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Thursday, September 21, 2017

At Last! I Managed A Fall And Winter Garden This Year!

Garden late September
It was really hard, but I finally did it.  I got a fall and winter garden planted this year, my most challenging gardening year to date. It's been so challenging that I broke down and bought some winter starts last week at Home Depot. 

New kale bed next to
rutabagas and coon-
proofed melon
I was in there after fasteners and thought, you know? Why don't you just wander over to the nursery and see if they have any, by chance. And they did! I bought arugula, kale and pac choi starts. I'd have purchased lettuces starts as well, but they were a little old. 

When it comes to growing for the winter months, when they tell you to start in mid-July, well for some things, they really do mean mid-July.  So that's what I did. This summer was also one of our hotter summers, so there was that challenge. How do you keep cool weather crop seedlings cool in the hottest part of the year?

Kohlrabi, onions,
carrots, broccoli,
collards, and kale
When I built the beds in late spring, I included frames around the tops with the intention of covering them in greenhouse plastic for the winter.  It turned out the frames were also a great support for laying reed fencing across to create some dappled shade for the seedlings.  It actually worked really well, and I think the results speak for themselves. Next year I want to see about cutting down the fences so that they don't take up so much room over the pathways.

Beets
I planned one bed to be covered in plastic this winter and one bed to be exposed. Maybe next year when I have more growing space I'll be able to devote more area outside the winter beds to plants that handle frost, like kale and parsnips. But I only had so much room, and I did what I did, so we'll see how long the food lasts.  In any case, the bed that gets covered has beets and lettuce seedlings. 

How long the food lasts will be the ultimate test of how well I did.  I'm hoping that by growing copious quantities of greens of various kinds, I'll be able to make the root vegetables last longer. And, I'm hoping that each of my sections has enough to last at least a month.  This is going to be very hard to do if we eat vegetables with every meal, and we do.  Fortunately, a few of the root vegetables have tops that can be eaten as well, like beets, kohlrabi, and rutabagas, so that will help.  I do not recommend eating carrot tops, no matter what that irresponsible idiot you see on the internet or TV who says you can. Carrot tops contain alkaloids and if you get enough of them you can poison yourself. Not a good idea.

We've started eating some of the greens already. I have a few more store bought vegetables in the fridge and I'm trying to put off both going back to the grocery store and harvesting stuff out of the garden.  But where I can make the store bought stuff last a little longer by helping it out with some homegrown, I am.  At some point, I'll dig up the volunteer Italian chard (actually Verde de Taglio from Franchi) and replant it in the hoop house, with the hope that it survives the transplanting. If I don't, it'll die in the first frost anyway, so I may as well try it.

If you've been struggling with getting a winter garden in, I hope my success and methods give you more hope and some solid ideas for getting around the heat in summer so that you can make it happen for yourself. 

I have to say though, that finally getting one going is a really huge step for us in the quest for a year-round garden. Maybe eventually, I really will learn how to feed us from the back yard.  

That is the goal, after all.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Grapes Are Ripe

The birds were telling me for days that the grapes are ripe.  Then a week ago Thursday around midnight I was awakened by a racket on the deck. At first I wasn't so keen to get up and investigate because we have a resident skunk that uses our backyard for a thoroughfare, traversing it first by walking calmly across the deck. Actually, I'm not sure where he lives exactly, but he's intermittently regular, so I was wary that it might be him. But the racket persisted, so I grabbed my headlamp and went out there and peered up into the pergola and who do I see amid my grapes? Raccoons!! Three of them!

I quickly grabbed my critter gitter, AKA my spading fork, and start jabbing at them. A few minutes later the yard was free of raccoons and I was amped on adrenaline.  Fighting raccoons always stimulates my fight or flight response and I was absolutely jangling. So sleep was out for awhile, but it was obvious I had to get the grapes in if I was going to get any wine made this year.

So that's what we did.  We made a quick trip into Portland the next day to get yeast and an acid test kit plus a couple other items from F. H. Steinbart, and then came home and started picking grapes.  We de-stemmed them by hand.  Don't let anyone fool you. De-stemming grapes by hand is a LOT of work. And crushing them by hand to get the juices going (so you can put a campden tablet in the juice to kill all the nasties before you go to pitch the yeast) is hard on your hands also, particularly if you have a touch of arthritis in them. Which I do.

Eventually over a couple of days we got enough grapes crushed and juiced to make up a full fermenter of wine must.  I have to thank Steve (and did) for all his help because he knows what he's doing with a fermenter and with the sanitation of all things fermenting-related.  We finally pitched the yeast, and are now on the way to having somewhere around five gallons of wine in the near future. Or wine vinegar. We could be making a lifetime supply of wine vinegar.

