Monday, August 27, 2012

Freebies... er, I mean Free Bees

Ever since I started keeping bees, I've flirted with the idea of capturing swarms and putting them in empty hives, thereby increasing the number of hives I have, without the expense of ordering new bee packages from a commercial supplier.  Since I still consider myself a novice beekeeper, the idea of catching bees in the wild is still a little scary.  I'm not sure when I would have gotten around to pursuing it, had I not gotten a phone call the other day from a guy who got my number from my friend CJ, the County Conservation Officer.  The guy had a boarded up basement window with a feral colony of what he believed to be honeybees in it.  He said he wasn't sure how long they'd been there but at least since early spring.  He asked me to come take a look and see if there was a way to save them.  I said I would.  After I hung up the phone, I immediately kicked myself because although I sounded totally confident on the phone, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I set up a time to go over and have a look, telling myself if this wasn't an easy access, or required some amount of demo, I was out of there.  Turns out, the window was not terribly large, and was right at ground level.  Pretty much ideal in terms of access.  There was a rotted piece of OSB plywood over the window, with a small hole at the bottom.  This is where the bees were coming and going to their nest.  It seemed like it might be a small enough job that I could handle it without getting in over my head.  I told Brad I could get the colony and try to re-hive it in one of my empty hives.  We set a date the following week, which gave me time to do a little research, and build a contraption to vacuum the bees out of the cavity and trap them in a screen cage.

 I set about watching numerous youtube videos of experienced beekeepers collecting colonies out of various inconvenient places, and drew up plans for my bee vacuum contraption.   I hit Menards over the weekend and picked up a small Shop Vac, and some plywood and miscellaneous hoses and fittings, then set about building a box with an inlet and outlet hose.  Inside this box, I left room for a screen cage to catch the bees and prevent them from being sucked into the Shop Vac itself. The Shop Vac hose attached to the outer box, creating suction inside the box.  Then, I attached a second hose to the opposite end of the box and this is the hose I would use to manually vacuum up every bee I could find.  Inside the box was a smaller screened box so everything that I vacuumed up would be caught in this smaller box, essentially a trap, but the air would pass through the screen and exit the larger box through the Shop Vac hose.  Clever design.  No I didn't come up with it, there are numerous variations on YouTube that I used as a guide. 

The night before my scheduled bee capture, I called my Beekeeping Class Instructor, Craig, and talked through what I was planning to do.  He raises queens in addition to being a commercial beekeeper, so I wanted to make sure I could get a replacement queen if the one in the feral colony didn't make it through the capture process.  He made some recommendations, and gave me a lot of support, and told me to call if I had any questions once I got over there.  He also gave me some tips on what to do once I got the bees home. 

On the big day, I loaded the truck with all of my equipment, including my suit, smoker, veil, tools, Shop Vac, bee vacuum contraption prototype (the Suck-A-Bee), and enough 5-gallon buckets to hold 10 hives worth of honey.  I stopped by the pharmacy and bought a bottle of Benadryl (just in case, LOL) and arrived at the house.  I drove around to the side of the house where the window was located and talked to the homeowner for a few minutes and hatched my plan.  He backed off and sat in his jeep while I set everything up in easy reach of where I'd be working, suited up, duct taped my gloves to my wrists, lit the smoker, and grabbed the big crow bar he'd left for me.  I took a couple of deep breaths and laid into the plywood with that crowbar.  It was partially rotted so it came apart in several pieces. 

Once I exposed the nest, I got down on the ground and had a look.  It was my lucky day.  The colony did not fill the entire window cavity, which was good news for me.  I had hoped this first "cut out" would be small and easy, and it looked like that would be the case.  There were about seven individual combs, each about 1.5 inches thick, 7 inches wide and 10 to 12 inches tall.  The comb was pale yellow so was probably no more than a few months old, meaning this colony probably took over this window sometime this spring.  The nest was shaped roughly like a basketball, and was about that size.  The bees were surprisingly gentle, and there weren't many in the air buzzing around.  I did not get stung.

I took my hive tool and started cutting the combs loose from the top of the window, which luckily was the only place they were attached.  Each one was full of brood and honey, and completely covered with bees.  I put each comb into the five-gallon bucket, along with the bees that continued to cling to it, then fired up the vacuum and started sucking the remaining bees into the box.  This went on for several minutes and then the vacuum hose lost suction.  I'm not sure what happened by my best guess is that the hose got clogged by some of the stuff other than bees that was getting sucked in.  I made the decision at this point to abandon the bee vacuum and suction the remaining bees with the actual Shop Vac.  I was worried it was too much suction and would kill the bees, but I didn't know what else to do and I had to capture as many bees as possible to get them out of this guy's window. I carefully finished vacuuming every bee I could see, and hoped for the best.  When I finished, I grabbed my roll of duct tape and tore off several pieces of it, then shut off the Shop Vac, pulled the hose off, taped the inlet hole, and the outlet hole, and put it in the truck.  I then opened the box and removed the screened trap inside, and taped that opening as well.  I put a plastic bag over the 5-gallon bucket, and taped around the rim to keep those bees inside, and that all went into the back of the truck as well.  I removed my bee suit, gathered up the rest of my equipment, and got ready to leave.  The homeowner cautiously came out and I recommended to him that he stay away from the window for a couple of days and since the queen was gone, and all of the comb, they would eventually leave.  I recommended that he board up the window tightly so a new colony doesn't move in.  

