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spinach1

Deck planter full of spinach. Also, notice the drip irrigation I’ve installed over it?

Wow, what a difference a month makes!

I’m back from out of town, and wow, a lot has happened!  My garden has started producing like crazy.  There’s actually too much to take in all at once, so I’ll make this a couple of posts.

First, the spinach… I got two harvests out of the spinach.  I cut the spinach like grass, just “mowing” it a little down to size.  The spinach leaves are just a little bigger than baby spinach leaves, and very firm and full of juice.

So of course I used them in two different recipes that removed that juice!

spinach2

First harvest of spinach

Okay, I know that seems weird, but from what I can tell, my deck planter is going to be producing a LOT of spinach over the summer, and I’ve got to find ways to use it all, and to store it for later.

My first idea was to store the spinach… by dehydrating it.  So I washed it clean, and loaded up my dehydrator with spinach leaves.

spinach3

Spinach on the dehydrator tray

It dehydrated very quickly, in about 3 hours it was mostly dry.  Some things I learned from this is that the fan in the dehydrator is strong enough to blow the dry spinach around… so I need to do something about that.  (Perhaps put another dehydrator grill over the top?  hmmm..)  The next thing I learned is that I should pick the leaves so that they leave the stems behind.

What I got was a lot of very brittle dried spinach leaves that crumbled almost as soon as I touched them.  Just using my hands I crumbled them to powder in a bowl.

spinach4

No officer, that’s not an unlawful herb!

A lot of spinach turned into something very small.  I tossed it all into a ziploc bag, and tossed that into my freezer.  The next time I make a soup or stew, I’ll just toss it in there.  I’ll bet it would go great with ramen!

spinach-side-dish-1

This is what it is supposed to look like!

And speaking of ramen, I used the next batch of spinach to make a Korean dish called, “Sigeumchi-namul” (시금치나물).  It’s a traditional Korean side dish (banchan) that uses blanched spinach.  It is a dish I fell in love with the first time I had it while stationed in Uijeongbu.  I’ve used the recipe from the Maangchi Korean recipe website.

blanched

Blanched for 63 seconds. TOO LONG!

Basically you blanch the spinach, rinse it and squeeze the water out of it.  Then you add garlic and chopped onions.  You add soy sauce and sesame oil in equal portions.  And you sprinkle it with sesame seeds.  It is delicious!

But I haven’t made this recipe in almost ten years.  I forgot that you should only blanch the spinach briefly.  The recipe calls for 30 seconds to one minute… I would recommend 30 seconds and no more!  Otherwise it stops being crisp and starts being mushy.  Bleh.

Oh well, there’s plenty more spinach.  I’ll try again.  Until then, I’ll be adding spinach to every sandwich I eat

Pico the cat

Shh! “Pico” is asleep.

It’s that time of year where you just wait.

Everything is planted, nothing is sprouted.  Not just yet.

I will be out of town later this month for vacation and other things, so I’ve been preparing for that.  As for the garden, I’m just keeping it all watered.

April, and even the first week of May, was too cool for any serious growing to happen, but we seem to have tipped the scales now and are hitting 80° F this week – up to 94° F for today!  So I expect the garden to kick into high gear now.

I’ve even had to cut the grass… which means that it has come out of its dormancy.  Pico the cat loves chilling out in the grass.

Pico is pretty special.  We rescued him when his previous owner moved out of their home and left him behind.  He’s very laid back.  According to the neighborhood legend, he was hit by a car while in the care of his previous owner, and got his foot / leg broken.  The previous owner took him to the vet, and now he walks funny.  It doesn’t seem to bother him.  Nothing really bothers him.  I’ve seen him sleep on the lawn while ignoring an attacking scrub jay.  He likes to be petted.  He also likes to mark his territory by spraying it – which is why he’s not an inside-the-house cat.

I’ll do a little weeding tomorrow, and then it’s off to the beach for me and the missus.

Persimmon flowers

Persimmon in bloom

Just a quick update…

The persimmon trees are doing well!

