Thursday, August 4, 2016

I Need to Eat More Bananas for My Squash

Just as with other aspects of our life, our goal when it comes to gardening is to have a self-reliant garden. While, at times, I wish that meant that the garden did everything for itself, what it actually means is that I want it to be self-sustaining with no trips needed to the garden center for seeds, plants, fertilizer, etc. This includes no online orders of supplies as well. In other words, the goal is for everything going into the gardens to come from our property. I am willing to make a few exceptions for items I can stock up on that I find beneficial in the garden that I can not make at home - like Dawn dish soap and Tums Antacid tablets. (How's that for a teaser?)

Worm Juice - Plant Food and Supplement
I have been contemplating how to cover the various topics in the blog. Some of the products are used on everything growing in the garden while others are for specific problems or specific vegetables. Let's start with the all-encompassing plant food that all my plants get from the time they are seedlings - worm juice.

Collecting worm juice as it drains
from the bottom of the worm farm.
I started my worm farm a couple years ago by ordering my Red Wiggler (Eisenia Foetida) composting worms from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm. These worms have been quite prolific and they now provide me with a two liter bottle of worm juice every 10-14 days. This slows down in the winter, but I save it up in the fall and winter so that I can fortify my beds in early spring and feed all my young plants.

In technical terms, worm juice is the leachate that comes from vermicompost. In everyday vernacular, it is pee from the worms that eat our kitchen compost. Our worms, which number in the thousands, reside in a large 100 gallon RubberMaid tub behind our shed. The tub sits at a slight angle on concrete blocks with a drain hole at the lower end.  There is a layer of rocks in the bottom of the tub, followed by a layer of landscape fabric and then dirt. The landscape fabric keeps the dirt from plugging the drain hole and also keeps the worms from going through the drain. For the drain we used one of those gadgets that is a short plastic tube that you can screw a two-liter bottle to both ends to in order to make a 'water tornado' experiment. In our case, we screw a bottle to the end that sticks out the bottom of the tub to catch the worm juice.
I added the red lines on this photo to show where the top
of the cow peas were on each side of the raised bed. I had
added worm juice to the left side every 2 to 3 weeks.

The worm juice is too concentrated to use directly on the plants. For seedlings and young plants I dilute it 1 part worm juice to about 12 parts water. As the garden matures and I add follow-up feedings I make the dilution a little stronger about 1 part worm juice to between 8-10 parts water. I have run several experiments to see if there is a difference when I use worm juice. My seeds have sprouted quicker and seedlings have been less spindly or 'leggy'. I also had a raised bed of cow peas this year that I only fed one side with worm juice and gave the other side a placebo (plain water) and the worm juice side did show faster growth.

Usually, when people refer to fertilizer. they are referring to what is known as an NPK fertilizer. The N stands for Nitrogen which is primarily responsible for the growth of the plant. P is for Phosphorus which is important for root development and seed production, and K is for Potassium. Potassium is sort of like an invisible armor, it actually doesn't make up any part of the plant but gives the plant the ability to withstand extreme temperatures, drought and pests.

Bags of this type of fertilizer have three numbers on them, for example 10-5-10. The numbers represent the percentage of each of these nutrients by weight. Worm juice is not considered an NPK fertilizer due to its nutrient make up, and the fact that the percentages can vary depending on your worms' diet. Since the nutrients in worm juice will vary based on the worms' diet, there are no specific NPK numbers to go by. A household that eats lots of bananas and thus has a higher than average number of banana peels in their compost will then have a higher 'K' rating than the average worm juice. Here are some numbers I found on what is 'typical' for worm juice, some of the numbers are consider high for fertilizer use, thus the reason to dilute worm juice and also to use it every few weeks:
  • Nitrogen – 1120 ppm: This is about twice that of typical liquid fertilizer. 
  • Phosphorus – 22 ppm: This is much less than a typical garden fertilizer. 
  • Potassium – 5034 ppm: This is much higher than most liquid fertilizers.
Blossom end rot
Other Soil Supplements
As the gardens were growing, I added a couple of my standard supplements. I save all my egg shells throughout the winter. I crush them and sprinkle them around both my tomato and pepper plants to help stop blossom end rot. Blossom end rot is when the produce, particularly tomatoes and peppers,  rots on the bottom (the end where the blossom was) and is caused by a calcium deficiency. This year I noticed my Amish Paste tomatoes were still experiencing the occasional blossom end rot even with their egg shells, so I increased their calcium supply by pushing a few Tums Antacids into each container. After that, there were only a couple more occurrences of this garden malady.

Besides this calcium deficiency, I discovered my pumpkins and squash needed more phosphorous (the P in the NPK) then they were getting from the worm juice. I grow a lot of pumpkins and winter squash and I had noticed some of their leaves were dying off and the squash leaves were also turning yellow. At first I thought this was due to squash bugs as I had seen several of them on various plants. But then I realized that the number of bugs I had seen could not do the amount of damage I was seeing. So I started googling and learned that pumpkins and winter squash require a high amount of phosphorous (the P in NPK). I immediately gave them an extra dose of worm juice, but I also went out and got a supply of bone meal as this is an excellent source of phosphorous for the garden. I will be stocking up on this and working it into the soil in the tire planters that I use for squash/pumpkins each fall. Both rock and bone based phosphorous additives break down very slowly. This is good in that they are long lasting in the garden, but it is also bad in that you can not get a quick fix, that is why I plan to add more phosphorus this fall and let it 'work' all winter. Although I must say, the bone meal I did add to my plants did make a visible difference in just a few days.

