Preparing and Planting a Bed of Sweet Potatoes

SweetPotatoes1

Planting a bed of sweet potatoes is easy.

Preparing a bed for sweet potatoes is a little harder. That takes some digging and loosening.

Fortunately, my trusty Meadow Creature broadfork is always up to the task.

Digging in sandy soil with a broadfork is easy. In rocky clay, it’s not nearly as easy. It’s basically an extreme sport in clay.

meadow-creature-broadfork

It’s not impossible, though. That bed took me perhaps 45 minutes to prepare, mostly because it takes more stomping on the broadfork than I’m used to, plus I had to bust up the big clods.

Sure, it’s work – but it’s work that needs to be done, especially for root crops.

Why Dig a Garden Bed?

The major reason: loose soil. If the soil structure is open and crumbly, plant roots do a lot better. They can dig deep and get the minerals and water they need without having to force their way through hard earth. You’re doing the hard work first to make their lives easier.

Digging garden beds even works well in sand, as I discovered back in Florida.

DoubleDugAbundantBed

When your plants have easier lives, they’ll spend more time making delicious things for you to eat.

The Initial Feeding

When I prepare a garden bed I rake in compost right at the beginning. In the past I’ve also used amendments such as lime, blood meal, bone meal, cottonseed meal and kelp meal – all of which are excellent additions to the soil.

Here, though, I can’t get most of those things, so I stick to compost, biochar and sometimes seaweed.

You can see a recent bit of bed prep in this video:

You don’t need a ton of organic matter in the soil. A few percent is fine. I sprinkle perhaps a half-inch cover of compost on a newly dug garden bed and rake or turn it in before I plant. The plants really appreciate compost and it lasts longer and releases its nutrition over time, unlike chemical fertilizer.

When preparing this garden bed I used my Back to Eden chicken run compost, which is probably hotter than compost from a typical backyard pile. The plants don’t seem to mind, though.

Here’s how I made that compost:

Simple.

Planting a Bed of Sweet Potatoes

This is easy as shoo-fly pie.

Just cut some vines and stick them in.

planting a bed of sweet potatoes

You can start your own sweet potato slips with store-bought sweet potatoes if you don’t have any vines currently growing on your homestead.

Use the toothpicks and a jar method – or – even easier – start potatoes growing by burying them shallowly in a pot of soil, then cut vines off of those to plant.

I use a stick to dig holes, then plant the sweet potato cuttings a few inches deep into them.

They’ll look like they’re going to die for a few days, then they’ll recover as the vines root. Sweet potatoes are tough.

For more on growing sweet potatoes in Florida and why they’re one of my top crops for the Sunshine State, check out my book Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening.

For more on sweet potatoes as a survival crop, plus an in-depth look at various garden designs and their pros and cons, get my book Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening.

I’ll post a video update on this bed soon – you’ll be amazed by how good these little pieces of vine look after a week or two.

Planting a bed of sweet potatoes takes some prep work, but do that preparation well and you’ll be rewarded with abundant harvests.

Grafting with Household Supplies

grafitng-with-household-supplies

Steven demonstrates how easy grafting can be:

Seriously… you can graft with a pocketknife and electrical tape. Nature is amazing and resilient.

In my grafting demonstration (which you can get for a donation of any amount) I encourage people to lose their fear.

Steven helped me get started with apple grafting and even shared some scion wood:

Quit worrying and get grafting. It’s easy.

What is the Best Wood Finish for Tool Handles?

tool-handle

What is the best wood finish for tool handles?

That is a can of worms, but today I’ll give you a few ideas you can test for yourself.

A few weeks ago Steven at Skillcult posted a video on his axe handle oiling system and wrote:

“It took me many years to finally arrive at a very simple but effective system for oiling axe handles.  I’m pleased to say that Author Dudley Cook came to the same conclusion and recommends pretty much the same as I do in The Axe Book.  This is the first of a series I hope to continue of super accessible bullet point videos called 2:00 Minute Technique.  The idea is to deliver very useful information in two minutes or less.  Of course being rather thorough most of the time, most subjects will be covered in more depth as well, but these will be quick start guides with enough information to get to work.  I’m also linking the long version of oiling tool handles where I talk about drying v.s. non drying oils and geeky stuff like that.

