Raised beds with pressure treated lumber?!

Pressure Treated?!

If you’ve ever looked into raised beds, you’ve likely looked for the materials to build them out of and, if wood, probably come across mixed advice when those discussions center around using pressure-treated (PT) wood.

Out of the abundance of caution, we’ve always steered clear of pressure treated wood – that is until recently. We decided we’d do our best to safeguard against what some worry about and see how it goes. We can’t help but believe that fresh produce grown in pressure-treated beds is any worse than most of the contexts where food comes from commercially. Furthermore, gardens near populations where pollution is a problem likely pose a higher risk of causing health issues.

To be clear, we’re NOT recommending you do this. We just decided to give it a shot and describe here how we built our beds. These instructions would be just as useful for non-treated lumber – they’d just last a lot longer.

Materials:

We started with these nifty raised bed blocks from Home Depot:

Next, we purchased our pressure-treated lumber. We were aiming to make long beds that were as wide as possible but still allow adults to reach the center of the bed from the edges. We ended up making beds that were approximately 5′ x 15′ and about 16.5″ deep (three courses of lumber) followed by another 1.5″ cap layer, so 18″.

Each bed required:

  • Beds
    • (12) corner blocks
    • (2) 1/2″ by 10′ rebar cut into 4 x 36″ pieces.
      • This leaves about 18″ of support in the ground.
    • (8) pressure treated 2″ x 6″ x 16′
      • 3 for each of the long sides
      • 2 for the long sides of the top frame
    • (4) pressure treated 2″ x 6″ x 10′
      • 3 cut at about half to form the short sides
      • 1 cut at about half to form the short sides of the top frame
    • Misc scrap wood for supports and accouterments
    • Screws
    • A dozen or so standard poly feed bags (scraps from animal feed).
    • Staples
    • Wood chips
    • Soil
  • Waterers:
    • (3) 10′ lengths of 4″ solid drain pipe (with flared ends)
    • (3) 90° drain pipe or schedule 40 PVC elbows
    • (2) 4″ PVC caps
    • PVC glue (primer probably not necessary here)

Tools needed

  • Circular saw
  • Small sledgehammer
  • Digging tools for leveling
  • Cordless driver (for screws)
  • Tape measure
  • Level
  • Tri-square
  • Stapler
  • Tractor (filling 15′ x 5′ beds without a tractor is no fun!)

The process

We live on a mountain. Nothing is easy when you live on a mountain, except falling down the mountain or finding runoff water where it ought not be! Garden on a mountain long enough and you’re likely to have one leg grow longer than the other 😉

Our first step in building the beds was to excavate flat areas for our beds. Oh, what fun. We used a combination of a backhoe, shovels, and many curse words.

Once excavated, we placed the corner blocks, leveled and plumbed them to one another, then drove rebar into the ground through the first block of each corner, leaving ample rebar for the two additional courses. You don’t pound that all the way in until the bed is complete and ready for the top “frame”.

We then proceeded to place the lumber into the “grooves” of the blocks. They just sit in there in slots – no screws or nails. We added three “courses” to get the depth we desired. We used scrap wood to cut braces to screw vertically to the long sides to keep them tightly together (see two in the picture below).

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We used the scraps cut off of the top layer (45 degree cuts) to make side supports as seen on the end here. We fastened it all together with screws.

Now, we still have our concerns about pressure-treated lumber and want to minimize exposure as much as we can…

We have a massive amount of used feed bags so we decided to line the bed with them to keep the soil from having any direct contact with the pressure-treated wood.

Unfortunately, we got the idea for that after we put the top frame of the beds on, so we took the top frame off, stapled them to the top edge of the last course of the bed, and also to the bottom of the sides, making it nice and tight. We did it this way to keep the feed bags firmly attached and to avoid ugly fraying bag edges. Once the top frame goes on (with screws), it makes a nice clamp for the bags. The bed material holds the bags up against the wood.

