Sunday, April 9, 2017

Problems with off-grid power

First, batteries are expensive and don't last too long.  This cost has definitely driven me out of the off-grid growing experiment. The electric company turns out to be cheaper than solar for my small application.

Second, without an expensive inverter, DC parts are hard to find and don't last. Again, AC seems to be the way of the world.

Finally, the solar panels always seem to be in the way! Unless you have a LARGE area or a roof to place your panels, expect to feel your style cramped by the panels where otherwise good garden space could be utilized.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Brown paper mulch is no good.

I'm going to try paper to control weeds and moisture.
First, I dug a 15" trench down the center of the bed.  The idea is to hold water in the middle instead of running down to the edges. Plenty of organic fertilizer like last year.

At $8.50, this stuff is half the price of the cheapest black plastic mulch at Home Depot.

After rolling out the paper, I staggered the pepper plants in the trench and watered.

Then covered everything with a thick layer of straw.  If we get frost, I plan to sprinkle some more straw all over the plants to protect them. If they die, I always have a second set of seedlings, so I can take the gamble to plant a month early!

Extra straw went to the garlic plants, which are thriving this year!  I went with a proven local variety that a mennonite farmer neighbor has been using for probably a century.  They are big and healthy.  I can't wait to see the bulbs!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Beginner's Guide to Backpacking on a Budget!

Here is a hobby that I haven't shared on the blog, probably because it has nothing to do with greenhouses! It does fall under the self-sufficiency category, however.  Recently, it was brought to my attention that a lot of people would like to try backpack camping but don't really know where to start.  Furthermore, it's expensive in the beginning! Well I can lend my experience to help you get lost in the woods fairly cheaply.

      A. Purpose: My philosophy on hiking, backpacking and backwoods camping
      B. Pack, shelter, sleeping gear
      C. Clothing
      D. Food
      E. Cooking gear
      F. Water
      G. First-aid and safety gear
      H. Miscellaneous

The main problem with backwoods camping (as opposed to a standard modern car campsite) is that you have to carry EVERYTHING you need on your back.  There are, however, many rewards: you are not limited to roads and seasons, primitive camping is often free, there are less regulations, and you can see some pretty impressive nature and avoid crowds. Outfitting a backpack that weighs around 30 pounds is ideal so that you aren't uncomfortable or easily fatigued.  But how to achieve this?  And better yet, how to do it cheaply?

1st, Backpacking is PRIMITIVE.  You should accept that you will have very few creature comforts, but that doesn't mean that you need to be uncomfortable.  Don't forget that the whole point of camping is to leave the comfort of home and enjoy the outdoors.  I never really understood why so many people try to re-create their living rooms next to their car in the forest!

2nd,  Nature provides things like chairs, soft bedding and especially water. With a little planning and effort you can enjoy these comforts without carrying them.

3rd, You don't need half of the things you think you need!  Sure, there are a few specialized items, but not nearly the list you will find on some of the backpacking sites.  I will start with the essential items and then show you some tips and tricks to making your experience painless.

4th, and most important: There are very few items that you "may need just in case" so leave them home!

NOTE:  I am aware of the various survivalist, minimalist and bushcrafting techniques that can take your gear list down to virtually nothing.  The purpose of this entry is to help a beginner learn to enjoy the woods, not scrape by on bugs and pine tea while wet and shivering through the night! This gear list is a healthy middle ground between minimalist camping and the yuppie outfitters' recommendations.


1. Backpack.  A good comfortable pack is the most important thing you can buy. Even short hikes can be ruined by an uncomfortable or overweight pack and you should consider spending the money on a good one. New packs start at around $100.  If buying used, check closely for wear and tear, as a small rip or abrasion will grow very fast under the stress of your gear.

SUPER DEAL: MOLLE Rucksack: I have found a high quality, comfortable pack for cheap!  You can buy a used army surplus MOLLE rucksack (65L) with an external frame for around $60. Make sure it is complete with frame, shoulder straps, waist belt and rucksack. Sometimes you can find it with 2 side "sustainment" pouches included. It is on the heavy side (8 pounds I think), but it is huge and designed to carry 200 pounds! In my opinion, the versatility of this pack is its greatest quality.  It is a 4-piece system so if any of the parts breaks it can be replaced individually.  The sack can be removed leaving the frame to be worn as a pack board.  There are tons of add-on pouches and clips available to customize the pack exactly the way you want it.  If you are just starting out, this is an economical choice and it is very comfortable. You can always upgrade later and resell it for the same price.

