Thursday, August 29, 2019

More info on tire gardening

Since putting up the the post on how we developed our tire garden -- and since it was subsequently featured on SurvivalBlog -- many people have asked additional questions about the infrastructure of our garden. Here is where I'll answer them.

NOTE: I had some sort of weird glitch which duplicated this post, so I deleted what I thought was the duplicate. In fact, I deleted the original ... which means all the comments were deleted as well. My apologies to those who left comments on the original post.

Billboard tarps
One question was where we got our billboard tarps -- which we use to block weeds and which are anchored with gravel -- and how much we paid for them.

I know billboard tarps (usually the gigantic ones you see on highway billboards) are available for sale on eBay and other online sites. The prices are fairly decent, but we decided to scout around and see if we could find a more local source.

So I called a tarp company in Spokane and inquired how much it would cost to purchase old tarps, and explained what we intended to use them for. They put me in touch with one specific fellow with the company, and he told me the tarps were FREE. I was shocked and delighted. Since at the time I was going into Spokane about once a week (the girls had music, French, or gymnastics lessons), we made this company a routine stop and brought home dozens of tarps the span of a couple months. I always called my liaison ahead of time to see if it was convenient for me to stop in, and I always thanked him profusely after we'd loaded up.

Then one day I called to inquire if I could pick up some tarps. My liaison, embarrassed, said no. Here's why.

Someone -- I don't like to think it was a blog reader, but it may have been -- apparently went into the same company and demanded free billboard tarps. He actually threatened the receptionist if he didn't get some. The poor woman was understandably shaken. As a result, a company-wide policy was enacted in which the tarps were no longer given away. Thus ended a wonderful free resource, all because someone acted like a bully and a jerk, demanding free stuff he had no right to and threatening innocent people.

I was horrified when my liaison told me what happened, but policy was policy. That ended the billboard tarps.

Now this was several years ago, and it was only with one company. If anyone is interested in billboard tarps, it's worth calling around and simply asking. Nicely.

Cutting tires
The other question I was asked is how to cut large tractor tires in half safely.

These tires can weigh anywhere from 150 to 600 pounds, so safety in handling them is paramount. Not all tires need to be cut in half -- it all depends on the depth. Most tires just need to have one sidewall cut out (use a Sawzall with a beefy blade) and it's good to go. But for very thick tires, it's helpful to slice them in half lengthwise (like a humongous bagel) to yield two open halves. Here's how we did it.

Originally we tried just propping a tire up on other tires. This worked, sorta, but it tended to bind the saw blade.

Instead, we learned it's better to stand the tire up. This is where pets and children should be kept strictly away. You don't want to risk one of these halves flopping down and hurting anyone.

We used a Saws-all to cut through the tires. Don't use anything smaller than a "fang-tip" blade. The really gnarly blades are designed to cut through thick surfaces. Start the blade at a shallow angle – lay the teeth at the spot you want to cut – and then tilt as the cut deepens. The blade should dive in. Like everything else, it takes a little practice.

Cutting tires is ideally a two-person job. To prevent the tires halves from flopping open when cutting, the second person should tie the tire halves as the first person cuts and works his way around the perimeter.

Even though a tire may be tied, it's still unsteady in this upright position, so be sure to cut it where it won't damage anything if it falls. And above all, never put yourself in a position where it can fall on you.

In this instance, the tire fell over just as Don finished slicing it in half, and the sudden unsteadiness of two loose halves sent it crashing into a small nearby trailer.

Tying the tire as it's cut has a secondary benefit -- both halves can be picked up by a tractor and moved at the same time.

Tires on or off the tarps?
Another mistake we made at first -- and quickly rectified -- was putting the tires directly on the ground and then cutting the tarps to fit around them.

Big mistake. Big mistake!

We did this early on mostly because some of the tractor tires were already in place by the time we started using tarps for weed control. We didn't want to have to move the tires, so we cut the tarps to fit around them. But of course weeds still grew up through the tires (I've mostly gotten this under control through diligent weeding), and forever after weeds continue to grow around the outer rims of these tires since there's a little space between the tire and the tarp. It's fairly controllable, but it's always an issue. Thankfully only four tires have this problem. The rest of the garden doesn't, because we rapidly learned tires should just be placed directly on the tarp.

Here we placed a couple of tires directly on the tarps with no gravel.

But once again, as part of our learning curve, we learned to put the gravel down first. Not only does this anchor the tarps, but the drainage it provides to the tires is superb.

