Archive for October, 2013

Winter Put-Aways

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

We’ve been busy the past several days getting the homestead ready for winter. Most of the produce is processed and put away. We got fewer tomatoes than we would have hoped, but when we emptied the dehydrator for the last time, we had a total of 1 1/2 gallons, which should take us most of the way through winter. These dehydrated tomatoes are so much better than the cardboard ones available in the stores.

We drove the motorhome to its winter home, pulled it in (an inch away from its neighbor!) gave it a pat, and said goodbye until spring. The compost tumbler was emptied, compost spread out strategically (someday I’d like to have all the compost I want,) and the winter cover was put on it. The greenhouse cover came off without mishap, was folded up and stored in the lawnmower shed.

Yesterday I unscrewed four of the six pipes that hold the big dock in place. This afternoon I got the other two out, and pulled the dock out of the pond with the pickup in 4wd low range creeper gear. It walked right out of there, and I smiled a big wide smile. I then moved the rowboat to the front pond to work on removing our watering dock. The closer I got to the dock, the harder it was raining, so we finally threw in the towel. I’m finding it harder to tough out the wet and cold… possibly because I no longer have to, since I’m retired.

There is still plenty to do outside, and I’ll keep chipping away until the snow lies deep enough to cover up what didn’t get done. It will be there for me next spring when the snow melts.

A Nice Package

Monday, October 28th, 2013

oak1

A nice package arrived in the mail the other day. Inside was some packing material and a ziploc ™ bag. In the bag was a wad of wet paper towel, and inside the towel were 14 sprouted acorns.

This was a gift from our friends from the Elk Rapids area in the northwest part of the lower peninsula. These people and Alice and I go way back… back before either of us had children. We all lived together in a small community that was dedicated to starting a school for gifted children. I call it our “hippie” phase of life, although I’m not sure our friends would agree. Once we left that place, we maintained sporadic contact with them, but it recently became so tenuous that we were afraid we’d lost them.

It seems so easy these days. Many people let their land lines go, since their cell phones do everything they need. They often change email addresses too. With them, we were down to a phone number, which I dialed. It had one of those generic answering machine messages that could have been anyone’s. And I received no call back for weeks.

Finally one day the phone rang and there they were. We had a great visit, and it turned out that we were planning a trip to their area and arranged it so we could take them out to dinner. Alice and I both agreed that when we arrived at their home and sat in their living room, we felt as though the decades that had gone by just evaporated. We were teasing, reminiscing, laughing, throat-lumping; all at the same time. We took them out to dinner and had another lovely visit, and all too soon it was time to go.

Before we left, the subject of oak trees was broached. It seems that acorns would be a good food source except for the fact that the nuts are laced with tannin, which imparts a bitter taste. It also seems that the Native Americans talked about some oak trees that had acorns that were sweet, ie they didn’t need to have the tannin removed to make them edible. The acorns that arrived in the package were supposed to be from one such sweet oak tree.

oakSo last weekend, armed with my shovel and some orange flags, I hiked our property and scoped out likely places for baby oak trees to live. I flagged them so I can visit them next spring and offer some assistance in case the little oaklings need it. What a nice thing to do for someone. It is said that only the optimist plants trees. It must be a super optimist that sends sprouted acorns in the mail.

All I Wanted To Do Was Saw

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

With all the logs I’ve gotten from the powerline expansion on our property, I’ve been trying to do some work with logs every day just to keep the project moving forward. Right now I have several good sized logs on the rack, and for the past few days I’ve been sawing lumber. That was the goal for today.

Sawmills produce things besides lumber. Logs, being round in cross section, need to be made square, so all that round is waste. The slabs are tossed off the mill as the sawing progresses, and if not dealt with can become quite a tangled mess. There is also a lot of sawdust. My relatively modern saw only takes a 1/8″ kerf from each pass of the blade, but when you add up all the passes that are made, it adds to a lot of dust. As you can probably imagine, if it isn’t dealt with, it too can become a large problem.

I had both problems today when I went out to start up the sawmill. First, I stacked slabs on my sawbuck and sawed them to stove length. Since I have plenty of firewood out at the sugar bush, I decided to make kindling out of this batch. Alice joined me at the operation and we started the log splitter and made a Scout-load of very nice kindling. I normally just stack the slabs in the shed and split them when I need them, but this year I split everything to kindling size, and I predict that next year when I start using this kindling, I’ll be patting myself on the back.

