Sunday, April 27, 2014

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary How Does Your Garden Grow?

As we are finally getting a few nice days here and there, I am spending more time outside cleaning up vegetable and flower beds (Andy is chained to the bathroom putting up some drywall).  Last summer, Andy made me four raised flowerbeds for a vegetable garden.  Unfortunately, it then rained and rained and rained so we couldn't get dirt in the boxes or plants planted.  I experimented with a little garden, right next to our house where I planted some lettuce, peppers and sweet potatoes.  This spring, I was excited to get out and get some vegetables in my raised beds.

About a month before I could get planting, my mom sent me a book, All New Square Foot Gardening  by Mel Bartholomew.  After skimming through the first three chapters, I was convinced.  Bartholomew's whole concept is planting vegetables in square foot plots instead of the traditional row planting.  Row planting was one of the biggest reasons I was nervous about doing vegetables because I didn't like the exactness of it- I kind of prefer just throwing plants in the ground and seeing what happens.  Bartholomew's concept made a lot more sense and is a better use of space.  Space is not an issue for us- with 4 acres to spread out but nonetheless, I think it is genius.

My first step, following Bartholomew's plan was to prepare the beds with "Mel's Mix."  Bartholomew suggests building a 4'x4' raised box for planting then filling the entire box with Mel's Mix.  Since I already had boxes built- 4'x12' each and had filled them, I altered this a bit.  Mel's Mix is equal parts of compost, peat moss and vermiculite.  I bought as much vermiculite as I could find in Decorah (a few bags) and equal amounts of peat moss.

I then mixed in my own compost (though this was tough since a lot of it was still frozen!).

I spread this mix over my beds and turned the soil in with it to mix it throughout.  Not Bartholomew's suggestion, but it worked fine since I already had filled boxes.

The most important step in the Square Foot method is creating a grid of square foot squares.  I measures and marked my boxes and nailed a nail on the edge of the box every one foot.  I then tied twine on the nails and stretched it across the box, creating a 1'x1' grid.  After I had the grid completed, I pounded in the nails completely.

I did this for 2 of my 4 boxes- I left the last two gridless so I could create a trellis for climbing peas and tomatoes as well as a tower for potatoes.

For the pea trellis, I tied bamboo poles t-pee style on a stake- eyeing it the best I could to make it even.
trellis layout
Drill hole for twine in stake
Tie twine through stake hole around bamboo poles

I am trying a potato tower this year after seeing a cool idea in a magazine.  I used wire to tie chicken wire into a cylinder.

I then made layers in the cylinder of soil, compost and potatoes.

I ended up with 5 potatoes in each layer with 5 layers total.

I also saw some websites that used straw in the layers but I didn't have any on hand (which is kind of crazy considering our neighbor was up and down the road all day with bales of hay).  The payoff of this method is once the potatoes are ready to harvest you just kick it over and BOOM!  Potatoes!

I did all this preparation a few weeks ago and this weekend, I was able to get some seeds planted.  If you can't tell already, I have no experience in vegetable gardening.  I think I have a pretty good handle on perennial planting but vegetables are completely out of my realm.  For some reason, I have felt some apprehension about planting the seeds but this weekend, I finally decided to just throw them in the ground and see what happens!  With our last frost dates, I was able to plant spinach, snap peas, marigolds and onion sets today.  Looking at the spacing specs on the package, I knew I could plant 9 spinach plants per square.  In Bartholomew's method, you put a pinch of seeds in each hole and then pinch off any extras once they come up- hopefully wasting less seeds.  To speed up hole digging, I used my drill with the biggest bit I had.  In total honesty, I was not careful about the depth of my holes- I completely eyed it.  I have no patience for the precision of vegetables so we will see how it goes!

The marigolds need to have 12" spacing so I created one hole per square foot plot and added a pinch of seeds to each hole.  The marigolds are a suggested plants for companion planting because they deter pests.  They are also pretty, which is a plus.

For my climbing peas, I planted 3 pinches by each pole.  This is a total guess- I may end up needing to add some poles to my trellis for the beans.

Finally, I was also able to plant onion sets.  I liked planting these a lot because they feel more substantial than seeds.  Based on their spacing specs, I planted 6 per square foot.  I planted a mix of yellow and red onions- making sure the point was facing up.

