The most exciting days are when the sprouts get their first real leaves.  Seed leaves are usually a pair that look nothing like anything the plant will ever grow again.  The next pairs that come out have the pattern you would know for that plant.

Below is a shot of the two stages next two one another - all seed leaves, and then some getting their first real leaves.

Within a few days, those seedlings were sprouting large leaves.  The stems were getting the fuzzy appearance of a mature tomato plant.  And the leaves had the full shape of a mature leaf.  The picture below is only 1 week after the first pair of real leaves.

This next picture is from just 5 days after the one above:

Considering our prior crash and burn attempts to get seedlings to live through the next step, the fact that all of the plants were surviving was quite unexpected.  It demonstrated to me that this UFO LED light was really worth the money.  We are now going to save a ton of money on tomatoes and peppers we would normally buy somewhere like the Fort Collins Farmer's Market, or any of the local nurseries.  We shop both Bath Garden Center and Fort Collins Nursery.

Nothing against these places at all, by the way!

We love the service they provide, and definitely have appreciation for what it takes to get plants started from seed.  But, the gratification in growing your own plants from seed isn't just about saving money, it's just the whole life process of going from seed to fruit, flower, or veggie.  We say, if you are just getting started, save yourself some early grief and purchase your seedlings early in the season from your local farmer's markets and nurseries.  When you've got confidence you know what to do planting more mature plants in your garden, then take up sprouting your own seedlings.

I hope that this article was helpful for those of you thinking about, or actually starting your own gardens from seed.  I am happy to answer any questions.


Use discount code SPROUTME on ANY products linked to in this article and get 10% off your order. Offer ends 5/15/11.  Includes all Ferry Morse and Sunshine Systems items in our catalog.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Jason and Julie's Garden: Garden Area Tilled

I stopped by Jason and Julie's garden this week in Loveland, CO, and they took on the project of tilling the soil to get it ready for irrigation over the past weekend.  While it could be argued that they only needed to dig trenches for the irrigation, the existing soil was uneven, hard-packed, and full of weeds.  By tilling the entire area, it's a "fresh start" that will make it easier to get the irrigation tubing in place, as well as to level the ground for the planters.

While taking this photo, Julie asked me about the succession of planters.  They want to get some done this year, and expand in upcoming years as they have the time, finances, and strength to pull it off.  While I had a preference for starting from the fence this year, and moving forward in coming years, there is also logic to starting on the near edge, and working back - it will be more visible to the rest of the yard immediately, and then expansion area will be in the background.  The only advice I gave was to ensure that they don't box themselves in, and give plenty of room to get to the back area.

I believe the planter size they are going to build will be 4' x 8', but we also discussed making sure that the length on the long sides is not so long that the wood bows (as we saw in Courtney & Dean's initial design).  It's important to factor the building materials, as Jason and Julie have not yet committed to the 4x4 and 2x12 wood we use in our own garden.  If a thinner material is used, it most certainly will need mid-length support, particularly on any 2-board high planters.

They took additional pictures of the tilling process (action photos!), so looking forward to getting copies and posting.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Dean & Courtney Ready for Planting

So, Dean & Courtney updated us on their progress, and they now have their planter stained, and ready for planting.  It looks great, and they must be proud.

They have been consulting their Vegetable Gardener's Bible  and are figuring out what veggies they would like to grow, and how well they go together.

In the coming weeks, they are going to have to decide what to plant now, what to wait until after last frost (May 7-15ish), and what to plant using Wall O' Waters.  We will be consulting them and perhaps having an open discussion about this here on the blog.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Planting Tomatoes with Wall O' Waters

We have had a few questions in the past week about how we use Wall o' Waters when planting early-season tomatoes.  The simple answer is that you plant them in a very similar manner to planting at any other time of the year - there is no special soil, watering, or nutrient requirements.

Essentially, you are creating a one-plant greenhouse, and you just have to space the plants accordingly.

