Friday, May 31, 2013

Conservation of Mass

Today was the first day this week I got to spend a couple hours in the yard.  Our weekdays can sometimes be hectic between work, playing with the kids, and helping with homework.  I am really in awe with how fast plants grow this time of year.

These potatoes were just barely peeking out of the soil earlier this month.  

One thought struck me as I was admiring the garden vegetables and flowers: unless we are talking about nuclear reactions, matter is neither destroyed nor created.  Thus, the gain in the mass of a plant is equal to the loss in mass of its surrounding environment.  I am not a biologist or botanist, but I assume that most of the mass gained by a plant is due to water.  And so access to uncontaminated water sources is crucial not only for the health of the plant, but to those that depend on the plant for food - and all humans depend on plants for food.  Additionally, the plant extracts minerals and nutrients from the soil, and carbon dioxide from the air.  And so it goes...


Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Compost Chicken Gate and a Clothesline Trellis

We have a compost pile, or bin, located at the back corner of our yard, right next to the fence.  Last year I had to cover it because the chickens could climb the compost and hop over the fence...not good.  One day on my way to work, when I got on the road behind our house I did a quick look in the general direction of our yard and saw a chicken.  And I remember thinking," oh a chicken, neat - we have chickens".....SCREEEETCH!  I quickly turned around, corralled the chicken and put a make shift tarp over the top of the compost.

Chickens do wonders for compost.  They do a great job of breaking down leaves in the fall.  But one disadvantage of having free range chickens (or as free range as they can possibly be in a ~50' x ~75' backyard), is that they occasionally lay eggs in places other than the chicken coop.  Well, it's only natural I guess; they see us as the people that take their eggs, so...they want to make sure their eggs are safe.  Ordinarily we'll find one egg here this week, and another over there the next, but today I found five eggs in the compost pile.  Fortunately we have baby gates from when the boys were younger, only now it's a chicken gate.

Don't feel too bad for the chickens.  They still get the lion's share of yard waste and much of our food scraps.  Much of what goes into the compost pile is the bedding from their coop.

I planted peas on March 10 of this year, under the protection of a cold case.  Because of height limitations within the cold case, I only built a small trellis out of last year's sunflower stalks.

Clearly, the peas had outgrown my attempt at a within-the-confines-of-a-cold-case trellis.  Last fall, in preparation for Hurricane Sandy, we accidently broke our umbrella clothes line.  But rather than throw it away, my wife disassembled it and thought it would be useful for something some day.  And that day was today, as a pea plant trellis.

A little bit of twine through the eyelets of the old clothesline made a nice trellis.  And lesson learned; next year I won't plant peas in the cold case, and I'll build a proper trellis before planting.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Pictures of the Week

I had to check if he was still breathing...(he was) 

The greatest job in the world...when you're seven

Our peonies began to bloom 

The first of the mystery lilies to bloom

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Beans, Books, and Bed

Funny, or sad, as it may be, I don't recall ever seeing anyone prepare dried beans.  So...I gave it try.  We eat a lot of pasta,which I like because it is easy and versatile, though I'd like to have something just as versatile but more hearty.  I let a pound of beans soak all day while we were away at work/school, and I must say that I was impressed by how much water the beans absorbed.

When we got home in the afternoon I let the beans simmer for about an hour and a half.  For dinner I enjoyed some beans with garden fresh greens, sauteed mushrooms from last week's farmers' market, and pickled peppers. 

While the beans simmered, my younger son and I walked to the library to pickup a book I had reserve.  One of the things I enjoy about where we live is the close proximity to our town's parks, waterways, and the library.  And the library is real gem - when we moved here the library was housed in a musty room on the second floor of the Town Hall.  In 2006, a new library was built.  The new library building is very open, utilizes natural lighting quite well, and is heated and cooled by geothermal heat pumps.  I really wish our house had geothermal rather than an oil burning furnace.

The library also has a nice children's section that offers many activities throughout the year.

After dinner, the boys wanted to go "camping."  And so we the backyard.  We do this a few times a year.  And each time it is fun to point out the night sounds to the boys that they ordinarily don't hear from the comfort of their room.    

I haven't taken my boys on a deep-in-the-woods camping trip.  But I think my four-year-old could handle it now.  And so I shall look for a quasi-nearby place that could offer a "wild" experience.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Volunteer Sunflowers

Over the last week I noticed a strange "weed" growing with the pansies.  These "weeds" look a lot like young sunflower plants, which is fascinating because until this spring, this section of the yard was grass - and this is the only place in the yard I've seen these type of "weeds."

We had a few sunflower plants last summer, and the boys really liked how tall they grew.  If all of the "weeds" with the pansies turnout to be healthy sunflowers, I expect we could see Van Gogh in the driveway painting a beautiful landscape....Okay, so that may be a stretch, but seriously, who doesn't like sunflowers? 

