Greenhouse Living

After a few years of deepening our “crack gardening” addiction to cacti and succulents, Taylor decided last fall it was time for us to dramatically up our game. When we moved into our house a couple of years ago, we lost quite a bit of window space for our plants, all of which are hungry for heat and harsh sun. In September, Taylor gifted me a 6x6x7-foot greenhouse for my 30th birthday. Today we have evolved into succulent savants, and our plants look bigger and better than ever.

The greenhouse itself, made entirely of aluminum and corrugated plastic panes, came in two flat boxes. It almost seemed so lightweight as to be useless in windy, stormy Nebraska. However, as we put it together, we found the frame light but sturdy. The opaque panes seem so durable that I doubt anything other than a tree limb or tennis-ball size hail could do much damage.

We “enhanced” the greenhouse with a wooden base of 4x4s, ensuring it’s anchored to something heavy just in case. We also added black paver base to the floor, which acts as both insulation and a heating element, soaking up the sun and reflecting heat back into the greenhouse. As a plus, it keeps most insects and small critters out.

We spent about six hours one October weekend putting the greenhouse together, and with a few cheap shelving units from Amazon, we maximized the space and light distribution. Today, we could fit a hundred or so potted plants inside.

We put our most hardy plants in the greenhouse last fall, just as the days were getting shorter and colder. This simulated a more natural environment for a cactus, and it helped them more easily go into hibernation. As the temperatures dropped, we added a small heating unit and sealed the edges with a special insulating plastic tape. This kept the greenhouse from going below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. We admittedly were lucky to have a mild winter. However, even on our coldest days in December and January – when the wind chills hit -10 degrees – the greenhouse never dipped below 40, and the heater only added about $10 to our electric bill.

With minimal care and once-a-month watering from November through March, we lost not a single plant. Some of the plants even continued to bloom throughout the winter! As spring arrived, many a cactus started to wake up. Unlike anything we’ve seen before, the greenhouse plants started to sprout and bloom. Here’s a sampling of the show we witnessed:

greenhouse_0 greenhouse_1 greenhouse_2 greenhouse_2a greenhouse_3 greenhouse_4 greenhouse_6 greenhouse_5 greenhouse_7 greenhouse_8 greenhouse_10 greenhouse_9
This sempervivum is now in our rock garden outdoors, but it was hardened off in the greenhouse and turned this brilliant shade of purple.

Now that summer’s here, the greenhouse can get up to 120 degrees. That’s too hot for my liking, but for a cactus it must be pretty pleasant. The greenhouse has a vented roof, so we’ve kept that open almost all summer to regulate the temp and keep it around 100. This also helps with air circulation and fighting off any pests or rot. Essentially, we’re simulating a year-round natural environment for these plants – hot, bright and dry in the summer; cool, dark and bone-dry in the winter.

The greenhouse has proven to be one of our better investments and one of our more successful experiments, although it does seem to deepen our addiction. We’re hoping in a year or two it will pay for itself when we start winning all that lucrative metro-area cactus show prize money. Watch out, Kathy from Papillion.

BONUS: Last summer I posted about the cold-weather cactus garden I planted in our backyard. I did not know whether some of the plants would survive the winter. I covered the garden with two inches of dead leaves to insulate. But as it turned out, my fears were realized. Two of the cacti did not survive. However, the prickly pears took a beating, but now are thriving in our hot and dry Midwestern summer. In fact, a pad broke off one of the plants, so after the broken end hardened off I stuck it back in the dirt. Today it’s growing pads of its own. This is why cacti are so amazing!

Cold-Weather Cactus Garden


Grass is terrible. It’s needy, it grows fast and needs frequent mowing, and it sucks up gallons of water. Now that we’re a homeowner, I have an even more acrimonious relationship with grass. I’ve spent time on most of my summer weekends either reseeding, cutting, weeding or watering my front lawn. I only do this so the neighbors don’t think I’m a derelict slob (which I am).

Ever since we started collecting succulents and cacti a few years back, I’ve dreamed of a xeriscaped landscape instead of a turfed lawn. But I live in hot and humid/cold and biting Nebraska, so that option doesn’t make much sense. But that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost!

