Week 20 in the Square Foot Garden!

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Here are some photos of the current state of the SFG.

May 13th and I’m planting warm season stuff as I pull cool season stuff. My spinach is starting to struggle so I look to get it out of the SFG soon. I look to plant some more carrots and some more beans. My family isn’t that big on the beans, though, so I will likely only devote around 5 squares to them out of my 64.

My tomatoes are taking off. My peppers look great, too. So far, things are looking very good in my tomato bed, a 2×8 foot dedicated solely to those warm season climbers.

My 4×12 foot bed is mostly a salad bed. I am still waiting on broccoli and cauliflower to head. My lettuces are looking great, and I’ve planted a lot more squares. I have some good looking carrots and some that are really going slow. And, I just had my first snap pea….it was delicious straight off the vine! I see 4 or 5 more that are ready to pick. Maybe I’ll give the kids a taste.

See you next week. Keep chuggin’!

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St. Louis Zoo…

Well, I’ll get to the zoo in a minute. But, first the birds and garden update…

Birds….haven’t had a lot of time with the garden going in lately. However, I can tell you my goldfinches are coloring up with every day I look. Spring is coming.

And, I did see a brand new sighting for my list…..Cedar Waxwings!! I think they are only passing through, but don’t know. They are stripping the flowering leaf buds from my Hickory tree and from my Sweet Gums. They have been here for 3 days now. I don’t have any quality pictures of them because I can’t get them close obviously. But, there are about 50+ in the tree when they are feeding. They are pretty cool looking birds, too. They have yellow and red in their bodies along with that distinguishing black mask. I hope I see them every year.

The garden is growing now. I planted more squares of lettuce and carrot yesterday. Everything I do now is directly seeded in the garden. I am done with seed starting and experimenting….too close to my frost date to worry about it. Come April 1st, I will try and put an update pic or two up.

Now, to the zoo. We took the kids with some friends’ kids last week on spring break. They had a blast. We have such a great group of friends to pal around with. And, the best part, the kids really get along. Hopefully, it’s evidenced in the photos.

Of course, what’s a zoo series without animals, though? They are in there, too. This posting is inspired by a forum question from http://squarefoot.creatingforum.com/

I recommend you stop by if you are interested in learning more about the technique/concept. The question being asked right now is about composting. What do the Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Starbucks, and the St. Louis Zoo all have in common? So, I had to post my zoo pics from the STL Zoo!! Enjoy…

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Vermiculite Seed Starting 101..

Long story short: I am becoming convinced you get an advantage by starting seeds inside when the weather is cool. I believe you can skip the high maintanence “hardening off” phase where you take your pots out every day and bring them in every night for awhile…attempting to get them used to being outside. So, I skipped that.

However, there is no doubt you get a faster sprout in warmer soil temps, and in most cases a better germination percentage. So, you control your environment by starting your seeds inside and possibly on a seed heating mat, too. Once they sprout, they go right into the garden. But, how do you do that when the fragile little seedlings are in that dirt? How do you do that without breaking that delicate taproot?

The answer is to start the seeds in a tray of vermiculite. Vermiculite is a mineral, much like mica, that has a tremendous absorption and water retention quality. It’s a bit pricey, but with my method, you will be reusing it over and over again as it has no organic properties whatsoever. Just dry it out and dump it back into your tub. A 3 cu ft bag may last me forever.

I bought a couple of shallow brownie pans from the dollar store. And, I poked several holes in the bottom to allow drainage. Then, I placed a paper towel in the bottom of the pan to keep things from washing through the holes. I added the vermiculite and soaked it with water. I poured off the excess and grabbed my seeds. I sprinkled some seeds on top of the damp vermiculite and covered them with a thin layer of dry vermiculite. The results..

Damp vermiculite with new seedlings sprouting.

You can see the results about 4 days later with my lettuce sprouting. I wait an additional day or two for the sprouts to fully open their first two “baby ears.” Now, they are ready for the garden. I gently use a sharp object, like a pencil, to loosen the soil. I can then just pull the sprouts out by the ears without breaking any roots. After I remove the seedling, I poke a hole in the garden soil and just put the sprout in there like I was planting a seed, but I obviously leave the ears sticking out above the soil.

New seedlings in the garden.

