Still More Stuff!

Weather news has been pretty boring around here, which isn’t a bad thing. Mostly it’s been hot. Like large parts of the country (and apparently large parts of the world) we’ve had unusually warm weather during the last couple of weeks, but that seems to have moderated.

What’s been interesting is the lack of storms here. We haven’t had a single thunder storm here all season. At least not one that amounted to more than a few distant rumbles. Storms have gone all round us, north, south, etc. But pretty much nothing has rolled over the county since the start of storm season. It’s been so odd that people are starting to wonder what’s going on.

There is an old theory floating that because of our location between Lake Winnebago and Lake Michigan, some kind of updrafts or downdrafts or some other curious effect caused by the two lakes does something to keep storms away. I’ve heard this theory before and it is nonsense, really. All it takes to debunk it is a quick glance at past weather data. If you look at the historical data you quickly see that this area is just as prone to severe weather, thunder storms, and tornadoes as the rest of the state.

The garden is going gangbusters. The hot temperatures and high humidity have everything growing like crazy. The tomatoes up there in the lead photo are absolutely lush and loaded with young fruit. The pepper plants (what in the world are we going to do with all the peppers we planted? What were we thinking?) are loaded with blossoms an young fruit. The two squash plants are looking good. The cucumbers look a bit ragged, but I’m the only one who eats fresh cukes around here anyway so if they don’t do good no one cares. Lettuce, we have so much lettuce we’re getting sick of it and the onions are now big enough that we can stop buying from the store and just run out to the back yard and pull a couple when we need them. Green beans are looking good after a few issues earlier in the year. Even the parsley, which got in very late, is up and looking good. We have sunflowers starting to blossom. It’s a great time of the year.

Keeping up with watering is a pain. It’s been pretty dry over the last couple of weeks and we have to water everything almost every day now. But that’s not unusual for this time of year.

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Out on the trails it’s been beautiful, but the hot, humid weather makes it a bit troublesome. I carry about 2 quarts of water with me when I go out and go through at least half of that by the time I get back. Depends on the temperature and how hard I push it. I’m not a ‘power biker’ by any stretch of the imagination. I’m lucky if I keep up an average speed of 8 – 9 mph when I’m out, and I rarely go more than 10 – 15 miles. And there are always surprises, like that photo above. That, believe it or not, is a flock of about 30 pelicans having some kind of feeding frenzy on the river down by the old stone bridge on Irish Road about 4 miles out of town.

I never expected to see pelicans way out here. They generally stay close to the bigger lakes, like Michigan and Winnebago. Seeing a whole flock of them feeding in a tiny river like this was quite a surprise.

This was another surprise:

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This goof is probably the one that scared the hell out of me the other day when it bounded up onto the trail right in front of me a week ago. I’ve been seeing an unusual number of deer out in the open this summer, even in broad daylight. According to the old timers it’s because the mosquitoes and biting flies are absolutely vicious this year and it’s driving the deer out of the woods. Judging from my own experience, that’s probably true.

The mosquitos this year are horrible. If I get within 5 feet of the tomatoes or raspberries or other fairly dense vegetation after about 5 pm and I see clouds of the damned things come swarming up out of the plants and heading straight for me. It’s gotten to the point where I’m considering chemical warfare. I don’t like using insecticides for a lot of reasons, but it’s gotten so bad it’s impossible to go in the backyard. And considering West Nile Virus is popping up all over the place, well… I start eyeing those cans of foggers on the shelf and it’s damned tempting.

Out on the trail it’s gotten bad too. I can’t stop anywhere in the shade or I get swarmed by the things. Out in the sun on the road where there aren’t any trees or bushes it isn’t too bad. But on the trail itself you don’t dare stop for more than a few seconds.

Speaking of biking… It looks like I’m going to have to put new tires on the bike by the end of the month. They’re starting to look a bit worn. I have to admit I don’t know how many miles you’re supposed to get out of a set of bike tires, but I have about 1,100 miles on these now.

Yeah, that’s right, 1,100 miles. I’m a bit surprised by that. The odometer reads 1,000 miles, but I put over 100 miles on the bike before I put the odometer on it, so 1,100 is probably pretty accurate. If you’re an avid biker that probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a 64 year old grouchy old fart who hadn’t been on a bicycle since 1980? That’s kind of surprising.

