Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Screwing around, cutting up

I've been trying to squeeze time out of the evenings to hammer on our under-construction hen house. These days there's an hour or so between when I can steal home from the office and the time I call "do dark to work." The days are growing but they do it slowly. (I miss daylight savings time.)

I've used weekend time and those "between" hours to build the floor and frame up four walls.

Weather has not always been cooperative and family demands take priority but I'm determined to have the coop and run finished in a couple of months.

Last Saturday brought a bustle of activity. A gaggle of friends. Saws cutting. Drills screwing. Hammers driving nails.

Not one cut. Not one screw. Not one nail for the coop. A full day's work and nothing for the yard.

We were all out in front of the house working on our Mardi Gras float. The annual Spanishtown parade -- Baton Rouge's largest -- rolls this coming Saturday and we used the good weather last Saturday to finish construction on our float. We still have plenty of decorating, sign-making and costume crafting ahead in the next few days.

This is our 20th year in the parade and we're looking forward to setting out with our usual lack of taste and class but loaded with plenty of fun, sarcasm and alcohol.

I'm looking forward to sobering up and breaking out the hammer and nail apron. (Float photos will follow soon.)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Sprouty, sprouty, sprout, sprout

The seeds we started last week under our new lighting system began sprouting a couple of days ago.

Woo hoo.

This is the first time we've tried starting seeds indoors. (Tip O' the hat to Marc at Garden Desk for the inspiration: )

The first bit of green (cukes and zukes) popped up just five days after I started them. In the next couple of days tomatoes (three varieties) and jalapenos began showing themselves. Today, I raised one of the lights for the first time. Had to make room for the vigorous zuchinis.

Except for the light fixtures, everything was scavanged from around the shed and yard. For years we've had a heavy-duty stainless steel rolling shelving unit that we scrounged from a neighbor who moved. It's served mostly to store junk. Now, the top shelf is perfect for starting seeds.

We didn't have any watertight trays the right size to fit under the lights, so I made one from 2x2s and a scrap of rubber pond liner. (I tried to throw those liner bits away several times, but Dr. Spouse wouldn't let me. Sometimes, marrying a closet packrat has a positive side.) I even found chain to hang the lights from the shed rafters.

I've thrown out old plastic seedling cells in the past but never got all of them. Thank goodness. They're plenty useful now.

The 2' by 3' tray is a bit smaller than the 4-foot flourescents but it works fine. The watertight pond liner gave us the perfect way to water: pour it into the tray and let the soil wick it up to the seeds. As you can see, that works just fine.

You can see the frame, pond liner and the light reflecting in the water
After forgetting to shut off the lights the first two nights, I broke down and invested $15 in a timer. Nothing comes easy in my life. The first --and cheaper -- timer I bought took two-prong plugs. Of course, our lights have three-prongs. Thank God, our locally owned hardware store is five minutes away.
We're into a steady warming period -- with daytime highs in the 60s and 70s, it's already Spring here -- and the unheated shed has proven to be the right place for this project. (We don't have basements in South Louisiana.) Lights don't bother anyone and the messy combination of soil and water ain't a problem out there.
Because we can easily control moisture content and provide more light than Mother Nature, we'll keep this system going for a few weeks, even after these seedlings are out in the garden.
Now, I'm off to read up on the care and feeding of seedlings and about hardening off in preparation for planting.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Honey, I crushed the dog and other lumberjack adventures

The dog is my wife's favorite. Chili is a feisty and yappy chihuahua mix. The only lapdog in our four-dog pack. (All mutts. All rescued in one way or another.) Dr. Spouse babies that dog like no other mammal in this household. A couple of years ago, we spent an unholy pile of money on back surgery for him. (I'm glad we did but don't let Dr. Spouse know.)

OK, I didn't really kill the dog but I came damn close. The weapon? A 70-foot water oak.

The oak was destined to come down last fall as part clearing the back corner of our large yard for our burgeoning citrus orchard. (Hurricane Gustav gave us more sunlight in that corner and inspired the idea to add to our pair of stasumas.) That means the tree's going and it's time to get me out of the way.

All went to plan. The tree tilted by a few millimeters. I shut off the saw, stepped back and pulled one plug from my ear. The gap grew in slow motion with a sound I love: that crackling of the uncut trunk ripping apart; the whoosh of leaves a branches heading toward earth and that final, satisfying siesmic thump.

