Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The finishing touch: Putting siding on the house

Now that things have cooled down a bit and the days are much shorter, I haven't been doing quite as much outside.

This is the winter sun coming into the house through the south facing windows. When the sun is at its lowest at this time of year we get the most sun in the house. It will heat the house to near 70 degrees on days when it is below freezing outside, even if we haven't used the wood stove since the night before.

Our first really hard frost came about two weeks ago and I went out the evening before to harvest celeriac, beets, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and chinese cabbage.

The carrots are mulched but I'll probably pull them and put them in my root barrel. Up until last week we were still eating fresh tomatoes we picked before the first real frost that happened in late October. It's been nice to have these fall crops. At Bobolink eating co-op, I think we are the only people in the village still eating dinners of lots of fresh local vegetables. We are enjoying salads of Chinese and regular cabbage tossed with carrots and scallions. We have root bakes of carrots, beets, and potatoes and soups of all these veggies combined. I love celeriac. It's a gnarly vegetable, but it sure is good in soup.

We were still in the process of reorganizing the house up until about a week or two ago. I got a new dresser from the demo I got my siding from. It was just sitting in this building I was taking down and it looked like someone had started stripping it with the idea of refinishing it, but they never finished the project. I brought it back, liking the fact that it was well made, tall, and spacious. After we cleaned it up and put linseed oil on it, we realized how pretty the veneer was, though the veneer is chipping off in spots. It just barely fit up through the door to the second floor.

Mary Beth brought a bookshelf back from her house in Kirksville and she organized all my books on it. We also brought upstairs a dresser we found on the curb on our visit to Madison. It is a pretty piece of furniture too, and we think it is from the early 1900s. We found a little stub from a train ticket for a Milwaukee intracity train from the '20s stuck in the top drawer.

We had a housewarming party last week that many in the village came to. We had around twenty people packed in the house. Many were getting their first glimpse of Wisteria Lodge in its more or less finished state. We decided it was time since we'd organized the inside of the house the way we wanted it.

This is the kitchenette we set up so that Mary Beth can make her meals since she is no longer in an eating co-op and so that I can make cheese. It's pretty makeshift, but it works for what we need it for.

This is a little shelf for some of our homemade wine and canned goods. We canned these pears we picked at a friend of Mary Beth's house in Kirksville. They are the biggest pears I've ever seen--and they taste good too.

The siding is the last thing that we are working on now, and it's almost done.

It's interesting to cover new ground in building and try my hand at learning new skills. I had practiced doing siding on my garden shed, so I did have some experience with that. But the soffits were something new to me. I was able to get some boards with shiplap, so they fit together and overlap, sort of like tongue-in groove. I had to do the soffits before I could do the siding.

The big challenge though in this project has been power. We had about two weeks straight of cloudy weather and I can only use my power tools when the sun is out or when the batteries are charged, and we were all on almost the very lowest power level by the time the sun came out finally. We've had sunny days for the last five or six days, some of them, like today, beautiful and temperate. Today I was working on battens. I just have trim around the windows, and the rest of the battens to do. As you can see, the house looks much better with new siding.

Mary Beth and I also had a visitor staying with us recently. Kyre the kitty stayed with us for about ten days and we were sad to see her go. She was very cuddly and really the perfect cat in every way. We were taking care of her for Mai'kwe while she was away.

I forgot to put up a picture of my solar panels mounted on the roof, so here it is. Unfortunately, my new solar panel that cost me $500 is now only putting out half power for some reason. I'm going to have to have it sent back, so at the lowest light time of year, we're at half power.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Finish plaster and floors

It has been a whirlwind of home improvement the last few days as Mary Beth and I moved all our stuff out of Wisteria Lodge to do the finish plaster and refinish the floors.

