Archive for Repairs/DIY

The Raised Bed Project

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Just kidding, not that kind of raised bed.  Rather, a raised garden bed to avoid some of the pitfalls and nuisances that I experienced last year (weed creep, bad soil, insects, deer, myself, etc.).  I decided on a simple 4’x8′ raised bed for 3 reasons.

1) 4′ seems to be the internet-agreed-upon width that allows you to easily reach into the center from either side.

2) Most 2×6 or 2×8 boards come in 8 or 12 foot lengths, making less waste in the end.  (Note:  I did get stuck with 10′ boards for one of the beds because that’s all they had, so I had some 2′ sections left over, still looking for something to do with them.  I did eventually find 8′ boards at the other home improvement store.)

3) They looked good in my “raised bed master plan”, meaning, inline with my usual “Go big or go home” mentality.  More to come on that later.

I decided on Douglas fir as my wood because it was cheap and readily available in 2″x8″x12′ sections.  The 2″x12″ boards were very much more expensive, relative to the 2×6 and 2×8’s, but I wanted my beds a little deeper than 12″.  Two 2×8’s stacked would get me about 16 inches, which I thought would be good enough.  I wanted to go with cedar or redwood, since I heard they were rot and pest resistant, but the cost in the end helped me decide.  They weren’t available in the local home improvement chains, and the lumber yards wanted one of my arms along with my credit card.  I figure I could replace the beds every 3 years (if I even needed to that early), and it would still be cheaper than cedar or redwood in the long term.

Eco Wood TreatmentI did splurge on some wood treatment, and I came across this stuff, which is pretty highly rated.  It’s called Eco wood treatment, and it’s supposed to protect against mildew, rot, and pests.  From what I researched online, it contains iron oxide and “other proprietary” ingredients, all of which is supposed to be environmentally and human friendly.  That was the main reason why I avoided pressure treated wood.  Even though they stopped using arsenic in the chemical treating process, they still use copper, and I’d rather not have those chemicals leaching into the soil of plants that I will be eating.  I’ve read that pressure treated wood is generally safe, but I’d rather go with something that says it’s definitely non-toxic.  It is expensive, but it’s supposed to protect the wood for years, it’s made in the USA, and it stained the cheapy-looking Douglas fir boards to a nice aged look.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take pictures all through the process, but I did take the pictures of the final beds.  I decided towards the end that I wanted a little ledge on the beds to rest tools or whatnot, so I nailed some 2×4’s on the sides.  I used pressure treated wood for that, since they don’t directly touch the soil. I also added 1/4″ hardware cloth under the beds to keep groundhogs from burrowing up under my bed. They’re a problem where I live, so I figured the extra measure of protection was warranted.

IMAG0957Here’s the picture of the stained wood after the Eco treatment.  It looks rather dull and splotchy, but the color evened out and looks really good.  Much better than the bleached framing boards that I started with.IMAG1001

I started off with two beds for this growing season, but never fear, I have big plans for my suburban farm.  The white PVC pipes you see on the inside of the bed is for adding floating row covers.  If I need to add a frost cover or insect barrier, I just insert a long length of 1/2″ PVC pipe into the 1″ sections to form a loop over the bed. I can then attach the covers to those loops. I didn’t use it this year, but I figured I might as well install them now in case I need them.

IMAG1038IMAG1043 …and here is the first bed with my sad looking plants. That’s a story for my next post, but I didn’t really do a good job in raising those little seedlings on account of not setting up my indoor greenhouse in time this year. They didn’t get enough sun and were stunted for at least a month (hence why I just started getting tomatoes in late July) I planted 5 tomatoes, 5 bell peppers, and there are two eggplants in the middle of the bed. Once everything started growing, I also tossed in a packet of basil, since all of the plants in this bed are complementary. It worked out great, since the tomato and basil are great with some mozzarella cheese.  For my lessons learned post, you’ll learn why square foot gardening might be a better idea to follow.  I might have packed the plants in a little too tight.  You can’t tell from these pictures, but it became more evident as the summer went on.

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For anyone that’s curious on what I have planned for my suburban raised-bed farm. Here is the master plan. I hope to add 2-4 beds per year, that way I can stagger the replacement of them when the time comes, which will spread out the time and cost associated with that.

Garden layout designs
Why the weird design? Well, I’m glad you asked. Because I now have the opportunity to think about that. I’m not sure. I didn’t want just a bunch of raised beds in a row. I wanted something to be visually pleasing to look at. …and I wanted a dwarf fir in the middle that I can decorate with lights every Christmas, hence why I labeled it a “Christmas tree”. Maybe I’ll get bored this winter and build more than two. It’s a long winter, and I prefer the cold anyways.

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Adventures in DIY, or how NOT to make a compost tumbler

One of my first projects this past spring was to build a compost tumbler.  As an aspiring suburban farmer, soil is everything.  One of the hard lessons I learned last year was that poor soil equals poor crops.  Or no crops at all.

So one could go out and buy bags of soil and spend hundreds of dollars, or an enterprising suburban famer could simply make all the rich organic soil they desired!  Simple, right?  No.