This system penetrates the handle deeply.  How deeply I don’t know as I haven’t sliced open a handle to find out yet, but it has to be pretty deep considering all the oil some handles are capable of sopping up.  It probably builds up especially a lot in the outer rind of the handle wood.  I think of it as replacing water that was once in the living tree.  As long as you use a good drying oil, like linseed, it will cure to a tough plastic like substance, the same stuff oil paints are made of.  I use raw oil because it has a slower curing time allowing for deeper penetration before the oil on the surface seals off the pores.  The other reason I use raw is because the product known as boiled linseed oil is not boiled linseed oil at all, but rather a compound containing solvents and toxic metals to the end of decreasing curing time.  I’ve actually gone now to using food grade flax oil only (same as linseed oil,  but food grade is usually called flax oil).  The last can of “pure raw linseed oil” I got smells of solvents, so I just found the cheapest flax oil I could on amazon and ordered that.

There is concern among some that raw linseed will never cure enough and will remain sticky.  I’ve been using it on my handles for a long time and it cures out plenty well.  Whether it will cure as hard and tough by comparison to boiled I’m not sure, but it’s definitely more than adequate.  I can assure you of that.

I see “oil finish” recommended a lot, like Watco or Danish Oil Finish.  As far as I know, they are all cut with solvents and dry quickly.”

He writes a lot more in his post. If you want in-depth knowledge of a topic, Steven is an excellent source. I am a fan of linseed oil as it’s an integral part of my oil painting hobby.

I also used linseed oil to finish the mahogany handles on my beloved Planet Whizbang Wheel Hoe.

But is Linseed really the best wood finish for tool handles?

Well… that’s hard to say.

Herrick Kimball recommends a tool handle finish call Pat Gorham’s Hoe-Handle Rub and explains how to make it in his book, and here on his Classic American Clothespins site:

“In The Planet Whizbang Idea Book For Gardeners I have a short chapter titled How to Make And Use Pat Gorham’s Hoe-Handle Rub. Pat’s recipe for hoe-handle rub is an old-time, all-natural wood preservative. I’m going to explain how to make yourself a small batch of the paste here so you can use it on your clothespins, in which case it’s not hoe-handle rub…. it’s Classic Clothespin Wax!

best wood finish for tool handles hoe-handle rub?

The picture above shows the three ingredients needed to make Classic Clothespin Wax. They are boiled linseed oil, pure gum spirits of turpentine, and beeswax. The three ingredients are combined in approximately equal parts.”

I really wanted to make this hoe-handle rub and use it on my tools. I had the wax, the turpentine and the linseed oil… and then I moved before mixing it up for a trial.

I think the beeswax would go a long way towards increasing the wood’s ability to resist decay.

Coconut Oil for Tool Handles?

Another option for finishing tool handles is explored in this post over at Dailey’s Wood Works:

“I started with a $3 sledge hammer that I picked up at a garage sale.  It was rusty and the handle was dry, rough, and dirty, but at least the head was still firmly attached.  I sanded off all the original varnish, grim, and filth and got it to smooth bare wood.  Now I started applying the coconut oil.

Coconut Oil is typically solid at room temperature (~75F) and melts at around 80F.  I did this project in my shop in August when it was 100F.  My coconut oil was very viscous.  I applied it with just my fingers.  I wiped on a coat and left the oil sitting on the wood, not wiping it away, this was about 7pm.  I came back in the morning and found the handle dry, so I repeated the process again.  This happened for about 2 days or 5 coats 12 hours apart.  After 3 days the oil took about 24 hours to soak in completely and dry out.  The hickory handle was now a beautiful color and it was silky smooth on my hand.”

I have used coconut oil myself, as well as bacon fat and lard, but – as also noted in the post at Dailey’s – the long-term strength of the finish isn’t known.

best wood finish for tool handles

Linseed oil is also known as a “drying oil,” whereas coconut oil is a non-drying oil. The wood really drinks it in, though, so I never had a problem with my tools being oily. I had to re-oil every few months, though, as the wood seems to be thirsty again at around that time.

I have no idea where the oil goes. It just vanishes. I don’t know how many times I oiled this particular hoe with coconut oil but it drank it.

The hoe in the image is one of my go-to tools.

