Category Archives: Gardening

Growing Great Gorgeous Gourds!

It’s getting to be that time of year already, where thoughts turn to fall, and wonderful York county readers like yourself start to plot their ideas for fall home decoration. Shocks of dried corn stalks mounted to poles or lamp posts or front porch columns look great, as do pumpkins and colorful Indian corn. An often overlooked fall decorating item often used by us seasonal-minded folk, are gourds.

Gourds, You say? Those big rounded multi-hued, roundish-items that keep rolling off the table? Yep, that’s the same thing. Your decorating choices are not limited by only one plain type of gourd, nor are you limited by the seasonal aspect of these unique shapes produced from those long trailing vines, either. You can literally use them all year long. Bird houses can be produced from the gourds, traditional dippers and containers and all sorts of creative, useful things I haven’t even thought of yet.

Baltimore’s Gertrude Stein may have said a Rose is a Rose is a Rose, but luckily for us we have more then one name for gourds. That’s good, because they vary widely in form and size and structural strength, and we need some type of method to discern different categories for them.

They have fabulous names that are quite good at describing the general appearance of them, like Cannonball, Tobacco Box, Canteen, Basketball, Bushel Basket, Japanese Basket and Acomi Rattle, and these all belong to the Basket type of gourds. These are good for storing things that need a larger, more perfectly rounded sort of gourd.

Bottle types are called Martin House, Powderhorn, Lump-in-Neck and Hardshell Wartie, along with Chinese Bottle and Miniature Bottle. These are all nicely thickened gourds that can withstand lots of hard use and make good birdhouses, in all types of weather.
Pioneer folks in American history would get a drink of water from a bucket assisted by a Dipper gourd, these go by the names of Maranka, Short-handled dipper, mid size as well as long handled dipper, and just simply, Club.

Trough gourds are called Banana, Snake, And Zucca. Why these are categorized as Trough gourds, is easy to imagine, just cut a long furrow down the length of one, empty the contents, and bam, there you go, you have a trough. When ever I have questions about gourds, I refer to my book “The complete Book of Gourd Craft” by Ginger Summit and Jim Widess. It answers pretty much any question I have about growing gourds, and methods of approach in order to create useful objects from them.

History of gourds
Aren’t you lucky to be growing gourds? In the old days, like the REALLY old days, only men were allowed to grow gourds, and not just men, but shamans in particular. While green and growing, the exterior skin of the gourd was incised or pricked with marks that would label and define the future contents of that particular storage container. Those same gourds, when grown and dried properly, were cut open, cleaned out, and used to store medicines. This was VERY important, as gourds keep things in a dried safe environment, protected from rot and moisture and contamination. When hung up correctly, a gourd and its contents can be kept safe and far removed from mice and other rodents. They can last for many, many years. Museums actually do a great job at preserving beautiful gourd containers that are several thousands of years old.

Getting Started Growing
Gourds start growing the same way as many other plants, from seeds. The gourd seed, is a particularly tough seed, requiring the actual nicking of the seed shell itself with a small knife, before it is soaked in water. Soaking it in water softens the very hard durable protective seed, allowing the actual seed a chance to get some moisture down into it, and cause it to germinate. The softened seed shell also allows the new life to push through it, and get a good chance at survival. I usually start these seeds inside during the colder months, as gourds are a long growing crop, and I like to get a head start.

I put the soaked, nicked seeds into a pot of good quality soil, water it occasionally, and say to myself, “mark the calendar”, and I do. I come back in one month and check it. That’s right, it usually takes me one whole month to see any activity with those seeds. And even after a month has come and gone and I’m frustrated enough to want to toss the pot right into the compost pile, I restrain myself. Inevitably, the very next day a brave little gourd seedling with a lot of personality will push through the seed pod, the dirt, and against earth’s gravity itself, and pop its brave little face out to meet the sun. Quite often, the seed shell is still on the head of the seedling, its just not letting go of it yet, since it is so tough. Never remove it, let the plant stretch its own newly formed muscles and it will be able to tear apart it’s old dormant home and sink strong roots down into its new vibrant one, your garden!

Now, the needs of a gourd are simple- Rich dirt, plenty of sun, plenty of water, and above all, a nearby structure to grow onto. Gourds have greedy, powerful vines, with beautiful white flowers, and they will need many places to stretch and grow and grow and then, yes, grow some more. If you need a shady spot for you to enjoy, and them to hang on to, consider building even a small temporary structure, of branches or bamboo poles. You could even build a permanent arbor. The gourd seedlings planted next to this support will grow exceptionally well and provide wonderful shade and keep leaves and fruit up off damp ground, reach for the sun, and grow even better. I surround the newly transplanted gourd vines with cardboard or weedblocker, to minimize weeds from inter-growing and creating a future weeding chore.

Committing to Successful Growth
Gourds are considered very heavy feeders, and you will have to use very nutrient rich soil, and continue to fertilize it as well along its period of tri-seasonal long growth (spring, summer and fall) in your growing space. They LOVE moisture. Planting them in an area where their roots receive a healthy amount of run off from a storm or healthy rain is good. Those gourds will drink it all up. They will sprout beautiful white blossoms, and most, but not all will produce “fruit”, meaning the gourd. Want a really huge gourd? Its best to plan ahead and already have selected a large sized variety, or you can pretty much guarantee you will get a good sized gourd just by removing any other young gourds growing on the vine. I always leave the two healthiest gourds on the vine, so if one dies, I have a standby. Then, fertilize the crap out of that plant with seaweed-based spray fertilizer, which is the best fertilizer ever. Do this before the weather turns terribly hot, and a few days before it rains. You don’t want this stuff to just wash off, and away, even though if it does wash into the soil (and roots) directly around the plant, it still helps fertilize it, but at a far less profound absorption rate then through actual surface. Critters don’t like to eat the actual Gourd plant itself, and are actually pretty impervious to vine borers as well. Vine boring worms traditionally go after zucchini and other vine-based plants, and can be absolutely fatal to your other produce. Its nice to know your gourds will not come with any worries on that front.

Tricks of the Trade
Gourds, technically related to squash and pumpkins, means that planting them by a road is a good practice, as both plants like “having their roots tickled” by the vibratory effects of soil, shaken by road traffic. I bet you didn’t know that, did you? It never hurts to learn something new and unexpected every day, and so there you go, mission accomplished. It also means you can grow these plants in highly sloped yards and hills next to high traffic roadside areas that are a pain (and dangerous) to mow. This is not only good gardening practice, it may well save someone’s life. Stop pushing and struggling with a mower in those type of areas, and grow some gourds, instead! It’s a win-win situation, not to mention it will save you gas money and wear and tear on your mower, and unnecessary effort on your own part. This is a great thing to know how to plan for ahead of time, so you can avoid mowing challenging and physically strenuous areas when its 100 degrees outside, and you are feeling cranky and overheated. There you go, I just cut some time off of your chore list. Good garden planning does that.

As these plants grow, perhaps draped on a fence and allowed to sprawl everywhere, it does becomes necessary to tie up the actual gourd itself with old nylons or cloth, to help support it. The weight of the growing gourd will quite probably test even the strongest vines, and its all coming down. And I guarantee you this can occur after a sudden, heavy rainstorm. We seem to be getting more of those as the years go by. I spray as often as every two weeks when I am obsessively trying to produce a superior crop of gourds. Then I weed, and ignore it. That crazy huge plant knows exactly what to do when left to its own devices. Actually, its going to grow like mad, and swallow every other plant in your garden space, for many, MANY feet, and can cover your lawn, and trees, if you don’t keep a watchful eye over it.

When I find gourds growing directly on the ground, I turn it a minimal amount, as much as the gentle vine will allow, so that it develops beautifully. This means it has equal access to sunlight and air and moisture. I turn them when I want to avoid lumps or flattened surfaces. You can also get creative and grow it in between flat boards and create a traditional canteen, or a box shape, or a pyramid, even. Some people even tie them into knots. Mind you, they must be very young and pliable in order to accomplish this successfully. Then let them go and grow, for months. When the growing year is done and the vines have all dried up, and you have a nice nip in the air, you may start inspecting your crop. Be very careful not to trod upon other gourds that you never suspected of existing. You will find them underneath those wonderful big leaves that are shriveling up in the cooler, dry weather.

Fall, Frost and Finishing Growth
When your gourd growing season is completely done, around November, do what I do. Ignore it again. The vine will be all shriveled up, the gourd itself will be full of moisture and heavy as sin, and prone to being scratched and scraped. Make absolutely sure you do NOT take off the stem. I keep about a foot worth of old vines attached to it, and trim it off with a good set of clippers. When you collect them, you can put them on a wooden pallet like I do. Its important that they do NOT touch each other, as this next step in the process can be a bit disgusting.

The gourds are so heavy because they are full of moisture. They will now undergo a lengthy period of “drying out”. When closely examining the skin of a freshly grown gourd, you will see it is made up of a lot of pores, not unlike our own skin. This is when it is alive, and growing. After trimming it off a completely dried vine, things will change. I put mine on a wooden pallet, out in the yard. Nothing fancy. Do not put them where ice or heavy snow from a building overhang will fall upon them and crush them over the winter. Let the late fall sunlight embrace them. As they endure heavy rains and leaf debris, snow and ice storms and all sorts of cruel weather conditions, the gourds, ever so slowly, release their interior moisture through those same pores. As they dry, the moisture passes outside the gourd itself, and forms a sort of grotesque slimy crust on the outside skin, where it then festers and bubbles and changes color. Each different type of gourd produces a different result. This is a natural process, and needs to happen in order for the gourd to prevent rot, and to become structurally hard. Eventually, the holes shrink and tighten. Everything, and I do mean everything that was inside these gourds will magically vomit itself out of the pores and find a way to encrust itself to the outside of the gourd. It promises to be colorful, and stench filled, and in all ways, best left alone. I do NOT recommend drying these inside your basement as many people have tried to do. These well meaning people concerned about their gourds need to leave them outside and leave them alone. Trust me, avoid the headache and the smell and the cleanup that will follow. You do NOT want these in your house while they undergo “the change”. Parts of the gourds will strengthen, and other parts will be weakened, and so do not handle them at all during this stage, as they can be compromised by movement and can split and become ruined. That would mean the literal loss of a years worth of growth.

Springtime Projects
When these gourds are completely dry, a good six months later (for real, this part itself takes half a year) in the mid-spring, that’s when I clean away the wind blown leaves, and hose them all off. I take a good stiff brush to them and wash and scrape their shells clean. Do this outside. It’s filthy. The pattern of the mold has provided a particular patina of color and character to each one, completely unreproducable by any other method. It’s a fabulous way to appreciate gourds. I hose the gourds off again when I think I’m done cleaning them, and then do it again. I get right down to it and use the flat end of a metal butter knife to scrape and scrape. Then I use a plastic scouring pad, and then finish it off with fine sandpaper. It is a LOT of work to prepare a gourd! And I have not even got to do anything fun with it yet!

Preparing to create
When the job is done and you are exhausted, sit back and ponder your efforts. Most gourds are so naturally beautiful, they are just fine left as is. Or if I want to decorate them, I then usually sit in a chair with a pencil, sketch out a design, hexes mostly, on the dry gourd. I can draw and then also erase any lead mark I’ve made on its surface. I can use a pushpin to make marks, or carve thin lines with an Exacto blade, or use a wood burning tool to make my mark. I’ve discovered the hard way that some gourds have thicker shells then others. Some are so beautiful that I don’t even need to alter them at all, just a quick sanding and then a treatment with stain or shellac sets them off just fine.

