Saturday, February 26, 2011

As usual, the garden continued on in my absence

When last we left the saga of the hoop house, I'd finished all but the door. As it turns out, I'm not going to have a fancy-schmancy hoop house door to show you, since the day I went out to work on it was the day I also came down with the flu. I sat in the garden staring at the project, trying to come up with a plan, but all I could think about was how I had no energy at all. Little did I know why...

In the end, I simply draped a piece of plastic sheeting over one end, connecting it with these handy clippies at the top:

and using the same to attach a left over piece of PVC down at the bottom. When I want to leave the door open, I turn the PVC upright, stick it on a piece of re-bar stuck in the ground, et voila! And you know what? It works just fine.

The clippies were suggested to me by Clare in one of the comments on the original hoop house post. They are ridiculously expensive, and I did consider cobbling up some homemade ones for a minute or two. In the end, though, I decided that I was already behind in getting things up and running, and what little spare time I had could be better used elsewhere. I ordered them from Territorial Seed and they arrived within a week. They are easy to attach, and add a fair bit of sturdiness to whole design.

I'm quite appalled at how much such a simple thing costs (roughly $1.25 apiece), but since I can re-use them every year, I suppose it is worth the investment. A package of 20 for a hoop house this size (~9' long, 5' wide, and 5' tall) is sufficient.

Chickens guarding the lettuce

Tomorrow we are supposed to have sustained winds of 35 mph, with gusts up to 60 mph, so I'll be curious to see how the hoop house holds up. I'll be sure to post a report if it blows away.

I had also started soaking snow peas for planting (they germinate better with a good overnight soak), but felt too ill for a couple of days after putting them in water to do anything about it. Eventually, however, I crawled out to the garden, dug a trench an inch deep, and planted them 2 inches apart. That was some time ago, however, and as of this morning, there was still no sign that they were planning to come up. So yesterday I started soaking another batch, and went out to the garden this morning to plant another row:

If the first batch eventually comes up, bueno, I can always pull up the second row after it germinates. If not, I've got a back up plan.

A week ago I managed to cough long and hard enough to pull some muscles in my lower back, and I've been battling muscle spasms ever since. So I don't know how quickly I'm going to get back up to speed on either the riding or the gardening.  The weather reports are all about high wind warnings for a few days, however, so I don't suppose I'll miss much by being all stove up.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A chipper shredder for the community: Part 1

The first time I started thinking about chipper shredders was a year ago last fall, when I was faced, once again, with the mountains and mountains of my neighbors' leaves that always wind up blanketing my front garden. Dealing with these leaves is no small task, as I've detailed here.

I've had people suggest that I simply leave them in the beds, but this underestimates just how many leaves we're talking about. I'm all for a winter mulch, but not for whole scale smothering. Furthermore, the sheer volume of leaves is not immediately compostable. That is, they simply won't fit into my two compost bins. At times, I've had up to 20 large yard bags full, and they can lie around for months, waiting to be mixed in. I needed to shred the leaves I gathered, simply to reduce the volume.

This, as it turned out, was more than a bit of a wrinkle. A machine big enough for the task was too expensive, but renting one was almost just as much so. In the end, I used a combination of a leaf blower (not big enough for the task, as it turns out) and a neighbors' industrial-sized lawn vacuum (hard to handle), which I run over the piles after I've raked them out of the beds.

The second time I started thinking about a chipper shredder was that following winter, when this ice storm brought down tree limbs, not just in my yard, but all over town.

My neighbors and I saved what we could of the icefall for firewood, but even so, a lot of material went to the landfill when it could just as well been chipped up and used as mulch.

So chipper shredders were on my mind last spring when Troy Bilt contacted me and offered to let me have any tool in their catalog, up to $1000 value, if I reviewed it on these pages. Naturally, I was intrigued, especially when the representative said I was free to write whatever I wanted. And I thought I knew exactly what I would order...

Except that I just couldn't see owning a machine that would cost upwards of $800 (the price of Troy Bilt's top-of-the-line chipper shredder, the CS 4325) when I would probably only use it a couple of times a year, at most. It just seemed...extravagant. But what if it weren't just my chipper shredder, but it belonged to the whole neighborhood?

