Category Archives: Personal

Yesterday’s Harvest

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OK, so it will never be displayed in the Met.

My new Olympus doesn’t do quite so well inside as out. But this is what I harvested yesterday.

I took the photo just moments before I chopped up the peppers and tossed them in a stir-fry.

I ate the broccoli and tomato for lunch, today.

Springtime (almost)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAh, late winter in Florida. Daytime temperatures in the high 70s, dropping to the mid-60s at night. A time when all men’s fancy turns to – calling a lawn service and having the #!&* oak leaves vacuumed up!

But I resisted the awful temptation and fired up my trusty hand-powered rake. I worked for one and a half hours before lunch today. I only managed to get the gutter in front of my house plus my driveway. At least now I can tell that I have a driveway.

When I took a break for lunch I decided I needed a little inspiration to keep going. So I watched some “Homesteader Porn.” Don’t Worry, it’s definitely G rated. But it got me all pumped up to go out and do some more raking.

It reminded me of Laura Ingalls helping her dad with the haying. Except Laura was only 4 foot 11 (1.5m)! Talk about strength and coordination!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat I’ve harvested since last I posted.

(4) Tomatoes: 19 ounces

(1) green pepper: 1.6 ounces

(4) heads of broccoli: 19 ounces

(1) head of cauliflower: 5.8 ounces

A handful of jalapenos 1.3 ounces

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA handful of broccoli florets: 2 ounces

Notice the head of cauliflower – that one plant that never formed a head suddenly did!

I never did find my camera—but I got a new one. It’s an Olympus VG-160. The pictures are better quality; you wouldn’t believe how many out-of-focus shots I had with my old camera.

And More Rain

BroccoliYes, it’s still raining – off and on. We got another quarter-inch here on Saturday night. It has been a week since I last needed to water the garden. The plants still looked good when I got home from work today but I decided to water them anyhow.

Not much news. Yesterday Clay borrowed my live trap. His target is a chicken killing possum. Such is Cabbagelife in the big city!

Today I picked:

1.5 ounces of jalapeňos
6.0 ounces of eggplants
6.5 ounces of bell peppers

My tomato vines have lots of green tomatoes on them. I’ve never been a fan of eating green tomatoes so I think I’m going to wait.

Enjoy the pictures – my first batch of broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are starting to “fruit.”

Cauliflower

Welcome to December, 2013

Welcome to December, 2013

Here we are, December already. My favorite holiday of the year, Thanksgiving, is already past. More than 20 of us gathered at Wayne and Bridget’s house for a wonderful time of food and fellowship. Bridget talked me into making brioche. I didn’t have a proper mixer but Becky invited me to drop by and use hers. I made brioche by hand once – never again. Last week I finally broke down and bought one for myself. Becky found it online for me for $192 including shipping and tax. Such a deal!

Of course I’m using this festive season to try out my new fireplace (it came with the house). Yep, nothing like a fireplace to make a house feel cozy on an 82°F day! Bing weather predicts that the daytime high temperature will drop below 80° on Thursday. But 75° still isn’t cool enough for a fire. Maybe January…

Eight InchLast weekend I picked up four more cabbage plants and four more broccoli. Since I was too busy to dig up more garden I transplanted them into 8 inch pots. They are doing nicely. I also had to mow my yard again. With the occasional rain and warm weather is still hasn’t stopped growing. Maybe January…

All day yesterday I spent goofing off.

Starting early this morning I spent seven hours writing a one-page post for my other site. One of the best parts about blogging is that it forces me to confront my ideas. I thought I knew what I was talking about until I started writing – the process showed me how little thought I had put into my opinion.

That didn’t leave a whole lot of time for gardening – and doing laundry – and writing this post. So I skipped grocery shopping. It’s been three weeks but, between Thanksgiving and dinner invitations, I have plenty of food to last another week. To quote Hawkeye Pierce, “never let it be said that I didn’t do the least I could do.”

Bin OneGardening work has been mostly maintenance – watering, making compost tea, and adding stuff to the compost bin. Last weekend I decided that bin #3 was full – time to start another. Bin #1 never did rot thoroughly so I’ve been using compost from bin 2 for the tea.

