Garden Catch Up, Storms and Stuff

If you want photos of the storm damage, go look on news sites in this area. There are enough of those out there already. The gardens made it through the storms with little or no damage, somehow, so I can still take photos like this.

Northeast Wisconsin got absolutely hammered by severe storms, some of the strongest we’ve ever seen around here. The training I’ve had for SkyWarn taught me how to estimate wind speed fairly accurately, and I guessed we had wind gusts of up to 75 MPH here, and the NWS reports later confirmed that. It was scary here for a while. We were lucky, though. The worst of it seems to have skipped around this area. Other areas, especially just to the north and west of us got hit hard. There were three tornadoes. NWS reported winds of up to 120 MPH in Wrightstown, about 10 miles north of here. Outagame, Brown and Winnebago counties all are reporting very serious damage. Thousands of people are still without power around us, and the utilities are saying conditions in those areas are so bad from downed trees, broken power poles, etc. that it could be days before everyone has their power restored.

The only good thing about it is that the cold front that triggered the storms has finally brought relief from the extended streak of heat and humidity we were going through. My thermometer here recorded high temps well up into the 90s, with humidity of 95% or higher. The highest temp we hit was 97 according to the recorder. The heat index was well up in the 100s. I’m going to hate to see what our electric bill looks like. Our air conditioner was running full blast for days struggling to keep the temperatures in the house down to a reasonable level. I’m very surprised it’s managed to keep going at all.

While the extreme temperatures haven’t been good for people, the plants around here seem to have been loving it. Everything is lush and green and growing like crazy. Unfortunately we also seem to have a bumper crop of mosquitoes this year as well because of all the rain we’ve gotten. So here are some pictures of what’s growing around here.

The sunflowers are just barely starting to come into bloom. This is the first one that’s popped out.
this is a new one for us. MrsGF put this climbing rose in at the start of the season and it’s decided that it really likes it here. It’s tripled in size and and has been flowering almost continuously for the last three weeks.

Ah, our poor pear tree. It looks more lush and wild than it really is because you’re seeing the canopy of the tree immediately behind it as well. It’s reasonably healthy, but almost no pears at all this year. I’ve counted less than a dozen young pears on the entire tree, and I’m surprised we have those. When it was in flower it was extremely cold and wet, and there were no bees around at all, so it didn’t get pollinated.

MrsGF and I are both enormously fond of mountain ash trees (they’re actually not an ash, they’re part of the rose family, so the emerald ash borer doesn’t attack them). We have one in the backyard and we see seedlings popping up all the time, so we transplanted one into a corner of the hosta bed where it seemed to fit in, and it likes it there. The photo doesn’t do it justice. It’s really been thriving there. It’s more than doubled in size in the last month or so.
We tucked onions into the edges of the raised beds around the tomatoes this year as an experiment and it’s worked way better than we ever hoped. They’re absolutely beautiful. It’s a mixed variety of red, yellow and white onions, and they’re all doing well. Bulbs are about 2 inches thick and they taste amazing.
This is one of two jalapeno plants we have in pots on the front porch. They’re an experiment. It’s a new variety I found that claimed it had all the flavor of a jalapeno but without the heat. Now I love jalapeno peppers, but sometimes the heat gets a bit much for me. I’ve had mixed results growing them in the past, with a wide variation in the amount of heat they produce, even in fruit from the same plant. These have lived up to their billing. All the bright, crisp flavor but with very little heat. Just enough to remind me it’s a jalapeno. I dice ’em up and throw them in omelets, mac and cheese, anywhere I want to turn something bland into something a bit more interesting. I’ve been picking these little guys on a regular basis for the last, oh, two or three weeks. Even MrsGF has been using them. Definitely a success. I’ll probably be putting about 4 of these plants in next year. That should be enough to freeze to supply us through the winter.

