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.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Asparagus wishes

A friend's comment got me back onto something I looked into several years ago: dedicating one of our beds to asparagus.

We all love the stuff, even the girls. We're growing more and more of what goes on our table. So what's to stop us? I need more info.

There's plenty of guidance on raising asparagus in colder climates. No, I mean COLD climates, because almost all of this nation is colder than South Louisiana.

I remember my grandmother north of Detroit growing tender, tasty asaparagus from beds that she maintained for decades. Granny's still around but those beds are long gone. Her advice won't apply down here.

I understand that the rules are different for asparagus in the deep South. I know we won't have to plant as deep but I have yet to find answers to other questions about row width and plant spacing.

I scoured the Internet with no luck. I cruised the LSU AgCenter's web site and found plenty of info on pesticides. They're good folks at the AgCenter but mostly nozzle-heads.

I emailed our county agent with questions.

I'm looking forward to planting asaparagus in our garden but also to get friends involved in gardening. They said thet don't know one end of a shovel from the other.

If I can get them started on asparagus, we all know what can follow.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

They came for me in uniforms

The second day of the year was nice one here in South Louisiana. Clear with a stiff breeze. Cool but warm enough to work in shorts and a tee shirt. It was a Friday in the midst of a looooong holiday weekend. You gotta love those Thursday holidays with the thrown-in Friday off.

At least. I got to enjoy a four-day weekend. Dr. Spouse, not so much. She was at the clinic. The day after New Years, when most people have the day off, is a big day in the vet biz.

It was great day to be outside. I sorted, sifted and packed a load of finished charcoal already in my kiln, a 55-gallon drum. (Read about making charcoal here The domino effect and here Domino effect, part 2.) Then I filled it with another load of split wood. After wood splitting, loading the drum is one of my favorite parts of the operation.

The splitting is a rewarding on a physical level. My maul and I making wood do something it does not want to do. A little intellect in decoding where to make the hit followed with brute force. (If you've ever split the reluctant water oak, you know about the force needed.)

It's a guy thing: a touch brains and lots of testosterone combined with violence. Maybe that's why I can't get my daughters interested.

Splitting the oak into small enough pieces takes work. But seeing tubs full of chunks ready for the barrel or bins full of wood for seasoning gives me a sense of accomplishment. Maybe because I have a desk job.

Also, I like carefully loading the barrel to get as much wood in while leaving room for air circulation is like putting together a three-dimensional puzzle. Then I get to set it on fire.

THAT is the best part. Burn, baby, burn. (I guess that's another guy thing.)

Once the fire's burning strong, the drum lid goes on to limit air flow and the batch smolders for hours and hours as the fire cooks the wood into charcoal.

The process pumps out smoke. Not in wisps but clouds. Smoke thick enough to withstand a good wind. These pics give you the idea

Now, my little lumber camp is in the far corner of my backyard, a couple of hundred feet from the nearest neighbors who are across a deep and fenced-off canal. I've cooked up a dozen or so batches over the last three and half months. On calm days, I can create a pretty good haze. Even in wind the smoke takes time to disperse.

On that first Friday of the new year we had a stiff gusts. Not strong enough, it turns out.

While the kiln smoldered, I was up beside the house shovelling the last of a load of wood chips I had convinced some tree trimmers to dump at the house. Great mulch and almost free. (I did tip them $20.) I've embarassed my daughters in inventive ways over the years, inclucing chasing down trimmer trucks towing chippers and loaded with shredded wood.

I was loading the wheelbarrow when I heard the fire truck. The siren wailed closer before it switched off while the engine was down the block. I could hear the rumble of a big diesel engine and the hiss of the air brakes as the truck crawled by.

I left them alone. Why flag 'em down? I had no emergency.

The truck cruised by and I went back to my task. Not long after, I was in the back corner spreading mulch under our satsuma trees when I saw a fire engine cruising down the street on the other side of the canal but paid them no heed. Still no emergency here.

Another few minutes and I hear the hiss of air brakes on my side of the canal and here come a couple of our city's bravest pushing through an overgrown gate and fighting through thick weeds and into the yard.


"Open burning is against the law," the big guy says while the little guy heads for the barrel. (By this time, the smoke was more wisps than clouds.)

I warn them about the dogs. We have four and when they're in a pack, they can be a handful around strangers. Fortunately, the biggest were in the house and no clue about the commotion out back. Our Chihuahua mix, never bright and always fiesty, greeted them like old friends.