I was Google-educated enough to know even the most effective composters still took weeks to break down base matter into hummus (black-gold soil, not that creamy dip from chickpeas).  So I knew it wouldn’t help me this growing season, but I figured it was better to start now and even if I didn’t get the composting ratios and ingredients correct for a good hot-compost, it would still break down over the summer with the copious amounts of heat and rain.

Full of ideas, plans for a compost tumbler in hand, and more ambition than sense; I set out for my local home improvement store to start my quest in outdoor DIY projects.   Looking back now, the journey seems more like Frodo traveling through Mordor…

If anyone is interested in the plans for a compost tumbler, here they are.  You might want to keep reading first to see if you really would rather just spend the $100-200 and just buy the darn thing.  http://thebigmanual.com/gardening/building-a-compost-tumbler/

So speaking of cost, that was my main reason for building my own.  That and I had an extra 55 gallon plastic barrel lying around from my abandoned rain barrel project.  If anyone remembers me talking about my “ingenious” idea of growing potatoes in a 55 gallon barrel with the top cut off, I learned something from that “experience building event”.  When cutting into the plastic barrel top, leave the lip on the barrel to give it additional strength.  Or rather help it retain it’s original strength, since that lip is thicker than the sides of the barrel.

So building the base was straightforward and easy as any wood project, but give yourself several hours, since measuring twice and second-guessing yourself three times is rather time-consuming.  The barrel cutting went smoothly, I just drilled a hole in the top and used a jigsaw to cut a big circular hole in the top.  Simple, right?  Just plop some hinges on it, a latch and presto: Instant compost barrel.  More on that in a bit….

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The PVC pipe insert was also simple, drill some holes in it for aeration and attach the toilet flange to the bottom of the barrel with some machine screws and nuts.  The hard part was drilling the holes in the side to line up the PVC pipe and the barrel sides so that the galvanized pipe could be fitted through.  It took some heavy banging with a hammer to get the pipe to go through, and unfortunately I found out later that I should have probably put the cap on first, as I had completely mashed down the threads on the pipe to an unfixable degree.

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Still undeterred, I mounted the barrel triumphantly to the base and coated the barrel with some metallic paint so that it would be more aesthetically pleasing to the neighbors and my wife (the latter of whom I’m much more afraid of)

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Not having an end cap on one of the sides wasn’t a huge issue, it was just an hour further waste of time as I tried to bang the mashed threads apart with a hammer and chisel.  It didn’t work, by the way.

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I filled it about a quarter of the way up with leaves, wood shavings, cardboard from egg cartons (only non-dye type), toilet paper rolls and paper towel rolls (don’t use too much, they have glues in them and they take notoriously long to decompose).  Also I added vegetable scraps that I had been holding onto for a little while in anticipation of said composter, much to the chagrin of my wife, who had to tolerate a large bowl of slightly rotting banana peels, avocado rinds, and wilty lettuce in the kitchen for about two weeks.

I gave the composter a spin and heard the contents successfully moving around and combining in a pleasing “congratulations, you didn’t mess this project up” kind of way.  Perhaps what I didn’t hear as I walked away, proudly beaming was a snickering coming from the composter and a sly “…yet”.

The spring gave way to summer, and I assume the contents of my composter were happily breaking down.  I kept adding kitchen scraps and yard waste into the barrel.  Spinning it afterwards, and letting it do it’s thing.  I’ll tell you now, you might want to add some compost accelerator since, unlike ground-base composters, the microbes have no way of getting into the barrel.  If you already have a compost pile, transfer the contents of that into the barrel.

HOWEVER, and I hope to all that is good in this world, you have NOT been making the compost tumbler as you read this, since you will have traveled beyond the point of no return by now.  The instructions clearly state to use a pickle barrel.  Why is this important?  Because 55 gallons is a lot of volume, and essentially filing it with wet leaves, veggies, cardboard, grass and straw makes it heavy.  While the ground can hold up the tumbler contents with ease, the latch that I put on the lid….not so much.  Around the end of spring, I noticed that the tumbler was getting increasingly hard to spin, and as you probably guessed by now, one day the not-big-enough latch holding the lid closed decided to catastrophically fail on me, spilling the contents (luckily not all, just about 7 shovelfuls of rotting smelly compost) onto the ground around my feet.  The pickle barrel has a screw on type lid, so it’s much stronger and form-fitting.  One of the first things I noticed with my tumbler was how the plastic lid was starting to warp in the heat.  So it really didn’t even close tight after about a week or two.

 

SO…was it worth it in the end?  Yes…and no.  I gained more experience, which is always valuable to someone, most likely you all, since you can benefit from my mistakes.  I still have a semi-working compost bin, unfortunately it has all the cons of a compost bin, and all the cons of a compost tumbler with the only benefit being that I have a place to put our banana peels and vegetable scraps other than the trash.  It’s not a complete loss, since the base is still perfectly fine.  I could decide to get a pickle barrel on Ebay or something, but at around $40-80 plus shipping which is around the same price as the barrel, it is pretty much as expensive as just buying a ready-made tumbler.

I haven’t completely given up on my tumbler though.  I’m much more DIY-active in the fall and winter, since I’m not losing my body weight in sweat every hour.  So there’s still a chance I could fix the lid on the barrel by securing a sturdier latch to it.

Then again there’s a chance I could win the lottery, but nobody’s holding their breath around here that either will happen 🙂

 

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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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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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