Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Another One of "Those" Springs

This is one of those springs where it seems like the wind blows hard every day.  This gets to be wearying after awhile.  How nice it would be to have a calm afternoon.  I've seen years where the winds have continued through May into June.  Let's hope the winds abate soon this year.   

Friday, March 25, 2011

Good to Go

It's that time of year again.  (Come to think about it, it's always "that time of year.")  The time of year I'm referring to this time is bee season.  Like the beginning of irrigation season, when I always wonder what's going to happen when I flip the switch on the irrigation pump for the first time, I never know what to expect when I open the hives for the first time after a hard winter.  What condition are the bees in?  And equally as important -- what condition am I  in?

Every year is different.  A couple of years ago, I had a lot of stress and anxiety around requeening -- I could never figure out why at the time.  Last year, we received a bunch of lousy queens from our Northern California queen supplier, who had miserable cold, wet weather which meant the bees couldn't fly like they should, and a lot of the queens were poorly mated.  (This year I'm hedging my bets by trying queens from two other breeders as well.)  This year, I would rate the condition of my hives as "average."  Which is a blessed state of affairs, all things considered.  A lot of NM beekeepers lost colonies because of the extreme cold, but mine pulled through OK.

My condition this year is substantially better than a year ago.  I'm looking forward to spending a lot of time with the bees (it's my trade, after all), and am thinking about adding some hives and hopefully a couple of new locations.  A year ago I was tired, overweight, and blah.  To combat this, I did a lot of things -- lost 15 pounds of unhealthy belly fat, started doing intervals 3x a week on my recumbent bike, worked out 3x a week on our weight machine, and drank a large green smoothie every day made from our garden veggies.  As expected, my energy level went up and my blood pressure went down.  Several years ago a friend told me that at our age, we are naturally declining, so we've got to work hard just to stay in one place.  And she was right.

After a productive winter of homestead projects, I'm looking forward to spending several hours each day out with the bees.  After 40 years as a beekeeper, I enjoy sort of knowing what I'm doing.  But I scoff at the "master" label.  As in Master Beekeeper or Master Gardener.  Too much can always go wrong.  At this point in my life I'm grateful not to fuck up too bad.

Monday, March 21, 2011

High-Capacity Rainwater Catchment Tank

Here's another one of my winter projects -- a rainwater catchment tank that will actually fill rapidly.  Most of my roofs are rather small, which limits the amount of rainwater they can collect.  The Ark, for example, is the largest roof in my "compound."  At 384 square feet, it can collect 239 gallons per inch of rain.  The 1000-gallon tank in this picture collects the water from 5 separate roofs, for a total of 628 gallons per inch of rain.  This extra capacity will be valuable if some year they turn the river off during the summer, which will leave me dependent on rainwater for irrigation.  Most of my tanks require most of a monsoon to fill, but this one can be filled and emptied several times during the summer.  This will allow extra flexibility in my irrigation strategy.  Fortunately, despite the small snowpack this year, they'll be running water in the river at least until September, so once again I won't have to depend on my water tanks for irrigation.  But one of these years, I'll be glad to have as much water harvesting capability as possible.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Outhouse Garden

This little 9x16-foot garden is one of this year's winter projects.  I call it the Outhouse Garden because it's on the way to the outhouse.  Though small, it was a considerable amount of work -- setting the retaining wall in concrete, straining the rocks out of the dirt and then wheelbarrowing it to the garden, gluing together the pvc irrigation pipes, and painting the wall.  But the end results looks intentional, which is an important aspect of a project like this.

I drive the rototiller up the dirt ramp on the right.  I tilled in about 3/4 of a bale of alfalfa hay, which is all the dirt would hold.  Then I sprinkled the remaining 1/4 bale on top as a mulch.  I'll be leaving this garden fallow this summer, but will irrigate it to activate the weed seeds, and will till the weed seedlings every month or so throughout the summer.   This spot was a weed patch for several years, and I want to get rid of as many weed seeds as I possibly can.  I will eventually run an overflow pipe from the 1100-gallon water catchment tank to the garden.

