Wasilla Alaska Garden Adventures

Wasilla Alaska Garden Adventures - learning about gardening up north.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Alaska Grow Bucket Update

ANOUNCING - Complete DIY Alaska Grow Buckets Kits are NOW available in time for Spring planting on my Alaska Grow Buckets Website ! *Sales are limited to U.S. and Canada only at this time.

Here is the latest update on my Alaska Grow Bucket System. All of this year's tomato plants seem to be doing as well as ever just 4 weeks after transplanting into the improved Alaska Grow Bucket System. 

My new fertilizer seems to be promoting blooming over foliage growth. At least I am not getting the large bushy plants I had last year. This year I am trying Jobes Organics Vegetable & Tomato fertilizer this is listed as a 2-7-4 plant food made from bone meal, chicken feather meal, and composted chicken manure with additional beneficial  bacteria  and fungi including mycorrhizae. I also cut back on the total number of plants to allow more space and hopefully improved ventilation and humidity control. I have also tried to be more vigilant in pinching off unwanted sucker growth.

All of the Grow Buckets are connected by a single gravity feed 1/2" flexible vinyl tube that is fed by a float valve regulator in the green bucket with the orange lid in the upper right corner of this photo. This maintains a constant self-watering irrigation system that requires no electricity.

The Float Valve Regulator in the green bucket is connected to a 35 gallon gravity feed reservoir made from an inexpensive plastic trash container. At this point in the season I simply refill the bulk reservoir about every 2 weeks. As the plants continue to grow the water needs will increase and the refilling frequency will also increase. The beauty of this system is that the peat based growing medium will absorb the correct amount of water to remain moist. So the system is self regulating - as long as the water supply does not run dry. A simple visual check every few days is all that it takes. Another advantage of any Sub Irrigated Planter (SIP) system, for those gardeners that live in arid climates with limited water resources, is that by covering the Grow Buckets and keeping the reservoir covered you will greatly reduce water loss through evaporation.  This is another problem that occurs with traditional planting methods and above ground irrigation. Water savings can be substantial.

Here is an overview of the entire improved Alaska Grow Bucket - Sub Irrigated Planter (SIP) System. From The Bulk Reservoir, to the Float Valve Regulator, to the easy to make Alaska Grow Buckets. It works great for tomatoes, but works equally well for peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, and many other vegetables. I believe it is the easiest system that anybody can use to grow their own food at home - on a terrace or balcony, a porch or patio, or in a backyard greenhouse. Get your Free DIY plans HERE.

And that's what it's all about.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Building Alaska Grow Buckets

Here is a short video that I made showing how I build my simple Alaska Grow Buckets in about 5 minutes. Several buckets can be combined into a complete self watering container garden system. It's easy, and I believe anybody can grow some of their own food at home.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

First Spring Flower

Spring in Alaska is really quite short or long depending how you think about it. From the time our daylight exceeds 12 hours on March 21 and the snow begins to melt until the weather warms enough to set out sensitive plants can seem like an eternity. After the snow is finally gone it may only take a few sunny weeks before the the trees begin to leaf out and that makes our springtime seem very short and we settle into our summer temperature patterns. Clear sunny days lead to clear frosty nights and our last frost can be in the last week of May. Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start to our gardening season with a few hardy planting exceptions. The summer temperatures here in Wasilla average in the mid 60's with a few sunny 75 degree days - but 80 degrees is rare and many rainy or cloudy days will never reach 60 degrees. With 20 hours of sun during June we make up for our short growing season by extremely rapid growth during our long days. It has been estimated that our long summer days are equivalent to 20 extra frost free growing days. This also means that timing is everything. Setting out plants a week or 10 days late and there may not be enough time to mature and produce a significant crop. Starting plants indoors is a way of life and helps relive our winter cabin-fever. The first perennials emerging in spring are always a welcome sight.

It was just a few days ago that I first noticed some ferns were emerging with their characteristic "fiddle-heads" and after looking around I also notice that the familiar Alaska state flower Myosotis alpestris or Alpine Forget-me-not was also beginning to bloom.

