Friday, September 30, 2011

2011 - Was it productive?

Until a month ago when I started teaching part-time I had a lot of time available to complete projects in the house and the yard.  It seemed a good time to assess what was completed in 2011 and what I still want to do in order to get the property in the shape I want. 

Thursday saw fantastic weather, clear, sunny and mid-70’s, the first nice day in nearly two weeks.   I’ve been looking for ways to expand the growing space, now about 250 square feet in beds.  The tree shadows don’t allow for any more beds to the south of the existing beds, but the bed in front could be expanded on one side.  The triangular shape fits into the contours and also looks nice.  It should be a good spot to grow some herbs.  I started this project last weekend, was stopped by a rain shower, and finished it on Thursday. 

At the beginning of 2011 I started remodeling the master bath.  That project dragged on for several months.  I replaced the vanity and toilet, installed ceramic tile on the tub surround and new vinyl tile on the floor, put new casing around the doors, installed a ceramic tile baseboard and repainted the room.  It was a long job and ceramic tile can be very time-consuming for a novice but the finished results make it all worth it. 

In March the raised beds looked like this.  The cherry tree that I felled the previous autumn did not quite drop where I wanted it to fall.  Before I could cut it into logs the snows came and left me with this spring project.  At this time I’m splitting the logs for firewood.  The damage to the beds was not as bad as it looks here.

Another spring project were the shade beds behind the back deck.  The landscape timbers that formed the beds were rotting away.  The ground under the beds has a lot of slope, and the beds not only look nice but prevent erosion by terracing the slope.  When the old timbers were removed the soil actually held in place until I put in the pressure treated 4x4’s.   I tried to avoid walking in the beds when doing work, and finished this before the hostas came up.

Putting some flower beds around the front porch was another spring priority.  I used retainer blocks to form two semicircular beds around the front porch.  A foundation bed was built along the front of the house with edging blocks.  A yard of compost and a yard of soil/compost mix were dug it into the clay.  The beds were planted mainly with hostas and lillies.  The rhododendron is a little out of its comfort zone but has survived several hard winters in its south-facing location.

The ongoing project in the house has been the repainting of the interior doors and jambs and refinishing the wood trim throughout the house.  I removed the doors to the pole barn and painted them on sawhorses.  All of the door and window casing and the baseboard is varnished cedar which was only half-finished by the builder (shocking isn’t it?).  The woodwork was never sanded to smoothness and the original varnish had already soaked into the wood. 

 I removed the baseboards and the top and bottom pieces of the window trim, then sanded and revarnished them (two coats) in the pole barn.  Since there was some extra wood available I was able to cull out the wood that was off-color and replace it with better wood.  While the baseboard was off I repainted the walls in the walk-in closet, second bedroom and sunroom.  So far I’ve used six quarts of varnish.  

The sunroom was the most work of any room.  It has more windows than all the other rooms combined and more wood casing.  Here’s a picture of the almost finished sunroom with the top pieces over the windows being put back on.  That’s a glass of red wine next to the miter saw – I was finished for the day and thought a reward was in order. 

The chicken tractor and mobile henhouse projects were in earlier posts.  Here’s a basic workbench I built in one of the minibarns.  It’s hard to get work done without a decent workbench.

Can’t forget storage.  A double row of shelves across the back side of the polebarn provides a lot more storage space.

Now that I’m working part time I won’t be able to get as much done.  The one project I still hope to complete this year is the installation of a light tube in the kitchen.  Part of the kitchen never gets enough natural light and the suntube looks like a good way to light up a dark area.  Next week is supposed to have nice weather, maybe a good time to cut a hole in the roof. . .

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The drought is officially over

It started raining Saturday night.  It rained all day Sunday and into Sunday night.  Monday morning before I left for work I checked the rain guage.  The drought is officially over.  This rain in addition to the rains last week total about 7 inches after a late summer drought.  The grass is now very green and growing fast.  The pond has risen about a foot.  Now we need some sunshine.