This view shows the two rows of sprayers facing each other.  This is overkill, but ensures an even irrigation pattern.  I have the sprayers close to the ground so that the water will hit the plants and remain in the garden.

The all-important drain valve for the buried irrigation pipe.  Frost can penetrate a considerable distance through a thin retaining wall like this.  Note to self:  it is necessary to actually open this valve before the first freeze.

Scattered hay makes a nice pattern picture.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Here's the view from a beehive platform at highway level.  I used to keep a couple of hives here, but since bees fly so far, it's a lot more convenient to keep all the hives at my main beeyard half a mile north of my house.

This pic shows the windmill, the Ark, the garden, North Hill, and the Rio Grande (complete with tumbleweed).  I really want to get the windmill running again, which would be relatively easy, but unfortunately the well is corroded together (a consequence of having highly alkaline water) and I find myself stymied because the well has to be directly underneath the windmill.  Otherwise I would just blow myself a new well.

The structure at the bottom of the picture is the old chicken coop, which was later a goat shed.  The roof is a car trunk lid I got from the dump during the 70s.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

First Irrigation

The first irrigation of the season is always a thrill.  Will the pump work?  Are the pipes cracked?  Are the sprayers clogged?  Undoing the winter's entropy always takes some effort on my part before the irrigation system works properly.  This year, since the pump hadn't been worked on since the 2006 flood, I decided to take it in to Turner Electric and have them install new o-rings and seals.  Only cost $65 -- not bad for over 4 years of irrigation.  That was a lot of hours and many thousand gallons of water.

Yesterday I added a new top to the pump platform.  The old top was slanted because of the flood, so I finally got around to adding a new -- level -- one.  This raised the pump a couple of inches higher, so I had to add extensions to each of the 6 pipes coming out of the pump.  This took me a couple of hours.  This morning I primed the pump, turned it on, and lo and behold, water started spraying onto my garden, as the above photo proves.  A few minor adjustments, and I was in business.  There was no damage to the pipes this winter, mainly because I remembered to open the drain valves after my last irrigation.  Clever Gordon-of-the-past!

I have tomatoes and peppers in the wall-o-waters.  These clever devices not only protect from frost, but create a high-humidity micro-environment that also filters out the harsh sun.  Just what baby seedlings appreciate.  Buy your wall-o-waters today!  

Friday, March 11, 2011

Almost Time to Plant

I usually start planting my tomato and pepper seedlings in wall-o-waters starting March 15, but this year I'll start on Sunday the 13th.  Planting in wall-o-waters allows me to start harvesting tomatoes and peppers a full month earlier.  It's definitely worth the considerable hassle.

A couple of years ago I decided to boycott Bonnie plants, which are now the monopoly in all the Las Cruces big box stores.  Only Guzman Nursery sells non-Bonnie plants.  I don't like Bonnie because they're so expensive, and several of the plants I bought in recent years have been mislabeled.  I figured I'd grow them myself and be sure of what I had (assuming the seeds are properly labeled, of course). 

I planted the seeds on Jan. 24 in styrofoam cups (which I reuse every year) filled with potting soil.  I left them to sprout in the kitchen, which has a 24-hour fire at that time of year.  I plant 3-4 seeds in each cup and thin to one plant, but even so, several of the cups had clunker seeds and I had to replant a couple of weeks later.  That's why some of the pepper plants are so small.

After they sprouted, I moved the baby plants to the greenhouse.  Usually the "water wall" provides adequate nighttime heat, but during the below-zero big freeze I ran two electric heaters all night long, which I've never had to do before.  A week or so ago, I moved the tomatoes and the larger peppers into bigger pots, which they appreciate.  In a couple of days they'll start getting used to their new home in the garden, and the cycle begins anew.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

It's That Time of Year Again

This year I got my spring garden planted right on schedule -- March 1-3.  I'm no longer using these coldframe boxes for my winter garden -- it's too much trouble closing them each night and opening them every morning, and if I forget to close them (which I've been known to do), it takes the plants many weeks to recover from the shock, if they aren't killed outright.  I don't mind covering the coldframes at night during the spring, since the early spring heavy frost season only lasts a month or so.  It's worth the trouble to get my seeds in the ground a month earlier than I could otherwise.

