Garden update 3.2.18

Clear sunny day with high of 45. Low last night was upper 20s.

Removed three more of the obnoxiously large grasses from the front yard and moved elsewhere.

Placed last of 14 3×3 beds, which is for asparagus. Hand dug up the year old crowns and spaced further apart in bed. Still need to add good organic mulch on that.

The garlic is also going strong, 15 shoots when counting today. Having completely forgotten to write down how many cloves were planted, no idea of germination rate. The evergreen note to self: take better notes.

Hard to see, but there are garlic shoots in there!

Garden Update 3.1.18, seed starting edition

Beginning of March is the beginning of seed starting!

Planted several varieties of peppers for both myself and Bobby to share. Maybe a few left overs, but trying to do better about not starting TOO many and then forcing them all into the garden.

Also started a handful of herbs.

Backing up a step, also worth explaining I’ve expanded seed starting to a new set of wire shelves, Two LED grow lights, and two flexible heat mats. Still have to figure out some timing things with lights and mats, but hoping for strong starts, especially with heat lovers like tomatoes and peppers.

Our neighbor thought we had decorated for easter with the pink lights…

Garden Update 2.16.18

Raised bed reorganization has begun. The beds last year were a smattering of different sizes and spacing, along with the colossale structure of a greenhouse/coldhouse at the back.

While I don’t want the most rigid garden in the world, a bit more structure could certainly bring some order to what was a bit chaotic last year. So the beds are getting reconstructed and added to, creating 15 three foot by three foot squares in the end. With about 20″ walk ways between them, a fairly nice grid should be visible when done. The windows from the cold house will be reused to make individual cold frames, and since each bed is identical in interior dimensions, will allow placing and moving them as conditions and plants dictate. Hopefully future me reflects on this as a brilliant and successful endeavor.

The standardized size has also moved me closer to a more ‘square foot’ type garden. While I’m not about to lay down string in a grid over the soil, I hope a few lessons in planning and organization pay off in a slightly more aesthetic garden. I have no illusions of control over nature’s order, but I would like to be able to faster identify what on earth I planted where.

A few of the 3’x3′ beds.

Breadtry 1.23.17

Trying out longer autolyse periods to increase strength for a better shaped boule, while still being light enough for open airy crumb.

125g AP Flour
130g Bread Flour
125g water

Let sit for 2 hours, then added to start fermentation:

1/2 tsp SAF yeast
1/2 tsp barley malt syrup
125g bread flour
60g water
1/2 tsp salt

Tuck and fold four times at ten minute increments. Then allow for a one hour proof before transferring to sheet. Allow 30 minutes rest and preheat oven to 475, then bake for 30 minutes.

Results were tightly formed boules that held their vertical shape much better than past attempts. Not as open of a crumb as desired, probably not enough hydration (could probably increase in first autolyse step)

Garden Notes: End of March

Pittsburgh winters are fickle beasts. More and more often we are stuck with a warm November, recently sliding into December, that sees very little snow contributing to a White Christmas. January typically sees freezing cold, and surprise snow one day will be followed by weather just warm enough to melt the snow, turning it into a gray icy mess.

This year, we skipped a lot of the second part of winter that can wear you down, chilling you to the core with sub zero temperatures. It was cold, it was winter, but we also had a lot of days warmer than 50 degrees before we even got to March. All of this is a long winded way of getting to a hard question for someone eager to get planting in the garden: when to start seeds?

Planning out what goes where, and when.

We are officially in Zone 6 in Pittsburgh, and our last frost date is supposed to range from mid April until mid May, depending on which source you ask. Ever the optimist, or maybe just eager-ist, I go by the earliest date provided and sometimes roll back even further from that.

Past gardens have been successful, but we have a larger yard and a more permanent mindset that is fostering a desire for both more consistent production, as well as a longer season of fresh foods. Having tried some succession planting in the past, I picked up a few books to push this idea even further. I would highly recommend Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest. Full of wonderful ideas, charts and theory behind rotating crops, successive plantings, and crop variety, the goal is to push your garden to a year round bounty. Additionally, his farm is based in Maine, so it provided some practical cold world information that a majority of fair weather gardening blogs and books do not deal with.