The grape I chose to grow is called Marechal Foch, and I chose it because it handles cold really well. It's grown in upstate New York and Canada, so that should give you some idea of the kind of cold they can handle. What I didn't know when I bought them was that the grapes themselves are very small, and are subject to bird pressure. Nuts.  Then it occurred to me that I didn't know what the wine was supposed to taste like.  I looked online for where I could either taste some or buy some nearby and luckily there were two wineries fairly close by that had it, so one day early this summer Steve drove me out to Newberg, Oregon to the Purple Cow Winery where I had my first taste of Marechal Foch wine. Which I did not like. Double nuts.  Didn't stop me from buying a bottle to put down; the vintner said that it would be much better in eight years, which puts us at 2025.  Then Steve drove me to August Cellars, where the Marechal Foch I tried there was a little better, but that was because it was older.  I bought a bottle that was ready to drink now, but it is lying under the dresser in my bedroom with the Purple Cow because I am not opening the August Cellars until I've lost ten pounds.  Which means by the time I get to it, it will probably be a LOT better.

So it looked like I was going to have to find a place to store a bunch of wine while it sat awhile becoming drinkable.  The only person I know with a basement and plenty of room is my sister-in-law, and she lives five hours away.  That would certainly keep me out of the wine while it aged.   Fortunately, I ran across a PDF on how to make wine with Marechal Foch and Millot grapes, and it said that you can make a blush with them.  I really like a dry rose, so I researched making blush wines, which sounded like a lot less trouble than a red, so that's what we did.

The must is happily bubbling away in one of Steve's stainless steel fermenters in the kitchen.  It's been bubbling pretty steadily at the same pace for a few days now, so it's not slowing down yet. Once the bubbling has stopped, the fermenting is over, and we'll let it sit in there for another month before we go to bottle.

Whether we bottle wine or vinegar remains to be seen.



Thursday, August 3, 2017

Soil Building 101

I have honestly never had a book spur me to so much action.  For years I’ve been saying I gotta do something about my soil fertility, I gotta do something about my soil fertility, but I haven’t been able to get my arms around how to do it on the scale or speed I need to.  My soil is essentially dead.  Not completely dead, but pretty darn sick. But now I have a start and it's all because of this book and a perfect storm of information coming to the fore at roughly the same time.  I have to admit here that it's probably because I was so frustrated that I asked for Help.  And I got it. It all pretty much happened within ten days or so.

The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health is a great read that deals with microbes: fungi, bacteria, and viruses, and their critical part in how life on the planet works. Starting with a backyard full of dead soil in Seattle, David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé are drawn into the world of microbes when they notice that the mulch they’ve been applying to their yard keeps disappearing and yet the almost gray dirt is being replaced by dark, friable soil that is making their yard the envy of the neighborhood. When Anne has a bout with cancer, they are drawn into the fascinating world of the microbiome that is the human body*.  We are nothing but a vessel for holding billions upon billions of microbiota without which we can’t digest food or fend off pathogens. Betcha didn’t know that.

In the book I learned that soil microbes act as middlemen between the soil and plant roots.  When they tell you ‘feed the soil’, what they really mean is ‘feed the microbes’.  Plants can’t take up soil minerals on their own, so their roots exude compounds that attract soil microbes. The soil microbes are attracted to the exudates and hang out very, very close to the roots (so close they create what is called the rhizosphere) and sip on exudates and eat soil minerals and dead things. Then they poop and the roots absorb what’s in their poop.  The plants can’t live without the microbes because they can’t digest what’s in the soil without them.  Plants also count on soil microbes to help them ward off disease and even in some instances, insect attacks. They talk to each other via chemical pathways.

I also learned that fertilizing your soil with chemical fertilizers will kill the soil over time, because it removes the dependence on soil microbes, and in some cases, just plain poisons the microbes. Plants manage by the sheer amount of minerals and substances that get dumped into the soil, but the upshot is that as the microbes die off, the plants require more and more fertilizer until the point that the soil is dead.  And once the soil is really dead, nothing will grow in it. I’m certain that’s what happened to our soil because when we moved in here there were a half dozen or so sacks of the same kind of fertilizer stacked up in the garage.  The previous owner, Mr. Hunt, came late to the organic growing party, but that was well after he’d killed his soil.  I didn’t know that I haven’t been doing the soil any more favors by adding organic rock phosphate and cotton meal and other types of organic fertilizers.  The only way to improve soil is to add organic matter. It truly is. 

However, it’s not the only thing you can do if you can’t wait for nature to take her sweet time turning it into good soil. David and Anne mentioned in their book that in addition to mulch, Anne also applied ‘soil soup’.  I emailed her to find out what she used for mulch and asked if could she give me the recipe for soil soup (this was after I looked all over the internet to see if it was posted anywhere- on their website, in any talks or seminars they’d given, but I couldn’t find anything).  The mulch is a combination of wood chips and leaves, and she agreed that it was kind of like composting in situ, minus the kitchen scraps.  The soil soup is a combination of vermicompost, water, molasses and kelp powder and in looking for an exact recipe and method, I’ve since discovered why this breaks down the mulch so quickly, but we’ll get to that later.