2. Shelter.  You have several options but I would recommend that a beginner buy a lightweight solo tent.  This is another item that you probably don't want to skimp on.  REI brand has some nice solo tents. If you are feeling adventurous, and if bugs are not a problem, you could go even lighter with a tarp and ground cloth or a bivy sack.  Lighter yet, if you don't have to worry about rain you could get away with a rustic lean-to with a ground sheet or a bed of boughs, grass or leaves.

Option 1: $$$ Solo tent. A tent is the most costly and heaviest option, but it is the easiest and most comfortable. Your tent should be no heavier than 4 pounds. Try for 2-1/2 to 3 pounds. In the winter I would leave the screen insert home and just carry the poles and rain fly with footprint.

SUPER DEAL: REI Passage 1 tent.  If you wait for a sale you can get it for around $100.

Option 2: $$ Tarp tent, 2 pounds. In a bug-free environment (like in winter) you can sleep under one tarp and on top of another tarp. This is less than half the price of a tent, around $60. Search for a silicone impregnated nylon ultralight tarp approx. 8'x10' with many tie-down loops (at least 3 on each short side) or grommets.  It should weigh around a pound.You can use sticks or trekking poles to construct a simple A-frame or you can suspend it from two trees using some paracord.  For a ground sheet, anything waterproof will do and should measure about 4'x8'.  It can literally be a sheet of plastic. Tyvek HomeWrap is another option.  Silver emergency blankets work too but can tear easily if you're not careful.  If you want a product that will last and can be staked down, search for a "tent footprint" and choose your style.  Less than 8 oz is a good weight to shoot for when shopping footprints.

VERSATILE DUAL-PURPOSE ITEM: A lightweight tent footprint that is relatively rectangular in shape and that has grommets or tie loops can double as a tarp (or a windwall) in extreme weather.

Option 3: $ Bivy sack. $50, <2 pounds.  If you aren't claustrophobic, a bivy sack is the lightest self-contained sleeping system and requires no set up.  Many guys I know choose this option as it is the lightest and cheapest and completely waterproof.  Some of the better ones have screen netting for your face. The cons become obvious as soon as bad weather shows up: while you stay dry inside, there is no place to store your gear. Getting changed or adjusted while inside can be tricky, especially in a rain or snow storm. This problem can be remedied by partnering the bivy with a small tarp roof. I do not recommend this method in warm weather as it gets hot and damp with no hope of salvation except to climb out, which defeats the purpose of the shelter!

SUPER DEAL: Again, army surplus offers a very high quality Gore-tex bivy for around $40, and while on the heavy side (2.2#), it is a great product and will remain waterproof even after the heaviest use.

VERSATILE DUAL-PURPOSE ITEM: Equinox Ultralight Extension Poncho Tarp, $70 It can be worn instead of a rain coat (in mild weather) and used as part of a bivy shelter system at night.  At 9.5 oz, I always carry it as a backup in case either my tent or raincoat should get damaged.

A sil-nylon poncho tarp strung between two trees.  Leaves and sticks close in the sides.

3. Sleeping bag.  This is a hard one to recommend.  It really depends on your plans and your preferences.  I am a warm sleeper.  I have a lightweight fleece bag for the summer, a 20-degree down Kelty for Spring and fall, and a 5-degree down Slumberjack for Dec/Mar. Everybody has their preferences, so you can read the reviews and take your pick.  Try to find a bag around 4 pounds.

SUPER DEAL: Teton Sports Tracker +5 Ultralight Sleeping Bag, 4.1#, $70.  I don't know much about this bag except for reviews on several different sites, but they all seem positive.  This is a great deal if the bag is warm!

4. Sleeping pad.  Yes, you should take one unless you are sure there are plenty of soft materials in the woods to make bedding.  It insulates you from the cold of the ground. A cheap foam pad will work OK, but on your second trip you will probably upgrade to an inflatable.  

SUPER DEAL: Therm-a-rest Backpacker 3/4 length.  $35. It's only an inch thick and weighs 20 oz., but it provides a good amount of softness and insulation.  To cushion and insulate my feet when I sleep, I usually keep extra clothes in the foot of my sleeping bag.