This year I put a tarp down on the ground where the sawmill dumps its sawdust. I put bricks on the corners to hold it down too. When I toss a slab, I throw it over the sawdust pile. For years the slabs and sawdust got all mixed up together, and I’d say this is a much better system. When the tarp gets full of sawdust, I need to take the time to put it into bags and move it inside the shed. That project also took some time this afternoon.

When I finally got to the point where I was ready to saw, I uncovered the sawmill, tensioned the blade, started it up, and… it started to rain! I wasn’t about to let some rain stop me after all that, so I swapped my cap for a chook hat, zipped up my jacket, and started sawing.

I got 8 nice 2x4s out of the log I managed to saw up today. In the process, I also generated some more slabs and sawdust, but that is a project for another day.

Rotten Rack

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Some years ago, I built a pretty heavy duty rack for stacking logs. This rack is positioned next to the sawmill, and with the correct short pieces of wood for bridges, I can easily roll some pretty big logs onto the sawmill. It has worked out well for me until the other day.

I was moving a log onto the rack using a chain. The pretty good sized log was dangling in front of the dozer as I slowly drove up to the rack. There was a crunch and the rack shuttered. When I took a look, I saw that I had misjudged the distance between the dozer and the rack, and had wedged the log in the gap. I’d broken the rear support board, which is a 2×8.

rack2One nice thing about having a sawmill is it is pretty easy to make whatever lumber I need. So the first log of today, I made a replacement 2×8. It was a nice day, and it didn’t take me too long to remove the 6 long carriage bolts that were still holding the broken board onto the rack. When I removed the old board, what I found was not pretty.

The 3 vertical 2x4s that the 2×8 was bolted to were all rotten. That meant they needed to be replaced too. I quickly cut 3 replacements, and went to work replacing the rotten ones. The deeper I went into the project, the worse things became. This repair would not restore the rack, it would be a bandaid. The whole thing was in pretty rough shape.

rack1After about an hour of puttering, I had the new 2×8 installed. The diagonal braces that keep the whole thing from falling over were also in bad shape, so I scrounged some good ones, cut them to length, and installed them too.

Remind me to be more careful next time I approach the rack with the dozer.

Drying Tomatoes

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

Alice and I both like fresh tomatoes on our salads and on our sandwiches. And thanks to the greenhouse, we can grow a lot of tomatoes. The problem with this lovely fruit is it doesn’t keep like potatoes or onions do. One technique we’ve developed over the years is to dehydrate our vine ripened fresh tomatoes when we have too many to eat, and then crush them onto our salads throughout the rest of the year. It is an acquired taste and consistency, but our dried tomatoes always stack up favorably to the off-season tomatoes we buy in the produce section of our grocery store.

We’ve had several people ask us about our technique for drying tomatoes, so we took some pictures during the last batch we did, and here they are:

We start with vine ripened tomatoes that don't have too many bad spots.  We make sure they are clean.

We start with vine ripened tomatoes that don’t have too many bad spots. We make sure they are clean.

The ends and any bad spots are cut out and discarded.  We are pretty ruthless at this step, because a little bad tomato can mess up the flavor.

The ends and any bad spots are cut out and discarded. We are pretty ruthless at this step, because a little bad tomato can mess up the flavor.

Next the tomatoes are dropped in boiling water for a minute or so.  This makes the skin peel off easily.

Next the tomatoes are dropped in boiling water for a minute or so. This makes the skin peel off easily.

The skinned tomatoes next go to the slicing station, where they are made into sections around 1/4" thick.  These sections are put onto the dehydrator rack.

The skinned tomatoes next go to the slicing station, where they are made into sections around 1/4″ thick. These sections are put onto the dehydrator rack.

Rather than putting the tomato slices directly on the racks as we did for the first few years, we put them instead on these flexible inserts.  They make removing the dried tomatoes WAY easier.  Before we bought these, we had to chisel the tomatoes off the racks.

Rather than putting the tomato slices directly on the racks as we did for the first few years, we put them instead on these flexible inserts. They make removing the dried tomatoes WAY easier. Before we bought these, we had to chisel the tomatoes off the racks.

I try to put as many tomato slices as I can per rack.  They'll shrink quite a bit during the drying phase.

I try to put as many tomato slices as I can per rack. They’ll shrink quite a bit during the drying phase.

Once the last tray is full, I put the lid on the dehydrator, adjust the temperature, plug it in and let the batch slowly dry for about 24 hours.

Once the last tray is full, I put the lid on the dehydrator, adjust the temperature, plug it in and let the batch slowly dry for about 24 hours.

Once the batch is dry, I just peel the liner off the rack and dislodge the "tomato chips" by bending the tray liner.  These are put into glass jars and are covered up to avoid damage to the dried fruit from too much light.

