30 August 2014

Like a Phoenix

Here is the new addition to Stratheden Farm: a Yanmar Sx3100 tractor with a front loader and underbelly mower. I had been looking for several years for small tractor that was fit for harder work than most and had a full line of durable attachments. There were relatively few contenders. A local business became a Yanmar dealer this year and a couple of months ago I ventured over to kick tires and geek out.

It turns out that Yanmar manufacturers most John Deere tractors; they've made diesel engines since 1930. Although a Japanese company, the factory that builds them is located in Georgia. Not only American made but parts available quickly. This model had the two required add-ons: an underbelly mower and a front loader (aka "curved boom loader"). There was a factory discount of $2,000 on the tractor itself and further discounts on the bucket and mower. Then John, proprietor of T&E Small Engines, told me about the zero percent financing. Oh my.

My other tractor, a Ford 1710 from about 1983 is still running well. I've searched for a front loader and could only locate hard-used models in the $3,000-4,500 range, worth almost as much as the tractor itself. It has a John Deere bush hog mower, nice for clearing brush but a not very good quality mow on open grass. Additionally, they are probably the most dangerous piece of equipment on a farm for two reasons: (1) the whirling blades and PTO shaft and (2) the change of balance of the tractor [they weigh a lot]. I'll be honest, I'm scared of bush hogs and operate with extreme caution. That bush hog mounted on the Ford moves the center of gravity far to the rear and makes it prone to raising up when going uphill, a dangerous position.

The under-belly mower on the Yanmar is not as tough as the old Deere bush hog but it is safer in every way. It changes balance for the better by lowering the center of gravity and adding weight between the axles (rather than behind with a bush hog). The PTO shaft is between the tractor chassis and the mower. almost impossible to come into contact with it, even in the unfortunate circumstance of a roll-over.

Yanmar thought outside the box and brought tractor technology up-to-date. For instance, instead of two controls for the front loader, there is a single arm, well positioned where the driver doesn't have to reach for it. But perhaps most revolutionary, a HYDROSTATIC transmission. Yep. No gear shifting! Put it in either high or low range then press the pedal and it is moving. Press the pedal harder to go faster, just like a car. To stop, take your foot off the pedal (if on a grade, the brake may be necessary, too). To reverse, still no gears - put your foot on the reverse pedal. This luxury will take some getting used to-

One last comment and you will be spared further tractor-geeking: if the diesel fuel runs out, it is easy to re-start after fuelling unlike the torture required to bleed injectors on any other diesel I have known. This work horse should last thirty plus years if past Yanmar performance is a good forecaster. and my back should last longer since there is a front loader to perform many tasks...

18 May 2014

Winter kill et all

     Yesterday was the annual community flea market hosted by Citizen's Coop (the provider of telephone, internet and cable in Floyd county). Lots of junque being sold by folks who bought it in a fever at the market last year, took it home and then wondered why they bought it. My attendance was due solely to two women who sell fine quality nursery plants; restrainer meself and only paid $1.25 for three heirloom tomato plants. The conversation of those inspecting the plants was intriguing and validated the effects of winter on the flora here at Stratheden Farms.

     Several silver haired ladies noted they lost all of their crape myrtles; the one here sustained damage on a branch by branch basis, some unscathed and others dead. About half of the roses here were frozen to death, even the miniatures which are very cold tolerant. The hyrangea died to to the ground but seems to be reviving from the roots. The butterfly bush (Buddleai davidii) which was huge, old and well established has perished entirely. On the other hand, the viburnums are superb this year and the fruit trees look quite happy.

     This same conversation had been held over lunch with two farmer neighbors, both of whom noted the same destructiveness of the winter. Four and five winters back were colder, more sustained cold and deep laying snow but had little deleterious effects on the plants. What has prospered this year, alas and alack, are the poison ivy and wild briars, which are appearing everywhere.

    Since no herbicides are used at Stratheden Farms, yours truly mechanically controls weeds. Normally small weeds (such as Carolina horse nettles, Solanum carolinense) are cut down by the hoe and larger ones such as privet are extracted by using welder's gloves. Due to the profusion of undesirables this spring, something faster is required: the brush scythe. There are at least two forms of blades for scythes: reaping and brush. Thanks to friend Joseph P., a top quality Austrian brush blade was purchased last autumn on eBay for less than 50% of the normal price. Brush blades are stouter, straighter and shorter - they are hell on briars, Scottish thistles, blackberries, milk weed, etc., basically, all the larger invading species.

