Friday, July 24, 2015

Garlic harvest 2015

From just 5 heads of seed garlic planted 3 years ago to this year's harvest: 22 lbs of delicious New Mexican garlic.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Tiny house update: New, upcycled roof

Tiny houses get a lot of wear and tear. They are exposed to the elements year round, taken on and off the highway, and get a lot of foot traffic on a very small surface area. Our Whittled Down Caravan is five years old now, and it is due for some maintenance. The first thing that failed, in our case, was the canvas roof. This is probably a surprise to no one.

The Whittled Down Caravan originally had a canvas roof, made of high quality and expensive Sun Forger waterproof and mildew resistant canvas. Well, it turns out that "resistant" does not equal "mildew proof". After our first season on the more humid east coast, the canvas started to get mildew spots. After another year or two, our once beautiful roof looked pretty gross, and the waterproofing was failing.

We tried a few methods to refresh the waterproofing, and tried our best to ignore the ugly mildew. First, we bought tent waterproofing stuff in an aerosol can from the hardware store. That worked for about three weeks. Next, we tried a mixture of beeswax and linseed oil. That waterproofed it all right, but it also magically weakened the canvas, shrinking it until it literally ripped itself to shreds.

The new canvas is beautiful, and we thought about replacing it. But $300 and a lot of labor every couple of years to replace the roof didn't seem practical, and we no longer even had access to an industrial sewing machine, which is necessary to sew through this hefty material. We began to explore other options. A regular old tarp would work, but it would be ugly and the UV would probably destroy it in a season. Then we remembered hearing that you can purchase old billboards online. These large pieces of heavy duty, UV-treated vinyl would likely last longer. And as it turned out, we could get one in exactly the size we needed for the roof.

So, for 10% of the cost of the canvas, we ordered a billboard on the Internet. When you do this, you have no control over what they send you. I'll admit, while we waited for it to arrive I fretted. What if we get some hideous beer ad with scantily clad women all over it?

 Well, we lucked out. When the material arrived, it turned out to be a misprint. The billboard was almost entirely white, with just a single stripe of smudged printing running across one end. Not bad, and it's hard to argue with a significantly cheaper, upcycled roof.

My biggest fear was that the light wouldn't shine through like it did with the canvas. It's definitely a little different inside, but there is still a nice glow.

So, we have our new roof, and it's been temporarily installed. We have some more work to do before it is road worthy again.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

DIY seed starting setup

A few days ago I wrote about my low tech approach to an earlier growing season. Here's a glimpse at the higher tech side of our operation.

I have to confess, I have always been a miserable failure when it comes to starting seeds indoors. I am really, really good at killing seedling. It's usually neglect--forgetting to water them, mostly.

Over the last few years I've been putting some effort into successfully starting seeds indoors. It's really crucial for saving money in the vegetable garden, and the bigger mine gets, the more important this becomes. On the other hand, the equipment for properly starting seeds requires some startup costs as well. I think part of the reason I haven't had success in the past is that I stubbornly refused to get things like a grow light and heating mat. The windowsill method just doesn't work so great, at least not in my drafty old house.

Still, I'm not one to just go out and BUY ALL THE GEAR. I did buy a grow light, a CFL bulb that uses less electricity and should last longer. But seedling heatmats at $40 each? That was beyond the pale. So, thanks to Tristan's hardware hacking skills, we were able to go the DIY route. We got a few of those ugly old warming trays from the 70s at thrift stores. You know, these guys:

We hooked them up to an inexpensive temperature controller, controlled by a thermometer probe placed in one of the trays.

YSTD® LED Digital 110V Temperature Controller Temp w/ Sensor Thermostat Control Relay

Our seed starting system currently has three heat mats for less than the cost of one commercial grow mat.

So what am I growing with this groovy system, you ask?
  • Northampton Italian tomatoes 
  • Joe E. Parker chiles 
  • Thai Hot peppers 
  • Paprika peppers 
  • Eggplant 
  • Tomatillo 
  • Luffa 
  • Lacinato kale

This year I have kept more of my seedlings alive than ever before (knock on wood). I also planted twice as much as I needed to hedge my bets, so that I'd still have plenty when I did inevitably screw up. I started everything in flats and transplanted what I needed when the first set of true leaves emerged.

Now that I've gotten better at seed starting, I'm running out of space! Next year I'm going to need more grow lights and/or a greenhouse to start everything I'd like to grow.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Perennial vegetables: A low-tech approach to an earlier Spring harvest

Here at the Whittled Down House we try to eat as seasonally as possible. In the winter, we get a CSA that delivers 50 lbs of veggies a month, November-February. We dutifully eat these potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips and whatnot as best we can, but I have to admit that by February I would rather use these tubers for target practice than dinner.

Here in New England, we're traditionally left with 2-3 months of down time between when the stored root vegetables run out and the first Spring vegetables are ready in the garden. There are plenty of season extending techniques that can be used to close this gap, but perhaps the easiest is simply planting perennial vegetables. These delicious, low maintenance crops are ready to harvest before the early greens in my garden have their first set of true leaves. And there's no greenhouse, hoop houses, or other technology required. You just plant them and eagerly await their appearance when the snow recedes.

Walking onion
There is more we can do to ensure we have some fresh green veggies earlier in the Spring. But for now, mid-April is when we get our first taste of the growing season to come. Ramps (wild leek), walking onion, and sorrel are first, followed shortly by fiddleheads and asparagus. Our perennial arugula is starting to gain momentum, as are the first nettles of the year (in addition to being a medicinal, you can steam nettles and use them as you would spinach).

