Monday, February 25, 2013

Monday February 25

Nothing to show at this point.  I’m itching to get some of the overwintered spinach on the plate but the weather hasn’t been cooperating.  There’s been some real winter weather around here this February, by which I mean days when the temperature never gets above freezing (I think people have their own criteria for winter weather depending on location).  So the spinach is biding its time for some dependable mild weather, something I expect any day now.

The first batch of seeds germinated and are growing well.  Onions were seeded about Feb 14.  I seeded 136 cells with Ruby Ring onions from Johnny’s.  I like red onions, and most red varieties have a longer growing season than the yellows.  According to Johnny’s some of the reds are very long day and not suited for this mid latitude of 39 degrees.  The range of this red onion included my latitude and that’s why I chose it.  At two seeds per cell the seed packet did not seed all 144 cells in two trays.  I bought a packet of Burpee’s Northern Gold onions from the big box lumber store to seed the remaining 12 cells.  Maybe that was pointless but I like to try more than one variety if the price is right.  I have a lot of confidence in Johnny’s seeds but the Burpee seeds are a little more of a gamble.   It may be a fine variety but the problem is there just isn’t much information on the seed packet.  
Anyway the onion seedlings had a very high germination rate and are now going gangbusters.  I’m sure that having four bulbs instead of two helps a lot, as well as the reflectix drape on one side of the shelf.  The first set of brassicas germinated this weekend and joined the onions under the lights.  Sunday I set one tray of onions into the mobile greenhouse and left the other tray under the lights along with the tray of brassicas.  I think the weather is mild enough now to set onions out in the greenhouse.  This will give me a chance to compare how the seedlings grow indoors and in a coldframe.     
The lettuce that was seeded in the mobile greenhouse finally germinated about two weeks ago but the seedlings have been growing very slowly.  This is likely due to the colder than normal February weather lately.  The greenhouse has some insulation value and it has a number of limestone blocks inside for thermal mass.  After a sunny day the greenhouse will maintain a higher temperature inside for a night but if there are consecutive days of cold overcast days then the temperature inside falls to the outside temperature. 
On a really clear cloudless day the greenhouse may work too well.  A few days ago it was cold and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  When the outside temperature reached 22 degrees in the early afternoon the inside of the greenhouse was 76 degrees, a 54 degree temperature difference.  At that point I propped open the lid since the temperature was climbing rapidly.          

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Growing stand for seedlings

Since I started gardening in 2008 I have been starting seedlings on a folding table.   The light unit was suspended on chains from the ceiling while supplies were stored under the table.  It was a messy system that took up a lot of space in the sunroom, space that I would like to use later in the spring. I wanted a growing stand with movable shelves that would hold the seedling trays and associated supplies.

A shelf unit is pretty basic.  Once I came up with a design strategy the biggest challenge was finding the right dimensions.  I wanted a unit large enough to expand my seed starting efforts if I ever took on a larger garden.  It seemed that 4 shelves should be enough, with all but the top shelf usable as a growing shelf.  It should be over 4 feet long to accommodate a fluorescent fixture of that size.  It should be at least 20 inches deep so the 10”x20” trays can be set across the shelves if needed.  It should be tall enough that the bottom three shelves can be used to start seedlings.  I estimated that each growing shelf needed at least 18 inches of space above it to accommodate tall plants, and settled on a height for the unit of 62 inches, with the bottom shelf 8 inches above the floor.   Once the dimensions were settled on I began work. 

I started by ripping grooves in the 2 x 4 legs on the table saw.  The groove is ¾” by 2”.  I wanted the movable shelves to fit inside the grooves and sit on pins inserted through the legs.  That way the shelves could be moved by pulling out the pins and putting them in a different place. 
Next I built the shelves.  For this I used utility grade 1x4’s ($1.59 for a 6 foot piece).  To make the shelf frame I ripped the 1x4's to a 2 ¾ ” width.  After screwing the frame together the ¾ inch piece that was left over from the rip was fastened to the bottom of the frame with small finish nails.  Then I cut some triangles with 45 degree angles on the miter saw, squared the frame with a framing square, and fastened the triangles to the back corners of the shelf.  This not only makes the shelf square but also makes it rigid.

