Our Water Tower

My husband and I have recently moved up to our “future homestead” and will be living in our travel trailer as we are building our new home.  While our Architect and Engineer finish our house plans, and while the building department in our county reviews the plans before they give their approval, we are preparing our living arrangements so that we can live comfortably while we work.

One thing that needed to be done was to build a water tower.  Before the water tower was built, we would pump water from our well into a water storage tank that was sitting on the

This will be home sweet home while we build our new house. Solar panels run the lights, the TV, satellite receiver, fans and a CD/radio.

This will be home sweet home while we build our new house. Solar panels run the lights, the TV, satellite receiver, fans and a CD/radio.

ground, and with a few lengths of hoses, this delivered fresh water into our trailer.  It worked, but we just didn’t have much water pressure.  Sure, we could turn on the water pump in the trailer, but we are living off-grid and prefer to use our solar power for other things – like lights, fans, satellite TV receiver, flat screen television and a CD/radio. Contrary to what some people believe, living off grid is not living like Neanderthals!

It’s important to know that for every foot in elevation, you get almost half a pound of water pressure.  So, if the water source is 20 feet higher, you will have almost 10 pounds of pressure.  Most municipal water systems provide about 40-60 pounds of pressure.

Our main reason to have the higher pressure was to get a better shower.  Without the water pump on, and before the water tank was built, we used to have a trickle, not a shower! ;)  That was very unsatisfying after a hard day of work.

The first thing we had to do was purchase some lumber posts that were tall enough for the tower.  We were surprised to find that our local box store had 20 foot long posts that were 6 inches by 8 inches.  These came at a hefty price (a little over $100 each).  The 2 x 6 cross braces weren’t much cheaper because we chose to use treated lumber.

A water tower

This is some hefty lumber – and fairly expensive also!

I know, I know, treated lumber has poison in it and it will contaminate the ground.  We considered that, but tossed about the fact that our land is populated by millions (not exaggerating) of carpenter ants and probably more termites!  Do we build a very expensive water tower that will be eaten in a few years by six legged critters, or do we buy the treated lumber and enjoy the tower for at least 20 years?  Knowing that there were no food crops growing near the tower, the tower was at least 50 feet from our well, and our home was also going to be almost 50 feet away from the tower, we opted for the treated lumber.

Building a water tower

Deep holes were dug to pour a concrete foundation for each leg of the water tower.

The first thing to do was to dig the holes for a concrete foundation the water tower legs would rest upon, with room for more concrete to encase the legs.  The holes were dug fairly deep (more than 5 feet deep), rebar was pounded down into the holes at different angles to give even more stability, and almost three feet of concrete was poured into the holes.  Ray had to wait a couple of days for this concrete to set up before he could place the four legs of the water tower on top.  In the meantime, the first side of the tower was built on the ground.  It was much easier that way.  Dear hubby Ray set up a pulley system on one of the tall pine trees nearby, and used the quad motorcycle to pull the first side up into place on the poured concrete pads.  You can see in the picture below that he used both lag bolts and later some carriage bolts to build the tower.

How to build a water tower

Building the first two opposites sides on the ground first, then erecting them with a pulley system, was a bit scary, but it worked!

Once two opposite sides of the tower were up with each leg of the tower resting securely in the center of each concrete and rebar pad, Ray set about securing them together, again with the carriage bolts and some lag bolts.

building a water tower

Getting all four sides of the tower upright was an engineering feat! Have I told you my dear hubby can do just about anything? :)

After the four sides of the tower were secure, more concrete and rebar was poured around each leg.  You can see in the picture below that Ray built the concrete up like a volcano around each leg, to help with water run-off.  Once the tower has been in use for a few months and any settling has occurred, we will pour a 6 inch thick concrete pad under the entire tower, incorporating each leg, which will make it even stronger! water tower Iphone

The tower was now starting to look like an actual water tower!

how to build a water tower

4 x 4 treated lumber was used for the deck that the water storage tank will rest upon

The next task was to build a deck on the top of the tower to support the water storage tank. We decided to use treated redwood 4 x 4’s because the deck had to support a lot of weight!  The water storage tank holds 305 gallons. Did you know that a gallon of water weighs about 8 pounds?  So, if my calculations are correct, the deck of the water tower has to hold at least 2,400 pounds!  Sheesh!

