Tuesday, March 25, 2014

He Plumbs, He Bakes

I snapped this photo of Brandon while he was laying out the pieces of drain he needs for the bathroom on the floor of Lowe's.  As if a shopping list of drain parts and suspenders wasn't nerdy enough, I caught him pushing his glasses up with the classic technique of finger to the nose piece.  Too funny!  

Brandon has been wrestling with shower installation.  And I mean he has been actually wrestling with the shower, because it was extremely heavy and he didn't even have my wimpy muscles with him to maneuver it in place.  And because the first shower he bought, loaded into a truck, unloaded, and tried to cram into the house all on his own, wouldn't fit through any of our doors, even after he took the doors off the hinges, he had to wrestle it back to the store and go through the whole process again with a two piece shower.  He said he felt like he had been wrestling with a pro, and lost.  In the photo above you can see the uninstalled shower on the left, and the wall that Brandon had to remove between the bathroom and the kitchen where he is sitting.  Nothing is ever as easy as we think, and we never think anything will be easy.  

The reason the back of the shower is pushed into the kitchen is because the room we are making the bathroom is on a concrete slab, and we needed the drain for the shower to go behind the slab.  We couldn't build up the shower base, and put the drain on top of the slab because the room is so short that the we wouldn't have been able to stand up in the shower if it was raised more that an inch or two. There are somethings that would be easier to do if we were building from scratch.  Trying to fit a bathroom into this old house is liking working a giant (and heavy!) puzzle.   

Once Brandon plumbed the drain, and built a base for the shower, we ran the garden hose into the shower so we could check for leaks in the drain lines.  It was very cold on this day, and Brandon casually directed me to take my shoes off and stomp around in the shower while the water was running so he could see of there was any pressure on the pipes that would make it leak.  Haha...What?!  He wasn't joking either.  Luckily I found some rubber boots to wear.  I doubt real plumbers assistants give themselves frost bite to check for leaks!

I may give Brandon a hard time when it comes to his plumbing, but I have to give him credit for his recent mastery of the bread machine.  He can bake bread!  Be still my beating heart.  Of course, he's been more motivated to learn to bake bread since I stopped making it or buying it.  I didn't intentionally stop buying bread, but for a long time I got in the habit of making it, and it tastes so much better and costs so much less, that when I stopped making it because I wanted to stop eating it, I got out of the habit of buying bread.  Once Brandon figured out how easy it is to use the bread machine he's been perfecting his technique and is now bread independent.   

Once we were pretty sure the shower drain was going to work, the next step was to build up the floor on the kitchen side and then frame in the walls.  

After seeing the final framing of the shower, I've been teasing Brandon by saying that if there's ever a tornado we won't need to go to the creepy root cellar, we can just stand in the shower!  He really enjoys his carpentry, and is not stingy with wood, so this shower is going nowhere.  A work friend recently made a comment about being afraid to visit our house since we were doing the work ourselves and have what he thinks to be a cavalier attitude about building inspectors.  After thanking him for the vote of confidence, I tried to tell him that with Brandon behind the hammer, everything is going to be extra sturdy.  Besides, this house has been sheltering people for over eighty years, and I've seen how rotten and unstable the boards were that we've taken out.  I'm not worried, the shower will protect us.      

Installing the shower turned into a much harder job than I anticipated, and it doesn't even have water or fixtures yet!  Thank goodness we only have one bathroom.  

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bear Sighting! And the Garden Gate Latch.

Do you see the bear at the edge of the forest?  See it's dark menacing shape, right behind the chicken coop, when looking through the living room window at mom and dads house?  

Here's a close up.  It looks like it's standing on it's hind legs, sniffing in my direction!  I did a double take when I saw the bear, and told mom what I was seeing.  Instead of being alarmed, she just said she sees it all the time too.  What?!  

Here's what the scary bear looks like when you walk up to him.  Not a bear at all, just a flaking dark stump in the woods.  Shoot.  I must admit that I was only momentarily fooled into thinking the stump was a bear, but the shot of adrenaline that I received in that quick glance was plenty enough excitement for me.   I'm not sure my brain immediately understood the shape as a bear and not a Sasquatch, but either way it was a momentary thrill.  Growing up in those woods I was never afraid of running into a bear, probably because no one ever reported seeing one there.  But, bears have been seen in the nearby mountains, so it's always a possibility, and there were many times when I convinced myself that I heard big foot howling, or saw his dark shape moving through the trees.  

A garden gate latch may not be as exciting as a bear sighting, but for mom and I, rigging up the latch was a great accomplishment, and deserves to be photographed and recorded for posterity.  We had no help from manly muscles and manly power tools, so it truly was an accomplishment for us.  Armed with a screw driver and a scrounged up L-bracket and a shoe string, we completely remodeled the garden gate latch.  

