Monthly Archives: February 2017

Winter Sowing: Finding Containers

My gardening season begins in the alleys, scavenging for milk jugs. They become the mini-greenhouses for winter sowing: aka plant them and mostly forget about them until it’s time to transplant.*

imag0184I had to walk my bike towards the end of this harvest. Dexter is impressed! Also, in contradiction of everything below, I couldn’t pass up the giant cake platter.

You can start seeds in pretty much any food grade item that holds soil and lets in light—even ziplock bags. Last year, I experimented with 2-liter soda bottles, cake boxes, strawberry clam-shells, commercial vats of cooking oil. . .my yard was a riot of shapes and colors.

That’s one of the reasons I am now sticking with lightweight, translucent, plastic, gallon (LTPG**) containers. The consistency is soothing to my eyes. They sit quietly, unassuming, not competing with spring’s first acts. I also find they are the easiest for me to set up and manage.imag0065That large container of kale. . .so tempting for planting kale seeds. Would not even need to relabel. But no! I resisted.

Labeling: This is always a hot topic on the winter sowing facebook page. You need something that will not fade over time. I’ve settled on grease pencils. Since I bought a pack of 10, I am committed for the long haul. However, they work best on slightly textured, slightly colored surfaces. They do not grip clear plastic well, and whatever dim marks manage to stick are hard to read.

imag0179These cheap, bought in bulk, grease pencils are great for labeling, but I have to hack at the paper. Neighbors, let me know if you want a few so I can justify trying another brand.

Cutting: The thin walls yield easily to my crude methods for prepping the jugs. I just bore the bottom corners with scissors, and pinch a corner sidewall to start a cut. Hard slippery plastic repels scissors. But since I tend to be too impatient to dig up a better tool, I stab and hack away. This not only takes too long, it makes me worried that I am going to need to dig up the band aids.

Soil: The smaller containers dry out more quickly and the larger ones use more soil than necessary. When they are the same style, they tend to need water at the same time, not just because the amount of soil tends to be the same, but so does the surface area and light level.

imag0178When the widgets are the same, the assembly line runs more smoothly, or something like that.

When I started looking for jugs last month, I vowed to only have eyes for LTPGs. In fact, I was going to avoid LTPG’s with the sidewall divets common to milk jugs. Even better, why not avoid milk jugs in general, since they reach peek reek so quickly? (I wonder why folks tend to keep caps on the empties.)

Within the first few blocks, I realized I could not build my garden on gallons of distilled baby water and orange drink. The pickings were slim for milk jugs as well. I think it is partly related to gentrification, and partly because the recycling trucks seem to be on the prowl more frequently.imag0112

Divets make it harder to tape the jugs. More on that later. Also–gross! Do you see the dried milk in the handle? This one required some vigorous shaking and rinsing.

So, I am back to grabbing whatever LTPG’s I can find. My bike can easily carry six, and I enjoy straining capacity. Carrying by hand used to be hard, until I picked up this tip from another winter sower: use string or a broom handle. For unplanned alley jaunts, I just look for a pole or a stick. This also helps me root around at the bottom of bins. . .because I can’t afford to pass any containers up!

imag0205Bent the end of this strip of metal I found near the garbage, and went fishing!

It ends up working out since small batches are easier to manage anyway. There’s a limit to how many milk jugs I can rinse out at once, especially when they are bulging with fumes!

* (I already wrote a bit about how to set the containers up. Instructions are also at the milk jug page of wintersown.org.)
**I couldn’t think of a clever acronym. LTPG sounds kind of like Lit Pig. Pigs like garbage. Gardening lights me up. So, LTPG it is!

PS: Some of the Dwarf Siberian kale, planted 2/8,  is already popping.
imag0219

Alley Findings

The recycling bins in our alley used to overflow with empty gallons of milk, water, and juice–perfect containers for starting plants. Yesterday’s four block search yielded only four, all from one house. Instead, I found plenty of cans of La Croix and craft beer–indicator species of a gentrifying (ied!) neighborhood.

The original intent of this post was to offer tips on what to look for in a winter sowing container. But sometimes we find more than we expected when lifting a lid. The stats tell us that families are being displaced from Logan Square. Longtime Latino residents are leaving, and white folks are moving in or maybe it’s more accurate to say it the other way around. The alleys show the changes. We’ve gone from distilled water for babies to fancy soda water for people who like to say pamplemousse.