So one persimmon tree is under the privet tree.  It isn’t under the bird feeders I keep in the privet tree, but apparently some of the birds like to hang out above it.  I’m a little concerned about the bird poop on the persimmon leaves, but I don’t think it is a big enough deal to worry about.

I was also concerned that the privet tree would be keeping the persimmon in the shade, but the shade is only there through the midday.  The persimmon is getting morning and afternoon sunlight.

Still, the days the privet tree has left are definitely numbered!

The blossoms on the persimmon are smaller than I thought they would be.

Soap!

One of the more popular soaps

The whole point of Backyard Harvest is for me to learn the tools of permaculture and sustainability, and to tell you how I’m doing while I do this.

Well, I want to point out that I’m not in this alone.  My wife is also very interested in do-it-yourself crafting with the idea of learning how it is done.

Wendy is currently into making soap, and is having a great deal of fun doing it.  Making soap isn’t something that interests me, but I am more than happy to support her in this.  And I have to admit, I love the results!

Creating soap!

Creating soap!

So if you’re interested in home made soap, I’ll invite you to look at Wendy’s Facebook page.  Be sure to “Like” the page, and if you see any up-and-coming soaps that you must have, send her a note, and she’ll make sure you get a couple bars.

You can check out Wendy’s Facebook page, which also has a link to her Etsy page, by clicking on her website URL: www.gypsycrafts.com.

In the past when I’ve planted beans or corn, my crops have failed.  So I’m always looking for something new to try, something that will provide calories and be good to use and store.

Eggplant & blackberry

Two eggplants in the foreground, the blackberry canes are tied to a wood support in the corner.

Last year I tried eggplant.  Just one, to see what it would do.  What it did was get much bigger than I expected it to get!  It was huge, and it took over part of my garden.  And from that I got one single perfect eggplant.  That was a disappointment.

But it was a hardy plant.  The ants left it alone, and it didn’t seem to have many other predators.  So after my reading, I decided that the problem was that it produces better when there is another eggplant nearby.  Going from this theory, I got two eggplants and planted them in the North garden.

I fully expect these two eggplants to take over in that area of the garden, so I’ve not planted anything else there.

But there was still an empty spot in the Northwest corner of the north garden… and I decided that was the perfect spot to move my blackberry plant into.

The blackberry plant had disappointing results.  It failed to thrive, and it failed to produce.  That’s mostly due to my fault since I had placed it in a pot with an automatic drip watering system applied, and then failed to notice when the drip was dislodged by cats, and the blackberry stopped getting water during the heat of the summer.

No wonder it failed to thrive!

So I replanted it in the unused corner of my garden, and have reused the pot for pups off of my aloe vera plants.  Aloe is much more forgiving of missing a watering period during the summer.

There are only two blackberry canes, and I tied them to a wood support.  We will see what happens next.

Fruittrees

White Peach in the front, White Nectarine in the middle, and the Pluot in the back

The fruit trees on the north side of the yard are doing well.  They’ve all lost their blossoms, and are now in full foliage.  This is the first I’ve seen of how they really look.  In the last two years these trees were basically just sticks, and I couldn’t get a good idea of what they would turn out to look like.

Now I know that the pluot is tall, with a strong trunk.  The white nectarine is almost like a willow tree in how it droops.  I will have to prop up some of its branches with additional supports.  The white peach is reaching out in all directions like some sort of crazy tree made out of pipe cleaners.  I’m constantly “pinch pruning” new growth from it, and for a lesser extend from the white nectarine, in order to discourage growth over my fence and over the sidewalk.

At the end of the season, when these trees go dormant, I’ll be very aggressive in pruning them into an espalier pattern.

Oranges

New oranges

The orange tree is doing well, as always.  The oranges are already starting to get bigger than a grape.  It’s nice to see.

I spent some time giving the orange tree fertilizer.  Instead of using Jobe’s fruit tree spikes, this year I went with a liquid fertilizer from Jobe’s.  I like Jobe’s.

grapes_peppers

The Jasmine is in bloom. The grapes are too, but you can’t see that here.

