Ebikes and a Sort of Review of the Specialized Vado

I’ve had the Specialized Vado ebike for about three weeks now and I love the thing. By the time I get around to finishing this article and posting it I’ll have around 300 miles on it. But I suppose before I get started I should define the term ebike because it’s gotten a bit confusing since there are actually two types of bikes that now fall under the term. One is an actual ebike and the other, if one wishes to be pedantic about it, isn’t.

The first type has a motor and battery but it is still an actual, real bicycle that you have to pedal to make it move. It will not move on its own. This type of ebike uses the motor system to to provide assistance to the rider. It does some of the work for you. How much work the motor does is generally adjustable. I can switch mine from giving no support at all, all the way up to nearly 100% where the motor does almost all the work while I pedal along.

The second type isn’t really what I would call a bicycle. It looks like a bicycle, probably has usable pedals, but it is really more of an electric moped or small motorcycle. With these bikes the motor can be used to do all of the work. You don’t have to pedal at all. There is a throttle on the handlebars to allow you to control the speed. All you have to do is just ride.

There are some issues with this second type. There are potential legal issues for one thing. In a lot of jurisdictions these types of bikes aren’t technically bicycles, they probably should be classified as mopeds or even small motorcycles, and if one were to be strict about it, in those jurisdictions they should be registered and licensed as such and the riders required to have at least a driver’s license and perhaps even a motorcycle license, and they should be insured as such. But fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) no one seems to be paying much attention to that.

They also, legally speaking, should be required to meet the same equipment and safety requirements as mopeds or small motorcycles. They should have turn signals, proper brakes, headlight, tail light, brake light, properly rated tires and wheels, etc. And because a lot of these are basically just bicycles that someone strapped a motor and battery to, a lot of them have none of those things.

(Sidenote: A word about speed. Most people toodle along at about 5 – 10 mph on a bicycle. Someone who is in relatively good physical shape can cruise along considerably faster than that. With my 24 speed (no motor) a comfortable speed for me on level ground on a nice paved road is about 10 according to my gps thingie, and if I work really, really hard I can hit 19 mph on a level road for short periods of time. I used to work for a bicycle race and those guys cruise along at 24 to 30 mph all day long, and they can max out at about 45 mph. I usually average about 8-10 mph on the bike though because I’m in no real hurry to get anywhere. I’m just out there to enjoy being outside. With the ebike I find myself now cruising easily at about 13 – 15 mph, even going up hills. If I kick up the boost I can run at 20 mph all day long and I max out at around 28 mph.)

Prices on ebikes of both types are all over the place. They range from a low of about $700 up to, well, up to whatever your bank account can withstand. There is a Porsche branded ebike out that that supposedly sells for $10,000.

Sidenote: Yes, Porsche, the maker of supercars and sports cars with eye watering prices, is in the ebike business. They’ve been selling a Porsche branded ebike for a few years now, and have been investing in ebike companies for some time. They’re staring up two new companies specifically to develop, build and sell their own in-house created ebikes. Why would a company known for it’s overpriced, gas sucking, tire squealing sports cars that no one except influencers and trust fund kiddies can afford be getting into the ebike business? Money, of course. Ebikes make a lot of sense in Europe. The population density is high, towns are generally very close together, commutes to work or to do shopping are generally much shorter than they are in the US, traffic in cities is generally horrific with the average speeds for motor vehicles down to just a few miles per hour because of congestion. In most European cities you can get around a hell of a lot faster on a bike than you can in a car. So for a lot of people in the EU ebikes make a lot of sense. Porsche figures it can take a $4,000 ebike, slap some Porsche stickers on it and sell it for $10,000 to the same status hungry influencers and pretend millionaires it sells its cars to.

Now if you go online and start looking around at ebikes you’ll notice a couple of things. First, if you’re at all familiar with the bicycle market you’ll know that if you want to buy a good non-electric bicycle it’ll cost you around $600 and for anything really good the prices go up fast. So how can these companies be selling ebikes for the same price? It makes one wonder about the quality of those inexpensive models.

The second thing you’ll notice is that when it comes to a lot of those cheap ebikes, no matter what the brand name may be, they all look suspiciously alike. That’s because they are. Very few of the companies selling ebikes at the low end of the market actually manufacture them themselves. They all buy the bikes from the same factories and the only differences between them are a few plastic stick on bits and the company logos.

But I wanted to talk about the Vado and let myself get distracted, so let’s get on with this sort of review. I want to talk about ebikes and transportation but I’ll do that in a separate article.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first before I move on to the goodies.

First, it’s heavy and it’s big. It won’t fit into the back of my Buick even with the rear seats folded down. I had to use MrsGF’s Rav4 which has a larger cargo area to pick it up. And it is definitely no light weight. It scales in at around 60 lbs. It definitely is not some kind of sleek road racer. But it has to be big and heavy because it’s designed to not just carry a person around, but also a big battery, a motor, all the electronics, me, and supposedly 50 pounds of cargo as well. And unless you have the motor turned off and you’re using it as a regular pedal bike you won’t even notice the weight.

Second, it’s not exactly cheap. When all was said and done, with taxes and other stuff tacked on, that Vado up there in that photo set me back close to $4,000. That is a hell of a lot of money for a bike, even an ebike. In my opinion the Vado was well worth the money, but that’s me. I put a lot of miles on a bike.

Third, the seat it came with was horrible. It was one of the most uncomfortable saddles I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit on. First thing I did when I got it home was replace the seat with the one from my old 24 speed bike.

Fourth, it comes with pretty much nothing but the bike itself. While the bike is reasonably well equipped and includes a luggage rack on the back, it comes with nothing else. The bag, water bottle bracket and rear view mirror were add ons I put on myself. You’d think they could at least include a water bottle holder on a four grand bike, but that’s the way it goes I guess.

Let’s get on with the good stuff.

