The Septic System – Completed

Our friend J came out last Monday to install the drain field baffles and then backfill everything. I assumed all went well and picked up some seed on my way down Tuesday thinking I could get it spread on all of the bare soil and topped with straw to help keep erosion at bay. J was locking the gate when I drove up.

“There’s been a problem” said J as I walked up. My heart sank. It turns out J’s trackhoe broke down right after he started to backfill. A mobile tractor guy had been out earlier that day and after 6 hours and trips to a parts store a couple of hours away… thought it was fixed. Thirty minutes after the repair guy left it broke down again. Poor J! He had taken Monday off from work to finish this part of the job up, had to leave work early Tuesday to meet the repair guy and now he had to take another day off of work to [hopefully] get the trackhoe fixed and finish the backfilling.

Wednesday morning J and the repair guy showed up – another trip to yet another part store a few hours away and about 6 hours later the trackhoe was operational. It was pretty late in the day by then and with dusk coming on between 400 – 430 pm, I didn’t think J was going to get much done. The dry weather he was counting on was disappearing that night with rain in the forecast.  Another project that was planned for completion during the summer was creeping into the wet, muddy days of November… It must be our thing.

I jumped in the trench with a shovel and the roll of CAUTION tape and nearly sunk in up to my knees! All of the water from the previous weekend rains had wreaked havoc on the open trenches. Although it was sunny and dry, water was still pouring down the hill. The septic line trenches and all around the tanks were filled with water. Unfortunately, the water coming from the west side of the curtain drain was perfectly lined up with the septic drain line and making matters worse.

The dirt was now heavy clay mud and it took so much more effort to shovel it in and lay the CAUTION tape. Hell, it took more effort to just take one step – the mud was so soupy in places it would suck your boot right off it you weren’t careful. I just kept telling myself I’m building character.

and hopefully some muscle.

and unfortunately some searing low back pain.

Good thing the tanks were filled with water, otherwise they may have floated away! Seriously – the septic design specifically instructs you to fill the tanks immediately upon setting them in the ground for this reason.

A channel had to be dug on the other side of the pump tank so some of the water could drain out before backfilling

We hand shoveled dirt on the septic line about 6″ deep, then laid the tape. It was awful. It was hard. But it got done and J was able to backfill about 80% before it got too dark. He is a wizard with that machine. He came back Sunday and finished the backfilling (thanks goodness the rain let up for the afternoon), loaded his trackhoe up  and headed off into the sunset. Turns out this was the last job for the trackhoe as S & J have closed their company and are selling off all of their heavy equipment. Another “sweet & sorrow” parting me thinks.

Drain field baffles installed. Inspector Magpie checking J’s work

All of the dirt (at least the stuff that didn’t get washed down the hill) back in its place.

In the meantime, I did get the chicken manure/straw mix spread on my Cistern Garden beds, mixed my compost tea, neem oil and fish emulsion concoction and sprayed the fruit and nut trees, plus finished my rock border around the recently planted “roundabound” garden. No seeding though but all in all, a pretty productive mid-week visit.

Bay tree in the center with rosemary on either side, purple sage here and there, Berseem clover for ground cover and black mondo grass around the edges. More plants will be added next spring.

M and I headed back down over the weekend and checked a few more things off of our to do list. M spread a truck load of gravel I had delivered while I was there mid-week. He rode his motorcycle down Friday night after work and did it in the dark with a headlamp and the tractor headlights. I was impressed!

night time gravel

We really need to dig in a swale to redirect that water coming out of the curtain drain – which is doing its job of keeping all of that water away from the barn and our future house site – but the ground is way too wet and muddy now so will have to wait until next summer. The next best thing we could think of to do was to put up a silt fence to try and redirect some of the water away from the bare soil.

We sprinkled about 8 bales of old hay on the bare soil but ran out of time before we could get it all covered. We will have to finish it up next trip down.

So the septic system is completed but we have nothing to hook up to it yet. We are planning on starting the farm prep area buildout next month – just as soon as we check off all of the existing items on the to do list.