One problem. Chili.

He'd decided to bask in the sun and watch me work from a spot under the now-falling tree. I didn't see him until the oak was on the way down. Time slowed but I never had a moment to yell at him. He looked up at the falling tree and decided to get up. He looked up at the tree falling faster and decided to move. He looked up one last time at the tree, realized just how fast it was coming, and turned on the afterburners.

In my mind's eye, I can see a branch as big as my wrist came within inches of smacking him. That's seared into my memory.

I don't remember hearing much of that tree going down. The rush of adrenaline left nothing in my ears but the pounding of my heart.

Dr. Spouse heard/felt the thump of felled tree and came out of the house to investigate. She found Chili waiting at the back door, shivering uncontrolably. I learned a lesson: lock up the dogs before you break out the chainsaw.

I did just that last Sunday when I set out to take down the last tree in our orchard corner, an old elm damaged by Gustav. It stood a few feet from the under-construction chicken coop. I figureed I should finally take it down before I put the walls on the coop's floor. I didn't want to tempt fate. If something went wrong, I'd lose the floor and not the walls.

With the dog's locked up and C., our 12-year-old, watching from a safe distance, I went to work. (Dr. Spouse sent her out with a cell phone. Just in case.) The trunk was thick and I struggled with the notch and I struggled with the back cut. I had resort to pounding a splitting wedge into the backcut to start the elm on it's way down.

One more quick cut with the saw and the tree started ... to fall ... directly at the satsumas.

I yelled. "Oh, NOoooo."

C. remembers me yelling something else as I watched the elm head right for those beloved and productive satsumas. (We got about 200 pounds of fruit from each of them the last three years.)
I'm sticking to "Oh, no." I'm sure that's what I yelled.

I had a lot of time to think as the disaster unfolded: how would I explain this to Dr. Spouse; at least it's missing the coop; maybe it won't be so bad. I'd like to say that I prayed but Divine Intervention did not cross my mind.

I didn't ask for His help but I got it.

As the elm fell to south (I wanted it to go west), it twisted and rolled to right and missed the satsumas by 6-8 feet. Branches gave a small fig an improptu pruning but it will survive.

I heard the thump this time. A most satisfying sound.

That's C. looking at all the wood she'll have to move. The satsumas are on the right.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Imported from Facebook

Some of my Facebook friends prodded me into participating in a current Facebook fad: writing "25 Random Things" about yourself then posting it for all to see.

I saw another garden blogger do this. I'm a copycat.

1. I used to hate this town.

2. When I was 14 I went to a canoe camp in Canada and took a 32-day canoe trip. I heard loons. I saw the Northern Lights. I learned one of my counselors was deathly allergic to freshwater clams.

3. I am building a hen house in our backyard.

4. Dr. Spouse and I lived together before we had our first date.

5. Rat traps scare the shi’ite out of me.

6. IPA

7. Emily and I once hiked to a Native American village at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. In a near-tragic jumping-in-the-creek accident, I lost a big toenail. I managed to walk back out.

8. I believe in knowing how to drive a standard transmission

9. I have heard the voice of God. He’s a He.

10. I was the first white person ever to enter the home of Pops and Sugar Adderley, the parents of jazz greats Julian “Cannonball” and Nat Adderley. I was in a wicker basket. It was 1959.

11. I have read the 20 volumes of the Patrick O’Brien Aubrey-Maturin series four times.

12. I actually taught Sunday school. Some of those children have grown into productive adults. No murderers so far.

13. I spent my junior year of high school as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives. No, nothing “happened.” (Perverts.) School was from 6:15-9:45 a.m. Then we worked. $600 a month was BIG money in 1974-75.

14. August 9, 1974 was a great day in American history: Richard Nixon resigned. I was there.

15. When I moved to Austin in 1978, I took the bus. I had three suitcases and $75. I knew ONE person in that town. It all worked out.

16. I spent my honeymoon in the back of a red Toyota pickup. It was Spring Break. The white bass were running on the Pedernales River outside Austin. It was her idea.

