Monday, February 20, 2012

The Greenhouse

I've been starting seeds under lights in the basement for years, and have had reasonably good results doing that. I always fantasized about having a little greenhouse, but had nowhere to put one, and felt like the prefab kits were too expensive... so I relegated my want to the category labeled "dreams".

Then last year, Susan caught Flower Fever, and we ordered and started scores of flower seedlings under the lights. Suddenly, my humble four fluorescent-light fixture setup wasn't enough room. My tomatoes and peppers were fighting for space with Black Eyed Susans, Zinnias, African Daisies, Thunbergia, and Morning Glory. I had to clear another shelf and scavenge light fixtures from the ceiling of the storage room to provide light for everything. It was bordering on ridiculous -- I wish I'd taken a picture of it.

It was clear that the time had come to make my greenhouse dream a reality.

Last October, the project began. We decided we could fit a narrow lean-to style structure on the south side of the garage. It looked like this when we started (after we moved the grapevines that were formerly in residence).

Note: the worker removing the siding, who shall remain nameless, got a little carried away before I remembered to snap a "before" picture. Ahem.

Feeling pressure to get the structure up and shingled before the Winter-That-Never-Was hit, we worked hard for a couple of weeks. Tom took at least three days off work to help make it happen. Of course you know how it really went: HE did all of the heavy work and I spent my time on the fun parts that didn't require much upper body strength. Obviously, I couldn't have done this without him!

I'll spare you the blow by blow (believe me I have pictures of every step!), but by Thanksgiving this is what we had accomplished.

Here's a view from the interior after the benches went in.

Those 55-gallon drums (thanks dad!) supporting the benches are filled with water, which soaks up heat from the sun and slowly releases it at night, helping to keep the temperature inside well above freezing on all but the coldest winter nights. Just in case, I have a space heater on a thermostat that starts up if the temperature gets below 40 degrees.

Once the structure was weatherproof and insulated, we worked on it in fits and starts through the winter, adding siding to match the house, a door into the garage, a workbench and shelving at the west end, lighting, a thermostat controlled exhaust fan, and finally this weekend--a water line!

And just in the nick of time too -- because growing season is upon us!

*short pause while I do the Dance of Joy*

Here's the OUTSIDE on Sunday afternoon:

While THIS is going on INSIDE:

Working in the greenhouse in shirt sleeves is akin to a time-warp. I keep forgetting it's still February!


There's just one teeny-weensy problem: Already I wish it were bigger!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


We are implementing a new system for growing seedlings here at the Funny Farm:

Soil Blocks

Soil Blocks are formed from a peat moss and compost soil mix by pressing with a hand-powered soil block maker. The result is a freestanding block of soil that is very space efficient and requires no container other than the flat it is placed in.

They're cute, but What's the Big Deal, you ask?

If you have ever purchased veggies or flower seedlings in those black plastic cell-packs, you have probably noticed that they are usually "root-bound", with the white roots circling the inside of the plastic container they were grown in. If planted as is, the roots tend to continue this habit, and when you pull out the plant at the end of the growing season, very often the roots look pretty much like they did when you started -- there is still that distinct "plug" that you planted way back in May!

Some gardeners (and I was among them) try to stimulate root growth by squeezing this root-bound cell, cutting the sides of the root-ball, or worse, tearing off the bottom half inch or so of the root-mass, especially if the roots are severely overgrown. This does stimulate more root growth but causes trauma to the plant, known as "transplant shock", evidenced by your newly planted seedlings just sitting there for a up to a week while they struggle to regrow those damaged roots.

This is where Soil Blocks shine. Because there are no plastic sides, the roots of the plant are air pruned and the plant can not become root-bound. This practically eliminates transplant shock, leading to faster maturity and possibly higher yields.

This makes it much easier to start indoors even difficult to transplant vegetables like peas, melons, corn, carrots, spinach, and other plants that are typically direct seeded into the garden later in the season.

I played around with it a bit last year and I was very pleased with initial results.