The tomatoes have been going crazy. We planted way too many of them last year so we still have shelves full of canned tomatoes in the basement, so we only put in half as many plants as last year, and now that seems it may have been too many. They’re in full flower right now, and if they produce as prolifically as it seems right now, I don’t know what we’ll do with all of them. But that’s a good thing. I’d rather have too many. We can always give them away to friends and family if we can’t deal with all of them. We’ve managed to avoid blossom end rot once we switched to using the raised beds, but there were some signs last year we might be heading for a problem, so we’ve been using a calcium supplement to try to fend that off.
Wax beans and bell peppers in the background. The wax beans are amazing. We’ve been picking those for about a week now. They’re young and tender and delicious. We aren’t sure what happened to the green beans we planted. Something ate them off, leaving only the stems, almost as soon as they emerged, but left the wax beans alone. This area is fenced to keep the rabbits out so it wasn’t them. We aren’t sure what got them, and why they left the wax beans alone. Well, at least they left us those.

The raspberries are behind the garage where they get shade all morning and part sun all afternoon, and they really seem to like that. They’ve taken over that entire end of the garden and they’re loaded with fruit. I’m not supposed to eat raspberries or anything with small seeds, but I have to admit that I watch those plants like a hawk when they’re starting to fruit and it’s very rare that a berry escapes me and makes it into the house.

Garden Stuff

The hostas loved the cool, wet spring. They’re wonderfully lush this year.

Despite all the water we’ve been getting the gardens have been doing pretty good. We’re still a bit behind schedule because of the cool weather we had up until now, but the gardens at the house are definitely doing better than what the farmers around here have been experiencing.

When we bought this place some twenty or so years ago the front of the house was a mess. The space between the front of the house and the sidewalk was a nasty little border type flower bed mulched with small stones, sort of curved and indented, with some of the worst grass I’d ever seen between that and the sidewalk. It was a maintenance nightmare. The plants up there were some of the worst you could possibly select for a border, and because of the stones it was impossible to properly weed or do anything to improve the horrible soil.

We finally got fed up, went in with the tractor and ripped everything out, scooped up the stones with the front end loader and hauled them to a friend’s farm where he used them for fill, and we put in the cedar rail fence and the hostas. No bushes to trim any more, the fence has weathered to look like it’s been there for generations, and the only maintenance is to go in with a hoe and knock the few weeds growing in the mulch down once in a while. There are a couple of spots where I want a bit better coverage so I might throw in a few more hostas.

The tomatoes are looking pretty good. We put in a lot less of them than last year because we were nearly overwhelmed by them last year. We still have enough canned tomatoes to last us probably through 2019, although all of the soup and pasta sauce got used up.

With fewer tomatoes we had some extra room in the raised beds so we put onions in along the edge and they’re doing beautifully. We tried raising them in a different spot but they never got enough light and didn’t do well. They’re looking fantastic in this new location. They’re big enough now that I can run outside and pull a couple whenever I need onions for anything. I love green onions so they may never reach maturity, but that’s okay.

Every year I have to put in something different, this year it’s this, something that the label says is a “hot salsa pepper”. And that is literally all it says. I don’t know what variety or anything else about it. It is starting to produce pretty little yellow peppers, so that’s something. I picked one yesterday and tried it and it is most definitely not hot. Not by any standards. I’m not one of those people who loves peppers that make your face turn red and your eyes bug out and necessitate a trip to the ER because they’re so bad, but I do like a pepper that bites back at least a little. Jalapenos are about the limit of what I can handle for heat. But these, well, there’s just nothing there at all. Hopefully they’ll get better as they mature.

Speaking of jalapenos, I got another experiment going in pots on the front steps, a “mild” jalapenos. The two plants are doing quite well, both are in flower now and one is starting to develop fruits. The blurb on the tag was “all of the flavor without the heat”. I’ve tried variations of peppers like this before that claimed they still had flavor without heat, and they were disappointing. Usually when they breed out the heat, they also breed out the flavor, alas. But we’ll see what happens with these. They certainly are looking healthy.

And then, of course, there’s the water. Oh brother… The ground is still so saturated that you can audibly hear it squishing when you walk through the grass. And the whole area back by the raised vegetable beds still had standing water under the grass as you can see in that photo. If we didn’t have the raised beds nothing would be growing back there this year. I don’t think we’ve gone more than three days in a row without significant rainfall since April.