The immediate problem for me was how to get my hands on the wood chips.  Years ago I read in the Mother Earth News that they had discovered that wood made the best soil after reviewing the results of the test they ran specifically to see what makes the best soil.  And after watching the film Back To Eden, I knew that to get this soil, you needed wood chips on a large scale. Paul Gautschi gets his from arborists.  Somewhere along the line I learned that what you really want are ramial wood chips. Ramial wood chips come from the branches of deciduous trees that are no larger than two and a half inches in diameter (less than seven centimeters).  The reason for this kind of specificity is twofold. One is that you want the branches to be of a certain size to ensure that the wood itself is still full of soluble lignins; this means that they will break down quickly.  The second is that you only want wood from deciduous trees because they encourage white rot.  Evergreens, particularly conifers, encourage brown rot.  White rot is good because it encourages growth; brown rot is bad because it discourages growth.  So when I asked about wood chips from the arborists who were taking down the neighbor’s deodar cedar, they told me about ChipDrop.in.

ChipDrop.in is a terrific internet service that matches arborists with folks who need wood chips.  Specifically free wood chips. You can’t specify what species of wood you want your chips to be from, but you can specify what wood species you are not willing to take.  They’re quick to caution you that because these chips are coming straight from a job, there will be needles or leaves or both mixed in, depending on what you’ve specified.  A mix of wood chips and leaves is ideal.  You can also tell them if you’re willing to take some logs off their hands, which I will probably be doing this coming fall sometime when I’m ready to spread conifer chips over my pathways (remember: conifers encourage brown rot which discourages growth- perfect for a pathway).  To increase your chances of getting a drop, you can agree to let them charge you twenty dollars or more; this takes away the fee that the arborists would have had to pay to dump their chips elsewhere.  I decided to opt for this because I was being picky about the kind of chips I wanted.  Two really important things you should know about ChipDrop.in is that you will in all likelihood NOT get a notification when they are coming; they will come when it’s convenient and leave the chips where you specified in your instructions.  In our case, we were lucky enough to follow the guy into our neighborhood after coming back from grocery shopping and I knew right away those were my chips!  We just had to beat him in or at least be right behind him because my instructions were to dump them in the driveway.  I had Steve stop the car so that I go get out and run up to the driver’s window so I could ask if he could wait a minute while my husband put the car away.  I don’t know if I was more excited to get the car in the garage before he’d dumped the load or if I was just excited because I was getting a load!  

The other important thing you should know is that once you get a drop, you fall off their system, so if you need more, you have to sign back on, which is a really good feature. No more surprises.  But for free or nearly free wood chips, this service can’t be beat. As far as I’m concerned, my wood chip sourcing problem is solved.

The load they dropped was from a giant ash tree a few blocks over, which was perfect. There are probably some chips in there from branches larger than an inch and a half, but I’m not really concerned about it because the soil soup I am making will help them break down quickly.  

Soil soup is made by growing the number of microbes in a quart of vermicompost in five gallons of aerated water, with the addition of an ounce of organic, unsulphured, blackstrap molasses and an ounce of kelp meal or fish emulsion.  Here is a picture of the batch I started yesterday.  Before starting, I drilled a one-inch hole near the bottom of the bucket and installed a bottling spigot, which I also got from Amazon. If you're going to do this, do yourself a favor and drill the hole using a one-inch hole saw- it does a much better and neater job of it than a one inch spade bit.  Trust me on this.  Then I ran the air through the water for a few hours to blow off the chlorine in the water. It also makes sure there is plenty of air in the water before you start. I also lined the bucket with a five gallon paint strainer, which will keep the large pieces of vermicompost from clogging the spigot.

Aeration is important for making soil soup because it keeps the microbes from using up all the oxygen in the water and dying off, which would defeat the purpose. You want to add live microbes to the soil and wood chips.  I purchased an inexpensive aquarium kit off Amazon which contained the air pump, tubing, and two aeration stones. The addition of molasses to the mixture encourages the growth of soil bacteria and the addition of the protein-based kelp powder or fish emulsion encourages the growth of soil fungi. It’s easy to be tempted to focus on the fungi because they do the heavy lifting in wood deconstruction but you need the bacteria as well because they have a job to do, too.  Leave the concoction to aerate and grow for three days and then water it into your wood chips and soil.  I didn’t see anywhere how often to do this but I hope to be able to get through the whole yard in a three week period and then start over and keep doing that until the rainy season sets in. So maybe two or three times over.  

If I’m good and stay on top of this, I expect that with just the wood chips and soil soup alone it will take a good four or five years to build the soil, but I’m not expecting that this method will be the only thing I do.  Since the wood chips and leaves will be composted in situ, I’m considering making a worm composter and keeping it under the kitchen sink.  I’ve never been crazy about having to take the compost out to the compost pile in the winter time and this would be a good way to avoid that. I would also be growing my own source of vermicompost which is probably the best reason for doing it.  The other soil input that I’m counting on is rabbit poop, which I’ll probably compost along with the muckings from the chickens.  However, rabbit poop is one chicken I’m not going to count until it’s hatched. The nearly free wood chips and soil soup will be the major constituent of my soil building. 

Now that I have it underway I am quite frankly, relieved.


*Did you know that there are more microbial cells in your body than there are cells that actually make up your body? And that the human gut actually talks to the brain via the vagus nerve? And that the microbiota in your gut are more responsible for your mood and personality than your brain is?  If you want to see something really fascinating, watch The Gut on Amazon Prime.




Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Homesteading Update August 2, 2017

*click on the pictures- they're much more clear that way!