After I got home, I set up my empty hive, and covered the entrance at the bottom with a piece of window screen, to keep the new bees inside, and any bees from my other hives, or the local area from trying to get in there and rob the honey.  I'll wait a few days and put this hive somewhere and take the screen off, and then they can decide whether or not they are going to stay in their new home.  All in all, this was a pretty successful experience.  I learned a lot, and the failure of the bee vacuum wasn't as bad as it could have been.  It appears that the majority of the bees in the Shop Vac survived.  Hopefully the queen did.  I'll know in a few days when I open up the hive and look for newly laid eggs. 

I will need to figure out exactly what happened to cause the loss of suction and then go about fixing the problem, or redesigning it.  I think I either need a bigger, non-corrugated hose or I need a way to periodically clear the current hose.  Not sure a more powerful vacuum would have made a difference if the inside of the hose was clogged with debris glued together with honey...   I need to figure out a way to not pick up a bunch of debris while I'm vacuuming up the bees, because there was all sorts of stuff in the Shop Vac that was not bees.  Most of it looked like pieces of old comb, and dirt from the bottom of the window well. 

Hopefully I won't need to do this again until next year, and I can work out the kinks over the winter.  I'm putting the word out among the people I know that I'm willing to capture swarms, and do cut-outs as long as they're fairly accessible and don't require a lot of demo (or the use of a ladder!).  I'll capture them at no charge, in exchange for the bees and whatever honey is in the comb.  Unfortunately, not all colonies take up residence in easy-to-reach places so they can't all be saved.  Sometimes there's nothing to be done except call an exterminator that specializes in bee removal.  If you can find one. 

I wish I'd gotten a few more pictures but once I taped my gloves to my wrists, it was not easy to even handle the phone, much less push the buttons.  Next time I'll plan ahead for that. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012


So, Friday was an ordinary day, just like any other Friday this summer.  Hot, humid, unpleasant to be outside.  I got everything done outside that I needed to do and was inside doing some things when Greg got home.  He casually mentioned that he hadn't seen Gibbs and Sophie out with the sheep when he came through the gate.  Hmm, I thought.  I wonder where they are.  I went outside to find out and to put the sheep up in the barn.  No Dogs.  Anywhere.  This has been an on again, off again problem since Gibbs came to live here but I thought I had solved the problem with the fence.  He's a wanderer.  Sophie pretty much sticks with the sheep and has rarely if ever shown any interest in what's outside our perimeter fence.  Gibbs is not a purebred Great Pyrenees.  He's half Pyrenees and half Anatolian Shepherd, and the instincts of Anatolians are a little different from Pyrs.  I would describe him as more of a Sentry than a true Sheepdog.  He patrols.  The entire property.  He walks the fence.  He barks, even when there's nothing to bark at. 

Inevitably, he has "discovered" ways to escape the fence and when he does, I have to figure out how he's getting out and patch up the fence.  I know, it seems like this would be a simple task but remember this is 40 acres and most of the fence was here when we bought the place.  He doesn't go over, he finds ways to go under it.  The fence is overgrown with weeds, sticker bushes, small trees and vines, and Poison Ivy :(   so it's not like just looking for holes in a nice pristine fence.  Sometimes the only clue that I've located the escape route is little tufts of white fur tangled in the barbed wire. 

Anyway, Gibbs has escaped maybe four or five times in the last seven months.  On two occasions, he convinced Sophie to go with him.  The last time they left together, I got a phone call from my neighbor about a half a mile away, letting me know that they were in the pond in his pasture.  That was a simple fix.  I just drove around to his place, went through his gate, drove down to the pond, and convinced them that they needed to get in the Jeep and come home.  Other than a smelly back seat, no harm, no foul, although Greg was not pleased at the condition of the Jeep. 

Fast forward to Friday and Gibbs had managed to get out of the fence.  Somehow, he coaxed his well-behaved sister to join him.  Here's how I think that conversation went.

Gibbs:  Hey Sophie, look, I'm outside the fence!

Sophie:  So?

Gibbs:  I squeeeeezed between the gate and the post.  Come on, try it.

Sophie:  No.  I'm busy.

Gibbs:  Come on Soph, let's get out of here.

Sophie:  Where will we go?

Gibbs:  The lake, Silly!

Sophie:  What about the sheep?

Gibbs:  They'll be fine.  It's the middle of the day.  What could happen?  Hurry up.

Sophie:  I dunno.

Gibbs:  Let's go for a swim.  We'll come right back.

Sophie:  Welllll, Okay. 

Gibbs:  Sweet! 

(four or five hours pass, it's getting dark and I'm driving around the lake and up and down our road trying to find them)

Sophie:  Gibbs, we really should go back.  We're gonna be in deep shit if Mom finds out we're gone.

Gibbs:  Nah, she'll never miss us.

Sophie:  Come on Gibbs, I'm leaving.

Gibbs:  Oh, alright.  I'm tired anyway but lets do this again tomorrow.

Sophie:  We'll see...

