Sunday, May 26, 2013

In hot water

So, you're on a well, you can do things. Here's one: put a wye (with gate valve) on the line to the house and pipe some of your water to the inlet pipe of a discarded (but non-leaking) hot water heater. 

The heater has had half its jacket and insulation peeled back and is lying on its side with some unobstructed southern exposure. The pop valve is on the uphill side so it can bleed off some air for more heat efficiency. A box has been constructed round the tank, partially filled with yet more insulation, with a window parked over it, a la solar cooker.

The water from the outlet pipe is then available for whatever. A good shower, much of the year, say (you will need to combine with cold water in the usual way, or risk being thoroughly scalded). Another possibility is to pipe this water pre-heated to your in-home hot water heater. In such a case, add another gate valve so that you can do no-hassle maintenance on either heater or the well.

It can save a lot on the electric. If you're not bothered much with code, and are thinking you can do this with a hose, get a proper contractor's hose, as the garden variety will MELT. As always, Your Mileage May Vary.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


One of the things we do when it's too wet to play in the garden, and in between other projects, is get in wood. This used to involve sharpening the gasoline powered chain saw, fire up the pickup, go get a permit, head forty miles into the mountains, compete with other homesteaders for the picked-over trashwood on the landing, load up, and drive the groaning truck back down the sharp mountain curves, trying not to run over other, often not dirt-road-wise, permittees scrabbling their way up the washboard gravel.

We're a little too old for that. But still cooking on wood. Our own place provides a lot of small hardwood, one to six inches in diameter, select "logged" with an electric saw or even, some of it, pruners. But never enough.

So we talk with suppliers, select one (they come and go fast in the cutthroat, low-margin field), stack what they bring, and season it. This requires thinking ahead.

The bin on the right is hardwood, much of which we cut ourselves at home, last year. We plan to start in on it in the fall. If we're careful enough in how we dole it out, it could almost last the winter. It's just shy of two cords. The bin on the left, just stacked, is Douglas fir. It's thinnings from a thirty-acre managed forest, and green, i.e., full of the water the trees were living on. This has to evaporate somewhat -- fir will burn green but it's not good for your chimney -- or the atmosphere.

Burning wood for heat and cooking has some environmental drawbacks, in particular the production of black ash that drifts onto distant snowfields, reducing albedo and adding to premature snow- and ice-melt. We agreed, some time ago, with our electric co-op, to buy all wind power for our place, we are well insulated, we turn off lights a lot, use LEDs where we can, so we're all right running a single infrared or oil-filled space heater in fall and spring and, increasingly, in winter. We also looking at a through-the wall heat pump. So we don't use half as much wood as we once did. With a rocket mass heater we'd do even better.

What our heat ain't, is coal, nuclear, or heating oil, 'k?

But sometimes the power goes off. Or temperatures just swing past what the heater is up for. Today, we're at 42F with hail and wind chill -- and that wind is coming down from a snow line that has dropped to 2500 feet. We're at 500. I'm throwing another chunk of maple in the stove.

What must the poor tomatoes think of us? Suckered again, as usual, by an almost two-week stretch in the 80s.

The spring things are loving it, though, so we are emphasizing salads.

Here we have two kinds of lettuce (from six planted), broadbean leaves, spinach, curly kale, chard, collards, snap peas, chive blossoms, and a radish.

If we sit close enough to the thumping wood stove we can pretend it's a summer salad.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Summer has sprung?

Here we have April at the top and May at the bottom. Spring has sprung.

Spring, heck, summer has sprung. Twelve straight days of 80F+ highs, simply unheard-of here, while snow continues to fall on friends elsewhere. I have had to water, and water, and water, and some of the spring greens have bolted anyway. And the creek, from which I'd thought to pump a bit of irrigation, dried up over a month ahead of schedule. So it goes.

Facing north. To the left here is -- we hope -- a Three Sisters bed of beans, pumpkins, and sweet corn. To the right, greens, brassicas, alliums, peas, roots. 

Facing south. To the left, potato onions, more peas. In the distance, grapes struggling to recover from a freeze. Below: discoveries, including peas and radishes, on their way to become a spring salad.


Thursday, May 09, 2013

Faking it with planters

I don't do much with ornamentals, preferring to think of our food plants as the beautiful ones. But I'm having over some folks (yes, you're invited) Saturday afternoon in honor of my 64th birthday (Beatles will be playing in the background). So I thought I would grab some planters and pretend-plant them with color spots, to be re-purposed after the party as potato planters.

Son climbed down into the creek and got me a wheelbarrow load of rocks. We filled the planters to within four inches of the top.

I covered the rocks with newspaper and filled the top of the planter with potting soil.

Then planted the flowers, pot and all, hiding the pots in the soil.

There now, not drab. After the party, I'll unpot the plants and set them out in a bed near the front door. Then take the potting soil to the potting shed to make up flats of summer seeds. The rocks will go into a support crib for a fence line.

The planters will then be available for spuds. The idea was to replace the field spuds, which have been frozen down to the ground twice. But they seem to be recovering.

Easy-does-it mulching

It's time to add mulch to the shade bed. But the greens here are a third planting, still pretty small stuff. Risa doesn't like to work hard, or bend over much, so she covers the little plants with inverted pots, handling the pots with a pair of tongs.

Now she can throw straw without worrying too much where it lands, or having to bend over and mess with misses. Toto supervises.

Oops, feet in the bed. Ignore, please. Once the mulch is down Risa lifts the pots away with the tongs ...

... then sweeps up after herself. Done!

Monday, May 06, 2013

The long view

Many neighbors set out tomatoes last week and the destruction wreaked among those by the unexpectedly heavy freeze is awful to behold. If I had known, I might have planted far more starts and had some to give away. Might anyhow.

Tomatoes and a few other things hardening off in pots. The bin is for watering from the bottom, which helps prevent damping -- mold attacking the plants at the base of the stem. These are Stupice and Sungolds.

When the chives begin to blossom it cheers us up considerably.

The mint returns. As always it looks for greener pastures and a lot of it has to be yanked out. Ditto for nasturtiums and sunchokes. These things are welcome but they have to know their place.

The year's compost has been spread on beds and the composting area tidied up a bit. If you expand the pic a bit you may notice the newest member of the family in the gate at upper right -- Toto, a Cairn Terrier we inherited from my mom and dad, whom we lost last year.

The greens/peas/broad beans bed is doing -- okay. In this dry weather the slugs remain in hiding; however the heat has things bolting and even trying to go to seed, and it's not even summer yet. Yesterday our thermometer, in the shade, registered 88F.

A couple of days before the heat wave, a 27F morning rimed everything and the grapes and potatoes are having to start over. Even some lettuces froze to death.

Leftover material from a rhubarb harvest goes to mulching paths.

We're out of cardboard boxes, and, for the moment, rhubarb leaves, so we finish the path with grocery bags cut open and spread flat. If it's windy, watering the bags will help hold them down till the straw arrives.

Risa putting straw over the rhubarb waste and paper bags. A mulched path helps reduce moisture loss from the garden as a whole, and allows for year-round sheet composting.

Main garden. Paths are the lighter stripes, the brown stripes are beds with barn bedding and compost spread over them, mostly still awaiting planting with summer things. The grapes are in terrible shape, but will make a comeback; they will be weeded and mulched this afternoon.

Frosts and heat waves will come. The gardener must work and may hope; but it is well to take the long view of events in the natural world.