Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Building my quarantine garden

This year I began an experiment in indoor micro-gardening, which I came to through a comvoluted path that started last year due to my wife's chronic medical issues. My wife is chronically ill, and among other problems has trouble regulating her blood electrolyte levels. Last year, after taking a careful look at her diet, she decided to start eating daily meals of foods high in potassium, especially roasted sweet peppers and mushrooms. This had a notable effect on her energy levels, to the point where she was able to actually start cleaning and shopping and doing other physical chores several days a week again.

Her favorite variety was a type of sweet pepper from Snyder's Farm, a local farm which had a weekly market near us. I'm not a big fan of sweet peppers, but I loved the hot peppers from the same farm for use in chili and marinades. We went through a lot of peppers that summer.

One day, as an experiment, she took some seeds from their sweet peppers and buried them behind a bush in our front yard. Astonishingly, despite being planted in terrible red clay soil and lacking any direct sunlight, the pepper seeds sprouted and grew. I transplanted them to a proper put with better-quality soil, and added a few dozen more seeds from other farm-market peppers. Many of those also sprouted. We didn't get any actual peppers out of those plants, of course, as they were planted late in the season, overcrowded and not at all growing under ideal conditions, but it starter me thinking about whether we could actually grow these same peppers ourselves with some care.

With the next batch of peppers we bought, I carefully removed and cleaned the seeds, then wrapped them in paper towels and set them aside. I also harvested some seeds from jalapeno and habanero peppers from the grocery store as an additional experiment. After drying them for a week, I discarded any that were discolored or mouldy, and packed the rest away over the winter.

Jalapeno, Habanero, Snyder Sweet, and Hungarian Hot pepper seeds.

At this point I didn't have anything other than vague plans for what I was going to do with these pepper seeds. I have nearly zero experience with gardening. I grew up in a house with a vegetable garden in the back yard, but as a child I had zero part in actually tending to those plants. My sole plant-keeping success prior to this was keeping a snake plant alive, which isn't much of a challenge as snake plants are only slightly harder to keep than a plastic plant would be.

We also are not living somewhere good for gardening. My wife and I live in a condo, and we aren't actually permitted to plant anything outside.  We own everything from the walls in, but the grounds belong to the condo association, and they really aren't happy when residents try to turn patches of yard into vegetable gardens. We can generally get away with putting planters on the patio, as long as we don't overdo it, but setting up raised beds would be out of the question.

Our second problem with growing anything is that our particular condo unit is on the northeastern side of our building. We get a few hours of direct sunlight through our east-facing windows, which is only really strong during the early spring until the line of trees that shade the side of the building grow proper foliage. We've always been grateful for not having to spend much on air conditioning, but it's not a great place to try and grow full-sun plants.

I didn't have great expectations for these seeds beyond throwing a few of them into a planter and maybe getting a few stunted peppers eventually. I marked down a good time on the calendar to try and sprout them, and then didn't think about them further for a while.

March eventually rolled around, and the world was getting concerned about this Coronavirus thing. My wife and I went on a cruise in early March, which turned out to be one of the last cruises that didn't turn into a quarantined ship, making it home just in time before everything got really bad. I bought a seed started kit, deciding to splurge on the 72 cell model. Following the instructions, I soaked the seeds in hot water overnight, then placed about 3 in each cell. I put the seed starter in front of an east-facing window, where it would at least get a few hours of direct sunlight per day. I still didn't have great expectations of results, thinking that maybe a handful of the seeds would actually sprout, since I knew they weren't getting as much light or heat as they should.

Pepper seeds, hopefully sprouting soon.

And then the plague got worse. Our state went into mandatory lockdown. My job was still considered essential, but the company decided to have everyone work from home if at all possible. I moved my entire engineering development setup home to our living room, and learned to teleconference with my co-workers several times a day.

This had the side effect of letting me check on the pepper seeds a few times a day, making sure they were optimally placed to get the meager sunlight available. And those pepper seeds sprouted, doing far better than I had expected they would. The Hungarian Hot peppers from Snyder Farms sprouted first, followed by the sweet peppers that my wife so loved.

Happy little pepper seedlings

The Habanero peppers sprouted slowly and reluctantly, only after being moved to a warmer spot with more consistent sunlight. And the Jalapeno seeds never sprouted at all. I don't know if they were a non-viable hybrid strain, or had been picked immature and ripened in transit, or some other cause entirely. The peppers from local farms were the ones we were most interested in growing, and every single one of those sprouted.

With far more pepper seedlings than I expected, the realization that fresh groceries were getting harder and harder to find, and the overwhelming urge to use the time I was stuck at home to do something, I decided to scale up my gardening plans. We still couldn't plant anything outside, but I decided to take the fullest advantage possible of our few hours of direct sun to try to grow peppers. We bought a cheap portable greenhouse, a handful of planter boxes and some planter soil. I took the grow-light that had previously been keeping the snake plants alive and set that up in the greenhouse to give the pepper seedlings a bit of extra light until they were ready to transplant.

Making the most of what little sunlight we get.

After a few more weeks of this, the pepper seedlings were large enough to transplant.  All except the jalapenos, which never sprouted at all.

True leaves are coming in, and it's getting crowded in there.

Finally, on a warm mid-April day, I filled the planter boxes with planting soil and transplanted the seedlings into them. I chose the best developed-looking plants, putting them into the soil spaced at about 4 inches. This is still more crowded than is generally recommended, but I expect that some won't survive being transplanted, and if they do I'll likely cull the smaller ones to thin them out.

Cramming in as many planter boxes as I can fit in there.

I fit a total of seven planter boxes in the greenhouse. Three full of hot peppers, three of sweet peppers, and one of the grocery-store habaneros that I still don't have great expectations of getting anything from.

I still don't have really great expectations for this garden.  I'll consider a single meal of peppers to be a success, and I'll be ecstatic if this garden means one less trip out to the grocery store (and therefore reduced chances of either my wife or I getting COVID-19). But victory gardens are essentially symbolic in nature anyway, born out of the need to be doing something even if minor. And having something living to take care of and nurture has been tremendously helpful to my mental state during this trying time.

Top boxes still get supplemental light from the grow-lamp.

And now that I have the peppers in their hopefully permanent homes, I'm thinking about enhancements. I have most of the parts on hand to set up a Raspberry Pi based monitoring and automatic light and water control system. Since I'm going to be stuck at home for the forseeable future, that will be a fun project to occupy my time.  Stay tuned for updates here.

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