Posts tagged ‘just another day in the life’

Excuse me, I was just leaving

I snapped a picture of this large fox snake a few minutes after I stepped over him on my way into the garage.

Even though (or maybe largely because) I’ve spent much of my life working outdoors in areas where poisonous snakes were fairly common, I like snakes. And the wooded bluffs of our property are ideal fox snake habitat (they’re also ideal habitat for ratsnakes and the rare massasauga rattler). So my reaction to unexpectedly stepping over a largish snake was to reach for a camera, not a shovel.

The fox snake is one of Minnesota’s largest snakes.  They eat small animals, birds, eggs, frogs, and lizards. Fox snakes belong to the rat snake group and kill their prey by constriction.

When fox snakes are harassed, they vibrate their tails and strike. Because of this and their superficial resemblance to rattlesnakes, they’re commonly killed by humans who don’t realize their importance in controlling rodent populations.

The largest fox snake on record was observed in the county where we live.

Because this snake is big enough to eat the chicks that should hatch out here in about a week, if I keep seeing him around I’ll catch him and relocate him to a chicken free coulee in the area.

July 5, 2011 at 11:42 pm 16 comments

Chuck’s day off

Yesterday was Meet Your Meat  day.

Chucky, Mark and I visited the farm where most of the meat we’ll eat next year is being raised. When your food is raised by close friends on a small farm, socializing with the creatures that will go into your freezer is considered proper etiquette.

The chickens were only vaguely interesting to the boys. Chuck runs loose with our little flock every day and after two years of living with chickens in his back yard my husband takes them for granted now too. Chuck did get a small chance to show off his chicken herding skills because it was time to move the tractor the rangers were in and considering the fact that these chickens had never seen a dog before, he did a pretty good job.

The pigs were a much more interesting experience. Chuck’s initial reaction to them was a very practical and deliberate cautiousness. The boy’s come a long way from the dog who went bug-eyed and pancaked himself into the ground every time he encountered something new. Because these Berkshire hogs are omnivores who are at least eight times his size, I thought that his reaction to them demonstrated an excellent degree of common sense.

Chuck at left, is sitting quietly and politely avoiding direct eye contact. The pig, on the other hand, was whoring for attention. (Pet me! Brush me! Feed me! MAKE MORE MUD FOR ME TO WALLOW IN!) And really, since there is a one in three chance that I will eat this specific pig, I kinda felt obliged to give it up for him.

After pigs and chickens we went on to meet the steers. Chip and Dale are British White cattle, a beautiful, docile, ancient breed that fattens up well on pasture. The boys stood calmly and politely as we walked up to greet them.

I kept Chuck on a leash at first, he’d never met any cattle and I wasn’t sure how the steers would react.

As you can see, the first meeting went well.

And so did the second. Still on leash, but with his handler at a distance. Note the relaxed, happy smile.

It wasn’t long ’till we progressed to dropping the leash and letting everybody hang out together.

From the cow pasture we moved on to the creek. Chuck’s never been swimming. He loves playing in a spray of water and he’s been very good about baths, but between his orthopedic problems and mine, I haven’t had a chance to take the boy to a swimming hole.

Deep water can be intimidating to a dog, but as it turned it, Chuck didn’t need much encouragement to go in. I walked across the creek and called him. After a bit of hesitation the boy launched himself across. And once he figured out that it was wonderfully wet and it wasn’t going to kill him — the boy absolutely adored being in the water.

Chuck’s first foray into the creek. Note the panicked leap and wild eyes.

Shortly after, a relaxed, happy boy calmly and repeatedly swims out to fetch sticks.  And then just swims around on his own for the hell of it.

He had an excellent day off.

July 5, 2011 at 1:29 pm 4 comments

How I spent my spring

This is my latest project.  Building a series of giant self watering planters.

If these function as planned, plants will draw water up from a reservoir below the growing medium through capillary action. This means that the roots can draw up water as they need it and the plants will have nice, moist soil most of the time. Subsurface irrigation not only requires less water than standard gardening methods, it can also help reduce the risk of fungal disease.