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Here you can see the feed bags lining the bed. Only the brick edges have contact with the soil

Watering

We had prior experience with copious watering chores and decided to borrow some concepts from HĂźgelkultr for our raised beds. We did so first by adding about 1-2″ of wood chips to the bottom of the bed. This does a few things…. first, it helps to wick water up into the bed when it does rain, and then it holds it there quite well since there isn’t any easy opportunity for evaporation.

To be double sure that we would have drought-tolerant beds, we also added custom waterers made from 4″ PVC drain pipe. We drilled 1/32″ holes every few inches along each side of the pipe. If you were to look down the pipe so that the opening appeared as a circle, we drilled holes at about the 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock positions, and about every 6 inches down the length of the pipe.

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The pipe is capped at one end and then has a small stack that extends out of the bed and is loosely capped for filling. Then the whole waterer pipe gets buried with wood chips.  We added wood chips to about the top of the pipe.

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Note: We added horizontal braces (made of cedar) to add support across the bed and prevent the sides from bowing under the weight of the soil. These also pin the waterer down firmly.

This approach results in about 6″ of woodchips in the bottom of the bed and an expedited way to get water into them. This left us with a remaining 12″ or so of planting depth.

The idea is to saturate the woodchips so that they retain moisture and cause deep rooting of plants. It is also to prevent water loss. For what it’s worth, just from our common rainfall, we did not do any watering on these beds this year and had pretty nice results. We used these waterers in other beds with the same result – NO watering.

Most people water the surface of their garden beds, which requires a substantial volume to soak the root zone of the plants. It’s a waste of water and time in our experience. It also discourages deep rooting. This approach soaks all the rainfall UP into the bed as well as down from the surface and saturates the wood chips. From there it maintains an even moisture level that is almost impervious to evaporation through heat and wind. It is a huge time saver even without the watering pipes. We just used those so that if ever there is a long drought, we can maximize our watering efforts.

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Finally, we add a mix of mushroom soil, topsoil, and rabbit manure to the beds, followed by another thin layer of wood chips (to prevent evaporation and for mulch). All that was left was to plant them.

Note: We’ve had plenty of armchair gardeners critique using woodchips like this, but we can’t argue with our success. Forests don’t demand only composted leaf litter and debris take residence on the forest floor so demanding only heavily composted wood chips in garden beds is erroneous. We aren’t using as a soil amendment but as a soil cover. Even a cover of newspapers would be better than nothing! I’d rather have a cover of plastic than no cover. There is a word for uncovered landscapes – “desert”.

Lastly, we stained the outside exposed wood using Cabot Australian Timber Oil (“Carribean Walnut”). We love that stuff!

Summary

If we die of cancer, you the reader can point to this post and proclaim where we went wrong. If we don’t, we can at least enjoy these beds for a a decade or more and the fruits that we grow in them.

Please feel free to ask questions or share your experiences with pressure treated garden beds in the comments below.

Building a Rainwater chicken waterer

We have built a LOT of chicken waterers in our years of chicken wrangling. They break, clog, or otherwise just become a pain to deal with. No matter the size, filling it is always irritating.

With that experience in mind, we set out to build an easy, affordable and quick to put together rain water chicken waterer.

The supplies

Note: that might not sound inexpensive to some – but bear in mind it has all be eliminated all water hauling for the chickens for about 9 months of the year and has eliminated the need to use well water for the same duration.

The process

Once the materials arrived, we simply laid out eight holes about 2″ up from the bottom of the barrel and drilled them (the drill bit size recommended comes with the packaging for the drinker cups).

Next, we screwed the cups in the filled the water up several inches above the cups to and let it sit a while to ensure there were no leaks.

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We then drilled a hole for the fill hose adapter that came with the rain barrel diverter and screwed in the adapter.