Speaking of biking, I’m going to get out for a while before it gets too hot.

It’s Been Busy…

MrsGF had last week off so we took some time to go wandering around in between getting caught up with chores and gardening. We headed down to Fond du Lac, a small city on the southern end of Lake Winnebago. I’ve always liked the town. I used to spend a lot of time down there, and so did MrsGF. When I was a technician working for a POS company I had three clients I worked with down there, two grocery stores and a commercial bakery, and MrsGF worked there too for a while when she was with Aramark for a few years.

We rarely get down there now so we just wandered around town for a while looking at how things have changed over the years. It’s still a very pleasant town, but it’s had it’s problems over the years, along with just about every other city in the country. Like most small cities, trying to keep it’s downtown district from falling apart has been a problem. Fondy has been fairly successful. There are very few empty storefronts, and while you won’t see any big name retailers down there, most of the shops seem to be doing fairly well financially.

We’re lucky enough to live near Lake Winnebago. The lake is big. It’s 30 miles long and ten miles wide at it’s widest point. It’s a hotbed of activity all year long. During warmer weather boating (both sail and power boating), water skiing, swimming and fishing keeps, including some big fishing tournaments, keeps the place busy. In winter the lake has ice boating, snowmobiling, skiing and, of course, ice fishing. At the peak of the ice fishing season, there will be thousands of people out on the ice trying to catch perch, bluegills and, of course, 6 or 7 foot long, 200+ pound sturgeon. IMG_0904.jpg

We stopped at Pipe, a small town along the eastern shore with a wonderful little park and boat launch area. Alas, you could have gone surfing on Winnebago that day. There were 4 or 5 foot waves crashing into the shore and lots of whitecaps out there, and very few people willing to brave the waves to try fishing.

Back at home things are growing like crazy, but it was a bit iffy there for a while. We went through a very dry period where we had to water everything on a daily basis, to it being way too wet after we got deluged with about 6 inches of rain in two days.

One sign that summer is here is the lilies are coming into full bloom now. Screen Shot 2018-06-22 at 6.55.52 AM.png

This pink one has over a hundred blossoms on it. MrsGF didn’t believe me when I told her that so I dragged her outside and made her count them herself.

The real show stopper is this one, though:IMG_0921.jpg

The color on this one is so intense it almost glows in the dark.

And the pear tree — good grief…IMG_0923.jpg

The tree is so heavily laden with fruit that I think we’re going to have to get out there and snip some of them off or the branches are going to break off from the weight as the pears mature.

More Stuff!

Almost as soon as the weather got warmer the bike got pulled out of storage and I was out on it. It took me a few days to get back into it again, but it was easier than I thought it was going to be. Apparently doing the treadmill every day during the winter kept me from completely falling apart and it wasn’t long before it was comfortable to be back in the saddle and putting on more than a few miles.

IMG_0895This is an amazing time of year to be out in the countryside biking around. Everything is lush and green, everything is in flower this time of year. I sometimes struggle between the temptation to keep going to put on some miles in a reasonable amount of time and the temptation to stop every few hundred feet to take photos of some neat plant or flower as I rid around the backroads.

I wish the trail in the lead photo up there was a bit closer, though. The start of the trail is about four miles from town, but once you get on it, it runs for more than 30 miles all the way to Green Bay, with branches leading off into towns like Brillion.IMG_0901.jpg

This year I’m trying an app for my phone called aprs.fi. It uses the phone to tie into the APRS system. Automatic Packet Reporting system. It uses the phone to send and receive little bits of data back and forth to a network. It’s been used by amateur radio operators for many years now to send information, and one of its uses is position tracking. A lot of VHF/UHF transceivers have APRS capabilities built into them, and some transceivers have GPS built into them as well. They can be set up to periodically transmit the position of the radio to permit it to be tracked by others using the system.

