Sunday, August 29, 2010

Insane in the Cold Frame: A Cats and Catts Instructional Essay

By BDo & Bean

This Cats and Catts instructional essay discusses how to build a multi-use cold frame.  You can use it for specific cold-tolerant orchids, and a cold frame can extend the time some of your orchids can stay outdoors. Cold frames can become an integral part of vegetable gardening or, you can do what I’m going to do, and use it to germinate daylily seedlings.

There are plenty of cold frames kits for sale online and plenty of internet advice about how to build one, but I promise you that my Insane Cold Frame design is the best.

The reason that this is the Best Cold Frame Design Ever is because I designed it with Selena Sabine by my side and her tail whacked at my hand as I sketched the diagram, thus inserting the proper degree of torque and resistance into the design plan.  I drafted it on the back of an envelope for an added element of professionalism. 

The other great thing about the Insane Cold Frame is that you can build it with minimal sawing as long as you take all of your measurements ahead of time, walk into Home Depot with a plan, and have them saw your wood for you free of charge.  If you take advantage of this service, you lose some control over the building process, but you can save time, avoid the shame of making miscalculations at home, and everything will easily fit in the car without bungee cords or back injury.

Step 1: Find the Sash
You need to design around the window top, or what horticultural types call the “sash.”  Don’t do anything or buy any supplies until you have the glass sash.  You might find something appropriate at a garage sale or thrift store.  Or you can do all of your shopping at Home Depot.  The important thing is to take a careful measurement of the dimensions of the window frame.  You need to know the length and width of the wood or aluminum frame -- not the dimensions of the glass.  Those two numbers are important, so take multiple measurements just to be careful.

Step 2: Make a Shopping List
Ideally, your cold frame will face South and will maximize the space running West to East.  Therefore, it’s going to be wider in the front compared to the sides. 

You’re trying to build a wood frame that will fight snugly around the sash, so add ½ inch to the width and length measurements of the window frame (I forget my exact mathematical reasoning for adding a ½ inch, but it worked out).  This will give you a small number (the width of the glass frame as it will run along the side of the cold frame plus ½ inch) and a big number (the length of the front and back of the wood or aluminum frame plus ½  inch).

Here’s what you need:
* One piece of WeatherShield 2 in. x 4 in. x 7 foot Prime Pressure Treated Lumber.  
* Several pieces of WeatherShield 2 in. x 6 in. x 8 foot Prime Pressure Treated Lumber.  I pulled about six boards, but I think the guy only needed to use four for my 33” x 35” frame.
* Two skinny pieces of 1 in. x 2 in. boards, enough to run across the front (that may or may not be sold in the same section as the other lumber).
* You’ll also need a box of 3” or 3 1/2” screws, a box of 1” deck screws, a cabinet handle, two heavy-duty hinges, and paint.

Step 3: Shopping
Find one of those over-sized steel grocery cart contraptions, preferably one with a broken wheel.  Roll over to the WeatherShield lumber.

My Home Depot strategy relies on the kindness of strangers instead of math.  You’ll want a specified number of 2x4s and 1x2s, but the number of 2x6s depends upon the size of the glass frame.  You don’t have to be precise – just get more than you think you need and load them on the metal cart.

Sidebar: Have you ever bought lumber from Home Depot?  I think it’s like buying yogurt – you might want to reach back beyond the first few rows to get the freshest product.  The wood that previous customers have rejected as too twisty or John Merrick-like often remains in the front of the stack.  If you want to look like you know what you’re doing and, perhaps, avoid buying bum lumber, set it at a diagonal and stare down its length.  Do you see any weirdness on that flat plane?  Then, set the board down on the concrete.  Does it lay flat?  A good Home Depot employee will help you inspect the boards and will be honest in rejecting the ones that are lousy.  A bad Home Depot employee will try to rush you by grabbing the first board he sees and will try to put it in your cart before you have a chance to detect its faults.  I’ve experienced both, with the former outnumbering the latter.

Step 4: Requesting the Cuts
The Home Depot team is often busy helping other customers.  It would seem that risking permanent injury cutting other people’s lumber would be a highlight of their work experience, but maybe I’m wrong.  Anyway, if it’s a busy Saturday and you find yourself being ignored try this approach: Walk over to the wood cutting station with a small piece of wood in your left arm (there should be some scraps lying around near the station) and place it near the blade.  Take your right arm and stretch it in the direction of the control panel.  Someone will assist you shortly.

