State o' the Garden & Orchard, Wrapup Fall 2013: FAIL

Tomatoes: FAIL. Blight, blight, blightedy-blight blight. We may have trucked in the disease with the load of compost from a local garden center. Not one decent tomato this year. Nada. The plants could not keep ahead of the blight.

Chickens stalking Emma's food bowl. The garden is too
depressing to photograph right now.
White potatoes and Yellow onions: FAIL. The tops died back within a few weeks of planting this Spring, with only a little bit of root/tuber growth. Being lazy, I left the remainder in the garden bed over the Summer, continuing to water so as to keep the soil microbes alive. Oddly enough, now that the cooler weather has arrived the potatoes and onions both are sprouting anew. Not sure how far they'll get before being zapped by Winter, however.

Lettuce: FAIL. It got too hot, too fast. One lone little lettuce plant survived the Summer's heat & glare. I left it alone, and it is now going to seed. Why not?

Sweet Potatoes: FAIL. Rabbits were our nemesis here, as they'd sneak through the fence when we didn't close it carefully. Sweet potato greens are juicy and sweet, and the bunnies would chow down. The leaves keep coming back, however, so there may be some small tubers to harvest come early Winter, but I'm not counting on it.

Some not-so-failures: the sweet basil went nuts, two plants growing almost four foot tall. The sicilian oregano planted in the strawberry bed (didn't know where else to plunk it) almost took OVER the bed. It will be parted out and replanted come Spring. The strawberries took to the new bed as well, and will probably fruit nicely come next season.

Lettuce gone to seed
Must have left some partial sweet potato tubers in last year's old bed, as there's greens sprouting all over. Last year's crop was riddled with corking, however, so I'm not counting on these potatoes being edible.

[As a side note to my prepper-minded friends: this year's garden failure really hammers home the lessons from our grandparents & great-grandparents, to save/set aside as much as possible during the "fat" times, because the lean times are gonna happen no matter how well prepared we think we may be. I honestly thought this year's garden was gonna knock it out of the ballpark.]

As far as the orchard goes, once all the trees go dormant, we plan to cull a good many of them. The experimental almonds and cherries will go. So will the peaches. We'll probably pull all the fruit trees from the "front yard" as well, as they're not thriving. What DOES work on this property so far: apples, pears, plums, figs, and apricots. Not bad. We may try the cherries and almonds again once we get some soil berms and better rainwater catchment developed.

Spouse has rebuilt the "temporary" greenhouse, making it taller so we can fit the nine potted citrus trees (and other potted plants) under its eaves. Next year, we will really need to build a new greenhouse - the trees will not fit another year.

Onwards and upwards!


DIY Duck & Goose & Dog Pond Filter system

Spouse writes:

The eight geese and two dogs foul up the goose pond in about 4.5 days during the summer. The pond filter we have used for the last few years was a pressurized number that used an external pump. The old pond pump worked under horrible conditions. It had to pump goose poo "soup" continuously. It was stepped on when the dogs jumped in to cool off in said soup. The geese chewed on the power cord while making aforementioned soup... you get the idea. We have gone through a lot of pumps. The current incarnation is more of a pump in a cage. We have a regular 500 gallon per hour pump in this box (http://www.homedepot.com/p/Total-Pond-Mechanical-and-Biological-Filter-Kit-MF13010/202278958). It is connected to a 15 foot length of lead free 5/8 lawn hose connected with a ½ inch adapter. The old pond filter was just too small to take  - err – "soup" and make it spring fresh.

<insert boring design explanation of latest pond filter operation>
I wanted a large three stage filter. The first stage is mechanical filtration at the pump to make sure that the submerged pump runs without incident. The second stage is a a clarifier so that any particulate that makes it past the mechanical stage settles out before the third stage. The third stage is the biological stage. Bacteria - living in some sort of media - consume and filter out the remaining wastes still in the water. For the media, I am using three bags of lava rock.
<end boring design explanation of filter operation>

The resulting filter is part gigantic aquarium filter, part pond filter, and only slightly overbuilt (I hope). I used the filter described here (http://www.runnerduck.com/pf1.htm) as the basis for the new filter with just a few modifications. I switched to 55 gallon drums. I added an extra tank for a clarifier. And swapped out the filter pads for 3 bags of lava rock to host the aquarium bacteria that were going to convert the soup to clean water.

