Thursday, June 30, 2011

Achilles arrives

I have a lawn of sorts. It has a lot of dandelions, but you can always eat dandelions. It is enormous. I have mowed it with power lawnmowers since I got here. It is a chore. It takes me three days to do it. That is actually three hours of mowing, since after about an hour, the mower is out of gas and so am I. So I have purchased Achilles, the wonder garden tractor. It is a Troy-Bilt Pony, and you will recall Achilles was at the siege of Troy. Or so says Homer.
I bought it yesterday (at Lowe's on sale) and they delivered it today, unheard-of response. The delivery people fired it up for me, it starts like a dream. Now we all know you should read the manual before trying it out. Did I? No. Did I regret it? Yes. I confused the speed control with the mower deck height. Gave some of the lawn a very close shave. Cut two watering hoses in half. After that, I turned it off and went to read the manual. Ah, so that's how you do it!

Armed with my new-found information, I adjusted Achilles for low speed, maximum height and did the whole lawn in about 40 minutes. No effort. Fun, in fact. I have plans for Achilles. I am interested to see that Troy-Bilt offers both a snow-thrower and a dozer blade! But they warn me that a tiller would void the warranty. Spoilsports. In the meantime my lawn(oid) will stay mowed.

Achilles has his heels. Several, in fact. The ground clearance is almost nil. And he cannot mow sideways on a slope greater than 15 degrees. That means I can't do the septic tank except up-and-down. And I can't do the pasture. Too irregular. That's OK, I love to scythe. I'm in the middle of that now, and having fun too. Once I get all the alder stumps out of there maybe Achiles can do that. Or I can get a grass blade for the scythe. Or both.

And yes, it's yet another Infernal Combustion Engine in my life.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Yo ho, up goes the awning

In summer, with no danger of snow, I put up my shop awning. This allows me to work on stuff -- and notably to shave on the shaving horse -- even when it's raining. Right now it's cloudy with showers. Sun comes out now and then. My awning is an evolutionary construct. I have a huge tarp. So the idea is to hang it from the shop front. Trouble is wind, wind. When the wind blows, all previous incarnations of the shop awing came down. So here goes the saga of the shop awning. My son was very helpful, a few years ago: he put in screw eyes into the shop wall. Onto these we tie the tarp. Then we used X-shaped supports to support a beam. On this beam, the tarp. After a great many blowdowns, we have evolved a procedure.

The tripod is one of the most stable stuctures in existence. So we begin by lashing up two tripods.

What you see here is called a shear lashing, known to any Boy Scout worth his salt.
I am quite sure you will find detailed directions on the web, but it ain't rocket science. Just weave the cord around the wood, and then you have a tripod. You need two of them. The really difficult part is going into the woods and hauling out pieces long enough for the job. Don't want to cut down anything living. Next step, you need a crosspiece. Also not so easy to find. But I happened to have a 4-meter length of split birch. I used that.
Here is one tripod and the cross-beam laid on it. You will find it wise to drape the tarp over it. Now you erect the other tripod and get the crossbeam on to it. Note the ladder. Very useful, in fact indispensable. Got it at a yard sale for $1.00. Trouble is, when you start raising crossbeam, tripod tends to collapse. Solution is not bad language. Solution is to lower the tripods. Curse all you want. But lower the tripods. This makes them more stable. Eventually you get to this point:
Ahhh. Nothing is straight. Nothing is level. But the tarp is over the crossbeam and it, in turn, is solid on the tripods. Now the crossbeam is full of splinters, irregularites and odd angles. Very patiently work the tarp over the crossbeam. Impatience means a hole in the tarp, or worse, total collapse. After a while of this exercise we had a preliminary awning:Getting there~ in this kind of construction there will always be gaps and low spots. And yes the left support has to be raised. That is the least of my problems. The real problem is to anchor the right end, as you look at it, of the awning. For this I use a defunct spruce, killed by spruce beetles. I will eventually frame it off, but for now I simply tie the right end to the defunct spruce.
This brings up a very important point of tarp construction. Wind is your enemy. So you have to use flex at one end or another (or both). Above I have used bungee cord, rubber tie-downs, and even a bicycle inner tube. All found items. If it can't flex it will blow down. Be warned. Bungee and blu-tarp, we say in Alaska.