In the video below, you will see how we do this in a planter that measures 42" x 42".  We have found that we can successfully get 8 tomato plants into this arrangement.  Later in the season, when we add the tomato cages, they happen to fit perfectly, so it's a design we are quite happy with.

Deb also points out that we seek out doubles/triples when purchasing early-season tomatoes.  This occurs when seed starting is done using 2-3 tomato seeds, and they all germinate.  You get more tomatoes per plant location this way, and it's a neat trick to boost overall yield in your garden.

Buying tomato starts from a nursery or farmer's market in March and April is also a great way to save money.  You see, the price of a seedling is based upon how much time/energy/electricity/nutrients have been put into growing them.  The longer they are in the greenhouse or nursery, the higher the cost.  Therefore, getting out there early not only gets you the chance of getting a double/triple plant, but you also pay substantially less for younger plants.

When planting the tomatoes, it's also important to know the ultimate size of the plant at maturity, and to choose locations that cause smaller plants not to be shaded out by larger ones.  We place Roma's, which are smaller, in key locations in our planters, and then choose our locations for others based upon other criteria.  We call this tomato negotiations, and the one in this video is one of the easiest we have done in 10 years.  Often, these negotiations can take days, if we can't reach agreement.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Videos of the Irrigation Installation

Plan for Irrigation:

Irrigation Layout:

Irrigation Installation:

The Berry Garden Addition: Planning and Sketches

The Berry Garden planning started in 2008, when we first did our landscaping layout.  Originally, it was a horseshoe pit.  It sounds odd, but we had a horseshoe pit at our first house, and loved it.  The area behind the garage was just long enough to put a Junior pit, and so we thought it would make sense here.

But, as we created the OctoGarden on the South side of the house in 2009, we realized that in order to grow all of the things we wanted to grow, we would have to make use of other areas of the property in order to make it all fit.  One of the things that we missed dearly from our first house were the strawberries and raspberries.

We created a protective box for our strawberries because we had a difficult time keeping the squirrels from eating them all - and we had several that lived in nearby trees.  Raspberries were easier, but since they weren't in a spot that was touched by the irrigation system, they had to be hand watered.  So, our fate depended on how well we watered, combined with how often we traveled during gardening season.

In addition, Deb is amazingly hooked on the nutrition in blueberries.  While we regularly use them in smoothies, she's found a way to add them to all sorts of things from salads to desserts.

As a result, we have a need to devote a significant area to production of berries, and the horseshoe pit became history.

So, over the years of 2009 and 2010, we've often walked that barren and desolate side of our house hoping to finally fulfill our dream of having a berry garden that would produce quart after quart of fresh berries, year after year.  We added to that the dream of having an asparagus bed, as well as a living fence.

Every good plan begins with a sketch, and so did ours.  I drew out a concept in late March that I liked, but after some discussions with Deb and Tim, we decided to abandon both a 5-sided and 6-sided multi-level planter due to the nearly impossible criteria of maximizing growing space, having easy-to-assemble construction (ie right angles), and ensuring that wood warpage would not destroy the look within 1-2 years.

I did the sketch back on March 26, after walking in the area, and sighting it from end to end.  I try to see what it will look like in 3D in my mind, and then look over the landscape to see if I can align objects that will be there in the future.  Then, I try to sketch them out, and take some rough measurements.

I have found that my process involves putting an idea on paper, and then going to sleep on it for several days.  Sometimes, but not always, I dream about designs in my sleep.  When I made jewelry, I did the same thing.  It's an important part of my creative process.

Over the next few days, I started to have other ideas about how to make the planter for strawberries.  I came up with a Pentagon box that was pretty neat in my mind, and even on paper.  The base level was a pentagon, with a star inside the pentagon, and that left a smaller and higher Pentagon as the top level

Neat and all, but it was just a ridiculous concept with the materials we were using.  Either you would have to make very precise angle cuts that the wood might or might not hold up to - this is pine after all.  Or, you would have to live without 4x4s in the corners, and then have angled wood fastened in some way that was hard to imagine let alone spec.