The closest box contains the usual 9 broccoli seedlings, barely visible in this photo.  Other boxes contain leaf lettuce, beets, spinach, mesclun mix, and a special 5th coldframe of edible-podded peas.  At the end of the row is a pile of the blankets I use to cover the coldframes at night (it's still getting down to the low 20s in our frost pocket).  The lids on the two closest coldframes don't really work too well -- they warped, leaving a large gap when closed, so they have to be covered with blankets anyway. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Dinosaur Bones

My orchard is 20 years old now, and I've started thinning out the non-productive trees.  They've had plenty of time to show their stuff, and the ones that haven't performed get the axe -- or in this case, the chainsaw.  This tree was a Hunza apricot, with supposedly edible kernels.  Planting it seemed like a good idea at the time.  Unfortunately our spot is a frost pocket, and early-blooming trees like apricots always get blasted by late frosts.  Not only did this tree never bear, but it was crowding out a pecan tree on one side and an apple tree on the other.  So off with its head!  We can always use the firewood.

I cut up the branches where they fell, and the resulting configuration reminded me of dinosaur bones.  You could pin the firewood together with rebar and display the resulting "tree" in a tree museum, just like the Joni Mitchell song. 

A nice little haul of firewood.  While I'm on the subject, I highly recommend the gigantic dinosaur skeleton on display in the Albuquerque Natural History Museum.  It's spectacular -- no bones about it. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Deep Freeze

This is unprecedented.  Yesterday's high was only 27 deg., and this morning's low was minus 6.  They're predicting a high today of 29.  Our water tank is frozen solid, and we have no water in the house.  Farmer's Market tomorrow is guaranteed to be a miserable experience, since they're predicting a low of 11 and a high of 47.  But just think:  less than a month from now the fruit trees will be blooming.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Record-Breaking Cold

To recap:  Yesterday we had a low of 7 deg., followed by a high of 23 deg., with no sun all day long.  I can't recall ever seeing a lower high than we had yesterday.  It cleared off after sunset, and I expected a record-breaking low.  Sure enough, this morning we had 5 below.  I'll have to check my records to make sure, but this is probably the lowest temperature we've ever had since I moved here in 1973.  This view upstream shows the river frozen solid all the way across.  I don't recall this ever happening before.

The view down the river, showing solid ice all the way across.  I'm assuming that all my pomegranate bushes got frozen to the ground, but they'll put up new tops next summer, and should produce fruit again in 2012.  I'm concerned about my Thompson Seedless grapevine that I've had since 1974 -- 5 below is awfully cold for a European grape.  Las Cruces can expect a year of no oleander blooms; this has happened before when temperatures didn't get as low as they did last night.

A close-up of the frozen river showing a galaxy of ice crystals on the surface.  I took unusual precautions -- I ran electric heaters all night long in the Ark and greenhouse, put a lightbulb in the pump house (which wasn't enough -- we are without water in the bakery/honey house), covered the ground with blankets where a water line has been known to freeze.  I'm expecting all my water storage tanks to freeze solid; the amount of damage, if any, remains to be seen.  This is ordinary weather for Minnesota, but highly unusual for southern New Mexico.  I suspect the weather gods confused NM with MN, and gave us the wrong weather.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

It Must Still Be Winter, You Reckon?

Last night we had 3 1/2" of snow, and a low of 7 degrees.  Here's the view up the river.  The hills a mile away are obscured by falling snow.  The river is confined to a narrow channel.  The ice and sandbars are covered by snow.

The view down the river, showing the narrow channel of unfrozen water.

The coldframe keeps our winter veggies snug and secure.