One of my tomato containers with onions
and egg shells. We'll talk about the 2-liter
bottle in a little bit.
Pest Control
And now it's time to discuss the arsenal. Last year I discovered a stealth weapon for my tomato plants. I planted three onion sets with each of my tomatoes as an experiment in hopes of warding off the little white aphids that usually appear on my tomato plants. I have not studied or practiced companion planting, but my thought was that the onion smell may deter the aphids. It seemed to work, as there were very few aphids on my tomato plants last year. But, as one year could just be a fluke, I still considered this year to be an experiment as well and again there were no aphids on the tomatoes.

My 'go-to' weapon of choice for pest control in the garden has been diatomaceous earth (DE). This is a white, chalky powder made from fossil remains of diatoms, which are tiny aquatic organisms. If you were to look at diatomaceous earth under a microscope you would see microscopic sharp edges which are deadly to soft bodied insects. Dusting plants and the ground around plants with DE is like laying land minds for the pests crawling on your plants, as they crawl across the DE their bodies are cut by the sharp edges. You do need to take care that you do not use DE around blossoms when plants are pollinating. You do not want to harm or kill the pollinators that come to your garden.

Unfortunately, not all garden pests are susceptible to diatomaceous earth. Anything with hard shelled bodies, like Japanese beetles and squash bugs, are immune to its affects. When I started to see squash bugs on my pumpkin plants this year, along with their eggs on the under sides of a few leaves and some nymphs (baby bugs) I once again turned to Google. Almost every article I read said that a solution of Dawn dish soap and water would kill squash bugs. I was skeptical because when you look for garden remedies on the internet you always find Dawn dish soap being touted as the best remedy for almost everything. But, I decided to give it a try. I put about an inch of Dawn in a spray bottle and then filled it with water. I went down to the bottom garden and found the leaves that had the eggs and nymphs and sprayed them. I then found a couple full grown squash bugs and sprayed them a couple times. Each one started stumbling around and fell off the vine within 30 seconds of being sprayed. One even landed on its back, feet sticking straight up in the air - the Dawn solution actually worked!

Mr. & Mrs. Squash Bug out on a date
However, the next day I realized I had made the solution too strong when I returned to the garden to discover the leaves I had sprayed had large brown spots. So, I diluted my solution, turned to nozzle from wide angle spray to a narrow stream and began blasting squash bugs off the pumpkin and squash vines. Most of these pests were out on 'dates' so it was a two-for-one deal as I sent them flying in a stream of soapy water. I must admit I think I got a little too much pleasure taking aim and providing a cold shower to these romantic couples. It is surprising how angry some little bugs can make you when you know they have the ability to ruin a bunch of food you have work all spring and summer to grow.

I have also had an influx of Japanese beetles this year. So far, I have not found a solution to eradicate them. Even the stronger Dawn solution did not affect them. My only defense to date has been to pull them off the plants and toss them into the woods. I know they will eventually make their way back, I am thinking I should put my Dawn solution in a bucket and toss them into that. I do believe the Japanese beetles have been misnamed, however. Ninety percent of the time I find them munching on the grape leaves, so I am thinking they are actually Greek beetles.

Each pepper and tomato plant got a
2-liter bottle of water in their container.
After micro-managing all these garden issues on a daily basis, I had to leave it to survive on its own for a week. We just got back from a week in Kentucky helping one of our daughters at an annual sales event and I was worried about the state of the gardens on our return. I wasn't too worried about the raised bed, but the individual containers dry out much more quickly. The day before we left I put together an ad hoc watering system which consisted of two-liter bottles of water shoved upside down in each container. I tested a few for 24 hours prior to make sure they were draining but not too quickly and they seemed to be working. When we came back a week later all the plants (tomatoes and peppers) were well watered and the bottles were empty. We also had some rain the night before we returned so everything else in the gardens was well watered as well.

We have now been back two days and we have notice there is critter activity in the gardens at night. All the gardens are enclosed in cattle feed lot panels and also have a substance called 'Repels-All' sprinkled around the perimeter which in past years has always kept critters at bay all season. When we returned from Kentucky we could tell that animals had been in the garden eating some tomatoes as well as almost all of our grapes. And this morning I found three more half eaten tomatoes on the ground. I mentioned this to Alan and his thoughts are that with us being gone for a week, the critters became braver and started foraging in the garden. It has been raining since we got home and I have not been spending much time in the gardens. Hopefully, as I get back into the gardens more, the animals will relinquish their squatter's rights. But I am not holding my breath- I may be pulling out another arsenal.  

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Trip Around Our Solar System

Our first solar panels, set up the day we moved onto
our property for charging our phones and laptops.
The Geek's Quad's first power station.
Our solar system has evolved and expanded over the past few years. We have added several panels to our solar system and have not downgraded any of them to non-panel status, although now I have the strong urge to name one 'Pluto'. While many readers know our alternative power source here at the Geeks' Quad is solar power, what many probably do not know is that, as with many projects we approach, we do not have your 'typical' solar system. The main differences are (1) we built it ourselves, component-by-component, at a fraction of the cost that solar companies sell installed systems for and (2) rather than convert the generated/stored power  to the standard 120 voltage used in houses, we set up our house to use 12 volts for almost everything. More on that later, let's start at the center of the solar system - the sun.