I often cut mine, and turn them into birdhouses, and place them everywhere I can legally get away with it. Small gourds are great homes for wrens, which in turn are the best creature ever to adopt your garden as its new home. They are aggressive at eating aphids and any other invasive, harmful insect. Turning a completely dried gourd into a bird house requires a good blade, (be very careful, as you are cutting into a rounded surface that does NOT want to be cut). I chop off the stem at the base of it, which usually leaves a sort of bowl-type object, which now has to be emptied of gourd seeds, and a dried, papery sort of inner material. I save the seeds for that years spring planting, and save the papery inside for use in making handmade paper. Birds love to live in these gourds, they are all natural and don’t harm the environment. When all is said and done after a few years when they usually fall apart. That’s fine, its all organic, good for the soil, and removes any diseases that sickly birds may have left behind in them. Sometimes I treat the gourds with stain or painted colors, and usually pierce the back or top or sides of them, thread a strong wire through it, (careful with this step) twist it into a loop. This quick and easy way of manufacturing a hanging method works well to display your gourds from a nail or branch or fence post, as well as tucked in your fall and winter garden displays.

Gourds are far more then just a thing you grow in your garden. Dried gourds, when used in this manner, fulfill our traditional and contemporary cultural Pennsylvania mindset of beauty and duty, form and function. When put into practice by serious and hobby gardeners, artists and craftspersons, gourds help to beautify our area, and make it a healthier place to live for both plants, animals, and humans. So plan on including them in next year’s garden, it couldn’t be easier.

Brick by Brick, Plant by Plant

 Two years ago a building in York, on Philadelphia Street, burned down. This resulted in a terrible tragedy for the owner. The owner ended up being related to one of my good neighbors, and allowed me to scavenge bricks from the site. I explained how I work on putting in gardens in many areas of York city, and how there is generally no budget. I get materials by begging, borrowing, yorkWreck_blogsometimes paying for them myself, and in this case, bravely approaching with my trusty trowel in hand, and a truck bed ready to be filled. Be warned, I get a tetnus shot quite regularly. I am in great shape. I plan and research out my trips to scavenge materials for use in gardens very, very carefully. This particular project to obtain bricks is not a project for the faint-hearted, the dainty, the physically weak, the easily disgusted, or those afraid of becoming indescribably, totally, disturbingly filthy. You will also develop smells and people will edge away from you at every opportunity. No one ever said that preparing an area for flowers was going to make you smell sweet!

See this photo? What a mess. It’s a good thing that the owner of this area allowed me to take these bricks. If anyone ever wants to help themselves to discarded bricks, always confirm with the owner first that you are able to take them. Most used bricks, if in good shape, can be sold, and are considered a resource. Even if it’s a big pile of burned crap, its still belongs to someone else. Old wrecked-looking bricks can always be reused. To collect this filthy treasure, I wore very heavy, steel tipped work boots, very heavy thick leather welding gloves, heavy clothes in general, a hard hat and a really good face mask. Digging through an area destroyed by high intensity fire, results in EVERYTHING burning. Plastics, bricks, paper, old asbestos, wire, etc. it’s a real mess and its dangerous and you can NOT afford to take any chances with your health. I only stayed on the outskirts of the location in question, and didn’t venture into any areas that were literally over my head. Gravity was the only thing that kept those standing walls and heavy burned timbers in place. A good strong wind will blow it all down, and did. Don’t be next to it, or under it when it happens. I wasn’t, which is why I’m still alive to write this blog for you. No kidding. Pay attention, plan carefully and avoid problems.

The bricks I took were either full-sized bricks, or half-sized ones. These bricks were exposed to very high temperatures, and a great majority were pulverized into powder. The way that buildings in York, and many older American East Coast cities were built, were out of two types of bricks. Harder red bricks, used on the exterior of buildings, and softer, orange bricks that were used on the interior walls, were both present on the site I was digging through. The bricks also had mortar on some of them. Quite a bit of the mortar was literally burned away, and there was only sand and grit remaining.

I have found many a use for these particular bricks, as have others. The main amount of keyhole_blogbricks (over a thousand) were used to construct a keyhole garden last year at the Hope Street Garden and Learning Lab, part of the Lincoln School, here in York City. Each time I had dug and tampered and leveled the site to make it perfectly flat. I built it 3 times. The first and second time I had constructed it, in hot, humid weather when sane people were inside in air conditioning. It was determined that it needed to be moved later on, to make room for  other projects. This was ok for me, in terms of moving it around, because each time I made alterations in its construction, improving and learning. It was also possible to move it, because I had never mortared it permanently in the first place. Next time, I’ll know better. I’m not moving that dang thing anymore, at ALL.

walkway_blogThe next project I made with the bricks was a brick walkway. I didn’t make it right away, of course, I had to collect and stack the bricks, over and over, in many trips. I used only the best bricks that I had available to me, and this meant that some of the bricks I had chosen at the former building site, were not actually as strong as I had first surmised. I had to reassess the stacked bricks, several times, as projects did not get finished off as quickly as I wanted. (what can I say, a gals gotta sleep sometime). Some of the bricks have been existing in stacked piles, in unobtrusive areas for two years now. It becomes apparent after the first hard winter, just how well some of them hold their condition after their first hard winter. This is a LOT of effort to go through for bricks, but I really wanted older bricks that matched the age and coloring of our house (pre-Civil War era) and so I was happy to accommodate what ever I had to put up with, and learn from.

york_road_blogYork has totally cool bricks. We have a long history with them. They were MADE here! Check out all the new work being done on the streets of York lately. Those messed up bumpy roads of ours, that have kept auto realignment companies in business, have been around for nearly 300 years. The recent scrapings of our battered pavement to improve it, has revealed the older ones underneath. It has unearthed our city’s marvelous brickwork. It has seen horses and wagons and Model T’s and Ford Mustangs and all sorts of vehicles and people. That’s pretty cool. Those bricks get to have your car travel directly over them now as well. They are a time capsule of transportation and we get to try it out here in 2015. Not too shabby. Pay attention to them before they get covered up again soon!

Sometimes I find bricks that are relics, that physically capture the actual moment in time they were made. I just love when this happens. It generally doesn’t grab anyone’s attention, because, realistically, who spends their time examining bricks? Garden Nutjobs like me, that’s who. Garden materials are very important, and their condition and history lend a certain character to any project, that is impossible to reproduce in any other way.

See this pattern? I built this in the back yard of The Hive, a great art spot on King Street in York, in the Royal Square Neighborhood. The area was so completely square, even down to the bricks themselves, that I had to put a swirl into it. Know where the bricks came from? From the pile at the bottom of this page.  Knocked down or collapsed buildings make great places to gather old bricks from. Again, practice safety first.

brickSpiral_blog

Now when it comes to constructing our walkway, we had hand dug out a section that had been used as a pathway. In the winter it was a muddy, icy-clot filled messy strip of earth. It was filthy and unsafe and resembled a track some sort of thrashing wild animal would have made. It needed some bricks! We chose bricks because it matches our old brick house and it is also extremely durable. As many of the bricks were obscured by soot and workingWalkway_blogash, it was harder to determine what was softer brick and which was harder. We wanted the harder bricks, especially for a walkway that will endure heavy use. But some where along the line we misidentified some bricks, and used them by mistake. Here’s a photo of what our walkway’s condition looked like when we were installing it,  before its first winter. We had to look up instructions on how deep to dig, and what other materials, such as weed blocker, gravel and sand, ended up being required to get the job done.

I had some bricks left over that I had my heart set on, in putting along side our driveway, because I wanted to make a container type “holding bed” for plants, both permanent and temporary. It also makes a nice method to control raspberries, and other plants that my have a tendency to spread uncontrollably, like oregano. The tilted method of having bricks standing upright is called “soldier” bricks, because they are standing at attention. Try to make your lines straighter then I did, both my bricks and my plastic edging were pushed up against loose gravel, that left me with chisels_blogvery little support when it came time to place them in each spot. You can see how some of the soft bricks, mistakenly used, crumbled into powder and will have to be replaced. Any bricks that were odd edged, we used a hammer and chisel in order to form them better. Some were so oddly shattered, we just used them as fill material when we found we had holes we needed to remove, either in the earth itself, or inside the odd hole or two.

We also put bricks right by our porch lattice, because it’s a great way to keep critters from nosing around by the dirt, digging a quick tunnel, and making a home where it is not supposed to. I reference this in an earlier blog about those crazed rabbits that try to destroy my yard at every sneaky opportunity they get. Not only does using bricks in gardens serve as a great way to make walkways or borders, it also serves to mark areas that should remain permanent, like covering buried electrical lines in a garden that would regularly be tilled every spring. There is no shortage of brilliant, adaptable methods of using bricks. I find that a quick online search also helps when you find you have a big pile of them, and you want to use them up somehow.

soldiers_blogWhen I have black raspberry plants that are trying to send the tips of their new canes down into the earth, (always in the wrong place) I usually pick up the wandering tip, relocate it to a better spot, by digging a small hole for the tip. I place the end of the raspberry cane down in there and cover it well with dirt. It will generally pop up on its own and be obstinate, so I always put a half brick down on top of it to hold it into place, before it gets a chance to grow roots and hold itself in place. Also, when I have green beans growing and I require an item to help me control the string and vines, I tie a brick to it. It helps to weigh it down, and everything grows better because of it.

I have to say, overall, the oldest bricks, were by far superior to any of the others I have used. The ones that were placed next to the fire when they were being hardened in the kiln, also still retain the original glassine effect that happens when it is so close to the fire that the actual sand in the clay mixture becomes superheated and turns into GLASS. These were rare, and very prized bricks to have. Only the wealthiest clients bought bricks to have their houses constructed (just by using bricks was a far costlier construction cost, then a regular wood house). This holds true for today as well. And to top it off, the glassine bricks were even more expensive, as they were specially set aside and inserted into the building of the exterior walls.

Why expend this extra effort, you ask? For a lowly brick that didn’t match any of the others and cost more? Its shiny, darker discolored surface was excellent at reflecting light, which made it a visually striking addition to home builders eager to show off their wealth. These glassy bricks were arranged in a pattern, either in lines or diamond patterns or rough hexes, on the side or front of a house. These bricks would catch the light and literally sparkle from a distance. It was used as a method to tell what time it was, from a distance, because as the sun would move its way across the sky, at cerain times of the day. On really sunny days, it would reflect the light and set off a visual spectacle that could be seen from farther away, then say, a clock. I bet you didn’t know that did you? That’s pretty cool, I think. Bricks were used in both the duty of a structure, and the beauty of a pattern and the duty of telling time. That’s remarkable. Try THAT with Vinyl Siding!

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All in all, I have to say that hunting down, collecting, reusing old brick is a very worthwhile effort, but it does require significant amounts of time, and heavy hard work in general, far more then just going out and buying new ones. For any project you try with these, always have a plan! Its too much heavy work to do, otherwise.

Cute Fluffy Visitors, or Hole-Digging Demons from Hell?

Cast your eye upon this unwanted visitor in your garden. Is it cute? Undoubtedly. It is destroying all your most coveted crops? Most assuredly. Can you deal with its presence? Only time and the strength of your personal character will tell. 

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They are so wonderful, aren’t they? 

You rescue them from the clutches of death itself (aka your cat) and you think that after you set them free to run, and frolic, and go back to doing what ever it is bunnies do, that they would practice a modicum of restraint when it came to chowing down on your lovely, very ripe, very tasty, very well producing garden. 

