Shoptalk Sunday: Tractoring, Writing, Twilight Zone

Reader note: 7:12 AM. Bit later than usual with our Sunday Epistle.  But there have been some strangish things afoot here…

Texas Twilight Zone

Yessir, fine Saturday in the outback, until we got to the power outage part at about 4:20 PM lasy night.  Right in the middle of cocktails (champaign or rum) and the scent of baby back ribs coming up to sauce time.

Never did figure out what caused it.  Just that the lights went out.

Eventually – 2-hours on – they came back.  By then we were done and done.

I’d spent about 6-hours of Saturday on the tractor, doing the south field mowing for the spring.  Then using the tractor to move a long-dead Husky-varnished tractor up behind the pantry building where the metalworking (junk pile) which is the source of anything you need for welding and metalworking treachery is sorted by pile.

We crashed about 7 PM.

As usual, I asked in the middle of the night “Alexa what time is it?

No Internet.  Still no internet on the landline side (which is why the satellite link).  Hmmm….

About then, Zeus the Cat wandered into the bedroom.  “Hey Fatso…get me some dry food, you witless old fool!”  Hardly politely meowed.

But I did (as meowed) and coming back through the kitchen, I asked THAT
box what time it was:  “The time is 11:11.

The clock on the stove was reading something completely different, so I reset the stove.  Went back to bed.

Several hours later, Zeus is back in the bedroom telling us he wanted to go outside to check if his pal Sam (*who’s Samantha or Samuel, we haven’t figured that out yet), a feral Siamese with the most crossed-up eyes evers – had come out to play, yet.

“Elaine, what time is it?”

It’s 2:38.”

So, I turned over and was about to doze off while it was Elaine’s turn to let the cat out, which I happened to notice “Hmmm…too much light outside…has my Son left every g.d. light in the shop on? “

With the Internet down, Alexa was offline, but yes, the sky was quickly lighting up but that can’t happen at 2:38 AM unless you’re in Alaska, or something.

Which is how the morning turned into a temporal stew.  Quickly resolved on one of the laptops on the (*still working and connected) spacecoms link.


There went the plans to get up at 4, writing a chapter on my novel, and put up some pictures of the field work done Saturday.

Another time?

But that Gets Us to Tractoring

THE singularly useful power tool if you have more than  a couple of acres to maintain is a tractor.

But not just any tractor.  There are a handful of items on the specifications list to be aware of when you go shopping.  Don”t settle for less!

Life Bucket/Front Loader

Formal construction has it that a “lift bucket” is on a hydraulic arm mounted to a truck.  But, you will often-enough hear them incorrectly named that you can easily spot “precision of language means precision of thought” people pretty easily.

The front loader bucket must meet two important specifications:  It must be at least four feet wide, but no wider than 5-feet on a small farm.  The width of the bucket should be able to carry half a four-foot sheet of plywood (think barn building) and if any wider than 5-feet, you’ll be cursing your “go big” decision if you can’t get it through a gate at anything less than  a straight-ahead 90-degree angle.

The second key spec is it MUST have a bucket lift capacity of NO LESS than 600-pounds.

“Pint’s a pound, the world around.”  So, when you go to move a 55-gallon barrel of water, you’ll be lifting 55 times 8 pounds per gallon.  Call it 440-pounds.  You will, rest assured, still find that even if your bucket could lift 600 pounds when new, hydraulic seals age and as they do, lifting power can decline a bit.  Always to just under what it would be nice to have in a particular crisis.

Water-Filled Tires

In ag-based burbs, like Palestine, Texas, there is always a low-level debate raging in the coffee shops and down at the feed store about the “right” way to fill tractor tires for local work.

The folks pulling field implements will generally go with completely-filled tires because that way, and addition however-many hundreds of pounds of weight ensures maximum pulling ability.

Another third of locals seem to be in the “one-half full” camp.  These people hold that additional water can actually increase slope work safety by putting a few hundred pounds at or below the axel.  I think you can work out that part even without too much more coffee.

The last camp (which I’m in out of laziness, as much as anything) says just keep ’em pumped up to 40 PSI and leave ’em empty.,

This is because when it rains in the South, which to us now is anything south of I-90, If you drive one of those “water-ed up” rigs on soft land, you’ll be making a lifetime supply of deep ruts, the likes of which are seldom discussed in polite company.

Four Wheel Drive, or Two?

Again, something of a trade-off in feed store talk.  I’m in the four-wheel camp and never plan to leave.

On the plus side, four-wheel drive on the grades and muck clay around here is an absolutely necessary option.  The two-wheel drive units can’t pull as much, but they are better on fields in good and dry conditions.

The reason?  When you engage the 4-wheel drive, and go to make a sharp turn, the front wheels are “locked” relative to the rears.  When you turn, therefore, the tires will tend to rip out sod.  Not usually the intent.

The solution is to leave the tractor in 2-wheel drive if appearance matters, and in 4-when you’re working a big field.