Okay, so by now it's 10:30 p.m. and Greg happens to be out on the deck.  Here they come up the driveway.  Sophie sees him and drags herself up the steps onto the deck, with her head and ears down, and rolls over on her back right at his feet.  She knows they're in trouble.  Greg takes her by the collar and they head out to the barn and Gibbs follows, jumping around like a kangaroo trying to get Greg to play with him.  He locks them in the barn and comes back in the house.  Everyone is safe and sound.

So, Sunday morning, we get up, head out to the vineyard to mess with the bird netting, and when we get back to the house I decide I'm going to give them both baths because they stink and they are covered with burs and muck from who-knows-where, and so forth.  I mean literally covered with thousands of little quasi-sandspur dealies, all tangled in their long fur. 

Here's where it gets ugly. 

Gibbs was the worst so I put him on his leash and took him out in the yard and gave him a bath, then dumped probably eight ounces of conditioner on him and let it sit for about five minutes, then proceeded to try to comb the burs out of his fur with a fine comb.  This worked okay but there were literally thousands of burs.  I abandoned the little comb, rinsed off the conditioner, and decided I would just trim the burs off with scissors.  Well, about 30 seconds into this, I almost amputated Gibbs' front leg.  Yep, I cut him with the scissors over his front left elbow where the loose skin of the armpit area (or whatever the dog equivalent to an armpit) is.  As soon as I did it I knew I'd cut him.  He flinched a little but didn't cry, and then just stood there staring at me with this pathetic look.  Well, immediately there was a huge gush of blood, and it was as bad as I'd feared.  It was a flap and when I lifted it, I could see his elbow joint.  Awful.  I grabbed him and took him over to the hose and washed the blood off and then picked him up (all 77 lbs of him) and ran to the garage, grabbed my Vet First Aid kit, and then hauled him and the kit up the stairs onto the deck.  I put him down (fortunately he was still on the leash) and opened the door and yelled for Greg to "get me a towel, Gibbs is hurt" and he came running with a big bath towel.  He asked what happened and I simply said "I cut Gibbs' leg with the scissors."  He responded "why'd you do that?" to which I had no explanation. 

I used the towel to stop the bleeding and then took a look at it.  It was a big gash, probably an inch and a half long, curved like a "C" and right over the elbow joint.  I doused it with peroxide, squeezed a big glob of Neosporin into it, mashed the flap down and wrapped the area with an Ace bandage. 

Then I started crying. 

I called the vet's emergency number and got the recording telling me to call another number.  Since the bleeding had stopped, I decided it was probably not necessary to drag the vet into the office to stitch up my dog, and decided to wait until the following morning.  Since he was still pretty much covered with burs, I decided to keep him up on the deck and work on removing them, and also keeping him from messing with the bandage and possibly making it start bleeding again.  I brushed him until he was dry and got probably 95% of the burs off of him, and then I brought him in the house (which I never do) and made him lay down next to my chair for a while.  After a bit, I took him out to the barn and locked him in there with Sophie and hoped for the best, as far as the bandage was concerned. 

Monday morning I called the vet's office.  Lisa, my regular vet, was there and said to bring him in right away.  When I got there, I told her what I'd done, and that if Gibbs was a child, I'd have already been visited by Child Protective Services.  She laughed and said "don't be so sure.  My sister accidentally cut my niece's Achilles tendon with a hoe while working in the garden and no one came out to investigate her fitness as a mother."   She recommended stitches and said to leave him with her.  She called at about 2:00 and said I could pick him up but I decided to leave him overnight just to give him a day off, and keep him reasonably clean.  I picked him up Tuesday morning and except for a stitched up elbow and a shaved upper leg, you'd never know there was a thing wrong with him. 

He's back to his normal self.  If the stitches are still there after 10 days, I'll take them out.   No more scissors.  My sister suggested I invest in a pair of clippers for occasions when I feel like playing Edward Scissorhands... 


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Studio Update

Starting in late October, Greg and I decided to build a small art studio next to the house, so I could finally get my pottery wheel out of the barn and into a usable space.  We built a 12 x 16 foot framed building on piers with a 12 x 6 foot porch on one end.  There were several reasons for putting up this building, including the art studio space, but also to accommodate guests when we have them, and also as extra storage space.  When I sketched out the idea, I wanted a loft that extended out over the porch, accessible from inside by a ladder.  I also wanted vaulted ceilings in part of it so we compromised and put the loft above only half of the building.  This left a cool vaulted ceiling, which we covered with 4 x 8 sheets of grooved plywood siding, painted white.  It turned out great.  We put a ceiling fan up there as well. 

Anyway, one of my goals was to have it ready for my parents to stay in when they came up for their annual spring visit.  We plugged along on this building until the end of April, then Greg went to work putting on the siding, soffit, fascia and so forth, and I kept working on the inside, painting the cabinets, and building the Murphy bed.  The place is pretty good size for a studio but there was not going to be any room for a permanent bed so I decided to build a folding bed.  It's technically not a Murphy bed because there's no mechanical hardware that easily folds the bed up, only a set of hinges and the strength of two people lifting and pushing it against the wall.  Anyway, Greg let me use his tools but mostly let me build this thing on my own.  I made a few design errors but these were easily fixed, and I made a couple of minor mistakes while putting it together, but I eventually got it assembled, painted and set up for my parents the day before they arrived. 