Silly, silly you. Face facts. You are growing a literal garden of healthy, super delicious delights for the senses, and it’s just much too much for your little garden bunny dude to resist. It is a tender happy young critter, full of bounce and vigor and lettuce and peas and garden goodies_bloganything else it can get its chompy little mouth on, and it simply cannot help itself. It goes wild with desire when encountering your luscious chard and verdant spinach and everything else you tenderly and devotedly plant and weed and nourish. It hasn’t yet learned to grow wary of your cats and your big stomping feet and the hawks that perch on the roof of your house and cast a hungry eye at anything that twitches.  

You can try chasing after those lovely critters yourself, if you so desire. You can hop and frolic and turn and twist and spin just like these fleet-footed furry speed demons, and see if that gets you any closer to catching them. Trust me, it will not.  You will get more than a few sideways looks from your good neighbors who will know better then to question your activities, since they have grown wise enough to not comment directly on your less then normal, pro-experimental garden methods. Perhaps you might even develop a new type of dancing, or exercise method. Maybe you will win an award for it. I don’t know. I just know that I will try anything to catch those wascally wabbits,  hell-bent on eating my garden! 

clay tubes_blogI do try alternative  methods.  I once had the great filthy pleasure to dig up an old drainage field next to our house, which exists in a low-lying area.  The clay drainage pipes we found, which were not inconsiderable in number, I ended up stacking into a sort of garden folly structure, off to the side of the vegetable garden.  I figured the bunnies could hide in there, surrounded by local wildflowers and fill up on those lovely green items, instead of my spinach plants. It’s a garden practice/ methodology type of  “sacrifice garden”. The theory of sacrifice gardens is exactly what you think it is. It provides a sort of safe haven for critters to live and survive in, eating greenery you choose to sacrifice to the bunnies, and thus providing an easier, less threatened growing season for your own vegetable garden. 

strawbale rabbit_blogI also grow especially tasty vegetables on top of my strawbale gardens. Bunnies, no matter how well they leap and jump, simply can’t make it to the top of these structural garden wonders. My crops of lettuce, radishes, turnips and whatnot remain unmolested and are easier to pick, and remain free from other garden damage from standing water, slugs, etc. its pretty cool. Look how beautiful! There’s more then one way to outsmart a bunny, and I’m going to share what I’ve learned, short of inserting land mines and setting snare traps all throughout the yard.

You know another reason why you have a hard time catching those rabbits? Those critters are healthier and faster and better than you. You know why I know this? Because they don’t eat junk food like us silly humans! They fill up on all YOUR lovely vegetables and fruits, so of COURSE they are healthier than you are!  And you are stuck eating a stale bag of fast food instead of snacking on good home-grown veggies because those crazy furballs already ate all your good tasty produce. Ah. It’s a vicious circle.   

bunny 7_blogSometimes I think the only safe place in the world for these tiny little wonderful, terrible creatures, is inside our hands. See this one? Isn’t it all helpless and innocent and irresistible looking? And yet they chew and destroy quite happily our gardens and plants that we spend not inconsiderable amounts of time and money on.  Grrr. It passes by no chance to dig and chew. They are opportunists on a grand scale and can happily wreak havoc that could easily be attributed to a much larger creature, like say, a Tyrannasarus Rex. How they manage to not grow to gargantuan size is beyond comphrension.

However, you are older than that springtime bunny and have learned how to thwart its nutritional intentions.  At least partially. Let’s practice what we know. “Have a Heart” traps are really great at catching critters. Essentially they work like this: you put some sort of lure into the trap… fresh beautiful fruit, and set the trap. SNAP! You catch the little ravenous critter and your garden is safely preserved for the rest of eternity.  Sounds easy, right? No. That’s not how it works. It is never that easy. Remember, there is ALWAYS another bunny. In wildlife terminology, bunnies are the french fries of the animal world, everybody eats them.  Mama bunny has so many of them, in the brave hope that ONE of them may make it to adulthood. She teaches them things as well. When they are very small, one of their protective behaviors is to freeze, holding themselves quite still.  That’s a pretty impressive feat, considering their natural bunny proclivity to run and dart and flit around on their magic little lucky feet. Taking advantage of Mama Bunny’s “freezing” advice is the only way we were able to grasp any of these tiny bunnies and take these photos.  After photographing them, and cooing over their cuteness and scolding them about their garden wreckage,  (and throwing in a cautionary tale about avoiding cats) we put then in a cardboard box and dropped them off in the not-too- local woods. They better stay there! 

Catching them by hand is not always an option. So let’s discuss other methods of protecting your green little paradise.

 wire fencing_blogFirst you must dig a trench completely surrounding your garden. Then practically kill yourself unwinding chicken wire and hardwire cloth and some sort of superior fencing material, insert it deeply in the aforementioned trench, and around any area of your garden that even hints of a wiff of defensive weakness.  Only after your garden is secure will local bunny dudes and dudettes bother to venture into your lovely “Have a Heart” trap. Once caught, I usually take them to a wooded area and let them go. This practice doesn’t always work, as you have to take them MILES away from where you originally caught them. Their homing instincts are very strong. A friend of mine, a biologist told me once how he knew a guy who captured some particularly irritating squirrels and released them farther away. They continued to reappear. He had a theory the squirrels were the same ones, and so next time he caught them, he painted them, to mark them, and released them 20 miles away. Sure enough, they returned. Remarkable. 

Then there was another person I knew, who hated a golf course development in a formerly wooded area. Like, really and truly HATED it. He ended up catching groundhogs in his own yard and released them at the newly created golf course and let them dig their way deeply into the hearts and minds of the groundskeeping crews. Yup.  So, hearing all these stories makes me ponder what I will do once I catch, IF I catch, my own personal destructive bunny dudes. 

But first, lets look at methods you can employ to impede their access to your property. When bunnies run away, they look for a place to hide. I weeded around the house, and found that bunny dude had dug dirt out from under my porch lattice. rabbit lattice_blogAll of them, actually.  Many little holes dug through dirt and plants and mulch, all ending underneath the front and or back porches. This provided bunnies a hole small enough to access areas far away from the claws and jaws of my cats.  Turns out the tunnel lead to a very roomy and safe area under the porch, for them to hide away in, mock my kitties, and breed more rabbits. Those new rabbits, will in turn, go forth at all hours of day and night, and confidently chow down on even larger sections of your garden. This is not good. Not good for the garden, not good for you, but pretty fabulous for the bunnies. And there is never just one. They take shifts, giggling to themselves  in their high pitched bunny voices, about how they have outsmarted you and your fellow garden-growing humans. And they get to dine upon your formerly lovely garden, all day and all night as well. You, little human, are bound to loose, because you (and your cats) will have to sleep sometime. And you are lulled to sleep by the sound of gentle munching of your garden by those furry beasts. When you sleep, you dream of bunnies and their giant gnashing teeth, ripping and rending and tearing away at your garden and your house, bit by bit, mouthful by mouthful. But enough about me. 

My cats are very good at catching bunnies. Why rabbits feet are considered lucky, I don’t understand, because even with 4 of those lucky charms, each one that visits my garden still inevitably ends up in my cats belly. What I do when I discover these bunny access bunny 4_blogpoints around my house, I remove all weeds so I can see more clearly what is going on. I then pack dirt, and then more dirt into the formerly low area, pound it hard and flat, and then line the entire lattice with a row of bricks, or half bricks.  This acts as an impediment to the digging and is a pretty reliable buffer of protection. It also presents a more formal appearance to your property, and helps to remove piles of materials and debris that may have already existed on your property in the first place, so it’s doing triple duty.

These photos show how I used piles of old bricks and used them as my home defensive border against an army of fluffy invaders. 

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In conclusion, protecting your garden from bunny destruction is great. Protecting your home is even greater, because these bunnies not only will burrow under your porches, they continue to dig once under your porch, quite often digging tunnels down to your foundation. These tunnels will fill up with stormwater  later on, which will freeze and expand and can partially crack your foundation, which can possibly fill up with dead stinking unlucky bunny bits and pieces, which you will smell come spring. Trust me, you want to avoid this, and your bunny buddies also want to avoid it as well. Be a good gardener, and a friend to your bunny, and fence, and stack and build and do what you can to provide a good thriving environment for all.

Feathered Friends with Funktastic Homes!

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This fledgling Finch was almost eaten by one of my mighty barn cats. I was able to intervene just in time. THIS BIRD NEEDS A HOME !

Birdhouse 6_blogSo maybe you used to have a large garden, and have downsized to a small one. Or vice versa. Maybe you have York county’s most beautiful fire escape garden. Perhaps you live in the countryside and have access to beautiful rolling hills and valleys to garden in. No matter what, one constant in any changing outdoor garden environment,  whether  vegetable,  fruit or decorative,  is that all wildlife activity significantly increases. This can be a bad thing, if you are referencing deer, or groundhogs. This can be a great thing,  if we are talking about birds. So let’s talk about birds!

Birds are the most noticeable natural life form that gain access to yards in literally every type of area throughout Pennsylvania. Taking care of our feathered friends is an important part of gaining and maintaining your garden’s health, and birdhouses are an element that can be used successfully in all urban, suburban or rural areas. 

Birdhouses can be made of any type of material, but its purpose is simple. To provide a home in a sturdy container, of not too large a size, allowing birds the opportunity to sleep and build nests and lay eggs and raise a family, all in a protected environment. snowhouse_blogThey are protected from the changing elements, which can be brutal. They are protected from different critters, which can be fatal to them. And they will be protected from humans, who can become too curious about them and their offspring.

 Why do you want to attract birds to your garden space, or any space? Because birds are cool. Birds are beautiful. They can naturally fly, and you can’t. Birds can chirp and sing and dart and swoop and are wonderful additions to any area. Birds will set up a home in and around your gardens and patrol for bugs and are fiercely territorial and love to serenade you while they perform their services for free. It is important to keep their houses clean and well maintained, and remove any debris from them, whether bird related, waste or feathers, or leaves and branches fallen from nearby trees.

kids building birdhousses_blogBirdhouses can be made of many different types of materials.  They can be funky or tame, fabulous or traditional, old fashioned or modern. I have taught York County children how to build their own funktastic birdhouses from scrap wood at the Glatfelter Library in Spring Grove, and that says a LOT about how far a library will go towards helping their patrons learn about things! When a library allows people to go wild with loud power tools inside a generally hushed learning environment, you know all sorts of good discovery is going to happen with those kids! more kids building birdhouses_blogThey may have questioned my sanity when I proposed teaching this class, but we did great and everyone walked out of there having successfully hand-constructed their own very bird-tastic birdhouses. 

The best birdhouses are made from recycled old wood. They don’t reek of fresh paint or sealer or any type of chemicals at all. This is why I have always used old wood that I got for free, because it was going to be scrapped. I can’t stand waste in the garden, whether its pulled weeds remaining uncomposted or wood without a future as a bench, fence pole, or birdhouse. Recycled, reused, and repurposed is my constant theme throughout EVERY garden. 

I’m going to write about some of the birdhouses I’ve constructed.  These are for sale in Birdhouse 8_blogRedeux  Market Place in York City  and are being  used in the Royal Square Gardens in the newest Royal Square Neighborhood  also in York City. They came from local wood I gleaned from old barns here in York county. These rustic birdhouses are crafted from a mixture of old and new. Wood is recycled in these birdhouses from my immediate neighborhood of Spring Grove and Labott.  Four major colors on the wood are used, some painted, grey, red, natural brown, and white.  As you read this story and look at the photos, try and see what matches up! And let’s be honest. Barns are just very cool places to be. Every effort should be made to repair and restore them at every opportunity.