MrsGf has a similar program for her iPhone plus the FTM-400DR transceiver in her car has APRS and GPS capabilities. The local ARES group she belongs to is just now looking into using APRS to track members of the group when they’re out in the field. Since APRS/GPS capable transceivers are still pretty pricy they’re looking at the APRS applications available for smart phones. Some work pretty well, others have problems, some serious. The one I use is aprs.fi and it seems well above average in it’s utility and capabilities. When the group was out doing volunteer communications for the Elkhart Lake Triathlon over the weekend a couple of people were using using some of the apps and I was able to track their positions in near real-time on a map.

IMG_0902I had it running when I was out on the bike Saturday and used it to plot my course when I did about 11 miles that morning. You can see the plot in the screen capture.

The question is why would I want to do this? Well, I’m out on the bike, on backroads or trails, and you never know what happens. Accidents, health issues, any number of things could happen that would incapacitate me. Yes, they can use the cell phone to try to find me, but trying to find the exact location of a cell phone is an iffy thing and often very inaccurate. The APRS app uses the phone’s GPS system so it’s much more accurate than trying to use the cell phone system to do the locating.

Certainly it’s a great technology for emergency services and ARES/RACES organizations should almost certainly be looking into it as a way of tracking their operators when they’re out in the field.

Let’s see, what else… The gardens are doing well. We’ve had to do a lot of watering. It’s been pretty dry around here over the last couple of weeks. Temperatures have been fairly cool after the heat wave we went through a few weeks ago.

They drag me into the clinic every 6 months so I spent the whole morning doing that. To make a long story short, everything checked out fine. All the numbers were where they are supposed to be. BP is still higher than it should be, but it’s no where near as bad as it was a year ago so I’m happy about that. And they’re delighted I’ve taken up biking. I think everyone was afraid that once I retired I was going to end up sitting on my butt all day in front of the radio or computer or television and it kind of surprised everyone that I started doing that last year.

The next thing I want to do is put together a low-power (QRP) transceiver that I can throw into a backpack and take out on the trail with me. I think it would be great fun to sit out in the woods or on a trail somewhere with an antenna strung up in a tree and trying to make contacts with just a couple of watts of power.

 

Rabbits, Cans and Antennas

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 6.07.48 AMWhile we live in town, we live in an area with large house lots, many trees, lots of bushes and a lot of rather lush vegetation, so we have the curse of the gardener, rabbits. Last year the little buggers ate all of my red runner beans almost as soon as they sprouted. There are mornings when I get up and I’ll see a half dozen of them in our yard or in the neighbors’ yards grazing on whatever the four legged locusts can gobble down. They’re getting more and more brave, too, coming out by mid afternoon in some parts of town. One of my neighbors tried live trapping them but had no success.

IMG_0891So to keep the little four legged vacuum cleaners out of our veggies we resort to fencing and one of the things MrsGF and I did over the weekend was put one up to keep them out of our produce. We got new fencing this year to replace the nasty looking chicken wire we used previously. It’s only 2 feet tall, a dark green color to make it less intrusive looking, and it’s fairly easy to put up. Hopefully it will keep the little stinkers out of our just barely sprouting beans.

Now you probably see all those #10 sized cans in there and you may not know about this trick. This is something MrsGF introduced me to years ago. When you first put seedlings out into the garden it’s something of a shock for them. They’ve just come out of a damp, warm, cozy little greenhouse and now are stuck out in the cold, cruel world and have to fend for themselves. The cans help to give them some shelter from the elements and protect them from the previously mentioned rabbits. Just get some empty #10 cans, cut the bottoms out of them, and push them about an inch into the soil around the newly transplanted seedlings. The only thing you have to remember is that when you finally pull the cans out after the plants are established is to give the can a twist before lifting it up or it can pull up large clods of earth which can disturb the roots.

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There are big changes coming for this area back here shown above. Right now it’s largely just decorative except for the lettuce bed behind the big rock. The problem back here is this area is really low and is almost underwater in the early spring, which makes it hard to grow anything except grass. That’s why we put in the raised beds which are off to the right out of sight. MrsGF and I decided this whole area is going to get raised up, perhaps yet this year if we get the time. We’re going to get decorative retaining blocks like the ones currently surrounding the lettuce bed, pull out all of the plants we want to keep, and then make the whole thing into a single raised bed about a foot above the height of the lawn.

