Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Calendar Shuffle, part two

Well, now that we're done with a belated March, we've skipped ahead to August. It has been in the mid-90's for days now. Not the best time to be putting in new fencing. Not the best time to be building a storage shed. Not the best time to be a shaggy donkey. And definitely not the best time to be running errands in an old, unreliable pickup truck, with no air conditioning and windows that don't roll down.

On the way to pick up a few cattle panels first thing this morning ("I'll get up early and beat the heat!") the truck stalled about once per mile. On the way back, it stalled about once per quarter mile, and finally gave up about halfway home. During the morning rush hour. At the end of an exit ramp.

While waiting for the tow truck to arrive, I entertained myself by sitting in the shade of an abandoned service station, and watching as drivers came up behind the truck and had to make a tough decision as to whether they should cross the double yellow line or drive on the (curbless) sidewalk to get around. (The pickup couldn't easily be moved out of the way.) It was running about 50/50 between around to the left and around to the right. Interestingly, whether the cars were eventually turning right or left didn't seem to affect their decision. Many went around the left side of the truck in order to turn right, and vice versa. A few just sat behind the truck for a few minutes, totally stumped. Eventually they got up the gumption to go around, but it apparently took some mental preparation. (Yes, it did take a long time for the tow truck to arrive. How'd you guess??)

I don't know if the truck will be with us much longer. It has at least three significant problems, and at least two of them are not easily solved. The frequent stalling is new. It may be heat related, or it may just be it's last gasps. The fact that I'm pretty much a novice when it comes to vehicle repair doesn't help. So now we start getting into those difficult decisions of whether to throw more money into this pit, or to find a slightly better pit to throw a new stack of money into. Especially since we've put most of our extra money into everything else already. And I certainly don't want to create any new debt.

Unfortunately, we'd be hard pressed to keep our little farmlet operating without a truck of some sort. The one we have gets used pretty infrequently, maybe once every week or two, but when we do need it, we actually need it. It's hard to transport things like cattle panels, plywood, hay, straw, tractor implements, etc. without it. I think once we have our winter animal housing taken care of, it will be needed less than now, but we've still got some necessary projects to complete. And there are a million uses for a pickup truck when you live far away from everything. There's a reason you see so many pickup trucks out in the country, and it's actually not just aesthetics. Anyway, we have a dilemma to work out.

The worst part was that because of that morning delay, I was pounding t-posts into the ground with a sledge hammer at mid-day to build a temporary fence to separate our donkey from the goats until they could acclimated. Jinx arrived before I got the fence done, so he just stayed in our little "air lock" by the gate while I finished the fence. By the time I got done, I had an eight inch gap in the fence and nothing handy to cover it with. I was dehydrated. The heat was slowing me down. One of the shelters still needed to be dragged to the other pasture so he'd have some shade. At that point I realized that the goats and the donkey had absolutely no ill feelings toward one another, and acres of pasture to distance themselves in if they so desired. It was a precaution worth taking, but the toiling feels a bit wasted now.

It was a long day. Especially when you start drenched in sweat before 8:00 in the morning, and end drenched in sweat again (or still) after 9:00 at night. (I was out in the garden after sunset tonight. I have an abundance of tomato plants and pepper plants. More survived indoors than I expected, and I just can't throw away a perfectly good plant. Especially one that bears tasty fruits.)

I hope we get a break from the heat soon. I'm really not ready for high summer yet...

Hi Jinx

Our viscious guard donkey arrived today. Despite a three hour trailer ride, Jinx was cool as a cucumber. When we let him off his lead in our little pasture airlock, he looked around for a moment or two, and casually started eating grass. His only complaint was that I didn't give him a treat before I left the pasture.

He's probably the next-to-last addition to our little starter herd. We've got one more Boer buck that we're close to buying.

The rest of the goats are not sure what to make of this miniature beast of burden. Betsy led a welcoming party, but then retreated to the shade to study the situation more carefully.

Sure, he doesn't look intimidating. But, you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya punk?

Look Daddy!

Look, it's a toad, Daddy!
Can't we take him in the house?

We did make a little toad house for him
out of an old terra cotta flower pot,
but after a half hour of being poked and prodded,
he decided not to move in.

I'm not sure why.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Motivation, Part Two

I'll be back to positive, life-affirming stuff soon, I promise. Or at least some random, rambling gibberish. But I have to finish this topic.

If you've spent any time pondering what I wrote last time, you might be thinking, "Big deal, even if we are at the top of the curve, that just means we've used up half of the oil in the world. There should be a huge amount of oil left." That would be correct.

The problem is, whenever we do reach that peak, that means there will never be another year with as much oil produced as that one (well, accounting for bumps in the actual curve). Oil production will gradually decline, so that 50 years after that peak, we'd be at the same level as 50 years before.

Gradual doesn't sound so bad, right? But wait. Add in the fact that every year we use more oil, and we import a higher percentage. Then add in the fact that China is putting 1,000 new cars to their roads every single day. And by the way, India and Russia are starting to adopt the "American Dream" and all the cars that come with it. Other countries are not far behind. There are a few billion people who aspire to have what we have. Demand for oil is climbing fast. Let me throw a few graphs at you:

US Annual Net Oil Imports
[image source]

Oil Consumption: Asia Pacific and China
[image source]

Oil Consumption: China Alone
[image source]

When demand is increasing and supply drops, prices go through the roof. And when I say "through the roof," I don't mean what's happened already. If the price of oil really does go through the roof, think of all the things that are impacted. Commuting. Trucking. Airlines. Trains. Ships. Transportation of virtually all goods, including food. (The average food item travels 1500 miles to get to your plate, if you live in the US. It's more like 5000 miles in Canada.) Food production, including farm machinery, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer. Many pharmaceuticals. Manufacturing. Almost anything made of plastic or packaged in plastic. Asphalt. Vinyl. Heating oil. Propane. Any number of synthetic fabrics and materials. The list goes on and on.

Our economy is built on cheap oil. Our cities are built for cars. Our factories are built for large machinery. Our farms are built for large machinery, plus pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. A huge percentage of what we buy comes from other continents, by ship, by plane, by rail, by truck, and eventually by our own cars.

I read somewhere that the energy in one gallon of oil is the equivalent of 25 humans working all day long. It's as though we've had 25 slaves working for us all day, for every gallon of gas we use. Three bucks a gallon doesn't sound so bad now does it? No wonder the prices at Walmart are so low.

So here's where it gets scary. In order to pump oil, in order to refine it and ultimately use it, you have to find it. There's a long delay between finding an oil field and acutally using the oil.

Think about the amazing technologies that are available for finding oil: satellite imagery and GPS, computer analysis, advanced equipment that can peer deep into the earth. Think about the amount of money oil companies invest in newer and better ways of finding oil fields. Now ask yourself what year do you think the largest amount of oil was discovered. Make a guess.

The answer is 1965. Over 40 years ago. Here's a graph that shows oil discoveries, decade by decade:

So what about alternatives?

There are plenty to choose from: ethanol, biodiesel, natural gas, coal, wind, solar, nuclear, hydroelectric, hydrogen fuel cells... and many others. More obscure things like tar sands, oil shale, and coal liquefication are left as an exercise for the reader.

Pick any one of the alternatives. Compared to petroleum, they all have flaws. Oil is amazing stuff. It's portable, it's stable, it's versatile, and it's always been easy to get.

Let's briefly look at a few energy options. Ethanol is expensive to produce, even with access to cheap oil for growing the crops needed to produce it. There's been a fair amount of press regarding biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil. Great idea, but there's nowhere near enough waste oil to fill the gap. And making new vegetable oil for biodiesel is also very expensive, even with access to cheap oil. Natural gas is in the same boat with oil - it's getting expensive because it's getting harder to come by.