The old latch configuration required that we reach behind the gate post and around the electric wire to fumble for the lever which unlatched the gate.  Closing the gate required putting your back into lifting the gate an inch while simultaneously pushing on the gate post to correct the angle, all the while aiming the two pieces together and gritting your teeth until you heard the click that let you know it was okay to let go.  The whole process was made even more interesting by the closeness of the electric wire that runs up the gate post to the fence charger, so most of the time I was holding my breath too, bracing for a shock.  It took quite a bit of dexterity and practice to operate the gate, let me tell you.  Our new gate latch has a handy string which can be pulled to release the lever without having to reach around an electrified pole.  It's genius, if I do say so myself.  And after moving the latch location on the post and the gate, it now swings closed all by itself, hands free.   It's the little things in life that really make all the difference!  

Here you can see the gate from a distance, and the little house on a pole near the gate, which used to be a bird feeder, but now shelters the electric fence charger and it's timer.  The garden fence was a weekend project for the whole family early one summer.  Even the nieces helped me dig holes for the posts.  The woven wire fence isn't stretched super tight, like it would be if it was supposed to contain a cow or other large animal.  Our goal was to keep the deer and chickens out of the garden, which it does pretty well.  What it's doesn't do well with is keeping out the the groundhog or the rabbit.  The groundhog can eat a bed of snap peas or sweet potatoes in a single night, and the rabbit was so smart that she had her babies in the garden fence right next to the lettuce patch.  

When I would tell many of my friends that we were having issues with a groundhog, they would recommend that it be shot. It's just a ground hog, right?  Well, Brandon, mom, and I were discussing how to accomplish this one day (which shows you just how irritating it was to have the groundhog treat the garden as a buffet) when we noticed the groundhog at the edge of the forest.  He stood up on his hind legs until he could almost reach the blossoms on a wild daisy, then he bent the plant over and munch the blossom off.  Then he waddled to the next stalk and ate the flower, doing this over and over all along the edge of the woods.  He was adorable!  We all looked at each other, said "awww" and decided that we couldn't shoot him, he was just too cute.  I mean, he eats flowers!  Wimps.  So that's why the garden fence has an electric wire along the bottom on the outside, to keep the groundhog and the rabbit out.  It's only six inches off the ground, and it's on a timer so mom can set it to go off during the day when's she's out there working.  It's a solution that allows for harmony with the local wildlife.  I doubt it would work on a real bear though.    

Monday, March 17, 2014

Chickens Labor in the Garden

On one of those precious warm days last week, when the snow and ice were in retreat, and the sun was so bright it gave me sunburn, I was lucky enough to be home from work early and spent some quality time in the garden organizing the spring clean-up chicken patrols.  

Helen and Mrs. Hall have a list of garden duties which they perform without complaint and with very little supervision.  They have egg laying duty, of course, and also soil fertilization chores, which they gladly perform.  They gladly perform it better in some places, like on my concrete elephant, than others, but I'm not complaining.  Pest control is a chore that they work at diligently, eating insects, and scratching up ant nests.  They've even been known to kill voles in the garden when they can.  Thank goodness chickens are small, because they peck at anything that moves and I'm not sure they would have the patience to make sure they weren't eating their keepers if they were dinosaur sized.  

One of their most exciting chores is to aid in soil preparation for planting in the garden.  This means they get to use their feet to scratch all the old plant residue up so they can get to the dirt and eat hidden bits and bugs.  They love this job, but they aren't so good a moving big tangles of dead plants, so they need my help to get started.  

This is the first year I didn't remove the asparagus stalks in the fall.  I left them up all winter, and once I got over the guilty feeling of not having done a fall chore, I decided I liked the texture they added to the back yard, and the habitat they provided to all the little birds which fluttered around in them through the winter when they were trying to hide from me and the dog.  I checked the blog, and the first spears of asparagus were harvested in early April last year.  This means it was time to cut the stalks, and let the chickens do a little clean up.  

I did learn something interesting about chickens while wielding my machete to chop old asparagus stalks.  I wondered if chickens would have an instinctual fear of an iron blade.  I mean, chickens weren't created just to be back yard companions to nerdy gardeners, like myself, but primarily to be eaten, and I thought that thousands of years of throat chopping might have resulted in some natural aversion to having a machete near the throat.  You know, like how they take cover when a hawk flies over the yard, even though they have never been attacked by one.  Turns out, they don't naturally fear weapons, not really.  I stalked my chickens and pretended to threaten them with my machete and they didn't even blink.  They just scooted over like they would be more than happy to let me by.  It could be that they know I was faking, or maybe they could tell that not only do I have terrible aim, but that my bade is about as sharp as a plastic butter knife.    