The Funny Farm is offering soil block grown snap peas, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, and leaf and romaine lettuces for mid march planting dates on a pre-order basis.  Tomatoes, peppers, onions, herbs, cucumbers, melons, summer and winter squash will be available for sale in May.

If you are interested, please call Lisa at 615-9623

Monday, February 13, 2012

When a Hobby Becomes a Business

Here at the Funny Farm we've decided to share our love of plants with a wider audience. I get so many requests for help with fruit tree selection and pruning, rose care, and other garden questions that I've decided to make it official: The Funny Farm is now open for business.

I have no plans to charge for helping anyone with garden and tree questions -- I love to talk about it too much to get paid for that. And truth be told this little venture is more of a tax shelter than a real expectation of making much money.

Beginning now, I am offering fruit tree and small ornamental pruning services at very reasonable rates. We will also offer flower and vegetable seedlings in a limited basis later in the spring, as well as garden produce in season.

I'll be posting in the future about all of these services and more, but today let's talk about fruit tree pruning.

There are a lot of people who want to grow their own fruit or may have purchased a house with existing fruit trees but haven't the least idea how to train and care for them in order to ensure maximum tree health and years of optimal fruit production.

Sometimes folks have basic knowledge about pruning and keep meaning to get out and prune their trees, roses, lilacs, and other flowering shrubs but life keeps getting in the way and before they know it, the window of opportunity has passed. Don't let that happen to you this year.

I know what you're thinking: It's only February... no need to worry about pruning trees until March or April, right? Answer: Yes and No. Pruning Peaches, Nectarines, Apricots, Cherries, and Plums too early can bring on early blooming, so I recommend waiting until the buds are getting fat or even open bloom before pruning these fruits, usually in late March through April. Apples, Pears, Grapes, and Berries can be pruned much earlier. I typically begin work on these four in February. So if you have an Apple, Pear, Grapevine, or Raspberries/Blackberries you'd like help with, now is the time to get on the schedule, because once Peach pruning season hits, it's uncertain if I'll have time to help with these other fruits.

Speaking of peaches, I can't stress enough the necessity of a thorough annual pruning to stimulate new growth which will promote tree health and ensure a plentiful crop of luscious fruit year after year. Not only does fruit production dwindle on neglected Peach trees, but what fruit is produced will often be less flavorful due to inadequate sunlight and air circulation. In addition the health and vigor of the tree suffers, making it more susceptible to disease and insect invasion.

Grapevines put forth 4+ feet of new growth each season, and without careful training and annual pruning grapes can quickly get out of control. Because of this, many people are afraid to plant grapes and miss out on the beautiful landscaping potential of this wonderful fruit. Grapes can be trained on a sturdy fence, wall, or arbor and once established do very well with little to no fertilizer or extra water, producing sweet juicy fruit for decades. With yearly pruning, Grapes are as close to getting something for nothing as it gets!

Raspberry and blackberry canes need pruning as well, and it isn't always as simple as just cutting them off at the ground. There are Summer Bearing raspberry varieties that bear fruit only on last year's canes, and those must be pruned differently than a Fall Bearing raspberry like Heritage. Blackberries are vigorous once established, and require annual thinning and pruning to cut out old wood and keep new shoots coming to ensure good fruit production as well as to contain the plant and make it easier to pick this wonderful fruit. Considering how expensive they are in the stores, I think everyone should have at least a few blackberries and raspberries in their garden.

I can also help with the pruning and care of small ornamentals including roses, lilacs, snowball bushes, and other flowering shrubs. Often neglected due to owners being unsure how to prune, these plants grow healthier and bloom more vigorously with regular renewal maintained by selective pruning of old wood.

To clarify, I am not an arborist. I do not have the equipment, the physical strength, nor the death-wish necessary to perform large tree services or tree removal. There are plenty of folks in the phone book you can call for that. But if you need someone with know-how, passion, and experience in pruning all kinds of fruit producing plants, The Funny Farmer is the one to call.

As always, if you have any questions, you can post them below or contact me directly at 615-9623.