Country Living Series

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme....

I've been planting.

It's far too early to plant anything directly in the garden -- around here, June 1 is about the earliest we can expect to get things in the ground (and sometimes even that's not a guarantee) -- so a lot of stuff has to be started indoors.

We have a tiny greenhouse (a retrofitted shed) that I've tried using over the years to get seedlings started, but it has two problems: heat retention, and rodents.

Let's face it, unless it's heated, a greenhouse won't retain heat in cold temperatures. If nights drop below freezing, so does the greenhouse. So that's one problem.

The second problem -- rodents (specifically, mice and chipmunks) -- we thought we had licked two years ago when we fitted the entire inside with hardware cloth over every crack and crevice.

However I learned the hard way it didn't work. Last year I started many seedlings in the greenhouse, only to come out the next morning and find the seeds had been dug up and eaten. Grrrr.

So a greenhouse was out. We decided the only viable option was to start seedlings in the house. Next problem: where to put them. Flats of seedlings, as you know, take up a lot of room, and we can't just put them any old place -- they need sunshine.

I'm not talking about just starting a tomato plant or two. I want a proper garden, something that can feed our family. The whole purpose of transitioning to a tire garden is to be in a position to produce nearly all our fruits and vegetables.

There's a legitimate financial justification in this interest. Take a gander at this jaw-dropping graph from ZeroHedge showing how food prices have jumped a staggering 19% in 2014. Yikes.

With that in mind, I wanted to plant hundreds of seedlings... which then begs the question, where to put them? After a bit of thought and research, we made two purchases that we feel falls under the "tangible investments" category.

The first item was a lot of 1000 two-inch seedling pots off eBay. I had a number of three- and four-inch pots I've collected over the years, but those pots were too big for planting individual onions or even corn.

The second item was an industrial-strength wire shelving unit on castor wheels. This, we felt, would offer the maximum amount of storage with a minimum amount of space. We found the best price on eBay. Six shelves, 48 inches wide, 18 inches deep, 72 inches high, with wheels.

Owing to a shipping mishap, the delivery of this shelving unit was delayed by a couple of weeks, but at last the UPS truck drove up.

A couple of other smaller purchases included two dozen inexpensive gardening trays (10x20 inches) for about $1.79 each, and a couple large bags of potting soil from Costco (4 cubic feet, $10).

Knowing how anxious I was to get the seedlings started, Don took time out from work and we assembled the unit right away. It went together very easily and required no tools (except a rubber mallet to tap things into place).

While sometimes the quality of items purchased off eBay is questionable, this unit exceeded all our expectations. It's solid as a rock and very sturdy.

Don had some concerns that the wheels would be cheap and flimsy, but they're not.

The dimensions of the shelving unit were important since they fit four flats per shelf (the flats hang over the edges one inch on either side, not a big deal). This means I can fit 24 flats on this shelving unit. To appreciate how useful this is, imagine the logistics of trying to find room for 24 flats all over the house, taking up every available window space.

Then I pulled out my seeds and got to work.

The two-inch pots were purchased specifically so I could fit them 50 to a tray...

...which they did very nicely.

By the way, a few years ago I bought these little gizmos called Seed Spoons for some ridiculously low price ($1 each or something).

They're simply plastic sticks with a seed scoop at either end (I have two spoons, thus four scoops). The scoops are in various sizes.

When you're dealing with very tiny seeds, it's so much more efficient to plant one seed using a seed spoon than to waste seed by planting too many and "thinning" them later on.

All day long I potted seeds. At the end of the day I had 484 seeds planted as follows:

100 red onions
100 yellow onions
18 paste tomatoes (two varieties)
18 eating/canning tomatoes (two varieties)
18 Brussels sprouts
20 broccoli
24 oilseed pumpkins (we're trying an experiment)
28 watermelon (four varieties)
12 cantaloupe
16 honeydew melons
15 cascabella peppers
10 cayenne peppers
20 thyme
20 oregano
10 sage
10 rosemary
10 cumin
10 parsley
25 basil

And remarkably, there's still room on the shelving unit for 500 corn plants! (Planted 50 to a tray.) I won't plant the corn until about May 1.

