Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Irrigation Irritation

Unc's pic from 2005
Five years ago, I drove onto the ranch to pick up Unc and was greeted by gravel paths through kochia forests. Garbage was piled against every building and every rock outcrop. Fencelines hadn't changed in 60 years, and some in far longer than that. No one had the energy or health to clean it up, much less take care of it. It was overwhelming.

As we began to clear out the kochia, wild rye and various other weeds the following spring, we found even more garbage and general stuff. Instead of getting better, we just seemed to be uncovering more junk and growing our to-do list.

2008 or so -- note the water tank
One of the first "no-way-we're-doing-it-this-way" moments we had was to tear down the irrigation system. The family ages ago had moved a building from the northern reaches of the property, down into the homestead. It was originally -- by rumor, tradition or truth, we aren't sure -- a stop on the old military trail through the ranch; the big open building served as a small barn, and offered a structure on which to add others, such as a well surround, a windmill surround and a little garage for the old Model T/A/Essex. At some point, they put a water tank on top, fed it from the well below, and then gravity-fed it (through the foundation of the house, no less) to the areas around the house. Every spring they would climb up and unplug the pipe so it would fill the tank, and every winter they would replug it.

This spring, dead and dry
In the spring of 2008, I volunteered to climb up, being the only one not afraid of heights or tied to an oxygen tank. It was a fearful walk through the kochia forest, followed by a bouncy climb across a rickety roof, and then the realization that I had to do it all in the reverse, not just once, but again in the fall. So in the fall, we capped the pipe and disconnected it down below. Eventually -- and with our luck -- sooner rather than later, the roof will collapse and that tank will become accessible from the ground. I'd rather not have water in it at the time.

We removed the axle buried in the yard that held up the sloping pipe in 2009. Dude cut the pipe where it entered the corner of the foundation earlier this year. Yesterday, we dug up several more pieces buried in yards, most of which broke decades ago, but were left where they were for whatever reason. (You'd think a family of blacksmiths would have solutions for broken pipe...) In the meantime, the grass has died, and the only watering of plants I can do is by ditching runoff from the water trough or the trickle I get through the hose.
The old doghouse, now gone

New watering systems have been a staple of our planning discussions. As the architect of the team, I tend to focus on the layout of the property and how to get water to all the corners without the traditional maze of pipes and hoses. Dude, as the machinist and mechanical engineer on the team, tends to focus on the lack of pressurized water, the need for pumps, and the idea that we have the opportunity for gravity (read that, minimal electricity) options. Munchkin, as the motivational director, just wants a pool.

So, it's been an ongoing and endless discussion... until last week. Our region of the country has been bombarded by wildfires, most of them burning out of control. A few days ago, Dude and I watched an area about 15 miles away (and a mile from a friend's house) burn to nothing in less than two hours. As a former volunteer fireman, he was anxious about it jumping the highway and heading right up the coulees to our place. As the daughter of a volunteer fireman, I was considering calling my father to come hold a hose outside the ranch house just in case. The fire was eventually contained, but it spurred the immediacy of a fire safety plan at the ranch.

Kitten hindering the cleanup
Yesterday, we cleared the "yards" around the house from old fencelines, decaying wood, ancient vines, junk and even pinecones so we can plant grass. It won't be a lush yard, just a green belt. It will have to sustain more construction activities, including building materials being dumped out windows, plumbing being dug up, and the backhoe running over it all. But it will hopefully stop a wildfire.

Dude found an old whirly-style lawn sprinkler, and hooked it up to the water-trough pump. It only gave us a ten-foot diameter wet spot in the yard, but it gave us something. In the upper yard, it's only giving us a five-foot diameter one, though. He's now researching an old jet pump my dad gave us to see if that might provide us with better irrigation. Either way, the motivation is finally there, and the project is superceding all others.
Before planting today

Outdoors I go, to plant the first lawn section... before the rainstorm hits in two days. Bring on the water!

Monday, July 29, 2013


The old city dump
This place is a dump. Or, was a dump. Or maybe, included a few different dumps.