Now that you have their attention, tell the lumber cutter that you want the 2x6 boards cut into five pieces of x-inches [the small number, the sides) and five pieces cut to x inches [the big number, the front and back].  The guy might say “With as many boards as it takes to make five of each length?”  You should mutter something like “Yeah.”  (See?  No math!).  Next, before he leaves, tell the dude to cut the 2x4 into two 12” pieces (the front posts) and two 18” pieces (the back posts).  As a final request, take one of the short, recently cut, pieces of 2x6 and tell the dude to cut it at a diagonal.  This will produce two triangles with a 6” back that will align with the back of the cold frame.  The hypotenuse of both triangles will create the downward slope on the cold frame, maximizing sun exposure.  You could have your lumber-cutting friend cut the 1x2s in half if you want easy transportation in a car.  Those pieces will be cut to spec toward the end of the assembly.

Step 5: Paint
Prime all of the pieces, including the wood or aluminum on the window frame.  I used Kliz 2 Latex.  Two coats are better than one, but wait until the first one dries.

Step 6: Assembly
Here’s what I think you should do (not necessarily what I did).  I would lay out and stack up the lumber so you can visually understand what you’re trying to do.  Then, I would create a big wood box by screwing the 2x4 posts into the side pieces (the short 2x6 pieces).  Then I would screw in the front and back.  You’ll want the longest piece of the 2x4 for all four posts facing the front of the cold frame.  The top of the front posts should be flush with the top of the box.  The back posts should extend to allow the final long piece in the back.

It should be obvious where to place the two triangular pieces.  I pre-drilled two holes in each piece of triangle wood and carefully screwed them into place.

Step 7: Paint Again

Step 8: Hinge the Sash
Use 1 ½ ” screws to attach the two hinges to the window frame and the back of your cold frame structure.  The little scroll thing on the hinge should face inward.

Step 9: Finishing
You’ll use three pieces of 1x2s to hold the window in place.  These pieces will be screwed into the top of the frame and will run in front of the window and along the sides.  You’ll be setting the wood “tall,” so that its narrowest side abuts frame.  Therefore, it’s especially important to pre-drill holes before you drill in the screws, otherwise the skinny lumber will split.  I went light on the screw action and only used two per board.  The seal doesn’t have to be perfect, and cold frames need ventilation.  Foam weather-stripping offers a nice and inconspicuous way to seal corners that need to be sealed. 

I screwed the handle into the middle of a 1’ piece of 1x2.  Then, I attached it to the window using multiple screws, pre-drilling all the way.

That’s my Insane Cold Frame plan and, despite my vast reservoir of inexperience doing things like this, I think it turned out well.  Although Bean and I designed it, and I did all of the labor (expect for the Home Depot wood cutting step), I can’t take all the credit.  I need to warmly acknowledge the carpentry and woodworking mentorship of Crazy Eyes Jonny, Rockin’ Randy Mac, and KDo.  All of the flaws in the design and execution, however, are solely the fault of Selena Sabine.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Fish Friday! Betta Version

Bettas – The Perfect Pet 
by Trixie

I never had a pet fish before. They seemed like a great pet to have if you had a big, expensive tank filled with colorful, exotics, but I never thought about getting a betta. The appeal of having a single fish never occurred to me until I started shopping at Pet World. I saw the cool, half moon, wall mounted betta tanks, and realized it would actually be possible to protect a fishy from our four cats. I bought the tank, and took it home to prepare for the arrival of my new betta.

I planned where I would hang the tank, and read the betta fish guide. I got my tank prepared, and went back to Pet World to find my betta.

Some things are just meant to be, and I swear, once I saw “my” fish in his bowl, I knew that he would be mine. He gave me his patented “Jazz Hands” welcome, and we headed home. I immediately named him Abe Vigoda, and got him situated in his little tank.

The affection and love I felt for Abe were immediate. From the first day, he got very excited when I come into the room. No one else causes the level of enthusiastic waving I get! We have our morning, and after work rituals, where we dance and give each other “Jazz Hands” to show how happy we are to see each other!! We have four cats, and sometimes, Abe’s greeting is the most enthusiastic pet I get upon returning home! He blows me kisses, and really gets happy when he sees me! My husband gets a lukewarm welcome from him, because Abe knows who butters his bread.

