Saturday, May 29, 2010

Zucchini Miracles

The garden has its beds, and I have started to (trans)plant. Before I started, for the record, it looked like this.
But the real stuff is happening in the greenhouse. May 26 shot:
At left the tomatoes. They had almost no transplant shock, which I attribute to the crossword puzzle pots. Middle, chiles; left zucchini. When I went to water today, I beheld junior zucchini, busily zucchining (or whatever it is that these veggies do).

The zucc in the middle is as long as my finger; if you look carefully there is another on the plant above. In fact two, and in fact again, all the plants have fruited. In May! This may be SOP for Iowa, but not for Alaska. I attribute it to the fact I started these guys early and moved them to individual big pots. Since my window space is limited, I can't do that for everyone.

Meanwhile, after a week of incessant transplanting, my garden looks like a trauma ward. Like Louie in Casablanca, my plants are shocked. Shocked! I keep my fingers crossed. It happens every year and I forget it the next. I water, but I have not yet resorted to the Dark Side of the Force. Obi-Farm approves.

Multipurpose tool, or Archimedes to the rescue

Last year and earlier this year, I about completed the clearing of what I call the "East Pasture". It seems to have been a pasture at one time -- goats, no doubt -- but was overgrown in brush. The trusty scythe, loppers, and japanese saw did the thing.
Notice my visitors. These are Sandy and Cindy Sandhill Crane. They came in one evening, making an awful racket. They haven't returned, and I haven't seen them in the meadows. But I digress.

There were major trees in there, 12cm and up. The saw dealt with those. But that leaves stumps. Now earlier I showed a picture of Archimedes the log-raiser; I use it all the time for getting logs off the ground so's I can saw them up. Archimedes, however, is versatile. He can also pull stumps.
Wrap rope around stump, attach to Archimedes. Leverage works every time. Archimedes cost me nothing; I even salvaged the bolt from somewhere. Some of those trees have two meters of root! Can't do that by just pulling. Still a lot of stumps to pull, though.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lettuce sallies forth

Gardening in Alaska is always a dilemma, when May 15 (the ides of May) rolls around. Should I plant now? What if there's a frost? From my records, the last frost is mid-may; but one year there was -0.1C on June 6. Bother! However, gardening is gambling. We can always seed. But the earlier you get the transplants in, the earlier you eat. So today (after much dithering) I got the lettuce transplants into the ground.
Hedging my bets, I cloched them. Cloche is the French word for bell. In the 1890's these (with glass bell-like jars) were common practice in Europe, an individual plant greenhouse, in fact. They have been superseded, largely, by row covers and hoophouses. Some people in Alaska, indeed, use big glass jugs with the bottoms cut off. But it is much easier to use plastic containers, top and bottom cut off. I collect these things. Almost any transparent container will do; but the labels have to come off. You can cut the 'tainers off with a knife, but I wait until I have a batch and then fire up the bandsaw. Much faster and neater. Later in the summer, I feel I am drowning in a sea of cloches. At this time of year I never have enough.

In the greenhouse we have tomatos and zucchini. Tomorrow, the jalapeños, I think, cloched and greenhoused for insurance. These need all the time that they can get to grow in these hostile conditions.

The garden addition has its beds. Forward the garden! And we have more planting to do in the ur-garden -- and ... I am completely worn out. Fortunately, this only happend once a year.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Oat Patch

With Manfred on hand, I returned from my bike ride to Corner Farm and tackled my oat patch. I have determined that oats grow well in Alaska -- better than any other grain. Close seconds are wheat and rye. So I ordered some Naked Oats from Johnny's Selected seeds in Maine. Let us see.

I decided, in a complex decision process that involved my own endurance, the condition of the ground, the obliquity of the ecliptic, the SU(3) symmetry group, and plain old guesswork, that 5 meters by 5 meters would be OK. The original plan was for 10x3 meters. That's 30 m2, and is based on Gene Logsdon (The Contrary Farmer) and his book, Small-Scale Grain Raising. If you Google on Gene Logsdon, you will find his refreshing blog, and all his books. Gene says that this is adequate for one family ( translating gringo units to something human). OK, 30 square meters it should be.

