Archive for April, 2013

Success!

So, using the CR-V as a mule (since I never did find the Avis rent-a-mule office in my area) worked nearly perfectly. I worked on the tiller, and my wife (who is awesome for doing this by the way) drove. Now, a car goes faster than a tiller normally does, even when you just take your foot off the gas and let it coast, or even while keeping a little pressure on the brake, so it was definitely challenging The ground isn’t perfectly flat, or level, so while you’re coasting at a good speed one minutes, your stuck in a mound or rut the next, and having to give gas to get over it. After I realized it wasn’t my wife driving like crap, and it was the terrain  I was a little more pleasant to be around. She was doing me a huge favor, as she reminded me several times while I was fussing at her about her driving.
Now that the tilling is done, I can spend the rest of the year working on the tiller at a leisurely pace. Taking my time with the transmission, since I hear there are a lot of parts, and you don’t want to forget how to put it back together once it’s in 100 pieces on your garage floor. I remembered to take pictures so that you can fully appreciate the genius and hilarity of the whole situation, and can image what my neighbors probably thought when they saw me out there like that. Luckily, since the neighborhood is still under construction  I don’t have a neighbor in front of me or to the side of me yet, but I’m sure they’ll get to know me quickly because of my crazy antics.

So here are some helpful tips if you too want to ever try this:

-A rope is good for pulling, but backing up is still a pain. Since we figured it would be easier to just keep going forward and reverse, rather than turning around the car, I still had to pull the tiller back to the starting point at the end of each row. Luckily with the tines spinning, it kinda pulls itself a little if you don’t put too much pressure on it.
-Make sure your rope is long enough. With the car backing up to the start point, it ended up driving over the tilled dirt, compacting it again. Now, with the thick layer of sod broken the hardest part is done, I can go back over it with my smaller Mantis tiller. But if you want to avoid your nice fluffy dirt being pressed back into clay, make sure that the rope has enough length to keep the car out of the garden.
-Get a whistle. Figure out a “tweet” system, since hand signals are difficult when you’re holding a tiller that’s chomping through the ground, and shouting is inefficient, confusing, and pretty frustrating. The car and tiller make quite a bit of noise.
-Take your driver out for a nice dinner, some ice cream, or a beer afterwards. Tilling is hard work, but being shouted at by the tilling-operator while sitting in a car without the music, on going back and forth for 1-3 hours is a different kind of hard work and should be rewarded.

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Now, the tilled land does look messy, but that’s mostly because I just tilled the weeds and grass into the soil.  The weeds haven’t gone to seed, so I should have to worry about them coming right back immediately, and the main thing is that the ground is now broken up and soft.  I’ll post more pictures when I’ve cleaned it up a bit, and I’m ready for planting.

 

 

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We have ignition, and lift off!

Well…kinda. So I finally got the tiller running. I had told my wife and anyone else around that I knew what was preventing the engine from running was going to be something so simple, I was overlooking it for that very reason. I had disassembled the carburetor at least a dozen times, cleaned it just as many, and still no power. I knew it had to be something wrong with the carburetor also, since even with my limited mechanical knowledge, I knew the engine was working. When I sprayed engine starting fluid into the carb, it would fire a few times until the fluid was consumed. So the spark-plug and cylinders were working fine, it just wasn’t getting gas. In exasperation on Sunday morning, I had declared to all that would listen to me that I was giving up and would just sink the money needed to get it repaired. I knew it would really suck, since after buying a new home and still paying a mortgage on our other home that isn’t rented out yet, we are kinda cash-strapped. Well, dedication…or maybe just plain stubbornness drew me back out to the garage again later that day. My neighbor, who I will just call “J”, stopped by after most likely hearing the string of curse words coming from my garage. We sat there and talked about how I still couldn’t get the damn thing running, and that it had to be the carb, since it would run just long enough to consume the starting fluid and then die. My other neighbor “R”, was nice enough to take my carb and use his air compressor to try to blow out any debris from the carb valves. It looked like everything was clean, I had run a wire through all the fuel valves countless times. It was good knowing that I wasn’t crazy, since they were telling me what I was expecting this whole time. Well, “J” and I headed back over to my garage to look at the tiller again. While we were sitting there, I had a stroke of genius (luck???) This whole time I was looking at the carburetor and wondering why fuel wasn’t getting into the cylinder, but there was one part that I kept overlooked. To understand why I missed it so many times, I’ll post some pictures of the carburetor. The carb itself is pretty simple. Air intake, the main channel, fuel bowl, output to engine. Fuel comes into the bowl and fills it up, a needle and float stops the bowl from overflowing (that’s what caused my leak in the previous post, the float was stuck so the fuel intake valve never closed properly), and then fuel goes into the bottom of the bowl, up a shaft and up into the main channel to mix with air and then goes into the engine. If you look at the pictures carefully, you’ll see a little notch in the shaft. That’s where I assumed fuel would go through to get up into the main channel. Well, one thing was bugging me, that’s also where the screw that holds the bowl goes. It kept nagging at me, the notch would let fuel in, but not with the screw in place. I finally picked up the missing piece of the puzzle, the screw itself. I took a good long look at it. Just a normal screw, one thing that was weird about it was it looked like there were two pits on the side of the screw and on the bottom of it.