I hope this info helps someone with their own tire garden!

Monday, August 26, 2019

Watch those bears

This made me smile.

Chalk this up under the "creative pub signs" category.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Prepping for winter -- the cheater's way

Here it is late August, and already it's time to start preparing for winter. While our house has received lots of interest on the market, we haven't had any bites; so we're getting ready to overwinter in place. Fortunately we're not in a hurry to sell, and overwintering is just fine with us. (It will give our girls a chance to come home and see how pretty the house now is.)

However because our focus has been making home improvements, we've had less time to devote to one critical winter prep: Firewood. So we decided to do something we've never done before -- buy firewood already cut and split.

Don answered an advertisement by a local fellow whose prices seemed reasonable. Last week, the gentleman brought in multiple truck loads of wood.

We were going through a hot spell (highs in the 90s), so he often started bringing loads at 6 a.m. when the air was still cool. Fortunately I'm an early riser, so this wasn't a problem.

After every load, Don and I stacked. After three days of hauling in loads of firewood, we had four cords of wood stacked and ready to use.

We stacked wood inside an inner pen (you can't see the rows stacked in back) ... well as the outer wall.

We also have some stacked on the side porch.

We feel vaguely guilty for buying stuff already cut and split -- are we cheating? -- but hey, our focus has been different this fall and time is at more of a premium.

Four cords may not be quite enough to get us through next spring, but we also have some dead trees on the property we can cut and split ourselves. And I must say, it's nice to have our firewood already in.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

It's miiiiiighty quiet around here

Sunday morning, as usual, I released the chickens from their coop.

All day long, I watched them and took a few photos.

It's a nice flock, though we have way too many roosters (six!).

On Sunday evening, I taped up a bunch of boxes outside the chicken coop.

The birds watched me with interest but no alarm. After all, they had no reason to be suspicious.

But as it turns out, they should have been suspicious -- because those boxes were meant for them.

Sunday night after dark, when all the chickens had gone to roost, Don and I started stuffing them into the boxes -- one rooster, and either two or three hens per box. We flapped the boxes closed and stacked them next to our pickup truck. When all the chickens were crammed, squawking, into boxes, we loaded the boxes into the truck and carefully drove to a neighbor's house about a mile and a half away. There the whole family poured out, all seven kids very excited, to watch and help unload their new livestock into the brand-new coop the oldest boy had built. Instant farm.

Unlike the difficulty in seeing the cows go to their reward in the freezer, at least our flock has an excellent home with wonderful people and happy children. If you're going to get rid of animals, it's always a comfort to give them to people who treat their animals well.

But my goodness -- if we thought things were quiet without the cows, it's nothing compared to now. No more crowing competitions among six lusty boys. No more clucks, cackles, and scratching from a flock of prolific hens. The coop door stays open day and night.

Just one more step on the road to moving.

Sunday, August 18, 2019


I was mentioned in a Chuck Norris column!

Holy cow, I didn't see that one coming! Thank you, Mr. Norris!

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Silent book clubs

So here's an interesting trend I just caught wind of: Silent book clubs.

Apparently these quiet reading groups grew out of dissatisfaction with standard book clubs where reading material is "assigned" and, as often as not, members cram their assigned reading just before a meeting in a manner that's termed "demanding."

In contrast, members of silent book clubs meet up in a public space with a book of their choice, then spent an hour reading in silence.

"Liberated from the orthodoxy of traditional book clubs, participants can bring whatever they'd like to read and chat about anything, before and after the designated reading time," states the article.

As a further explanation:
The idea began with two friends reading together at a bar in San Francisco, annoyed by the assigned reading of a demanding book club.

"I wished that I had a book club where basically there was no assigned reading but you could just show up, hang out with your friends, talk about what you were reading and then just sort of read your book with no pressure to prepare snacks or vacuum your house or do any of the things that normal, traditional book club hosting entails," says Guinevere de la Mare, who co-founded the organization with Laura Gluhanich in 2012.
Thus was born what some are terming "introvert happy hour" (or "SoulCycle for shy people") with chapters meeting all over the country. They often meet in bars or other public areas, enjoy a drink, and act as convivial as only introverts can act when they have a good book and are surrounded by other book-lovers.