17. I have a creepy clown watching over my living room.

18. Toll House cookies are best eaten raw.

19. I’ve run a krewe in the Spanish Town Mardi Gras parade for 20 years.

20. It’s a girls’ world. I just live in it.

21. I was baptized at 37.

22. La Gloria Cubana Serie R. No. 5

23. I don’t get to name all the pets in this house but I do have veto power.

24. There is life after journalism.

25. The farther I go on my journey the more I know that I don’t control where that journey takes me. I have faith.

Accidental artichokes

I was hustling into our farmers' market last Saturday with plans to get milk and maybe something green before I had to hustle back out. (A deadline was pulling me back home.)

Zipping in, that's when I saw them: a tray of artichoke seedlings out on the plant peddlars' table. That stopped me in my tracks. I glanced, I looked, I remembered my deadline then continued to the local dairy truck set up at the other end of the block.

With milk in my certified-organic, free-range mesh shopping bag, I stopped to buy fresh broccoli (our own bed was well picked over) and paused here and there before I returned to the plant peddlars'.

Then, I went nuts ... just a little.

I bought four "Green Globe" seedlings. At the time, I considered four plants as restraint. I wanted the entire flat. I chatted with a couple of little old ladies hovering by the table. Yes, they are real. Yes, they grow in South La. Yes, they do fine in the right-sized container.

Cash exchanged for plants ($8, total) and plants in a bag, I was home in plenty of time. I announced to Dr. Spouse that I had a surprise: artichokes. Great.


Where are we going to put them?

Some quick research (the Internet can be useful) showed me I had overreached: ideally, they need 12 to 16 sq. feet EACH. That's a lot of space to dedicate in our raised-bed garden. And, they'll need another year before they bear. I realized that I could squeeze two into a corner spot but what to do with the other two?

I tried give one or two away with little success. Too big, friends said.

Then I had a realization: think outside the box. Or, more accurately, think outside the raised bed.

We've already decided to rip out a bed of yellow flag iris (more on that project in coming weeks) and put in okra. I can plant at least two of the 'chokes outside our bedroom. The bed is raised with good soil, great drainage and full sun. The southern exposure means they'll do great in our mild winters. I just need protect them from trampling dogs.

Now, we've decided to plant a couple of watermelons out front and put more okra in with ornamentals here and there.

Maybe buying too many artichokes wasn't an accident.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

God said no

I came home this Saturday morning with a load of 2x4s and a couple of sheets of plywood: oh boy, hen house construction can finally begin.

I've been mulling over the design and daydreaming about construction issues for months and weeks. The girls and I tore down their old playhouse several weeks ago. We salvaged what we could and found the 8x8 floor was in great shape under the sodden plywood floor.

Now, I could to finally take hammer into hand. Nail down that plywood. Frame up some walls. I even had a used prehung door I bought at Habitat for Humanity's Restore.

I do OK with a hammer, a drill or a circular saw but I've never tackled a construction project this ambitious and Saturday was the day.


God had other ideas. Like rain and a cold front. For you Northerners, that meant the temp plummeted from the upper 60s to the lower 60s.

It wasn't much of a front. And, as Dr. Spouse said, "I am glad for the rain." It WAS a good rain. Small drops falling easy. Just right to wet the soil without washing anything away.

She helped me appreciate the rain. I just could have appreciated it even more on a weekday.

Since I couldn't nail, I sorted nails. And hammers and screws and rattail files and a variety of other stuff. Last weekend, Dr. Spouse and I started cleaning out our shed.

It's big for a shed -- 20 feet by 16 -- but it had become such a jumble that we only used the 20 square feet just inside the door. Venturing beyond could be dangerous.

We ripped out rotted paneling and matted insulation. We tossed old hoses and busted yard gear. We swept out old hay and piles of rat leavings. (I briefly wondered about composting ...)

In short, we resurrected the space. We now have room to hang flourescent lights for a seed-starting operation. We found tools we hadn't seen in years.

When the rain chased me inside, I spent a few hours sorting through boxes of tools, fasteners and junk from my late father-in-law. They'd been in the leaky shed for eight years.

Vintage power tools but most don't work. Hand-crank drills. Tee-ninecy screw drivers. Small handsaws of several flavors. And, a couple of dozen coffee cans full of nails, finishing nails, common nails, masonry nails, deck screws, metal screws, lag screws, carriage bolts, eye bolts and even a few regular bolts.

A few hours sorting left me with a cabinet full of jars and cans holding enough nails and screws to build a hen house.