There is more to do but quite enough for today. Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Helpful Homemade Hoes

No sooner have you planted a garden than it is time to weed it. Weeds grow in Alaska -- and I suspect everywhere -- with vigor, gusto, and enthusiasm. I am plagued by dock, dandelions, and plantains, plus a mysterious weed I call the pine tree because it sort of looks like one. No doubt the Big Ag people resort to herbicides. Not this kid. Anything ending in -cide has no place in my garden. So we must cultivate our garden. This means dispatching the weeds with a hoe. Eliot Coleman's New Organic Gardener has a lot to say on hoes. Of these, one of the most useful appeared to be the collineal hoe. This is a wide hoe with a narrow, sharp blade. You use it like a broom. The sharp edge cuts the weeds off just below the surface. Looked wonderful. A tad expensive for this retired scientist. But we remember George Dyson's immortal words: "never buy anything you can make, and never make anything you can find." So...
... here is my dynamic duo. At the bottom is my take on the collineal hoe. It began life as a singularly useless Wal-Mart garden hoe ($4.00). But I cut it off so that the blade was about 10cm wide. Then I sharpened all edges with a file. Then I bent it some in a vise. According to Mr Coleman the ideal angle is 70 degrees. This thing works like a charm, as long as you remember to file it every time you use it. It is obviously useless to temper and hone the thing, because you drag it through the ground. Dull it in no time at all. I carry a file with me when I use it, for just such a contingency.

The trouble with this hoe is that while good on big areas, there are times when you need a real precision instrument, such as when you are weeding really close to a young plantlet. The hoe will zap your beets just as well as it does weeds. So, inspired by a picture in some catalog or the other, I made the chisel hoe above from scrap metal. It is about 15mm across and looks like a chisel, except that the shank is bent to the proverbial 70 degrees. Again you use it like a broom. Again you have to file it frequently. But it works! It gets into very tight places, as I hoped it would. And it has a very long handle. This saves you from bending over, which is exhausting after a while. And cramping. (The handle, by the way, came from a Village discard, which I pounced on.)

With both of these hoes you have to remember to keep the blade parallel to the ground. Thumbs up on the handle, just like a broom. If it isn't cutting the weeds it isn't sharp enough. File it some more. I use a smooth file for this purpose; as I said more (honing) is supererogatory; it is not a woodworking tool.

With the current modern fixation on quick fixes, we have lost sight of the humble hoe. There are many types of hoe. I own, in addition to the ones above, Grappa the grape hoe and something called a Polish Hoe, from Lee Valley. I think the Polish is as in Poland, not as in furniture polish. Each has its purpose. There is, for instance, something called a stirrup hoe. One of these days I might do a post on hoes in the garden. As Voltaire said, il faut cultiver nos jardin.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

