Sunday, May 27, 2007

Lazy Scavenger Challenge

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Show of hands - who's with me?

Ok, good. Let's have some fun with it.

Here's the deal... We've got a variety of materials - mostly project leftovers - that are cluttering up our property. Most of them, I don't have any particular use for. Rather than sending them off to a landfill or waiting for them to rot away, I'd love to do something with them. I have general ideas for some things, and for others, ideas that are just half-baked. I'm not committed to anything I've thought of myself.

That's where you come in. If you can come up with something clever, something useful, or something interesting to do with any combinaiton of the items listed below, I'll reward you with something useful in return.


Alright. The winning suggestion will be rewarded with your choice of one of the following:
- Keeping Food Fresh by Claude Aubert, et al.
- How to Make a Forest Garden by Patrick Whitefield
- The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook by Albert Bates
- Some seeds from just about anything listed here or here
- A selection of size 3 toddler clothes.

The criteria are as follow:
- Ideas which reduce the need for electricity, propane, gasoline, or other non-renewable resources will be strongly favored. I love stuff like this, or the projects found here.
- Extra credit for creativity - but at the same time, the end result needs to actually be functional
- Your idea can include commonly available small hardware items (nails, screws, etc.)
- Your idea shouldn't require any specialized tools or skills that I don't have (e.g. welding, drill press, etc.)
- Your idea may include other items not listed below, so long as I have them on hand, I can obtain them via Freecycle, or I can obtain them for under $10 (total)
(I might be persuaded to bend the rules a tiny bit if your idea is good enough.)

Available materials:
- Ribbed sheet metal (black), approximately 3 feet by 13 feet
- Ribbed sheet metal (white), approximately 3 feet by 8 feet, as well as scraps of various sizes
- A couple 4x4 pressure treated posts (10 feet), plus a few 4x6 pressure treated scraps (2 feet or less)
- Several standard cinder blocks, some filled with concrete, most not
- 55 gallon barrel (food grade)
- A wide variety of smallish untreated lumber scraps: 1/4 inch plywood, 1/2 inch plywood, 2x2, 2x4, etc.
- chicken wire scraps, hardware cloth scraps
- numerous 4-foot rebar rods
- 2-inch diameter PVC pipe - 8 foot length and 12 foot length.
- 4-inch diameter PVC pipe - 8 foot length
- Two wooden pallets, mediocre condition
- The casing from an old propane firelplace, and a few bits of duct
- Probably some other stuff that I'm forgetting about

Feel free to ask questions if you need to.

Those of you who read my personal blog regularly may use whatever knowledge you've gained about our homestead to your advantage. Briefly, we are a typical newbie homestead, with a some goats, some chickens, a good-sized garden, a small pole barn, and a pond.

You can be as vague or as detailed as you like. Obviously, my materials list is pretty vague. I'm not looking for blueprints or anything. If your idea is Top Secret, you can send it to me via email. If I'm not sold on any of the ideas, I'll come up with a different challenge.

And last but not least, please feel free to steal this concept. Reduce, reuse, recycle can apply to materials, prizes, and ideas too, eh?

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Nothing to do with anything

I know I've mentioned this before, but Lori and I have both become big fans of the Aubrey-Maturin series of historical novels. They didn't strike me as something I'd particularly latch onto, but at some point Lori picked up an audio version of the first book of the series from the library. They've been keeping me company on my long drives down to Cincinnati ever since.

So now I find myself on book sixteen of the series. I particularly enjoy the audio version, because the reader, an actor named Patrick Tull, is probably the best I've come across. He breathes life into each character (and there must have been hundreds of characters by this point), giving them distinct speech patterns and inflections. His deep voice doesn't do female characters well, but he at least makes them distinctive. That's the only criticism I can come up with.

I developed a new appreication for Patrick Tull when Lori happened to bring home the next book in the series, read by someone else. The voices were all wrong. The inflections, the tone, the emphasis and subtlety was way off.

Imagine David Schwimmer taking over the role of Indiana Jones. It just doesn't work.

