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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Winter Prep

I had hoped that growing hops would be the gateway plant by which I would successfully suck Steve into gardening, but it didn't happen.  I did marginally better by turning over the strawberries to his care this summer.  It seemed like the thing to do: his being home during the day meant that he was getting the lion's share of the strawberries, and frankly, his back is more suited to the constant bending over that harvesting strawberries requires.  I basically said, "you're getting all the strawberries; here's an article in the Mother Earth News about growing strawberries, so you can do it."  To my surprise he agreed.

Yesterday was a good day for readying parts of the garden for winter, and one of the things we did was to put the strawberries to bed for the winter under a blanket of straw.  We stuck applewood cuttings about every foot and a half along the sides of the beds to hold the straw in place.


I had to laugh when Steve said, "it's good that we're getting the strawberries ready for winter, but I think we'd better leave the Franken Berries and Boo Berries where they are until after Halloween."

Next I picked up the potato bags one by one and lugged them over to the big plot, which is where I'll put next year's garden, and dumped their contents onto the soil.  They all contained a mixture of compost, shredded leaves, and pine bedding that I used for growing potatoes this year and I wanted to compost that in place.  They also contained a bunch of potatoes, which is what I'd hoped would happen when I left them where they were this summer when I harvested some of the potatoes.


I'm pretty sure I'll have potatoes next year because I didn't bother with picking out the teeny tiny potatoes, and if they survive the winter, well then they deserve to grow.  If they don't, I'm still going to try to grow them, but I'll use Nita's method over at Throwback From Trapper Creek.  She dry gardens, and she also produces most of what her family eats, so I'll see if her method works for me. Someday, when I grow up, I'm going to be able to produce food like Nita does.  She's a for real homesteader, and I'm just a rank amateur.

The next step was to pull the buried chicken wire out of the big bed so that it (the bed) can be dug up next spring.  I read that gophers and other pesky ground-burrowing varmints love garlic as much as we do, and the only way to keep them out of the garlic is to grow it in a metal basket.  I managed to get the first one out, but had trouble with the second one, and Steve had to finish yanking it out after I'd tweaked my back.  It was't the soil so much as the clover that grew into it that made it so hard to get out.  But we finally did it, and I further raked out the potato bag contents, and then we covered that with more straw.


I hope to install sides to this bed to keep the grass from growing into it and to keep the contents from spilling out of it, but that will have to wait until later this winter.  The next time Steve mows the lawn, the clippings will be strewn in there as well any leaves we pick up. Supposedly, you can improve clay soil this way, but it's going to take a long time and I'm not kidding myself about it.

We also moved the compost bin to the end of one of the raised beds so that we don't have to travel so far out into the yard this winter.  Part of the reason I want to garden in the big bed is to give the raised beds a rest, and maybe even get some cover crop in them this winter.  I only have four total that I can rotate crops among so we'll see.  But having the compost bin over the end of the raised bed seemed like a good idea, logistically speaking.


Yesterday I also harvested the last of the tomatoes, and got a bunch of small green tomatoes off the two volunteer tomato plants.  Enough that I'm making them into pickles even as I write this.  Dinner last night was one of my favorites: fried green tomatoes.  I have enough of them to do it again this week. We also got a bunch of red serranos picked, which I'll string up into a ristra, and then once they're dry I'll break them into crumbled chili pepper flakes for sprinkling on pizza.

So the garden wasn't a complete and total flop this year, in fact, I did get some good out of it.  There are still turnips and celery out there and hopefully I'll get parsnips this winter, too.  I just have to keep at this gardening thing until I learn how to get it all done.

Monday, October 24, 2011

New Garage Lights

Last winter I decided I needed to wire a couple more lights into the garage because one half of my firewood was so dark that at night I couldn't really see what I was looking at.  This weekend I finally got around to doing it.

This is the second of the two original fixtures.  Well, you can't really call them fixtures- it's just a box and a porcelain socket- but you know what I mean.  That got opened up, and I ran a length of 14/2 (that's 14 gauge wire, with 2 conductors and a ground) indoor rated wire from the old socket to where the next box is, which is a new one about eight feet away.  The original porcelain socket had an old-fashioned connection which I actually like better than the new ones; you just shove the wire into the hole.  The black conductor from the new wire goes into a little hole right next to where the black from the old wire was connected, and the new white conductor goes in next to the old white conductor.


This is a bad picture, but the boxes really are easily nailed to the joists.