End game in Greenhouse 2.0

In our last thrilling episode our greenhouse had the top cover on it. It is held down by a couple of logs and some stones in strategic locations. I want the coverings to come off easily, you see. That way, come fall, I can dismantle all but the frame if I want to do that. But we now have to enclose the ends. The ends are an uncomfortable arch shape. Offhand I cannot see an easy way to do this. So the idea was to build framing, then resort to my tried and not-so-true system: duct tape and staples. The duct tape keeps the staples from tearing out. Ok, the frame, not so difficult.
You are looking front to back. The front is of course different from the back. It needs a door. Got to get inside the greenhouse somehow. The verticals are all buried in holes. Horizontals are lashed. Not one piece of metal so far. The next step is to staple on the coverings. I reused the coverings from the old greenhouse, willy-nilly. On the back we have...
...duct tape to hold the staples -- otherwise they tend to tear out under wind stress. The still tear out. Too bad. Duct tape is cheap. So are staples. On the front we have a different system:
There is a "curtain" hanging from the center. That acts as a door. We need to get inside the greenhouse, of course. Not too elegant but it works. So I took my trusty remote thermometer and hung it in the greenhouse. I am truly amazed. This lashup (literally) is far better than my old greenhouse. With just a little sun it is about 5C better than outside temperature. With more sun it goes up to 10-15C better than ambient. I am stil trying to figure out why this is so. Greenhouses, contrary to popular belief, do not work because of the difference between visible and IR transmission. I will have more to say on this subject later. They work because they control convection. So there is something about the convection pattern in this greenhouse that makes it efficient. I will say something about this when I have it figured out. Meanwhile I transplanted tomatoes and zucchini in the GH. These guys are a bit shocked but seem to be recovering. Tense times. But perhaps this thing is really better than what I had before.

I am really sold on lashing for Alaska construction. Lashings give and take. Nails do not. And this greenhouse cost only the 6-mil visqueeen covering. I think I paid about $25 for the big roll. I used it for several previous incarnations of the greenhouse and there is still some left. And it was put together by one person with no mechanical aids, unless you count rope. I spent about $20 for rope. All in all, not a bad price.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Greenhouse 2.0, part II

So we have a set of arches. Obviously we need a ridge "beam" and that's not all we need. But wait. The ridgepole must be over 4m long, the length of GH2.0. This is all lightweight construction. So we can't just take a big log and drape it over our hard-won arch.

Before I go any further, I know you will spot lots of mistakes and corrections. I think these are extremely valuable. If everything went as you planned it, you would have learned nothing. So I am being really candid with my mistakes. Anyway, I need a very long ridgepole. Over 4m. Fortunately a very long piece of birch was available. Came down two winters ago. Long log, I call it. By using guile, cunning, my Japanese log saw, a very long rope, and the car for power Long Log was snaked out of his lair. Obviously much too heavy. So it had to be split. This was the first time I have tried to split such a long, narrow log. In order to do this with a froe, I would have had to completely rebuild my brake. So wedges it is.
Alas, Long Log has a severe wind in in it. The tree grew spirally, for reasons known only to itself. Further splitting problematic. At the left of my tool collection is my Portuguese Enxó, or one-handed adze; a very useful tool (available from Lee Valley). So I improvised. Use two pieces of alder for a ridge beam. Patch, likewise, poles for the purlins -- lengthwise pieces of wood that tie the thing together. And we have
...a greenhouse frame. In retrospect, we need another set of purlins, as you will see. But not this year. The purlins serve two purposes. One is structural; they tie the frame together. The other is cover support; they keep the cover from sagging. The purlins were pieced together from what odds and ends I had lying about. I must get those tomatoes in the ground! Now! At this point I could resist it no longer. I must see if the cover will go on at all. The cover, of course, is that old Alaska standby, 6 mil "clear" Visqueen, which is at least translucent if far from clear.
And it works! Needs tuning, of course. Also needs some ends. Now you see why I need at least one more purlin. Too much sag at the top. By the way, this construction has not one nail in it. Everything is lashed together. I find that in the Alaska winter, nails pull out. Lashings stay put. Long Log came in very handy. He is holding down the covering, helped by a few stones. I am working on the ends as we post. Stay, as they say, tuned. I want an easily removed cover, because I intend to build another GH just like this one, so I can rotate them; see last posts.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Greenhouse 2.0, part I

My old greenhouse collapsed this winter. I expected it. So it was time to build a new one. And so begins the saga of GH2.0, as I call it. My original idea was to use trees bent by nature into hoops. But a local survey defeated that idea. The trees are just too irregular. So, plan B. Inspired by Bruyere's Creative Country Construction, maybe we can get the hoophouse effect by bending saplings into an arch. Halfway. Let us try it. After some looking at the ground, I decided 3x4 meters was within reason. Actually I had my fingers crossed, and they still are. Very uncomfortable, but better than offending the Greenhouse Gods. Me? Superstitious? Never.

