Welcome to science. these posts explore the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.
You might remember a few weeks ago, I was writing about my plan to build a greenhouse out back on my fire escape before realizing that the sun wasn't in my backyard. It was rising in the front of the house instead. After more observation, I was able to track the sun in real time and have a better understanding of the sunrise and the sunset. I was right on the nose about the orientation of my house but what I didn't realize was that a cross street to the west of me is actually true north and true south. This all helps with understanding what type of light I'm going to get and as I've written before, how I can plan to utilize the sun relative to my position in hopes of getting the most out of my plants.
You can look back at my original diagram from a couple weeks ago. I actually built this on top of my old diagram so you can see some of the quide lines and where I was placing real time markers. I was right that the sun was coming in at an angle relative to my position. I knew that I needed to add an arc when I was doing my original diagram and afterwards I observed the position of the sun during the day to better understand the location of the arc and where the sun will move in the coming 30 days.
Up until the summer solstice, on June 20th, the sun will move steadily north. On the 21st it will start its retreat leading up until the winter solstice on December 20th.
Here is my plan for my greenhouse. I plan to use only 1" x 2" x 8' furring strips, one 20" x 36" piece of plexiglass for the top and clear plastic sheets for the sides. That way, squirrels and birds won't make a meal out of my seedlings. Once it starts to warm up I can bring my seedlings from the front of the house out back to the greenhouse to harden up. This is the process of acclimating them to the real world. I will let them sit outside in a protected area during the day so that once I fully transplant them, it won't be a total shock to their system. Think of the seedlings as a baby, your house is their womb that they're developing in. Once they get to a proper size, then they need to get used to the real world. You wouldn't expect a baby to start walking right off after they're born. Plants are similar. You need to train them to adjust to the conditions, to their individual environments.
Here's a progress picture of my Rossa di Miliano Onions. I'm hoping in a couple weeks I can start hardening them off in the greenhouse as the sun moves more fully into my backyard.
I ended up modifying the plan a little. I really didn't need that center support bar on the shelves, and instead of drilling into the sides of the top piece, I added some some wood to the interior vertical beams so I could drill in from the top.
Given the state of climate change, I thought I would spend some time talking about peat moss, specifically Sphagnum Peat Moss, because its a cheap and abundant resource for gardeners in North America. Sphagnum is harvested mostly in Canada and this article will discuss why it's basically a terrible idea to use it in your garden. Hopefully, this illustration should help you connect the dots about what peat moss is (hint: a carbon sink). When it's extracted, it releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. That's a very bad thing!
HERE'S THE SCIENCE LESSON:
Lets start from the beginning. What the heck is Sphagnum peat moss in the first place? Well, it's one of many species of moss that includes both living and dead matter that can retain large amounts of water (from 16-26 times their dry weight).(1) In a way, it's sort of like a sponge.
As Sphagnum moss grows, it can spread into drier areas called mires, or raised bogs or flourish in freshwater wetlands. You will find these species in northern climates (like Canada!) in wetlands created by glaciers.
Note that I mention species. Yes its a living organism (or at least partially living) and so it provides both a habitat and benefits for other species. When Sphagnum moss is extracted, it destroys an ecosystem meant for others. That's definitely not cool. In fact, these types of wetlands are one of the most valuable ecosystems on the planet.(2)
So why is Sphagnum moss considered a carbon sink? Like all plants, the sun provides energy, which plants take and then process (called photosynthesis) into food for their cells.
In wetland areas, year-round waterlogged conditions slow the process of plant decomposition to such an extent that dead plants accumulate to form peat soils. Large amounts of carbon, fixed from the atmosphere into plant tissues through photosynthesis, are locked away, representing a valuable global carbon store. When it's harvested, huge amounts of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) are released.(3)
So Say NO! to peat moss!!