Most of my garden has been started this way this year. Here is the inside of my hoops. I can control the temperature better and capitalize on the even warmer temperatures of my house to get the seeds to sprout faster than they would in the cooler soil of the garden. My theory is that the seedlings know nothing of cold snaps and can handle them just like they would had they started outside originally. However, if I leave them inside under growlights for a couple weeks, I likely have to go through the additional process of hardening them off, too.

Inside the hoops.  In the front squares you can see lettuce started a week before the previous pictures.

I hope this helps paint a better picture.

Sub-freezing Temps Catch the HH Off Guard!!

The scenario: Days upon days of cloudy, rainy weather. This allowed hardly any heating inside the hoops. I think my highest temp inside the HH the past four days was 50F. That ain’t gonna heat the water jugs up much. Yesterday was supposed to be about 45F for a high…..but it never happened. We touched 39 briefly. The clouds were so socked in that there was no sun getting through to provide much heat. The wind was a bit blustery and that likely whisked away anything the soils absorbed. So, when the clouds disappeared at midnight-ish, we sank like a rock. The radiational cooling effect was tremendous. I, personally, wondered why the meteorologists didn’t adjust their numbers based on the fact they missed the daytime high so badly, but they didn’t. No winds to speak of and crystal clear skies mean temps plummet. We were forecast to hit 29 or 30, but went all the way down to 26F. And, my HH suffered.

I woke up this morning to sunshine and got outside as quickly as I could to get the 2nd layer off and let some sun hit the plants. Good news…..no frost inside the hoops. But, the trade off was my temps finally went below freezing. Down to 30 underneath the 2nd layer of covers. I don’t think that did any damamge, and it wasn’t at 30 for long I’m sure. But, nonetheless, I went under 32 for the first time since putting plants in there a couple weeks ago.

This colder than usual end to winter is trying to get me it seems. But, I still think the chances of me taking a hard freeze inside the hoops is minimal. And, I have cold season plants in there anyway. No tomatoes or peppers yet. Those won’t go in until after our actual frost date of April 15th…..and even then, I have a 50/50 shot at taking frost.

Playing the gardening game is always a gamble. You win some, you lose some. But, that’s half the fun. And, with starting my own plants from seeds instead of buying transplants, I lose pennies when I gamble….not dollars. That makes things much easier to swallow. All I lose is time spent….and that’s no biggie when this is something I would be doing anyway. 😉

As for the birds, I will post the week’s best photos. In here you will see the usual suspects. But, you will see a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a brown bird I have yet to identify with confidence. I am torn between an immature Common Grackle, a Rusty Blackbird, and a Brewer’s Blackbird. It sure looks like a grackle to me, but I have never seen a brown one like this. And, the head with partial black feathers looks more like a Rusty to me. If it’s a grackle, I should see him/her year round, unless it’s fading back north along with some other migrants. But, if it’s a Rusty, I won’t see it again until next winter….if I even do then.

Anyway, enjoy the photos, and remember…….Keep Chuggin’!

Detailed Hoops Experiment with Twisted Ending..

I have been trying to organize my thoughts the past few days, and trying to learn WordPress well enough to get my pictures in an individualized order to coincide with telling the story. I, however, have figured “screw it” I don’t operate that way. I am no professional writer, and never intend to become one. Even when I used to to a little public speaking, I mostly flew by the seat of my pants. To me, preparation helps, but can hinder. Sometimes it’s just best to jump in with both feet.

The hoops are holding great!! They give me a consistent 5-8 degrees over the outside air temps. That gets me down to 25 degrees at night before I really need to worry about my tender plants freezing to death. As long as I get ample sun during the day, my milk jugs heat up enough to retain heat at night. Here is how I’ve come to this conclusion/knowledge/experience this season….

First, build your hoop house. There are many ways to do this. Google them and do what you feel most comfortable with. Your main goal is to have a decent looking cover for your plants that will effectively keep the frosts off. However, it’s natural to see if you can’t push that envelope a little bit to see if you can’t get your plants in a little earlier in the spring than Mother Nature typically allows. And, to see if you can’t extend your fall season as long as possible beyond that first frost/freeze. Here is a shot of mine…

Katelyn taking an interest in gardening...shown here outside the hoophouse.

