Posted in Fail, Lessons Learned, permaculture, Stubbornness, Successes

Sometimes I am Incorrect…

Sometimes I am big enough to admit I am wrong. (SOMETIMES, not all the time, so don’t get your hopes up too far!) This will be our third Spring up at the farm and there are things that I have learned that perhaps I was incorrect about earlier:

  • No till farming is a great idea in theory, but maybe not in practice. No till farming sounds excellent and maybe I will be able to move toward that, but in the meantime I’m itching to borrow my friend’s tiller and stir up this hard packed clay soil we have. This soil is entirely too clay-like and filled with rocks to be able to not till it for at least a couple of years .
  • Cardboard and mulch is for the slugs. As part of the no till effort last year I did a lot of laying down cardboard and manure and mulch. The slugs had a feast! They love to hide under the cardboard and come out at night and nibble on all the things you have planted just for them. I’m experimenting this year with some bare ground around plants (shhhhh – don’t tell the permaculture people) and some with just a layer of wood chips I got from the power company. Cardboard can be useful in other situations like preparing the ground for future planting, but it is entirely too hospitable for slugs to use it around newly planted seedlings.
  • Straight lines can be your friend. I am terrible at straight lines – I can’t sew straight, I don’t mow in any fashion one would consider organized, my shoveling is haphazard at best, and I fall off balance beams, so it figures that the “scatter the seeds any old way” would be my prefered method of planting. It turns out that straight lines make it possible to actually tell which of the little green things sprouting are the ones you want, and which ones are not because honestly most seedlings look the same and I’d rather suffer in somewhat straight-ish lines than assume that those sprouts are all my rutabaga seeds and end up with a bed of fleabane.
  • Grow what you planted, not what happened to sprout. The first year we were here I was so excited about all the “bonus squash” that had sprouted. Those bonus squash were actually super annoying wild cucumbers that grow around here that are in no way helpful or edible.
  • Bigger is not always better. HA! of course it is!
  • More is not always better. In some cases it most certainly is – you can never have too much mulch or too many work gloves. But when it comes to seedlings it is survival of the fittest and you have to be brutal. Yes those are all your babies, but do you want twenty stunted weird kinda-radishes or ten awesome radishes? Crowding is no joke in the garden.
  • Do not put the compost pile next to the house. Yes it is convenient and yes it was nice in the winter to have it so close. But you know what is not nice? Rat babies. That is all I will say.
  • You cannot do all the things at once. This is something I am still learning. There are a lot of projects to do around here and if I start thinking about them all at once I get overwhelmed and can’t do anything. I’m trying to remember that I just need to do one thing right now. I can do other things later, but right now even if I just sit in a corner of the garden and weed that corner – that is enough.
  • Seeds do not last forever. Especially if you leave them in the greenhouse over the summer and they cook at 120+ degrees. I have sworn to myself that this year I am planting every single seed I own (which includes ones from 2013 or something ridiculous like that) and will start fresh next year. Also – who doesn’t love seed catalogue time?!
  • Manure is a myth. I have a lot of piles of poop in the yard and when I acquired my first file of poop I thought I had won the fucking lottery. It’s manure man! I’m gonna have the most amazing plants growing in this amazingly rich poop-soil! No, what you actually will have is a ton of weed seeds that sprout when you spread said poop around that will take over your garden and piss you off.
  • Hay is not the same as straw. Hay is much easier to find than straw around here and one would be tempted to just assume “hey – they are both dry grass-like products, they are essentially the same” and you would be dead wrong. Straw is amazing and is an excellent addition to your garden, hay is full of grain seeds (as it is supposed to be seeing as it is a food item for livestock) and will fill your garden with unwanted grass forever.
  • Learn from the weeds. As much as weeds are annoying, they are helpful in that they type of weeds in your soil can be indicative of what is wrong with your soil. All those dandelions and dock weeds with their giant taproots are trying to break up this hard packed soil. They are also excellent at bringing up nutrients with their taproots so a nice compost tea is an excellent way to add these back to the soil without just rolling out the welcome carpet.
  • Off with your head isn’t always best. There is a reason people deadhead daffodils and other flowering perennials – it encourages better root growth because the plant will then not expend that energy trying to produce seeds. Take this and apply it to that horrid dock or dandelions and you are essentially deadheading your weeds and making them stronger by trying to mow them down the minute they flower! My plan is to wait until the dock is just about to flower and chop it all down.