Once the deck was built, it was time to hoist the storage tank up. Easier said than done, and I honestly didn’t know how we were going to do that.  However, my dear hubby’s ingenuity rigging up hoists and pulleys eventually got the job completed!  I’ll tell you a secret…  that was really, really scary to watch!

How to build a water tower

I was so afraid that the rope would break or come undone.    Boy, that was scary!

Finally, the intake and outtake pipes had to be plumbed.  The fresh water coming from the well goes into the top bulkhead (hole) of the tank and the water going to the trailer comes out of the bottom bulkhead.  The pump in our well is a very versatile pump – we can run it on either batteries, a generator, or solar panels.  Right now we are using a generator because we have a few trees to cut down before the solar panels will work right.  Once the solar panels are operational, we have a sensor that Ray will install into the tank on top of the water tower.  The sensor will turn on the well pump when the water gets down to a certain level.  With this set-up, we will be able to have our water tank automatically kept full without us even having to think about it!

Now won’t that be cool?

No leaks!  Done!

No leaks! Another project done!

This was another project completed to make our lives easier while we build our new home. We can now have a nice hot shower after a long day of work!

I can’t wait to show you what else we have been doing!

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Hugelkultur Potatoes

Peruvian Purple Potatoes

Our harvest of purple fingerlings from one 5 gallon “grow bag”. Not too bad for our first try!

Two years ago I grew potatoes in one of those newfangled “grow bags”.  I was told that the bags enhance the potato’s natural inclination to grow upward.  You see, in a “normal” potato patch, soil is mounded around a potato plant as it grows taller, and potatoes will develop all along the stem of the plant.  However, it can be difficult to hill potatoes in this way as the hills don’t always stay put.  A strong rainstorm could break down the hill, and so could any number of critters. The taller the mound, the wider the hill has to be. That’s just physics. Supposedly the “grow bags” would eliminate these problems.  One simply added dirt in the bag as the plant grew and this hill would be neatly contained within the bag.  I had a moderately successful result.  But, then I read about another method called hugelkulture, and was intrigued enough to try it.

Hugelkulture is a method of vertically composting large woody material and other organic matter to create a  raised garden bed. All you have to do is layer branches from trimming trees, leaves, manure, cardboard, straw, wood chips, grass clippings, compost or any other biomass you have available, top with soil and plant your fruits and/or vegetables.  My research into hugelkulture revealed that potatoes do very well in vertical hugelkulture beds, and if you know me, you know I had to try it!

hugelkulture for potatoes

Here is one of three towers Ray built.

Dearest husband Ray was happy to build three hugelkulture towers in the garden/orchard space.  I wanted to get the potatoes planted around Saint Patrick’s Day, which is the traditional day to plant potatoes in our area, so we had to hurry.  We had lots of fence boards left over from our valley home, so these were used as the sides, with some “not-very-straight” landscape timbers purchased at our local box store serving as the framing.

Once the hugelkulture towers were built two fence boards high (each board is 6 inches wide, so the towers started out 1 foot deep), I placed a layer of pinecones in the bottom (mostly for aeration), some small branches, leaves, mulch and a layer of dirt.  Upon the dirt, three potatoes were placed in each tower. Then another layer of leaves, some pine needles, mulch and dirt.

growing potatoes with hugelculture

The potatoes were nestled down into a layer of compost and dirt, then more leaves, mulch, wood chips, etc. were added on top. You can see, if you click on the picture and zoom in, that the potatoes are already starting to grow!

Then, this happened:

hugelculture potatoes

A freak snowstorm hit us just after we planted the potatoes! Here in California, in the middle of a drought, in the middle of March… go figure!

You can see the towers in the orchard/garden area, covered with snow.  I wasn’t sure if the potato seedlings would be frozen, and since they had already started to sprout I thought it was a lost cause, but at that time frozen potatoes were the least of my problems!

Here they are, bright green and perky!  They survived the snowstorm and were growing quite well.

Here they are, bright green and perky! They survived the snowstorm and were growing quite well.

