Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Newest and Hottest

Winter often brings with it a desire to be somewhere warm, dry, and cozy. We live in a farm house that was built sometime in the second half of the 1800's and, though its 18" thick brick walls make it far from drafty, one needs a good way to heat it.
The house was built with one big chimney through which passed the exhaust from three fireplaces, one in the basement, one on the first floor, and one on the second floor - all directly in line vertically. When Mom bought the house the second floor fireplace had been removed, leaving the lower two. And we were soon surprised by the reality that when we lit a fire in the living room the basement would get smoky. Upon professional inspection it was found that the flues had been designed to join into each other. The chimney sweep had never seen anything like it before, and subsequent professionals we've had out think we're pulling their legs when we tell them about it.
But that problem has long since been fixed, and a few years back we had a liner put up the chimney and a fireplace insert installed in the living room fireplace, which is the one that gets regular use. Those familiar with wood heat, thermodynamics, and/or general trivia know that fireplaces are pretty, but absolutely impossible to heat a house with. Almost all of the heat generated goes straight up and out the chimney via hot air, creating low pressure in the house, which in turn pulls air (that would be cold air) from the outdoors through any crack available. The result is a beautiful visual feature warming those directly beside it, paired with a constant draft in other parts of the house
A fireplace insert is a like a woodstove that only has a nice-looking front, since the rest is nestled into the fireplace cavity. The advantage over a free-standing woodstove is that it takes up less space. Both are designed as chambers that burn wood more efficiently (and distribute heat much more efficiently) than a fireplace. We got one called the Clydesdale, made by Hearthstone.
In terms of wood-burning efficiency it worked fine, but in the heating department it came up way short. Inserts depend on a fan (see the electric cord off to the right of the stove) which blows air through channels that go behind, around, and back out the front of the exterior of the stove - that's how the heat radiated by the insert gets moved from the fireplace cavity to the room you're trying to heat. The problem with the Clydesdale was that the fan didn't work very well, and was very noisy. Then the thermostat element in it broke, then the function that lets you moderate the fan's speed broke.
This year we decided that the insert just wasn't doing it for us. For all the heat it produced it could not heat the house, and for it to even work as well as possible it needed this fan on that often made listening to conversation or music difficult. We wanted something that could radiate its heat without use of any fan, and that meant a free-standing wood stove. An added bonus was a surface we could conceivably cook on, heat water on, warm socks on, etc.
We consulted a great fireplace shop in the Richmond area, actually The Fireplace Shop, and settled on a soapstone stove (for soapstone's many wonderful characteristics). While waiting for delivery, we thought maybe we'd prepare the way by getting the Clydesdale ready to depart. Inserts, it turns out, are stuck in the cavity and surrounded by insulation, then a collar is put over what remains of the gap between the fireplace front and the insert. That's so you can't see the ugly back. Once we took the collar off and the insulation out, we found that the heat truly poured forth. It was pretty amazing. To make the thing really effective the fan still needed to be on, but even without it there was A LOT of heat. If we had only known that we might not have gotten a new stove, but since it was on its way already, and because of the new stove's attributes, we stayed the course.
Because it sticks out further than the insert we needed more insulative material, so we got a piece of limestone (set on two pieces of Mycor) to match the existing hearth. So here is our beautiful new stove, the Hearthstone Heritage (my, aren't we refined?). It is a hit with the cat, the laundry, and the rest of us, and we all look forward to figuring out how to maximize its performance and charm.

The Clydesdale will find a place in the workshop, and possibly eventually in another home. I have fantasies about using it in a cob-masonry stove kind of application in the future.