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We then took the waterer down to the coop where we installed the rain barrel diverter into the gutters of the coop. Per the directions, we installed this just a little bit above level with the rain barrel input hose. If it is too high, the overflow won’t easily flow back into the diverter. Too low and you won’t get any rain in your barrel. Installation was easy. Just make a cut in your gutter, slide the diverter on (requires some finagling) then trim down the excess gutter, insert

Installation was easy. Just make a cut in your gutter, slide the diverter on (requires some finagling) then trim down the excess gutter, insert it into the bottom of the diverter and re-attach all to the wall. Note: we found that this all worked best with some silicone caulk around the inside. Fiskars should really have designed this to slide INTO the gutter, not over it. Physics – duh!

 

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Easy diverter installation

 

Once all that was done, we simply trimmed down the hose to our desired length put the diverter into the ‘divert’ mode and waited for rain. What does that mean you ask? The inside flips over to direct all water down the spouting (ie. in the winter) or flipped the other way directs water first into the barrel. When the barrel is full, the back pressure of the water causes it to flow back into the diverter where it exits via the gutter.

The first mild rain filled the bucket half way. We’ve not watered our chickens by hand since the installation! We used our fingers to allow enough water to flow into each cup. From there the chickens figured it out quite quickly.

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Lessons learned

  • The Fiskars diverter works okay, but required caulking and some tweaking of the positioning to get the water flowing properly.
  • Take time to observe the water flowing into (hopefully) the barrel during a rain.
  • This won’t work when it begins to freeze, but sure saves labor and time until then!

Inexpensive plant edging

We were growing tired of trying to keep the grass encroaching on our blueberries, so we decided we needed to surround them with some sort of barrier. Unfortunately, most of the barriers sold at big box stores were over-priced and not the most fun to install.

In our neck of the woods, barrels like the one below can be purchased for about $8 used.

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Photo from bascousa.com 

We had the idea of taking a barrel, cutting off the top and bottom, and then cutting the barrel into slices horizontally. Doing so, we were able to get about 6-8  slices, leaving us planting rings that were roughly 3-4″ tall and about 24″ in diameter. The size was just right for surrounding our blueberries.

We then lightly tapped these into the ground and mulched only within the planter ring. The rest of the patch we filled with left-over decorative gravel from our kitchen garden bed project.

The results looked like this:

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Here is a slightly better angle:

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A simple, strong materials rack for the workshop

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I like to keep my materials up and outta the way, mostly because I am a procrastinator and don’t get to things right away (I’ve been thinking about changing, but…. I haven’t gotten to it yet).

I wanted something simple and durable. So I just picked up a few 3/4″ pipe flanges, a few sections of 3/4″ x 12″ pipe, and a few caps. I didn’t want to wait until I could get some pipe insulation because in addition to being a procrastinator, I’m also impatient (which means I can’t wait to stop procrastinating), so I opted to repurpose a pool noodle with a coordinating color for the purpose.

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I just cut this to lenght with my pocket knife, cut a slit down the middle, then secured each pipe flange to a stud using one 3-1/2″ exterior grade screw and one 4 1/2″ lag screws (that I already had). I wouldn’t try to hoist an engine off of these, but they seem plenty strong for holding misc materials.

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One note: I would recommend cleaning the pipes off with a good degreaser prior to use, it will make for much less mess and grime.

 

The $2, 20-minute neck-breaking prevention for icy homesteads

Where we live in northern Pennsylvania, winter is some combination of snow, rain, muck and ice. We occasionally see some sunshine in there too!

Mud and ice make for miserable homesteading conditions. Whether it’s navigating steep and slick terrain to cut firewood, or taking care of livestock on icy mornings, opportunities abound for slipping and injury.

We’ve tried shoe spikes that we pull on and pull off, but they are clunky, expensive, and prone to jettisoning off our boots when we’re not looking, and I’ve got better things to do than search 25 acres of woods for a missing shoe spike, especially if that means hopping on the remaining spiked foot!

At our house, Muck Boots (what I like to call “homesteader flip-flops”) can be found in abundance. Since they cost so much, we hate to throw them out when we get a new pair.