Most of the rest are hard to run your car on. Coal is pretty dirty stuff. I think we can all rattle off some of the environmental concerns there. It's also a fossil fuel, which would just shift the problem to a different finite resource. Solar is expensive. Where I live, it would take something like $150,000 to fully replace a typical home's electric usage with solar panels. Again, this is even with access to cheap oil for manufacturing and distributing the panels. Wind is better than many other options, but you need, well, wind. More than most places have. Nuclear is pretty controversial, and relies on yet another finite resource - uranium. Do you want a nuclear plant down the road? Most people don't. Hydroelectric means dams, and dams can make a pretty big mess of an ecosystem. Plus, at least in North America, most of the good candidate sites for dams already have them. Hydrogen fuel cells sound great, but they require hydrogen to operate. From an energy standpint, it's expensive to get the hydrogen in the first place.

The main difference is that oil is very easy to get. Compared to other energy sources, the cost to obtain it is trivial. It might take the equivalent of one gallon of oil to extract, refine, and distribute 30 gallons of oil. As a comparison, it takes one gallon of ethanol to get 1.2 gallons of ethanol from corn. That's a huge improvement though. It used to take one gallon of ethanol to make 0.16 gallons.

Now that doesn't mean that the Energy Fairy won't come along and save us. I hope she does. Biodiesel made from algae that's used to purify sewage. Advances in ethanol from sugar instead of corn. (Brazil has invested heavily in this approach, but it's taken 20+ years.) Cheap solar panels. People are doing research into all kinds of interesting things. But remember nuclear fusion: Billions have been spent over the course of decades, but it's still decades away, just like it always has been. The key questions for alternative energy sources are how much energy does it take to get energy back out, and how scalable is it? Our appetite for energy is huge. Unimagninably huge. A tripling of the price of gas in five years, and we're still driving big, thirsty, overgrown, two-ton station wagons to buy plastic trinkets and eat tasteless, out-of-season produce.

The Energy Fairy has her work cut out for her.

I think this is a topic that you'll start to see appearing more often and in more places. There are "slow crash" theories and "fast crash" theories, people who try to debunk most of what I've said here, and even people who think that oil fields replenish themselves over time. Google for "peak oil" and you'll find all of the above and then some.

A lot of smart people have put their minds to this problem, and have come away scared. A lot of smart people have also said, "Bah, what a load of crap," and gone on with their lives. I'd like to be in the latter group, but I haven't been able to research my way out of the former.

If you really want to see a lot of links, graphs, and cross-references, check out Life After the Oil Crash. It's one of the more dire presentations on this topic, and it's very long. But it's got loads of credible references, and it's been cited more than once in the US Congress. For a more data-driven, novice-oriented site, check out Wolf at the Door.

Is this the end of the world as we know it? I have no idea.The good news is that there's a lot of fluff in our current lifestyles. If this all turns out to be another Y2K, I'll be thrilled.

However, it's hard to deny that oil is a finite resource, and that some day, some generation is going to have to pay the piper. I'd rather it not be ours. That's why I've got a little extra motivation to practice conservation and self-sufficiency.

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Motivation, Part One

In the words of great actors everywhere, "What's my motivation?"

In this context, I mean, what's the motivation for all of this radical, back-to-the-land, sustainability crazy talk? Why are you planting fruit trees, burning corn for heat, raising goats, tending a garden, researching solar panels and wind turbines? Haven't you ever heard of Walmart?!

The answer is complex. For one, it's a good life. I love it more than I even thought I would. For another, it seems like a Good Thing. A typical modern life is full of waste, environmental impact, and poor quality. Have you bought a tomato at the grocery store lately? Or a strawberry, or a peach, or an apple? Have you been to the doctor's office? Have you taken a deep breath, downtown, during rush hour?

It's also a life that is dependent on a great many things. Our great-grandarents would be astonished at how much we don't know how to do for ourselves.

When people wax poetic about the American Spirit of Independence, sometimes they seem to be speaking a different language... They keep on using that word. I do not think it means what they think it means... To me, independence is more personal. I like the idea of not having to rely on the nearest retail district for every single thing that I need in life.

But the newest motivator for me, the one that has pushed me to do more sooner, is something called Hubbert's Peak.

Now, I love a good doomsday story as much as I love a good conspiracy theory. You know those shows they have on the Discovery Channel or from time to time, or on science programs like Nova, where they talk about the super-volcano under Yellowstone, or an asteroid hitting the earth, or the Canary Islands crashing into the sea and sending a mega-tsunami toward the east coast of the US? I find those interesting. I don't find them particularly scary, because in real terms, the probability is low that they'll show up in my lifetime, and if they did, there wouldn't be much for me to do about them anyway. But I ran across a scenario recently that seemed a little too convincing, and a little too imminent for me to just write it off.

If you don't like even those kind of stories, you might want to stop reading now. I've debated about whether to bring this up here, because it's scary, and depressing, and it made me lose sleep when I first read about it. It passes.

It may also make some of you think I'm a crackpot. I'd be the happiest guy around if that's true.

Here's a question: Say you had an astronomer friend - someone you trust. What if this friend told you that there was an asteroid with a pretty high probablility of hitting Earth. Maybe not one big enough to wipe out the entire planet, but big enough to cause widespread problems and really shake up the world. Say it was due to arrive sometime in the next 5-10 years. Would you tell anyone? Family? Friends? Co-workers? Strangers? Would you chip in to try to find a way to stop it?

There's no asteroid. At least, not that anybody's told me about. Of course, I don't have any astonomer friends...

However, we may have a serious problem heading our way. It seems there's a lynch pin that holds our economy together. Really, it holds our way of life together: Petroleum. Oil. Black gold. Texas Tea.

All our lives, experts have talked about how there's 50 years' worth of oil left in the world. It's always 50 more years. I think they still quote that number. There is something mildly scary about that number, especially if you have kids.

But the real problem isn't running out of oil. The problem is running out of cheap oil.

Hubbert's Peak is a term that is named for a geologist who worked for Shell Oil. He figured out that the amount of oil extracted from a well follows a bell curve. It increases over time until it reaches a peak, and then decreases over time at a similar rate. He realized that this applied not just to a single well, but to all wells collectively. He predicted the peak for production from US oil wells would occur in 1970, and was right on target. He predicted a global peak in the year 2000. He missed that mark, probably because of the political crises of the 1970's that caused a big drop in consumption for several years.

Now here we are in 2006. There are a number of signs that we may be at or near the top of that bell curve. Not to mention the fact that we rely on one of the most unstable, anti-Western regions of the world for this lifeblood of our lifestyle.

I'll save the details for my next post, but let me end with a scary illustration. Below is a graph of the amount of oil discovered each year, minus the amount of oil used, since 1965:
So that's the introduction. Next up, the details.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

My Brain

My brain is made of Legos. Getting the Lego brain to fit into my round skull was a little tricky with all those squared-off edges and pointy corners, but eventually I squeezed it in there...

Okay, maybe not. But I did learn a lot from playing with them over the years. Among other things, I learned problem solving, creative thinking, how to follow instructions, how not to follow instructions, patience, organizational skills, and pain tolerance. (Have you ever stepped on one of those things in bare feet?)

What great fun it was as a child to open up a new Lego kit, and pour all the pieces on the floor. I would marvel at some of the odd shapes and wonder what they could be used for. Then I'd get out the instruction book and go through it step-by-step, until suddenly I saw before me a wondrous castle (or maybe a pirate ship or a race car).

But, alas, as any parent can tell you, the glory days of this kingdom wouldn't last long. Once the castle had been fully explored and overtaken by an army of little plastic Lego people, that initial new toy thrill would start to fade.

That's when the fun would start. Instead of falling into disrepair and growing moss like any self-respecting ransacked castle, (or getting tossed in the back of the closet like a toy that's lost it's charm), this enchanted little castle would be magically transformed into a space ship. It might even be a space ship with a dungeon and turrets. Or wheels, or trees growing out of it. Whatever pieces happened to be handy and looked interesting could suddenly be given new life, boldly going where no plastic had gone before.