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“…no, that couldn’t be it, could it??”

I looked at “J” and asked, “you don’t suppose fuel goes through this screw, do you? “. He took a look at it and tried to blow into it. Nothing.

Well, wouldn’t hurt to try something, so I took the screw and submerged it in carb cleaner. I swished it around for about 30 seconds and noticed something magical (not really, just pretty cool), gunk was coming off of the screw….a LOT. So I took out the screw and got a small length of wire and tried poking it through one of the pits on the side of the screw. THE DAMN THING WENT STRAIGHT THROUGH!! So then I look at the bottom of the screw and poke the wire though, it breaks through a layer of grime and goes right to the part of the screw where the side holes where. The screw was hollow!! The fuel goes into the notch on the main shaft, INTO the hollow screw and up to the main part of the carb. I give the newly cleared out screw another soak in the carb cleaner and then put it all back together. We both kinda held our breath as I got ready to put the starting cord, since this whole mess really got us fired up. I gave the cord a pull…

IGNITION! The engine started up on the first pull. I looked over at J with wide eyes…Holy crap, it works! I ACTUALLY fixed something with moving parts in it! We let it run for a few minutes and then finally cut it off when it seemed pretty apparent that it was running beautifully. I thanked J for all his help, since it was technically “we” fixed it. I can’t remember what he said, but it was right before I picked up that screw and took a look at it, so it had to have been something that got me thinking about it. Well, after the handshakes and back slaps, he goes back home and I get ready to start the actual work gardening, the tilling itself.

I shift the tiller to “forward” and squeeze the drive control bar. The tiller pulls forward about three feet….and then stops. “hmmm, that’s not right”. I shift to neutral and then back to Forward, and pull the drive bar again. Nothing at all. I shift to the “forward tilling” gear and try that . The tines spin (yay!) but still no movement. Now, for those who haven’t seen or used a tiller, it’s like a very large push mower. With large push mowers, many of them are self-pulling so that you aren’t throwing out your back trying to push the mower around. Without the self-propelled aspect of the tiller, doing any work with one would be very difficult (more like impossible as I was to find out).

“Well great, I got the engine working, but now my transmission is F’ed up?” A tiny, simple carburetor got the best of me for 3 weeks, how in the hell am I going to overhaul a transmission? Not only that, but the parts for the carb were $70, anything other than screws in the transmission STARTED at $50 each. It is going to get expensive fast if, when I open up the transmission case, it looks like how I think it’s going to look. As I went running back to Google to find out more about the transmission, I found out that the craftsman tillers have a major flaw. There is a gasket (or paper donut as some people online described it) that when water pools in the tiller, when it is left outside perhaps, it dissolves away and lets water right into the transmission. Well, water and metal don’t get along very well, and you now have rusted out gears.

“Crap, taking apart a transmission was not was I was expecting, and this is going to take longer than 3 weeks”. The entire growing season is likely to pass me by. So I got back out and try shifting into neutral. I gave it a push and the tiller rolled along, as expected. “Well, that wasn’t too hard to push”, so I shift to “forward tilling”. The tines start spinning and give the tiller another push. It rolls a little as I push it. Now, I’m pretty sure the wheels should be engaged to the gears, so the fact that it’s acting like it’s in neutral is NOT a good thing.