I planted 6 different pepper plants this year.  Three of them are Anaheim chili – because they go so well with everything.  I can’t wait to start adding fresh Anaheim’s to my food.

The other three peppers are bell peppers (yellow and green) and gypsy.  The gypsy pepper is a more mild pepper that goes through several colors as it ripens, yellow to orange to red.  All stages are edible, and the spiciness is related to plant stress.  (In general, peppers get spicier if you allow them to wilt a little before picking them.)

I chose the gypsy pepper because I liked its looks, and my wife will enjoy eating something that is only slightly spicy.

I didn’t plant Serrano peppers this year because I’ve already harvested a LOT of Serrano peppers, and have almost a full quart of Serrano ground chili pepper to use as seasoning!  Maybe next year.  Actually, I think I’ll be investigating the peppers offered by the Chile Pepper Institute of New Mexico State University.  I’ll be looking for flavor, heat, and how well they store.

As you can see from the image, I’ve also got Star Jasmine planted, along with my grape vine.  The grape vine has taken off again this year…  and I’m giving it extra water to see if I can keep up with its demands.  Its in flower right now, and I expect there to be a LOT of grapes.

Next up is the plants in containers.

spinach

Kitty proofed deck planter filled with spinach!

This year I moved my deck planter off of my porch, and just in front of the southeast corner of my house.  It gets full sun here until about 1pm every day.  I’ve added a little fertilizer and planted spinach here.  Nothing but spinach!

The first day after planting, I stepped out of my house and found one of my cats lounging on the planter’s soil, in the sun.  She was clearly enjoying herself, and happy with her new “bed”.  Luckily for me, she didn’t dig anywhere, or leave anything behind.

This has taught me that I can’t leave a planter unprotected, so I used a little chicken wire and some stakes to cat-proof the planter.

No worse for wear, the spinach started poking out.  I’ve planted it VERY dense, and will be looking for ways to use up a lot of spinach very quickly.  I’m also looking for ways to store spinach.

As a reminder, you can download plans for this deck planter here.

Last, I’m taking a look at my “potted forest” from the back yard.

The honey tangerine trees DID actually produce last year, but they have not flourished.  They’re weak and wimpy.  The cherry tree didn’t get enough water last year and the main trunk died.  There are some suckers that are living quite happily, but I think I will just let the whole tree go.

honeytangerine

Honey Tangerine

But I still want to try to save the tangerine trees.  So after doing some reading, I have come to the idea that the pots are too small, and the soil is incorrect.  Citrus trees need soil that is more sandy.  They need something more like what I use for my aloe plants.

So I made a quick trip to the home improvement store, and after some consideration purchased a bag of soil designed for potting citrus and succulents.  I then re-potted one of the tangerine trees to a 28 gallon planter made out of half of a 55 gallon barrel.  There are drainage holes on the bottom of the barrel, and it is sitting on paving stones in the SE corner of the garden.

It looked pretty bleak just like that, so I added a mix of flower seeds around it.  The mix is to attract butterflies.  I hope it works out.

I may replant the second honey tangerine, but I’m not sure if I’ll do that just yet.  I may wait to see if there are any improvements on this guy first.

 

 

Orange Tree

The oranges have been harvested. You can see the northern privacy fence in this photo, behind the pluot and white peach trees.

There is still a possibility of a freeze, so I haven’t gone all out in planting as yet.  Right now, I’m doing clean-up.

However, this is the right time of the year to plant new trees, so I’ll be doing that too.

First, the orange tree.

At this time of the year I’ve harvested all of the oranges off of the tree.  The next step is to haul out the ladder and trim the tree back into shape.  I like the tree to stay somewhat compact, and I don’t allow suckers to grow any lower than about 6 feet.  The idea for me is that the tree won’t block my view… so no foliage lower than about 6 feet.

Also, the longer, newer growth from the top of the tree gets frostbitten and wilts or dies.  Together with being shaggy looking, I’m happy to trim it back.