"It's covered," I say. "I'm making charcoal."

"You still can't do it."

"What if I was cooking meat?"

"That would be different," he says.

"Right," I think to myself, "I wouldn't be making nearly as much smoke."

The little guy reaches the barrel and sees the bin full of finished charcoal.

"Hey, he IS making charcoal."

They relax up and tell me a neighbor had called in a complaint. Twice. They couldn't find the source of the smoke on the first trip and took 20 minutes to track me down on the second.

I seal up the barrel and end the burn.

Then, I spend a couple of minutes outlining the charcoal process and promise to change my technique to not make so much smoke. They are suitably awed by the size of the yard (we're in the middle of the city) and get a view of the recent four-house mini-development that went up on what once was the 2-acre yard on the east side of us.

The didn't even know the houses or the private street were there.

I ask if they grill at the fire house. "Yes."

Gas or charcoal. "Charcoal."

They leave with about 15 pounds of premium hardwood lump and I'm left with a partially cooked batch in the barrel.

I can't blame any neighbor who complained. My hobby cranked out A LOT of smoke.

I haven't cooked up any since but all that split wood won't go to waste. I have two bins piled a half-cord of oak split into 4- to 6-inch chunks. I will make charcoal, just in another way. After all, my charcoal cooks great on a grill and was a big hit as Christmas presents for friends and family.

Thanks to the Internet, I know another (cleaner) method.

I'll get another, smaller steel barrel that fits in the 55-gallon drum. I'll drill holes in the bottom of the smaller barrel set it up on fire bricks inside the big drum. Fill the smaller barrel with chunks and seal the lid. Building a fire inside the big drum and under the small barrel will cook the wood into charcoal.

A well-ventilated fire in the big drum will make little smoke. Cooking the wood chunks in the smaller barrel emits tars and gasses that will burn, creating even more heat to cook the wood. Essentially, the smoke that irked a nieghbor converts to heat. It will take more attention to keep the cook fire going but keep the Man off my case will be worth the effort.

Looking back, I shouldn't have taken the easy (and smokey) way. I wasn't being a good neighbor.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sprung (the past tense of Spring)

Spring is a tease in these parts these days.

Here we are in mid-January and the redbuds are blooming, Japanese magnolias are exploding all over town, daffodils have poked up, even one of our azaleas even sports a pair of blossoms. (Sure, they're down low, lying on the driveway and no doubt benefiting from the warmth stored in the concrete but those flowers are real.)

It's all a tease.

We've gone many weeks without temps dropping below 32 degrees -- and that's only at night. We've gone more than 20 years since the daytime high was below freezing. In South Louisiana, we measure freezes more in hours than degrees. For our citrus and other tender plants, the key to surviving the cold is not how cold it gets but how long it stays cold.

It's gonna freeze tonight. Down into the 20's. That's notable, even for this time of the year. Predictions call for at least two more nights in the 20s this week.

At dusk, H. (our eldest) brought in tender potted plants from outside while I harvested the last of the cauliflower and broccoli. I left one of the cauliflowers to see how it will survive the night. I expect it will do fine.

Nothing we can do about redbuds, daffodils or azaleas but we're as ready as we're going to be for the coming chill.

With highs in the 70s last week, even the idea of a freeze seemed remote. But, we've been here long enough to know better.

Saturday afternoon, between warm downpours, Dr. Spouse and I ventured out to shop for fruit trees. We want to add another eight or so -- mostly citrus -- to the back corner of the yard. We knew we were just looking.

No matter what neat varieties or great prices we might come across, we were JUST LOOKING. We reminded ourselves that last freeze date around here in late February to early March. We found a good source with good trees at good prices and common sense won out.

After all, we told each other, we could have another freeze this winter.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mission Creep and Brutal Nature

Dr. Spouse has a perfect term for what I ended up doing Sunday: Mission Creep.

We had a good bit of rain Saturday and working the soil Sunday was out of the question. I did promise her that I would move a couple of barrowloads of good dirt (store-bought, I must admit) into one of our 4-by-8-foot vegetable beds. Dr. Spouse wanted to plant some spinach and the neglected bed needed more dirt.

(Happy and tasty cauliflower and broccoli in two of the raised beds)

I planned to prune back the muscadine vines; something that we'd never done. In the spirit of our getting more serious and focusing more attention on the productive parts of the yard, I wanted to tame those wild vines. They produced a decent crop last year but I botched the jam making process.