I’ve started an experiment this summer. Taylor and I hit the River City Cactus and Succulent Society show back in May. While there, we met a vendor from Oklahoma who offered a variety of cold-weather cacti. “Why not?” I thought. Cacti grow primarily in hot, dry climates, but the real key word is dry. You can find cactus varieties in the wild in the United States from the southwest to as far north as eastern Montana. You can find some of the most amazing cactus and succulent gardens in the country in cold, snowy Colorado, even.

On a whim, I bought four plants: two opuntia humifusa (pricky pear), an echinocerus reichenbacchi (lace hedgehog cactus), and an echinocerus viridiflorus (nylon hedgehog cactus). Each is about 6-12 inches tall and maybe a year or so old. All of these varieties bloom big, bright flowers once they emerge from hibernation when the ground begins to thaw. I’m hoping mine live up to their reputation come spring 2017.

However, I still had the challenge of getting them into the ground. I live in Hardiness Zone 5 (at least until the zones get revised up thanks to climate change). Plants must be able to survive temperatures as low as -15ºF here. All of mine should survive if planted right and protected over the cold winter. But it will take a little work.

Last year, Taylor gifted me Leo Chance’s “Cacti & Succulents for Cold Climates“, and I’ve been digesting it ever since, waiting for my chance to plant a cold-weather cactus garden. Therefore, when I bought my plants, I was more than ready. Here are the steps I took to prepare the rich, loess-y soil in my backyard for my spartan spiny friends.

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Piplanter Reboot


Even robots need a little motivation every once in a while. My Piplanter was no exception.

Nine months after I first booted up my JG Piplanter (which is still keeping itself updated hourly here and here), the system is growing a fresh batch of basil, which should be ready just in time for summer. But for a while there, things got a little dodgy, and I was worried the experiment had entered its end stage.

For starters, some of the basil plants were collapsing practically overnight. I was concerned they were being shocked by the moisture sensors, or that they weren’t getting enough water. Yet even after adjustments, plants continued to wilt and die unexpectedly. As it turns out, some of the basil seeds had brought in a fatal fusarium wilt. Bad news. All of the plants and soil would have to go, and the entire planter needed sterilization.

piplanter2_tall20160404 No problem, I thought. This would give me a chance to replace the moisture sensors, which had rusted down to nearly nothing, and to redesign the irrigation system, which wasn’t doing a great job of evenly watering the plants. Over a couple days in January, I cleaned and rebuilt the system.

But there was another issue – we moved. I actually managed to transport the Piplanter completely intact (in a moving van, and down and up two flights of stairs). But its new location was in a room and location with 50% less sunlight. Not to mention, the dark days of December starved the plants of light, even with the grow lamp on 12 hours per day, and the winter months made this drafty room about 15-20 degrees colder than the previous spot.

At first, the refreshed planter shot up seedlings, but all of them died in about a month. I think the cold had a lot to do with it, because many of them shot up quickly but never grew any bigger.

In addition, it took a little while to work the kinks out of the new watering pattern. At first the pressure was way too low. I had drilled holes that were too big, and the water just dribbled down the sides of the bin. So I installed new tubing with smaller holes, which now sprays water across the full length of the planter from both sides (I even sprayed myself in the eye while testing it).

Finally, I updated the Pi software so that I could SSH into the system and control it remotely. That is, I no longer need to haul a flat screen TV monitor and keyboard into the room every time I need to access the system. I can simply remote in from my laptop. I know this is pretty run-of-the-mill stuff to most tech people, but it was a first for me, and made working with the PiPlanter so much easier.

I replanted once more, this time with about twice the seeds. I also switched to new varieties of seed, including a mini mounding basil variety. With a little help, the seeds have a started again, and as the days grow longer and warmer, the new plants look a little bigger and happier each day. Now I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the wilt stays away and we will soon be back to a regular supply of basil to feed our addiction.

Check out new photos and a recent video below!

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A peck of puny peppers


For all the effort I put into planting seeds from multiple years and hybrids of peppers, I didn’t get much. I sort of feel like this Onion article right now.

It turned out to be a very poor summer indeed for porch gardening. My pepper plants produced very little compared to year’s past. In fact, none of the plants got much larger than they were in my last post, and the leaves and fruits were all very small and scraggly this year. I got maybe half a dozen jalapenos, and only a handful of Mexican and hybrid peppers, and none of them had any substantial heat.