As a child, I used to build three-dimensional words out of bricks to cheer on my favorite sports teams. Then I moved on to whole stadiums where great sports dynasties would play. (I grew up near Cleveland, so those were the only sports dynasties I ever knew.) I remember building an F14 by carefully scrutinizing pictures from a Top Gun movie poster. I built dragsters that I would "test" by driving them into walls or down the basement steps. After I had discovered the weak points, I would redesign them to make them more durable, and pit them against each other. And upon our return from Walt Disney World, I remember looking on in awe as my step-brother demonstrated his working monorail built using the Lego motor and quite a few bricks.

We used to take a big 50x50 flat base and build these sort of plastic hedge mazes for marbles to roll through. They started out fairly basic, but it wasn't long before we were using ramps for the marble to roll up and drop off, to restrict the marble to rolling only one direction down a corridor, or making covered sections of the maze (with "skylights" to keep it from being totally impossible), or putting a second tier on the maze and using a little fork lift piece as the elevator.

I always loved digging out the strangest or most interesting pieces and then finding ways to use them for things other than the original intent. Fork lifts became elevators, wheels became propellers, wings became boat anchors and legs became landing gear. I had an inventory of the coolest Legos stored in my head, and could recite color and quantity as necessary. As a result, I would sometimes spend an hour or more looking through hundreds, nay thousands of Legos, looking for a particular piece that I just knew was in there somewhere.

But it's not just me. Ask around and you're likely to find someone close to you who'd be happy to reminisce about their own Lego creations. Although I didn't realize it until much later, I learned so many things playing with Legos. You can have your educational toys. I'll take my Legos. All those skills I unwittingly developed sitting on the basement floor are skills I use every day, even now.

Eventually we all outgrow our toys and we become grown-ups. In theory, anyway...

I would elaborate on this, but I have to go find two more flat, grey 2x3 pieces so I can finally finish building that Lego Brain.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Some Solar & Wind details

Beo asked about what kind of alternative power setup we were looking at. I started to reply via comment, but it got big enough that I decided to move it here.

First, a little background. There are several different ways to set up a solar or wind power system, and each choice seems to bring with it more options. Which configuration makes the most sense depends on your circumstances. I got most of this information from the company we asked to come out and do a site evaluation. Hopefully this won't be too confusing for anyone who's interested...

You can set up your system to be connected to the power company's infrastructure (a.k.a. "the grid"), and feed any energy you generate back into the grid, or you can be off-grid. If you are off-grid, you'll most likely need a battery storage system. This is usually used in remote locations, where there is no power company.

If you are interconnecting to the grid, the power company generally has to give you credit on your electric bill for any energy you feed back into the system. You can decide to have a battery system, or just use the electric grid as "storage". If you do not have a battery system, and the power company has an outage, you have no power.

If you are grid-connected and you have battery storage also, you have two choices. You can feed your power back to the power company first, and only use your batteries if the power is out, or you can feed your power to the batteries first, and use that power before taking anything from the power company.

This last scenario is the one we were looking at. I don't know about other states, but here in Ohio, if you get your electricity from a for-profit power company, they basically have to pay you the same rate you pay them for electricity. If they charge you 6 cents per killowatt-hour, they pay you 6 cents per killowatt-hour that you generate. Rural co-ops though, don't have to pay you full price. They only have to pay you something called "avioded costs," which is typically 1/3 to 1/4 of what they charge you for power.

So it would be silly for us to generate power and sell it to the co-op for 2 cents, and then buy it back for 6 cents. We're better off using it directly, and then buying the rest for 6 cents. Then, only if we have more than we can use and/or store, do we sell it back to the power company.

In a setup like this, we would actually be taking specific circuits out of our circuit box in the basement, and running them into the battery bank and inverter, and then back to the circuit box. So only some parts of our house would be able to use the alternative power directly. That makes sense though, because we wouldn't have the capacity to run everything in the house anyway.

If there isn't sufficient sunlight, or wind, the batteries are kept fully charged by the power company, so that if the power does go out, you're always starting with a full charge.

Our objective is to keep the bare essentials up and running during an emergency - the well pump, the sump pump, the corn stove (it requires a small amount of power to turn the auger and the firepot stirrer), and, depending on the how the numbers work out, possibly the fridge, the ceiling fan (for heat distribution or for cooling), maybe the gas range and/or the microwave... we'll have to work all that out. I've got a little device called the "Kill-A-Watt" that you plug something into, and it plugs into the wall. It will then tell you the power consumption for that item. It doesn't work for hard-wired items, but it'll still be pretty useful, if we decide to do this.

We haven't worked out whether we're taking the plunge or not. It may have to wait. From a money standpoint, it's like taking a percentage out of your electric bill, and paying for that electricity in advance. For that pie slice, you're buying the next 20 years' worth, all at once. It should be a bit cheaper in the long run, but hard to pull off in the short term.

I'll keep you posted...

Mmmm, spam

Spam cracks me up.

It used to drive me absolutely nuts, but since the good people at Gmail have about a 99.5% success rate at diverting spam from my inbox, it has become a source of great amusement.

It just kills me that there's somebody out there who thinks that if they send me an email with the subject line of "St0kkMarrkett Picks", I'm going to take their investment advice. Or that I'm going to buy prescription drugs from a message titled "test VAsLLtUM" or "Re: the mendtfcations".

Then of course, there's the random name generators. Senders like "Allegiances M. Overprint," "Godless J. Distinct," and "Hippolyte Manrique."

Personalizations are a nice touch, except when the spam software mismatches names. "Heya Zimoko, it's been a while." Yeah, I haven't been called Zimoko since a couple of reincarnations ago.

Then you have messages that are so garbled, in some attempt to fool the spam filters, that they are nearly unintelligable: "De k ar Ho b me Ow u ne a r , Your cr b edi q t doesn't matter to us ! Re x fi w nan x ce …". I've got one with a subject line of "steele orb may cheap". Yeah, I'll get right on that...

I don't know which is worse - that there are people out there sitting in front of their computers, thinking that this is an effective way to earn a little extra cash, or that it probably is and effective way to earn a little extra cash.

[In case you're wondering, all of the examples here were actually found in my Spam folder.]

Monday, May 22, 2006

News from the Homestead

We had someone from Dovetail Solar and Wind come out and do a site assessment for us. A hybrid wind-solar system is appealing to me because:

  • We have the space

  • It's windy here

  • We don't have any significant trees yet (and strategically placed trees can actually help with wind power)

  • Wind and solar tend to complement one another here (windy winter/sunny summer, windy storms/sunny, um, sunshine)

  • I think it's likely that energy prices are going to go the way of gas prices before too long

It's a tough sell though, because thanks to subsidies, electricity prices are still pretty low. It takes a long time to recoup your initial investment (assuming static energy prices). These systems are expensive. In addition to the wind turbine or solar panel, you've got battery packs, inverters, wiring, etc. We have some creative ideas to pay for it, but it's still another non-trivial bill to pay.

It's also tough because we get our electricity from a rural co-op, rather than a for-profit energy company. That sounds great, but the downside is that, at least in Ohio, they don't have to pay you market value for any energy you give back to the grid. They have to pay you somewhere around 1/3 to 1/4 of market value, which isn't really worth it at this point.

On top of that, there's no way we could afford to replace our current electric usage with wind and/or solar, or even come close. It's just too expensive. We're too far from the equator for a really good solar return, and although we seem to have a very windy microclimate, our part of the state is marginal for wind. Unless we want to put up an anemometer on a pole for a year, we won't know for sure what kind of return to expect.

But conservation can go a long way toward reducing energy usage. And if we have another two-week power outage like our neighbors experienced last winter during an ice storm, a few killowats will be worth their weight in gold. (Hmmm. How much does a killowatt weigh anyway?) The standard answer out here is a generator, but those ain't cheap either, and they need gas or diesel fuel to operate, which brings another set of problems.