  And here the shelf with brace attached has been flipped over to the position it will go into the stand. 

The cross pieces were made by ripping 1 x 4’s into two equal width pieces about 1 ¾” thick.  Once ripped they were cut to length (19 inches) on the miter box.  I set up a crude jig to make sure the pieces were exactly the same length (doing this also saved a lot of time measuring).

The crosspieces were set into the shelf frame on 3 inch centers, resting on the strip of wood that had been tacked on when the shelf frame was built.  I used an air driven trim nailer to fasten the crosspieces, shooting two nails into the end of each crosspiece.  The air gun is a real time saver.  It would have taken several more hours to nail these by hand.  

The last thing to do on the shelves was to fasten a crosspiece to the underside of the shelves for hanging a light fixture.  These pieces were the scrap wood left over from ripping the groove on the 2 x4 legs.  Waste not , want not!    

With all the components ready it was time to put it together.  It took a little head scratching to figure out a way to hold everything in place while a screw was set into each corner of the shelves.  If I had two more arms it would have been a big help.  You can see in this picture how the grooves in the legs will keep the two movable shelves in place.  
At this point I carried the unit into the house to finish in the sunroom so I could square and brace the stand on a level floor (and it was warmer inside).  From the leftover shelf crosspieces I cut braces  with 45 degree ends on the miter saw.  The corners of the rack were squared with a framing square then the braces were attached with screws.  It’s amazing how even a short braces like these will turn a wobbly structure into a rigid one.  

You can see in this picture that it is braced in every dimension.    
Still the front of the rack was a little wobbly so that was braced too.  I chose to put the braces on the bottom shelf where I thought they would be less of an obstruction.  After finding out that they were a nuisance there I moved them to the top shelf.  Sometimes it’s really hard to know what will work best in a design until you try it out.  
Now that the rack was rigid I turned to the middle shelves.  Starting about a foot down from the top shelf ¼” holes were drilled every two inches.  Bolts were pushed through the holes where I wanted the shelf to be then the shelf was set on the botls.  The legs had not  been screwed tightly to the top and bottom shelves so there would be enough slack to let the movable shelves slide freely.  I thought about making the top and bottom shelves a little bigger to make sure there was room but having two different sized shelves seemed like an extra complication.  
After the movable shelves were set in the unit the light fixture was attached.  After mulling over different methods to suspend the light I settled on the KISS method.  Eyebolts were fastened into the crosspiece beneath the top shelf shown in an earlier picture so they would be directly above the fixture hooks.  A rope (from my old sailboat no less) was tied to the hook in the fixture, passed through the eye bolt above it, out the end then wrapped around a cleat.  Yes I have to raise and lower each end separately but sometimes I want to raise one end more than the other, like when there are tall plants at just one end.   

Here’s the finished product with the two trays of onions on the shelf, the light on and the paraphernalia on the bottom shelf.   The clutter reducing factor is off the charts and it doesn’t look too bad either!   As a bonus some of the onion seeds had germinated this morning.  They must like their new home.  

There's room to set four trays crossways on each of three shelves for a total of 12 trays (originally I thought it would hold 5 trays across but the trays are 11 inches wide and the shelf is 52 inches long).   For tall plants that would be a little cramped given the height (62”) of this unit and the amount of space a flourescent fixture takes up.  If one wants to grow plants like tomatoes on all three shelves the legs should be about 6 to 12 inches longer. For my purposes one growing shelf is all that’s needed since I never have more than three trays planted at a time.  If I need the space the unit can be dismantled into the frame and shelves and stored.

Materials cost about $40.  The wood is construction grade lumber.  The 2x4’s are not spruce, maybe fir, and they are much nicer and more solid than the usual spruce 2x4’s so I was lucky to get those.  I could have used nicer lumber but it would cost a lot more.  The front of the shelves could be dressed up by tacking on some veneer or millwork to the front face.  If I build another one I’ll make the crosspieces for the shelves about 1 inch thick.  The 1 ¾ inch pieces are overkill and just add weight.  And the top and bottom shelves will be modified to make assembly easier.  It’s a straightforward project but you do need a good table saw to make accurate rips in the legs.