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.

 

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.

 

Amaryllis

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I keep mine in a south facing window with a lot of other plants, and it’s been doing quite well there as you can see.

You have to love amaryllis. Those huge, brilliantly colored flowers are amazing. And the fact that this is the time of year when you most often see them in homes and shops when it’s so cold and bleak looking outside makes them all the more spectacular. MrsGF got me this one one for Christmas and it’s just come into full flower and it is spectacular. And they aren’t expensive, either. I saw them at Walmart selling for about $7.

A lot of people throw them away when they’re done blooming because they’re usually fairly inexpensive to buy and people think they’re hard to get to bloom again, but they aren’t difficult to get to flower again. It does take a bit of work but it isn’t hard to do. So if someone gave you one of these or you bought one yourself, here’s how to care for it so it will bloom again next year.

Once the flowers have wilted, cut the flowers from the flower stalk. When the flower stalk wilts, cut it off at the top of the bulb but leave the leaves alone.

The leaves will continue to be green and growing for about another six months. Then they will begin to yellow and die back naturally, usually in the fall of the year. When this happens, cut the leaves off about 2 inches above the top of the bulb. Remove the bulb from the potting soil.

Clean loose dirt from the bulb, but be careful not to scar or scratch the bulb itself if possible. It now needs to be kept in a cool, dark place. Like a lot of bulbs, it needs to go through a lengthy dormant period before it will regrow. Don’t wrap it in plastic or put it in something like a ziplock bag or a sealed plastic container or trapped moisture could cause it to mold. You can wrap it loosely in something like parchment paper or newspaper. The ideal temperature for storing the bulbs is around 40 – 50 degrees (F), so if you have an older house with a cool basement like we do, that’s a good place to put it. I’ve heard of people keeping them in the vegetable crisper in their refrigerators with good results as well.

Oh, I should add that you should never store the bulbs near apples. I’ve been told that apples give off a gas that can sterilize the bulbs.

The bulb needs to be kept in in storage for at least 6 weeks. You can keep them like this for longer. When you take the bulb out of storage depends on when you want it to flower. You want to plant it about 8 weeks before you want it to flower.

When you’re ready to plant it, get out a pot at least two or three inches larger in diameter than the bulb, and several inches taller. Use a good quality potting compost soil mix. You can make your own but the commercial versions work quite well and have the advantage of being pre-sterilized and have nutrients added so you may not have to fertilize. Put an inch or two of soil in the bottom of the pot. Exactly how much depends on the height of your pot. You want the neck of the bulb to be just above the level of the soil. Push the soil down around the bulb just tightly enough so there aren’t any air pockets, but not so tightly that the soil can’t absorb water.

Put the bulb in a window where it will get direct sunlight. Mine is sitting in front of a south facing window. Ideally it should be a fairly warm location. They like temperatures around 65 – 75 degrees, but will still grow fairly well if it’s a bit cooler than that.

Water lightly until the leaves begin to form. Once the flower stalk begins to emerge, increase the amount of water a bit. Some growers will tell you to fertilize as well, but I’ve never done that. If you use a fresh, commercial potting compost mix when you plant it, it should have enough nutrients. But if it looks like it’s not growing as quickly as you think it should, you can add a bit of something like Miracle Grow to the water once a week or so.

The bulb should start to flower about eight or nine weeks after planting. Exactly when depends on temperature, sunlight, etc.

So if someone gave you one of these or you bought one and the flowers are beginning to wilt, yes, you can keep them and get them to flower again next year with a little patience and very little work.

It’s Gardening Time! Sort Of

Screen Shot 2018-01-13 at 7.02.24 AMOkay, so it’s the middle of January and it’s 12 degrees out so it isn’t really time to go out gardening, but this time of year I start to get that ache that every gardener gets in the middle of winter, that need to go grub around in the dirt and mess around with plants. The handful of house plants we have is better than nothing, but it just isn’t the same.

But this is, believe it or not, a good time of year to start the garden season. It’s never too DSCF1860early to start planning, making lists of things that need to be done, and beginning to get things you may need when the weather finally does cooperate.

It could be an interesting season here. We’re thinking of adding a new raised bed back in the low part of the backyard by building a stone retaining wall. The iris bed is way too low, the irises need to be dug out and broken up anyway, and that area is so low I’m amazed that anything grows back there anyway. We’re also thinking of adding another bed, this one not raised, on the south side of the house/garage. If we do all of this, and that’s still up in the air at this point, it will be a fairly ambitious project and could be a lot of fun.

We were thinking of doing this anyway, but what really lit a fire under us was that Eldest Son showed up at Christmas with an entire grocery bag full of seed packets. Seriously. He works at the corporate offices of a large discount retailer, and they occasionally run special deals for employees where they can get merchandise that is being dropped, out of season, etc. for literally pennies on the dollar. And they were getting rid of all of their seeds from the previous summer. So he got one or two packets of everything. Literally. He got one or two packets of every single type of seed they sold in their garden centers. We have something like 120+ different varieties of seed to play with this spring.