Ok! This has been a lot of writing! I will leave you with this pretty picture of a luna moth from last year

Very pretty, slightly terrifying when in the house flying at your face.

Posted in Greenhouse, Lessons Learned, Successes

Oil Furnace Roller-Coaster (aka – IT’S ALIVE! part 2)

E and I were away for a week and I had high hopes for the furnace to continue working during this time, especially since the high last Friday here was 23 degrees! Well we came back to this:

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SAD PLANTS!!!!

Turns out the furnace at some point stopped working and I have been on a whirlwind of ups and down the entire day. Let me walk you through it:

DOWN: The furnace stopped working and it was cold and my plants are SAD!

UP: It seems likely the furnace lasted for a bit since the low recorded by my thermometer was only 28 degrees (the low outside was around 17 degrees). Also, most of my plants (minus that super sad avocado above) seemed to be alright. I suspect the furnace was fine until it ran out of oil sometime during the week I was gone.

DOWN: I’m pretty sure the furnace ran out of oil and I thought I put 5 gallons of diesel in right before we left. This will cost a fortune to heat!

UP: Wait – I go get diesel and my gas can is only 2.5 gallons! Maybe this isn’t as bad as I thought!

DOWN: I put the new 2.5 gallons of diesel in the tank and press the restart. And no heat. The furnace turns on, I can sort of hear a spraying noise, and then the safety kicks in and the whole thing shuts down. Fuck!

UP: I am determined to fix this! While looking up YouTube videos about fixing furnaces I see something about bleeding your furnace if it runs dry. This seems very likely the issue since I’m pretty positive it ran out of oil (diesel is oil minus the red dye). I gather tools and prepare for battle with this fucker:

img_1017.png First I forget that the heater has to be on for this to work and think that maybe there is a total clog somewhere since I have removed the entire bleeder valve and there no oil to be seen… But luckily I remember! Air and oil sputters out. I try to restart…

DOWN: It does not start. I bleed it more. More air and oil. More oil. Now just oil. A steady of oil.

UP: IT’S ALIVE!!!!

UP: img_1016-2.jpg

Almost 60 degrees now (plus my really janky thermostat which definitely needs to be replaced – that’s for another time though)

And there you have it, my personal emotional roller-coaster courtesy of Siebring HeatMaster Oil Furnaces and Beckett AFG Oil Burners.

Posted in Cooking, Lessons Learned, Preserving

Wherein I cry about tomatoes twice in one week

My tomato plants did terribly this year in the garden. Horribly even. I started a bunch in the greenhouse and then the irrigation failed and all the seedlings died. I planted some store bought (I know- the horror!) in the garden and harvested maybe two tomatoes. The rest either came down with a terrible case of blight and never ripened, or ripened and promptly were eaten by some animal (I will find you) which chewed out the inside of every single tomato. It’s like there’s not enough water around and they just had to get at the juicy insides of all the tomatoes!

So I bought some tomatoes. A whole bushel. And boy did I have grand plans for those tomatoes – BIG plans as it were. They were so pretty!

img_0364But in buying them I made the first mistake of many with those tomatoes – I bought them on a Monday. Mondays are terrible in their own right, but as a day to start big plans which don’t involve your day job, they are really the worst possible choice you can make. The main issue with tomatoes and canning them is that you need to get the peels off them and unless you don’t mind scalding yourself by handling tomatoes that have literally been boiling two seconds beforehand, it is a somewhat long process.