I'll admit that this idea had already crossed my mind before Troy Bilt contacted me. When I was trying to find a solution to all the downed limbs from the ice storm, I'd briefly considered approaching my neighbors about purchasing a chipper shredder together. But, as usual, I got distracted before I ever acted on it. Now the opportunity had fallen into my lap.

Even so, I thought I should poll the neighbors and see what they wanted me to get, letting them know that it would, in effect, belong to all of us. As it turned out, every single one of them picked the chipper shredder from the catalog. It seems I wasn't the only one feeling the need.

So one day last spring I took delivery of a big ol' chipper shredder from Troy Bilt. It wasn't until this past fall, however, that I finally had a chance to try it out. To give it a good test, I solicited leaves from some neighbors, who obliged by dumping them in large piles in my front yard. This is after they've been sitting there for a few days, and have had a chance to settle down (large trash can for scale):

Without further ado, here is a preliminary report: 

I ran these leaves through the hopper of the shredder over a period of about two hours and the first thing I can report is that it effectively reduced the volume of leaves by at least half, and possibly by as much as two-thirds. The leaves, which were mostly from pecan trees, were shredded to a size that is very compostable. Here they are after an additional month of sitting in the compost heap:

The bag that the leaves feed into is easy to attach and detach, and is of a size that is convenient to handle.  The machine is extremely easy to start and operate, and is set up so that it is as safe as operating a lawn mower. 

The machine itself is very large, but while heavy, it wheels around nicely on two large tires. It comes with an attachment for a riding lawn mower (which I don't own), so you can pull it some distance that way if you needed to.

The only hitch in shredding operation that I noticed was that if there are largish sticks (greater than six inches or so) in the pile of leaves, they tend to get crossways at the bottom of the hopper and prevent leaves from feeding into the blades. Whenever that happened, I had to stop operation, turn off the chipper shredder, lay it on its side and fish the leaves out to get to the stick causing the problem. The stick was nowhere near the blades whenever this occurred, but I would disconnect the spark plug anyway, just because I'm a cautious person. This was an inconvenience, but not really a fault with the machine itself. Once I figured out what was going on, I was simply more careful to pull the sticks out before feeding the leaves into the hopper.

Finally, the machine is LOUD. You won't want to use this in the early morning hours.

It is also BIG, and it took up a lot of space in the shed. But fortunately, about the time I put the chipper shredder through its paces with the leaves, I got word that the South Plains Food Bank GRUB farm was thinking about buying one for their orchard. I contacted them and we have now made an arrangement to have the chipper shredder on permanent loan at the farm.* They get a free chipper shredder, I get storage, and my neighbors and I can come use it on the few occasions we ever need one. A perfect alignment of community needs.

In part 2 of this review, I'll report on how well the chipper works on the chores at the GRUB farm's apple orchard, and give my final impressions on the machine.

*Note: I have agreed with South Plains Food Bank to pay the taxes on the chipper shredder and retain ownership of it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Radio Silence

It seems I've picked up the flu bug, and have taken to bed for a few days. Since it is difficult to ride a bike when lying prone on one's back, it is safe to assume that I won't be posting any progress on the bike challenge for a few days. I have a report on finishing up the hoop house and sowing some seeds, but that will have to wait, too, since even writing this short report is going to cause me to have to take a bit of a lie-down.

I'll be back in a few days, though, full of spark and vim.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sick day

I woke up this morning with what is probably a mild bug going around campus. I knew it was coming, since I've been seeing an inordinate number of references to "food poisoning" on FB and Twitter. Funny how food poisoning always seems to go in these contagious waves.

Anyway, that was hours ago, and I'm already feeling nearly normal. Still, I've declared it an official "sick day," and have decided to work on blog/garden/bike/writing stuff. One of the things I've been doing is checking out other bike blogs, looking for some inspiration to get out there and ride in this unusually cold weather.* One, Let's Go Ride A Bike, has made me smile, even through the tummy rumbles, and inspired me not just to get out and pedal around, but to try to exhibit some style while doing so.

Style is not my thing. I must have been distracted by a shiny object when they were handing out style instructions at the Life Factory, since although I can recognize it whenever I see it, I am largely clueless as to how to achieve it. And if comfort and expediency also happen to be issues, then even the attempt at style is instantly off the game board.