Lutz barn_blogAll this older wood is aged at least 100 years or more, and was for the most part, locally grown hardwood. Any new wood is scrap from renovations done on my barn. Some of these barns are, basically speaking, within the general area of each other and can be seen in one sweeping view of our beautiful green valley.  Every single time there is a repair job going on to any local barn that results in discarded wood, I’m there with my truck for a pick up of future birdhouse materials!

The grey painted wood is from renovations made to the “Centennial Barn”built by Jonas Stover and his wife Mary in 1876, at Painted Spring Farm Alpacas in Spring Grove. This large former cow barn is built on the site where a smaller one had been. Alpacas and chickens and horses and Guenia Hens and intrepid barn cats are raised by the latest line of sturdy and dependable farmers, Beth and Neil Lutz. They keep this beautiful land pristine for Lutz barn 2_blogagricultural purposes. They keep very busy with their alpaca herds, their wool business, and their steadfast commitment to the local 4H. You should go to one of their open houses one day and buy some wool. Also buy fresh eggs from them. They are delicious. If you ever fancy getting in superior shape to qualify to be an Olympic athlete, offer to help them out on their farm. Good old farm chores will get you in shape in no time!

Fishel barn_blogThe red painted wood is from the Fishel Barn, dated to 1856, in Labott, and was built by Daniel Fishel. This family farm site predates the American Revolution, and boasts a wonderful old log cabin. A memorable event in 1863 at the Fishel farm was during the Civil War. Confederate troops went past this barn on their way to York, and then passed by again, when leaving York on their way to fight at Gettysburg. The southern troops stole horses from this barn. The same family owns the land and its buildings today, and they raise cows and field crops. It’s been over 152 years since their horses were stolen in July at the height of the haying season, and they are still pissed about it. Go ask them about it if you don’t believe me.

ourbarn_blogThe brown wood comes from my family barn in Labott that was originally owned by the Bentzel family. We think it was built in the late 1860’s. This property has been in my family for half a century,  which doesn’t mean much around here, where property ownerships can last for well over 200 years. The barn is an English style, which means it is a remarkably square building, compared to all the long barns which are the local norm. The barn was used to house draft horses, pigs and store wagons, hay and straw. The family who lived here used to run the local Redmans club, Anooka Tribe number 525 next door to it back in 1910. This was a club where our local community leaders used to dress up like Native Americans, drink heavily, and then fear going home because they knew they were going to get chewed out by their wives. Go figure. Now the barn is home to fearless barn cats who patrol the local garden we grow marvelous plants in.

Hoke House Cabin_blogThe white painted wood, dutch lapboard siding, is from off the old log cabin, adjacent to the Hoke House in Spring Grove, right on the roundabout. The Hoke house, a magnificent stone house of historic origin, right on the roundabout in Spring Grove, has been around since the 1747. That’s 265 YEARS! Be proud of yourself, York County, that’s amazing history! The old cabin had served as a bakery, and provided thousands of loaves of delicious York County bread that fed all sorts of historic residents and travelers that passed through Spring Grove, when it was called Spring Forge. This photo shows descendents of the original Hoke family, still active in preservation efforts of this fine historic site. The log cabin, along with some other neglected buildings, were torn down last year, as they generally were in a decayed, neglected condition. The grand and impressive Hoke House itself still yet stands, and the Save the Hoke House Committee has been working with Rutters, who are the owners of the location, to find a tenent who might like to try their hand at restoring the place before they occupy it. I can save the old local boards by myself to reuse as birdhouses, but it’s a tall order to try to save a huge old house like this, and York County can use all the history heroes it can get.  Look up and call Paul Nevin, Hoke House Committee chairman, or Blake Stough of the Spring Grove Historical Society and ask how you can help preserve it.

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To sum up this birdhouse blog, I use wood scraps from barn renovations because I am compelled to make something useful from piles of unwanted stuff. I have buckets of old bent nails that I found in my familys barn, because during the depression in the 1930’s no one ever threw anything out. I pick up weird bits from everywhere, knowing that one day I will decorate birdhouses with them. These birdhouses are funky and fabulous. I enjoy making them, and fantasize birds descended from wildlife that lived in our beautiful York County area 100+ years ago, can still find a home inside the same old wood that our ancestors used. 

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I love the stories that these barns and their wood bring into my life. It provides a link from the past to the present that we can contact with our own eyes and hands. When our past disappears, we fill in with our own presence, much like how the new mixes with the old in these birdhouses. Our community’s ancestors cared for our landscape, nearly 400 years ago, and the local Lenape Indians, for far longer then that.  By our daily efforts, the newest generation can step in to carry on our agricultural traditions, and take their place in preserving, and becoming, part of our area’s very unique American history.

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 I love these old buildings, and think it’s great how resourceful York County residents and craftspeople can turn trash into treasure. Look closely around your neighborhoods, both urban, suburban and rural and I’m quite certain you yourself will be able to build a few birdhouses and create artistic homes for our fine feathered friends!

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Intensely Interested in Interplanting!

 

Inter-cropping is when you have two or more different vegetables growing in the same shared piece of ground, or in the same row, providing diversification. When planting fast growing and slow growing vegetables together, it’s a marvelous method to generate and ultimately harvest a wide variety of home-grown healthy food.

Raspberry sunflowers_blogOften times when you plan a garden and look over your available space, you discover that usually one of the following facts is true:

  1. you have too many plants.
  2. you don’t have enough space.
  3. you become frustrated.

If you have a garden like mine, it’s a mix of mature and not quite mature permanent plants, both trees and bushes. When we bought my family’s place, it was in need of a LOT of work, both on the house, and the land. We had some mature trees and bushes on the property, and some were long dead and needed clearing away. We did some careful planning and reckless buying at plant nurseries, and before we knew it, we found ourselves loaded up with fruit bushes of all types.

When fruit bushes are purchased in pots, they are basically easy enough to move around, from nursery to the back of a car or truck. They will NOT remain that size, if planted correctly, and grown well. So when you plant them in the desired space, make SURE to pay attention that each one of them gets proper placement. When these are finally planted, the appearance overall is that there is a plethora of extra space. This actually is correct. This is where we engage in the bold act of mixed-use plantings!

blueberries_blogNow is an appropriate time to engage in research. I always consult my book “Carrots Love Tomatoes” by Louise Riotte. It’s a revelation of which plants grow well together, and which don’t. It’s like this. Some plants take nutrients away from the soil and some put nutrients back in.

For example, some plants are referred to as heavy feeders, meaning what they take out of the soil, and some are light feeders, meaning they consume very sparingly of the soil’s nutrients. Light feeders are quick growing vegetables like lettuce, radishes, spinach, celery, cabbage, kale, chard, collards, and other greens. Planting these every week or two means fresh food comes in for a good while. And a REAL benefit of inter planted crops is that the closer they grow to each other as they fill out in size, also means that they block  opportunities for those dratted weeds to take hold.

For my purposes, I planted tomatoes, which are small in the beginning, and which will grow to a much larger size by the end of the growing season. In between the beginning planting and harvest time, there’s plenty of sunlight and rain and space and time to grow quick crops of fast growing vegetables; like radishes and lettuce; in the dirt in between each tomato plant. The tomatoes are considered heavy feeders, and the radishes and lettuces are considered light feeders. Get it? No harm done to either plants’ health and production, and you get a double crop in the same space originally intended for one.

raspberries_blogIn areas where we combine both perennials (permanent), fruit and annual (one year only) vegetables (this includes edible flowers), its possible to have glorious inter-plantings that do incredibly well. If the soil is rich enough, watered enough, heavily composted enough in its beginning stages, and amply fertilized (I only use organic seaweed foliar spray fertilizer, which works wonders), tremendous amounts of food production can be achieved.

Really excellent companions are asparagus with tomatoes, beans with carrots or summer savory, beets with onion or kohlrabi, cabbage with aromatic plants, or potatoes or celery or carrots , or turnips with peas. There are also plants that dislike each other. For example, do not plant beans with onions, garlic or gladiolus, beets with pole beans, cabbage with strawberries, tomatoes or pole beans, or potatoes with pumpkins, squash, cucumber, sunflower, tomato or raspberry. All of these plants, it should be noted, are heavy feeders.

This year my blueberry bushes are finally large enough to bear a modest amount of fruit, even though they get nibbled down severely throughout the winter months by my ever-so-helpful bunny friends. In the spaces between these berries, I have flowers planted, so as to attract pollinators, and bush type cucumbers and green zucchini squash. By the way, remember to plant different types of blueberry bushes next to each other, they require this for pollination purposes, otherwise all your efforts will be for naught. cucumbers blueberries_blog

When I plant, or decorate my home, I’m cursed with the behavior of “Horror Vaccui”, which is Latin for “Fear of an empty space”, for real. I force myself to adhere to the recommended spacing of plants. As each bush and vegetable grows in grace and beauty, I like to stick a couple of clay pots on their sides underneath a bunch of the shadier plants, (big leafy gourds and squash are good candidates) and make it a nice home for frogs or toads. Throw a hand full of dirt or mulch in there for them to sit upon. Not too much, you want to give them room to hang out in there and watch you work, where they will undoubtedly croak and chirp, which is their way of announcing to the world, “boy, do I have a great gardener working for me!” But you may say to yourself “I don’t have frogs or toads in my garden.” Well, I’m betting you do. Those critters like to stay well hidden. This helps to avoid getting squished underneath our big clumsy feet, live out what ever sort of quiet ninja stealth mode insect attack toad fantasies they have, and to be better able to consume lots of lovely bugs that bother our garden, and aggravate us garden types.

toad_blogAs I write this, we approach July. It is still not too late to plant a garden. Indeed, this is when I usually plant late tomatoes and especially green beans, as July is the month of heaviest growth. The temperatures are great for growing, the rain is generally plentiful, and weeds like to stay gone when you rip them out. My raspberries are inter-planted with geraniums and sunflowers and cucumbers, my strawberries are inter-planted with okra and lilies. This way each planted space is continually producing something, fruit or vegetables or blossoms producing pollen. The overall effect is one of order and chaos, duty and beauty. As you inspect, you will notice the beautiful curving vines of cucumbers growing so well inter-planted in the tall straight lines of sunflowers.

This mindset is also one of the laws behind producing traditional Pennsylvania Dutch Art. A straight line (masculine) is a line of duty, a curved line (feminine) is a line of beauty. This is also a behavior and mindset used to design Pennsylvania Dutch Hexes, as well as Quilts. Many traditional patterns are based on the actual garden plans of each quilt artist; reds next to purples, yellows next to greens and browns, blues next to oranges. It’s not hard to discern the patterns and meanings and overall beauty that influenced each work of art, whether it is your garden, your Hex art, or your quilt.

Smashed Sheds, Broken Branches and Lost Weekends

So a tree fell on your garden shed during a big windstorm… Yup. You had plans to have a stress-free relaxing weekend. Sleep in late, consume an opulent, leisurely breakfast,  Damaged Shed_blogmusically accompanied, discretely, by tuxedoed violin players, then maybe get a manicure and pedicure and sit around relaxing and eating lovely little dainty bon bons flown in from France that very morning, right?  Perhaps later, after a nap, memorize some of the finer passages of Shakespeare for when you care to impress your coworkers at your next office meeting or corporate take over…  For the record, I’ve never done ANY of these things.. Well, your plans just changed. You are now going to be a feral better good neighbors_blogsweaty hog beast of a lumberjack, grunting, stinking and covered with leaves and dirt and filth that comes from dragging inconveniently heavy logs that smashed up your nice metal garden shed and left precious little undamaged. Ha. Jokes on you. 

