A new winter gardening project presented itself yesterday. The frame on one of our window blinds snapped as I was pulling on the cord to open it and the whole works crashed to the floor.
As it turns out, mini-blind slats make fine pot markers, you know, those small white tags that gardeners use to identify trays and pots of seedlings. The slats are just about the same width as the markers that are sold in gardening departments every spring.
One big advantage homemade markers have over the garden-store variety is that you can easily cut them with a pair of scissors to whatever length you need, short ones for flats of seedlings, or longer ones for potted plants.
Homemade tags decreases the chance that seedlings will be mislabeled. Since each set of blinds will yield dozens of markers, you won’t be tempted to skimp on labels, that way every pot or six-pack divider can have it’s own tag.
Re-purposing old blinds reduces the amount of plastic debris that eventually finds it way into the landfill. And you save a few bucks along the way. Plus, it’s fun making your own gardening supplies and this happens to be a very easy project.
I’m looking at that high-quality braided pull-cord on those blinds too, but I haven’t figured out a use for that yet.
One of our jade plants has started blooming this week. Anyone with a jade plant knows this is fairly uncommon. I have had a few jade plants through the years that produced flowers but not very many. So whenever it happens, I get a little excited about it.
There seems to be no way of predicting when a jade will blossom. Lots of people, horticulturists included, have their theories about it. Some folks on the internet say they have it figured out. If that were the case, we’d be seeing truckloads of jade plants in the stores blooming just in time for Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day — pick your favorite holiday.
Flower production in plants can be a complex proces. Before a plant can flower, it has to go through several steps before vegetative cells change into reproductive cells, ie. a flower bud.
A basic principle in botany is that a plant, like most other organisms, will not reproduce until they reach maturity. One familiar example of this is an apple tree which might not bloom for six or eight or even ten years.
We forget sometimes, that our houseplants’s ancestors originally grew out in the wild with no help from people, thank you very much. Jade plants belong to the genus of plants called Crassula. Many Crassula species go through an annual a rest period in their native habitat. In their part of the world, the rains stop for a while and the Crassulas go into a rest period. It’s critical for the Crassulas that the humidity falls to an arid, desert-like condition during this time.
Once the dry period is over, the plants resume growing and that completes one lifecycle. So, to induce flowering, it would make sense that we try to reproduce those types of conditions found in the wild.
OK, so here is my theory of the erratic flowering of jade plants. Many gardeners or houseplant fanciers love their plants and don’t want to hurt it, I don’t blame them. So they keep watering and feeding the plant all year ’round which keeps the plant in a continuous growth stage. The jades never get a chance to rest and they never get a chance to complete a full annual life cycle. This either delays maturity or fails to trigger the reproductive response.
Many factors are involved in stimulating plants to flower: fertility, moisture, intensity of sunlight, length of daylight, temperature extremes both warm and/or cold, length of time exposed to temperatures, air movement, insect damage, and others. The timing of all or any one of these factors can determine if and when a plant will bloom. Some easy-blooming plant species will bloom despite not growing in ideal conditions. Others, like jade plants I’m guessing, require a more complex sequence of events in order to produce flowers.
All that being said, I have noticed that jade plants are more likely to bloom is they are slightly pot-bound. So does this mean that the plants have been growing long enough that they’ve reached reproductive maturity? Or does crowding their roots induce flowering? Maybe sometime in the future a budding horticulturist will discover the secrete.
There was a small project that I had to get done this week. I needed to add another bank of lights in my seed starting area.
You would think that after so many years as a professional gardener my seed starting room would look like some kind of laboratory complete with stainless steel racks, electronic equipment and all other sorts of really cool stuff. A few years ago when I was starting many thousands of plants, that was pretty much the case. Now days, I’m gardening at a much smaller scale.
My seed starting area is probably much simpler than what the average serious garden has. My general rule for these types of things is to not buy anything fancy or brand new if I can make it myself without sacrificing functionality.
I have a a pair of three foot, single bulb fluorescent light fixtures that I bought for a couple of bucks at a garage sale last fall. My plan was to attach them together to make a single assembly that I can easily adjust up and down depending on the growth of the seedlings.