Antennas

Well, we’ll have to move the antenna parts you see off to the right before we can start anything back there. Hopefully that tower you see laying back there that has been going to be put up “real soon now” for about 5 years will get put up this year. Maybe. And the GAP Titan vertical antenna will replace the Comet vertical as soon as I can corner eldest son and guilt him into helping.

The antenna tower… I traded a deep cycle marine battery for that with one of the ARES guys. He needed a battery for the power system in the emcomm trailer, he had this tower laying around that he just took down, so we made a swap. The tower was supposed to go up at the end of the garage and be the support for various antennas, including one for broadcast TV so MrsGF can watch PBS in the evening. (The problem with digital TV versus the old analog is that with the old analog if you were in a fringe reception area, you still could see and hear something. There would be static, yes, but you’d still get a watchable picture. If you’re in a fringe area with digital, you get nothing). Eldest son keeps claiming he’s going to help get it up the next time he gets over here.

Antennas are really my biggest problem when it comes to amateur radio. I play around with them, experiment, etc. but I haven’t come up with anything really any better than the off center fed dipole currently strung up from the garage to a couple of trees. It works reasonably well, but is way too low to the ground. And the biggest problem is that one leg of the dipole runs to a tree in the neighbor’s yard, and the neighbor is moving, so that means the antenna has to be moved too.

Like a lot of amateur radio operators, I’ve accumulated a lot of junk related to the hobby, including several different types of antennas. And despite claims from the manufacturers of many antennas, most of them don’t really work all that well. It’s basic physics, really. In order to be efficient, antennas for radio frequencies down in the shortwave (HF) portions of the amateur radio bands, like down in 80 or 40 meters, need to be pretty long. Your cell phone has a really, really tiny antenna, because it works with very, very high frequencies.

Antennas for the frequencies I work with are huge. We’re talking 80, 90 feet long or longer. My OCFD, if laid out straight, would be 135 feet long.

So if it needs to be that long, how can that GAP Titan antenna laying out there be only 21 feet tall? Well, it cheats, basically. It uses various tricks to make itself work better than it really should at first glance. It looks simple, but it isn’t. It’s actually a very complicated piece of equipment with various radiators and stubs and, well, antenna stuff. It would take more space than I have here to try to explain it all.

What it boils down to is you can’t get something for nothing. You can’t fool physics. You can make smaller, shorter antennas, but you sacrifice efficiency when you do that. I wince when I see some of the ads for some of the antennas on the market because I know the claims being made for the are pretty much bogus.

Catching Up

I suppose I could talk about how Mike Pence not only killed NAFTA but drove a stake into it’s still quivering heart last week, or how the latest round of that popular game in D.C, Trade Wars, is going to decimate the agriculture economy, but that’s just too damned depressing. Besides, if you want to read about that kind of thing there are only about five hundred million websites out there where “experts” are pontificating and bloviating.

No, it’s spring. Everything is in bloom, as you can see from the closeup of the lilac there up at the top of this. I’m rather pleased with how that image turned out. MrsGF keeps telling me I should start printing some of these and trying to sell ’em, but well, that would mean I’d actually have to do some work.

Almost everything we planted is doing well. Tomatoes are doing great. One variety we planted called Wisconsin 55 (I think) is already starting to blossom. The peppers are doing pretty good. Even the two blueberry bushes MrsGF picked up seem to be doing pretty good. Even the spindly and sickly looking cucumber plants that looked like they were dead are starting to take off.

And the weather has been — well, I was going to say good, but that’s not really true. The weather has been odd. In late May we had temperatures well up into the mid-90s that broke records all over the state. And caused dozens of incidents of highways buckling from the heat. And in just the space of a few days we went from conditions being too wet to conditions way too dry. We haven’t had any significant rainfall in weeks now. Other parts of the state did get some rain, but it always seemed to evaporate before it got to us. We have to water everything almost every day. It’s rather discouraging. If it’s this bad this early in the season, what is it going to be like come August? We did finally get some rain over the weekend, about half an inch.

