Friday, July 17, 2009

We got dirt!

Much to my surprise, the local garden supply place actually had vermiculite and perlite in stock in 2 cubic foot bags.

  • 2 cubic feet of perlite $23
  • 2 cubic feet of vermiculite $23
  • 3 packets of seeds $6

This brings our grand total to $195. Getting up there! I was thinking that next time around I might use compost from our pile instead of the dirt cocktail. We are building up quite the compost pile. Lots of kitchen waste, lawn clippings, then in the fall the whole neighborhood puts out huge piles of leaves for collection. I think we'll make some late night raids on those piles!

Really for the next run if I can use our homegrown compost the only new expenses will be seeds and replacing the fluorescent bulbs if needed. Once I've settled on a particular variety or two the family and I like, the cost of seed should be less, and I can reuse the seeds from one year to the next, at least for a couple years. Actually, not really sure how long the plants will grow before they need to be replaced. Ah, and of course fertilizer as well... But at any rate the big expenses are in the startup costs. Ha, perhaps it's a bit soon to be making a 5 year plan, lets see how the first run goes.

Anyway, picked up three new varieties of seeds at the garden shop:

  • Fourth of July Hybrid
  • San Marzano
  • Mortgage Lifter

I'd read about Mortgage Lifter before and liked the name. So now I have 11 types of seeds and ten buckets, one of them won't make the cut.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Gardeners in Motion...

Ok, so I was out of town. Back now.

Yesterday I did a garden tour and lo and behold, the tomatoes in the back had come back with a vengeance. I still figured they wouldn't amount to too much actual produce, but I thought maybe get a little out of them.

Then this morning before work I went out to do a garden tour and my arch nemeses had had themselves a little feast. They were more restrained than they had been in the past, so I guess I should be glad. But still, doubt there'll be much.

Kind of a neat overgrown gazebo at the Rutherford B Hayes presidential museum on the way to Chicago. Facts I know about Rutherford B Hayes: he beat out Samuel Tilden in his presidential race in a squeaker and he promised to end Reconstruction. Either of these facts may be incorrect. I may never know, because it costs $6 to go inside the museum. What could Rutherford B Hayes possibly have waiting in that museum to delight me that could be worth $6?

Countdown to tomato planting: 33 days.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Slowly Gathering Dust...

Still no progress on the basement set up, but did get some veggies from the aboveground garden. Enough beans for a meal, plus a couple zucchini and a nice pickling cuke. Just ate the pickling cuke raw, was very tasty.

Nice that the deer left us something.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Treading water

No progress today, but did some reading online. I can't seem to find info about how much light is enough if you're just going with fluorescents, although there were hints of people being successful with less light than I'll be using. Maybe I'll post some of the links I found useful in a later post.

Monday, July 6, 2009


I'm still in need of that vermiculite and perlite. One of the garden places in town told me to try a hardware store, and two hardware stores just looked at me funny. The other garden place I've bought vermiculite in the past from. Although I doubt they have it in stock. But I can probably at least have them order me some.

And I don't want to start the seedlings quite yet, we're out of town off an on a lot until mid August. Just doesn't make sense to start things going when I won't even be here. It's a shame, I'm champing at the bit to get started, but it needs to be put off.

Well, anyway, there are a few more items on the to do list before starting seeds anyway.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Constructing the Tomato Bunker

So here's what we had to work with. A little corner of the basement we used to store (mostly empty) boxes. Yes, that is a toilet. It's not hooked up. But the one just outside the picture on the left is. Well, sort of. The water pipe is not connected. We only have one bathroom, but even one bathroom for four people hasn't been enough for us to consider hooking this one up.

So step one, find a spot amongst this mess for some agriculture. To be sure, this area doesn't scream FARM! to anyone. But it'll have to do.

So first, I wanted to lay down some cinderblocks so the buckets weren't sitting on the ground. Both to put some space between the plants and the cold floor and to make them a little bit more accessible. Fortunately, there were a load of unused cinderblocks in the basement already. Judging by the cobwebs, they hadn't been moved in ten years or more. Although I'm no cobweb expert.