Clumpy snow on the saltcedar branches.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Protecting Water Tank Pipes from Freezing

This is the frost-protection assembly I built for the Ark rainwater catchment tank drop pipes.  I used 3/4" foam building insulation, pinned together with nails and then caulked and painted.  The top door provides access to the control valves.  The bottom door is so I can change light bulbs whenever they burn out.  The foam box provides adequate protection most nights.  For extra-cold nights, I use a 60-watt incandescent light bulb in the bottom to provide a little heat.  Incandescent bulbs produce 10% light and 90% heat, so they make an excellent heat source for a variety of applications.

This foam box protects the drop pipe and control valves for the greenhouse water tank.  The door at the bottom provides access to the light bulb, which is hooked up to a timer so I don't have to walk all the way up there to turn it on.  The ladder and garden hose means I'm still pumping water from my well into the tank, using a little electric pump.  Hopefully this will be the year when I'll finally install my solar-powered submersible pump to fill the tank.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Pit of Winter Continues

Most years, February brings a gradual warming trend, and the fruit trees can start blooming anytime after the middle of the month.  Other years, such as this one, winter can linger much longer.

For Wednesday, they are predicting a high of 29 deg. and a low of 9 deg.  This is the lowest high temperature I can ever remember, and the 9 deg. low means it will get close to zero, and maybe slightly below, here in our frost pocket.  I'll take some pictures of the frozen river and post them here.

But don't worry -- in 4 months we'll be complaining about the heat. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Pit of Winter

It's been over two months since my last post.  Time got away from me there.  I'll try to post more frequently in the future.

I wanted to talk about what I've been calling "the pit of winter" -- the time when winter descends in full force and doesn't let us go.  Temperatures fall into the pit and can't escape.  This usually happens between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15, depending on the year.  Statistically Dec. and Jan. are our coldest months, but some years -- like this year -- we have warm spells even during the middle of winter, when afternoons are delightful shirtsleeve weather.

Our first frost this winter was 27 deg. on Nov. 5, which was normal, since our first frost almost always occurs between the middle of Oct. and the middle of Nov.

Our first hard freeze was 19 deg. on Nov. 10.

We had a brief cold spell starting the end of Nov.  -- we had 10 deg. on Nov 27 and 30, and also on Dec. 1.

The rest of Dec. was warmer than average, and I was thinking that maybe winter wouldn't have a "pit" this year.  But no.

Starting on New Year's morning, we had one of the most intense cold spells we've ever had here.  The river was frozen over each morning, which is our indication of seriously cold temperatures.  Here are the readings:

Jan. 1   3 deg.
       2   4
       3   5
       4  11
       5    7
       6  14
       7  16

I'm sure my more sensitive pomegranate bushes have frozen to the ground, and it will be interesting to see how well the hardy varieties fared.

We're back to a relatively warm, La Nina weather pattern now.  Some winters, the "pit" can last for weeks, but this year we've had only a week of really cold weather.

I'll be posting more weather updates as the arrive here at Command Central.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Succulent Greens

The greens in my coldframe are fat and sassy as winter descends upon us.  Greens like cool weather, but prefer not to be frozen too much.  A coldframe creates conditions that are just right.  I'm amazed -- but not at all surprised -- that so few Americans have coldframes.  There's no comparison between freshly-picked, organically-grown greens, and greens that were picked in some huge California field a week or two ago.  But humans are a conservative lot, and it's very hard to get them to change their behavior.

Here's my greenhouse.  Wearing my rose-colored glasses, I can confidently predict that we'll have more greens than we can possibly use for salads, smoothies, omelettes, etc.  But this is still November, and I'm expecting a major outbreak of aphids by January.  The first rule of homesteading:  "there's always something."

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Eat Your Honey!

Summer is officially over when we stop using our EZ-Ups at Farmer's Market.  The "new, improved" Farmer's Market location lacks protection from the blazing summer sun.  Shade is necessary for survival here, so we protect ourselves with pop-up shelters.  Our spot is 30 feet long, and setting up three EZ-Ups, as well as four umbrellas to keep the early morning sun from cooking our product (it gets seriously hot in New Mexico) is a serious chore every week.  And then we have to take it all down at the end of Market.  The end of summer (usually early October) offers a respite from all this.  Temperatures are much lower now, and the shade from a nearby tree has finally reached our location.  We're looking forward to 6 months of full exposure to the sky.  This will allow our customers to see us better.  We've been in this spot for a year now, and people still come up to us and ask us where we've been all this time.  "Right here, right in front of the Music Box," we always tell them, gesturing to the landmark behind us.