The brakes are frankly amazing. No caliper brakes that squeeze on the rim of your wheels. This thing has actual hydraulic disc brakes like you get in a car. Yes, hydraulic, not cable actuated. I’ve never had a bike that stopped this well before. Braking is smooth, predictable, with no unexpected grabbing or fading after repeated stops.

The Vado comes with a 10 speed derailleur gear changer. Anyone who has had a bike with a derailleur system will be familiar with this. It’s the one part of the bike that I think could be a weak point. When I first got the bike it would miss shifts and under hard pedalling it would jump a cog on the gears once in a while. I figured I was going to have to take it back to the dealer and have them take a look at it, but after I’d ridden it for about fifty miles or so the gear changes became smoother and it stopped jumping cogs on the gears. So perhaps it just needed a break in period to work smoothly? I still think this could be a weak point, however. It’s a 10 speed and I think that’s too many gears for a derailleur to handle without some issues. But it’s working fine now so we’ll see.

It comes standard with a very bright LED headlight and a tail light that wraps around the cargo carrier on the back. The tail light isn’t super bright but it will hopefully help make me more visible to car and truck drivers when I’m on the road.

Also note the fenders. I like fenders on a bike. I often ride on gravel trails, run through mud patches, ride right after rains when the roads are wet, etc. Not having fenders on my old bike meant I’d come home with a streak of mud up my back and splatters all over my legs. These fenders work quite well. They are very thin and very flexible but stiff enough to work well.

Front suspension is fantastic. The front forks seems to absorb bumps, railroad tracks and potholes very well. Some people don’t like front suspensions like this for various reasons. I think those people are, frankly, stupid. With the multiple railroad track crossings, gravel trails, potholes, washboard roads, etc. around here, some kind of decent suspension is a requirement around here.

The battery is removable and completely tucked away inside the frame of the bike. It’s relatively easy to get out. Removing it requires using a key in a lock located alongside of the charging socket. Just for the heck of it I looked up what a new battery would cost, thinking that it might not be a bad idea to have a spare. So go ahead, guess what that battery costs. Just take a wild guess.

Try $1,200. Seriously. Twelve hundred bucks for a replacement battery. I find it a bit difficult to believe that the battery alone costs more than a quarter of the value of the bike, but, well, that’s the way it goes I guess.

That’s the charging port in the photo up there, and it is one of the most unnecessarily frustrating things I’ve ever had to fiddle with. It has a kind of magnetic holding system which is neat, but trying to get the blasted plug actually inserted into that socket is infuriating sometimes. It won’t just slide into place and latch on. I’ve spent minutes fiddling with the damned plug, turning it, twisting it, trying to get it to lock in place. And from what I’ve read online I’m not the only one who has problems with the damned thing. There’s no excuse for this on a bike this expensive. Yo, Specialized! Fix the damned plug!

This is an ebike so you need some kind of display and control system. The dashboard, if you want to call it that, defaults to the view you see in the picture above. There are controls on the handlebars that let you flip through various screens that display various bits of information that I suspect I’ll never need to know and will never actually care about, but it’s there if you need it. The left handgrip has a push button control that lets you cycle through various information screens, and a + and – button that cycles through four different levels of ‘boost’, Eco, Sport, Turbo and Off, the latter turns the motor off completely.

There is an app (because of course there is because everything has to have an app on your phone these days whether you want one or not) that does many things, none of which I care about except for the ability to tailor the amount of boost you get from the motor. Eco setting has the motor take up about 30% of the work, Sport is 50% and Turbo is 100%. Basically in Turbo all you’re doing is moving your legs up and down, the motor does almost all of the work. And, of course, Off, which switches the motor off entirely and the only thing powering the bike is your legs. I’m told that I can change the level of boost the motor gives to almost anything I want but the defaults work good for me and probably will for most people.

Yes, you can use this as a normal human powered bike, and it works rather well that way. Despite the bike’s weight it works quite nicely as a normal bicycle.

You’ll have noticed that Garmin thingie on the handlebars up there next to the bike’s control buttons. That’s why I don’t care about the app the bike comes with. That’s a Garmin GPS/fitness tracker/mapping system and displays text messages, emails and other goodies. And, in a feature I hope I never need, will supposedly send an email to my wife if I crash that says something like “Hey, your idiot husband wiped out and he’s laying in a ditch somewhere at these coordinates so you better go sweep him up before you get fined for littering.”

But back to the Vado. I’ve put 300 miles on it now in the three or four weeks I’ve had it and so far I love the thing. It rides well, stops well, handles well. The motor works seamlessly with the bike. The electronics make its presence entirely unobtrusive. The only way i can tell it’s even working is because I can feel that I’m using less effort pedaling up hills or when starting out from a dead stop, which is exactly how it’s supposed to work. It’s very well made. The frame is extremely robust, the welds are just about perfect.

Normally I drive in Eco mode which is the least amount of boost, which is more than enough for me to deal with things like long uphill climbs. If I’m out on a long ride in hot weather and I’m getting tired out I might kick the boost level up to Sport. I’ve tried it in Turbo mode several times. I still have to pedal, but in that mode I’m not doing any work at all, just moving my legs up and down.

Range is always something one needs to be concerned with when it comes to electric vehicles. The manual says I can expect about 40 miles range under normal usage, but I suspect in real life it would be much, much more than that. I went out for a 20 mile ride one day, running mostly in Eco mode, and when I got back home I still had 70% battery life left according to the monitor.

I really, really like the Vado so far. It meets or exceeds all of my expectations. If I didn’t live in a rural area where it’s at least 15 miles to get anywhere I need to go I could easily see using it as my primary means of transportation when the weather was reasonably nice.

The only thing I hate about it is that damned charging port. It’s keyed, so it will only fit into the socket when you have the plug oriented at exactly the right angle. But the port is recessed into the frame, and down near the bottom of the frame, so you can’t actually see how you’re supposed to orient the plug unless you literally get down on your hands and knees. I thought maybe it was just me. I’m not exactly the most graceful person in the world, after all. But it isn’t just me. I’ve read other reviews of the Vado that expressed similar frustrations with the charging plug, so this is a common problem. And there is absolutely no excuse for this. Not on a bike that costs this much money.