Here is a is the end result...

[the completed project]
Water is pumped from the pond through the light green hose into the clarifier.(the barrel farthest from the pond. The water enters the clarifier from the top which allows the particulate to fall to the bottom and the water flows out the side and into the media tank.. The water is piped to the bottom of the media tank under a plastic screen which is elevated 4 inches off the bottom. View from the top before the lava rock went in. The plastic screen rests on s stand made out of PVC as detailed on the runnerduck page link above.

[media tank BEFORE lava rock was added]
Here it is with the media barrel loaded with lava rock.

First thing I found out was use real bulkhead fittings like these: http://www.homedepot.com/p/1-1-4-in-EPDM-Washer-Bulkhead-MPT-x-FPT-Union-PL-1846-1-1-4-inch-Bulkhead-Union/203258816
Trying to make your own out of pipe pieces scavenged from the plumbing aisle only results in leaks, cursing, and a floor show for the geese who inevitably arrive to supervise.

Second: size the outlet bigger. But maybe not this big:

[the outlet. the filter screen below in the pond was temporary]
That is a ½ inch inlet being drained by a 3 inch outlet. Sort'a of like a grapefruit launcher loaded with raisins. I did have a one inch outlet but that barely kept up. I doubled the size of the bulkhead fitting to 2 inches but all I could find on short notice is the three inch pipe with an adapter.

Here is the inside of the media barrel with water running through it.

The pump has been running for 4 days and the water is just as clear as when we filled it up after cleaning it the last time. The water clouded up for a few hours after I added aquarium filter bacteria but otherwise it has been clear. The animals are certainly using it. The chickens play with the bubbles produced by the outlet stream. One of the dogs, Bandit, has been in it every day as have the geese so the filter appears to be working. We will still have to clean the foam filter on the pump box but that takes a fraction of the time compared to doing a full dump* and scrub. We still need to figure out a way to clean the bottom of accumulated leaves, feathers and whatever else the geese pull into swim with them. But so far the new filter system has been successful.

*d.a. writes: the aforementioned "dump" is actually pumped out to each of the fruit trees. It takes awhile to do so, but we don't waste water here in South Central Texas, y'all.


State o' the Garden & Orchard, 2013

Where to begin? It's another season of slow progress, due to shoulder issues that continued to haunt from last year. Second surgery completed in late March, and hopefully this is the last one needed.

Fresh compost & new bed for for fig. Geese say, "MINE".
One tremendous help for both my arm and our little farm: the new-to-us truck, affectionately nick-named "The Beast". It has a big bed, and with a couple of trips were able to haul in enough bulk compost to add several inches to all the orchard trees and the veggie beds.  Saved a goodly amount of money with the bulk purchase as well, and look, Ma: no plastic bags!

Although Spring was not kind to the orchard (a warm Winter and a cold Spring), the fruit trees that were able put out a crop have been doing so nicely. The apricots have come and gone, with 99.9% getting snagged (again!) by the local wildlife because I was too drugged out during recovery to remember to protect the bottom 2/3'rds of the trees. Ah well! The pears, figs and apples are fruiting, and so is one of the plums. The two oldest plums are not, however, so we're now suspecting a mixup at the nursery - these have to be accidental ornamentals. Was thinking of cutting them down & replacing, but a friend suggested pruning back and grafting with non-ornamental plum cuttings. Still thinking about that option.

Figs abundant.
Spouse put in two more raised beds, but instead of creating beds that are angled on the bottom to follow the line of the rocky hillside, he dug out & leveled spots for his 4'x4' forms. He says he won't be doing that again, ahem. We now have a dedicated strawberry bed, and the rest of the beds have combinations of tomatoes, herbs, peppers, onions, white- and (soon to be planted) sweet potatoes. We tried to grow a late crop of Spring lettuces and spinach, but the seedlings were fried in an early heat wave.