In front of southern facing windows, on top of a radiator, we now have seedlings for a whole host of edibles, and a few flowers, some of which were started over 4 weeks ago, at the end of February. There are the regulars: tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, radishes. We are also trying a few new things this year: rhubarb, chard, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as a reach goal of growing artichokes.

As March draws to a close, we are now facing a long stretch of warm weather, with not a single low dropping below freezing. In fact, frost appears to be so remote of a threat, I took it as an opportunity to finish construction on our raised beds and begin sowing a few direct seed outdoor crops. Focusing on cold hardy plants, we now have carrots and beets in one of the root vegetable beds. These beds are the typical mix of compost/soil/peat moss, but also have a bag of sand mixed in to loosen the soil and allow for bigger produce than what our compact earth would otherwise generate.

Our five raised beds and cold house in the background.

Some peas and radishes were also planted, with room left for successive crops to follow in the coming weeks, which was also done with the carrots and beets. A few rows of greens, spinach, arugula and a few lettuces, also went into the coldhouse (more on that another time…). Most of our herbs will likely be bought as existing plants, having had much trouble cultivating from seed in the past. One of the few being tried from seed this year is Cilantro, mainly for allowing better staggering of plantings, so we can have fresh all spring/summer/fall.

Over the next few weeks, as we inch closer to certain frost free territory, more seeds will go into the ground, and the seedlings will work their way outside to harden and eventually transplant. The previous flower beds were lined with plastic, which is now in bad shape, and need to be totally reworked before planting there. Fortunately a lot of flower seedlings want much warmer soils, so we still have weeks to work with there.


Other than foundations, one other components of buildings is incredibly close to the earth, the floor. So close, that for a long time they were one and the same. Clearing of simple brush and grasses gave a rudimentary refinement to the first floors in buildings. It’s little wonder we still push G for ground in our fancy multi floor sky scraper elevators of today.

Ever since this first clearing of earth for a floor, there have been two evolving paths; flooring as a structure and flooring as a decorative aspect. The latter will be covered at a future date, with pauses to further explain some of the materials and principles going into each.

From a building perspective, walking on exposed earth carries a few pros and a lot of cons. It’s cheap. It’s available in most locations. And if you plan right, it requires little labor. This is where the cons start. Go outside and pick a spot the same size as any room in your house on the ground. Likely you will have found a decently flat spot of grass in a lawn. Remember these are very recent inventions, and a more accurate facsimile to dirt floors would require you to go for a hike and find some relatively flat and clear land in undisturbed nature. Quickly this becomes much more difficult.

An earthen floor in a log cabin

It didn’t take long to realize that taking the same materials that made up your walls and placing them on the ground was faster and easier than removing boulders, tree roots, etc. Once you applied the notion of a foundation allowing you to build in more varied locals, a floor that isn’t dependent on the earth you are standing on allows for infinitely more flexibility. Beams and joists were born, taking wall framing techniques and allowing them to span gaps instead. Second floors and above were now possible, and a whole world of wood framing to support them. More on that later.

The other prevalent material we have seen in foundations also made an appearance here; stone. It’s durability made it a natural fit for solid earth flooring, with the benefit of also not becoming mud when wet. Unfortunately, great effort was needed to create suitably flat stones for walking, or the utmost patience in hoping to find one that nature had already worked in an appropriate fashion. The weight that came with such sturdiness also made creating second floors and above quite the challenge. Hence the supremely thick walls of stone buildings.

Stone floor in the Hagia Sophia

In both cases, being the first to ever conceive of and build such floors gave you the premier pick of natural resources. Buildings from the 16th and 17th centuries often employ amazing floor boards two feet wide, having so many trees of such a width available. Additionally, with so little extravagant housing stock, great stones, either in scale or rareness of material, or quite often both, would grace magnificent masonry based buildings. As we mastered building floors, their prevalence increased. With this increased demand, new methods and unique stylings were needed for both supply and preferential reasons.

Floor coverings were born, and along with them, the concept of a subfloor. The incredulity you would face if you were to travel back hundreds of years and tell builders to build a second floor directly on top of the structural creation they just made is hard to imagine. But that is exactly what we evolved to do, and in ways to conquer all sorts of problems.