The handle on it is a reclaimed broomstick which isn’t ideal, as a varnished tool handle is slicker and may take more energy to grip than an oil-finished one.

It also cracks and wears off unevenly over time.

A Final Option

I’ve noticed the machetes sold here in the tropics often have unfinished wood handles. The bare wood provides a good grip.

Interestingly, though – it doesn’t stay unfinished. I’ve handled one of the machetes a local farmer was clearing brush with and noted that the handle had been polished and oiled quite nicely by his hand. Long usage had beautified, darkened and smoothed the wood.

Looked like a pro polish job. I wish I had a photograph.

This may be an option for you, though if you’re like me and sometimes (okay, often) forget your tools outside, well, oiling them or using hoe-handle rub is a good idea.

So – what about you? What’s the best wood finish for tool handles in your opinion? Let me know in the comments. I’m going to try Steven’s method for now, then if I can find some beeswax I’m trying the hoe handle rub.

 

*Image at top credit. Creative Commons license. 

Machete Safety

Machete-throwing

I can’t believe Rachel jumped in and did this… she’s amazing. And hilarious.

Enjoy:

Have a great weekend!

Machetes are the best

DaveWMachete4web

I have some entertaining machete footage in my latest video:

I was given my first machete when I was a kid. It had belonged to my Dad and came from Colombia, complete with a beaded leather sheath.

I wish I knew what happened to it. I believe it was stolen from my parents’ carport down in South Florida. That’s pretty typical for South Florida, actually. People will rip off your mangoes, your aluminum, your newly planted trees, your bike, your license plate… and your heirloom machete.

Today I own at least three machetes and use them all. The cane machete I usually carry has a lot of heft plus a hook at the back for pulling in sugarcane. It also works well for pulling down fruit and branches as well as hooking into tree limbs for support as you try to climb a slope.

In this video, however, I’ve borrowed my wife’s British cutlass-style machete made my Martindale and Co. It’s longer and much better for throwing. As you can see from what it did to the breadfruit, I keep it very sharp.

Learning to throw a machete takes time. You need to learn to calculate the heft and the rotation in order to get a good sweep… and finding the thrown blade after its arc has ceased somewhere in the jungle can be a chore.

Machete-throwing

Throwing the machete while holding a camera isn’t easy. I hit the mango above on the first try, but what I did to the breadfruit was definitely unintentional, though hilarious.

The machete is one of the tools I recommend to everyone in the book Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening.

It’s not just a good tool for a wide range of tasks. It’s also a formidable weapon and a great way to say “hi” to people sneaking into your carport at night.

My new tool recommendation page

Garden-Tools-Handout
Garden-Tools-Handout

I even like drawing tools

I’m a tool junkie.

I spend a chapter in Grow and Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening covering some of my favorites.

Tools are important. I love hand tools in particular, since they’ll be there when everything else falls apart – particularly if you buy good ones.

I always buy good stuff when I can help it, since I put a lot of hours into my gardening work and I have having a spade break or a machete ding while I’m trying to work.

Since I end up talking about tools regularly, I decided to dedicate an entire section of this site to them.

You can find that page here

I’ll keep adding tools as I think of them but there’s already an assortment there from “MUST HAVE” to “REALLY WANT.”

Go check it out.

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Easy-to-Build Modernist Cinder Block Bookshelves… That Actually Look Good

Cinder_Block_Book_Shelf

cinder block bookshelves

I’ve been meaning to share photos of my cinder block bookshelves for a long time but I didn’t get around to documenting my design until the very last minute.

This is mostly because the bookshelves were covered with books, vintage Star Wars action figures, liquor, paper and pencils, jars of seeds, baskets, lanterns, assault rifles, etc. etc. etc…

When we emptied out the house in preparation for our move, it was finally time to film a video and take some pictures for you.

Cinder block bookshelves are usually pretty ugly affairs. They often look cheap and chintzy, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

I built this concrete block book shelf for less than $100.00:

Concrete_Block_Book_Case

And I built this second one for my office:

Cinder_Block_Book_Shelf

How To Build Cinder Block Bookshelves (The Nice-Looking Way)

 

The big problem with most cinder block shelves is that the ugly side of the concrete blocks faces outwards. The rough holes in their centers will always look rough and cheap.