He is beautiful, and has brought me more joy than some furry friends I have had in my life. There was a time when he was very sick, and I thought he was going to die. Turns out, I was using tap water, which has a non-evaporating chemical. His beautiful fins rotted off, but just the tips. He had a white fungus over his right eye. I cried when I went to sleep, thinking he wouldn’t be there to greet me in the morning. I felt like a bit of an idiot, crying over my fish. But he is an important member of my family, and the thought of losing him just broke my heart.

But thanks to the help of the Pet World staff, who fielded several emergency calls from a frantic fish mom, I found that, even though I changed his water every week, I wasn’t using the kind of water that he could thrive in. But once I switched to the clean and fixed up water from PetWorld, he started making gorgeous bubble nests, waving at me, and generally being the most awesome fish in the world. He is fully recovered, except the tips of his fins, and as frisky as ever.

Abe has since been upgraded to a 2.5 gallon tank, with a rotating array of fresh water plants, and he has a new roommate….a hitchhiking snail named Wojo. They seem to get along, and Wojo makes for some fun new video opportunities!

I have been madly in love with my Abe for well over a year now. Knowing he is going to be there to greet me when I get home makes me happy! And I can tell I make him happy! Bettas are beautiful friends, easy to keep happy with minimum work, and bring so much joy to life! I think it's important to bond with your fish, and really let them know that you picked them because they are special. But I am just kind of a freak that way!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What's Wrong With This Picture?

 The correct answer is "Griffin is being good," but I'll also take "those inflorescences need staking."  The Miltassia C.M. Fitch 'Izumi' gives her a number of leaves to chew on, and those bloom spikes look like they could use some nudging with her cheeks.  After all, we still don't know whether Charles Fitch is a dog person or a cat person.

This plant has come a long way since I bought it (about a year ago).  It has five inflorescences and some of the buds are starting to show the purple hues of the flower.  It's in a 5" pot with multiple holes drilled in it, filled with Hydroton from RePotme.  That whole thing is in a 6" pot filled with aquarium gravel.  The gravel has kept it from falling over and it's also created -- not a semi-hydroponic situation -- a "quasi-hydroponic" one.  My Mtssa. loves the clay Hydroton marbles and and many of my Cattleyas do, too.  More accurately, my plants love that they're in soil-less medium because it makes my over-watering less offensive.  The velamen glues itself to clay and the medium takes up as much water as it needs.  

I should add that RePotme is a Kitty Approved! vendor.  One of their strengths is affordable shipping costs, which is a big deal when we're talking about big bags of special rocks and dirt.  They look really good when you do the math and compare their growing media prices to other vendors, and they just sell orchid potting supplies, which is very confidence-inspiring.

Anyway, I need to figure out why Griffin is acting so behaved -- she must be plotting something big.  I'm sure I'll get an answer when she wakes up from her nap.  Until then, I'll let her rest under the foliage and hope for the best.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Curse of Free Wood

Our fence line running North to South receives a ridiculous amount of Midwest sun, but the soil is terrible and nothing wanted to grow in the modest 3'x4' plot I've tried to work over the years.  I wanted to create more space for daylilies and daylily seedlings, so a raised bed seemed like a logical project.  I had leftover wood from a broken fence and a bundle of boards picked up from the roadside.  I reasoned that it would be an easy afternoon project.

Here's what I learned.  If a board has five nails or screws that need to be removed, four of them will pull out easily, but you'll spend five or ten minutes wrestling with the last one.  The time quickly adds up.

Also, the boards I selected were of different widths and thicknesses.  The project became like Jenga or Tetris, with heavy lifting.  I found no amount of creative math would make it work.  Soon, the free wood felt like a curse. 

So, I gave up on the free wood for the raised bed.  "The Perfect Raised Bed" instructions from Sunset Magazine online seemed too easy.  All of the math involved whole numbers.  Better yet, I could walk into The Home Depot with the measurements and have the dudes cut the lumber for me for free.  And, suddenly, the probability of me losing a finger to a saw accident went to zero.
After I returned with the pre-cut lumber, the Sunset instructions were as easy as they appeared.  In fact, I added an extra layer of lumber after following the lead of the article's comment section.  It took longer than an afternoon, but not a whole lot longer, and I didn't have to pull out any rusty nails. 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Frog Friday!