Let’s wrap this up with this one:

I end up with dozens of photos of that lily every year because I love the color, the shape of the flowers, and just about everything about that plant. It certainly didn’t disappoint this year.

The New Decorative Raised Bed…

is finally completely finished! We got all of the plantings done and finished up mulching it the other day. Still want to rearrange those slate pavers as stepping stones going through the crushed lava rock. And those dopey lupins. I don’t know about those. I don’t like them there. I think they detract from the effect I wanted. And the things are ridiculously invasive. But MrsGF likes ’em. The two bird houses were made by eldest son a few years ago. We just put the things out there and we’d hardly had the posts in and we had birds moving into the already.

It’s still ridiculously wet around here. We just got another two inches of rain the other day. To give you an idea of how wet it is around here this is my backyard not far from the new raised bed in the first photo. You can see I’m standing in about an inch and a half of water.

The ground is so saturated with water that even this morning, more than 24 hours after the rain finished, even the high ground in the yard squishes when I walk across it.

Out in the countryside it’s just as bad. The corn is up, barely. At least where the farmers could get it in the ground. This time of year it should be, oh, eight, twelve inches tall, the old “knee high by the 4th of July” saying is reasonably accurate. Almost none of the stuff I’ve seen is more than about four inches at the most.

On the good side, Mr. Spiny, our rescue cactus, is having a grand time tucked away under the eaves of the house. I started to try counting the number of new pads and gave up after I hit 20. We’ve had this guy for what, must be four years or more now after we rescued him from the town compost pile and it’s been thriving ever since.

And my favorite red lily is in full bloom! This is probably my favorite of all the plants we have out in the garden. I think the color on it is simply spectacular.

Lame attempt at a panoramic photo of the wood bridge on the trail a week or so ago.

If you’re wondering if I’m still doing the bicycle thing or if I’ve turned even more lazy than I usually am, yes, I’m still at it. I try getting out every day. I admit that’s been a challenge with the weather the way it has been. I’ve been reluctant to go very far out of town because of the way the rain seems to pop up out of nowhere some days. Because of that I’ve only been out on the trail a few times so far this year. Hopefully we’ll get a change in this weather pattern in the near future.

Let’s see, what else… I haven’t had time to play with radio very much so I still don’t have the new Yaesu up and running with digital. The “new” Lenovo laptop I picked up for $300 that it’s going to be hooked to looks like a real gem so far. It isn’t blindingly fast, but it’s certainly got way more horsepower than it will ever need for the application it’s going to be used for.

We don’t have any other major projects in mind for the gardens and landscaping this season. The next project is to finally tackle moving all my radio and computer equipment down into the basement. I’ve been putting that one off way, way too long already and I really need to get working on that.

Stuff

If you live in the midwest in the US you don’t need me to tell you that the weather hasn’t been very good. Unusually cold temperatures and seemingly non-stop rain has been hitting large parts of the midwest. Corn and soybeans were, for the most part, planted late or even not at all. Ohio seems to have been hit the worst. Looks like almost 25% of the Ohio corn crop isn’t going to be planted at all. The situation with soybeans isn’t quite as bad, but the numbers there aren’t looking very good either.

The exact numbers are uncertain because a lot of farmers and people in the ag industry are being openly, even brutally skeptical of the data coming out of USDA. There are claims USDA is including acreage that has been planted but is under water and will never grow, acreage that has been planted with cover crops instead of corn because it’s already too late to plant, etc.

I can’t confirm or deny any of those suspicions. All I know is that when I ride around the countryside I’m seeing a hell of a lot of fields that look like the picture there on the left; lots of mud, lots of standing water, and lots and lots of weeds. It is too late to do anything with fields like that except to try to plant a cover crop to keep down the weeds and prevent erosion. You aren’t going to get any kind of economically viable crop planted in this area, this late in the season.

What about hemp, you ask?