The only snag I hit was I didn't fully appreciate how tall the thing would end up being.  I wayyyy overbuilt this thing, and used probably twice the lumber I needed.  It's definitely sturdy but the top of the mattress is at about 36 inches from the floor, way too tall for my 5'3" tall mother to safely get in and out of, so Greg and I have been sleeping out there and my folks have been sleeping in our bed.  It's pretty comfy!

Here are a few pictures of the place. 

The mess in the corner is the stereo Greg bought for out there.  It's sitting on the counter right now but he's going to build a cabinet to hang on the wall, with a glass door, and it will have room for the stereo, a place to dock a lap top or whatever, and maybe eventually a TV receiver.  At this point the place is still pretty bare bones, but I got a nice rug for the floor, the cabinets are painted, the counter-tops are installed, and the fan and A/C work.  There's still a good  bit of stuff to do on the outside.  On the inside the windows need to be trimmed out, and the baseboards installed.  I need to get some kind of blinds for the windows, and I still need to build the rolling platform for my wheel, and the work-table that will also function as a dining table when we have guests.  The plan is to have the work table at about counter height, built out of 2 x 6 lumber and plywood.  The platform will be built the same way, with heavy duty casters so I can move it around.  The wheel probably weights 400 lbs or so.  When we have guests staying out there, table will fit on top of the platform and the whole thing can be pushed against a wall.  The table will then be at bar height when it is on top of the platform, and I have a couple of bar stools to go with it. 

I used MDF board for the bottom of the Murphy bed.  I bought a can of chalkboard paint and will paint the underside of the bed with it so when the Murph is folded against the wall, the chalkboard will be exposed and I can sketch out pottery ideas on it. 

Still a work in progress but it's almost finished.  So, come on out for a visit!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bird Nest in the Vineyard

I was mowing the vineyard yesterday, and tucking the shoots up inside the trellis wires so they wouldn't get caught on the tractor as it goes by.  I spotted this little nest and stopped to take a few pics.  Tiny nest, tiny eggs, about the size of your thumbnail.  Beautiful!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

uh oh...

Here are a few pictures of what may or may not be herbicide drift damage to our grapes.  Stay tuned...

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pruning, 2012

Now it's a race! The Sabrevois vines have broken their buds and the first leaves are popping out on the canes. This is very early, even for Sabrevois. This ridiculously mild winter, followed by what appears to be an extremely early spring has pushed everything out of dormancy a good month before our typical last freeze. Hopefully the trend holds and it's like this from here on out. A late freeze really does a number on tender new shoots and buds. I'm pruning as fast as I can and I'm leaving extra buds and longer than normal canes for this year's growth in case we do get a freeze and it kills the vines back. It happens.

The good thing about grape vines though is if you leave extra length to the canes you are pruning, typically the buds that are near the tips pop open before the ones closer to to the cordon and trunk. This means that by leaving extra buds near the ends of the canes, if you get a freeze, those might get killed back but the ones that haven't started pushing out new growth are still a little protected. It creates an extra step if you don't get a freeze and have to go back and prune a second time to get rid of the excessive growth, but it's cheap insurance.

I'm about half way done with pruning. I'm done with the Sabrevois vines and I'm almost done with the three-year-old Traminette. I'll be starting on the four-year-old Traminette sometime this week, and then go to work on the Cynthiana after that. Sabrevois is completely in full bud break now. The Traminette and the Cynthiana are a little behind but just about ready to go too. The longer it takes to finish pruning, the harder it is because once the buds start to swell and open, they're really fragile and are easily knocked off, essentially wasting a cane and leaving a gap where this year's growth should be. I'll have to be more careful while I prune to avoid knocking them off, which means no tugging and yanking on the canes while I prune. I'm hoping to be done with this by the end of next weekend. That may be a little ambitious but we'll see.

One little adaptive strategy that grapes have is that within every node where a bud pushes out, there's also a tiny secondary bud, and a really tiny tertiary bud that will push out if something happens to the primary and secondary buds. The only problem with this is that while the secondary and tertiary buds create new shoots that grow into canes, these buds are not fruitful so you don't get a cluster of grapes from this node (there are a few hybrids that do have fruitful secondary buds but none of the cultivars we are growing do this). So, a late freeze can do a lot of damage to this season's crop, but not necessarily damage the entire vine.

Hopefully we're out of the frost window and well into spring at this point. Hope-Hope-Hope...

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Winter Gardening

One of the long-term goals I've had since moving to Iowa has been to have a greenhouse so I could extend the growing season both in the early spring and also the late, late fall. Over the past month or so, I've been putting together some ideas on how I can transition to full-time farmer. One way is to be able to grow produce for local farmer's markets, restaurants, and eventually start a CSA/subscription farm. One of the things I'm really interested in is food security on the local level, and helping the community, in my case my little town, grow and produce more of what it consumes. Our vineyard is the first step in this direction. Greg and I hope to be marketing wine under our own label in the next few years and in spite of the dramatic growth of artisan wineries in Iowa, and all over the Midwest, there isn't one in our county. We intend to change that. Expanding into raising other types of produce gels well with the existing vineyard, as we have already purchased the tractor, implements, and tools we need, so the additional expenses are fairly minimal.

