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.
I’ve hoed a lot of long rows this season. Now it’s time to touch up the edge on my garden hoe.
The hoe I’ve been using for more than 15 years is a Dutch made, swan-neck style. Its light-weight head combined with a curved shank makes it a pleasure to use. As an added bonus it has an extra long handle which makes easier for a taller guy like me to operate. I don’t have to bend over in an exhausting, awkward position to reach the ground.
Nearly every hoe I’ve seen has the wrong bevel on the cutting edge. Right from the store, hoes often have a flat edge with no bevel at all. People take them home and immediately grind a sharp, angled bevel, like a wood chisel edge. That makes a very sharp edge but it does not last very long. It soon gets dull cutting through the soil. So gardeners end up working in their garden with a perpetually dull tool.
The proper way to form an edge on a hoe is to file a curved profile on the back of the hoe blade i.e. the side facing away from you when you use it. Keep the front of the blade metal flat, don’t grind it.
Imagine if you were to cut the blade in half with a hack-saw. Looking at the cross section of your blade edge with a microscope, you would see the front face ending at a right angle while the back face curves to meet the front edge.
Most of the wear on a hoe blade happens on the back side of the blade edge. A rounded back edge leaves much more metal on the side of the edge that is prone to wearing down.
You won’t be able to shave with that edge but it will last much, much longer in the garden.
Winter is the time when outdoor gardening stops and gardeners move indoors to get their power equipment ready for spring.
I took care of most of my equipment this winter, but not all. As the weeks went by, some things got pushed to the back of the storage shed. It’s like they went into hibernation and are just now waking up to see the light of day.
Last week I dragged all my power tools outside to make sure they would start. All ran fine except one. It is powered by a two-cycle engine — sometimes called a two-stroke engine. You know, one of those that you have to mix oil into the gasoline. String trimmers, chainsaws, leaf blowers are some of the most common tools that use this type of engine.
A two-cycle outdoor tool that has lost its power or won’t start or is hard to start, probably has carbon build up on the exhaust port. And that’s exactly what happened to mine.
Two-cycle engines require unobstructed air flow to run properly. After many hours of use, carbon deposits inevitably build up on the exhaust portion of the engine –especially if it is run at slow speeds — making it hard or impossible to start.
Fortunately, cleaning those carbon deposits are a doable project for someone with some mechanical experience. It’s a good project to try if you want to progress beyond blade sharpening or oil changing.
Here’s one way to do it.
For safety sake it’s always a good idea to get into the habit of disconnecting the spark plug wire whenever working on gasoline powered engines.
Remove the heat shield from the muffler.
Then un-bolt the muffler from the engine which will expose the exhaust port. You’ll be able to see the carbon caked onto the exhaust opening.
Slowly pull on the starter rope to bring the piston up to cover the port opening. That will keep loose particles from falling into the cylinder. Stray particles inside the cylinder will cause scoring of the piston and cylinder walls, then you’ll have a bigger problem to deal with than just carbon deposits.
Use a small piece of hardwood sharpened to a point– or a screwdriver if the carbon is really tough — to carefully scrape off the carbon. Don’t dig into the underlying metal and be extra careful not to scratch the piston!
Once you have the carbon loose, vacuum it up with your shop vac.
Check the muffler and other parts for carbon build up too before you reassemble everything.
The engine should start easily and will have more power. This is the first thing a repair shop will do when they get a two-stroke engine . So it makes sense to try this first before taking it into the repair shop. You’ll save money and be able to use your machine right away instead of waiting weeks for it to get repaired.
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.
I own a lot of different kind of gardening tools. The most unusual one has to be my hand-held rotary hoe.
Farmers have been using large rotary hoes for decades. These are non-powered tools, not to be confused with rotary tillers. They were especially popular in the days before chemical herbicides came into wide-spread use.
The design is basically a series of specially shaped discs mounted side by side on an axle 10 or 12 feet wide. There are different configurations; some discs are star-shaped, others have small spoon-shaped ends attached around the circumference of the disc.
To use a rotary hoe, the farmer pulls the hoe behand a tractor at a fairly fast speed. The star points enter into the soil at about 90 degrees — straight down. As it moves forward and rotates, the point leaves the soil at an angle lifting some soil at the same time. This lifting action pulls up germinating weeds.
It is the weeds you don’t see — those still underground — that get destroyed. By the time you see the first leaves poking up out of the soil, it is almost too late to rotary hoe.
A rotary hoe in action runs right over everything in its path — the crop plants as well as the weeds. The crop plant, usually corn, is well-rooted and can’t be yanked out by the hoe. The leaves get torn up in the process but the corn plant recovers quickly.
Chemical herbicides, increasing labor costs, and high fuel prices caused most farmers to abandon their rotary hoe years ago. Many organic farmers still use them however.
My little hoe is a just a scaled-down version of those large, farm implements. It actually works quite well whenever I remember to use it early enough.
There are a lot of different ways to sow seeds into a garden bed.
Sometimes I use a hoe to form a shallow trench, then drop the seeds in. Other times I use my finger to poke a hole into the soil before dropping in the seed. I find as I get older, my finger has a tendency to get pretty tired if there are a lot of seeds to sow.
This week I finally decided to do something about it; I went into my woodworking shop a made a couple of traditional tools called dibblers — sometimes also known as dibbles or dibbers. These tools are used to make holes for planting seeds.
It took just a few minuets on the lathe to turn a couple of different sized dibbers from a piece of scrap cherry wood.
The dibble on the left has markings every half inch. The one on the right has markings in one inch increments
Most of the dibbers you see for sale on line and in the gardening catalogs have very sharp points. The description usually says something about how easy it is to penetrate hard soil with a metal-clad point. It occurs to me that if you prepared your planting bed properly, you wouldn’t need a sharp point.
I left the business end of my dibblers somewhat blunt. My garden soil is friable so it doesn’t take much effort to poke a hole. The blunt end also leaves extra space at the bottom of the hole for the seed to rest at the proper depth. It does make it more difficult to kill vampires, however.
If you need more space for a seedling transplant or plug, the tapered shape allows a hole to be widened by rotating the dibber in a circular motion.
I suppose I could have just whittled a piece of broom stick with my pocket knife but this is a much more elegant and versatile tool.
I looked at the calendar a couple of days ago and realized March is almost here. Since March is always so busy, I planned to get all of my garden equipment in shape by the end of February.
The last big project is the rotary tiller — its carburetor needs work.
I’ve rebuilt a few small engine carburetors in the past. I’ve even done a couple of auto carbs years ago, so I have a good idea of what it’s all about.
I’m convinced that anyone with a mechanical aptitude and the ability to follow written instructions, can do this job. It takes a positive attitude and some time.
For those who have no idea where to start, I put together a summary of the steps involved. It may convince you to take your equipment to the shop instead. On the other hand, it may inspire you to take the plunge and give it a try. Remember, if you can’t get it to work, you can always take it into the shop later. In the meantime, it will give you a chance to try something new– and an excuse to use that new tool set you bought.
I did catch a little break — February has 29 days this year. That gives me an extra day to finish repairing that tiller before my deadline passes.