Containers to Tame Water

March 27th, 2010

The biggest downfall of container gardening, especially if they get lots of sun, is keeping them wet but not drowning. My balcony faces south so the sun not only grows lush plants but keeps me busy filling bottles of water. It’s easy to forget how much water the ground can hold. Even when it hasn’t rained for a week, there’s still more moisture in the soil than will be in a container after 1 hot day.

Every drop of water these plants drink is carried by me. Container plants are always thirsty. I hate watering.

Since I like to eat what these plants grow I still go through this almost daily ritual. Making containers with water reservoirs in the bottom are pretty straightforward. I’ve also experimented with nested containers and tiered containers to create larger self-watering pots.

One of my attempts to make an easy, water storing container was to place a sponge underneath the dirt.

soil and sponges cross section

As you can see, the roots got very thirsty and ended up completely devouring the sponge. I can’t remember, but I think I had some spinach or arugula growing here.

more lettuces from last year

I also tried a variation of this but used 2 stacked containers: water in the bottom and soil/plants in the top. They were “connected” with 4 sponges pushed through holes I cut through the top container. I don’t have a good cross-section photo for it but you can get the idea.

The window boxes worked pretty well using a rock drainage layer underneath the soil. These hung over the balcony and frequently flooded with rain so I had to drill a small hole about an inch below the soil line to keep water standing from on the surface (and molding over).

window box pebbles

window box soil cross section

You can really see the root penetration into the canvas I used to separate the soil from the rock layer.

Finally, my favorite container involved an inverted terra cotta pot surrounded by a rock layer for drainage and stability.

container with pebbles and terra cotta pot

I then covered the pot and rocks with a cut piece of a cheap canvas drop cloth. This allowed me to fill the container with soil and keep a small reservoir of water beneath it. I didn’t take a ton of pictures last year but below are my basil plant, serrano peppers, and jalapeno peppers after about 2 months of growing. Believe me, they ended up about twice as big and produced more peppers than my mouth could handle. (Late night pepper eating contests are a BAD idea; those things were angry!)

basil and peppers from last year

Since both the pots and cloth are permeable, the soil surrounding it will continue to stay saturated with water while the artificial void creates a larger volume of water storage potential. The downside is that now my plants have less soil to secure their root systems, less chance to absorb nutrients, and more opportunity for overcrowding. That’s where adding nutrients to the soil comes into play. (more on that later)

Regardless, I think my next project will involve creating a centralized water bucket and have it feed the containers through a series of tubes and piping. Think mini water tower. I’ll start on that when the watering can gets too heavy.

Green Home Automation

February 24th, 2010

One of the projects I’ve been working on for the past 2 years is installing Green Home Automation systems. You can check out more details at Real Genius Designs.

In a nutshell, a normal automation system gives you control over all of your home’s appliances, lighting, television, music, and phone systems. You can program it to handle these devices without you having to lift a finger or through simple interfaces like touchscreens, remote controls, cell phones, or voice commands.

Taking this system and making it green usually involves shrinking down all of the main control modules so they use as little power as possible. Whether it’s installing low-power computers, wireless sensors, or energy-efficient devices, there are many ways to create a jaw-dropping home experience while lowering your power bills, too.

There are literally thousands of ways to go about installing an automation system and no 2 homes will ever be the same. Since my loft is always the testbed for my newest custom devices I plan to show you some of the coolest pieces as I build them. I’ll try to show the details for the most interesting builds before I either tear them apart for my next project or install them in my clients’ homes.

The design process never ends and there’s always something new to work on. At least I’ll never get bored. Hopefully, you won’t either!

Bucket of Potatoes

February 24th, 2010

If you’re like me you buy a sack of potatoes, forget to eat them all, and find them hinding on your top shelf 2 months later. The crazy shoots and rooty tendrils look pretty cool but the potato is never as tasty. Even though a good scrub-down makes it look normal again, the soft and mushy feeling is there to stay. I’m sure there’s some old Irish potato famine recipe to stew these back to life but baking it is always a losing proposition.