I also wanted to complete the tear-down on the crumbling playhouse. It will be resurrected as 6-by-8-foot hen house. I must complete that in the next several weeks if we are to join a friend in ordering chicks.

(C., our youngest, helps clean up during the playhouse tear-down)

I ended up ruling out moving more dirt into our neglected blueberry bed. The dirt was too wet and heavy to struggle with. I was as much concerned with my back as the rickety wheel barrow.

On the bottom of my list was sorting and bagging the last batch of charcoal. (Not just the latest but the last batch. More on that later.)

But those plans fell by the wayside. Moving dirt into the vegetable garden, I kept passing our huge bed of canna lillies. It's in a crescent about 30 feet long and 6 feet across at the deepest part. When bought the place a decade ago, cannas were scattered here and there. When they got in the we dug them up and either moved them ore potted them.

Several years ago, I used a rented tiller to create that big bed. I stuck down some canna rhizomes and pretty much left them alone. That's been much of our operation around here: you what we have and follow with benign neglect.

Some winters we'd clean up the frost-burnt leaves and stalks before new growth started. Some we didn't.

In passing on Saturday, Dr. Spouse asked me break out the trimmer and whack down the skraggy canna remains. We'll one thing led to another -- the trimmer balked after a fine start, for one -- and I ended up spending a few hours raking out the bed.

... And cutting a trench around the bed to keep the grass out of the cannas and the cannas out of the grass.

... And extending the trench down to a shallow retention pond to ease drainage. (This is South Louisiana, after all.)

... And moving barrow loads of canna debris, turf and dirt over to the compost and carefully forking them into a bin. (That's gonna be some good stuff in a few months.)

(Here's the lawn-canna dividing trench about halfway done with vegetable garden in background)

One thing led to another and we ended up with a fairly tidy canna bed and a bin full of quality compost-to-be. (The pruners never got within 20 feet of the muscadine vines. But hey, I've got a four-day weekend coming up. I'll put that on the list.)

At one point, Dr. Spouse came over to check on my efforts. I puffed out my chest and bragged on my labor. She muttered an appropriate level of appreciation and was about to head back to her toil in the vegetable beds when two of the dogs came ripping through a shady, treed area we call a woodland "garden."

Grim and Lucy were in hot pursuit of something down in the leaf litter. Judging that we'd seen a nearby mole tunnel that had been recently dug up, we jumped to a conclusion. They dug furiously past the leaves, into the soil and under a wrist-thick root. They dug with hackles up and growling at the other dogs who tried to push into the action.

Suddenly they stopped. Lucy, a low-slung bassett mix, quivered from nose to toes. Grim, a tall pit bull mix, had his ears at alert. Just as suddenly, they zoomed in one something a foot to the left. In seconds, Grim won. He had mole in his mouth. We heard the death squeak even before we saw the pink nose and feet.

We find mole carcasses on a regular basis in the yard but this was the first mole hunt we'd witnessed. It carried a certain small thrill, watching those dogs being the predators they are deep down inside.

I felt a pang of sorrow for the mole but it was, afterall, a pest. The pang was fleeting.

On the other hand, as Dr. Spouse pointed out, the grubs were cheering.

(Moles eat grubs, for those of you who don't know.)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Domino effect, part 2

One thing leads to another. And another. But it's all good, in the end.

Hurricane Gustav's ravages led us to decide to add more fruit trees to the back corner of the yard. (Downed trees and limbs opened up the area to the sun.)

That, in turn, led to cutting down a 75-foot water oak. (Had to eliminate even more shade.)

Looking at that felled oak led me to make my own lump charcoal. (I couldn't stand to see all that oak decompose around the brush pile.)

We have no fireplace – this is South Louisiana – but we DO have a wood- and charcoal-burning grill. I’d already cut, split and stacked enough hurricane debris to last at least two years of grilling and smoking. Cutting that water oak into firewood would be an exercise in futility. In our climate, even oak would rot long before it ever hit the grill.

Because it won't rot, I decided to make charcoal, lump charcoal.

Lump is the term for natural charcoal as opposed to the manufactured briquettes under well-advertised brand names that crowd supermarket shelves. Lump is pure wood. It burns clean and leaves nothing but ash. Almost every briquette is made from charcoal dust mixed with binders and other noxious chemicals.

