Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Building A Foot Bridge In The Wilderness.

Are you one of those lucky people who have a few acres of land with a small stream running through it? Well this post is for you! If not, join the crowd and read on anyway, maybe you will learn a new skill set. With the help of some friends, I will show you how to construct a foot bridge in the woods with mostly hand tools. Some of you may know that I have been a member of the Red River Gorge Trail Crew for going on a decade now. The RRGTC is a group of dedicated volunteers who meet once a month in the beautiful woods of east central Kentucky. The RRGTC helps keep the trails, bridges and back country of the Gorge safe and accessible for the general public to enjoy. 

Okay so first things first, you will need a large tree. What part of the country you are in will dictate the type of tree you will use. In the Gorge we use the eastern hemlock. The hemlock grows very straight and tall making it ideal for use as a bridge. Used properly the wood will last a long time in the elements. Once you have selected your live tree and felled it, with good sawyer techniques I hope, you need to strip the bark off. If you leave the bark on you will create an area for moisture to rot out your bridge.

Sad side note: The eastern hemlock is under attack in the US by the woolly adelgid. The woolly adelgid is a small insect that sucks the sap of the hemlock, desiccating the tree, causing the tree to lose needles and not produce new growth. After a hemlock is infested it typically takes 4-10 years for the tree to die. Even if it lives, it will be weakened and susceptible to disease. Unfortunately the woolly adelgid has made its way to the Gorge. Most of the Red River Gorge is going to have a completely different ecosystem in 20 years.

Okay after you have dried your eyes for the eastern hemlock you will need to find a lot of wedges. It helps to have friends with tools. You want to split the log so you have two equal and usable pieces. After you have figured out where you want to split the tree, mark it with a line of chalk or a string. Now start pounding the wedges in along the line.

This takes a while and it helps to have a lot of people around to switch off when you get tired, which you will. Even though hemlock is considered a "soft" wood, this stuff is pretty tough.

Once you get the metal wedges in a ways, you need to switch to wood wedges. Our sawyer cut up a bunch of them on the job site. As long as you keep applying pressure with the wedges you will eventually get the log to split.

The wooden wedges are just small diameter trees or limbs with an angle cut on one side. The bad thing about them is they break up pretty easily when beaten with a sledge hammer, the good thing about them is we could make as many as we needed.

Eventually you will win the battle if you keep at it. I have a lot of respect for the people who had to do this back in the day. We only split one log, with a lot of help and modern tools.

Ideally you want to get two usable sides out of each split log. This one split weird so we could only use one side for the foot bridge. I don't have a picture of it, but we used the other half to make a bench near the bridge.

Like I said you need to get all the bark off so the bridge doesn't rot. Having a bark spud is key to doing this fast. It is basically a chisel with the correct angle to peel the bark off in strips.

Okay so I said mostly hand tools. Our sawyer is cutting down into the log to specific points on both sides of the log. We measured the lowest points on the log and marked the sides. He then cut down to the marks with the chain saw.  Because he couldn't see the other side of the log, I sat across from him, and by using my hands, showed him how far away he was from the line. When my hands touched, he was at the line, and stopped cutting. It was raining off and on the whole day, so we did not bring out the crosscut saw. You could do this all by hand if you wanted to, and had the correct tools. 

The reason for notching the log with the chainsaw was so we could use this useful tool called an adze. This is an ancient style of tool dating back to the stone age. You can see this person using the proper technique of having one foot over the other and chopping towards them. This allows you to be pretty precise without worrying about adze-ing your shin. If you can't imagine the jokes around a tool called an adze, let me give you a few. "Get your hands of my adze" or "You sure know how to work an adze" or "Your mama's so fat her adze was made out of a manhole cover"... moving on.

You can see how smooth this log is getting. You don't want it completely smooth. You want to leave some grooves and imperfections for tread when it is wet. You can also knock the wood off with a pulaski, shown above.

Here is the other end. When you have a good adze in your hand, you can do amazing things...

We used these log movers to bring in the base of the bridge. Out in the wilderness, simple tools and manpower get most jobs done.

After the bases were striped of bark we used a brace to drill some pilot holes for re-bar "nails". You want to drill them at an angle so the base has less of a chance of moving in a large water event. Another hole was drilled on the opposite top side of the log with the same angle but going the other way. This pins the base into the ground with the re-bar going down like this ^ .

