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.

 

Rain and More Rain and Stuff

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5.5 inches over night. Total rainfall was a bit over 8 inches in 2 days.

May came in wet and soggy. Very wet. Yesterday morning when I got up we’d had 5 1/2 inches of rain over night to add to the nearly 3 inches we had the day before.

Between a blizzard that dumped 2 – 3 feet of snow on us in April and now the heavy rains just a couple of weeks later, I’d say that our weather could officially be called “weird”. I haven’t been out to look around much, but we went out to eat Friday night and there was some significant flooding in low lying areas, lots of roads closed, lots of areas where water was over the road. The local radio station just announced a list of roads closed due to flooding.

I haven’t had a chance to talk to the farmers around here yet about what the weather has done to their spring planting schedule, but I’m sure they’re worried. My backyard is a swamp and has been since the snow from the blizzard started to melt. Walking through the grass is a mistake because it’s covering up about 2 inches of water and if you stand still for too long you start to sink into the ground. Sigh…

This is an old house for the most part, and the foundation walls leak, so we’ve had water in the basement following the heavy rain. It’s a pain in the neck but we’ve lived in this place for almost 20 years now so we’re used to it and know how to deal with it.

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It’s hard to tell from the photo but there is about an inch of water just under the top of the grass. The water way back behind the trees is the neighbor’s pond which is overflowing. Just behind the spruce tree it’s about 2 feet deep.

And out back along the property line, well, the water back there is a good foot deep or more. We aren’t going to be doing much of anything in the gardens for at least a few days. It’s going to take a while for the water to go down so we can get some work done. I think we’ll be lucky if we can start working by mid week. Oh, well.

I was down at the town’s compost site yesterday to drop off some leaves we raked before the rains hit and noted there is a huge pile of sifted compost ready to go. We’re very fortunate in that regard. The compost site is just down the street from us, an easy run with the garden tractor and trailer, and compost is free for the hauling for town residents.

MrsGF got a backyard composter thingie for Christmas, one of those things that looks like a rotating barrel on a stand. She’s going to be experimenting with that this year and see how that works out. I’m curious to see what kind of results we get from it.

Also gardening related is our rain collection system. We have a rain diverter attached to the downspout at the back of the garage. We’ve had that set up for years now and it’s been working great. We found a food grade 55 gallon plastic barrel, attached the valves and stuff to it, hooked it to the diverter, and that’s all it took. Virtually zero maintenance and it’s worked great. There isn’t enough water to keep the veggies watered, but there has always been more than enough to water all of the potted flowers and plants scattered around. The connector hose cracked over the winter and we ordered a new one from the company, but that’s the only problem we’ve ever had with it.

Radio stuff — Still don’t have the new vertical antenna up. We’ve been waiting for a weekend when eldest son can get down here because it’s a two person job to finish putting it together and getting it on the mount. I was a bit concerned about what the neighbors would think but then MrsGF pointed out that our next door neighbor has a big vertical antenna up that’s even higher than mine will be and no one complains about that, so I stopped worrying about it.

For a long time my radio equipment did little more than gather dust, but not long after Christmas I started getting interested in it again, and the reason why is FT8, the relatively new digital mode. Like a lot of other people I quickly discovered that FT8 lets me make contacts even when propagation conditions stink, as they do now, and even though my antennas are not all that good.

Long distance communications down on the shortwave bands depends on reflections of radio waves in the F layer of the atmosphere. Solar radiation causes the F layer to ionize, which causes it to reflect radio waves back down to the Earth rather than shooting straight out into space as they normally would. We are at solar minimum right now, meaning the sun is very inactive. Very few, if any, sunspots, means the atmosphere is not being ionized, which means radio waves aren’t being reflected or are being reflected very weakly generally speaking.

With my less than ideal antenna system, I normally wouldn’t be able to make many contacts. But since I started playing with the FT8 mode, I’ve made contacts in 36 different countries including ones that are notoriously difficult to reach. I’ve worked Australia, Japan, Tasmania, most of western Europe, Hawaii, Alaska, and doing that with about 70 watts of power and an antenna that is little more than a wire strung up between the garage and a couple of trees.

