Monday, June 1, 2009

The Garden/Guinea Pig Connection...

A number of weeks ago my wife and I caved to the whims of our seven year old daughter who wanted a pet of her own. She had her heart set on a hamster that could run in an exercise ball around the house and live in a cage in her own room. We were vaguely familiar with what to expect from a hamster. It would be a mean little ba$tard with a pension for eating it's own body parts. Uh, not in my house. I don't know if they really eat themselves but, I wasn't interested in risking it either. The night terrors that would be sure to follow such a self destructive act would disrupt our peaceful suburban existence and thus, I put my foot down. No Hamsters!

Guinea Pigs on the other hand seemed pretty easy going. We decided to look into it. As it turns out, when we went to investigate, the pet store was actually adopting out two paired males from a home that couldn't take care of them. They came complete with a basic home made cage and a couple of assorted Guinea Pig necessities. We pulled them from their cage to "get to know them" and I saw that they have four toes on their front feet and three on their back feet. Cool! I HAD to have them. It's oddities like that excite me and I was smitten. It didn't hurt that my wife and three children thought they were adorable. So, we brought home Bugsy and Lightning, our newest additions to the family.

We try to lead a relatively sustainable lifestyle and have made a lot of adjustments in how we do things to help facilitate that choice. We daily look for areas where we can improve and, as such, wanted to raise our new pets in similar fashion. Of course that includes recycled paper bedding (litter) that's available for only a small difference in price over other options. The bedding comes from rejected paper pulp that is not fit for consumer use so it's a great way to get use (and revenue for the paper companies) from a waste material that would otherwise go into landfills. 

As it turns out, our little rodent friends spoil a fairly large amount of it. We clean the cage daily, removing their poo, hay and alfalfa scraps and the wet spots (they tend to pee in only two spots in their cage, a good sign that they may be trainable) and collect approximately one full coffee can full of litter when we do. While I tend to the cage, the beasts get to spend some time in their own dedicated play pen that we can setup in our kitchen. There, they get to spread out a little, fend off the kids with chirps and squeals, antagonize the cat and, most importantly, get their daily dose of fresh veggies. Since the garden is coming in nicely (words and pics to come), we are able to feed them fresh stuff straight from our little plot and they love it. Spinach is a big hit. Carrots go over well. Strawberries are a nice surprise since they require a lot of vitamin C. Most of all, though, they are ape crazy about cilantro and parsley. They like the greens the way our girls like bubbles and that's saying a lot.

The cool part of our new rodent invested lifestyle, the part that ties it all together, though, is composting. We spent the time to build a second, Guinea Pig centric composting rig. Open air, made with hardware cloth, placed directly on fresh dirt that allows Earth's wonderful little buggers to do their magic. It's two feet deep, three feet wide and three feet tall. You see, both their waste and the litter they live on is compostable. It's perfect. I tend to want for more carbon (brownie) types of materials for my primary composting bin and the litter is a great additive. Not to mention, I have a bunch of it now. Mixed with their dinner leftovers, dirt starter, coffee grounds, etc. the litter based compost promises to be an excellent addition to our composting plan. I intend to run it as a slower process than our "barrel" style composter located in the garden and I look forward to adding a great mix of nutrients and soil conditioners back into the garden in the fall that's fed the varmints all summer long. 

It's nice piece of serendipity right here in our home and we feel really good about it...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Progress Report...

Today is Earth Day '09 and I woke up determined to spend some time in the garden to celebrate. I've had a couple projects in the works and it seemed appropriate to complete them and begin to utilize them as I finished. 

I've been working on adding an additional bed to our main garden area (located on the south side of the home) but, it was progressing slowly and, as I built up the walls out of stone, rather unstable. So I began the day by rearranging some of the stone work and building the walls a touch higher than they were when I woke up. The bulk of the stone is reclaimed off of building sites and client's properties where I work my "day job" and so, comes in various sizes and compositions. Most of that which we use is either granite or sandstone. We also have one very large piece of volcanic basalt that I brought home from a business trip to Flagstaff, AZ. 

