When heat finds the way to Wisconsin

Tomato plants.

This is the day, it must be the day, the day when we can truly hope that spring is here to stay.  We can look forward to nice weather from now until next November.   Last night I had a heater running in my greenhouse, I unplugged it this morning and don’t plan to plug it back in this season.

I had the greenhouse all buttoned up tight to try to keep the cold at bay for the last week.  Today the sun came out in earnest and really started heating it up inside.  Think about a car with the windows rolled all the way up.  It heats up pretty nicely.  On a cold day it is nice to sit inside on a cold sunny day, but on a warm sunny day it gets too hot too fast.  That is kind of what my greenhouse is like when it is all buttoned up.

Thermometer showing greenhouse current, high and low temperatures
The today swung from 34 to 101 before I opened up the vents. Now it is hanging at 88, a nice green house temperature.

One of the things that you need to think about when you are designing a greenhouse is air circulation.  In a low tech greenhouse like mine, that can be a challenge.

Vents in plastic looking in.
Strategically placed folds in plastic allow for strategic ventilation

I use strategically placed folds in the plastic that can either be propped open like in the image above, or held closed with wires and ties that are also seen in the image.  There are vents placed to catch breezes from the north, south and west.  We seldom get wind from the east on a warm sunny day, so it isn’t necessary to have vents on that side.

Tomatoes through vent.
This view shows a closer view of the same vent.

In addition to venting out excess heat, this also allows for the introduction of breezes that will prepare the plants for the winds they will face when they are moved out into the garden.

Tomato plants.
This is the view I can only get from a camera. Looking toward the door from the back vent..

But until that day, they will have to be satisfied with sitting in a warm, sometimes hot, moist greenhouse.  They like it like that.



Day 36

Compost piles are food for your garden, the evolution of my compost pile

Compost pile

For most people, the compost pile is not something worthy of a blog post.  But for the true gardeners, there is an understanding that the compost pile is the heart of the garden.

At the most fundamental level, composting is easy.  You throw a bunch of organic matter in a pile and leave it there to rot.  But as you spend more time gardening, and seasons composting, you start to learn that there is composting and then there is composting.  I am not going to go into the chemistry and process of composting.  I have nothing to add that hasn’t been spoken about before.

But what I can do is share with you the evolution of my composting pile.  When I first started out I decided to use a wire frame cylindrical frame.  This was easy to set up and did a good job of containing the compost, but it was hard to mix, and the good stuff was down at the bottom out of reach.  That combined with placing it in a shaded area meant I didn’t get the results I wanted as fast as I wanted.  I needed more compost than I could produce, so I moved on.

Wire Bin Compost Pile
This wire circle was my first compost pile. I made the mistake of putting it in the shaded corner of the yard where it didn’t get enough light to really heat up.

The next evolution of the compost pile found me out in a sunny area.  I had learned about the three bin method, where you migrate the compost from one bin to the next as it aged.  This process allows you to turn over the pile and aerate it as you move it from one bin to the next.  And that is the way to keep your compost hot, make sure it gets plenty of air down in the composting materials.  You also need to have the right combination of green and brown materials, but the real key is air and moisture.

Pallets used to make 3 bin compost pile
The pallets were used to create a three bin compost pile.

This worked pretty well, but I still found myself needing more compost than I could produce in this way.  So, I went to the next version, they straw bale enclosure.

The idea behind the straw bale compost is pretty easy.  You use straw bales to build the container that the compost goes into.  This provides a barrier that helps keep the heat in during the colder months so you can compost when other methods would have shut down.  Along the way, the straw bales start to compost themselves and provide additional carbon materials (brown) to the compost pile.  I would cover it with a black tarp to trap in the heat and keep out excess water, and I would hold the  plastic down with, you guessed it, old pallets.

straw bale compost
This shows how the pile covered in plastic.

I got a couple of years out of the straw bales, but they eventually broke down into compost. The image below shows it the second and last year that I used straw bales.  That year I decided that I still needed more compost than I was producing.  That fall, after watching truck after truck drive by bringing leaves to the dump, I decided that it was silly for them to drive by my house on the way when I could use them for my compost.  So, I invited a few of the neighbors to bring me their leaves and I ended up with a much bigger compost pile, and a tradition that continues today.

Straw bale compost pile
The straw bales break down and the pile becomes less contained.

I now had a reasonable amount of compost, and it allowed me to leave some there during the year.  And what I found out, is that during the summer, the location that normally holds the compost pile, really want things to grow.  So I have experimented with things like potatoes, and squash, pumpkins and tomatoes, and really anything that wants to grow there.  At the very least, it will become next year’s compost.