And that takes care of shelter.  Yes, that's all you NEED!

REVIEW OF PACK/SHELTER/SLEEPING:  Pack, used-$60, Bivy, used-$40, Sleeping Bag, new-$70, Inflatable Mattress, new-$35, Poncho tarp (optional but recommended), $70.

TOTAL SHELTER: $205-$275

C. CLOTHING that you will actually need! 

Here is where most people go way overboard.  Backpacking is not a weekend staying at the holiday in.  You are not going to smell good after about a night in the woods, so don't try!  You don't need to change your shirts or underwear each day.  Keep a fresh set of clothes in the car for when you finish and head to the diner.

The good news is that you probably already have most of these items, assuming you already spend time outdoors.  I will give pointers below.

Here is a good list to go by when packing.  Of course, the vast majority of the clothing is worn, with only a few items in your pack.  You don't need more than this, and in many cases you may need much less!

Wicking Tee Shirt (1)
Thermal top

Down Jacket

Rain Coat
Rain Pants
Convertible pants

Synthetic pants


Synthetic thermal-lined pants

Thermal bottoms

Merino wool hiking socks (2 pair)

Lightweight hiking socks (2 pair)


Hiking Boots
sandals / crocs

Down camp slippers

*As conditions permit or require.  A fleece/sweater/flannel (not all 3, pick one!) is NOT necessary in warm weather.  Remember that your rain coat serves as a layer not just to be used during rain! Rain pants are only necessary when periods of prolonged or heavy rain are expected or cold rain.  The occasional light shower in mild weather will not be a problem as long as you have fast-drying or DWR-coated pants.  Sandals, crocs, and down slippers are only necessary if your boots get wet (this can happen from long hikes through sweating) or if your feet are tired after strenuous activity. Down slippers are good to have if you will be camping in the snow.

1. Wicking tee shirt: $5 at Walmart.
2. Down jacket should weigh less than a pound.  These are really pricey at the camping stores, but you can find them cheap.
SUPER DEAL: Hawke and Co. packable down jacket, 11 oz, $35.  This year Sam's club had them for $25.  They are not the highest quality and they definitely won't take you up Everest, but as a nice lightweight layer it will keep you warm!
3. Rain coat and pants.  You should spend some money on these items.  My rain jacket is the single most important piece of outerwear, and not just in the rain.  It is a crucial outer layer for all conditions except when you are sweating. I wear it more than anything else, and I lay it under my head for added ground protection when I sleep under a tarp.  I recommend buying a size larger so it can fit over all other layers. Look for ultralight packable waterproof/breathable.  One of my favorite companies is Red Ledge. You can find a nice jacket for around $50.
4. Convertible pants may look dumb, but they eliminate the need to bring both shorts and pants. Make sure they are fast-drying, not cotton.
5. Hiking socks: I wear Smartwool.  They are the most expensive but oh so worth it! Still warm even when wet, and the most comfortable on the market. Two pairs are all you need.  One to wear, one to dry, then switch.
6. Gloves:  Even in the cold of winter and in snow I am fine to wear $2 jersey gloves from the hardware store.  Leather work gloves are also nice because you can stick your hand in the fire without getting burned.  By the way, bruised, cut and burned hands are probably the most common minor injury on backpacking trips, so I have gotten used to wearing gloves around the camp.
7. Boots: You decide.  If you are planning to hike many miles, get a good pair, make sure they fit perfectly, and break them in before you go.  If you're not going too far, wear what you like.  I've gone out in my everyday New Balance cross trainers and been happiest!


A cooler is not really an option when backpacking, and most people hate the idea of this!  But it isn't the end of the world. Of course, if the temperature is below 40, you don't need to worry.  But perishable food weighs a ton!

Remember that the average sensible human male eats 2500 calories.  Double that number if you want, because you will be expending a lot of energy!  Most people bring way too much food and the wrong types. It weighs down the backpack and doesn't get eaten in the end. Plan your meals: breakfast lunch and dinner for each day you plan to be out. Here are some tips to help you keep your food around 2-3 pounds.