I started off really strong. We had our wood stove going since it was chilly so I used the top to set out tomatoes in my big crock to cook a little overnight with the residual heat. The next morning they had burst open, but not totally disintegrated so I could easily slip off the skins and squeeze out some seeds before tossing them in another pot for sauce. I also used some to make a salsa with some peppers and corn that I had. Of course since I started too late at night I had to move the salsa into the fridge overnight so I could can it the next day. I also cored some and set them in the oven with residual heat to skin the next day. And them promptly forgot about them. For three days. (I’m not entirely sure how I didn’t use the oven for three days, but things happen.) So when I did discover them, they were not pretty. In the spirit of my Bubby and her green sour cream which she swore was still edible, I was tempted to salvage what I could, but, in the end I threw the lot in the compost and cried. The compost was probably a good choice, the crying was maybe a little silly, but I was overwhelmed and feeling like a failure and sad about the wasted tomatoes.

The next day I set out to can the salsa and pasta sauce. I had the pressure canner filled with water, the pasta sauce in the big crock, and my salsa in a big pot. I was trying to do something foolish like half balance the pot off the stove to maneuver the crock in front of the canner and ended up with that picture above. It looks like someone got stabbed! There was salsa everywhere – on the floor, on the stove, under the stove, on the wall, in my shoes, in my hair! It was the worst salsa catastrophe I’ve ever witnessed. Luckily E helped me clean up, because after this second tomato disaster I was feeling incredibly useless and extremely frustrated by my apparent incompetence. And for the second time in a week I cried about tomatoes.

BUT- things I learned!

  • Never buy tomatoes on a Monday! More generally, never start a big, time-sensitive project on a Monday. I had been so impatient to get started with acquiring and canning tomatoes that I didn’t even consider that I had a full work-week ahead and probably wouldn’t have enough time to handle all of them. Friday is a much more reasonable day to buy a bushel of tomatoes.
  • Mistakes happen, tomatoes rot, and sometimes you cry – but in the end it’s not a life or death situation. I am thankful that we’re not totally dependent on our crops to survive, we have good jobs and if I really wanted to, I could buy more tomatoes.
  • The Blight! Apparently growing tomatoes in this area was really easy up until about ten years ago. The lady at the farm where I bought the tomatoes told me that ever since a big hurricane hit ten years ago, tomato blight has been a huge issue in this area. This is definitely going on my list of things to remember.
  • I need a freezer, a big one. Or another fridge. Or both. When in doubt or running low on time, I’m pretty sure the answer is always the same – throw it in the freezer.

 

Posted in Greenhouse, Plans

It’s Raining… in the greenhouse

It looks so tropical in there, right?! It sure feels tropical because it is humid as all hell in the greenhouse. Like so humid it is literally raining in there. The sun was out in full force today and someone (no idea at all who that could be) apparently didn’t twist the wires to the fan together enough and the fan quit working!

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(You can see the untwisted white wires up at the top, along with the rogue wire nut at the bottom. Don’t get me started on the black wire connected to the white wire in there, seriously I have no idea, but it works)

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So during the day at some point it got up to almost 105 degrees, leading to the pond relocating onto the greenhouse film making it steamy and rainy inside. So, I did some research about this humidity issue, and I’m almost convinced it is an issue, but also not convinced that it needs an immediate or high-tech resolution. Apparently most plants don’t like a lot of humidity – it messes with their respiration and can lead to the spread of diseases, especially fungus and mildew issues. I also am pretty sure it’s not great for the materials in the greenhouse, mainly the electrical work in there, but that is less of a concern.

The goal of this particular greenhouse is to be somewhat tropical, so the humidity might not be that big of an issue. I assume that some plants don’t mind the humidity and would enjoy the steaminess. The drawback of this is that I want to grow tomatoes and other veggies in there and I know that tomatoes and squash are especially susceptible to fungus/blight and powdery mildew. I could try to make some sort of division between the pond area and the veggie areas, but that seems counter-productive to the whole heat-sink idea of the pond, and I have four other greenhouses, so if I was going to do that, I should just use a different one.

