Saturday, March 28, 2020

Back in the Saddle Again: The Farm Report 03-28-2020

Back in the Saddle Again
The Farm Report

'Never give in! Never ever ever give in,' said Winston Churchill. And I don't. The billboard tarp is back in place and this time it is fixed tight in place! The minibeds are under construction and I'm a happy, hopeful, camper/gardener again. Annie seems to have lost interest in this project.

How did I do it? Well, these giant ground cover staples saved the day. The really sorry point is that I already had 'em when I laid out the tarp the first time. Apparently they don't work when they're in a box inside the shop. You actually have to poke 'em down through the tarp into the ground if they are to work. I also used an ice chipper to push the edge of the tarp down into the ground all around all around. And on with the show....

I do want to make a point about these little mini-gardens. The wood is not for the classical 'raised bed' idea. I've tried that before in a number of different ways, and it just doesn't work out for me. My climate is one reason. My soil is another reason. Raised beds are touted to allow drainage. My soil is officially Marshal Silt Loam. It is ideal. It is like a cellulose sponge. You can lay a running garden hose on this soil and the water takes a long time before it quits soaking into the dirt. You would think it is sand, but it isn't. With sand, the water would just run through and be gone. With this soil, it is soaking in like water into a sponge. So I don't get soggy soil, and I don't like raised beds. The wood frames WILL give me and my little plant babies some wind protection - and help us all to stay inside the lines when we color.

Got Peas! Who knew it would be this much fun to watch a person's pea in a bucket? (I'm still about 8 years old in my brain....)

My neighbor wants early sweet corn. Sweet corn doesn't sprout if the ground is cold, so you have to wait to plant it. But then one night I woke up with a shocking realization: I have a greenhouse now! So I got some 72 plug trays out and planted my little sweet corn seeds in the plugs (Ambrosia Hybrid if you're curious. It is a sister to Bodacious. Both are extra good.)

Three trays will plant four rows 25 feet long. Perfect to start the season. There are 6 trays here if you're counting. One patch for me, one patch for Lana! And yes, they are sitting on my table saw. I do everything in my shop.

Per Eliot Coleman's ideas, I made up some foam tray holders. They last for years. Tape, glue and foam is all you need to make 'em. They stack for starting.

I sealed them up in a bag to keep them from drying out while they get their legs underneath themselves and begin to grow roots. 'We're alive!' If you try this, remember to open the bag during the day so the air can exchange. If you don't you'll learn all about 'damping off' fungus - and how to steam cook sweet corn seeds. If you're counting, yes, there are only 4 trays here. This ain't my first rodeo kids. The other two are in another place trying to sprout with another method. I hedge my bets whenever I can. 

The hydroponic strawberry patch is recovering. I made a goof. I didn't follow the directions - again. The experts recommend pulling the plants after they've gone dormant and storing them in a protected box of damp chips or sand for the hard winter. Mine were doing so well I kept them in the tubes. They began to grow again about the middle of February. I was thrilled. I was tasting fresh strawberries! Then it got really really cold - and froze off the new growth and killed them.

Winston Churchill also said, 'You can count on the Americans to do the right thing - after they've exhausted every other possibility.' Guilty. His comment seems most relevant to us right now in the Corona War, but for me in the greenhouse, it means I needed to buy in some new strawberry plants. These are Seascape - a day neutral (everbearing) strawberry that is said to love hydroponic growing. Aren't they beautiful plants?! They will live in these little 'net' pots.

I have been accused of needing to 'perfect' everything. Seems logical to me.... So first I cut out the bottoms.

Then I take a scissors and cut one side so the little pot opens like a clam shell.

There's nothing difficult about raising strawberries except they like to be planted JUST RIGHT. Not too deep, not too shallow; just right. See where the roots meet the crown? Get the idea? Not too deep, not too shallow.

Only we're planting in a soil-less hydroponic system. Something's gotta hold 'em in place. I'm using common rock wool insulation.

My clam shell idea worked perfectly! The little plant is in place, at the level it likes, and the roots go through the bottom of the pot without any damage at all.

I have one of those staplers that looks like a pair of pliers. It is one of the handiest things in the drawer. One staple to hold it all together, and we're ready to go into the Hydroponic Tubes where the water and fertilizer can feed and nourish them.

Pop and we're in.