So, thought I, 25 m2 isn't too far off ; this ground is awful; it is full of stumps, roots, junk, and for all I know dinosaurs. That's 5x5. Good enough. Gas up Manfred and we are off.About 45 minutes later, we have an oat patch. You can see it behind Attila and Manfred, parked side by side. Tillers are marvellous. But they require quite a lot of muscle. My tractor has wheel brakes and can turn in its own length; a tiller has no such convenience and you have to horse it around turns. But it did it. It would have taken (literally!) years to clear this much by hand, at my age anyway. I was quite wiped out when I finished.

No rest for the weary. Time to do the beds in the garden extension. This, I must report, is hoe-and-shovel work. Exhausting. But the nice thing is that the tiller has broken up a lot of the sod, roots, and old boots -- so not quite so exhausting. More follows.

At the end of the day, I am bone-tired but happy. We humans must be wired up for working the soil. Why else would anyone work so hard? But I am satisfied.

A visit to Corner Farm

I have developed my own nomenclature for various geographical points in my vicinity. Somtimes it is very abbreviated, such as SMPL for "Snow Machine Parking Lot." Now, there is a block of land along Crystal Lake Road dedicated to "farms," always a subject of intense interest to me. So today I rode my bike (morning exercise) out to Corner Farm, which I named because it is at the corner of Deshka Landing road (officialy known, ominously, as "Mishap Road") and happened to run across the owner. This is a real farm. It raises potatoes and vegetables; the owner, Don, used to farm in Palmer. Palmer, AK is the county seat of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, better known as Mat-Su. Back in the 30s, full Depression, the government social-engineered a relocation of indigent Minnesota farmers to Palmer. Some of these farms still function qua farms, but avaricious real estate developers can't wait to convert them into suburbs, reaping enormous profits. So Mr. Corner Farm, whose name is Don, relocated to Willow. I am very glad he is here. Maybe I can learn something about farming at first hand. Our conversation, however, was about tractors. Don has a lovely little Massey-Harris Pony.
This is a 1940-50 tractor; I will have to look it up to give you better dates. Sloppy scholarship! Still -- you can see the frame of a cultivator bolted on to a tractor. Before the days of pesticides, cultivators were used to control weeds, and I for one am very sorry they aren't used more instead of chemicals.

This little Pony gem, however, is too small for many operations on Corner Farm. Don has a big Allis-Chalmers 100+ Hp diesel and a Farmall 600. My Farmall H is 1947; his is a bit more modern, 1960s or so.

Lovely visit. Glad to have met Don. Maybe I can learn something from a real farmer.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The arrival of Manfred

Since I started the garden at Chalupy, it has been obvious that sooner or later I would have to resort to mechanized means. I realize that in the middle ages, such means were not available, even if you were wealthy. But then, life in those days was "short and brutish", as I believe Hobbes put it. The hard part of gardening is taking ground that hasn't been cultivated in a long time and making it plantable. This ground is overgrown with junk, "sod" is the technical term. There are roots, weeds, and junk to a depth of many cm and it takes forever to get them out. I did the first garden by hand and it was a lot of work. I enjoy work. But there is a limit!

My first attempt at mechanization was to acquire, at a yard sale, an ancient tiller, which I call Tillie. She was in sad shape when I got her.

On the other hand, she only cost me $10. I was sure that what I would learn from her was worth the investment. I was right. I learned how to install "distributor" points (it is really silly to speak of "distributor" on a one-cylinder engine!) , how to rebuild a carburetor, and many other things. On these contraptions, you have to pull the flywheel to get at the points, quite a production:
Tillie's points have been replaced. Amazingly, all the spares you need are available at Lowe's stores at minimal cost. After this episode, Tillie had a sparking spark plug. Now, if it it only could get gas, it would run. So I looked at the carburetor. This was a Briggs and Stratton contraption, and took some research but eventually I found a rebuild kit for it via the internet. The only hangup at this point is the throttle arrangement, I cannot for the life of me determine just how it works. The original was very badly hacked. I am sure Tillie will run but I am still not sure how to rig the throttle (not to mention the governor, which keeps the engine from blowing up).

