Author Archives: patrick

planting strawberries

in front of our newly established asparagus bed in the front yard, we also have added about 75 feet of strawberries.  i’m well on my way of freeing me from having to mow so much yard this summer.

we could have done a ton of research on variety, but i mostly wanted to get something in the ground this year, and my experience with strawberries is that every few years you have to rip them up and replace them if you really want to be productive. there will be plenty of chances for other varieties in the future.

fedco’s prices on bundles of strawberries were very fair and we ended up planting two varieties; sparkle and cavendish.  these are not the most exciting varieties one could grow, but they should produce an abundance of  tasty fruit that we can put in the freezer.

like our asparagus bed, i wish that we had spent more time preparing for it’s arrival in the fall, but again other things were more pressing.  we may have regrets later on as we attempt to keep the berries weed free. strawberries are somewhat notorious for being poor at competing with weeds.

while preparing strawberry beds is not nearly as labor intensive as digging trenches for asparagus, i did want to make sure that the soil was loosened pretty deeply.  our spading fork has been getting quite a workout preparing all these beds, and in the process of forking i was able to find plenty of buried concrete and brick aka urbanite.  the small pieces i’m going to toss, but the big stuff i’m thinking will get saved to use as pavers at some point in the far future.


strawberries grow in a crown habit and so planting them at proper level is important, too low and you risk smoothing the tops, too high and you dry out the roots.  it’s worth taking the extra time to plant carefully.   my method is to make mound so that the roots are able to be planted more deeply than the crown and cover with soil.  water them well and cover with a straw mulch.  this will help to keep them from losing moisture and also keep weeds down.  after the roots establish we will top dress with compost and an organic fertilizer.


what strawberry varieties are you growing?  anyone growing alpines?  musk strawberries?

asparagus planting

sorry for the delay in posts it’s not that i haven’t been doing anything, and welcome new readers – i look forward to yr comments.  now on to the post.

i’ve planted asparagus patches on several occasions, but none of them have been for myself or my family.  i’ve planted vegetable gardens at pretty much any house i have lived at, but the expense and effort of planting asparagus at a rental just seems like too much.  this year with a piece of property of my own, i actually felt like i could justify planting asparagus.

s and i made a large scale map and planned where our main veggie beds would go, our hoop house, future critters, and perennials.

i happen to think that asparagus makes a lovely backdrop and many people comment on how lovely it’s foliage is.  with that in mind we decided to put it in the front yard.   there were literal obstacles to this plan, namely the 15 foot tall bradford pear that was growing right in the middle of where i wanted to plant.  i had contemplated grafting good scion wood to the rootstock, but i got talked out of it, and there is a very productive pear in the lot behind us.


with a shovel and mattock and a couple of hours of hard work the tree was a goner.

my neighbor inquired as to what i was doing and seemed skeptical when i explained my plans for asparagus.

as if digging up a tree wasn’t enough of a challenge for the day, asparagus is usually grown by digging a trench eight to twelve inches deep. s and i spent a couple of hours digging out our trench, and since i love digging i had to keep reminding myself not to dig so deep.  in places the trench got well over twelve inches deep and i had to fill it back in, s didn’t have the same problem.

as i dug up my front yard and reflected back on my neighbor’s inquiry, i couldn’t help but think about the british television show, the good life.  if you’ve not seen it, i recommend it – though its really better viewing for the winter.

forktrenchthe trench dug, i used a spading fork to loosen the soil at the bottom of the trench and then we put the crowns down and covered them with a couple inches of soil.  asparagus looks to me like some sort of alien parasite.  as i plant it i worry of it jumping up and sucking onto my face.   this variety is jersey supreme from fedco trees.  as the crowns sprout and grow up we will fill the trench in, with soil and compost.  we gave them a nice watering and them the next day we had a nice gentle rain.  how perfect.

crownintrenchcoveri really wish we had done more to prepare the soil in the fall, but we were struggling with a newborn at the time, and i figure that even poorly planted asparagus is better than no asparagus.

what are you working on this spring?

planting true potato seeds

i’ve been planting potatoes for at least 15 years.  every single one of the years i’ve planted clones, from what are called seed potatoes.  what we call seed potatoes are not true seeds, but clones that are vegetatively propagated.  what this means, is that when we plant potatoes of the same variety say the ever popular “red norland”  we are not planting plants that are genetically similar, we are planting plants that are genetical exactly the same.  this is a risky proposition.  it means that if disease descends on the field, and the “red norland” is vulnerable, then it they all are gonna be equally vulnerable – and you could lose all your crops.