Just one week later, and we're not only in, we're off and running! Strawberry plants seem to love the hydroponic method. AND, I won't have to bend over to pick the fruit! 

This is my garden cart/chuck wagon/plant starter cloche. Yes,  I did sew up the plastic bonnet for the cover on my new sewing machine. I don't sew many bride's maid's dresses (as in none) but I do find that knowing how to sew things together has lots of good uses in the shop - and even in the garden! Since there is no wind inside the greenhouse, any light cheap plastic will do. The bows are made from cheap plastic electric conduit pipes. I pull the cover down at night to help keep them warm. Think 'greenhouse inside a greenhouse.'

Once sprouted in my heated setup in the shop, then the little babies come out to the greenhouse. Every pot is a different kind of plant. Lots and lots of 'em! Once they have their first set of true leaves, I'll pick them out and re-pot them into bigger trays. Those big pots in the back are full of Dahlias. I like flowers, too. They like it warm and take a while to bloom, so I'm giving them a head start in the greenhouse as well.

My garlic! Usually, you plant garlic out in the fall. This year, I didn't get it done. So I tried something new. I put a piece of cling wrap kitchen film over a pint jar (like maybe after I used the beans I'd canned in it?). Then I made a slit and set one whole bulb of garlic in the slit. I filled the jar with water just up to the slit so the bulb would would know there was water down there. Turns out, they love it! I've had these in my kitchen window sill all winter. See the squared off ends of the leaves? I've been cutting fresh garlic for my cottage cheese and sauces all winter, too. I'll definitely do this again next winter. 

I just pushed the cling wrap down to make a little nest for each bulb.

Look at those roots!

So on the way out to the garden to plant the garlic I saw these pretty little flowers. You've gotta love Mama Nature. These flowers are on a really pernicious weed commonly called 'Creeping Charlie.' Hate the weed; love the flowers?

Then I got to the garden. "What's making all these perfectly shaped holes?" I said to mayself. Then I remembered. These holes are where leftover radishes and carrots lived. When I plowed the garden in the fall, they were left behind. Over the winter, the roots rotted away leaving perfect soil aeration pockets. Another reason for fall ground cover plantings!

I'm an old guy with a bum back. Bending over is really hard for me. What to do? Engage brain. I use my little Earthway Seeder to mark off the row. Then I made a little planting jig. I cut a piece of scrap 2-inch PVC drain pipe in half the long way and shaped a pointy end.

To plant my onion plants or garlic, I stood up, placed a plant on the tube at the top end and let go. Like a kid coming down a waterpark slide, PLOP! the plant landed exactly where I wanted it in the row.

PVC pipe is slick inside, so when I pulled the pipe out, the onion stayed behind. A little light soil work when the whole row was set out, and Bob's Yer Uncle, as they say.

Well, it was a long, but happy, day in the shop and the garden. The weather was chilly (cold, Nancy) and I wanted to still be outside. The Front Porch at Oakdale Manor came to the rescue! (FYI, This is an inside joke and I should take a minute to explain it for my readers who are 'not from here.' Where I live, nursing homes for the elderly are usually named 'Manor' something. Like Tabor Manor, or Windsor Manor. A 'country home' is what they used to call the County Poor Farm. So when I call the house 'Oakdale Manor' or refer to it as my 'Randolph Country Home,' I'm not trying to be high-fallutin' I'm just playing on local words and having a personal grin for myself.  Sorry if you didn't get the joke last time. Some readers did ask....) I'm really rural out here, and now I'm really sequestered all by myself, but I'm not totally disconnected. I borrowed from all technology frames and here is how I spent the evening. That is my favorite porch chair there that you can't quite make out. I'm sitting between two kerosene heaters. The one burning on my left was my Great Grandmother, Amanda's Perfection heater. The one on my right is a modern catalytic burner (because I needed two to be comfortable!) and that is my iPad streaming TV shows in the middle. Yep! I'm sitting on the porch in a winter parka coat between two kerosene heaters watching TV on an iPad. But I'm outside! We northern hermits gotta do what we gotta do! It was fun though. I hope the guys in white coats don't come haul me off someday.

And here's what I was seeing off in the distance from The Front Porch. There ain't much night life goin' on out here on the farm right now. That's all I have for night lights. The two on the left are lights on my neighbor's house and barn, about a mile away. The one on the right is a night light on a grain bin about 5 miles away. That's it. There are no other lights to see. Social distancing? Not a problem for me. All is well at Oakdale Farm.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Alone in the Wilderness: The Farm Report 03-20-2020

Alone in the Wilderness

The Farm Report

No, this is not me. It is Richard Proenneke. He was the 'real' Alone in the Wilderness guy.

