What would Gilligan do?

gilligan_waterSMWe still don’t have a well or running water, but one of the things that I have to do sometime soon is a plumbing test for the drain and vent system. To do that, you have to fill the system with water to prove it doesn’t leak. But where to get water? As luck would have it, the previous owners of the cottage had arranged a rainwater catchment system. By the time WE bought the property, it was in disrepair. But a little cleaning, replumbing, and field improvisation has brought it back online- complete with an elaborate system of overflows. Gilligan, eat your heart out.


There have been other repairs and refurbishments happening as well. Brian and Ryan helped me build a mini greenhouse a few years back, and after three  seasons of hard use, the plastic has finally dissolved. This weekend, Emily and I replaced it with a double-walled flexible panel called “Soloexx”. It’s like corrugated cardboard, but made from UV-stabilized plastic. Should be quite durable and help keep those plants cozy.

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Third-world healthcare

Sometimes I have to take a break from thinking about farming and construction, and I sometimes end pondering third-world development issues. I came across this brief clip about healthcare, and it made me so happy I am reposting it here. Enjoy!

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Kilarney Red

kilarneySMEmily’s trying a new variety of garlic this year, Kilarney Red. It’s a hardneck from Ireland, which we figured would be a good fit, as Ireland has the same mesothermic maritime environment that we do. We may have guessed right- look at how big and green that garlic is, and it’s not even April!

I also went out and checked the bees today, during a brief lull in the weather. This is the second busiest time of the year for the bees (after honey season) as they are starting to build their numbers rapidly to be ready for the fair weather and flowers that are on the way.  For me, it’s spring cleaning time: open up the hives, clean out the winter debris and dead bees, replace bottom boards, swap out any broken equipment. The bees do NOT like to be disturbed from their long winter’s nap, let me tell you. There was quite a bit of buzzing and flying at my face butt-first. Lucky, BEE VEIL!   And the good news? It appears that all five of my colonies survived. That’s a big deal, because in the last few decades, national bee losses have been in excess of 30% every winter! I’d like to think it was my fantastic skills as a beekeeper that kept my buzzers alive, but I suspect there’s a bit of luck in there too. But I can settle for that. My overwinter survival record thus far:

2012: 0 of 2 colonies

2013: 3 of 3 colonies

2014: 5 of 5 colonies

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Building beehives

cleansing flightSMLast week we had a break in the rain and cold, and the bees went out for a little buzz around the hive. You go, little guys! I was busy as well, building hives in anticipation of the arrival of the new bees for the 2014 season. Remember the grant I told you about a few weeks ago, that Emily used to buy the walking tractor? Well, I used a big chunk of mine to by supplies and equipment to set up a dozen new bee colonies, bringing our total to about 20 or so. This is a big step, not just in terms of extra work, but also financially. A package of bees is about $100, and a hive costs about $250 or so once you add in all the extra stuff like honey supers, frame feeders, some sort of stand, and so forth. I am making my hives out of cedar, so they will be a bit more expensive than pine hives, but they will last longer and don’t need to be painted. Since I’m making them in bulk, I’m saving a little bit of money.

building hivesSMOr, rather, trading time for money. Here we see a team of happy volunteers, making brood boxes. We have a station for ripping the cedar and cutting the rabbets for the frames, another for cutting the corners, and one for assembling. In a later step, I used a router to cut the lifting lugs in the sides. When these hives are done, they are going to be totally sweet. Emily gave me some guff about being smart about where I spend my time, and she’s right- there are a lot of things that need my attention right now. So, luckily, there have been offers to help on the beehives.  Also, another timesaver is that I’m going to use plastic frames. They intrigue me, and my friend Mark has had good luck with them in Indiana. This takes out the most time consuming assembly task, which is good when you consider there are 20 frames in a basic hive, and 40 once you get two honey supers on it… so we’re talking about putting together 480 frames. Yikes.

Bees arrive some time in early April, so I have only a week or two to get this finished. Wish me luck!

