Sunday, March 31, 2013

Automatic Garden Waterers

Last year we had one of the worst droughts in 50 years.  It was also the first year I tried to garden.  Not a good combination.  My corn didn't turn out, my carrots were stunted, my watermelons and tomatoes burned up.  This year I decided to do something a little different.  Namely, figure out how to water my garden with little thought on my part.  Voila, my research into automatic waterers.

The first thing to figure out is what kind of soil you have.  Since we walk on the ground we tend to think of it as a solid mass of material. This couldn't be further from the truth.  All dirt is made up of tiny particles, even that horrible red clay that so many of us are cursed with.  Between each of these particles is air.  The nice thing about soil is that you can force that air out of the ground by filling it up with water.  Soil can hold a lot more water than we really think.  The real problem is how to get the water down there in the first place?

Drip Systems
There are several ways to create a drip system.  The easiest is to buy a drip hose, and place in the garden.  Hook it up to the water faucet and turn it on.  Of course, this is a blog about DIY, not about Buy It.  Depending on where you live (we'll get to this in a minute), the way I recommend is to buy some PVC pipe and drill some holes up and down the length of it.  Cap one end, and add a place on the other end to hook up a water hose, lay that in the garden.  Do this for every row, and turn the hose on once each day.  I would probably rotate which plants get watered every day. 

Depending on where you live (I said we would get back to it), if you want to save a lot of money on watering, you need to build some rain barrels.  You'll have to check with your HOA and local city ordinances first.  You'd be amazed at how much water you can save in a year, by collecting rain water.  Take the square footage of your roof, multiply the square footage of your roof by 625 and divide by 1000.  This will give you an approximate number of gallons of water that you can collect off your roof.  For instance, I live in a 1400 square foot house, with an average annual rain fall of 50 inches.  So I could collect over 40,000 gallons of water just off my roof.  That's more water than my garden will ever need.  Heck, that's more water than my whole family goes through in a year. 

There are several different ways to collect rain water, and divert it to your garden.  The easiest is to acquire (you can buy them, or you might be able to find some for free.  Check out craigslist, restaraunts and such), some large plastic barrels.  Put one under the down spouts of your gutter, and you can are well on your way to collecting free water. 

The easiest way to get the water to your garden is to add a spigot to each rain barrel. Make sure you get one that you can turn on and off.  You want to make sure they are off while it's raining.  Add a few garden hoses, and you shouldn't have to worry about running out of water any time soon. 

Next week, I've got a few more ideas for container gardening. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Growing Berry Plants in Containers

My family and I are renting a house right now, and looking to buy.  One of the first things I want to do when we finally find the right house though is to establish some blackberry plants.  The problem I have with blackberries is that they can take up three years before you can start getting a good harvest.  I'm not a very patient man.  I sure don't like to wait on food, but while fishing last weekend with some good friends, one mentioned that he had some trees growing in containers in his kitchen.  This got me started thinking why not start some berry plants in a container, that way when we move I'll be a year up on getting fresh blackberries.

Blackberries and raspberries are not usually grown from seed, they are grown from cutting of other living plants.  Berries need nitrogen the most out of all nutrients, and if you grow them in containers you will really need to keep an eye on your soil.  They need a pH of 6.0, and adding some compost in your potting mix will help to keep plants healthy.

I'm not much on buying fertilizer for plants.  I prefer to do things the cheapest way possible.  My plan is to start buying some decent containers.  I'm not really sure what size.  I've read about people being successful growing berries in five gallon containers, but I've also read that they should be at least two feet deep and two feet wide.  I'm going to start with five gallon buckets.

My plan is to get some river rock (I know of a place to collect it, but you can buy it in bags fairly inexpensively at any local garden supply store).  Drill some holes in the bottom and layer about six inches of river rock in the bottom of a five gallon bucket.  Get some decent potting mix, and add about half volume of leaves that I keep composted around the trees in my backyard.  This should give me a decent potting mix that will allow good drainage, but also keep it from drying out to quickly. 

Keeping the soil moist will be the most difficult part of growing berries in containers.  Of course I have several ideas on how to make this easier, I will have to write up a post on these soon. 