A couple of commercial/industrial solutions exist: non-condensing greenhouse glazing, condensation reducing sprays, circulation fans, and dry-air heat. I’m not particularly interested in trying out most of these. I know I need more circulation, but I’m trying to balance that with keeping the heat in, so I need to try to figure that out. I also could keep the water in a container that didn’t allow evaporation, but I really like the idea of a greenhouse pond, so I’m really set on making this work. So…

Solutions I am willing to try that might work:

  • The greenhouse glazing is double thick and there is a blower which can inflate between the two layers and allow for better insulation leading to less of a temperature differential between the inside and outside air which is a large cause of condensation.
  • I could try to come up with something that could force the condensation to happen in a certain place – a metal tube or some sort of upside-down pointy thing? This would hopefully lead to less dripping in random areas and if possible, reduce the humidity.
  • Venting – yes I know I need more of this, but my highest hope is that maybe this isn’t an issue at all. Maybe if the fan had been working the humidity would never have risen too far to start with and we would all be millionaires… yeah…

 

Posted in Greenhouse, Lessons Learned, Plans, Stubbornness

Fighting with Fans

I spent a lot of time messing with this greenhouse fan – a lot, like the better part of three days. I googled a million things, I texted my friend who is an electrical engineer, I twisted and untwisted and retwisted wires (luckily without electrocuting myself), I emailed the old owners, and I called the manufacturer. See, I was convinced that the vent in one of the greenhouses was installed backwards, or the fan ran the wrong way. The way the fan works it sucks hot air out of the greenhouse, but the vent opens outward, meaning that it doesn’t open automatically when the fan turns on. In fact it becomes harder to open it since the fan is sucking it closed. I rigged the door to swing open when the fan turns on, and I figured that there was something wrong with the set up of the fan and the vent since they didn’t work in the same way.

It turns out that I was wrong – the fans are only meant to run in exhaust mode and the vent is supposed to open against this flow because if the vent opens inward, a stiff wind could blow open the vent and ruin the temperature control. Apparently we are missing a crucial piece of the greenhouse set-up which automatically opens the vent right before the fan turns on.

So lessons learned?

  • Sometimes calling people is much easier than trying to research things yourself on the internet. Sure there was a lot of information out there, but some of it wasn’t relevant, was hard to understand, or was just plain wrong. Adding to that was the fact that I wasn’t even entirely certain what I was even looking for – was it the fan or the vent that was wrong? But one call to Dave at the ACME Fan and Greenhouse supply company had me straightened out.
  • Drawing electrical diagrams is HARD! This is not pretty:img_0484
  • Sometimes things don’t need fixing. Technically the fan/vent set up is completely correct, minus the missing part. But….

 

Lessons NOT learned:

  • I’m still not 100% convinced that it is correct! (I know, I am a very hard-headed, stubborn know-it-all!). I understand that it was correct at one point and possibly had all the parts it needed, but that is no longer the case. I could go out and buy one of those automatic openers and hook it up and it would work as intended, or I could figure out how to work with what I have.
  • I’m still going to try to kludgy this together somehow. Maybe flip the vent for the summer and wedge it closed for the winter? Maybe some Rube Goldberg machine can open that vent when the fan turns on? Maybe automatic venting that doesn’t even need a fan?
  • Ideally the fan will be unnecessary and I would like to not depend on these automatic thingamajigs. Not because I’m a Luddite or hate technology, but because they fail and are hard to fix and make me angry (and the irrigation system battery died and killed all my squash babies earlier this summer). I figure that people managed at one point without all those things, and I can figure out how to as well. Living part time in Philly does make it more complicated, but that sounds like a challenge…