So close to the Gauntlet...
One of the first adventures of the spring was to trespass onto the neighbor's property (they're okay with it) to check out the city dump that used to be on our property. Not a big attraction these days; it was long ago cleaned up by the neighbors, which delights us considering everything else out here that needs cleaning. It's essentially a hollow among the mini-coulees, with a sloping access just off the Gauntlet. I'd been driving by it all these years and had no idea it was there.
Field of glass

And one the boys missed...
No one seems to know anything about it. Not a start date, not an end date, not why they abandoned it. We only know that Unc, Oxnix and some of the other boys in the area spent lazy summer afternoons there shooting up glass bottles and rusty cans, long after it was no longer used. The land there is still scattered with bits of colored glass, tiny spark plugs, cans bearing faded labels, and other bits of long-forgotten junk. I may take Munchkin up there to gather bits of glass for mosaics.
Green bottle glass

Ultimately, Hillbilly gave this piece of land to the neighbors when one of his sisters married into their family. Normally I complain because we lost the big lake in the deal, but I can only imagine the cleanup would have fallen to us if we had retained it.

Blue china chip
Much like the other three locations... Two are nothing more than a bunch of rusty, squashed cans near the homestead sites. No big deal. The other, though, is a huge pile of rust, stretching about 150 feet along a fenceline at the northern end of the ranch. It includes such fascinating objects as ringer washers, ancient mason jars, old bicycle frames and more rusty cans. These will eventually be dumped into a metal recycling bin and turned into cash (every now and then, we do find treasure out here).
Old chunks of brick

Very old spark plugs
Some items will be kept -- old medicine bottles, anything with a cool label, a jar or two. And someday, we'll also have a place to display these things. A place that isn't dumpy.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Bedknobs Without Broomsticks

Lots of detail to paint...
For over a century now, this ranch has become a repository for junk. No one ever threw anything away. Unc brought all kinds of "treasures" home from local auctions. Things that used to work were set aside to be fixed, and promptly forgotten.

I once asked Dude about making a fence out of the old bike frames in one of the old buildings. He didn't like the idea, so they all went to the scrapper; now he thinks it would have been a cool idea and wishes he had listened to me.

... and lots of pieces to paint!
So this time, I put my foot down. Every building out here had an old bedstead in it... or four. I had thought that maybe I could refinish them to be used as beds again. But I'm a little more modern than that. Eventually, though, I came up with a great idea -- using them to make a fence. Once my potager idea was hatched, the fence made perfect sense and I began to gather the headboards and footboards from their hiding places around the homestead.

Dude had to help me with some of these, since they were buried under huge storage bags of long-dead grain husks in the old military building, or lost in Grandma's House where years of leaking roofs, busy mice and piles of ancient magazines created a fungal nightmare. If there was ever a time for facial masks and hot showers...
Munchkin hard at work

Munchkin and I spent two days spray painting them black to match the wrought-iron outdoor theme. We didn't sand or clean them, and we painted them lying in the dusty driveway; the hope was to create a rough surface that would allow vines to attach and climb. It was a horribly long, hot process, and I didn't have any feeling in my trigger fingers for weeks.

There are eighteen bedsteads, two cribs, and four old metal shelving units from Dude's work environment. Friends have offered me more pieces, and I'm tempted to search online sales sites. Someday I'll have enough pieces to completely surround a pasture -- maybe a chamomile field!

Today, about half the pieces surround our mini-garden. A few pieces are awaiting black paint, along with the old dinner bell and the lawn furniture. There's still "this much left to do" but at least it's a start.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Gardening at Last

The big tree in the front yard still hasn't been removed. The temperatures are now over 100 degrees. My poor little veggies are begging for cool, wet earth to sink their feet into.

Dude and I talked for days about where to put the one-year-only garden location. The potager in the center of the driveway is out, for the reason given above plus a need for leveling the site. The old family garden is out; it needs grass removal, tilling, fertilization and a completely new watering system. The former site of the pig-scalding operation is out -- far too rocky to be a quick job, and too far for the no-pressure well pumps we have the hoses on. Other locations were too accessible to animals, or too far from water, or too shaded or not shaded enough.

Partially-built mini-garden
Then it happened. I went to water the rhubarb between our house and Grandma's House. As I rounded the corner, I thought the leaves had dried out from lack of water and too much sun. On closer inspection, I discovered our llamas had eaten not only the lilacs at the corner, but the leaves of the four stalks of rhubarb! So, how to protect our poor little veggies from ever-hungry camelids that don't die from eating rhubarb leaves?