By the way, all this EZ-Up nonsense is an example of America's devolution from take-it-for-granted socialism (a canopy for all) to capitalism at its most primitive (now it's every vendor for himself).

A little bit later we unfurled the umbrellas.  We only brought three this week, and next week will bring only one.  Soon we won't need any umbrellas, and will be grateful to bask in the feeble winter sun.

We've given considerable thought to creating an attractive, eye-catching display.  Our entire display -- the serapes covering the tables, the  umbrellas, and the honey labels -- are all brightly colored to attract the eye and lure customers into our entrepreneural spiderweb.  Farmer's Market is a competitive visual environment, and we do our best to compete.  (Yellow highlighting courtesy of Blogger's malfunctioning software.)

A customer gave us this idea a year or so ago.  Eat your honey, indeed!  Both Laura and I immediately appreciated the humor.  About six months ago we had signs made expressing this noble sentiment, and so far we've had very little response.  Once, a customer took cell phone pictures of the signs.  Another time, a customer offered to buy them from us.  But other than that, no apparent recognition, or at least no acknowledgement.

Here's the other sign, with cute little bees.  Laura demonstrates what it must be like to eat your honey.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

2010 Monsoon Total

Our rainfall for June through Sept. this year was 9.27 inches.  The breakdown was:

Jun   .67
Jul   3.51
Aug 4.39
Sep   .70

In 28 years of record keeping, this year was tied for 6th place with 1991.  Not too shabby, as monsoons go.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hawk on Windmill

Laura took this picture of a hawk perched on our windmill the other morning.  This hawk occasionally attacks the doves that have been attracted to our bird feeder.  We think it's a young hawk, not quite ready for more challenging game.

Friday, October 8, 2010

My Automatic Greenhouse Drip Irrigation System

This 550-gallon water tank (8 feet off the ground to create a little water pressure) supplies water to the greenhouse, an outside water hose, the orchard drip system, and potentially the guest house.  It can be filled with river water (superior for irrigation) or well water (available during the winter).  Perhaps this winter I will finally install my solar water pump.  The tank is a relatively small 550 gallons because the solar pump can produce only 350 gallons a day, as I recall.  When drip irrigating the orchard, I will be filling and draining the tank every day.  The platform has solid walls so I can store hay inside it.

Control valves at the bottom of the platform.  On the right side are the three orchard drip lines.  The water line to the greenhouse is buried.  This winter, for the first time, I'll have to build a foam housing to keep this assembly from freezing.  Up till now I've been draining the pipes after each use, but this will no longer be practical since I'll be irrigating the greenhouse every day.

Timer and filter inside the greenhouse.  The jog in the water line is to raise the timer above flood level, hopefully.  In the background is my 3000-pound "water wall" which keep the greenhouse from freezing at night. 

Just like the Ark coldframe, the 3/4" water pipe feeds 1/2" T-tape.  The water line at the very top irrigates the greenhouse whenever I irrigate the orchard.  This water is under considerable pressure, and the little bottles prevent the water from spewing across the room.

Looking east.  I'm using the garden hose with fan sprayer to water the new seedlings until they're well established. 

Looking west.  I've planted mizuna, beets, lettuce, spinach, chard, siberian kale, and red russian kale.  On the right side are my three trees:  kumquat, orange, and strawberry guava.  Since the sun is so low during the winter, I can plant vegetables underneath the trees as well as next to the windows.

The fan sprayer has a built-in own valve, but such dinky little valves can leak, which will drain the water tank overnight.  I've learned to rely on a standard 3/4" pvc ball valve to turn the water on and off.

That concludes today's greenhouse tour.  I'm already wondering how I'm going to combat the aphids this winter.