"Devil's Claw", a volunteer. Rumored to be a good tomato
hornworm trap. If so, then welcome, little buddy!
This year we're going to experiment with red shade cloth, 30%, for some of the veg beds during the hottest part of Summer. In theory, red shade cloth is supposed to allow more of the light spectrum while also protecting from harshest light of the day, and some folks swear that their tomato yields increase with red shade cloth and/or red mulch. For the shade structure itself, we looped a cattle panel over each of the three upper beds. The panels are a bit too long, look a little Dr. Seuss-y, but it'll work until we decide to do something more sophisticated. I'd like to cut them down a bit, then sew a fitted greenhouse cover for each Winter greens & other foods.

Tiny barrel cactus in full bloom. Beauty. 
Speaking of greenhouses, if we can get around to renting the equipment to level an area, we hope to construct a greenhouse using corrugated panels, like this one. Although the panels don't run the "correct" way, this particular design uses its materials efficiently with very little waste. May need to modify slightly for a solar-powered exhaust fan, as even in Winter the solar gain on our southwest facing hillside can be significant. Oh, and we need the bigger, taller greenhouse because I purchased an additional seven citrus (lemons, limes & satsumas) to go with our current few. They were on sale, and the ones we already had were lonely and needed buddies. That's what I told Spouse, anyways.


Twenty Bales in a 19-Bale Truck

Alternate title: "Don't ever let a country boy tell you how much your truck bed will hold." - Spouse
We've done things like this before - see "Moving Via the Nail-biter Express" - and it was well past time to do it again. I found a good deal on the season's first fresh straw bales* on Craigslist, and asked Spouse to help me to pick up a truck-bed's worth. I was thinking ten, maybe twelve bales max. We got to the farm site, the guys started loading, and then there was a brief confab between Spouse and Farmer about estimated safe load. "If you stack them like this, you should be able to fit a few more...". Well, we know how that goes. Twenty bales of straw (and cash paid out) later, the Farmer quickly skeedaddled, and we were left with a load that wobbled back & forth like a Dr. Seuss sketch as we hit bumps and turned corners. The bungee netting I had brought wasn't strong enough to keep everything firmly in place, so we hit the closest hardware store we could find for more tie-down straps. And a bathroom break. We almost sh*t ourselves driving the few miles there. 

Load (relatively) more securely in place, next decision was how to safely get back home before dark. Choose the faster toll road? 80-miles-an-hour may cause problems. Choose the slower freeways? More turns, heavier traffic, but the lesser speed limits might be safer. Spouse chose the latter, and white-knuckled it all the way home. Other farmers on the road were looking at our load like we were crazy. And crazier still: we kept driving, going past our home and into town to get pizzas. Neither of us were gonna be in the mood to cook after all this. 

We got home just before dusk. "So," says Spouse, "which would you prefer to do in the dark? Take care of animal chores or stack straw bales?" Decision: animals first. Then we set up two wood pallets for stacking. [Not a good idea to stack hay or straw directly on the ground here, as ants will quickly make the bales their new home.] Stacked nine bales (3x3x3) on one pallet, eight (3x3x2) on another, and the remaining three stacked on a couple of cement blocks. Done. Whew. 

Moral of the story: Why do ridiculous things like this yourself when you can do it vicariously through our blog? On the other hand, the good news is we've enough straw for our raised vegetable beds and bedding for the ducks for probably the entire year. Sweet!

What's the difference between hay and straw? Hay is made from dried grasses and greens (like alfalfa), and is meant for livestock consumption. Straw, on the other hand, are the castoff stalks from harvested cereal grains like oats, wheat and rice, and are not meant for consumption. Straw is used for animal bedding, a lightweight mulch for veggie beds, and sometimes even structures are made from straw bales. In a garden setting, the difference between laying down hay versus straw is kind of like laying down sheets of paper versus small bamboo stalks. If it gets wet, the "paper" (hay) will mat down, whereas the "bamboo stalks" (straw) will shed more of the water and not mat. Both will decompose eventually. Straw is less expensive as well, about one-third the price of hay.  


Be right back...

Another shoulder surgery, illness, then allergies have kicked my backside left & right. Once it becomes easier to type, the blog will return to its usual at-least-twice-a-month schedule.