Once the batch is dry, I just peel the liner off the rack and dislodge the “tomato chips” by bending the tray liner. These are put into glass jars and are covered up to avoid damage to the dried fruit from too much light.

Hot Water

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

Now bear with me on this one. The story might get a little long, but it is a good story.

solarIn about 1984, I designed the hot water system we currently use in our house. It depends heavily on the concept of convection. In a nutshell, convection means that hot water is lighter than cold water, and given an unimpeded path, hot water will rise to the top of the system. The core of our hot water system is a recycled 50 gallon tank in a small closet in our bathroom, which is on the second floor of the house. The tank has 3 separate heat sources, all of which sit lower than it does. There is a hot water jacket in our woodstove, a home made solar collector outside, and a small electric hot water heater in the basement.

All 3 of these heat sources feed the tank by convection, which is a fairly low pressure system. This is important, because we have a lot of minerals in our well water, and over the years, the minerals coat the insides of the pipes, reducing the potential for convection. The first set of pipes to plug are usually the electric hot water heater, probably because it is so seldom used.

For the past few months, we’ve been noticing the electric hot water heater wasn’t doing its job. I bought a selection of parts and headed into the basement with my wrenches. I had Alice turn it on while I watched it work. Everything did what it was supposed to do, which left one alternative… the system of pipes was probably clogged and in need of cleaning.

vinegarOver the years I’ve devised a technique for cleaning out the system that seems to work well for us. I drain the entire system and add about 30 gallons of distilled white vinegar. Then I fill the rest of the system with water, and start up each heat source so hot vinegar solution circulates. I allow this to cook for about 3 hours, drain everything, and usually get a pound of mineral gunk out.

My technique for getting the vinegar into the system has varied over the years, but was never elegant. So this year I engineered a better system, bought some pipe fittings, and planned to reconfigure things so I’ll have a better way to add the vinegar. I’m always reluctant to tear into a functional system and make a change like this, because my experience has shown me that there are often unintended consequences. But last weekend, I hauled my fittings and tools up the the bathroom and started taking things apart.

tankI literally had the copper tubing cutter on the pipe when I took one last look at the project, and thought of a simpler and better way to do it. And amazingly, it seemed this change would use up many of the fittings I had purchased for the more complicated way I’d originally planned. I removed the tubing cutter and put it away, and went to work. It is a bit difficult to tell in this picture, but where the vinegar bottle is standing is where the new fitting is located that allows me to much more easily add the vinegar.

Things were looking up! I added the vinegar, and had no problems. I turned on the water to fill up the system with water; and again no problems. I added heat to all three sources, and that worked too. “I’m on a roll,” I unwisely said to myself. After 3 hours, there was a system full of very hot vinegar and water circulating through the system. Now the next job was to attach the hose to the drain in the bottom of the electric hot water heater, open the valve, and thereby drain the system. What could possibly go wrong?

I will say that whoever designed the valve on the bottom of the electric hot water tank must have saved the company literally dollars, versus putting a decent valve down there. I’ve only used this valve a few times in the 30 years the tank has been in use. I crawled over to the tank with the end of the drain hose in one hand, and started screwing the fitting onto the nipple. I got part way done when the cheap plastic fitting exploded off the tank, shooting hot vinegar solution all over the dirt floor of the basement. I stared in disbelief for about 2 seconds, and then attempted to attach the hose to the steel fitting that was exposed when the cheap plastic thing fell off.

There are two kinds of threads that are relevant here. Hose threads and pipe threads. The hot water heater fitting was pipe, and the hose was, well, hose. The two are close, but not compatible. All I could do was try my best to hold the hose over the steel fitting and force as much of the vinegar solution as I could through the hose. The connection was not water tight, meaning streams of hot vinegar were how shooting all over the crawl space. This went on for several minutes. My only words as I recall, as I was being bathed in this stuff was, “ugh.” It got in my eyes, making them sting, but I couldn’t spare a hand to wipe my eyes. Even if I could have, my whole body was covered with vinegar and mud anyway. A renegade drop or two of the liquid landed on the light bulb 10 feet away and blew up the bulb. So now I was also in the dark. Alice valiantly came to the door of the crawl space and offered assistance, but there was nothing I could think of she could do.

After several minutes of this torture, the system emptied itself and I was able to move around and try to pick up the pieces. I replaced the crappy plastic valve with a decent one, refilled the system with clean water, cleaned myself up, and started the sauna. If ever there was a day in my life I needed and deserved a sauna, this was it.