To extend your season, you will need to add a few things to help you retain the heat inside your hoops overnight. First night experience immediately taught me that a single layer of plastic does nothing once the sun goes down. Placing a little thermometer inside the hoops allowed me to monitor things and learn about the new climate I had created. The hoops heat up quickly with some sunshine, and can quickly get up to 50F degrees over the outside air temps. However, once the sun loses a little intensity in the evening, the air temps and hoop temps quickly match up again. That plastic does nothing. So, you need a little help. I added a couple of things after doing a lot of reading on the net.

1) Milk jugs filled with water.

Water is an amazing insulator over a shorter time period. It heats up slower than air, but cools off slower, too. This can be harnessed to your advantage. I use about 20 single gallon milk jugs. I filled them with water and placed them around the edges of my garden UNDER the hoophouse. However, this wasn’t enough to handle temps much below freezing. In fact, I noticed no temperature help. My conclusion was because the volume of air inside the hoops was still too big for only 20 gallons of water to affect.

2) Paint the jugs black.

This was my second step. I read that painting them black would absorb more sunshine and heat them up faster and hotter than leaving them clear or white. Well, that made a lot of common sense to me, so I didn’t question it….I just did it. However, that still wasn’t enough to overcome the volume of air inside the hoops.

3) Add another layer of plastic.

For me, I read a couple of things. First, the layers can’t touch because they will just act as a single layer and provide no help over what the first layer does alone. Second, create a little space between the layers. I thought of bubble wrap, but heard that was a disaster to maintain….and didn’t do too much. I thought of installing another “level” inside the hoops, but thought that would just be a pain to put up and take down. Then, I read…again…about floating row covers. These are simply tarps, or cloth, draped loosely over the plants. I figured I had the milk jugs inside that could sort of act as a frame to keep the second layer of plastic about 12 inches off the ground. That should trap that heat from the jugs closer to the ground and make any warmth work harder to get out of the house entirely. After one night of doing that, it clearly helped. I stayed 8 degrees over the air temps! Quite the victory. Here is my current setup inside the hoops…

If you look deeper into the house, you will see the plastic bottles underneath the “floating row.” The black milk jugs are farther back into the plastic and you don’t see those. But, you get the point of how this works. I have since maintained a consistent 6-8F degrees over the nighttime low temps every time I’ve used the second row.

So, I figured I was covered down to 25F at night. Now, my frost date for planting had changed quite a bit. I move from April 15th back to March 30th. A lot of cooler season veggies can withstand some frost and be put in the garden up to 4-5 weeks before the last frost date in your area. I ran out and planted some peas, carrots, and spinach in a couple of squares just to see how long they would take to germinate. (Plants germinate faster at 60F than 40F.) I figured I had a few weeks before I would see anything, but wanted to try. I also have seeds started indoors that are ready to go outside now. So, I started “hardening off” the seedlings by placing them under the plastic during the day and bringing them back in at night.

HH

You can see the squares I planted, my thermometer, and the seedlings being hardened off. But, if you look closely, you can see I left the hoops open on the ends. Normally, that isn’t a problem. You don’t want things getting too hot in the HH when you have plants inside….they could cook. So, when daytime temps get up into the 40’s, you start opening your hoops a little to allow some heat out. That was the plan. But, I didn’t prepare for….

devastation

Yes, I forgot about critters. Man, are they quick, too! I assume this was the work of a squirrel since I have never seen a rabbit in my yard since moving here in September. But, I also have a dog that loves to investigate things, and she was outside quite a bit that day, too. Either way, I didn’t prepare for critters. Not only did the animal turn over my seedlings, it also dug up some of my seeds in the squares. So, my little seed starting experiment is on hold until I can restart it.

But, as I’ve said throughout this blog…..learn from my experiences. I will make every mistake possible…I promise. You just have to take notes, and hopefully, a little humor from some of the things I mess up. As of right now, I only open the tops of the ends of my hoops. I have two spring clips on each end where I fold over the flaps and clip them closed. I, now, open the top clip. When both ends are open, I get pretty good ventilation, and the temps normalize inside the HH. Best yet, the critters don’t try to get inside because the ends are closed still at the bottom.

And, you know the motto when something sets you back…….Keep Chuggin’!

Lots of Activity Today, too..

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Quick count for you since the morning was so crazy active…

725am-740am…32F…cloudy with a dusting of snow overnight….no new sightings.