Today I started shoveling out the leaf mold – I’ll use it during the winter as a mulch and to bury kitchen wastes, etc. Once the lawn finally stops growing I’ll no longer have grass clippings to use for this purpose.

Rotten tomatoI had forgotten that I put an old shower curtain on the ground before starting this compost bin. This was not one of my brightest ideas. The bottom layer of leaves turned into fiberboard rather than compost. Most of the leaves I put in this pile were never shredded so they matted pretty badly. I found only one tiny earthworm in the pile. So sad.

good tomatoesCheck out the lovely green tomato going into the compost – here it is December and the bugs are still getting more produce than I am. I’ve never had much success with tomatoes planted in the fall. I think I’ll slip some plastic under the other green tomatoes to try to keep the bugs away. I haven’t done anything whatsoever regarding insect control.

The eggplants have been flowering for a while but only recently have started to set fruit. I have one bell pepper nearly ready to pick and several smaller ones coming along. I did manage to harvest a handful of small jalapenos – 1.1 ounces of them. Most of my plants are rather small – the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants haven’t taken off the way I would’ve expected. I suspect this is largely due to my neglect during their first month or so in the ground. Note to self: in the future pay closer attention to the care of new seedlings!

JalapenosHey, at least I should get some broccoli and cabbage. I’ve never had a serious failure with those crops, and they’re looking good. Next year I’ll try to start planting them earlier and see how that works.

 

Weeds

WeedsWow! Take a look at my garden. This was on Sunday, July 14 – kind of embarrassing. I don’t have to neglect things for very long before the weeds start springing up. After a month they’ve pretty well taken over. And it’s not something that I can hide – it’s obvious to anyone who looks.

So I spent several hours that afternoon Bare Earthgrubbing in the dirt until it looked a lot better. Where I could, I dug deep in the dirt to get out the roots—but I know I didn’t get them all. Lots of weeds have very deep roots. Even if I could get all the roots, weed seeds are blowing into the garden all the time. Unless my garden is in a greenhouse, weed seeds are unavoidable.

WeedsBackThe third photo shows what the garden looked like a week later. Weeds are already popping back up again. Time to do some more work.

This got me to thinking about the renewed mind:

Romans 12:2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

Notice that there are two parts, two commandments from God in this verse. I need to renew my mind by acquiring right doctrine from God’s word. I also must refuse to conform to the thought patterns of this world (“world,” here, refers to everything surrounding us that’s in opposition to God).

Not being conformed is a lot like weeding. If I neglect God’s Word for a while my mind looks like the first picture. It isn’t pretty. My mind is unlike a garden, though, in that I can try to hide it. Most people – if I put on a good enough act – won’t even notice. It isn’t as obvious as an overgrown vegetable bed. I might even be able to fool myself. In fact, since my mind is the garden, I’ll probably fool myself into thinking that everything is okay. That’s why I try to read the Bible daily and to do a regular checkup, an inspection, to make sure my thoughts are aligned with His Word.

Of course, after I’ve done that work, new weeds will spring up again. It’s not avoidable – I can’t keep my mind in a greenhouse.

One of the toughest parts about weeding – something so common that it’s a comedic standard – is mistaking the desired plants for the weeds and vice versa. When I’m weeding, mind or garden, I must learn to distinguish between desirable thoughts (okra and sweet potatoes) and undesirable (weeds).

As I learn more from God’s Word, even after decades, I keep encountering thoughts that I imagined were fruitful. They’ve been there so long that I never realized their weed nature. Until “that which is perfect is come” I’ll continue to discover new weed species.

I won’t acquire a perfectly renewed mind before the return of Christ. But I can keep working on it.

Just a little food for thought.

Rick

Plugging Away

PlugsThe “lawn” in my front yard was sparse, scraggly, and neglected. In February I raked up the huge accumulation of leaves and discovered a desert landscape. This was in the dry season, of course. Mowing did little but raise a cloud of dust. The culprits, besides neglect, were the two large Oak trees growing close to the street. I’m certainly not getting rid of them; I love the shade and, when I return from work each afternoon, they help make my street look homier and more inviting. Shade, however, is not good for growing grass.

