2016 Solar Update

Just wanted to post a quick update on how our solar installation is doing. 2016 was a fantastic year for solar with lots of sun. Due to the way our statements are generated, the billing year actually runs from mid-January, so this report is for the period of 1/18/2016 – 1/17/2017.

For the year, our panels generated just over 10,000 Kwh (10231), which is amazing. Our best generation period was unexpectedly mid-August to mid-September, although it only beat mid-June to mid-July by 4 Kwh. Still, you wouldn’t expect that behavior since even in September the days are already getting significantly shorter than June.

We look to be on track to make it through the winter without using up our credits again, which basically is the goal. No electric bills with a net balance to pay at all is what you want. We are running the heat pump a lot to supplement the heat in the winter, so even with that factored in we are doing okay.

I would still love to see us get our usage down a bit, but given our large house and most of us being home all day it gets tough to pare that down much. We have pretty much entirely switched over to LED lights, which has helped. Now I just have to run interference to keep them turned off when not in use. We’re also switching more stuff to electric as well, such as trying to use rechargeable batteries whenever possible. I bought an electric string trimmer made by Ego Power that I really like. It’s super powerful, a joy to work with compared with the traditional engine varieties and gives me about a half hour of good trimming. By then my arms and shoulders are usually tired anyway. A neighbor who also has solar bought an electric chainsaw that he raves about.

The electric tools have really made huge strides and will continue to benefit from all the other innovation that is improving batteries and pushing costs down. I’m hoping my lawn mower lasts long enough that my next one of those can be fully electric, but we aren’t quite there yet. There are some coming along (like Mean Green for instance), but they are still very much first wave technology and very expensive. The electric push mowers on the other hand have been around for awhile now and seem to work fairly well. I think Ego makes one that uses the same battery as my trimmer, although it may use two batteries.

We are going to continue to look for ways to move over to electric from fossil fuels where we can. For instance, I still have a propane heater in my office since the heat doesn’t make it back here. We also have a propane clothes dryer. So we still have some areas to keep in mind. I’m also keeping a close eye on battery storage, such as the Tesla PowerWall so we could eventually go completely off-grid if we wanted. I think the prices are going to drop precipitously over the next five years though, so holding out a bit.

2016 Year In Review

Bit late getting this figured out this year, but I guess it’s still January. Similar to last year, here’s a quick bullet point list of stuff we managed to accomplish this year.

  • Poultry
    • Built a “chicken tractor” big enough for about 10-15 broilers.
    • Raised and slaughtered 15 Freedom Ranger broilers. Overall it went okay, but still debating if we want to do this every year. Not including labor and equipment (2 big expenses), our cost per pound was in the low $4 range.
    • Lost two more of our original hens. We still have “Faith” the barred rock remaining from the original Bristol 4.
    • Got 6 day old Ancona ducklings and successfully raised them to adults. Three were male and three were female, so two of the boys were redundant and went to the freezer.
    • Put automatic doors on both the chicken and duck coops. This has simplified care significantly as well as made it easier for us to leave the property in someone else’s hands for a few days.
  • Gardening
    • This was the first full growing season with the greenhouse and it made a significant difference in the size and quality of my starts. We bought very few starts from outside the property this year.
    • For the most part, an amazing gardening year. Super warm and sunny, which made for an abundance of tomatoes.
    • We added more fruit trees, 6 more raspberry plants, 25 everbearing strawberry plants and another purple asparagus bed.
    • The original raspberry plants from 2015 really came into their own this year for the most part. We got a great yield of berries.
    • Had some luck for the first time with the following this year
      • Bush Limas
      • Sweet Potatoes
      • Flint corn
      • Sweet corn
    • Standouts included
      • the aforementioned tomatoes
      • Peppers did fairly well, including sweet peppers
      • Brussel sprouts finally worked. Turned out we had been planting too late for New England.
      • Dynamite popcorn
      • Bush beans of various types (green, yellow, dry)
    • Still having trouble getting melons to work with any consistency
  • Landscape and other property work
    • Cleared an overgrown patch of original landscaping from the front yard and re-contoured the whole front yard, including the drainage ditch.
    • Rebuilt the main culvert near our house, put in a small duck pond and widened the drive over the culvert.
    • Expanded the beginnings of our windbreak
    • Reshaped the driveway and added new stone/gravel.
    • Put up a Gorilla playset for the kids.
  • Goals for 2017 include
    • Attempt to convert to a mostly no-till approach in our gardens
    • Expand the existing rear garden footprint around the greenhouse
    • More fruit trees
    • Start working on the “drift” landscaping ideas in the front yard. These are wide swaths of perennial plants and grasses in mostly organic shapes following the contour of the land.
    • Expand the windbreak and begin preparing for a more extensive hedgerow or permaculture mixed species planting on the north edge of the property. We are working with a permaculture specialist on a plan for this.
    • At least begin the planning stages for fencing in the front pasture.
    • Tear down our existing rear deck and rebuild a new one.