Several days later, we are still working with the system. We still get a whiff of vinegar from the hot water, and see traces of minerals on occasion. We can’t use our dishwasher because of the minerals in the hot water system, so we’re doing the dishes by hand. Now I remember why I put this hot water cleansing procedure off as long as I possibly can.

Good Apples

Saturday, October 12th, 2013

We have no real commercial apples on our property, but we do have a lot of apple trees. We call them “deer apples,” because it is probably the deer that planted them. Years ago, many of the old farms around here had old pastures that slowly reverted to tree cover, and apple trees are one of the trees that came in first. Some don’t taste like much, but some are spectacular. We have bad apple years, like last year, and good ones like this year.

cider1I get a lot of satisfaction from being able to make the things we use, and to be able to make those things from resources on our property. So this past weekend, I picked apples, and Alice and I made cider… 14 gallons of it. I had picked half the apples the day before, but the other half was picked as part of the 14 gallon day. I’m proud to say that most of these apples came from a tree that was pruned by Steve and me last winter. I think we must have done a pretty good pruning job.

cider3The process involves dumping a bag of apples into the yellow plastic wheel barrow and filling it with water. Alice usually helps by removing all the leaves, stems, and other non-apple material from the batch, and placing the cleaned apples into the hopper of the press. Using my massive shoulder muscles, I turn the crank on the side of the press, slowly grinding the apples into mush. Once the oak slat barrel is full of apple mush, I put the cap on, and using the handle, I squeeze the juice out. The juice runs out a hole in the bottom of the press through a kitchen colander and into a stainless steel bowl.

cider2While we are really into this project, our enthusiasm is nothing compared to these little black and yellow striped ladies. They positively love everything about apple cider. The smarter ones hang around the source of the action, but don’t get too close. Their more reckless colleagues dive right into the juice and have to be extricated by friendly humans. Fortunately for us, this time of year these hornets aren’t at all aggressive, and I flicked dozens of them out of puddles of juice while they lay stuck in the sweet juice.

I used 10 gallons of this tasty cider to make a double batch of cider wine. And I had a heck of a time getting the yeast to “take” on this batch. Finally two nights ago, after I’d finished in the sauna, I carried all the primary fermentors out to the warm sauna, added some more yeast, and let the wine brew in the warmth. It seems to have worked, because all 10 gallons are now talking to me. I put my ear close to the liquid, and can hear the bubbles coming off the batch going sssssss. If this batch comes out ok, I should get about 60 bottles. We’ll know if it is any good in a year or so.

Potato Record

Saturday, October 12th, 2013

Fall is a busy time of year. Stories have been flitting through my brain, but for the past month, by the time I sat at the computer at the end of a long day, I’ve not had the pep necessary to commit the story to the blog.

Today was a good case in point. I had to be at the Tapiola restaurant this morning at 8:00 for a quick breakfast, after which several of us on the fire department drove around the neighborhood and cleaned the chimneys for some of our elderly neighbors. We finished up around noon, after which I stopped by my friends home and held the ladder for him while he cleaned his chimney. Then up the road to work with 2 of my neighbors who I have hired to help move the logs from the powerline project (more on that in another post.) After that, I headed home, had a quick lunch (at 3:00!) and then Alice and I got a full batch of ripe tomatoes going in the dehydrator.

I’m pretty tired, but felt the need to get a story or two off my chest.

potato1We dug our potatoes about 3 weeks ago now, and had a spectacular harvest. We’d had a spate of frosty nights such that the potato tops were dead and crispy. Our technique is for the best looking of the two of us to dig a spade shovel deep along once side of the potato row, then the same thing on the other side of the row. I pulled the shovel back each spadeful, and Alice went behind me and pulled the potatoes out of the ground and tossed them onto the tarp. I’d then go behind her with my fingers in the dirt to find any stragglers she missed.

potato2Once all the potatoes we could find were on the tarp, they got their hour of sunshine. Then we sorted the eating potatoes from the tiny ones we keep until next season for planting. The eating potatoes went in double bagged paper grocery sacks, and into the storage part of our basement. I weighed each bag before I put them in the basement, and this year we got 197#, a record by about double.

I credit our spectacular harvest to two things. We had a nice amount of rain this year, and Alice really hit her stride with the potato bugs. We worked together on the bugs at the beginning of the summer, but I drifted away and she seamlessly took over. We have a small plastic cup we keep water and soap in, and Alice methodically walked the rows daily, putting the bugs into their soapy graves.

She kept up with it, and it really paid off. We’ve never had potato foliage like we had this year, and were curious to see of the underground part was equal to the above ground. The answer was yes. Alice and I both enjoy the potato harvest. We call it, “digging for gold.”