If we let peat moss be, in a million or so years it would turn into coal. And if we left it for a couple hundred of millions of years it would turn into oil. Now, if you haven't been living under a rock for the last 50 years, you know both of those materials, coal and oil, are huge carbon trouble-makers and we all are trying desperately to reduce the use of them as much as possible. Peat moss is just like coal and oil. And hopefully this helps you understand that peat moss is one of many steps in the process for storing carbon and why it's absolutely imperative that we don't use it.
yes, but whats the alternative?
There are alternatives to peat moss and I'll discuss them here. I would say one benefit of not using peat moss is that it won't release a ton of greenhouse gases into the air thereby heating up the planet and killing off homo-sapiens (us!) in the process. So there's that.
1. There's a product called coconut coir. It is a by-product of coconut processing and its been piling up for years because coconut farmers had no idea what to do with it. Its great for seedling soil, it retains tons of moisture plus you just mix it with some hen manure or worm castings, some perlite (or vermiculite) and water and you're ready. However, coconuts are made in, well, the tropics. Between the Tropics of Cancer and the Tropics of Capricorn to be specific. Like peat moss, it has to travel quite far to be used as a product. So we need to consider the carbon footprint it takes from harvest to being a product being sold in a store in North America. Unlike peat moss, though, its fairly sustainable. I'm currently testing coconut coir with my seedlings. I will share the results in another article.
2. You can use compost - made from the breakdown of yard and kitchen waste. Microbes break compost down in two stages: the mesophilic and the thermophilic stages. Basically, its two stages of heat-loving bacteria that break the food down into humus, a rich soil by-product of compost. Oh yeah, and its free. It's nitrogen rich and great for supplying nutrients to the soil with beneficial microbes and bacteria. Here’s a link to learn more about composting and the science behind it.
3. You can use hardwood shavings. I'm also using them by mixing them with humus (composted kitchen waste and yard waste), hen manure, (or worm castings if you have them) and either vermiculite or perlite.
amazing true facts:
* In England, The Royal Horticulture Society wanted to reduce the use
of peat moss by banning and/or discouraging the use of it by 90% in 2010.
While its use is not banned in the United Kingdom, it is considered taboo.
Britain says that it wants hobbyist gardeners to have stopped using it
by 2020 and commercially by 2030.(4)
* Peat wetlands account for 1/3 of all the stored carbon in the world.(5)
* Sphagnum moss grows a total of 1mm a year
* The origin of sphagnum from Greek sphagnos "a spiny shrub, a kind
of moss," of unknown origin. From Latin sphagnos, a kind of lichen.(6)
* Someone made some butter, stuck it in an oak barrel then went out
and buried it in a bog about 25 miles west of Dublin, Ireland. A few
thousand years later, some lucky archeologists found it.(7)
* Sphagnum is a genus of approximately 380 accepted species of mosses. (8,9)
1. Bold, H. C. 1967. Morphology of Plants. second ed. Harper and Row, New York. p. 225-229.
8. “Dierk Michaelis (2019): The Sphagnum Species of the the world (Sphagnum bible: keys for all peat moss species by continents, and Sphagnum species list for 20 phytogeographic regions of the world)”
9. “Sphagnum on the plant list” Theplantlist.org
It's January 14th here. We're expecting snow later in the week and currently it was not so cold. Luft, Smith and I thought it was a perfect time to fix some of the beds. Not much green except for the cover crops.
We're trying to make all repairs without having to buy new material except for screws and nails. We brought drills, hammers and a circular saw to make the repairs. And tea. Smith brought some tea! Thank you Smith for bringing tea.
A day later, after we repaired the beds, we added as much organic material as we could find. That included horse manure from a nearby stable, straw, leaves, sticks and other rotting hardwoods. We were trying to finish as snow was expected the same evening. You can barely see Smith shivering in the last picture. He brought some tea (again!) as it was getting late and cold.
There are lots of things that I get done in the winter and now one of them is deciding what to grow in the spring. If you grow year 'round, then I guess you get January off. Once February hits, its time to germinate!