Still, it’s hard to complain when I see stuff like this when I walk out the door:

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And I’ve finally been able to get the bike out and put some miles on on a fairly regular basis. I’d almost forgotten how delightful it is to get out in the country on the bike this time of year. A lot of people don’t understand why I enjoy it so much. It isn’t the exercise, it’s getting out in nature and being able to hear the birds and frogs, and seeing the little treasures along the roadside like these tiny little flowers:

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Amateur Radio Stuff

Field Day is rapidly approaching. I think it’s June 23-24. It’s an annual event that has been going on for ages in the amateur radio community. The idea is to get us troglodytes out of our basements and the dark corners where we usually huddle over smoking soldering irons, and play with all kinds of technologies that range from 100+ year old telegraph keys to ultra-modern mesh networks, satellite communications and bouncing radio signals off the moon, and set up our gear in parking lots, parks, and even fields in the middle of nowhere, and hope we don’t burst into flames like vampires from the exposure to the sun.

Alas, I’ve never participated because MrsGF and I are usually gone of vacation at that time of year because of how our schedules work out. It’s great fun, though. So if you see a bunch of very pale looking people stringing up wires in trees, standing around tables laden with strange looking equipment, don’t worry. It’s just us making a rare excursion into the daylight.

 

 

 

 

Amateur Radio & Gardening, Hey, Why Not

The weather has been amazingly pleasant for a change these last few days. Everything is growing like crazy as you can see from the photo of the hosta garden in front of the house that I took yesterday. Wonderful plants, hostas; decorative, resilient, with so many different shapes and types it’s hard to keep track.

IMG_0875The corner garden here has been completely redone. In the past it was mostly herbs and decorative plants, but this year we more than doubled it in size, hauled in a tons of compost (well, my aching back claimed it was tons) and it’s being switched to mostly vegetables this year. MrsGF put in something like 20+ pepper plants of varying types (can you tell we like peppers?) plus two blueberry bushes and a couple of rows of beans down along the front. The soil in there is so utterly horrible that I did something I very rarely do, I raked in some commercial fertilizer as well. We’ll see what happens. It will either be wildly successful or everything will die off.

IMG_0873We were not going to make the same mistake we did last year by crowding too many plants into the two raised beds. It’s very tempting when putting in seedlings to crowd them in because it seems like there is so much wasted space, and forgetting just how big those plants get when they’re mature. We only put 6 plants in each of the beds this year and I hope that will help to eliminate some of the issues we had last year. While we avoided the dreaded blossom end rot last year, we did have some fungus problems because the plants were so crowded together.

IMG_0881And then when I was walking around the yard yesterday I nearly stepped on this guy. Yes, we have snakes in Wisconsin. You wouldn’t think they could survive our winters up here, but several species do quite well. Heck, until the 1950s or 60s we still had timber rattlers around here. This little guy… Little? Ha, he was a good two and a half feet long. He scared the heck out of me although I’m sure nearly being stepped on while he was sunning himself in the grass scared him more.

Amateur Radio Stuff

IMG_0863After the fiasco of wrecking the fold down mount for the GAP antenna, I put the crappy old Comet 250 vertical back up, hooked up the coax, went inside, checked to make sure everything looked OK, turned on the transceiver and — and immediately made about 6 different contacts all over North America with the thing on 40, 30 and 20 meters, running about 40 watts of power, less than it takes to run a modern lightbulb.

Sigh… radio propagation is weird sometimes.

I’ve been getting more and more interested in QRP operations. That’s amateur radio slang for very low power. QRP operators put out 5 watts of power or less. Often a lot less. The guys who are really good at it often operated with less than one watt of radiated power. They often use transceivers they built themselves or got as kits that can be ridiculously inexpensive.

There is a ‘gotcha’, though. Trying to make contacts using voice at those low power levels is damn near impossible. If you’re going to run QRP, you really need to go with good old morse code, or CW as it’s called.

Now I’ve thrown myself at CW on numerous occasions over the years, and failed miserably in learning it. The recommended techniques, the tapes, the CDs, none of them have worked. It all sounds like pure noise to my ear.

But then I ran into an IOS app called “Ham Morse”. It does have the more traditional teaching method, which doesn’t work for me. But what does work is that Ham Morse can also tie into the headline news feeds of various news organizations and sends the as CW at whatever speed you’re comfortable with. And guess what? For me, at least, this works. Now that I’m trying to copy actual meaningful text instead of single letters or groups of letters that have no relationship, my weird brain is actually starting to make the connection between those strange noises and the text.