Keep Calm and Raise (Hell-)Geese

The geese finally started laying their eggs about the same time I posted "Resistance is Futile for Us Beginners". It was a huge relief to know the egg-laying season was kicking into gear, for the sooner the season starts, the sooner it ends.

Raise "Hell-Geese" Would Be
More Appropriate For Our Flock.
[pic/shop: MilleLacsImpressions
Miraculously, I found each and every nesting site as they were created, and have deduced the laying cycle as well. We're retrieving an average of 10 eggs a week from six females. The opportunity for egg poaching by the dogs is at an all-time low. Maggie is miffed.

About a week before egg-laying started in earnest, Spouse fenced off the side and front garden beds, for in past years there were unholy 4:00 AM squabbles/shrieks over nesting spots under two of the rosemary bushes - one of those bushes being under our bedroom window. A third creeping rosemary bush on the far corner of the house was left out of the fencing equation, logic being:
  1. it had never been used as a nest before, and 
  2. it appeared to be too small for them to scoot under and lay eggs. 
There is no appealing to logic when it comes geese.

They have chewed an opening into/underneath the rosemary canopy and created a cozy little nesting spot. At this point, it is too late to fence it off, as the geese will find ways to dislodge or even literally climb the fence in order to get into an established site. Since it's just one nest close to the house - most of the girls have created nests elsewhere - the 4:00 AM squabbles are happening "only" every other night or so.

I'm counting out the sleeping pills. If I time it right, I may have enough to last the season.


Chest Freezer: Defrosting & Organizing Tips

Step 1: Take out the bodies, and hide them. Okay, okay, just kidding, it only LOOKS like our freezer could hide bodies. This post is for folks who are new to chest freezers and bulk frozen food storage - learn from my mistakes, and save yourself some cash.

You may be wondering why a stand-alone chest freezer (or older freezers) develop ice, where frost-free freezers do not. Self-defrosting freezers allow themselves to "warm up" a little to melt/dry out any beginning ice crystals or humidity, then quickly go back to a deeper freeze. The trade-off for the convenience of less work is faster "freezer burn", where your meats, vegetables and other goods get that dried out look, develop ice crystals and a funky taste if you keep items in the frost-free freezer for too long. You can get freezer burn in a regular freezer as well, but it usually takes longer to happen. No matter which you have, be sure to wrap/package your goods well to ensure longest freezer life possible.

Although we've a couple of good-sized portable ice chests, there's not enough room to store all our frozen goods when defrosting our chest freezer. Speed is of the essence. Some invaluable tools to make quick work:

  1. Don't wait until the entire freezer is wall to wall ice. Seriously. 
  2. Nylon pan scraper
  3. Plastic-edged dust pan
  4. Bucket

The stiff nylon pan scraper - there are all sorts, but this style's my favorite - is cheap, sturdy, has multiple uses, and won't scratch or puncture your freezer. Come on, you KNOW you've wanted to take a knife and hack the ice, right? Big no-no. This scraper will negate the need for melting the ice with a blow dryer or a pan of hot water, and will get the ice out faster. Find the edge of the ice, place the scraper edge against the wall and on an angle to the ice, and use short-sharp-quick scrapes to knock the ice off - done right, the ice will break off in chunks. Be sure to wear gloves to guard against possible scraped knuckles. Sometimes the ice won't come completely off the freezer wall, but as long as the frost hasn't melted into a solid ice block, the scraper will wear down the frost in a few short strokes.

Once all the ice is scraped down the sides, use a plastic edged dustpan (again, to safeguard against scratches or knicks) to scoop up the ice. Put ice in bucket, and dump where convenient *. That's it. If the freezer has been open long enough where a bit of condensation has developed on the inner walls or the floor, wipe with a dishrag. Easy peasy.

When the scraping is done, try to come up with some sort of organizing system when it's time to put things back. Perhaps one bin for pork, another for beef, one for produce, etc. That will make it easier to find what you need.

