Category: Garden

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. ūüôā 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.

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

Patio Plants

Despite a slow start this year, spring appears to have arrived in Madison. We’ve been enjoying more pleasant walks around our neighborhood, renewed interest in our patio (see Aaron’s post about our new drainage system), and abundant sunshine–except for when it tried to snow last week.

As Aaron alluded to in his post, we lost most of our plants during last summer’s heat, drought, and subsequent watering fiasco. But, this gives us the opportunity to make new plans this year. I will quickly admit that I am not the gardener in our house–I am likely responsible for much of last summer’s poor watering, and I have very little intuition about the entire process. That said, I love having all kinds of flowers, herbs, and vegetables on our balcony (we cannot have indoor plants because our cats devour them).

Once we decided how our pots would be set up this summer, we set out to pick plants. We first acquired these hyacinths from the farmer’s market. The colorful baskets are from Target, if you’re curious.

IMG_6390We then made a long stop at Menards to purchase seeds. After much deliberation (and consultation with the ASPCA’s toxic plant list), we settled on:

  • vegetables:¬†beets, green beans
  • flowers:¬†snapdragons, impatiens, alyssum, pansies
  • herbs: parsley, mint (to be purchased from the market), basil (we will receive a basil plant in our first CSA share)

You’ll note that hyacinth is actually¬†poisonous¬†to cats; we’re planning to mitigate the risk by not allowing the cats out on the patio unsupervised.

Last year, we grew pansies and bell peppers from seeds. Unfortunately, before they were ready to be planted outside, Luna devoured them. The bell peppers survived, although you could see that the leaves had been attacked for many weeks. The pansies did not survive the attack.

So, this year, we decided to try something a bit different. We still wanted to grow things from seed, but we knew that doing so inside was a lost cause. Instead, we decided to make a mini greenhouse, using an old cage from our late guinea pig and some painter’s plastic tarp.

SeedsThe seed packets are just in the picture for decoration; they are now safely stored in our “garden” box. And yes, those are knives we’re using to label the various sections of seeds.

IMG_6514The plastic cover actually turned out pretty well. We placed a small thermometer inside, so we can monitor temperature in our “greenhouse.” The first day, it was quite sunny, and we saw a high of 122. Yikes! During the cold spell we had last week, we saw temperatures in the low 40s. If it gets cold again here in Madison, we may bring the greenhouse inside temporarily. The cage will protect our seedlings from feline predators.

When I checked this weekend, we were starting to get growth in a few sections–the alyssum is coming up, and we have the beginnings of green beans.

IMG_6566The finished potted plant arrangement looks like this:

Finished patio

We’ve been enjoying keeping the patio door open while we’re home in the evenings, and we’re starting to lounge out there also. Now that all the pots are in place, we have a lot more room to move around out there, and I expect we’ll start eating dinners out there soon.

Of course, the cats don’t want to be left out of this enjoyment!

Hairy and the GreenhouseHairy frequently dashes out onto the patio when we open the door. Last night, we pulled out his leash so we could let him lounge on the patio (still strictly supervised). Hairy, however, is in the middle of a rigorous weight-loss plan. He’s down 3lbs from when we got him a year ago, and 3.5lbs from the highest we’ve seen him. For those keeping track, that’s over 20% of his total weight lost. We would be very proud of his hard work and progress, but this has been sheer calorie-counting (you too can count your cat’s calories–it’s fun!), and Hairy isn’t too happy with it. But, we look forward to many future years with Hairy, and hopefully this weight loss will contribute to a happier, healthier life. In any case, his harness no longer fits. At the tightest setting, it can easily be removed without unfastening. We adjusted Luna’s harness (which is a size smaller) to fit Hairy so that he could come out on the patio. If you look closely, you can see “Luna” written on the back of the rabies tag on the harness. Next weekend, we’ll get a smaller harness for Hairy, and return to multiple cats on the patio.

Balcony Pots Drainage System

Last summer we had significant drainage problems with the pots on our balcony.¬† Some pots did not drain,¬† filling up with water and killing the plants–a boxwood, in particular–that were in them.¬† Other pots drained so well they drained right onto the furniture–and one time a person–on the balcony beneath us.

In both cases the problem was too much water.  You might say we were over watering (and maybe in the case of the boxwood we were), but it was a very dry summer and we wanted to make sure the plants did not die due to lack of water.

To solve the problem of too much water–in the pots and on our neighbors–we have now implemented a pot drainage system.¬† We removed the drainage trays from pots that have plants and placed these pots in larger pots.¬† Any holes in the bottom of these larger pots have been sealed, and a drainage spout has been added to each.¬† The drainage spouts are connected to pieces of PVC pipe that run along the edges of the balcony.¬† This PVC pipe has one open end that points off the back corner of our balcony so water can drain into the landscape bed that is three stories below.

To prepare the larger pots (that would hold the smaller pots), I added a “spout” to the bottom of each.¬† Part of the spout is a threaded 1/2″ PVC female adapter, visible in the bottom of the photo below.¬† I drilled a 1″ hole in the pot using a spade bit, which was just right for the adapter to fit snuggly in the hole.

Drilling Pots for Drainage System

Once the spout was in place, I caulked around the edges (with silicone caulk) to make sure it was sealed and water would not leak at the seam between the adapter and the pot.¬† I also screwed a threaded 1/2″ male barb into the adapter so I could connect the pot to the main drainage pipe using a short piece of flexible PVC tubing.¬† Finally, I caulked any drainage holes that were in the pot so water would only drain out of the spout and not out of the bottom of the pot.

Finishing Pots for Drainage SystemNext, I put together the main PVC drainage pipe.¬† The drainage pipe runs along two sides of the balcony, with a valve on the end that hangs off the edge so we can stop the flow of water if need be.¬† I figured out where on the patio each pot would go, and put a 1/2″ threaded female T at that point.¬† I screwed a threaded 1/2″ male barb into each T so I could connect the other end of a piece of flexible PVC tubing that was connected to the male barb on each pot.

Assembling Pipe for Drainage System

Finally, I put everything on the balcony and connected each pot to the main drainage pipe using about a 6″ piece of PVC tubing connected to the male barb on the pot and the male barb on the drainage pipe.

Connecting Pots to Drainage System