This is the new box for the third light.  The line from the old light goes in one side of the box, and the next line goes in from the other side of the box.  The holes through which the wires go are called knockouts, but in this case they don't really knock out- they open wide enough to slip the wire in from the outside, and then snap back to hold the wire in place.  Between the pinching knockouts and the staples, this fixture won't go anywhere.


Then the jacket gets cut off the wire to give yourself some room, and the ends of each of the conductors is stripped of its jacket.  The bare copper is the ground wire.  When our house was built, most of the receptacles were not grounded correctly, and although we have a new, properly grounded panel, the old fixtures in the garage were not properly grounded, so I didn't worry about it.  I just connected the grounds together and shoved them into the box out of the way.


This a picture of the new-fangled porcelain socket.  This is actually the end of the line fixture (I really had trouble taking pictures in the garage this weekend, probably because it's so much darker in there this time of year).  For the middle of the line fixture (which is what this is), I wrapped the black conductors from the incoming line and the outgoing line around the one side, and then wrapped the two white lines together on the other screw.  Once the fixture is wired in, you can shove all the wire into the box and screw the fixture to the box.


The lights below are the new garage lights.  The older ones are closer to us, and the new ones are closer to the garage door.  I can't really show you the difference they make because I truly am a terrible photographer, but take my word for it- I can see all the fire wood now.


The only problem with that is now I can really see how much the garage needs to be cleaned.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Our Solar Photo Voltaic System

Our solar PV system was finally finished this week, and what a long, ongoing saga that turned out to be.  I'll spare you all the details though.  Really. You want to be spared.

Suffice to say that because the city and the county were involved, as was the local utility, the PV system took a lot longer to get done than the solar water heating system did.  And the two young yokels who installed it had a bit of a problem with understanding what was my property and what was their property - nothing was stolen or anything, but they helped themselves to standing on a garbage can (and crushing the lid) and they helped themselves to my scrap lumber and pallet (which were earmarked for projects) to cover the gigantic hole by the side of the garage that they had to dig, with my shovel, which they neglected to wash off again.  I realized while I was fuming that most people probably wouldn't care, but you can't help your feelings and mine were incensed.  Let's just say the project manager got an earful. So did poor Steve, since it was his project, but all was made right in the end and now we're producing power off the roof.

Half the panels up, sitting on their rails

So there are eighteen 250 watt solar panels up on the roof, each of which has its own micro inverter.  This appears to be the way to go with inverters these days, because the advantage is that if one fails, only that panel fails until you replace the micro inverter.  They also stay cooler so they last longer. And they're also a lot less expensive than one big inverter, which is expensive to replace as well.  The inverter is what wears out the fastest on a solar PV system, so if you have the opportunity to use micro inverters, go for it.

Panels all up; now the fun with the inspections begins

I think I mentioned before that we are grid-tied; Steve didn't want to deal with batteries (or their eventual disposal) so we now have a net meter, which is the meter that runs backward when you're producing power.  Something interesting that I want you to remember if you decide to do solar power is that while we were waiting for the PGE (Portland General Electric) guy to come out and swap out the old meter for the new net meter, Steve couldn't wait and flipped the switch on the solar panels and we were producing power for a day or so.  It turns out that meters from the seventies (and after) when ours was made were made to count the power running into them as well, because back during the so-called Energy Crisis (remember that?) of the seventies, people were messing with their meters, so long story short, we're going to have to pay for the power we were producing those first couple of days.  Pretty funny.

Our panels, on a good, clean (no smog) sunny day, with zero dust on them, and the sun hitting them juuuuust right will produce upwards of 30kW a day, which will probably never happen for a variety of reasons. However, because we average about 13kW in usage a day, we should be able to produce most of our own power, winter weather not withstanding.  Most of it.

The system cost around $27,000, but because of four years of federal income tax credits and four years of state income tax credits that we'll be able to take, plus the rebate from the Energy Trust of Oregon, when we're done, we'll have paid around $11,000 for this system.  At the rate we're currently paying PGE for our electrical usage, it will be a long time before this thing pays for itself, but we don't know how much energy is going to cost in the future, do we?  The important thing to us was to get this system installed while we had the cash and could replenish our savings because we're still working.

If the cost of energy goes through the roof, we'll be glad it's not going through ours.  And if it doesn't go through the roof?

We'll just have a really cool, really expensive toy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Unnatural Beekeeping

My bees are dead.

We've had some rain and the weather turned distinctly cooler, and I thought they were just hanging out keeping warm in their hive.  But today when I came home, almost the first thing out of Steve's mouth was "you need to put some Tanglefoot on the hive stand- I saw ants out there."