while lack of genetic diversity is an issue, not having the opportunity to see just what these potatoes can share with the world is even more important.  true potato seeds show a high degree of genetic variability, and you never really know what you are going to get unless you have done controlled crosses.  that is the exciting part, potato traits that have not shown their eyes in generations could show up, plus new combinations of genetic info from potatoes that have crossed.  potatoberriesthis year i’ve finally saved true potato seeds for the potato berries, and planted them, and have a nice yield of seedlings.  

the seedlings i’m growing this year are crosses of a couple of the more popular potatoes – yukon gold and red norland.  both have been doing well for us for a number of years out in the garden, and have done well without any pest problems, disease, or watering.  


i have many more seedlings than i need, so if anyone is interested in some of them, i’d be happy to let them go for a dollar each, just to cover costs for growing them.  they should be ready to plant about the same time as tomatoes in mid may.  let me know if you are interested and the number of plants you want and send me an email to dirtysabot at gmail dot com.


passive greywater heat exchanger

it might not surprise you that i spend a decent amount of time researching ways to reduce the household energy use and increase efficiency.  while doing research on grey water collection i was reading about a device that collects the heat from greywater and radiates it to the house as it drains into the collection tank via a heat exchanger.

this seemed like a pretty complex device to collect what didn’t seem like that much heat.  i don’t use much hot water for washing dishes or taking a bath, and most of our clothes washing is done in cold water.

it did get my gears turning.

what if you could do something that required no work and could save this heat?  that would be worth it right?  it occurred to me that if you just left your hot bath water to sit until the water in tub was cold, it would have already achieved the task of extracting all the heat out of it before it went down the drain, making the need for a greywater heat extractor unnecessary.

so thats what i do now, leave the water in the tub until it has become cold.  how much this saves in energy savings, i have no idea, but if any one technically minded wants to calculate this, i would be very interested to find out.


improve germination, save money.

it might surprise some folks, but most seeds don’t need light to germinate.  now that you just read that i’m sure it seems obvious. seeds are planted in the soil, so they are in the dark,  but from our early days of learning to plant seeds in little cups in grade school we put the cups on a windowsill so they would grow.  it’s a tough habit to break.  the reality is windowsills being next to windows tend to be pretty drafty and cold, not a great place to germinate seeds since the thing they really need is heat.

most seeds break they dormancy best when the temperature is between about 70 and 80 degrees – some need it colder some need it hotter, i’m making a generalization.   with this knowledge we can grow better plants and save money.  if you are growing plants using a light stand as described in the previous post or even in a greenhouse you can save yourself some money by delaying using them until the seedlings have sprouted.

t8 lights might be more energy efficient than t12 lights but they still use plenty of electricity and that costs money, each bulb pulling between 24-32 watts plus the ballast – equaling at least 60 watts per light.

since they don’t need lights, but do need heat you can save yr self some money by putting them under a heat mat until they germinate.  the heat mat we use only pulls 17 watts, and running 24/7 that’s still much less wattage than the t8 lights running for 12 hours.   you can also get much larger heat mats with controllers that fit many flats.  we have one at work that fits as many as ten flats and it works very well.  you usually you can find these from greenhouse suppliers.  locally we go though bfg.

don’t want to buy a heat mat? want to save even more in electric use?  next best choice is the back of the fridge, it puts off a good amount of heat.  just resist the temptation to put them on the radiator – that will cook them.  covering them with some plastic film will help keep the warmth in and humidity.  happy growing.

lighting stand for transplants

for a number of years we have been growing our own transplants at home.  kind of strange given the fact that i have access to a greenhouse at work, but i’ve never wanted to take advantage of work, and frankly when i’m done working for the day, i don’t want to stick around and plant my own transplants.  i also find it a little confusing to try and keep track of my own plants at work, and having them at home separated just makes it easier.

we have cobbled together makeshift lighting stands to grow them on for a number of years, but this year i wanted to get serious and went to the task of putting together something a little more intentional. it was also a chance to switch from t12 lamps to t8, which are both 30% more energy efficient and slightly brighter, they also last much longer without losing their lighting output.