An hour or so after planting, E checked on my progress and proclaimed vegetables were already sprouting!  No, we don't have the speediest seeds on the planet, just weeds but it did make me excited for the prospect of picking vegetables with the kids and preparing them for dinner.  Something to look forward to later this summer!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


The only thought I had in my mind, as I gazed out over the first guests to arrive to the party was… what are they looking at?

This being the country I assumed there were some rogue horses on the loose again, or a bald eagle swooping in for a kill, or even a tractor accident…my garage smoking profusely was way down the list of what I would see when swinging my gaze to match the others. I think the sound I uttered was something like, ahhh-ohhhh. 

I quickly ran out to try and open the automatic garage door, which was the ONLY redeeming quality of the garage and there was no movement. Since that is the only way into the smokehouse I took a quick stock of the situation and laughed. Megs yelled out the door, “what’s going on?”

“Well babe, I am calling 911”

“911, what is your emergency”

“Oh Hi, yeah, my garage is smoking/ on fire”

Questions, questions, questions…

“It is a detached garage, away from the house, and the only thing it is near is the power pole roughly 8 feet away and a pine tree but the wind is blowing away from the house and both of those other things”

“Ok, the fire department is on their way”

“Thank you”

Calm as a cucumber if I don’t mind saying. Over the last year, and even more recently, the “garage” was the main collector of garbage and near garbage items that we accumulated on the farm. I couldn't figure out why this building all of a sudden decided to commit suicide. It couldn't be my fault could it? Nah, my blissful innocence is always intact. My first big thought was why would the garage door not open? Did the garage door opener burn up and start the fire? 

Then I had an oh shit moment. During all my past construction projects I have always landfilled drywall, plaster, etc and burned all the wood including lath, flooring, and unusable dimensional lumber. It keeps me warm and shrinks the amount of end product trash that gets disposed of to ash. The burn barrel I used had filled up a couple days prior to this incident and needed to be dumped. Because I don’t remove all the errant nails from the wood before I burn it I ended up throwing that ash into the main construction hold cans and bags as available space provided. Could it have been the ash? Noooooo, that cant be right, I thought (justified) to myself.

My main speech as people party goers pulled up was…

“Welcome to our home, no that fire is not intentional, yes the fire department is on their way, please park over there to avoid smoke damage and the impending force of trucks coming to put that out, go on in and have some food!”
Sidebar: Although I have no law training I would like to convoke the court of my “it wasn't my fault” argument. 1: The ash had sat in the can for more than 3 days, enduring lots of rain, and wind before being dumped, and was actually more like sludge than dust. 2: When i tried to open the automatic garage door there was no response at all, and a quick check on the power pole showed that the fuse had not tripped. AND that was before full flames engulfed the building, we were just at the smoking phase at this point. Convinced yet?

Our 3 season porch was like an observation deck for kids and adults alike. 

I stayed outside to cordon off the area, feel important, and make sure that the fire wasn't going to catch anything else on fire, especially the pine tree behind it. After the flames started leaping out of the back of the garage I made an executive decision to cut a few of the closest branches in order to stave off the attempts of the fire to spread. I turned to my wingman (AA) pointed and said, “Green ladder, top of the stairs to the left… I am grabbing my chainsaw” and then ran off. Jogging back to the fire while warming up my chainsaw AA was already ahead of me, setting up the ladder at the base of the tree. He held the ladder in place as I climbed up a few steps and quickly cut off two branches. The wind was in our favor and was blowing directly at our backs keeping the fire, which was only about 8 feet away, away from our non fire retardant skin.

As impressed as I could be, the volunteer fire department showed up in record fashion… ~15 minutes after the call. Now for you city folk 15 minutes would be an eternity, but we are about 10 miles from the station and the guys don't just kick around there all day waiting for morons like me to burn stuff down. They have to drop what they are doing, gear up, and tear out of there and to my house! By the time the first water truck pulled up, almost all of our guest had arrived and it was a show.

The garage was now pretty much a shell when the FD rolled up and the first stream of water literally collapsed the whole structure in on itself. It was like a fire hose hitting a piece of paper, I cant believe the structure was still standing. At this point more and more trucks were rolling up. There were ladder trucks, pumper trucks, and even the mobile rescue truck towing their tracked side by side ATV beast. If I had a long enough garden hose I could have put this thing out and someone called the whole force!

