Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Green in Judgement

A few days ago, I had a migraine. I was trying to get a pile of work finished on my computer, but every time I stared at the screen for more than a few minutes, I started to feel like someone was attempting to drive an iron spike through my left eye with a hammer, and was forced to look away at something, anything, that was not brightly colored and glowing, so my work was slow-going.

In the midst of this, my four-year-old son, who had gone down into the basement to "help" his father with some mysterious electronics project involving scavenged miniature solar panels and rechargeable batteries, came barreling up the stairs, pounding his feet like a baby elephant while yelling, "Mommy, Mommy, Mommy! You have to look!"

Now, ordinarily this sort of racket might cause a woman with a migraine who was trying to get a pile of work done to throw something heavy at a wall.

But his next words stopped wrath in its tracks.

"My chamomile has sprouted!" he said, beaming proudly.

His chamomile. Indeed.

The transformation of a tiny seed into a green, growing thing that moves and breathes and reaches for the light still affects me with its mystery, even with all my adult knowledge of biology. Despite years as a gardener, I still get a little thrill of wonder every time a seed I've planted pokes its leaves above the soil.

But it was not a feeling I've had the experience of sharing with someone, until now.

To a four-year-old, life itself is magic.

Monday, March 23, 2009

My Not-So-Secret Basement Garden Lab

Last year, I tried to grow tomatoes and herbs for my garden from seed by placing seedling pots on my sunniest windowsills.

It did not turn out well.

My tomatoes were leggy; my basil was floppy. Even though I kept nearby indoor lights on during the day, and turned the plants daily, my seedlings just weren't getting enough light.

Though fantasies of a greenhouse window in my kitchen (or an attached greenhouse installation over my patio that would also serve as a four-season sunroom and possess retractable blinds) have danced in my head ever since then, the more practical solution was of course to build a grow-shelf in my basement.

Where I will grow my precious mutant plant children.
It looks kind of spooky, doesn't it?

Anyway, it's not as complicated to build as it looks. The shelf itself is a simple pine storage contraption from Target with adjustable shelves. I've lined the shelves with styrofoam to protect the wood from moisture — the same styrofoam the shelf itself came packed in.

The lights are simple 2 ft fluorescent shop lights purchased from Home Depot; I paid a little extra to get super-efficient Energy Star models. My husband helped me wire the lights to a plug; some shop lights come with a plug wired already, though, so shop around for those if you're an electrophobic mad plant lab builder.

I've hung the lights on adjustable chains so that I can change their height as my plants grow, and I've made reflectors out of repurposed cardboard and aluminum foil to direct the light back toward the plants.

Then I put the whole thing on a power strip plugged into a ten dollar timer; this way I can have the lights come on at dawn without actually having to remember to go down and turn them on in the morning before I've had my caffeine.

Of course, you can buy yourself a fancy manufactured lighted plant stand on the internets if you want, but where's the fun in that?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

DIY Recycled Seedling Pots

For months now, in anticipation of starting a large number of plants from seed for my garden this spring, I have been saving disposable polystyrene (#6 plastic) cups and containers from restaurants and grocery stores.

My local recycling pickup service does not accept polystyrene; a nearby drop-off recycling center used to accept #6 plastic, but recently stopped. So I now have little choice but to avoid all disposable polystyrene cups and packaging (difficult to do without avoiding restaurants and all packaged food), throw all of the polystyrene I collect in the trash, or find a new use for it.

For the moment, since I'll be needing fifty or more pots for the seedlings I plan to plant or give away, option three is working out nicely for me.

I've also saved a few clear #1 and #5 foodsafe plastic cups from the recycling bin, just for fun. I plan to use these in garden-based science projects with my son, so that he can see how plant roots grow.

Online retailers sell clear plastic planters for educators, orchid hobbyists and other gardeners who like to keep a watchful eye on soil moisture and the root development of their plants. My repurposes clear plastic pots cost me zero dollars, with zero in shipping and handling. I'm particularly fond of my grocery store's bulk food containers for this purpose; they're quite sturdy, and I imagine I'll be able to reuse them a number of times.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


These tiny things are basil seeds.

Last year, in my garden, a seed just like this grew into a plant that was four feet tall. Its lush leaves turned into salads and pesto, seasoned sauces and garnished plates. When I finally stopped pinching its blooms to force it to fill out, and let it flower, its delicate blossoms so entranced the bees they attracted that they bumbled in a pleasant drunken dance, seeming oblivious to distractions, like falling water from a hose, or people sitting on a patio just inches away.

On a hot day, sweet basil scented my entire yard.

These are open-pollinated seeds from that plant. I don't know whether they'll breed true. I had other varieties of basil in my garden.

But I've planted eighteen of them anyway, in a recycled egg carton.

We'll see what they become.

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