I have been doing some spring cleanup work around my property before the weeds and brush return and makes the task much more difficult. I have a wooded hillside behind my house that I have been clearing little by little each spring. The annual progress is slow and involved cutting out small trees and grubbing out our native wild rose Rosa acicularis and many surface roots from returning willows. It is a never ending process. 

I have been transplanting some native forest ferns and mosses that I find around my property and my goal is to have a dense woodland fern garden some day in place of an overgrown bushy hillside that was a severe fire hazard so close to my wooden sided house. The orange flags mark fern crowns that have not emerged yet. I prefer a natural looking landscape when possible and found a wonderful book with many examples.

The Scandinavian Garden By Karl-Dietrich Buhler is a wonderful book for Alaska gardeners that want a natural looking landscape. Much of the Scandinavian climate is almost identical to our climate here with many of the same plant species also.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Backyard Farming... Why Bother ?

I enjoy cooking Real Food that is as fresh as possible and preferably home grown. That is why I garden. I learn a lot from other people that I follow. In the past that was from reading books. The first person to really inspire me was Ruth Stout and her gardening bible called Ruth Stout's No Work Garden Book published by Rohdale Press in 1971.

It was a her revolutionary approach to gardening that copied the natural process of using deep mulch and the breakdown of organic material to feed the soil. Then came Square Foot Gardening by Mel Martholomew published in 1981 by Rhodale Press.

I was hooked on getting the highest yield from my garden space and growing the most I could with the least amount of work  - Ha! I was a little naive to say the least. Building raised beds, applying deep mulch, setting up drip irrigation, and composting kitchen and garden waste - all takes work. To me it is enjoyable and the rewards fare outweigh the effort. Eating healthy home grown foods makes me feel better and hopefully improves my health.

Staying healthy has become more important as we age and the high cost of healthcare in the U.S. has made a healthy lifestyle popular. Yet diet related disease has continued to increase in spite of the health claims of the huge Food Processing Industry. Most of our diet related disease is a result of the modern western diet. Changing the way we eat is the most important thing anybody can co to stay healthy. One of the people I follow today is a food columnist for the New York Times. Mark Bittman has been writing about food for over 30 years. I enjoy watching his short cooking videos available on iTunes called "The Minnimalist". He presented a very good essay on "What's Wrong With the Way We Eat" at a Ted Talks in 2007.

I believe Mark's words may be the most important concept we need to face in our ever growing world controlled by huge corporate interests. To read more about Mark Bittman's philosophy on health and diet, check out his book titled "Food Matters" published in 2008 by Simon and Schuster.

The new evil empires may just be giant Corporate Agriculture and their brother the huge Food Processing Industry with all of the processed food products they promote. The biggest statement anyone can make is to grow our own food at home. Even if we can't grow everything we need. Everybody can grow some food at home and we will all be healthier for the effort and a little less dependent on Corporate Agriculture and the Food Processing Industry.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Growing Food at Home in the City

People are growing fresh foods at home all over the world. On a balcony, apartment building roof, porch, or terrace, anyplace they can set up some containers. You don't need a lot of space to grow fresh, healthy food.

Anybody can grow some of their food at home.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Baking Bread From Scratch

My vegetable seedlings are doing fine, but the garden is still covered with slowly melting snow. My indoor tomato project is still going strong despite the grow light fiasco I had last month.

I have my first green tomatoes on my Red Robin Dwarf plants and, as you can see, I have been fighting Aphids with insecticidal soap. The plant is indeed very small and only about 12" tall. It seems to be doing well in my water farm hydroponic bucket.

Since my yard seems to be the last place in Wasilla to melt, I decided to try my hand at something new yesterday and set out to bake some whole wheat bread from scratch. Now I have baked my own bread for many years, but this time I decided to try my hand at grinding my own flour.