So I fired up Manfred the tiller and tilled the construction area.
Then we dug holes, one every meter on bothe sides, with my trusty clamshell digger, shown front and center. I went down over half a meter, the deeper the better. You can see some poles shoved into the holes. This is to guide me and put the holes in about the right place, although this is not precision engineering. When I firt tried this in May, the ground was frozen 30cm down; I had to wait till it unfroze.

I wanted to use spruce for this construction, so I started collecting spruce trees.
All done by hand. Note the new axe in the middle, a real joy. Now obviously the butt is much too thick to bend. But maybe the top could be bent. If I reduced the cross-section with FireAxe. But
Not so much. A knot in a critical place. I then pursued a double course. I took the candidate spruces to the lake and dunked them.
They are still there. In the meantime, I thought, "Hey! I live in Willow, Alaska. Why not try willow? So I raided the coppices, the most time-consuming task in the whole operation -- except for digging the blasted holes. And what do you know...
... it bent! In case the willow dodge didn't work, I only cut a few saplings, so back to the coppices we went. I try, of course, to get each branch out of a different place -- clear-cutting is evil and anyway futile, because you need something like 3 meter long branches. The bends at the front are lilac prunings from my over-agressive lilac tree. Too short, actually, but they will do till next year.

Now we have to bend the willow. Easy. Bending two at once? Very difficult. I only have two hands. After some trial and lots of error, I evolved a procedure. Put the willow into the hole. Wedge it with a rock. Tie a rope to the top of the branch. Put the other willow into the opposed hole.
Now bend the thing. Tie the rope to the opposite side. Otherwise trying to bend both sides at once is like wrestling two boa constrictors. Do the same for the opposite side. Lash the apex. And at the end of a week or so...
A little rustic. Not quite plumb but we have a frame, Houston. Needs trimming. Worry about that later.

I use greenhouses as Eliot Coleman does -- plant straight into the soil under the greenhouse. I do not use them to start seeds. This is a job for my windowsills. After a few years of this duty, the greenhouse soil is worn out. The soil needs wind and rain, snow and air. So I will build another one right next to it. Rotate. Not as elegant as Eliot Coleman's railroad system, derived by the way from 19th Century English glass-houses, but it should work. Stay tuned for the next episode.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Flailing away

Last year, you may recall, I grew some oats as an experiment. I have plenty of room, and I like to eat oats -- especially the steel-cut kind. None of this Quaker oat stuff, processed within an inch of its life. Or your life, if you believe in dietary sanity. However, I am now processing last year's oats. The thing about grains is that there are two steps involved -- sometimes only one. First you must thresh (or thrash) your grain. This step involves separating the grain from all the plant infrastructure. Second, you may have to hull the grain; remove the protective (and inedible) husk or hull from the grain.

The big boys ("Big Agro") use megabuck equipment for this task. Once upon a time you could buy hand-powered equipment to do these jobs. No longer. For the small-scale agroperson, the choices are (1) buy equipment made for experimental farms, at very high prices or (2) make it yourself. Well, said I, let's go back to primitive methods first.
So here is the really primitive way of threshing grain. The yogurt container is the receptacle for the final product. Just above it appear two sticks tied together with cord. This is your flail. Above, the raw proxuct. In order to avoid the hulling trap, I grew "naked oats," AKA avens nuda. It doesen't have to be hulled. The stuff you don't want is called chaff and it is recommended that you do the thing on a windy day, so's it blows away, but that day there was no wind and I used a (kaput) hair dryer to simulate it. Not that I use hair dryers, but they are useful for many purposes, such as blacksmith forges. Oh yes, and the blue thing is a Royal Mail postal bag, courtesy of Camden Miniatures, a wonderful place to buy books. Her Majesty's bag keeps the grain from going away. Thank you, ma'am. At the top (12 O'clock) of the picture is some of the raw material, i.e oats. But this winter I separated off the straw and tossed it on the compost heap. The straw is that part of the oat plant that you don't really want. The stem of the plant. A real thresher gets the whole plant and produces grain at the end.