Yesterday was a case in point. Sick and tired of being chilled to the bone, I donned flannel-lined jeans sized to fit a pear (I am an apple, so you can imagine the voluminous, calamitous results), a turtle neck, a red-checked flannel shirt, a black fleece vest, and red Rockport shoes in order to teach a class. It was a pretty frumpy outfit.

But I was warm.

Today, however, I feel inspired by LGRAB to dust off my girl card and make a stab at style while riding my bike. As soon as it's warmer. And only if it's comfortable.

Oh hell, the only promise I can make is that it won't involve over-sized flannel-lined jeans.

In other news: You may or may not have noticed that I've put a little linky-box to my favorite local bicycle shop (lbs) over on the sidebar. This is not a paid advertisement. I've simply put it there because these guys truly do keep me rolling. They are friendly, know me by name, and have helped me out of occasional tiny jams when I've dropped by and said things like, "It's making this clinking-clacking noise that is driving me nuts..."

I like them so much, I once foisted dropped off some Thin Mints at the shop so I wouldn't eat myself into an early Girl Scout cookie grave just to show my appreciation. Anyway, high time I gave them a plug.

*Well, it may not be a big deal to someone living in Chicago, but it's cold and miserable for the likes of me.

Monday, February 7, 2011

La Chica Rides: City Randonneuring

Randonneuring is cycling's equivalent of a scavenger hunt. You start at a particular place (like a convenience store), ride a particular distance in a particular amount of time (say 200km in 12 hours), and stop at checkpoints along the way (often more convenience stores, so that you can fill up on Little Debbie Snack Cakes at the same time) to get something called a brevet card stamped to prove you'd been there.

I've never been on one. This is mostly because, as far as I know, there aren't any randonneuring clubs in or near LBB, which in turn is probably because there doesn't seem to be much desire to ride long distances through an ugly landscape that is also flat, windy, dry, hot, and in love with large pick up trucks.

I've always wanted to try one, though, since I have the fantasy in my head about a day of riding down lovely, twisty, peaceful, pick-up truck-free lanes with a group of people who have a loose and benign purpose in mind, such as getting a card stamped along the way. Plus, there are the Little Debbies.

La Chica, my Salsa Casseroll that I've set up as a commuter, would make a pretty fair randonneuring bike. She's steel, which gives a smoother ride than aluminum, and light and nimble on her feet. I recently outfitted her with 28mm tires, replacing the 25s that were on there, and right away I noticed a distinct difference in the butteriness of the ride. This surprised me, since I hadn't expected jumping up a tire size would have such a dramatic impact. In any case, La Chica has become--if this is possible--even more of a pleasure to take out on a spin around town.

Over the weekend, we had some residual ice and snow from the front that moved through, so I took La Chica out instead of the Ruby. The Ruby is meant to be ridden fast, and wet streets, skinny tires, and speed are not a good mix. La Chica is speedy and nimble, but not Maserati speedy, and is just as much fun to ride slow. Plus, the new tires, which while still skinny, bridge the divide between race tire and mountain bike tire width, and have a fairly grippy tread.

On Saturday I rode La Chica to the store for groceries. That was so much fun that I rode to another store.  And then I rode around the 'hood for awhile, checking things out and monitoring the pulse of the community. Then I rode to campus. Then I rode to another store. And around the 'hood some more.

It was just too much fun to stop.

Sunday dawned wet, cold, and snowy. I had planned to ride across town to Petsmart to pick up some peanut suet for a bird feeder, and so at first I was disappointed to see more bad weather. But then I remembered a comment a colleague and friend had made last week on the Bike Garden's Facebook page when I was dithering about whether to ride in some of the extreme weather we were having. Jordan, who knows me well, posted this:

"You can do it! You are properly outfitted so you will be fine. You have done tons of rides but this is one you will remember."

When I say that Jordan knows me well, what I mean is that he knows that I am both drawn to adventure and afraid of it. He knows this because he and I, in fact, once went on many adventures together when we team-taught some courses for the Natural History and Humanities degree program. Here is Jordan, on the right, showing off some fresh bread he'd just baked on a canoe trip down the Brazos River:

You can end up talking a lot about life while paddling a canoe. Among other things, we talked about the willingness to take risks and worrying about things that we can't control. We talked about these things often because I have very little of the former, and do a great deal of the latter. Yet there I was, paddling a canoe, or backpacking, or bouldering, or whatever. I also worried ceaselessly, and out loud, every step of the way about every little thing that could go wrong. 