Plants growing in compost pile
For some reason, things want to grow in my compost pile.
Plants growing in compost pile
Another view of the compost pile in relation to the rest of the garden

This last fall I went all the way and put up a sign that said “taking leaves” beside the road inviting the entire neighborhood to bring in their leaves.  And several did.  I ended up with a very large compost pile.  It is big enough now that it takes up the whole area behind the white fence, and is about 5 feet deep in the fall, and about 3 1/2 feet deep in the spring.  Then a couple of weeks ago I had a friend call and ask if they could bring in their leaves, grass clippings and pine needles to throw on my pile.  “Well yeah!”

So now I have this really massive compost pile.  It is a bit of work to turn it over, but I do that to keep it composting hot.  Last Sunday I reached my hand into the middle of the pile and it was HOT!  That is exactly what you want.

Big Compost pile
The pile at the beginning of spring, and before a friend brought in another truck load of stuff.

I think this year I may have enough compost.  It still has some rotting to do, but another 4 weeks and it should be mostly ready to spread.  And my garden is going to love it.



Day 24

Things that help us to remember

Johnson Sprinkler Tractor

It is hard to believe that it has been almost 29 years since my grandfather died.  Fritz and I were buddies.  He was that special adult in my life that had a significant influence on me, and has always held a special place in my heart.  And, for as long as I can remember, he had one of these tractors out in the yard.  I don’t remember him ever actually touching it, but for some reason it is firmly tied to my memory of him.

Johnson Sprinkler Tractor
I have been waiting 29 years to get one of these.

There weren’t many toys at my grandparent’s house.  A couple of old toy tractors, mini bikes, riding lawn mowers, real tractors, and guns were the things we had to entertain ourselves.  Oh, and of course the millions of things that you find on a farm in West Texas.  But, for whatever reason I just loved that tractor sprinkler.

Tractor sprinkler mechanisms
This picture shows most of the mechanism that makes this thing work.

The engineering behind this is quite brilliant.  Technically I think it is referred to as a walking sprinkler. The intended function is to move forward as it waters the lawn/garden.  It is designed to follow the hose, with the front tire being designed to fit over the hose.  The water hose is connected to the tractor and turned on.  The water flows out through the swing arms and forces an inclined plane to rotate.  That is interconnected with a gear that us turned by the rotation of the inclined plane.  Attached to the gear are two arms, each extending to a swinging metal tooth.  The tooth is designed such that as it moves forward in the rotation the tooth pushes another gear, which is the tractor’s tire causing it to turn and propel the tractor forward.  As the tooth swings back, it freely flops over the teeth of the wheel gear and repeats the cycle again for the next rotation.  You can create a path with the hose and it will follow that path until it bumps into something, dragging the hose behind it as it goes. I watched it do this for hours as a kid.

When Fritz died in the late summer of 1986, that tractor became a part of my memory of him, and I always wanted one ever since.  They still manufacture versions of the tractor sprinkler, but they aren’t that old fashioned sturdy kind.  They aren’t Fritz’s tractor. I had seen a few of the vintage ones over the years, but they were either too expensive or I just didn’t have the ability to get them at the time.  But this spring I was at a construction material reclamation business looking for doors (that is another blog story for someday in the future), when I saw it.

This one was cast iron, just the way it should be.  It was used, but not abused, and it still worked.  I haven’t run any water through it yet, but the swing arms turn and all the mechanisms follow suit accordingly.  And after all of these years, I finally have my tractor sprinkler.

Garden with lawn ornaments
This is the spring ’15 layout of Brayden Garden

I have given it a place in Brayden Garden.  Brayden Garden is a memorial garden that I built after the death of my nephew.  He was 5 years old and he died of the flu and meningitis within hours of first showing symptoms.  It has become a place of grounding for me.  I always find myself reflecting on the fragility of life when I am working that garden.

Cherub in garden
This cherub was donated the day after a neighbor learned of Brayden’s death.

The artifacts in the garden are growing in number.  The first thing that went in was a cherub statuette that was given to me after my neighbor heard the story.  I watched her heart break right in front of my eyes when I told her about Brayden.  The next day, she brought me the cherub while I was out working on the garden.

Tractors and Tonka truck in garden
The Tonka was Brayden’s

The next thing added to the garden was Brayden’s Tonka Truck.  This truck was bought by my brother the day Brayden was born and it sat in the hospital room with a bouquet of flowers.  The next time I saw that truck with a bunch of flowers in it was at his funeral.  My brother James and his wife Melissa gave us the truck when they found out we had created the memorial garden and wanted some toy of his to go into the garden.  Every year I plant flowers in it and it sits out in the garden.

Other things have been added to Brayden Garden over the few years it has been, but none with the significance of those two.  Anyway, when I got this tractor, it was a bit of a memorial to Fritz, so it was obvious that it needed to be added to the garden.

Now I can guarantee you, that there is going to be a time when I put that tractor to work doing what it is supposed to do, but in the mean time it gets to sit there in Brayden Garden.  And there, it will serve as one of those things  that bring me back to another time and place, gives me access to memories that I otherwise might forget while at the same time helping me to stay grounded in the present.



Day 23