I wanted to tell you that I have my winter garden started on time for once, and I do, but I think I’ll probably lose my brassicas. Maybe some others. It’s hot here, really hot. Like 100F hot. Tomorrow is forecast for 110F, and the next nine days will be in the high nineties.  I have a feeling I may have to start over.

So- since it will probably be too hot to start my August stuff like lettuce, broccoli raab, kale, etc., I’ll have to get clever about it.  The problem with growing for winter is that you have to have it pretty much mature by the early part of autumn so that when the sun finally wanes off and your vegetables quit growing, everything is ready for harvest. I am frankly not really sure what I’m going to do but I’ll let you know if I come up with something. It may be just sowing seed, keeping them watered and covered, and crossing my fingers.

In the meantime, I’ve been really busy, which is why I haven’t written in awhile.

First, I finished the dining nook!  You know what that means?  I get to start rabbits! The deal was that I couldn’t start another project until I finished the dining nook which took me, I’m ashamed to say, I mean, really ashamed, six years. But it’s finally done.

For some reason, getting that done made me want to finish another project I’d started last year.  It was ostensibly to have something to practice on with my drill press, but once the chuck fell out of it with a spinning hole saw in it that bounced on the drill press table and then went skipping across my forearm, I kind of lost interest in using my drill press. The injury wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been but I'm a little leery about that drill press. I remember thinking 'I don't know about this' when the instructions said to bang it in there, and a cabinet maker friend assures me that's how they all get put in, but it seems to me that there should be a set screw somewhere. I still haven’t put the chuck back in. 

In any case, I finished the new hat and coat rack with my cordless drill, so now we have enough room for our coats and our guests’ coats. Also a place to put hats and gloves. By the way, these photos look terrible because I've given up on our camera and the phone takes good enough pictures in every other use, but Blogger doesn't like them for some reason. Although this one was a little on the grainy side. It's usually fairly dark where this rack is.

Then because I had this making stuff wild hair up my backside, I made myself a floor mount embroidery frame. It’s largish so that I can embroider cushion covers and embellish largish things. Incidentally, part of the reason I made this was because I saw a picture of one and realized that I had all the material lying around in the garage. I only had to buy the hardware.

Right on the heels of the embroidery frame, I made us a patio table because we didn’t have one and we had house guests coming. This was back when the weather was decent and we wanted to hang out outside. We had been using a folding card table but that got old because there wasn’t enough room. I mean there wasn't enough room for Steve's knees!  The new table has plenty of room; I can comfortably get six people around it (eight in a pinch) and have room for serving dishes and platters. It’s made of cedar and should weather to a nice gray. We've used it a lot, although mainly for breakfast. You know. Breakfast on the veranda. It's kind of nice when you have a decent garden to look at while you're dining.

After awhile I got tired of crawling over and around stuff in the garage, so I cleaned and reorganized it, which took Three. Whole. Days. It's a whole lot better- there's actually enough room for us both to climb into the car at the same time. It used to be that Steve would have to pull the car out of the garage and let me get in.  I'm not going to show you that because, even though it looks great to me, it would not to you. I'm not like my father-in-law who besides having cupboards to stuff everything into, also mops his garage floor. I asked him how he got it so clean and he said 'With a mop and bucket!' like I was the crazy one. I'm sorry if you mop your garage floor too, but that's just nuts.

But back to projects: next was the garden. About two or three years ago, I started beds for cold frames for winter.  Well I finally got around to finishing them.  Since I needed to be able to shade the seedlings against the hot sun, I made frames for the reed fences that we used to have to put over the pergola.  The reed fences work really well to shade the seedlings. I may cut them down because they’re a little awkward, but they work really, really well for their new purpose. 

While I was building cold frame boxes, I boxed in the boysenberries as well.  Since this picture was taken (I really gotta go back to using the camera), Steve cut the part of the neighbor's crabtree that fell over the fence into our yard and ran it through the chipper.  All those lovely crabapple wood chips are now tidying up the box. They are sitting on soil which is sitting on cardboard, and even though I torched everything on the ground in there, a dandelion is still making its way up through it all.


This seems to be the best way to train indeterminate tomatoes.  I really like this method better than anything else I’ve tried.  The stands and crosspieces are all three-quarter inch EMT. I just ran a line from the ground up over the end, along the crosspiece and down the other side, and tied both ends to one foot long pieces of rebar that were hammered in on the diagonal.  That’s also what I tied off every tomato line to as well.  I love using rebar in the garden. I have one, two, and three foot lengths of it and they get used over and over and over again. When I’m not using them, they get stored in a couple of five gallon buckets on the porch. By the way, the tomatoes are two times as big now as they are in that picture. One month sure makes a difference on everything.

I recently saw a couple of videos of different professional cucumber growing operations, and that’s how they grow cucumbers as well. Cucumbers have suckers just like tomatoes, and you can keep the plant tidy by pinching them out and growing it up a line.  My plan for next year is to build a cage with one or one-and-a-half inch EMT and run the three-quarter inch EMT across, and then I’ll have a good place for tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons.  Beans too, come to think of it.

Speaking of melons, I am having much better luck this year with them. I remembered reading somewhere that pumpkins really like to grow in compost piles, and I figured melons are kind of like pumpkins so I moved the compost which was almost done anyway, into one of the beds and transplanted my melon starts into it.  