So, your plans have changed. But that’s ok, stuff happens, and this is how you handle an unplanned crisis like this. To begin, these 40 year old English walnut trees grow on our property, planted by my father, and thus are our responsibility.

Part of them fell onto our good neighbors property, and thankfully, did no damage. We decide to get this cleaned up before we start on our own property, because, after all, this is what it means to be a York County good neighbor. 

tree trimmers_blogWe decided to do this clean up task ourselves, and yet still called in a professional tree trimming  company- Heritage Lawns and Landscaping – to trim off the large “stubs” of branches still attached to the tree, because they know what they are doing and we want to save the trees.  Also, we don’t want to fall and kill ourselves, because when we get up on a ladder, it becomes apparent that we clearly don’t know what we are doing when it comes to trimming very heavy, mature trees.  Let this be a lesson to you, in the long run, it is always much, much cheaper to hire a professional to do a job like this, than to get injured, pay a whopping huge medical bill, or funeral expenses.  For real.  York County residents love to be the can-do county, but we also like to live a long healthy life time as well. Make wise choices. As it was, the falling branches and logs bashed around our arborvitae a good bit, killing none of them, and we will have to tie them up to bring them more upright again.

stacks of wood_blogNow when it comes to cleaning up, assess the situation. First, it’s hot.  Start early and avoid the worst heat of the day. Eat a big breakfast because you are going to need the energy. Take your vitamins. Wear a hat, the sun is blazing down and you’re going to be fried. Slather on gobs of sunscreen; hit the tips of your ears and the back of your neck, I always forget to cover those. Wear good strong boots. I don’t care if its 90 degrees out and hot, if you slip and drop big logs on your foot, those toes are not growing back. Have Gatorade on hand, or lots of something cool to drink.  Most importantly, have patience, understanding and a sense of humor, because a large part of this is going to suck. 

You will need handclippers to trim off the smaller branches, and a larger pruner, either hand powered or battery or electric, to cut the larger branches as they start to turn into logs. These will be HEAVY. You will be lifting things up and over. Don’t drop them onto your feet, or someone else’s feet. If using an electrically powered, cord- tethered cutting tool, pay attention to avoid getting the cord tangled in your feet. Leaves will be all over the place and will obscure your vision. Don’t cut through the cord.  That would be bad. You especially don’t want to get tangled and fall over and fall onto or into a very sharp running tool designed to cut and maim and destroy. Being aware of potential danger is the first sign you are a responsible chore-master, and that your plans will end well. As I say with every project, if the job gets done and nobody lost an eye, it was a good day.

 bending_blogStart by dragging off the most easily reached branches, working your way into the worst tangled areas. This will be like untying a Gordian knot. It is going to require patience. Remember, Alexander the Great never untied that Gordian knot either, he sliced through it with his mighty sword. That’s what you are going to do now, slice through these fallen branches, bit by bit until it is all gone. Try to pay attention and make sure nothing else is mixed in with the tree -branches, wires or metal or anything else, that is not going to play nice with your saw, powered or not.  Make piles of the wood immediately afterwards,  one for smaller branches to be used as kindling, and a larger pile for logs. Also, don’t forget all those lovely leaves. They make marvelous compost. 

frog_blogAs you work, be cautious not only of yourself and your own limbs as well as tree branches, but any local wildlife that may have decided to creep into and under the branches that are all over the place. We found this wonderful toad. Isn’t it a cutie! This is a sign of a very healthy natural environment, and we want to preserve its life. We picked Toady up and moved it aside into an area that has much less odds of being trampled by foot traffic or tossed logs.

Look over the types of wood now, and make some decisions. Could you use some of it for yourself? I Googled English Walnut trees, and discovered that the wood of this particular tree is good when used for traditional tools, as handles for tools, and also for gunstocks. So there! I see some dibbles in my future!

termites_blogAs we cut, we discover some of the wood is hollowed out, by termites, I suspect. We see evidence of the eggs that have been disturbed by the branches coming down.  Birds hop around our work area and quickly eat as many of these as they can find.

skids_blogAs you cut and cut and cut, you will eventually get through all the wood. You will be sweaty and sore and have muscles. You will have three piles, one of larger logs of wood, one of branches, and one of leaves. The logs and branches has been stacked and set aside, ideally on a wooden skid, so that it dries out in time for winter use.  This requires putting it in the back of a truck, and driving it on over to the good neighbor who can use it this winter.  This will take several trips.

This is all hot work, so remember to drink plenty of fluids. This type of work also requires lots of constant, repeated bending and lifting and carrying. Be careful!

Do NOT overload your truck! Placing it on a skid also means it can be lifted and moved easily by whomever  needs it. Final clean up means all the remaining leaves get thrown into the compost. Everything gets used, there is no waster of debris littering the area, and you get a workout.  This is all good. Now go and have a long drink of something cool, you earned it.

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Building Beautiful Bamboo Bins for Bodacious Bounty, Baby!

 

(Or, how to put in plant supports without loosing an eye)

So I got a late start on putting in my regular garden this spring. Putting solar on my house was a big time consuming project.  No matter, cold temperatures delayed many a planted paradise. And now that plants are in full swing “grow like mad” mode, (as are the weeds) I find that my garden is never quite large enough to accommodate my ambitious plans.  So the answer is to move on UP if you can’t spread out. Today’s blog will feature how to build strong supporting cages to support extra large, heavy juicy tomatoes. 

Number one? Prepare your garden. Is it too late to plant? Heck no, garden buddy! You can dig and plant your garden up to the beginning of July in our wonderful part of Pennsylvania, because delicious plants like beans and tomatoes can go in way late in the season.  Now, physically speaking, our garden is surrounded by a wire fence that dates to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It had been rolled up and stored away in my good neighbor’s barn for many years and one day they were going to sell it as scrap and I offered them some cash for it. I unrolled it, steel wire brushed it, primed and painted it, (it rotted fence post_bloghelps to be obsessive-compulsive for projects like this) and it found a new home as my garden fence. For the purposes of this garden project, the restored wire fence will be the outside supporting fence, and the inner supporting fence will be the inner, Bamboo structure.  

As we check the existing metal fence structure, supported by reclaimed wooden fence posts, we discover a rotted wooden post and have to dig it out and repair it. The old posts I use were sturdy 200 year-old locust poles rescued from a pile on a local farm, destined to be burned. I can always seem to find a use for something that was considered trash by some one else. It’s sort of a curse. But when using old rescued items, there is always a risk that some of the materials will be defective.old fence post_blog We turn the old post upside down and put it back in the hole it came from, and block it in with salvaged bricks. This way when I get another post to replace it, I just pop one out and another one in. No additional digging! When the new post goes in (one I bought at Lowes) I’m pretty well assured I’ll get many good years out of it, but probably not 200. I’ll save my receipt, though, just to be sure.

Wicked Weeds, Charming Critters
Now, when you plan your garden, you can not avoid the basics. 

When you stand in it with your hands on your hips and your lungs full of fresh air, and you look upon a plethora of weeds, you say to yourself, “Where  in the heck did all these weeds come from!” Well, the wind blew them in, or the birds contributed their lovely poop, or the soil itself already held years worth of them. (To be sure, many weeds have wonderful properties, and I’m the first to claim we can use as many local varieties of plant life as possible. But when my goal is tomatoes, or other conventional crops, the weeds gotta go. I simply don’t have enough space.) 

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There’s History in that thar Dirt
For as much history that your soil holds, whether weed seeds, arrowheads (tribe unknown), old rusty horseshoes, coins, marbles, animal bones, bits of old blue bottle glass, old shell buttons, or civil war gold, or whatever  historic items appear, whether last century or last week, if its not going to help grow your plants, the stuff has got to go. For the record, I have found all of these things in my garden, except for the civil war gold. Darn it all. Pluck what is not dirt, out of the dirt, and save what you want. Start a treasure jar and also probably a garbage bucket, because trust me, you are going to find all sorts of things.  Soil always gives up its secrets, eventually. Hey, check it out! We found a toad! (if you wait too long to dig, you WILL dig up nests of baby bunnies. Please don’t do this, it’s heartbreaking, avoid this at all costs. 

toad_blogThis alluring female toad didn’t make it into the treasure bucket. I let her go hop around in an area we did not dig. When the garden is planted, I’ll put in a ground level solar light in a sunny spot in the garden, just for this lovely creature, so that nighttime bugs can come around investigating, and Toad Gal can have her fill of them. I will place a couple of clay pots half buried on their sides throughout the garden so that she can have several hang outs to lounge in and be her beautiful toad self. For the record, never, ever, by any means, kill a reptile you find in your garden. They have found your lovely space and made it their home and want to help you. By helping you, they help themselves. The harmless garter snake will eat pesky mice. The harmless toad or frog will eat unwanted bugs, mostly mosquitoes. These marvelous garden companions of yours will return year after year. Learn to look for their signs, and get to know their kids each spring. Trust me, it’s a fabulous partner ship. It’s good to have friends helping you in the garden, because gardens can be a lot of work. 

 If you have a rocky garden, keep an eye out for Killdeer birds, their eggs are perfectly camouflaged as rocks and the mama bird itself will do a particular “injury dance” to distract you from their soon to be family”.  Bugs have jobs, too. Praying Mantis bugs, large as they are, will find a pleasant and wonderful home in your garden and will eat all sorts of terrible bugs. Ladybugs, in general, possess charming personalities in the first place and will happily consume all your aphids, without regard for their expanding waistline, which only makes them even more charming. These life forms are working for you, for FREE, and the first way to attract them to your garden is to NOT USE ANY CHEMICALS AT ALL. No weed killer, no chemical sprays, nothing of the sort. The only fertilizer I use is liquid seaweed, and trust me, it smells like the devil and works like a charm. More on that in a future blog. Now, back to the garden.

We weeded, and kept weeding for quite a bit, which was a really substantial workout, and tossed all that wonderful nutrient rich unwanted growth into the compost. Found out I had some poison ivy growing in there, the hard way. Always bag up poison ivy and or poison oak, and never compost it. It can re-root very quickly and take over and sow new seeds. Above all NEVER BURN POISON IVY OR POISON OAK WEEDS. You will inhale the smoke, especially since according to township and county rules (and common sense) you must never leave a pile of anything to burn unwatched. The smoke from burning leaves, vines or roots will clog and infect your lungs and as my mother used to say, you will wake up dead.  It will be very, very painful. Respect that %*#$# weed and be safe. For real.

big compost_blogOur compost has currently reached a terrifyingly large size. We will surely have to build a new one, and that’s a subject for another blog.  Once the good sized weeds are all pulled out, I dig around a bit with a shovel by hand, and then do a once over with a good sturdy garden tiller. More things will come to the surface and will be easier to remove. Watch out for tree roots, they can reach long distances underground and you don’t want to damage any trees. Tilling is really a lovely way to deal with hard compacted soil, and is not always necessary. Plenty can be accomplished with no till garden methods, but since I’ve got the tiller and the time, lets dig! Its possible and even advisable to add granular plant fertilizer at this time, I always use organic fertilizers, if I don’t just till in straight compost from my compost bin, which is above all the best approach. Be mindful, tilling will also bring long buried weeds to the surface where the exposure to sunlight, warmer temps and additional moisture will aid their growth. We will later USE several types of weed blocker to stop this.