Accessories Used Most

  • A Brush-Hog, also called Bush-hog, also called generically a rotary cutter, thrash cutter, and every name in the book of “no-no’s” when they break.  Hard to work on as a one-man project, though I’;ve done it plenty of times.
  • Get two 25-foot lengths of strong chain with hooks and keep them on your rig.  Putting a chain on the back of the cutter, up over the top of the rollover protection cage and then down to the front bucket, gives you a way to use hydraulics to move things around.  If working under have triple redundancy in your blocks and chains.  Equipment falling is a terrible way to die.
  • Box Blade:  This is a squarish contraption used to level-off bumpy land.  This is Eat Texas, for crying o9ut loud, and the Almighty Hisself doesn’t have a way to level things out here…so why bother?  I hooked it up on the 3-point hitch a few times, took a perfectly good high-centered truck track and turned it into two parallel quarter mile mud pies.   Better than a box blade, as I figure it, is just driving on the shoulder.
  • Short Bucket Forks:  Small ones (4-6 inches) are great for general sdirtr work.  Strong as hell, you can back-scratch with the bucket set so they co9ntact ground from straight up – then pull ’em back to easde up that compacted dirt.  Works like a champ.
  • Long Bucket Forks.  These run about $150 a pair at Amazon and will let your front fork carry (*and lift) sheet goods and roofing or decking materials, all day long.

Well, so much for coffee- hour.  Time to click and run.

Nice to have an alarm cat wake-up meow.  Not to trouble-shootize the CenturyLate internet problems on both landlines.  Why is the new Gen4 Echo ball counting time backwards now?  FMTT, never stops, does it?

Write when I wake up,

ShopTalk Sunday: Automatic Algorithmic Gardening?

War?  Victory Gardens?  Biden Gardens? We’re in the timeframe when a “survival garden” such as we began working on in November of last year, may not seem so far-fetched, after all.

The parts have continued to roll in for the highly experimental automatic veggie garden.

Another small piece of the project this week was the “garden workbench” which was on sale a while back on the ‘Zon:

The 2-by under the front levels it.

I’ve decided to document two longer-term prepping/making projects in this winter-to-spring period.  One involves the power system, and the other is the crazy notion of high-output, low input gardening.

Basic Garden Algorithms

Gardening isn’t that difficult at a basic level:  You get seeds, put them in the right soil, apply water, and then come back and get food.

Thing is, Nature is intrinsically more graceful in terms of design.  If the plants are what we call “weeds” the birds will get them.  If the birds aren’t around, what about field mice and squirrels?  We – the big apes on the rock – are more particular and far less general in our design effort.  Nature is about broad-spectrum results.  We’re after top results for just a limited number of plant types.

Nature hands us the block diagram of zero human gardening:

  • Have soil for planting.  If no soil and only rocks, come back in 50,000 years and let erosion break down some rocks for us.
  • Apply water when convenient.  This means rainwater.  Comes and goes, so let’s call those seasons.
  • Weed and clear land.  Bring in the lightning. Torches off sometimes massive fires, changes up erosion, breaks down excess undergrowth and provides some alkalinity from wood ash.
  • Apply Seeds:  Aerial spreaders include birds.  Put seeds in tasty berries, have birds poop.  Presumably over a few thousand years, more berry plants will arise depending on local conditions and competition.  Other aerial delivery systems include ultra-light seeds (see dandelions).  Some plants sent out root runners, others drop seeds in a circle around themselves.  Pine and fir cones. Bamboos.
  • Harvest:  More mice, more birds, some omnivores, and the human apes to mix, match, and roast over fires.
  • END  [return]  endif…and yada, yada…

Garden Algo Design

Each step of Nature’s process has an analogy in the home garden.  Except the “come back in 50,000 years” part.

Since we’re practitioners of “good coding” our first criterion is?

  • Time is of the essence.

If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t completely ignore food until we run out.  At which point 10-minutes later, we’ve picked up hot fries, root beer, and a double cheeseburger with all the veggies at the local drive through.

We then look at other criterion native to the human use-case.  What is cost?  Lead-time?  Labor requirement?  Maintenance time?  And on goes the list.

Eventually, we can begin seeing an “algo template” – a kind of sequential Boolean Truth table approach – which can be test-fitted against alternatives.

Garden Type

This decision was made in December before we turned dirt on the veg-house:

I’ve gone enough hydroponics to recognize while they can produce like a son of a gun, they are as much physical work (more standing) than modest raised beds, planters, or containers.

Their main drawbacks are needing starter plants and now you’re into a greenhouse or seedling area, anyway.

We considered the in-ground – which has done well on tomatoes and squash for us in the past – but three big problems:  Bent over work, lots of critters without solid perimeters, and weeds.  God, we hate weeding.  Yeah, yeah, or mulching.  It’s all bent-over.  In your 70s comfort is a bigger deal, I suppose.

Listing of Error Conditions

Reader NM Mike has been frustrated by his lack of good results, but as we pointed out a while back, designing the “perfect algo” (to get the optimum garden performance) is in part a geographical location problem in strange ways.