I’m an avid outdoor cook – rain or shine, steaming or freezing -- and I switched to store-bought lump charcoal for grilling and smoking a few years ago. Reading about charcoal on the Internet, I’d stumbled across ways to make it yourself.

As I took my chainsaw to that downed oak, I flashed back on the idea of making my own charcoal. Ah, the Internet: a source of endless knowledge and even more diversion. A search instantly turned up a half-dozen techniques for small-scale charcoal making. I also spent hours reading about -- and watching videos of – old-fashioned and large scale charcoal making. I’ll spare you all the details.

Making lump charcoal is a simple concept: burn wood in a smoldering fire with limited oxygen. When all the water vapor, tars, gasses and other organic compounds are burned off, cut off ALL the air. After it cools for a day, you’ll have nothing but carbon: charcoal.

I settled on the easiest method that needed the least equipment but made the most smoke. (More on that in later post.) I bought a recycled and reconditioned 55-gallon drum with a removable lid. I bought four fire bricks, the kind that line fireplaces, and cold chisel. Total cost: about $50.

I used the cold chisel (never knew such a thing existed) to cut five, 2-inch holes in the bottom of the barrel. Hammering hard enough to cut a barrel to cut through steel is a loud and violent process.

Here’s the short version of making charcoal in a 55-gallon drum. I set the newly ventilated drum on the four bricks, piled newspapers and kindling on the bottom then filled it with chunks of water oak and lit it from below. Once the fire was crackling along nicely, I slapped the lid on top and propped it open with a piece of steel reinforcing bar. Then I shoveled dirt around the bottom to cut off the air flow except for a four-inch hole.

Then I let I burn.

Or, more accurately, smolder. That went on for about four hours, pumping out a steady cloud of thick, white smoke. (More on that in a later post.) Once the smoke thinned out – signifying the conversion to charcoal was largely complete – I sealed the lid and used dirt to cut off the air flow from below.

And I waited. For 18 hours. Needed plenty of time for all the coals to die out and the batch to cool down. The next afternoon, I headed back there like a kid heading for his stocking on Christmas morning. What would I find inside.

It wasn’t great but could have been worse.

The barrel –once filled to the top – was now less than half full. I stopped the burn a little early and about a third was only half burned – or brands, as we charcoal makers say. No problem. I set them aside for the next batch.

I sorted and sifted and sacked up about 15 pounds of quality, pure charcoal. I was quite delighted with myself. It worked and I would make more.

Now, the hard work began: cutting and splitting the rest of a 75-foot oak into small pieces. It was far more effort than cutting it into 2-foot chunks and hauling them to the brush pile.

But, I’ve come to love that work. Growing up, my family had mountain cabin in Virginia heated by wood. I was raised using chainsaws, axes, sledges and wedges. Back then, it was just work. Now, much later in life I can to appreciate the joys of felling trees, splitting logs and stacking firewood. (My 12- and 14-year-old daughters, however, do not share my appreciation for a well-stack wood pile.)

Rather than go the easy route and leave the oak to rot and get on with planting the orchard, I took the tough road. I sliced the trunk into six-inch disks and cut any limb thicker than 2 inches into manageable lengths and stacked them all.

Then came the splitting. What was once a chore had become something I looked forward to. Before we turned our clocks back, I had time to change clothes after work and split a few rounds. If found a sense of accomplishment in filling bins and stacks with the split wood. (By Christmas, two and a half months after the tree went down, it was all split.)

Speaking of Christmas ... we actually gave charcoal for presents this year, but more on that later.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The domino effect

Few things come easy.

At our house and in our yard it seems that every project needs prep work. Sometimes lots of prep work. I call it the domino effect: you can’t do one thing without first completing one or more other projects and those projects often spawn others.

After Gustav, we decided the hurricane created new room for more fruit trees. Two prolific satsumas give us the desire for greater number and larger variety. In South Louisiana, we can grow grapefruit, lemon, lime and orange trees. They are low maintenance and productive in our climate and soil.

Our friends and family share in our citrus bounty. I also work at canning Satsuma marmalade with varying degrees of success but that saga is for another posting.

We’ve also looked at other fruit trees and ruled out all but pears. Everything else – apples, peaches, plums – are too high maintenance for us. We have no time in our lives, nor room in our yard for anything that demands a spraying schedule.