In the end, this design will have to just be a fantasy for a while till I can figure out other details.  Hopefully there will still be room on our property to build this one day.

I eventually redrew this sketch with more detailed dimensions on March 31, with the help of my friend Tim to get dimensions and think through the design some more.

What I ended up with was a take-off drawing, where I actually created my shopping list.  We bought the parts at Lowe's and had to get some lumber at Home Depot because Lowe's didn't have enough 16-foot lengths of 2x12.  It's amazing how little they stock in store these days.

As you can see, the Sexagon (now that would be a cool website name ;) in the original sketch gave way to the Pentagon, which then gave way to a square box.  Boring?  Well, we decided to add two levels that would also be squares, but they would be turned 45 degrees to create a diamond within a box.  Twice over.  The effect will be to have a terraced effect with our strawberries, and have triangles to match the triangular shape of the overall land on this side of the house.

I hope this gives you an idea of the process by which an idea turns into a concept, which then gets scribbled into a sketch, which then gets updated into a more official-looking sketch, which you can then create a shopping list to go buy the materials to finally build.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Courtney and Dean's Garden: Winner of First Garden Boxes of 2011

Courtney and Dean live in Denver, and are enthusiastic about their new garden.  They've been up to our house many times, and love our garden.  I believe this may have something to do with their enthusiasm.

I talked with Courtney on the phone to describe the materials and construction methods for putting this together.  The basic materials are 2x12s, 4x4s, and metal angles.  You also need weed fabric, clear plastic, and a staple gun.

Since she had seen our garden before, I thought that it would be fairly simple to give her the concepts, and then answer questions about any details. For the most part, it worked.

On the way home from skiing on April 2, 2011, I stopped by to see their progress, and to my surprise, they already had the box done.  They had shopped for the materials at Home Depot in the morning, and assembled the planter in the afternoon.

They followed my instructions fairly well, but it's pretty obvious I need to do more than verbally describe things to get all the details right.  While it seems perfectly obvious to me what I am talking about, I've already made a few boxes, so I think my description gives the listener all the information they need to know.

Back in reality, it takes more than that really get a point across.  In the coming days, I will be posting videos of the progress in our own garden, so that you can see step by step instructions.

Let's first talk about what they got right.  The box looks great.  They did a great job cutting the wood, and using metal angles to connect the 2x12s with the 4x4s.  They set the face of the 2x12 back perfectly, so it is not quite centered, but set back from the face of the 4x4 about 1/2" to 3/4", which gives the box a pleasing look.

This is a little tougher than simple designs that would have you just nail or screw the 2x12s together.  It's also more difficult than ones that have metal corners that hold each board in place.  While those are easier, here are some of the benefits:

1.  The 2x12 will warp over time.  Sorry folks, there isn't much way around this.  You are applying water to the inside the wood, and sun to the exterior.  It's gonna warp.

Better to have the curves become part of the design, but not the structure.  Having the wood ends covered by 4x4s allows the curvage to occur between the posts, and not to rip apart the boxes from the corners in.  While I only have 2.5 seasons on this design, it's held up very well so far.

2.  The boxes will be stronger, and you have the ability to go 2 or 3 boards high without any additional structural elements.  You just cut a longer 4x4, and stack the 2x12s on top of one another.  It's very simple to go vertical with this design, and you could arguably go 4 or more boards high - but you would eventually need to recognize irrigation and drainage issues.

3.  It just looks better.

4.  Where are you going to place the glass of wine while you are gardening?

So, the next question is what size angles to use, and how far down the wood to place them.  On this front, Courtney and Dean did an excellent job as well.  The angles need to be lower than the top edge, because over time, the soil compacts, and the angles would be exposed.

I recommend about 6-8" from the top when locating the top angle.  I also recommend 2 angles per board-end, which amounts to 4 angles per corner.

This is a good time to point out that all metal angles are not equal.  Particularly in price.