With winter coming soon, we knew we had to get going on doing the finish plaster on the walls to seal up any drafts. Last year I put on the scratch coat of plaster, but because I hadn't done the trim there were large areas around the windows and door that were not completely sealed. The finish coat of plaster is supposed to leave a smooth, beautiful wall that will totally seal up the walls. We started by organizing a plastering workparty, at which others from DR would help us get a lot done in a short time so that the plaster coat would be as smooth as possible. If you don't do the finish plaster all at once there will be transitional lines visible that mark where you left off one day and started the next. Unfortunately, even with our workparty, it took us two days to finish. But we did get a lot done with others helping. These kinds of "barnraising" parties happen often here at DR with everyone helping someone do with many hands what could not be done with just a couple. Like the other day when we all helped Ziggy lift a 35'x35', 400 pound sheet of pond liner up onto the roof of his new house. Check out Ziggy's blog to see what I'm talking about.

We had to do a lot of prep for the workparty, because I wanted to have as much plaster ingredients ready to go so we could get people plastering as quickly as possible.

We had to collect manure from the nearby pasture, gather cattail heads from the pond, sift clay and sand through hardware cloth, and make up wheat paste. All these were the ingredients in the plaster mixture. The cattail heads are broken up to yield cattail fluff, which in finish plaster done the same thing as straw in the scratch coat--it adds structure and stability to the plaster by stretching in between the grains of sand and the clay.

The sand and clay are screened to remove the larger stones so that the finish coat will spread on smooth. The manure stinks at first when the plaster is wet but not once the plaster dries.

Unfortunately, though we tried to prevent it, cracking did happen on some of the walls. This could have been from having a plaster that was too wet, or not quite the right recipe, or because of the composition of the scratch plaster. I think our recipe was fine, but I think sometimes we added too much water to the mix before applying it. Mary Beth and I used the same plaster to do the entire upstairs and there was very little cracking. But it is hard to say for sure what the cause of the cracking was.

After finishing the plaster last Thursday, we were considering the idea of renting a sander and doing the floors as long as we had everything moved out. We quickly made arrangements to have someone pick up the sander for us in Kirksville, and to get us some low-VOC polyurethane, a less toxic and harmful water-based version of the typical polyurethane most people use on their floor to protect it. The weather forecast showed that we could expect sunny days on both Saturday and Sunday, and we would have to have sun to be able to use so much power at once. Using a machine like a sander on our of-the-grid systems would quickly drain power from the batteries on a cloudy day. We usually wait for sunny days to use power tools and big appliances. Saturday morning was not as sunny as predicted, but by the afternoon we were able to test the sander. We plugged in to the common house power with extension cords, but the sander didn't seem to be getting enough power. We tried more heavy duty extension cords and switched to the Milkweeds power system, which was closer, so there would not be as much power loss over the length of cord. The sander was working better, but would shut off after about 5 seconds every time. There was a lot of work being done on the Milkweeds mercantile as they tried to get the building plastered in one day, and we thought maybe there was too much drain on the power. We also thought that maybe the sander was too much of a power drain and we were too far away from the power source. We thought that if we couldn't use the Milkweeds power, it probably wouldn't work on any power system here. We gave up upon finding out from the rental company that using the machine with an undersized system could blow the motor and cost about $400. We thought maybe we'd have to return the sander without even having sanded the floors.

That evening we asked around and came up with some ideas for things to try the next day. First we tried plugging the sander directly into Skyhouse's large power system. It worked fine and wasn't shutting off, so we knew the power system or the extension cords were the problem and not the sander. We hooked up the heavy duty extension cords to the common house system and though the cords were much longer than those going to the Milkweeds the previous day, the sander worked fine. It must have been that the Milkweeds system was not able to handle the sander's power drain. So we finally were able to sand the floors.

It took us most of Sunday to sand both floors and by evening we'd put on the first coat of polyurethane. Now we've got newly plastered walls and a finished floor and we are moving our stuff back in.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fall is a busy time

So Mary Beth, my girlfriend, and I have been working hard and making progress on various projects in the last few weeks.