Posted in Construction, Farm Machines, Preparing the land, Uncategorized, Water Management | 6 Comments

Planning Days

After a crazy week and finalizing inspections it is time to circle back on lists and to-dos. While I am raring to get started on building the farm prep area out in the barn there are a multitude of little projects in the way. Most of them are time sensitive.

L is the project queen while I am that guy who will work till he can’t anymore and leave tools laying about in the garage because I am unfinished with the project or too tired to include putting things away as part of the work at hand. (I’m working on it – Bill and DM please don’t judge me too harshly!)

Whiteboard sessions get us both on the same page but don’t happen as often as needed… Given the amount of time we spent on the farm this week we are hunkered down this weekend planning.

The cool damp weather made a fire seem like a good idea… but a “blazer” was a little too much heat. It takes work for a cool fire.


November is spoken for.

Note”Martinis” on the 22nd. We are spending our anniversary on the farm. I have a plan, we’ll see how it works out.

The brain dump list

Day 2
I got up early to whip up some homemade bagels. Planning days have an upside. I wooed L with this brunch 9 years ago.

This whiteboard covers our barn buildout and layer coop thoughts including small grain bin under shed on the east wall.

Where the water and electricity go is important to understand before things get framed in. Also what appliances we need on hand is critical so I can frame to size and position outlets and gas connections in the right spot.

We spent a lot of time looking for info on 4ft fire resistant doors, BTU outputs, nest box ideas, and exterior lighting options.

For heating the 540 sqft space it seems like a propane wall heater might work in case of a power outage. If we should go off grid electric would be too high a load on a small battery bank.

Most of this needs to get done in December through early February. It seems hard to book it until we have some of the details in hand but I can start working on lumber estimates and figure out some of the tricky stuff like code requirements for putting in I-beam joists and distance from propane and water to electrical runs.

But a few things have enough impact on framing that we need to get on them sooner. Anyone know a good place to find a four foot wide door with a fire rating of 20 minutes?

L really wants to spread out planning days in weeknight evenings. I need to suck it up and oblige because a little planning goes a long way.

Posted in Barn, Construction, Farming, Gardening, Homesteading, Permaculture, Preparing the land | Tagged , | 8 Comments

The Cistern Garden

Remember the old grain bin we upcycled as an underground cistern? We haven’t done much with it yet but we do have plans to make it an attractive water feature in addition to storing 6000 gallons of barn roof runoff to use for the surrounding gardens. We made a little progress on it a couple of weekends ago – a welcome respite from our septic and electric woes of late.

January 2014

Cistern installation Jan 2014

Just before leveling and bed shaping work began

After leveling and beginning to build the beds up

We transplanted a few pear, plum, apple trees and raspberries in this area earlier this year (you can just make out the tree cages in the background) and have plans to add more. This is the same garden where we were going to plant the “asparagus guild”.  Originally I planned on planting it out between the fruit trees, but upon further consideration I realized the fruit trees would eventually shade the asparagus and artichokes too much so I decided to move it to another section of the garden. I think a lovely hedge of artichokes and asparagus underplanted with herbs, clover and strawberries will make a spectacular entrance into the Cistern Garden as the main entrance gate will be right where I stood to take this picture in front of the cistern.

As we have clay soils and have been running over them a bit with all of the construction, I want to build these beds up pretty high for the asparagus to ensure good drainage. I laid cardboard down first, then large flakes of straw – and a little dog.

Magpie is sporting a dayglow orange vest as it is hunting season and she can look very deer-like when she “sproings” around in the tall grasses or runs through the woods

Woodstove ash, ag lime and trace minerals (azomite and calphos) were then sprinkled on and M fired up the tractor to dump several inches of cow manure/doug fir compost on top of that.

I’m heading down to the farm this morning while we have two forecasted dry days to do a fall foliar spray on the fruit and nut trees and will also try to finish layering these beds while I’m there. I plan to add several inches of the chicken manure/bedding I’ve been dragging down to the farm every weekend, then top off the whole she-bang with several inches of topsoil we’ve stockpiled from the barn site leveling. This should breakdown rather nicely over the fall/winter and be ready for an early spring planting of the artichokes and asparagus I’ve been growing at home in pots.

