Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I am sick. Not the head cold, why won't this annoying thing just go away sick either. The kind of sick were you are amazed your body contains as many fluids as have come out of you. Jules informed me when he came home from work today that I "looked like hell." I don't know what he is talking about, I'm dead sexy! Headache, bed in the bathroom, just shoot me, dead sexy!

Hopefully I will be back to somewhere resembling normal by Friday.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How to Clean Rain Barrels

We live in a place where "damp" is at its best. Nine months of the year we are damp, our city is damp, most of existence outside is just plain damp. You can smell the rain coming around this time of year and then it just doesn't leave. In my opinion, it is part of what makes here so wonderful - Drippy, soggy, unending rain.

This is also the reason our rain barrels are so well suited to our house. They just don't go dry. We can flush toilets, we can do dishes, I might even begin washing laundry and they don't go dry. Dry just doesn't happen in our rainy season.

This constant cycling of water, is one of the main benefits of cleaning our rain barrels. The barrels need to be cleaned yearly, even if you only use them for irrigation. This is due to the algae blooms which will occur. There is nothing harmful about this algae, in fact it probably makes the water much nicer for the plants, but it can clog the spigots and make using the water difficult. Some people use fish or snails as a way to remove the algae which builds up inside. It seems to work for them, but I have no experience here. We use standard Clorox.

Two to three months of the year there is NO rain. It is as though the rain goes on summer vacation too. So, in late summer, as late as responsibly possible, we begin once again using our rain barrels for much of the household water. The barrels are at their lowest, and we begin to quite rapidly drain them for dish washing and toilet flushing.

I add 1/2 cup of bleach to each full barrel. This means that as the bleach dilutes in the water, it is able to kill any of the algae clinging to the walls. The barrel sits for 24 hours to make sure the bleach has really permeated and then the barrel is drained with usage. DO NOT USE THE WATER FOR IRRIGATION at this point. It will kill your plants. It will kill any wonderful mycorrhizal fungi at work in your soils. The point of the bleach is to sterilize and it will sterilize anything the water goes near. This makes such water ideal for dishes and toilets. The first 2/3s of the barrel I use solely for dishes, the bottom 1/3 starts to get a little ookier with dead algae and sediment. Such things need to come out of your barrels, but don't necessarily need to be in your dishwater. This last 1/3 goes to just toilet flushing. The bleach water is excellent for the toilet tank and pipes, and the residue in the water doesn't matter.

If your rain barrel is a solitary barrel (not attached to a system or other barrels, just by itself) you can use a wrench to take off the spigot, disconnect it from the downspout, and tip the barrel toward you to allow every last bit of water out (a 30 degree angle works best). You can then spray out the barrel with a hose if need be and leave it to sit in the sun for 48 hours. This will completely sterilize the barrel and you are good to go for another year.

However, only three of our barrels are solitary. They are our just-in-case, backup barrels. The main ones we use are all hooked together and do not tip at all. These barrels will always have at least 6 inches of water in the bottom of them. There is no way, other than completely cutting them free, that they tip and can be totally drained and rinsed. For this reason, we clean them a bit differently.

We begin draining at the last in line (Barrel 5) and take as much water out as possible. I work backwards (Barrel 4, 3, 2) bleaching and draining all the way through. I never bleach Barrel 1 which is hooked to the downspout. (This means at least one barrel at all times has fresh rain water.) At the point all but Barrel 1 are drained there is still 6 inches of bleach water sitting in the bottom of each barrel. When the rains come this water is diluted as the barrel fills and cycled through the entire system. All the overflow bridges get bleached, the main overflow gets bleached, and the entire system is cleaned. Slowly, but surely the bleach water is dissipated through out the barrels and in a month, there is no trace of bleach.

Six inches of slightly bleached water diluted in a 55 gallon drum is not a toxic level. You can still smell it, I don't really want the dog to drink it, or to irrigate with it, but it won't hurt much that is very large. As the water goes through the pipes of the toilet, or sanitizes the dishes in our sink, the cleaning works double duty in our house. It takes only two weeks to completely drain all 9 of our rain barrels, and a month for the entire process to cycle through the barrels. In my opinion is is very low maintenance for the return.

