Sunday, October 16, 2016

Arbors 101

Picture from here.

I’ve spoken of the grapes we grow before. One of my two readers asked about the arbors that support them. The other one was uninterested.

So I’m going to talk about the various arbors I’ve built. Let’s be very clear. I’m belong to the Brut Forse Carpentry Skool of Construkshun. It doesn’t have to look nice. It just has to work.

We all have a pretty good idea of what arbors tend to look like. The picture up there is a fairly common style. Essentially, it’s a set of four or more posts with a set of cross beams. I’ve built a couple of these using 4x4 pressure treated wood and set into concrete. They last about ten years or so without some sort of maintenance—paint and the like. However, I don’t like to paint around things I eat. So I tend to replace them.

About fifteen years ago I decided that working with the lumber was 1) too much a pain in the butt and 2) too expensive. So I began experimenting using 2x2 lumber. The remaining example is shown to the left.

There are a few of things to note about this arbor. For one thing, there’s a lot of wood—more than when I built it. A tree fell on the arbor and I patched it together. The other is the half A-frame construction. Note that one side falls at a slant. It’s not a square shape.

I started doing this because I wanted a fairly broad surface area for the plant. But that meant that to harvest I had to reach over a long distance. The answer was to mount the arbor at the slant and harvest from the back of the arbor instead of the front. I’ve retained this for a couple of arbors.

Then a tree fell on one of them. (The one pictured.) And the others started to rot. Pressure treated is sort of a suggestion against rot rather than a preventative.

Picture from here

Meanwhile, I was working in Cambridge and when I walked around I saw some old grape trellises made of plumbing pipe. This turns to have been a thing for many first generation European immigrants. They ended up in these small houses with almost no space so they would build a trellis of pipe over the driveway or other similar space and grow grapes over it.

Most of these constructions used galvanized pipe and plumbing fittings. With any luck, these arbors might outlive me and I was tired replacing wooden structures. So, why not?

This was my first attempt. Again, note the slanted construction.

I was attempting to minimize cost. So I used relatively thin black pipe and plumbing fittings. Note that though the top rail is straight, the bottom rail is staggered. This is because I wanted the cross beam at the bottom and needed the staggering to fit it in with the cross posts. The black pipe turned out to be a problem in that it is more rust prone. I’ve been using Rustoleum’s rust converter to correct this. Wire is used as the material for the grapes to grow across.

This particular arbor is not currently in use. Originally, I just stuck them in the ground. But I’ve concluded this is a mistake. First, the arbor can rust—although there’s not much evidence of it here. Second, the arbor can sink asymmetrically. The thin pipe works in this arbor but that’s because of the inherent bracing of the shape.

Shortly after I built the black arbor I built this one using the same sort of pipe. This is a more square form. This is much less braced than the previous black arbor—I had different space considerations and couldn't do the slanted style. But without the  bracing this arbor isn’t stable. The plumbing joints tend to unscrew and the thinness allows a lot of creep. I’m hoping putting the legs in concrete blocks will allow me to correct the creep issue.

I also moved away from black pipe. It just rusted too easily. Instead I started using galvanized. This arbor is essentially the same as the angled black one but writ large with galvanized pipe. Here the creep problem is quite pronounced. Note the slope of the back. Sticking them straight into the ground was a mistake.

I measured the rise and fall of the ground over that winter and concluded the whole anchoring problem was an illusion. Grapes live on trees and trees creep much more than a stationary arbor. Instead, I put the base in hollow concrete bricks which I then fill with concrete. I’ll straighten this one and fit it into concrete overshoes next year.

Here’s a close up of the sort of plumbing joints I’ve used. The black is again the Rustoleum product.

Working with the plumbing joints in a complex structure turned out to be really, really tedious. Imagine trying to screw everything tight. I was going to weld them but then read about zinc poisoning when welding galvanized pipe. I looked around for an alternative and found KeeKlamps. These are galvanized fitted sleeves that can be tightened over a pipe with a hex wrench. They come in a variety of fittings and are very easy to use.

We used all kee klamps on this square arbor we built for kiwi. (The kiwi had been destroying the fence they were on.) As advertised, it was easy to build and put together. Me and Ben managed it in about ninety minutes. The problem with kee klamps is 1) They’re not cheap and range between $5 and $8 per klamp and 2) You have to use a lot of them to make the joints.