Well, okay, you didn’t ask, but I’ve had a couple of people ask me about what the situation is with hemp. It is now legal to plant, harvest and process hemp here in Wisconsin, and despite the fact that a lot of people have been hyping the hell out of it and claiming that it is going to be the savior of agriculture, well, hemp, so far at least, has been pretty much a total bust for those few farmers who’ve tried it. Raising hemp for grain was a total loss last year from what I heard. Because of wet fall it was almost impossible to harvest the stuff. And what they did get harvested was hit by mold because of the damp weather so they couldn’t sell it at all.

Instead of depressing stuff, how about some pretty flowers instead? This is alyssum growing in my backyard. Wonderful stuff. Beautiful tiny, tiny flowers that produce some of the most amazing scent imaginable. I love this little plant. Those flowers are very small, about the size of a match head.

Raising it to produce CBD oil didn’t work out too well either for a lot of farmers. One farmer I heard about did successfully get his crop in, but trying to actually sell it was a different story. It seems no one actually wants large amounts of the stuff. Or none that he could find, anyway. None of the CBD oil producers he’s dealing with seem to want more than a few pounds of it at a time, and you can’t make money that way. His problem is marketing, of course. It sounds like he jumped into production before he was even sure if he could sell the stuff.

Hemp isn’t going to be “the savior” of agriculture. It is, at best, going to be just another crop that some will have success with. And all of the hype about CBD oil seems to be mostly that, hype, with few actual facts to back up any of the claims. There seems to be some indications it can help with epilepsy and discomfort from arthritis, but that’s about it.

Antenna Stuff

Strange things are growing in my backyard behind the garage. No, that’s not some kind of weird sunflower, that’s a GAP Titan DX vertical antenna which has been laying around for years now. Eldest son and I finally got the dopey thing put up over the weekend. That thing has been laying around for, oh, lord, has it really been three or four years? Sheesh… Talk about procrastination…

It replaces the Comet 250 vertical that was back there since 2013. The Comet – people like to complain about it but to be perfectly fair it wasn’t a horrible antenna. It is exactly what they claim it is, a multi-band vertical that doesn’t need radials or a counterpoise, that works from 80 to 10 meters without an antenna tuner, and can handle up to 250 watts. It is unobtrusive, the neighbors probably won’t complain about it, and under the right conditions it will even work as an antenna. Sort of. Not a very good antenna, true, but it will work.

The Titan has a pretty good reputation. It too is an all-band vertical, but you can see that it isn’t exactly simple, with all kinds of stubs and wires and stuff coming off it. But it is much, much more efficient than the Comet. And I can feed this one up to 1,500 watts if I want to without damaging it, where the Comet, well, I heard reports that if you tried to put more than 100 watts into the Comet you’d melt down the coils. Anyway, I still have work to do on this one. I need to get the counterpoise installed, need to get some connectors on it, need to tune the stubs. Hopefully it won’t take me another four years to get it hooked up!

It’s up high enough so it won’t interfere with the flowerbeds behind the garage. The counterpoise will take up a bit of space so I imagine MrsGF will not like that, but I’m hoping to get her to upgrade to a general class license now that she’s retired and if she does she’ll get as much use out of that antenna as I will.

Speaking of flowers, (well, okay, I wasn’t speaking of flowers but what the heck) the lupins have just gone nuts this year. They’re everywhere. It looks like someone bombed the entire backyard with seed. We didn’t plant any of these, they just came up by themselves. Not that I’m complaining. Those flowers are spectacular.

Let’s see, what else? Oh, yeah…

Stuff On The Air

Amateur radio operators can be a bit, well, odd, shall we say? (Personally I suspect it’s solder fumes.) Some of them seem to be obsessed with lugging their equipment out of the safe environment of their basements where spouses have exiled them and into the great outdoors with the intent of doing “Things On The Air”. They do SOTA (summits on the air), IOTA (islands on the air), POTA (parks on the air) WPOTA (Walmart parking lots on the air), and, well, the list goes on and on.

I’ve decided to join the ranks of these intrepid and brave explorers going to exotic places and sticking still more letters in front of “OTA”, risking life and limb outside of the safety of my normal operating location. Yes, I’ve started FPOTA! Front Porches On The Air! Ooo, the excitement! Ah, the thrills!