In the meantime we hired a local fencing guy to enclose this roughly 20,000 sf area. This will allow us to get some things growing without worrying about the deer and I can also use part of this area for my plant nursery. Trying to grow hundreds and hundreds of trees, shrubs, vines, etc… for the farm on my deck at home is less than ideal.

M designed the [fingers-crossed] deer proof fence and we worked together on a gate design for the main entrance. (note – although M says “welded wire” – it will be woven wire which is much more durable). There will be another 5′ walk gate down on the northwestern corner near where the fruit trees are planted and an 8′ tractor gate on the eastern side.

We had to special order untreated cedar posts. It doesn’t seem fair to have to pay a whole lot more money to NOT have them chemically treated, but that seems to be the “organic way”.  We treated them ourselves with a natural preservative we made using boiled linseed oil, orange oil, beeswax, pure gum turpentine and borax. We slowly melted the wax into this mixture over our portable propane heater and then heavily coated each post.

In case you are thinking “hey – boiled linseed oil has toxic yick in it” – our research showed that the Crown brand doesn’t add the drying agent chemicals that all of the other companies add. It is just boiled linseed oil.


Recently treated cedar fence posts for the Cistern Garden drying on top of our “home milled” cedar posts destined for the Chicken Food Forest, which are lying on top of the Doug fir logs we will be using in the construction of our home

It’s nice to be working on something that doesn’t involve shovels and muddy trenches.

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The Septic System – A Pictorial

Standing at the future house septic tank looking back towards the barn septic tank. The trench on the right is where the main power line comes up to the barn from the transformer. We’ve also buried phone cable for DSL in that trench.


Standing at the barn looking at the barn septic tank. The green riser further down is the septic tank for the future house. The line goes straight down from there about 200 ft to the pump tank.

The point where the two septic tanks come together into one line heading down to the pump tank

The pump tank and where the lines take a hard left over to the drain field

top of the drain field

Drain field in progress

Post for mounting septic control panel. Apparently it has to be within 50′ of the pump tank and our barn is 240′ away. We weren’t planning on a post in this field so will have to get creative with tree and shrub planting.

Inspection Day. Thank Goodness we PASSED! As a matter of fact, the inspector and the septic designer were both quite impressed with the job. The best news is that we can now backfill all of the trenches – hopefully with this warm fall we are experiencing, the pasture grasses will grow back in pretty quick.

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Lights are On

Oh my goodness what a journey.

Last night I rode my motorcycle down to the farm after work. Closing in on the farm was a cold, wet, piercing fog. It was so thick I wiped my visor every few seconds and I had to slow down to 25mph just to stay on the road and to dodge the deer.

The day had been filled with texts from L. “Electrician is coming.”  “No word from the PUD.”  Our friends helping us with the septic install were “worried about the rain ruining the open system.”  “Calls in to the septic designer – no response. ”

I wasn’t sure if I should make the 2 hour trip or not. In the end I went, straight from the office. It would be hilarious if I made the trip and no one showed up the next day.

I reached the farm a little after 10 pm, dripping with fog-dew and set up the trailer.

Up before sunrise I snapped this. It was a chilly night but a little coffee and an omelette with fresh greens perked me up. The messages from L. later said that the power company was on the way. Our electrician showed up soon after I finished breakfast.

By 11:30 the electrician had moved a palette of bricks outside the garage, core drilled through the concrete, cut a trench to meet with the existing one, and sleeved and mortared the new hole. I felt ashamed of myself for the private profanity storm I’d let loose with when I discovered the mistake. He did the right thing.

Sure it is a convoluted mess, but backfilling hides all mistakes.

Then the PUD pulled line down to the pole and down from the barn to connect it.

…but they buried the phone line close into the power line anyway… after I asked them not to. But I took a bunch of pictures, measured relative depth and know exactly where the problem, if there is one, is. If I have to I’ll go back in with a shovel and fix it. I have become an excellent re-digger.