Here’s a close up of the corner joint. It takes three klamps to make the joint at $5/piece. And four corners. $60 was just too much. (BTW: Ben invented this joint. The problem was that when we put the joints together the way I thought they should, the joint slipped easily. Ben figured out how to interlock the joints so that rotation caused the joints to tighten and not loosen. Clever young man, him.)

This was also the first arbor we put into concrete blocks. Three years and no appreciable creep.

One of the old arbors had rotted out needed replacing and I wanted to try something different. It was a flat arbor and while I found it was pretty easy to harvest, the turkeys did, too, and I lost a lot of my harvest. I came up with a sort of house structure. 

But this time, I came up with a different way to mix the kee klamps with plumbing fittings. The KKs are the joints that preserve the angle: 3 triples on the top and three single fittings on the base pipes. But instead of a complex corner joint I just used 90 plumbing fittings. This is worked out really well.

All of these structures are pretty utilitarian. I can understand if someone found them ugly. But they do work.

That said, I’ve been looking at some images from a simple google image search of “DIY Metal Arbor” or “DIY metal trellis”. Some of these have been stunning. Some used simple copper pipe sweated together. Some have bent normal conduit pipe (much softer than plumbing pipe which is why I haven’t used it.) into magnificent shapes.

Gives me some ideas. Heck. Maybe next year I’ll break character and make something beautiful.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

State of the Farm, September 2016

It's September, now. The drought continues.

Remember when I said the larger plants-- the trees, grapes, etc.-- seem to be weathering it okay so far? Well, "so far" isn't so far anymore.

Two things have occurred.

First, of course, is though we've had some rain the drought continues. Some of the trees are showing stress. These are trees such as cherries and some of the pears. One pear in particular has gone completely yellow and is dropping its leaves a month early. We're hopeful that the trees that are doing this are just giving up the summer and not giving up the ghost. We won't know until spring.

Trees have a blessing and a curse: they reach deep so drought takes longer to reach them. But when the deep water recedes it takes a long time to get it back.

I had been hoping that we'd have enough rain to catch up with the loss before the trees felt it. It didn't work that way. Many of the trees are okay depending on species and location-- all of the espalier look okay, regardless of type. I don't know if this is location or the nature of how trees are trimmed during the process.

I didn't anticipate the other problem we've had.

The thing is, we're not alone in the drought. All of the wild animal life are experiencing the same thing. Many birds are now gathering for southern migration-- not exactly early but they are certainly not lingering. About two weeks ago the Marechal fochs were a week from harvest. I came home and every grape was gone.

They were plucked directly from the vine without a wasted fruit. We've always had a little competition from the turkeys and the wasps. I rebuilt the arbor to discourage the turkeys. It worked pretty well though they still menaced the grapes on the surrounding fence. But turkeys leave a lot of debris and torn leaves around. So this wasn't them.

Wasps, too, like to get the grapes. Often, I've been harvesting grapes in a cloud of yellow jackets. Not stung. Yet.

But wasps eat around the seeds and leave the skin behind. These were plucked cleanly.

I think it was small, migratory birds that cleaned me out. Birds desperate enough to eat anything.

About a week after that, the Concords started scenting the air. The birds didn't target them yet. I don't know why. Perhaps the birds that took the M/F were already gone south. Or perhaps the Concords were less visible or didn't interest them. No idea.

But the hornets figured out there were good things to eat.

The Concords were a week early but I decided in favor of an early harvest against no harvest at all. So, that night, I harvested the vine by flashlight. (Yellow jackets I can bluff. Hornets have no mercy.) So we have about fifteen pounds of just-prior-to-full ripeness Concord grapes in the freezer downstairs.