 Carol is shown here moving past the Ceratostylis retisquama. It's recently sent out another leaf, but there are no signs of it flowering.  It's come a long way since the last time Carol struck this pose, but it has a lot more grow before it looks like this. It's in the frog's hands now....

Too Hot To Blog!

Northeastern Kansas has experienced some of the hottest weather in a decade and it has slowed my cat and orchid blogging.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.  The past ten days have been full of outside digging, sawing, drilling, painting, and planting.  I didn't want to let this slow down Cats and Catts, but it inevitably did.  I worked outside in the early morning and tried to put up with an hour or two (or three, or four) during the warm-up.  Trixie pushed me to drink water and I avoided serious heat-related harms.  But juggling multiple outdoor projects -- a raised daylily bed, a compost bin, cold frames, planting dozens of new daylily in the main garden, and caring for the outside orchids -- left me with just enough energy to work my real job and spend time with Trixie and the kitties.  

When I was online, I found myself in a seeking-mode more than a sharing-mode.  Online gardening advice is a total l'embarras des richesses situation and there were only so many cold frame diagrams I could stare at before I went crazy.  But I had a lot to learn.  Did you know, for instance, that "lasagna composting" has nothing to do with lasagna or the vegetables used to make lasagna?  I'll share some of the other things I've learned as I race to meet my August posting quota.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Star Trek Convention -- The Cats and Catts Vegas Edition

(left-to-right, Sissy as Lwaxana Troi, "China Beach" star Richard Picardo, and Trixie as Deanna Troi).  The end of July witnessed a whirlwind of activity in the Cats and Catts house.  Trixie was preparing for the 40th annual Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas.  That meant all hands on deck as we created two Deanna Troi costume dresses.  We enlisted the help of a friend, L Spice, who gave hours of dress-making work: pattern planning, fabric selection, cutting and basting, difficult decorative top-stitching, and general guidance.  Trixie helped, too, and tolerated our weak efforts at delivering sewing instructions ("I mean, what part of 'Trim a 5/8" seam allowance around the interfacing for piece M and -- with the fuzzy part of the interfacing against the wrong side of pieces M and N -- baste the right side of piece J to the wrong side of piece M at the notched edge' don't you understand?").  L Spice's two dogs oversaw our efforts and made sure that food wasn't dropped carelessly on the sewing room floor.  For better or worse, I took over for the final weeks.  I attached the bodice to the skirt and the arms to the bodice, slip-stitched the hem, put in zippers on the arms and back, and did multiple fittings over multiple days.  Trixie sewed the hook-and-eye closures the night before her flight and I was hand-sewing and machine-sewing mere hours before her scheduled departure time.

On August 7th, Trixie and her sister (dressed as Deanna's mother, Lwaxana) were part of breaking a world record for the greatest number of people head-to-toe in Star Trek costumes.  In fact, the sister act was selected to sit in the front row for the record-breaking!  All of the kitties were excited to hear the news, except for Riley (he was chasing an imaginary bug).  

We created a second dress for Troi's fantasy incarnation on the Holodeck.  I'm not a Star Trek fan, so I thought it was unusual to create a dress stemming from a six-minute sequence featured in a single episode, but Trixie reported that fans readily recognized the Goddess of Empathy.  As usual, the cats provided invaluable assistance transforming this dream into a reality.  There's no pattern for the Goddess of Empathy dress, so I used a Grecian Goddess costume dress as a starting point.  Lan Lan (above) made sure that the pattern didn't blow away.

Selena Sabine helped by pointing out different design elements that needed attention.  This photograph shows Bean telling us to give extra care to the belt and waistline. She liked to oversee every step and always stayed inches from the sewing action even during her nap time.

Putting in a zipper can be one of the more daunting tasks for amateur dressmakers and you have the right kitty consulting you.  Riley has demonstrated his quantitative skills before, so it makes sense that he would be in charge of checking the calibration of the measuring tape with his claws.  He also sniffed the zipper to make sure it didn't need additional grooming and batted at the scissors to test for sharpness.

So what was Griffin doing this whole time?  The usual Griffin routine: napping, begging for treats, and roughhousing with Riley.  This time, though, Griffin's laziness was entirely forgivable.  As today's photo montage suggests, the other cats provided more than enough help.