10 American Goldfinches…these numbers are really shooting up; I haven’t seen this many at one time since we’ve moved in back in September; I can’t really explain it yet, but I love it; Hopefully, a sign to come this year.

1 Titmouse…where there is almost always 2

16 Eurasian Tree Sparrows…all over the ground since I put the cheap mix down yesterday; I expect Grackles and Cowbirds to clean up the mess soon.

5 Cardinals…yesterday I saw 5 males; today I saw 3 females; I just don’t seem to see them at the same time often, and when I do, there is obvious fighting amongst the males….unless the weather is bad, then they all get along nicely.

10 Dark-eyed Juncos….they come in with the finches, usually, but today came with the sparrows.

7 House Finches…these guys have been a bit timid lately; They tend to stay up in the treetops while all the chaos is going on; They come down once the heat dies down.

2 Black-capped Chickadees

8 Mourning Doves….sitting in the trees and dabbling on the ground.

8 European Starlings…came in and took over the feeders until they realized they can’t eat at them very well and quickly left.

2 Downy Woodpeckers…male and female.

1 Red-bellied Woodpecker….a regular

2 Purple Finches….the female is regular; the male is rather rare, but comes in with the house finches.

1 Robin….still hoping for worms

2 Song Sparrows….I am so happy to see these guys coming around more frequently. I just love the native sparrows. It gives me hope that the House Sparrows haven’t overtaken everything….yet.

1 Blue Jay….yesterday 3 of them hung in the trees; Today, one came into a feeder and chattered at me a bit; Typically, only the one comes to the feeders, but we have a lot of them in the area here.

And, for the HH, I didn’t use the 2nd layer of plastic last night because it was raining and I didn’t have anything to protect in there since I’m only running the experiment on holding temps. I didn’t get out early enough this morning to take a reading. However, the air temp got down to 32F, so I assume I got to 33 inside…..but when I checked, the max/min had just reset for the day and it was reading 42F with an air temp of 33F at about 10 am.

Keep Chuggin’!

Birds, Pictures, and Hoops..

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We are expecting some rain over the next few days. Temps are rather chilly after a nice 10 days of springlike days. The bird activity has been low. So, you know what that means? Yup, today was a good day at the feeders. Let’s do an official count…and watch the variety you can bring in if you diversify your feed and offer the basics (food, water, shelter, nesting sites).

830am…37F…overcast with showers in the area….no new sightings (but, a couple rare ones)

4 doves, 3 blue jays hopping in the trees rading squirrel nests of their nuts, 4 juncos, 3 downy woodpeckers, 6 goldfinches…two days in a row their numbers are way up, 1 red-belly, 3 cardinals…still chasing each other, 3 ETS, 1 house sparrow…they are rather rare at my house, 1 chickadee, 1 cooper’s hawk…flew over twice with a piece of food once and nesting material the second time, 1 robin, 1 flicker…these are rare for me, too, 3 starlings…nesting in a tree in my neighbor’s yard, 1 canadian goose….i hear them going crazy with the honking in the quarry behind my house and there are likely many more than 1, 4 house finches, and 1 brown creeper….i was dying to grab a shot of him but he flew away really quickly; they are pretty rare in my yard.

So, there is a nice diversity of 17 different species, of which I have some pictures to post today!

As for the hoophouse, I think I have things figured out. If I only use the single layer of plastic, I get about 1 degree of protection. If I use the second layer draped like a floating row cover over the milk jugs, I get about 6-8 degrees of protection. The next experiment I plan to run is in a separate bed with no hoops. I want to see if the floating row cover is all I need to be using. Granted, the hoops will help in the summer with taller plants and bird netting. But, we will deal with that when the time comes. My readings from overnight are 37/39.

I also planted some seeds yesterday. With hoop protection, I could have planted carrots, spinach, and peas directly in the garden a couple of weeks ago. With the cooloer temps, germination will take longer. But, who cares? I planted in my garden!

I plan to run another test, though. I want to sow some seeds inside and once they sprout, immediately move the seedlings outside to the garden. I am of the understanding this won’t kill them. So, I plan to try this today. Maybe tomorrow, you get pics of the process?

Keep Chuggin’!

Weather Report for Garden/Feeders..

Last night was another below freezing. We even had some suprise freezing rain that surprised everyone judging by the traffic accidents all over the city. THIS was the Icemageddon we were supposed to get several weeks back….lol. I have heard of several multiple car pile-ups around the city….one is 26 cars of accident!