Here's how the founder describes it:
Once a month, a group of friends meet up at a bar after work. We sink into leather couches, we order drinks, and we pull out our books. There’s chatter about who’s reading what, author recommendations mix with gossip, and a few books swap hands. The drinks arrive, a cheese plate appears, and the books-and-wine tableau is snapped, filtered, and hashtagged. As conversation dies down, we put our phones away and begin to read. It’s a Monday evening so the bar is quiet. A classically trained pianist drifts from Bach to Adele without rustling a page of sheet music. We order more drinks. A few late-comers trickle in and are greeted warmly. We turn back to our books, and read.

Apparently many book swaps happen at these events ("Hey, I'm interested in reading XYZ, does anyone have a copy I can borrow?") and no one is pressured to get any "assigned" reading completed.

"By creating this sanctuary in a bar," notes a British chapter, "the club endorses reading as not just important, but also entertaining. It’s hushed, but don’t be fooled: Once a month, there’s no place more happening."

If I lived closer to a city, I'd seriously consider joining (or starting) a chapter. As it is, I can't justify a two-hour round trip for an hour's reading time in a public location.

But still, what a cool idea! Check it out.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Tons of manure

By happy coincidence, one of the things we need to clean up on our farm is something in high demand: Manure. You might say we're spreading a lot of it around.

For years, we took the science of composting fairly casually. Don would scoop out the underside of the awning each year (sometimes more often, depending on how much it needed it) in late summer or early fall. He piled the manure just outside the feedlot, where over the course of a couple of years it broke down into beautiful compost, which we then heaped on the garden tires when needed.

And since we have tons -- literally -- of this black gold, we're able to spread it around among neighbor who needed it for their gardens.

We have no problem leaving these fertile mounds for whomever buys our place (and hopefully they'll recognize the value of a good pile of poop), but nor do we have any problem handing out compost to anyone who wants some.

So when a neighbor fired up his ancient 1950s dump truck and brought it over for a load, Don happily filled it up. Twice.

He started by scooping out under the awning until he couldn't scoop anymore (the rest will have to be hand-raked out).

Then he turned his attention to the compost pile that is the favorite hangout for the chickens.

God bless tractors. Can you imagine moving this much stuff with a shovel or pitchfork?

The only problem is every time Don scooped up some compost, the chickens would descend en masse to gobble up worms.

They're fearless in the face of a tractor and refuse to move. No one ever said chickens were bright. (On the other hand, I'm convinced the compost pile and its inhabitants is what helps keep our birds as healthy as they are.)

This neighbor was able to help us clean out probably an entire ton of compost. Benefits for both sides!

Saturday, August 10, 2019

How our tire garden evolved

I got a comment from a reader as follows: "Why do you plant in tires? What benefits do you get from that approach?"

(Update: For additional information, see this post.)

For newer readers, I thought this might be a good time to recap just why we took such an unorthodox gardening approach. Here's the story behind our tire garden.

When we moved to Idaho in 2003, I thought it would be a simple matter to establish a garden. After all, how hard could it be? We would plow, plant, water, and harvest. VoilĂ .

It took nine years to realize this simple formula just doesn't work in our area. Aside from the fact that we didn't have a tractor until 2015, we are plagued with endless problems: clay soil, stubborn weeds, pests ranging from deer to voles, occasional high winds, and a fairly short growing season. Over and over again, the usual gardening techniques failed. We dug in compost, we mulched, we netted, we pulled weeds … we spent hours, weeks, months, and years without much success to show for our efforts.

A grim thought took hold: Is gardening impossible in our area? Would we never have control over our food supply? Would we forever be dependent on the grocery store?

Without a tractor, every conventional gardening suggestion resulted in backbreaking hand labor. My husband and I are getting older, and we wanted to make the garden less work over time, not more. Something had to give.

After nine years, we knew it was time to look outside the box for gardening options. We started by identifying the major issues preventing success. The four biggest issues were:

• Pests, notably deer but also voles which burrow up from underneath
• Weeds and tough prairie grasses
• Dense clay soil
• Subterranean hardpan layer

The deer issue was solved by raising the garden fences to eight feet. That was the easiest problem to solve.

Addressing the clay soil and relentless weeds took a bit more thinking. Some experimental raised beds built with salvaged wood beams got better results, but we were out of beams and couldn't afford other raised-bed options such as cinderblocks or railroad ties. Our garden is a quarter-acre in size, so finding enough materials to build that many raised beds was a daunting and expensive task.

Then one day in 2012 – and goodness knows why it took us so long to reach such an obvious conclusion – we decided to look at a resource that's sturdy, abundant, and impervious to weather: tires. It was one of those head-clunk "Duh! Why-didn't-we-think-of-that-sooner?" moments. The more we thought about it, the better an idea it seemed. Tires are black (which warms up the soil earlier in our short growing season), they're tough to the point of indestructible … and they're free.