Our Harbor Freight array
As long as we have sunlight shining on our panels we are generating electricity. Solar electric panels are made up of numerous solar cells. A solar cell converts photons into electrical power through a chemical reaction. All light consists of particles called photons. When the material used to build a solar cell is hit with the photons that make up sunlight, the photons are absorbed and through a chemical reaction they release electricity. Each cell produces 0.5 volts of direct current (DC). Since each cell can convert 0.5 volts, a 36 cell panel can output 18 volts, and a 60 cell panel can output 30 volts.
Our first Grape Solar

We started out, 4 years ago, buying solar panel kits from Harbor Freight. At the time, these were the most cost effective. Each kit contains three 15 watt panels (45 watt total) for about $130. All solar panels are rated at how many watts they will produce. This rating number is based on a perfect test condition scenario, and you will not see your panels reach this perfect world production, but it is a good number to use when comparing panels. Divide the cost of  a panel by its wattage rating and you will have a cost-per-watt comparison to use when comparing panels. Back when we were buying the Harbor Freight panels they were $2.88/watt. Then, about 18 months later, another option became available from Grape Solar. The Grape Solar Panels are 265 watt panels that can be ordered at Home Depot for $370 ($1.39 per watt). We still use our Harbor Freight panels, but to compare them to our newer panels - all 18 of our Harbor Freight panels produce just slightly more power than just 1 of our Grape Solar.
Another Grape panel is added

With multiple panels (called an array), you need to decide if you are going to connect them in parallel, series or a combination of both. The deciding factor, especially in our case, is if the panels have any shadowing throughout the day. If all the panels are connected in series (one long chain) and a shadow falls on one of them the entire array stops producing power. If, on the other hand, the panels are connected in parallel and a shadow falls on one, the others will continue to produce power. At this point, you may be asking 'Why not always connect them in parallel?' I am not going to go into all the science, but in parallel, the current from each panel gets added together - more parallel panels means higher currents which means heavier wiring is required. Each parallel set also needs a pair of wires going from the array to where your system is being set up in your house.
When the array grew to four, we rotated the panels
so we could fit two vertically for a 2x2 grid.

Back to our specific situation. Our original Harbor Freight panels span the entire length of our south facing deck, about 30 feet. The length of this array and the fact that we sit low in a valley caused us to connect these panels in parallel. As the sun comes up in the morning the panels on the west side of the array can be lit for an hour or more before the panels on the east side of the array, and in the afternoon as the sun dips behind the mountain to the west the opposite shadowing occurs. If these panels were wired in series we would lose about 3 hours of power production from them each day as either end was still in shadows.

Our Grape Solars, which sit in our south garden (connected to the south deck) are arranged in a more compact block. We started out with just a single Grape panel, when we added a second we wired it in series because of the smaller footprint east-to-west, we did not need to worry about shadowing. When we expanded by adding two more Grape Solars we mounted the new ones below the two existing ones so the east-west footprint remained the same. We then had the opportunity to purchase two panels similar to the Grape's at a great price and those two made a third column of two which we added to the east side of the existing block of four (2 panels wide by 2 panels high became 3 wide by 2 high). 

With this third column, we started to notice a bit of shading on the newest column when the original four were fully lit as the sun topped the tree tops in the morning. I broached the question with Alan that we should experiment to see if there would be less shading if we moved the new panels to the west side of the original panels and thus it would catch shade in the afternoon rather than the morning. We mounted a panel sized piece of cardboard to the west of the panel array so we could compare the time we had shadowing on the new panels to time there would be shadowing on them if we moved them to where the cardboard was located.

While running the experiment, Alan came up with a completely different solution, since we had room for both the new panels as they were currently positioned on the east side of the array and the cardboard as a placeholder for panels on the west side of the array, we should just buy one more set of panels! (He had already done the calculations to determine what we would need to do to expand our system to handle the additional panels). At our next meeting of our self-reliance group, I was sharing this story and I just got to the part about how we were running the experiment to determine which side to place the panels on and two other guys, both with solar set-ups, said 'just add two more panels'. to which my reply was - it must be a guy thing. My experiment was to determine the optimal arrangement of our existing 6 panels, but somehow all three men, with no collusion, decided we needed to instead add two more panels.
Now there's a bunch of Grapes!

So, our most recent expansion, which was a few weeks ago was the addition of two more of the Grape panels. At this point, the east-west span of this array has expanded to the point that we decided to re-wire the panels in a combination of parallel and series connections. The eight panels are in a grid - 4 across by 2 down. Each vertical pair is connected in series and then each of these pairs is connected in parallel (from left to right) since we can have shadowing on either of the end pairs just as we do the Harbor Fright panels. In this way, as shadowing disables one pair of the 'Grape' panels at the beginning or end of our day the other 6 are still producing power. I can now run two dehydrators on sunny days and still have a fully charged battery bank by sunset. We still have a bit of tweaking to do with balancing some power draws, but we have been experimenting and we can even run an air conditioner on sunny days!
The beautiful MidNite Classic
with the amazing Whizbang Jr.!

Enough about solar panels, now that they are wired together, where does the wire go? The wiring is connected to a device called a charge controller. In our case, it is a thing of beauty called the MidNite Solar Classic 200.The charge controller is responsible for protecting your batteries from damage during charging. The batteries must not be charged with too much current, too much voltage, or over charged. The charge controller is also responsible for charging the batteries in the most efficient manner, wasting as little power as possible. And some charge controllers also protect the batteries from being too deeply discharged by automatically disconnecting the loads (lights, fans, radios etc.) when the voltage gets too low. The MidNite Solar charge controller has an optional accessory called the Whizbang Jr. (yep, that's its real name). Every amp of power that flows in or out of the battery bank goes through the Wbjr. The Wbjr measures all the current going into the battery bank during charging, and out of the battery bank when it's used, and it acts like the gas gauge in your car. Put gas into the tank at the gas station and the gauge goes up. Drive around and it goes down. That way you know how much gas is left in the gas tank. The Wbjr does the same for your battery bank, letting you know how much capacity is left at any given time. It has tons of features and Alan has access to all the data from his smartphone so we can check in on it when we are gone. 

