Sunday, July 24, 2016

Dealing With an Ant Problem

For some reason we have an ant problem in the house this year. We have had ants before, but never this bad. We tried several natural deterrents, in hopes that we could keep them out of the house without resorting to anything that would actually harm them. All of the deterrents that we tried, however, either failed or were only successful short term.

Peppermint oil was the most successful of the deterrents, but we found that it needed to be reapplied daily, preferably twice daily, to be very successful at all. We were applying an undiluted peppermint oil using a qtip. I suspect that using a diluted solution in a spray bottle would have been much faster, but perhaps not quite as effective due to the dilution.

Another deterrent that we tried was chalk. I read that ants will not cross chalk, so we used it to block off their paths. They were clearly not happy about the chalk, and would avoid it whenever possible. When there was no other option, though, they would eventually cross the chalk line and continue their march. It was not an effective solution for us.

I also read that both vinegar and citrus were good deterrents. We keep a jar of vinegar and lemon peels on the counter to use as a cleaner, so thought it would work great. It seemed to have no impact as a deterrent, though. If we sprayed the ants themselves they would scatter and avoid the area for a while, but would soon return as if nothing had changed. We concluded that either vinegar or citrus were useful deterrents in our situation.

As we became more desperate to find a solution we decided that we needed to try something to actually get rid of the ants rather than just try to deter them. I had some previous experience with using Borax as an ant killer, so did some additional research and decided to give it a shot.

I mixed 1 part Borax with 3 parts powdered sugar and scattered it in the areas where the ants were most common. After a few days there was a definite decrease in ant traffic. It has been nearly a week since we started using the Borax mix and it seems that we are getting the ants under control. We aren't to the point that we can stop using it yet, but I think we'll get there fairly soon.

For those of you not familiar with the use of Borax as an ant killer I'll give a brief summary of what I learned. Borax kills ants, but not immediately. They have time to make it back to the nest where they share the food with others. This is important because it impacts the entire nest, and not just the foraging ants. The use of powdered sugar is important because it attracts the ants. They will avoid Borax if not mixed with sugar or some similarly attractive ingredient. I have read that mixing equal parts Borax and powdered sugar isn't effective, presumably because the concentration of Borax is high enough that the ants avoid it completely. I also read suggestions of mixing with water to form a paste, or mixing with peanut butter, etc. The dry powdered sugar is working great for us, though and is easy to work with.

I am not happy to have resorted to killing the ants. I would have much preferred to find a deterrent that would keep them out without doing any harm. Since we were unable to find anything, though, we made the hard decision to use an ant killer.  I am not suggesting that anyone else do the same. However, if you have decided to use an ant killer I do recommend the Borax and powdered sugar mixture. I would certainly recommend it before using any chemical sprays. Even though Borax is natural, please keep it away from pets and children as it can be toxic.

Risks of Buying a Used Hybrid Vehicle

Back in January 2015 we purchased our very first hybrid vehicle, a 2007 AWD Ford Escape Hybrid. We were very happy with the purchase. The Escape was a joy to drive, had more cargo space that our Scion XA and gave us better fuel economy that the XA, even with AWD.

Things were great with the Escape until the Summer. On a couple of occasions we were out and it would not start. Both times this happened we had to leave it, but it would be fine when we returned to get it the next day. After doing some research, and taking a few test drives, I was able to identify a pattern. The problem only happened when it was very hot and we were using the air conditioner. Sometimes it would quit while we were driving, other times it would seem fine until we stopped and shut the engine off. Either way, when we would try to restart it the display would give an error and it would not even attempt to start.

I took it to the local Ford Dealership for troubleshooting. After keeping it for weeks and replacing $500 worth of, what turned out to be completely unrelated, parts they were unable to reproduce the issue. I picked the car up one day, with the express purpose of recreating it for them, and was able to do so within ten minutes. This finally gave them the computer codes they needed to identify the problem, the battery pack was going bad.

The quote from the dealership for a replacement battery pack was $9600 for an OEM battery pack or more than $6000 for an aftermarket replacement. We were not in a position to pay either price, so I took the vehicle home and parked it while we decided what to do. Eventually I found some refurbished battery packs for around $4000, but that was still more than we could afford to spend at the time.

After nearly a year we decided to trade it on another car. We owed more than it was worth, especially since it needed repair. We took a significant hit, but were happy to be rid of it. Regardless of what we had decided to do we would have ended up losing money. I learned from the dealership where we traded it in that they planned to take it straight to an auction where it would be sold As-Is. In other words, whoever bought it would have no idea that the battery pack was failing. This verified what I had been suspecting for a long time, buying a used hybrid vehicle can be a serious risk.