To wrap this up, overall I really, really like the Vado. As I said earlier I have over 300 miles on it now and it has worked pretty much flawlessly. It’s great fun to ride, the motor and electronics work beautifully. It’s robustly made and has handled all of the railroad tracks, potholes, expansion joints and other garbage we have to contend with on the roads around here. Brakes are simply excellent. It’s expensive, yes, but I think it’s worth the money if you put as many miles on a bike as I do.

I want to talk about biking, ebikes and transportation in general but I’m not going to do that here. This is already getting on the long side so I’m going to end this right now. 🙂

Camera Stuff

People know I’m a semi-serious photographer so I get questions from people about all sorts of photography related stuff. One question I get a lot comes from people who are thinking of upgrading their camera. They want to move from a cellphone camera or a cheap pocket camera to a “real” camera and want advice about what to get. So let’s take a look at some basic information about the different kinds of cameras out there and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Sidenote: Got questions? Leave them in the comments section or you can reach me at old.grouchyfarmer@gmail.com

And I’ll let you know right up front that there is no hard answer to the question of what camera to buy. When it comes to cameras there are always trade offs. There is no “perfect” camera. Which camera is best for you depends on what you want to do and what compromises you are willing to accept.

Let’s look at the basics. There are four basic types of cameras: Compact (or pocket), bridge, DSLR and mirrorless. But while these are widely accepted as the different types, in reality there is a great deal of blurring of in the lines separating these types, especially when it comes to the camera’s sensors, the part that actually takes the photo, and the electronics and software.

Sidenote: A word about viewfinders. Most modern cameras come with an LCD screen that shows you a representation of the image the camera “sees” through the lens. One would think that the traditional viewfinder, a sort of peephole that you push up to your eye to peer through, would be a thing of the past. It isn’t. A lot of photographers, myself included, still use and still want a traditional viewfinder. My Nikon has a very good LCD screen, but I still use the viewfinder a lot, far more often than I use the LCD screen. For me it seems to work better.

Compact cameras can range from very very bad to very, very good, and prices bounce all over the place from under $100 to, well, to almost as much as your wallet can handle. What they all have in common is small size, usually small enough to easily slip into a pocket. The problem with compact cameras is that unless you’re willing to spend a heck of a lot of money on one, you’re going to be better off just using the camera in your cellphone. Modern cell phone cameras are excellent, often far superior to most of the compact cameras on the market, especially the inexpensive cameras.

The other thing that is true or, rather, used to be true about compact cameras, is that they were very simple to use. They were basically point-and-shoot cameras. There were few if any settings to worry about, the camera’s computers took care of setting everything for you. All you needed to do was point it and press the shutter button. But that’s changed too, especially at the higher prices. A lot of these cameras come with almost as many bells and whistles as DSLR cameras. And this is both good and bad. It’s good in that it gives the photographer more creative control over what the camera does. And it’s bad in that it complicates things when all you want to do is take a quick snapshot. They all will have some kind of default mode where the camera makes all of the decisions for you and all you need to do is press a button.

The good ones, like the Cannon up there, are very good indeed. But it will also cost you about $650, and for not much more than that you can get a pretty nice DSLR with better specifications.

Sidenote: If you have a relatively modern, high quality cellphone, either one of the Android models or an iPhone, chances are good you already have a camera that is as good as, or even better than, most of the compact cameras on the market. If you have something like an iPhone 13 or a Samsung Galaxy S22, you already have one of the best compact cameras made.

Yes, some of them have some pretty clever electronics and software built into them with some interesting special effects capabilities and things like that. Some of them have some pretty nifty zoom lenses. But most of that stuff, well, frankly a lot of those ‘features’ are little more than gimmicks that you’ll play with a couple of times and then never use again.

The only reason to really buy a compact camera is if you need a pocket sized camera with a decent telephoto lens. And if that is your need, go for it. But you’re going to pay for it. Figure on spending around $400+ for a good one.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of these cameras are excellent. I’ve owned a few that were pretty darned good. But I also have a iPhone 13 pro max, and the camera in that is, frankly, amazing, and far, far better than any of the compact cameras I’ve owned in the past.

Bridge cameras are supposed to fill a niche between compact cameras and full blown DSLR. They will have, maybe, much better sensors which offer better resolution photos, better lenses, possibly a zoom lens that will reach out to about 25x telephoto or more, and lots and lots of goodies in the software that let you do interesting things. They will give you some control over things like shutter speeds, apateure, focus, etc. They are supposed to be a jump up in quality from compact cameras, but don’t have interchangeable lenses and lack some of the high end features of a DSLR, which is supposed to help make them cheaper and easier to use than a full blown DSLR.

Yeah… Right…

Here’s the thing with bridge cameras, they’re sort of like the worst of both worlds. You have a camera that is heavy, awkward to carry around, physically as large as a DSLR, and damned near as expensive as a DSLR, but without the advantages of having a DSLR’s interchangeable lenses.

Some of the bridge cameras are excellent, even outstanding. Even some of the ones in the under $500 range aren’t too bad. But if you want a really good one? Be prepared for a bit of sticker shock because some of these puppies will run you well over a grand, which is getting up into DSLR territory.

The biggest problem with bridge cameras, IMO, is the lens. Because the lens cannot be removed it has to be able to do everything the photographer may want to do. They come with a “do it all” type lens that can go from extreme closeups (macro) to extreme telephoto. And in order to do that they have to make compromises that affect things like focus, depth of field, shutter speeds, etc.

And then as I mentioned above, there is a problem with the cost. Yes, you can get a decent bridge camera for around $500. But the really good ones with what I consider to be professional quality features and and software are all in the $700+ range, and some of them run as high as almost $2,000. Just for comparison, my Nikon D5600 DSLR, with a pretty nice 55mm lens, is going for under $800 right now on Amazon.

Let’s move on to SLR type cameras.

