Category Archives: urban farming

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.



solarizing and cover cropping new beds

sorry for the delay in posting, but this will be the new normal.  as i type this a three week old is in one arm, greatly reducing my typing speed.  having a newborn has certainly refocused me, and changed how much i can get done in the day.  work around the house and garden has slowed to a crawl, and i would expect that time between blog posts will be even longer.  maybe you can help keep me focused by providing feedback in the form of comments?

with so much going on around the house, and knowing that a newborn was on the way, this year’s garden was focused on the couple of raised beds that were already in place.

in anticipation of next year, i focused much of my efforts on preparing beds for the future, rather than trying to plant more this year.

when trying to decide my options for preparing beds, i considered many; i could use a rototiller, i could cut out the sod, i could mulch everything, or i could solarize.

because i had seen plenty of quackgrass and bindweed in other beds, i decided that solarizing would be the best course of action.  a rototiller would just spread the rhizomes , cutting sod mulch was too much work, and mulching is generally ineffective with quackgrass and bindweed.

our house came with one and a half extra lots, but the best soil was to be found directly behind the house, as it was the only soil which has not been disturbed though demolition.  since it is directly behind the house, it also means it’s the most accessible and likely to get the most attention.  in permaculture design, those areas that you visit the most often and need the most attention should be places as close to the areas you frequent.  it was obvious to me that this was the area to focus on putting beds in.

because the soil was not disturbed, and was original to the house, levels of contamination were likely to be low, but i really need to pull a soil test to confirm, but since i would put perennial crops in this space if it had contamination, i soldiered forth.

beforethis is the area where new beds are to be developed mid may.  as you can see it is covered with a thick layer of sod.  first step in solarizing is to cut the grass so that it is not too long, i did this using my trusty reel mower.  then you cut a trench around the area you want to solarize, lay down the plastic and put the sod you cut out for your trench back in inverted.  plasticbed1this doesn’t actually take all that long, this area is about 200 sq feet and only took an hour and a half to complete this.  then you just wait.  condisationi always do my solarizing in the summer, as this is when you trap the most heat.  you need to use clear plastic as it heats up much more than black plastic.  the whole idea is for it to act like a little greenhouse that doesn’t vent, so it gets really hot and kills the sod on the top.  you want to make sure that the edges are sealed well so no heat escapes.

a few weeks later i dug up and solarized the other side of the sidewalk, digging a trench and laying out the plastic.  bed2beforediggingbed2bed2plasticby the end of july, the plastic was getting brittle and cracking, and the sod beneath was brown and dead.plasticcrackall other times i have used old greenhouse plastic which has uv stabilizers to keep it from breaking down in sunlight.  this time i just used some builders plastic.  i was frustrated that it broke down and couldn’t be used again, but by the time it did breakdown, it had done it’s job.  next time i’ll be sure to use greenhouse plastic.

with the sod all dead, it’s time to remove it – some folks till it all in at this point, but considering my fears of quackgrass and bindweed, i wasn’t gonna take any chances and just removed the dead sod.  i also didn’t want to chance bringing up more weed seeds from deep below.  if you have ever tried to cut live sod, you know that it’s a tough job, cutting sod that has died is actually pretty easy, it only took me another hour and a half to cut this.  sodremovalsodremovedwith the sod removed i did our usual bed prep, using a broad fork to loosen , followed by the claw tool to break up the clods, and finally raked smooth.  since it was august, i seeded buckwheat into the bed.  the buckwheat will scavenge for nutrients, add organic matter, and break up the soil compaction.   buckwheatbed2prepedbuckwheat flowering on the left side of the garden.

buckwheat unlike most other crops does well in the summer heat, but it will be killed by frost.  i wanted crops to continue to grow over the winter into spring and also provide some nitrogen fixation.

once the buckwheat had flowered i cut it down and into the stubble i sowed hairy vetch and oats.  these both should provided plenty of organic matter and fix nitrogen.


in the spring these will be incorporated into the soil, and then the planting can begin.


the year of the kohlrabi

every year has winners and losers.  some years are especially good for certain crops, and this year one of the clear stand outs is kohlrabi.  kohlrabi2lost of rain and relatively consistant cooler temperatures, has made for some monsters in great volume.  with so much of it i’ve had to think a little more about how to treat it.   my standard has been simply to cut it in slices and serve with a dip of your choice.


