March 24, 2015

Best garden tool for 2014: Austrian Scythe



My favorite new garden tool from 2014 is an Austrian style scythe from Scythe Supply. Over the winter I read The Scythe Book and watched some internet scythe videos, of scythe wielders beating men with gas powered trimmers in competition, barefoot young ladies elegantly and speedily mowing meadows, and the like. So I ordered myself a scythe outfit, mostly for cutting the grass in the front of my house which is unpleasant to do with a normal lawn mower. The kids thought this was awesome and were really excited to try it out.


My scythe is naturally much too big for them, but I started looking into child size scythes.

I used the scythe for a few minutes in the grain maze area, to cut down mixed wheat and clover,


the second round of buckwheat, and the sorghum straw in late fall.


Using the scythe to cut grass around the yard was enjoyable.

Ultimately I would love to use it exclusively to cut the grass, but for now I also have a Fiskars reel mower, which is a vast improvement on the gas mower I used to use. I'm happy to report the gas mower did not come out of the basement once last year, and I should probably sell it or give it away. Now that we have less grass in total and it is less lumpy, using the reel mower is no problem if I do it every week. It only takes about 15 minutes to do the back grass and it is quiet and not terribly hazardous. So I often do it on the way out the door to work at 7am, or on the weekend with the kids out playing. They like pushing it around too, and I'm looking forward to the day when they can mow the lawn instead of me! None of this was possible with the gas mower, which is loud and a little dangerous. The reel mower is easier to maintain and doesn't need petroleum fuel.

The scythe was a huge improvement over the gas mower for the front yard. The front has steep slopes going down to the bushes at the junction with the public sidewalk. For some reason grass does not grow well in much of this area, so it is an unhappy mixture of weeds and bare dirt. This is miserable with a gas mower because it sucks up the dirt and makes a huge, irritating dust cloud, so I usually would wear a respirator and hearing protection when mowing the front with the machine. It was annoying to lug the mower up and down the slopes, and I worried about losing my footing and ending up short a few toes if my foot went under the mower deck.

Now I can mow the front with the scythe in about 15 minutes of quiet, pleasant work. My beginner level skill with the tool results in grass (or weeds) of not as uniform height as the gas mower used to produce, but it is good enough and far easier. I can do it in the early morning just before going to work, though I have gotten some puzzled looks by folks passing by at 7am on a weekday. The scythe works better on the moister vegetation of the early morning.

The scythe makes a wonderful complement to the reel mower too. I use the scythe to cut around edges in the back instead of a gas string trimmer (another two cycle machine I am happy to report did not come out in 2014). And the scythe neatly solves a typical challenge with a reel mower; if the growth gets away from you the reel mower just pushes the grass over instead of cutting it evenly. If this happens I can just mow that week with the scythe. It doesn't leave as even a surface as the reel mower, but it does a decent job, especially on grass that is taller than optimal for reel mowing. Then the next week it can get evened out with the reel mower.

I probably only used the scythe a total of a few hours last year, so I have only used the whetstone so far and have not peened the blade. Maybe I'll bust out my peening jig next winter to freshen up the blade geometry.

March 10, 2015

Making LED Grow Lights


I want to grow leeks and alpine strawberries this year, and would like to try tomatoes and a few other things from seeds rather than seedlings. The only convenient place to start seeds at my house would be the basement. It is dank and dim, so some grow lights were in order.

March 3, 2015

Felt Legion Cap


One day last fall, I could not find my felt gnome hat I made a few years ago. With cold weather closing in and no silly looking home made felt hat to wear, I urgently set to work to make replacement. 

February 21, 2015

Urban Micro Orchard: Year 1



The narrow strip of bed was planned and built, covering about 15 square meters of bed area, or roughly equivalent to the area covered by one mature semi-dwarf apple tree. The back fence was put up, and the seven apple trees and a bunch of companions were planted.

February 10, 2015

Compost House


A key element in running a bigger garden is dealing with larger amounts of compost and other bulk materials like hay and mulch. I'm enamored with the no-till, compost heavy methods espoused by Lee Reich in Weedless Gardening, and plan to use that approach as a starting point for how I manage our growing areas moving forward.

Our old compost got cleared out when we renovated the backyard, so I could start with a fresh slate. I tried to envision a user friendly, easy to build system sufficient for our newly expanded gardening ambitions.

January 23, 2015

Canvas oilcloth overmitts sealed with beef fat, beeswax, and linseed oil


I commute by bicycle 36km roundtrip to work most days, year round. Being in New England, some specialized gear is called for in the winter months. With a good layering system, carbide spiked ice tires, and a sanguine attitude, the hour or so it takes me each way is almost reasonable. It is nice to get some fresh air, have time to think, and it is my only form of exercise.

One key element to the winter ensemble is overmitts. For the past 10 years or so I've been using some gore-tex ones Becky bought long ago for bike commuting. Overmitts are great, because you can put them over light gloves when it is not that cold, or over heavy mitts when conditions are frigid. They typically have a long gauntlet section that can lap up over the jacket sleeve to keep wind out. These ones were roomy enough that in very cold weather I could work my thumbs up out of the thumb holes and keep them in the same compartments as my other fingers to keep them warm, while riding. All in all, very satisfactory.

Unfortunately as the weather got colder late this fall, I could not find the overmitts anywhere. Arrgh! Being at the end of the third year last fall of the No Buying Clothes challenge, this was a serious problem since I didn't just want to purchase a new set from Amazon like a normal person. 

January 6, 2015

CNC cut Espalier Apple Trellis


One of the central elements that persisted throughout our many iterations of designs for the back yard was apple trees espaliered on the back fence. Having expended a lot of money and time to finally arrive at 7 baby apple trees planted in a strip of soil behind a retaining wall, positioned in front of a hopefully long lasting fence, it was time to build a trellis to train them along.

December 23, 2014

Gingerbread Houses


We don't necessarily do gingerbread every year, but this year we did the full exercise and it was a good experience.

December 16, 2014

Maid Marian Dress




Violet said she wanted to be Maid Marian for halloween. I said Yes, let's Make it!

December 11, 2014

Attempts at a 50 year fence


Last year when we did our backyard renovation, I put a lot of energy (and cost) into the back fence. We are planning to espalier apple trees against the fence, and the 10-20 year life expectancy of even a pressure treated fence post did not seem compatible with this idea. Replacing an in ground 2.4m post with apples grown all onto the fence sounds difficult and probably damaging to the trees. Dwarf apple trees might last 50 years, so I began thinking about how to build a fence that would have a comparable life span, or at least make replacement of fence elements less disruptive.