I’ve been thinking about extending this 4’x8’ bed like this and decided to go ahead and do it (I still have to finish it).  The triangular shape fits well into the landscaping I want to do in this area.  It’s a small increase in the square footage, about 7 square feet, but it should be a good spot to grow herbs.  And the soil doesn’t have to be great to grow herbs, so I can get out of deep digging this spot.  I may put some black plastic over this to kill the overturned sod.

Yields have been really off since the hot weather broke.  The cloud cover has been nearly continuous, but there have been a few sunny days that produced some growth.  Just a few days ago I picked the first batch of Provider beans from the last bean patch of the year, in the middle bed above.  A few more weeks of sunshine should give some more beans before their curtain call, if the bean beetles don’t get everything first.  

There’s a lot of peppers that also need some sun. The red hot cherry peppers and Hungarian wax peppers have really set out a lot of peppers on long stems that drape over the sweet pepper plants. Just one week of sunny weather and there should be enough peppers to make a batch of salsa. I was planning to can salsa but after some research it looks like canned salsa requires more vinegar or lemon juice than I want in a fresh salsa. So I think I’ll make salsa the way I want then put it in plastic containers and freeze it.  The eggplant is big but not producing.  Doggone heat-loving plants.
I’ve been really lazy this year about planting crops for fall.  There are two chinese cabbage (Soloist) and a bok choi growing in the brassica bed, but I never really got started with brassica seedlings.  Too many things going on right now.  There’s spinach and lettuce seedlings in the greens bed which are coming along.  Soon I need to plant the other half of the bed in spinach and lettuce for overwintering.    
Yields for the week:    Okra 1 oz;  Hot pepper 1 oz;  Beans 13 oz;  Tomato 14 oz;  Sweet pepper 3 oz. 
Total for year:  176 pounds.     

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mobile A-frame Henhouse

The idea for an A-frame chicken coop came from a book about chicken coops.  There was also an article about one in an old issue of Mother Earth News.  So I decided to build one.  I started building it last Fall and got the basic structure finished except for the hinged roofing panel.  Then I got to thinking that I really want to do some traveling in the near future and that wouldn’t be possible with a group of layers.  I decided to finish the coop anyway.  

There weren’t any clear plans for the construction so I had to wing it mostly.  That’s OK, the only drawback to being creative is my zero experience raising chickens, so I would not know if some of the features of the coop would work or not in a real chicken situtation.  I knew the coop needed some nest boxes, a perch, a way for the hens to get to the second floor, and chicken wire all around the ground floor.   Here’s a pic of the almost finished henhouse, with the nest boxes, and enclosed ground floor.

The frame members are cedar 2x4’s.  They were on sale at the local lumberyard so the price wasn’t ridiculously high, just expensive.  The A-frame layout makes a very strong structure which isn’t likely to get blown over.  The coop is about 5’ by 5 1/2’.  It’s built on a rectangular frame of 2x4’a with the A-frame built on top of that.  The A-frame 2x4’s were notched to accommodate the horizontal crosspieces so all the frame members were in the same plane.  This allowed the roof panels to go directly on the frame without additional lumber.  I was trying to use as little lumber as possible in order to keep the weight low.  The lower horizontal crosspiece supports the penthouse floor and extends past the house so a handle or rope can be attached. 

The roof on one side is fixed.  I used some leftover metal roofing to cover that side.  The peak has an open space about one inch wide for ventilation.  The grooves in the roofing panel should allow for air to enter at the bottom and flow inside to the ridgetop. 

The other side has a hinged roof panel built of 2x2 cedar.  I bought one sheet of clear roofing which did not quite cover the hinged side.  Considering the cost of this stuff I decided to fill in the rest with a piece of metal roofing.  My thinking here is that hens need light in order to lay eggs, so why not let in natural light.  I thought the clear side could face away from the sun in hot weather and also be propped open a bit.  During the winter the clear side could face the sun and also bales of straw could be stacked against the coop for insulation.  That was the plan anyway.   This is a recent pic of the finished coop.