Despite the success of FT8, it generates a lot of controversy among some AROs who don’t consider it to be “real” amateur radio for a variety of reasons.

They don’t like the fact that is partly automated, with a computer decoding the information and issuing appropriate responses. But the fact of the matter is that AROs have been doing that for a couple of decades with packet radio, RTTY, PSK and other modes, using software that can be programmed with macros to generate automated responses.

They claim it isn’t “real” AR because the amount of information exchanged is little more than call signs, a location and a signal report. But that’s nonsense too because that’s often all you hear in a typical contact via any mode of communication on AR except for the guys down on 75 meters who go on and on and on about their hemorrhoids and hip replacement surgery or rant about politics for hours on end.

Fortunately while the detractors are rather annoying and occasionally abusive, the rest of the AR world just gets on with stuff and the attitude for most people is hey, if it works for you and you enjoy doing it and it’s legal, go have fun.

 

 

Misc. Catch Up: Snow, Gardening, Bike, AR, etc…

I have to admit that things have been a bit slow around here after the blizzard. I’ve been spending most of my time fiddling with radio equipment and antennas, but I haven’t been entirely isolated from the real world.

While we still have some piles of snow remaining, most of the white stuff has melted off thanks to daytime temperatures that have been pushing up into the 50s. The storm did lots of damage around here, mostly from roofs caving in. It’s a miracle no one got killed. Local fire departments were busy helping out farmers by bringing out their ladder trucks and using high pressure hoses to blast snow off of roofs. They saved several barns from collapse in this area.

The Resch Center in Green Bay had it’s entry way caved in when snow falling from the dome hit the entrance. No one is sure what to do about it at the moment because the Resch Center is scheduled for demolition in two years anyway. But they do have events scheduled up until that time so they’re trying to determine if it’s cost effective to repair it, or start canceling events and just bring it down and be done with it.

Any kind of gardening is still on stand-by. It’s probably going to be a week or more before we can get out there and start working on anything except superficial projects. Still, there are signs of life out there. The lilac bushes are starting to bud, the rhubarb is starting to peek up out of the cold, wet ground, and one sure sign of spring is that I got the bike out of storage at last.

Unfortunately I rather quickly remembered that riding a bicycle uses an almost entirely different set of muscles than jogging on a treadmill. That and the fact it was only about 40 degrees out this morning kept the ride rather brief, but it was still nice to be back on the bike again.

Amateur radio stuff —

The ARRL is really pushing the FCC to expand the privileges of the Technician class license. They want to give Techs voice and data privileges down on the HF bands, claiming that this will give Technicians an incentive to eventually upgrade to a General or Extra class license and get them more interested in AR in general.

Don’t get me wrong, the ARRL does a lot to support and improve amateur radio in general, but this is one case where I think they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. The organization seems to be under the impression that there are tens of thousands of Tech licensees out there who would love to get down on the HF bands, but for whatever reason refuse to upgrade to a General class license, and as a result they aren’t upgrading their licenses, aren’t operating at all, and eventually drop out completely.

The problem with this notion is that the Tech licensees don’t give a damn about HF. I’m sorry, but they just don’t. The Tech licensees who do care about HF quickly upgrade to a General or Extra class license, and the rest just don’t care. I’m sorry, but they don’t. I know a lot of Tech license holders who haven’t upgraded and the reason they haven’t is because either they lost interest in AR completely or the Tech license allows them to do everything they want to do.

The exam to get the General class license is just not that hard in any case. Anyone who’s already passed the Tech exam could easily pass the General with minimal amount of work. It isn’t a lack of privileges on HF that keeps Techs from upgrading, it’s a complete lack of interest in HF in the first place.

A Strange Spring

While we have tulips coming up here in the house and we’ve started flats of seeds in preparation for warm weather, outside it has been decidedly odd. We’ve had more snow now in the first week of April than we did in in most of the winter and outside it currently looks like this:

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.47.08 AM
Ah, spring in Wisconsin! The warm weather, the April showers, the… the snow…

Not exactly what you expect to see when you look out the window on April 7. Tuesday and Wednesday we had winter storm warnings all day long and ended up with about 6 inches of snow here, with some areas getting up to 10. Most of that melted but then we got another couple of inches a couple of days later and there is more snow in the forecast. We’re looking at near record low temperatures in some parts of the state today.