Since we don’t need serious traction all the time, we’ve opted to turn our old much boots into Mad Max-styled, all-traction homesteading boots – and we’ve done so for very little investment. These things have some wicked-good traction!

The solution is simple and requires about 20 minutes, a bag of 1/2″ hex-head sheet metal screws, a screwdriver, and some old footwear (unless you don’t mind taking the screws out at winter’s end). Some slick surfaces for testing might also help.

We’ve found that hex heads work the best because there is a tiny lip around the edges that provides the bulk of the traction.

 

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We use about a 1/2″ to 5/8″ sheet metal screw with a hex head.

 

 

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Notice the hex heads have a lip around the outside. This seems to make all the difference for traction. They’re like mini ice spike.

 

The process is simple. Using an appropriate screwdriver, just press slightly into the rubber sole of your boots and begin to turn the screwdriver. It will begin to bite into the rubber sole and once it does, just screw it in until the head of the screw comes to rest on the sole of the boot. There is no need to over-tighten. You’ll need to routinely replace an occasional screw as it is.

 

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The effort is pretty minimal to get these to go into muck boot soles. Upon removing them, the holes are hardly noticeable.

 

Pick whatever pattern you want. This is how I have mine:

 

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The pattern I use

 

These things are the bomb! We could run a sprint across a sheet of ice and not even think about slipping! Perfect for the icy days we encounter, and really helpful in most of the mud and muck we get as well!

You might be wondering… “will these poke through and stab my foot?” Well, we’ve not encountered that so far, even with kids boots. If you’re uncertain, start out by putting one or two in the heel and test it out. Proceed with a few more at a time, testing them along the way and see how they feel.

You might also be wondering… “will the holes let the water and muck into the boots?”. We’ve not encountered this yet. It doesn’t appear that the holes are deep enough for such, which is also why they probably cannot be felt.

You might consider adding in a glue of sorts of you’re super-concerned about water infiltration, or screws coming out. We’ve not felt the need but could see where it might be helpful.

 

Making your own Kombucha

What is Kombucha?
Kombucha is a fermented tea drink thought to have originated in eastern Europe or the far-east. It’s very popular in natural-health and medicine circles and for good reason!

Why would we want to drink it?
Kombucha is full or all sorts of nutrients and helpful nutrition. It contains the range of B vitamins, particularly B1, B2, B6 and B12, which give the body with energy and help process fats and proteins, and also support a healthy immune system. It’s also rich in vitamin C. This is all in addition to several organic acids that promote health and wellness and are thought to provide a detoxifying effect to the body. Wikipedia has a great article on Kombucha here.

But I heard that…
Like all natural health foods, Kombucha has its detractors. Some people have been harmed drinking Kombucha – that’s true. People are also harmed eating every food known to mankind! People get harmed when they have an allergy, don’t prepare or handle foods properly, lack moderation, or just from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such is the case with Kombucha. We’re not willing to dismiss the claims of thousands of people throughout centuries who’ve used this stuff just because a handful of people have experience harmed from “edge cases” which all tend to be from controllable circumstances. Use common sense. Have a clean environment to prepare this stuff in. Don’t prepare it in containers that could leach chemicals, lead, etc. If it looks moldy, start over, etc. etc.

What’s all this business about Mushrooms and a SCOBY?
Komucha is a fermented beverage (mildly .5%-1.5%). Fermentation is done by a SCOBY which is an acronym for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. Doesn’t that just sound delightfully appetizing? It’s often called a mushroom because it looks like some sort of fungus, but in reality, it’s the above. We think it looks like a blintz that has been soaked in tea for a long time. Again, it’s not too visually appealing, but without one, you won’t make real Kombucha. Many people buy them from sources online, etc. sometimes spending a bit of cash in the process! We’re not very comfortable spending money to get one from a source we know nothing about. So we set out to make our own.