This is the hinged door to access the nest boxes.

The chickens need a chicken ladder to get from the ground floor to the penthouse suite. Here’s a pic of the chicken ladder down.  The rope is threaded through some eye bolts to the outside where it can be cleated. 

Here’s the chicken ladder raised up.  It would take a very determined predator to get past the ladder once it is raised. 

The one part of the coop that I really don’t like is the ridge top.  It needs a flexible ridgetop so the hinged side can be raised and lowered.  The only thing I could find was a rubber floor liner which is not nearly thick enough.  Anyone has any ideas where I can get a more solid sheet of flexible material please leave a comment.   
Lastly here's a recent pic of the finished house with the hinged lid propped open.  A perch made of closet rod has been installed and a handle was attached to the crosspiece extensions for pulling the coop.  The coop is not all that heavy and is easy to pull over level ground.  Hope you enjoyed the tour.  

Monday, September 19, 2011

Monday, Sep 19 Rain Finally

After a two month drought we finally got a decent rain here.  I woke up several times last night and heard a light rain every time.  This morning I checked the rain guage before leaving and it showed 1 ¼ inches of rain!  We got ¼ inch yesterday and about the same a few days ago.  This was a good rain, light and steady all night long, the kind that soaks into the soil.  I’m looking forward to seeing green grass again.

There’s been a real shortage of sunshine the last two weeks and the yields from the garden have taken a hit.  The past week has been a little better than the week before, when there was only an occasional break in the cloud cover, but the garden still hasn’t rebounded.  The last plot of bush beans should be producing beans right now but they just stopped developing. 

Worst hit by the change in weather were the tomatoes.  I watered the garden the last 90 degree day about two weeks ago, then it abruptly turned cold and cloudy.   The tomatoes stopped growing, but did not stop taking up water, and I lost five nice Brandywines that literally split to the core.  (At least they didn’t explode).   I’ve just started teaching a lab and recitation at the university in Indy and was trying to get up to speed with the course material and wasn’t paying attention to the garden.  Yes I should have picked them and brought them inside right away but hindsight is always 20/20.  

At least the peppers are still looking good and some more sunny days should provide a batch of red hot cherry peppers and sweet peppers for salsa.  I’ll have to use canned tomatoes though.  Cubanelle peppers develop a sweeter more intense flavor in the fall that makes them almost like candy.  There must be some enterprising cook somewhere who has made a pie out of very sweet peppers such as these.

The last batch of Provider beans were mostly ruined by something that ate pits in the beans in different places.  At first I thought it was Mexican bean beetles until I found this small caterpillar inside one of the pits on a Roma bean.  They don't do much damage until the beans are nearly finished bearing.  They could be a bigger problem on pole beans that bear all season.   Bt should be an effective control for these.  There are also some bacterial (halo blight) and fungal diseases (bean anthracnose) that also leave pits on the bean pod.  Guess everything likes beans.
I cooked a Butternut squash that was picked a few weeks ago.  Winter squash and pork are a great combination.  I sliced it lengthwise, leaving the seeds in, and steamed it face down in a covered pan until soft, which takes about an hour for a butternut cured in the sun.  I’ve found that steaming with the seeds in really adds flavor.  Then the seeds were removed and the pulp scored with a knife.  Butter, a little turbinado sugar, cinnamon and ginger were added and it was baked face up about 15 minutes.  A simple prep but very good – comfort food for sure.  

It was about fifty degrees Friday morning and it seemed like time to start splitting wood for winter.  There’s probably about four ricks of wood there after the logs are split.  The big oak logs were split with a wedge and sledgehammer into quarters then split into smaller pieces with a maul.  It wasn’t long before I was out of breath and a T-shirt was sufficient insulation on a cool windy morning.  That is hard work.  Three days later and my stomach is still sore.  

The  structure in the back is an A-frame mobile chicken coop which I built this spring but never used.  I plan to write about it in an upcoming post.  