While you're at it, you may as well inventory what you have while you're putting things back. Write down what you have, and the amounts. Unless you have impeccable handwriting skills, you'll probably want to transfer the information to a spreadsheet of some sort. There are plenty of different inventory sheets available on the 'Net to choose from, or use your own software or even hand letter. Be sure to leave extra space for adding new items, or new quantities.  Put the finished inventory sheet in a conspicuous place where everyone can see it, especially whoever does the most cooking.  I find putting the inventory sheet front & center on the  refrigerator door very helpful, so when I go to stare at the fridge contents, I am first confronted by the fact that yes, we DO have things to cook in the house. Gold stars if you can manage to mark down quantities as you use them.

Do you have any tips for cleaning or organizing your freezer contents? Please do share them in the comments, and together we can make life a little easier - at least, as far as freezer maintenance is concerned.

Don't dump ice on plants, indoors or out: the freezing meltwater can damage roots and possibly kill the plant. 


Resistance is Futile for Us Beginners

Resistance may take the form of making a list of what's essential or telling yourself to stick within a certain budget, but try as you might, it happens to all us beginners: we buy way too many different seeds for the garden our first few years.

Our initial overindulgence in new seeds (and seed catalogues) originates from an unholy combination of ambition and ignorance. We're excited, we want to try everything, all at once, right now! And why not, it's only $3 a packet to try! Unfortunately, we don't know how well certain plants will do in our soil, our particular little micro-climate. The seed companies aren't always helpful, either, not stating if a plant will do better in alkaline or acidic soils, or if a tomato will grow well in a container, or even if it will set fruit in hot weather (and exactly how hot is "hot", anyway?). To be fair, printing catalogs is a pricey affair, so they're cramming as much info into as few pages as possible and counting on us to do our homework. On the other hand, they're also trying to make a living for themselves, so the beautiful photos, illustrations and descriptions are set to enthrall our senses, and lure us into feelings of green-thumb optimism & omnipotence. "I just know I can grow Himalayan blue poppies in my alkaline, scorching-hot caliche soil! I must have them!!!"

A few garden battle-scarred years later, you'll eventually find your seed-buying equilibrium. You'll discover which vegetable plants do best in your garden (and which ones you actually prefer eating). You'll know which flowers thrive versus wilting & pouting, and what bugs & diseases your little plot seems to attract most. Hard-won wisdom in hand, you'll have the tools to narrow your seed/plant choices  for the next gardening season - that is, if you can resist the temptation to try just one more variety of "x". After all, it's only $3.00...

[pic: cleaning out the old seed packets - what the heck was I thinking back then? Oh, right...]


No Goose Eggs Yet?

There's been no breeding dominance fights between our ganders, Billy-Bob and Gerdy. No canoodling in the Pool o' Woo. No squabbling (aka 'shrieking') under our bedroom window for a nesting spot under the big, bushy rosemary - prime egg-laying real estate, if you're to believe the geese. The relative silence... scary.**

Last year the chaos started at Winter Solstice, and here we are near the 1st of February and no eggs in sight. Last year, the egg-laying season also lasted close to six months, instead of the usual four. I'm not sure what this egg-laying season will bring. I'm hoping for a short but fruitful season this time. Spouse was starting to peruse roast goose recipes towards the end of last season.

In other goose news: reading the current McMurray hatchery catalog, I ran across the following blurb on page 52:

"Geese can be expected to breed past 30 years of age and a 40 year old is not uncommon. 101 years of age is the record."

Holeee crap. Billy-Bob/Bobble-Goose/Bobble-the-Hut, the hunchbacked goose of nine lives, may outlive us all! I began scrambling in my brain, thinking of how to make arrangements for our squeezles after our deaths. Since then, I've read from other breeders that 15-20 years is the usual lifespan of a domestic goose... whew! Still, may have to reconsider the thought of getting some Weeder/Cotton Patch geese.  I think our current flock will keep us on our toes long enough.

** ADDENDUM: Spouse just found out that the geese, who have been hanging out under the (new to us) truck in the mornings, have been chewing on the brake lines. They may be waiting to hatch their young until after they kill us.

[first pic: goose napping on the porch, giving me the hairy eyeball as I snapped her photo through the window. 
second pic: Billy-Bob, the nine-lives goose.
third pic: proof...]

Of Mice and Various Snakes and new Duck Feed Station

As mentioned in the previous post, our region is experiencing a near-Biblical plague of mice. "It's due to all the moisture we had...