Indoors, though, we’re proceeding on schedule in the hopes that maybe we might get some warm weather. Someday.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.44.56 AMThe tulips MrsGF potted up a few weeks ago are still going strong with new blooms popping up and it certainly improves my mood when I walk in the room and see those brilliant yellows and reds. I’m really glad she came up with the idea of potting up some old bulbs. It really brightens the place up.

We sat down the other day to sort through the “Bag ‘o Seeds’ we got for Christmas and figure out what we wanted to plant this year, what had to be started indoors and what could be direct seeded, etc. Then we brought up the little portable greenhouse thingie from the basement and set that up.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.46.08 AMThat’s this thing over here. It’s a folding metal frame with three racks in it with a vinyl cover over the top. It provides an ideal environment for starting seeds. It stays warm and moist inside and lets in enough light to keep things grown and nice and warm in there. Also prevents temperature fluctuations inside the house from harming the plants.

We found a floor pan for a shower that was the ideal size to fit under it to protect the floor. MrsGF already has it filled with flats with seeds, and we already have some tiny little seedlings peeking up through the starter mix.

It works great and was pretty cheap, too, under $40 if I remember right. It’s easy to set up.

It has the added benefit of keeping the cats out as well or you can be sure they’d be in there digging around, nibbling on plants, tipping things over, etc.

Indoor Tulips & Assorted Stuff

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MrsGF has been just as sick of looking outside at the brown wasteland that is March here in Wisconsin as I have, so she shoved some old bulbs into pots and put them in a sunny window a few weeks ago and this is what we have now. Great fun to see tulips starting to pop open again.

Screen Shot 2018-03-31 at 6.41.39 AM

That’s not to say that there aren’t things growing already. She was outside looking things over yesterday and discovered that the chives are already six inches tall over in their protected corner. They’re always the first things to spring up and they’ve been ridiculously prolific. We put those in shortly after we bought the house so they’ve been going strong for almost 20 years now.

The big question now is sod, as in how are we going to get rid of it. There is a pretty big section of lawn we want to rip out to expand one of the gardens here, and getting rid of

cropped-img_0339.jpg
This was the little Massey. Fun, useful little tractor but keeping it in town was a bit ridiculous

the sod is always a pain in the neck. I sold my tractor a couple of years ago. After selling the farm we kept the little Massey for a while, but keeping it was a bit silly. It was mostly in storage over at the farm of a friend about 8 miles from here and there it sat until we needed it perhaps for one afternoon a year. So keeping it and its trailer was ridiculous. So it looks like I’ll resort to the good old fashioned dig it up with a shovel method as soon as the frost is completely out of the ground.

MrsGF and I were sorting through seeds and tentatively making plans earlier this morning. We were thrilled when Eldest Son gave us literally a whole shopping bag of seed packets for Christmas, but we have to be realistic. We can’t grow all of it as much as we’d like to. And there are quite a few that we don’t really like or couldn’t use. Neither of us like melon all that much, and it takes up a lot of space, so those got set aside. Same with eggplant. Don’t get me wrong, eggplant is a perfectly delightful vegetable. But that one summer our eggplant was so ridiculously prolific that we got so sick of eating eggplant that we can’t really stand looking at them any more.

We brought up the little portable greenhouse rack we use to start seed and MrsGF is in the process of starting trays of seeds even as I write this.


Amateur Radio Stuff

I’ve been having a lot of fun with the FT8 mode over the last couple of months. Even with my seriously bad antenna system I’ve had a couple of hundred contacts and have managed to hit something like 35 different countries, including some really long distance contacts with Hawaii, Alaska, Japan and Tasmania.