Tally for the week:   Okra 1 oz;  Tomato 1 lb 13 oz;  Snap beans 6 oz;  Eggplant 4 oz;
Hot pepper 2 oz;  Sweet pepper 4 oz.   Totals for year:  174 lb


Monday, September 12, 2011


“I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in. And stop my mind from wandering. . where it will go.”

Poor yields this week.  The weather went from 90’s to 60’s in the span of a day.  Cool and almost no sun for a week and the plants just stopped producing.  We need rain badly but got only a little.  Just lots of clouds. 

Sunday was the first nice day for relaxing on the deck in some time, probably a week but it seems a lot longer.  I was going over some notes for a lab I’m teaching at the  Indiana-Purdue campus in Indianapolis, enjoying the quiet and gentle breeze – a perfect September day.   Suddenly there was a loud splash at the pond’s edge, much more commotion than any fish can make.  I looked up over the railing and just below the deck saw a large bird of prey unlike any I had seen before around here.  It was a bit larger than a red-tailed hawk, definitely not a Cooper’s hawk which is much smaller.

The raptor had landed in shallows with its wings spread.  Then it took flight and I could hear the beat of its wings as they lifted it from the water, but no fish was in its talons.  It circled up around the trees, then briefly out of sight, then flew back over the pond.  It started another dive toward the water from treetop height then aborted about half way into the dive, then flew away.  Wow!  Could it be an osprey?  I checked the bird book.  The face markings matched, with a dark streak on the side of the head.  What other raptor dives into water to catch fish?  The map showed that ospreys have a patchwork range in this part of the state.  I really wanted to get a picture of this bird because I may never see another one around here.
There’s  a lot of open spaces in the beds now.  I took out the German Queen tomato plant since it stopped producing.  I seeded some carrots in August and none of them germinated.  Who knew, the seed was only three years old?  And I never got any fall brassicas seeded into pots until late August, probably too late.  There’s one chinese cabbage that was direct seeded that is doing well.   My excuse - the house is torn up from the ongoing remodeling –and I’m sticking to it.   Well I did get the spinach and lettuce planted and it’s already germinating.  Got to keep after it with the watering until we get some rain. 

This is the last patch of bush beans for the year.  I think they are Dragon Langerie, a very vigorous wax bean.  The patch of Roma beans should be good for another week.  The bean beetles have not been real bad this year.  They were just starting to ruin the patch of Provider green beans when I pulled them up.  The beetles eat a few spots out of the bean and ruin it.   Maybe my strategy of planting patches of beans in different beds has thwarted the beetles enough to hold them at bay, or maybe there just aren’t many beetles this year.

The osprey got me thinking about eating fish, so I baited a hook with a chicken gizzard and heaved it into the water.  It took awhile, not that I mind, but a really nice channel cat took the bait.  This is the biggest fish I’ve caught all year – 21 inches head to tail – and it really put up a fight.  It made a pound of filets and the meaty backbone, which was frozen for fish stock, weighed 7 oz.  Breaded and fried it can’t be beat.  I want to harvest more before the weather turns.  They will replenish in the spring.

Totals for the week:  Sweet pepper 7 oz;  Okra 2 oz;  Beans 3 oz;  Tomato  22 oz;  Catfish 1 lb, 7 oz.

Monday, September 5, 2011

September 5, 2011

The two day heat wave is long gone.  The high today never reached 70.  The wind was a steady hard blow all day long.  It would have been a ripping’ good time on a sailboat, and I probably would have been in the water a few times.  Instead I cleaned up the beds, removed dead foliage and suckered the tomatoes which were about eight feet high.  I dug in a wheelbarrow of compost into the greens bed a few days ago, and today I got out the little 2-stroke Earthquake cultivator and tilled the top few inches of soil and raked it smooth.  