We started by selecting a location with lots of sun, removing the grass and leveling the ground under each tank.

A clean, empty tank was set on each pad.

The bottom of each tank was filled with 8 to 10 inches of 3/4″ washed river rock. We conveniently had a lot of this laying around leftover from another landscape project. This coarse, well-sorted gravel has lots of large pore spaces and creates a reservoir at the base of the planter. A gravel like this can have a porosity of up to 50%!

I installed a section of 1 1/4 inch galvanized pipe at one end of each tank. The pipe has a 8 inch elbow at the bottom and a screw cap on top. I made sure that the gravel at the discharge end of the pipe consisted of pieces that were much bigger than the inside diameter of the pipe to keep it from being blocked. The pipe will deliver water to the gravel reservoir at the bottom of the bed.

The gravel was covered with a layer of landscape fabric. The fabric will allow water to wick up to the soil while keeping the soil out of the gravel below.

I drilled a half dozen drain holes at the top of the gravel layer at the end of each tank opposite the intake pipe. This will encourage the water to flow across and fill the entire reservoir before it hits the overflow.

I filled the section above the fabric with good topsoil. Audie supervised.

I read in several places around the web that “wicking bed wizards all agree that water cannot be wicked further than 300mm (or about 12 inches) in soil”. The wizards didn’t provide any kind of calculations for their magical prognostications and their numbers didn’t make any sense to me. So, since I did rather large amount of hydrogeologic consulting work in my previous career I looked up some general data on capillary rise and then went ahead and put a foot or more of soil over the rock in each of my beds.

For those who may be interested, capillary action pulls water upward in materials against the force of gravity. The empty spaces between soil particles are called soil pores. Below the water table the pores are filled with water and above the water table they’re filled with a variable combination of air and water. Adjacent pores are connected to each other somewhat analogously to pipes in a water system. The sizes of these ‘pipes’ and the degree to which they are connected can vary over several orders of magnitude.

Capillary rise occurs when water migrates upward through soil pore spaces against the pull of gravity. Capillary action involves two types of attractive forces — adhesion and cohesion. Adhesion is the attraction of water to the solid surfaces of the pore walls. Cohesive forces attract water molecules to each other. Adhesion pulls a mass of water upward along the pore walls and cohesion pulls more water upward with that mass.

Capillary rise occurs when the upward pull of adhesion and cohesion is equal to or exceeds the downward pull of gravity.

Anyway, I was comfortable enough with my off-the-top-of-a-former-hydrogeologist’s-head calculations to put 16-18 inches of soil on top of my gravel reservoir. I will update you on how this works.

The beds operate very simply. The male end of the garden hose conveniently fits snugly into the intake pipe, so when I want to fill the reservoir I just pop the hose in, turn the water on and let it run until I see Chucky attack the spray of water discharging from the drain holes.

So far, so good. This is a bed I completed about three weeks ago. Radishes, turnips, beans, kale, chard and a bush-type summer squash (I’ll let it cascade over the side) are already up!

I’ve completed three beds and may put a fourth one in later on. They look pretty good and planting and weeding chores are much easier in these 24 inch tall beds than the ground level beds.

June 20, 2011 at 9:13 pm 8 comments

Spring at last?

It’s been a long, cold, snowy, dreary, crabby, gimpy winter.

And sometimes it seemed like it would never end.

This morning, despite the cold and threat of sleet – the first hints that spring is here!

A few brave, hardy snowdrops peek out from a very dormant herb garden.

The peeps make one of their first field trips of the year. With no bugs or fresh greens to be found, they’ll end up back in the chicken solarium where they can bask and dream of spring too.

April 1, 2011 at 1:07 pm 3 comments

Dog Day Afternoon

Life in the slow lane. We take a short romp, pick berries — and Marcella and Audie teach Chuckie to leave the peeps alone.

July 3, 2010 at 7:26 am 9 comments

Is that a weed?

The only thing I hate worse than weeding is herbicides.  I love my garden. I love the way it looks. I love the way it smells. I love the way it tastes.  I love the idea of growing my own food. And of using something other than generic labor and water intensive ornamentals in the landscape.