So Mrs. GF and I are looking forward to  having a lot of fun this spring, needless to say. Oh, there’s going to be a lot we aren’t going to be able to use. At least not right away. And probably we’ll never use quite a bit of it, but we’re going to have a lot of fun figuring out what we want to plant because no matter what we want to put in this coming spring, we probably have it already.

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GF Procrastinates Again But For Good Reasons

IMG_0779I was supposed to be tearing down all my radio equipment so I can move the new desk into the office. I should wash the car and get that ready for long term storage. I should get the snowblower out and check that over and… Well, hell, look at that photo up there. If your Saturday looked like that, would you hang around the house and do chores inside on what is probably going to be the last nice day of the year? So a lot of the chores got pushed aside to take advantage of the amazing weather because according to the predictions for this coming week, the weather is supposed to be pretty much bleh.

It was absurdly nice, temps in the mid to high 70s, gentle breezes, warm, golden sunshine. It was absolutely glorious out.

Well, to be fair we did get a lot of work done. MrsGF and I were up shortly after dawn working on the flower beds, digging out the annuals that are long past their prime, taking down the decaying sunflowers, raking leaves. We completely filled the box of our elderly full sized Dodge truck and hauled it down to the compost site. And the trees aren’t even bare yet. The pear and maple trees haven’t even started to shed, so we’ll probably end up doing that at least twice more. I even got up on the roof and cleaned out the rain gutters full of leaves.

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I admit that everything starts to look drab and dreary and brown this time of year, but even those browns are beautiful in their own way. The dark branches of the denuded trees make amazing patterns against the sky and landscape, and with the foliage starting to die back and the leaves drop, you begin to see things that you didn’t notice before, hidden behind the lush summer growth.

IMG_0772And there is still even a bit of color left out there if you go hunting for it. If you watch carefully there are still some plants that haven’t realized that it’s the end of the growing season and you’ll see a spark of yellow or purple or red peeking out through the grasses that are slowly starting to dry and turn brown.

I don’t understand people who think the fall is a dull, drab season. Yes, the egrets and herons are gone, as are a lot of the song birds. The spectacular flowers of summer have faded, dried up and disappeared. But they’ve been replaced by a new world with it’s own little secrets, it’s own hidden treasures. All you have to do is look.

Of course I admit it would be a lot more pleasant if I didn’t have allergies. The mold index is sky high right now according to the morning news. But I knew that already, a fact demonstrated by my watering eyes, stuffed up head and other irritating symptoms. I sound like I have a perpetual cold this time of year.

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IMG_0780Let’s see, what else? Not much, really. MrsGF thought I might hit 1,000 miles before the end of the biking season, but I’m going to be short of that. With the weather getting colder getting out on the bike is more irritating than enjoyable. I did hit 752 miles yesterday, and I’ll probably get over 800 yet this season before the weather shuts me down. But I doubt if I’ll get much more than that. That’s fine. I had no specific goals in mind.

Time to wrap this up.

It’s Been Too Nice. We’re Getting Paranoid.

IMG_0768It has been suspiciously nice out the last few days. And it’s going to keep being nice. Daytime temps have been up in the high 60s to low 70s, sunny. The weather people are telling us it’s supposed to stay like this. At least for a while. And even get nicer. It could hit the low 80s in some parts of the state over the next few days.

We are suspicious of this. Up here in Wisconsin, Mother Nature has a long track record of lulling us into a false sense of security with ridiculously nice weather right before she dumps about 3 feet of snow on us. We still remember back in the 1980s when she hilariously dropped 11 inches of snow on us on May 10th. So whenever the weather is too good to be true we start getting paranoid up here because Mother Nature has a warped and twisted sense of humor.

{I screwed up. So what else is new, right? I set up a new email address for this blog, and then immediately after doing that wrote down the wrong email address in the blog. Sigh. The email address is actually old.grouchyfarmer@gmail.com }

I’ve been taking advantage of the pleasant weather and have been out on the bike. Even when I’m on a route that I’ve been on dozens of times before, I never know what I’m going to find. I discovered these guys sprouting up along the trail I sometimes take.

Mushrooms are, well, they’re just weird, okay? Bizarre shapes and colors. Some are delicious while others will kill you. I suspect they’re a plot by Mother Nature to kill off those of us who survived the May blizzard.

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 6.56.35 AM
Not a mushroom.

Then this guy showed up. Funny looking mushroom, isn’t it? Friendliest mushroom I’ve ever seen, really. Never had a mushroom slobber all over my face before and want me to scratch his ears.

The pleasant weather has also meant I’ve been procrastinating terribly about chores I should be doing, like cleaning out the rest of the gardens, tearing down the radio room so I can move the new desk in, and meeting friendly golden retrievers out on the road.

Speaking of biking, why in the world am I sitting around here babbling along like this when I could be out there right now?