Saturday, July 11, 2015

Abundance and The Root Shelter

It's been a year with a lot of summer rain. The rain-barrels are brim-full with water we don't need, the garden bursting with produce and more than a few harmful insects. Every time I put down diatomaceous earth to murder the squash-bugs, the rain comes down and washes my powder away. I am using a slurry of 3 tablespoons to a gallon of water, and spraying it over and under the leaves, as well as around the bases of the plants. The pumpkins are coming in early, as a result. The first two are sun-curing in the garden for a few more days before they go into long-term storage.

My canning skills are well honed by putting up about four gallons of tomato sauce annually, so it has been a busy month for putting up pickles. I've a professional pressure-canner for the low-acid foods, and we've been using a simmering or boiling water-bath canner for produce that can be safe with that sort of treatment.

We froze a lot of green peas and now are doing the same for blackberries that grow wild around here. I am going to try to recall all of this abundance when winter arrives. It's easy to forget!

One trick to keeping things going will be our new "root shelter," a dry windowless room in the basement of a building where we store equipment. It's completely below ground.

It's not a true root cellar, since it lacks an earthen floor. The 8 by 8 room, of cinder-block walls was, in fact, a fallout shelter from the 60s. It never got finished, since it has no venting to the outside, which makes it less than perfect for surviving a nuclear attack or for getting air circulating for other purposes.

After I made the old door tight but before it got a coat of paint, I knocked out the panel over the transom and lined it with a layer of hardware cloth (a stout metal screening with 1/8 or 1/4" holes) and also window screen. This keeps out rodents and black snakes, one of which chases mice around our building and occasionally leaves a skin draped over the tractor seat or rafters.

With a drill bit used to bore holes in doors for lock-sets, I bored three large holes in the bottom of the door. Those too got covered with hardware cloth and screen. Shelving is basic: with low-humidity in the room, old 2x6 pine boards and cinder blocks serve us well. A small electric fan blows air out the transom, and that encourages cool air to enter the bottom of the door.

I plan to keep early-harvest pumpkins in there, since we have a local market that will buy all I grow. My garlic harvest, only about a dozen bulbs, and some onions I pulled after curing them in our utility room will also go on the shelves. This sort of "root shelter," as I call it, will store winter squash and sweet potatoes.

A damp root cellar would be perfect for vegetables that need more humidity. With a backhoe, a hillside that faces northwest, and lots of cinder blocks I think this will be a future project for my LLC's harvest. And it will vent to the outside world. No nuclear attack needed.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

30 Months of Lessons

It has been two and a half years since we began living here; three since we began taking care of this piece of rural land. I had no idea then what lessons I'd have learned, this far along. I was already somewhat handy and very Type-A about learning things that interest me. If something or someone does not interest me, I won't recall it or them. I'm bad at names that way.

What follows is not a bragging list but a taking stock. I've failed at most of these things too. Still, how much of this would I have learned had I sat before this screen and played video games? Obsessively checked others' Facebook profiles?

What really counts in life? Socrates said that only the examined life was worth living. I am not very social, so you can guess that I'd pick items on this list over more time with online "friends." Sometimes over seeing people I cherish face-to-face, when I'm on-task, a habit familiar to every successful academic.

Anyhow, see how much of this arcana of DIY life would be new to you:

  • Setting up an LLC and learning the basics of State and IRS rules
  • Learning to scour Craig's List like a pro
  • Honing my haggling skills with equipment suppliers, sellers of used gear, and repair shops. I will blame my Middle-Eastern heritage here for being tough when haggling.
  • Cleaning points in a distributor
  • Straining all gas and diesel through paint filters
  • Knowing the difference between load needles and idle screws in a carburetor
  • Learning how to set the gap on a spark plug
  • Painting with an auto-paint gun
  • Helping a friend tear down a tractor engine, replace a cam gear, and finally see how valves, tappets, and a cam dance together to make a big heavy machine move.
  • Watching the life-cycle of pests such as squash-bugs and beginning to interrupt it
  • Keeping ground hogs and raccoons out of the garden.  Improving head-shots when these critters enter a trap. Live-trapping and safely releasing a skunk without being sprayed (skunk seemed to think it was a game and appeared to enjoy it)
  •  Learning how to air-cure garlic and onions and store them in a root cellar
  • Building that root cellar
  • Living with black snakes (those great mousers) in every out building
  • Installing 400' of dog-pen fence and an equal amount of wooden-post-and-wire garden fence, using a tractor-mounted post-hole digger
  • Figuring out how to hand-bale hay and straw
  • Continuing to avoid pesticides and herbicides (we still paint stumps of Tree of Paradise with Roundup and will spray our apple trees next year--once, when not in blossom--with Captan)
  • Expanding out rainwater-collection system to 1200 gallons (and getting closer to a goal of 3000 gallons for the main garden).
  • Getting much more serious about canning. Mainstays now have grown from tomato sauce and pickles to include green beans,  apple sauce, and grape leaves
  • Freezing peas, squash, butter beans, and blackberries with success
  • Drying and saving seed from hot peppers and string beans.
  • Cutting out areas of rotten wood and repairing with Bondo
  • Planing a sticky door until it closes and looks good
  • Building sag-free garden gates 6' tall by 8' wide
  • Learning to use well a router and planer
  • Figuring out what to reuse and what to toss with 10,000 square feet of barns and out buildings.
  • Installing a hardwood floor of salvaged oak flooring tucked in a corner of the barn.
The next 30 months will bring more adventures, and I will return to this list to see what can be added.