I have heard there are fancy chemicals you can use, weird tools you can acquire, or various organisms which people use to do their cleaning (and maybe we will one day get there) but for right now, we will stick to our $2.50 jug of bleach and our unending rain.

Other Helpful Resources
Approved Bleach for Sanitation of Drinking Water
The University of Texas has done significant research into varieties of bleach. Apparently, all bleach is not created equal. (Who knew?!?) If you are using your rain barrels for drinking or to create potable water, be sure to check this site out!

Storing Water for Emergency Use

Colorado is currently facing quite a water crisis. For this reason their agricultural extension has a wealth of information about storing water. Included is information about amounts to store, ways to sanitize, and different storage techniques.

Preventing Food/Water Borne Injury and Illness

As I began looking for information on safely treating water for household use, I kept getting websites or books about sailing on boats. It was frustrating and made no sense to me. Then I realized (with Jules' explanation) this is because when doing long distance boat travels, sanitizing water, storing sanitized water, and learning how to utilize treated water are imperative skills. Sometimes valuable information is found in the oddest of places. This is one of the absolute best places I have found for information about sanitizing and using water. The writers not only do a lot of long distance boating and have used the methods, but are medical professionals (ER doctor and pharmacologist; registered nurse and paramedic).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sewing Machine!!!

In just a couple of days my new sewing machine is coming! So excited!

Well, let me explain a bit more....the sewing machine is far from new. In fact it is rather old. It is a Bernina 730 which I won off of eBay. Anyone who knows about Bernina knows they are quite on the spendy side of sewing machines, so used is the route we needed to take. However, a Bernina will last you just about forever making the age much less important
The machine was a secondary machine for a woman who upgraded to a spiffier model a few years ago. It has the older steel body and comes with all the accessories. YAY! Below is a picture of the 715 which is very close (one step down) from the 730 which I purchased. Finding a picture proved much harder than I thought!

Jules tends to blow the knees out of his work jeans and the only way to reinforce them is with a machine. My hand sewing will work in a pinch, but not hold up to much abuse. Secondly, Jules through-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail directly after graduating high school. He has many T-shirts from various outfitters along the way, and a few which no longer exist. For such a large accomplishment the sentimentality is too high for the shirts to actually be worn around and demolished, so I told him I'd start a T-Shirt quilt we could use on the bed. This way he gets to use the shirts, enjoy the nostalgia, clean out the dresser (a perk for me), and not ruin something which can never be replaced.

I'll be sure to post some pictures of the process and the finished product.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Garden: How to Double Dig for Garlic

Summer is officially over, Jules returned to work some time ago, and tonight we are having our first fire due to the cold which has closed in around us. The days here are still T-shirt weather, though sometimes a bit windy, but the nights are now down right chilly. It will probably be 40 degrees tonight and that is fire starting weather.

This can mean only one thing for the garden....well, this can actually mean a few things for the garden, but I'll focus on just one: Garlic. This is garlic planting weather! Garlic has some unusual requirements as growing goes. For one, it likes cold. Without at least days of cold temperatures (40-50 degrees), garlic will not germinate. The sustained cold weather in the winter is what also initiates the side bulbing of the garlic which eventually turn into the cloves. The shoots can still be eatten, and it still tastes of all that garlicy-goodness, just nothing under the ground but roots. The cold triggers the plant to begin stockpiling growth to make it through the season so it can grow again. Once the longer spring days come about, the bulbing is promoted and you have garlic by the summer harvest.

We don't plant any expensive, gourmet garlic; just the grocery store stuff for us. Even better, planting is as simple as separating a bulb up into cloves (plant the big ones) and putting them in the ground. No muss, no fuss, just done. Water occasionally, but it is the winter and that means rain here Garlic likes water. Weeding is helpful so they don't have to compete over the winter, but with a little mulch even that can be taken care of. Next year, just plant the leftover cloves you have from this year and there is no need to buy again.

Garlic prefers crumbly loam soil just like most root veggies. Since our backyard is not in any way perfectly arable, I double dig the garlic beds to provide a nice soft place for growth. Double digging is a bit of work, and you will definitely feel it the next day, but it is much cheaper than a gym membership.