I spent some hour or so in arranging the bits and pieces until satisfied and then moved on to filling the bed with soil. That we got when we excavated around the window wells of the home's basement. We had expanded the wells and lined with a sandstone retaining wall a couple of year's ago and thus, had a large pile of "waste earth" that we kept in an ugly pile on the other side of the house. It took approximately a dozen wheel barrow loads to fill the new bed and I have the blisters to prove it. I have reclaimed the vast majority of that soil in our gardening projects and spent considerable time conditioning it. The make up of our suburban Colorado home's soil is clay based. Thick, sticky and darn near impenetrable. So we have tilled the earth with a lot of compost, manure, mulch and some play sand. By early afternoon, I had the bed ready to go and had applied water to help it settle into itself, helping to stabilize the retaining wall. 

Having finished that project (and gaining some major points with my wife) it was time to apply myself to finishing a project I began a couple of weeks ago. This one was of a completely different flavor. I have wanted to build a proof of concept water storage system. Nothing huge, nothing fancy and, in Colorado, totally illegal. That's right. Illegal. Colorado is bound by some of, if not the most, strict water rights laws in the nation and any sort of water storage and most diversion is frowned on. Ostensibly, all water, even that which flows from our gutters is to be left unhindered to flow into the water table. My personal feeling is that while our arid climate requires legislation, simple, small projects that don't actually prevent water from returning to the cycle but, instead, provide for short term storage and non potable reuse should be encouraged rather than discouraged. 

With that said, I had salvaged a fifty five gallon, plastic drum from a construction site some time back. I knew when it was given to me exactly how I wanted to utilize it. I proudly brought home my find only to have my wife tell me how ugly she thought the bright blue barrel was. So aesthetics were going to be a major concern. I knew that the barrel was gonna need some work to make it usable but, color wasn't something I had thought about. The first step in building the cistern into something usable was to research what others had done before me. I'm a big fan of efficiency and figure that Google is my best friend in avoiding mistakes by learning from other's experience. I found a great, easy tutorial at this site that spelled out how to go about it. Following the instructions, I have built out basically the exact same rig and at minimal expense. The one big difference is that I had to make the thing at least reasonably good looking or risk facing the wrath of Nicole. I purchased three cans of faux rock textured spray paint ($8.50 each at Ace Hardware!) and set to transforming my barrel. As it turns out, three cans didn't cut it and I had to hit it again with two more in order to get reasonable coverage. I also went a bit further than the tutorial by using the existing opening (about three inches diameter) on the top of the barrel to allow for venting. This would provide some oxygen to the water stored (hopefully preventing funky stagnation) as well as allow for heat to escape. Without it, I'm afraid I'd be building a solar thermal heat trap and end up irrigating the new garden bed with the equivalent of tea. I covered the port with two layers of fine mesh (paint strainer) to keep out the creepy crawlies. So today, I "finished" it by completing the paint, adding the strainers and a simple spigot and setting it up under a gutter. I was also smart enough to keep it relatively out of sight by placing it behind a fence. My understanding is that if I get caught or ratted out by a neighbor, I'm looking at a minimum $100 fine. Yikes!

I have every intention of going even further with the collection system by adding a modicum of electronics to it. I simply can't leave well enough alone. So the goal is to build up a sensor network through out the garden this year and hopefully,  place all the data into a website dedicated to the data. Sensors I intend to use include a handful of soil moisture probes, several temperature sensors (for ambient air, soil and compost temps), humidity sensor, light sensors to track sunlight and more. I also intend to add temperature, water level sensors in the barrel and also automate a solenoid that will then release the water as needed into the new bed. If all goes well, you'll be able to read about the electronics here and at my other blog, Tony No One in the very near future. 

So that's all for this entry. I trust that you also celebrated Earth Day appropriately and here's to productive gardening!