Posts tagged suburban farming

The Raised Bed Project


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.


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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Is it summer yet? or how I learned to blog again after forgetting to post for months

It’s almost February, and my thoughts have already turned to spring.  They had to turn somewhere, since the rest of my body has turned to ice.  In the midst of this reoccurring polar vortex, it’s hard to imagine thinking about seeds and sprouts; but as sure as the sun rises each day, spring will come again.  Thinking warm thoughts alone isn’t going to prepare me for this growing season.  I learned the hard way last year what “going big” can do, the consequences of improper planning, and the folly of overestimating one’s (specifically, my) abilities.

That said, this year I’m going smaller, more manageable, and more focused.  Raised beds will be built to contain quality topsoil and keep out weeds.  Also, I will focus on only a few types of veggies, and concentrate my effort on those.  Then as the years progress, I will add as my abilities grow.  Despite my miserable failure last year, I did learn some valuable experience.

As many of you know, with experience comes leveling up.  Well, depending on the age of my readers, some may know that experience builds “character”.  “Character” is used later in life when you tell people “Back in my day we didn’t have shoes, we killed a deer with our bare hands and used its hide for boots while we chewed on roots” or something like that.  My generation knows experience as points.  Like “if I get 20 more experience points, I level up and can learn a new spell!”  In my case, I guess the experience is a little of both.  I got a little bit of character and I think I leveled up, which earns me some tomato cages and lumber for a raised bed.  Maybe even better tools and equipment.

Dangerous to go alone

Other than herniating my back on a load of mulch, I think I increased my strength a little too.  In all I learned lots of valuable lessons.  Which brings me to the actual point of this post….

Lessons learned

The Farm - 2013 - ResultsWhen I last left off, I gave sage-like advice on gardening with a newborn, how not to organically garden, and not to get carried away with starting a small army of seeds in your garage/basement/greenhouse.  So now I finally will release the picture I’ve been dreading to post for the last few months.   The actual turnout of my garden at the end of my *ahem* “harvest”.  As you can see, the results were not as I had planned.  The few plants that weren’t completely overtaken by weeds or didn’t germinate were slowly killed by insects, rabbits, or me being stupid and accidentally pulling them up along with a handful of weeds.  It goes without saying that I was over my head, but in this case it was literal, since on one of my forges into the garden to weed I got lost and had to climb a pokeberry bush to find my way out.  That last bit was an over-exaggeration, but I bet it was fun to imagine me wandering around a 20×60′ patch of land yelling for help like a kid in a corn maze.


So, having finally posted the results of my “year zero” farm, I can hopefully move on put that experience behind me.  As I slowly claw back some free time as spring and summer approaches, I should be able to build my raised beds and post more frequently.  When I’m out in the garden, I tend to think about the blog more than when I’m huddled by a space heater staring out at the frozen wasteland behind my house.  More updates to follow (sooner, hopefully, rather than later)









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Much needed update. Or “where has the summer gone?”

So, first off, I found out that at least one person reads my blog!  I’d give a shout-out, but I’ll leave that to later if they want to be recognized.  Second, I do want to say that comments are welcome on this blog, it might help keep me honest, and deligent with posting more than once every 2-3 months.  Needless to say, the summer months are busy.  Busy will mowing the law, swatting away bugs, dying from the heat, and staying inside whenever one can (all the time).  That being said, I have a sad update from the suburban farm.  No, it’s not dead, but surely it’s not thriving.


Yes, unfortunately, that’s my garden.  Well, nobody…including me…thought that this year would be a bumper harvest.  But truly, I think that this is year zero, not one.  This was the control,”What would happen without fertilizer, without rules, without a plan, and without any real idea what I was doing.”  Besides that, I think in a few weeks/months, I will have a few vegetables to show for my “hard(?)” work.  I see some green tomatoes clawing their way through the weeds,  I beat back the grass and weeds to give the eggplant a change (and LOTS of Sevin), but the organic garden will have to wait until there’s a garden with a bit of time for organic gardening (when I have 5-7 kids that love to listen to me….HAH!!)

So, what does the garden look like right now?  Guff, you really don’t want to know.  I haven’t had much time to do anything with it, and with the lack of rain in the last week, I’m sad to say I’ve lost at least two squash plants.  I’ll post the pictures of it now, so I can look back at this in years-future and hopefully think to myself how I let that ever happen.