What I don’t love is the work it takes to keep my garden in magazine cover condition. So I don’t.

I’m a lazy gardener and I take shortcuts. I plant most of my beds very intensively. More plants means less space for weeds.  I let spreading viny plants like pumpkins and other cucurbits take over much of the garden in late summer. They conveniently crowd out weeds when I get tired of pulling and hoeing them.

I mulch. I do what I can to water plants directly instead of watering the whole garden (though in a place like Minnesota where we get regular rain I’m not sure this makes a real difference). I pull handfuls buckets of weeds and feed them to the chickens.

But sometimes it makes more sense to call a freaking truce.

So when this mullein plant sprouted in an out of the way corner of the rock garden I let it go. Baby mullein plants are fairly easy to control and the fragrant spikes of the mature plants provide a nice contrast to the pumpkin, tomato and lily plants in this area.

I let wild field violets fill in the border next to the anchos. They crowd out just about everything else and contrast nicely with the oxeye sunflowers thriving next to the drain spout. Wild violets, being much more invasive, are not allowed to gain a foothold anywhere.

Another common ‘weed’ I tolerate is purslane. Purslane, colloquially known as little hogweed, is an annual succulent that’s been grown as a leafy vegetable for centuries. Purslane doesn’t just add a hearty crunch to your salad – the leaves contain more omega 3 fatty acids than any other land plant. Add beneficial quantities vitamins A, C, B, magnesium, calcium, iron, potassium, cyanins and xanthins and you’re crazy to toss this pretty little invader in the compost heap.

Purslane may be invasive but it’s shallow-rooted and requires little water or nutrients. Given its relatively innocuous nature there has been some interest in using it as a living mulch. Because I think the plant is both attractive and quite tasty I’ve decided to give the living mulch thing a shot. I’m going to experiment with letting it go in the places it sprouts to evaluate how good it is at crowding out other more problematic weeds.

What does one do with a surfeit of purslane? Today I made purslane potato salad. I took a dozen or so golfball-sized redskin potatoes, half a large sweet onion, 3/4 Cup of purslane leaves, 2 ribs of celery and a handful of fresh dill leaves and dressed them with a nice homemade lemon vinaigrette. It was delicious.

And no, I’m not going to provide detailed directions. This is salad people, not rocket science!

The stems and extra leaves were pureed with tomatoes (also from the garden) and added to tonight’s dog food. Nom nom!

June 30, 2010 at 11:10 pm 13 comments

The Good Dog Inside

The past two weeks have been exciting for young Charlie.  We threw a lot of new things at the boy, in this short period of time he:

  • Behaved calmly while surrounded by strange dogs and people during the Minnesota mini-gathering
  • Met a diverse crew of men who refinished our deck, and looked on with calm interest while they worked right outside the windows
  • Politely allowed himself to be approached and checked out by several strange off leash dogs at a sheepdog trial
  • Accepted my assurance that a pack of strange dogs staying as guests in our house was not a valid reason for a meltdown (I’ll add that he handled the situation with more grace than Audie did)
  • Developed a crush on our human visitor
  • Threw one brief tantrum when a strange person strode up very quickly then bent over inches away him at the trial (she was picking something up off the ground, and paid little attention to the little snot)
  • Then recovered his wits sufficiently to allow her to pet him just a few minutes later
  • Maintained good off leash manners while four different human guests were here
  • Did his first stint as a demo-dog (albeit allowing me to demonstrate how to apply a pressure-release technique to defuse a reactive dog)
  • Let my client pet him immediately after said demonstration

Charlie has come a long way. It was obvious from the start that a good dog was lurking inside the smart, resilient, obnoxious little jerk who arrived here last fall — but in the beginning, only hints of that good dog showed through.

Today Charlie is a good dog who only occasionally shows hints of the horrid little beast he never wanted to be.

Charlie watching the trial with Mark and D
Note that his leash is being held by the ‘dog un-trainer’

Charlie watches D make dinner
(I love a man who cooks for me!)

June 3, 2010 at 9:24 am 10 comments

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