Thankfully, the new reader, Richard Brown, was not a replacement for Patrick Tull, but a competitor. Apparently more than one audio book publisher had the rights to O'Brian's works.

Now I don't know if this will have the same impact if you're not sixteen books into the series, but I thought I'd give you a couple side-by-side samples, just for fun.

Richard Brown, clip 1
Patrick Tull, clip 1
(The second one got chopped a tiny bit, and I'm too lazy to go back and fix it.)

Richard Brown, clip 2
Patrick Tull, clip 2


Friday, May 25, 2007


I've been a bit low about my tomato situation this year. I mean, a garden without tomatoes is like popcorn without butter. And, honestly, I've had my fill of Early Girl and Better Boy that every single retailer sells. I really wanted to try some of the dozen or so heirlooms that I have in my seed collection.

But it was not to be this year. My soil blocks were about 0-for-50. I may spend part of the hot summer months in the cool basement, experimenting to try to find out what went wrong. I just can't get over the fact that none of them sprouted. It's not like I was making up the technique from scratch or something. Oh well, live and learn.

I did manage to find an heirloom plant sale at a historical site a little way south of us. I picked up a few interesting heirloom plants, but at that point, I still had hopes for some late starts in the basement. Those hopes have passed.

I stopped by the occasional farm market or garden center, just on the off-chance they'd have something different, but they never did. I was close to breaking down and buying those hybrid standbys, but I kept hoping for something different.

Yesterday, it happened. I was driving through Mt. Sterling on my way back from Cincinnati. (Just as an aside, Mt. Sterling has to be the flattest place between here and Kansas. I can only assume that the town founders had a love of irony. But back to the tomatoes.) I stopped at one of the two traffic lights in town, and noticed the hardware store had some flats of plants out. The tomato plants immediately caught my eye.

There was something different. Maybe it was the color of the leaves. Or the size. Or the fact that they weren't comically oversized in tiny cell pots.

The light turned green, and I hesitated. I pulled into an open parking space around the corner. The first thing I noticed as I approached was that the labels didn't have little pictures on them. Then I noticed they were in individual pots rather than little six-packs.

I checked the names, and realized I had found the mother lode... Brandywine. Arkansas Traveller. Italian Heirloom. Radiator Charlie's Mortage Lifter. Oxheart. Riesentraube. Yellow Pear. Mule Team. Black from Tula...

Give me joy of my tomatoes. The garden is whole.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Update, Part 4: Projects

Our pole barn is finally done. The schedule went something like this:
- Day 1: Sign Contract
- Day 80: Stake out building perimeter with twine. Square up corners.
- Day 95: Re-string perimeter twine that was blown loose during wind storm. Dig post holes.
- Day 110: Frame 90% of building.
- Day 115: Finish framing. Dig post holes for incorrect door placement.
- Day 125: Start roof & siding.
- Day 126: Finish roof & siding. Put in doors & window.

The actual amount of time spent on site amounted to about three days' work. Technically, it still needs its overhead garage door. But that should be done some time next week (i.e. July). Excuses for delays included:
- Weather
- Concern over water in post holes
- Company owner's wife in late pregnancy
- Lumber supplier problems
- Metal supplier problems
...and my favorite - somebody who was ahead of us on the schedule, who was also "kind of a friend, but I don't really know him..."

No wonder it took five months. The good news is that they actually did a nice job on it. And the price was right. But still.

Lori built a cool chicken tractor, which, even as I write, is slowly helping to create a new garden bed for me for next year.

I've been very gradually working on a fence that will divide our big pasture in two, so that we can do a little more rotational grazing. We tried a temporary electric tape fence, but it just doesn't seem to want to work for me. I did manage to put a tiny fence around my big garden, in hopes of slowing down the rabbits. And the chickens, for that matter.

My grape arbor has all its posts in the ground, but I haven't topped it off yet. It's had to move down the priority list for now.

Since the pole barn's (near) completion, we've been frantically working on some new chicken accomodations to get them moved out of the garage. (The photo just shows the framing for the pen.) The nest boxes are assembled, the fourth side is complete. Now there are just a few finishing touches to go.