One of the best lubricants for pounding re-bar into wood is kerosene. We also use kerosene when we use the crosscut saws. It helps dissolve any saps in the wood and lubricates the blade.

Here we are setting the bridge in place. We then marked it so we could cut out divots on the bottom. This allows the bridge to sit snug on the base.

You would think that with how much wood you have to work with in the base you would notch it instead of the thinner bridge. If you were to do that, you would create a depression for water to collect where the bridge meets the base. This would slowly rot out the base and all your hard work would be for naught.

You can see how smooth you can make the wood with the proper tools. You might even say it is as smooth as a babies adze...

We repeated the brace and re-bar technique for the bridge. This thing is not going anywhere. The re-bar we used was about 4 foot long.

So here is the final product. An inviting foot bridge in the middle of the woods, crossing a small stream. If you are interested in seeing this for yourself, just hike the Whittelton branch trail east from the camp ground and you can't miss it.

Thanks to all the volunteers who come out month after month, year after year, in the rain, snow and cold. And a special thanks to our fearless leader Charlie, the forest service is lucky to have you and so are we. So I didn't have to fool around with getting everyone's permission, all photos are headless and taken by me. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Hard Cider Made Easy

So first things first, find a friend with 7 mature apple trees and tell him you can turn them into alcohol. The apples, not the trees. Next, with your friends help, collect as many apples as you can and invite him over to learn how to make said alcohol. Making alcohol is always easier with an extra set of hands. And of course, drinking alcohol with a friend, while you work, raises moral.

We could have gotten more apples out of his trees but it was getting dark and this seemed like a lot. So many people have fruit trees and let the fruit drop every year. If you are one of those people, and you live in or near SW Ohio, let me know. We can work out a 'you give me fruit, I give you alcohol' kinda deal.

My friend Mike, you know the guy with the apples, also owns a semi-industrial juicer. In the olden days you would need to press apples in a huge, heavy apple press. Even though we had the advantage of an electric juicer, it still took us a few hours to process all of the apples. Not sure if the multiple greyhounds had anything to do with that.

We filled my aluminum brew kettle up twice. That is a lot of apple juice! Mike saved the pulp for his chickens. I am sure they are happy about that.

Doesn't this look delicious? We didn't run the juice though a sieve or filter so a lot of the pulp and particulates got into the brew kettle. Not a big deal and much easier this way.

I think Mike convinced himself (I had nothing to do with it, I swear), that he needs one of these 210,000 BTU propane burners. I think you may need some convincing. You need a 210,000 BTU propane burner! Don't buy one of the cheap turkey fryer ones. You are going to have a lot of weight sitting on it and it needs to be sturdy. Plus this doubles as a turkey fryer! There is a link in the side bar if you want to know more details about this burner.

Right, I was suppose to tell you how to make hard cider. It is simple really:

  • Juice a bunch of apples.
  • Heat the juice to 160 degrees and hold it at that temp for 8 minutes. 
  • Cool the juice down fast, I have a wort chiller but you can use an ice bath around the kettle.
  • Transfer the juice to a carboy.
  • Add yeast nutrient to the carboy.
  • Add yeast to the carboy.
  • Put on an airlock.
  • Wait 2-3 weeks.

You can also make hard cider without heating the apple juice. I have not done this but it seems most people do it this way. Side note: I don't think one of my blog posts have been unamended after reddit gives their 3 scents. Seriously reddit always gives me great feedback or some meaningful suggestions. Thanks!

So you want to make cider without heating the juice? There are two schools of thought.

School number one:

  • Juice a bunch of apples.
  • Transfer juice to a carboy.
  • Add yeast nutrient to the carboy.
  • Add yeast to the carboy.
  • Put on an airlock.
  • Wait 2-3 weeks.

School number two:

  • Juice a bunch of apples.
  • Transfer juice to a carboy.
  • Add campden tablets to juice.
  • Wait 24-28 hours.
  • Add yeast nutrient to the carboy.
  • Add yeast to the carboy.
  • Put on an airlock.
  • Wait 2-3 weeks.

I have only done the pasteurization method, but it seems the majority of people I have talked to use either campden tabs, or are the more adventurous types, and just pitch yeast after they juice.