That didn't sound good so I asked him if he'd seen bees flying around, to which he said yes.  But while I was spreading Tanglefoot on the hive stand leg, I noticed that what was flying in the door way was some sort of hornet, not a honey bee.  Uh oh, I thought.

I asked Steve to wash one of our food grade buckets while I donned my grubbies and bee gear, thinking that if there had been a swarm I missed, and if they'd left any honey, I'd grab it. I admit that I wasn't prepared for what I saw when I got it open.

Starting from the back I saw nice, clean but empty comb.


Then the comb got progressively darker, but still empty.  Then I finally got to one that had capped cells, but it was even darker comb and everything appeared to be dead.

And then I saw them.


All the bees were dead in a large pile at the bottom of the hive.  They appeared to be moldy, but it was kind of hard to see through my hood.  At any rate, it was a massive die-off, and not a swarm.  I have no idea what did it- there should have been plenty of ventilation in the hive because the bottom was screened, not solid.  It might have been Colony Collapse Disorder, but I don't know what that looks like. I don't know if the mold (if that's what it is) attacked and killed them or if it happened after they died.  I also don't know how much of my hive I can reuse, or if the comb will be worth anything to me.  And there was absolutely no honey, whatsoever.  Were there not enough flowers in the neighborhood? I'm really baffled.

I thought that if I left them alone, they would do better without me, because it seemed that every time I got into the hive, I'd smash some of them moving things around.  I might have been too hands off, although honestly?  I don't know if I'd have been able to save them anyway.

I'm having curiously mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I'm supremely bummed, especially since now I have two livestock failures (my chickens, remember?)  on my hands, but on the other hand, I'm relieved that I don't have to worry about them this winter, which I was wondering how I was going to manage.  Bees need to have their food moved where they can reach in the winter; they've been known to starve to death even though food is just a little beyond where they want to go when it's cold. And in addition to keeping them fed, I wasn't sure about how to keep them warm enough, and still ventilate them.

I also feel bad about being so gung ho and going ahead with getting them when I probably should have done a lot more research before jumping in.

As it is, I'll be doing a lot of research anyway, but now I have at least thirty-thousand deaths on my hands.

No, wait a minute- make that thirty-thousand and four.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Maybe You'll Remember

Some time ago I ran across a wooden clothes drying rack that I thought was pretty great, but I can't remember if posted about it, or if I found it through a link a reader included in their comments.  The racks are made by the husband half of a couple who are living off-grid somewhere here in the states, and I wanted to get one of their racks, except now I can't find them.

I realize that I could only be slightly more vague, but if anybody knows what I'm talking about, please chime in....

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Winter of Our Disconnect

Burning wood during more profligate times

Steve and I are playing a game of chicken of sorts these days.  As the autumn season wears on, we're trying to deal with being colder and colder by putting on more layers and sucking it up, rather than turning on the furnace.  Oh sure, we have two cords of dry hardwood stacked up in the garage, but I'm determined to make it last longer than last year's one cord of mixed woods and pallet of Bear bricks, which gave out some time in February.  A look at this past year's natural gas bill showed that March had the highest usage of the entire year, followed by April, then February, when the wood ran out, and then May.  We want to start burning the wood as late in the fall as we possibly can, so that it will last as late in the spring as it possibly can.  We also don't want to burn too much gas, so it's a balance of weighing how cold it is outside, against how cold it is inside, and deciding if: 1) we're going to tough it out, 2) it's cold enough  inside but still warm enough outside that we can make the house more comfortable with just a little bit of gas, or 3) it's cold inside and too cold outside to warm the house with a little bit of gas so it's time to start burning the precious wood.

You might think we're crazy to be this obsessed with paying attention to our consumption of things but it really seems to be paying off. Part of this conservation, particularly with the gas, is being borne out with the solar water heater.  Last year during the month of September, we used twelve therms in a thirty-two day billing period; last month's billing period was thirty-three days and we used a total of four therms.  That's a quarter of what we used last year during the same month.  It's hard to say how much gas I used for cooking for either year, but I would venture to guess that the savings is attributable to our solar water heater. It'll be interesting to see how that savings changes over the course of the fall and winter seasons when it won't be nearly as efficient as it is in the summer.  The collector plates still heat up quite a bit in overcast weather, but rain definitely keeps the collector much cooler, so we don't get as much heat out of it then.  However, it does warm it a little bit, which means the regular gas heater is heating pre-warmed water (which runs through insulated piping from the solar tank) rather than heating cold water, so we'll gain a little bit of benefit from the solar heater, even in crappy winter weather.