A couple of years ago I spoke a little about making a drinkable Concord wine. (See here.) I can now do it pretty predictably. I'll tell you my secrets:
  1. Do not use the skins. I know Concord wines are supposed to be reds and reds are fermented with the skins. But don't. If you use both the skins and the juice, whatever chemicals in Concord grapes that turns Concord wine into kerosene gets concentrated. You can use the grapes for a good false wine but that's it.
  2. Use twice as much pectinase as any recipe calls for. Three times if you want. I don't know if there is an upper limit. Pectin is the protein that gels jellies. You add the pectinase to break it apart. I don't know if the pectin proteins are part of the dreaded Kerosene Element or if it's a protein close enough it, too, is destroyed by the pectinase. But if you don't use enough you will regret it.
  3. Filter, wait for settle, filter. Concord sediment is not your friend.
  4. I've been getting in the habit of letting the final rack (siphoning the wine off the sediment) just sit for a few months. Initially, I did it by accident because I had too much to do and bottling is a chore. But it seems to help.
  5. Wait a minimum three years before you claim victory. It takes about that long for the keresenes to break apart.
The last act of farming for the summer was the changing of the canopy.

We have a polyethylene cover greenhouse. Essentially, it's a steel hoop frame over which we put two polyethylene sheets. Then, we have an electrical inflator that pushes air between them, giving us insulation. In it, we grow bananas, papayas, tomatoes, broccoli, strawberries-- well, you get the idea.

The problem with polyethylene is that it breaks down over time under the UV light of the sun. So every four years or so we have to replace the sheet before winter. To have it break apart during winter would be catastrophe.

This involves pulling off  the old sheets to be recycled in some way and then pulling over the new sheets. The roll holding both sheets is about 200 pounds. Pull the sheets over without damaging them is a chore we put off as long as possible.

We did it yesterday. The pictures are above. You can see the banana trees fairly easily in the upper picture. There's also a bush roughly in the middle that's a strawberry guava. Behind the greenery are the other fruit trees and the aquaponics. The lower picture shows the finished product, all nicely inflated. The excess will be trimmed and used in other projects.

That's it for the year. We're looking into irrigation pipe for next year and figuring out how to make the farm a veritable killing field for caterpillars. The town is thinking we're going to have these conditions for the rest of the calendar year.

I hope not.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Solar Experiment

It is done.

The project I've been working on over the summer has been completed. That's it to the side there. The dehydrator itself, the area where the fruits, vegetables, etc. are actually dried is the big box. The long thing is the heat collector. The box is about 4.5 feet wide and three feet high. The collector is three feet wide and eight feet long.

Why so big? you might ask.

Therein lies a tale.

We try to live within our means. By this I don't just mean we live within a monetary budget. I mean we try to grow as much of our own food as we can, consume as little outside energy as we can, reuse materials where possible. We have old cars and an old house. There is an ecological component to this but mostly it's because we're cheap as hell.

About four years ago we committed to put up the money to buy solar panels for our house. We bought them so we own the energy that comes in and own what are called SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Certificates) that come along with it. (See the link to describe what they are.) This means that no only is our utility bill tiny but that we can sell the SRECs at a profit. In the last few years the SRECs have paid for the energy cost of our greenhouse.

This makes me very happy.

But we live in New England. While it's all well and good that we have covered our electrical energy budget, we still burn a lot of energy to heat the house over the winter. We shifted from oil to gas a few years ago but I'm not terribly sanguine about using gas, either. It's low cost is artificial at the moment and it's not doing the planet any favors. So I've been casting about for some way of handling the cost of heating.

We've done most of the normal things: insulate the attic. I built inserts for the old windows to use in the winter that cut heat loss through the glass. But that works on the efficiency of heat loss but doesn't address heat production. We heat a fair amount with wood. That's nice because it's burning recent carbon into the atmosphere rather than fossil carbon but it's still carbon.

I kept coming back to the greenhouse: hot as a jungle in the direct sunlight even when it's twelve below outside. Clearly, solar heating has possibilities.

We couldn't pipe the heat back to the house. The distance was too great to do it efficiently. That meant whatever we did had to happen at the house itself.

Our house is what's called a front entrance colonial. Two stories tall, flat front with a doorway in the center. When the house was built (as a speakeasy brother but that's another story) it had a full sized porch but over the years the porch rotted away and was removed. Now there is just an entrance porch to the door.
Solar panels have two very curious features with regard to snow. 1) They tend to warm so snow slides off easily and 2) they're slick so the snow slides off fast.

We have an avalanche after every snowfall.

This meant a couple of tons plunged down on whatever was below it-- be it bushes, porch or bystander-- all at once. The bushes look terrible every spring and after the first couple of snows, it's a packed glacier. The front entrance becomes unusable and we do all our comings and goings from the side entrance.