I have a couple melons on the Prescott Fond Blanc, but not too many of the Valencia Winter Melons, and I don’t know if I’ll have enough time to ripen them or not.  I haven’t given up on growing melons though.  Next year I’ll look for an early honeydew.  Steve and I discovered on our camping trip that we really like honeydew melon. This one here is called Prescott Fond Blanc; I got the seed from Baker Heirloom.

I’m actually still working on rabbits, though!  Before I can get the rabbit house going, the fence desperately needed mending.  Steve and I knocked out three panels last weekend, and I think we’ll suck it up and get the last four done next weekend. We’ll just have to stay hydrated and take breaks.  I was going to use the old fence boards to make a compost bin but they are way too rotten to bother, so I’ll have to research how to get rid of them in my area. I guess it’s a good thing I have a truck!

I have a couple of other irons in the fire, but they should be in a post of their own because they fall under one of my favorite subjects: soil fertility. I have a whole load of information to share on that one.


In the meantime though, I'm going to try to stay cool. And I'm going to pray for my seedlings!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Yay! Pastured Chickens!

Long believing that livestock animals should have a good life and one bad day, it's been bothering me for a long time now that I couldn't pasture my chickens. I've been racking my brain on how to accomplish it cheaply - Steve wouldn't let me invest in an electric fence for them, and rightly so. I just needed to be able to figure out how to let them out unattended so that they can go in and out of their enclosure at will, and in the meantime, scratch and eat at anything they wanted within the space I gave them.

Click on it so you can see it
And then early last week, an idea came to me that has proven to work.  All I needed to do was find some inexpensive netting, install some hooks around the yard in strategic places, hang the netting on said hooks and let the girls out.  I found 25' x 50' poultry netting at Amazon for $36.25, and bought a pack of 50  #10 zinc-plated screw hooks at a big box store for about ten bucks.  What I wasn't counting on was how the netting laid out; it starts in one corner and builds until it's the correct dimension in one direction and then quits when it's the correct dimension in the perpendicular direction.  Kind of hard to picture, I realize, but to stretch and then stop and hold a rectangular shape, you have to hold it on the bias so that the holes are square and not diamond shaped. This required me to cut the darn thing on the diagonal, and then tie the pieces together to make one long net.  My finished height was six feet, but I don't know how long it is.  Unfortunately, there was a lot of waste. I'd cut five feet off the end before I'd figured out the diagonal issue, and then there are a lot of triangular waste pieces from cutting the fence out of the netting. Fortunately, I already had some plastic twine, so tying it together didn't require a trip back to the store. But I finally got it up and it works really well.  

Click on it
The girls seemed to be really happy to come out and scratch in the grass and weeds; today I finished tying more fence together and we reconfigured it to go around the apple trees.

I'm hoping that by doing more foraging out in the yard they'll save me a lot more than the roughly fifty bucks it cost me to put the fence up for them.  

But yay! Now we're getting pastured eggs! And I feel better now that my chickens are having a more chicken-y life. 

Everybody wins!







Saturday, May 20, 2017

Hope for the Fall and Winter Garden

This spring's garden is for all intents and purposes non-existent. So disappointing. More importantly, if we were depending on it to eat, we would be starving right now.  Every couple of days I'm able to harvest enough flower stalks off the overwintered kale to make part of one meal but that and a few bits of lettuce here and there are all that are ready right now. Next to nothing in terms of calories.  So comes the realization that I just plain suck at this.

But I'm not giving up.  Monday's high is supposed to be 90F, so I'll bring all my unplanted seedlings into the house to protect them from the heat.  All my kohlrabi seedling are flowering, so I've given up on them, but there are still kale, mustard, and onion seedlings that I'm counting on. All my nightshade seedlings are doing well under artificial light in the garage, and the cucumber seeds I planted this week are just starting to peek above the soil surface; the melons are not up yet.  

So with my spring garden a near complete total bust and my summer garden still in the seedling stage, I'm looking forward at what I need to do for a fall and winter garden.  You can't call me a quitter, that's for sure.  I've learned a couple bits of useful advice from the Territorial Seed fall garden catalog, one of which was that a few day's delay in getting fall garden seed in the ground on time can translate into two to three weeks delayed harvest. I didn't know that.  The other thing that I did know was that to have food coming out of the garden during the fall and winter, you need to have everything at maturity in roughly October (in my area, anyway), because it will all stop growing, but what I didn't know was that it stops growing when there gets to be only ten hours of daylight. So that got me thinking: could I find a chart that would tell me what day that is, exactly?  Turns out there is, and you can use one of two forms for anywhere in the world.  I didn't have much luck with Form B, probably because I didn't understand what it wanted exactly, but you may have better luck.  But Form A, which is for the US, worked great!  You can use it for calculating both hours of daylight and hours of darkness, but for my purposes, hours of daylight is what I needed.  It turns out that mid-October (like on the 14th), I should actually have eleven hours of daylight, but this only calculates for the sun being over the horizon; it doesn't calculate the time plants are in the relative dark due to fences or hillsides being in the way, both of which I have.  So I'll leave mid-October as the time I have to have stuff mature for the fall and winter.