We finally had a flash of inspiration. We could place the garden just inside the current chicken pasture, use one wall of the current chicken wire fence and add a bedstead fence, and then extend the ditching from the water trough overflow. Quick, easy and llama-proof.

It took roughly four hours to trench to water the area and loosen the soil. It was only 90-95 degrees then. It took another two hours to wrap the chicken wire from the currently-open chicken pasture (they are truly free-range) around the new bedstead fence (because I discovered the llamas could put their heads through it), plant the tomatoes, squash, peppers and brassicas, and retrench the water to reach them all. By the time we came in for dinner, the temp was three digits and water was sorely needed.

As Dude headed for bed, I looked out to see chickens and kittens frolicking in the damp dirt, and ducks nearly scooting under the chicken wire to wallow in the puddles. I spent the next hour using the pellet gun as a deterrent, and blocking all openings with rock. Good thing we have a good supply of both rock and BBs.

In two days, when the soil has dried a bit, I'll go out and plant the beets, carrots, chard, lettuce and mint; should be interesting since root veggies aren't supposed to be moved, but will die if I don't. I'll add marigolds and other companion plants, by seed. Oh, and beans too. Maybe we'll get some kind of meal out of this garden after all.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

First Crop?

Wishing for Southern windows
Tackling the garden was far too big of a job to handle this year. Instead we planned a potager -- a french kitchen garden featuring herbs, common kitchen foods like tomatoes, and a quiet sitting place for sweet summer reflection.

If it happens at all, it will be fall before it gets set up.

But being a canning family, I had high hopes of having a great (if small) crop to preserve and display on my canning room shelves. I pictured stewed tomatoes, canned peas and green beans, the Holy Trinity of herbs and all their friends and relations huddled together in a semi-wild state of herbaciousness, the munchkin chatting on the phone on the courting bench, the soft sounds of the fountain made from salvaged ranch teapots and washbasins, and the giant dinner bell hanging overhead. These would all be surrounded by a fence made from the old bedsteads hidden in all the buildings around the property. The animals would stay outside, the wind would cease, and summer would slow to a peaceful crawl.

Inklings of a garden -- overflow dept.
So I set out to plant my crops indoors. I've done this for years, but with many south-facing windowsills. Here the hoard of styrofoam cups filled with precious seeds filled the one available window, and overflowed onto the stack of gardening bins currently living in the corner of the main room. Some of these seeds were fairly old, so they didn't come up. Some plants came up, then were knocked over by cats investigating outdoor activities. Some came up, only to be drowned or dehydrated, or both.

Some, though, managed to survive and needed to go outside. But to where? The potager is waiting on the removal of a giant, 60-year-old elm in front of the front door; the bedsteads stand against a chicken-wire fence, buried in grass the animals can't reach. With the incredibly variable weather we had this spring, I couldn't just put them in a pot and set them out on their own recognizance. So, we pulled out the rolling greenhouse... which can't roll on our duct-tape-and-baling-wire deck.

Tiny garden of pots to left of tree in middle
The 50-some plants I put into it turned into 20-some plants that eventually moved into pots in the front yard. Kittens found the cover an easily-overcome barrier, and proceeded to play on the shelves and with the frilly leaves. The wind knocked the green house over. And -- out of sight and thus out of mind -- we forgot to water it enough.

So, about 20 pots now hold my garden -- cantaloupe, watermelon, cabbage, and tomatoes -- and I'm on my second batch of herbs in the window. Which will be ready first, the tomatoes or the basil? I'm taking bets.
herbs in the kitchen window

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch...

Dear Reader,

We regret to inform you that we have been far too busy to write posts.

No, really. This has been a crazy summer, once it finally arrived. We've torn down a total of four buildings, switched out a vehicle, lost the dog twice, lost the llamas too many times to count, had multiple sets of ducklings and chicks, scared off murder attempts by the local ravens, adopted a batch of previously-wild kittens, discovered three ranch-born wild kittens, attempted and then abandoned a solar installation, accomplished nothing on the house, and generally spent far too much time out in the sun and heat with not enough to show for it.

We're hoping to post some of these adventures for you soon. Please don't give up on us. There's still "this much to do" out here!