DSLR – That’s an acronym that carries over from the film camera era when SLR cameras were considered the high end. So what’s the big deal with SLR type cameras? There are two things, interchangeable lenses and how the photographer sees the image in the viewfinder.

Before SLRs came along, cameras had a separate viewfinder. Sometimes this was little more than a peep hole bolted to the body of the camera to give you a general idea of what you were aiming at. Sort of. You weren’t seeing what the camera was seeing through the lens. Because you weren’t actually seeing what the camera was seeing, this caused a lot of problems. The viewfinder could be misaligned or because of things like parallax, you couldn’t tell if the focus was correct, etc.

SLR cameras use a mirror and prism system where a mirror drops down in front of the film (or sensor in the case of digital cameras) directing the light from the lens into a prism which sends that light into the viewfinder and to your eye. With a SLR what you are seeing in the viewfinder is exactly what the camera sees through the lens. When you press the shutter button, the mirror snaps out of the way so the light coming through the lens falls on the film (or sensor), giving you an image that is, if everything works right, exactly what you saw through the viewfinder.

Needless to say, the ability for the photographer to see exactly what the camera was seeing through the lens was an important development. The SLR system was first introduced in 1935 and has been in use ever since. That it’s been around for nearly a hundred years should give you an idea of just how useful it is. Things are changing, though, and mirrorless cameras are starting to become popular, but I’ll look at those in a minute.

SLR type cameras also have interchangeable lenses. You aren’t stuck with whatever lens the manufacturer decided was best. You can get different apertures, different focal lengths, telephoto, zoom, macro, wide angle, etc. And you weren’t stuck with a single lens manufacturer either. The only problem was that every camera maker had their own lens mounting system, so your Nikon lenses wouldn’t work on your Canon camera, etc.

SLR type cameras also generally have better, well, better everything, really. Better sensors, higher resolution images, better electronics, better software, more options for getting the best exposure, aperture settings, shutter speeds, etc. The problem with all of that is, of course, figuring out how to use all of it to your advantage. Even back in the pre-digital days a lot of SLR cameras had a bewildering variety of knobs and buttons to allow you to set up the camera for the perfect photo, giving you a large number of ways to screw up your photos. Modern cameras with their fancy electronics and processing abilities give you even more control, more complexity, and even more interesting ways of messing up. You can adjust white balance, contrast, brightness, color intensity, shutter speeds, aperture settings, even do some special effects. A lot of these cameras come with WiFi and Bluetooth to connect to your phone or computer to transfer images directly to other devices

Almost all DSLR cameras come with some kind of automated “point-and-shoot” mode where you just let the onboard computers control all of that stuff for you, but if that’s all you’re going to do you might as well stick with a compact camera. One of the points of getting a DSLR is so you can fiddle with all of that stuff to get the perfect photo. So if you do decide to get one of these be prepared to do a lot of homework and a lot of experimenting before you become proficient with it. But the results are worth it.

Now we come to mirrorless cameras. These are a relatively new development. They are basically SLR type cameras that have gotten rid of the mirror. That mirror has always been a bit of a pain in the neck. It is mechanically complex in that it has to drop down in front of the focal plane of the camera to reflect the image into the view finder, and then almost instantly snap up out of the way when you press the shutter button. This can cause vibration, which can mess up an image. It is expensive to manufacturer. It is always a potential failure point in SLR type cameras. And then someone said hey, wait a minute, why do we need that mirror system at all? Just pick off the video from the primary sensor and route that to an LCD display and/or a viewfinder.

And that is the direction cameras are moving these days. A lot of big camera makers are starting to, or already have, phased out most of their SLR style cameras in favor of the mirrorless variety. Despite some pushback from some photographers, mirrorless cameras make a lot of sense and I think you’re eventually going to see DSLR type cameras go away. Does this mean you shouldn’t buy a DSLR? No. DSLR cameras work very, very well. And despite all of the hype about mirrorless cameras, IMO the only thing that makes them attractive is that they are less mechanically complicated and have fewer moving parts that can break. In some ways DSLR cameras are still superior, but that’s changing rapidly. The mirrorless cameras that I’ve seen are very, very nice. I have no incentive to get one, though. I am more than satisfied with the one I have.

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

So, which one should you get? Heck, I don’t know. It’s entirely up to you. That’s going to depend entirely on you. All of the different types of cameras have advantages and disadvantages. There is no such thing as a “perfect” camera. There is no quick and easy answer to that question. All of them have advantages and disadvantages. You’re going to have to decide for yourself if the disadvantages are worth it.

Photos From The Backroads and a New Bike

The new bike, a Specialized Vado
That’s my Giant 24 speed. That turned out to be a heck of a good bike. Aside from a few broken spokes and replacing the tires when necessary it’s worked perfectly for thousands of miles.

The new bike first: When I started bicycling when I retired it surprised the family a lot. They all figured the bike I bought would end up gathering dust in the garage. Here we are several thousand miles later and I’m still at it, and it was time to replace my old bike with something a bit better, and that’s it up in the first photo. It’s a Specialized Vado and it is very, very nice. Hydraulic disc brakes, built in lights, great front suspension, a fancy built in computer system, a cargo carrier on the back I can strap stuff to. And best of all, a motor.

Yes, it’s an ebike. I still have to pedal, I still get my heart and respiration rates up, I still get back from a long ride with my legs pleasantly tired. I have the thing set up so I do most of the work but when I get to a steep hill the motor gives me a boost to help me get up the hill, or gives me an extra burst of speed to get away from dogs that want to eat me. I’m no spring chicken. I’m sixty-eight this year and while I’m in pretty good shape I’ve been getting twinges in my knees trying to power up hills and I’ve been having to drop down a gear or two to get up ’em.

The Vado is, frankly, amazing. And it is well suited to the type of riding I do which is, I must admit, pretty leisurely. I make a lot of stops to take photos and I’m out there not so much to get exercise but to enjoy nature. I watch birds and animal life, look at the vegetation, watch the sun coming up, stop to take pictures and that kind of thing. The Vado is perfect for me. I’ve had it for about a week and I have over a hundred miles on it now and I love it. I did a twenty mile ride the other day that would have left me exhausted on the other bike. I’ll take a closer look at the Vado later after I’ve lived with it a while long.