The result is that I can copy CW at up to about 6 – 8 words per minutes. Maybe. Sometimes. Sort of. I’ve been listening to a lot of CW down on 20 meters trying to make sense of it all and despite all of the odd abbreviations and symbols and prosigns they use, I’m starting to pick some of it up.

Anyway, one of the reasons I’m interested in QRP is that the equipment is small, the antennas are small, you can operate with nothing but a relatively small battery. The whole kit can be thrown into a backpack easily, set up and taken down quickly. It’s ideal for someone who spends a lot of time on a bicycle like me. Would be great fun to sit out on the trails making contacts on summer mornings with just a wire hanging in a tree and a couple of watts of power.

http://offgridham.com/

I don’t make a lot of recommendations for websites or products or stuff like that, but if you’re at all interested in QRP operations, battery technology, solar power technologies and amateur radio, click the link up there at offgridham.com. Chris over there has provided a wonderful resource. He delves into alternative power technologies like solar, evaluates and discusses battery charging systems, battery types, etc. While it’s oriented for amateur radio, the material he covers is going to be of interest to anyone who is interested in unplugging from the power grid.

And that’s all for now.

Oh, I keep forgetting. I have email here. If you have questions or stuff you don’t want to put in the comments, you can reach me at old.grouchyfarmer@gmail.com

 

Hectic Days

Everyone around here is playing catch-up now that we’ve had some nice weather following the April blizzard and heavy rains. Local farmers have finally been able to get into the fields, some of which were literally underwater just a couple of weeks ago. Everyone is scrambling to get their crops in because more rain is predicted for Monday and Tuesday.

I don’t have to worry about getting in acres and acres of corn and beans of course. Being retired has it’s perks. All I have to worry about now are my gardens here at the house. But the sight of the pear tree in full bloom outside reminds me that it’s high time we got stuff planted and we’ve been working at expanding some of the gardens and prepping the beds we already have.

IMG_0867I spent almost a half a day hauling compost from the town compost site and working it into the various gardens around the yard. Spent another half day digging up sod to expand the corner garden where we used to grow mostly herbs. It’s one of the few spots we have here that gets full sun and one of the few options we have for adding new spots for growing stuff that needs day-long sunlight in-ground rather than in raised beds or pots.

Getting rid of sod is a royal pain in the neck, and the soil left behind isn’t exactly a good growing medium. The dirt under the sod was rock hard. I went over it at least 6 times with the tiller, getting deeper every time. Then I covered the whole area six inches deep with compost and went over that three more times to work it in.

We took the seedlings out of the house where MrsGF had started them and they’re out now “hardening off” as they call it in preparation for planting. Mostly tomatoes and peppers of various types, and some cucumbers. The squash turned out well last year so MrsGF is going to put a half dozen squash plants in as well this year. And as an experiment she planted some old corn seed she found. We have no idea how old it really is so whether it germinates or not is going to be interesting. I suspect most of it will. But its in a rather shady area so I don’t anticipate we’ll get much from it.

One big change from last spring is that this year I’ve been seeing a lot of pollinators. I haven’t seen many honey bees, but I have been seeing bumble bees and native bees. (Note: The standard honey bee you see isn’t native to North America. It’s a European import.)

Speaking of bees, it was a rough year for honey bees. A lot of bee keepers are reporting they lost most if not all of their bees over the winter. My brother-in-law started keeping bees a year ago and he lost all of his and had to buy replacements.

If the weather cooperates this weekend we’ll be out planting in the gardens.

One thing I have to do is figure out how to keep the rabbits out. They’ve been a huge pest, and the situation has been getting worse. They’re brave little buggers, too. You’ll see them out grazing on lawns and gardens even in mid-day all over town.

Several people have suggested I sit out at night with my bow and some target arrows or an airgun, and when I take care of the local population come over and help them out. And while it’s tempting I have no desire to end up in the local lock-up. Discharging even an airgun or a bow inside of city limits is illegal. So that means I have to come up with some kind of fencing. We used chicken wire the last couple of years and it worked, but it’s ugly, hard to work with and a pain in the neck, so I’m looking into different options this year. We’ll see what we can come up with.