Soon it will be time to buy and start seeds. By the way, if you are thinking about seeds, don’t forget about my site PickAPacket.com and tell your friends. It allows you to compare prices and see varieties carried by my favorite non-GMO seed companies, including lots of heirloom, organic and open-pollinated varieties.

Windbreak Update

On Friday I worked with our tree guy again and got some more trees planted in the start of our windbreak. These are a mix of Arbor Day trees he planted on his property 8 or so years ago and some Norway Spruces from a local nursery. By the way, when Arbor Day suggests planting seedlings for a few years and then transplanting them, a few years is best. Not eight years. Not a fun job digging those up and transplanting them. But hoping they survive because they are nice trees.

WindbreakJuly2016

We hope to keep extending this windbreak area and probably will add some additional diversity such as deciduous trees, small fruiting bushes such as service berry or bush cherry and so on. We are also thinking of eventually putting in a diverse hedgerow/windbreak along the entire north/north-east border of our property that might include additional fruit and nut trees, but still trying to figure that out.

Garden and property June 2016

Here’s just a few shots of what’s going on with our gardens and rest of the property near the beginning of June. We had a mild spring that wasn’t too wet and actually got very hot towards the end of May. Just had a nice rainy day yesterday after about a week without, so everything is pretty happy at the moment.

Here’s the back garden in a couple of wide shots.

Those are potatoes in the foreground.

BackGardenJune2016

A shot from the front to show off some flowers already blooming.

BackGardenFrontJune2016

Hops are already going nuts. These poles are about 15-20’ at the top.

 

Hops2016

Here’s the front garden. Look how big the garlic is already. It’s pretty happy this year. By the way, all the green is partially due to the cover crop of buckwheat that we are leaving in place for now between rows and where we haven’t planted yet. A bit of an experiment and in some ways makes it harder to see the rows, but hoping the benefits make it worthwhile.

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Here’s the orchard. A couple of the initial plantings are finally starting to show some growth.

OrchardJune2016

Here’s a similar shot from around the same time last year. Notice how much we filled in the middle section this spring.

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And finally, another shot of the ducks at 6 weeks just for fun. They are now outside in their permanent spot, although not free ranging yet.

Ducks6Weeks

Finally some tomato starts I can work with

I’ve been trying to start my own tomatoes ever since we moved to Vermont with varying degrees of success. It’s partly because I like to grow some more obscure tomato varieties that are hard to find in the nurseries and garden centers and partly because once again I’m apparently a glutton for punishment.

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Tomatoes and peppers were one of the primary reasons I really wanted to invest in a greenhouse. We got one last year, but by the time we got it installed it was well after the prime tomato starting period. So I was very curious to see how much difference it made this year in the quality and size of my tomato starts. I have not been disappointed.

These greenhouse shots aren’t all tomatoes of course, there are also some peppers, eggplant and other odds and ends. But it is overflowing with tomatoes at the moment.

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This is probably the first year I’ve had quite a few tomato starts that actually look like something I would buy at a good nursery, both in size and health. I still started them initially in our basement under grow lights, but once it started to warm up they went in the greenhouse. There were some nights of moving them back and forth when temps once again dipped into the 20s and low 30s at night.

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We are now starting to plant them out and I’m very happy with how many nice big plants I have and it’s only the middle of May. I also have a pipeline of additional starts in case some plants don’t take. Plus, we’ve never really had quite enough tomatoes to put away just from our own garden and end up buying extras. Hoping maybe this is the first year that isn’t the case.