When I’m out on the road on the bike I’m constantly stopping to take photos of stuff I find interesting, things that you don’t see when you’re zooming past at sixty mph, so here are a few.

I live about a 4 mile ride away from an extensive trail system. It runs more than 20 miles north all the way to Green Bay, and from a little town called Forest Junction it also branches off to the east to the town of Brillion. This is the trail that runs to Brillion.

These grow wild in the ditches all over around here and I suspect most people don’t even see how beautiful they are because they’re zooming past at 80 mph or too busy trying to text, talk on the phone and eat a cheeseburger at the same time.
I found this stunning flower growing along the side of one of the trails. I took about a dozen photos of it from different angles.
This is another “weed” that grows all over around here. But up close it has one of the prettiest flowers I’ve ever seen.
I’d stopped at a small parking area for a nature reserve to get a drink and found this lonely little guy hiding in the tall grass. I thought it was one of the loveliest things I’d seen. There’s something about the symmetry of those petals surrounding that central pod that I found very striking.
And of course I had to include queen anne’s lace. The stuff grows everywhere in the ditches along the roads around here. Those intricate little flowers that make up that lace like structure are amazing.
Another “weed” you’ll find growing along the roads around here.
A thistle, one of several varieties that grow around here. They’re considered a “noxious weed” around here but the flowers are this rich purple-lavender color and so beautifully delicate that I find myself photographing them a lot.

This is, I think a verbascum or mullein. Maybe. My father called it wild tobacco which seems to be a fairly common name for it. When I was a kid I’d see this stuff all over the place. On the farm it would grow along the makeshift roads we had around the farm to access the fields and sometimes along cattle trails. It can be a spectacular plant, growing up to three or four feet tall.
This is the river down by the old stone bridge and that white thing you see out there is a pelican. I watched this guy swimming around feeding for several minutes.

And that’s it for this time. Hope you enjoyed the photos.

BTW: You’re more than welcome to leave comments in the comments section. Or you can reach me at old.grouchyfarmer@gmail.com.

First Veggies of the Season

Well sort of. We’ve been eating lettuce all along and picking beans for over a week now so technically this isn’t the first, but the peppers are starting to come in now. This is the first bell pepper of the season and it’s destined to turn into supper, along with that onion and baby garlic head up there. The garlic MrsGF put in as an experiment in early spring is looking fantastic. We couldn’t resist pulling one up to see how they’re looking and that’s a perfect little baby head of garlic. In another couple of months they’ll be ready to harvest. Well if they last that long.

When someone asks me why we do all the work to grow vegetables when they’re so cheap to buy (even now with inflation veggies are cheap if you stick with the generic store brands), my answer is simple. It’s the flavor. The stuff you buy in the grocery store produce department has been bred specifically to make the produce easier to harvest, store for longer periods of time, and to look more appealing to the eye. And in the process of breeding for those traits what they’ve also done is eliminated a lot of the flavor and aroma.

Tree Update, Gardens a Lily, and Heat

Let’s start out with heat. Yesterday it hit 95 here and today it’s supposed to be even hotter. The only thing we did outside yesterday was water the gardens in the evening. It was too hot to do much of anything except huddle around the air conditioner and today is going to be even worse. I know Wisconsin is known for things like ice fishing and snowmobiling, but we do get hot weather here, but only rarely does it get this hot. (Edit: I wrote the above at around 7 AM and it was already in the low 80s. It’s now late afternoon and my recording thermometer tells me we hit a high today of 101. Sheesh…)

Do I need to tell you that I am really, really glad I’m not farming any more when we get weather like this? Remembering what it was like to be out working in the fields or, even worse, milking cows in that crowded old barn, makes me shudder. I don’t know how the hell we managed to do it back then. We’d rush through milking as fast as we could and quickly get the cows down into the woods where there were springs with plenty of water and a lot of shade and it was much, much cooler. Of course today they can’t do that. The majority of cattle these days are crowded into feedlots and never see actual real grass or natural springs and streams in their entire lives.

I’ve been slowly working on cleaning up the mess that was left after they brought the trees down. That picture up there shows what I was left to deal with after they were done. And the picture below is what it looks like now.

As you can see considerable progress has been made in reducing the pile of wood. Considering I’m just one old guy with a chainsaw nibbling away at it when I get some time, I think I’ve made pretty good progress. There’s actually less now than what you see. Pretty much all that’s left out there is just the main trunk from the ash tree.

My neighbor came over with his little Oliver and hauled out three good sized logs that will hopefully go to a friend of his who has a small sawmill. The idea there is to slab them to eventually make table tops out of the slabs.

The gardens are looking good, but things are getting dry again. We’ve been watering all of the vegetable gardens almost on a daily basis, especially now that it’s got so hot and breezy. That hot wind really sucks the moisture out of the soil.

The carrots are looking absolutely amazing. We need to get in there and start thinning them out again so they have a chance to grow to a decent size. Why so many carrots? Well, why not? They’re tasty. The home grown varieties always seem to have much better flavor and are much sweeter than the ones we get in the store. And they’re easy to harvest, clean and freeze.

The beets are looking just as good. MrsGF and I both love beets. We like them roasted or made into harvard beets or just cooked up on a stove top with a bit of butter, salt and pepper.

And you can see that the onions to the right of the beets are looking good as well. We put in a lot of onions this year because I want to can pickled onions. We have a mix of white, yellow and red onions out there. And they’re delicious right now, young, tender, sweet but with a delightful spiciness to them.

We only put in three tomato plants this year because we still have a lot of tomato sauces on the shelves down in the basement. They’re looking pretty good and are just starting to blossom.

We put in pole beans again this year. We had good luck with them last year and they looking like they’re going to be just as good this year.