At this point Attila entered my life. He comes from one of the abandoned houses in the village, whose occupants came to an untimely end or moved away. With the aid of my son, I hauled this thing away from its grave.
This was a heroic effort; the blasted thing must mass 200 kilos. But we did it. And now I had another old engine to work on. However, it is not really hard to do this; you do need a bit of resourcefulness. First you get the spark plug to spark, then you worry about gas supply. This guy is easy, he has electronic ignition. No spark? Get a new unit. The carburetor was shot and required replacement or rebuilding. So I replaced it.

So, after some trouble, Attila ran. So I ran him, vibrating, complaining, loud (muffler kaput) but running, over to the patch, figuring out the gearshift as I went, and determing that the "T" setting on the shift meant "till". When I got to the garden, I put it in "T" and... bitter disappointment! It wouldn't. The transmission is broken. It is a very old tiller: parts not available.

So It was time to stop fooling around. Today, I went out and bought a brand new, rear-tine tiller. If you are wondering whether a rear-tine or front-tine tiller is for you, the asnwer is simple: old simple, ground: front tine will do. Bad ground (what I have) rear tine. So, Manfred (after Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron) came to Chalupy.
An 18" (45 cm) tiller, just the size for my beds. It took several people to load it into my little car, but I was able to unload it by rigging a ramp.

So read the manual, oil it, gas it, and let's see:
My gosh, it tills! So out to the patch I had to open up. And about 45 minutes later...

The size of my garden has been doubled. In 45 minutes. It would take me days to do that by hand. Manfred has been fantastic. New stuff, of course, tends to work (except in computer software).

More tilling in the works. I am tired. You have to muscle the thing around corners. It's a workout! But I've doubled my garden area in one day.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tabula Rasa

There is a knock at the door. I fully expected a bunch of boys, wanting swords, daggers, maces, axes, and perhaps Kalashnikovs -- all in a day's work for the Chalupy Mideval Arms Emporium. But No. Three girls. Batting their eyelashes with an expertise that would make Scarlett O'Hara green with envy, they want to make a table. They have a clubhouse, you see. Their treehouse collapsed, but they have either reconstituted it or cobbled up a substitute. Or their doting parents have; I wot not. Anyway, they need a table for their clubhouse.

Well, all of these ladies have Irresistible as a middle name, so we set to work. My daughter recently replaced her dining room table. I hauled off the pieces. So it was a matter of sawing a full-size dining room table to size and attaching the legs from the defunct table. The Ryoba saw made reasonably short work of the sawing, and pretty soon we had something resembling a table.We used screws -- and a power driver -- to attach the legs to the table. Although I hate power tools, there are times when instant gratification overrides all other considerations. At left, Irina; at right, Neoneela, at center is Irina's niece. I am ashamed to say I have forgotten her name. You can see what I mean by Irresistible, can you not?

After the table was complete, they wanted to spray-paint it. Not what I would do. But one remembers that instant gratification is the name of the game. The Chalupy paint stores were ransacked for suitable paint. Pretty soon we had a go on painting:

Out of all the chromatic possibilities, they settled for black. Amazingly, they did not paint their Sunday dresses, nor each other! Nor, for that matter, me. We let the stuff dry, and I sprayed some urethane varnish on the top.

There are far worse things to do in life than to make three girls very, very happy.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Beryozova Shkola Graduation

The social event of the year, the Beryozova school graduation, took place last Tuesday. I wouldn't miss this for anything. We have poems. We have songs. We have speeches. As a sample, we have the proud kindergarten graduates (complete with mortarboards) reciting poetry:
Possibly they were singing Russian songs; I took pictures but no notes. This year, the high school graduated three girls; they chose pink and black as class colors; mirrored in the reciters (or singers) above. Here are our lovely high school grads:
They were serenaded by the lower grades:

Added value was provided by a puppet show:
These are very bright kids, and they work hard. They collected an incredible assortment of certificates and awards:
The tricolor ribbons are from the "Olympiada" or Olympics, a statewide competition for Russian-language children. The village cleaned up!