You can watch him on YouTube here:

With all that is going on right now, maybe I'll become even more like him. He hand built his own log cabin in the woods of remote Alaska a long time ago and then lived there all by himself pretty much year around for about 31 years. He was an interesting guy. If you watch his videos and read his journals you'll discover he was a very religious guy and a curious one. He started his adventure to see if he could do it. He could and he did. He did have short wave radio, but no internet or iPad. I'm not feeling too bad out here on Oakdale Farm. I just went in to town yesterday for supplies and lumber. I'm not eating my beans off of a can lid either, yet....

I am eating my beans though! Joyce and I always enjoyed - let me repeat that: enjoyed! - trying to be self-sufficient and independently productive. We weren't spookie about the boogie man coming to get us, it was/is just fun and a good challenge. I liked the process of growing and preserving our own food a lot. Of course, as a natural born teacher, and an old time Home Economics teacher at that, she canned much of our produce. I learned how from her, by the book! of course. Since I was in college right after we were married, I've canned our own beans. It was kind of my way of spinning yarn. Gandhi did the spinning; I did the canning. We both did our thing for the calming stress relief effect it can have. The sky is falling now, so it will have to land on me and my beans here at the farm. The fancy jars are loaded with my own homemade Chili con Carne for lunches. If you've never made your own beans from scratch - from the plant in your garden on up - you're in for a treat when you do. If you're new to canning, get a Ball Blue Book, or one from Jackie Clay. Her book, 'Growing and Canning Your Own Food' is a great resource for home canning and gardening of all types.

Ah! And look at those fruiting spurs on the Seckel pears. This looks like it could be a fruiting year for these little pears - our first for this tree.

Peas in a bucket! I'll spare you all the old gems of jokes about peas. You know the one about using peas for ice fishing? The fisherman bores a hole in the ice on the lake and puts peas all around the edge of the hole. Then he waits with a club in hand. When a fish comes up to take a pea, the fisherman whacks him in the ice hole! (Chuckle chuckle chuckle....) Or Jon's favorite: Eat every carrot and pea on your plate before you leave the table.... (Chuckle chuckle chuckle....) There's more but I told you I would spare you. This Dutch bucket is the home of some sugar snap peas.

Cascadia Sugar Snap to be exact. They're supposed to be a shorter version of the original Sugar Snaps. The originals are like candy right off the vine. These are said to be even sweeter.

Dutch bucket? See that hole? See that twine? A Dutch bucket is really nothing more than a bucket with a false bottom. For mine, I weave some plastic baling twine across the inside of the bucket about half way down to form a nest bottom. Four crosses is enough. Then (Cue the Sewing machine!) I use ground cover fabric and make up a fabric 'pot' liner that holds the soil for the bucket. It has wick legs sewn into it that go all the way to the bottom - where the water and fertilizer is! That's what the hole is for. I keep it filled to the hole with liquid all season. Sometimes I do it by hand, and sometimes I let a pump on a timer do it for me. The peas don't care which.

Annie thinks the bucket is leaking. She loves water, so she's always on the lookout for some. I knew it was just overfill running out, but she was hopeful it was a leaky bucket for her to play with. And Kev, if you're reading this from England, yes, that is another thing you can do with cattle panels. I cut an old bent up one down to make a plant stand table top.

I like to know what is what. There's a bunch of old jokes for that theme, too. But they aren't appropriate for here. Sorry. To mark my strawberries, I make my own labels. How? Just reverse print your info on cheap plain paper using a laser copier. Then, brush on a heavy layer of glue. I'm using Titebond II because I have it. There are also specialty products like Mod Podge that are made just for this. I didn't have any of that though.

After the glue is spread out nice and thick, lay the paper - print side down - into the glue and quickly wipe off the excess and rub out the air bubbles.

It will look like this. Get everything right side up so it will read correctly when you're ready to take it to the garden. Now, go away for awhile. I went away all night.

Next day - or whenever the mood hits you - run plain old water over the paper. The paper will break up and wash away (with a little helpful rubbing with your fingers) and the toner will remain behind stuck in the glue. Instant sign!