I was trying to get a good picture of a bee visiting the flowering kale (and if you look closely, there is a bee in the picture), but once I got inside, I really liked the yellow flowers contrasted against the red chard.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Smart as a Pig!

My 1st grader made the following Mother's Day card at school.  Oh, to be seven again...I wonder what the teacher thought.

So, a synopsis of the conversation:
Mom - I'm as smart as a pig?!!
Son - but Mom, pigs are smarter than dogs, but they have poor eyesight. And they have a good sense of smell.

This is definitely a keeper.  Fortunately he's seven, and although maybe not the best way to wish mom a Happy Mother's Day, he certainly does have some sort of innocent charm.  And then he spent most of the rest of the day outside, doing what kids do when near even the smallest of water sources, playing in the ditch water.

Both my boys often comment on shadows, and how much they "move" over the course of a day.  So today  we placed a stick in the ground, marked its shadow, and waited about fifteen minutes.

They were again impressed with how much the shadow "moved" over a short time.  Then we talked about how the change in the shadows can help us with our directions.  And with sidewalk chalk, we were able to draw a North arrow.

Maybe the Google satellite will update their aerial image of our house with our cool chalked North arrow on the driveway.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Opening Day...for the Farmers Market!

My sons helped plant the remaining two blueberry bushes yesterday afternoon.  We ran out of room in the front bed and had to dedicate space in the yard.  Cool! - that's less lawn to quasi-mow.  Now we have seven blueberry bushes: two that we've had for a couple of years and are already good producers, and five more we picked up last weekend.

This morning the Havre de Grace Farmers Market opened for the season.  We're regulars at the farmers market and today we picked up mushrooms, a block of cheddar cheese, and two pepper plants (the peppers I planted from last year's plants didn't come up...).

We've had a cooler than usual spring, and that was apparent at the market today in that I didn't see any strawberries.  The farmers said we're a few weeks behind.  I hope that the heavy rains we've had over the past week or so won't hurt the strawberry yields.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Powered by the Sun

Last night I noticed that the electric company replaced our meter so that we could send electricity to the grid and get credit for it.  YAY! We're now harvesting energy from the sun.  And even with today's cloudy conditions, the panels generated* more than 10 kWh of electricity than we used.    

It's been a long process that began last summer.  Interestingly, we are only renting the panels and inverter, making solar much more affordable.  The panels are owned by Sungevity and we entered a twenty-year lease with them.  There are many options available right now, for both outright ownership and renting.  Because we're renting, we are not allowed to claim the renewable energy credits for tax purposes.  Sungevity claims the tax credits and passes the savings, albeit after a profit margin, to the customer.  Purchasing solar panels and the inverter sounded nice, but the ~$30K price tag is just a bit much.  Over the course of our twenty-year lease, we will pay Sungevity approximately $10K, which is a lot of money, however, we've paid the electric company ~$9,100 in the nine years we've resided here.  Sungevity has a kWh performance guarantee.  If the system fails to achieve the guaranteed kWh output, Sungevity pays us the market value of the shortfall.  The total cost of the guaranteed output is $0.083/kWh.  Our current electric rate is $0.087/kWh, but when including the distribution charges and taxes, we pay more than $0.14 per kWh from the electric company.  Plus the guaranteed output will provide roughly 80% of our electric need.        

One of our requests when working with the specifications was that the panels had to be manufactured in the U.S.A. to: (1) support the American worker, and (2) reduce the energy consumed in transporting panels.  At first, Sungevity planned our project with panels from China.  With nothing against the Chinese or their solar products, after asking we were able to utilize panels manufactured in Newark, DE.  That's thirty miles from here.  So not only was the transportation impact low, it's also conceivable that someone living in our county works at the plant that produced the solar panels on our roof.

Going solar doesn't make us super green; there are still a lot of environmental and social considerations.  Mining the raw materials can be nasty business and I am concerned with the disposal or recycle process at the end of a panel's useful life.  Everything we do has some sort of impact on the world, but short of completely turning off the lights, I believe solar is part of a better solution.  And it just so happens that it is also economically advantageous to our household.

*NOTE: technically, the solar panels generate electron flow.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Blueberry Bed

A couple of summers ago we planted two blueberry bushes in our front flower/garden bed, both of which ripen in late spring (only couple more weeks to fresh blueberries!).  Last weekend we picked up five new blueberry bushes of different varieties that will ripen from late June through August.  I was able to plant three of the new blueberry bushes today with the older blueberries.