You want to place your carboys in a temperature stable area. I always ferment alcohol in my laundry room. There are a few thousand worms living in that bin behind the carboys. If your worms are happy, your yeast will be happy. If you don't have a bin with thousands of worms in your house, you are doing it wrong.

Our elusive feline Guenhwyvar (Guen for short), approves of her masters alcohol endeavors.

The white sediment on the very bottom is the yeast cake. There are trillions of yeast just laying around after a three day bender. The bread looking stuff on top of the yeast is apple pulp.This is the primary fermentation.You leave most of this stuff behind when you "rack" or transfer the alcohol to the secondary fermentation.

Our other cat Err apparently does not care for my alcohol operation. I am racking the primary into the secondary here. It is good to have a ton of carboys laying around. The more you have, the more you can brew!

You can see a small amount of yeast left on the bottom after the secondary fermentation.

Here I am racking the secondary into the bottling bucket. The brown one gallon carboy is an experiment Dara is doing. She put a bunch of shredded ginger into the carboy before fermentation. We will see how it turned out soon.

Here is Mike racking one of the smaller batches into the bottling bucket. We decided to mix this carboy with the cider from the carboy on the left. This gave us about 5 gallons in the bucket.

You have to be careful when you get close to the yeast cake on the bottom. The device I am using is an auto-siphon. This will suck up any liquid so when you get to the bottom you need to be careful not to let too much yeast get into the bucket.

Once you get your cider in the bucket you need to "prime" it if you want carbonated cider, which we did. You need to put some form of sugar in at this point. We used priming sugar at a ratio of 1 ounce by weight priming sugar to every gallon of cider you have. The yeast will wake up and eat this sugar, making a tiny bit more alcohol, and as a by product, CO2. With the bottles capped, the CO2 will build up and slowly carbonate the cider. This takes anywhere from 3-5 weeks. You need to be careful not to over prime your bottles. They can explode if you give the yeast to much sugar. It is one thing to get woken up in the middle of the night to exploding bottles, it is much worse to go to open a bottle and have it explode in your hand. Be careful and know your ratio.

I use a no rinse sanitizer called Star San. This stuff is great because you do not have to rinse the bottle out after you sanitize it. For all you hippies out there screaming chemicals are bad, just remember you are drinking them in every beer you have ever drank in your entire life. So either make your own beer without sanitizers, which will get infected and taste like band-aids, or just go on with your life and enjoy a good beer. Seriously though, I couldn't do a better job talking about no rinse sanitizers than the guy who invented Star San. Here is a great podcast on the subject. It is an interview with Charlie Talley, the inventor of Star San. If you want to get into brewing, I highly recommend the podcast Basic Brewing, which has been around since 2005. It is actually one of the first podcasts I ever listened to, it is really well done and a great resource. 

Here are the bottles Mike and I went to all the trouble of drinking so we could fill them with, well... more alcohol. Make sure they are not twist off and that you rinsed them out very well before you store them. I bought a 12 pack of 22 ounce bottles from the brew store for mike and I to split.

So here is my haul! Mike has the other half. Not bad for a couple guys standing around, cutting up apples, and drinking alcohol.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

You Have To Dig A Hole If You Want A Pond

I have wanted a backyard pond for a very long time. Some people think of a pond as a 1/4 to a 1/2 of an acre or larger. I plan on putting in a small pond, something around 15 ft wide x 30 ft long x 1-6 ft deep. A small pond that size will hold an amazing amount of water, in this case over 10,000 gallons.

There are many reasons other than aesthetics to put in a water feature on your property. You will increase the bio-diversity of your property instantly. Frogs will start showing up, birds will stop by as well as insects, spiders, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, fish and mammals. By adding a water feature to your landscape you will create an environment that really can't be measured by a metric I know of. Water is truly the catalyst of life. You will have a healthier more diverse property if you create aquatic habitats.

A pond allows you to fish for your dinner as well as grow many water loving plants. I plan on growing many things in my pond. Did you know you can grow water chestnuts in the midwest? You can grow duck-weed to feed your livestock and to support the fish and other life in your pond. I will put in cattails which are almost completely edible, and what you can't eat can be composted. So even if the only thing you can do is put in one of the plastic ponds from your local big box store, I hope you will put some sort of water feature on your property.