In conjunction with the vineyard/winery, we've got plenty of space for several greenhouses/high tunnels, and Iowa State and Cornell have been researching growing raspberries and blackberries in tunnels with some very good results. I'm considering doing this along side the vineyard, and there are several potential markets for the berries, including restaurants, wineries, farmer's markets and bakeries. I'm researching the feasibility of putting up a big tunnel and raising fall-ripening berries. I already have the majority of the equipment I would need, I'd just need the tunnel and the plants. Oh, and I also have two hives full o' bees!

In the meantime, I bought this...

on Craigslist last week. It's a 14 x 44 foot tunnel greenhouse that I bought from some folks up north. They used it to raise cut flowers and nursery plants and got out of the business and put the tunnel up for sale. Nice people. They're delivering it next Saturday. This is a decent sized greenhouse and it comes with all of the fans, benches, lumber, and so forth that we would need. We'll put it up this spring and use it get a jump on this year's garden, and see what kind of production we can get from it before it's warm enough to start the outdoor gardening. I'm going to use this season to get a handle on growing for markets and one restaurant customer who's interested in what I'm doing. I'm going to start out at our little Albia Farmer's Market and spread out from there. There are five markets within about 20 miles of me, all on different days of the week, starting in early May and running through October. Keeping good records this season should allow me to estimate the volume I'll need to grow to cover the markets, restaurant(s) and a small CSA.

I'm taking a self-directed crash course in all of this and I'll document the progress on this blog. Feel free to ask questions or offer input.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Snowy Morning Pictures

Here are a few pics I took this morning. That's the frozen vineyard out there. I've done a little pruning but have most of the vineyard left to do.

After having almost no snow all winter, conditions were perfect last night for light, fluffy snow. It was fairly calm all night so the snow stuck to every surface. It was beautiful this morning. Of course, the wind kicked up and blew most of it out of the trees
by mid morning, and by this afternoon, the snow was drifting across the roads making little snow dunes in open areas. I went to the dump to get rid of some construction debris, and had a fun time getting it out of the truck. I'd loaded the truck on Monday thinking I'd get to the dump on Wednesday when it was 40-something degrees, then procrastinated until today, and of course everything was frozen into one solid chunk of drywall scraps, trash from the barn, and assorted pieces of plywood and other lumber from constructing the studio. What a pain that was... I finally situated the truck on enough of a slope that I could get into the bed and shove the whole frozen pile out to the tailgate, and finally tipped it out, and drove out from under it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cracking the Code

Iowa wines have been getting some very good press lately. Here's a link to a story that aired last night on our local news. Slowly but surely, Midwest winemakers are learning how to make terrific wines with the cold climate grapes we're able to grow here.

... and here is a write-up on the growth of small-scale wineries popping up all over the place. If you have the chance, take the time to stop in and check out what they have to offer.

... and here's a link to a review of a local Iowa winery's offerings.

... and finally, here's a link to the Iowa Winegrower's Association, to see how much has happened in only about 12 short years.

Very exciting times around these parts!!!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hunnerd bucks!

Whoa... I had to go around the block and come back for a picture of this masterpiece. A riding mower with a wheelbarrow mounted on the hood!

Heh... Want! That!

Friday, January 27, 2012


There he is...

For those of you who don't know, we lost our sweet old boy Doogan about three weeks ago. I'm still barely able to think about it. He had been slowly going down hill for a while and we were getting very close to the point of having to make a really hard decision. Before we did, he made it for us. He died one morning and I found him in his bed, and hope beyond hope that he went peacefully. We should all be so lucky.

Before Christmas, Greg and I had been discussing the possibility of adopting another livestock guardian dog as a companion for Sophie, and to help with Coyote Patrol once we move the sheep back out to the vineyard, but it just didn't seem right to bring another dog into the mix with Doogan having such a hard time. In December, I had emailed Diane, the lady who runs the Great Pyrenees Rescue of Iowa. She had found Sophie for us. I wanted to give her the heads-up that we would be looking for another guardian dog, maybe in the early spring, and she said she'd get back to me. I didn't hear from her for a couple of weeks and then we lost Doogan. About a week later, she called and had a couple of dogs we might be interested in. I had very mixed feelings about making this change so soon but she sent pictures and I decided to go up and visit her farm and meet them. One of the dogs, "Junior" was available and sounded like he might fit in well with Sophie and our farm. I went up there with the intention of bringing him home if we hit it off, and we did. He's very, very funny and friendly, and still very much a puppy, in spite of his size. He's only about a year old and very playful. I felt like he'd be a great buddy for Sophie. She loves her sheep but boy are they boring...

Anyway, I signed all of the paperwork for the adoption, and loaded him up in the Jeep, and off we went. The Rescue is near Cedar Rapids, about two hours from my place, and he fell asleep about five minutes into the trip, and never made a peep. I had brought a crate for him to ride in, not knowing what to expect, and he just curled up in there and did great. We got home just after Greg got home from work so he met us on the driveway.