I really want those guys (er, girls) out of the garage. If we'd known the pole barn was going to take this long ("it should be done in two to three weeks"), we would have done things much differently. As it stands, they should be moving in this weekend.

The good news about our lack of rain is that the grass in the non-fenced areas isn't quite to the point of being totally out of control yet. The tractor just does not want to run yet this year, and I need a scythe expert to show me what I'm doing wrong with my scythe. (It just bends the grass over instead of cutting it. I've adjusted the blade and sharpened it as instructed by the manufacturer. It was supposed to arrive pre-sharpened, but even now, trying to cut a blade of grass over the sharpened edge takes more effort than it seems like it should. I'll probably put out an APB on the OEFFA mailing list to see if anybody can come show me in person what I'm doing wrong.)

This fall or next spring, weather and budget permitting, I'm hoping to attach a simple greenhouse to the south side of the barn. In fact, we angled the barn so that it's not square to the house, specifically so that it had a true south face (well, within a few degrees at least), just for that reason.

I'm hoping to use some thin, corrugated polycarbonate panels for the glazing, some freecycled cinder blocks and some salvaged barrels filled with water for thermal mass, and some lumber already on hand for most of the framing. The barn has a small window on the south face. If that window becomes part of the back wall of the greenhouse, I can use it to let sun-warmed air into the barn in winter (assuming the sun comes out). And the chickens can keep my seedlings company if they want, as long as they promise not to eat any. But, this is all this is still hypothetical. Time will tell.

It also crosses my mind to extend the greenhouse framing beyond the actual greenhouse dimensions, and turn the rest of it into another arbor. Maybe I can grow hardy kiwi, or some more grapes. That would give the chickens a little more shade and raptor protection, as well as free meals of Japanese beetles whenever somebody is around to give the arbor a shake.

I must have enough ideas and plans for a lifetime. Good thing our one credit card is still zeroed out and frozen in a block of ice. Otherwise I might be tempted to overextend myself in money as well as time.

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Update, Part 3: (Mostly) Edible Landscaping

Outside the garden, I've been busy planting as well.

Last year I planted two peach trees. One was killed by bark chewing critters (rabbits or rodents, I'm guessing). I managed to save the other one by surrounding its trunk with hardware cloth (metal mesh stuff). I saved four of my six apple trees from the same fate, with the same method.

This year, I decided to move the surviving peach tree closer to the house, and to add some more peach trees - because homegrown peaches fall into the same category as homegrown tomatoes, strawberries, eggs, and homemade bread. There's just no comparison to the product at the grocery store. So now I have one Elberta, one Hale Haven, one Redhaven, and one Reliance.

Thanks to the Arbor Day Foundation, I now have a bunch of new trees. I bought a total of six trees, but in addition to the ones I purchased, they're sending a total of eleven freebies, plus a couple of forsythia shrubs. Crazy.

So far I've planted two Chinese chestnut trees, two hardy pecan trees, two hybrid poplars (weed tree, I know, but it'll give us a much-needed windbreak, some shade while we wait for the slower growers, and then a supply of wood), a red maple, and the two forsythias.

Sadly, within two days of planting, one of the poplars and one of the pecans were "pruned" from knee high to calf high by my friendly neighborhood gnawing critters. So, hardware cloth all around again.

I was glad about the two free forsythias, because I wanted some early bloomers to attract mason bees to my nest block next year. I also added a Pieris japonica shrub, which they're supposed to adore. I think it's quite attractive too.

I just received my other 10 free trees for joining the Arbor Day Foundation, which includes one of each of the following: Sugar Maple, Silver Maple, Red Maple, Red Oak, Pin Oak, White Pine, Colorado Blue Spruce, River Birch, White Flowering Dogwood, and Redbud. Planting tomorrow, weather permitting.

I'm dying to plant some cherry trees, but that'll have to wait until next year. I have no idea where I'll put those yet...