The last tip I can think of for growing berries in container is managing the nitrogen in the soil.  The last idea I have is to grow beans in the containers with the berry plants.  Since beans are nitrogen fixers, this may be the best solution for the two problems.  Cheap fertilizer nitrogen fixers from living plants without having to spend money on expensive fertilizers. I'm not sure how well this will work, but it's worth a try.  I'll report back later this summer on how well this idea works out. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

21st Century Politics

Disclaimer:  I am a very biased individual.  I am attempting to write a piece with as little bias as possible, unfortunately some bias will creep in and some will be inferred.  I am not going to write this piece to convince you to agree with me. I believe that every individual should make up their own minds, based on their own belief system.  What I do want is for you to take action based on that belief system.

One thing that I have always been passionate about is our political system in the United States.  We are a constitutional republic.  We are not a true democracy. While ever vote is counted, you cannot vote individually for laws in the national spectrum. What you can do is vote for people to represent your views in Congress.  This was done on purpose by our founding fathers because a true democracy can become ruled with a mob mentality. 

Everywhere I hear people complain about how our elected politicians are out of touch, they don't listen to people.  They are owned by lobbyists.  This is probably true in more ways than one.  This does not have to be true today. 

The reason this is true, is because we the American people have decided as a group that we don't have a voice in the government.  This is why we are taxed, this is why laws we don't like are voted into law.  This is why you're Congress person is more concerned with what the NRA and the NAACP and the AARP have to tell them, then what we have to say as a people.  The American people can be, and I argue, should be the largest lobbyist group in the United States. 

If we the people would let our representatives know what we thought, we could do away with a lot of the money in politics.  Our elected leaders have lost sight of why they were sent to Washington D.C., and you know why, we the American people have allowed this to happen.  

In the past, the people had less of a voice in what their elected reps were doing than they have today.  20 years ago, the only way to let your Senator know what you thought was to call his office.  50 years ago, you had to write him a letter.  100 years ago, you could saddle up your horse, ride through Indian infested territory and maybe reach Washington D.C. in time to let him know your opinion.  Today we have Facebook, Twitter, and email, to let them know precisely what your views are on any subject.  In the past, the only way to know what was being voted on in the House and the Senate were to read the newspaper.  Today, you can read the bills yourself online.  Some of these are very interesting.  Some not so much. 

The point is that you can look at these bills once a week, and let Congress know whether you are for or against any given bill.  Not only can you, but it is your duty as a registered voter and American citizen, to do this.  I'm not perfect.  I just recently realized this is the way to bring true change to the American political climate.  Since I tured 18, and voted in my first presidential election, I have written my Senators exactly 5 times.  And I have done all this in the last few weeks.  This is as much my fault as yours.  But we must change, if we truly want change in this country.  

It's ridiculous that Congress has the lowest approval rating in years.  If you are dissatisfied with Congress, it is your own fault.  When was the last time you called, wrote, Facebooked (I know I just turned a social network into a verb), Tweeted or emailed your rep in Congress?  It's not Congress that we should be disappointed in, but ourselves.  Yes I am disappointed with myself, and with everybody who doesn't contact their reps.  It is all of our fault that our country is headed in the direction that is.  It's time to stand up and be heard. 

As President Obama is fond of saying on Twitter #wedemandavote.  I argue that we #contactcongress.  If everybody who reads this blog will do it, and convince at least a few other people to do it, and they will convince a few more.  We can and will make difference.

My last plea is to do any of the above, and let Congress know how the people feel about Assault weapons (S.150, H.R.437). I don't care whether you are for or against the assault weapon ban.  But let Congress know how you feel.  Otherwise, the lobbyists groups will, and we will all lose.  Below are the links on how to find your House or Senate rep, and the link to the Active bills that are on the floors or soon will be. 

House of Representatives
Active Bills 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Book Review: Edible Wild Plants by John Kallas

One thing that I am interested in is the edible plants that grow all around us.  It's amazing how many plants that grow in your own backyard are not only edible, but are higher in beneficial nutrients than the ones that you can buy at your local grocery store.  I started this journey last year when hunting season started, and I began to see a multitude of what I thought might be wild foods.

The first thing that piqued my interest was Hank Shaw's book Hunt, Gather, Cook.  I had originally purchased it for his recipes on wild game and fish.  But he has several chapters on wild foods.  I highly recommend his book for all readers of this blog.  Whether you like to hunt, fish, or even just gather your own wild food, I think you will enjoy it.  He has some recipes that look interesting, and I've tried several of the ones from his blog (  I've never been disappointed in the results.  He really has a good insight into all things consisting of wild food.