The plant there is important. It adds about 0.001 dB to the gain of the antenna.

Well, okay, I’m being silly here. (But to be honest I’m getting really tired of these “OTA” things and people running around “activating” parking lots and hills and parks and bridges and I don’t know what all else.) Still, we had a very rare nice day so I set up the mag loop and the 818 out on the front porch with a cup of coffee, a copy of “The Bathroom Reader” and and contacted, well, no one, to be honest. Chris over at Off Grid Ham tells me he’s been having similar results and not to feel too bad about it. Propagation on the HF bands pretty much sucks because we’re at the bottom of the solar cycle.

By the way, if you’re at all interested in solar power, batteries, solar controllers, and alternative ways of keeping your radios running, battery charging systems, etc, Off Grid Ham is the place to start.

The Great QRP Saga Continues

If you’ve been reading this nonsense for the last couple of weeks you know about my efforts to put together a portable QRP (low power) radio setup that’s small enough I can throw it into the back of the car and take with me when I go fishing and stuff so I can do PTOCCOTA (Picnic Tables Of Calumet County On The Air). Okay, I’m being silly, but I have long wanted to have a nice QRP set up that I could take along with me to play amateur radio while out enjoying the glorious environment of Wisconsin’s great outdoors and it’s swarms of blood sucking, disease carrying mosquitoes and ticks.

I’m mostly interested in digital modes of communications like PSK, FT8 and JS8 because despite the fact my hobby is communications technology, I don’t like to actually, well, talk to people. Yeah, I know. Weird, isn’t it?

So as you may recall, the ancient Toshiba laptop I was going to use decided it was time to go to that great recycling center in the sky. So I’ve been scrounging around for a cheap (emphasis on cheap because I already got way too much money invested in this project already) replacement and came up with this:

It’s a refurbed Lenovo that I picked up for $300 and, frankly, it’s ridiculously nice. I mean this thing looks and feels literally like brand new. There isn’t a single scratch or smudge or physical defect anywhere on it. Has a core i5 processor, 8 gig RAM, 500 gig SSD drive, DVD drive, 4 USB ports and seems entirely too nice to lug around out in the field. I have FLDIGI, JS8Call and FT8 software installed on it already. And I think I have the right cables to hook everything up to the SignaLink and the 818. So this weekend I’ll be taking over the dining room table for a few hours and see if I can actually get all this to work together.

I am not looking forward to that because, well, it’s embarrassing. I’ve been working with computers since 1979, both hardware and software. I’ve been fiddling with radio for even longer even though I didn’t get my amateur radio license until 2013. I was an electronics technician. I repaired laser scanners, set up computer networks, worked with ridiculously complex point of sale systems. So I ought to know this stuff, right? But whenever it comes to trying to hook a computer to a transceiver it quickly turns into an extremely frustrating experience. It never, ever works the first time. Or the second. Or the third. Or the fourth… Well, you get the idea.

I spent days trying to get Ham Radio Deluxe to work with first my Kenwood TS-2000 and then later with the Kenwood TS-990 and a RigBlaster Advantage interface. It was so frustrating that at times I was ready to just give up and then, for no apparent reason, the damned thing would just start working, with the same settings and cabling that didn’t work the day before… Arrgghhhh! The last time I had to rejigger stuff was when I got the new gaming PC and was trying to hook that up. Same settings, same cables, same everything, and, of course, it wouldn’t work right. Ham Radio Deluxe worked just fine and dandy until I wanted to transmit. Then it would key the transmitter but nothing actually transmitted… I struggled with that problem for way, way to long. And then it just started working for no apparent reason… I still don’t know what the hell happened there.

Anyway, enough of that. I’ve been boring you long enough with this stuff. Hopefully come Monday or Tuesday I’ll be able to report that I’ve got the 818 working flawlessly with the ThinkPad and I’m making contacts all over the place.

I doubt it, though.