I have a small steal bur mill that I have used for grinding coffee in the past. I tried adjusting the grind as fine as possible. I found that hard red wheat berries are tough and ended setting the grind a little coarse and running them through the grinder twice setting it as fine as possible on the second grind. It was a slow process and took nearly 30 minutes to get 4 cups of flour. Not as fine as commercial bread flour - but fine enough for me. I would definitely switch to a real flour mill and probably an electric one if I decide to do this very often. My recipe is based on the Tassajara Bread Book.

My well worn copy is one of my favorite baking resources. I wanted the bread to be as simple as possible so I could judge if using fresh ground flour made a significant improvement.

I decided on flour, water, yeast, oil, and salt. I followed the basic whole wheat sponge method with punching down and double rising the dough to improve the gluten and make the bread as light as possible. This is definitely an all afternoon process. I also used their french bread baking method. Adding a water filled pan inside my oven and starting at 400 degrees for 10 minutes then brushing the loaf with more water and lowering the oven to 375 for about 30 minutes. I also place the loaf on a ceramic pizza stone inside my convection oven.

The loaf came out a beautiful golden nut brown without splitting after 30 minutes. I use the snapping test method to listen for that distinct hollow sound indicating it is done baking. I cooled it on a wire rack fighting off the urge to cut a slice fresh from the oven.

Still warm after a cooling for an hour I broke down and had to have a taste. It was not as heavy as I expected and adding the water during baking kept the crust from getting too tough and possibly splitting. It did remind me of the texture in a French baguette with the nutty flavor of whole wheat four. Is grinding flour worth the effort? I believe it is, simply because you are getting all of the nutrients and oils from the wheat berry that quickly oxidize after milling and cause commercial flours to go stale over time. The nutty flavor and texture was definitely better then many loaves I made from commercial flours. A real flour mill is already on my future wish list.

I really like all of the Victorio kitchen products and they make a  Deluxe Hand Operated Grain Mill.  I also heard a rumor that there may be a conversion kit available to add an electric motor some day. Using a hand powered mill is not a real problem unless you plan to make large batches of bread at one time. Typical bread recipes call for 4 - 6 cups of flour per loaf and this mill will produce 1/4 cup of flour per minute - or about 16 minutes to make 4 cups of flour. Just one more factor in the slow food movement.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Springtime in Wasilla

It is about 50 degrees outside today but I am still waiting for the snow to melt in my front yard. My indoor salad garden is doing fine.

I harvested a large bowl of salad greens and had a huge salad for supper last night. Growing salad greens indoors at home is a no-brainer and should be on everybody's to-do list.

My seedling rack is full of planting trays and all of my broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and tomatoes are up and looking good. My peppers are just now starting to sprout and they usually take about a week longer to germinate.

I am glad that I waited about a month longer this year before starting my seeds indoors. With all of the snow that we received this winter season it looks like I will be waiting a while longer than I usually do for my garden to thaw out and warm up before I will be planting anything outdoors.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

2012 April Snow Storm !!!

It was snowing yesterday. A heavy wet spring snowstorm - but it ended in early afternoon and was melted by evening. Today I woke up to more snow and it is still coming down at 11:30 AM on Saturday morning April 7.

Looks like we have 8 - 10" so far and it doesn't look like it will be letting up any time soon. It is about 38 degrees outside but the ground is still frozen and was still snow covered - so this new snow is not melting right away. I had a sinking feeling as I opened up the blinds to get a better look outside. This has been one of the harshest winters up here in a long time and it looks like the Anchorage area will easily break their all time winter snowfall record if they continue getting as much snow as we are out here in Wasilla.

I have started tomato, pepper, broccoli, and cabbage indoors, but it looks like garden season is still a ways off for us up here in the great white north...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Spring time in Wasilla...

I will be picking fresh lettuce again soon and ruby Swiss chard too.  I started some new plants about a moth ago and I should be ready to pick some in a week or two. The long days sure are nice again. We are back above 12 hours of sun and temps in the 40's by afternoon. 