Energy independence has a lot of appeal. We still have some thinking to do on this one.

Out in the pasture, we added two new goats yesterday. Our three-quarter Boer buck, and another Nubian doe, bringing our current total to five. Our donkey has been delayed until early next week. The cows are quietly munching grass in the other pasture. We sometimes forget they are even out there... especially when they are snoozing in the tall grass.

We've nearly decided to get another buck. Since we need to control breeding to a certain extent, we need to keep the boys and girls separate much of the time. Since goats are herd animals, it's hard on a buck to be by himself all the time. A common practice is to keep a buck with a wether (castrated male) for companionship. But we're thinking if we have one more goat to care for, why not make it a productive one?

We visited a local Boer ranch, and saw Boers of various ages. The full grown bucks are massive, at least as far as goats go, weighing in at four hundred pounds. We'd like to start with a younger one, so we can learn to handle him before he outweighs our whole family.

I just read something about Kinder goats (kin-der, not kind-er), which come from a Nubian / Pygmy cross that sounds interesting also. Maybe I should just stop reading for a little while. It just gets me into trouble, and adds to my to-do list.

There's a frost warning for tonight, which is strange, since it's awfully late for frost, and since it was in the mid-60's today and is due to break 70 tomorrow. Haven't the weather forecasters noticed it's almost June?? Lucky for me, I haven't had a chance to get my tomatoes and peppers out yet.

Lori's making great progress on the 8x8 shed kit we purchased. I haven't had a chance to contribute much, but she's the carpenter at this point anyway. The kit came with some incorrect lumber, so I had to take that back and convince Sutherlands that it was wrong, which took some doing. Demonstrating the difference between a 21-degree cut and a 22 1/2 degree cut is not easy, even side-by-side. The shed will be for milking and for equipment and feed storage for the goats. We're hoping to build something larger for winter housing by fall. With some modifications, we can make due with what we have for our small herd, but we're trying to plan ahead.

The tractor has a major radiator leak now. I thought it might just be a loose or deteriorating hose, but when I finished mowing the other day, I saw it leaking like crazy. It seems to be just a pinhole, but it's gushing pretty good. I don't know if I want to drive around gushing antifreeze all over our nice pasture. At least I'm not mowing where the livestock are grazing, or where the kids are playing.

You know, sometimes I feel like the that old compulsive liar character Jon Lovitz used to play on Saturday Night Live. We have so much going on, and it's all so unusual. Yeah, we bought some goats. And, and a... donkey! Yeah... and there are cows in the front yard! Yeah, yeah, and we're building a shed! And thinking about installing a, um... a solar and wind system! Yeah, that's the ticket!

We are moving fast. Faster than we originally planned. Sometime I'll write about my motivation. For now, I think I'd better call it a night. I've got to be nearing the 1,000 word mark. If you're still here, thanks as always for reading.

Stormy Sunset

just having the camera within arm's reach
is all it takes to capture something cool
(especially if your house is situated
to catch every sunset)

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Fast Food Bug

Today was the end of my month without fast food. Well, it wasn't entirely without fast food. I didn't do as well as I had hoped. I need to work on my willpower, my planning, and my motivation. At least it was a great improvement over my previous habits.

I was very disappointed that I couldn't get through the month. I was frustrated with myself for a variety of reasons.

But somebody said something recently that stuck with me: Don't let Perfect be the enemy of Good. An improvement is an improvement, and it's something to build on.

I feel better. I don't get nearly as much heartburn. I've lost weight.

Today we were out looking for some goats to add to our herd, and checking out some local farm markets. Somewhere along the way, we stopped at Wendy's. Just as Lori was finishing her food, she discovered a dead bug in among her french fries. Bigger than a fly, smaller than a roach. Golden brown, but too many legs and too much exoskeleton to be apetizing.

I think I'll go another month....

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Don't look now...

I don't want to alarm anyone... but there are cows in our front yard... I hope they're not planning anything unsavory.

Actually, they're just visiting for a few weeks. Bovine Spring Break.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Things that are Stupid

Verizon is stupid.

A week or so ago, our underground phone line was cut during some drainage work. I reported the problem to my local phone service provider. Here's a partial transcript of a message they left last week, on our home voice mail:

"Can you give us a call back and let us know if you're still having a problem? I'm not quite understanding exactly what is going on with your line. I understand, maybe, did they cut a wire or something, when they were doing the excavating? If you're still having the problem please call us back."

Hmm. Self healing wires. Great idea. Can you hear me now?

At least they eventually figured out to try the callback number I left them when I reported the problem.

Baby Einstein is stupid.

There's a video called Baby Shakespeare that is supposed to introduce infants and toddlers to language, poetry, literature, etc. The problem is, they picked the worst poetry imaginable. One poem mixes metaphors in a single sentence:
"Snow is a mind falling, a continuous breath of climbs, loops, spirals dips into the earth like white fireflies..."
Wait, is it like a mind or like breath? Or fireflies? I'm confused.

Another one, talking about a frog says:
the same one who probably announced the spring floods...
I think you mean, "probably the same one". I don't think you can probably announce something last spring.

They also get one poem wrong - a great old Ogden Nash piece about Custard the Dragon. He had scales underneath, not spikes. Scales.

But the kicker is probably the little Mirror Me book that has a cow who puffs his cheeks. His cheeks? I grew up in suburbia, and even I know that cows are girls and bulls are boys. These things are supposed to make kids smarter?

Our goats are stupid.

Okay, that's a little harsh. I guess it's our ignorance, rather than theirs. Goats have a heirarchy. They have a herd queen who leads them out into pasture and decides where to graze. Our "herd" consists of a timid two year old and two little ones. Betsy went from low on the totem pole to having her own herd. Only she's not ready for it. She doesn't go out grazing. She just stays by the gate, pining for one of us to go out and lead her. And the two little ones stay right there with her. When we go into the pasture, they chomp like mad. Hunger apparently hasn't persuaded them to change course yet. We may have to add a more assertive goat. Maybe the donkey will be their leader.

It is interesting to wander around and stand by different plants, to see what they like, and what they don't like. Too bad I don't know what half of the plants are yet.

I'm stupid.

In the past two weeks, I've lost two different tools, to the point of having to buy new ones. The tin snips, were found in the back seat of my car. I don't know why. I suspect the jack is hidden under some tall grass somewhere out there. Unfortunately, I couldn't just cut the grass to find it, because I needed the jack to fix the flat tire on the tractor, and I needed the tractor to cut the grass. I've also misplaced any number of other items and had to spend three times as long wandering back and forth looking for them. Someday I will learn to put things away when I'm done with them. I hope.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Baseball memories

I am terrible with names. Maybe it's because growing up, I was always self-conscious about my own slightly unusual name in an era before unusual names were usual. I was always to busy preparing for confusion, questions, or repeating myself to get the other person's name out of my short-term memory. Even now it takes me a long time to get people's names locked into my head.

I tell you that to tell you this: I am currently sitting on the couch, with the laptop, watching a baseball game from 25 years ago, and I can tell you every Cleveland starter's name and position. They are replaying a game that is one of my most vivid sports memories of all time.

Growing up a sports fan in Cleveland definitely builds character. My childhood was filled with false hopes, broken dreams, and lost promise. The city has not had a champion in any major sport since 1960. If you follow baseball, you always hear about the poor Cubs fans, or how great it is that the Red Sox finally won a World Series. I have no sympathy. Chicago had the Cubs, but they also had the careers of Michael Jordan, Gale Sayers, Walter Payton, and plenty of non-baseball championships. Boston had Larry Bird and the Celtics dynasty, they had the Bruins, and now they've got the Patriots. Cleveland hasn't seen a champion since my parents were teenagers, and I'm 35 years old.

But as a budding 10-year-old baseball fan, I didn't know any better. I was glued to the TV every night, every year believing this was the team that was going to be great. And for one night, I was right. Twenty five years ago tomorrow, Cleveland Indians pitcher Len Barker pitched a perfect game.