It’s a serious, heart aching, complex issue, and my family is part of the tangled web.

Through his work at Bickerdike, one of Chicago’s strongest community development corporations, Michael has helped preserve and construct scores of affordable housing units within blocks of our home. We can see the solar panels from one of his award-winning projects from our kitchen window.

vivazapata.jpg

Peer into our kitchen window (and recycling bin), however, and you will see another part of the story. We took an affordable unit off the market when we duplexed the 1st and 2nd floors of our 3-flat. We strive to keep the 3rd floor rent stable and below the booming market rates, but our tenants have tended to be single people without children. Even if all have a low income, affordability looks different to three roommates pooling rent than a family with three children.

This is not guilty hand-wringing. Gentrification is neither 100% bad, nor 100% good.There are so many variables and I’m being simplistic and broadbrushing. For example, I am sure white folks aren’t the only ones buying La Croix at Armitage Produce. For more nuanced and action-forward information, check out the Logan Square Neighborhood Association which, like Bickerdike, does terrific housing and education work with the goal of preserving the ethnic and economic diversity of Logan Square.

Back to the alley: During a recent hunt, I saw a grizzled man with a granny cart rifling through our recycling. “Looking for cans. . . ” he said, somewhat sheepishly. I always feel a little awkward too, when I’m caught looking in someone’s garbage. I walked to my neighbor’s bin, turned around, and smiled conspiratorially: “I’m looking for plastic jugs to start seeds.” He grinned back. “I love the plants.”

Garbage to garden. It’s a small, simple act that brings joy to me and the neighbors and  energizes me to take on harder, more complicated work related to the neighborhood. Dirty hands keep the sleeves rolled up!

imag0038Guilty as charged. Lots of cans in our bin for him to take.

The Sort of Right Stuff

Today I did some unplanned rage gardening.

Sometimes our washing machine decides a load is “too heavy” or “unbalanced” and shuts down in mid-cycle, after half the clothes are soaked. Picture young child sitting down at a corner two blocks from home and simply refusing to go any farther.

For some reason, this glitch (the washing machine one) only happens to me, which is good, because I am the only one in the building who knows the convoluted, contorted, coddling steps for fixing it. This afternoon, a 5 minute trip to the basement to shovel in load #5 turned into a 90 minute fit of winter sowing while I babysat the washing machine’s efforts to chew through load #4 in three separate dainty cycles.

dampbasementThe bad news: I had to drain the washing machine a few times today and our basement drain isn’t at the lowest point. The good news: I bought soil last fall, just for a day like today.

The basement is a mess, a dis-ah-ster as #45 might say. But I am mighty grateful to have it. And if I can’t find what I need in the chaos, something else will do.

I had two stockpiled cranberry juice bottles plus the 4 milk jugs from two days ago. I rinsed those out yesterday. They still kind of stank, but at least not  in a knee buckling way (foreshadowing of the pros and cons of milk jugs). While waiting to see if load 3a would work, I started prepping them for planting.

Drainage: I learned to winter sow from Karen. She heats a fork on a stove burner and gently presses it a few times on the bottom of the jugs, sort of like poking a pie crust. It’s kind of gentle and brutal at the same time. Since I work in the basement (sans burner), I use a razor blade to make little slits. I couldn’t find a razor blade today and I wasn’t going upstairs to look (can’t leave the washer untended), so I just stabbed the bottom corners with scissors. Not the safest choice, but very satisfying.

Cutting the jugs in half: I used to be meticulous about cutting the jugs, measuring the height of the cut, tracing a line to follow. Now I just eyeball it. Winter sowing is forgiving. Once the jugs were flopping open, I rinsed them again. The machine clicked off, ready for load 3b. Next up: adding soil.

carefulcutting)wintersowing.jpgFile photo from more fastidious days. Saving thoughts on what works and when for winter sowing for later.

Adding soil: Fortunately, I stockpiled big bags of potting soil last fall.I dragged one over to the sink and ripped it open. It was suspiciously damp, despite having been untouched since October and being in the high land area of the basement. Can soil go bad? Maybe, but the smell was not knee buckling so I carried on.