Anyway, laid out the cinderblocks in a couple rows, envisioning two rows of five buckets atop them. Notice I've done minimal rearranging of the boxes in the back. Well, it turns out that I'd be moving them a few more times, plus pretty much moving every box in the basement to make the Mrs. happy.

Once the blocks were in their (close to) final positions, I brought down the pails and checked out spacing. The tomatoes will be quite a bit closer together than the seed packets recommend (2 - 3' for the varieties I have). But I figure I can move them a little bit further apart as they get bigger. Undoubtedly I will look back on this as My First Mistake (tm). The main motivation for putting them so close is so to pack in as many as I can while still having them fall under the shop lights, so they get plenty of yummy photons. You can see the shop light fixture sitting on top of the buckets in the photo. I left enough room in the back of the setup so that I can walk behind.

Reshuffled the cinderblocks one more time (*grunt*) and then went about hanging the shop lights. I paused for a moment, wondering to myself how I would go about cutting the chain for the shop lights. Hmmm. Fortunately, my pliers had a wire cutting part on them. A little carpentry to get something to hang the lights from, then hung the chains and hooked them up to the light fixtures. Hey, this is starting to look like what I envisioned. In fact, I was far happier with my job of hanging the lights than I thought I'd be.

I had wanted the lights a little closer to the buckets, especially for when the tomatoes were small. But the limiting factor was the cord on the shop lights, it was only 5'. I may add another layer of cinderblocks under the buckets if I'm feeling ambitious and filled with boundless energy.

What's left to do? Hmmm, well, I need a couple cubic feet each of vermiculite and perlite to make the soil cocktail. I need to set up the fan. I want to have the fan blowing on them on low for a couple reasons - without some breeze, the plants tend to get leggy and fall over. Also might help a little with pollination, we'll see how that goes. also need to drill a few holes in each bucket for drainage. Also need some crushed stone (or something) for the bottom of the buckets. Need a couple timers for the lights, don't want them to be on all the time. Also don't want to have to rely on my memory to ensure the lights go on and off. Also need a curtain for the basement windows. no sense annoying the neighbors with a whole mess of light at all hours. What else? Hmmm. Oh, I was thinking maybe a lattice of thin rope for the tomatoes to climb on. Won't need to worry about that for a while I guess. Ha, probably leaving that until later will be My Second Mistake (tm).

And of course, I need tomato plants! Today was a holiday, so none of the garden store are open. I'm hoping they'll be open Sunday. I'd like to start off the seeds all at once, and compare how they do.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Stockpiling Supplies

Lots of progress yesterday. I went a little crazy at the local hardware store. My assistant and I took stock of the purchases:

  • 3 two bulb 4' long shop lights $60
  • 6 fluorescent tubes, T8 4' 32 Watts $21
  • 10 five gallon plastic bucket $23
  • 30 feet of chain (to hold the lights) $ 8
  • 2 cubic feet of peat moss $10

Altogether it came to $129 bucks with tax. More than I had intended to spend, but I rationalize that this is one time startup costs. And I'll probably have the shop lights the rest of my life, so half of the cost is a long term investment. Figure once it gets going it'll just be replacing bulbs and occasionly replacing the soil. And I may just use compost for that, so even cheaper. Of course the cost of running the lights will be something, but hopefully small compared to the startup costs.

Still to buy, Perlite and Vermiculite for the soil. The recipe I found was 1 part peat moss, 1 part perlite, 1 part vermiculite. Will add in a little lime to prevent blossom end rot which apparently plagues indoor gardeners more than our cousins on the surface world. Will have to fertilize regularly, I'm still thinking about that.

Also purchased some seeds yesterday. For the first effort I thought I'd see what types of tomatoes grow well with this set up and also which type we like the best. The plan is to have 10 plants growing at once. So I picked up seeds for:

  1. Early Girl Hybrid
  2. Steak Sandwich Hybrid
  3. Super Sweet 100 Hybrid (cherry)
  4. Summer Choice
  5. Big Boy Hybrid
  6. Red Cherry, Large Fruited
  7. Super Beefsteak
  8. Roma VF