We also have some bush beans planted in the corner garden, along with some squash. The stuff does really well well but we really have to watch the moisture levels in the soil. This corner dries out very, very quickly. Those squash plants you see behind the line of beans will rather quickly grow and totally overwhelm that whole area if we don’t keep them trimmed back. It’s amazing how fast those squash vines grow once they get started.

We’re trying to plant pepper plants along the south side of the house this year. This is another area where we have to watch the moisture levels. that area dries out very quickly as well so they have to be watered every day as well. We were thinking of expanding this area out to about the end of the downspouts, more than tripling the size of the bed. We might do that this fall after the peppers are done.

Ooo, and I can’t forget the lily! They’re just starting to pop open and they look amazing!

Let’s see, what else…

We still haven’t really decided what we’re going to do in the area where the tree was. We’re still thinking of making a large decorative raised bed back there surrounded by stone or brick. It’s going to depend on how much work and money we want to sink into that area. We probably won’t do anything until at least this fall, maybe not until spring next year.

Woodworking projects are all on hold as I’m doing some major remodeling in the workshop. The 25 year old fluorescent lights, along with the entire ceiling, are coming down. Lights are going to be replaced with LEDs and I am not going to put another drop ceiling in there. The ceiling is pretty high in there and I’m thinking about building a lumber storage area up there. Right now my spare boards and things are sitting on pallets in the other part of the basement taking up a huge amount of floor space and it’s always in the way.

Chainsaw, Trees, and What Happens to that Wood?

Chainsaw Stuff

Let’s start off with chainsaws. I talked about the little DeWalt 20B Max SR 12 inch chainsaw back in March of last year when I first got it. It’s small, lightweight, and runs off the same battery packs my other DeWalt cordless tools use. It’s currently selling for around $240 on Amazon. Up until recently it’s been lightly used for cutting fallen branches, trimming small tree limbs, cutting up firewood to fit into the outdoor fire ring, etc. I like it. It’s light weight, well made, and basically it’s a tough little saw that does what it’s supposed to do. But when the trees came down in the backyard, I became even more impressed with the little saw. It works much, much better than I ever thought it would.

Battery life is impressive. Just look at that trailer load of wood up there. It cut up all of that on just one battery. And those aren’t little two inch branches, either. Those are ash and maple logs about 10 – 12 inches thick. The motor is surprisingly strong. It had no trouble at all dealing with 10 inch thick hard ash. It just kept going, and going, and going.

I am really impressed with that little saw. It does have its limits, of course. If I push it too hard it will over heat and shut itself down until it cools off, but that’s only happened to me twice, and both times I was really pushing the saw’s limits. Otherwise it’s been great. The only thing it needs other than electricity is standard chainsaw bar oil.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a small chainsaw to hack up fallen branches, trim trees and other light use, take a look at it.

While I’m talking about saws I have to mention the Husqvarna 440. That little saw has been working well beyond expectations as well. It’s a standard 2 stroke gasoline engine (requires gasoline mixed with oil). It’s done the vast majority of the work of dealing with the two trees. This is actually my son’s saw so it was already used when I got it from him. I had to replace the bar and chain and it was running a bit rough and he complained that it was hard to start. I’ve had no problems with it, though. It is a bit quirky to get started. When the engine is cold you have to follow the recommended starting procedure exactly. If you do that it’ll start right up. When it’s warm you don’t do anything except pull the starting cord. If you fiddle with the choke or throttle when it’s warm it isn’t going to start.

Side note: Husqvarna recommends you use their branded premixed gasoline in their saws. And at the time I bought the 440 they were claiming that if you promised to only use their premixed gas they would double the saw’s warranty. (Exactly how they’d know you’d used only their gas in the saw is something I don’t know.) The problem is that their branded gas sells for an eye watering $8 per quart. Per quart. That works out to $32 per gallon. Seriously? All it is is premium non-ethanol gasoline with a couple of ounces of oil and a preservative like Stabil mixed into it. That’s it. Let’s say premium non-ethanol gas is selling for $6 a gallon. You need to buy a premeasured little bottle of oil for $1, then a splash of Stabil if you feel you really need it. Total cost for a gallon of fuel if you mix it yourself is about $7 per gallon for exactly the same stuff Husqvarna wants to sell you for $32 a gallon.

Trees and Wood

So let’s talk about wood and trees for a minute. If you live in a town like I do and you have trees, eventually you will reach the point where one or more of your trees needs to come down for a variety of reasons. Getting a tree taken down by a professional tree removal service is not cheap and you may be tempted to do it yourself. Do I really need to tell you to very strongly resist that temptation? Just look up “tree fails” on YouTube sometime and you’ll see why. I’ve dropped a lot of trees in my lifetime but even I wouldn’t try to bring down a tree near buildings, gardens, sheds, garages, power lines, etc.

So what happens to all this stuff after a tree comes down?

But one thing I always wondered is what happens to the wood when one of those tree services brings down a tree in a city or a town? A lot of these trees aren’t all that big, true, but some of them are massive, like the ash and maple that were taken down here a couple of weeks ago. Now wood is a valuable resource. As anyone who’s been doing remodeling or who builds furniture or does anything that requires wood these days can tell you, lumber prices have skyrocketed in the last two years. Prices have moderated somewhat but they’re still high. So I always figured that the wood from all those trees was being used for, well, something. Firewood if nothing else, but I was really hoping all those nice logs were going for something useful. But I was curious and did some digging and found out that more often than not, I was wrong.

The small limbs are fed into a chipper which shreds them up. That stuff I assumed was going for mulch or compost. Sometimes it is but generally, no, it isn’t. Landscapers don’t want the stuff for mulch because they want only wood chips. This stuff has lots and lots of leaves shreded up in it. Landscapers are also (with some justification) worried about plant diseases being spread. It can be composted, but that’s time consuming and often expensive to do, especially on a large scale. Sometimes it’s sent to a power plant that burns it as fuel. A lot of the time it just gets dumped somewhere where it rots, or it ends up in a landfill.