So we mentally pulled back and looked at our quarter-acre garden space and decided to start over in an entirely different direction.

But just using tires was not the answer by itself. We started by putting in neat rows of truck or car tires. Looks, pretty, no?

But we neglected to consider one vital thing: without weed control under the tires, we were back to square one.

So we stepped back again, reassessed the entire situation, and once more searched outside the box for a solution. The answer? Pave the entire garden area with billboard tarps anchored with gravel.

Originally the gravel was only meant to anchor the tarps and hide the colorful pictures. We didn't discover until later a critical, wonderful side-benefit: It provides drainage to the tires.

We also gave up growing in smaller tires (mostly) and instead concentrated on larger tractor tires.

These are not only free, but tire distributors are so thrilled to give them away that they delivered dozens to our very doorstep -- again, for free.

We learned the best way to cut these massive beasts in half with minimal risk. Believe me, you don't want to take a chance at one of these 500-pound tires falling on you!

With the weeds under control we were able to fill the tires (using a borrowed tractor) with a mixture of topsoil, compost from our cattle, and sand.

We've never looked back. Within two years of switching to tires, we became almost entirely self-sufficient in fruits and vegetables. We grow blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, bush cherries, watermelon, cantaloupe, grapes, tomatoes, bell peppers, cayenne peppers, carrots, garlic, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, corn, dry beans, potatoes, onions, lettuce, herbs, and breadseed poppies.

We even planted an orchard in larger tractor tires in which we grow peaches, pears, apples, plums, and hazelnuts. All in tires. All successfully.

And all without poisoning ourselves.

Yes, poison. Some people have the unfortunate and mistaken belief that growing food in tires will result in dangerous chemicals leaching out of the rubber and into the food plants. Despite generations of success by backyard gardeners everywhere, one article made this erroneous claim in 1997 and immediately the dangers of gardening in tires became a powerful urban myth that caused the gardening world to reel away from a wonderful free resource.

Believe me, I have no wish to poison my family, so I researched the issue of chemical leaching carefully – and found the whole issue to be bogus.

This leaching myth all started out with a gentleman with the USDA named Dr. Rufus Chaney who did research on aspects of tires and tire residue on soil chemistry, particularly regarding zinc. His conclusions were picked up and misquoted, and his claims of chemical leaching were misunderstood. I quote (with permission) from material written by a Mr. Farber at a now-defunct website called TireCrafting:
"There are organic puritans still quoting an international environmental magazine, Organic Gardening, Jul-Aug 1997, article headline "TIRES ARE TOXIC" "WARNING: Using old automobile tires around your plants (in any form) is hazardous to the health of those plants!" It then went on to justify the article from two sources, USDA researcher and compost expert Rufus L. Chaney, Ph.D., claiming that zinc released from tires is toxic to plants, and "A recent study in Australia claiming tires are toxic to petunias & impatiens."

Mr. Farber contacted Dr. Chaney soon after the article appeared. Dr. Chaney told him that this magazine misquoted him. He said that he knows of only one toxin in the rubber of a tire in its solid state, and that is zinc. Zinc leached from burned tires, ground-up tires and the tire dust washed and blown from highways is toxic to some plants and many aquatic plants and animals in acidic soil and water (pH 6 or below). He said humans require zinc, and zinc is used in fertilizers to neutralize alkaline soils. He also said that zinc will not escape from a solid tire, but when a tire is left out in the weather for a few decades (30 years or more) it might decay and release its zinc.

Mr. Farber tried but could not locate the 'recent study in Australia' but from his test gardens, he has photo proof of petunias and impatiens vigorously overflowing the same ten tire planters and in the same soil (adding only yearly loss) every year for more than thirty years."
Wanting confirmation for this information, I contacted Dr. Chaney, now retired from the USDA. He kindly sent me not only an email, but 11 attached articles on the subject of zinc phytotoxicity in soil. He specified that since he is now retired, his opinions are his own and do not reflect that of the USDA.

The area in which Dr. Chaney was misquoted in the 1997 article appears to stem from whether the tires are shredded (ground) or intact. His current communication confirmed gardening in intact tires does not leach zinc (or other hazards) into food plants. "Intact tires, with neutral pH soils, are a good alternative for raised bed gardens. Perhaps better than treated lumber and other weather resistant materials," he wrote, adding: "I have done research showing the use of ground rubber as a fertilizer and recommend it because the Zn in rubber is purified Zn. Tire rubber also contains sulfide sulfur which acidifies when it is oxidized. So particle size/surface area is important."

