Growing Lettuce in a Fish Tank

Some Computer Science students at Colgate have asked me if I plan to start blogging again, so here is my attempt to get back on the blogging bandwagon. (We’ll see how long it lasts once the baby arrives in September.) This post is actually about a project I did with H back in February: planting lettuce in a fish tank turned greenhouse.

We’ve used the fish tank as an indoor greenhouse several years in a row. There are several motivations for using a fish tank as an indoor greenhouse: (1) fish tanks are cheap, (2) they allow in plenty of light, (3) they catch extra water when I inevitably overwater the plants, and (4) most importantly, it keeps our two cats from eating our plants.

Fish tank

We’ve collected a large stash of plastic jars that we re-purposed as pots.

Cashew jars repurposed as pots

I drilled eight holes in the bottom of each jar to allow water to drain out. I don’t recall how large of a drill bit I used (perhaps 1/8″), but in retrospect I should have drilled larger holes (e.g., 1/4″). The pots didn’t drain very well with the smaller holes, which meant that some of the lettuce got moldy, and I had to compost it.

Cashew jar with holes

H helped me fill the pots with potting soil. He made less of a mess than I expected. 🙂 Then we planted two types of lettuce seeds: Mesclun Sweet Salad Mix and Burpee Bibb Lettuce. We also planted some mixed herb seeds we had lying around from last year.

H fills pots with dirt

We used some plastic spoons we had lying around to label each pot. H used the spoons to help mix the seeds in the dirt—a step which is entirely optional and probably not recommended.

Pots labeled with spoons

I’ve learned from prior years that the plants grow better if the light from the grow lights is more concentrated. Consequently, I lined the inside of the fish tank with aluminum foil on three sides. I used a few pieces of masking tape to stick each piece to the fish tank. I left one side un-foiled to allow natural light from the window to reach the plants and make it easy for H to look at the plants as they grew.

Fish tank with foil Upstate New York doesn’t get much sun in late winter (and neither did south-central Wisconsin), so I purchased two TaoTronics 24w Led Grow light Bulbs a few years ago. I also purchased two clamp lights (and removed the clamps). I mounted the clamp lights on a wood frame I built to sit on top of the fish tank. The frame allows the lights to b 12-18″ from the plants: far enough away from the plants to avoid “burning” the leaves, but also close enough to ensure the light is concentrated. The frame also keeps our cats from getting to the plants.

Grow lights and frame

Here’s what it looks like with the lights on.

Greenhouse with lights on

And here’s what it looked like outside while we were doing this project: it was actively snowing.

Snow while planting

We don’t have any pictures of the full grown lettuce, but as I mentioned above, the bibb lettuce got moldy and had to be composted. The rest of the lettuce was edible, but a bit scraggly—probably a result of poor drainage. The herbs didn’t grow well—probably due to poor drainage again and the seeds being a year old. Next year, I plan to skip the bibb lettuce and just do the mesclun. I may also branch out and try to start some tomato, cucumber, and zucchini plants that we can transplant outside once it’s warm enough.

In the Beginning

In the beginning Vermont Valley created lettuce and rhubarb. Now the rhubarb was stalky and sour, reddness was over the surface of the rhubarb, and the spirit of canning was hovering in our minds.

First Week of CSA

And we said, “Let there be strawberry rhubarb jam,” and there was jam.

Strawberry Rhubarb Jam

We used five stalks of locally grown rhubarb (from our CSA share) and one package of “Product of the U.S.A.” strawberries (purchased at HyVee). While at HyVee we couldn’t remember whether we needed classic or liquid pectin, so we now have both on hand for our next jam making adventure–which will hopefully be in a few weeks when strawberries are actually in season in Wisconsin.

P.S. Hairy contributed to this post by providing moral support.

Aaron Blogs with Hairy

Repairing the Patio Drainage System

Unsurprisingly, our patio drainage system (built last spring) did not survive a Wisconsin winter without damage.  We ended up with cracks in two of the fittings and one segment of pipe. I thought this might happen, but I was too lazy to disassemble the system and bring it in over the winter.