The procedure is this. You place the oats on top of H.M. bag. You take the flail and beat the tar out of it. This will deconstruct avens nuda into grain and chaff. If there is a wind blowing, the wind will blow the chaff away. No wind? Ply your hair-dryer to blow the chaff away. Be careful, because you can also blow the grain away!

OK, after about two hours of this megillah I have come to the conclusion that the labor involved in the primitive procedure is not just excessive. It is impractical for one person. Need to build a thresher. Some pointers on the net (try googling thresher and homemade). Yet another project into the queue.

And, to forestall some objections: in Asia (India in particular) they build exactly what I want. But not for me. These things are not exported. Not enough market. I understand that exactly, because nobody is in business to lose money! But esteemed manufacturers in India, nowadays we have the Internet. Put up a good web page, and the world will beat a path to your door. The homestead market in the US alone might be worth it. Do be prepared to cope with the problems of international shipping. Put the word "homestead" in your web page. Just a thought.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Catastrophe overcome

We interrupt our regularly scheduled agricultural and crafts programming with our unscheduled catastrophe. As with so many catastrophes, this one deals with plumbing. I have a well for water supply, with a pressure tank. I had noticed that the pump seemed to come on rather too often. I suspected a leak in the bathroom fixtures (which still may be there) but fortunately I planted potatoes very early this morning. A non sequitur? No. When I went down to the crawl space (can't call it a basement!) to get more potatoes I found water spurting all over the place. Go back up, get the flashlight (beautiful Mag-Lite Led job) and trace the leak. Ah, yes, the concertina type pipe that goes from the hot water heater outlet to the pipe. I do not think this is the correct technical term, but it is descriptive. A concertina pipe is flexible, so it can be bent.

My setup has a severe bend in it (put there, I may add, by a professional plumber) and it broke at the bend. So I shut off the water. All human beings should learn where the master water valve is, even if they don't intend to plumb. I could have called my friendly plumber. That is $140 for the call-out fee, plus a very reasonable labor charge, plus parts. Call it $200. Hmmm. Not a bagatelle. Looking at the thing there are two screwed connections. So I unscrewed them. Off came the concertina pipe.

The next step is, obviously, to buy a new one. Our little hardware store in Willow has, in a Darwinian mode, evolved to meet most bush emergencies. Sure enough, they had a concertina pipe ($13.45). I took it home and bent it into an approximate U-shape. Problem: Concertina pipe 18" (45cm) long. The distance it has to span is more than that. Hence, sharp bends. Murder on copper pipes. So I screwed and unscrewed and bent and rebent. All this in a dark basement, water all over the place, insulation falling down, in all a very Russian environment. KGB plumbing, that's all I need. Eventually, dripping sweat, I got both ends to screw on. To do this I had to do sharp bends. It will go someday.

The obvious remedy is to get a concertina pipe longer than 45cm. A half meter would be a huge improvement and 55 cm even better. Say 20". But in this country there is something called the plumbing code. It dictates things like max length of concertina pipes. I fear that nobody makes 20" concertina pipes. We will see.

I am reminded that plumbing comes from the Latin plumbus, meaning lead. The Romans made their pipes out of lead. Lead is not good for you. But water and waste disposal is a necessity of life. So we must learn to deal with these things, within reason. So far I am $200 ahead of the game. But I still have to overhaul the bathroom faucet washers, and possibly the toilet flapper valve. Stay tuned.