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Once we completely dig the planting area, we collect old bamboo from last years green bean teepees, that had overwintered  in the garden. It was mostly in good shape, with a plentiful amount split and cracked. This is not fatal to its strength. Its not as strong as fresh cut bamboo, but will do for this project. bamboo_blogWe measured what we considered a good height, discarding the most damaged bamboo, and cut the poles to around 5 feet in length, using our table saw. A handsaw is just as good, if not better, in my opinion. Safer is always better. And ALWAYS wear safety goggles.

We anchored these cut poles into the dirt, sometimes using a post hole digger, at four feet distance from each other, working our way around the entire perimeter of the existing garden fence. Perimeter is a post hole_bloggood word to use here, you are building a solid defense against low lying tomatoes that will rot and stink and smell and bring in other critters to your garden, to munch and chew and destroy all your plants. Big tomatoes are heavy. Those vines NEED Support. Build this interior bamboo support about a foot and a half inside the outside wire fence that already exists. You are building an INSIDE FENCE. This is not complicated. Our bamboo poles were sunk about a foot deep into the freshly dug earth. With your foot, press the dirt down around them. Once placed, and tied together with strong baling twine I saved from last year’s rotted straw bales, they form a substantial structure that acts as a reliable support for heavy vegetables. We anchored the inside bamboo poles to the wire metal fence with a smaller cut bamboo, sectioned to fit inside the wire design. This acts as a “connector” and helps keep everything balanced on each other. These Beefeater tomatoes will get pretty large, and the more supports the better.perimeter_blog

Finally Getting to Plant! 
About time, right? Good gardens always require a lot more in preparation then is usually considered. Experienced gardeners know this, and do not skimp on steps. When it comes to planting the tomato plants, I dig a good-sized hole, about 10 inches to a foot deep. The tomatoes that I had grown from seed and kept in a handmade cold frame have grown to such a height that they could not be kept inside any longer and MUST be transplanted.

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I was able to plant them in the holes 36 inches apart, to accommodate the large size they will grow to. Before I plant tomatoes, I always add two heaping tablespoons of Epsom salts at the base of each tomato plant.  I kind of dig it around in the base of the hole and mix it around a bit. It helps add nutrients needed very specifically by tomatoes, and peppers. You do not want the salt to come into direct epsom salt_blogcontact with the roots. Once your tomato is planted, really mound that earth up to nearly the top, leaving a few inches exposed. The purpose of this is that the tomatoes will grow additional roots all along their buried stem, thus feeding better and more securely and growing and producing magnificent food for you and yours.

Skewers Save the Day
I always use a handy stick, or in this case, a bag of discount bamboo skewers used for grilling. I break it into thirds, so I get to really use them on a lot of plants. Why do this, you ask? It is necessary practice to always put a stick alongside whatever  part of the tomato stem (or what ever plant) stands above the dirt it is planted in. Cutworms simply adore chewing on your lovely garden plants, and their deal is to literally wrap their entire body around the stem of plants you love and gnaw away until they have happily eaten their fill and your plant has been beheaded. Your plants will be sad. The cutworms will be happy. You will be angry and start kicking the earth and throwing things and start cursing and alarm your good neighbors. They already think you are nuts as it is, to be this engrossed in a pile of dirt. Be a good neighbor, and a good gardener. skewers_blogUse the bamboo skewers or small sticks. Save yourself the time and agony and expense of having to do this all over again. Remember, placing a small stick in the dirt directly alongside and touching the plant stem prevents the cutworm from getting a good grip on your plants, and thus, it lives. On a lighter note, if giant mutant cutworms ever invade the earth, starting with your garden, always wear ankle- high boots.

Holy Moley, Get that Weedblocker!
Now, cast back into your cobwebbed memory of last year’s meticulous garden, and don’t forget how tired you grew of weeding, and weeding, and more weeding. You made a promise to yourself to use weedblocker. Keep that promise. USE WEEDBLOCKER. 

Holes can be easily cut, one by one, to accommodate each plant you want to keep unmolested by weeds. The easiest way to do this is to measure and ascertain where each plant will be, and cut an X across the space needed to “open it up”. Thus the weed blocker can also be put down on top of each pre-planted plant. I usually plant first and weedblock afterwords,  its sort of backwards, but I may have to dig and move a plant several times before I actually get it to its permanent home for the year, and prefer not to keep cutting my weedblocker  until it is confetti.

If you don’t want to purchase weed blocker, you can easily use about 20 pages of newspaper, all in one layer, or sections of cardboard. Lay it right down on the ground next to your plants. Saves you from worrying about cutting holes in the proper place as well. new post_blogPaper is fiber, and will be good for your garden dirt as it will hold moisture, add fiber to an already clay-based soil (regionally speaking) and is free, and recyclable. It will literally dissolve into the soil and help the right plants to grow, all while impeding the weeds. This is a good thing. 

Follow these instructions, in whole or in part, to help assist and support in growing your structure-needing plants, to be healthier, more beautiful and bountiful.

Next blog .. Dealing With Dastardly Wind Damage to Your Garden Shed!

What I Did On My Solar Vacation

The Journey to Solar
My family’s love affair with solar started when I was a kid, back in the 1970s, experiencing fuel rationing during OPEC. President Jimmy Carter provided $5000 to install passive solar systems on the homes of regular American citizens. This fabulous system was based upon the idea of water heated through the sun’s energy, moving through a series of pipes, going throughout the house, to warm it for the winter. My father, an exceptionally frugal, resourceful and handy man, with 7 growing kids and a wife, eagerly installed it himself on our sturdy mid-1800’s era farmhouse here in Thomasville. I still remember how our Depression era-raised father, looked at our thermostat on the first bitter winter day after installation and euphorically proclaimed “We are saving so much money!” This was not a man given to emotional display and was the first and only time I ever heard him say this in my entire life. It was literally a life changing moment, and it stuck with me over all these years. Decades went by and our passive solar system went the way of the dinosaur when my father had died and parts aged and no one could be found to replace the system. Many years after I left the home I grew up in, we bought it back as adults. We set about restoring not only an aged home, but we vowed to replace the solar power on the house to make it feel whole again, both physically and emotionally. And now, finally, its happened!

The solar company I chose to use is Sundial Solar,  based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and run by an extremely experienced, energetic and knowledgeable installer named Jon Kramer. He has installed solar for decades, works all over the country, and has a team of 20 highly motivated experienced workers.

Learning
Practical knowledge I learned myself about solar, was from online sources and from books at the Glatfelter Library in Spring Grove. I started attending national and Learning_bloginternational solar conventions held here in the US, and asking a lot of questions from those most qualified to provide what I wanted. I saw how the whole world was investing in it, except for America. This is strange considering the technology was invented here. Americans like to claim we are number one, but we certainly are not when it comes to 21st century energy sources. Yet Defense contractors all over the world use solar power. NGO’s operating hospitals and health centers in regular or disaster-affected areas use solar power. Even the Amish, our wonderful neighbors who mostly don’t even use electricity, have solar farms and sell the power as if it was a CROP. There are so many widely used, affordable and modern practical applications for solar energy today. This is not your grandad’s Carter Era solar anymore!

Fossil Fuels
Basically what solar does is cut out the energy middleman, of which there are many! Lets look at coal. It is the product of sun energy feeding plant life that was living millions of years ago. These plants were then buried and condensed into hard carbon-rich rock. To fossil fuels_bloguse coal as an energy source that rock must be excavated, sorted, crushed, cleaned, shipped, crushed some more, transported again, and finally burned. Then the resulting ash – rich in toxins – must be dealt with. Mining coal ruins our environment (“mountain top removal” – how insane is that?!). It poisons the air we breathe and the water we drink. It has reliably killed many, many people for hundreds of years through cave-ins, mine disasters, underground fires, and respiratory disease.

You and Solar
So, how do you go about learning about solar energy? When you have the desire to have solar installed on your place, whether commercial or residential, you should go to the online site called the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency – aka DSIRE, a magnificent database that tells you about the funding sources available to your area. The DSIRE website will guide you, beginner or not, through a many layered wonderland of grants, updated technical information, and basically just help with research-related questions.

If you decide to go solar, first thing is save your pennies. Solar systems cost money to put in, same as a wood stove, or a natural gas furnace. And it increases the value of your home. How long will it take to pay it off? A lot depends on how much energy you use, how much you paid for it, and how efficient you are. Those big outside security lights cost a lot to run. (We have since replaced them with solar ones attached to motion detectors.) Costs of solar have dropped significantly as it is becoming more commonly used throughout the world.

Anyone who complains solar doesn’t pay off quick enough is sadly unaware of the modern solar world. No matter which way you slice it, in the long view solar is CHEAPER than grid power. And grid fuel costs will constantly go up, while the fuel for solar systems is free forever. Here’s what I did:

Permits and Paperwork
You will read this article and get excited about solar, and you will go to your local township and rave about it. Your local Zoning guy, if its like my guy Ray Dietrich at the Jackson Township office, who will cast a patient, experienced gaze upon you and pronounce “This is a great idea. You need permits for that. You will have to pay a fee after permits and paperwork_blogits been approved. (under $200 for both permits) Lucky I got you covered with all the right paperwork!” You will need to fill out a Proposed Use Permit Application. There will also be paperwork involving the Commonwealth Code Inspection Service. Your township office will have everything for you. You will have to fill out everything and then include specifics about every bit of equipment involving your system and how it will be part of your house. Then you call up Met Ed and talk to someone who will direct you to the Metropolitian Edison Company Retail Interconnection paperwork. You will have to submit your application and supporting documents like a Level 1 Application/Agreement, Site Plan Example, a one line diagram, and the application fee, which is $100 for a house. Then submit all your stuff to Met Ed. Any questions, then send an email to me_interconnection@firstenergycorp.com.

Your existing meter on your house has its own number, did you know that? It’s not hard to find, call up Met Ed and find out. You will have to make sure you show a very specific, very comphrensive line diagram showing how one part corresponds to another. And when the entire experience is done and solar is on your roof there will be yet another form to fill out at the end, mine was called First Energy Interconnection Application Agreement, part two.

Electrical Concerns
Protect your health and the safety of your structure when you have solar installed, and have an experienced team, like my team, at J Miller Electric in Spring Grove. They will electrical team_blogwork directly with your solar installer who will guide them along the way for any specific needs, if the solar team does not do the electrical install themselves. For my solar install, I was required to have local electricians, and I loved this, because I was able to call upon people I trust. J. Miller Electric crew completely wired my ancient barn. They fixed my house after it flooded. They fixed it after an Utz truck hit it. Trust me, these are great guys and are up for anything. They will have to have access to the inside of your house to your electrical panel and install what is needed there to hook it up to your existing electrical system. They will also have to work on ladders on the side of your house bringing a line down to your meter. They will have to drive a grounding rod into your ground by the side of your house, so pay attention to this in particular because if you have something weird and old buried in your yard, the saying “out of sight- out of mind” really does apply here. You certainly don’t want to pierce a water line or any buried electrical wires or discover and fall into a buried well or any such nonsense as that, trust me. Knowing beforehand what is buried in your yard, in any area that is going to have work done right there is extremely helpful.