While the guys hooked up our transformer. (Whose  annoying little hum will be the sound of us selling solar power one day) I busied myself with leveling some fill rocks in our roundabound. I also planted some surprises for L. She can tell you all about it in 6 months or so.

I then came back and flipped a switch.

This means we have power and water since the well uses an electric pump.

It also means we can get our septic inspected and the Labor and Industries inspector can come out and rubber stamp it. But I had to leave to get back to work. After playing phone tag until 9, the inspector said he wouldn’t be out until tomorrow. So L will have to go down for that one as we pass the baton of farm improvements on other people’s schedules between us.

But, we have light. Power tools can run. Now it is off to the races with construction.

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The Mud, the Blood, and the Tears

Another weekend, and more messing with trenches. Someday, some sweet day I will spend my time in the topsoil and not 3 feet deep in the clay. Not yet though.

After making the decision to run power from the street we thought we had everything buttoned up and had an electrician install a service panel in the barn. We have a trench right up to the side and I prayed it would be the last trench we dug on the place. That was not to be.

Mistake number 1
The power company provided a note requiring  2 inch conduit at 42 inches deep up to the transformer. Check. Installed. We then ran 2 inch conduit up to the barn and backfilled it about half way. In classic (for us) trench and conduit form we were informed by the power company that we had to run 3 inch conduit from the transformer to the service in the barn. This after the electrician and the county inspector had signed off on the job. So I took a day off work and began the process of digging out the stuff we had buried. Dig a hole, fill it back in, dig a hole.



In the mean time… we began the process of getting our septic in. We are installing two tanks and a pump tank farther downhill. The first tank comes from the barn and is our backup in case we have the wherewithal to transform the farm prep area into a formal commercial kitchen… it would need a separate infiltration field but getting the tanks in first is the big ticket item.


Once again, our best friends S and J (that’s not S btw – it’s J’s brother) came to the rescue to help out. Thank goodness one of us knows what he is doing.




That’s the pump tank a few hundred feet downhill from the septic tanks. The strip of dirt is the backfilled power trench.

Back in the trench
L showed up with lunch and afterward we started heating and bending the 3 inch pipe to conform to the side of the trench. Our goal was to keep the power line as far away from the phone line as possible to limit the amount of interference. Hot pipe was lowered into the trench and held in place until it cooled.

Even L’s tiny feet had trouble fitting in the trench-let. By the time we were done mud was everywhere including you-know-where from squatting in the muck gluing together the conduit.


Then came the tears and the blood boiling
I had a detailed discussion with the electrician about the conduit running through the concrete pad and had clearly labeled it. Duly ignored.

I have to get water out to where our future home will be built and the bay on the left was dedicated for that. The electric service is in the wrong spot by a whole bay. We have a call out to the electrician but I have a sneaking feeling I will have to bore through the concrete and dig yet ANOTHER trench to get the water line out of the barn to the future house site. I don’t mind so much when I screw up but when paying someone else top dollar and things turning into more work for me… that’s another thing. I was upset, which upset L, which put a cloud over the rest of the day. There were plenty of clouds already and mud, and blood (boiling) and a couple of tears.

When we finally made it back home exhausted I made an offering of L’s favorite comfort food – macaroni and cheese – to make up for bad behavior on my part. Forgiveness may be cheesy but it feels good and warms the belly. L puts up with a lot, she deserves every bowl. with extra cheese.

The electrician will get an earful though.



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The Wrath of Grapes

We have a White Concord grapevine growing up our south facing deck at the house.

The vines run along the metal cable railing.

The raccoons have been raiding the grapes for the past couple of weeks which means we have not enjoyed a decent nights sleep during this time. Magpie literally explodes into a barking, snarling frenzy when she hears them on the deck.