Now, Lord let it be in your plan for some dry weather. I hope to don't mind if I try and get in some hammering on the Sabbath.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Should have ...

Today should have been a day spent in the yard. Building on the hen house. Raking leaves. Turning one of the compost piles. Instead, there was an estate auction around the corner.

Spent more time and more money than we should have but we made out.

This neighborhood is a little more than 50 years old. Modest brick ranch-style houses with modest yards. (Our one and a half acres is a glaring exception.) When we bought this house from the heirs of the original owners 11 years ago, most of our neighbors were original owners. That’s changed over years.

The P’s lived a half-block away. We knew them only in passing. They passed on within a few months of each other last year. Their children put most of the contents of the house up for auction. It started at 10 this morning. Dr. Spouse and I were the among the first to arrive at 8 to scout it out.

A few items caught our eyes. A Danish Modern coffee and end table set, a style that fits our mid-Century house; several tables displaying well-cared for hand and power tools; a stand of solid yard tools and three boxes of canning jars.

During our preview visit, we asked about the 20-odd potted plants huddling in one corner of the yard. “Are they for sale?”

“If you want them, they are. You just might get the lot for three bucks.”

Joining a throng of strangers to sorting through and put a value on the lives of others can be disconcerting . (I cannot bear to watch strangers paw over my possessions. When we have a yard sale, I’ll help with the prep but make myself scarce before buyers actually arrive.) I wondered why the family left some items for sale. But then, I had no idea what mementos and memorabilia they kept.

That voyeuristic feeling largely evaporates when the bidding starts. Auctions are a thrill and I’m prone to jumping in with enough common sense. Today, I largely kept my head. Dr. Spouse joined me while the auctioneer was working his way through the house.

We had vowed to stay away from the tables unless the bidding remained low. And it remained quite low. We snapped them up cheap. Less than half what I thought they’d go for. They are decent pieces. Originals, but not top-of-the-line. We’ll see if we can sell them – mid-Century modern is trendy these days – if we can’t make some money, they fit nicely in our house.

Then there was the rush from bidding. We were both quivering when the bidding ended. Even H. , our 14-year-old, said she felt the tension. I’m always amazed at the adrenal surge I get at auctions. Yes, it’s competition and it's quick thinking but I still don’t I fully understand the source of that rush.

Dr. Spouse had to head to the clinic before the bidding moved outside to the tools, the plants and the canning jars. I managed to restrain myself – mostly. I behaved at the yard tools: one nice straight-edged spade and a triangular weeding hoe ($5 each). I really don’t need three 100-foot outdoor extension cords or a bench vise ($20 total). A $10 box of assorted screw drivers, pliers and tape measures -- I can never have too many tape measures – later revealed a prize: a well-made, long-bladed pruner.

At least, I thought it was some sort of pruner. A half-hour on Internet shows me I’m wrong. They are high-quality German poultry shears, new for $60. Woo-hoo.

But, the real prize was the canning jars.

Three boxes and a deep Rubbermaid bin for $10. Later, I spent a half-hour sorting and counting. Several non-canning jars ended up in the recycling bin. (Dr. Spouse rescued a couple with grape-vine details. “They’re cute.”)

The tally on the jars:
27 half-pints (nine never used)
39 pints
11 quarts
Plus 3 wide-mouthed pints and 4 quarts.

All told, almost 38 quarts of emptiness ready to fill. Gonna be a big garden this spring and summer.

Now, I’m thinking about pickled okra in the bigger jars, jalapeno jelly in the smaller ones. We’ll tackle tomatoes for the first time and – if we can find a cheap pressure canner – green beans. Oh, that garden’s going to be big.

We’ll expand our vegetable growing outside the confines of the fenced garden. I’ll convert a troubled bed of Iris pseudacorus that’s been overrun with the much-cursed morning glory (oh, how I loathe that vine) into an okra bed.

The three beds of tomatoes we’ve talked about will expand to four. Thanks to inspiration from Marc at The Garden Desk, we’re going to try and start seeds indoors this year.

Our next step: finding a pressure canner. See this great post at Simple, Green, Frugal coop.

We also came home with all but two of those potted plants: a half dozen hibuscus, a bromeliad and some odds and ends. The pots are decent but mostly plastic. We'll have to find bigger and better pots for the hibiscus. One's already showing peach blooms but they're all crowded.