The top blade is a reaping or grass blade, the lower a brush blade.

Despite the cold winter, the compost piles proceeded as normal. The manures (chicken and cow) had become fine powders and even the fair-sized bits of wood decayed nicely. The reason was the profusion of mycelium, the white thread-like structures in the photograph. Should you think that this is inconsequential, the largest living organism on earth is a 2,400 acre mycelium in Oregon. There is strong evidence that the presence of them in the soil is a key to healthy plants.

One last plant which is prospering: the poppies, great cheer in the garden and a color counterpoint to the blue iris, which are also blooming in abundance this year.

And this, dear reader, brings you up to date on the flora of the farm.

09 May 2014

Dig it

A dear friend from The West paid the farm the honor of a repeat visit last month. He was able to stay for more than a week and we pursued many activities on and about the farm.

One day was especially nice weather and we were enjoying a stroll when I mentioned using a metal detector to find artifacts from previous residents of the farm, probably in the the last half of the 19th century. There appears to be a large area of scattered trash below the house, extending at least as far down hill as the small garden (where the debris was first spotted when doing the initial tilling five years and some months ago).

He was excited about hunting with the metal detector so as Mr. Fuzzy operated the device, Martin wielded the excavating tool (i.e., a shovel) with aplomb. In not much more than an hour, we had found cast iron, glass, ceramic and charcoal. The most interesting find thus far at Stratheden is the oval shaped ring at center; it is a silver plated harness guide, an object likely owned by a wealthy person. How it became junk on the farm is a mystery. The shot shell head can be dated fairly closely by the manufacturer's lifespan - it must be before 1911. Mr. Fuzzy has found more cast iron bits previously and has to wonder how so many cast iron pots and pans came to an untimely end.

A local iron smelter was operated from 1852 until about the Civil War. I have to wonder if these were created there rather than imported into the county. The local iron had an unusual level of copper and thus these bits could be analyzed to see if there is a match.

Who knows what will be found next? Adventure awaits at every corner of the farm.

03 May 2014


Most of the time, pinholes are considered undesirable, such as a pinhole air leak in a tire. There is nonetheless a long history in photography dating at least to the early 1850s (Sir David Brewster in St. Andrews, Scotland) of utilizing a pinhole rather than a glass optic to form an image on film.

Lenses form an image through the operation of refraction; pinholes form an image by diffraction (which lenses want to avoid). A well made pinhole cannot form an image as sharp as a good lens but it is nearly the equal of the optical system composing the human eye. It has many advantages including cost (nearly free), no maintenance, perfectly rectilinear and nearly infinite depth of field as well as depth of focus (behind the pinhole, i.e., inside the camera). A wide angle 8x10 inch pinhole camera made of cardboard might cost as much as $10 - whereas an 8x10 camera with a wide angle lens is likely to start at about $3,000.

Mr. Fuzzy probably has close to a dozen pinhole cameras or adapters, made by friends as gifts, made by friends as prototypes to be tested, commercial products and those made by Himself.  There are several 8x10 cameras, adapters to use on standard view cameras of various sizes, adapters for 35mm cameras & digital equivalents, a 5x7 camera made by Mr. Fuzzy (a real favorite), several 4x5 cameras and several 6x9 cm cameras. The latter use 120 roll film and allow six exposures without reloading - that plus easy portability caused Mr. Fuzzy to opt for two of them for World Wide Pinhole Day, always the last Sunday in May.

WWPD is a remarkable event: world wide, unjuried, free, and the images are posted forever on the WWPD web site (www.pinholeday.org). Most of the images therein are rather pedestrian but perhaps 1 in 100 makes your search worthwhile.

Mr. Fuzzy made this image with a curved film plane 6x9 camera which covers a very wide angle, perhaps 120 degrees. The lower portion of the image is about 18 inches from the camera.


The following image is also 6x9 cm but the film plane is flat thus it covers a much smaller angle and is about a normal angle, or 45 degrees. This image is not as sharp as the one above because the pinhole I made is not as perfect as it might be. This camera was made by a dear friend in Scotland, Peter Goldsmith, and it has been a pleasure to use for almost a decade. Peter, thanks again for the wonderful gift!

Mr. Fuzzy gave a short lecture to a class at the local arts centre immediately preceding WWPD. The students are so excited that they have asked the arts centre to provide space for a pinhole club to meet - and the answer from the director was in the affirmative. A pinhole camera club will be formed forthwith!

