Wasilla Alaska Garden Adventures

Wasilla Alaska Garden Adventures - learning about gardening up north.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Build Your Own Alaska Grow Buckets

The new improved Alaska Grow Bucket design is still based on bottom watering which depends on a wicking medium to draw water from below up to the plant roots. The design has been simplified and eliminates the second inner bucket and and the plastic wicking basket. Construction is much easier and takes less time. A free guide with complete step by step instructions is available for viewing and download hereAll components for building your system are available through my Garden Gadget Store

A bulk reservoir with a float valve regulator is still recommended for automatic watering and to maintain the optimal water level throughout the system when connecting several buckets.
The advantage of this system over a true hydroponic system is the lack of liquid pumps to circulate water and nutrients and air pumps to aerate the root zone. Lack of pumps means that power is not necessary. You can use this system anyplace you have a water source.

The first key to this system is the growing medium. It must have a strong wicking property. Soil or compost will not work. A soilless mix with the correct properties is necessary. I prefer a commercial product called Sunshine Mix #4 by Sun Gro Horticulture. It consists of Canadian Sphagnum peat moss, coarse perlite, starter nutrient charge (with Gypsum), dolomitic limestone and a wetting agent. Other Peat based soilless growing mixes will also work – but the addition of perlite and dolomite lime are recommended

The second key to this design is the readily available fabric shopping bag. These common bags can be found at most supermarkets and are very inexpensive or free. The bags are made from spun polypropylene and are very porous. To test a bag simply fill it with water. If it runs out freely then it will work. Similar “Grow Bags” are available from nursery and garden suppliers at a much higher cost. Canvas or burlap bags may also work – but they will eventually rot and fall apart.

The porous fabric allows excess water drainage and aeration of the root zone which is necessary for optimal growing conditions. The system is also based on the principle of “air root pruning”.  As roots grow out to the porous fabric they become exposed to air, dry out and die. This causes the plant to produce dense fine feeder roots and prevents root circling.  The increase in fine feeder roots leads to better nutrient and water absorption and promotes accelerated plant growth.

The third key to this system is the 5 gallon support bucket with plenty of ventilation holes around the sides. The bucket helps support the fabric bag and the ventilation holes allow adequate air movement. The bucket also acts as a water reservoir below the bag providing a water source for the wicking grow medium. By maintaining the proper water level with the float valve regulator the medium will never dry out and will continuously wick moisture up to the root zone.

I put together my complete How To Guide for building your own Grow Bucket system. You can view the PDF guide on line - download a copy and print it out. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Warming up in Wasilla

Yesterday was the first day of summer 2011. Spring in Wasilla has been pretty good this year with just enough rain lately to green things up. Lack of Spring rain can be a problem and usually leads to frequent wild fires. Things got off to a slow start with plenty of sunny days to melt the snow - but that meant clear cold nights that didn't warm the bare soil and the local word is that many plants are slow starting this year. The Iris in my yard are just now starting to bloom and many other bulbs have just began to emerge from the ground. It's all about soil temperature here in Alaska.

Alaska Iris
I am learning many techniques for taking advantage of the abundant sun to speed up soil warming. Along with plastic covered hoop tunnels I have mentioned before about covering soil with special plastic film that transmits the infrared spectrum called Infrared Transmitting plastic mulch (Irt Mulch®) and I am sold on using it for my garden to grow peppers and eggplant. The product I use is purchased from Far North Garden Supply in Wasilla and I believe it is called SRM® Olive plastic mulch made by Ken-Bar, Inc.

Eggplant and Peppers under IRT row cover
I am also learning about irrigation and how important it is when planting inside hoop tunnels. It may seem obvious - but it is easy to overlook when it is raining outside and you must remember to water your covered plants. I am still planning to try adding programmable timers to control the watering cycles. We don't get the heavy rain showers that I remember from growing up in the Midwest. An all day light rain here in Wasilla may only add up to 1/2 inch in many cases. An afternoon shower in Iowa could dump 1 - 2 inches of rain in one hour and flooded streets were a common sight. I remember a rule of thumb for irrigation - one inch of rain per week. Using my bottom watering grow buckets in the greenhouse eliminates the need to monitor the moisture  as long as I keep the reservoir filled they take care of themselves.

First pepper 2011
The right combination of long days, warm soil, and correct irrigation can lead to some surprising results and this King Of The North pepper is my first example this year.

It is also important to be patient and not to plant crops that don't do well in cold soil before it has time to warm up. I learned this the hard way, as usual, and my first attempt at growing green beans failed to germinate in the cool soil of late May several years ago. This year I waited until the first weekend in June and I am using a technique called mounded rows.  I constructed a raised mound about 12 inches wide and planted two rows of bush beans in each raised mound. I ran a 1/4 inch soaker hose down the center of each mound for irrigation.

Beans planted in Mounded Rows
I tried this before and did help, but this time I am running the rows east to west instead of north to south. Little details can make a big difference. In this configuration the sun will warm both sides on the mounded row as it moves through the day. As you can see the beans have germinated well using this technique. I will see how this planting pattern plays out this summer.

You never know what mother nature has in store and it can stay cool and cloudy for extended periods very easily. You will often hear people say jokingly that summer is over after a week of cloudy weather. There is also a saying that goes back to the first farmers to settle her in the Matanuska valley: "There are bean years and then there are lean years - it all has to do with the weather".