1. Dry foods. Nomads have been drying meat for thousands of years for three simple reasons: it's well-preserved, less to carry and packed with calories.  The snacks are the easy part, but when it comes to a good hearty meal at dinnertime, go for the type where you "just add water." Dry soups (nothing canned), noodle packets, couscous, dry pasta alfredo and the like, instant rice and dry mashed potatoes are all great suggestions for lightweight camping food.  The commercial pack foods like Mountain House and Backpackers' Pantry are just fancy ramen packets that require boiling water and stirring.  I think they are delicious, and they are nice to carry without bulk or spilling, but a budget-minded camper can spend much less at the supermarket and still eat well or better.

The "mac and cheese aisle" in the supermarket is a great place to start for lightweight meals.

Dry sauce packets can be added to Ramen noodles for delicious campsite pasta that cooks up quickly.

2. MREs are a good stand-by and taste pretty good.  I usually take the packaged cookies, crackers and condiments, and leave the most of the heavy meals at home.

3. Coffee is an art form to most people! Do your research on campsite coffee and decide the method best for you.  I now carry packets of instant Starbucks latte.  That way I don't have to fuss with cream and sugar. Shake it cold in a water bottle for iced coffee without the ice.

SUPER DEAL: If fresh coffee is important to you and your group, impress them with a fresh pot from a real percolator.  A 9-cup aluminum coffee percolator is lightweight and costs around $20. A plus to this is that it can be suspended over the fire from a simple tripod or a spit.

4. Real campfire food.  I don't think I've ever gone hiking without a big chunk of meat and some fresh vegetables to roast over the fire on the first night.  It is a luxury that is well worth the weight.  Haha. We usually go with a pack of Italian sausages or brats with a green pepper and an onion.  Sometimes we do potatoes (regular or sweet) baked in foil, Just remember that you have to figure out a way to cook it, which is why we stick to kabob foods. Before I go, I freeze the meat in a zip-lock, then wrap it in some paper towels and another zip lock, then bury it inside some clothes or my tent in my pack and it stays insulated and cold all day without a cooler.

5. Extra emergency food. You don't need it.  If you do happen to get lost or disabled and get stuck in the woods, I doubt you will starve to death in a few days.  If it makes you feel better, throw a couple of energy bars in your food kit.  I still have mine I bought 6 years ago.


Less is more in this department.  A full mess kit is unnecessary.  For years now, all the backpackers I know carry 2 items: a small pot with a lid and a spoon.  That's it.  No cup, no bowl, no fork, no thermos (God no!) and it's not a big deal.  Some people carry a stove, and I recommend this for beginners, but a stove has become something I leave home most of the time, especially in warmer weather.  The campfire is all the stove you need and I'm not a very picky eater.

1. Lightweight kettle with lid.  It will serve as bowl, mug, plate, teapot, coffee pot, and storage for the gas can.  Just rinse and wipe it out and it's ready for the next meal. The old standby is MSR's Titan titanium kettle ($60) at 4.5 oz, but there are many cheaper options out there.

SUPER DEAL: Stanley Adventure Camp Cook Set, $15.00. A nice-sized pot with a lid, handle and it comes with 2 insulated cups.

2. Spoon.  Metal or plastic, but make sure it won't break. I was taught to clip it to my jacket in camp so it's never far from my mouth!  Seriously, leave the fork and knife at home.  Bring a plastic spoon as a backup (MRE spoons are tough enough) and keep it in your emergency kit, away from your food and the rest of your cookware.

3. Stove and gas.  The MSR Pocket Rocket ($35) has been my choice for years. It burns small canisters of 4-season gas blend and boils water very quickly.  Some people claim failure in extreme cold temperatures, but I just keep it warm near the campfire (not too close) or in my sleeping bag and it stays pressurized. There are three sizes of gas canister; buy the smallest one if you can find it because they last a while.

An MSR Titan kettle with small gas can and various small items used when cooking.

SUPER DEAL: Etekcity Ultralight Stove, $10.  I just found it and I haven't field-tested it, but here is the initial side-by-side comparison with the pocket rocket.

