Monday, August 27, 2012

Toad Houses

Variations on the toad house theme.
       Several months ago someone on facebook shared some pictures of toad houses. I thought them both lovely and intriguing and decided to make something similar. As so often happens with artsy projects, my houses turned out looking not at all like the ones shared way back when. These are mine; that is, they are my own "vision" as opposed to copies of what someone else did.
Stacked log house with log and mortar roof.
      I wanted to use mortar, stone and wood as my building materials, keeping the houses simple and utilitarian as well as sturdy and attractive. My first efforts were too cumbersome and crude. The mortar tended to sag as I added stones so I made a cardboard form covered with duct tape to make it sort of waterproof. This worked fairly well with the stone houses, but not with the stacked log ones. There wasn't enough mortar to hold the logs together. Since the log houses are the ones I like best, I plan on making hardware clothe forms instead of cardboard. I'm hoping the thick wire will support the house and, with the mortar oozing through the wire, with give better adhesion and support so the thing doesn't fall apart when handled.
       I've considered all sorts of variations on these houses using these materials. The lighthouse was one of the first I tried, and naturally, the most difficult. I used a plastic cup as a form, building one side at a time and turning the cup only after each side dried, then adding the top portions.
       Roofs remain a challenge. If I don't complete the entire house at one time, before the mortar sets, it lacks strength and falls apart. For a log roof, I've found that gluing on a plywood roof support in two pieces works better than attaching the roof directly to the body of the house. I use Liquid Nails. Gorilla Glue might work too, but I haven't tried it. For one house I opted for half a roof. I put in a floor to hold dirt or a potted plant for a green roof effect. The "floor" leaks, so the plant won't get waterlogged. Another roof option is a solid mortar roof constructed over hardware clothe. 
       For the wood in these domiciles, I'm using seasoned oak. The logs in the walls are all of three quarters of a inch long. My spouse had fun making tiny roofing shingles, which I've yet to use. Love the miniaturization!
       I've been so busy with yard work and food preservation that I've had no time for weeks to work on this project! I have thought about it a whole bunch, though. I'm looking forward to making some with chimneys, some on the roof, others along the side. I may wind up with a whole village of these things! If so, I hope they'll be inhabited.
       I keep expecting the grandchildren to inquire about making their own toad house. Hasn't happened yet. Most of the children may be too young. How young is too young for a project like this?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Three Sisters - It's a Jungle Out There!

Pumpkin vines crowd space between cornstalks.
      Thinking about planting the Three Sisters yourself? I'm here to offer some, ah, food for thought.
       Way back when, before Europeans discovered the New World, the native American Indians raised corn, beans and pumpkins/squash together as mutually beneficial plants, but what they raised is not what most of us today want to serve at our dinner table.  The corn was dry field corn, what we feed now to livestock, not succulent sweet corn to be picked at just the right moment in its development.  The beans would have been dry beans that could be stored and used during the winter months. Most of us who grow beans in our backyard gardens don't have room for rows of dry beans. When we think "bean," we think "green beans." Beans are a part of this guild to fix nitrogen and twine up cornstalks to help stabilize this tall, shallow-rooted plant, so bush beans don't fully qualify here. Consider what it means to have a vine growing around a cornstalk. That vine can (oh, yes, this happens!) wrap around an ear of corn and snug it to the stalk. To harvest the corn, you have to disturb (cut, untangle, whatever) the vine, which will affect your bean harvest. Meanwhile, the pumpkins and/or squash are spreading through the corn, making walking among them difficult without damaging--something.
Sweet corn grown in hills among the Three Sisters.
       So, no, I don't recommend that the average gardener grow the Three Sisters in her backyard garden. If you want decorative corn or corn to grind for cornmeal, and dry beans like pinto or navy, the Three Sisters is a great idea. I do, however, think that growing sweet corn in hills rather than rows is also a great idea. You may recall from my prior post that hills are spaced three feet apart and planted with three or four seeds each. I planted 110 hills, each with a small spadeful of partially composted manure. From what I heard from other gardeners this year, many gardens failed, due to the strange weather, particularly the water shortage. We harvested nearly 300 beautiful ears (okay, so the coons got a few of those). We left many more to dry on the stalks as the rows became too overgrown to work in.
       If I harvest any beans from my Three Sisters they will be for use as seeds as I cannot reach them to harvest for fresh use. I don't have any idea how the pumpkins and squash in the center of the patch are doing as I don't want to force my way in there to look. I did have borers on one of the pumpkin plants near the edge of the patch. I cut the vine and, I hope, killed the worms, then covered the damaged vine with damp dirt. It hasn't greened up very well, but neither has it died. Not being able to check and treat for borers is a definite handicap!
       So, what do you think: will you try planting the Three Sisters?


Trellis as Window Awning (Revisited)

       Greenery now shades the western facing kitchen windows! In fact, the green growth is fast obscuring the view. But there is a bright side to this development. I'll get to that in a moment.
       I planted morning glories, two types of vining beans, and moonflowers. To provide growing lines for these, I threaded binder twine through U-shaped staples hammered into a large black locust log laid parallel to the building. My spouse showed me (later, on another project) how to string lines. Instead of threading it through the staple, put a loop through the staple, stick a stick through the loop and pull the string tight. Faster, easier.
       Neither the morning glories nor the moonflowers thrived. The beans are doing fine, though, especially the variety with red flowers. And it is these flowers that attract the hummingbirds that entertain us daily now, only two or three feet away beyond the glass! It's rare that we have a meal without a visit from at least one bird. Yesterday, two showed up at the same time. They were not pleased! They glared at each other with no more than six inches between pointed beaks, then flew off to perhaps settle the matter, away from the dinner table (theirs as well as ours). I thought that rather good manners on their part, as I've heard that hummingbirds are particularly hostile to others intruding on their territory.
       The beans look fine, but are annuals. I prefer perennials. With this in mind, I asked my spouse what he thought of growing hops. Of course, he mentioned the possibility of making our own beer. Hm. He checked a seed catalog, and read the description to me, which declared the plant perfect for use as a screen and easy to train on a trellis. I bought two hops plants at a local farmers market. I'm somewhat concerned that they will provide too much of a screen. They require sturdier support than beans, but I think the trellis will manage as is.
       I planted morning glories beside a small arbor next to the milkhouse and they're growing well, but have not bloomed yet. I hope that will happen before cooler weather kills them. Right now the temperature out there exceeds 90 degrees, which is why I'm sitting here typing instead of out there working.
       I could use some feedback on the experience of others with vining plants on trellises--beans, hops, or whatever!