Mini-Hoops

I have had several incarnations of unsuccessful greenhouses over the years.  Actually, the greenhouses were not as much unsuccessful as they were temporary, so going with that idea, I decided to set up temporary mini-hoops to grow some winter greens and to shelter my baby tomatoes and peppers until they can go in the ground.

The mini-hoops are cheap and easy to build.  I made mine with things I already had laying around, although I am a bit of scrounge and I tend to have a lot of things laying around.  I have two mini-hoops at the moment:  one tucked into the front corner of the house and one in front of the studio.  The one in front of the house has been there all winter and it sheltered three containers filled with kale, green onions, lettuce, and an Asian braising mix.  It was really nice to have fresh greens all winter!

Winter greens in the mini-hoop

I chose the corner, because it has a southern exposure, so the plants got as much of the winter sun as possible, and they were protected from the wind–wind stresses plants out just as much as not enough moisture or light.  I placed a piece of old conveyor belt on the ground and sat three plastic, recycling tubs on it.  If you don’t happen to have old conveyor belt (what’s wrong with you?), you can use black plastic.  Pay a little more and get the heavier stuff. It will last for years! It is available at construction supply stores.  You might even get some for free at a construction site.  They just throw it away, but ask first! The reasoning behind the black plastic is to collect heat during the day and then give it off at night to keep your plants warm.

Next you need hoops.  Anything that can be bent into a U without breaking will work.  I have a roll of left over water pipe and that works great.  I use foot-long pieces of pvc pipe driven into the ground to attach the hoops.  Arrange the hoops in a crossed pattern so that you can pull the plastic covering tight over the hoops.  Sags will collect water and can damage your plants or even bring down the whole construction.  Trust me.  I know this from experience.

In the mini-hoop for the winter greens, I used two layers of plastic with hoops in the tubs and another layer over them.  This works like a double-paned window and really keeps everybody nice and toasty.  I just put together another mini-hoop for my garden plants.  That one is only one layer, because I need to open it during the day so the plants don’t get too hot.  The only thing I had to buy for these was the clear plastic to cover them and you can use that for a couple of years if you take care of it.  You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on a little greenhouse (although they are cute) in order to start your own plants or to have fresh, healthy food throughout the winter.

Dandelions

I have been dealing with dandelions lately.  Of course, in my case, this does not involve a man in a truck spraying chemicals on my yard.  I have been turning over the garden beds and as I do, I dig up the dandelions, roots and all.

Years ago, as I was working in the garden in the early spring, a friend stopped by.  She remarked on the lovely, big dandelion plants that I was tossing into the compost pile. “Aren’t you going to make tea?”

I had heard of a coffee substitute from roasted dandelion roots, but not tea.  She gave me a recipe for Power to the People Tea and it is one of my favorites.  Like many activities connected to simple living, it is time-intensive, but very tasty and good for you.  All summer long, I gather the ingredients, dry them, and then come winter we have a lovely brew that is completely home-grown.

One of the things I love about dandelions, aside from the fact that they are beautiful and cheerful, is that you can use all parts of the plant.  The roots can be roasted (see instructions below) and ground up and brewed, while the leaves are tasty in stir fries, and the blossoms can be battered and fried or used for dandelion wine (which I have never liked).

CAUTION:  Make sure you know that the area from which you are gathering any wild food has not been sprayed with chemicals!  I get things from my own yard and I know there are no chemical residues here, but if you are thinking of gathering from a public park or someone else’s yard, you don’t know if that area has been sprayed. Better safe than sorry!  Watch the area for a bit before picking anything there.  Vacant lots are usually a safe choice.  No one cares if weeds grow there.

Preparing dandelion roots

Power to the People Tea

Recipe from Ellen Benek via Linda Frey

This tea can contain whatever you like best, but Linda recommens leaves from alfalfa, red clover, nettles, oat straw, and raspberry, blackberry or strawberry leaves.  You can also add mint, oswego, verbena, or lemon balm according to your taste.  Dry the leaves.  Mix in rosehips, dandelion roots, and dock root.

Roots need to be dried, chopped, roasted before you can use them.  After you dig up the roots, remove the greens (I usually eat them), and give the roots a couple of good soaks in cold water and a really good scurbbing.  Remove the small side roots and then chop the tap roots into half inch pieces.  Arrange on a baking sheet and bake at 200 deg. F for about 30 minutes.  Let cool and then grind in a coffee grinder.  I am always on the lookout for these at thrift stores.  I use them for spices, incense ingredients, and natural dye materials, so I need several (don’t use the same grinder for edibles and non-edibles).

Mix the dried leaves and roots and store in a jar in a cool, dark place.  Use a tablespoon per cup.  This makes great sun tea, too.

Starting Seedlings, Part Three: Go!

I like to start my seeds in a larger container and then transplant them to smaller, individual four or six packs.  Fill the container to within an inch of the top with damp potting mix (I like Promix, but there are lots of them out there to choose from).  Sprinkle the seeds evenly over the surface and then cover with a little more potting mix.  Press it down, set it in the starting tray and wait.  The seeds should appear in about a week.  Some things sprout more quickly, but that’s an average.  Water the pots from below to avoid disrupting the seedlings.

 

 

Squeeze GENTLY to loosen soil.

When the baby plants are an inch or so tall, it is time to transplant them into individual cells.  This is not difficult to do, but it takes a careful hand.