Clearly, we need a porch so we can use the front entrance in the winter and keep from eventually destroying any structure in the front of the house. It would have to have a metal roof, too, to handle the impact.

Metal roofs get hot in the sun. Hmm... Could I kill two birds with one stone? Could a metal roof absorb enough heat to supplement the heating of the house?

I did a little research and found a few designs. Here is a general design for a solar space heating system.  Here is one that uses metal roofing coupled with a liquid heat transfer fluid.

One of the critical features of heat transfer is the nature of the fluid used. Most heat transfer systems use some liquid for heat transfer-- propylene glycol is one. It's related the ethylene glycol used in in your car radiator except it's not toxic. Water can be used-- not up here in the Frozen North but it's commonly used in the south. Brine. Etc.

I was interested in using air as the fluid. Air isn't as efficient as liquid but it has the virtue that it is free, abundant and if it leaks there's no mess. (See here and here.)  The porch would be about thirty feet long and about ten feet wide-- three hundred square feet of potential heat collection. Even a fairly modest heat transfer would provide some significant BTUs.

So we discussed the whole process. The idea of building a large porch with a metal roof was somewhat daunting. The idea of building one with untested technology was even more so. Besides, even if we built a good collector, how would it transfer heat to the house? (A problem I'm still wrestling with.)

We decided to run an experiment.

We had wanted a solar dehydrator for a long time and I'd worked over several designs. I'd come up with the idea of a dehydrator that could run on electricity or solar. That way we could run one in the winter as well as in the summer. I hadn't built it mainly because of time and because I hadn't come up with a building technique that satisfied me. Building with wood is fine but wood is heavy for a structure to bring in and take out all the time.

We married the experiment to the solar dehydrator-- giving up the idea of double duty in favor of seeing if the porch idea would work.

The dehydrator is in three parts. The collector, the box and the support. The support was easy so we'll neglect it.

The collector is a frame box with a top of galvanized steel painted black. The back is insulated with two inches of foam.

Why that design? you ask. Isn't it better to have a clear front and capture the energy that way?

Well, yes. That is far more efficient in terms of energy collection.. You get double the effect. No only does the light come in and heat the black back, the re-radiation of infrared is captured by the transparent glazing. (Not unlike global warming. Hence, the "greenhouse effect.") But remember, this experiment has to also emulate being able to take a high impact snow load. There aren't any glazings I know of that will take the avalanche.

The box serves as both dehydrating chamber and chimney. The air comes in from the bottom of the collector, passes into the box and exits out the top.

We put it together today and it's now standing out in front of our house infuriating our neighbors and lowering our property values. Hey. We own the place so who cares?

I've instrumented the box and collector. We're getting good heating inside the collector-- up to about 140 F. I'm not so please at the heat transfer between the collector and the box. I'm getting between 15 and 20 degrees above ambient. Right now it's passive but I think a small muffin fan might help. It's also still pretty hot outside so the heat differential between the box and collector isn't as great as it could be in winter. Be interesting to see hat happens to the box temperature when ambient is below freezing.

But the building is accomplished and the experiment has begun. I'll be taking regular measurements over the winter to see if the experiment is successful.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

State of the Farm, August, 2016

(Picture from here.)

Ah, beautiful rain.

We woke up this morning and the ground was wet. Thoroughly wet. Under the trees and the car. On the sidewalk and the grass. In the garden and on the fruit trees. I didn’t have a chance to crack the surface in the garden to see if it went more than skin deep, but I have hopes.

Let me back track.

This year has been pretty rough on Walking Rocks Farm.

Let’s start with the spring.

We had a relatively mild winter and then a warm patch. All of the stone fruits (Nectarines, peaches, apricots, almonds.) began swelling buds. Then: Bam! Twelve below zero. Every blasted bud: dead. Absolutely nothing on any of the stone fruit. At all.

The trees themselves were fine although there were a few casualties that were in pots outside. Nothing that can be managed but the stone fruit crop was a complete fail.

(Picture from here.) 

But we had hopes for the apples and cherries. That was before we had the Caterpillar Infest From Hell.