i looked at a number of  designs, some of which were made of metal and wooden shelves that one would buy, but i decided that for best use of space building my own custom sized shelf made the most sense.

i always start plants in the basement because it doesn’t have much light to compete against, it’s actually better to have only the fluorescent lights than a combination of them and daylight.  i even go so far as to block the light off the windows. it just confuses the plants.

our basement is funny, half of it is short, like only 7 feet tall, the other half is more normal sized. it would make sense to put the lighting rack on the side that is taller so you can fit in more shelves, but the shorter side has the boiler, hot water heater, and the bulk of the steam pipes.  it’s much warmer, and i decided to build the rack on that side.

since it’s short on that side and i wanted to make sure i made plenty of space for plants to grow to full size, i only made it three shelves high.

here you can see the frame.  framesorry for the blurry quality of the photos, there are low light level in the basement.  this is made from 2×2 material, actually ripped from 2×4′s total number of 2×4′s = 4.  then i added shelves 22 inches wide made from 1/2 inch plywood. shelvesthese are 22 inches wide so that four flats will fit on each shelf.  one sheet will yield enough material for the three shelves.

next was the t8 lamp install, they get installed with chains and hooks, so that they can get raised as the plants get taller.  lightsin every effort to reduce costs i installed 24 watt bulbs which cost less to run, but since i was concerned about less light, i took a page from weed growers and got a roll of mylar to reflect the light back onto the plants.  in this photo you can see the mylar on the side installed, there is also mylar on the underside of the shelves to reflect the light down.

mylar is tough to work with since it comes on a roll and doesn’t like to lay flat, but with the left over piece of plywood and a big t square i was able to cute and measure relatively easily.  in order to affix the mylar on the big sides i used sticky piece of velcro.  it makes it easy to take off and put on when watering. mylaras you can see a good amount of light is captured.  not sure if it will be enough to offset the lower wattage light.

cost breakdown -

four 2×4′s = 10.80, one sheet 1/2″ plywood = 16.26, six t8 light fixtures = 119.82, twelve 24 watt bulbs = approximately 60 dollars, one roll 25′ mylar = 29.97. total cost = 236.85.  thanks to a grant from the charter one foundation the cost doesn’t come out of our pocket.

certainly not cheap, but less expensive than building a greenhouse.  it’s more than big enough for all our transplant needs and we are also growing some transplants for others to sell. this should help cover the cost for building the shelf.  i’m hoping that next year i’ll be able to grow more transplants to sell and make a little more money for the house.   this year i’m working out the kinks and figuring out just how much it cost to grow the transplants and be able to charge a fair price.


preparation for greywater

it’s gonna be a while before we have a greywater system installed in the house.  there are a couple reasons for this. (for those unfamiliar with greywater, it’s water that has been used for washing vs. black water which has human feces in it, greywater is generally considered safe for subsurface irrigation, blackwater not so much)

first i’m working on developing rainwater catchment first, as this water will require less processing.  the second is that since we are washing so many diapers, we can’t save greywater from the washer.  i’m still preparing for the future when we stop washing so many shitty diapers.  it’s generally recommended that you don’t use greywater from wash water that is used for diapers as you have much higher chances of contamination with e. coli.

my super kind parents gifted us a new washer and dryer for the kid’s coming into the world.  i ‘m guessing that when my mother visited she was less than impressed with the quality of our washer and dryer.  the new washers is front loader, so it should use less water, another major benefit.

my mother recruited our friend “p” to install the washer and dryer, and he made the recommendation that we consider putting it in a location other that the basement – so we didn’t have to climb so many stairs.  this was good insight from him, and we have this strange little room on the first floor that wasn’t really getting much use – so we decided to use it for a utility room.  one of the advantages of moving the washer from the basement to the first floor was that we could let gravity do the work of getting greywater out of the house instead of having to pump it from the basement.

with that in mind i had this simple valve installed to divert the water from the sewer into a grey water system, but that will be a couple of years, as we have to get this kid out of diapers. you can see the cap where the pipe to the outside will go on the right side.  this also means that once the system is up and running during the winter months we can divert the water into the sewer, and not have to worry about greywater ice blocks.


in the meantime i’m thinking of how we can divert the water from the shower/tub.  but that project will likely have to wait until next summer.  plenty of other projects in the works for this year, and need to research how to set up the grey water once it’s outside.

for those interested in using grey water without doing any plumbing work, you might enjoy this post.