The battery bank
From the charge controller the power can go directly to power devices we are using or into the battery bank to be stored for future use. Our battery bank consists of eight 6 volt 208 amp/hour golf cart batteries.Golf cart batteries are designed for slow power draws over long periods of time, which is what we are looking for in household use. If you connect batteries in series you increase the voltage (two 6 volt in series produce 12 volt). If you connect batteries in parallel you increase the amperage (those same two batteries connected in parallel would still produce 6 volts but for 416 amp/hours). With eight batteries to connect together in our battery bank we had a lot of options. However, the best choice is to not exceed two parallel strings of batteries.  Two will have a good balance when charging and discharging. Batteries have slight internal differences, called internal resistance. As you add additional parallel strings, these differences cause problems with equal charging and discharging. Therefore, we have two parallel strings of batteries - each string is 4 batteries in series. This means we have a 24 volt / 416 amp/hour battery bank. (6 volt x 4 batteries in series = 24 volts and 208 amp/hour x 2 parallel strings = 416 amp/hours).
Where it all comes together!

Enough of the math, actually there is never enough math, but that's my personal opinion. Here is a quick review: sunlight hits the solar panels and is converted to electricity, that electricity flows through wiring to the charge controller, from there power can be used directly throughout the house and all excess power is stored in the battery bank. If you have been following the numbers, you may have realized that something isn't right. In the beginning I said our house was wired for 12 volts,  but our battery bank is 24 volts. This is where the buck-boost converter comes in to play. The buck-boost can be set to a specified voltage to provide a more regulated service, or in our case it it can be use to step down the voltage from 24 to 12 volts. 

There is one other major device in our solar system - the inverter. This takes 12 volt DC from our batteries and outputs 120 volt AC. We only use this for one appliance in our house, the refrigerator which is a converted chest freezer but I will leave that story for another blog post. You may be thinking 'Wouldn't it be easier to run everything off the inverter, then the house would have normal 120 volt wiring?' We chose not to do this because of the amount of loss during the inversion process. You may recall that I stated we do not take the typical approach, the typical approach is to build a larger system, purchase a larger inverter and connect the inverter into you house's 120 electrical system. We wanted to change our lifestyle, design a system to meet our needs and realize one of our goals of self-reliance without breaking the bank.

So, how much did it cost? Ours has been a learning experience with several upgrades along the way. Below is an itemized list of the main components of our current day system. I have not included the Harbor Freight solar panels as they are such a small portion of our production capability now.

6 Grape Solar panels @ $370 ea. - $2200
2 Canadian Solar panels @ $232 ea. - $464
MidNite Solar Classic 200 Charge Controller - $695
MidNite Solar Whizbang Jr.- $45
Energizer GC2 232 amp hour 6 volt battery, four batteries at $85 ea  - $680
Samlex PST-1000-12 Pure Sine 1000 watt 12 volt inverter - $380 
Misc wiring, connectors - $500
Total= $4964

Our original system was under $2000 and was very adequate for meeting our needs, but as we have found with other areas of self-sufficiency, like water consumption, if more is available you tend to use it. One of our goals in setting up our own solar system was to provide an alternative energy source that did not require the sales pitch that every solar company out there seems to include include, which is 'and we'll provide the financing'. We proved we could set up a system for under $2000 and then over a few years expanded it to a more robust system for under $5000, not the typical cost of an installed system ($25,000-$35,000). 

And, in writing this post I have determined who Pluto is in our solar system. It is the Harbor Freight array. Now that we have eight of the Grape Solar style panels, and all of the Harbor Freights together equal about one more Grape Solar that would make them the 9th!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Time to Shrivel Up and Dry

Most of you know that I love to can, especially pressure canning. But this week I am going to talk about dehydrating. As the gardens start producing at full force and I find myself elbow deep in tomatoes it's time to start filling up the dehydrators.

I numbered the drying trays to help keep track
of where each type of herb is as the trays get
rotated during the process for even drying.
Why Do I Dehydrate?
There are several reasons and I find it interesting that they run from one end of the spectrum to the other:
1. Preserving Small Batches of Produce. Much of what I harvest out of the gardens is not enough for a canner load, at least not before some of it goes bad. For example, my strawberry beds are still very small, so I only get a handful of berries each day. In order to be able to make jam from my home-grown berries I could turn on the freezer and run it throughout the season to preserve each handful of berries as they accrue until I have enough for a batch of jam, but this would either require the sun to be very cooperative in charging our batteries, or require the occasional use of our generator, which seems a waste when I could simply run the dehydrator on sunny days to dehydrate the strawberries. The other advantage to this option is that once dehydrated the berries can sit in the pantry for months if I don't feel like making jam in hot weather. One of the best jams I made last fall was made from wild elderberries I had picked and dehydrated in August and pears I had canned the previous fall. On a side note, if you dehydrate strawberries for a specific project, be sure to set aside some extras because if you taste test them you will find out they taste like Strawberry Twizzlers.

5 pounds of potatoes sliced and
dried fit in a 1/2 gallon jar. Breaking
up the slices will save more space.
2. Saving Space With Large Volumes of Produce. Early this spring we received a 50 pound bags of potatoes for free. Then, a few weeks later we received another 50 pounds, and being early spring  these spuds were not going to store for very long. Well, we ate a lot of potatoes, I canned a lot of potatoes, I canned a lot of meat with potatoes for soups and stews and we still had a lot left. You have to take a couple extra steps when dehydrating potatoes or you will end up with gray slices - they will still taste like potatoes... if you can convince  yourself to eat them. I list the the basic steps for dehydrating at the end of this post, including how I dehydrate potatoes. The 50 pound bags of potatoes each contained ten 5 pound bags so as I was processing them it was easy to determine that I could fit a 5 pound bag of potatoes into a 1/2 gallon canning jar. This was keeping them stored as potato slices, I am going to break some of them into pieces that can be thrown into soups and stews and I will be able to fit 2 to 3 times as much into the same size jar.