i’ve expanded this year to include slaw. simply peel and grate, then proceed as you would for cabbage.  i’m not a fan of creamy cole slaw, so lately i’ve been doing a slaw with olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, spicy mustard, fresh parsley and salt and pepper.

not knowing what else to do with the rest, i decided to make a fritter of sorts.  start by grating the kohlrabi, and add some salt.


allow to chill in the fridge for an hour or two so the juices come out.  put the kohlrabi in cheese cloth and press to remove all excess moisture.  once this has been grated and pressed, your once abundant kohlrabi becomes a much smaller volume.

to this add an egg or two, some pepper and spices of your choice.  i’ve been going for a little smoked paprika, but i’m planning on trying some old bay seasoning for mock crab cakes.

eggaddheat up a skillet to medium high, add some olive oil and use a 1/4 cup measuring cup to form patties, and drop them into the skillet.

fryfry about four minutes on each side or until golden brown – serve with sauce of your choice, a garlic aioli or pesto both great, though a dollop of  sour cream would be perfect and simple.

what ideas do you have for kohlrabi?  what vegetables have been growing well in your garden this year?

also sorry for all the delays in writing, my life has been very hectic as of late, and welcome to all the new subscribers.

writing soundtrack = j dilla’s “donuts”


planting garlic in spring

conventional wisdom says that it’s best to plant garlic in the fall in northern climates like michigan.  while i’ve always planted my garlic in the fall, the fact is that you can plant it in the spring – and generally get good results, though not as high a yield.

with the knowledge that we were looking for a new place to stay, i didn’t bother planting a fall crop of garlic as i didn’t want to have to come back and dig it up.  but i also didn’t want to lose my crop of seed garlic – and the best solution seemed to be to keep it safe and sound in paper bags in the darkest coolest spot i could find in the house, and plant in the spring at our new place.

bagsogaliceven in a cool, dark spot the garlic was still wanting to get in the ground, putting up plenty of sprouts.  garlicsproutingthe previous owners of our house kindly built raised beds in the back yard.  i’m hoping that’s not because the soil tested with a high degree of contamination, but just cause they thought they would look good.  we still haven’t done soil tests – that’s still to come.  raisedbedthere are two little ones and one big raised beds.  one of the little ones seemed like the perfect place to plant at least enough garlic to use as seed garlic for the fall, even if i don’t have enough to eat.  the soil seemed high enough quality, and so i didn’t bother adding any compost or feather meal as i usually do, i mostly just wanted to get the garlic in the ground.  i’ll top dress with a little compost when i prepare other beds, in a few weeks.

garlicplantedi managed to make pretty good use of the space and get 12 rows of garlic in – two each of ohio amish, german red, bogatyr, samarkand, siberian, and georgia fire.

i can’t help but pause to stop and think about the origins of these garlics, so far away from here – such a world away – the name samarkand gives hints of garlic’s origins in central asia, samarkand being a city in uzbekistan.  i admit to being painfully ignoroant of central asia – but it seems to be the cradle to so many of our most imporatant foods – apples being an obvious one.  gary nabhan wrote the excellent book “where our food comes from” in which he retraces the footsteps of famed russian plant breeder nikolay vavilov’s explorations to collect genetic material to improve plants resilience, and help to end famines.  much of vavilov’s explorations take place in central asia, because so many of the wild predecessor of our food plants survive their.  he talks of literally forests of wild apples.  it certainly sparks the imagination.

whenever i plant seeds i spend some time thinking about my ansesters, those that went before me and saved these seeds.  i think about why these varities were imporant to them, how did these seeds connect to their culture.  i feel the need to honor them, thank them, pause and  be grateful to them that i may hold these seeds in my hands at that moment.

my little bed of garlic ends up being a miss mash of cultures – full of varties developed from around the world – but i appreciate them all, and look forward to the green sprouts emerge in a few weeks, the heads that will develop in mid summer, and the fiery hot flavors to enjoy in late summer.