There is just way too much snow left to melt. I had to climb up and shovel off part of my garage roof yesterday as some of the melt water was backing up into my bathroom vent and leaking into the house. Wouldn't you know - my extension ladder, that I left leaning up against the back of my house, was completely frozen to the ground under several inches of ice and it took me nearly an hour to get it loose. I am afraid we are in for a very soggy break-up season this spring. I better get my hip waders out soon. We always have lots of standing water when the snow melts and before the ground thaws out - but with our record snow amount this winter there will be a lot more melt water than we usually have to deal with. Welcome to springtime in Alaska...

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Greenhouse Design for Alaska

I would like to extend our growing season as much as possible without adding a huge cost in supplemental heat. I envision a 3 stage gardening process for homestead and hobby gardeners in south central Alaska. Starting seeds indoors under grow lights in late January to early February then moving the seedlings to a small heated greenhouse in late March to April and that means having a super insulated greenhouse with twin wall or triple wall polycarbonate windows and an insulated foundation with a radiant floor heating system if possible. Then moving plants out to an uninsulated hoop tunnel or polycarbonate covered greenhouse for final growing in late May. I think my Alaska Grow Bucket system would adapt to this process very well. 

I think the most efficient design for our cold climate is a South facing shed roof lean-to style with an R-40 or higher insulated North wall. There is no advantage to having windows on the North side and the heat loss is just too great. Twin wall polycarbonate panels would probably work with the additional layer of  corrugated polycarbonate over the roof for added snow load strength. Ventilation is also very important and I would recommend solar window openers and would have several windows on the low side and several on the insulated wall near the peak for convection flow - along with a thermostat controlled vent fan in one end wall.

The greenhouse that I built only has R-12 insulated 2x4 walls and is only covered with a single layer of plastic film. It loses too much heat at night even with a propane wall heater to be effective in March and April - but the heat gain during daylight is more then adequate.

I found another design on the web and I really like the idea of an attached storage shed on the North side.

Monday, February 27, 2012

All New - Alaska Grow Buckets .com - Web Site

Check it out and leave a comment. Spread the word - anybody can grow their food at home. On a city rooftop, on an apartment balcony, on a patio or a porch, or in a greenhouse.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Time To Reflect...

On a cold winter February day, when I should be clearing the snow from my driveway, I started reading my blog and thinking about what inspired me to become a gardener.

Am I a cook that enjoys preparing meals with my fresh home grown produce or am I a gardener that enjoys sharing the fruits of my labors with friends and giving away gifts of what I preserve? I think I am both. I truly believe that anybody can supplement their diet with home grown food. There are many reasons I choose to grow some of my own foods. Number one is a little less dependence on the commercial food industry. Number two is to reduce my dependence on the huge transportation industry to bring, what are many times, luxury items like fresh strawberries and cherry tomatoes thousands of miles from the producer to the consumer - in January. Number three is the significant decrease in quality, considering how long it takes to get produce from the field to your kitchen. Number four is is the high cost for processing and preserving produce to increase it's shelf life or long term storage. Much of this fuel cost and it's impact on the environment along with all of the labor cost can be reduced or eliminated. 

I have several web sites that I follow and many new ones to me that seem to share my beliefs. One of my favorite quotes that I found is: 

"Maybe a person's time would be as well spent raising food as raising money to buy food. "
-- Frank A. Clark

The quote is on the best all around "grow your own food" garden web site that I have found called Subsistence Pattern by Mr. H - in North Idaho, United States... he writes:
"Weary of the world and its illogical ways my wife and I have chosen a path towards self-reliance in all aspects of our lives. Our main focus is on growing and gathering our own food. We hope to use this blog as an avenue to share with and learn from others with similar interests."
This site has more links and helpful information than one person can possibly absorb. I highly recommend that anybody serious about growing food put this in there favorite blog list.