I think that’s mostly due to the rainy summer. I didn’t realize this before doing a little research, but it turns out that wet conditions are actually fairly counterproductive. Three straight summer months of record rain was bad news for the containers on our porch, even when we tried to protect the plants from getting water logged. Considering we ended up growing more mushrooms than peppers, I’d say I didn’t do so well in that department.

For what it’s worth, my 2014 plants got a little bigger than the 2013 variety, though that may have simply been due to placement and better sunlight. In addition, the hybrid plant produced the largest peppers of the summer, and what appear to be viable seeds! We’ll find out next year, I guess.

The summer wasn’t a total loss though. The few tiny peppers that we did get were very crisp and delicious. Of course, we always have a backup plan, too. The rest of my starters were planted in my mother-in-law’s back yard, and those all turned out some decent peppers (with a bit of heat, too!). With those, we were able to try two new recipes. First, we made a jalapeno raspberry jam with some fresh raspberries we picked at Bellevue Berry Farm. Then there were these beauties:


Why yes, those are macaroni-and-cheese-stuffed jalapenos (with turkey bacon). The recipe was inspired by a jalapeno popper recipe book my parents gave me last Christmas (many of the recipes, and the book can be found at Hopefully I can try a few more before the season is out. But for now, I’m closing the book on my 2015 pepper experiment. It’s been fun, but here’s hoping for a more fruitful summer (literally) next year.

Introducing the JG PiPlanter


Well, it’s been about seven months in the making, but it’s finally alive: my PiPlanter.

Taylor gave me a box of tubing, resistors and electrical components for Christmas last year, along with a web address for instructions to build us a Raspberry Pi-powered automated plant growing robot (or “growbot,” as I like to say now that I just thought of it just right now). Challenge accepted!

The project was created, designed, coded, everything-ed, by Devon Bray at Esologic (@eso_logic), so I simply set out to replicate his basic PiPlanter 2 Lite model.

The PiPlanter monitors light, air temperature and soil moisture levels, and then – my primary albeit minor modification – waters the plants when it detects that the soil has become too dry. It also tweets an hourly photo and update on the readings, as well as periodic charts and videos documenting the planter’s status and growth.

As it turned out, everything from Devon worked great. I would have been done a lot sooner, but I am not skilled nor wise with either Raspberry Pi or Python, so I managed to completely brick my Pi twice before I even got the basic software packages downloaded. Then, a third time, after the Pi had been running for a few weeks, I tried to delete a folder of photos and ended up wiping every file and program off my computer. Whoops. I am not a skilled programmer. I can barely make a robot arm dance.

But, hey, even I figured out how to eventually make the code and circuits work. I got pretty skilled at starting from scratch with the Pi, and the final reinstall took me less than 90 minutes. I learned quite a bit about Raspbian, Python, etc. This was a fun, challenging, next-level project for me, and, to boot, I might even have some decent basil and thyme out of all of this soon.

My goal now is to not touch the PiPlanter for a few weeks and see if the plant survive without my human interference. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to figure out what else around the house I can automate…

Check out my PiPlanter page here: JG PiPlanter. I’ve got some photos, Tweet samples and videos there. I’ve also put up my final code (I made a few tweaks and updates to the Esologic code, but again I take no credit for creating this project). Feel free to borrow, replicate, improve and try your own PiPlanter!


Pepper Update – July 2015

It’s been a couple months since I’ve put my pepper plants outside. Other than the fact that it’s been an incredibly wet June and my plants have been infested with mushrooms and gnats, everything is going well so far. In fact, I’ve already got fruit on all five plants! Here’s a look:


The jalapeno pepper plants are looking healthiest of all. However, my 2014 Vintage plant is nearly twice the size of the 2013 one. I don’t know if that’s because it gets more sun, if it was simply a stronger plant, or if the seeds were better in 2014, but whatever the case, it has really taken off. I already have 4-5 jalapenos on it, and they are bigger than the 2013 plant, too:


And they look great! I should be making some sinus-clearing dishes by mid-July. We’ll see if the buckets of rain this summer have affected the heat at all.

