So, whew, I’m tired. I finally got started putting the seedlings and plugs into the window boxes today. I have quite the ritual, I’ve discovered, now that I’m on my third year of doing them.
Step one — pick window boxes of the same size to do at a time. Over the years I’ve replaced broken boxes, found others on sales, etc., so I have a huge hodge podge mish-mash of boxes. I’ve tried to stay with green, but while they are all 24 inches long, they are varying heights. When you put them under the lights and the boxes are different heights, bad things happen, because either some are too high or too low, or whatever. Bad results.
Step two — add gravel to the bottom of the boxes. Sometimes I’ve run out and don’t put it in, and those boxes always do worse. So though they make the boxes heavier, which is important because we have to haul 70 boxes about, it’s worth it to put the gravel in. Having it there is also a pain in the ass at the end of the season, for what it’s worth. We can’t just dump the boxes into the compost bins unless I want my compost full of gravel, which I don’t. So I pull out the then all compacted and root-filled soil, and have to pull the gravel away from the huge mass of roots at the bottom of the box. But oh well, I still think it’s worth it to have it at the bottom of the boxes. I have holes drilled in the bottom of all the boxes I use, and the gravel keeps the soil in but lets the water out.
Step three — fill the boxes with soil. I use a mix of things. Container mix, usually stuff that I find on sale. I mix that with peat and vermiculite, and sprinkle osmocote fertilizer pellets in for time release fertilizing. I make sure to mix it all well, and fill it to the top. It will settle, so I try to overfill it a bit.
Step four — water well. I like to have it all mixed up and fairly wet before I plant in it. I add more soil mix as I water it, so that I’m starting with a full box of damp mix, and it will still settle. Annuals are heavy feeders and are watered all the time, so I figure I need the absolute max of soil to start with or they won’t make it well until the end of the season.
Step five — plant, finally! I try to do four boxes at a time with the same combination. I’m not sure why, but it’s the number that fits on my potting bench at the same time, and I like repeating patterns once they are out on the deck. I try to be careful to not over plant, which is really easy because the plants are so small at this point. But my absolute rule is no more than a dozen plants per box. Ok, sometimes 14, but no more than that! I cluster the plants that cascade toward the corners of the boxes and along the edges, and the more upright plants go in the middle. I really like a miniature little metal tool-set that I bought this spring from Gardenerer’s Supply Company, but it’s no longer sold, unfortunately, to both help me carefully pull the plugs out of the starting flats and to make the holes in the soil.
Step six — water again. I’m not sure I need to do this, but I do. I figure I’m helping to settle the plants into their new home. Then I do a foliage spray with worm casting tea and an anti-fungal drench to ward off dampening off disease.
Step seven — adjust the lights to the right height on the shelf that they are going on. Frank worked on that while I planted up my dozen boxes today, and only got one shelf ahead of me. He takes this time to check the bulbs in the fixtures, and replaces ones that have burnt out. He’s replaced three out of the 48 he’s turned on this year. That’s on a random mix of two and three year old tubes.
This year, we are going to three shop light fixtures on each shelf. We started that last year, and I think we’ll finish them all this season. It just gives better coverage, which should get them off to a better start. I’m also not turning off the lights at night. It’s a controversial subject, and previously we’ve used a timer to give them eight hours of darkness every night. But I’ve read three different people this spring say that artificial lights are no where near the intensity of the sun, so they need all the light they can get, and there’s no purpose to giving them their beauty sleep. I figure it’s worth the experiment. I guess I can compare what they look like when it’s time to put them out this year compared to how my boxes were last year.
Frank has a few other bits of technical information to pass on about the shelving system. Those shelves are a full 2’x4′ to accommodated 6 8″x24″ (outside size) window boxes. Commercial light shelves will most likely be narrower to accommodate 20″ flats This makes it much more reasonable to use only four tubes instead of six.
Second, while commercial products are quite expensive, even making your own will hit you in the wallet. You’re using six “plant and Aquarium” florescent tubes in three shop lights on each shelf. At Wal-mart the tubes are 6 bucks each and the lights are 8, so that’s 60 bucks, plus a power strip to feed them.
Finally, you need to keep an eye on your electrical loading: The setup we have running there pulls 1920 watts (6X8X40), which will blow a 15 amp breaker, and is exactly the maximum single load allowed on a 20 amp breaker. If we were afflicted with such creatures I would look a building inspector in the eye and tell him that’s 24 loads not one. But I ran those wires and know it’s safe to plug in the seed starting mat as well. Don’t argue with a circuit breaker though. If it pops more than once or twice, either reduce the load or run another circuit. I’ll be adding a second dedicated circuit for the other set of shelves this week.