I started out a few weeks ago doing more demolition on a local barn to get wood for my house. I was able to salvage enough barn siding to side my garden shed, which looks much better with a face lift. No more ugly OSB. Now I just have to do the same for Wisteria Lodge, the house I've been living in. Anyway, I'm hoping to get some good posts and beams from the barn, and possibly a lot of firewood. It's sad to see beautiful barns like the one we are dismantling fall into disrepair. Because of a bad roof, most of the wood, hundreds of 2x6s, 2x8s, 2x10s, and tongue-in-groove flooring, is rotting away.

We put tongue-in-groove flooring in the second floor of Wisteria Lodge a few weeks ago as well, we finished up the trim around the window and door, and now the house is ready for the finish coat of plaster. We have a plaster party planned for tomorrow and hope to get help from community members so we can finish the plaster in a short time--maybe even in one day.

Last week we had the concrete poured for the bond beam on the foundation for the other house I started last year. We spent a couple days building the forms over the urbanite foundation and they did their job well, as the bond beam looks solid and level. Now that I've got a lot of wood, I should be ready to do the framing. I didn't make it as far as I thought I would this year, but gathering the materials can be the biggest challenge here, and that's what I've spent a lot of time doing. I plan to frame the house partially with post and beam from the barn and partially with 2x6s and 2x10s from other demo projects.

A couple weeks ago I mounted my solar panels on the roof. With a donation of metal framing pieces from Tom, I was able to set up the panels so that I can adjust their angle to make them face the sun as it move lower and higher in the sky. The amount of energy the panels are collecting has increased greatly since I moved them up to the roof, since on the ground they were getting shaded out by trees.

With late season warm weather, the garden has continued to flourish and provide tons of delicious veggies like eggplant, tomatoes, carrots, and tons of sweet peppers. Now the fall crops are beginning to come in and we'll be planting garlic soon. Next year I won't be gardening for my eating co-op, and I'll focus on building, the vineyard, and my own garden. I would like to garden on a larger scale, but would prefer to be at least a little mechanized, because it was a lot of work handling the Skyhouse garden, and I still felt like we didn't produce enough food simply because of space limitations. I'd love to grow beans and grains in addition to veggies. Of course, it will be easier when I'm not having to grow food for 7 other people.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The summer is flying by

It's been a busy season and my camera has been on the fritz for the greater part of it. I've been reluctant to buy a new one because I'd rather not contribute to the creation of another disposable thing made in China. So now I've been handed down a camera second hand and I'm back in business taking pictures for my blog. This season I have been kind of overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I've had to do. It's inevitable in this place where we are trying to build a village that I should get distracted by everyday community activities having to do with helping keep the village running and growing. I've also been consumed by the task of gardening for the Bobolink eating co-op, which has been a struggle with the weather this season.

Fortunately I have been making progress on some things. So far the vineyard, though a little nibbled by deer, seems to be surviving and growing. I've been harvesting black locust trees from out along Woerhle Rd to use as posts for the trellising system the vines will grow up. Black locust is a very rot-resistant tree and makes posts that last as long or longer than treated posts and grows like a weed along the road. Using real tree trunks for posts will also, I think, give the vineyard a more natural look. I will be installing the posts this season and they should be pretty well settled by next spring when the vines will be trained along them.

Some greenwood cuttings of vines to be planted out in the vineyard. I took the cuttings a few weeks ago. They only take a couple weeks to form roots and will be established in the vineyard by the end of the season. This is a much quicker way of multiplying my vines.

Last year when I came here, I brought a bunch of vines from Madison and ended up having many extras which I gave away to others here, creating sort of a boom in the grapevine population here at DR. Rachel planted a few of these vines in her garden and this year one already produced a significant crop of grapes. Since she was away for the harvest, she allowed me to take the grapes, and I'm making a small batch of wine with them. It was inspiring to see such a harvest of beautiful grapes in such a short time from my own vines. Of course mine are not fruiting yet because I had to temporarily store the vines in a nursery row while I waited to get access to land to plant. I expect I should have a small crop next year in the vineyard though and the following year the vines should be close to full bearing.