I planted half the bed with lettuce (Pinetree winter mix) and Space spinach, then spread a little half finished compost over the seeded area.  Would I rather have been on the water fighting spraying whitecaps trying to keep a dinghy upright?  Let’s not go there.  I think there are basically two weather conditions for sailing:  Drink beer sailing and can’t drink beer sailing.  If the wind is light you can hold a can of beer in one hand and sail the boat.  If the wind is hard forget about having a beer, you won’t have time and it will be on its side in the bottom of the boat anyway.  One has to reconcile the need for a beer with the desire to sail.  Life is full of hard choices.
I’ve been picking butternut squash when the vine supporting it dies.  The plant set out some more squash after the first set and it looks like most will ripen in time, unless the plant dies first.  The leaves just yellow and die.  The vines on the trellis are holding up the best, but it’s apparent that a fungus or bacteria is slowly doing it in.  I’ve tried to give it plenty of water and even a few doses of fish emulsion as it’s a heavy feeder, but the plant is determined to die.  No matter, it’s September. 

The parsnip also has a disease but it looks like it puts out enough new foliage to stay ahead of it.  Actually everything looks bad this year.  The tulip poplars and sassafras trees have a lot of foliage that looks diseased.  Two drought years in a row have probably stressed them quite a bit. 

Peppers have done great this year, a real bright spot.  It looks like they will produce a new batch of peppers for pickling or maybe salsa.  With the help of a few stakes the pepper stems kind of support each other at this point.  It seems like Fall weather really intensifies the flavor of sweet peppers like Cubanelles.  And beans, lots of beans, Romas right now.  I think I like Roma beans the best. 

Totals for the week:  Okra 5 oz;  Snap beans 18 oz;  Tomatoes 5 lb 7 oz;  Sweet pepper 11 oz; 
Hot pepper 2 oz;  Eggplant 15 oz;  Butternut squash 2 lb 4oz.

Catfish 11 oz;   Weekly total  10.9 pounds.  Year to date 169 lb   

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Another heat wave

The last few weeks the weather in these parts has been fantastic.  Highs in the mid-80’s, low humidity, usually a fresh breeze, clear skies.  On Friday all that changed with a high in the upper 90’s.  Ditto for Saturday.  It looks like a front is on its way with some rain and much more seasonal temperatures for awhile.  Good.  We need rain bad.  The low humidity and abundant sunshine can really pull the water out of the ground.  I’ve been watering the beds every 2-3 days and also the areas of the lawn that are suffering the most but it’s an uphill battle. 

Two weeks ago I started thinking about preparing the bed that will grow greens over the winter under plastic.  The bed has been mostly empty since a patch of spent wax beans came out at the end of July.  The bed had not been watered since then except for the parsley plant and the soil was dry.  For the last two weeks I’ve been soaking this bed when I water the other beds to get moisture content up.  It's about ready.

A few weeks ago I stacked the modules of the compost bin to one side and shoveled the top layers of compost into the new bin.  I left the bottom module that contained mostly finished compost for the greens bed and added a few handfuls of blood meal to juice up the nitrogen level.  Saturday morning I got a wheelbarrow of compost from the old bin and spread it onto the bed, then turned it over with a shovel and watered the bed.  Good thing I did this in the morning because even then the heat and humidity were oppressive. 
After taking out the compost at the bottom I noticed there were a lot of roots going up into the compost.  Looks like the big white ash tree about 20 feet away has been freeloading nutrients off the compost pile.  Next spring the compost pile goes around the corner on the west side of the house – out of reach of the tree.   

After this brief heat wave the soil temperature needs to come down before I plant spinach and lettuce.  At least the nights are longer now and a few days of cooler temperatures should bring the soil temperature down.  I’ll plant part of the bed with greens in a few days for a fall harvest then plant the remainder in late September for overwintered greens.
The potatoes left in the remaining cage have put up some nice looking new shoots after most of the foliage was lost.  This was an experiment to see if the potatoes could do a little more.  I’m hoping that the new green solar panels (leaves) will produce some more potatoes, and I always want more potatoes.  This cage got more sunlight and had more exposure to air movement, that is probably why the potato plants did not die completely.  The other two cages averaged about 4 1/2 pounds of potatoes each.