Sylvetta, perennial arugula

There's really nothing better than walking around my edible forest garden in early spring, watching these incredible, tasty plants make their grand entrances. After months of starchy root vegetables, their bright green, vitamin-packed leaves are just so delectable.


Ostrich fern


 Tonight we had our first meal of the season with garden vegetables. Polenta with ramps and shiitakes (grown by a friend of a friend). We ate our meal outside, in the garden, surrounded by the incredible perennial vegetables that will be feeding us for the next several weeks. Spring is here--hooray!
Ramps from our garden, shiitakes from a friend of a friend

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Spring is in the air

Signs of spring are everywhere here at the Whittled Down house. 

 The cat is enjoying more time outdoors, surveying her territory from her special rock. 

My ramp patch, now in its third year, is looking bigger and better than ever. 

The garlic we planted in October is already six inches high, and very appreciative of the serving of compost it received. 

Our new vegetable garden, which we began to make in the fall by sheet mulching, is coming along. Some of the beds are finished and planted. We are still laying paths and finishing the beds in about 25% of the garden. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Aquaponics Update: Strawberries and a fish emergency

First, the good news. We grew strawberries in our indoor aquaponics system! Three strawberries, to be precise. In deep February, with over 70" of snowfall this month, words cannot describe how incredible it feels to bite into a perfectly ripe strawberry. To grow them, I transplanted a strawberry plant from last summer's outdoor planter, and hand pollinated the flowers.

The rest of our grow bed has been transformed into a kitchen herb garden for the winter months. We're growing scallions (I just planted the roots from a bunch I bought at the grocery store), dill, cilantro, and garlic greens. All of these are great for a little sprig of fresh green garnish for our hearty winter meals.

Now for the bad news.

Our miniature aquaponics system has been chugging along since last summer with no problems. A few weeks ago, we moved it into the kitchen so that we would have more access to the plants and so we could keep a closer eye on the fish.

A few weeks after that, the fish seemed sluggish. I looked closer, and to my horror I found scary looking red spots around its gills, vent, on its tail--everywhere. Having killed (accidentally!) many goldfish as a child, I felt this must be a signal of the fish's impending demise.

Now, this fish is a survivor. We call it our "rescue fish". It came to live with us after its pond was filled in. I found it flopping around in the muck after I finished bailing all the water. I figured it was a long shot, but I ran home and got a pitcher of water to transfer the fish to. Despite being thrown into different temperature and pH chlorinated water, the fish pulled through. Later, when its tank shattered in my hands during a move, the fish survived the resulting counter-flopping (I ended up with a nice slice in my hand). Could it be that our rescue fish's luck had finally run out?

I did what any DIYer would do--I searched the fish's symptoms online. It didn't look good; the Internet recommended broad spectrum antibiotics, or maybe even injections. Who knew you could give shots to a fish? Like dummies, we called our local fish store to see if they had antibiotics. The wise, stern voice on the other end of the line said, "You don't need antibiotics. You can probably cure it with a salt bath. Bring a water sample on by."

At the fish store we learned that our water had high levels of nitrites, and the fish expert was certain the tank had experienced a spike in ammonia several weeks earlier that burned the fish, leaving it vulnerable to infection. What caused the system to get out of balance? We think it was a combination of factors. First, the fish has been growing, but its tank has not; at nearly 7 inches, we should have had it in a 20 gallon tank, not a 10 gallon tank. Second, I think when we moved the fish tank to its new spot, we started inadvertently feeding the fish more often, since it was in a high traffic location. More food = more poop, and that means more ammonia in the system.

Mr. Fish Expert assured us that therapeutic levels of salt (4%, or 1 teaspoon per gallon) would kill the bacteria and help the fish heal, and scolded us for our over-reliance on Internet research. It seems counter-intuitive to put a freshwater fish in salt water, to say the least, but it seemed worth a try. Now, as you might have guessed, salt is not a good thing to have in an aquaponics system; even a small amount will kill your plants. So, we moved the fish to a "hospital tank," otherwise known as a lobster pot, and administered the treatment. Sure enough, within 48 hours the fish had more energy; within a week, the spots had vanished.

Now our system seems back in balance. We've upgraded the tank size, adopted a strict feeding regimen, and we test the water for ammonia frequently. Our rescue fish seems to have pulled through once again.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Before and After: "Dining Room"

When we bought our house, there was a room on the first floor (probably the original dining room) that particularly offended us. The entire room was covered with white and powder blue faux wood grain paneling. You can't see it in this picture, but the paneling went right over the window casings, leaving the sad vinyl windows with no defenses. 

Our first hour in the house, we started to rip out this paneling. What was underneath it? Pink wallpaper, and then 9 other layers of wallpaper. It turned into quite the project. We removed the wallpaper with the help of several friends and former housemates. A friend's dad, a plasterer, came and helped us skim coat the raw plaster we found underneath. 
Skim coating in progress.

The room stayed like this, painted yellow with badly alligatored white trim, for another year and a half or so. When we decided to rent the room out again, we thought it would be a good opportunity to finish up this room for good. So, we scraped the trim. The original intention was to repaint it, because it's pine and was not originally stained and varnished. But after all that work, I couldn't bring myself to cover up the wood again. So, there was more work as we stripped all of the remaining soaked in paint off the trim. 


Here's the wood stained, before we painted the room. 

Our incoming housemate picked the new room color. It's not something I would have ever picked myself, but I think it looks fabulous. 

I'm not sure I've mentioned this on the blog before, but someone painted over all of the oil-painted trim in our house with latex, causing all of the trim paint to fail. It feels SO good to have fixed the trim here. One room down, many more to go.