Monday, February 16, 2015

Winter Gardening Project - Building a Vertical Succulent Planter

For the longest time now, I've wanted to try my hand at building a vertical succulent planter.  In fact, it was this time last year that I'd purchased some plants for this very purpose.  Fast forward a year later, with all of the snow we've been getting, I've been trying to find some creative gardening activities to do indoors.  This seemed like as good of a time as ever.

A few months ago, we converted the bottom floor of our barn into a little workshop.  Building this planter in this warm and cozy space (and away from two kids with major cabin fever) was just what I needed to keep myself sane while a blizzard raged outside.

The build was pretty straight forward, and considering that it was my first time, only took about an hour.  I won't go into detail about how I put this together, but I essentially followed the design instructions provided in the video below with some slight modifications.  I used a finer hardware cloth and added some foam weather stripping to the top of the box to create a tighter seal when the box is attached to the frame. And unlike the instructions below, I also added the bulk of the potting mix to the planter box before I attached it to the frame. For this particular planter, I chose cedar as my wood of choice. 

Then came the fun part - arranging the succulents.

Using a pair of tin snips, I cut into the hardware cloth to create holes just big enough to insert the root balls.  The flaps I made were then bent back into place to secure the plants. (FYI -  A teaspoon makes for a great tool in planting out this miniature garden.)

A layer of Spanish moss helps to keep the soil in place and covers any exposed hardware cloth.  I tried not to overcrowd the planter as these succulents will grow and fill out this frame.

I was really happy with how this project turned out.  This vertical succulent planter now hangs next to the entry way to our kitchen.  I was a bit concerned that some of soil mix would fall out once the planter was hanged, but in reality, the hardware cloth and Spanish moss did a great job of keeping things tidy.  Not a speck of  dirt in sight.

I love the way the succulent rosettes and untreated cedar frame add a nice contrast to the red brick.  It definitely adds an organic element to this space. Upkeep seems to be pretty easy as well.  You just take it off the wall for some light watering every couple of weeks and then let the soil absorb the water for a few minutes before re-hanging. 

If you'd like to learn more, here's a great video on how to build one of these vertical succulent planters.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sowing the First Seeds of the Year - Imperial Star Artichokes

It always feels satisfying to start the first seeds of the year.  Like every other year since I've started gardening, my Imperial Star artichokes are the first to be sown.  It's important to start them early as they need a minimum of six weeks of growing indoors (in a warm environment) and then another six weeks of cold treatment outside to inducing budding the first year.  Artichokes generally start flowering in their second year so this cold treatment tricks them into believing that they've experienced winter.  They're tender here in New England so for those six weeks, I cart them in and out of the house if ever temperatures dip below 35 degrees. 

 It's well worth it though.  We had a good crop of artichokes last year.  They don't grow as big as the ones from California, but are just as tasty.

I allowed many of them to flower completely last year, adding a lot of interest to the flower borders.  This year, however, I think I'll reserve them for the dinner plate.

One final tip - I like to soak the seeds for 24 hours and then pre-sprout them within a damp paper towel sealed within a plastic bag.  Sow the seeds in individual pots when the seed coats start to open. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Last Chance to Winter Sow Those Perennials

I have so much planned for the gardens this year.  One thing I must do is to grow more perennials for the ever-growing flower borders. I went a little crazy again this year when ordering flower seeds.  It just couldn't be helped.  (This was my second time ordering from Swallow Tail Seeds, and so far, I've been really happy with their selection and the quality of their seeds.)  Then again, the way I see it, spending 50 dollars on flower seeds is a lot less expensive than buying hundreds of plants at a nursery.  Starting your flowers from seed also provides you with a much more intimate look into growing habit of the plants themselves, allowing you to learn early on the precise conditions necessary for them to thrive in your garden. 

In any case, since my indoor seed-starting shelves will surely be packed to the gills again this spring, I decided to try my hand at winter sowing.  I'm not surprised that it's taken me this long to give winter sowing a try.  I have a horrible tendency to want to start my plants in a controlled indoor environment and as early as possible.  Truth be told, many of my flower seedlings last year were somewhat root-bound by the time I had the chance to set them out in the garden.  This year, I'm determined to take a more laid back approach (short of direct seeding them in the garden). 

 I don't have plastic milk jugs lying around to create the mini greenhouses associated with winter sowing, so instead, I'm putting my pots into a large clear plastic bin.  I plan to drill plenty of hole into the lid  and sides to prevent the inside from overheating.  For now, I've placed the bin on our covered porch.  If and when the 3 feet of snow we currently have melts, I'll move the bin to a sunnier part of the yard.  Hopefully, I won't be disappointed with the results.  

On a side note, this is what a case of 500 4-inch plastic pots looks like.  It cost me about 80 bucks - a bargain compared to the pain of making the hundreds of newspaper pots I made last year.  The plastic pots themselves are somewhat thinner than what the commercial nurseries use, but they still feel sturdy and durable.  I'm sure I could have gotten away with half this amount, but then again, this might finally give me the motivation to start that little front-yard plant stand I've always wanted. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Winter Project - Making Hypertufa Planters

During the past few weeks, I have been channeling my creative juices into making hypertufa planters for the garden.  If I can't be outside planting or harvesting, this seems like the next best thing.  This was my first attempt at making hypertufa and I must admit that I was really happy with the results.  Hypertufa is essentially made from  a combination of peat moss, perlite (or vermiculite), Portland cement and water.  The process for making these planters was fairly straight forward and the ingredients were easy to work with.  You can use pretty much anything as a mold and there's no special equipment involved - just a large cement mixing tub, latex gloves, a dust mask and a wire brush.

Hypertufa is meant to resemble tufa rock. What's great about hypertufa is that while it has the look of a planter made from natural stone or concrete, it weighs much less.  You can also add cement dye to the mix to play around with color.  For my first attempts, I decided to forgo any dye and keep things simple.  You can also add texture to these planters.  In this case, I lined one of my molds with bubble wrap to add a honeycomb effect.

After leaving the hypertufa for 24 - 48 hours to set, the planters were ready to be unmolded.  (Using cooking spray helps.)  Now they'll be covered in plastic and left to cure for at least a month.  The curing process helps to strengthen the hypertufa - allowing you to leave it outdoors during the winter while other materials may split or crack.  Once cured and completely dried, the hypertufa should lighten in color. 

I also made a large hypertufa trough by using a styrofoam cooler we had lying around as the outer mold and a smaller cardboard box lined with duct tape as the inner mold.  For added strength and stability, I mixed some nylon fibers I'd purchased online into the hypertufa mix.

I can't wait to plant these up with all sorts of alpines and succulents this upcoming summer.  Traditional rock garden plants will thrive in these shallow planters.  If you're interested in learning more about how to make hypertufa, here are a couple of great instructional videos.