Ah, Paperwork
Paperwork is a wonderful uplifting part of life, right? I just love it. I have several avalanches worth of it in my office. You can NOT avoid paperwork when it comes to filling out the correct form, correctly. I filled out several for my local township office, and one for Met Ed called a Level One form for residential. A level 2 form is for commercial properties that will have a MUCH higher level of generation than a smaller one on your house will. Many times people forget that a solar field, placed next to your buildings, instead of directly affixed on it, is a wonderful way to generate your own electricity. I urge anyone zoned clean and green to GET SOLAR panels somewhere on your property, whether in a low wet area that is not much good for anything, or in any area well positioned to capture as much solar energy as possible. Even on a house or in a location shaded with trees, remember, those leaves will fall off in the fall, and you will have beautiful clear skies in late fall, the entire long cold months of winter and early spring. Depending on your energy use (look over your electrical bills for this) you may very well be able to generate more electricity then what you yourself actually use. You will be able to sell it to Met Ed, who is eager to buy it from you, to be able to sell it to someone else. Using electricity is not going out of style, and local municipalities don’t want to raise taxes to fund a new power plant that will cost millions or billions, and decrease property values in the area its built. It’s much better to be able to produce electricity locally and sell it back locally.

Politics and Funding
Depending on who is in political office goes a long way towards getting funding for grants and incentives to help home and business owners install it on their buildings or land. I will get a federal rebate when I do taxes next April, of at least 30%. These run out at the end of 2016, so if your thinking of getting solar installed, step on it. Who knows if these will get renewed, as many things are based on who is holding political office. Gov. Wolf, who hails from York County, is working on passing a bill that would increase funding for green energy projects throughout our state, but much of it depends on getting specific bills passed. I always call up my elected officials who represent York County, and tell them to strongly support any green and renewable energy funding for Pennsylvania. For real. This is a great example of showing how being involved in Politics actually will affect your life directly.politics andf funding_blog

If specific bills get passed, state incentives that have run out, and were not renewed under former Gov. Corbett can be brought back to life again and Pennsylvania citizens can quailify and apply for state incentives, as well as existing Federal ones. So prepare your votes, your finances, site plans and permits and get ready to install solar with the added incentives that will come your way if conditions are directed in the proper direction with strong support for solar and responsible energy generation.

Materials and Delivery
Now, your concerns will be ordering materials, inspection upon their delivery, and storage until actual use. Your solar company will know exactly what to chose for your project from an array of options. There will be a variety of choices for them to make for you, depending on the type of system you want, either residential or commercial, roof-mounted or ground-mounted. Once these things are on their way to you, and get delivered, someone will have to be present at the work site to take a receipt of the materials being delivered. These companies are professional and will NOT make delivery unless someone will be there to conway trucking_blogsign for your wonderful equipment. I used Conway Trucking, who got my entire shipment delivered here in two trips from Alburqueque New Mexico in about a week. Upon delivery, the solar panels were delivered on a custom made wooden skid, because these are not going to fit a standard sized wooden skid and you really don’t want the edges to overhang a conventional one and get all broken up and smashed. Even though mine were delivered in perfect shape (Conway is awesome!) I still worked with a patient driver to hand down each and every single panel by hand and inspect them all. Trucks bonk over holes and debris in the road all the time, and any particularly unpleasant jolt will smash the weight of the upper panels down on top of the bottom ones. Very unfortunately for you, all of a sudden the 18 panel solar array turned into a 14 panels one, and you don’t have an panel delivery_blogextra week to get additional ones delivered. I was looking for cracked or shattered glass, or damaged metal edges, and found none, thankfully. Immediately after ascertaining things were fine, I stack the panels SIDE by SIDE, standing on their edge. You may be handed a manifest that details everything delivered to you. GO THROUGH THIS, and make sure of everything, even though your trucker guy is impatient to get back on the road and make his next delivery. If you don’t have everything you need, you are stuck at a work site later paying for workers to sit around and twiddle their thumbs because you were not through about your job a week earlier. Once everything shows up in good condition, then and only then do you sign a bill of lading that your friendly trucker guy hands over to you.

Weather
The weather is going to screw you over no matter what, so just plan, and plan again. Try to have a day or two extra in order to accommodate unforeseen events that will always pop up. Spring has many wonderful days in it, and will also have days that will screw you over when it comes time to plan for outside activities. The best time to install solar is when the ground or the roof is not covered in 4 feet of ice and snow. Sounds sensible, doesn’t it? Very windy, wet rainy tornado hurricane-type weather is not good. Storms have electricity jolting all over the place and you do not want to be on a metal roof or a metal scaffold when Zeus starts tossing those thunderbolts around, so get DOWN from your high perch and be careful with yourself. Things will dry out and become safe to work on again. I promise you. As it was we had torrential rains of 3 inches the night before the last day of install, and it was remarkable how the clouds cleared away exactly when we needed them to.

Scaffolding and Your Safety
I had been told by my solar guy that we needed to use a particular type of scaffolding that has steps, NOT ladders. This is actually harder to find then it sounds. It is primarily used on church restorations, by workers that are carrying large objects up and down, not scaffolding_blogjust ferrying them up by a crane or packed in a backpack as you crawl up and down a ladder. I called around to many places and the only scaffold business who had what we needed was up in Harrisburg. We ordered it from Safway Scaffolding in Harrisburg, about an hour away, who delivered on time and behaved well above and beyond a typical business in responding to any interactions I had with their service and equipment. One of their employees drove out on a Sunday afternoon in response to a query about assembling the equipment. The reaction of my solar guy, who has assembled hundreds of scaffolds for projects, was to say “Now that’s what I call great service”. You can pay to have it delivered and assembled. It is possible to assemble this yourself, which is how we did it, provided you have about 3 or 4 very fit, very competant individuals who are well able to lift heavy objects high above their heads and have a decent workable understanding of how these things are put together. Building it is one thing, using it is another. Safway recommends taking an online test to obtain “competant status” regarding scaffold use, which is a nice safeway scaffolding_blogway of saying please pay attention to details and do everything OSHA tells you and you will come out of your scaffolding experience alive. If you are not wearing a hardhat, somebody’s gonna lose an eye, and if improperly rigged up, you will die if you take one wrong step. Always follow safe practices, and check on each other, your life is worth it. You want to be around to enjoy your solar system, and 25 years is a long time!

Preping
Once on the roof, we treated rusty spots in the metal with a bit of light sanding, and pretreated it with a shot of rust inhibiting metal primer, followed by a coat of Rustoleum metal paint or enamel, since the roof will be covered over for literally 25 years with this new system. The sun and heat of the day will dry the primer and paint very quickly. This is a good time to mention that you need to drink a lot of water, and take breaks every 2 hours or so, a 70 degree day with full sun beating down on you with no breeze will raise the temperature of your roof to easily 20 degrees higher. Now imagine doing this on a 90-degree day. Completely slather yourself with sunscreen and wear sturdy jeans and long sleeves.

Installing the Physical Support System
When this quick and easy paint job is done, the S-5! Clamps are attached directly on the clamps_blogupraised ridges of the roof. There are different heights of roof ridges and this is something that has to be pre-measured to know exactly what size of clamp will accommodate not only the roof, but support the type of racking and panels you will be attaching later. Then these get tightened through a series of bolts that use pressure to tighten them and keep them, and your panels, off the roof. The racking system is what you call the long supporting metal bars, or “rails” that will be attached next, horizontally across the surface, and each one is screwed in by a screw gun, using hex bolts. I recommend using battery powered tools, and avoid electrical cords at every opportunity, no one wants to get their feet tangled up in cords while balanced on the edge of a roof and fall down to their death. Always plan for safety first.

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Installing Electrical
Next, the electrical components go on, each Enphase microinverter is attached to a stainless steel bolt placed across the surface of the racking system. These things are going to be outside for decades and your bolts need to be stainless steel. Turns out we were not shipped enough, and I had to make a quick run to Forge Hardware in Spring Grove. inverters_blogDarlene who runs the place has pulled me out of many a “home improvement/water barrel building/what was I thinking of” crisis and always has what I need on hand, from the most common to the most obscure tool or material. I simply love my local hardware store, they have made themselves indispensible. Saved me time making a trip into Hanover or York as well.

Setting Up the Panels
Depending on which size you get, they can be easy or a bit of a struggle to get up to the roof. Turns out that the ones we got with the configuration of scaffolding used, still were panels_blogtoo large to be hand-carried up the scaffold, so a pulley system was set up and each panel was lifted by rope and grabbed by our solar guy on top. Then attached wires were untaped and it was quickly secured onto the existing electrical microinverter and physical racking system. With a few bolts attached to keep panels from bumping into each other, your system is now physically installed! The rest is up to the electrical team to finish off.

Monitoring System
For an additional fee, you can have a monitoring system set up, inside your house. Always plug directly into the wall outlet and not a power cord, which will literally allow you to go online and set up an account that will allow you to monitor the output of electricity that each panel produces. You can see when you make more then you use, and you can detect if there are any faulty panels. (it happens, rarely). You can literally check this online from anywhere in the world. If you have solar installed on a vacation home or cabin somewhere else, you can monitor it easily as well, without even being there.

You Now are Solar-rific!
Things to do when your are done- jump for joy! Call up Met Ed immediately and tell them to install a bi-directional meter. This will now replace your old meter with one that goes forwards for when you use regular electricity, like during the evening hours, and also go backward and make you money when your system is powered by the sun and is so efficient you can’t possibly use it all. I have to say when it’s all said and done it is an energetic and deeply rewarding experience and one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I look forward to using this system for the next 25 years!

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Why Straw Bale Gardens Will Save the World

strawbale6_blogAt the Go Green in the city event several weeks ago in York, I displayed a version of a straw bale garden on Beaver Street, and in the back of my trusty yellow truck, Sunflower. The concept of straw bale gardening is simple and easy. This will take several steps and so I’ll list them here, in order.

Check out your yard or future garden site this week. Walk around and check it out. Is your soil rocky, or poor in nutrients? Is it full of weeds or garbage or lead paint? Is it LITERALLY AN ASPHALT PARKING LOT?  I’ve got you covered in terms of being an amazing gardener, and the cure for crummy or even non-existent garden soil is Straw Bale Gardening! These are also extremely excellent garden experiments for those of us with knees that are not what they used to be.  Bending is not as much of a chore as it usually is, and straw bales can even be double-stacked, to make it even easier to reach, and work at. As they wear down, they will be a bit mushy, but still be safe to work with as they morph into a large, undefined mountain of plants.

Feel if your future garden site is squishy under your feet, or how much sun and light it gets. Is it exposed to particularly strong winds? Perhaps you may want to reconsider NOT planting taller plants in that area, as they will grow in grace and beauty and get knocked down at fundamentally sensitive points in their growth cycle. Where does your water drain? Gardens can use a lot of water. It’s a good idea to have any water drains on your property pointed towards your garden, but not directly AT it. Forceful water can drown or even knock down plants in the garden as effectively as a strong wind, and depending on how well a traditional garden can, or will not absorb additional water, your plants may very well drown. I also check and see where my neighbors direct their rain spouts as well. NO one is allowed to drain directly into their neighbors property, technically swales used to exist in between older property lines, so that heavy storm waters would be drained there and allowed to flow AWAY from your building foundations. I always plant straw bale gardens where I know the water will accumulate, naturally, according to the direction of the natural or artificial grade of the land. Needing water can get expensive when you need it.

strawbale4_blogTHIS is where you put your strawbale garden! Now put your strawbales EXACTLY where you want them to be for at least a year. Once these are moistened, they become very heavy and should NOT be moved. Place them with the straw pointing “up”, like a regular straw would be used for drinking. The whole point of this is that moisture and nutrients are trapped inside, and can travel up and down the straw bale like an elevator, going wherever needed most.