Here’s how we grew our own kombucha SCOBY:

  1. First, we rounded up a few 1 gallon glass jars. Easily appropriated from local sub shops.
  2. We purchased a few bottles of plain “GT’s Kombucha” from a local grocery store. What? They sell the “deadly” stuff? (sarcasm). It’s best to find one with lots of floaty stuff.
  3. We purchased some organic black tea. (Not Earl Gray!)
  4. We then prepared about 3 quarts of organic black tea. We used decaf, although some say you should not. The point of going organic with the tea is that you don’t know what kind of chemicals are in non-organic tea that you might not want to ferment 😉
  5. Next, we added about 1 and 1/2 cups of sugar. Some say not to use raw sugar – we did, and it’s fine.
  6. After this cooled to the 85° F range, we poured it into a 1 gallon glass jar (clean of course),
  7. We then poured in one whole bottle of the plain GT’s Kombucha,
  8. Next, we topped it off with spring water to within a half inch of the top.
  9. We then covered this with a clean cloth napkin secured with a rubber band, then stored this away from direct sunlight in a warm spot.
  10. Because the Kombucha ferments best around the 85° F range, we placed ours on top of a heating pad.

Finishing things up
Normally, Kombucha ferments in about 7-10 days. To grow a SCOBY takes longer. After about a week, we started to notice a film on top of the liquid which ultimately became our SCOBY. Our plan was to just leave it in place until it grew a SCOBY, which it did after about three weeks. By then, we thought our Kombucha tea would be no good, but it tasted just fine, so we bottled it in smaller bottles to be consumed in the next few days.

Final thoughts
Despite the fact that you’re drinking liquid that has been sitting out for  10-21 days with a bunch of yeast and bacteria floating on top, this stuff tastes pretty good! Even the kids like it, which ought to tell you something. It has a bit of a vinegar after taste, but is also sweet. It’s very much a sweet and sour drink. We serve it chilled and find it quite enjoyable in 8 oz. servings. It makes a great alternative to soda since it’s 1) a little sweet 2) it’s slightly carbonated (because of the fermentation) and 3) non-caffeinated (ours is as at least)!

So what does this have to do with simple life? Well, for one, it supports a healthy lifestyle which keeps us out of the doctor’s office. Secondly,  kombucha, like many fermented foods, is self-sustaining, meaning it’s always giving you what you need for the next batch! We like this idea because we can use simple materials to produce food that is beneficial and tastes good. So long as we can make tea, and have some sort of natural sweetener, we could make Kombucha.

We’ll post more on our Kombucha experience in the days ahead.

Why water-saving shower heads are a good investment

Many people might not think to look at their showers as being a source of potential energy and cost savings. That’s unfortunate, because there’s money to be saved in the shower along with natural resources too.

Consider the following scenario: Here’s the simple math for a family of four each taking a 7 minute with an average water-saving shower head (2.6 gallons per minute, or “gpm”):

  • 4 people x 7 minutes x 2.6 gallons = 72.8 gallons per day
  • 72.8 x $.0015/gallon = $.11 per day
  • 72.8 gallons x $.02 to heat it = $1.46 per day
  • Cost per 7 minute shower = $.37
  • $1.46 + $.11 = $1.57 per day to purchase water and heat it for showering
  • $1.57 X 365 = $573.05 per year!

Here’s the math for the savings this family would see by just installing a high-efficiency shower head:

  • 4 people x 7 minutes x 1.6 gallons = 44.8 gallons per day
  • 44.8 x $.0015/gallon = $.07 per day
  • 44.8 gallons x $.02 to heat it = $.87 per day
  • $.87 + $.07 = $.94 per day to purchase water and heat it for showering
  • $.94 X 365 = $343.10 per year!

So just by installing new shower heads, there’s several hundred dollars a year to be saved in water and energy cost. We’ve installed Peerless 76154 1.6 GPM Water-Amplifying Showerhead, Chrome units that cost us less than $15 – money well spent!

As you can see, hot water heating can be a major expense. As we aim for a simpler life, we’re aiming to use less water, and less commercially-provided energy heating the water. Stay tuned for our future posts about our attempts to heat hot water in some non-traditional ways!