Another inspiration to my philosophy is the prospect of helping others to learn about gardening and its benefit in increasing the quality of our diet. Many low income families and not only those at or below the poverty level seem to rely on low cost, highly processed, and many times poor nutritional products for the bulk of their diets.  Just adding a fresh salad or stir fry veggies and rice can be a vast improvement. But many people complain that "I can't grow food in my apartment or small back yard". I tell people to check out another favorite web site started by two young boys with a little help form their father called: Global Buckets - Two Buckets on a Mission to Reduce Malnutrition

by Grant and Max

Along with another wasted space gardening blog called Green Roof Growers created by a group of folks in Chicago, IL
"We're growing heirloom vegetables on our respective rooftops in the City of Chicago using homemade sub-irrigated planters (SIPs) and commercially available Earthboxes™."
The idea of using wasted rooftops for growing food leads me to think of apartment balconies and small backyards, and vacant lots. Even a spare bedroom with grow lights can be used to grow salad greens all year long.

I had tried to grow tomatoes outdoors in containers without much luck in our short cool Wasilla Alaska summers. So I began to think seriously about a greenhouse for growing tomatoes and other warm weather vegetables. My first attempt with a simple plastic covered hoop house was successful and I had my first ripe Alaska tomato on Memorial day in 2009. I read about Earthboxes™ and found plans on the web for DIY bottom watering containers. I was inspired to come up with a simpler design using low cost materials. You can download my free DIY instructions to make your own Alaska Grow Buckets here. There are many advantages to using containers besides growing food in wasted spaces including automated irrigation and water savings that can be very important in hot arid climates and short cool seasons. Here in Alaska it is necessary to start plants indoors and move them out to solar heated greenhouses when the weather is warm enough, getting a head start on our short season.

My next experiment will be to try different growing mediums like coconut husk fiber called coir and compare it with peat based growing mixes. I would enjoy, someday, to work together with a group of like-minded folks and teach simple, low cost, and easy techniques for anybody to grow some food at home.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Indoor Garden Disaster

I had a very close call last weekend when I returned home and walked inside to a very strong odor of smoke and burned plastic. I immediately thought of my hydroponic tomatoes with the 600 watt high pressure sodium bulb with ballast that does get warm when operating. My suspicion was confirmed and the ballast appeared to have overheated and caught fire while I was gone. Luckily it was sitting on a metal table and the fire burned itself out when the circuit breaker tripped and cut power.

The smoke smell is still present and will probably hang around for a while. I'm not quite sure what caused the device to overheat, but it did send a chill up my spine when thinking of what could have happened. I consider myself pretty lucky. 

I cleaned up the mess and relocated my plants to metal shelf rack and hung up one of my seed starting florescent lighting systems above the pots for now. I am afraid it may not be strong enough for the plants when they get larger and I may have to come up with a more powerful lighting system.

The plants seem to have weathered the mishap just fine despite the fact that they were without light for a while intil I got the replacement system set up and functioning. Commercial grow lights can be expensive and I will have to see just what I can afford.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

My First Indoor Hydroponic Tomatoes

I received a wonderful gift recently from a friend. Two complete General Hydroponics brand drip hydroponic systems called the  WATERFARM®. Along with a 600 watt HPS grow light.

So I quickly started some tomato seedlings and I chose 2 dwarf - bush type tomatoes as they will be growing indoors with minimal support. I selected Patio F Hybrid a determinate variety designed for containers that grows 24" tall and Red Robin another determinate dwarf variety that only grows 8 - 12" tall  from Tomato Growers Supply Company in Fort Meyers, Florida.

I bought some organic nutrient and a pH test kit and mixed and tested my growing solution. I transplanted my seedlings today and have everything set up and working. The grow light was connected to my timer system and the light was hung above my grow containers. I set my systems inside a storage tote just for safety in case anything should leak. This system uses inexpensive aquarium air pumps to oxygenate the solution and move the solution up from the reservoir to the drip ring. The air pumps were placed on a foam pad to reduce their buzzing noise.

Hopefully I will have some fresh tomatoes to go along with my indoor lettuce crop in a month or two and I will keep you informed on the progress. So let it snow - I'm growing tomatoes indoors !!