Sure enough, with a little bit of luck and a lot of patience, the potatoes grew.  As each plant grew taller, I layered in more leaves, mulch, small branches, compost and sometimes I threw in a little bit of our red clay dirt – just for good measure!

The potato plants grew even taller and I added more and more mulch/compost/leaves, so I had to add another layer of boards on the tower.

And then another layer!  This continued all spring and into the summer.  Finally, in June-ish, the plants stopped growing as quickly, so I stopped adding the mulch, compost and leafy stuff.  The towers ended up six boards or a little over three feet tall.

growing potatoes with hugelculture

You can see that I finally got up to six fence boards, which was a bit over three feet tall – and the potato plants were taller still!

how to grow potatoes

Beautiful flowers adorned the potato plants.

The potatoes developed some really pretty blossoms.  I never did see any of our honeybees on the flowers, but I did see some of the native pollinators flitting around them.

I had read that one fun feature of these hugelkulture potato towers is that you can sneak a few new potatoes from the very bottom without disturbing the entire plant. Of course, I had to try…

My result?  So cool – It works! I got enough potatoes for a meal and they were delicious.  All I did was wrap them in foil with butter and garlic salt.  About 20 minutes on the grill and they were fork tender and oh so tasty!

Stealing a few potatoes from the bottom was fun, but getting all that stuff back in and the board back on was a challenge!  :)

Stealing a few potatoes from the bottom was fun, but getting all that stuff back in and the board back on was a challenge! :)

Around the end of June the plants in one of the towers started to die back.  I wasn’t sure why, so I went online to do some more research about growing potatoes.  Well, I still couldn’t figure out what was going on!  Either I was watering too much, or too little.  Perhaps I had a virus or a blight or a bug or something, but apparently the only thing to do at that point was to harvest.  So I did.

The result?

growing potatoes with hugelculture

Well – I guess this isn’t too bad of a harvest. Nothing much to write home about, however!

Not much to get excited about.  I had put three fingerling potatoes into this tower and received back about 24 tubers, some larger and some smaller than the originals.  I guess in the grand scheme of things you might consider that I got back more than what I had planted, but this amount certainly wasn’t what I had in mind as a great harvest.

Heck – we harvested this many potatoes from the volunteer potato plants in our compost pile!

So, when the next group of potato plants started to die back a few days later, I assumed it was time to harvest this group also and got another disappointing harvest.  The second tower had even less than the first one did!

I decided to try watering the third and last tower just a bit more, to see if, indeed, it was too dry.  The three plants in this tower had not died back, as the others had, and when I gave it  more water, they stayed green and lush for another two or three weeks. So, I suppose the problem may have been my error of not watering them enough.

Today I harvested the last potato tower and got quite a surprise.  Not only were the potatoes bigger, but it looked like perhaps I may have harvested too soon!  There were itty bitty potatoes still developing on the roots of the potato plants. But then, when I got to the bottom of the hugelkulture tower I found a couple of potatoes that looked like they, themselves, were about to sprout into an entirely new plant!  Perhaps I harvested too late?

growing potatoes

Did I harvest too late, or too early? I have a lot to learn about growing potatoes!

At any rate, though the potatoes were a bit larger, there were no more in numbers than in the other two towers.

If our lives depended upon potatoes, we would come up short, indeed!

So, what did I learn?  Perhaps I need to water potatoes more often. Although the hugelkulture method is supposed to preserve water within the biomass, here in California everything has been dry, dry, dry.   Also, I did not feed the plants.  I am aware that as organic matter decomposes, it uses up nitrogen in the process.  Maybe next time I should add nitrogen in the form of aged chicken manure.  Further, the potatoes I used as seed were French fingerlings that I bought at an organic grocery market.  The last group of potatoes harvested were supposed to be purple fingerlings, but instead looked more like Norland Reds.  I think the next time I grow potatoes I will buy actual seed potatoes from an organic nursery. :)

Growing potatoes using hugelculture

Don’t these potatoes look like Norland Reds to you? They were supposed to be purple fingerlings! No problem, they were good anyway.