You can find things that look perfectly adequate but are priced at over $2 each, but what I have used is an A34 angle from Home Depot.  I've found them also on Amazon if you can't find them locally, but the price we paid at Home Depot was $0.43, while on Amazon, at the time of this writing, they are $0.95 each.

So, think this out.  A 1-level box will have 16 angles, with 4 in each corner.  Including Sales Tax, you are talking about a cost of $8 per planter, just in angles.  If you pay the Amazon price for this item, your cost doubles to $16 per planter.

I can't say for certain if I have found the cheapest angles anywhere, but it pays to shop around, as you can see.

So what could they have done better?

Well, we had discussed that around the planter, there was landscaping that didn't have much value to them, and was already a bit weedy.  I recommended that they put weed fabric down over the whole area, and then put the planter on top.  Courtney assumed that you only needed weed fabric under the box.  They still have to decide whether they want mulch or rock around the perimeter, but this is easily adjusted later.

They also put the plastic with a gazillion staples right up to the top edge of the box.  Once the soil compresses over the season, this is going to make all those staples visible, and over time the plastic will get ripped and torn.  I believe the long term fix will be to re-staple down lower, and using a razor knife to cut out the top few inches.  I would recommend only putting the plastic as high as the top angle.

These are relatively minor and easy to correct.  The biggest issue I actually take the blame for.  I remembered on the morning of their construction that I failed to mention staining the wood.  While this might seem obvious, it wasn't to them.  I called and left Courtney a voicemail, but she didn't get it before they built the box.  It's going to make their box more vulnerable to warping and rotting over time, but the plastic I must say is the primary barrier.  Since removal of the plastic, with so many staples wasn't really an option, we are crossing our fingers on this one.  We will revisit this in 2012 and 2013 to see how it went for them.

Something else that I didn't anticipate was that after they added soil the top board on the long side bowed out, and due to a split in the wood that they didn't think would matter, it protruded a bit.  As we can see in the final finished photo of this box, the bowing is visible, but not really that bad from a distance.

All in all, I say there will be great veggies grown in this garden, and that's all that really counts!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Jason & Julie's Garden

My friends Jason and Julie live in Loveland, and they are planning to upgrade their garden this year.  They have a nice large back yard, with much the back corner getting direct sun for 8+ hours per day.  They've done fairly well with a garden planted into the existing soil, but they are looking to upgrade to some planters for both appearance and performance.

They want to add irrigation, and will run lines to each planter, so that will have to be part of the planning up front.  Ultimately, the garden that is built this year will be expanded in the future.  Jason says the goal is to grow as much food as they can for their family.

After some discussions, we agree that to begin, they will want some long narrow boxes for planting vine plants that will trellis.  This includes beans and cucumbers, which are two of our favorites.

So, then they will place square boxes that are approximately 4' x  4' in front, probably in a straight row, and that will give them plenty of options for their crops.  We discussed the pros and cons of having 1-board high planters vs. 2-board high planters.

There are plants like tomatoes and peppers that are just so much nicer to tend to through the summer in planters that are 22-24" off the ground.  You can work next to them on a stool, and avoid gardener's back.  For these types, the 2-board high planter is perfect.

Then there are others like Sweet Basil, which grows 2-3 feet tall.  Since at the end of the crop, you have to be picking flowers off their tops to keep them vegetating new leaves, you don't want to need to get a ladder to pick them cause the planter starts them 2 feet off the ground.  For these types, a 1-board high planter is perfect.  And twice as easy to load the dirt, to boot!

So, to prepare their garden area, I recommended that they till the soil to level it all and get it prepared for the building of the garden.  Next, they would put weed fabric down on the entire area.  On the area where they will be expanding in the future, temporarily cover with mulch, which can easily be pulled back when the next phase of garden boxes are installed.

This will also make installation of the irrigation system easier, as the soil will already be turned.  They can lay out their irrigation, and it will only take a shovel to easily bury the tubing.

Jason and Julie are highly motivated to do this, and so it will be interesting to see how it unfolds over the coming weeks.