That is all because temps dipped to 27 degrees overnight. They knew that was coming, but didn’t know about the rain apparently. So, it froze on contact….even to the hoophouse. I had to shake the ice off to add a couple of milk jugs while checking the lows for the night.

The HH held again. 35F overnight. 27 air, 35 HH. That second layer of plastic and the milk jugs are winners. I am maintaining a good 6-8 degrees of differential overnights. I can likely get into the 24-25 degree range before having to worry about my plants suffering severely. In fact, some plants, like spinach, can likely handle life in the HH with the outside air dropping as low as 22*. As March approaches, my percentages of reaching a hard freeze, below 24F, drop like crazy.

Our weather in STL is scheduled to really have some ups and downs over the next several weeks. It looks like a late start to spring around here. However, I have my HH and am quite the gambler when we are talking about seedlings that cost mere pennies to get started. I think I’m planting outside this weekend. GITSUM!!

A brief mention about the birds and feeders. As expected, the calmer weather has driven birds to finding food elsewhere lately. Traffic has been a little on the lower side. I still see finches, sparrows, and juncos, but most of my traffic is decreasing in numbers. Harsh weather will bring the flocks back undoubtedly. One quick thing that I thought was really neat, though, I saw 5 American Goldfinches at the same time. I haven’t seen a flock that big at the feeders…usually two or three. I have seen up to 15 House Finches, as comparison.

The Hoops Survive!!

That’s right, folks, the hoophouse survived a 25F night! Woohoo!

The air temps here dropped to a reported 25* overnight, and were still 25* when I went outside at 735am. The sun had been shining for a bit, though, and the hoophouse was already up to 36*. The max/min thermometer said the low was 33. I don’t know for how long, but it never got below freezing.

And, that is pretty amazing considering: 1) We had zero sunshine yesterday and thick overcast. 2) The high temperature was at midnight the night before. The air temp was in the low 40s from about 10am onward….mostly near 42F.

Given the sunshine today, I expect to get a good pop in temps inside the hoops. I already took the 2nd cover of plastic away to expose the milk jugs and soil to some sunshine in an effort to obtain max temps today. It is supposed to get back to 27 or so tonight. After sunset, I will go back out and put the 2nd layer back in place. I have little doubt I will stay above freezing tonight.

It looks like my air temps can drop to the mid-20s and I will not have a killing frost. A couple more times of this, and I will have a lot of confidence to garden into the mid-20s….that may get more a month or so on either end of St. Louis’ typical growing season. Keep Chuggin’!

Final Count Day and HH Update..

Final day of the GBBC and I didn’t get a very good one in. There just wasn’t much about other than my flock of House Finches. However, after my count, I did see a new one pop in… A Song Sparrow!! I had one at my old house, and he was a real favorite of mine. He would just sit and sing to me, and once I identified his song, I realized he sang A LOT! This guy was like a wren or chickadee…constantly singing. I missed him so much once we moved, but seeing this guy was a great sight.

However, this one is twice as big as my former buddy. He looked like a White-throated Sparrow, of which you’ve seen pictures from me. But, no white throat. My other SS was about the size of the chickadees. So, I was thrown off a bit when I saw him. The quick snaps are over on the right in my Flickr pages. I took a couple quickies and threw them on my photography forum for an ID. They confirmed him as a Song Sparrow.

As for the HoopHouse, I wrapped a second layer of plastic in there last night. Our temps were supposed to drop after midnight and all day. However, we have flat-lined at 42*. And, the HH is holding steady at 52. That is great. The second layer is really giving me some protection. I have laid that plastic over the top of the water jugs to trap as much of the water’s heat in as possible. I can’t wait to see what happens tonight, when we are supposed to drop to 25. If it can sustain above freezing temps tonight, I will be ready to transplant on Friday…the 25th…my original target date. And, the spring season will have officially begun here in my backyard.

I haven’t checked record lows in awhile for my area, but 25 this late in February is definitely possible, but not all that common. After March 1, it would be crazy to see temps drop into the teens. So, with that track record, I would be willing to gambooool with Mother Nature. Now, that I expressed my arrogance, watch her burn the crap out of me. But, I will just………Keep Chuggin’!