The catalog also indicated that to calculate the days to maturity (DTM) for fall and winter plants, you need to add two to three weeks to the DTM to account for the reducing light the plants will receive as the days wane.  

The Duration of Daylight/Darkness Table can be found here.  

I hope it's useful for you!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Eye Splice 2.0

Not being happy with my first attempt at an eye splice, and not being one to give up, I found instructions that worked a little better for me.  When he mentioned that you're weaving over and under into the rope, and to make sure you weave into the rope and not the splice ends, it all fell together.



The tape helped, too.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Ted Maughan - Tinsmith

Okay- if I didn't know any better I'd swear Robin Williams was alive and well and living in County Mayo as a tinsmith.  Is it just me, or does this guy strongly remind anyone else of Robin Williams?


How to Make a Traditional Cooped Bucket

I've been interested in skill acquisition and old time craft for a very long time (like forty-five years) and if that kind of thing interests you, too, you will like this video.



He shows how to do an eye splice in a rope while making the handle, and where I can't hope to make a bucket for myself, it would be useful to know how to make an eye splice in a rope, so I tried it.

It's not even close to perfect but it was a cool thing to try to do. I have knot tying books; I may try this again with one of their directions. At least I've seen it demonstrated!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Still Working That Compost

This spring has been trying, to say the least.  The weather continues to run from rain and cool in the mid-fifties (Fahrenheit) and then to sunny and a little too warm- like mid-eighties.  Garden mollusks ate up the most of the first batch of seedlings, so I'm trying to grow the second wave larger before I transplant them with the hope that their size will help save them.  Except the lettuce transplants- those got plunked into the herb bed which I'd filled with homegrown compost.  I don't know if it's the compost or the fact that there are nice, stinky herbs in that bed, but the lettuce in it is doing great! But of the few other transplants to survive in the other beds, several have started to shoot flower stalks, even though they're still only four-inch pot sized, just because of the wild vagaries of the weather.  If I did't already have problems keeping my hair in its follicles, I'd be tearing it out right now!

The new compost pile
Several weeks ago I started a new compost pile, and earlier this week I started another. The first was growing grass out the top, so that clearly had to be moved into the middle of the new pile where it would die in the heat. 

The old compost pile
After getting all the outside layer of the old compost pile into the new one, I was left with a pretty good pile of compost.  It's not quite finished, but it will work and I'll use it the next available sunny (or at least not rainy) day we get when I transplant seedlings.  

And it's only been a couple of days and already the new pile is up to 116F.

Speaking of seedlings, I've decided I need to get serious about seed starting equipment. I just don't have enough room to get the successive waves of seedlings that I need, particularly if I'm going to keep up with the slugs! I need more space for them, and I need better lighting. I've seen first hand how much better full spectrum LED grow lighting is over the old-school fluorescent grow lighting for growing seedlings. I'm envisioning at least one set up of several shelves, each with its own grow light, but finding one that's the right shape, which is a long rectangle, looks like it's going to be hard, since most of what I'm seeing is either square, or shaped like a single flood light.  Just because it's shaped like a flood light doesn't mean it actually floods light.

Spring is always a hard season for me. I want my garden to be up and running but the weather and pest pressures sure make it challenging!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Getting A Grip On Myself

The subheading of the title of my blog says The Ups and Downs of Learning How to Buck the Consumer Economy, and largely to date since I wrote that, it's mostly been down. I’ve been failing miserably.

I’m really, really good at tracking my spending; I just suck at reining it in. But I think I’ve finally figured out how to fix that and that’s what I want to write about today in the hopes that it helps somebody somewhere.

For instance, I can give you my total household spending per annum for the last three years, and tell you the average monthly spend, and give you the percentage increases year over year, but I couldn’t tell you why it increased when it’s supposed to be decreasing and I couldn’t tell you what I spent it on or why it keeps increasing.

I have been budgeted $2,500 a month for handling the everyday household stuff for several years now. In that $2,500 dollars I include the savings I have to take out every month in order to handle the annual larger bills like the house and vehicle insurance, the firewood delivery and annual wood stove cleaning, and the big one, which is the property tax. I also save for incidentals like vehicle repair, and house maintenance.  When the fence blew down a year or so ago, the new one came out of my household savings (and largely wiped it out, I might add).  I started with $300 a month and over the course of the years, I've bumped it up to $700 a month, which was really close to our monthly house payment at one time, and makes me very grateful that we don’t have one anymore because I would be in big trouble if we did. As it is, I’m struggling to manage things within my household allowance and largely failing at it, I'm ashamed to admit.

At $2,500 a month, which is $1,250 every pay period, I have only $30,000 per year with which to work, which is actually a lot more than I’d like to be spending. I’d really like to keep it at $24,000 a year, and I had wanted to ratchet my monthly average down to $2,000 a month in order to do that, but instead of my spend going down, it keeps going up.  Likely you’re thinking, well, that’s because everything in sight is going up in price, which is somewhat true, but it doesn’t account for all of it. 