Filled the bottom half of each jug about 2/3rds high with soil. Found some old dish pans. Put them in the utility sink (so grateful for a double utility sink!) Filled them with about 2 inches of water. Placed jugs in pans to dampen the soil from the bottom up. Also a good test of the hack job I did on drainage.

imag7516Another file photo, showing the “watering from the bottom” method.

10 mins left on the cycle. Do I dare keep going? Next step is seeds. But my seeds are a jumbled mess outdoors. But wait! They are still in their little bags, categorized by type: kales, lettuces, spinaches, tomatoes, herbs, flowers, and crap that will never thrive  (looking at you carrots, supposedly one of the easiest veges to grow).

What’s the easiest, most forgiving, cold hearty thing I can start? Kale! Also, so conforming to stereotype!

Adding seeds: Eureka moment. I decide to label the containers before adding seeds and to label them upside down, bird’s eye view. Grabbed a grease pencil (they were stashed with the seeds. . . maybe I am more organized than I think), and declared my intention on top of the milk jugs. But grease pencils don’t work well on smooth, clear plastic, so I didn’t label the other two (foreshadowing of pro and cons of hard, clear, smooth plastic).

The machine clicked off, ready for load 3c. Do I keep going? I only meant to be down here for 5 minutes. But my hands are already dirty so. . .

Sprinkle the Lacinato kale from Bakers Creek in the aptly labeled container, which I have moved to a lunch tray on the washer (another random basement find). Massage the seeds into the soil a bit. Sprinkle some more soil  on top. Hack a gentle watering can by poking a few holes in a plastic cup with a nail. Sprinkle some water on top. Find a warped roll of pink dollar store “duct tape.” Tape container shut, which is actually the most annoying part of winter sowing, esp when using milk jugs which have strange circular divots on the sides. A story for another day.

imag0079

Repeat with the Lacinato kale from Botanical Interests, the Dwarf Siberian Kale, and Red Winter Kale. Plant calendula in one of the clear bottles, and a zinnia on the other. Label with a black sharpie, knowing it might fade in the sun. (I’ll remember, right?)

Click, load 3b is done. Place the jugs back in the dish pans of standing water for a last soak. Move the laundry along.

They are all now nestled along the fence outside. All laundry frustration is long gone.

Never too Early to Garden (zone 5)

It was not night this morning at 7am. Not only had the sun started rising, we could actually see and feel it. (Been lots of cloud cover lately. Reflecting the current political weather? Naw, we all know human actions don’t influence climate.)

When Michael noted the trend towards earlier daybreak, I snapped back, “Yeah, until Daylight Saving Time plunges us back into dark mornings.”*

I am at peak grumpiness this time of the year. The chill has settled into my bones, and the short days shorten my fuse. I know I am not alone.imag0041Mystery bulb, 02/06/2017. Go, go, go, little one. If you can make it, so can we!

My solution is simple: run, write, and garden. Overcoming inertia is not simple. But after 4 days of wearing my running clothes, I finally hit the road yesterday. And there is enough pop left in my brain today to write. . . and start gardening!

I’ve never had the patience or consistency to start plants indoors. Checking the water every day, changing pots, exposing the pampered seedlings to the elements little by little. . .so many opportunities for total system failure. With the exception of tossing out lettuce seeds in March and hoping for the best, gardening season didn’t really start for me until after Mother’s Day, with my wallet open for hardy transplants.

imag0044I didn’t organize or bring in my seeds last fall. Oops? Or–they are already winterized!

A few years ago, Karen introduced me to Winter Sowing. You plant seeds in jugs, place them outside, ignore, and then rejoice a few months later at the abundance of transplant- ready seedlings. You can keep your hands in the dirt pretty much all winter long. Ok, it’s a little more complicated than that, but not much. I’ve been meaning to document this process for my friends, since I talk it up so much. And because writing and gardening are 2 of my keys to beating the winter blues. . . here we go. I hope some of you will join me. I’ve got lots of seeds to share (though no guarantee they will take, see above).

Step One: Find Containers

Oops, this post was going to be about dumpster diving for containers, but then I started preambling, so that’s next. In the meantime, here is the site that started it all: wintersown.org

*March 12, so turns out we still have a few weeks.