A perfect game, in baseball terms, is a step up from a no-hitter. For any non-baseball people who haven't wandered off for a snack by now, a no-hitter means that one of the two teams didn't get any base hits. That still allows for some baserunners due to errors or walks. I won't bother you with lots of definitions. I'll just say that no-hitters are rare. With 30 teams playing 162 games a year, there might be two no-hitters during a season.

A perfect game is much more rare. A baseball game has nine innings, and an inning has three outs for each team. A perfect game happens when one team gets nothing but outs - 27 straight. No hits, no walks, no errors. In over a century of baseball, with probably over 100,000 Major League Baseball games played, this was only the tenth perfect game ever.

This may be why, despite the steriod scandals, despite the ridiculous financial imbalance, despite the labor disputes, and all the other nonsense, I still like baseball. I don't love it like I once did, but I haven't given up on it completely. It's probably hard to believe if you don't watch baseball, but on any given night watching a baseball game, from Little League to the pros, odds are fairly good that you'll see something that you've never seen before. And there's always a chance that you'll see something amazing.


Speaking of amazing, here's a public thank you to the mother of my children. No matter how often she doubts her abilities, no matter how hard it gets, she just keeps doing a great job. She spends all day, every day with the kids, which is no small feat all by itself. She doesn't just go by gut instict, or follow in the footsteps of others. Instead, she does her homework, and figures out what parenting techniques are most effective while still staying true to our shared values.

I have her to thank for my two wonderful, wonderful children. Despite various challenges, they are confident, happy, affectionate kids, who love to explore and who have never met somebody who couldn't be a friend.


Friday, May 12, 2006

Calendar Shuffle

March has arrived in Ohio. We're doing the months out of order this year. Just for fun. We just finished June - sunny and warm every day, with a rare thunderstorm. Before that was February. Now it's cold, windy, with a constant drizzle. It looks like we'll be stuck with this pattern for a little while. I guess we'll find out how effective our drainage work has been.

The poor goats got here just in time for it too. They are huddled in the corner of their shelter, looking perturbed. Goats apparently hate to get wet. We've got both shelters out there now because Betsy was trying to evict the little brown-and-white one. The little one is the hyper one, so maybe she was just getting on their nerves. They are all back together now. I do feel bad for them though. Acres of fresh pasture in sight, and they're stuck with hay and close quarters.

Dragging that second shelter out in the cold and rain was interesting. At least the mud was not too messy yet. But that thing is not light. The plan we built from recommended sandbags on the skids in case of high winds, but I'm thinking we'd need a small hurricaine to move them.

Yesterday a tractor came down the road mowing the ditches. The goats saw the guy on the tractor, and thought he looked like a suitable leader. They followed him, hesitantly at first, and then more enthusiastically. But they gave up after 20 yards. I guess they decided he wasn't such a great leader after all.

Despite the unpleasant weather, there are some positives about this sudden change. First, we needed the rain. It's been a pretty dry spring so far. Second, it's just cool enough to give me a chance to learn my way around the corn stove. I've already learned that you can't leave it on the lowest setting overnight. I've also learned a few suitable ways to get the fire started. (It's a timing issue. You've got to have a decent burn going before the corn starts feeding in. You've got three minutes.) And finally, I learned that on the #2 heat setting (#1 is the lowest), the heat combined with the small air circulating fan in the stove produce enough convection to actually turn our ceiling fan! Wow. I wonder what it's like on the #4 setting.

The other benefit of the dreary weather is that it will force me indoors for the weekend. The tractor is up on blocks in the garage, with a flat tire. And with everything that's been going on, our house hasn't fared well. Something in the sink is starting to smell. Or maybe it's the little compost can that hasn't made it to the worm bin yet. The ashes in the fireplace were starting to smell, because I didn't clean it out after the last fire. The cat box is starting to smell, because we haven't scooped it fast enough.

Speaking of the cat box, if you have cats, check out SwheatScoop Natural Wheat Litter. I love it when a natural product outperforms a conventional one. It clumps better, it smells less, it tracks less, and it isn't as dusty. At least that's our experience. It's also not all full of lame fragrance. It's about the same price as the regular clumping cat litter, and it seems to be widely available.

It's made from non-food grade wheat. They claim you can use the used litter as mulch on non-food-producing plants, as long as you've thouroughly scooped it. They also claim you can just flush it, even if you have a septic system. Can't say I've tried either.

Hopefully by next weekend we can get just a little more sunshine. Our frost-free date is just about here, so I can get my seedlings out of the basement and into the dirt. Ironically, my started seeds are doing better than the store-bought plants. If you were reading here a month ago, you might remember me buying plants at the store because my started seeds were so pathetic. Moving them to potting soil did the trick. The store bought ones are struggling. They may just be root bound.

I'm also planning my first attempt at a "three sisters" planting (corn, beans, squash, planted together), as well as some sunflowers and native wildflowers. The bulldozer doing the drainage work unintentionally made some nice seedbeds for me.

We've got quite a few wild flowers growing around the property already, but I can't identify them. I have a feeling many of them are going to turn weedy. Does anybody know of a good field guide for that sort of thing? At least the butterflies seem happy. Or they were until the wind and rain arrived.

So March is in full swing. I hope May is next. Or April. Anything but January...

You can skip this one if it's not Friday...


The word just makes you feel good. You feel like you're getting a higher quality product when you buy organic food. You feel like you are supporting sound farming practices. You feel like you're getting something other than factory direct pricing on your dinner.

You feel good, that is, until they try to change the definition of "organic".

They've established a very short window of opportunity for public comment on this. It ends today. If you are in the US and want "organic" to mean something, please make your voice heard. Click the link above and then look for "Take action now" in the first paragraph.

I usually steer clear of talking about politics on here, but this stuff just really aggravates me. The organic standards are already not quite what I'd want, but at least they mean something. If they start playing shell games, it'll undermine the whole concept.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

So what's with the goats?

In case you didn't see the photos below, we got our goats!

We've got one Nubians doe and two doelings (Nubians a dairy goat breed), and in a couple weeks, we're getting a 3/4 Boer, 1/4 Nubian buck (Boer is a meat goat breed), so we can raise Nubian-Boer crosses. There is a huge demand for goat meat in the U.S. and particularly in nearby Columbus. There are a number of ethnic communities that eat goat meat. Actually, almost every part of the world outside of the US and Western Europe use goats for meat, and more people in the world drink goat's milk than cow's milk.

We won't be selling any milk, because it's illegal to sell unpasturized milk in Ohio, even for goats, and pasteurization isn't really practical for us. In fact, in Ohio, it's even illegal to give away unpasteurized milk. One way that people have tried to get around this is to buy "shares" of a dairy cow, so that a number of people are part-owners and can legally use the raw milk. The state has started cracking down on these types of arrangements too. There is strong evidence that, with proper sanitation and hygiene in the milking process, pasteurization is unnecessary, and only serves to reduce the nutritional content of the milk. One other interesting side note - goat's milk is not supposed to affect lactose intolerant people.

We could make and sell cheeses and other dairy products, but they are a bit labor intensive. We'll probably use some milk ourselves, assuming we like it. Milk from Nubians is supposed to be indistinguishable from the milk you'd normally buy at the store. [NOTE: We just tried some fresh milk. Very good. It's a bit creamier in texture than the 2% we normally drink, but the flavor is just pure milk.] They don't produce nearly the quantity of milk that dairy cows do, which is a good thing, because we don't need four gallons a day.

But the main reason we're going down this path (look away Suzer!) is for the meat market. There are several ethnic communities in Columbus that are importing chevon (goat meat) all the way from New Zealand and Australia because they can't get it here. Columbus has a pretty large Somali community (about 20,000 strong), and chevon is their meat of choice.