I am positive I drove Jordan crazy, but good guy that he is, he tried not to show it. Much.

Jordan is in Nebraska now, where he is still teaching others about the proper balance between risk and worry, I'm sure. But all those conversations we had together in the canoe must have stuck with me, because I thought about him and his comment from a few days before as I watched the snow falling outside my window. And I knew he was right. These are the rides we remember. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


It's a sort of snow day here--not much snow, but dangerously cold temperatures. One of the perks of being an academic is that my work is portable, meaning that if I'm not actually teaching a class, then I can work anywhere I can plug in a computer.

It happens that I do teach a class on Wednesday afternoons, but I know for a fact that some of my students don't have cars, and one or two don't even have gloves, so I was worried about them having to make a choice between safety and course obligations. We have a required, weekend field trip to go to a festival celebrating the lesser prairie chicken later in the semester, and I always give them one regular class day off in exchange. Today seemed like a good day to be that day. So, a self-imposed snow day.

The low temperature when I woke this morning was 1º F; the high right now is 13º, with a wind chill at -4º. Reason enough not to go outside for any purpose except clearing the sidewalk for my favorite mail carrier. Today is a near carbon copy of yesterday, weather-wise, so it makes two days I've decided to skip riding a bike. January was good for riding, however, and I have a nice cushion of miles in the bank on the Bike Garden Challenge.

In bike racing, Spanish cyclists and directeurs sportif will sometimes offer this admonition during the toughest, most stressful parts of a race: "Tranquillo, tranquillo." Calm, calm.

Tranquillo is how I am feeling right now about the bike challenge. When I started this project, I'd never ridden more than about 1200-1500 miles in any given year, so I was somewhat worried about whether I could do this. What I'd forgotten, however, was that in the past, I've always combined that mileage with running. This year, I've decided to forgo the running to concentrate on the cycling in an effort to increase the number of miles. And to my surprise, I find I haven't missed running at all. More importantly, neither have I missed waking up in the mornings feeling like someone has been whacking my feet and legs with a baseball bat in the night.

I've always been a runner, so this not missing it is new to me. I think I can live with it, though. I'm not saying I'll never run again, just that I've no desire to start it up right now. In the meantime, I do need to do some weight-bearing exercise to replace it, so this week I've started weight training again. Cycling, without any other sort of exercise associated with it, has been shown to contribute to bone loss, so it is not good to rely solely on it for fitness.

Tomorrow should be a bit warmer, though my WeatherUnderground desktop widget is issuing frostbite warnings through 10AM. The high is supposed to be in the mid-20's, which may still be too cold for my taste for riding. We'll just have to see. I have a lunch date at a neighborhood restaurant, Home Cafe, with one of the neighborhood association board members to discuss some plans. It would be nice to be able to ride there, as it is only a mile away.

A mile here and a mile there is how I'm racking up the total on the challenge. On any given day that I use my bike for errands or work--to school, to the grocery store, to a meeting downtown--it is possible to put anywhere from 6-15 miles on La Chica, my commuter bike. Then on the weekends, I get out The Cosmic Explorer, the racing bike, and together we add a few more to the kitty. As a result, in January I rode over 268 miles--an average of nearly 70 miles a week. Unheard of for the likes of me. Tranquillo.

All of this has made me something of an oddity in LBB, which is no Portland, or Copenhagen, or Boulder, or Austin, or Davis, or this year's winner of Bicycling Magazine's most cycling-friendly town, frigid Minneapolis, Minnesota. No, LBB is none of these. Here a body is more likely to be driving a big ol' pick-em-up truck than something that balances on two wheels. So when I show up at planning meetings with helmet hair, one pant leg rolled up, and asking if I can bring my bike into the offices (since there is seldom a bike rack available), people have a hard time hiding their bemusment. I have such a meeting on Monday, and I've already told the person setting it all up on what to expect, and why. He seemed fine with the notion. The meeting is clear across town, so maybe I'll make up a little of what I'm missing during this unruly weather. But if it turns out not to be the case, I won't be worried