When the solar PV system is finally finished, I'll tell you all about that, but right now it's a bit of a sort spot.  The darn thing is taking sooooo much longer than the solar water system did, and that appears to be the fault of the project manager of the company we used, which by the way, was the same company as the water system; the crew that did the solar water heater system was really great; the crew that installed the solar PV…enh, not so much.  But that's all another post, and I promise pictures and stats and all that good stuff.

The other, more difficult to quantify, kind of chicken that Steve and I are playing is with the finances.  We've decided to knuckle down and try to live on my income, and throw everything that Steve makes at the mortgage principal.  This might not be so scary if our incomes were more in line with each other, and since I make about half what he does, what I really mean is if my income were a little closer to his, but since that's not the case, it means that things are about to get very lean for us.  Aside from getting out from underneath the mortgage that much sooner, another reason this is a good idea is that it gets us used to living a leaner lifestyle anyway.  I really want for the two of us to be able to retire together, because I want to spend more time with my husband.  We had a late start in life together, and I'm bound and determined to make up for lost time.  It doesn't mean that the minute the mortgage is paid off we're checking out of the rat race, it just means that once that's accomplished, we need to take a look at what we're currently doing and figure out how reasonably soon we could quit working.  Probably the single biggest expense we'll have once we don't have a mortgage and gainful employment will be healthcare insurance, which, if I'm being realistic, will probably be more than our current mortgage payment!

But that's the challenge for the next six months: make the wood and the money last a whole lot longer than they usually do.  Think we can do it?  Think you could do it?

In the meantime, I need to stop writing and crawl under the covers with Steve on the couch.  I'm freezing.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Shallot By Any Other Name

It seems that every time I try some sort of new homesteading skill for myself, I learn a new respect for the folks who subsisted on the skill or who do it for a living.  Take saving seed, for instance.  Letting the garden go to seed is not difficult- I'm actually pretty good at that- but gathering and cleaning seed is a chore. Now, granted, the folks who do it for a living are probably assisted by mechanical devices, but it's still a somewhat mind-numbing experience to clean seed out of the seed heads of several different alliums…come to think of it, it was a tuckus-numbing experience as well, because I was at it for a few hours today and sitting on an as-yet un-cushioned bench for the duration. First I cleaned the seed out of the only onion that had a chance to develop a flower head, which didn't take too long.  Then I cleaned the seed from the only leek flower head that seemed to be mature enough- the other two were still green and didn't want to give up their seed, so I didn't force the issue.  Then I cleaned the seed from several (maybe nine or ten?) shallot seed heads. Which brings me to my next revelation.
In trying to find out how to grow shallots from seed, all I managed to learn is that true shallots don't grow from seed; they  only grow from bulbs, and that shallots that set seed are really a kind of onion. Furthermore, true shallots are mildly onion flavored and are never strong, which also points to the 'shallots' I planted this year truly being onions, and not shallots.  The first one I cut up was so volatile I felt like I was cutting up a small bag of mustard gas.  So this boatload of seed I saved is not really for shallots. Even if they're little onions, they're good little onions.  They were great in the pan sauce I made for the chicken last night.  They were great in the oxtail soup I made tonight (which reminds me I need to write that one down because it was easily one of the best soups I've ever made and I am no slouch in the soup department). But getting back to the shallot seed, when all was said and done, I probably had around one-half to two-thirds of a cup of shallot seed.  Way too much for one little garden.  So you know what I did?  I packaged it all up into little 2 gram packages so that any of you (okay, the first twenty-two of you) who would like to experiment with seeds that are for onions masquerading as shallots could try growing them from seed with me. It will be a grand experiment of sorts.  Just let me know by dropping me a line saying so with your name and address and I will get them out to you.

I still don't know how to grow shallots from seed, but I'm going to guess that since they're probably really onions, I can grow them like onions.  My success rate with the alliums is kind of fifty-fifty; I can grow the dickens out of garlic, and the shallots did pretty well, but I'm not doing so well with the onions.  See the shallots in the picture in my header?  That was this year's shallot crop.  I sure hope I do that well with the seed, because I'm not ordering any bulbs for next year.  Part of this whole homesteading thing is to learn to be self-sufficient (not that I believe in true self-sufficiency because even the homesteaders had to drive into town occasionally for things), so learning to save seed against the day when you can't get it is a good skill to have, just in case.  Learning how to turn those seeds into food is an even better skill I think, and I'm still working on that one, too.

Don't forget to let me know if you'd like to try so-called shallot seeds. Offer good while supplies last, as they say.