Ohio State did a study to gauge the demand for goat meat in Columbus. They surveyed several Somali markets, but focused on the largest one. The owner of the market estimated demand at 10 goats per week. But after surveying his customers, he found that demand, just at his market, was for 80-100 goats per week. And that doesn't take into account the Greek, Mexican, Asian, or Middle Eastern communities in the area. The OSU study estimated that demand in Columbus would be steadily increasing for the next 25-50 years.

Goats are also easy to raise, they don't need much in the way of shelter, and they're not the least bit picky about the quailty of the forage. They're small enough to manage without too much trouble, and the breeds we're looking at are pretty easy to deal with. They'll keep the pasture in good shape, and bring in a little income too. The Nubians have a lot of personality to go along with those big, floppy beagle ears. I'm pretty sure Boers think they are cows, and just stand around grazing.

The reason for the dairy/meat cross is that the Boers have been bred for a milder taste, but local demand is for a little stornger flavored chevon. Outside of the shows and fairs, which of course want purebreds, it's very common in this area to cross Nubian does with Boer bucks.

Given the fact that the average food item travels something like 1500 miles before it gets to your plate (much more in Canada and Australia), it also makes me feel good to be producing a very sustainable, very healthy, very local food product. I'm curious to try some myself.

So anyway, yes, in case you are wondering, we are slightly crazy. But it should be fun.



Amelia and our three new goats

The two little ones

The little tan doeling

The little brown-and-white doeling.
(She's hard to get a picture of!)

Betsy Red, the easy milker

Amelia checking out the shelter

The two doelings playing

Edson and his new best friend


Lori, trying her hand at milking

Rectangular pupil

Monday, May 08, 2006

Goat shelter

As requested, here's a photo of our first completed goat shelter:

It's not much, but the goats won't need much in our climate. We'll have something a little more sheltered by the time cold weather arrives. This will let them get out of the rain and wind for now.

We're nearly done with shelter #2. It just needs a little more corrugated metal on the roof, a coat of paint, and a couple of eye bolts for dragging it around.

Too bad nobody was around with a camera to witness Lori and me dragging it out to the pasture. Who needs draft animals?

Speaking of beasts of burden, we're getting a donkey. No really! Not as a draft animal, as a livestock guardian. We'll be getting Jinx within a couple weeks. We debated the merits of a dog, a llama, a donkey, and crossed fingers. We eventually landed on donkey. Donkeys don't always turn out to be great livestock guardians, but they're easier to keep fed than a dog, and they'll sound an alarm better than a llama. They're also generally good around kids. Since we know there are coyotes in the area, we decided the crossing of fingers might not be sufficient. We're educating ourselves as much as we can, but are we making the right choice? Time will tell. If not, at least we've got a pasture pal for the goats, a little less mowing and a little more fertilizer.

Lori's also almost completed a stanchion for milking. And we've got a first aid kit, and a crateful of other tools and supplies.

Now all we need are the goats!

(Wait, why goats again? I'll get to that tomorrow...)

Sunday, May 07, 2006


I think I'm a tree addict.

Since we moved to this property last fall, I've planted:
6 apples
4 'Green Giant' arborvitae
3 redbuds
2 peaches
2 sweet cherries
2 tart cherries
2 pines
2 serviceberries
1 tri-color beech
1 dogwood
1 Japanese maple
1 paperbark maple
1 filbert
1 Chinese chestnut
1 sweetbay magnolia
30 trees and counting. Plus a few acorns.

Add in the previous two suburban lots, and my totals are:
8 apples
6 redbuds
4 'Green Giant' arborvitae
3 peaches
3 serviceberries
3 Japanese maples
2 sweet cherries
2 tart cherries
2 paw paws
2 pines
2 dogwoods
2 three-flowered maples
2 flowering crabapples
1 tri-color beech
1 paperbark maple
1 filbert
1 Chinese chestnut
1 sweetbay magnolia
1 ornamental cherry
1 thornless honeylocust
1 red maple
1 purple-leaf sandcherry
50 trees and counting.

That's an average of about 8 trees a year. Of course the 30 in six months may have skewed it a bit. And a few of them didn't make it over the years. One dogwood, one three-flowered maple, and the paw-paws. There were also a few transplants to better locations. But unlike other plants, I can still remember every tree I planted. I think.

I'm already looking at some hybrid poplars, a honeylocust, some new paw-paws, some nut trees, American and lacebark elms, maybe a sycamore, maybe an oak, maple, black walnut, Kentucky coffeetree... I'd better stop. I think I could easily triple the number of trees on our property without even batting an eye. Except that neither time nor money is infinite.

That, and it's hard to grow fruits, veggies, herbs, flowers, and pasture in full shade.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Mmmmm... French Fries...

My attempt at going fast food free for one month was unsuccessful. What can I say? My willpower is weak. The city conspired against me. The TV told me I had to! (Maybe not that last one.)

I took the kids to COSI, with the intent to go to the North Market afterwards to get some lunch and see if anything else looked good.

When I got to the North Market, the parking lot was full. Completely. The meters were all taken. There was something going on at the Convention Center. Therefore, the nearby parking garage was charging seven bucks as soon as you drove through the gate.

There wasn't much hope of finding anything else downtown, so I figured I'd track down a Subway (one of my two exceptions, along with Chipotle, for those times when home cookin' just wouldn't work). Before I found one, my daughter fell asleep. It was naptime, and throwing off her schedule is a very bad idea. My wife and I spent two and a half years taking taking turns dealing with her sleep problems, and we finally got it solved. Mostly.

Not long after that, my son fell asleep. Then I got stuck in traffic. I'm not sure what the problem was. I tried an alternate route. I ran into a one mile backup on the exit I needed. By the time I got to the next exit to get turned around, it was 2:15, and I was a good eight miles off course. I stopped for gas. There was a Wendy's by the gas station. All I'd had to eat was a bowl of cereal and one and a half bananas, and I'd been burning calories from the time I got up.

I just cracked.

I know, excuses, excuses. I don't know exactly why, but it was really important to me to go the whole month.

At least I broke some bad habits. And felt better than usual. And shed five pounds (despite a less-than-stellar diet).

Let's see if I can finish it out without slipping again. As pennance, I will go vegetarian one day this week.

I shall now go read several more chapters of Fast Food Nation. I think I'm about to get to the good part...

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Short Stories

Okay, so after yesterday's encyclopedic tome that was something akin to watching grass grow, today I'm opting for some small tidbits from our lives...
Our kids just turned three years old. Why is that so hard to wrap my brain around? Three years. That's just crazy.
Here's the scene that started our goat ranch visit last weekend: We're driving down a country road, past smallish houses and big old barns, looking for the right address. We find it, but drive past, so we turn around at the next driveway. When we get back to our destination, the woman we were planning to meet was walking across the road, with the last two bites of a hot dog in one hand, and a dead cat in the other. The recently departed was put in a ditch on the far side of the road as the proprietor finished her lunch. She introduced herself through the last of her food, and led us to her big old barn full of baby goats.