The hugelkulture method itself was a great success.  After only five months the leaves, wood chips and small branches were already starting to break down into a nice moist, black compost. There were also several earthworms in the mix. My plan is to add some more small branches, wood chips, and pine cones to the bottom of the tower, add back the moist compost followed with a little bit more dirt, then plant my fall crops.  Supposedly I can also add some almost fresh cow manure deep into the bottom layer, and the decomposition of the manure and the other organic matter will produce some warmth, which will extend the growing season by a few weeks.

We’ll see.

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Installing Bees in a Top Bar Hive

We picked up our package of bees (read the previous post about how we got our bees here) and headed home.  For the first hour and a half going home, they buzzed quietly in the back seat.  We made sure they weren’t in direct sunlight and that they were getting fresh air, and twice I sprayed them lightly with a very light sugar syrup.  They were happy, we were happy, everything was right with the world.

Until…

…we got to the dirt and gravel road leading to our property.  Bummer.  You see, here in California it’s legal to grow marijuana if you have doctor’s orders saying that you need it.  Unfortunately, the county in which we live has been very permissive on how much you can grow, so several commercial pot growers have purchased or leased properties adjacent to us.  Why is this so unfortunate?  For several reasons – the most important of which is because of the drought we are currently having here in California.  Marijuana takes a lot of water to grow.  A whole lot.  So the commercial pot growers are draining all of the wells in the foothills, drying up streams and stealing from others.  You can’t even leave a water hose unattended anymore!  So, when the “growers” well goes dry and they run out of options to get cheap (or stolen) water, they have to pay to truck in water.  Some of those trucks haul in 2,500 gallons of water at a time – or more!  Let’s see – 2,500 gallons x 8 pounds per gallon – that’s 20,000 pounds (not even counting the weight of the truck itself) traveling across our dirt and gravel road several times per day!  Needless to say, they have torn up our road so much that it has become one rut and pothole after another.  The entire 1.6 miles of it!  Now we literally bounce and slide our way home.

Which brings me back to the bees.  With every bounce, bump, jump and jostle, they started buzzing louder and louder.  Let me tell you, they were not happy!  :(

Once we finally got home we set the bees in the shade of their new Kenyan Top Bar Hive, I sprayed them down with a little more light sugar water, and we left them alone for about an hour.  Sure enough, by the time we came back, they had calmed down again.

Whew!

So now, the fun part was to begin.  Installation!

Kenyan top bar beehive

There it is: our version of a Kenyan Top Bar Beehive! To see how we made it, click HERE  

Have I told you how nervous I am about getting stung?  The fascination with the bees has partially overcome my fear of being stung (along with a nice bee suit and gloves), but nonetheless I decided I should be the photographer for this momentous occasion. ;)

I am blessed to have a very brave and understanding husband, and let me tell you, he looked like a pro while he was installing the bees!

Installing bees into a top bar hive

Doesn’t Ray look like a pro? Here he is getting ready to dump in the bees. You can see the queen cage, laying on top of a couple of the top bars, is covered already in bees!

The first thing we had to do was remove several of the top bars so that the bees could be dumped into the hive body.  We also placed a light sugar water solution in the feeder and a

How to get bees into a top bar hive

You can see the “bee patty” at the bottom of the hive, which is a first food supply for the bees. It has lots of protein, vitamins and minerals and gives the bees a kick-start for a healthier colony.

“bee patty” in the bottom of the hive. We do plan to raise our bees organically and naturally, and using a sugar water solution and a bee patty isn’t necessarily natural.  However, we did want to give our bees every advantage to get started, so we opted to make our own sugar water solution out of organic sugar.  The bee patty was just another bit of insurance, though we don’t really know how organic it is.  That being said, we will not be giving our bees any more bee patties, and will only give them sugar water if they need it.   Ray removed the queen cage from the box so that she could later be hung in her cage between two of the top bars.  Ray accomplished this task without any problem – just like they showed us during the demonstration at the Olivarez Bee Company Bee Day.  Once the queen cage had been removed from the bee cage and set aside, Ray set about the task of dumping the worker bees into the hive.

Just as instructed during one of the demonstrations given at the Bee Day, Ray removed the can of sugar water solution that the bees had been living on for a day, which also releases the bees.  A few bees started to fly out, already looking for and locating the queen.