Another project this season has been researching and buying a power system. Right now, I am typing on my computer powered by my own solar power. I was able to get some of the components for my systems second hand from Tom, another DR member. I also bought some batteries, an inverter, and another solar panel. It's not a huge system, but big enough to power my simple needs in my small house. I should be able to power a stereo, lights, a laptop, and a few other low power items with the current system even during the short days of winter.

The garden has been a mixture of success and failure this season--I guess as it usually is--but maybe more failure than I'm used to. The early and heavy rain delayed planting not just for me, but for most farmers in the region. I planted potatoes three times and still most of them rotted in the ground. Next year I will wait and plant them later to avoid the wet weather and to be able to harvest them closer to winter, when its easier to store them. But the rain here continued through July, so it made things difficult for many crops beyond potatoes. Fortunately, some crops like peppers and eggplant are flourishing in the rain, and are the best I've ever grown. The rain also made establishing the vineyard much easier because it meant I didn't have to irrigate to get the little vines root systems going.

Another efforts this summer has been gathering wood for building. Since all the wood we use if building has to be reclaimed we all have to either buy used wood from local people who take down houses, or we have to do the demolition ourselves. I've been working on scavenging wood from a couple different places. Recently I was getting some barn siding from a local barn. I'm using this to side my garden shed and my house. I also hope to get some posts and beams from the site for use in my future house, the progress of which has been set back slightly by the fact that I've decided to make it bigger than originally planned. I have also completed taking down a small house in nearby Rutledge from which I was able to get many 2x4s, 2xs, and sheets of plywood and OSB.

These are some of the peaches from the Dr orchard. It's been really great to have fresh fruit again this season. These peaches were so delicious.

Last week I started putting siding on my garden shed to cover up the OSB, which looks really ugly and didn't contribute to the quaintness of my garden one bit. I took siding off a barn recently and decided that the wood was a little too crappy to put on my house, so I thought I'd practice on the shed before getting better wood and putting it on my house. Despite the crappiness of the wood, the siding looks really good. I will put some one by two strips on to cover up the gaps between barn boards. I've been asking around and calling up the local radio show to try to find barn boards I can use for siding. I stopped by one house on the way to Kirksville that had a few nice looking outbuildings that weren't being used. An older man with a big cowboy hat answered the door and said that though he didn't use the buildings he didn't want them taken down. I will keep asking around. I've got to get the house sided before winter.

I have a lot of things to do still before it gets cold so I suspect I'll continue to be busy for a while yet.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Missouri Monsoon Season

I had to write a little post about the incredibly wet weather we've been having lately. In the last few weeks we have had torrential downpours on a regular basis such that I am getting really tired of schlopping around in the mud. And that is only a small part of the problem. A few days ago we got five inches of rain overnight. Last week we had and inch of rain in a ten minute downpour and the runoff cut a gully through the middle of about 6 garden beds in the Skyhouse garden I am tending this season. It washed away some tomatoes and peppers, but fortunately I hadn't planted most of the beds yet. I've since made a trench to divert the water through the garden and this morning in a flash flood it turned into a garden river. Watching the storm from my house early this morning I was traumatized when the huge raindrops began making a much louder noise on the roof and I saw that the rain was turning into hail.

Hail is a nightmare for anyone trying to grow anything outdoors. Just imagine bullets raining down on your vegetables and fruits. Fortunately this hail was small enough that the damage was minimal, but considering all the strange weather we've been getting, I worry that we might get golf-ball sized or worse before long.

Anyway, the rain has prevented me being able to get into some of the garden beds to prep them because the soil hasn't ever had a chance to dry out enough to work. I've already planted potatoes twice because every time I plant them it rains and the tubers just rot in the ground. The broccoli is being wiped out by something related to the moisture. Surprisingly, some plants are doing well, though blight due to the wetness is beginning to show up on the peas, and I've heard others' tomatoes are being damaged by blight. If this rain keeps up the plants doing well now soon will not be.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Garden and Vineyard

Spring is definitely far along now as the grass gets higher and the fruit gets bigger. Stuff planted out in the garden seems to be doubling in size every day. I've been focusing on getting the vinyard all squared away and getting the garden in. It's been a tough spring in many ways for farmers. Most notable it has been very wet and cold. I couldn't really work the garden beds until pretty late. In fact I think I got stuff in later than I usually would in WI.