Pros for the Etekcity:

  • Price.  For $10, it's worth the gamble, and if it fails then you would have the backup of the old campfire. 
  • Built-in igniter.  No more searching for matches!
  • Smaller, slightly lighter, fits inside most kettles, less awkward shape of case. 
Cons for the Etekcity:
  • Appears to be less stable and slightly more flimsy.  I would be very careful with a heavy pot of water, but boiling less than a quart shouldn't cause an issue.
  • Flimsy carrying case.  I would be very careful to pack the stove in a place where it can't get crushed.  I never worried about that with the Pocket Rocket.
  • Not field-tested.  Although the Etekcity performed fine in my kitchen, I can say that the Pocket Rocket works well in all seasons down to about 15F and flawlessly after ten years.

4. Serious campfire cooks.  If you want to cook real food in the backcountry (I don't blame you) then you may want more of a frying pan/pot.  In that case I recommend the MSR Alpine Stowaway pot, $20-$30 depending on size.  It has a locking lid that is good for stowing fragile items and food.

Left to right: MSR Stowaway 1.6L, Stanley Adventure Camp, MSR Titan, Coleman Aluminum Coffee Percolator.


If you are going backpacking for the first time, CAMP NEAR WATER.  Preferably a mountain spring or stream. Buy a backpacking filter and drink away.  If you are worried about drinking stream water, boil it for a few minutes, but a filter alone should do the trick.  That way you don't need to carry water!  A gallon of water weighs 8 pounds, and you will probably drink more than that if you don't want a headache.  Figure on a gallon per person per day, depending on how much you use to cook.

1. Water bottles. Nalgene bottles are bulky and heavy compared to Platypus bladders ($8 each), so I recommend the latter.  I always carry two Platypus 2-liter bags and a 1-liter canteen.  Although the Platypus are tough and can withstand boiling and freezing, I have broken one by dropping it on a sharp rock, so I always carry a hard canteen as a safety measure, but a lot of lightweight hikers just carry clear plastic water bottles (or Gatorade wide-mouth) from the convenience store. So you don't really need to spend any money here.  You definitely don't need the whole hydration system with the tube and bite valve and clamp. We all start out with it and end up ditching it as unnecessary weight.

2. Water filter.  Get one!

SUPER DEAL: Sawyer mini filter system, $20, 3 ounces. It has a .01 micron filter (industry standard), comes with a bag you fill with dirty water, a straw and a cleaning brush for the filter.  You fill the bag, screw on the filter and squirt into into a clean bottle, or drink through the straw.  Claims to treat 100,000 gallons of water.

SUPER DEAL 2: Waterbasics bag-to-bag filter kit. $30. Essentially the same inline filter style, but this kit comes with some handy items.  You basically fill the LARGE untreated bag and hang it from a tree, then let gravity do the work carrying water through tubing, through the filter and into the large treated bag. gravity filters are worth the extra weight (9oz) in that you don't have to do any work or worry about accidental contamination through dripping. The Waterbasics GRN filter only claims an 80 gallon lifespan, but a replacement filter is only $12.


1. First aid is a very personal thing.  You will take what makes you feel comfortable, but you should probably analyze your length of trip, realize that everyone else has a first-aid kit too, and cut down the pre-packaged store kit to half its original size. Mine weighs 3.5 oz. and contains some band-aids (just a few of each, but especially knuckle and fingertip types), a roll of tape and some large gauze pads, antibiotic ointment, a small Ace bandage, and plenty of my favorite pain and allergy medication.  I find that I use Advil and Benadryl more than anything when I'm in the woods. I also keep a contact lens case and some drops in my kit. Hopefully you have these items in your medicine cabinet and you don't need to buy a specialized (and overpriced) kit.  Just thrown them in a zip-lock and squeeze air out!

2. Safety needs are simple:  food, water, and warmth (fire, clothing and shelter) which you already have covered.  I keep waterproof matches in several different places, in case one set gets dropped or forgotten. Another handy item is a fire-starting fuel.  I like the Coghlan's Fire Sticks.  They are essentially napalm soaked sawdust in the shape of a pretzel rod, but they are light, cheap, waterproof and burn long and hot enough to light wet twigs and get a fire going without a whole lot of work.  As for shelter, it's a good idea to have something to patch your tent (duct tape wrapped around a trekking pole) and a waterproof sheet to keep rain off in the off-chance that your tent is lost or destroyed.  A space blanket (emergency mylar thermal blanket) would work well if you had to build a lean-to, and weighing only an ounce or so they take up virtually no space in your emergency kit.