I’ve even started playing with PSK again and have made a few contacts with that mode as well. Unlike FT8 you can actually chat with people using PSK. Unfortunately it seems most PSK users have jumped ship for FT8 and seeing a PSK signal on the bands has been a rather rare thing. Even more annoying is that the powers that be decided that on 17 meters the frequency recommendation for FT8 mode is the same one as the PSK allocation, so PSK on 17 meters is a lost cause because the frequency is swamped with FT8.

antennaI’m hoping to get this puppy up in the air this spring. It’s already mostly assembled out in the back yard and we have all the hardware for mounting, including the tilt-over base. It’s a GAP Titan multi-band vertical antenna that should help to give me a significant boost over the OCFD I currently have hanging out there now. This one is going to replace the Comet 250 vertical I have and which is… Well, let’s face it, the Comet isn’t that good of an antenna. It can only handle about 240 watts and to be perfectly frank I’m amazed the thing works at all.

I also have a 40 foot antenna tower laying out in the backyard that will hopefully get set up sometime this summer. Of course I said that last summer, too. And the summer before that…

 

New Photos And How Stupid Am I (Very)

Even though today is officially the start of spring it sure doesn’t feel that way. Temperature around 34 degrees, cloudy… We’re impatient to get outside and do something again.

Nevertheless, I had the camera out and was taking some photos of the indoor plants, some of which are flowering right now.

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This guy is sitting in the kitchen window at the moment. Those flowers are only about a quarter of an inch across. Here’s another shot of a different cluster of flowers on the same plant with different lighting…

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That camera does a great job taking closeups like that.

Another plant in flower at the moment is this one:

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I love this plant. The color of the leaves, the texture, and those tiny little pink flowers that are about the size of the head of a pin. It’s a lot of fun.

MrsGF’s violets are in full bloom too right now:

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Then there’s this really weird plant…

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That’s Kai. I’m very surprised she held still long enough for me to get that photo. She usually runs away when she sees me with a camera.


And now, on to the stupidity…

Nothing makes me look dumber than when something goes wrong with my radio equipment sometimes. This one was a real gem, though.

For some reason the TS-990 decided to stop transmitting AM and I couldn’t figure out why. Everything seemed to be working just fine otherwise. I could still use SSB, the digital modes, FM, all were working fine. But when I keyed the mic using AM, it would go into transmit mode, but no signal.

I spent something like two hours this morning trying to diagnose what the problem was. As a last resort I got out my morse code key and hooked that up. Not sure why. Just was trying to eliminate other things as problems. I tried sending my callsign in CW and…

And nothing. Same symptoms as the AM problem. It went into transmit, but no signal, no power going to the antenna.

Hmph… I went on line and searched around, found out there was an update for the radio’s firmware, so I downloaded that and installed. That went well. In fact, better than well because now the noise blanker works the way it’s supposed to and some other little things were fixed. But same problem as before, no AM and no CW.

I pulled out the manual once more and started to dig through that and…

Oh. Oh, brother… All right, look, the 990 is a very complicated piece of equipment. I mean it has controls and knobs and buttons on it that I’ve never used in the almost four years I’ve owned the thing. So I suppose I can be excused for not noticing this.

Most of the knobs on the radio are “nested”, that is there is a central knob that controls one function, and an outer ring around the central knob that controls an entirely different function.

The Power knob which controls the rig’s output power is the central knob. The outer ring is something labeled “Car” which stands for carrier. The carrier setting is essential to transmitting in CW and AM modes. I normally have it set dead center right in the middle. But since I almost never do CW or AM I almost never touch it. But I do use the Power knob to adjust the wattage going out to the antenna or feeding into the amplifier.

Somewhere along the way, the Car knob got a bit sticky and started to track along with the Power knob when it was turned. But only in one direction: down. When I turned the power down, it was also dragging the carrier knob down towards zero, but not dragging it back up when the power was turned back up. Eventually the carrier was turned down to nothing. So without a carrier, there was no AM or CW.

Sigh… Spent more than two hours trouble shooting a problem that didn’t really exist. All I had to do was turn the Car knob back up to the center position and all was well.

And now I just found out my amplifier relay isn’t working… How did I get into this hobby in the first place?