I don't know if you remember my loving complaints about the morning glory vines that took over the back corner of the garden last year, but the photo above shows just how much they spread by the end of the summer.  I don't even want to think about the battle I will have with them this year.  

This photo is the same area last week.  The dead vines look like they are in mounds because there are hidden tomato cages buried in the tangle.  What a chore!  Even though it seemed futile, I took pains to pull every seed head off the cages so I don't transport more morning glories as I move the cages around.  

Even before I had the vines out of the way, Helen and Mrs. Hall were working hard to get the soil ready for plants.  They were scratching and pecking their little hearts out.  I appreciate their dedication to their work.   

As an incentive to really get them focused on the areas that need the most work, I have been sprinkling cracked corn the weediest spots before I leave for work.  In just a few days they have really made a difference.   

The chickens are my year round compost turners.  Every day I dump our kitchen scraps in the pile and they dedicate a large percentage of their day picking through it for tasty bits and earth worms.  In the process they deposit fertilizer in the compost, and do a pretty good job of keeping it mixed up.  

After cleaning up all the morning glory vines, I raked the compost into a bucket, and sprinkled some on each of the raised beds.  

This got the chickens extra excited since there were now new tasty bits and earthworms in each bed to scratch for.  As I write this, they are probably out there working to turn the compost into the garden soil.  Good chickens.  Imagine what I could accomplish if I had a few pigs to put to work!  

And since I've been bragging about the usefulness of my ladies, I might as well mention that when I look in my lopsided little bird house on the back fence, I find that the nest inside is made with lots of chicken feathers!  Also some mud and trash, but it's the chicken feathers that look the most cozy.  Even the local wildlife knows how to put the chickens to use.  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Second Window and Garlic Progress

What's better than a window?  Two windows!  One of the first big tasks that Brandon tackled when we started working on this old house, was to replace a broken window in the dinning room wall with a new one.  I was very impressed with his accomplishment, and bragged about him here.  As we've been spending more time in the house we've mentioned to each other several times that it the interior of the house seems more dark than the house we live in, which has lots of big windows in the living room.  Of course, some of the darkness is due to the lack of lights and electricity, and also because the walls and floor are woody brown instead of painted, but you can never have too much sunlight, right?  The photo above shows the original window location, which Brandon replaced, on the right, and the brand new window that he installed near the end of February on the left.  Twice as much light.  Nice.  Now that I can see all the old bricks and other junk piled on the cistern from the inside, I feel very motivated to do some outdoor cleanup.   

In this photo you can see the new window from the outside.  We debated putting in one large window in this location, but after shopping for windows and looking a how expensive big windows are, and considering how it would look with the other small rectangular windows in the rest of the house,we decided to just add a second window next to the existing one.    

As I was outside admiring the new window it began to snow giant wet flakes.  They were so big that when they would fall on me I could feel their weight, like they had substance.  They were so fat and juicy that they made plopping noises when they landed.

I can really tell how far we have come as builders when I consider my level of amazement at the installation of the new window.  When Brandon replaced the old window at the beginning of this project, I was super impressed with his accomplishment, and couldn't believe that he figured out how to replace a window which he had never done before.  I wasn't even there to fetch things for him, hold things in place, and second guess his every decision, which I consider an important part of every job.  Now, nearly a year later, he can cut a new hole in the house and put in a window starting from scratch, and I nearly forgot to mention it on the blog!  He's going to have to raise the bar.  

The little green sprouts in the foreground of the the picture above are garlic, from the cloves I planted just a few months ago.  So exciting to have something growing in my new garden!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Postmortem Honey Harvest

Even before mom and dad wrapped the bee hive with a blanket and some black plastic, to help insulate the hive during the extremely cold winter weather, we suspected that something was wrong with our bees.  Last winter, we could always see a few bees flying in and out of the hive, even when temperatures were low.  This winter, the hive was suspiciously inactive.  

During a break in the cold spell, on a warm weekend near the end of February, mom and I suited up, fired up the smoker (without Jamie, so I nearly caused a forest fire), and invaded the hive.  When we first approached the hive, I got a little excited because I could see honeybees, just a few, flying in and out of the front entrance.  But, when we removed the cover and the small super on the top we knew that our fears were not unfounded.  There was no soft vibration to indicate bee buzzing in the depths of the hive.  It was still, and the frames, which normally have bees crawling all over them, were unoccupied.  Many of the frames in the top super had honey capped with wax in the upper half, and I'm sure that's why we could see honey bees going into the hive on this warm day - robber bees.  See the dark colored frame in the center of the super in the photo above?  I could see bees between the frames in that location, but they weren't moving.  

All that remained of our hive, which once had thousands and thousands of industrious ladies, is this small clump of dead bees.  It was sad.  They were huddled together like they are supposed to be, so they can keep each other warm, but there weren't very many, and there wasn't any honey in the immediate vicinity of the cluster.  I think they may have starved because all the honey that was left was too far away to reach without freezing to death during the polar vortex.  