As an interesting side note, I saw these pictures today (courtesy of Whole Foods) showing what a grocery store might look like if there were no bees to pollinate our crops. This is another reason people should give a darn about pesticides killing bees…


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Pulling wire

pullinwire1SMOn to electrical! We’re finally at the stage where we are pulling wire for the cottage. It’s surprisingly physical work, pulling all that wire through all those little holes. As Ryan and Sleep were helping me,  Ryan mentioned that it would be that hardest part about being an electrician. But I know that no to be true, because electricians don’t pull wire… they hire electrician’s assistants to do it!  I know this because my architect buddy Keith used to be an electrician’s assistant before he went to architecture school, and mentioned once how much work it was (and that he didn’t really learn much about being an electrician that summer, either).

pullin_anthonySMSpeaking of architects, my friend Anthony Stoppiello came over to help pull wire for a day as well. This guy is great; he’s community-minded, funny, collaborative, and has a lot of good architect sense. And he’s just plain nice. I hope that when I’m his age (72), I’m still helping people build houses and hiking in the mountains and playing frisbee football at my birthday party like he does. Besides being a good friend and a nice guy to have tea with,  he’s one of the other three architects in the county besides me, and he was the one who introduced me to the other two, Tom Ayres and Tom Bender. I’m lucky in that all four of us get along well, and the other two have also helped on my house in various ways- one hooked me up with a plumber, and the other let me borrow his scaffolding.

It takes a surprising amount of wire for a 680sf house. I bought 500 feet of NM-B cable (Romex), and it turned out that I needed twice that much. These sort of misestimations are one of the reasons I’m not a contractor, I guess. And it’s not like my house is an electrical power station! I’m on solar power, and don’t plan on running a lot of electrical gear. But I do have a lot of outlets and switches and lights, to give flexibility for the power I am using. And that gobbles up a lot of wire.

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Grillo walking tractor has arrived

So, something monumental has been brewing for about three years, and it’s finally coming together. A month or two after we got back from Peace Corps in Guatemala, right after we moved to Oregon, we were talking with another recently returned Peace Corps volunteer and she mentioned a really cool program called “VIDA”. Sponsored by a collaboration of the state and a few nonprofits, it grants cash to low income participants who are able to save money in a controlled account, for use buying a first home, getting a college education, or starting an agribusiness. It sounded too good to be true; if you can save $3,000 over three years, they will QUADRUPLE it for qualifying purchases. We did the research, and it turns out that it is a legit program… in fact, they have trouble getting people to sign up, because it sounds like a scam. The prerequisites are moderately challenging: you have to attend some business classes, make the monthly payments for three years, be below the median poverty level when you enroll (that was the easiest one; we made about $3000 per year Guatemala!), and like all government programs, put up with a mountain of paperwork.

grilloSMBut the proof is in the pudding, and I’m pleased to announce that IT WORKED. We had several qualified purchases, and the biggest one just arrived on a truck yesterday. May I present to you our bouncing baby tractor. Or, “walking tractor,” actually. We test plowed with one last year, and fell in love with the idea of having our own. It’s a GREAT tool; digging a planting bed used to take about 90 minutes per 100 square feet, now I can do the same work in about 37 seconds.

When you get a new one from the dealer, it’s quite shiny and awesome looking. It even has that new car smell. Aaahhh. But unlike a new car, some assembly is required. Luckily, our neighbor Lance let me use his barn as a staging point. The freight company dropped the pallets right on the barn floor, and I got to work breaking apart all the crating, reviewing the instruction manuals, and sorting parts. Tools in hand, I tightened bolts, checked oil, and scratched my head a bit as I read the (mostly in Italian) instructions.


As I worked, I noticed that I had an audience. One of the occupational hazards of building something in a barn? Turns out, cows are very curious animals, and they watched patiently for the whole two hours. And I know it was legitimate curiosity, not just waiting for food, as they stopped all the crazy mooing after about the first half hour. From then on, all that could be heard was the occasional plopping as cow patties hit the floor.

We also purchased four implements for the tractor. Besides the rotary plow and rototiller we mentioned in the other post, we were also able to get a wood chipper and a flail mower… both of which will be super handy for the orchard. I can’t wait for the ground to firm up, so I can get out there and start working with it!