I transplanted a few purple coneflowers, and a mini rose that we've had good luck with before ("The Fairy"), as well as two dwarf Hinoki false cypress shrubs that my dad gave me. So we're finally filling in the long-neglected flower bed in front of the house. At least the lemon balm is thriving there...

The gooseberry bush I planted last year looks to have a nice little crop on it, and the red and black currants (also from last year) appear to be doing well.

Last year's blackberries were a total loss. They were too small and I put them in a weedy spot, thinking they could handle it. They couldn't. So this year I tried again with slightly stockier red and black raspberries. Unfortunately, they don't seem to be doing all that well either. Of the twelve I planted, only about five of them have any leaves. I haven't given up on them yet, but they are making me wonder. I put in a couple rhubarb plants as well. Maybe by next June, we can have some strawberry rhubarb pie.

I think that's it for the perennial & woody plants for this season. I've got big ideas for next year, or maybe the year after. We'll see.

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Update, Part 2: The Garden

The initial stage of gardening is finally under control. It took a lot of planning and organizing, a lot of digging, and a lot of compost spreading. (Incidentally, my favorite tool for spreading my two pickup-loads of compost was my offset handle snow shovel. I certainly haven't needed it for snow the last few years.) We've gone from a paltry 64 square feet of veggie garden to over 800 this year. And I'm already eyeing another patch for next year. I didn't find room for peanuts or edamame, and not as much room as I might have liked for some current crops.

Unfortunately, my new indoor seed starting techniques have been a complete disaster. I should have hedged my bets and started some seeds using my old methods. I just had no idea the soil blocks would fail so miserably.

I'm not throwing in the towel on the concept, but I'll definitely have to refine it next year. (Actually, I've got some very late tomato seeds in the basement now. Desparation, but what can you do?) Hopefully I can get some kind of coldframe/hoophouse/greenhouse arrangement set up so I can expand my seed starting a bit and I won't have to rely on a shop light in the basement.

It feels strange to have so little rain this spring. In fact, it's been beautiful almost every day. Some days are 70F, some days are 80F, and every day is sunny. With wildfires out west and in the south, tropical storms starting to form already in the east, and tornados and flooding in between, I almost feel guilty. I say "almost" because it feels like we could be staring down the barrel of a drought. The water level in our pond is about where it was last August, and I think we went two weeks without any rain. Our soil shouldn't be cracking in May. (Luckily, we just got an inch or two overnight...)

As far as garden prep, I'm a little proud to say that I did all the soil work with hand tools. (Well, technically, I rototilled last fall, but it didn't amount to much more than turning the grass into hard clay. I don't know that I'll bother with that in the future.) In fact, the only inputs this little patch of land needed were my labor, a combination of well water and collected rainwater, and two pickup loads of compost from a small organic dairy two miles up the road. We'll see if we can coast on those limited input sources until the end of the growing season. I'm not one to buy bagged fertilizers for the garden.

In a future post, I'll see if I can document my entire garden plan, for my own purposes as much as anything. But hey, maybe somebody will either learn something useful from it, or tell me why I'm an idiot. It's a fine line...

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Update, Part 1: The Animals

Sorry for the lack of posts. We're still cranking away on a hundred different things. Stand by for a multi-part brain dump of what we've been up to... Are we doing too much too fast? Absolutely. But by now many of you know that I hear a big clock ticking whenever I sit still for too long. But I digress...

Up first, the Livestock Report.

The goat kids are getting bigger by the minute. It's a bit comical to watch a 50 lb kid nursing on a 100 lb mother. They essentially have to lay down on the ground to get under there. (They'll be weaned pretty soon. We've been waiting on our pole barn to be done in order to separate them. I've a feeling that the mommas are probably already working on it.)

We seem to have lost our buyer for two of the bucklings. No worries, there are plenty of other buyers out there. And we can probably get a little more for them now that they're bigger.

It hasn't rained here in at least a couple weeks. The bad news is that means our pastures are thinner than we'd like. But we did get the donkey and the bucks integrated into one pasture, thanks to some extra prodding from Contrary Goddess. I think one of the biggest tricks to this lifestyle is knowing who to listen to when. It's not all wine and roses out there in the obnoxious animal paddock, but it'll have to do for now. Now if I could just teach that donkey to pull a plow he could start really earning his keep. In the meantime, we're looking for a buyer. Need a donkey?