We dismantled the hive and collected all the frames that had honey.  Most frames were not completely full, so we cut the wax and honey from the frame and left as much of the honeycomb intact as possible so our next bees can spend less time building wax and get straight to making honey.  

We put the chunks of honey filled comb into a big bowl, and used our hands to squeeze the honey from the wax.  This is not the most efficient honey extraction method, I'm sure, but since we are a very low tech operation, I think we made a pretty good job of it.  I felt like I was getting to play Winnie the Poo when he sticks his entire hand in the honey pot and then licks his paws.  Being coated in honey up to my wrists is great fun.  And you really can chew beeswax like chewing gum.  

In this picture you can see the vat of recently extracted honey, and the tray of fist sized wax balls that were left over after our squeezing technique was applied.  This is a very messy job!  Great exercise for my fingers and forearms too.  

After pouring the honey through a fine sieve, we filled the honey jars mom has been saving for just this reason.  The honey is a darker color than the honey we stole in the summer.  The flavor is very nice, but doesn't have a very sharp "honey" flavor, if you know what I mean.  It's definitely sweet and tasty. 

I think we got twelve of these small jars filled, plus we got a few more pints of honey after we melted the beeswax.  

To melt the wax, and separate out the honey that we couldn't squeeze out, we stuffed the wax into jars, and put the jars in boiling water.  

It didn't take long for the wax to melt.  Once everything was liquid, we took the jars from the hot water and left them to cool.  

Wax floated to the surface, and cooled to a lovely yellow color.  Beneath the wax was a layer of brown gooey stuff.  I'm guessing a lot of this is the pollen that was stored in many of the cells of the honeycomb, which the bees store and eat during the winter.  Or maybe the brown goo was something even more gross, but I'm going to tell myself it was pollen.  Underneath the wax and brown stuff, was a layer of honey.  I don't consider this honey to be raw anymore, since it was in the boiling water, but it tastes the same as the other honey.  

After scraping all the solid wax from the top of the jars, we melted it again to it would separate some more and so we could add a candle wick to our jar of melted wax.  

In the end, we had a nice big bees wax candle in a jar.  Plus all those jars of honey!  It's a bummer to lose our bees, but at least we got one last harvest and had fun playing with the beeswax.  We put all of our wax and honey covered dishes out near the hive so the robber bees could clean them up.  Maybe the robber bees are living wild in the forest, and maybe they will survive until the spring blooms if they can scavenge from our hive.  Loosing the bees wasn't as devastating as I imagined, because really, now that we have gained a little experience with the equipment, handling the bees, and processing the honey, I know that we can do it again.   All we have to do is order more bees.  

Monday, March 3, 2014

Finally, Some Seed on Dirt Action

I'm only slightly off schedule for starting seeds this year, but given the extended cold spells we have been experiencing, it's probably better to be late with the seeds than early.  At least that's my excuse.  It's harder to get in the spirit of spring when everything is frozen. Even so, last week I planted cabbage, lettuce, chamomile, fennel, egg plant, and onion seeds and everything has already sprouted except the egg plant.  Four inches of snow on the ground, but the garden is officially growing!  It has begun.  

At the end of last summer a gardener friend of mine visited all the local Dollar Stores and bought up a bunch of seed starting trays for twenty seven cents each.  He gave me three trays and told me to keep my eyes peeled for other end of season deals.  I never had a chance to take advantage of the sale, but I did use the trays he gave me for these early seeds.  It's been very handy when the temperature drops and I need to carry them into the house.  My early efforts to get my seeds organized are also paying off, as I knew which seeds to plant by looking at my notes on the front of the package.  And the plastic labels I cut from milk jugs are working perfectly.  So far, so good.  

I used an organic seed starting mix, and probably should have made it wet before I put into my trays because I had the hardest time making the soil damp without washing it, and my seeds, out of the tray.  This stuff floats, so now my seeds are sprouting in strange places instead of the neat grid pattern I laid out.  

I spread my gear on the big work table in the garage, which happens to be near where the cats have their meals served.   My proximity to his food bowl caused poor old Max to get very excited, and it didn't matter how many extra servings he got, he was convinced that the only reason I was there was to dish out more food and scratch behind his ears.  He can be very insistent, and the entire time I was trying to drop teeny tiny onion seeds in the little pots (all one hundred and forty-four) I had to work around him, his high pitched meowing, and his annoying tail.  

It's surprisingly hard to take good pictures of a wiggly cat with a cell phone, but that didn't stop me from trying.  

I have dozens of blurry cat photos like this one to show for my efforts.  But, encounters with animal life are one of the best parts of growing a garden, right?
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