Alaska Fireweed - full bloom in mid-summer

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Grow Bucket Update

My greenhouse plants are doing very well just 2 weeks after transplanting to the grow buckets. I added black plastic covers to reduce evaporation and put in the tomato cages for support.

My grow bucket system seems to be working much better this year with very little leaking. I believe it all has to do with adjusting the float valve so the buckets don't overfill. I tried to set the float well below the maximum fill level because the greenhouse floor is not level. I still had to raise 2 buckets on wood spacers to prevent overflow. The upper overflow drain tube was probably not necessary once I got the float adjusted - but it is a backup in case the float valve sticks open. If I could re-design my greenhouse for Alaska, I would still want to insulate the floor - but I think a better option would be to use 3" rigid closed cell blue foam board panels placed below grade and covered with 3/8" crushed stone and maybe topped with wide spaced patio pavers. Then a little water spillage would not be such a concern. A raised insulated wood frame floor was a less expensive alternative - but water damage must be avoided. My greenhouse floor will never remain level due to winter frost heave.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hoop Tunnel Snap Clamps

Gardeners in general either learn to roll with the punches or choose another hobby. Once again I was paid a visit by a local neighborhood moose and he put a quick end to any plans for fresh broccoli this summer. At least he didn't wait until the day before harvesting and I still had time to replant something in the broccoli bed. Since I had a flat of extra tomato starts I decided to see how they would do in my raised bed under a plastic covered hoop tunnel. I made my tubing frame as tall as possible with the left over conduit from my original tomato greenhouse. It is about 50 inches high. I designed it so the sides can be rolled up half way to allow access and for ventilation on sunny days.

I planted 14 tomatoes under IRT row cover to help increase soil temperature and suppress weed growth. I added drip irrigation and tomato cages for support.

I received my order for Snap Clamps and used them to secure the plastic film to my tubing frame. I am very happy with the results. The clamps fit over the 3/4" schedule 40 electric conduit very snugly and without any problems. 

The clamps come 10 per package for $9.95 plus shipping. I think I will be ordering many more of these simple clamps in the future.

Snap Clamps are available for purchase on my Garden Gadget page along with other items that I recommend. I am always looking for garden gadgets that improve growing conditions during our short cool summers here in Wasilla, Alaska.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Product Alert...

I am a big believer in using grow tunnels or a simple hoop greenhouse made out of PVC pipe or plastic electrical conduit covered with plastic film. They are easy to build, inexpensive, and allow tomatoes and other warm season crops to fully mature in our cool Alaska summers. I haven' been able to find anything locally designed to attach plastic film to a tubing frame. I have used large spring clamps and paving bricks to hold down my plastic film, as you can see in the photo above. I recently found these handy plastic clips on Amazon.com and ordered some to try out. Stay tuned for my full review as soon as they arrive. You can click on the image or follow the link below if you are interested in trying this product yourself. They come in bags of 10 clamps for $9.95 plus shipping.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Plants in the ground...

The mad rush to get everything planted on time is about over. I have 8 greenhouse tomatoes in their grow buckets.  I am cutting way back from the 16 grow buckets that I had last year as that turned out to be way too crowded for my space.

I am growing Beaverlodge Plum, Legend, Oregon Spring, Early Girl and Glacier varieties along with 2 Millionaire eggplants. I will plant my bush green bean seeds outdoors next weekend as they need warmer soil temperature of 55 degrees to germinate. I planted several varieties of onions again and I am still trying to decide what does the best in my garden. Finding true long day onions for Alaska has been tricky. Most generic onions that you find at garden centers are not labeled. I planted Stuttgarter from Alaska Mill and Feed as my main crop of long day onions and I am trying some day neutral onions also. I ordered the Day Neutral Collection - Candy, Red Candy and Suprtstar from Territorial Seed Company. I also planted some unlabeled generic white onions I picked up at the Home Depot garden center just for scallions. 

I spent 2 days carefully planting all my onions and salad greens only to come out the next morning and find that a stray neighborhood dog had decided to climb int my raised bed and dig a few holes.

If it isn't the local moose eating my broccoli I now have to watch out for stray dogs as well. I guess my moose fence should probably be dog proof too. At least I don't have a rabbit problem. Gardening is always one challenge after another.

As I was preparing my broccoli bed I noticed some movement in the soil and on closer inspection I was very surprised to find what looks like a nightcrawler in my raised bed. Now I thought that nightcrawlers were not native to Alaska and maybe this is just an Alaskan sized earth worm. I guess he could have arrived in some bagged planting soil. I put him back and hope there are others. Worms are very good for the garden soil - but nightcrawlers are reported to be harmful to Northern forests.

Broccoli is all planted and I will add a layer of mulch to keep the weeds down. Now if I could just keep the moose away long enough to build a fence.

My hoop tunnel was planted with Millionaire eggplant, and bell peppers. I am trying King of the North and improved California Wonder peppers. These crops demand a warm climate and I am using IRT row cover to warm the soil as well as the grow tunnel to conserve warmth at night. I plan to add an automatic timer to the drip system to control the watering cycle each week.

Memorial Day weekend is flower planting time and I got the flower beds cleaned up and all of my starts set out. The Zinnias that I started indoors are 18" tall and in full bloom!

The perennials are starting to show life and the long daylight hours will start to produce colorful results very soon. I wanted to try some hardy Geraniums also called Cranesbill and I decided to order some plants this year. They came from Provenance Garden - a nursery in Spokane, Washington. I ordered 2 types: "Elke" and "Espresso". They arrived in the mail on Tuesday and were planted later that day. I am anxious to see how they turn out.