While trimming, I can see that the orange tree is getting ready to bloom.  (sigh)  I have a love/hate relationship with orange blossoms.  They smell soooo good.  And I’m allergic to them.  Worse, since I’m in an area that has orange orchards everywhere in the valley, the whole season is just miserable for me.  Time to break out the anti-allergy meds!

After I trimmed the tree, I broke out the Tanglefoot.  This is an insect barrier that is proof against the Argentine Ant.  I’ve written before how this ant has decimated my crops in the past.  They will also swarm my orange tree, causing it unnecessary stress.  A border of Tanglefoot around the base of the tree keeps them out of my tree entirely.

I also tanglefoot my other trees, and any planters I might use.

Tanglefoot

Tanglefoot around the base of the orange tree.

Also, if you feed a pet outdoors, use Tanglefoot along the outside of the dish so that pests can’t crawl into the bowl.  I’ve placed a Tanglefoot barrier around the base of my pluot, white peach, and white nectarine trees to the north of the yard.

W.Nectarine

White Nectarine blossom

The other fruit trees are just starting to come into bloom now.  The blooms for the white peach and the white nectarine are very lovely, as you can see from these images.

On a side note, you can open each image by clicking on it to get a bigger image with better detail.  I’ve left the images of the fruit blossoms at the same resolution that I took them, so you can see them in their full glory.

wpeach

White Peach blossom

And finally, I’ve got to say that I was so happy with the way that the dried persimmons came out, that I decided that I would try to grow my own.  I’ve been buying persimmons from the local farmer’s market, and will probably continue to do so as my persimmon trees get established.

So from my research, a single persimmon tree does fairly well on its own, but the crop yield is greatly increased when there are two or more persimmon trees planted together.  Since my local home improvement center had some good persimmon trees available, I got two.

This leaves me with a problem… where do I plant them?

I’ve been learning that my potted trees are not doing very well.  I’m not completely sure why.  I’ll be exploring that this spring to figure it out.  So for now, I won’t be planting the persimmons in a pot.  I’ll plant them in my yard.  But where?

As you can see from my yard’s plan, the back yard is out of bounds for a new tree, as is the northern dog run.  I won’t plant a tree in the driveway either.  This leaves the front lawn, and the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the road.

My property does have a short privacy fence just to the north of the fruit trees, so kids and strangers are not encouraged to walk across my yard… this means that my fruit trees are relatively safe from poaching.  But I think that having fruit trees on the strip of grass would be putting too much temptation in front of people.  Not that I mind other people having some fruit, but I prefer to give it to them.  Also, I’m more cautious when I harvest, so I am less likely to damage the tree or harvest the fruit too early.

Persimmon

Persimmons from Lowes

I started looking speculatively at the privet tree (Ligustrum lucidum).  There it sits in the middle of my yard, producing nothing but shade, and a great spot to hang my bird feeders.  I do like this tree, but perhaps not that much.

I planted the persimmons on each side of the tree, one to the North, and one to the South.  My plan is that as the trees mature, I’ll slowly prune back the privet until it is nothing but a trunk.  The wood is good, so I’ll cure it and use it in my woodworking.

Right now the persimmons are just sticks, with an additional two pieces of wood used to support their trunks in case of wind.  I applied tanglefoot to their base so that the ants can’t get to them either.

And that’s all I have for this update.  See you again, later.
 

 

So with all this gardening that I’ve been doing, and upgrading the woodshop, where am I in Aquaponics?

Well, the bluegill are still living in their aquarium.  But I don’t have a completed fish shed, or much of a start on the greenhouse.  And the Fresno heat is coming, so it is going to be difficult to work in the blistering summer.  So I’m going to wait until late October to break ground on the aquaponics system.  When the heat has died off, and I can work without melting into a puddle.  

That’s also another reason why I want my aquaponics system indoors, in order to control the climate.  I figure if I use a swamp cooler and solar panels to run it, I can keep summer temperatures in the mid-80’s, instead of the low hundreds!  When temperatures get that high, plants start wilting, fish start succumbing to disease, and weeds get seriously out of control.