The chickens are awesome. We especially like the Buckeye breed. The Dominiques are nice enough, but they are definitely more homebodies than the wandering Buckeyes. The Buckeyes are constantly popping out from under bushes, or the tractor, the car, a tuft of grass... We removed the truck cap that came with our pickup, and it's become a sort of home away from home for the chickens. They're nice enough to keep the grass trimmed under there for me too. Now if I could just keep them out of the garden until the seedlings are a bit more established...

In case you're wondering, yes, they're still in the garage. Well, they range during the day and use the garage as their home base. Lori built a chicken tractor for the roosters - we've only identified three so far on a straight run of 12! Woohoo! And meanwhile we're building a pen in the pole barn which is finally finished. (More on that in another post.)

A funny thing about the Dominiques is that they roost on the top rung of the cattle panel that used to form their pen in the garage. They have other perches, but for some reason, they like the precarious top rung, even though the most insignificant event sets them all to wobbling. Funnier still are the few who are a little slow on the uptake, perching on the second or third rungs, directly below their flock-mates. I don't think sleeping on a perch directly below another chicken is the greatest idea in the world, but maybe it's just me. A few Buckeyes join them on the panel, but the rest seem to prefer bedding down on the ground floor in a big clump.

The best chicken trick so far? Plucking flies out of mid-air. How cool is that?

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

How do you say "Monk" in French?

Is it just me, or does the new president of France look like what would happen if Tony Shalhoub were a mafia boss?

Too tired to write anything more significant. See you next time...


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Life is good. No, really.

So what's up?

Not one, not two, but three projects at work involve yours truly as the bottleneck. For our three biggest clients. All three projects are late. And the other guy in the office who shares duties with me is heading to India for a month, starting tomorrow.

E5 has gone into one of his "monster" phases. Coming up on his fourth birthday, he's already become a grand master at stubbornness, arguing, boundary testing, and finding loopholes in the rules. With the sun going down late and coming up early, he's not getting enough sleep, which makes him cranky. I hope we can move on from this phase again soon.

Amelia is on antibiotic #3 for a really nasty ear infection. She's feeling better at the moment. Hopefully it doesn't come back again.

The car's check engine light came on. Luckily it doesn't look to be serious, but we'll see. It does need some work though.

We overdrew our checking account. I'm still not sure how, even though all of our transactions are right there in front of me. For some reason it's like trying to find a leak in an inflatable mattress. You know the problem is there somewhere, but it's just not standing out.

The donkey still won't play nice with the goats. We tried him again with the boys, who are big enough to defend themselves now. Unfortunately, Jinx cornered them on the roof of their shelter every time they came out to graze.

We're out of hay, and there's none to be had anywhere this time of year. Our pastures are over-grazed, but our non-pasture areas are overgrown. I tried to set up a temporary electric fence to allow some additional grazing space, but it doesn't work. For the life of me, I can't figure out why.

The goats' milk tastes terrible. We can't figure that one out either.

Our pole barn still isn't done. It was slated for completion in early March. We have almost fully grown chickens pooping all over our garage, our driveway, and our front walk.

As expected, the tractor won't start after a winter of sitting idle. I did my best troubleshooting, but couldn't find the problem. So I called my neighbor down the road who's helped me out with it from time to time. He walked through some possibilities with me and found that I've got a couple bad spark plug wires.

His teenage daughter had a leg amputated earlier this year due to cancer, so I asked how she was doing. I won't soon forget the look in his eyes, as he told me that they buried her on Easter Sunday. The long pause he gave earlier, when I called and asked, "Did I catch you at a good time?" suddenly made sense.

She was an honors student, a leader in the marching band, and on the volleyball team. He showed us the tattoo he got in her honor, and a recent photo of her, when her hair was starting to grow back in after cancer treatments.

It's amazing how silly all our little problems suddenly seemed.