One of the best aspects of this debacle was that when I lived in Decorah for a year, before Megs and the kids joined me, I trained with these guys and planned on joining the department. Unfortunately they require that you live within 3 miles of the station, which we do not, but I appreciate the rule now! I know some of these guys, see them around town and even work with one of them everyday. They rolled up with smiles on their faces, like “Hey I know you!” Embarrassment aside, it was kinda nice to see them all again.

The fire was out in moments and they drenched it with a mixture of fire and foam fire retardant to ensure there would be no flareups after they left. I quickly spoke to the chief/ fire investigator and relayed the sidebar story above. Ok he said, and went digging. A few more questions and he proclaimed the ash was probably the culprit and that he was ruling it accidentally. He said accidental but he meant he was ruling it city boy moron. The chief then finished by asking two questions…

“Did you put a match to it?”

“Did you do this in order to call us out for the party?”

“Oh man, NO”

“Ok, have a good day”

Simple as that we had our first, and hopefully last fire. A handful of the guys threw a few verbal “you are an idiot” jabs the way on their way back to the trucks and I headed in for a walking taco lunch; I was hungry.

Other than construction garbage in the garage, there were a few items we will miss, but guess what? The building was insured on our homeowners insurance so all items that had any redeeming quality will be bought again. We still have a charred rubble pile in our yard, but Allstate is working to get someone to come and clean it up for us, or at least some cash for a roll off dumpster. 

We ended up being in all the local papers and radio stations, as a fire is big news around here. It was written up as the Decorah Fire Department being called to the Andy Peterson Farm, and upon reading this Megs was irked that she wasn't mentioned. 

With a scrunched up face I asked, “You would like your name tied to this stupid event?” 

“Well no, but…I don't know…chuckle”

All I know is my 2014 luck continues: Crazy events unfold all around me but no one gets hurt, and everything is fixable. Oh, and this was defiantly not my fault. Case closed.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Minneapolis or Bust

One of the things we have found challenging living in rural Iowa is the limited store selection right in town.  For daily errands, we can find everything pretty easily but when we are doing major renovation, it is much more difficult.  With a project of the scale of our bathroom remodel, we needed to do serious shopping and research.  I spent a day in LaCrosse last week for initial searching of vanity dressers and fixtures with no luck.  Time to bring out the big guns- a full day in Minneapolis.

Between all the salvage stores, thrift stores and big box stores on my list, we had 14 stops to make.  With our rented trailer hooked to our trusty Subaru and kiddos at home in the care of grandparents, we headed out at 8 am to our first stop- our Craigslist claw foot tub find.  Craigslist people are all a little funny but we have had some good luck buying and selling various items over the years.  Our destination was Stillwater, Minnesota- a sort of suburb of Minneapolis right on the Minnesota/Wisconsin border.  Thankfully, the tub was as advertised and was easily hoisted into our trailer by Andy and the seller.  The seller also had the original faucet but unfortunately it wouldn't have been able to have a shower attachment so we did not buy that as well.

We had a quick bite to eat at Taco Johns.  This was our first experience with this fast food chain but a Wisconsin-born friend swears by it.  Andy got a Santa Fe Burrito and I got a Cheesy Chicken Grilled Burrito.  Both were pretty darn good and the nuggets of fried potato deliciousness that came with them were fantastic.

Bellies full, Andy checked on the tub one more time in the trailer, making sure it was secure, we headed off toward Minneapolis to the Habitat Humanity ReStore in New Brighton.  I have already regaled you with my love of ReStores and this one was no disappointment.  It was huge and had everything from construction supplies to appliances and furniture.  Unfortunetly, it didn't have the things we were looking for- lighting, a sink or faucets but it is a nice big ReStore and worth the stop if you are in the area.  They had some huge granite remnants I was salivating over.