One of the first things you should do is locate an area that will best support a pond. Things to consider are drainage areas, soil composition, low lands and proximity to buildings and septic systems. You don't want to locate your pond close to a building or a septic drain field / tank. My pond will be about 20 ft from my garage and 40 ft from the closest drain field. I am sure there are regulations on these distances from your local government overlords so check your local code. 

The area I am locating my pond happens to be the lowest area in my backyard. When it rains a lot this area holds surface water for a couple days. Once you locate the best area on your property for a pond, you will want to dig a test hole. This will let you know what type of subsoil you are dealing with. About one foot down my sub soil turns into a nice clay layer. Clay is good, if you find your sub soil is gravely, you will need to seal your pond with a liner or bentonite clay. I have seen some people use old carpet, it works, but I know what goes into the manufacture of synthetic carpets, so I would pass on that. 

The other purpose of a test hole is to see if your ground will hold water. I dug this hole as deep as I could with a post hole digger. I ended up getting it around 4 ft deep. Next you want to fill the hole up with water. Now you just wait to see how long it takes for the water level to drop. If you walk away to grab a beer and when you come back the hole is empty, then you may have trouble putting in a pond the easy way.

I checked the hole the next day and it had gone down 2 feet. The ground was dry when I did this experiment, so I filled the hole back up and it dropped about two feet in 24 hours. I assume this is because the top 2 feet of the hole allowed more water to seep into the ground than the tighter packed clay on the bottom. After about a week there was only a foot of water in the hole. I am going to ask my neighbor if he sealed his pond, but I don't think he did. 

I am going to plumb the downspouts on the back of my garage into a water catchment system eventually. I will take the overflow from that, and using french drains, have the system drain into the pond. More on that in the future.

One last thing, put something like a board over the test hole you dig in case someone is walking around your backyard and doesn't know it is there. It would be quite a surprise to step in this hole and have your foot go down a couple feet.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Feeding Bees In A Top-Bar Hive

We have had bad luck keeping bees these last two seasons. Out of the four colonies we have bought and installed in our hives, we have one colony left. And that colony is not very robust. I believe part of the reason is the bees we buy come from Georgia. Our local bee supplier drives down to Georgia every spring and brings back hundreds of colonies. These bees are acclimated to a southern climate with mild winters. I have yet to get one of these colonies through our more aggressive mid-west winters.

I am planning on trying to capture locally adapted colonies this spring. I have done a lot of research and I feel confident that I can build swarm traps this winter and catch some swarms this spring. I will do a more detailed post on swarm traps and the process of catching swarms after I build the traps.

I have reservations about feeding bees sugar syrup as a general practice. My feeling is if your colony grows accustom to getting some of their food inside the hive they will be less robust foragers and you will breed this trait into them over time. That said, the hive I have left this year has completely eaten through its honey reserves for the winter and if I do not feed them I might as well just empty the hive. I will not buy another colony again. I will try to get this one through the winter, but if they do not make it, they will be the last hive I pay money for.

If you need to feed your hive you can do it very easily. The only equipment you need is a couple mason jars with lids and something to hold them upside down. I bought a couple holders made for this purpose from my local bee supplier, they were cheap and very good at what they do. I took the plastic holders and screwed them to a piece of wood. The mason jar lids need tiny holes in them to let the sugar syrup slowly drip out.

The sugar syrup is pretty simple to make. It is a 2 : 1 ratio of white table sugar to water. This will be thick and will slowly drip out of the holes in the lid when turned upside down. Once the bees find it they will constantly harvest it until it is gone.

The reason I screwed the jar holders to the board is so I could use them in my top-bar hives. The plastic holders are specifically made for Langstroth hives, but with a little modification and they will work in top-bar hives. The bees will find the sugar syrup pretty quickly and start to bring it over to the comb in the hive. I have drilled holes in my follower boards to let the bees come and go through them. However, there is a gap below the follower boards that the bees use instead. That is a design flaw in the way I constructed the follower boards. No big deal in the long run though.