i have some extra garlic that i’m not going to plant, and is sprouted too much to eat.  i’d love to share it with folks that would enjoy it.  shoot me an email if you want to get some garlic – dirtysabot (at) gmail (dot) com

tips for using the six row seeder

i can’t sing the praises of the six row seeder enough – though it wasn’t always like that.  for the first couple of years i spent more time cursing at it than praising it.  it’s a tricky little device with adjustments of seed size, brushes for letting more seed in an out, depth regulator, and multiple drive ratios.  certainly there are changes i would like seen made to the design, but it works better than anything else i have seen.

the first few uses of the seeder yielded nothing.  then all the sudden we stumbled upon good results, and then couldn’t figure out how to replicate them.  finally we have it down to where we feel it works well most of the time.  at some point i’m going to do a video post where i explain how to use the six row seeder in detail but right now i’m just giving a few helpful tips.

1. prepare your soil well – spend the extra time getting all the weeds and trash out of the beds.  make sure to break up any soil clods, and get the soil very smooth and even.  if this all seems to be taking a long time, the savings will more than be made up with the speed of the seeder.  out in the fields, a rototiller or rotovator set on the a very shallow setting to just fluff the soil works well for this, then going over with a rake or harrow to smooth everything out.

2. soil moisture is important, two wet and the soil sticks to the baskets and clogs the shoots where the seed comes out.  too dry and it can be hard to push the seeder though.  aim for somewhere in between, but closer to the dry side.

3. before you seed anything set the depth regulators at their highest settings, and then roll it over the seed bed allowing the basket rollers to help smooth out the seed bed even more.

4. if trying to decide between a smaller and large hole, i usually pick the larger hole, and figure i can thin later, but will be really frustrated if i have to reseed due to spotty germination and seeding.  same thing goes for the brushes, if you are trying to decide between two brush settings, go for the higher one, but don’t over due it, you will end up wasting seed and having to do a lot a lot of thinning.

5. watch the middle of the seed hoppers, as you seed, you should see a small depression forming as you go, letting you know that seed is dropping, if you don’t see that after about five feet of seeding, check your settings.

6. watch the collars that lock the spindle into place as you go and make sure that they are rotating, sometimes they get loose and stop spinning and then you have no seed coming out.

7. if the seeder get caught up on something, trash, rock, etc, just pick it up and set it on the other side of the obstacle, dont’ try to push though it.

8. make sure to water very well when you have finished to break open that seed coat, and keep the soil moist until germination happens.

if everything goes right it should look something like this!

while getting the hang of the seeder is certainly difficult, it has also been worth it. these are recent plantings in the hoophouse.   we can plant much faster, much more precisely, and much tighter than we could with other seeders.  it also is a pretty big investment, but it has now more than paid off with increased yield, and time saved in seeding.  for those wanting to learn more about the seeder – check out johnny’s selected seeds.   it doesn’t work well for everything, but for small seeds or tightly spaced crops it works great.

the failure of thinning beets

no matter the amount of care and time one always seem to come up with a situation in which their beet (beta vulgaris)  seed germinates much too close together.  that was the case in the hoop house where we planted beets a couple of weeks ago.

what gives?  we carefully used the precision seeder to make it so we wouldn’t have to thin, but when they sprouted there were three or four seedlings per spot.

while it might seem like failure, it’s just the way beets are.  what we see as a seed is actually multiple seeds – a seed cluster.  i’ve often heard it referred to as like a dried up berry – with multiple seeds in each one.   even though you put one “seed” per spot, often you get 3 or 4 plants spouting up from the seed cluster.

much as you might not want to, you have to thin these, or else you will end up with no good beets.  don’t think of it as a bad thing – in fact don’t even call it thinning, call it harvesting.  i harvest once to get a bit more space between the beets; collecting the tiny beet seedlings and using them as micro greens in salad.  a few weeks later when they are much bigger i harvest again to give them enough space to make full size roots.  the thinnings i harvest used in salad mix, or stemmed briefly for the most tender beet greens.  i get at least three harvests out of one seeding!

enjoy the beets!

garlic harvest 2012 video

harvested all the garlic this last weekend at the farm with help from the kids track at the allied media conference.  i had a really good time harvesting garlic, and at the amc in general.  it’s the first one i have been to in several years, and i had forgotten how much fun it could be.  i made a quick video of the harvest, hope you enjoy.