LabelI did a bit of research both online and at garden centers. A very knowledgeable Home Depot employee recommended a variety of St. Augustine that can tolerate shade – Palmetto. Unfortunately they had none in stock. The Lowe’s store down the street had one flat of plugs. When I left, they had none. This was on Saturday, June 29. I didn’t bother to buy a special plugging tool since each flat has only eighteen plugs. I used a trowel.

I watered the plugs once or twice by hand – “everybody knows” you should water new grass daily. I stopped because it’s been raining almost daily. After a week the grass was starting to look Pluggingpretty nice. Palmetto has darker green leaves than most other varieties of St. Augustine. It’s said that this allows it to absorb more energy from low-level light. After two weeks the plugs were starting to spread. I declared the experiment a success.

Last Saturday, July 13, I discovered that Home Depot had gotten a shipment – one pallet – of Palmetto plugs. I bought ten flats (180 plugs) for $47.90. This wasn’t enough to do my whole front yard (40 flats might) but, along with the rest of my weekend chores, I felt I wouldn’t have time to do more. Besides, St. Augustine grass spreads.

BrokenI also bought a plugging tool ($19.97) recommended by an employee (not the same one I’d spoken to earlier).

Making holes with the plugger was much quicker and easier than bending over to dig. For a while. I had to finish the last twenty holes with my trusty trowel. The fancy, high-tech plugging tool wasn’t  as durable as one might wish. The steel jaws were hinged to each other with flimsy, hollow aluminum rivets. These rivets didn’t last long. I returned the tool to Home Depot for a quick, cheerful refund.

I had thoroughly watered the plugs before planting them. The root balls were soggy wet. I had read that one should leave no air pockets when plugging-in grass so I carefully pressed the dirt around them with my fingers – and stomped on each one for good measure! I figured this couldn’t hurt since they Looking Goodare shipped piled up on a pallet. They were already squished when I brought them home.

Within a day the leaves were springing erect and looking quite healthy. It’s now a week later and, once the grass dries, I’ll get to mow!

God bless,

Rick

Tabletop Aquaponics

Both of my regular readers have wondered why this blog is called “The Working Fish.” Wonder no more! All will be revealed.

I have always, as you might have gathered, been interested in gardening. When I was but a young lad I began vegetable gardening—ostensibly to help feed my large family. In truth, I just love getting my hands in the dirt. Another of my lifelong hobbies is reading. I saw no reason not to combine the two and read everything I could get my hands on about gardening. There are so many different techniques to try!

One of my first gardening experiments was to emulate a technique that the Indians taught the Pilgrims—burying fish under hills of corn. It makes sense—fish is very high in protein which is high in nitrogen of which corn requires a lot to grow well. Providentially, one neighbor was an avid flounder fisherman who would often share his excess catch. Sometimes his gift would literally fill a bushel basket.

Even a good Roman Catholic family – a family of ten – could eat only so many fish. My dad gave me permission to experiment with the surplus. I carefully dug holes in our rocky soil to plant each fish before mounding up a hill of earth. I buried the seeds at the exact depth specified on the packet and watered them thoroughly. My excitement was palpable. I had never shot a deer with my bow and arrows but I could live like an Indian just the same!

The next morning I rushed out to inspect my handiwork. I was chagrined to discover a garden full of craters—one in place of each of the carefully prepared hills. During the night the neighborhood cats had descended to dig up the banquet I had so thoughtfully prepared. That afternoon, after school, I replanted my corn – without fish. The New England Indians must not have had house cats. Perhaps the squaws sat up all night guarding their fields?

As a teenager I continued to read and experiment. A favorite author (and not too distant neighbor) was Ruth Stout. Her book, Gardening Without Work, was one of my favorites and I became a fan of sheet composting. This gave me more time for reading. I plowed through Plowman’s Folly, had a good time with Living the Good Life, longed for more land while reading Five Acres and Independence, and spent  forever with Farmers of Forty Centuries.

In later years (I’m skipping over a lot) I successfully experimented with the ideas in The Self-Sufficient Gardener  and The New Square Foot Gardening. I learned from experience that every technique has its advantages and disadvantages. After moving into an apartment I had to do my gardening on borrowed land – I was using both the raised bed/sheet composting and square foot styles, depending on the crop. Are you getting the idea that this is something of an obsession with me?