The advantage of having the shelving unit on wheels is it allows us to move it from window to window to take advantage of both morning and evening sun. We can also move it outside when it comes time to harden off the plants.

Of course this doesn't count the veggies I'll plant directly outside when the weather permits. These include:

Beans (pinto, Jacob's cattle, Calypso, green)
Breadseed poppies (for seed -- another experiment)

So the old song will hopefully come true this spring.


  1. Hi Patrice,

    Try to find instead 'Pro Mix BX'. My entire crop failed last year using the bagged potting soil from Costco. Believe me: it was a heartbreak in several different ways. Lesson learned.

    Also, use two of those flats nested together - and hold them up to a bright light to check for holes before using, each year. They are fairly delicate and brittle and will get wear holes if slid on rough surfaces, which always seems to happen.

    The setup will generate a lot of humidity in the house to plan on ventilation or dehumidifying.

    The hardest thing later on will be keeping good strong seedlings from falling over in those small pots from carrying and wind when hardening off. A.M. Leonard used to carry frames that would hold 18 3" square pots - same size as those flats you have but they stopped carrying those (not sure why).

    Once the seedlings are outside for hardening off, they can still be in the pots, but they can't be in the solid trays (if it rains, they will drown unless you are there to manage that). So some sort of arrangement is needed.

    Good luck!

  2. We are planting our first large garden this year in anticipation of prices going up. I have 3 hungry teens to feed. :)
    I don't mind, I think growing your own is a better lifestyle anyway.

  3. I have a similar indoor shelf/unit and strung up grow lamps to keep the plants from getting too leggy .. and turn a heating pad on low for tomatoes and basil to germinate. Looks like you are making the most of every inch of space.

  4. What a great idea to put the flats on a rolling tray. My garden is small, so I need to start only two or three flats (usually less than 200 plants) and I have two large sunny windows in my front room, so I just move everything off the table out there and work with what room I have. Great inspiration in this post for my future (hopefully!) larger garden!

  5. What a great set up you have put together. It made me hungry just reading what you are planting and thinking about the harvest.
    The shelving looks handy to have around all year long; a great find!

  6. I bought my wire shelves from ULINE. Best thing is you can get odd sizes widths and additional shelves

  7. Now I have an earworm going - thanks a lot! B-)

  8. We buy these units at Sams, they work great. Word to the wise. When you lift the entire unit, maybe moving outside, lift with the verticals and not the individual shelves. Otherwise the unit will come apart.

  9. We use the same metal shelving units for starting seedlings inside. These shelves look pretty nice, too. My husband wired under-cabinet lights under each shelf since we live in Alaska. These work GREAT!

  10. I’m a 25 year old farmer, physicist and writer born and raised among the snow-capped mountains of Montana. I grew up on an off-the-grid homestead with my brother, raised by my dad—an alternative energy expert and passive solar pioneer. My brother and I went off on scholarships, first to the east coast then to the south for college, but we have since returned to our wild mountains to build our lives and prepare to not only survive, but thrive and pass the torch of civilization to those who will follow us.

    I only give advice on what I’ve tried and experienced first-hand at 5,000 ft elevation here in Montana. I spent my childhood playing with solar energy and I hope I can share some useful tips. I know you’ve moved on to plan B already, but these tips might help you in the fall if you want to try again with the greenhouse for a late fall/Christmas garden.

    To get the most bang for your buck, a passive greenhouse retrofit is the way to go, just like you started here. “Passive” means you’re harnessing the sun without external power—no fans or heaters needed. To extend your growing season without nighttime freezes or daytime cookouts, there are four simple steps:

    1. Glazing. This gives the essential light and heat for a working greenhouse. THE TRICKY PART: Only glaze (make transparent) the south face of your greenhouse. Any wall or roof surface that is not facing south SHOULD NOT BE GLAZED. In the Redoubt, especially at higher elevations, you are fighting a daily battle between heat gain and heat loss. Any transparent surface is losing heat when the sun isn’t shining on it.
    2. Control the airflow. At high elevations in the Redoubt, any crack or crevice is going to sabotage your greenhouse efforts. Block up every hole or gap with wadded up newspaper, rags, etc. You’ll need to vent at hot mid-summer, but at night you need to seal up tight so that refreshing temperature drop we all love so much doesn’t get into your greenhouse.
    3. Insulation. Any wall or roof surface of your greenhouse that isn’t transparent glazing needs to be insulated. This brings us back to that daily war you’re waging between heat loss and heat gain. Insulation can be simple and cheap. Cardboard and/or egg cartons stapled to the inside walls or a false wall a few inches inside with the gap filled with loose earth, straw or anything insulating you have lying around. THE TRICKY PART: Every night the earth radiates heat into the vast empty expanse of space. This is your biggest heat lost. It has a profound effect on nighttime temperatures in your greenhouse. If you have a glazed (transparent) roof, you can devise a simple system inside your greenhouse with moveable insulation to slide into place at night and pull back in the morning. Some successful designs are as simple as an old ratty quilt, some nails and 2x4s, and a long pole.
    4. Thermal storage mass. Does your greenhouse cook and freeze? You need thermal storage mass. During the day, the sun shines in and heats up the air and any dark surface. This thermal energy (heat) wants to have something to do, and if you don’t give it a job, it will cook your greenhouse. Anything “massive” placed in the direct sunshine will absorb all that extra daytime heat and slowly release it at night. The simplest solution is often 50 gallon drums of water painted black with raised beds built on top. You can also use stone, brick or even massive amounts of soil. THE TRICKY PART: If you have too much thermal mass, your greenhouse will be cold and chilly like a medieval castle.

    Just take the time to think about your design and do some research online. Personally, I’ve found that the best “all-in-one” resource for understanding passive solar greenhouses (and quite a bit more) are the NMSEA Bulletins from the late 70s.* Check it out: Especially the articles under Home: Construction “Rules of Thumb” and “Thumbmanship” by Mr. Balcomb.

    *Disclaimer: I’m New Ordnance’s daughter from the Rocky Mountain Corn Project and

    1. That was EXTREMELY USEFUL. I'm in lovely temperate Pennsylvania, not the Redoubt, but that was useful even to me here and now (and I am, for the record, thinking and planning and dreaming about how one might relocate a mechanical engineer to y'all's neck of the woods-- we will not be in PA forever, and it just sounds like an all around good place to finish bringing up kids).

  11. 4 foot shop lights with *daylight* fluorescent bulbs work wonders. Just keep them about an inch above the plants. Window light has never worked for us; they get too leggy.

  12. Genius idea! Been wondering where on earth to put my starts. Now if I can just keep the cat away from them . . .

    1. Pack the pots tightly on the table/shelf/whatever. If the cat has no place to "land," it will most likely stay out of the seedlings.

      Sometimes a young or very aggressive cat will just stand on the pots (had one that did that-- she became an outside cat in short order). Using a shelving unit and hanging sheers or mosquito or clear plastic over the openings helps in that case, but you have to be very careful to keep it closed. I did this the spring that I was living with 9 cats, four of which were very energetic kittens.

      For the record-- NEVER live with 9 cats in your house. No matter how much of a cat person you are, and no matter how soft-hearted you feel toward that unwanted pregnant cat. JUST DON'T DO IT. I'm a big cat person, but since THAT episode I will never look at cats the same way again.

    2. Fill the flats and put them in the normal location a few weeks before you intend to plant them. Place upside down mousetraps on the flats and any surfaces close enough to mess with the seedlings from. After a few weeks of the scary snap traps you should be able to use the flats normally with the mouse traps just sitting around it. You can use double sided tape or spiky plastic stuff(turn a floor protector over) for the less determined cats or as extra insurance.

  13. Patrice - you can buy cheap 4 foot long florescent light fixtures and hang them from each shelf to "enlighten" the plants below. They have chains that you can raise and lower them to the right height for the plants and you won't have to move the shelving around. I always started my tomatoes and green peppers like that and had great success. The lights are cool so you can put them almost on top of the seedlings - they grow better that way.
    Good luck.