I thought that here in Wisconsin where a lot of people burn wood for heat a lot of the bigger limbs would be going for firewood. That doesn’t seem to be true either. The firewood market has a glut of wood right now because of all the ash trees coming done because of the emerald ash borer. They don’t want the stuff. The tree service guy talked to several, even offered to bring it to them for free. They don’t want it. Every individual I talked to who burns wood has more than they can use already. And Wisconsin has a regulation prohibiting the movement of firewood across county lines in an effort to the contain the emerald ash borer. A regulation that has done absolutely nothing to even slow down the movement of the ash borer in the state, I should add.

What about the logs then, the wood that could be turned into lumber for construction or furniture or whatever? The commercial sawmills around here won’t touch urban wood. And once I found out why I can’t say I blame them. The stuff that comes out of towns and cities is often full of metal – nails and screws from people attaching birdhouses or whatever to it, steel cables and even massive bolts that were used on the tree if it started to split, and things like that. They don’t want risk damaging their saws.

What about these guys you see on YouTube with portable sawmills who will come to you to cut up your old tree into lumber? Good luck trying to actually find one.

So what’s happening to my trees out back? I’m setting aside some pieces that might be useful for my lathe, but mostly they’re getting cut up for firewood and I’m stacking it up in the backyard as I get it cut. I have a couple of people who are interested in some of the bigger pieces to use for lumber but that’s not certain at the moment. I have one guy who says he’ll take the bigger logs, but I know for a fact he doesn’t have a way of getting them out of here to his facility. His equipment can only handle stuff weighing up to 1,500 lbs and I know for a fact that the one ash log weighs more than his loader does. I’ll get the bigger stuff cut up into more manageable sizes, roll it into an out of the way spot in the backyard and see what happens. If none of these guys get here to deal with it, it’ll get cut up too. I know enough people who burn wood for heat that I’ll get rid of it eventually.

Trees Come Down

Aspen Tree Service from Chilton was here Thursday and Friday of last week to take down the ash and maple trees out back. The ash tree he’s working on in the photo looks fairly healthy but it wasn’t. About a quarter of the branches he’s taking out up there were already dead or dying. He found evidence of a fungus infestation up there as well as some rot starting in the crotches where the main branches attached to the trunk. The maple tree was in even worse condition.

To give you an idea of how bad that ash tree was that pile of firewood in the foreground to the right of the chairs are just from branches that fell down in the last few months

I’ve dropped a lot of trees in my life but there is no way I would try to bring down two full size trees near buildings and decorative landscape features like these two are. In cases like this I let the professionals who have the equipment and experience deal with these situations. These guys are good. They’ve been in the business for years and know what they’re doing.

And down comes the ash. That tree was pretty massive. All of us underestimated just how big the thing was. The main trunk ended up being almost 36 inches thick. The maple was smaller, about 28 inches thick at the base.

Normally when these guys get done with a job you can hardly even tell there used to be a tree there. They clean up everything, haul it all away, take out the stump, repair any grass that was damaged, seed bare ground, etc. But I complicated things for them because I wanted to keep the wood, or most of it. They chipped the brush and hauled it off but I got everything else. And now I have a massive pile of wood to deal with.

Why would I keep all that stuff? I hate to see anything go to waste, especially trees. I love trees, but I know that eventually all trees die and have to be taken down and I’d like to see them used for something useful rather than ending up being chipped for mulch. Even going for firewood would be better than having them just dumped somewhere and left to rot. We have friends and family members who use wood for heat so a lot of the smaller stuff might go to them.

We’re contacting a couple of local guys who have small sawmills to see if they can use anything in that pile up there to make some usable lumber. The problem with urban trees is that the big lumber companies don’t want to deal with them. Running their equipment into a town just to pick up one or two logs isn’t cost effective for them. Plus the logs are often too short for them to get commercial sized lumber out of them. They want logs that are over 8 feet long and most tree services cut them up much smaller than that to make them easier to remove. And the firewood dealers around here don’t want to deal with 36 inch thick logs, either. It’s too big for their equipment to handle. So as often as not those logs end up being dumped in an old gravel pit somewhere and just rotting away.

I want to keep a lot of the wood myself. I’m going to make bowl blanks out of as much of the wood as I can for future projects. Ash and maple are both great woods for making wood turnings. I figure I’ll end up with enough material to keep me busy for the rest of my life.

There’s a stump in there too, somewhere. We’re going to keep that too. That’s going to become some kind of centerpiece for a decorative feature we’ll be putting in back there. We’re kind of tossing around ideas for how to deal with it. Right now we’re leaning towards the idea of using the stump as a base for a bench in the center of a decorative garden. We’ll see how that goes once we get the mess cleaned up back there.

On The Silly Side…

On the silly side of things I’m making allegedly humorous “artwork” for a brewpub down in Milwaukee and then using one of the lasers to engrave it on stuff for them. Drinks coasters seem really popular. People just sort of start giggling over these things when they find them under their glasses at the bar. I either draw the images myself or, as is the case with the one on the left, I find public domain images and add suitable captions. Hopefully people steal them and take them home. They’re cheap to make and if people pass ’em around it’s good PR for the pub.

Spring Means Gardening! Plus Dr Who and more Stuff!

After a brief bout with unusual heat where temperatures pushed into the 90s (Appleton school district actually canceled classes last Friday because of heat) we’re back down to daytime temps in the 60s and low 70s, which is close to what we should be getting. The gardens are coming along nicely. We decided to put off increasing the size of any of the planting beds or making other major decisions until after the trees come down so we can better decide what we want to do out there.

The big decorative bed out towards the back of the yard is doing well. The irises are looking beautiful and so are the other plants that made it through the winter. It doesn’t look like MrsGF’s blueberry made it though, alas. We just haven’t had any luck at all when it comes to blueberries. Either they succumbed to some kind of fungus, even though they were supposed to be resistant to that, or they didn’t survive the winter.