The orchard bloomed lushly,with only a minor frost scare one night that appears not to have done any damage. We will hopefully have a bounty of peaches and pears.

Spring out here also means mushroom season, and morels are some of the tastiest you can find. I went out at the same time I had last year and didn't see any. But later in the season I went out and found a bumper crop. It seemed like everywhere I looked there were huge specimens of these strange looking mushrooms. I fried some up for breakfast a couple of days in a row.

The vineyard has been something I've been dreaming of for a long time, and this spring I was able to find a good spot on a south facing slope to plant about 200 grape vines I'd brought with me. I took cuttings of vines I'd been growing for years in my community garden plots in Madison and brought them here. Last year I'd planted them in close together in a nursery row so they could establish their root systems. This year they were ready to plant out in the vineyard.

I was able to get our old tractor going and borrowed a tiller from neighboring Sandhill Farm. I tilled up ten rows about 200 ft long and planted one vine every eight feet. Some visitors to DR helped with digging holes and planting the vines.

It only took about a week to plant the vines, between many other things I was doing. I left about two rows open for softwood cuttings I will take of some wine varieties early in summer. Until I plant those vines, I've planted rows of dry beans in those open rows.

I planted a cover crop of buckwheat around the vines to fill up the tilled areas. This will smother out weeds so I can plant a more permanent cover crop later in the season. I will also scythe the buckwheat throughout the season to add green manure to the soil to improve its fertility. The last steps have been mulching around the vines with straw mulch and staking each vine. I will train the vines up stakes and hopefully by the end of the season they will have good tall trunks. Next season I will put up trellises and train the grapes laterally.

I plan to make and sell wine, juice, and fresh grapes in the future. I will sell the wine to people outside as well as inside the community, whereas the juice and fresh grapes will be for me and some within DR.

I have been doing a little experimenting in the garden with drip irrigation. I don't think anyone here has tried it, but I thought it might be a good idea because we try to conserve water here and because last year I spent more time watering than doing anything else. I laid out a system of tubing with drippers that regulate how much water is dripped into the soil. The system is hooked up to the cistern I set up last year, and gravity is enough to pressurize the system, though if I want the water to come out faster I hook up a little solar powered pump. I am now able to water about a third of the garden by just turning a valve, instead of having to water each plant individually. The system seems to work well so we may expand it to other areas of the garden.

The main drawback to drip irrigation is that it requires a lot of plastic, which is of course made from fossil fuel. I bought thicker tubing instead of drip tape, which is often used in garden systems. Though if you are careful, the drip tape might last 5 years, it is much easier to puncture and difficult to repair. The tubing should last much longer than 5 years, I'm hoping, and is easily repaired. We've been getting so much rain this season, I haven't had to use the drip irrigation much yet.

Everything is growing well though. All the starts I planted, though they took a while to get going in the greenhouse, took off once things warmed up and they were transplanted into a medium of well-composted manure. I've since planted most of them out in the garden.

the plants in the above picture are garlic. I have some really big varieties and planted them last fall so they are getting really big already.

Above are some pics of the gardens, though now these plants are much bigger. We've had a really wet season so far, and I had to wait longer than usual to work up the beds unfortunately. I am just getting the rest of the tomatoes into the ground. We've already harvested walking onions, which are kind of like scallions, lettuce, spinach, and just in the last two days, strawberries.

Speaking of food, apparently the Food Network wants to do a show on DR to showcase groups that grow their own food. The other day Brian, whose videos you may have seen on DRTV, interviewed a number of us on the request of the FN to talk about the food we grow and our diets here. The FN was really excited about the DVD we sent them and will be sending a crew here sometime soon to shoot some footage. Maybe I'll be on TV.

I plan to get started on the new house as soon as I'm done with the garden and vineyard, so watch for more updates.