Dehydrating is also a great space saver for the heavy producers in my garden. I do can a fair amount of tomato sauce to be used in other canning projects (meatloaf, meatballs, stews, etc.) but my favorite way to preserve tomatoes is also the best space saver - tomato powder. I slice the tomatoes and dehydrate them until crispy. Then process them in the food processor with just a slight amount of corn starch until they are pulverized to a powder. I can then add this tomato powder to lots of dishes as a 'stealth vegetable'. I have also grown a loose leaf cabbage this year (think kale) and have dehydrated it with plans to make vegetable powder from it as well.

The vegetables in the front jars each started as a one pound
bag of frozen vegetables - peas, broccoli & green beans
3. Keeping a Variety of Vegetables on Hand. I am not a fan of canned vegetables - that is the ones sitting in cans on shelves in the grocery store. Before we moved off grid, I would buy my 'long term' vegetables in the frozen food department. Well guess what, sometimes I still do ...and then I bring them home and dehydrate them! Yes, you can dehydrate vegetables that have been frozen. I do this for vegetables I don't grow in our gardens or if I find something I would like to add to my pantry. The other day we were at a store that had locally grown rhubarb in their freezer section. My rhubarb will not be ready to harvest until next year so I picked some of the frozen rhubarb up to process and add to my pantry to go along with my dried strawberries.

How Do I Dehydrate?
Solar or electric? While there are many plans out on the internet for solar dehydrators, my method of choice for off-grid dehydrating is to use our solar generated electric power to run our electric dehydrators. Using electricity to generate heat is not an efficient use of power, that is why we do not have a toaster, waffle iron, coffee maker, blow dryer, etc. However, I feel the electric dehydrators have enough advantages over the solar dehydrator to warrant the power usage. I just make sure I only run the dehydrators on sunny days when we are creating an excess of power.

The first of this year's tomatoes,
this batch was 4 trays of tomatoes
and two trays of blackberries.
With the electric dehydrator I know I will have a steady heat throughout the entire drying session, whereas a solar dehydrator has heat variations due to cloud cover, wind, etc. Also, from those I have talked to who do use solar dehydrators, the dry time per batch is usually more than a day which means there is more chance of mold or spoilage occurring in between the drying sessions. I feel I get safer, quicker results using my dehydrators and since I am using excess power we are generating on sunny days it is still free power from the sun.

Always have to remember to save
some seeds for next year's crops.
(More on that in another post.)
When we were researching dehydrators, our goal was not the biggest and the best, but rather the most power efficient. We chose a model from Open Country. This is one of the basic styles with six round stacking trays. The top cover contains the heating element/fan.  We did make an addition of creating screens that fit in the trays as small produce like peas tend to fall through the grates in the trays as they shrink during the drying process. We have been very happy with our choice, in fact it is efficient enough that we purchased a second and run them in tandem when we have a lot of produce waiting to be dehydrated.

I purchased about a dozen of these metal racks on clearance
for $2 each with plans for using them in a solar dehydrator.
But for now I use them as extra trays for drying in the oven. 
Back up and 'stand-by' drying option. Using the electric dehydrator does not mean every batch gets dried on the day I start it. Even on optimal sunny days, we do not have a long 'window' of full sun on our panels. Being situated in a north-south valley means we need to wait for the sun to climb up over the eastern mountain in the morning and then it dips behind the western mountain in the afternoon. And, our time is even more limited in the summer due to the arc of the sun and the tree cover. Our shortest solar days are actually mid summer when we only have full sun on the panels for about 5 hour a day. I always monitor our power usage while drying and turn off the dehydrator(s) if the power starts being pulled from the batteries, meaning they are no longer using 'excess' power. This is where my back-up solution comes into play - our oven. Our stove is propane and, in most cases, the pilot light in the oven provides enough heat to 'hold over' the trays that are partially dehydrated until the next day. Just remember to prop the oven door open slightly  so the humidity does not build up and defeat the purpose - I use the handle of a spatula. I have learned the hard way to not trust this method for wetter produce such as berries and tomatoes. If they have only had 4-5 hours in the dehydrator and I need to turn them off, I refrigerate them until I can return them to the trays and put them in the dehydrator again. Otherwise they tend to mold. On the other hand, if I have an  abundance of herbs, I often dry them from start to finish in the oven.

The Basic Steps. Dehydrating is a very simple process  with no exact time to follow. You have to judge that a batch is finished by the feel and texture as well as the conditioning step below.
1. Wash produce
2. Peel/Slice/Dice as needed. When slicing or chopping consistency is important for even drying.
3. (Optional) Treat fruits/vegetables that may turn brown due to oxidation. We grind up vitamin C tablets and dissolve the powder in water. As we slice the vegetables/fruits we place them in the vitamin C water. We keep them in this water until we are ready to start the dehydrating, anywhere from a few minutes to overnight. 
Guess which potatoes were
blanched and which were raw.
4. Steam or water blanch. Not all produce needs to be blanched. The rule of thumb is that if a vegetable is usually cooked before serving, then it should be blanched before drying. Blanching helps speed the drying process and also the cooking process after re-hydration. I prefer steam blanching for preserving nutrients but I water blanch potatoes to aid in color retention.
5. Place food on tray in a single layer, not touching to prevent edges from sticking together.
6. Dry until crisp - rotate trays every few hours and the slices may also be flipped over.
7. Turn off dehydrator and allow food to cool.
8. Condition by placing in zip-loc bag or canning jar over night. This gives time for any remaining moisture to 'even out' over the batch. Check for moisture the next day and dry for extra time if necessary.
9. Vacuum-seal or vacuum-can. We made a vacuum-canner which we use to vacuum-pack dry goods in canning jars.