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Spring 2016 Bulbs

Planting bulbs is like a lot of gardening; an exercise in hope, planning and patience. Last fall we added a bunch more tulip, daffodil and some other bulbs to the front beds along our walkway. Despite the chickens deciding that is a prime digging area and eating some of the leaves, we are now at just about peak bloom and it’s pretty cool.

Bulbs1

Bulbs4

Bulbs3

Morning Dose of Cute

Starting note: I know I’ve been negligent at updating this site lately, but hoping to get back into it. Lot’s of stuff going on at the homestead.

We are finally expanding our menagerie of animals here beyond chickens. We actually planned to get ducks last year and then never got to it. I had a duck coop already built a year or so ago.

Last Saturday we picked up six day old Ancona ducklings from a local breeder. Ancona ducks are considered Critical on The Livestock Conservancy breed list and we are fortunate to have some breeders here in Vermont trying to grow the breed numbers. I’m still not sure how many we’ll end up raising, although the idea of breeding a critical breed is intriguing to me. For now we will end up keeping one drake and all the females from this group of 6. The other drakes will end up being delicious dinner at some point. Seems counter intuitive, but part of building a breed is finding more people to raise them for typical use (eggs, meat, pest control, etc.).

Here they are at almost a week old. Growing insanely fast already.

AnconasOneWeek

Before and After: Front walk

When we first bought our place, there were just some very overgrown stepping stones leading from the side of the porch to the driveway. Not a very inviting welcome to our home.

One of the first things we did in the fall was to start a small bed next to the house and plant some bulbs. But that was really just a temporary measure and we really wanted something much more in that space. Our landscape design was able to flesh out some additional ideas and we ended up with a walkway going between two flower beds. The intention is to eventually have a full season flowering area of mostly perennials, with some annuals mixed in. This year it is mostly annuals still, but we are starting to get some perennials and also self-seeding flowers into the space.

So basically we were starting from here. The bed against the house was already there, but this is before anything is really showing up yet, like the tulips or daffodils. Here is the space cleared of grass and ready to begin.

Walkway1

Here I’ve laid out some stones just to get some ideas and started digging the trench for the walkway.

Walkway2

When we were having the excavation done, I got some help ripping up the sod at the end of the walkway next to the driveway. We used some larger stone as a base, then a bit of geotextile fabric and then some crushed rock. Here is the walkway taking shape.

Walkway3a

And mostly finished, looking from off the porch. You can see some tulips are now making an appearance. This part was finished around May 22nd.

Walkway3

Since then we have loaded up the beds with mulch and planted a bunch of stuff. So here is what it looks like today. Quite a transformation.

Walkway4

Before and After: From Back Deck

I thought it would be fun to start a short little series of before and after shots of various parts of our property. Unfortunately, I don’t have good before shots for everything. But I have some cool ones to compare.

Here is the first one, a shot from our back deck looking back over the northwest corner of our property. Not the most interesting one, but some cool things happening never the less.

DeckOverMound

The before shot does have a cool rainbow going for it.

Here is the after shot, taken yesterday.

DeckOverMoundAfter

Biggest impact change is the solar panels of course. You can also see some hop poles along the edge of the yard. The t-posts in the back corner are where the raspberries are planted. We moved our raised beds over to this side of the garden and added a few. Btw, the gas grill is relatively new too. After many years of being a charcoal only purist, I finally gave in to the convenience that is a gas grill. Don’t worry, still using charcoal to grill and smoke stuff some of the time.

Red, green and blue

After a very nice May for the most part, June has been nothing but rain. Sometimes terrible torrential downpours, sometimes just annoying bursts here and there to ruin the day. I hate to complain about water when other parts of the country are dry, but my plants are drowning over here. It’s a good thing we put in the swales in May or it would be even worse.

In spite of all that, we are somehow getting our first crop of the sweetest strawberries we could hope for.

strawberry1

Don’t blink, you’ll miss them.

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At least the cooler weather plants like it. The greens are going nuts.

Greens1

Greens2

Onions seem much happier in a raised bed than in the garden, to no one’s great surprise.

onions

The hops have already made it nearly to the first wooden support.

hops1

The fifteen raspberry plants all made it and are getting plenty of leaves now. Here are 10 of them, they are even bigger today.

rasp1

And finally a view of the orchard, where all of the trees seem to be relatively happy so far and surviving the onslaught of water.

orchard061315