The grapes were still a bit too tart to pick, so I kept hoping Magpie’s recent face off with one of the raccoons would keep them away for a couple more days allowing the grapes to ripen enough for us to enjoy. That didn’t happen. The first family of raccoons must have decided to tell all of their friends because we started having several visitations a night this past week. Needless to say, we are sleep deprived and it’s getting a little cranky around here. I finally decided to try and salvage the remaining grapes but truthfully – it was more about getting sleep than getting grapes. To my surprise I still ended up with about 12 lbs. of grapes – our biggest harvest to date, but I’m pretty sure the raccoons ate at least that much.

Be careful of what you wish for.

So what do you do with 12 lbs of candy sweet grapes? They are a bit too sweet for me but M likes eating them fresh, as do the chickens. I decided to use a portion of them to make grape jam. I’ve never been a grape jelly fan – much too sweet for me but several people wrote in their blogs that homemade concord grape jam is nothing like the store bought kind so I gave it a go.

The whole kitchen smelled like a grape candy factory – I thought I was going to keel over from the super sweet smell. But I pressed on. First problem – I couldn’t get it to gel despite bringing it to the 220 degree temp Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving directed. I kept it going and took several “wrinkle” tests all the while afraid I’d end up making it too thick. After five attempts I moved on to the canning stage.

Second problem – I used half pint jars as we just don’t go through jam that fast. Unfortunately I forgot that the canning rack really only works well with quart jars so most of the jars fell in. I fished them out – all seemed to be ok.  After the jars had cooled and all of the lids had popped indicating they were sealed, the jam looked a bit runny. Hrrrumph. By that time it was time to start dinner, so I  decided I’d wait until the next day to deal with the runny jam.

Dinner was seared Tamworth pork chops with a grape pan sauce – I deglazed the pan with vermouth, added shallots, thyme, fresh concord grapes and a bit of chicken broth – cooked that down then tossed the chops back in for a minute. This was served with mashed sweet potatoes. It turned out quite nice although I think I might add a little Dijon and a splash of balsamic vinegar if I make it again.

I heated the hot water bath canner up again this morning.  Opened all of the jars, dumped them back into my stock pot, brought it back up to 220 degrees and performed the “wrinkle” test. Still runny. Several attempts later I finally achieved the “wrinkle”. By this time, the jam had cooked way down and that was when I had my Aha moment.

I was bothered by the fact that it took so long – so many people complained that they had cooked theirs too long and it was much too thick.  I think that was what clouded my judgment. It finally occurred to me what the problem was. Our grapes are seedless. All recipes for Concord Grape Jam involve a process of squeezing the pulp and seeds out of the skins, cooking that down and straining the seeds out, then adding the skins, lemon juice and sugar and bringing that up to the gel stage at 220 degrees.

My first clue should have been that the recipe is supposed to yield about five to six half pint jars of jam and I had six half pints, a full pint plus a little more. By skipping the pulp squeezing part – I just started out with the whole grapes and sugar – I had way more juice from the start that hadn’t been allowed to cook down. My second attempt was on the money – six half pint jars.

The other thing I wasn’t expecting – our grapes are white Concord grapes and throughout the most of the cooking process, they were their usual light green color, but right at the end of the cooking stage they started to turn a rosy color and by the time I  completed the second attempt to reach the gel stage the jam was much darker – not as dark and opaque as a regular Concord grape jam but you’d never look at this jam and think it came from green grapes! It looks more like a plum jam.

Despite adding extra lemon and lemon zest to help cut the sweetness, it is still pretty sweet. I did enjoy it with peanut butter on toast though – the peanut butter certainly helps to cut the sweetness. I also like the rustic texture – you can still see grapes in it.

I imagine I’ll be using it more in savory dishes. I love fruit and meat together. Just add a spoon of it with a little Dijon, maybe a splash of vinegar to make a quick pan sauce for chicken or pork. You can also make a vinaigrette with it. I did strain off a little bit of the syrup and set that aside to make grape sodas – just add a drizzle to a glass of seltzer – Yum! A little dab will do ya – this way you can enjoy a soda that isn’t sickening sweet or made with high fructose corn syrup.

Tonight I’m going to ask my bartender (aka M) to make me Grape Gin Fizz!


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