I went out to the barn and got Sophie on a leash and brought her out to the driveway. We introduced her to him, and it was a little sketchy at first because guardian dogs are hardwired not to trust strange dogs around their flock (which is why we took her out of the barn so they could meet in sort of a neutral place. We gave them lots of treats and let them do a lot of sniffing and growling and finally they worked it out. We then took both of them back out to the barn and put Sophie in with the sheep and kept Gibbs outside of the pen for a little bit, while he explored the barn and got used to things. Then, I took him inside the sheep pen and although Sophie was nervous, she let him investigate the sheep and sniff around the pen. He was curious about the sheep but didn't act up at all. He'd been living with a flock of goats at the Rescue, (BIG GOATS!!!) so we knew he was "livestock safe" but you never know what can happen in a high-stress situation, and I was more worried about Sophie being defensive than "Gibbs" eating a sheep.

Anyway, it all went fine, and he's part of the pack now. If he crowds her, or tries to keep her from getting close to me, she lets him have it but he's learning that for now she's the boss of the barn and he seems to be okay with that. Sophie has laid the smack-down on him maybe twice and he seemed perfectly okay with doing things her way. We'll see how long that lasts as he's going to be much bigger than her. He is a true sweet heart and extremely affectionate.

I kind of felt like it would be a good idea for Greg to give him his new name so that he "belongs" to Greg the way Doogan did and the way Sophie belongs to me, so that is how he came to be named Jethro Gibbs...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Okay, but what are you going to do with it?

Sooo. In my initial plan for the studio we are building, I had planned to use a small wood-burning stove that I picked up on Craigslist about two years ago for a hundred bucks. The title of this post is the question Greg asked me when I arrived home with it in the back of the truck.

Unfortunately, once I had laid everything out on paper when we were contemplating the studio, and I took into consideration the very large clearance from combustible materials that is required for a cast iron wood stove, I realized it was going to eat up a whole lot more floor space than I thought. I haven't solved this dilemma completely, but I'm looking at a few options, including a direct-vent gas (propane in my case) fireplace that recesses into the wall and has a low profile on the inside (most of the stove bumps out of the wall to the outside), and does not require a chimney. I also found a very small Vermont Castings cast iron gas stove that is only 13 inches deep and can sit as close as three inches from the wall since the combustion chamber is insulated. This would eat up very little floor space.

Anyway, I'm still working on this issue and cost is a factor. We'll probably wait until next fall to deal with the heat issue because we can limp along with a small electric heater for the time being, except when the temps drop into the single digits. I just can't store anything out there that will freeze until we solve this issue.

Anyway, I have this old second-hand, wood-burning stove that looks exactly like this... It's a Vogelzang Deluxe Boxwood Stove and that's the image from their website. Mine is buried under a bunch of stuff in the barn at the moment. I figured I'd hang onto it and eventually use it to heat a greenhouse since it turned out not to be ideal for my studio. It's a nice little utilitarian stove, no window, just a cast iron box with a flue. It's pretty cute and you can even cook on it in a pinch. It's perfect to heat a greenhouse if you have a way to move the air around the space. There's even a little gadget that you can add between sections of the stove pipe that will capture much of the heat going up the stove pipe and send it out into the room rather than having it escape to the outside. It makes the stove much more efficient. Anyway, the problem with cast iron stoves is that they get super hot, and once the fire goes out they lose heat pretty quickly. There's just not enough thermal mass to really retain a lot of heat for very long.

Or so I thought... check this out!

This is from Kiko Denzer's webpage. He's the guy I got the original idea from, for Sunny the clay oven. Look at that thing! He's basically created a "clay hat" for his stove and inside this hat is a serpentine tunnel that winds around and around inside that thing. The clay heats up and becomes basically a radiator and the winding design inside there is basically a big heat exchanger, with lots of surface area to soak up the heat. After the clay absorbs the heat traveling through the tunnel, the stove pipe exits "the hat" and the smoke and some of the hot air goes on up out of the roof, leaving most of the heat behind in the Hat. The hat slowly radiates the heat into the room, just like my clay oven radiates heat back into the baking chamber. Genius! (although I do have some concerns about the ability of those spindly legs to support what has to be several hundred pounds of clay. Looks a tiny bit precarious.

Anyway, it sparked an idea about how to heat a future greenhouse, using a stove I already have, and the abundant supply of oak firewood we have accumulated over time.

I could really extend my growing season if I could put a little bit of supplemental heat into a tunnel or lean-to greenhouse, particularly if I use twin-wall polycarbonate or a double layer of poly film. I'd start by taking the legs off the little Vogelzang stove (they're bolted on), and right smack in the middle of the greenhouse, I'd dig down several inches and put a scrap of foam insulation in the hole about 4 x 4 feet square. Then, I'd pour gravel on top of the foam insulation until it was level with the ground. Then, I'd basically build something similar to Sunny, but embed this stove inside the mud dome, leaving the front of the stove exposed, for access to load the wood, build the fire, and clean out ashes. Access to the damper is also in the front part of the stove. You could make a hearth out of the clay too so you could sit by it and warm up when working in the greenhouse in the winter, and even build out to the side, a chamber that could hold your firewood. The heat from the clay would probably get warm enough to help dry the firewood so it burns better, with less smoke, and it would also give you a place to store several days' worth of wood without having it piled up all over the place. I'd cover the stove pipe with a thick tube of clay up to about six feet or so, then stick another damper in the stove pipe at that height, to help draw the air upward, then add that little gadget to capture residual heat that is still in the stove pipe, and then vent it out through the roof. Basically, the stove becomes the firebox for a big masonry heater, and all that clay (probably 12 or more inches thick) would absorb the heat through the walls of the stove, and slowly release it into the greenhouse. You could really make this a massive thermal storage device and really get a lot of bang for your buck with each fire.