….but…if I can push it while the tines are spinning….maybe I can just muscle the tiller around like a non-self-propelled mower. I push the tiller to the back and start on a row. The tines dig into the ground and start busting up the hard layer of sod. “Sweet, this isn’t so bad” Wrong. Only a few feet into tilling, I’m starting to sweat. It’s HARD work pushing a tiller while it’s chewing up dirt and weeds. Then the tiller started rolling back into the tilled dirt behind it, creating a little ditch. I found out quickly that trying to push the tiller out of the self-created ditch was getting more and more difficult. I gave up in exhaustion and dragged the tiller out of the row that I was working on.

Wow….one half of one row. I had made it 10 feet in 45 minutes, was thoroughly exhausted, and my back was killing me (previous injury, that story is going to be a whole other post). Wow, so I only had another 790 feet to go. I slowly pulled the tiller, which felt like it weighed at least 1000 pounds at this point, back to the garage. I sat around the rest of the night wondering how much it would cost to have a transmission repaired, but also relieved that I didn’t send the tiller to be fixed, only to have the technician say “we fixed the tiller, it was a clogged screw, that’ll be $300”.

The next morning I woke up with a crazy idea, much like I do every single day. It’s tough being me with all these wonderfully crazy ideas running through my head, since my loving wife usually steps in and prevents me from injuring myself, lighting myself on fire, getting myself blown up, or just plain dying. Well, the crazy idea that morning was in the category of the “just crazy enough to work”

To digress for a moment, I have two types of crazy ideas. Sober crazy and drunk crazy. The drunk crazy ideas never get an audience from my family, since they’re usually along the lines of “Maryland law states you can’t discharge a firearm within 150 yards of another resident, without their approval….wouldn’t it be AWESOME if I went door to door asking the neighbors if it would be okay to shoot at clay pigeons in my backyard. They’d of course be welcome to join me, it would be fun!” Luckily most of those ideas are lost in my hangover the following morning. Now, the sober crazy ideas are “crazy like a fox”, and involve more brain cells since they aren’t drowning in rum.

So, back to my sober crazy idea. Since the tiller engine runs, the tines spin, and I can move the tiller like it’s in neutral, I just need a method to pull/push the tiller. Human power just wasn’t cutting it, so what about getting a length of strong rope/chain and hooking it up to the back of our CR-V? Then with my wife drive the car, and me working the tiller, we would just need to work out a start/stop communication method. I figure a whistle would work, with one tweet to stop and two tweets to go. Then just blowing on the whistle we could use the power of the car to get the tilling work done, and then after that, I can take all year to fix the transmission myself. There’s plenty of room where ”the farm” is being set up, so driving the car back there won’t be a problem at all.

A few days later, I was talking to J about my idea, and he just looks at me kinda confused and says, “why don’t you just rent a mule?”

Rent a MULE? I know I’m in the rural-suburbs here in Howard county, but I didn’t know you could still rent a friggin’ mule! I didn’t ask him where one could rent a mule from, but I guess I’ll keep that in mind if towing the tiller with the CR-V turns out to be a disaster, like most of my sober crazy ideas end up. I’ll be sure to post pictures of that this weekend if I succeed in convincing my wife that it’s a good idea. The thought of fresh veggie might entice her enough to consider it.

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Batteries not included…

So….with spring finally here, and my tomato, eggplant, cucumber and pepper plants growing by the day, I decided to pull out the Craftsman rototiller out to get “the farm” ready.  I filled up the gas tank, changed out the oil, and gave the pull cord a hardy pull.

…and nothing.  A couple more pulls….nothing.

..oh, what’s this?  *drip* *drip* *drip*

*sniff*  Yeah, totally gasoline dripping out of the tiller.  So I open up the part of the engine where the dripping is coming from to see gas spilling out of the carburetor (??maybe??)  

At this point I’d like to point out that my father was a mechanic.  Not really, he was a small business owner/entrepreneur that had 20 years of mechanic knowledge under his belt, much more accurate.   When I was young, he would want to show me how to tune up a car (back before they were all electronically controlled and CPU monitored), change the oil, fix the timing, or just tinker around under the hood.  I on the other hand kept wanting to find out why I kept going to castles that didn’t have the princess in them.  

“Another castle?  Then why the hell did I stomp on countless mushrooms and turtles to get here?  Why haven’t they invented GPS yet???”  

So while I was busy guiding Mario, Link and Samus to victory (not really, I never beat any of those games), I could have been learning how to fix a 2-stroke engine or troubleshoot a leaky carburetor.  So the irony was not lost on me as I was staring at a metal thingy that was dripping gasoline.  The gasoline was the only thing I was sure about, because that’s the primary thing I used to ignite the holes in the ground that I had dug in my parents yard as a child (boys, eh?).  So gas was dripping out, and I triumphantly managed to find the gas shutoff valve!  