Basically, straw bales are purchased in the fall, allowed to over-winter and sort of “soften up” with the combination of exposure to many types of moisture and freezing and thawing temperatures. strawbale8_blog

 I let them completely warm up with the springtime weather, and when growing season approaches, its time to apply a hose full of water to each straw bale. Jam the hose directly into each straw bale, and let it run until the water finally starts to pour out. This will take a bit of time, and will take a lot of water, but is a very necessary part of the preparation process.

 Now let the bales sit for a day, and then add granular fertilizer to them, adding up to 2 to 3 cups, per bale, over a period of 2 weeks. Add fertilizer, at 1 quarter cup measurements, increasing up to one half cup at a time, interspersed with serious bouts of watering. You can take a trowel to help sort of poke the granules of fertilizer deeper into the bale. The point of this is that straw is a lovely neutral base, basically a big wet sponge, when it is full of water. But it has NO potential to grow any crops until it is fertilized! And the straw acts exactly like a straw is expected to, allowing the flow of moisture to travel up and done. Now, you have a wonderful big fertile block of nutrients that is perfect for growing all sort of vegetables in your garden!

With the combination of warmth, moisture and time, the bales have indeed loosened up, and its now possible to use your trowel to force its way down deeper into the trowel a few inches or so, all over the top of it. When the two weeks are done and no fertilizer is left to be seen, now you take a bag of potting soil and spread up to an inch of it all over the surface of the bales.  You want purchased potting soil and not your own regular garden dirt, because you want to avoid  introducing weed seeds at all possible times. 

strawbale3_blogNOW, you are able to add vegetable plants, by digging a hole into the loosened bale, no more than two per bale. Stake those plants, whether tomatoes, or eggplants or okra or peppers, on the top of the bale. Some of the stakes can be rather large, 5 or 6 feet in height, even. Lettuce can be planted and harvested in between the taller plants, and will grow quicker and be able to be harvested by the time the tomatoes are large enough to block out the smaller plants.  Squash and pumpkins and cucumbers can be inserted into the sides of the bales, and so you can literally be able to plant all 5 exposed sides of this six-sided wonderful garden block of nutrients. Basically both plants and seeds will grow very well when this is prepared properly. And there simply is no better way to grow potatoes, ever.

When it comes time to choose what to plant, it’s usually a good idea to plant what you know you will consume at its freshest and healthiest state.  Some gardeners plant for strawbale2_blogappearance, some for donations, some for long term storage, (squash) or its ability to can or freeze well. Some people strictly want fresh from garden to table. The basic question is, what do you like to eat? Does someone in your family have a sweet tooth? Enjoy pies and jams? Then plant some strawberries!  There, that was easy. Rooted plants are easy enough now to purchase from nurseries, and pop into a freshly fertilized straw bale.  Don’t forget flower gardens! 

Weeds will be minimal unless birds add waste to them from above, or blow onto them. Have fun! Any specific particulars  about trying out this new method can be gleaned from the fabulous book by Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens. Ask for it at your local library!

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Next blog- Barrel gardens for City and Country Beautification!

Volunteering Is Sexy

Is That a Trowel in Your Pocket, or Are You Happy to See Me?

Several clean up days have already occurred here in York city, home of champion volunteer1_bloggardeners, and in surrounding communities. Isn’t this great? You are lucky to be living in and around York county where the opportunities are literally endless for being out there and getting in shape doing something as healthy, wonderful and frankly, important, as being a volunteer. York city and county is undergoing a renaissance of bold ideas and activity, a rebirth, literally block by block, and you are lucky enough to be a part of it at this crucial moment in time.

Mother Nature is currently schizophrenic and can’t commit to a specific Springtime mood yet, so instead of writing about putting in our fabulous bona fide garden plots, I’m going to write about what we can do as a community to access and prepare more places to plant and beautify. When warmer temperatures finally decide to settle in, York’s growing areas will be far better prepared then ever before. Our area will be one of those super shiny happy places to live in when we are done with it.

 volunteer4_blogVolunteers are sexy, and no one looks better in their life as when they are helping out. This is the truth. Covered in healthy sweat, wearing grungy clothing and glowing with exertion, engaging mind, body and spirit in the common cause of taking charge and helping out, creates an undeniably attractive combination. Mentally, volunteering is a great approach for self and community improvement. Style-wise, wearing big gloves and sturdy jeans to pick up trash and debris makes you a fearless force of fashion to be reckoned with. Also, using a trowel to firmly gouge weeds out of hard soil and concrete and asphalt is a really effective method of getting rid of violent aggression. Pissed off about getting a parking ticket? Come work off your anger by removing a pile of weeds and junk. It’s a win-win. Curiously, this is a part of garden therapy that never seems to get mentioned. I find it very helpful and it keeps me from repeatedly kicking things, hard.

liter3_blogGrab that rake and tear the old bits of junk out of the low areas where winter’s wrath blew it. Live by a road where trash blows by? Searching for crushed bits of things that heavy snow pushed down into our fair earth? You won’t have to look far to find it. Then, dig it out by trowel or shovel or rake, and get rid of it. You don’t want to see that junk in your line of vision, and neither do your good neighbors, so lets be proactive about it and chuck it right into a garbage bag. You can do this yourself, or with a bunch of friends and neighbors. Many hands make light work. Make sure to drink water as you work, and tell some jokes. Keep ‘em clean, there are probably little ears about that look up to you now since you are an important member of your community, volunteering in it and looking after it. This applies to what is seen in your behavior, as well as what is reflected in your neighborhood. Remember this. It will get you far in life.

What happens after areas are picked clean of garbage? Does it remove its old personality? Of course it does. Now it’s ready to have an all-new, bright perky welcoming personality introduced into the neighborhood, and you can become a part of this. There is literally no better time to get involved than now. Digging a bottle out of some dirt? Ripping old boards out of a filth-filled stretch of land? Now jam a nice flower into that new hole. Any kind of flower at all. You are going to feel better about your community, and everything will look better BECAUSE of you.

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There are places and groups to volunteer with that you may not have heard about, groups newly sprung up from communities you live in, or are close to. There are generally local social clubs and Veterans associations and religious groups and 4H clubs and student associations and all sorts of groups. If you can’t find one you like, start one. Form a group dedicated to Scottish Lovers of Pattern Design and mow your favorite tartan pattern into a local grassy area that’s been left untended for far too long. Blues Music Lovers for Blueberry patches comes to mind as a great idea. Jaundice Sufferers of America can plant endless Yellow daffodils throughout the city. Weed lovers can gather together to pull weeds,….. er, well, actually, I’m hoping they get together to actually PULL the weeds… you get the idea. I’m wondering that they may be unmotivated and lethargic, now that I think on it.

volunteer5_blogIf you want to join groups that already exist, there are several new ones based right in York city that are ready and waiting for a special person like you. They gather together on the weekends when parking is free. How brilliant is that? Two particularly new garden groups to volunteer with throughout York City are the Royal Square Gardens, located in the newest Royal Square area, by King and Duke Streets, a short walking distance from the Historic Martin Library and the Yorktown Hotel. Look them up on Facebook. This is a gem of a garden, tucked away in an interior courtyard untouched for years, newly cleaned and proud, and it waits ready to be cultivated by loving hands into a vegetable garden. This particular space is dedicated to producing vegetables for the Healthy World Café, York’s newest restaurant that features locally grown delicious food at their latest location on 24 South George Street. They are open from 11 to 2 p.m. during the week, and if you have never eaten there you are cheating yourself of a great weekly dining experience. Get there, and treat yourself good.

volunteers7_blogThe other new garden is the Hope Street Garden and Learning Lab, located at 446 W. Hope Avenue and Green Streets, right off of Princess Street. Massively beneficial clean ups have already occurred, and at this point its pure fun, putting in gardens and making beauty blossom in what had previously been a trash and weed filled part of our city. It’s literally an entire city block, and this remarkable space has unlimited potential as an environment to bring expert and novice gardeners of all ages together to make our fair city blossom. This garden is also on Facebook! Don’t miss out on this place, it’s open and spacious and full of promise. It’s refreshing to discover an area as large and open to gardening innovation as this home grown York project. It’s a confluence of several local school groups, and many eager young, and young-in-spirit hands have played a part in its success.

Why should you, or could you, volunteer? Because, plainly speaking, no one looks more intelligent or better fitted to their community as when they volunteer. You become an invaluable member of your community. You become invaluable because you are also unpaid and because you are enjoying time put in with highly commendable groups who cannot afford to pay you. You pay with your time, which you will never get back, and which is more valuable than cash. Money comes and goes, but commitment to community is lasting. You become linked with a network of like-minded individuals whose goal of improving and maintaining areas also improves your own self, through exercise, through friendships and discoveries and teaching. You probably know something about an aspect of growing or trimming or harvesting or canning or digging or something as obscure as land gradation and stormwater runoff control. These are important parts of being gardening volunteer and it’s very good to share. And if you don’t know a single thing about those activities, that is ok too. Learning about these things through other volunteers will never hurt you.volunteer2_blog

By participating in these volunteer opportunities, you get a real chance to enjoy yourself, get a workout and shed those winter pounds, meet stupendous people like yourself, and very different than yourself, all with the common desire to make York a remarkable place to be. Consider entertaining the mindset that cleaning up polluted areas is like a Twilight zone episode, where every bit of trash you discover is a great prize in a garbage-starved world and you are an intrepid explorer for National Geographic exploring new exotic lands. That’s different, don’t you think?

Most of the readers of this blog reside in York County, and like any home improvement project, clearing away debris can be as varied as traditional garbage that escaped waste management trucks. There is also plenty of purposely dumped wreckage left by irresponsible individuals. Let me be perfectly clear… people who have not yet realized that tossing their trash around in an area is NOT going to get them off the hook with karma, are particularly dense. It’s also quite possible to get arrested for being this “dense”. liter2_blogObserving eyes as well as cameras are in many parts of York city, and rural areas as well. If you are dumping any type of trash, consisting of recyclable materials or not, the odds are very good that somewhere there is an image of you doing it. And you WILL be recorded doing it, because people who illegally dump trash aren’t very bright. So don’t dump. Don’t be that guy, or that gal. Be the better person. Call waste management, or some of the other city and county groups that can help you. Some churches or groups will come and HELP you move away that lovely old, very heavy, somewhat funky couch/folding bed from your generous aunt that you don’t want anymore. Chances are high that the 70’s era furniture you can’t stand anymore, is some eager young hipsters dream couch. Save them from staying up half the night on Craig’s List or eBay or wherever it is, that today’s energetic members of society electronically seek out that exact item to complete their dream pad.

building1_blogLook around our fair city. See those burned out buildings? Either specialize in a Ghost hunters episode, or fix them up, or knock them down, and put in a garden. See that big hole in the ground? Pop in a flowering bush. Better yet, pack a bunch of flowers in there and add color and scent to an area and crow about it to your neighbors about what an intrepid and fearless gardener you are. Next to the new garden you put in, build a better building, one that brings in revenue and provides jobs and adds to the tax base and brightens its neighborhood with green spaces and flowers and trees. All this happens when you volunteer. You combine the hand and the eye and the brain and discover not just ways to remove garbage and blight, you generate ideas and conversations and overall, better health for the land, the community, and yourself.

Next Blog- Go Green in the City! Why Strawbale gardens will save the world.