Monthly Archives: February 2014

Sputtering towards Spring

Organized workshop

In between the unusual arctic blasts that continue to pummel the area I’ve been quietly preparing for the inevitable coming thaw. We’re now back in another round of near record-low temperatures, but before that happened I got some much needed clean-up done as well as set up a really simple coldframe/mini-greenhouse for seed starting.

Ever since I brought my first load of stuff out to the property there’s essentially been an amorphous pile of stuff including everything from private affects and clothes to tools and materials all piled together with little rhyme or reason. It was under tarps strung between trees for the first 3 years, and then about a year ago it moved underneath the protection of the new shed.

Organized shed

Well, I finally went through ALL of the boxes of stuff and organized at least roughly. I can’t tell you how many things I found that I’d spent crazy amounts of time looking for.

The shed is a long way from done, and I’ll have to move some of the stuff again to work on the root cellar, but it’s so wonderful to easily find the tools and materials for projects and then know exactly where they go when I’m done. There’s an actual place for that kind of object now!  Also, I finally have space to pull in a vehicle to work on it when I need to.  Will wonders never cease!

Simple Coldframe

Hay and straw bale cold frame mini-greenhouseI made a rectangle from 8 old hay bales someone gave me and then stacked another 3 bales on the north wall of it.  Then I put down about 6″ of straw within a rectangle to insulate the floor and then draped a clear plastic drop cloth over a few 2×2 boards.  I secured the drop cloth with some of the scrap chunks of granite I have for various projects, mainly the footing around the straw bale buildings.

I also put a couple of the bigger dark pieces of granite inside of it, propped up against the back wall.  These chunks of granite are thermal mass that moderate the temperature, absorbing heat and keeping it from getting too hot during the day, and then re-radiating that heat back out at night.

Opened coldframe with onion trays

Today the outside temperature topped out at 26F, but inside the bale greenhouse it was 80F.  I’ve been bringing the seedlings inside at night since it’s been getting into the single digits and it gets below freezing inside the greenhouse, but soon it’ll protect against mild frosts and I can start getting tomato and pepper soil blocks started in there along with the onion trays I’ve already got growing.

Eventually there will be a greenhouse attached to the front of the common house and I won’t need to set a variation of this up every year.


Starting Onions from Seed

*UPDATED: 2/26/14

DISCLAIMER: I’ve never actually tried to start seeds this exact way. I’ll update this post when I see how effective it turns out to be.

Seed starting materialsIt’s February 15, exactly 8 weeks before the average last frost in this part of Missouri, April 15, so it’s time to start onions!

I’ve found that watering from the bottom keeps the soil evenly moist, uses less water, and disturbs the seeds less. Before I was using some donated peat pots and setting those in a baking tray with water for them to soak it up. That works ok, but they dry out pretty quickly and I’d like to have a method that doesn’t rely on a supply of peat pots.

The idea is that I drill holes in the bottom of the tray that will contain the soil and seedlings and set it in another bus tray holding water and allow the top tray to soak up as much water as it wants from the lower tray and then remove it. If I let it sit in there continually it would likely drown the seedlings. One thing potential issue might be overfilling the bottom tray and having it spill over when I put the top tray in to soak.

I’m starting 2 trays of onions this year. So I drilled 1/4″ holes a couple inches apart in the bottom of 2 trays.

Trays, one with 1/4" holes

Next I mixed up my seed starting mix. Ideally I would just use some compost, but the pile I set aside for this isn’t finished yet. Instead, I’m using equal parts vermiculite, peat moss, and some “potting” soil that appears to be much more top soil with compost than the fluffy potting soil I’m aiming at.

Mixing materials

I used a 1 gallon bucket as a measuring cup. I used 1 bucket of each ingredient and mixed them dry with a rake and broke up the bigger clods of the soil.

Soil mixing

Set aside maybe 1/4 of a bucket of the dry mix per tray for covering the seeds later.

Then I stirred in about a gallon of water for those 3 buckets of material and worked it until the mix was saturated.  In this case I used melted snow as water, but if you use tap water make sure to let it off gas for a day or more so that no chlorine kills the beneficial microorganisms in the compost.

Adding water

Then I filled each tray up about 2.5-3″ with the wet seed starting mix.

Filling the trays with wet soil mix

I repeated for the second tray, but really could have done both at the same time if I’d known how much each tray was going to take.

Next, I labeled the two trays with masking tape and put the variety, type of plant, and the date on it. These seeds are intermediate-day length varieties I’ve had success with here, Bronze D’amposta and Australian Brown.

Tray labels and seed packets

I tear the tops off and hold the package horizontal so the torn edge makes a wider mouth for the seeds to fall off and then shake it side to side. I feel I get a good distribution this way. I put a packet and a half of each type of seed(~450/seeds per tray). I have another packet and a half remaining of each in case this batch fails I can try again.

Broadcasting onion seeds

I then sprinkled on maybe a 1/4″ of the dry mix I reserved earlier and tried to get break or get rid of any bigger chunks in it before sprinkling.

Covering seeds with the dry mix

Next I used a mister and wetted down the dry mix and seeds. I shouldn’t have to water from the top again, but it’s important that you get everything completely wet the first time so that the capillary effect, which soaks up the moisture, will be effective.

Wetting the dry material and seeds

Now it’s just a matter of putting them somewhere relatively warm (70-75F is ideal). I’m setting them on my rocket stove’s thermal mass bench which is about 80F right now.

Trays on rocket stove bench

They should germinate in about 2 weeks. I’ll update shortly after that to record how it’s working out.

 Update 2/26/14

Bronze D'amposta onion sproutsThe onions began germinating in only 4 days! Since that was so far off from the 10-14 day estimate I’d seen in 2 places I looked some more and found that under optimum conditions they can germinate in 4 days, so I guess the temperature on the rocket stove bench was good for them.

It’s now 11 days since I sowed them and I’ve been making sure they get at least indirect sunlight as much as I can.   Despite the recent bout of well-below average temperatures the cold frame I set up a few days ago is getting into the 80’s even though the highs have only been in the mid-20’s outside so I’ve been setting the trays out during the sunny part of the day.