Gardening Catch Up

Wow it’s been busy here. Well, at least when it hasn’t been raining, which it seems to have been doing almost the entire month of May. I’d say we’ve had maybe 5 nice days out of the last 30. The rest of the time it’s either been raining, or cold with temperatures never getting much above 55 degrees, or both at the same time. The farms around here are running weeks behind with planting. Well, so is most of the midwest. This time of year we should have just about all of the corn crop planted. Instead we have about 45% of the crop in the ground because the fields around here look like this:

We’re at the point now where if farmers can’t get the corn in the ground in the next few days they might as well not bother at all. Every day’s delay means a significant reduction in yield, and it isn’t going to be long before even the faster growing varieties won’t reach maturity before we get frost in the fall.

The commodities markets were so distracted by the trade wars going on that they didn’t notice the weather problems we’ve had, but they sure have now. Corn prices have shot up over $1 per bushel in the last week and a half, and are now sitting around $4.30 on the Chicago market.

But I wanted to talk about gardening, not farming, so let’s drop that and get on with this.

It was a hard winter here, which was easy to tell from looking at our yard, especially behind the house. The decorative plantings got especially hard hit, and the decorative area back there was an absolute mess.

The bark mulch had disappeared, for the most part, probably floating off in the heavy rains, the rest was discolored and deteriorating badly, parts of the area had sunk in where the old koi pond had been, the irises were drowning, it was pretty bad back there. So we decided the whole thing had to be redone. So we started digging up the old plants, moving rocks, putting in something like 250 retaining wall blocks, and about a week of work, and this is what we ended up with.

Still a lot of work to do but we’re getting there. You can see the raised vegetable beds off to the right.

We still have a lot of work to do to finish it off obviously. Some of the block have to be straightened up, some things moved around, but we’re relatively pleased with the result. One problem is that boulder sitting there. I moved that sucker there when I still had the tractor because it seemed like a good idea at the time and since the tractor got sold, well that’s where it’s going to stay, so we’re stuck with it and have to work around it.

It’s still pretty messy back there and we have a lot to do. We’re debating whether or not we want to put capstones along the top of the retaining walls. We have probably several more yards of dirt to haul in to fill the planting bed, a lot of crushed rock for the area around and behind the boulder, lots of plants to transplant into there and buy, and probably a truckload or two of mulch.

The old stone wall containing the garden at the back of the garage isn’t in good shape either any more. You can see what’s left of it here at the back of the garage. It’s just barely hanging on and needs to be replaced. But we’re pretty sick of putting in retaining walls at the moment so we’ll let this go another year and worry about it next spring. Despite the cold, wet weather you can see the raspberries are doing pretty good back there.

The 55 gallon drum you see in the background behind the lilac at the corner of the garage is our rain recovery system. There’s a piping system attached to the rain gutters that diverts water into the barrel that we use for watering plants in the dry season. Works pretty well. That’s generally enough to handle all of potted plants around the house. Not enough to deal with the vegetable gardens as well, but it helps a lot in keeping the water bill down during the summer.

We’ve cut back on the vegetable plantings this year. We had ridiculous amounts of tomatoes last year so we cut way back on that. Lots of pepper plants, though. We seem to go through a lot of those. But tomatoes? We still have quarts and quarts of canned tomatoes on the shelves from last year, although we did run out of soup and spaghetti sauce.

That opened up space in the raised beds so we put in a variety of onions this year to see how that works. I love being able to just go out in the backyard and dig up fresh onions when I need them during the summer. But the area where we were planting onions until now didn’t work very well because it was getting shaded out by the trees. The onions would start out well but would never grow very big because of the lack of light.

But then I have this going on right now —

She’s been sitting there staring at me for the last half hour waiting for her breakfast so I suppose I better feed the little goof.

Photos Because Why Not?

It’s snowing. Again. And more snow is coming this weekend, and while I generally like winter, well, this time of the year I start to become a bit impatient with the cold and snow. I was transferring photos from the iMac and thought there’s no reason this blog has to be as gray and dreary as the weather is outside, so here’s some color. 🙂 All photos were taken by me with a variety of equipment, and are copyrighted, so please don’t just swipe the stuff and use it as your own, at least give credit where credit is due if you reblog or use these images yourself.