To the credit of Hearthstone, this was one of the earliest versions of the Clydesdale, one with a few design flaws. When we went in to look for a new stove the folks at the Fireplace Shop asked us what we had.
"What? You have a Clydesdale? Why would you want to replace that? Oh, it's the old one. Never mind."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Emancipating the Potatoes

While we were having Thanksgiving in northern Indiana our garden received the biggest rainfall since we began recording it in mid-April of this year. It won't be a surprise to folks in this area to know that the season's record breaking amount was only 1.85", and that fell over two days. (The next greatest two days were the 9th and 10th of July, adding up to 1.3".)
But it was enough. Anyone who asked how the garden was doing in the past three months heard "It looks like our sorghum did really well. The last thing we have to harvest is the potatoes, but they are locked in our brick-like soil. It's going to take a good rain to be able to get them out." People quit asking about the garden after awhile.
Now I have been volunteering, triumphantly, that the potatoes have been freed. We got back Sunday, and Monday's first order of business was to dig as much of the remaining potato area as possible because of the rain scheduled for Tuesday. (At left are the seed potatoes cut, ashed, and ready to plant, back in April.) We had planted 245 square feet of potatoes, and between July 20 and September 23 I dug out 143 sq ft of them. Mostly coinciding with one of our measly .1" rains. And the most area I managed in a day was 55 sq ft, because the ground was so hard.

Heading out Monday afternoon I dug the remaining 103 sq ft in an hour and a half, which is a testament to the qualities of perfectly moist clay soil. Not too mucky, not too dry, and the fork pulls them 'taties out like a dream. Well, almost.

We planted these potatoes in April and May, and I think the May plantings had just gotten their tops all established when it quit raining. Our yields reflect that we're working heavy soil that has had its fertility pillaged.

Just a hint of what I'm talking about: the May planting, our worst yielding, was 65 sq ft of Kennebec potatoes, and we got a total of 4 lb from that (Margo and Alten weigh them on our itsy-bitsy scale at right). It works out to 6.2 lb per 100 sq ft. For all of you commercial potato farmers out there (and I know you're reading my blog) that works out to 1.34 tons/acre. For the rest of you, it works out to .13 lb of harvested potato for every pound planted. Which is what we call deficit spending.

It is easy, at this stage, to look at our potatoes and declare failure, commencing to plant petunias next year instead. But I maintain that failure is important, and I routinely tell folks that in classes. When someone wants to know the most important thing to master in gardening I answer "observation." Paying attention to the processes in your garden means the difference between learning from your mistakes and suffering from them time after time. Also important (when discussing failure) is perspective. This is our first year here, and we hope to be producing all of our food within a few years. Is it better to have crop failure in one of our most important foods when we are getting on our feet, or to experience it when we are depending on that crop?

So what went wrong with our potatoes? There were two obvious culprits, which I have already mentioned. First, our soil is heavy clay, and little organic matter remains from its previous 20 or more years of being gardened. Root crops don't like that. They aren't allowed to expand, so they grow small and in funny shapes. The second was the lack of water, which we were counting on as rain (the healthiest form of irrigation for crops and soil). Additionally, we planted them about a month later than we wanted. Earlier planting would have given them quite a jump on growth before the hot (and dry) weather of summer hit. Quality of seed potatoes may have played a role, but most of ours looked very good. The first three variables are so overwhelming that smaller ones, like varieties planted, pest damage, and availability of micronutrients wouldn't add up to much.What will we do differently to address these troubles next year? Well, we'll start by getting a bigger scale, cause weighing even a small potato harvest 1 lb at a time gets tedious. Seriously though, we plan to post production of compost as a top priority, and though adding compost will probably take years to make an impact on this soil we're committing now. We saw that most of our crops needed at least twice as much water as they got which, though that wouldn't really be much water in the big picture, it is way more that we can store currently. So we'll add some rainwater storage and water more than just the newly planted stuff (and, of course, hope for a different weather pattern next year). We'll be as on-schedule as any farmer ever is next year, since we'll be starting out with more than practically nothing. And, finally, we'll watch and see what happens in the completely different conditions that next year will undoubtedly bring.
Until then we will be a little short on the homegrown mashed potatoes...