Because we have gravity, we have a need for foundations. Whether you put a stool on the ground, or build a treehouse high in the treetops, where these objects meet the surface of the earth, you get a foundation. In the previous two cases, these would be the legs of said stool, and the tree and root system your structure is attached to, respectively.

We really like building things, and, most of the time, we really like it when those built things remain where we originally constructed them. Foundations do their best to fight gravity and weathering forces to keep a building in place. As humans, we realized the need for foundations shortly after figuring out the most basic of shelter. When rain softens the ground and your small twig lean-to sinks and falls over, it doesn’t take long to look back to the cave you used to inhabit, and try to mimic those properties elsewhere.

The easiest building blocks surrounding our ancestors were plants, most often trees, resulting in simple wooden structures often resting directly on the ground. As the dynamic world around these structures kept moving, so did these early wooden creations. Slowly realization set in that anchoring more of the wood into the earth would give you added stability. Simple post foundations were born, but were limited by how far down one could dig, as well as how sturdy the wood being used was. We still build this way a lot today; a short walk down your street would find at least one fence erected in this fashion.

So stone was a natural next step, and one that we’ve kept using right up to present day. Most stone foundations are what would be called a shallow foundation, often resulting in stones laid directly on the surface of the earth, or buried a minimal distance, like the posts above. Offering greater longevity and a reduced amount of movement in changing (hot/cold/wet/dry) environments, stone became widely adopted around the world.

We learned how to apply these techniques in a variety of situations, adapting them both to location and to the desired structure. Posts could let you build above swamps and water. A deeper foundation fared better in environments with frost, and if you made them large enough, could serve as storage. Cluttered basements were born. We also learned how to use and make other materials fulfill these needs; clay and concrete in all their forms. This worked, and still works, incredibly well for small to medium sized buildings in a majority of locales where one wants to place a building. But as conditions became more extreme, and builders ambitions grew, other solutions were sought after.

Some very large buildings can be made with these primitive shallow foundation techniques. Even the Eiffel Tower sits on a stone foundation, one that is only 7-8 feet deep! (It is actually a very light structure for how visually impressive it is, part of Gustav’s ingenuity) Look at medieval castles, ancient temples, churches and places of worship around the globe; the pyramids are huge. But as we sought even denser buildings to place into what were becoming growing communities that would become villages and cities, we needed a better solution.

Deep foundations were the answer, evolving from the simpler wooden structures anchored with timber going into the earth. It was realized that the further down the pole was driven, the more rigid it became. These wooden timbers would now be referred to as piles, and grouping them together can provide support to vast structures, or supply a surprisingly solid foundation in locations with less than ideal soil conditions.

The piles rely on friction between the length of the pile and the earth surrounding it. This surface friction is incredibly strong, even against very smooth surfaces. To try at home, find a tall, non-tapered, glass, fill it with rice, and then plunge a long knife into the rice. Pulling back up on the handle will find the glass held in place by nothing but friction. This is important since early piles were smoothed down logs driven down using brute force. Reducing surface defects allowed for easier driving, and the friction was still strong enough to keep the structure from moving.

Deep foundations have grown in scale and complexity to cope with ever growing demands placed, quite literally, on top of them. We’ve employed steel and concrete, we’ve adjust shapes and sizes, and we’ve gone deeper and at innovative new angles, all in the name of building bigger structures in places that would otherwise see them topple. One hundred and ninety two piles, each five feet wide and one hundred and fifty feet long seems pretty extreme. But when you realize that supports a structure stick half a mile into the sky, on ground that is nothing but sand, foundations seem pretty impressive.

Hydronic Heat

With any centralized heating system, the goal is to take a source of heat in one location and distribute it throughout a structure. As the name suggests, hydronic heat accomplishes this with water.

You can identify a hyrdonic heating system by the larger radiators located throughout the building, often near sources of cold intrusion (doors and windows). These radiators are made of modular metal segments that are cast with hollow openings throughout, allowing water to pass through them.

The water is fed to these radiators through a system of pipes leading back to the central boiler. Here, water is heated, often to 150–200 degrees Fahrenheit, before heading back out to the radiators. The heat, as the aptly named fixtures imply, is then radiated out into the room.