Knowing what I know now I am fairly certain that the previous owner had likely encountered the same issue that we did. They probably traded it in at a lot, then was immediately sold at auction. The title history shows that it was sold at auction and landed at a few used car lots before eventually ending up at place that sold it to us. One would hope that the health of the battery pack would be checked out before a used car dealer would offer the vehicle for sale, but I'm pretty confident this was not the case, unless they checked it and then knowingly sold it with a bad battery pack.

I am sure that there are thousands of used hybrid vehicles sold that have no problems. For me, though, it is just too big of a risk to take again. The only way I would buy another used hybrid vehicle from someone I did not know is if it were a Certified Pre-Owned car from a major dealership. Even then I would do significant research before making a decision.

The other thing that I learned is that the price of battery packs, and availability of aftermarket and refurbished replacements, varies greatly based on the make and model of the vehicle. I found refurbished replacement battery packs for a Toyota Prius for less than $2000, which is an amount that we would have been able to afford. If I buy another hybrid, at least anytime soon, it is likely to be a Prius, partly for that reason.

If you are considering buying a used hybrid vehicle I would urge you to do a significant amount of research. Find out how much a replacement battery pack would cost and how easy they are to acquire. Find out if there have been reported problems of battery pack failures for that make and model. If at all possible contact the previous owner and ask if they had any problems. If it can be arranged you might also consider taking it to the local brand dealership and have the battery pack tested before making a final decision. I don't want to scare anyone away from buying a hybrid vehicle, because we really did love having one. I just don't want anyone to make the same mistake that we did and end up in the same situation.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

2015 Garden Progress

This time of year is very busy around here, especially with trying to get our farm business off the ground. Of course I still try to find time for learning opportunities. I've also decided it is time to get more involved in the community and recently attended the first meeting of our local Historical Society. On top of all of that we are growing our most ambitious garden yet.

So far I am very pleased with how the garden is going. We have onions, luffa, cabbage, carrots, garlic, arugula, spinach, basil, ground cherries, cress, lettuce (leaf and head), mustard, peas, potatoes, strawberries, sweet corn, and sunflowers in the ground now. Over the next few weeks we will be adding tomatoes (several varieties), peppers (also several varieties), more sweet corn, popcorn, peanuts, paprika, watermelon, cucumbers, green beans, and pumpkins.

Part of what has been keeping me so busy is that we have added several new permanent beds to the garden, and also had to clear a spot for the expansion. By the end of the year I expect to have close to 1,000 row ft planted. Several of the crops we are attempting are brand new to us, so it is going to be interesting to see how everything goes. This is definitely an experimental year. I hope to have some excess to sell at the farmers market. More importantly, though, I hope to produce a significant portion of our own food. Next year we will focus more on crops for market, depending on what does well for us this year and what we see is lacking at the markets we sell at.

Monday, April 20, 2015


Since my last update there has been a lot going on. We have started selling at the farmers market in Richmond, which has been keeping us busy. After four weeks at market we have pretty much figure out the changes we want to make and things we want to add, so it is calming down a bit.

We started out selling homemades soaps, baskets, and bags at the market. A couple of weeks ago I dehydrated some garlic and started selling that. There seems to be enough interest to justify doing some more. We are hoping to have a few plant starts available this weekend.

I don't think that we'll have a lot of produce to market this year, but we do hope to have a bit extra that we can sell. We also plan to make some value added products later in the year such as jams/jellies, breads, etc.

It is an exciting time here at the farm. We have a lot of work to do, both on the business side of things and on the farm itself. This years garden is our most ambitious yet. We still plan to get chickens before the year is over as well. We also have a couple of structures to build before the year is over. For the business we need to get an online store up. The Richmond market will start being 2 days a week next month, plus we plan to add another market in June and do a couple of scattered events. It should be an interesting year.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Blizzard of 2015

Ok, so blizzard is a bit of an exaggeration. Nevertheless, we are currently in the middle of the worst winter storm to hit this area in 20 years, and the worst, by far, since Andrea and I moved to this property.

The snow began on Monday and continued, sporadically, through mid-week. By the time it was finished we had twelve inches of the white stuff on the ground. To go along with the snow temperatures plummeted, hitting lows that haven't been seen in this area in two decades, and setting records for this time of year. It was nearly 10 degrees below zero last night, and we are expecting the same tonight.