Ray gently turned the box upside down, and shook it a few times.

Fwooommmph

Seriously – that’s the sound it made!   Fwooommmmph!

Most of the bees fell in one large clump into the hive!  It was so cool to watch!

Once most of the bees had been shaken into the hive, I sprayed them again with the light sugar water solution.  The sugar water solution hydrates the bees as they lick it off of their furry little bodies.  Because it has a little bit of sugar in it, it also feeds the bees and a fed, hydrated bee is a happy, complacent bee, less likely to sting!

top bar hive bee installation

Ray carefully placed two straws along the top of the little queen cage so that he could hang it between two of the top bars. Look at that – no glove on one hand!

We then replaced all of the top bars except one.  Ray stuck a couple of pieces of straw (carefully!) through the top of the queen cage and these pieces of straw were placed between two of the top bars with the queen cage hanging in the space where the one bar used to be.  In this way, the queen could be accessed by the workers from all sides.  Once this was done, we replaced the lid and roof, wished the bees good luck, and stepped back from the hive.

Once the bees were mostly in the hive, we replaced the lid and roof and stepped away.  The box that the bees came in was left right below the entrance, so the stragglers could find their way to their new home.

Once the bees were mostly in the hive, we replaced the lid and roof and stepped away. The box that the bees came in was left right below the entrance, so the stragglers could find their way to their new home.

There were about two dozen or so bees still left in the cage, but we were instructed during the demonstration at the Bee Day to just leave the cage near the hive in the shade, and these bees will find their way into the hive to be with their sisters.

We had our granddaughter’s birthday party to attend later that evening, so we made sure the hive was secure, latched the gate on the enclosure surrounding the hive, and said our goodbyes to the bees.  There was nothing more we could do for them right away.

The next day when we got home from the birthday party, there they were, flying in and out of the hive! It looked like some of the bees were still doing their orientation flight, which is the first flight out of their hive.  The bee will exit the hive door, fly right, then left, then up and down.  Once the little bee has done this, it will fly away to find pollen, nectar, water or whatever it’s job is.   It was amazing to see that some of the bees flying into the hive already had their pollen sacs full!  Jeeze Louise, these bees certainly didn’t waste any time setting up their house!

top bar bee hive installation

Here is ray checking to see that the queen has been released from her cage. Yes! She was free!

Now we had to wait at least three days, then check to see if the queen had been released from her little cage.  You see, she comes inside a cage for her own safety.  If a queen bee is introduced into a hive right away, the worker bees will most likely sting her to death because they see her as a foreigner!  However, if she is left in her little cage and the workers are exposed to her pheromones for 3 or 4 days, the will most likely accept her as their queen once she is released.  How does she get released?  Her escape route is plugged with hard candy, which the workers eat to get to the queen.  This usually takes about three days – sometimes four.  Clever system, huh?

So, after four days, we opened the hive to see if the queen had been released.  At first when we saw movement inside the little cage we were disappointed that she had not been released.  Then, on closer inspection, we saw that it was a worker bee in the cage, not the queen.  She had, in fact, been released!  Then we found her.  Olivarez Bees marks all of their queens, and this year an iridescent blue was used.  This is so that it is easier to find her and make sure all is well with the hive.  Well – there she was – in all of her iridescent blue glory, on a small comb that had already been constructed for her!

Top Bar Kenyan Bee Hive installation

Our first sneak peak into the hive through the viewing window. See all those little workers clustered? They had already started to make some comb and were clustered on the comb and around their new queen!

Well I’ll be.  We actually (ahem, my husband, Ray) installed our first bees with complete success!

And guess what – No Bee Stings!  :)

So, now, the real adventure begins.

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We Have Bees!

Kenyan top bar beehive

There it is: our version of a Kenyan Top Bar Beehive!

We finished the Kenyan Top Bar Beehive just in time!  Ray and I built our own Kenyan Top Bar Beehive with plans given to us by Master Gardener Kim at one of her workshops we attended on beekeeping.  The plan was simple and easy to follow.  Now all we needed were some bees!

