Seed-Starting Terrarium

It’s that time of the year again: when March hits, I immediately begin pining for the Spring planting season. We still have a few months before we can actually plant anything in the open, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get a head start now. With all the seeds I’ve been saving from last year, I have plenty stocked up to allow me to get ahead of the frost.

A few years ago, I started my garden early with a store-bought seed starting kit. It was basically a black plastic basin with a clear plastic domed lid. I set it in front of a window and it worked really well. It gave the seeds everything they need to get started: a temperature controlled environment, light, and constant moisture. It also cost $40, and when I brought it out from storage the following year the clear plastic lid had broken in half and had to be sent to the recycle bin.

This year I decided to make my own. I was planning to build a complex frame system into which I could set panes from an old window to replicate that clear plastic dome. As I looked around our old attic for a junk window, I found this old transom. I decided to switch gears and save myself some time.

Transom Window

What is really awesome about this old transom is the way the paint peeled off the glass. At some point the whole window was painted, and over the decades the paint peeled itself off most of the way, leaving these “fingerprints” behind. I have never seen anything like it, and was tempted to just hang it on the wall as-is. But instead, I moved ahead with the project. Sorry Art; Utility wins today.

Terrarium base

I have a lot of tongue-and-groove porch boards left over from a project last year. It’s yellow pine, which has a good tolerance for moisture, so I decided to use that to build the frame for the glass top. The trusty table saw came out and zipped off the groove and half the tongue on each board, leaving a flat surface on one end and a nice frame on the other. I mitered these together so that the transom would fit snugly inside the frame without gaps. I screwed the frame onto one of the hutch shelves that was left over from the hutch project.

Ready for seeds

Everything fit together nicely. I may end up building some more frames for additional glass panes around the sides to give it a dome shape once the young plants get too tall, but that can wait for another day.

Finished Terrarium

I was limited on space inside my new terrarium, so I started with the plants that need the most time: tomatoes and peppers. I also planted a bunch of lettuce since that’s a plant we can continually harvest as it grows.

In total, this project cost me zero dollars and about two hours from start (looking for an old window in the attic) to finish (seeds planted and dirt cleaned up). Take that Winter: two cubic feet of Spring just started inside my dining room. May the germination begin!

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Preserving Fresh Basil

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When it comes to being frugal, having a household garden is a great way to save money at the same time that you are improving your standards of freshness. After about five years of having fresh herbs and vegetables right outside, it has become difficult to settle for grocery store produce. But what about those months between October and May? Living in the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7A means that there are a number of months in which we cannot reap a harvest. That leads us into preserving the bounty from the summer months to enjoy through the winter months.

I love cooking with fresh herbs. We give a lot of space in our small rooftop garden to growing fresh herbs, teas, and sweeteners. Basil is one of my favorites. We picked a decent harvest throughout the growing season, and in October we still had a lot leftover. After snipping the seed heads, I tied the remaining basil leaves into three big bunches and hung them to dry. Drying the leaves is a little different from drying out the seed heads. In the latter case, I was trying to suck out all the moisture as quickly as possible so as to easily crush the chaff away from the seed. In the case of the basil leaf, I am trying to slowly allow the leaves to naturally dry, without molding or losing the flavorful oils. Drying in a stable temperature with good airflow is necessary, and my kitchen window is great because it is next to an air vent that keeps the air flowing.

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Fast forward to last week. The leaves have dried beautifully and are ready for their second harvest. For this job, I pulled out the trusty mortar and pestle to crush the leaves. I used a sieve to help me keep a consistent flake size so that it wouldn’t get caught in my spice shaker. I would crush, sift, and then repeat the crushing until all that was left in the sieve was a negligible amount.

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In the end, my window-full of fresh basil yielded me about 3 tablespoons of dried and crushed basil spice. I thus labeled, dated, and stored this treasure into an old spice container that I repurposed into a spice container. I compared this with the store-bought container of basil in our cabinet and the difference was staggering: the store-bought lacked flavor and aroma. I added the store-bought to our compost bin and our basil now sits proudly in its place.

It’s easy to stay industrious when it’s warm outside, but a well-planned and industrious summer gives you plenty to keep up with in the colder months.

Harvesting Stevia Leaf

Rooftop Garden Herbs

This past summer, we grew a great bunch of stuff on top of our roof. You know, like hipsters. We planted some stuff from seed, and picked up the rest from local gardening stores and farmers markets. One thing that I was surprised to find at our local market was a stand selling stevia plants. Stevia being a natural sweetener and a sugar substitute, I asked the vendor how she uses the plant to sweeten things. She said that she used it in full leaf form to sweeten her teas. Being the adventurous type of hipster, we bought one plant and decided to see what we could do with it.

Over the summer, our peppermint (from which we planned to make teas) did not fare well and we did not reap a harvest. The stevia plant, on the other hand, did very well. We ended up with a large plant, but never used it to sweeten the tea that we were never able to make. So feeling guilty and having nothing to brag about, I decided to dry the stevia leaves and preserve them for a later time.

That time was this week. Making tea from a tea bag seemed so normal, and the dried out stevia leaves hanging in our kitchen window caught my eye. I crushed a small amount of stevia leaf, put it in the tea strainer, and steeped. To my surprise, this tea was so sweet, I almost couldn’t drink it!

I decided to harvest the rest of the stevia and put it away for storage. I stripped the stems of the remaining leaves and crushed them in my mortar and pestle, repurposed a spice container into a spice container, and put the pulverized stevia away for another time. I had a good amount of dried leaves, but after crushing I was left with about one tablespoon of stevia powder.

I’m not sure yet how I’ll use it, but I was thinking of trying to make some sugar free banana bread or something. Being the adventurous sort of hipster, I’m sure I’ll find a way to use it.

Dried Stevia

Stevia Strainer

Dried Stevia Leaves

Shaker of Stevia