“Hooray!  I didn’t lose all that gas that I had just put in the tank!” (it’s the little victories in life that matter)

So what’s someone like me to do when faced with a problem I don’t know?  Google to the rescue!!!  Unfortunately Google didn’t help me too much.  So I dug back into the tiller and just started doing what anyone without any knowledge in mechanics does.  

I started unscrewing things. >.<

Now, I did put the screw back where they were after a panel had been removed, so I wouldn’t lose them, and I was actually smart enough to take pictures of the before and after, so I wouldn’t forget how to put it back together (or have “spare parts” left over).  What I discovered was that the carburetor seal was dry rotted.  I haven’t been living under a rock for the last 30 years, so I do know what dry rotted rubber looks like.  So, with the new found knowledge that my seal was bad, I decided to order new seals, and air filters while I was at it, since they looked pretty old too.

Well, they finally arrived today!  I was so excited to finally get my tiller working.  I installed the new seal after spending the last week  researching how tillers work and the mechanical workings inside them.  

The good news? It started.  The bad?  It stopped pretty soon thereafter.  It’s still leaking fuel out, so I *think* it’s a “float valve” issue, but it could just as well be a widget is jumping around inside my engine making the gasoline gods angry.  So now I have to spend tomorrow trying to learn what I can about engines from Google….oh, and I have a 2-stoke Mantis tiller (completely different, but the same that at least it doesn’t have a computer controlling it) that isn’t working that I’m trying to fix too.  I’ve narrowed that down to a fuel line….or spark plug…or air filter….or flywheel.  

YAY!  Farming is fun, and I haven’t even dug into the ground yet.  I could do it by hand, but 800 square feet of land isn’t easy to do by hand with a broken back.  OH…That’s a post for another time….

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Farmers, start your gardens!

I can’t believe the average last frost date is already here. It seems like just yesterday I was buying seeds and starting up this blog. So much to do, and the clock is ticking! I still haven’t started up my tillers, so I don’t even know if I’ll have any mechanical help getting my garden bed dug. I should have really thought about this sooner, but time sure goes by quick. It really is a good thing that I’m not farming for a living, otherwise I’d already be sweating bullets about my harvest. So, with the average last frost date officially behind us, let me be the first to warn anyone in MD/DC/VA to NOT transplant anything quite yet. The forecast is calling for some cold weather to roll in on Saturday. Now, planting seeds might be OK since the frost (if it happens) won’t damage a dormant seed, but don’t go bringing your pepper, tomato, and cucumber plants outside. It will definitely be too cold for them still, even without a frost event. Best bet for those plants is to use my cicada planting clock that I posted about a few days ago, or go with the tried-and-true date of mothers day. By May, all worry of cold and frost is well behind us, and that’s precisely why we start the tomatoes indoors in Mar/Apr. By giving them those extra months of time to grow indoors or in a greenhouse, they may not grow as fast and vigorous as they do in the summer, but you’re giving them a head-start. By May, your growing season has been shortened considerably so you wouldn’t want to start by planting a tomato seed at that point.

This is my deadline for getting my tillers up and running though, so cold or not, I have to get my dirt loosened up and ready for the plants. I have quite a bit of nice, dark organic matter (an old leaf pile that has decomposed nicely) in the land behind my house, so I plan on working that into the soil where “the farm” will go. Also, while not of much use this season, I’ve been dumping all of my wife’s salad by-products into the compost pile, getting it ready to use next year. Yes, unfortunately at this point is literally is just a big pile of wilted lettuce, egg shells, pepper cores and other non-meat food scraps. I do plan on buying or making one of those really nice tumbler-style compost bins, but I do like the idea of having a giant compost pit that a bin just couldn’t match in terms of size. I will probably mulch-mow my lawn to build back up the topsoil, so I won’t have any lawn trimmings to add to the compost, but at some point I will get a chipper/shredder. With that, I’ll have plenty of shredded leaves and chipped/mulched wood to add, which will add a ton of minerals to my compost. All of that will have to decompose, which means I might want to have more than one pile/pit/bin so that I can rotate and let one decompose while I’m pulling from the other.