So, Gustav’s depredations got us dreaming about a small orchard. On paper, that looks good but, in real life, few things come easy. Gustav did not completely clear the way; other trees had to come down.

We are blessed with almost 50 trees on our acre and a half: several species of oaks, a few kinds of pines, sweet gums, hackberries, a holly, elms, one majestic sycamore, cherry laurels, wax myrtles and yaupons. We are cursed with far, far too many water oaks. If you don’t know them, they are the problem children of the oak family. Often ugly, always messy, water oaks are short-lived trees forever dropping branches and limbs.

One or two may be nice but they dominate our yard. Most of the damage during Gustav came from water oaks falling on houses, power lines and roads. Not at our place. Every one survived. Including one in the back corner of the yard – smack in the middle of our planned orchard expansion.

It had to come down. No qualms from Dr. Spouse. She hated that tree: wrong species in the wrong place. Even less regret from me: any excuse to crank up the chain saw and I love cutting down a tree. I don’t often get the challenge of felling a 75-foot oak and dropping it on a specific spot.

If I did it right, the oaks crown would land smack on top of the brush pile. If I did it wrong, the worst that could happen would mean more work hauling branches a little farther to the brush pile. I grew up with chainsaws, axes and sledge hammers. I learned early how to cut split and stack firewood. My lumberjack skills aren’t razor sharp but felling a few of our trees over the years have kept those skills in respectable shape.

Dr. Spouse (she’s a veterinarian) did not share my self-confidence. She came out to watch and up her chair about 90 feet in the opposite direction from where I planned the drop the 75-foot oak. She had her cell phone.

To save time. For when she had to call 911.

She never had to pull out the phone. I dropped the tree right where I wanted. No great feat, the oak was straight and balanced easily persuaded. “That was a thing of beauty,” Dr. Spouse said.

With the rush of felling a large tree still glowing inside, I began the drudgery of cutting off the limbs and slicing the trunk into manageable pieces. We have no fireplace, just a large charcoal grill. I do plenty of grilling and had cut and split more red oak than I would burn in two years. In our climate, the bottom of the stacks would probably rot before they made it to the grill.

With that much wood already stacked (thank you, girls), the newly downed water oak was destined to rot away on the brush pile. Something deep inside me would not let that happen. I looked at that trunk and felt a primal urge to cut, split and burn. Water oak is mostly useless. Not good in the landscape (even dangerous in a hurricane) and too cranky and brittle for lumber, it does burn.

That’s when I remembered: charcoal. It stores forever and could be fun to make.

I hustled back to the internet and found myself a new hobby … and more work.

The domino effect at work.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

First planting/entry

We live in the city and we have a huge backyard.

By huge, I mean an acre and a half.

In a city of this size - about a half million, not counting outlying suburbs - a yard that size is unusual. We're not on the edge of town. We're five blocks from the main library and ten blocks from State Police headquarters.

In the 11 years we've had this place we've made many changes. This place has changed me too.

Before we bought this place I had no interest in gardening or landscaping. I have evolved, along with our yard. I've learned about composting, vegetables, fruit trees, lawn care, irises, mulch, gardening tools ... the list goes on but you get the idea.

In the last few months, my wife and I began taking a new look at the yard and realized we can make it more productive. Where there are two citrus trees, we see an orchard of a dozen or more. Where there is shade, we see sunshine. Where there is an unused playhouse, we see a hen house. Where there is a weed-choked vegetable garden, we see beds bringing forth a bounty.

This change in perspective began in September as we cleaned up after Hurricane Gustav. That storm hit our city hard. There were only two deaths but falling trees destroyed hundreds of homes and damaged many thousands more.

Four months later, some neighborhoods remain damaged and friends are still coping with repairs and rebuilding. We were lucky. A couple of trees down, a few fences damaged and the yard trashed.

Big yard + hurricane = huge mess.

Downed trees -- once they are cut up and cleaned up -- meant more sunshine and more possibilities. Gustav opened up the back corner of our yard, out behind the vegetable garden and our two satsuma trees. We looked around and realized we had room for more trees.

Our seven-year-old satsumas had been prolific producers for the last four years. Satsumas are a smallish fruit like a tangerine, clementine or mandarin orange. They are native to Japan and thrive in South Louisiana.

They taste great.

Sweet citrus in fall and winter. For free. We love that combination.

In the past, we'd toyed with the idea of planting more trees. Now, after Gustav we're doing it. Or fixin' to do it. Really, we're working on it.