The vaccu-canner Alan built. We use this to vacuum can dry
goods such as flour, sugar and dehydrated produce in
canning jars. Being vacuum sealed in jars protects them
from humidity in the summer and also allows for long term storage.
So, while I love to pressure can and enjoy the versatility and creativity of what I make in my canner, I appreciate my dehydrators for the ease and speed with which I can process the produce as it starts flowing out of the gardens in the heat of summer. Then, as the weather turns cooler, I can pull out the jars of dehydrated goodies, start cooking up some larger batches of jams, soups and various one pot meals to can for our winter larder.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Starting Year 5 - Time for a Change

I am including some garden photos with this post.
The new pumpkins I am trying this year
(long pie pumpkins) are taking over part
of the bottom garden. 
The last couple of weeks I have been contemplating how I would like to make some changes to my blog posts. We have started our 5th year living  at the Geek's Quad and I want to start sharing more of what it means to live off-grid as well as to pursue a more self-reliant lifestyle. For the past 4+ years my blog posts have been informative, but also chatty and rambling, covering many topics in each long circuitous post. The purpose was mainly to let friends and family know what we were doing. I now feel we have enough experience under our belts that we can share knowledge on a wide range of topics and my goal is to post more often and focus on a single topic each time. In the future I plan to cover topics such as canning meat, seed saving, vermiculture, doing laundry off-grid, rain water catchment, an explanation of solar power in everyday terms, raising meat rabbits, etc. My goal is to have a new post every 1 to 2 weeks.

My first post in my 'new & possibly-improved' blog came about from an article I read about 'Why New Homesteaders Fail'. Now we do not consider ourselves as homesteaders, but as off-gridders striving for self-reliance. You may ask What's the difference? and if fact these three terms - homesteading, off-the-grid and self-reliance are often used to mean the same thing, but there are differences. I am a fan of Venn diagrams and maybe this will will help illustrate what I mean:
When talking about 21st century homesteading Mother Earth News says "It's about using less energy, eating wholesome local food, involving your family in the life of the community and making wiser choices that will improve the quality of life for your family, your community and the environment around you. "
While the term 'off-the-grid' has been defined as living without reliance on one or more public utilities. Under this definition there are varying degrees of being off-grid based on how many public services you choose to forgo.

This Roma has more tomatoes than leaves,
hopefully it can sustain itself until they all ripen.
Last count was 14 tomatoes on this one plant. 
So, homesteaders may have no ambitions to sever their connections to the public utilities and off-gridders may have no inclinations towards organic gardening and raising their own free-range chickens. Each of these groups have a degree of self-reliance, but no desire to push the envelope to see how self-reliant they can become. They do not have the goal to become self-reliant, they have the goal to be homesteaders or off-gridders. Four years ago we jumped into the Off-Gridder Circle (above) and started working our way towards the Self-Reliant Intersection as that was our goal. If you knew us before we started our adventure you would agree that we were much more likely to jump into the Off-Grid pool than the Homesteader pool based on the definitions I provided above.

Back to how reading an article on failure prompted my contemplation of our own venture to date. First off, no, I do not think we are failing. We are thriving and still enjoying the adventure. I did however find it insightful to reflect on the three reasons brought forth in the article and how they pertained to our endeavors. Oops, I did say these blogs were going to be shorter, well actually I said I wasn't going to ramble as much, so on to the three reasons the article stated as to what causes new homesteaders to fail, all of which can apply to anyone striving for a more self-reliant lifestyle.

I was experimenting with using small paint brushes to
transfer pollen from the male to female blossoms on the
squash and pumpkin vines, but these little guys
were doing a much better job.
Reason #1 - Failure to Define Your Plan
There are so many aspects to self-reliance and so many paths you can travel down,  you must choose your priorities from the myriad of projects you feel pulling at you from all directions. In our case, we made severing the grid ties a number one priority. In fact, we severed all those ties in one fell swoop by moving to a property that broke all of our ties to public utilities and services. That in turn meant our priorities remained focused on establishing our own alternatives through solar power, rainwater catchment, etc.

At the same time we did 'tinker' with other areas of self reliance we wanted to explore, such as gardening, but we were careful not to spread ourselves too thin in too many directions at once. This is the fourth year for our gardens, which we have expanded each year, and it is the first year that I feel they are really becoming abundant producers. I still consider them to be in the experimental stage of learning what vegetables are the best producers, especially for the least effort and square footage of garden space - more about that in another post.

This Betalux tomato plant also has about a
dozen tomatoes on it. The yellow arrows  show
the twine and clips I am using to support
branches on most of the tomato plants this year.
I used to feel a little guilty that we did not have livestock, yet (unless you count my worm farm- more about that in another post.). But after reading Reason #1, I felt vindicated that we did not rush out and get a lot of animals we were not prepared for. We had several reasons for making livestock a lower priority, one of which was the fact that we were still travelling back up north on a regular basis to visit grandchildren (oh, and children). By the way, we are in the process of setting up our rabbitry and the breeder rabbits will be arriving soon - more about that in another post.

Reason #2 - Failure to Have Backup Plans
Often people plan for years for when they will have the property of their dreams and the lifestyle they have imagined that will go with it.  They scrimp and save and as soon as they have just enough they invest all they have and take the plunge only to realize they are flat broke with lots of things that still need to be bought to make their dream anywhere close to becoming reality. Wow, that sounds depressing, but what I am trying to say is make sure you leave some wiggle room in the budget for the unexpected.