There were no florescent tubes when I got them. That actually was a good thing since, over time, the amount of light florescent bulbs produce dramatically diminishes over time. I didn’t have to dispose of any used bulbs which saved me some hassle. The bad thing was that I only had the seller’s word for it that the fixtures worked.
The first thing I did was open up the case to inspect the innards to be sure there were no wires shorting that could be an electrical hazard — they both looked sound.
Next I tested them with my new bulbs and sure enough, they lit up nice and bright.
Fixtures like these usually have pre-drilled holes that are used for mounting onto various surfaces, these were no different. I had some metal drawer brackets in my inventory of useful stuff that I saved from an old dresser. They were the perfect size for joining the two fixtures together.
I used self-tapping sheet metal screws to attach the brackets to the light fixtures. I bent pieces of heavy-duty fencing wire to make hangers for each end of the fixture assembly.
The assembly is hanging by leftover ceiling light chain from a section of shelving that someone gave to me.
Even if you don’t have parts like I had laying around, recycling center that sell building materials often have fixtures, shelves and other parts for sale at very reasonable prices. I noticed while visiting Recycle Ann Arbor today that they had five nearly new florescent fixtures in stock.
For a very modest investment in cash and time I ended up with an additional seedling grow light.
For many years I started seeds without using a seedling heat mat.There never seemed to be any problems doing it that way as long as I was able to find a warm spot for my seed trays. Those were the days when the tops of refrigerators radiated heat and were nice and warm. That was the best place to germinate small amounts of seeds because the constant heat warmed up the seed starting containers to the ideal temperature. Small heat mats for home use were not readily available back then.
It wasn’t until I worked in a large private greenhouse that I really found out the advantages to using bottom heat. I needed to grow thousands of flower and vegetable plants from seed. Time was, and still is, a valuable commodity, I couldn’t afford to wait for seeds to sprout.
Seeds I grew on heat mats seemed to jump up through the soil surface compared to their unheated brethren — germination percentage went up too. After the first transplant growing season, I invested in a few large commercial heat mats.
These days, nearly all garden centers sell small heat mats. They are usually preset at a specific temperature and are not adjustable, unlike the commercial mats.
The small mats work just fine for small amounts of seeds. By small amounts, I mean you can still germinate enough seeds to grow hundreds of plants. That’s more than enough for an average home garden.
If you are even a little bit serious about growing plants from seed, a seedling heat mat is an essential investment, especially now that refrigerators aren’t warm anymore.
Plants need light for photosynthesis and without light they can’t grow. But not all light is equal.
If you remember from your middle school science class, sunlight contains many colors or wave lengths of light. Plants mainly use the blue and red part of the light spectrum and not much else.
Seedlings need good quality light to thrive. The ideal place to grow seedlings of course, is in a greenhouse or sun-room where there is plenty of natural sunlight. However, not everyone has access to a space like a greenhouse. A south window can help, but even in that case, supplemental lighting may be needed.
An adequate substitute for natural sunlight is light from fluorescent bulbs. Special “grow lights” are available but are quite a bit more expensive than standard fluorescent tubes and they don’t last as long. Research has shown that plants do as well or even better under “cool white” bulbs. Cool white bulbs provide plenty of blue light.
Even with the most recent research, some gardeners still feel that seedlings grow better if the light is “blended”. So, they’ll add a “soft white” bulb to a florescent fixture to provide some red light for their seedlings. Shining light from an incandescent bulb onto the seedlings will also add some red light.
Most vegetable and flower garden seedlings need bright light, at least 500 to 1,000 foot candles. Placing the light fixture within six inches or so will provide them with that amount of light. Still, that is not a bright as a sunny day where there can be 10,000 foot candles shining on a plant.
Plants require some darkness every day so lamps must be on a timer. Six to eight hours of darkness is sufficient for most plants — just about the same number of hours as a good night’s sleep.
If you are really serious about growing a large number of plants under artificial light, special high output light fixtures are available starting at around $300 each.
In my last blog posting I wrote about building a hoop house out of reclaimed shade canopy parts. After covering the structure I amended the soil with composted chicken manure.
Once the soil was improved, I planted a few short rows of lettuce seedlings. And they made good growth early on.
Not only did this crop of lettuce survive the single digit overnight temperatures back in December, it actually looked even more robust. It didn’t however make a whole lot of new growth after that.