The goat kids were pretty cute. Nubians have big floppy Beagle ears. The adults are a little more alien, with their wide-set eyes and strange rectangular pupils. The ears are still pretty endearing though. It was interesting to see the whole herd come running when she called. She spoke to them all by name, too. The funniest scene was the older kids trying to get out of an 18-inch barn door gap by going through three wide. When all else fails, climb onto your neighbor's back.
My son likes to go on "nature walks" around the property. He's always asking, "Can we go by the pond" or "Can we go by the road"? He never fails to find something interesting. Two tiny purple flowers in a clump of tall grass, a very small butterfly, animal footprints, a strangely colored beetle... While walking by the "marsh", he heard some of the green frogs croaking. He looks up at me and says, "What's that 'k-tus'? What's 'k-tus, k-tus'?" Pretty good imitation.
My daughter's not talking yet. They suspect she's got some type of autism spectrum disorder. She hasn't picked up on hand signs much either. I think the abstraction of language hasn't totally clicked for her. She finds ways to communicate, though. If she's hungry, she gets a box of crackers from the pantry, brings it to you, grabs your hand, and puts it in your hand. If she's thirsty, she brings you a cup. One of her favorite games is to bring you a hat. She gets a big grin when you put it on. If you take it off, she'll give it back to you again, and look at you expectantly. Now she's starting to bring shirts from the laundry. I guess she doesn't like our fashion sense.
There's been a lot of excitement around our house, because some excavating equipment has been here to fix our drainage problems. We've had a bulldozer, a backhoe, and a dump truck. The kids were pretty excited. E5 woke me up the other morning, shouting, "Daddy, it's a bulldazer!" I wasn't quite as excited when they went a little too deep and clipped our phone line. No phone until Monday. Gosh I love Verizon. And the bulldozer operator was a little overzealous and buried the end of the drain pipe that was installed the previous day.
My wife has almost single-handedly built two goat shelters in our garage. I helped with loading and unloading the lumber, and I drove a few screws and cut a few boards (and cut a few incorrectly). She's done the rest. They're looking good. Roofing and a coat of paint is about all that's left. That, plus overcoming the fear that we are in the process of doing something completely crazy.
Hmm... Even my short stories are long.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Other Side of Greener Grass

Note: I originally published this in 2002 on kuro5hin.org

I don't know if this is true everywhere, but many US homeowners are really obsessed with their lawns. I guess growing grass around your house is better than pouring concrete. But considering the amount of water, pesticides and chemicals poured on lawns annually, maybe there's a down side... unless you go organic.

Sometimes growing things organically can be more difficult and more expensive, but in the case of your yard, just the opposite is true: For the most part, it's both easier and cheaper.

You may think reading about lawn care is about as interesting as watching grass grow, but come with me on a short (barefoot) stroll through the geeky side of organic turf maintenance....

Most people take one of three approaches when it comes to their yard. Approach #1 is to pay a lawn care service to spray (or spread) a variety of fertilizers, pre- and post-emergent weed killers, grub control and other chemicals on your grass, up to six times per year. Approach #2 is to buy your own fertilizers and lawn treatments and spread them yourself. Approach #3 is to just mow your grass and/or weeds, and not really worry about it.

There is a fourth choice: Organic lawn care. Don't let the word "organic" scare you away. If you're currently using approach #1, organic should save you money. If you're using approach #2, organic should save you time, and possibly money too. If you're using approach #3, this might be slightly more work, but it'll improve your lawn and reduce your weed population.

So how do you do it? Any of the following adjustments to your routine should improve your lawn. The more of these methods you adopt, the more success you'll have.

Set mower to cut your grass high (3 inches is good).

  • Taller grass creates more shade for roots, less sun for weeds.
  • High mowing keeps more of the blade intact. You don't want to remove more than 1/3 of the blade when cutting.
  • Grass cut short will expend all its energy into producing more blade so it can photosynthesize enough to keep it going. Grass cut long will put its energy into creating more roots (including the extra energy it gets from having more leaf surface to photosynthesize with).
  • Cutting your grass short won't necessarily mean more time between cutting. Grass cut short will often grow faster because it doesn't have enough leaf surface to meet its needs.

Go easy on the fertilizer.

  • You really don't want new growth in the middle of summer. For one thing, lots of new growth during heat stress or drought conditions will do more harm than good. For another thing, who wants to cut the grass in the sweltering heat? And if it's hot enough for your grass to go dormant, then applying fertilizer is only going to benefit the weeds.
  • One application of fertilizer in spring and another in fall should be plenty for most lawns. According to one source, "the average lawn uses 10 times the amount of chemicals per year than an acre of farmland." That seems excessive for something that is mostly cosmetic.
  • When looking at fertilizer, higher values for N-P-K are not always better, just as taking three vitamin tablets at a time isn't necessarily better than one.
  • Slow-release nitrogen fertilizers (such as cottonseed meal or blood meal) will feed your grass over a longer period, instead of giving it a big jolt of nutrients all at once.

Don't bag your grass. Use a mulching mower.

  • Leaving your clippings on the lawn is a great way to improve your soil over time. It will add organic matter and nutrients back into your soil, and provide a little extra shade. This will help the soil maintain a more even temperature, retain moisture, and make it harder for weeds to grow.
  • Dull lawnmower blades are hard on your grass, so keep those blades sharpened. It doesn't cost much to have your blades sharpened once every year or two.
  • If you want to bag your grass when company's coming over, or if you need some extra material for a compost pile, bagging isn't harmful. You just don't get the benefits of leaving the clippings on.

Or better yet, consider a reel (push) mower.

  • Reel mowers make a cleaner cut. Instead of tearing the tops of the blades, it's more akin to cutting them with scissors.
  • Reel mowers require no gasoline, no oil, no spark plugs, very little maintenance, and no struggling with a temperamental motor on a cool day. Just shake any loose grass off, spray the blades with WD-40 (or similar) after each use, and get the blades sharpened every year or two.
  • Modern reel mowers are wider, lighter and easier to push than older models. It still might require a little more push than a self-propelled gas mower, but not by a lot (especially if you've got it set to cut high).
  • Reel mowers are very quiet, so if you want to cut your grass at 8:00 am or 9:00 pm when it's cooler, you won't be annoying your neighbors.
  • Reel mowers do have a couple strikes against them: They're still not as wide as most gas mowers, so you'll have to make more passes. Some don't do well on uneven ground. And they don't do well if you let your grass get too long. But hey, if you're walking more, pushing slightly harder, and cutting regularly, you and your grass will both be healthier. Maybe you can even cancel that expensive health club membership.

If you water, water intelligently.

  • Many grasses go dormant during drought or heat stress conditions. This doesn't mean your grass is dead. As with fertilizing, watering your lawn when it is very hot means (a) you have to mow more, and (b) you're creating tender new growth that can may be more affected by heat stress.
  • Less frequent watering will cause your lawn's roots to grow deeper. This will help keep your grass going during dry periods, while the weeds are drying up and dying.
  • When you do water, water deeply (the equivalent of one inch of rain). If the water is running off, stop, let it soak in, and water more later. Shallow watering encourages shallow roots, which dry out quicker, or thatch (a layer of above-ground runners).
  • Water early in the morning. Watering later in the day can (a) promote fungus if the water doesn't soak in or evaporate before dark, or (b) cause water droplets to act as little magnifying glasses when the sun's rays are at their peak intensity. In addition, the water is more likely to be absorbed by the grass if you water when the air temperature is increasing. As the temperature rises, a plant will begin to transpire water through its leaves. When transpiration occurs, water is drawn upward through the plant. This in turn, pulls water from the soil into the plant's roots.

Eliminate, or cut back on, grub killer, pesticides, and weed killer.

  • Spreading weed killer over your entire lawn to kill a half dozen weeds is, well, overkill.
  • Even "safe" chemicals may not be all that safe. According to once source, "2-4D is considered the safest herbicide. A quantity of 2-4D that would be about the same as a roll of life savers rubbed on the skin of four kindergarten children would kill two of them. This is not getting it in their mouth, but just rubbed on their skin."
  • In addition to killing unwanted pests, you'll be killing, harming, or chasing away lots of beneficial critters as well. Earthworms, lacewings, ladybugs, praying mantids, and micro-organisms like beneficial nematodes can all be harmed by overuse of poisons and pesticides.
  • Birds may also be affected by consuming the pesticides, either from eating the bugs, worms, etc. or from drinking runoff water. They may also be affected by direct contact with treated grass or foliage. One estimate states that "over 60 million birds die as a result of exposure to chemical pesticides and fertilizers".
  • Instead of spreading several pounds of weed killer, just bend down and pull weeds out by the roots as you mow and toss them in front of the mower to be chopped into mulch. For really persistent weeds, spot spray them with weed killer. If you're keeping your grass healthier, your weed population should stay down anyway.