Anyways, I’ve always read that those store bought potatoes can come covered in disease and will never grow as good as a true seed potato. A trip to Hastings always turns into a stroll through Mr. Miagi’s backyard. Remember all the work Daniel put into sanding the floors, painting the fence, and hammering the nails? Well, Hastings looks nothing like that but is equally as cool. They have little outdoor paths, fish ponds, wooden bridges, and a fully functioning train set that circles around some of the cooler plants.

Back to the potatoes, from what I’ve read they should be a no-brainer to grow. So, I’ll just fill a 5 gallon container about 1/3 of the way with dirt, toss in the seed potato, a little more dirt, and then saturate it with water.

I should be able to make my way to Hastings this weekend but I might change my plans on where I set the bucket. Since the temperature keeps slipping under freezing I’ll probably start them inside and leave them out during the day.

Regardless, I wish all gardening was this easy!

Time to Set up the Container Gardens!

February 21st, 2010

After losing my 3rd hat and 2nd pair of gloves, it looks like we’re finally getting some warmer weather. I think it’s time to play urban gardener again!

The past few years I’ve experimented with all kinds of container gardening and still haven’t found the perfect method. Growing pretty flowers and things to eat is tough without a real garden, real dirt, or rain. Last year gave me tons of jalapeno and serrano peppers, basil, chives, spinach, swiss chard, arugula, and mesclun (not the drug!). The beans and tomatoes weren’t as happy but I’m blaming that on my small containers and not loving them enough. This year will be different!

The goal this year is to make the containers more self-sufficient. I thought I had the whole watering thing figured out until the basil and pepper plants started sucking a gallon a day. Since there’s no water faucet on my balcony it would be nice to go more than a day between waterings. You’d be amazed at how fast lettuces wilt when the water source in the lower container runs dry. You can almost count the wilting in minutes.

Since I only grow from seeds, it’s difficult to gauge the size of these plants and know how many will actually produce. Instead of letting it all grow wild and marveling at its girth, this Spring I’ll have to actually pull and throw away the weakest seedlings and concentrate on the best 20%. Maybe I’ll have smaller harvests but at least next year (using the saved seeds) I won’t have to worry as much about weaker seeds. As an added bonus, I’ll probably have to water less, too.

Why start a blog now?

February 21st, 2010

Ever since I can remember I’ve been working. Surprisingly, I actually like working and don’t mind clocking 80-90 hours a week to create something new or make something better. Maybe it’s the young and naive in me talking but I can’t ever imagine retiring. I might have enough money to quit the dayjob but I’ll always be working.

Whenever I put on my Engineering cap it’s easy to bury my head in a problem and forget to look up until I’m neck deep. Sometimes it’s too late to back out or it’s 2 months later and I’m left wondering where the time went.

Now, I have no real problem doing this for the dayjob or my hobbies (at least one of those pays me each week). From day 1 I’ve always loved inventing things and starting from scratch. But, a lot of the time I find myself sidetracked wallowing in some rabbit hole of a problem wasting my only real limited resource: time. The worst part hits me when I see how much I let my original plan get pulled in different directions and it’s too late to go back. Whether I did it to myself or let everyone else have a hand in it, ultimately, I never gave the idea a real shot.

Maybe someday I can look back and have the freedom to talk about them openly. Most likely they’ll be sealed like the JFK files to protect the living!

I can’t guarantee I’ll never make these mistakes again but at least if I write them down here I might save someone else from doing the same. At the very least I’ll have a good timeline of all the places I could have done it right. Along the way I can share some of the neat things I’ve found out with the other 12 people who pretend to care!

Either way, I’ll never stop trying and learning how not to do it right. I’m guessing you’re interested in seeing how it ends or you wouldn’t have read this far (or you’re my mom). I’ll try not to bore you too much along the way.