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Plumbing: supply side

solderingSMWe’re done with the supply-side plumbing in the cottage, por fin. It actually didn’t take that long (unlike most everything else on this house) and I got to use some rusty skills that I paid dearly for in grad school. In this case, soldering. It sounds stupid, but I was a little nervous about the idea of soldering copper pipes together. Turns out, it’s much easier than silver soldering jewelry… and I can do that all day. Here we see the shower riser. It has a fancy valve body, some copper pipe, and a drop elbow. I also had to solder on some brass expander fittings. On the workbench, you can see the torch, solder, flux, and a bunch of copper valves and knicknacks. Plumbing is fun! It’s like Lego for grownups.

manifoldSMBesides the various copper and brass assemblies at the faucets and hose bibbs, there is also some plastic involved. In this case, we’re talking about crosslinked polyethylene (PEX). It’s a miracle product that they’ve been using in Europe for a long time, but only showed up in the US in the late 90s. Some of the benefits: easy to work, doesn’t corrode, won’t burst if it freezes, very cost effective.  It also involves designing your plumbing layout differently. Instead of a trunk-and-branch system, like a tree, you use a homerun layout. In English, this means that you have a main central manifold (pipe), and there are lines from there directly to every fixture in the house. This takes advantage of the fact that you can bend PEX around corners and pull it like wire, meaning that there are NO JOINTS anywhere except the start and end… no possibility of leaks! Also, you get less friction loss in the pipes, and you get hot water faster at the tap. Back at the manifold, you have a separate shutoff valve for each fixture, making it a little like an electrical panel with circuit breakers. One disadvantage is that is uses a bit more material, but PEX is so much cheaper than copper that it’s a nonissue. Here we see the manifold (it’s copper) with many of the runouts already in place.

With waste and supply plumbing done, all that remains for plumbing is the propane system. I’m going to pay a plumber to do that part- I could probably figure it out, but why take the chance on getting blown up? Hah! Also, I’m getting tired of the crawlspace. It’s someone else’s turn.

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woodcutter1SMYesterday we cut some firewood, and boy are we tired! We had to take down seven or eight alders to make room for a new equipment shed (more on that in a future post). Alder is an interesting tree; they are native to this part of the country and grow like weeds, sprouting up in most any untended area. I first heard about them in Guatemala, where one of the Peace Corps forestry specialists was really hot on them. Aliso, as they are called in Spanish, are popular because they are the fastest growing hardwood, making them a renewable resource for firewood. They grow in damp and marginal conditions. They are also one of the only trees that fix nitrogen, as legumes do, so they improve soil health. The Guatemalan variety will also “coppice,” meaning that if you cut it off in the right way, it will sprout back from the same root system and you don’t have to replant it.

cordwood1SMAnyway, we were pleasantly surprised when we ended up getting about three-quarters of a cord of firewood out of those few trees. We have HUNDREDS of downed or leaning trees in some of the snarlier areas of the property, so it looks like we have a firewood supply limited only by my human endurance. Encouraging.

Another pleasant surprise this weekend was a visit by Andrew and his wife. He and his family were the original builders of our cabin, back in the early 80s. It was great to hear stories of what the place was like decades ago, their dreams for the place, and what kind of things happened there. The cabin was a weekend getaway for their family, a labor of love and a long term project… but it wasn’t ever meant to be “classy” or a home. They were both pleased with the fact that we’ve retained a lot of the original character of the place, while really developing it into more than it was.

AndrewWSMI feel fortunate that we are able to spend some time with them and make that connection. His wife pointed out that they always used to refer to the place as “Gravel Creek” back when it was theirs, and it is amusing that we’ve been calling the place Gravel Creek on our own. It must be what it wants to be called, the name it is supposed to wear.

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2014 veggies

We’ve ordered the seeds for the 2014 season. Last year was pretty frantic, and as part of that, we didn’t keep very good production records. Ideally, I’d like to have data to support seed choices- what grew and produced well will usually make a return appearance the next year. And, of course, we like to introduce a fair amount of new things in the garden, to keep our (and our customers’) interest.

borakingSMThis year, however, we are doing mostly a repeat of last year- varieties that did well in the 2012 season should do so again in 2014. We have found some new and exciting things that we’re going to try, though, so I’ll share them here:

Cumbre carrot

Canoe pea

Purple Peruvian potato

Soleil bean

Bora King radish

… and Copra Onions, which I’m especially excited about. We’ve only had marginal luck with storage onions, and this year we’re already out. Last winter, by comparison, we never had to buy onions from the grocery store.

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