I think you could still do what Kiko did and form a small chamber above the firebox that you could use as an oven, and get double duty from this contraption. Not sure what you would want to cook in a greenhouse but, whatever... Although, you certainly could bake bread in there when it is too cold outside to use Sunny.

It would look like a big adobe fireplace in a pueblo except for the cast iron door. By enclosing the stove inside a big envelope of clay/mud, I think you would eliminate any issues of minimum clearance to the wall, and with the exception of the door, none of the surface should get hot enough to actually burn you. The thermal mass of the clay structure should help avoid the extreme temperature swings that you get with a typical wood stove.

One thing you'd need to keep track of is the humidity level in the greenhouse. As a rule, you want a lot of humidity in a greenhouse, and the hotter the air temperature, the more water it holds. This is a good thing when trying to raise plants. However, raising the air temp in the greenhouse way above the outside temperature is going to cause a lot of condensation on the walls/ceiling of the house. This water is going to come from somewhere so you would need to make sure your planting beds are not drying out too much, or figure out a way to recapture the condensation as it runs down the walls of the greenhouse. Hmmm, surely there's a solution for this. People grow food in heated greenhouses at latitudes above 50 degrees so this is not a unique problem. It might be something as simple as having an open tank of water as your humidity source, which slowly evaporates, providing the necessary water for the surrounding air, and then capturing the condensation along the bottom of the greenhouse walls and feeding it back to the drip irrigation system. This could help prevent the soil from drying out. Sounds complicated but I'll research this issue and figure out what other people have done.

This might be a fun project to do when my folks come up sometime. It would be much more challenging than building Sunny, which took the better part of a weekend. My dad would have a blast doing this with us. Based on the amount of clay, sand and straw I used when I built Sunny, a clay heater of this size would probably require at least a full pickup bed each of sand and clay, and probably not as many bales of straw. The straw strengthens the mix but too much straw creates an insulating effect, trapping the heat inside the stove, which was perfect for the clay oven but not what I would want for this heater. I would want the heat moving through the clay walls and out into the room. I'd have to mess around a bit and figure out how little straw I can get away with and still have a strong structure, particularly the chimney part.

Best part about this project is the cost. I already have the hundred-dollar stove. Local clay is free or almost free (I probably can use the tractor to dig some really decent clay out of my pond that will be easy to work with) and coarse sand is a few bucks a ton. Literally. I just need to go to the sand pit and get it. The rest is just manual labor. As for fuel, we have numerous dead trees on our property that need to be dealt with anyway. Much of the wood is useable lumber but the limbs and so forth are perfect for firing this little stove, and we have an almost unlimited supply of them.

If I eventually do this, the greenhouse should be stay comfortable in all but the worst part of winter, and I ought to be able to grow all kinds of cool season veggies well into December or perhaps... even... dare I say it? January????? Eliot Coleman would be proud!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Studio Update #2

Once we finally got the roof finished, we turned our focus on the inside of the studio. When we built our house, Greg did all of the rough electrical so he's got a good handle on how to do this stuff. We discussed where I would need outlets, where switches would be handy, and how many overhead lights I would need and where they should go. We picked up a small ceiling fan with lights at Home Depot and figured out where it would go, what height would be best, and where we might want to put stereo speakers (probably in the ceiling over the porch, and a set aimed out at the firepit area). Once Greg completed the electrical rough-in, we spent a couple of days putting the insulation in the rafters and the walls, then covered the walls with plastic vapor barrier.

Last week, we picked up six 4 x 8 sheets of grooved plywood (grooves every four inches) which I had thought would look great on the ceiling. I primed them and painted them with the paint I got at the Habitat Store, which is an off-white, semi-gloss latex. On the rough texture of the panels the paint still reflects quite a bit of light down and makes the room look much bigger than it is. We attached these panels to the rafters with screws, and then moved on to the drywall.

Last Saturday, we rented a drywall lift from a tool rental company and used this to lift the grooved panels up to the vaulted ceiling and Greg attached them, making sure everything was square and lined up correctly. Once we did that, we lifted several sheets up into the loft so we could finish the ceiling up there. This was fun because the drywall sheets just barely fit through the loft doorway. We put several full sheets up there so we can cover the loft ceiling when we get around to it.

We also used the lift to hold the drywall sheets underneath the bottom of the floor joists of the loft.

Here's a picture of us shoving the drywall sheets up into the loft space. They barely fit through the opening and I'm not sure how we would have gotten them in there without using the drywall lift. I guess we would have had to cut them into smaller pieces.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Warning: Non Vineyard Content Ahead...