Drainage system damageToday’s heavy rain prompted me to make repairs sooner rather than later.  Plus, I figured repairing the system while it was actively raining meant I didn’t need to be super concerned about spilling water from the system onto our downstairs neighbor’s balcony, since their balcony was already wet from the rain.

To make the repairs, I cut from the pipe from the very edge of the first damage connector to the very edge of the second damaged connector.  The two damanged connectors and cracked pipe segment were all together, meaning I only needed to make two cuts and repair one contiguous section.

Drainage system repairs

After the damaged section had been removed, I cut a piece of replacement pipe to be the same length as the damaged piece.  Then, I glued the new connectors and pipe into place.  Luckily, we had space connectors and pipe leftover from the construction process last spring, so I didn’t need to buy any new parts.

As I was reconnecting the pots to the system, I noticed that the adapter one of the pots spun freely.  After everything dries out from the rain, I’ll add a new bead of caulk around this adapter to make sure it doesn’t leak.

Now our system is ready for another season of planting and watering.

Patio pots in May 2014

Farm Events

Our CSA farm hosts several fun events throughout the summer and fall. We made it to the tomato pick last summer, but in general we’ve neglected to attend these awesome events. This summer, we’ve been 2 for 3 (we skipped the pesto fest), and we’re looking forward to one more in October.

Aaron was out of town in mid-August for the corn boil, but our friend Lena and I went out. The corn boil is not a u-pick event; instead, it’s a large potluck where folks bring a dish, pick fresh corn, and eat a delicious meal together. We were encouraged to try the corn raw first, and it was delicious. I guess that’s what you get when you can pick  your own organic corn directly from the stalk. I’ve eaten a few cobs that have come in our weekly share raw, also.

Corn Boil

In September, the farm hosts several weekends of tomato u-pick; these are primarily roma tomatoes, though there are a variety of heirlooms also available. Last year, my mom was visiting when we went to this event, so we took her along. Then we had her help us learn how to can our bounty.

This year, we were looking forward to the opportunity to can tomatoes to use throughout the winter.  I don’t eat tomato sauce, but we use diced tomatoes in a variety of dishes. We picked approximately 15 pounds this year, with the intention of canning them along with the tomatoes we’d received that week in our share. We’d already canned a few pints from an earlier share, too.

The Canning ProcessThe canning process goes pretty quickly once you have a good system. We canned 9 pints of tomatoes the first day (the max we can put in our pressure canner). For day two (this was Labor Day weekend, so we had lots of time to work), we decided to branch out a little, and we made ketchup! You can see the cans from the first day to the left.

Ketchup Tomatoes

Making KetchupThe ketchup gets cooked with a “spice bag”–we improvised with a flour sack. Those three bowls of tomatoes turned into 4 pints of ketchup! So far, we’ve only eaten the little bit that didn’t fill another jar. While this was definitely a tasty project, and we can now say that we’ve made our own ketchup, it was a pretty time consuming process. The ketchup gets boiled to reduce by half; when your yield is 4 pints, it takes a while to reduce!

Ketchup Our canning efforts resulted in 20 pints of canned tomatoes (including the 3 jars from earlier in August) and 4 pints of ketchup. While we were at the farm, we also picked some basil that was left from the pesto fest in July. Now, when I say “some basil,” I mean 5 whole basil plants. We turned these into 6 batches of pesto, which are now in our freezer.

Basil

You can tell the semester has started…

Clearly, we’re not super at this regular blogging thing. The semester started up again after Labor Day, and although we’re no longer taking classes, its still a change of pace.

I’m going to try to get back into the habit of posting more regular updates; in the meantime, I’ll leave you with pictures of our last three(!) CSA shares. As you will see, we’re definitely in corn and tomato season!

2013-08-15 CSA Share

August 15

2013-08-29 CSA Share

August 29

2013-09-12 CSA Share

September 12