 

Block of seedlings

Squeeze the sides of the pot gently and slide the contents out.

Nine pack with soil mix

Place a bit of soil mix into the bottom of each of the cells.

Always lift by the leaves, never the stem.

Now this is the tricky part.  Pick up the seedlings by their leaves, not by the stem (they are very fragile and the stem could be crushed), and place them one by one into the cells.

Place seedlings one by one into cells.

Tuck your babies in.

Fill the rest of the cell with damp potting mix.

Purple bok choi all ready to go back under the lights.

Place your babies back under the lights.  Don’t forget to mark the pack so you know what it is.  I like to use craft sticks for this.  Write the name on the stick with a laundry market (those are REALLY permanent), and after the plants are in the garden, the sticks can go into the compost pile.

Starting Seedlings, Part Two Get Set!

Seedlings under the lights

So, that said, let’s get our hands dirty!  You can start seedlings in a sunny window (and by sunny I mean a southern or southwestern exposure), but they tend to get tall and skinny with weak stalks before you can get them in the ground.  Also, If you are going to raise a lot of seedlings, you will need more space than a window sill can provide.  It might be time to invest in a plant starting rack.

Invest?  Wasn’t I just saying that starting your own seeds will save you money?  Yep, but as with most things involving self-sufficiency, some up-front investment is necessary.  I found a portable greenhouse a few years back that works well for starting plants.  It has four wire shelves and it came with a plastic cover, which I have never used.  I guess it is considered portable, because it is on casters.  I don’t move mine.  For starting seedlings, I hang regular shop lights from the shelves and now I have a lighted plant stand.  You can use those metal kitchen racks or you can construct something from 2 X 2s and hardware cloth, but whatever you do, it will cost you a few bucks in the beginning.  However, you will have it for years afterward and it will save you lots in the long run! (Note of caution:  be careful not to fill up your plant rack in the off season with things you will have to find a home for come spring.  I use mine to dry wool, so nothing makes a permanent home there, but I know how attractive open horizontal surfaces can be.)

Okay, you’ve got a place to raise your seedlings, now what do you put them in?  Some people like those little expandable peat pellets or the pots, and those are okay, as long as you remember to open the bottom of the pot when you plant it.  It is tough for little roots to break through those and you can stunt the growth of the plant if you don’t.  Some people use all kinds of repurposed containers, such as egg cartons, yogurt cups, and even egg shells.  You can get really creative with it!  I tend not to use those, but if that appeals to you, go for it.  You can also buy a little wooden thing that allows you to make pots from newspaper.  They decompose over the season.  Market gardeners are fond of the soil blocking system.  There are many options available!

I use plastic pots.  If you treat them gently, as in don’t leave them lying about all summer to be exposed to sunlight and stepped on, (yes, I am guilty of that sometimes) they will hold up for years.  They are also designed to fit inside planting trays, which yogurt containers and egg cartons are not, so you can get more seedlings into the same space.  You can buy them new at garden centers.  It’s been a while since I’ve had to purchase any, but they aren’t too expensive.  Don’t get sucked into the “mini greenhouse” scam.  You don’t need the plastic top.  It will just make your seedlings rot anyway.

You can get all the plastic pots you want for free by going to cemeteries. In the spring, people buy flowers and plant them on their family graves and most people throw away the pots at the cemetery instead of taking them home.  Don’t feel weird about dumpster-diving in a cemetery; you are doing Mother Earth a favor by keeping those pots out of the landfill, and saving yourself a lot of cash in the process.

Starting Seedlings: Get Ready

As I was writing this, I realized that there is a lot of information to fit in on this topic, so I decided to split it up into a couple of posts.  The first part will address reasons to start your own seeds, and then I will cover what you will need, and finally how to do it.

It’s early spring here in northwestern Pennsylvania, and we are talking about becoming more self-reliant and saving money, so a natural topic for this time of year is starting your own seeds.  It is kind of late for tomatoes and peppers, but there is still time to start broccoli, cabbages, herbs, flowers, and other plants.  Yes, I said flowers.  Flowers are not a waste of valuable real estate!  They provide nectar for bees and butterflies, and some are medicinal, and some are edible.  We’ll talk more about that later.

I’ve started my own seeds for a long time, but a couple of years ago I took a new job that involved a lot of driving, so I decided to save myself some time and buy my plants that year.  Wow!  Was that a mistake!  Not only were my choices limited in terms of varieties, but they cost $2 – $3 a six pack.  An entire packet of tomato seeds costs between .95 cents and $2 (depending upon the company, but that’s an average) and contains around 20 seeds per packet.  I started 150 tomato plants this year–seven different varieties–for $14.  It would cost me $50 to buy those plants, and the heirloom varieties I like would definitely not be available.

There are lots of places to buy seeds (I will discuss saving your own later in the season when there are actual seeds around here to save).  I prefer not to buy them from stores, especially places like Wal-Mart.  Many of the seed companies have been gobbled up by Monsanto over the last couple of years and I prefer to stick with small, mail-order companies that raise their own seed stock.  I like Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester, ME, and have been purchasing my seeds from them for the past twenty years.  I also like Fedco.  They are located in Maine, as well, and they are a cooperative of small growers who produce all kinds of untreated seeds for vegetables, herbs, and flowers.