This year seed selection wasn't necessarily about choosing as much as it was about what could I get. Everyone wants seeds this year. What I really needed was onions, tomatoes and corn (and beans people. Everyone needs beans). They were high on my list and I was lucky enough to get varieties of all. Some that I planned for and some surprises like Rossa di Miliano onions.
Rossa di Miliano onions need quite a bit of time to germinate. I started mid February. They really need 12 weeks time before transplanting - I got them in 3 weeks late. The issue, however, wasn't time or space. It was finding the location of the sun. I live in the biggest city in the United States, so space is tight. You need to be creative. I've seen friends germinate seedlings in their basements, or designated rooms in homes and apartments. Heck, one guy I know even turned his bedroom into a greenhouse. Initially I thought I might build a custom greenhouse on the fire escape out in the back of the house where I could keep it warm with a solar heater on the roof and pump warm air down into it using a solar fan. There was one big problem though.
I realized that the sun was on the south side of the house and therefore, in the front of the house. During the summer, the sun is in the back of the house and I just assumed that it was still there. I've never tracked it but this year I will watch to see when the transfer happens.
Just like my germinating calendar above, now I understand where the sun will be at key points during the year which will help me with germination (and transplanting). I can tweak the charts this year through observation to help me with planning. Since plants don't care about daylights savings time, it also gives me an idea of how long the day will be and to help maximize their exposure to sunlight in the coming months.
I ended up building a temporary shelf system by designing it into my window. I gave about a foot between each shelf just to make sure all the seedlings were going to get enough light.
Today, which is March 6th, the Rossa di Miliano onions have just crested the soil. which is on time and right where I need everything to germinate.
Back in late summer of 2020, I was searching for abandoned land or otherwise potential sites to garden in New York City. Some friends knew of a site so we investigated. It turns out that it was originally a garden but it was seriously overgrown. There were a lot of broken beds and it was impossible to even look at the soil because there was growth everywhere.
These pictures illustrate some of the story. The shed, for example, was tipped over. We righted it and even found some rusty tools laying around the site to add to it. We chopped down the weeds and instead of discarding them we dropped them onto the beds to serve as a source of nutrients for the soil during the fall and winter.
On October 25th we built a compost bin with scrap materials we found on site. Smith and Luft did it the old fashioned way - hammer and nails. We also took the opportunity to grow some shallots, rye, oats and buckwheat as winter crops in some of the beds as well.
By November 11th, much of the organic matter died back, especially in the beds. Most of the leaves have dropped as well, providing an additional blanket of dead material for the soil. Luft added a wooden nob on the bottom of the compost bin to scoop out the humus (the organic component of soil, the by-product of compost) when its ready.
By November 14th, we started seeing rye and oats popping up from under the brush. That was a good sign.
Someone had accidentally dropped some buckwheat into a pot of soil, so we transplanted that into another bed.
By November 22nd, the rye had grown about 2 inches, enough to stop worrying about it so we could focus on other efforts on site. Here, you can see my finger as a reference point to the height of the plants.
And by December 25th, the only thing green in the entire garden were some very hearty clover and the winter cover crops, although not as high as I expected. I assume that because we planted them so late in the fall that they didn't reach their recommended height. Regardless, its something to note by trying to plant later in the summer.
Of note, we tried sowing by hand in rows in some beds while others, we tried broadcasting the seeds, by loosely scattering them in a defined area. We'll see the difference probably this spring.
Since I've started keeping a five gallon compost bin, I've been noticing how less often I'm using the waste bin. In fact, right now, I'm pitching five gallons of waste once every month. I do recycle paper, plastics and glass. That goes out about twice a week and compost on average is being thrown into the larger 65 gallon bin outside every two weeks.
I asked 20 people 20 questions about the environment. This is what they said.
Once I upgraded to a 5 gallon compost bucket in my kitchen, and a 65 gallon bin to my neighbors yard, I wondered what else I could do? What other resources am I using that could be replaced or upgraded? What else can nature provide that I can use or reuse? The first thing I thought of was solar.