For instance, in 2014, I spent $31,144.39 with a monthly average of $2,595.37, which wasn’t too bad, but was definitely over budget.  Then in 2015, I spent $33,022.30 with a monthly average of $2,751.86, which was a six percent increase over 2014.  And in 2016, I spent $33,715.12 with a monthly average of $2,809.59, which was a two percent increase over 2015. Clearly, the problem was that I needed to 1), recognize that the problem was me, and to 2), get a grip on myself!

Spend:
Total for 2014: $31,144.39
Monthly Average 2014 $2,595.37
Total for 2015: $33,022.30 6% increase
Monthly Average 2015 $2,751.86
Total for 2016: $33,715.12 2% increase
Monthly Average 2016 $2,809.59

But it didn’t get any better. In January of this year I spent $3,607.81, and then in February I spent $3,771.13!  What the hell?! Well, okay, January was largely because of going to Phoenix for Thanksgiving (I count the current credit card bills as part of the spend for the month in which I’m paying them, not the month I’m actually spending the money; it simplifies things greatly), and February’s spend was the result of Christmas, and then also in December we had to get the dog spayed which was around $450, and then had to get a barium series done on her which was close to $700, so in truth, January and February were not really within my control. But I realized quickly that if I didn’t get a grip on things right away, there was no way I would come in within budget by the end of this year. And since I’ve already spent well over budget for the months of January and February, I needed to fix it quickly.

So I thought about it. And then I figured it out. 

Starting with my $2,500 allowance, and taking out all the fixed costs, like the electric bill (which largely does’t change because we’re on solar - more on that later), the average for the garbage bill, a reasonable average for the natural gas bill, my $700 savings bill, and the city’s bill for water, et al,  I determined that I have $190.41 in non-auto-paid bills, which gave me $1,609.59 as my adjusted monthly allowance.

I next removed all the bills that hit the credit card as auto-paid charges like the cable bill, the phone bill and a supplemental insurance bill.  I averaged the phone bill, and rounded up the cable and insurance bill to the nearest dollar, and that gave me my FAMA (Final Adjusted Monthly Allowance), which is $1,442.59.  And that was the magic number. That is the number to which I have to manage our cash and credit card spend in order to make budget every month.

FAMA Figuring
$1,250.00 pay period




24 periods
$11.82 PGE (grid connection charge)

$30,000.00 annual housekeeping allowance $60.00 avg Northwest Natural

$2,500.00 monthly allowance $93.81 City of West Linn minimum
-$700.00 monthly savings $24.78 WL Refuse (billed bi-monthly @ $49.56)
-$190.41 total non-auto bills <-----> $190.41 total non-auto bills
$1,609.59 adjusted monthly allowance



-$105.00 autocharge Comcast



-$20.00 autocharge Ting



-$42.00 autocharge AFLAC



$1,442.59 Final Adjusted Monthly Allowance (FAMA)



(from which everything else, including food and gas, vacation, etc., has to come)

And so far it’s working; in March I spent $2454.56, and in April I spent $2,417.42 (all the monthly bills for April are paid and accounted for, and the only ATM withdrawal for this month’s cash, which was actually debited yesterday, have also been accounted for), which is below budget.  The big trick for me to keep an eye on my current spend was to take my FAMA and keep a running tally in big pink letters and numbers at the top of my spend tracking spreadsheet.  It starts with my FAMA, removes my cash and credit card totals as I spend them and which I track scrupulously, and gives me the remaining spend I have left for the month.  And since I’m tracking it through the credit cards (we use only two), I track spend from billing close to billing close, including the cash; I don’t track it by calendar close. It’s probably weird, but it works for me. But having it all in big pink figures made a huge difference for me.

Number to which you have to manage: $1,442.59 Current CC charges and cash: $486.78 Money Remaining: $921.46


The above shows that I currently have $921.46 left, which seems like a lot, but that has to last until the 13th, which is billing close for the MC, the card we use the most. The Visa closes on the 15th.

I mentioned earlier that while figuring out my FAMA, I take a reasonable average for my natural gas and phone bills, the former of which I pay manually and the latter of which I pay automatically on my credit card. When we go over on a bill for something that I’ve accounted for already like this month's electrical bill, I add the difference to my credit card tracking and label it, because it’s what I’m looking at all the time. I could just as easily add it to my cash tracking, but the point is, I’m spending extra, so I’m tracking it. It has to come from somewhere and that somewhere is my FAMA, so I have to track it.  

And here is where things get a little squirrely and I hope I don’t lose you.  I actually keep two columns for my MasterCard bill, because I figured out that I needed to.  Originally, I was keeping a running tally on my MC spend because I reconcile it every month with the billing statement. But if I kept only one tally, I was double dipping on the auto-charged stuff because I’d already taken them out to get my FAMA figure. So I keep one column to track my spend, in which I don’t enter auto-charges, and one column in which I do track auto-charges to be reconciled with the bill. To date, I’ve been putting the bill differences in the ‘manage spend’ column and not the ‘match to bill’ column, but as I’m writing this I realize it would really probably make a lot more sense to put it in the cash tracking, since it's really coming out of the checking account, so I guess I’ll start doing that. It doesn’t really matter in the long run as long as I track it somewhere and be consistent about it.