In other words, the toxins in tires are bound and inert unless the tires are burned or ground up, which often happens during the recycling process. The hazardous waste associated with tire recycling is understandably what sparks concerns among environmentalists. Intact tires are fine for growing food plants.

In fact, the conclusion reached by the original TireCrafter website is this: "Modifying tires to create green space and home gardening available to everyone would not only absorb hydrocarbons, it could well be the key to salvation for practically every family on the planet that is otherwise excluded from adequate sustenance. Personal tire recycling potential benefits far outweigh all perceived hazards."

Personally I think people get a little too hysterical about "potential" hazards. Tires have been used anecdotally for growing plants for decades, but when one article comes out and claims tires will poison the food (regardless of evidence!), people go ballistic.

Let's face it, scare tactics work. They make news. Thousands of people have gardened in tires for decades with no ill effects, and no one pays attention. Yet let one poorly-written and poorly-researched article on the dangers of tire leaching hit the news, and suddenly we're all gonna die!!! if we so much as grow a tomato in one.

I hope this puts to rest the incorrect notion that growing food in tires will poison the consumer.

Building a Garden
So how do you grow in tires? Here are some benefits as well as a few things we learned:

• A weed-control base is necessary which still allows for drainage; otherwise weeds and other pests (including voles) merely come up through the tires. The weed control has to be permanent, not temporary (such as newspapers or cardboard). We learned tarps work splendidly.

• Drainage is important. If your tires are on a weed-control base – even concrete or another flat, impervious surface – be sure to provide a means for water to drain. Gravel is ideal.

• If your climate is hot, you can paint the tires white or another light, reflective color. In our region, the black tires increase heat absorption, which extends the growing season a bit.

• Tires should have at least one sidewall cut out. We use a SawsAll for this purpose. Cutting out one sidewall allows a greater growing area. We retain the other sidewall toward the ground, which helps keep the tire's shape. However some people prefer to cut out both sidewalls, which allows the tire to be turned inside-out and painted.

• Size does not matter. Backyard gardeners may want to stick with truck or car tires, which are easier to move and can be stacked in many attractive variations (strawberry pyramids, potato towers, retaining walls, etc.). With our large garden and rural location, tractor tires work for us. However because of the sheer weight and size of tractor tires, I don't recommend using them unless you are certain their placement is permanent.

• Tires are particularly suited to drip irrigation, since drip hoses can be coiled neatly in a circle. This saves both water and work.

• Weeding is easier. I can weed just as many tires as I have time or energy for, plus when I sit on a crate the weeds are at a more convenient level (knee-high instead of foot-level).

• The soil is never compacted and remains friable, especially as I add compost about every other year and pitchfork it in to feed the soil. I also mulch with pine needles (and no, dried pine needles are not acidic; that's another urban myth).

As we hoped, the garden has become easier to maintain as the years go by. We no longer have to resort to backbreaking physical labor each spring to control weeds and prepare the soil. Some weeds do grow in the gravel outside the tires, but because they're shallow-rooted, they are very easy to pull. As soon as the snow melts, I use a rake in each tire to loosen any weeds that took root over the winter. I do this two or three times before I'm ready to plant. If a tire needs compost, I'll trundle some over in a wheelbarrow and fork it in. When I'm ready to plant, I'll coil the drip hose in the tire and plant around the drip holes. I can plant some things in the fall, too – notably multiplier onions and garlic.

This post is not to convince you gardening in tires is necessary or even preferred. It's to illustrate how we successfully rolled with the punches to meet our particular challenges.

Tire gardening has allowed us to work smarter, not harder. As a result of our tires and drip irrigation system, we've managed to grow exponentially more food than when we were gardening in the ground – with far less effort and far less wasted water. By looking outside the box of conventional gardening wisdom and trying something different, we were able to turn half an acre of tough prairie clay into something lush and productive.

If you don't face the challenges we did – if your soil is generous and your weeds are controllable – there's no need to garden in tires and you can continue to plant in the ground. I wish we could do that, but it doesn't work for us. Therefore tire gardening has saved our gardening fannies. It has allowed us to take control over our food supply.

And our strawberry yields are phenomenal. Just sayin'.

(Update: For additional information, see this post.)