Here at Bluff Creek Vineyards, we've always got one or more projects in the works. Over the summer we decided that we need to think about putting up a pole barn to store vehicles and vineyard equipment, and it needs to be planned in such a way that we can eventually convert some or most of the space to a commercial winery. We got things rolling in terms of where to put it and how we were going to prepare the site but for multiple reasons did not get much further than the dirt work before the weather got too cold to bring in the concrete people and the builders. We considered doing this project ourselves and we still might but it's quite a large building and we'll need some specialized equipment to tackle the roof and so forth so this may end up being one we farm out to the pros. Anyway, we've postponed that project until spring, and I've seeded the bare ground around the building site with winter wheat to help prevent erosion in the spring when the snow melts. The sheep can mow it down once it's established, if the deer don't get it first.

Since Greg is making wine in the garage on a fairly large scale but still in the "hobby" category, we really need some space for storage, particularly since we're going to need to fit at least one car into the garage this winter. We've been discussing building a studio next to the house that would allow me to set my pottery wheel up and have a heated place to work during the winter months. Once we decided we probably weren't going to get things rolling on the pole barn before winter got rolling, we decided to put up the studio, and build a loft big enough to move a lot of stuff in the garage out to the studio for storage. This will give us some space in the garage to work with the wine and still get one vehicle in there when necessary.

I'd drawn some plans out for what would be an ideal studio and then got to thinking about how that building could serve double duty and be a guest cottage when we have visitors. My folks visit several times a year and they stay in a cabin up the road at a campground. The cabins are nice but it would be a lot nicer if they could be here at the house. Once I got this idea, the studio plans were adjusted to allow for this. I've always wanted a Murphy bed and I think it will be the perfect solution for when we have guests. After looking at plans on the Web, I think I can make one myself for less than a hundred bucks not counting the mattress. Since the studio needs storage anyway, I'm going to use off-the-shelf Menards cabinets on one long wall, and fit the Murph into this wall so that it all looks like one big built-in. When Murph is flipped up against the wall, the underside will be plywood spraypainted with chalkboard paint so I have a big area to sketch projects and write down glaze recipes and so forth. Double Duty!

As most of you know, I love me some Craigslist and once I had a plan, I started shopping for some of the things I would need. Greg of course is the brains behind the actual structure and how to go about getting the materials to build it so I've left that part up to him, but things like doors, windows, cabinets, and so forth I'm searching for on Craigslist and the Habitat Restore.

Best find so far is the 32" steel entrance door I found on CL. I saw the ad pop up and immediately called and was the guy's first response so I got the door. Thing is, it was listed as Free. He just wanted it out of his house immediately. I said I'd be right over. I drove down to Centerville, which is about a half hour away, and when I got there he asked if I wanted a storm door and some bi-fold doors as well. "Of course" I said, so we loaded them up to.

The next score was four huge casement windows that came out of a restaurant up in Ankeny. Not free but only $25.00 a piece and they're in great shape. I had to drive over an hour to get them but that was a huge savings over new windows. They're casements, about 38 tall and 60 inches wide. They will let lots of light into the room and will go on the south wall so I can use the sun to help heat the place in the winter.

While I was near Des Moines, I also picked up a couple of gliders (rocking chairs) for 30 bucks each. I only needed one but the ad said 40 bucks each or both for 60. If I end up not needing both, I'll just sell one on Craigslist.

Finally, I got all the paint for the interior of the studio at the Habitat store for about 4 bucks per gallon. You have to be careful there because sometimes stuff is not marked down much below what you can find at Home Depot or Menards, but sometimes there are really good deals, and this paint was one of them. Plus, your money goes to a good cause.

Anyway, as usual, I got the cart before the horse and had several of these items before we even got started on the actual building but we finally broke ground on the studio and here are a few pictures of the progress so far.

We decided to put the building up on posts to avoid the labor and expense of pouring a foundation (the frost line here is at about 42 inches so we would have had to go down below that). Once we had everything plumb and square, we set the corner posts in concrete and hung pressure treated 2 x 12s on these post. In the pictures, you can see that the ground slopes under this building. We had to take out one big tree that was literally "looming" over the house. I wanted it gone before it blew over on the house or we had another ice storm that caused limbs to crash down onto the deck. I had the tree service I'd used before come out and take it down. This left a perfect spot north of the house for the studio.

We attached OSB (oriented strand board) to the beams. The OSB has a vapor barrier on the underside. We attached the floor joists to the beams, screwing them through the OSB. We put these 12 inches on center. We then put insulation in the cavities between the joists, and then screwed down the floor sheathing on top of the joists. This created a solid, sturdy, well-insulated floor.

Once the floor was finished, we framed the walls and erected them and braced them in place. We used the same OSB sheathing on the wall framing, and once everything was plumb and square, we started on the rafters and the ridge beam.

We basically built a 12 x 16 foot box with a 6 foot covered porch. The roof took a lot of time and wasn't easy to figure out, and trusses would have been a whole lot easier, but I wanted the vaulted ceiling, and we wanted a loft where we could store a lot of stuff without climbing over and through trusses to get to it. Greg installed the Craiglist windows and doors, and started on sheathing the roof.

We sheathed the roof with OSB and then ran nailers across it and attached the metal roofing to the nailers.

The final step for the roof was attaching the ridge cap, which Greg is doing in this picture. The roof is now dried in and we're starting on the inside.