Tabletop1Then, if memory serves, I ran across an article, “Food Storage Program for Paleo Dieters” by Cathy Cuthbert on Lew Rockwell’s webpage (which I read every day). This article mentioned a type of gardening I’d never heard of before – aquaponics – and contained a link to the webpage of Friendly Aquaponics. I clicked. I ordered the microsystem plans. Within weeks I had one of their tabletop systems up and running in my apartment.

Friendly Aquaponics doesn’t sell kits—they sell instructions. My tabletop unit includes a Rubbermaid tote from Walmart; a mud tub and a waterfall pump from Home Depot; and an air pump from PetsMart. The mosquitofish were 12 for a dollar at a local pet store.

Fish1I learned a lot—especially what not to do. Some lessons were: Feeder goldfish are not as tough as they look; chloramine in tap water doesn’t simply evaporate like chlorine; it’s tough to fit adequate grow lights on a tiny table in a tiny apartment. But, who cares? I knew I’d be out of there in a few months!

My intention was to gain a little experience with the tabletop unit in preparation for buying a house in 2011. Then, with my own yard, I would be able to put in a larger system and do some serious experimentation. Unfortunately the house and yard I Tabletop2was looking for exactly matched the sort that investors were buying as rental properties. It took me till this year to a) find a suitable property and b) not get outbid by a cash investor. So here we are.

As you can see from the pictures my tabletop unit moved to the new house with me and is now sitting on my patio. The fish and basil plants seem quite happy in their new home. I will finally, on this long holiday weekend, be able to start assembling my microsystem from a pile of painted lumber.

I have now come full circle and will, once again, be fertilizing my vegetables with fish.

Check back for updates,

Rick

 

Needed: Pickup Truck

WarpedIt’s raining today, off and on. I mowed the lawn between showers and did some weeding in the rain. Time to work on this blog.

It’s great fun moving into a new house and trying to get caught up on all of the repairs; even little ones can take up a lot of time and mental energy. One critical repair was to replace a fence section that was badly warped and pulling loose. My neighbor was making pointed comments about it falling into her yard.

June first seemed like a good day to purchase materials. I knew I wouldn’t have time to fix the fence right away but I needed some pressure-treated lumber, as well. I wanted it to age for a couple of weeks before I painted it. More on that, below.

During the month of May I had been contemplating the pros and cons of getting a pickup truck. Obviously, I needed one now that I was a landowner—should I buy an old beater or a newer, more reliable one?  Yet, June had arrived and I still had no method of transporting large objects.

TruckIt suddenly occurred to me on that Saturday morning that trucks could be rented for very little money. Duh! A little online research revealed that my local Home Depot rents trucks—time to go shopping.

The Home Depot rental was a bit pricey—and definite overkill.  It’s a flatbed with stake sides that fold down in case my load was really oversize. It has a cargo capacity of 3500 pounds – rather more than I would need. Still…the convenience! I could have driven to U-Haul and gotten a light truck for about twenty dollars a day. The Home Depot truck cost nineteen dollars for seventy-five minutes. A full twenty-four hours costs sixty-nine dollars. But 75 minutes would be plenty of time–I live less than two miles from the store. Why rent for a whole day if I didn’t need to?

That afternoon I stopped off at their rental area and placed my name on the waiting list. The trucks are in high demand on Saturday. Then I went to do my shopping.

FenceIt’s quite a time savings if you do things the right order. My first stop was in lumber where I tracked down an employee and set them to work cutting up sheets of half-inch plywood to my required sizes. While he was doing that I wandered off and got the rest of my supplies. Then back to lumber to pick up everything else. Time to check out.

While I was in line I got a call on my cell phone—my truck was ready. Did I mention convenient? Not only was the truck parked right next to the contractor loading area, they didn’t start charging until my purchases were actually on board. And there was a Home Depot employee to help me load.