Next on our list were a few salvage shops- Brauer Brothers Salvage, City Salvage and Guilded Salvage Antiques- all in Minneapolis.  All three of these shops do old house tear-outs before the demo crews come.  Mostly, everything is crazy expensive in these stores but sometimes you can find a gem that you can afford or it's just neat seeing all the antique fixtures (especially if you can make the stop without the kids who grow octopus arms in these types of stores).  Brauer Brothers was closed by the time was got there but we were able to hit the other two.  Guilded Salvage was a neat little shop with lots of lighting fixtures and various doors.  They had a few faucets but none that would work for us.

City Salvage was a bit smaller of a shop but in addition to their house fixtures, they also had a few motorcycles that Andy was checking out.  They had a random box of faucets I dug through with no luck.

Once we saw the claw foot tubs these shops had to offer, we were so thankful we found our $200 one on Craigslist.  The cheapest one we saw at the stores was $450 and in poorer condition.

After the salvage shops, our next group of stores were thrift or antique stores.  At these stops, I was hoping to find an antique dresser to refinish and outfit with a vessel sink.  Discount 70, located in Columbia Heights was not at all what I expected- all big box store misplaced furniture items.  Our next stop was It Takes a Village, located in Minneapolis.  On our drive over, we spotted this amazing treehouse.

A quick Google search reveled it is a 7 level treehouse, built in the 1980s by insurance salesman and residential property owner Mark Tucker.  The structure is not open to the public but you can take pictures of it from the sidewalk (we snapped our shots from the car).  The address of the home is 4800 Minnetonka Blvd and worth the drive by if you are in the area!

Once we arrived at It Takes a Village, we found a sign on the door:

A quick look at my watch confirmed it was already 3:40.  Since we had already driven all the way there, we decided to wait- he was already 10 minutes behind, he would be back any minute, right?  After waiting a minute or two, we decided to walk around back to see if there was another entrance.  As we came around back, a man came out of the back.  "You trying to get it?"  He asks.  "Yes, I replied".  He says he will be back in just a minute- I act impatient and say, "You'll be RIGHT back, yes?"  "Yes, Yes, just a minute," he confirms.  Again, Andy and I have already driven here and it's not like we can come back tomorrow so we decide to wait it out... in the cold and wind.

We debate whether his sign is supposed to read:  Will return at 3:30 OR Will return (written at 3:30).  At 4:00 he finally comes back.  At this point, I've decided that if we find anything we like, I am going to negotiate the price down $20- my time is worth $1 a minute to wait, right?  We walk in and actually, the store has some cool things and a lot of furniture.  I saw a mirror that I kind of liked for $8 though I was worried it was a little small for the bathroom and not quiet the style I was looking for.  I contemplate just grabbing the mirror from the wall and walking out with it- HIMYM "Aldrin Justice" style, but I know if I do that (though the store keeper is completely stoned and wouldn't have done anything), I would be looking over my shoulder the rest of the day so I rein myself in.  Unfortnetly no dressers at all, so we leave empty handed.

Our next two stops- Odds n Ends, located in Minneapolis and Attic to Basement, located in Bloomington both prove to be fruitless though both good antique stores with lots of furniture and good pricing.

With all hopes of finding a vintage dresser dashed, we went to plan B- check out big box stores.  We looked at IKEA and waffled a bit but it just wasn't the look I wanted.  We did purchase a sweet sheepskin rug, though that will serve as a bath mat.  We checked out Home Depot as well.  I also considered a Martha Stewart vanity set seriously but ultimately decided to choose something closer to my original plan.  A quick email later, I was able to set up a custom dresser vanity, completed by my favorite restorer, Melissa from Adourn.  I took a painting class at Adourn in the fall and have purchased a table from the shop- I love her work and am so excited to have her doing the piece for us.  She had an unfinished dresser which was exactly what we were searching for so it will work out well.

Andy and I wrapped up our shopping exertion with a trip to Menards to pick up general pl
umbing supplies and a new window.  We didn't end up with too much to show for our full day of shopping but we feel like we exhausted all options and now know exactly what we need to order to complete our bathroom remodel.  Sometimes you just need to search and search to know you are making the right choices but eventually you need to bite the bullet and make a decision.

Our shopping day ending with our, turns out not so trusty Subaru coughing out it's last breath and dying on the side of a rural road in Rochester.  Not the best conclusion to the day but we are thankful that we were able to complete all our shopping before it happened.  On the docket this week- finish tearing out the bathroom and deal with the Subaru, fun fun!