But my problem has always been that I can't identify wild foods by sight.  Trying to do a web search for them is just about as hard.  You first have to think about what the food might be, then you have to sift through results looking for any good identifiers that you can find that might help you identify the plants you are looking at.  It's a tough process.  Enter Edible Wild Plants (The Wild Food Adventure) by John Kallas, Ph.D.

Dr. Kallas starts the book with the usual disclaimers about how you shouldn't eat wild foods unless you can positively identify them, he also mentions how you're mileage may vary over what he has said.  This is all good advice.  You really don't know what you're allergic until you've tried something or how it might affect you.  You should start small, and work you're way up to larger quantities.  He also discusses his credentials which are quite extensive.

The book is organized into sections based on different taste categories.  He has a section based on mild greens, bitter greens, and so on.  Each chapter consists of one plant within these genres.

The big difference between his book and others that I have looked at is that he really explains every plant in detail.  Each chapter starts with a distribution map of North America, scientific name, common names, and  edible parts.  He  also gives a brief history of the plant, and nutrient and phytochemical breakdown.  This makes for a very interesting read.  His book not only teaches you a lot about plants, but also a little history behind the plant.

The next part of each chapter is where he really breaks down the plant.  He starts by describing the life cycle of the plant, gives some interesting definitions of different words he is using. And lots of pictures.  I think the book is worth buying just because of the plant pictures in different forms.  He usually shows what the plant looks like in the early stages and in the later stages of its life. 

Next he will describe when to harvest the plant and what parts are good to eat.  He will describe when a plant is prime for harvesting, and what parts are good to harvest.  This makes looking for edible plants a lot more fun.  You can find the plants in the early stage, and help them along to make them even more tasty. 

Lastly, each chapter has at least one recipe that will help highlight a good use of the plant.  These recipes are unique for each plant, and I have found several that I would love to try this spring and summer when my local wild plants start coming up.

If you are interested in spending a little more time outdoors this summer, and doing a little gathering.  I highly recommend Dr. Kalla's book.  It's the perfect companion to your adventures in both hunting and fishing.  I can't think of a better way to fix dinner than with foods you've gathered yourself. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Spring Gardening

Depending on where you live it's just about time time to put in a garden for the spring.  Spring gardens are great way to start off the season.  They are usually plants that are relatively quick to grow, they are nutritious, and they can give you something do if you're not into cold weather fishing. 

Depending on where you live, some plants can only be grown in the spring.  They require cooler temperatures so that the plant won't bolt.  (Bolting refers to the act of a plant quickly adding growth so that it can produce seed).  Plants that are likely to bolt during the hot summer months include cucumbers, lettuces, other greens, and other similar plants.  There are a few places in the United States where you could grow these all year, but that's about all you could grow in those climates. 

I went with a small variety of lettuces, a type of peas, cucumbers, spinach and carrots.  I planted about two weeks ago, when we had a false spring.  This was probably a mistake on my part.  Not two days later, we had a week long cold front come through, and even had a little snow.  We'll see what happens to my small plot in a few more weeks.  Luckily, we've also had enough rain, that I didn't have to worry about watering my plants right now. 

A lot of what you grow, and how you grow it depends on how much room you have, and how much experience you have.  I don't have much of either.  I'm just winging it right now.  One success I can report is that my no-till method that I blogged about last year ( really helped my soil.  I had maybe an inch of good soil for growing, and the rest was hard clay.  I noticed this year that the good soil was much deeper.  Hopefully, this will translate to a better harvest this year.  I'll report back when I actually get to harvest something. 

I noticed that my cucumbers grew really well during the fall.  I decided to plant some pickling cucumbers this spring, because we really liked the fridge pickles I was able to make last year.  I'll add that recipe in a few weeks. 

We really like to eat salads around my house, but even if you don't, planting a spring garden is a great way to start getting the soil ready for you're summer plantings.  This is a practice referred to as cover crops.  Anytime a plant is growing in soil, it will draw up nutrients, loosen the soil, and keep beneficial organisms around. 

All in all a spring garden is a great way to get ready for the summer time.  You don't need a lot of space to plant, but any space used for gardening will repay many times over in great tasting food. 

One last note about fishing.  If you can brave the cold weather, right now is a great time to catch some big blue catfish.  They are just starting to come out of the winter blues, and starting to feed in the shallows on baitfish.  Get you the biggest minnows you can, and thread it through the back with a circle hook.  Throw on a big weight, and cast it out.  One guy I saw last week caught a 20-30 pounder from the bank with a big minnow.