Three positive elements come out of this distributed heat system using water. One is that it is very easy to control heat on a per-room or per-zone basis. Valves on the sides of the radiators give rudimentary control, and now modern day electrical valves can group several rooms together into a zone with a separate thermostat.

Tandem to this is the scalability brought with individualized control. Buildings with dozens of rooms can still run off of one appropriately sized boiler with no issue.

Because the heat is distributed through a closed water system, there is very little air movement. This greatly reduces allergen and dust movement. Additionally, many people prefer the constant radiant heat from a radiator without a burst of wind that one may have with a forced air system.

There are some downsides to water heat however. One is the obvious size of the radiators. While slimmer radiators have become available recently, most homes in the united states that have radiators still utilized decades old cast iron beasts. These large, and incredibly heavy, objects can be difficult to plan around and occupy a lot of space.

There are also a lack of viable ways of providing cooling via water to a house. In most cases, a separate system must be installed to supply cold air throughout a building supplied by hot water heat.

The future of hyrdonic heating is in under floor heat. This system removes the intrusive radiators while still providing a constant, pleasing heat. Best of all, it is evenly distributed throughout the entire living space. The same zoned advantages apply, and efficiencies using this method can go through the roof, despite starting in the floor.

Gas Lighting

We are afraid of the dark. We don’t like it. For thousands of years we have worked on having mastery over our surroundings, and the production of light has been a crucial instrument all along the way. We created fireplaces and elaborate urns, then progressed to candles and eventually burning oil lanterns. The biggest drawback for all of these methods when it came to household illumination was the constant need of refueling. With natural gas, this changed.

In the Knob and Tube post, there is a reference to dual source light fixtures, the other source being coal-gas (and eventually natural gas). Originally discovered as a byproduct of coal mining, this invisible gas quickly became adopted as a light and heat source once it’s benefits were understood.

Paris and London were some of the first cities to use gas lighting for public places and streets. Having a gas that could be distributed via pipes allowed for illumination of much larger spaces with significantly reduced labor. Theaters saw widespread use, becoming so bright now actors and actresses had to change their makeup and motions of acting, able to be seen much clearer now. The Chatelet Theater in paris boasted over 28 miles of piping and over 900 valves for control.

Raw flame was a significant step above candlelight, but pioneers didn’t stop there. By aiming the jet of fire at different materials, even brighter light could be generated. Popular in theaters, a metal mesh coated with lime would yield rather brilliant light, hence the phrase “being in the lime light”

In buildings, the gas is distributed via cast iron pipes with threaded connections. While labor intensive, the ease and shorter learning curve led with widespread adoption. Combined with the cost savings over traditional fuels, and the struggles with electricity distribution, gas remained popular as a lighting solution well past the first electric lamps. Another added benefit was being able to use the same gas for heating devices, as well as cooking and baking. It is little wonder it took large leaps in electrical technology to finally end gas’ reign.

So why don’t we use natural gas more often today? Compared to modern wiring for electrical power distribution, gaslines are much more labor intensive to install. Some modern developments have narrowed the delta a bit, but electrical power is far more prevalent. The visible risks, fire and explosions, have plagued natural gas since it’s infancy, blamed for burning down countless buildings. Now that we have a great understanding of natural gas, we know that burning it creates large amounts of carbon monoxide. Drafty homes in years past kept this from becoming a widespread killer, but today incredible precautions and safety enhancements are needed to keep this poisonous gas at bay.

While it’s (and near cousin, propane’s) portability in tanks still allows for convenience in remote areas, we rarely see gas lighting today. It’s greatest use is in heating of air and water for domestic heat, and many still prefer cooking and baking with it in the kitchen. Decorative fireplaces have also seen a lot of popularity as safety mechanisms increase their reliability in the home.

More on Electricity

Coming back from a recent trip to Europe of course leads many questions about the differences in infrastructure and building development. It’s amazing how different things are across the board; electrical, plumbing, building materials, etc.

In doing research on these variations, I stumbled across a good read over at Rexophone. Good in this case being lengthy and nerdy, but also full of interesting photos as we discovered how to make electricity work. It’s a good resource for some of the items talked about in the Knob and Tube post. In particular, the photos of household items before plugs were invented are spectacular.