H. MISCELLANEOUS (but very important!)

1. The knife.  I take a Ka-Bar USMC every time.  I don't think I have ever not taken it.  It's big, heavy, full-tang, holds an edge forever, and can chop trees and slice an onion with ease.  A Leatherman is practical too if you prefer, and a good pocket knife works, but you can't drive stakes with it.  Ooh, I should talk about stakes now.

2. Stakes and rope.  Your tent will have stakes, and they will be very light.  If you are tarping it, it's probably a good idea to bring 8 of them.  I don't like the V or Y-shaped ones because they bend too easily.  I like the Easton aluminum 8-inch.  I also take about 100 feet of paracord, cut into sections. 40 feet for hanging a bear-bag from a tree limb, and 10 six-foot sections for rigging a tarp and a clothes line. There are lighter and less bulky options for cord out there.

3. Headlamp.  Hands-free is key in the woods.  Buy a cheap LED ($20) and put fresh batteries in each time you go.

4. Toiletries.  Brushing my teeth is important to me, deodorant is not.  Camp soap in summer, wet-wipes (antibacterial) in winter.  Paper towels instead of toilet paper.  Bandana instead of camp towel. I've shared too much, but you get the point.  Keep it minimal, keep it light.

5. Camp chair or foam pad?  That all depends on how far I am hiking.  If I go far, getting tired and achy, I couldn't survive without my Therm-a-rest trekker chair ($30)!  If it's a short trip, just something between me and the wet ground.

6. Pack cover. This is a good thing to have.  It will set you back $30, but you will use it for more than just covering your pack. It keeps your loose gear together, out of the dirt and dry around the campsite and protects your gear inside the tent vestibule at night while keeping them in reach for easy access.

7. Fleece stuff sack.  Fill with clothes at night and use as a pillow. The older I get, the softer my bed needs to be!

8. Carabiner for tossing the bear-bag line into a tree.

9. Trash bag, large heavy duty. Put your clothes and sleeping bag inside, then into your backpack, to protect from wetness.

10. Hat and sunglasses.


GRAND TOTAL: $365-$435

Hopefully you can get under this price by shopping eBay and Craigs.  It's not bad considering all the specialized equipment you need.  Happy trails!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Zucchino rampicante was a pleasant surprise!

AKA tromboncino!  Definitely a favorite this year.  Fast-growing, huge yield (10 fruits per plant) and a delicious pumpkin flavor.

I did not try them as green summer zucchini, but being more of a winter squash it wouldn't surprise me that the green squash would have a different flavor.

Anyway, I let them mature to a deep tan, like a butternut or a neck pumpkin, with bright orange flesh and a very strong pumpkin aroma and flavor.

I made ravioli to the following measurements:

Zucchetta Ravioli Filling

1 medium trombone squash or other butternut type (2 cups puree)
1/2 stick butter, softened
1 t, fresh sage, finely chopped

Peel, seed and cut squash into 2 inch chunks.  Lay on a baking sheet and bake at 350 for 1 hour or until very soft, but not dried out or darkened. Allow to cool in a strainer, then puree. Add butter, sage, salt and pepper and mix until incorporated.  Use in ravioli or other filled pasta.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The smart way to process tomatoes!

So I've been looking for an easier way to prepare my tomatoes for freezing. Forget canning, not for me! 
So for several years I have been doing the scald peel quarter seed chop technique and it is very time consuming.
This year I got smart and bought the kitchenaid vegetable strainer attachment. 

Amazing! Here is the first round of tomatoes, about 15 lbs:

No more boiling! Just chop the whole tomato into smaller chunks, throw them into the hopper, jam them down into the auger with the stick thing and the machine does the rest!
The purée comes out the bottom and the seeds skin and tough parts are forced out the front! Very little waste, no juice lost!

Then into the zip locks and trays for stacking in the freezer! I got these shallow trays with lids for free from the local fishmonger.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Fast growing gourds!

Snake gourds are ornamental. My son wants to paint them up for Halloween.  Last year's didn't sprout, so I tried again
And this one is climbing to the sky at about 6" per day!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Tomatoes are over my head!

Beefsteaks are doing well! I'm going to credit the drippers. I prune away the lower branches and suckers and keep each plant on two vines.