I may see if I can get two other types before I set out the seeds. I would like to try some heirloom varieties, but they didn't have anything locally, and I want to get started. A grape tomato would be nice in the mix too. I'm probably going to hit a garden center or two today or tomorrow and see if they have anything different, may swap some of the ones I have out if I can find some interesting varieties. I probably also have seeds to Brandywine and Rutgers from last year, but I'm not going to use those. Brandywine were beautiful tomatoes, but they produced very little fruit in the garden last year. I want to have plenty of tomatoes, so Brandywine is out. Rutgers were prolific and the tomatoes themselves were HUGE, but there was just something about them that did not appeal to me. So trying some different varieties. The packets cost on average $2 each, but I had the Roma onhand from my earlier above-ground gardening, so add $14 to the expenses thus far (new total - $143). This is getting a little pricey, but again, more than half of the expense is for hardware that will last a lifetime, so I feel less bad.

Next step: setting up the basement.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Birth of the Underground Garden

Once my garden dwelt on the surface world. Last year it even did quite well. Sure, we had some losses to the critters, but we laughed it off, there was plenty more, and we had enough tomatoes to satisfy our needs.

This year hasn't worked out so well. We got a late start with the seed trays indoors, didn't really get a jump on the season. But once things got going, the tomatoes seemed to be doing nicely. I do a daily garden tour to see if the plants need water and generally check on how they're doing. About a week ago, I found that three plants had been nibbled on by somebody. "Oh, no big deal" I thought. The plants will recover, and this is the first critter visit we'd seen this season. Maybe they won't be back for a while. How naive.

Went out on my morning garden tour a few days ago with high hopes. Had just fertilized, wondered if I'd see any growth spurt. It was not to be. Instead I found a scene of utter devastation. I saw the tracks. Deer. You may think Bambi when you thing of deer. I think Nosferatu. They come in the night with an insatiable hunger. They feed on the living (well, the living tomato plants, anyway). They didn't leave one tomato plant untouched in the back yard. Most were chewed down to the ground. A couple barely escaped complete annihilation.

Spent hours surfing the web looking for a way to keep these monsters out of the garden. Urine (human and coyote), mothballs, hair, bloodmeal, fragrant soap. None of these methods worked for everyone, and many people lamented that sometimes a method would work for a few weeks then these vegedors (vegetable predators?) would be back laying waste. A fence would work, but it had to be 10' high. Or a 6' high fence with another 6' high fence 4' behind it. Perhaps a rifle. Nah, we live in a suburban area. Hmmm, maybe with a silencer. The Mrs. gave me a glare that said that wasn't gonna happen. I'm sure I couldn't have pulled the trigger anyway. Although every time I look at those poor tomato plants I get a real yearning for a nice venison steak.

Revenge fantasies aside, it was pretty clear that I couldn't solve the deer out without turning the backyard into a maximum security lockup. Perhaps the landlord wouldn't approve of that. Kind of expensive anyway. I could always rototill the front yard and... The Mrs. gave me that look again. Besides, I could just imagine waking up to a half dozen deer in the front yard, laughing their evil laughs as they polished off the last of the veggies.

That's when I decided that the only answer was complete surrender. Go ahead, deer, clearcut the yard. You win. I'm bringing it inside. Into the cellar. You won't get at these tomatoes! Unless they break down the door. Which seems unlikely, even for such vicious and insatiable creatures. I bid goodbye to the surface world and retreated into the basement to ponder how to make it happen. After I'd sketched it out in my mind, I ran up against the toughest part of the whole project. Getting the Mrs. to sign off on it.

She agreed, although somewhat unenthusiastically.

Next I hit the web again and surfed every combination of tomatoes, indoor, and "I hate deer" that I could come up with. There is a huge range of often conflicting advice online about growing tomatoes indoors. Some people spend vast sums of money on metal halide lamps and hydroponic equipment. On the other end of the spectrum were people would put their tomatoes "near a window" and harvested enough produce to feed a small city. I got the sneaking feeling that the low intensity approach would produce extremely unsatisfactory results for me, so I decided to take more of a middle path, and see what I could accomplish with fluorescent shop lights.

I wanted to keep track of what I was doing, how much I was spending, and how successful the porject was, so I thought a blog might be the perfect way to keep track. And if my experience can provide some help to some other poor soul driven in to their dank, dark basement by deer, or rabbits, or winter, good.