Fortunately we have weathered the weather, at least so far, without problem. The flexibility of my job meant that I didn't have to worry about trying to get out. There have been no power outages, and the water hasn't frozen, so we've been comfortable staying mostly inside.

I did try to get the truck out a couple of days ago, but only managed to get it stuck in the driveway. I eventually had to push it into the yard, out of the way, with the tractor. Today I spent an hour using the tractor to clear the driveway and a path past the shed to make walking easier.

Jen hasn't had it quite so good, since she has had to walk up to feed the cats daily. The climb up the hill is bad enough in good conditions, and much worse in twelve inches of snow. I tried driving her up there on the RTV early in the week, but we didn't make it very far before spinning out. I'm not even sure that the tractor would make it up there right now.

All in all it has been an enjoyable week of being snowed in. I've taken some time to get out in the snow, but have mostly stayed inside, enjoying the view of the snow through the window. On one hand I look forward to seeing dirt again, when the snow melts, but on the other hand I dread it because I know that it will be mud I see, not dry ground. At least Spring is getting closer with every day that passes.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Meadow Creature Broadfork

Last month I ordered a broadfork from Washington based Meadow Creature. I had been wanting a broadfork for a while, since haring Cheryl Long, of Mother Earth News, rave about it during a workshop on garden tools. I had a chance to try it out this weekend and was thrilled with its performance.

I purchased the 14" broadfork, which, according to the Meadow Creature website, is their most popular option. I nearly chose the 12", due to the lower price, but ultimately decided that I should go with the version I thought would serve me best, since I intend to be using the tool for many years.

When the broadfork arrived I was very impressed with both the tool itself and the care taken with packaging. It was shipped in a perfectly sized, very thick, box, with pieces of plywood lining each end, with holes drilled for the tines and handles to fit into.

The first thing I noticed when I removed the fork from the box was it's sturdiness. At 22 pounds it isn't a light tool. Simply grasping the handles and lifting it is all that it takes to realize how well made it is. Unlike other broadforks, with removable wooden handles, the Meadow Creature features metal handles that are welded to the rest of the unit. This was a important factor in my decision making, as I wanted a tool with handles that I didn't have to worry about breaking.

Now that I have used the Meadow Creature broadfork I am convinced that I made the right decision. It is not only simple to use, but requires surprisingly little effort. I broke several roots while using it, some that were close to 1/2" in diameter. I was told by someone selling a broadfork produced by a competitor that on unbroken ground I would need to make two passes, only working the tines halfway into the soil on the first. I was able to bury the tines of the Meadow Creature deep into my clay soil and break it open with fairly little effort. 

I made three passes with the fork in a 30' long bed. Once I got used to the process the second and third passes took approximately 20 minutes each. I couldn't have tilled it that quickly with my rototiller, especially not to the same depth. The fork is wider than I need for the layout of my beds, but that doesn't create a problem. 

The Meadow Creature broadfork is a quality tool, with a price tag that reflects that. It is a sizeable investment, especially for anyone who hasn't used a broadfork before and so isn't completely convinced that it will be the right tool for his/her situation. Shipping is also expensive, although it is easy to understand why when you see the size and feel the weight of the box. The shipping charge is one reason I very nearly purchased a different broadfork, as I had the opportunity to buy it from a vendor at an event I was attending. In fact, there is a cheap broadfork available that doesn't cost much more than I paid to get my Meadow Creature shipped. A quick glance at the comments, though, verified my assumption that it wasn't cut out for the task I needed it to perform. In my opinion a broadfork is one tool that is worth the investment. My guess is that a cheap broadfork is barely better than having no broadfork at all. 

I would, without hesitation, recommend the Meadow Creature to anyone considering buying a broadfork. Yes, it is more expensive than some other options, but the build quality make it well worth paying a bit more. Plus, the lifetime warranty means that when you buy the tool, you're buying it for life. In this age of planned obsolescence, how many other items can  you purchase with confidence that it will outlast you?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Shampoo-Free Update - 2 Weeks

I have been shampoo-free for just over two weeks. There hasn't been any change since my last update. Things are still going well. I haven't encountered any issues attributable to not using shampoo. I feel that my hair looks the same without using shampoo as it looks when I do use it, and others have told me much the same. If anything changes I'll write another update, otherwise I don't see much use in continuing to write about the experiment until several months have passed and I'm able to draw a conclusion.