September 10, 2009

It’s over 96 degrees outside, there is a ton of work to do….fuhgeddaboutit. It seems like more fun to write about….outdoor cooking!

Last summer some well-heeled neighbors constructed an outdoor kitchen that local gossip claims cost over $60,000. As anyone who knows me can attest, spending money on Ritzy things seems just silly, and life should be all about gloating over what one accomplished for little or, better yet, free. Oh yes, I too will have my outdoor kitchen, and right now I’m working on keeping the price tag right around $20. Here’s the first part:

This is my firepit. Guys, move over. I built the whole thing by myself. My farming partner donated the firebrick, the one inch rebar, and the chain and hook…..okay, and some manual labor to dig out the earth when I was taking too long to do it myself….but the design and execution were all by moi. The pit was dug about eight inches deep, and I used a pickaxe to trim the edges to close to a 90 degree angle. The tripod was then set up temporarily in the pit, and using a very cool app on my iPhone that allows the phone to act as a sophisticated level, the tripod arms were set at about 60 degrees. Some galvanized inch-and-a-half pipe was cut into foot-long sections and driven into the earth. The tripod legs fit into these, and then the tripod was wired together (there IS a proper way to tie a tripod, see your Boy Scout Manual) with baling wire. All metal was then sprayed liberally with WD 40, a magnificent and often underappreciated chemical. In winter, if we want to take down the tripod, it’s a breeze to set up again, just stick the rebar legs inside the pipe. And most importantly, the legs of the tripod cannot slip when holding that Dutch oven, or if someone carelessly knocks into it….it’s solid. Next I laid out the firebrick after giving the ground a decent soaking with water. It was recycled firebrick with plenty of chips, so it was easy to find pieces to fit into the odd sized spots. If I needed to level the brick, a mallet was able to tap the brick into the softened earth below. After all the bottom bricks were laid, I left it alone for a few days so the dirt could turn back into Arbuckle cement. Next came a filling of sand swept between the bricks….the usual. Lastly, brick was used to make two concentric circles to line the edge of the pit. Extra free bricks were used in the middle. They can be stacked as seen here, to protect the fire under the Dutch oven from drafts. They can also be restacked on a whim to hold a grill that was salvaged from a crappy gas barbecue, so the pit doubles as a sort of Weber kettle too. Here are some discoveries to date….grilling is easy. The tripod can be left in place, and never heats up enough to burn skin (I checked). It is incredibly easy to cook in the Dutch oven. Food doesn’t burn because the cast iron distributes the heat evenly. Things cook faster. Controlling the heat is easy….some kindling and two small logs are all that’s needed for 45 minutes worth of cook time. Start the kindling, hang the pot, add ingredients. The iron is already hot, so the meal is underway. Dumplings steam perfectly. If more cooking time is needed, add one more small log. Glorious. But wait, there’s more.

What kitchen doesn’t need an oven? So the next project–construction of an earth oven– can be summed up in this elegant video with lilting music There is a concrete standpipe just sitting out back that needs to be rolled into place by our firepit, this will be the base. Junk for fill is everywhere, alas. My farming partner has more firebrick. And I think we can manage sand, mud, straw or sawdust. It shall be mine….. How does that thing work, one may ask? A fire is lit inside for a few hours. The interior superheats to around 700 degrees. The coals are raked out and the ashes swept. Bread, pizza, whatever, is placed right on the firebrick. The heat bakes the bread via convection evenly and rapidly, with a crisp crust. Millions of Italians can’t be wrong. After the bread bakes, other dishes can be placed in the oven, which takes some hours to cool down. The heat of the oven can even be used for drying the next batch of firewood. This is basically the same setup that people pay thousands of dollars to have someone build out of brick, for el cheapo. It’s a Frugalist’s dream come true…..we’ll write all about it when I get some time to actually build the thing!

September 1, 2009

Farming without the internet would really, really stink. The past two days are perfect examples of the degree to which free access to information has changed how it is possible for a farmer to solve problems. 

For years now I’ve seen that we have an ant problem….a somewhat large, kind of fast moving ant that always seemed to be where it wasn’t wanted….in figs, chewing peaches, even masses of them gnawing a rosebud. In the past I tried searching….."ant pests"……"ants on roses"….."ants in fruit"……but I got nowhere because I wasn’t asking the right question.

My attention has been diverted away from crops for the last few weeks due to a huge (for me) project I decided to take on, and this weekend I finally had a chance to survey the realm. What I saw wasn’t good….aphids run amok on the cucumbers and squashes and new melons, aphids making daily gains on the transplants that are the future of the entire winter garden……uh-oh. Either I do something, or I lose my plants and therefore my income for the months ahead….but what to do? I had a conversation with an entomologist whose aquaintace I made recently, and she suggested diatomaceous earth for the aphids, but in a solution to spray as opposed to a dust. I’d never thought of that….I’d only ever used the dust form. I searched "diatomaceous earth solutions" and learned that that the concoction can be made, and can work against whiteflies and spider mites as well. I also learned that aphids are attracted to high nitrogen levels. Ever wonder why aphids are present firstand in greatest concentration on the parts of the plant that show tender new growth? That’s where they have easiest access to the nitrogen they want, according to whatever site that was. Hmmm. And as I read more about aphid control, I blundered into searching "agricultural ant pests of California". Ah, the magic words… problem is known as the Argentine ant, and as it turns out they are aggressive promoters of aphid activity on all sorts of plants. One site had exhaustive information on how to correctly identify the ant under strong magnification by noting specifics about the ant’s jaw structure and "teeth"…..yep, it all matched. I took a second look at my transplants, and sure enough, there were the ants "farming" the aphids for their honeydew. I also learned that another common technique, spraying soapy water on aphids, needed modification. I read that optimally, the soap used should be a traditional lye/tallow soap. Dish soaps contain too many chemicals that can cause the plant to be burned by the spray application. I spent all day spraying diatomaceous earth on the vegetables I want to save. If I did a good enough job, in a few days I should turn around what threatened to be the death of most of my garden.

What would anyone do without that instant access to information? Probably, fail miserably, just like a hundred years ago when a grower had no help aside from his or her own experience. A day rarely goes by in which I don’t spend some time mining the Web for information. What fertilizers does okra need? Beans? Peas? Every crop one can think of? What are the best sources of those? How do you fix a broken leg in a chicken? What are the bugs ruining my grape leaves? Once I match the picture with the bug, how do I control them organically? What is the best way to store cucumbers? Should bees be fed syrup? The amount of things that a person needs to know are endless. As much as I love books and reading, we as individuals could never independently possess the wealth of knowledge available since the advent of the internet….the only source I can think of that perhaps exceeds what can be found online would be the library of a major university. We live in amazing times, just about everything we’ve collectively discovered is at our fingertips….if we know to ask the right question.