This is the "blueberry bed."  There is a tiny little blueberry bush in the background.  I had to move few of the day lilies to make room for the two other blueberries , which is fine - I am not a huge fan of day lilies, but I do like that they flower throughout the entire summer.

The transplanted day lilies now reside along the street.  Weather providing, I'll plant the remaining two blueberry bushes on Friday. 

After I planted the blueberries I took the cold cases off of the sidewalk beds.  The lettuce, radishes, and peas are looking good, but this year the carrots, and chard didn't do as well.  Fortunately, last year's ruby red chard plants provided a bumper crop, and the plants are just waking up.  I'll try to harvest their seeds this year.

I ran across this spider when I was removing the cold cases.  By Maryland standards, this is a huge spider.  I've seen much larger spiders in places far from Maryland, but my sons kept a leery eye on it.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Solar Cats and a Few Plants

I volunteer at an animal shelter.  Each Sunday I help clean up, make sure everyone is healthy, and pay a little attention to the cats I watch.  Standing still in a room with fifty cats can be challenging (they just climb right up you), cleaning that same room with said fifty cats usually means that the room doesn't look much cleaner once finished.  Today was a nice sunny day, however, and with a south face storm door, I only had to contend with about forty-three cats throughout the cleaning routine (what a breeze).

And when I got home, two of the neighborhood cats were also charging their batteries...

My wife and boys visited one of the local farms when I was at the animal shelter.  While they were out, I transplanted the tomato plants.  The tomatoes are in a new bed on the south side of the house, so they, just like the cats, should be happy with sun all day.  When the family returned, they brought with them an assortment of colorful flowers from the farm stand.  We planted the new flowers with the nearly-done tulips and mystery lilies.    

Friday, May 3, 2013

Potato Pots and Mystery Lilies

I was happy to see potato plants peeking from their pots this morning.  My boys and I planted "blue potatoes" in four pots last month.  This is my first potato pot planting experience, so we'll see how it turns out.  The "blue potatoes," along with the "purple beans" and last year's "purple carrots" make gardening fun for kids (and it doesn't help with eating well, too - my boys fought over who got to eat what purple carrot last year!).

Last summer lilies grew in what are now the potato pots.  But because I didn't separate and label which bulbs were which type of lilies, we'll soon enjoy mystery lilies in one of the front flower beds.

Over the past few years we've increased the amount of area dedicated to growing plants other than grass.  Usually we'll transplant flowers into the new garden space while continuing to work compost into the clay soil.  As the soil conditions improve, we'll plant flowers from seed and eventually vegetables too.  Purple and yellow pansies are in the new garden space.  I'm hoping to harvest some of the pansy seeds.  Last year we grew a lot of vincas from harvested seed, but this year, for some reason, the vincas haven't come up.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Our Backyard Chickens

Currently, we have eight laying hens residing in our backyard: 2 Silver Laced Wyandottes, 2 Barnevelders, 1 Australorp, 1 Golden Laced Wyandotte, 1 Columbian Wyandotte, and 1 Speckled Sussex.  We started out with four chickens in 2009, and then added more in 2011.  Our eight chickens, on average, provide five eggs every day from about February to November.  They don't produce any eggs when they molt, which usually lasts about two months.

The Point 17 is located within a town, and in a neighborhood, albeit one with no Home Owner Association (YAY!), and as best we can tell, we are not in violation of any codes.  The town codes specifically refer to dogs, not chickens, as nuisance animals, but the county codes get a little more ambiguous and depend on your interpretation of “livestock.”  Fortunately, hens generally don't make a lot of noise and our neighbors have never complained (and giving them eggs every so often probably helps, too )    

Happy hens scratching & pecking in a garden bed

Although we live in town, it is not a large town, and we have had raccoons on our porch.  Luckily, the raccoons never bothered the chickens.  On a couple of occasions hawks briefly landed in our back yard, which really gets the chickens excited.  But none of our chickens have even been injured by predators.

 One of these chickens is not like the other

The hens are not too intimidated by cats.  There are a few cats that pass through live in our yard.  The hens are mindful of cats they've never encountered, but once a cat is around for a while, they don't seem to pay it much attention.  Cats will sometimes "stalk" the chickens, but I think common sense gets the best of the cat: yes, a cat could probably kill a hen, but not without a fight and serious risk of injury.

My wife and I never had any day-to-day experience with chickens, and I didn't know much about what to expect.  My wife did most of the research, selected the breeds, and does the majority of the care.  She names each chicken and views them as pets.  I don't, but I absolutely love being around the chickens.  They follow me around the yard (they probably associate me as 'that bird seed guy').  And it is almost mesmerizing to watch them constantly scratch and peck.  That's right folks, we don't have cable/satellite, but come over anyway and enjoy some prime time chicken entertainment.  My favorite episode is when there is a new cat in town.