Most of our strawberries are 'Ozark Beauties',
but I just picked up a couple of these 'Berries
Galore' this year and they are amazing! About
the size of a Peanut M&M but very sweet.
Also, as your dreams become realities sometimes they do not fit into the exact same mold that took shape in your mind through all those years of planning. Don't cling to Plan A just because it is always what you said you were going to do when this day arrived. In the reality you are building today some of the projects and goals may not match the dreams you planned over the years for several reasons:
     - products or technology has changed and there is a better solution for what you are doing
     - the land/home you have does not lend itself to your initial plan
     - time has passed, you are older, you may not need some of things you planned a few years ago
     - time has passed, you are older, you may not be able to do some of those things you planned
In other words, be realistic in your goals and expectations, be flexible and roll with the punches and do not take on more than you can handle at one time.

Reason #3 - Failure to Prepare
Very excited that our grapes are producing for the 
first time this year.
At first glance this reason seems to coincides with the backup plans. But to me, the backup plans  are for ideas that for one reason or another are not going to work in the real world or have not worked after trial and error. The need to to be prepared comes with the realization that even as you become self-reliant in various areas of your life,the time may come when something unexpected happens. For example, you may feel your garden is adequate because it meets your families needs each year, but what if there is a summer of droughts or floods and you can't put away any produce for the winter? What if you lose your crop and can't gather seeds for next year, and have none set aside? You need to think about areas where your self-reliance can be vulnerable and make preparations to cover more than 'just getting by'. Self-reliance is more than being able to handle the expected day-to-day needs, it is also being able to rely on your provisions during unexpected tough times.

In our case, we enjoy challenging ourselves in becoming more self-reliant. There is a lot of gratification in realizing you are responsible for providing the electricity that powers your house, the water that flows in your pipes and the food on your pantry shelves. It is also humbling to realize how much time and work providing these daily needs requires and how much we used to take it for granted.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Growing Pains

This is the area that was designated to become the 
'Upper Extension' of the Bottom Garden this year.
We had a very mild winter this year, not once did I have to warm rocks on the wood burner to take down to my worm farm at night to keep them from freezing. Our herd of worms were very productive this winter, providing us with about 10 bottles of worm juice for the start of this year's gardens. We also have had no measurable snow fall… yet. The balmy weather in January and February means I was getting antsy to start gardening projects. Just like the start of years 2, 3 and 4, as we approach the beginning of year five of our off-grid life I have plans for more garden expansions.

As you may recall, last year I created the ‘bottom garden’ on the bottom half of a sunny slope just a little south of the house. When clearing out area for the bottom garden I determined the upper limit based on how many rocks I would have to remove if I wanted to take it any further up the slope. I convinced myself there was too much shade cast on the upper slope and thus, I didn’t need to put in the effort to clear that rockier area. And then, throughout the garden season I tracked the amount of sun on the upper slope and confirmed that with the most recent trees we removed to open up our ‘solar window’ this upper slope would make a good garden extension. Unfortunately, this meant we had to remove all those rocks I chose to ignore last year.

Getting started - briers and tall weeds have been removed along with
all the loose rocks that could be tossed to the side of the garden. We
later pulled that log out using Stormy, our Isuzu Trooper.
We started by clearing brush, which was about 80% briers and cutting out small saplings. We then set to work on the rocks. While our property is very rocky, most of the rocks are small enough to pick up by hand and toss to an area outside of where the garden fence will be going. Once all these were removed it was time to start digging up the ‘icebergs’ – those pointed edges of rocks sticking out of the ground that I had kept tripping over while doing the other work. Just like icebergs, we never knew how big these rocks actually were until we attempted to pry them out of the ground. Most were pried up fairly easily as most rocks also tend to be fairly flat on the property. I found that if you were able to budge the rock on the first couple of tries with the crowbar, then it was likely to come out relatively easily as the rock was only 2 to 4 inches thick and we were able to get the crowbar under it for leverage.

Alan making another attempt at the
largest rock we tried to move.
However, after removing several dozen rocks by hand and by prying them up there were still a few that were too large for the crowbar. We made a trip to Tractor Supply and bought a very large pry bar – 16 pounds and almost six feet long. With a lot of effort, and sore muscles, we were able to get all but one of the largest rocks out of the garden. The large pry bar (believe it or not, we haven’t named it, yet) has a point on one end and a short flat blade (think spatula) on the other and between the two we could work the bar under all but one of the rocks to get enough leverage to work them out of the ground. As for the one rock that remains – I am cutting the bottom out of a plastic tote, placing it over the rock and creating a small raised bed. I just have to remember to not dig to deep in that planter or I may break my trowel.

As I started laying the landscape fabric I kept tripping over a
small piece of rock that was still sticking up out of the ground.
Alan was working on another project so I decided to dig it up
myself. Here is a picture of it after I rolled it to the edge of the
garden. The red circle shows the part that was above ground.
While working on this upper extension to the ‘bottom garden’ I also decided to create a lower extension as there is a flat area at the bottom of the slope. We had ended the original area of the bottom garden at the bottom of the slope not because of rocks but because of a tree that would be inside the garden area if we went any further in that direction. This year I decided I would either work around the tree or have Alan take it down for me. My plan for this area is to make it into a berry patch. I cleared the briers, saplings, etc. from this area and then Alan and I measured it to determine how many feed lot panels we would need to fence it in.
The completed extension. And yes, I realized we spent a lot
of time and effort removing rocks only to place some of them
back on top of the landscape fabric to hold it in place.
While measuring, we discussed the various possibilities, including the life expectancy, or lack there of, of the tree at the edge of the current garden. We determined that, as this section of the property is not as flat as I thought (the brush and briers were hiding a dip) the feed lot panels would better fit the contour of the land if we created a new garden that started several feet past the tree rather than extending the current garden in that direction. This is also the area where we park Hoss, our large king cab dually pickup we use for hauling. We can leave his parking spot and make a 16’X16’ berry patch (feed lot panels are 16’ long) or we can find a new parking spot for Hoss and make a 32’ X 16 foot berry patch. I am opting for the 16’X16’ this year so I can already start planning for another extension next year.

