Germinating In The Greenhouse

In a sunny spot on our deck we have a small greenhouse. It takes up less than two square metres of space and is probably the best investment that we’ve made in our garden so far. We use it to grow most of our vegetables from seed, and the benefits are enormous:Greenhouse with seedlings

  • Food miles were a major area that needed improvement according to our carbon estimate, comprising almost half of our family’s emissions. A packet with hundreds of seeds weighs less than a single seedling in a nursery and considerably less than the final vegetable in the supermarket, so the energy required transporting them is drastically reduced.
  • Seeds planted in our greenhouse germinate much faster than they do in the garden. We recently tried to plant some zucchini outside the greenhouse, and after three weeks I assumed they had failed so I tried again inside the greenhouse. Our greenhouse seedlings were all growing strong before the first of the outside ones appeared.
  • Seedlings started in the greenhouse are protected from many more predators than ones out in the garden. Birds, snails and caterpillars don’t snack on my tender baby plants when they can’t get to them.
  • We can prolong the growing season for our vegetables by germinating them in the greenhouse where they are protected from frosts in early spring and we can keep the soil a bit warmer in early autumn. Last year we were able to get two pumpkin crops with early and late germination, and we didn’t need to buy pumpkins from the supermarket for almost six months.
  • Have you ever tried to grow a new plant, only to realise that you can’t tell the difference between the seedling and weeds? We don’t have a weed problem in the greenhouse, which has saved a lot of our vegetables from untimely deaths.
  • Because seedlings are so small and we are making use of vertical space in the greenhouse, we can literally germinate enough seedlings to completely fill our vegetable garden. We started germinating the lettuce to replace our broad beans before we finished harvesting them. Overlapping growing times like this means that we can sometimes get an additional crop from our garden each year. If we want to start growing something, but there isn’t room in the garden, then we just move it into a bigger pot so that it can keep growing until we’re ready to plant it outside.
  • You can get much more variety when you start with seeds than you can find in a nursery or supermarket. Our seed collection now has over 150 varieties of herbs and vegetables. We’re currently growing red spring onions, purple broccoli and multi-coloured corn.
  • Growing vegetables from seed has mentally completed the life cycle of plants for the children. They can put the seeds in the dirt and watch how they sprout, grow, fruit and then get turned into compost that feeds the next generation of plants.
  • If a packet of 75 seeds costs less than a single seedling, I don’t care much if I accidentally murder half of them.

Despite all of those advantages, the biggest one by far is financial. It doesn’t matter how much a vegetable or herb costs in the supermarket, because if I can pick up a packet of seeds for under $5 and grow kilos of food from them then we’re winning. A packet of seeds can last for years, which reduces the annual cost even further. This year I spent less than $150 on seeds, which will completely fill our garden and leave a lot left over for next year. To put that in perspective, that’s the same as our weekly budget for fresh fruit and vegetables. If we do as well this year as we did last year, we’ll get half of our meals from our garden.

Most of the materials that we use in our greenhouse are reused. I’ve got a large collection of punnets, seed trays and pots that have been donated by other people after they’ve gone shopping for plants. To keep everything moist and cut down on how much I need to water the seedlings, I put my pots and punnets into the plastic trays we get with meat from the supermarket. For the large seed trays, which don’t fit into the meat trays, I put one inside the other and use a plastic bag as a liner to hold the water.

Setting everything up for a season takes me an afternoon with the kids or an hour by myself, plus an hour going through my seeds and deciding what I want to buy for the coming year. Germinating our plants has quickly become quality time for the family, and we get much more out of it than I ever expected when we started.

If you’re playing along at home…

…do you have a sunny, sheltered spot where you could grow a few plants from seed? If you’ve tried this and have a few recommendations, please share them in the comments below.

Introducing Henrietta and Friends

Last year, we promised our daughter that we would get her some chickens for her birthday. Happily, we never specified which birthday that would be. It was one of those projects where the benefits were obvious: home grown eggs from chickens that were living healthy, cruelty-free lives. Life kept getting in the way, as it so often does, and her birthday came and went. The conversation about chickens, however, stuck around.

We recently found ourselves with a week without plans. The kids were stuck at home, bored out of their minds, and we urgently needed a distraction project. Our chicken time had come. It seemed even more important now because we are looking at ways to reduce our food miles – one of the biggest problem areas for us highlighted by our carbon estimate – and our worm farm wasn’t keeping up with the food waste from our garden.

It was important that Project Chicken didn’t break the bank while still providing our birds with a good amount of space and shelter. We looked at commercial chicken coops, but for the size we wanted they would cost around $2,000. Reducing food miles is important, but that much money would get us half way to installing a photovoltaic system, which would give us significantly better environmental bang for our buck. We were going to have to do it ourselves.

Building the coop and run took just over a week, and cost a total of $462.26. One of the ways we were able to get the price so low was by salvaging materials that my parents already had lying around at their house. The roof of the chicken coop is from metal left over when their garage was built, the door frame wood for the ramp came from an old wardrobe, and some of the wire is left over from an old aviary that has since been dismantled. Even half of the chickens are salvaged – they’re ex-battery hens.

Our coop is approximately 1.8m cubed. The chickens can go underneath the coop, so our run is 1.8m wide and 6.6m long, which provides almost 2m square per bird. There are six nesting boxes – one for each hen – and we can access them without going into the run. We painted it with British Paints colour Gracious – I swear I’m not the one who chose the colour – and we’ve left the inside plain because I doubt the chickens care as much as our five year old does.

Having the chickens around has caused some unexpected lifestyle changes. It took two days for our outdoor table and bench to be moved to the back yard. Other families were probably watching television while they ate dinner, and we were watching our birds. Our kids like walking the dog when they visit my parents, and now they’re looking for edible weeds while they’re on those walks. We also decided it was time for our oldest daughter to start earning pocket money, so her new jobs are tied in with caring for the chickens.

Of course, the main motivation for getting the chickens was to reduce our environmental impact, so how did that go? Well, we’ve dramatically reduced the amount of food waste that we’ve been composting, because instead that is going to feed the chickens. We rarely use our green bin any more, because our weeds go straight to the birds, and it’s an incentive for the kids to keep up with weeding. On days where we haven’t had many scraps to feed them, we’ve harvested food from our vegetable garden. At first this seems very wasteful, but it turns out that we had a lot of vegetables in the garden that we planted as an experiment and quickly decided that we were never going to eat. Now that those plants are being removed from the garden we have more space to grow the things that we will eat. Our chickens are repaying us with manure that we can put on the garden much faster than with our compost. They were moulting when we got them, and it took two weeks, but now they’re laying tasty, fresh eggs that are beyond exciting for the kids when they find them.

If you’re playing along at home…

… do you have space in your garden for a chicken coop? Please leave a comment below if you’ve kept animals for food and let us know how it went.