  14. Is that your Rodent Eradication Tool in the 2nd photo down ? :)

    - Charlie

  15. Totally random and off topic question: How do you store your potatoes? I vaugely recall you saying you don't have a cold room to do so. I'm looking at growing potatoes this year, I don't plan to put in alot, this is a trial to look at the work vs the return vs how much we like the potato type in question, but if we get any decent amount I need to store them.....

    On topic, SO FAR, the rodents haven't found my little greenhouse, not sure what I'll do when they do.....The only thing I can think of in your case would be to litterally lay down the chicken wire on every surface.

    1. We've had success storing them in clean garbage cans, packed with straw. The problem is they tend to accumulate moisture and begin sprouting by spring. Perforated garbage cans (for air circulation) may work better but we haven't tried it.

      This past year we laid the potatoes out on newspapers in a cooler upstairs room to dry. I **meant** to pack them in a garbage can, but never got around to it. To my surprise, they've held up very well and we're still eating them. Some are getting soft, but most are just great. The average temp of this upstairs room in winter is in the 50s.

      One of our "someday" projects is to build an above-ground "root cellar" out of tires stuffed with clay, with an insulated roof. We'll see if we ever get this done.

      - Patrice

    2. Do you bury or otherwise insulate your garbage cans?? I can't keep potatoes in the house-- too warm; once my MIL moves in there won't be any rooms that aren't heated to at least 65F and most are warmer.

      Right now I am hoping to bury several of the smaller metal trash cans this to serve as a makeshift root cellar. If I can get out of all that digging, though, it would be handy...

    3. Thanks! No upstairs here to get chilly, but I'll try the trashcan and straw idea if we get enough to make it worth while! I was debating dehydrating some too....

  16. Lovely!! I have to commend you on the tire garden too-- not many are willing to try it but in my experience it gives excellent results (though I was growing only single pepper plants in used 14-inch car tires).

    I'm interested to know how you manage to raise watermelons in Idaho-- perhaps I am misunderstanding, but it seems that the growing season is awfully short. I would appreciate knowing your method-- I would like to grow a few watermelon here in PA.

    Good luck with this growing season-- I need to get started on my own seedlings. I can set out about May 1- May 15 if I am cautious about late frosts, so I'm running late!!

    1. Watermelons have to be started indoors, no question about it. There are some cooler varieties I'm trying this year, notably "Cream of Saskatchewan" -- which yields creamy-white insides. There is a short-season variety called Blacktail Mountain which we grew last year with great success, but I think it's a hybrid (not sure -- I'll have to check into that -- we bought seedlings from a local hardware store).

      - Patrice

    2. MC -
      I'm in western PA( ag zone 5a) and we have success with Sugar Baby watermelons. Unless you live in southeastern Pennsylvania, May 1- May 15 is probably too early to set out watermelon plants unless they're in a hot frame. We wait until June :-)

    3. Western PA too, vicinity of Ellwood City.

      Yes, I'll probably be holding off on the melons until June I think. I was thinking of more cool-tolerant things. I wasn't very clear about that was I??

      Thanks for the tips. I need to get things started and will definitely give the Sugar Babies and/or Blacktail Mountains a go.

    4. I tried Blacktail's last year, for what its worth Bakers Creek carries the seeds: unfortunetly they all split before we got to eat any. I'm zone 5b here, but we had a seriously screwy growing season last year....

  17. Now that's what I call a good looking grocery list, Patrice.

    I love this thread.

    I got my first starts yesterday.

    And just to punctuate, for those of us with cabin or spring fever, the year's first waterlily is blooming on the pond. It's lonely looking, but proud and beautiful, and soon to have much company

    A. McSp.

  18. Patrice,

    Check out for your supplies next time. No affiliation here, but their prices on flats, pots, lights, bamboo stakes, and almost everything else I found blew away amazon and ebay.

    I'll second another commenter above on the lights. You'll have even better luck with your setup with a few cheap 4 foot "shoplight" style fluroescent fixtures to light up each level of the plants. Look for the bulbs with 6500k light for the best results. I pack mine away each year until the next spring...been on the same bulbs for almost 10 years now.

    Good luck on your garden!

  19. I am going to "steal" this wonderful idea and use it next year!