While all this hard labor has been going on outside, the garden activities are also in full swing inside the house.  Every year I try to start some of my indoor seedlings earlier in the season. I have several plants I grow that have fairly long growing seasons and I want to give them as much of a head start as I can before transplanting them outside. The problem is I only have one south facing window, the kitchen window over the sink, and grow lights would require way too much power. With the limited natural light it is always a balancing act once my seedlings germinate – rotating the various flats so they all get enough sun so they do not become spindly before I can plant them outside. It has been so mild the past couple of months I have been able to put my seedlings outside much more than in past years.

Seeds lined up on damp paper towel for germination.
I did have a lower germination rate on several varieties of seeds this year. I started them as I always do, including keeping them close to the wood burner to make sure they are warm. My only thought is that the mild weather has meant we have not had a fire in on some days, and even a few nights, so while the temperatures have been mild, that has actually caused the house to be a bit cooler.  I took stock of which plants I had a shortage of and set about germinating more seeds. I have been wanting to experiment with soilless seed germination and decided to give it a try. I placed a paper towel in a glass casserole dish, moistened it and laid out rows of the various seeds. I covered the dish and placed it in my oven as the pilot light keeps it nice and warm. Within a day some of the seeds had sprouted. As each variety sprouts I transfer them to the seed starting flats that are filled with a seed starting mix. This method is also a good way to start older seeds that may have a lower germination rate because you are only planting the seeds that have been proven viable rather than filling starter containers with non-viable seeds.

Part of the excitement of each year’s garden is determining what new plants and varieties I want to try growing. Some new garden family members are chosen for the challenge to see if I can grow them, while others are chosen to replace varieties that were not successful producers. My two tomato go-to varieties have been Amish Paste and German Red Strawberry. Both are determinate varieties which mean they all ripen within a short season (good for canning) rather than having a few ripen at a time over the entire summer. Both varieties are also very meaty, another plus for canning, however I tend to get frustrated with the German Reds because while they are supposed to be large and shaped like strawberries, many of mine are irregular shaped – more like conjoined strawberries. While they have a single stem, it looks like two tomatoes grew together. This year I am adding two new tomato strains to my arsenal – St. Pierre and Betalux. I am currently disappointed with the Betalux for their poor germination rate and failure to thrive, but maybe they will surprise me.

I was pleased with the ginger I grew last year, so this year I have added tumeric to the list. I also have plans to try more herbs as well. I have not had any luck with carrots since I started gardening . My plan was to not grow carrots this year, but then I remembered I did have success in saving carrot seeds last year. Carrots are a biennial plant, which means they do not produce seeds until their second year. Therefore, you must earmark a couple of your plants as seed producers and not harvest them.

Carrots seeds I saved from last year - time for an experiment.
In our area, it is mild enough that I can leave them in the ground over the winter and the next year they shoot up long stems with flowers that look like Queen Anne’s Lace (which is in the carrot family). Allow the flowers to dry on the plant and then cut them off into a paper bag. I stored them in the paper bag last fall with all the other seeds I saved from my 2015 garden. When I saw the bag in with all my other seeds from last year I decided I had to try carrots one more time just to verify my seed saving worked. I have always been able to grow carrots plants, they have just never produced any decent carrots, so as long as I get carrot plants I will consider the biennial seed saving successful.

I have also wanted to experiment with making my own seeds tapes, and as one of the problems with my past carrot patches was probably the fact that I did not thin the seedlings enough (I hate throwing away baby plants) this would be a good reason to make carrot seed tapes. If you are not familiar with seed tapes, a Google search describes them as “Seed Tapes are the perfect, no-waste way to plant. Each strip of biodegradable paper is embedded with perfectly spaced seeds; simply unroll into a planting furrow and cover”. You can buy pre-made seed tapes wherever you buy garden seeds but I wanted to make some with my carrot seeds. Here is the process I used:

  1. Artisan Seed Tape!
    Mix up a thick flour paste – 2 teaspoons flour to 1 teaspoon water. You want the paste to be thick so it dries quickly and does not start the germination process.
  2. Use a strip of toilet paper (unused!) that is an easy length to work with. I made mine about 4 feet long as that length would become a row in my raised beds.
  3. Cut the toilet paper in half length wise and then fold the strips in half to make a crease down the entire length of the now half-width strips of toilet paper.
  4. Using a toothpick, place dots of flour-paste along the crease line. Space the dots the recommended distance  for your seeds. In my case the carrot seed spacing is every two inches and toilet paper squares are 4 inches long so I placed a dab about an inch on either side of each perforation of the toilet paper.
  5. Use the same toothpick, it now has a sticky end, to pick up individual seeds and place one on each dab of paste. As for my carrot seeds, I was a little freaked out when I shook out my saved flower heads and discovered that individual carrot seeds looked very similar to ticks!
  6. Refold the paper strips along the crease to encase the seeds in the paper strip and allow to dry. Note: as I placed the dabs of paste for each seed I used the toothpick to make a streak of paste toward the long edge of the paper strip, this helped glue the paper strip together more firmly.
  7. When ready to plant, dig a furrow the recommended depth for your seeds and plant the strip. 
Enough about the inside garden preps, time to go back outside. With the briers, rocks and trees cleared along with the landscape fabric laid and the fencing around the upper extension, now the hard work starts - bringing in truck loads and carrying it by 5 gallon buckets to fill various raised beds and containers. You may have guessed that the growing pains we suffer from are sore muscles.