Remember this nasty weed pit from last time? Well it is going to become my new Whizbang Minibed on Plastic garden.

Step one: Clean off the site. Step two: buy a used billboard tarp. This one once urged you to listen to WGBH in Boston, the NPR mothership. I already do that a lot, so I didn't need the urging. I just needed the sign material.

Here's a 'thumbnail' of what it looked like for real.

The white side is for the printed message. The back side is black - perfect for a plastic mulch on the new WMBOP garden. These tarps are cheap - a company sells the used discarded billboard plastic for scrap prices. They are made to last in the weather and sunshine outdoors for sign purposes - and why throw them away? Plus, I'M DONE FIGHTING WEEDS ALL SUMMER! and I don't like the idea of constantly spraying on more weed killer chemicals on my food.

Annie was a big help, of course. The idea - 'invented' and promoted by a guy named Herrick Kimball who runs the Planet Whizbang website - is what I'm following. He has lots of good ideas. I made my Whizbang Chicken Plucker from another of his books. Actually, he is just the final resource. This is a combination of gardening wisdom spurred by Ruth Stout's 'No Work Gardening' system coupled with Tom Doyle's initial work using plastic mulches for 'occultation' with plastic and Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening. So - we build upon each other's successes and failures. Life is in the garden.

With the plastic down, I'm building mini-bed frames. They're each about 30-inches square. Annie is really into this kind of gardening. She can see the potential in it.  I've just temporarily weighted down the plastic for a couple of reasons. One is that I want the plastic to relax and normalize to its full/regular size. The other is that I wanted to see if I could use 4 beds or if I would be limited to 3 in a row. Looks like it's going to be four in a row with about 30-inches between rows. I'll bury the edges and make it all neat and pretty another time.

It was a beautiful day when I started this work outdoors. No wind, sunny, great! Then the skies clouded up. That one little star cloud over by Oakdale Manor (Or our 'Randolph Country Home' as one of my school mates calls it.) should have been my warning signal. Annie was already getting pretty nervous - she somehow knew a storm was coming. I've had more than one dog now that felt I didn't have the sense God gave a goose when it comes to working outside in bad weather. My collie, Lucky, just got in the path of my garden tiller and literally laid down in front of it to stop me one time.  He knew that a tornado was just behind the hill - and I didn't and wasn't paying attention. He saved my bacon that day!

Ah Excrement!

 (Only I didn't really use a 3-syllable word to express myself when I came around the greenhouse corner and saw this. The word I used was much shorter but more quickly descriptive of how I really felt.)

 Maybe the sky really is falling on my head.

During the night, a big storm front with big winds wheeled through and look what happened. Have I ever mentioned that I live in a high wind area? Well apparently I need to remind myself of that little morsel of wisdom from time to time. Oh well, I'll fix it right next time and move on with the project. I never give up!

So besides the obvious, such as it is, all is well at Oakdale Farm. I hope it is with you, too.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Herding Cats and Mice: The Farm Report 03-15-2020