Ah.  Control.  That’s another thing… how am I going to control everything?  Sometimes I really wish I had a swimming pool I could convert into an aquaponics system.  Think of all that thermal inertia!

What I really need in my case is a system that watches water levels and quality, switches the filling and emptying of the grow beds, and keeps the inside temperatures level.  Near freezing temperatures in the winter are a problem, as are boiling hot summer days.  I also want updates that I can read on WIFI from a tablet or iPad, and SMS alerts to my cell phone for emergencies.

So for the last several months, I’ve been experimenting with Raspberry PI, Arduino, FPGAs, and with irrigation valves, to see if I can build a system that does what I want.  But it just wasn’t right… I kept running into problems with input / output and the limits of the electronics that need to be connected to an array of relays to make it all work.  I see where people in the Maker Culture have made their platforms do things in similar ways, but only after adding relay shields and other things.  

It finally occurred to me that a solution already exists in factories and manufacturing plants.  Instead of an Arduino connected to a bunch of relays, and hardened for a damp environment, I should instead use a programmable logic controller (PLC) that already has this functionality built in.  So I’ve been looking at various PLCs to work with.  Allen Bradley is the one primarily used in the USA, and Siemens PLCs are used in Europe.  However, I like and trust Siemens… so I’m not sure what I’ll choose as yet.  

I’ve also downloaded a PLC simulator, and have been refreshing my knowledge of ladder logic – which is pretty old and rusty.

I’ve also started creating a system schematic of how it is all supposed to work together.  At this point, I’m thinking of using the Raspberry Pi to interface the PLC to a generated web page on my home network that I can use to update the system through my iPad.  I’m still studying how to work that out.

But I have the summer to get it all figured out, because I’m breaking ground for the rest of the project in October, and I hope to have it finished by May of 2016!

I’ve been using my 12 inch miter saw clamped to a bench, and using a 2×4 clamped to that same bench as a part support.  It worked, but it really sucked.  I needed it all squared away.

I also had a second problem in that I don’t have a lot of shop storage.  So I decided to hit two birds with one stone, and create a great miter bench with built-in storage.

My first step was to design the thing in Sketchup.  Let me take a brief moment to sing the praises of Sketchup.  I really love this program.  I use ViaCad for other 3-D design, but when it comes to woodworking, I keep returning to Sketchup.  It has a short learning curve, it is intuitive, and it is darned easy to use.  It does have problems, it is not as precise as other CAD, y

ou are not going to get tolerances in the thousandths.  It doesn’t offer physics that let you rotate parts together to see how they work.  But for woodworking, or even designing a greenhouse, this program rocks!  If you want to learn more, check out the Sketchup website.

So here’s a snapshot of my Sketchup drawings.  First there is a basic cabinet carcass.  Then, I bolt the carcasses together, and screw on a tabletop frame.  Then I add two layers of 3/4 inch MDF to create a flat surface on top.  (Click on the images to enlarge them)

I built the cabinets out of 3/4 inch cabinet quality fir plywood, for about $28 per 4×8 sheet.  I think I used 3 sheets because I built four of these!

Here is what the finished project looks like.  The whole thing is about 14 feet long, with the miter saw installed between the cabinets.  If you click on the image, it will take you to an album where you can see my progress in building the whole thing.

As you can see, I don’t have shelves, or doors, or drawers installed in the bench as yet.  I really do need these because I have few places to actually store things in my woodshop.  Right now I’m experimenting with different ways of making and installing drawers, and figuring out how I want my layout to be.

Also, I’m trying to decide if I want to paint, stain, or otherwise protect these cabinets.  I’ll want to do that before I add drawers or doors.

I do not plan to add any facing to the cabinets.  I’m fine with the way they are.  Cabinet doors will use European hinges, and so will hide the plywood edging.  Drawers could also have facing that extends over the plywood edging.  I plan to use engineered wood for the doors and drawer fronts to avoid wood movement.