And now, the Mexican bells:


Now in this pot, I have a Vintage 2013 plant (left), a 2014 (right), and a 2014 hybrid (center). Again, the 2014s seem to be getting bigger than the 2013, but the reasons for that are unclear. These plants also seem a lot thinner and less leafy than years’ past. Once again, I blame the dampness. But nevertheless, fruit on all of them:


The left are the Mexi bells. They look about right. On the right is the hybrid, and I can already see that it’s going to be something weird. The shape is just… strange. But I’m sure it will be tasty regardless of what it ends up being, and I can’t wait to start making some recipes. I’ll also be interested in the heat on the hybrids – last year they were incredibly mild considering they were crossed Mexican and jalapeno pepper plants, both of which were quite spicy.

I’ll update again at first harvest.

Poppin’ Peppers 2015

Last year, I grew some pepper plants from seeds I had saved from 2013. The result was great jalapeno and bell peppers, but also an unexpected hybrid pepper of some sort (seen here). Now I had three breeds of hot peppers, although the hybrid was the mildest of them all. However, I wasn’t sure the hybrid pepper seeds were even going to be viable, so I had to wait until this spring to find out.

I kept seeds from each plant last year, meaning I now have a “library” of pepper seeds – jalapenos and Mexican bells from 2013, and jalapenos/Mexican bells/hybrids from 2014. Seeing how this apartment porch operation was starting to get a tad ridiculous, I figured why not document the entire process?

So I did.

I started the seeds on March 10:


The top planter is the Mexican bells, the bottom is jalapenos. On the left, I planted 2013 vintage pepper plants, and on the left 2014. The exception is the two in the middle of the top row (marked with the silver marker). Those are two hybrid starters. I figured it wouldn’t be a huge loss if I tried two and nothing came up.

But something did come up. Two weeks later, March 23:


You can see both hybrid starters germinated – so the seeds are indeed viable. Also, it’s notable that the second-generation plants of both kinds look just as strong as 2013. Off to a great start.

Two more weeks later, April 7:

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Why my tastebuds burned off this summer


Last year we bought a couple pepper plants at the Farmer’s Market. One was a jalapeño plant, the other produced squat little round peppers called Mexican bells. We had a ton just from those two plants last year, and good lord they were hot. Once I even temporarily blinded myself when I rubbed my eye after cutting a few. I saved some of the seeds, and this February, I planted them in some starter planters to get a jump.

As it turned out, more of them took root than I anticipated, and I ended up with over two dozen jalapeño and Mexi-bell pepper sproutlings. We planted four on our porch, gave about a half dozen away, and threw the rest into a patch in my mother-in-law’s back yard.

You can see where this is going. I think we produced nearly 100 jalapeños and Mexican peppers this year. That, I guess, can be expected with so many plants and so much rain. However, I did not expect two things this year:

First, the peppers weren’t as hot, and I’m not entirely sure why. The jalapeños were on fire as usual, and more than once I cooked them on the stove top this summer and inadvertently weaponized the air in our kitchen. But for the some reason the Mexican peppers were mild and almost palatable.

Second, what I thought was a Mexican bell pepper sproutling turned out to be a hybrid of the bell peppers and the jalapeños. This is apparently easier to do than one would think!


In addition, you might expect it would have some kick, but the hybrid peppers turned out to be the mildest of them all. That porch plant wasn’t the only one, either. Many of the peppers we planted in the yard were also hybrids, so we ended up with jalapeños, Mexi-bells, and what appeared to be some generic red and green peppers.

This year, I saved three sets of seeds – those from jalapeños, those from Mexi-bells, and those from the hybrids. I’ll try planting all three again this spring, and we’ll see what comes up. I might even plant some of the leftover seeds from last year, just to see if I can get a Vintage Summer 2013 mouth-burning jalapeno back again.


Anyway, back to the prolific harvest. We had to get creative this year with our pepper eating. Here’s a list of all the things we have made with our homegrown hot peppers:

It’s basically getting to the point that if my food doesn’t have capsaicin in it, I can’t taste it.

Our Cactus Farm

Taylor and I are addicted to succulents. Our tiny porch hardly has room to sit anymore. Some of our interesting little plants have grown into legitimate monsters. Look at the growth in our “cactus farm” from April to September:

This wall is an old pallet we stole and turned into a vertical farm. The plants really seemed to like this one! Check out the burro’s tail about halfway up. The sempervivums on the bottom two rows went from dead to taking over. And the four potted plants are officially out of control.

These two stumps were plants that got to tall and we had to behead. However, we kept the stumps and new rosettes sprouted. After four months, they’ve pretty much fully recovered.

More comparisons after the jump!

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