I had ordered the bees from Olivarez Honey Bees via phone a few months in advance.  While on the phone I was given the choice between the Italian or the Carnolian variety of bees, but I wasn’t sure which one to go with. I told the order taker that we were first time beekeepers and I had a fear of being stung, so I wanted the most gentle bees possible.  She said both varieties are gentle.  Then I told her they would be at 3,000 foot elevation and would have to withstand a little bit of snow now and then, but hot and dry summers.  She said both varieties were excellent for the situation I described.  I told her we would be using the Top Bar Hive system and would be beekeeping organically.  She said either one would be great for a top bar hive. So with the Italians and the Carnolians being fairly equal, I decided to go with the Italians.  It was easier to say. :)

The day arrived to pick up our bees.  We had about a 2 hour drive to get to the ranch holding the bee day and we wanted to get there early.

Oliverez Honey Bee Day

Free coffee and donuts – I’ll have two (of each)  :) They also offered free fruit smoothies – yum!

Parking was a breeze in the large cow pasture next to the event.  We were offered free coffee and donuts (yes, please!) and then set about exploring and mingling.  Ray and I sat at a table to enjoy our morning snack and met a very nice lady who was there to get her second package of bees from Olivarez, as she was very happy with the package she got last year.  Another couple we talked to were getting their first package of bees, but had been helping a neighbor with his bees for years and enjoyed it so much they decided to get some of their own.  When I asked if they had ever been stung and how many times, they answered “of course” but that it was “their own fault”.  I ask this question a lot and I get the same sort of answer a lot. I am petrified of getting stung, so I want to know every detail of why, how and what happened when I hear someone else’s story.  Usually their answer is something like “I got too close to the hive entrance” or “I was working too quickly and hit the hive with my elbow”, or stories similar to that.  Then they would tell me, “it hurts (not gonna lie to you) but only for an hour or so”.

Well, alright then. I’m probably going to get stung.

Our first order of business was to check-in at the ordering desk. We have bees!-9

Everyone was so friendly and happy to have us there as customers, and the whole process was very smooth!  They found my name, saw that I had ordered one package of Italians, and that it was already paid for with my bank card.  I was given a receipt and told that I can pick up my bees at any time, but she said most people get their package after lunch.  Cool!

Here is the Mann Lake Booth.  We got some gloves, a smoker and some bee food here.

Here is the Mann Lake Booth.

There were also several vendors at the event.  Mann Lake, ltd  had a large retail area under the huge circus-like tent. They brought just about anything a beekeeper would need.  We looked at their books and browsed through some of their equipment.  Most of their equipment was for Langstroth hives but we did buy some gloves, a smoker, and some bee food.  We had previously purchased our bee suits online.

 

Another vendor was the Chico Honey Company, and they had some very delicious honey to purchase, along with t-shirts, honey paraphernalia and such. There was also a kid’s area with face painting.  Maybe next year when we get another package of bees we can take our grandchildren.  I think they would really enjoy the day.

I also have to show you this beautiful quilt they had hanging at the venue. Isn’t it just the cutest thing?

Newbee Beekeeping

Isn’t this just the cutest quilt!

After eating our donut (s) and drinking a few cups of coffee (it was really good), it was time to watch one of the demonstrations.

Installing bees into a top bar hive

A demonstration on how to install a new package of honey bees.

One of the Olivarez Beekeepers gave a very thorough and informative demonstration on how to install your bees into your hive. He made it look just a bit too easy, but then he is a professional.  I was very glad to hear a lot of his tips, such as to spray your bees with sugar water because it makes them happy and less likely to sting or fly and also to avoid installing the bees when it is dark because they don’t fly in the dark, have to crawl, and are more prone to sting out of fear.  After the morning demonstration, we had a little more time to browse the vendors and mingle with other beekeepers, then a hot dog barbeque lunch was served!

It was finally time to get our bees and go home.  All we had to do was hand our receipt to one of the bee guys, who promptly disappeared into the barn.  Seconds later he came out with our package of Italian honey bees that included one mated queen and three pounds of worker bees!  Here they are…

Italian Honey Bee Packages

Here is Ray with our bee package and the Queen Bee!

We Have Bees!  Stay tuned for the installation!

 

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