Get yourself some nematodes.

  • Instead of chemical grub control, add some beneficial nematodes to your soil. Nematodes are microscopic worms that infect and kill many garden pests. They are readily available from many sources.
  • Pests controlled by beneficial nematodes include: Japanese beetles, June bugs, weevils, midge flies, rootworms, cutworms, billbugs, craneflies and fleas. They are typically affected in the larval stage. Few beneficial insects and organisms are affected by these nematodes.
  • One nematode treatment is fairly inexpensive (less than $40) and can last several years.
  • Nematodes can be applied either in dry or liquid form. Apply in spring or fall.
  • Not all nematodes are beneficial. Some are actually harmful. I don't imagine you're going to go out and buy the harmful ones though...

Aerate your soil occasionally.

  • Aeration will help your soil be less compacted, which benefits your lawn's roots as well as the beneficial micro-organisms that keep your lawn healthy. This is needed no more than once per year.
  • Core aeration is preferred because it actually removes small cylindars of soil and deposits them on top of the lawn to break down. Other types of aeration create air pockets by compacting the soil even further in some places.
  • If you core aerate, leave the plugs of soil on your lawn. You might think they look strange, but they'll break down in a week or so, and you'll be keeping those nutrients in your lawn. Besides, if you're mowing high, they won't be that noticable anyway.
  • Core aeration will be less effective during drought conditions, so if you've had a dry summer, you might want to wait until after it rains a little before aerating.

Overseed occasionally.

  • Spreading seed on top of your lawn in the fall will help make your grass thicker, thus crowding out more weeds.
  • Overseeding with a mix of grass seed (for example, northern US lawns might use a mixture of fescue, bluegrass, and rye) can create a more biologically diverse turf, which makes it less susceptible to problems. If conditions arise that are tough on your bluegrass, and all you have is bluegrass, all your grass is at risk. If you have a mixture, one variety may thrive while another is suffering.

Topdress occasionally.

  • Topdressing your lawn involves adding a light layer of extra soil or organic matter (like compost) to your lawn. The better your soil, the healthier your grass. The healthier your grass, the less room for weeds.
  • Topdressing allows you to gradually improve your soil without the effort and expense of starting from scratch.

Learn a little about your weeds.

  • Some people love the look of dandelions and let them grow freely in their yard. Then there are those people don't want to see a single weed anywhere on their property. Anything that's not grass must die. But before you rip out that attractive, lush little patch of clover, consider this: clover (white and pink in particular) can actually take nitrogen out of the air and put it into your soil. Grass loves nitrogen. Just something to think about.
  • If your lawn is over-run by dandelions, try lowering the pH of your soil with garden sulfur (or similar). Dandelions like a higher pH level than grass. You might consider having the pH of your soil tested. Most states have County Extension Offices or university-sponsored office that will test your soil for free.

A few other assorted notes...

  • If you're going to convert from a chemical lawn treatment program to an organic treatment program, your lawn may have problems in the short term. All those beneficial organisms may be absent, and your lawn will have been living on a steady diet of supplements. It's hard to get the natural machinery for a more self-sustaining lawn up and running instantly. Your lawn is, in a sense, "addicted" to chemical supplements because that's its only source of nutrients. There may be a period of "withdrawal" before you see the results of your organic lawn care efforts.
  • If having the absolute greenest lawn on the block is a priority, you probably won't be able to accomplish this organically. But you can have a healthy lawn that won't drain hundreds of dollars in fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides and unnecessary watering from your wallet every year. If your self-esteem is really that closely tied to how green your lawn is, try going organic, and using the money you save for a little professional counseling...
  • Here is an entertaining (if a bit over-simplified) perspective on lawn care.

Organic Lawn Care for the Cheap and Lazy
Organic Lawn Care Guide
Organic Lawn Care Tips
Audubon Workshop

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Winter's a long way off, but...

Last weekend, we got our corn stove installed in place of our propane fireplace. We thought a gas log fireplace would be cool, until we experienced the price of propane. After the first month, we never used it, because every time we had a fire, all we could see were little dollar bills burning in the flames.

That first propane bill last November was quite a shock. I don't believe there's much chance of any fuel derrived from petroleum getting cheaper any time soon. With our monthly heating bills approaching $500 last winter (a fairly mild one) even without using the fireplace, something had to be done.

You've probably seen those wood pellet stoves in stores. I heard those were pretty nice, except when demand exceeds supply and the pellets are not available (like last winter).

There's also the option of a wood-burning stove. But without a tree in sight on our property, we'd be buying and storing quite a bit of firewood, trying to keep it dry, and hoping it didn't bring termites with it. Plus we'd need an entirely new chimney system. Not to mention the fact that burning wood is far from the cleanest way to heat your home.

So we turned down the thermostat, put on sweaters, turned it down again, and waited for warmer weather. We were a bit stumped.

Enter the corn stove. Actually, it's not a corn stove. It's a biomass stove. It will burn wood pellets, corn, wheat, oats, barley, sunflower seed hulls, olive pits, cherry pits... whatever you can get your hands on that's small enough and combustible enough. But here in south-central Ohio, corn is cheap and abundant.

It may sound strange to use corn as a fuel source, but it burns very efficiently, and with surprisingly clean emmissions. A bushel of corn weighs about 56 lbs, which is about the size of an extra large bag of dog food or kitty litter. That bushel costs in the neighborhood of $2.00. It will heat a 2000 square-foot house, in the dead of winter, for about 24 hours. It is the heating equivalent of about 5 gallons of propane, which, in our area, will cost you five times as much.

The downside of all this is that you have to have a lot of corn on hand. You can buy bushel bags at a feed store, but that will cost you $5.00 or more, instead of the $2.00 at the grain elevator. We'd still be saving quite a bit over propane, but I'd rather pay $2.00 than $5.00 for the same reason I'd rather pay $5.00 than $10.00 for the equivalent amount of propane. It's a big difference over the course of a heating season.

So, sometime before it gets cold again next fall, we're going to have to acquire a gravity wagon. That's one of those big, square, funnel shaped carts you see around farms from time to time. That shouldn't be too hard to accomplish.

I tried out the stove last night. Boy it puts out a lot of heat, even on the second-lowest setting. It's a nice heat too. Not too dry, not too humid. I ran it for a couple hours to satisfy my curiosity. I had to open quite a few windows to let the cool evening air in.

The nice thing about it is that we opted for stone work around the chimney. That should create a nice radiant heat sink. In addition, our fireplace is in a room with a vaulted ceiling that goes up to a loft area. That gives us a great channel for the warm air to get to the upstairs. Hot air rises, and all that. The ceiling fan will help too. Plus, there's an air return vent for the furnace in that room, so if we really wanted to thoroughly circulate the heat, we could turn on just the fan for our existing furnace and draw the warm air from the living room throughout the house. We may not need to bother with that though. I like the bedrooms to be cooler than the rest of the house. Our bedrooom is conveniently located at the opposite end of the house. We'll just have to see how it all balances out next winter.

We figured that even if propane does not increase in price next season (yeah, right), and even after we shell out for the stove, the installation, and the gravity wagon, we will most likely make up the cost in a single winter -- especially if we take into account a $2000 tax credit.

If we ever really feel ambitious, we could probably grow enough corn to get us through the winter on about an acre.

I've also got a crazy, hairbrained scheme in the back of my head involving perennial sunflowers. The big sunflowers you usually see are annuals, just like corn. You have to plant it every year. However, there's a perennial variety of sunflower out there. It doesn't produce seeds as prolifically as the annuals, but what if you could increase seed production over time? What if you could plant a large stand of heavy-producing perennial sunflowers, harvest the seeds each year, eat the meat out of the seeds, and heat your home by burning the hulls?

There's probably a thermodynamics problem there somewhere. I'm probably trying to get more energy out of a system than I'm putting in. But it's fun to ponder...