While I’m at it, I might find out what BG&E does with all that mulch that they make when they trim the trees by the power lines. I saw the truck just full to the brim with freshly shredded tree trimmings. I’ll ask them if they can just dump the pile in my yard (I know, I bet the neighbors will LOVE that). Trees are full of minerals like potassium, calcium, carbon, etc, which makes for garden gold once it has a chance to break down and release all of its goodness.

So, for those that are itching to start your garden like me, this looks to be a good weekend (45 degrees? Could be worse, just wait til the 95% humidity days are here). Grab a shovel, tiller, or just jump in with your bare hands, let’s make the step towards growing what you eat and having fun while doing it.

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The grape vines have arrived!!

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My grape vines arrived in the mail today, so I wanted to post a little about that.  A little back story to this is last year I bought 6 vines to plant in my tiny little garden space beside my townhouse. Unfortunately, 3 of them didn’t ever grow.  I called the vineyard that I bought them from, and they set me up with 3 new ones that would arrive a year later, since the season to get new ones was already past.  Well, fast forward a year and I’m now sitting in a new house, with a lot more land, so I might be increasing that order tenfold at some point in the future.  For now, my 3 happy little dormant vines are getting a little bath to let their roots soak up some water before I put them into the ground.  I have just the place for them,and will post a picture of them in the ground tomorrow.

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The two varieties I got are Malbec and Chardonel, the latter being a cold hardy version of the Chardonnay grape.  I think a Chardonnay can grow okay in zone 6, but I wanted to make sure that I got something with a little more cold tolerance, since it can get pretty cold in the winter. 

It’s kinda late, so I’ll have to add more to my post over the weekend or in segments over the next few days.  More to come.

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Hear that cicada sound? That’s nature’s “event notification”

If you have a smart phone, you’ve probably set up event notifications.  It reminds you to take out the trash, or pick up something from the store.  Well, nature has event notifications too.  Here on the east coast, we’re about to be greeted with a sight that most people’s eyes and ears dread….the 17 year cicadas.  Yes, if you live near a forest or ground that hasn’t been dug up for 17 years, you’re about to be swarmed upon by the shrill, bug-eyed  creature’s most abundant emerging.  Brood II as it’s scientifically called, is nicknamed the “east coast brood” for good reason.  It is the largest emergence of Magicicadas, which are the 17 year species, and their extent stretches from as far north as Connecticut down to southern Virginia.  Certain species of cicadas emerge every year, but this emergence hasn’t been seen since 1996, and should be a big one.   Now, a lot of development has happened in suburbia in the last 17 years, many parts of the MD/VA/DC area have completely changed and are environmentally unrecognizable from 1996, but if you live in a more rural or undisturbed part, you’re going to get the full effect.
 
Now, first off, don’t panic.  They are annoying and can startle you when you find them all over trees or on your house, but they are harmless.  Their deafening song may sound like 4-6 weeks of being woken up early to most people, but to a gardener it’s the sound… of TOMATOES!! 
 
Here’s a bit of old-timey knowledge, mixed in with a bit of science.  Back before we had accurate weather prediction models and satellites to track clouds and temperatures, people relied on nature to tell them when to plant and harvest.  Cicadas emerge when the ground temperature is above 63 degrees F, which coincidentally is the same temperature that tomatoes need to thrive outdoors!  So when you start to hear the call of the cicadas, it means that it’s time for you to start putting your tomato plants outside during the day to get them hardened off, and then plant them soon after.  Tomatoes need soil temperature above 60 degrees during the day and 50 degrees at night.  So get your gardening supplies ready or follow along with my journey, we’re about to get to the good part, growing your own food!

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April update

Nothing new to report as of right now, just some pictures of the sprouts.  It’s still a little too cold to plant anything outside, and the ground is too wet from the rain to plow it.  I still need to de-winterize the Craftsman tiller that I got from my grandfather, and since it’s been at least 2 years since it has been started, hopefully it still works. 

 

Here are some pictures of the tomato plants that I started indoors.  They’re starting to get bigger.  Next year I’m going to build a proper greenhouse outside, or if I’m still house-poor, at least get another light or two to help them grow.

From left to right: eggplant, cayenne peppers, “Mortgage Lifter” tomatoes, lavender in the foreground (not sprouted, I just started them on Sunday.  I didn’t realize I needed to start those early as well), Roma tomatoes.Image

 

Left to right: Cucumbers, Beefsteak tomatoes, Big Boy tomatoes.

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