for more info on greywater i recommend the website greywater action as well as the root simple blog

anyone have advice for grey water diversion?

one year house anniversary

“s” was pointing out that we have been in the house for a year the other day.  i would have guessed that it was four months.  my perception of time is totally wack.

i have not written much about home improvement around the house, and i’ve vowed not to make this into a home improvement blog, but i did want to recount the work done since we moved in.

insulation added to attic

insulation added to floor joists

insulation and vapor barrier added to crawl space

caulked around ever window, door, and baseboards

added door sweeps to front and back doors

repointed foundation on the north-side of the exterior foundation and eastside of the interior foundation

rebuilt front porch

painted the living room, dining room, laundry room, hall upstairs and down, and three bedrooms.  we only have the bathroom, kitchen, and pantry left to go.

installed washer and dryer in the new laundry room.

replaced kitchen faucet

installed under counter lighting in kitchen

replaced bathtub faucet and added shower

replaced bathroom light

replaced bathroom toilet

installed radiator in the kids room

added several new garden beds

thanks to my moms, lots of spring bulbs planted,

two trees cut down, with more on the way to make room for the trees and other perennials we want to plant.

lots more planned for this year – should be a busy spring and summer.

cabin fever pruning

it has been a very cold and snowy winter with the whole “polar vortex” aka winter hitting us pretty hard.

i’ve been busy with projects around the house, but cabin fever has me wanting to work outside.  this last week we actually had weather above 20 degrees, and with little else to do outside, pruning the apricot seemed like a good plan.

many folks recommend pruning apricots into an “open vase” form, with an open center, unlike the “central leader” method recommended for apples and pears. i like the look of the “open vase” and find it easier to keep trees small.  this apricot was in need of some pruning.  it didn’t bear much fruit at all last year, and my hope is that with pruning, it will deliver a better yield.

tree1this is our tree before, two main trunks, where there should be one, and a central leader form.  first business was to dispatch one of the trunks, then cut the central leader back.  once that was done i pruned for shape.  tree3its quite a bit smaller tree now.  but i’m trying to keep it small so it won’t get in the way of the hoop house going up this summer.  much more on that in the coming months.

mixing box redux plus potting bench!

11 years ago, when i was in my first season of transplant production in detroit, i didn’t have a lot of time to build equipment, we just needed to start transplants.

we decided to make our soil mix from all raw parts, purchasing peat and perlite and other materials and then combining them together.  the previous farm where i worked we had a cement mixer that was used for mixing soil, but without that luxury we tried other methods, including filling a barrel with materials and then rolling it all the way down the greenhouse and back.  this proved to be a lot of work and to not work very well.  we settled on a simple “mixing box”, little more than a platform with three sides you can see the original here.  i slapped it together from what was laying around and didn’t really give much thought to design.  one very silly aspect of it’s design included mounting support “L” brackets on the inside which would catch on the shovel as you mixed.  i swore for years that i would put a fix to this and rebuild the box in such a way that it would not be nearly so frustrating, and yet i never did.  until this year.

since i was making improvements, i figured why not make more.  one thing that i had noticed is that people liked the platform to be raised off the ground, sticking milk crates under it to raise it up.  i also noticed that we often were slowed down by the fact that we filled trays/made soil blocks out of the same mixing box, what if we had a separate potting bench just for filling trays and making blocks?

after making the improvements i can’t believe it’s taken me so long to do them.  i need to be more proactive about making these improvements in the future.

to put together the box i worked with what i had, some 4×4′s and 2×6′s, and purchased two sheets of 3/4 inch plywood, and some metal corner brackets.  i think i over built it, the whole thing could have been made with 1/2 plywood and 2×4′s but i figure the last box was used for 10 years might as well make it sturdy.  the boxes are both 4×4 feet, the mixing box is 10 inches off the ground the potting bench 2’8″ off the ground.

framefinishedthe boxes are not attached to each other so if you need to move them you can do so easily, or if you want to arrange them in a different format you can switch them up.  we increased the height of the sides to 12 inches so that you don’t have soil coming over the edges as easily and sloped the left side of the potting bench so that when you shovel soil from the mixing box to the potting bench you don’t have to lift the shovel as high.

inuseso far i’ve been pretty pleased, at this point the only change i might make is to make the boxes a little less deep so you don’t have to reach so far to the back.