PaintI’m convinced—I don’t need to buy a pickup. Even if I rent a truck every single weekend of the year it’s still cheaper than paying the insurance on old beater. I’m also saving the purchase price. And the cost and headaches of repairs. This experience has gotten me thinking. Maybe I should buy a sports car for my daily driver. I can always rent any other vehicle I might need. Hmm…

Unfortunately, the new fence panel had to sit for two weeks until my twenty-year-old son was free to come over and help me install it. He graciously did the heavy lifting and allowed me to have the fun of playing with the power tools. That was on Saturday, the fifteenth.

PaintedThe pressure-treated lumber and the plywood got a coat of primer that same weekend. Normally (or so I’ve been told) pressure-treated wood is supposed to age for a while before being painted.  The primer that I purchased is supposed to stick to most anything. We’ll see how it does on pressure-treated wood. The lumber will become an aquaponics trough. I’ll get to that in a future post.

The Okra is Up

Today was a very busy day – lots of maintenance. The good news is…

The okra has germinated and is doing just fine – sort of. I had planted  five groups of three seeds. The germination counts were three, two, two, one, and zero. Eight out of fifteen isn’t too good.

No CardboardNotice that these two okra plants have no cardboard around them. We had a bad windstorm on Tuesday and I guess that one piece of cardboard wasn’t weighted down very well. I don’t know where it went; it isn’t in the yard. It’s interesting that the cardboardless seedlings look better than any of the others. Perhaps I need to rethink that “trapdoor in the cardboard” idea.

About an hour after breakfast I perceived that the neighborhood was awake – one of the neighbors started doing some outside repairs with a hammer. I headed out to get the lawn mowed. Rain was in the forecast and I wanted get finished before it began. Of course it started raining while I was still doing the front yard. It was a gentle rain, though, and didn’t make it through the Oak-leaf canopy over my head.

Soon the rain stopped but I had to wait for the grass in the backyard to dry out again. I stayed busy working on the compost heaps. I’ve neglected, til now, to provide a time-line and updates; this I will now remedy.

I started the first compost pile on the weekend of February 16 – 17. I finished filling it on March 3. The second compost bin began its life the following weekend, March 9. It was filled to overflowing by  Sunday, May 5. Since I was out of town the following weekend I built my new compost heap on Saturday the eighteenth, two weeks ago.

Compost pile number one, which was mostly Oak leaves – thoroughly shredded – didn’t heat up very quickly. The highest temperature I recorded was about 125°. Last weekend it was down to 110 and today I measured it at 108°. I dug into it today and took some nice pictures to show how well, though slowly, it was decaying. Alas, techno-trouble with my SD card resulted in the loss of those pictures.

Compost pile number two had a lot more nitrogen in the mix. I checked the temperature two weeks ago and it was 135°. Last weekend it was down to 120 and today about 115. Unfortunately I have been slack on keeping the compost heaps moist enough so I took some time today to give them a drenching – 15 gallons in the two older bins and ten for the new one. I’ll check the temperatures again this week to see the affect of the added moisture.

Water BareAfter clipping the back yard (all twelve blades of grass) I still had some time before lunch to “repair” the okra problem. Rather than replant seeds in the bare spot I pricked out a seedling from the threesome and planted it in the empty location. I’ll have to thin the extras in any case.

The verb, “to prick”, is one of those lovely Anglo-Saxon words with lots of different meanings. If you look it up in an (online) dictionary you have to go way down the list before you find the definition “to transplant a seedling.”

I first gently watered the vermiculite in each of the spots – including the one with no seedlings. I punched a hole with my finger where I wanted the new plant to go. Then I used a wooden matchstick to gently loosen the vermiculite around the seedling I was going to prick out. Some people like to use a pencil, a toothpick, or a skewer, but since I moved I haven’t been able to find my pencils or my toothpicks or my bamboo skewers.

Tap rootAs you can see from the photo I gently lifted the seedling out of the ground. Notice the nice taproot it is developing. I had to stir down pretty deeply to get it to pull loose easily. This is another case where vermiculite really shines. It’s so loose that it does minimal damage to the roots when you have to transplant the tiny seedlings.

I placed the seedling in its new home and gently firmed the vermiculite around it. All done. I wonder if the okra will be ready to pick next weekend?

Sweet potatoesThe sweet potatoes, by the way, are looking good.

After lunch I had a long and exhausting trip to Home Depot – spending a little more than I had planned. But that’s a story for another post.