22 April 2014

Spring is here - maybe

This has been a transitional type of day, some spring showers, definitely spring's blustery winds, and the arrival of yet another cold front. The low is forecast to be 37F and if that is correct, all is well at Stratheden. Today two varieties of apples opened their first blooms; virtually every flower seems to have a single petal damaged by last week's hard freeze but the blossoms themselves seem quite viable. The species illustrated above is a dwarf and even the blooms are reduced considerably in size. The two large Mutsu apple trees yielded heavily last year and have almost no blooms whatsoever this year, as is normal. Thus there will not be a surplus of apples this autumn but perhaps just enough.

The large lilac has also opened its first blooms today and is on the verge of exploding into a riot of colurs, textures and perfume. Although short-lived as a cut flower, one cluster can reclaim the air of an entire room in the house.

Hopefully there will be but few frosts remaining in the spring before summer is soon declared. May the weather be as fine where you dwell, dear reader.


19 April 2014

Winter's icy fingers still grasp at the farm

Brace yourself, dear reader, for more whinging about the weather...

Earlier this week, the lows on consecutive nights were respectively: 23, 26, 27 degrees; hard freezes. The day (April 15th, a chilling day in more ways than one) the cold front blew in, the temperature was 58F at sunrise and by sunset had plunged to 29F. The wind was howling all day, sucking the warmth right out of the ground, then ceased early in the night so the cold air could settle on the ground.

I borrowed large black rubber calf feeding tubs from my kind neighbor, Clay, and covered plants with those and five gallon buckets. A bale of straw was broken open and spread over several plant beds surrounding the house. A few small potted plants were carried indoors.

The tulips about to open were cut and placed in vases as were several dozen daffodils, all contributing to a delightful scent and clusters of brilliant colours about the house.

The results after three consecutive freezing nights were not good. The tulips froze, both flower stems and leaves; it remains to be seen if the plants can recover from their prostrate condition. The daffodils had been blooming well - the yellow flowers froze although the white flowers appear to avoided damage (can any reader illuminate us on why the difference?). Peonies were just beginning to emerge from their long sleep and their damage is yet to be determined precisely. At least 80% of the cherry tree blooms were affected. The lilacs and redbuds were just beginning to open and have, a week later, hardly progressed - they may be damaged also.

The single most devastated plants were the wild ferns; 100% are now brown and thoroughly dead. Perhaps the phenomena has simply escaped Mr. Fuzzy's observation in past years but I cannot recall ever seeing fern mortality of this degree before.

Life is nonetheless sprouting all about, well, at least in the Jiffy Pots: marigolds, zinnias, nasturtiums, etc. In a couple of weeks, the peppers, squashes and eggplants will be started in Jiffy Pots, ready to be planted outdoors by the end of May. Rest assured that all worthy news of Stratheden Farms and its residents will be duly posted for your illumination.

A Happy Easter to all.

04 April 2014

Yellow is the colour of...

Yes, indeed, yellow is the colour of flowers at Stratheden Farms now. The forsythias have just erupted into a explosion of brilliant colours, even on an overcast day like this one. Most years. these glorious flowering shrubs are cautious, slowly opening more and more blooms, but never in profusion; not so this year where they have revealed their radiance in a barrage of blooms.

A few readers have been a bit, well, ummm, grumpy, about the lack of posts. There has been but little news and except for a few sunsets, nothing of any visual quality to share with readers. It has snowed SIX times since the previous post, there are photographic documentations of those days certainly, but it was feared that the repeated mantra of "its snowing again' would bore you, dear reader. The weather has swung wildly most of the calendar year - Sunday morning it snowed, Wednesday is was 77F. Typical. Average last frost is in mid-May but perhaps this year will be an exception. Seeds are germinating in outdoor large pots already.

The snows and wild swings interrupted the flowering of the numerous clumps of daffodils. The first incautious daredevil flowers opened weeks ago and were stunned by the 18F nights that followed the warmth. Nonetheless, no apparent damage was sustained by most plants and they are shining brightly now, not quite yet at their climax but close.

The most certain proof of Spring's true arrival is the blooming of wild flowers and the coltsfoot is always the first to open on the farm. The plant has many medicinal uses but its fame lies in the fact that the blooms appear before the plant produces any leaves, a most unusual trait in the floral tribes.

Leaving the theme of yellow, here is the other wild flower now painting parts of the yard with its beautiful delicate blue. May Spring bring you the renewal of life and hope for the future.