Because the days are so much shorter during the winter, we can’t expect lettuce to grow like a spring crop outside in the garden. That’s because there is not as much sunlight energy for photosynthesis.
With all things considered, the lettuce did quite well in the hoop house before the Arctic Vortex hit. A few days later, after the temperatures finally moderated, I opened the door to peek inside.
This fall I put together a homemade hoop house, which is just another name for an unheated, temporary greenhouse.
I’ve had small hoop tunnels in the past, just big enough for plants to grow but that’s all. This one is big enough to walk into.
My new structure is allowing me to grow cold weather crops such as spinach, kale, and lettuce well into the winter. I also plan to use it to get an early start in the spring.
This one I made from parts to an old shade canopy that I haven’t used for a few years. We used it during the summer months to keep the sun off the picnic tables when we had outdoor get togethers.
Actually, I used only half of the pieces. Using all of the parts would have given me more square footage than I need. I just wanted a modest space to grow lettuce this winter.
Looking at the pile of structural parts from the canopy I had in the barn, it occurred to me that I could re-configure them into the size of hoop house I was looking for.
I did have to buy some materials for the project: plastic greenhouse covering, splicing tape, and pipe hardware. Since I didn’t want to cut any part of my shade canopy — in case I ever wanted to use it for that purpose again — I also bought one length of metal electrical conduit and four connectors to use as post extensions. Since the electrical parts were the same diameter as the parts I already had, it made it easy to splice the old and new parts together.
I also added some thin pieces of wood to make a door and give a place for me to attach the plastic sheeting. I used 4×4’s for the foundation.
I ended up with a greenhouse measuring 10 ft by 10 ft, that’s 100 square feet of growing space. Next year, if I feel the need, I can expand it up to its original size of 10 by 20 feet.
If you’ve ever considered a hoop house or greenhouse, this may be an inexpensive way to get started on a small scale. And what if you don’t have a shade canopy of your own to recycle? Well, I’ve seen used shade canopies for sale at yard sales. Some of them had their shade cloth or other parts missing. That’s OK though since the parts will probably be re-assembled in a different configuration like I did with mine.
So far, my hoop house is standing up to the wind and winter storms we’ve had. I’m optimistic that it’ll still be standing come spring-time.
Every gardener at one time or another has thought about having a greenhouse to start seeds and grow plants.
Someone with a large budget could have a greenhouse construction company build one, many of us don’t have those kinds of funds to use.
A prefabricated kit is another way to go. Even these can be prohibitively expensive for the average gardener.
While going through may files the other day I came across a set of plans for a small greenhouse. It measures eight and a half feet wide by 12 feet long and is seven feet tall in the center. It uses one-quarter inch treated plywood ripped into strips that are glued together to form the sidewall supports. The base is made from one by eight boards. The entire structure is covered in plastic sheeting.
This set of drawing was developed by Michigan State University and the Department of Agriculture in 1963. Anyone who has moderate building skills should have no problem building it.
One of the fun gardening projects you can do this time of the year is start your own pineapple plant. Even though most pineapples we eat are grown in Hawaii, you can actually grow a real pineapple in Michigan…for free!
Here’s how I do it.
First, you need a fresh pineapple from the produce department. Look for the freshest looking one you can find. Of course you would probably do that anyway if you were shopping for produce.
Cut the top off normally and eat the pineapple…
Now, here’s the part that is different: instead of throwing away the top, use it to start your own pineapple plant.
You need to prepare the top before planting by trimming away any remaining pineapple fruit, so that you end up with a top that looks like this:
Then, pull off the lower leaves until you see some small bumps on the stalk, these will be the spot from which the new roots will grow. It will look something like this:
Then just place the prepared top into a pot of planting mix deep enough to cover those bumps and water it in. Place your plant where it can get some sun and water it when the soil gets somewhat dry. Fertilize it with a houseplant fertilizer as directed on the package and you should be all set.
The plant shown in this photo (on the right) has been growing for several weeks. Look at all those nice new leaves.
Here is that same plant several months later.
My pineapple has been growing in the same six inch pot for all that time. I would recommend that you move your plant into a larger pot as it grows.
This plant is a little over two feet tall… and has a real pineapple at the top!
As it starts to turn a little yellow, I will harvest it to eat and then start a new pineapple all over again!