A Garden Blog About Saying Goodbye

I'm a gardener in Chicago, IL, and I'm leaving my garden behind at the end of the year - The Last Garden is about my garden's final year. Share & Enjoy.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Pansies in a Fish Tank

First off, this particular venture is a complete experiment, and could end in very sad chaos. That said, I am going to be growing my own early-spring pansies, with naught but a fish tank and a few hundred toilet paper tubes.

As I've said, it's impossible for me to play favorites with flowers, but pansies were one of my first favorites. I've grown pansies from when I was a toddler, with my mother, and I don't think there's every been a year when I haven't managed to get my hands on them, either in the spring or fall. And, for me, favorite plants almost always get their chance at growing from seed.

Pansies on the porch last fall.

I've tried winter sowing pansies before, but in Chicago, they really have to be germinated in December or January in order to bloom before June, when high temperatures cause them to go to seed. Now, any small green thing growing indoors is fair game for the felines of the house, so when I saw the aquarium idea on the gardenweb forums, I knew I had my solution. Without further ado:

With dramatic lighting and everything! That blue cast is the
aquarium lamp.

Start Date: January 19, 2011
Seed Types: Viola x wittrockiana 'Swiss Giants' (Pansies), Viola tricolor (Johnny-Jump-Ups, Hearts-Ease) 
Equipment: 1 x 20 Gallon (Long) Fish Tank, ∞ x empty toilet paper tubes, ∞ x clear rigid plastic for labels, 1 x double standard fluorescent aquarium lights
Inspiration: this post from happycthulhu

Bit of a better view.

This was super easy. I just lined up the tubes, filled them up with seed starting mix and planted the seeds. It's watered from below - the construction of the cardboard tubes allows them to just wick water up from the bottom, so I fill the aquarium with about an inch of water every two or three days and that's it for watering. Since I'm growing both Pansies and Hearts-Ease, I just saved some clear plastic containers, cut them up and labeled them with Sharpie. I color-coded mine.

Color coded labels. Purple is Viola tricolor and red is pansies.

We had a bit of trouble because we didn't start collecting paper tubes until pretty late in the game. Of course, we got paper towel rolls and toilet paper rolls from our own house, but if you want to get more in a shorter amount of time, try asking your friends and family. Promise them flowers in return for the awkward favor; in my experience this works very well. We got a few tubes from Freecycle, and my mother even started nicking the empty tubes from her gym's locker room!

The tubes, prior to pansification.

The aquarium and lights were pretty expensive when I first bought them 4 or 5 years ago, but I bought them new, from a specialty aquarium store, so I'm sure they can be gotten for much cheaper on eBay, Craigslist, or at any garage sale. Plant grow lights can be used instead, but so far I'm doing fine with double standard fluorescent aquarium lights.

The seedlings are growing fine under aquarium lights and a bit of
afternoon sunshine.

I've discovered that you'll want to run a fan in the room, preferably near the aquarium, for a couple hours each day to prevent mold. I'm developing a good crop of botrytis as we speak, so I need to dig out a tabletop fan from the basement. You should already have a pitcher or a bucket to water the aquarium with. My lights are on a timer so the seedlings get the right amount of light no matter when I'm home. One option for increasing light in the aquarium is to tape aluminum foil around the visible sides, to reflect the light back onto the seedlings.

This gorgeous flat was spotted last fall at a local nursery.
I am under no delusions at all that my seed-grown plants
will turn out at all like these.

Other than that... I'll say that anybody who tries this in 2011 with me will be in for a fun ride. I am anticipating all kinds of crazy problems, and I'll be giving updates on this project regularly so you can keep watch with me. I'll link to further posts at the bottom here. After the pansy run, I'll be trying to start some of my annuals and herbs early in here... Keep watch!

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