Now, the good news is that a few things are actually growing.  the sunflowers have survived despite my many attempts to step on them (inadvertently) and the tomatoes are growing around the weeds and without any support with stakes as commonly done.  If I’m adept at growing anything, it would apparently be grass and those little things that look like mini corn-dogs.

My wife is very patient, and to that end, she’s allowed me to continue to grow weeds and a mess of green things next year.  However, I’ve decided to make some changes.  I thought that raised bed gardening would be pointless with so much room to grow things, but with the grass-creep, I’ve decided to try separating my valuables from the less-desirable’s that grow all around them.  Just because I have land to grow vegetables on, doesn’t mean I have to just toss seeds out onto it right?  (At this point, my family, neighbors and readers are probably screaming “no duh!”), but I wanted to give the “natural” planting a try.  Not to say in the least that it can’t or wouldn’t work, but with a full-time job, newborn baby, and a house that I’m moving into to deal with….it’s just not the time to try that.  So, to that end, this is what I’d like to try, and I’ll be sure to keep updating this blog all throughout the process, so you’ll have many data points to compare and analyze for your own gardening.  I promise I won’t ever sell out if I get popular and hawk gardening products, but if I get anything that works, I will be sure to pass along what I have found that works, so you all can benefit.


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First World Problems here on the Suburban Farm

First World Problems

First World Problems

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Planting update: Three sisters garden and cherry tomatoes are in

So I’ve been a little busy this weekend. My new John Deere riding mower was delivered, so now I can *finally* mow the lawn. I should have posted pictures of the jungle in the back, the grass was already waist high. I got a D140 from Lowes, and so far it’s pretty nice. It has a 48″ cutting deck, which should make quick work of my half an acre.


Also, I have planted my “three sisters garden”. The three sisters are corn, beans, and squash, and it’s based on a native American planting method that takes advantage of each of the plant’s characteristics. The corn provides a strong pole for the beans to climb up, the beans provide nitrogen for the squash and corn, and the squash’s prickly leaves deter rabbits and raccoons while also blocking weeds from growing. You mound up dirt into piles and then alternate between corn+bean and squash for each mound. I’ll re-post the graphic from my earlier post so you don’t have to go searching to find it.


The cherry tomatoes I plant in containers since they do really well in them. I always put one tomato plant and one pepper plant in each container. Pepper and tomatoes are companion plants, so they do really well together. I know from experience that beans and peppers do NOT go together, and will stunt the growth of the pepper plants. I put the containers out front, since we don’t have a deck yet. This way when we get home each day, we can check for tomatoes and pluck them for nightly salads and stuff.


Cherry tomatoes in planters

Cherry tomatoes in planters

..and finally, here is something you can do with a plastic 55-gallon rain barrel. I cut the top off of one, and then put about 6 inches of dirt in the bottom. I drilled some drain holes in the side near the bottom so that water doesn’t pool up in the barrel, then I put a sprouting potato into it. Now, normally when you plant potatoes, you have to dig a hole and plant the potato in really loose soil. Then since the plant can start growing new potatoes near the surface, where they can get spoiled by getting sunlight, you have to keep mounding up the dirt around the plant. Then, when it’s harvest time, you have to dig it all up, missing some potatoes and not getting the full harvest. It’s this reason and the fact that they’re pretty cheap at the store that most people say not to grow potatoes. I say “Go ahead and try, ambitious farmers!” This is where the barrel comes in. As the potato plant grows, you just dump some more dirt in the barrel. Eventually the plant keeps growing higher in the barrel and you fill it up with dirt to the top. When harvest time comes around, you just kick over the barrel and out comes all the potatoes!! No digging or missing spuds, everything is right there in the barrel. Just make sure to rotate the dirt out and put that in your garden, since it could contain potato molds or diseases that could affect your plants the follow year. Use fresh dirt each year in the barrels.

A new 55-gallon barrel

A new 55-gallon barrel

Here is the barrel with the lid cut off

Here is the barrel with the lid cut off

and here is the little potato plant at the bottom of the barrel, starting it's journey upwards

and here is the little potato plant at the bottom of the barrel, starting it’s journey upwards

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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.


“…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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