So, when you have a working mitersaw bench, what is the first thing you build using it?

 

I built a tool pegboard.  I’ve been needing one, because I have tools that are too unwieldy, or too unhandy to just drop into a toolbox.  My last woodshop had a 2 x 4 foot tool pegboard, and that was just a little too small.  This shop needed something bigger – so I chose a 4×4 foot pegboard.

I haven’t filled this pegboard with tools as yet.  I’ve put all the tools that I commonly use on it, and I’m waiting to see what else I’ll put on it.  As I turn to a tool more often, it is likely to win a place on the board.

Oh!  Something else I’ve found out.  I’ve had problems in the past with the metal pegs coming out of the pegboard when I pick up a tool.  The pegs you get from the big box stores are somewhat loose in the pegboard, and wiggle or come out.

In the past, I’ve tried to fasten these down in various ways.  I don’t want a permanent method of fastening down a metal peg, so instead I use hot melt glue.  It’s easy to run a glue gun into the holes, and add a peg.  Another dab or two of glue, and the peg stays put.  If I want to move the peg around, I can heat up the glue and remove it, then pull the glue off the pegboard.

Also in this image is my Porter Cable bandsaw that I picked up used from Craigslist for about $200.

My shop is shaping up.  But it is still messy, and I still have a way to go.

So as part of the setup of the South Garden, I tried an experiment of digging the garden out to a depth of almost 3 feet, and sifting all that dirt to remove the Bermuda Grass that infests that area.

Bermuda grass is tough.  It leaves roots that go deep, and it can spring up anew from its roots.  My goal was to remove all of that.  Also, sifting that soil allowed me to get rid of pest grubs that would happily eat my garden.

Somehow, I had this fantasy that I was removing weeds too.

So, here’s the deal.  Sifting through soil won’t remove weeds, or tiny weed seeds.  Maybe hard radiation would get rid of them.

BUT, it did dramatically reduce Bermuda Grass.  I’ve had very little of that.  I do however, have crabgrass.  But that’s much easier to remove.

I hate weeding.  That’s another reason why I’d like to go completely Aquaponics, indoor, with a non-soil substrate.

During planting I got the South Garden and the North garden set up for automatic drip watering.  I planted peppers throughout the South and North gardens, then planted onions, potatoes, carrots and spinach on the South Garden porch.

And I continued to train the grape vine across the porch in the South Garden area.

In the top image you can see the beginnings of the potatoes!  They’re off to a great start.

Next are my two half-barrels of onions.  They are also off to a good start.  They don’t seem to be crowded, and they seem to like the conditions.  I hope the barrels work out!

The barrels and the potato bags all sit on planks that are raised from the concrete porch on bricks.  The thought was that I could prevent damage to the painted concrete porch by allowing better airflow under it, and I could prevent overheating to the bags and barrels when the concrete of the porch heats up in the sun.

Following that is my raised bed planter that I’m using for carrots and spinach.  The idea here is to have a continuous harvest of spinach during the summer.  Fresh salads, sandwich filler – yum!

They are all sprouting very well.


I’ve planted the peppers in the South Garden.  Mostly Anaheim peppers, because they are tasty, but I have Cayenne and New Mexico in there too.

I’ve tried to offset them so they all get enough light.  Now it is all about weeding.

 

In the backyard, I’ve tried planting peppers, squash, beans, melons and zucchini in the raised bed planters.  The idea is that the beans, squash and other climbers are planted against the trellis, and the peppers are planted out on their own.  I have quite a few different peppers here, including Habenero and yellow banana.

And finally, the fruit trees are doing quite well.  I’ve added two Honeydew Tangerine trees in post in the back yard, along with a blueberry bush, and a cherry tree.

The trees in the North Garden are already producing fruit.  You can see the little Nectarines here.  They seem to be really liking life, and I’m going to have to prune them back this fall to keep them from over running the yard.

So far, so good.  But as the weather gets hotter, and the plants start competing with each other, and the bugs discover everything, it is going to get a little more difficult.  Here’s hoping all goes well!

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