Error Conditions for your designs to be aware of include:

  • Mineral and pH of garden water.  This is why the rain catchment, DC watering system with solar power pumps and timers for drip irrigation.  The ideal pH for us would be around 6.7 (a twinge acidic of rainwater neutral pH 7.0).
  • Soil temperature:  This needs to be 50°-60° (depending on vegetable, hot or cold weather) but when the heat comes on 65° to 75°F is a good soil temp to shoot for.
  • Air Temps:  This is a little different.  Air temps of 40°F and up work for cool starters like beets, cabbage, carrots, and cauliflower.  But you need to make sure if you’re new to greenhousing that you limit max temps on sunny hot days to the chart levels found here.  Onions, parsnips, and lettuce can go in when it’s 35°F.  But be aware of the high side.  The reason Southern cooking features tomatoes and okra, for example, is both of these are tolerant and good up to 105°F temps.  But less heat tolerant plants, like spinach, begin to fail at 85°F for a couple of hours.  Sorry, Popeye.

Beets need to be ready for harvest by the time it gets to be 85°F. Which is why there’s a lot of parallels between flight planning and garden planning!

Companion Plants

yet another secret to higher yields is making sure to study “companion plants.”  Carrots and tomatoes make good “neighbors.”  But if you plant incompatible plants near one-another, your result (yields) will be much lower.

What to do?  Head over here and scroll down to the bottom of the page.  You’re looking for the companion plant chart.  Save it into OneNote or whatever you brain augmentation toolset includes.  (Some people use printers, believe it, or not! No Power Needed).

Right Fertilizers

The most basic part of fertilizers is it is sold on the basis of three chemicals which are commonly used:  (nitrogen(N) – phosphorus(P) – potassium(K).

Here’s the problem:  How do you decide whether to buy a 3-3-3, a 10-10-10, or a 30-30-30 fertilizer?  After all, they would all have the same relative levels of NPK?

The answer has to do with concentrations.  The bigger the numbers, the more concentrated.  Higher concentrations are not the be-all, end-all in gardening, however.

In a 30-30-30, for example, you will get a huge burst in plant growth.  BUT the other chemicals in the fertilizer will be in much higher concentration.  Salts, carrier chemicals.  Which means higher soil residues, which in time will wreck your soil.

In the long run, if you’re planning to use soil in the future, a 3-3e-3 or 6-6y-6 is a more useful concentration level, even though it won’t be as great as a one-time super use of 30-30-30 might be.  (Hydroponics does overcome this, but the tradeoff is water changes.)

Many experts offer that the P (p0hosphorous) should be twice the nitrogen (n) and potassium (k).  You might roll with a 3-6-3 or 10-20-10 or even a 12-24-12 for real high output.  Just remember that salts and chemicals do accumulate with any of the chemical answers.  We keep 3-3-3 and 10-10-10 handy with emergency bad of 20-20-20.

Which is why things work best naturally.

On the list for coming weeks?  Some calls around to a few doughnut and coffee joints to see if I can score some coffee grounds.  Green in composting terms, so one part coffee grounds and three parts ground leaves will be a starting point for making compost tea.

Or we’ll use the chemical route this year.  Depends what the coffee emporiums will do.

The Tool Slut Pipes Up

With the gardening season nearly here, our musings wander off to the power tools aisle as we figure to finagle newest and bestest into the budget.  This time is something called the “Total Tiller Plus – which you can find for about $70 bucks on eBay.

Not endorsing the product for prepper/recovery gardening, but consider a couple of 12 VDC electric drills, run right off a 12 V solar panel as power.  Then hook up what is an electric drill attachment as a tool.  Small easy to use tiller-answer.

Can’t speak for you, but stooped-over, knee crawling hand work, or an almost too much to get in close with older Mantis 2-stroke, just isn’t the right answer for us.  An electric drill driven cultivator?

We’ll let you know. Didn’t see it on the Zon, fwiw.

Summing Up?

Decades back, I was having an issue troubleshooting an HF SSB radio system.  The senior engineer on the project reminded me “There’s no magic…it’s all physics.  So, follow the rules and you will have your solution.”  He was exactly right.

Gardening adheres to a strict set of rules, as well.  Where it all runs off the rails is many people want to argue over rules (or ignore them, not taking the time to study)  which are all very clear in the literature if you take the time to read the source materials and tease-out the algos that are buried in there.

A lot of people don’t.  Kinda like Ukraine, you know?  Too much pride, boastfulness, and bullshit on all sides.

THOUGHTFUL PEOPLE don’t operate like governments.  The art of getting along on this planet is to spend some time listening.  Even more studying to tease out the embedded algos.  Especially when your food is doing the talking.

Understand and practice how these major systems all interact and you will more likely have a great garden, better nutrition, and something that scare the hell out of tax collecting governments the world over.

Independent, free-thinking humans, with the good of all, at heart.

The Rest of Sunday’s Sermon?

From Brother Mic.

Write when you get rich, or if peace breaks out.