The raised beds are looking very good indeed. Carrots and beets are all up and looking good and the garlic and onions are doing quite well. We put in a lot of onions this year. We use a lot of them, both for eating fresh, as an ingredient in tomato sauces and other recipes, salads, etc. And they just taste better than what you get at the store. Most of the varieties you see at the grocery stores seem to be moving towards types that don’t actually taste like onions any longer. They’ve decided that consumers don’t like tangy, spicey onions and they want varieties that are more mild, lack flavor, and even are sweet. If you like sweet onions, good for you. Everyone has different likes and dislikes. But I want an onion that smells and tastes like an onion. We had one bag of store bought onions come through here where I swear I thought I had Covid because I couldn’t smell them when I was cutting them up. They were so mild you could have eaten one like an apple.

The hostas in front of the house are looking really good this year. They seem to do quite well up in front even though the soil up there is really, really nasty.

And the goofy little Hens and Chicks up there that we scattered around the fence posts are doing pretty good too. They’re now moving all along the area between the cedar fence and sidewalk. They’re fun little things and seem to do good up there.

We have pole beans in this one. They did pretty good last year so we decided to plant them again. Along with more onions and some lettuce that I think we’ll be able to start eating in another week or so.

The corner garden has squash again this year, with parsley planted along the outside edge and, of course Mr. Spiny the cactus back there on the right.

Things are really dry here right now. We had to start watering the gardens yesterday. Our weather patterns here seem to have really changed a lot over the last few years. We’re getting more long periods without rain at unusual times of the year, unusual periods of extreme heat, less snow during the winter. Weather is highly variable, of course, but this seems to be a trend moving towards less predictable weather events.


Dr. Who – I must confess I’m something of a Dr. Who fan. Sort of. Or was, rather. My affection for the Dr. goes way back to the era of rubber monsters, all the “alien” worlds being filmed in the same rock quarry, and the utterly silly fellow with the long scarf and an addiction to jelly babies. Basically it was a kids show with a skimpy budget, often ridiculously silly plots, bad acting and, well, you name it. It was juvenile. It was fun.

But then came along Colin Baker as the Dr and he and the writing just rubbed me the wrong way. Baker came off, IMO, as utterly arrogant and, frankly, an asshole. And his sidekick, Perry, played by Nicola Bryant, quickly became known around the family as “Miss Cleavage” because of the often ridiculously low cut shirts she was dressed in to show off her, well, cleavage, for basically no reason 0ther than trying to “sex it up”, so to speak. I suspect they were trying to push up sagging ratings as high as the outfits pushed up Ms. Bryant’s anatomy.

That was the end of my watching Dr. Who until the reboot when Eccleston popped up as the new doctor and, well, wow. All of a sudden the show had an actual real budget with actual real special effects and actual real plot lines and good acting (mostly) and good writing (sometimes). And it stayed good for quite some time. But then the show started to suffer from what I call The Topper Syndrome. The writers weren’t satisfied with just writing good stories. Every new episode had to top the last one, they had to get bigger and more exciting and cover more and more crazy monsters and conspiracies and have bigger explosions and you just can’t keep that kind of thing up for very long without ‘jumping the shark’, as they say. That phrase means a show has so worn itself out that it has to resort to ever more bizarre and ridiculous stunts and gimmicks in order to try to keep it’s sagging ratings from sinking even further.

Then along came Jodi Whitaker as the first female doctor and I thought that, finally, the show was going to refresh itself, become more interesting, more entertaining, focus on story and plot and… And no, it didn’t. They utterly wasted Ms. Whitaker’s talents by bogging her down in one endlessly dull, and even insulting story after another. A lot of people attributed the flagging ratings and increasing criticism of the show to misogyny on the part of the Who fans, and even to racism and prejudice because the story lines now included persons who experienced physical and mental challenges and dealt with racism. I don’t think that’s true, though. I do think the show went over the top occasionally because it seemed it was going out of its way to be “inclusive”, but I think the real problem was that the writing was just plain not very good and the directing was even worse. As often as not Ms. Whitaker was made to look like some kind of overactive, over excited child hopped up on espresso and sugar instead of a thousand year old Time Lord.

So now we’re about to get a new Dr. Who, Ncuti Gatwa and I am very much looking forward to seeing him in the role. He’s young, just 29, and IMO he’s an excellent actor who I think can bring new energy, new poise and a new interpretation to the role. He’ll be the first black actor to take on the role.

What I find a bit curious is that they’re bringing back the Rose Tyler character, but she is not going to be played by Billie Piper who was the original in the series reboot. Rose Tyler is now going to be played by Yasmin Finney. Exactly how they are going to explain Rose Tyler changing from a young white female into a young black transgender woman is going to be interesting. I’m rather looking forward to that too.

Rumor has it that the “multiverse” is going to be involved. The multiverse has become just one of a long series of deus ex machina plot devices writers turn to when they write themselves into a corner. Dr. Who has already dabbled in that nonsense early on when the Rose Tyler character became too intensely involved with the Dr, so they conveniently trapped her in a different universe that she couldn’t escape from. Well, couldn’t escape from until the writers decided that she could.

One of the issues with the rebooted series is that they constantly introduce story lines that focus on the Dr’s companions, and the companions start to become more popular with fans than the Dr and they can’t have that so they have to get rid of companions or the show isn’t about the Doctor any more. So Rose Tyler ends up trapped in another universe. Amelia and Rory get trapped in the early 20th century for reasons that are never adequately explained and die of old age, Clara outright dies, but then is resurrected again immediately and somehow is still out there, somewhere, running around in a stolen Tardis, still dead but somehow still alive, Donna Noble, they had to get rid of her because she got too popular and somehow absorbed all of the knowledge of the Time Lords, so they erased her memory… But then plot holes big enough to drive a truck through and unsatisfying loose ends (like Clara, and the the Dr’s daughter (technically a sort of clone but that’s what they called her)) are, alas, rather common.

Here’s a lesson for you, if some dude in funny clothes shows up in a Tardis and wants you to go traveling with him, don’t go. It doesn’t end well.