I put one pint of sugar syrup on each side of the main hive. You can't see it in these pictures, but the top-bar next to each of these feeders has a board hanging down similar to the ends of the hive, the follower board. This keeps the center of the hive small making it is easier for the bees to keep themselves warm through the winter. I will have to replace the sugar syrup a couple times throughout the winter if I want the colony to make it. I will only open the hive on the warmest day in the forecast so I do not freeze the bees out. Here is hoping they make it through this winter.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Planting Garlic

After much procrastinating I finally got around to planting the garlic I harvested earlier this year. In any climate zone, garlic should be planted after the first frost when the ground has cooled. If you do not have a first frost, or any frost for that matter, I guess you can plant whenever. The recommendation is to plant in the spring in those climates.


 All of this garlic came from six bulbs originally. On the left are my hard neck varieties and on the right are the soft neck varieties. I am going to have so much garlic at the next harvest!

This is one of the hard neck varieties. If you look at the one on the right you will see a twist in the center stalk. I found the easiest way to get the stalk out was to twist it until it broke. The stalk is very tough. I didn't get a good picture of it but the twist went up the stalk and reminded me of braided twine. I bet you could use them for cordage. I may try to make some and post about it later. 

I missed some hard-neck scapes when I cut them back earlier this year. A bulbil will form if you let the scapes mature. You can grow new garlic plants from these if you want. I opted to plant the actual bulbs. If you want to use the bulbils, you must "chill" them before you plant to pull it out of its dormant state. This is according to my Father and the internet. In fact my dad thinks I am crazy for planting the actual bulbs. Most people will put them in the freezer over night to "chill" them. I have never tried this, so don't yell at the idiot blogging on the interwebz if it doesn't work. 

Here are the viable cloves. Some of the cloves went bad as they were curing. This only happened to a few cloves, so I had a pretty good harvest of usable cloves. Not to mention a bunch of dry tinder to start fires with. It took me about an hour to separate the cloves from the bulbs. Do not peel the cloves, just separate the cloves from the bulbs. The cloves will be perfectly fine planted with the skin on.

This is the bed I grew garlic in last year. Since I had less soft-neck cloves than hard-neck, I decided to use this as the soft-neck bed and build another bed for the hard-neck. I had to fight the oregano in the bed next to this, it decided to expand its borders. So did the creeping charlie I let run wild in the garden area. You can see mint creeping its way in from the bottom right. Nature abhors a vacuum. 

I mulched the bed with a layer of straw then a layer of pine needles. Once the garlic starts to come up I plan on putting a layer of shredded leaves on to prepare the bed for the winter.

This is the beginning of the new bed. I have a ton of these cedar fence post laying around. My local big box store had them on clearance, so I bought them all. They make good borders. I chose a location in the back left corner of the property that gets good sun and doesn't have a water problem.

I put down a couple layers of cardboard I salvaged from work. They seriously just put it in a trash dumpster and send it off to the local dump. I try to get as much as I can. I always seem to have a use for more cardboard.

Whenever I establish a new bed I typically make my own soil mix depending on what I plan on planting. In this case I used a 60 / 40 compost to peat moss mixture. The bed I put in last year for the garlic had the same mix, and the garlic did very well. It was also very easy to harvest because the peat moss makes a loose soil.

I wanted an even distribution so I gridded out the bed and then planted. I am planting a little closer than I did last year. Most instructions say to plant the cloves 4-6 inches apart. I think you can bring that down to 3 inches and still get large bulbs. But, I have not tried this before, so maybe wait until my experiment is over before you plant your garlic this close. I will let you know how it goes in next years harvest post.

Here is the planted bed before I covered the cloves. I have about 4 inches of soil in the bed. You want to plant the clove root side down at least an inch, two is better. This is probably about as shallow as you would want to plant in. If I had more soil, I would have gone another inch at least. I am not worried. The cardboard will get wet and disintegrate over the winter and the roots will be able to access the subsoil.

Here is the finished product. I mulched it with a layer of straw followed by pine needles. I will cover this with a layer of shredded leaves once the garlic gets a couple inches tall. You can probably still get away with planting garlic this year if you are in my climate zone. I planted at the end of October. If you plan on planting and have not done so, do it asap. If you are reading this in the winter sometime, you can grow garlic indoors if you have deep enough pots for proper bulb development.

I will have plenty of garlic next year so if you are anywhere near me, and want some heirloom garlic, just drop me a line next fall.