We don’t like to do much in the way of spraying poison. Instead we use Surround and oils. But this really only works after the caterpillar eats a piece and gets sick. It doesn’t work for blossoms since by the time the Surround works the blossom is already digested. So this year we saw what was coming and sprayed before and after the blossoms.

We didn’t spray enough. My own fault, really. I don’t like spraying poison.

Anyway, to make a long story short: no pears, plums or apples. The grapes and Cornelian Cherries were all right. The CCs blossom before the caterpillars and the grapes after. The chestnuts were hit pretty hard but they are strong and I think we’ll have a fair harvest.

We planned out the garden with black plastic this year, a mix of porous and non-porous materials. The non-porous was for the melons and the porous was for most of the remainder. The corn was mulched—a mix of Bloody Butcher and sweet corn. We mounded up the potatoes and planted the beans and the carrots. That was the end of May. Then, the drought struck.

Remember rain? I have trouble.

Go here to see the Massachusetts drought map. See that big red section? We’re in that. But it’s even worse than that.

Microclimate is everything and we are in what we like to call the Hoppy Pocket.

It works like this: weather tends to comes in from the west. So we’re always seeing popup storms on the maps and getting our hopes up. Northeast of us is a hill a couple of hundred feet higher than we are. Southwest of us is another hill. Consequently, anything coming at us that’s the least bit vulnerable has to barrel directly in from due west.

Unfortunately, that rarely happens. Usually it comes from the northwest or the southwest. Occasionally, it rolls in from the northeast—what in New England we call a Northeaster. But that’s usually reserved for tropical storms or nasty winter storms. None of that applies here.

So we’ve been watching other places in the Red Zone get a little water here and there when we get passed by,

Soil has this interesting quality when it gets really dry. It starts to repel water. You’ll water a section of the garden only to see it bead up as if the water had fallen on wax paper. You have to pool the water a let it stand a bit to overcome this. Once overcome, the water will slip easily into the soil. Mulch helps with this. I’ve been digging little trenches everywhere to catch the water and hold it long enough.

It’s been hot, too. This hasn’t just been a dry summer. It’s been a hot one, too. We don’t water our lawn and a lot of it is dead. Only those trees that have deep roots are doing well. Up and down our street, some fairly established trees turned out to be in marginal spots and have died or given up. We won’t know until next year. Microclimate is everything.

The carrots didn’t make it. The first direct seeding of beans didn’t make it. The squash, melons and corn have been doing all right. The tomatoes weren’t doing well until we realized the extent of the problem and watered every day. In other years, even drought years, every other day or every third day has been sufficient. Not this year.

We’re starting to see odd things, too. For example, we tend to water in the evening. Turns out some of the squash varieties don’t like this and have a white fungus on them. The basil has been all right but there’s some yellowing I don’t like. The kohlrabi is content to just hang there, not growing but not dying, either. The potatoes did all right for a while but finally said they’d had enough and we harvested early.

The musk melon varieties are doing great. The watermelons are growing but haven’t set as much as I expected. They like the heat but I don’t think they got enough water.

Our turtles (the walking rocks of Walking Rocks Farm) have spent a lot of time buried in the soil. Recently, we’re seeing wildlife responding. I’ve been seeing little diggings in the garden. At first we thought it was the turtles. This is one of the times they like to lay their eggs. But there were too many spots and they were too small. I’m thinking skunks desperately looking for grubs. We brought the turtles into the greenhouse until we can figure what’s going on.

There’s also been nibblings on the onions and rhododendrons—desperate deer I expect. And our cat has decimated the local rabbit population. I think they are desperate and Ripley is right there and eager to help.

Still, we had gazpacho last week. Over the weekend Wendy made an excellent savory cornbread with onions, sweet corn and peppers. All about as locally grown as you can get. The grapes are stressed but I think we’re going to have a nice harvest on the Concords and the Marechal fochs. The sweet grapes, not so much. One new grape vine withered and died but another seems to be holding its own. The kiwi had a rough patch but seem to have recovered.

And today it rained. Lovely, blessed rain.

Likely we’ll still have to keep watering. The drought shows no sign of breaking just yet—one rain isn’t enough for that. But the well is strong. The trees and vines will survive the summer. As meager a harvest as this might be, it’s still a harvest and we’ll celebrate it.

We’re already thinking how to learn from this for next year.