Herding Cats and Mice

The Farm Report 03-15-2020

The crocus are up! Spring is on the way. Joyce planted these in the little hill by my shop door when we first moved to the farm in 2000. It seems like yesterday, but not. They're still saying 'Hello' to me every spring - and now I love it more than ever.
Annie seems to like 'em too. Or maybe not. How do you know? She's 9 months old now, so that's probably as big as she'll get. She's a full sized small dog - or a small full sized dog. Just right as far as I'm concerned.
Annie has to herd just EVERYTHING! This is a rare pic of the Official Shop Cat, Miss Kitty. Neither of my cats are afraid of Annie; she's a herder not a fighter. Annie is pushy, but she's a playful lover.  Miss Kitty will play with Annie more than O.J. does, but both hold a certain grudge against her. Cats are aloof and disdainful sometimes. People can learn a lot from animals. Out of mutual respect, they seldom make direct eye contact - because that is an animal way to 'get up in your face' and be challenging. They don't do it. OK, this morning O.J. did it, but then he ATTACKED! Annie. Annie's little eyes just looked like 'Help Me! I didn't do nuthin' - honest.' 
When Miss Kitty looked at Annie, Annie found something on the floor she should inspect for a minute.
After a few rounds of this dance, Miss Kitty lost interest and decided to go to her 'Safe Place' and have breakfast. See how Annie brought her back end around to block Miss Kitty? Annie let her through, but she wanted Miss Kitty to know it was only with Annie's permission that Miss Kitty could pass. What a dance!
A pan of food, a comfy box, and what else could a shop cat want?
So I decided since it was the right day and a nice one at that, I should make up some potting mix. I make my own.
I use an old fashioned cement mixer to do it with - ya gotta have equipment! I mix peat with DE and blend it up good in the mixer.
This makes a great sterile and absorbent mix with lots of air spaces and it doesn't get soggy or gooey. Peat is controversial now, but I'm too old to change - and I don't get the controversy. DE is Diatomaceous Earth - little 2-celled shells that are mined. It is very absorbent and adds calcium. Plants love it. I buy mine at the Auto Supply store. They sell it as 'Green' floor dry. Much cheaper than buying the same stuff from a greenhouse supplier with a plant label on it. Same thing though.
Here is my seedling starter station. I put one variety in each cup and sprout the seeds. Then later I transplant the little guys into their own nursery pots for a few weeks when it is time to set them out into the garden. They are sitting on heat mats that are controlled with a thermostat. Heat starts them much faster. 
Aren't these Dahlias beautiful?! 
Well, this gives you a better idea of what they'll be. Nurseries sell potential. 'Buy our brown stems and just look what you might get.' You can't be anything but an optimist when you're a gardener. My favorite philosopher and comedian, Red Green, says 'The optimists live longer, but the pessimists are more accurate.' Advice for our times? I'll just keep gardening!
Time to re-activate the dormant Beekeeper in me. My life took a major left turn as most of you know. So for the last few years, I've been more of a 'Bee-haver' than a true Beekeeper. The bees didn't survive well without me, but I never give up! So I'm pledged to do better this year. I don't eat much honey, but I have a purpose to my project. I want to produce all the honey we can, and sell it to help fund 'Orma's Orphans.' She is a lady in Africa who is feeding orphaned children - most of whom have lost their parents to HIV-AIDS. I've met Orma, I know people who go to Africa and visit her, and I know that my $$$ go right to the kids mouths. So I'm enlisting the bees to help feed the kids. A project with a purpose is lots more fun than just a project alone. 
Damn and Blast! That extra ugly box to the left of the stacked hive was full of mice when I looked in. We have 'Deer Mice' here. Peromyscus maniculatus for you science types. They love to live in a cluster/colony.  That's their litter/nest you're seeing in the bottom of the box. There must have been a dozen or more in there when I opened the lid. Carrying over from last time, you'll have to use your imagination again. Another Theater of the Mind: When I popped the lid, I had Annie right next to me. I suspected what was going to happen and I thought (laugh now) she would start killing them like a terrier. No. She was all over 'em but there isn't any killer instinct in her! She was going nuts in the excitement. Then I realized that what she was trying to do was corral them and keep them in a herd! Now just imagine a dog like Annie, quick as a cat, being in about 6 places all at once trying to convince panic stricken mice that they should form up a platoon and march in formation. I just stood there laughing out loud! She had about half of 'em under control for a little while, too; but then they broke rank and she lost interest.
So time for Spring Cleaning. I've got a couple of boxes painted up and ready for a change out. 
I use plastic foundation. It is easy to use and clean. It has the comb pattern embossed into the plastic so the bees build out the comb the way I want it. Bees don't like plastic though. I melt recovered bee's wax and use this little paint roller to put bee's wax onto the foundation. It gives the bees some starter wax to work with and makes them happier to accept plastic bottoms.
Disease and pesticide accumulation are problems for bees and beekeepers. I'm using new wood for the frames. The plastic foundation snaps into these frames and then that all goes into a hive box. I'll show you more as the season goes on. I'll put one hive box full of new foundation and frames on and take one empty one off. They will get to keep their one active 'home' brooder chamber though. They'll build up into this new box as the flowers begin to bloom Right now, I'm having to feed them. Did you think honey was free? Not.
And guess who survived the winter?  A little (a lot) the worse for wear, but Fuzzy is back.... I don't know where Annie had Fuzzy hidden, but she did. Oh my. I'd dispose of Fuzzy if I could get my hands on him. Annie seems to know this, so she always - always! - puts him away when I'm not looking. A small problem on a farm, I guess. All is hopeful and well at Oakdale Farm. We've been self-sequestered for a long time out here. I'll probably survive. Cheers until next time.