MC - Autos MC - Bill

$15.96 $15.96

$19.90 $19.90

$78.92 $78.92

$20.39 $20.39
*schlenker > $26.71 $113.40
**AFLAC > $24.95 $41.99

$37.38 $26.71

$70.90 $24.95


$37.38


$70.90



Records total: $295.11 $450.50

Use this column to manage spend Record this column and match to bill

(Do Not include auto-charges) (include auto-charges)

* this is a doctor bill which comes out of FSA money, so I don't count it in my spend
** this is that monthly insurance bill that auto-charges, which is why it doesn't get counted in my spend
Once I fill up the first column to be filled I'll take the record totals for each column and move it up to the top cell of its respective column and work from there until billing close.

Speaking of cash tracking, that’s a little squirrely as well. But it works.  For my annual and monthly average spend tracking, I just note the amount we’ve removed from the checking account, because in the larger picture, that’s where the rubber hits the road. 

For my monthly get-a-grip-on-it-Paula spend tracking, I track the minutia, like $2.00 for my library fine, and $1.99 we spent at Costco for Steve to get a slice of pizza one day.  Keeping an eye on the minutia is how we got all the way to the 23rd of this month without making an ATM withdrawal, and by the way, we had zero ATM withdrawals for the month of March. If we don’t spend it this month, we probably won’t have to make a cash withdrawal next month, which should help next month’s numbers look better.

We actually don’t really spend a lot of cash, but that’s because we don’t make any money spending cash.  We use our credit cards for just about everything because those lovely credit card companies like to pay us to use their product. The only way this works is to use a credit card that pays you to use them, and this is key, to pay your bill off every month. (According to something I read a long time ago, people who pay their bills off in full every month are known in the credit industry as deadbeats. So I'm a deadbeat. I can live with that.) We’re able to do that because we track everything and treat our credit cards mentally like a debit card, which works, because you know, eventually you have to pay the piper.  For emergency situations, or even planned expenses we take money out of our savings account, but we put everything on the MC and pay it off every month.  

Right now we’re running everything through Citibank; our Citibank MasterCard pays us a total of 2% (1% when you use the card and 1% when you pay your bill) which we have found to generally be the best deal out there.  The other card we use is the Citibank Visa that is associated with Costco, which is also a pretty good deal. The Costco Visa has a tiered reward system that includes 4%, 3%, 2% and 1% on various categories, and we could do a lot better on our rebates than we do, actually. We even have the tiers noted on our smart phone; we just never remember to consult it when we’re shopping. It’s also possible that we could do better on willy nilly various retail credit cards, but keeping things relatively simple goes a very long way to keeping one’s sanity, so we don’t sweat it.

One thing that I am going to sweat, however, is that for this year, I am still hugely over budget to date.  Out of my $30,000 annual allowance, I have only $17,748.08 left to spend, which means that I have only $2,218.51 a month instead of $2,500 a month with which to work. This means that if I’m really going to do it this year, I’ll have to adjust my FAMA again. Which is okay. The only way to be successful at life is to keep adapting.  I’ll just have to adapt to spending even less.

The only thing I haven’t really covered here is how I actually got a grip on my spend.  That required some good old-fashioned belt tightening. No, not that kind of belt tightening; we’re not going hungry, although I did determine that for the February-March billing period, I spent $940.96 on food, which was way too much for only two people! What finally did it for me was to realize that things were never going to get better if I didn’t start behaving myself. So I stopped misbehaving.  

I decided that I needed to adopt the old-fashioned maxim of paying as you go, and saving up for larger things.  For instance, I have a sewing project in mind, but it’s going to be kind of expensive. So I bought part of it in February (for which I paid in March) and part of it in March (for which I paid in April).  There is one more piece of it to buy, but since I don’t plan on wearing it until next fall, I’ve decided I can put off purchasing the last piece of it until later. We have registration costs at $107 apiece coming up on two vehicles this month and next, so I’ll probably wait until June at least to buy the last piece of the project. The last piece would also commit me to the project; if I change my mind about it later, I can still use everything else I bought for something else.  The point of all this is, I’m consciously making decisions about what on which I’m spending my FAMA.  And I am making myself wait.

There are financial independence people out there who insist that you have to really decide between wants and needs in order to rein in your spend, and that when you decide that you need something, it helps to put off the purchase for thirty days in order to determine for yourself if it’s a need or if it’s really a want. I’m being honest with myself and with you; that’s way more disciplined than I’ll ever be. I recognize that I am a somewhat emotional buyer (Really? Somewhat?), which is kind of funny because by trade, I’m a buyer and emotion has nothing to do with buying for a business. For me, it just makes sense to think about things and to keep my expenditures on the small side, and don’t do them too often.  Maybe eventually I’ll get to the point where I can put off purchases for thirty days, but maybe I won’t need to. Right now I need to figure out how to squeeze everything into $2,218 a month.  If I can do that for the remainder of this year, then I can certainly get our annual spend down to $24,000 like I wanted.  

I realize this post was kind of dry, but I hope it was helpful to some of you. If it was, or you want to share some of your strategies, I’d love to hear about it. 

Sorry about the illustrations being so crappy; I could not for the life of me figure out how to get this information into my post any better.