I’m going to sit here and enjoy the gentle evening rain.

God bless,

Rick

Compost Basics

Getting Started

Dirt1The first weekend after moving into my new house I started a compost pile. Yes, this came before doing anything else in the yard. Why is compost so important? Well, the “soil” in most of Pinellas County has to be seen to be believed. It is a very fine sand with little organic content—I often refer to it as “talcum powder.” It has minimal natural fertility and drains so quickly that it retains neither moisture nor added fertilizers. The only practical way to improve it is to mix in lots of organic matter. Because of our heat and humidity the organic matter decays very rapidly and must be constantly replenished.

Adding compost to my coastal Florida “soil” improves its structure, fertility, and water retention but it won’t give me the beautiful soil seen in magazines. The only place around here you can find that kind of soil is in container gardens filled with imported soil.

What is compost? 

Compost is simply organic matter, stuff that was once alive, that has partially decayed. Rather than write a detailed description, I direct you to a decent, short article on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compost

Disclaimer

What I’m going to describe below is the way I do things. I am an engineer who designs machinery for a living—not a doctor or pathologist or nutritionist. While I’ve been doing this for years with absolutely no ill effects, everything I write is merely my opinion. You must do your own research and decide if my methods are for you. I take no responsibility for what you do. And I don’t expect you to take any responsibility for me!

My first compost pile (at my new house)

Once my bin was complete I began raking leaves. I have two large oak trees – planted in 1972 – in my front (south) yard. The people from whom I bought my house spent all their time remodeling the inside. They hadn’t done anything with the yard. Needless to say, there were plenty of leaves to rake up.

I raked the leaves onto an old plastic tarp that I had found; this became my poor man’s sledge to drag them into the back yard. I piled them up next to my bin. As the pile got too big I used my bagging lawnmower to shred the leaves and dump them into the bin. I also mowed the back yard, bagging the grass clippings and dumping them in with the shredded leaves. This added some nitrogen to the mix. As I filled the bin I added buckets of water – many buckets – to moisten everything down. By the time I was finished that first weekend my 4 foot tall bin had leaves piled six feet high.

Over the next two weeks I continued raking and mowing, shredding and piling. I estimate that I managed to fit at least 75 cubic feet of shredded leaves into 2 fifty-cubic-foot bin (it quickly heated up and began settling). After I had overfilled it for the third time, I started a new bin.

Unfortunately, the compost was drying out much too fast. I decided to wrap the whole bin in plastic. I had to do that on the outside since it was already full. When I built the new bin I put the plastic on the inside. I’ll show you what I did in my next column.

There are many online resources explaining the different ways to do composting. People seem to like to stress about getting the carbon – nitrogen ratio just right, adding accelerators and starters, turning the compost, or even buying incredibly expensive manufactured bins and compost tumblers. I do none of these things – too expensive and too much like work.

My method is simple – and probably dates back to the early days of agriculture. I simply keep piling stuff up until I decide it’s time to stop. I add water as needed to keep the pile moist. And I wait. In Florida, with its heat and humidity, I generally start using the compost 3 to 6 months after I stop filling the bin. That’s all there is to it.

How it works

Short answer: God designed things to work that way! I’ve been told – actually I’ve read – that scientists have determined that microscopic organisms – bacteria and fungi – eat my yard waste and turn it into compost. These writers claim a that there are many many different types of these little critters at work. Some of them do their best work at cool temperatures. Others can’t even start growing and reproducing until the temperature rises above 140°F! And yet, these bacteria are found almost everywhere. Pretty amazing. All of the bacteria and fungi that are needed to do the composting process are already present. You don’t have to add any starter culture. They just get to work.

Can I save money by making my own compost?

Let me put this is delicately as I can. Many people buy a manufactured composting bin, purchase starter cultures, or spend money on compost accelerators. These folks will have the satisfaction of making their own compost but will spend far more money than the same amount of compost would have cost at a discount garden center.

If you expect to earn minimum wage for your labor, no.

If, like me, you build your own, cheap, composting bins and work in your garden instead of spending money on a gym membership then the answer is a resounding yes.

In future posts I’ll have a lot more to share, but now I must do some painting before the day gets too hot.

Happy gardening,

Rick