To begin you mark off the bed in sections of about 18 inches wide - for a nine foot bed this would give you six sections.
Stand in section 2 and dig all of the dirt out of section one about 12 inches deep. Put it either in a large pile next to the bed or in a wheel barrow. Cover the exposed area of section one with compost and aerate the soil another 6 inches, thoroughly mixing the compost in. Now dig all of the dirt out of section 2 about 12 inches deep and dump it into section 1. This should yield section one now filled back up with dirt which is nice and loose, composted, aerated and all yummy for planting. Now be sure not to step in section one at all costs! You have just completed a very laborious task and would undo all your hard work with one misplaced foot.

Section 2 has just been cleared of all its dirt, now lay down a nice layer of compost and aerate the soil another 6 inches - thoroughly mixing in the compost. Step into section 3 and dig out all the dirt 12 inches deep and dump it into section 2. Section 2 is now done!

Section 3 has just been cleared of all its dirt so lay down the compost, aerate six inches deep and mix all the compost in. Step into section 4 and start diggin'. Dig out 12 inches of soil and dump it into section 3. Section 3 is now done. Are you noticing the pattern?

If you continue in this way - dig out 12 inches, place removed dirt on the previous section, layer compost, aerate 6 more inches, mix it all together, move on - you will methodically work your way through the entire bed. When you get to the point that all the dirt has been removed from section 6, it is composted, it is aerated, you just dump all the dirt you first took out of section one on top. All the soil is now back into the bed, just shifted around it. Consider double digging the musical chairs of the soil world.

The size of the garlic bulb is not only dependent on the nice fluffy soil, but also on the spacing. The closer your cloves, the smaller the bulbs will be. So, you will get more bulbs from your space, but fewer (or smaller) cloves. Fewer planted, larger bulbs. We tend to compromise and plant Biointensively. Doesn't that sound swanky!

All Biointensive gardening is, is planting with space in mind. Planting in the standard rows is used for most large corporate agriculture because they have the big fancy machines which need to get through the fields. No fancy machines here, just a small space. So instead of only planting three rows in our bed and having them all start in the same spot, we plant five rows and have them off set.To create this effect, begin 5 inches in from the sides of your bed and space your main three rows 10 inches apart. Follow these rows down the length of the bed, placing a garlic clove every 10 inches. (The blue ones. ) Now go back to the beginning of your bed and move 10 inches in on the sides still keeping your rows 10 inches apart. These will be your two offset rows. (The red ones.) Continue to place the cloves 10 inches apart for the entire length of the bed. Voila! Biointensive gardening! Now you can sound swanky too!

After some quick math in your head, you might realize these measurements don't add up nicely. This is because I allow for a two inch wiggle room for each clove. This way if it isn't in there exactly right it doesn't matter. The cloves in the offset rows are about 7 inches from their diagonal siblings and almost double the amount of garlic you can grow in the space.

With two beds like the one pictured above, we have just over 100 cloves of garlic planted. This gives us 8 heads a month or two bulbs a week. No vampires in this house!

Friday, October 09, 2009


The paperwork is here, ready to be filled out. The birth certificate is on the way because I have no idea where I put it. One more immunization and he is all set. Within a week, the Spicy Barracuda will be starting virtual kindergarten. Yes, virtual. The kindergarten "class" is all done through the internet, conferences with his adviser are Skyped, and he can advance as slowly or quickly as he needs to. There is even a stipend for him to take part in local art, music, foreign language, and sports classes as a way of socialization.

This comes as a big sigh of relief for Jules and I. We spent the end of last year and the beginning of this one (eight months in total) fighting to try and get the Barracuda into our local public school. It didn't happen. This meant extensive looking into options for schooling. Either that or he would be entering kindergarten reading, knowing how to add and subtract, and being one of the absolute oldest members of his class. The circumstances were frustrating, the bureaucratic mess that is public school was down right daunting, and we don't have the money for swanky private kindergarten.

Much perseverance has paid off and now we are a few short faxes from being all set for this year and beyond. Along with this comes the advent of new blog. Virtual school requires quite a bit of parent involvement and documentation. It is much like homeschooling, only you have some curriculum provided and quite a bit more support.

Schoolwork for the Age of Five is the Spicy Barracuda's own blog all about our schooling experience.