This school would not be what it is without its Principal, Margaret.
Margaret is at left in blue, standing with all the graduates: Kindergarten, eighth grade, and high school. At various times, Margaret got to the school on skis, four-wheelers, four-wheel-drive, and walking. It is relatively recently that we have an (almost) all-season road.

Finally, the graduates made their speeches, and were presented with their diplomas.

After this, there was food, Russian food prepared by the proud and hard-working mothers of the village.

The Beryozova school may be small, but it can hold its own -- indeed, is way ahead of -- any factory school that I have seen in Alaska, and most other places to boot. Long may it flourish.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Tomato Transplant Operation

The snow is gone, except for a few random patches that don't get much sun, such as the former glacier where the snow slides off the roof. So thoughts turn to agriculture. My windowsill is full of greens. But we have a major project: get the tomatos (or tomatoes, whatever the proper plural is. Strunk & White recommends adding -s and so I shall).

Whatever the grammar, we must get the tomatos out of their flats and into transplant pots. You can buy peat pots, of course. This is 180 degrees away from my George Dyson philosophy (never buy anything you can make, and never make anything you can find), so I make my own. I used to employ newspaper for the purpose. Unfortunately newpapers are now all largely colored, and the colored inks are poisonous. Fortunately, a kind friend always gives me, for Christmas, the New York Times daily crossword puzzle desk pad; best crossword in the nation. But that leaves me with a large number of pad leaves. Aha! Make pots out of them.
At left, the cardboard tube I use as a former. Wind the puzzle around the tube, press in the ends, tape it for safety, and voila! a pot. A finished pot immediately to the left of the tube. The flat (plastic tray, otherwise castoff from some food product) immediately to the left of the tube. Transplants at the center. Microshovel (see below) inside flat.

You can buy pot formers from (among others) Lehman's Non-Electric Catalog, but why bother? Get a cardboard tube (paper towel roll, for instance).

Using a micro-shovel made from a piece of sheet metal castoff, carefully extract the plant from the flat, microshovel in some dirt, tamp it down with a chopstick, and you're done. Water it! This will start the decomposition of the paper. It will also rehydrate the plant and minimize shock. When it's time to plant, shove pot, plant and all right into the ground. I usually open up the bottom when I do this; less work for the plant.

Modern Industry will gladly sell you pots, tools, and seeds. I do buy the seeds. If you freeze seeds, you can use your leftovers next year; even if you don't you can reuse them for at least one year. Some of those tomatos are '08 vintage. I have not yet learned the art of letting X go to seed and then collecting X seeds. If you use hybrids, then you will not get away with gathering your own seeds. Hybrids, by definition, do not breed true.

Some people say they cannot have a garden because it is too expensive. I don't understand that attitude. Most of the things you need are in your kitchen garbage can! There is a blog out there called "Free Man's Garden" by a gentleman called Eleuthero. Unfortunately the blog has not been updated since 2007 or so. The photos have vanished. But Mr Eleuthero makes me look like a spendthrift. You can google it if you like; but without the photos it loses much of its value.

The ground is still wet. There is also frost 20 cm down. Can't work it. But today I spread manure (bought, unfortunately; but it's cheap) and compost (homemade) over the garden. Also the winter's ashes. Alaska soil is very acid; the ashes counteract that to some extent. I will also lime it.

Patched up the greenhouse -- thanks to some careful winterizing, it came through the winter almost intact. Now to wait. All gardeners and farmers must wait on the weather. Unless, of course, you own a heated greenhouse. Midas I am not; I too wait on the weather. It's a good time to clear brush, another post; but there is next winter's wood to get in. More things to do than there is time to do them!

New Construction in the Village

Walking down the road the other day, I saw a new construction project in the Village.
You can see that the kids have built a wickiup or teepee or survival shelter or...
and a very healthy activity, too. Totally unsupervised, and much better than sitting around watching television.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Mystery aircraft identified

After a bit of research, yesterday's Mr Waco has been identified. It is really a Stinson Gullwing Reliant. More info here.

This aircraft is 1930s (could be a wartime version, though). The key is the gull wing.