Lay them on their sides, however, and the look improves greatly.

Concrete_Block_Book_Shelves

All you need for this project are a few easy-to-obtain items and one tool. Two tools, if you decide to paint.

Materials:

Cinderblocks (as many as desired, both solid half-blocks and full size)

2×8 pine boards

Paint (optional)

Paintbrush (if you decide to paint the blocks)

Miter saw (or a hand saw, if you need a workout)

 

If you stack two full-size cinder blocks on top of each other, as I do on the bottom shelves of these cinder block book cases, you end up with a 16″ space between shelves. This is bigger than you need for most books but is great for storing boxes or baskets that contain other items.

The block-and-a-half size shelves hold most books nicely.

Single block depth shelves are only 8″ tall and work for storing small paperbacks and CDs/DVDs.

I didn’t let any of the pine boards extend more than 6′ without support, since I believe that’s running a risk of the shelves warping over time.

At 6′ spans I’ve had them hold for years without bending downwards in the slightest, even under the weight of many gardening books and other hardcovers.

I believe I used 10′ boards on the shelf pictured above, then cut the ones that didn’t extend the full width of the shelf with my handy Hitachi miter saw. I love that thing.

You can let some of the shelves only come half way to the front by using just one board instead of two, or you can put two 2x8s side by side for every shelf. I got fancy and even cut little pieces to fit the gaps and make it look neat with insets and changes in how I stacked the blocks, but you don’t have to do that.

On my next homestead I’ll likely do this exact same cinder block bookshelf design again. They work well, save you plenty of cash, plus they’re super stable thanks to their weight.

The Top 5 Best Garden Hoes

VintageHoe560

best garden hoes

I’m a big fan of simple garden tools – and the hoe is one of my all-time favorites.

ancient garden hoe best garden hoes

An ancient hoe from the time of the Romans. (Image source)

Unfortunately, thanks to the decline of Western Civilization, even saying the word “hoe” now evinces smirks and winks.

We’ve left our agrarian roots and have immersed ourselves in the cesspool of the inner city.

Yet for us who have left the city and sought out simpler lives connected with the soil, our hoes are comforting tools that fit nicely in the hand and lead to clean rows and happy crops.

However, not all hoes are created equal.

Today we’ll take a look at my top five best garden hoes and how they’re used.

Garden Hoe #1: The Gooseneck Hoe/Paddle Hoe/Garden Hoe

 

This is the classic garden hoe in North America.

VintageHoe560

Unfortunately, modern models don’t consist of a single forged head and handle mount like the antique model above. Instead, the gooseneck portion is welded onto the blade and then fits into a hole in the bottom of the handle where it’s held in place by a cheap stamped metal collar.

Junk.

Look around for an old one – you’ll appreciate it. The cutting steel is remarkably fast compared to the modern metal. It’s like the difference between a cheap stainless butter knife and a good carbon steel blade. You’d choose the latter for food prep: do the same in the garden with your hoe.

The swan neck on the hoe should be adjusted to maintain a good angle with the ground the gardener stands and hoes his garden.

This is a good, quick blade for tougher hoeing jobs and larger weeds, as well as little weeds. If you find yourself chopping at the ground, you’re doing it wrong. Sharpen up your blade and ease into your work.

Garden Hoe #2: The Scuffle Hoe/Hula Hoe/Stirrup Hoe/Oscillating Hoe

 

Yes, there are a lot of common names for this one hoe.

Hoes need to be given Latin names. Let’s just call this one Marra oscillatus.

Scuffle_Hoe

I have a scuffle hoe just like this one. Here it is on Amazon.

This hoe is a country housewife’s favorite and for good reason. Rather than scraping the weeds in a repeated scraping stroke-and-lift as you would with a regular hoe, you scuffle this hoe back and forth, letting the oscillating blade snip through the weeds, effectively decapitating them.

Somewhere around here I have a picture of my wife hoeing a garden bed with a hula hoe when she was nine months pregnant. I am so tempted to post it.

The scuffle or hula hoe is a major time saver that makes cleaning up weeds a snap, provided they’re not too entrenched. If they are… you’ll need the next hoe.

Garden Hoe #3: The Grub Hoe

 

The grub hoe is an earth chopping monster. Unlike the previous two hoes which are created for lighter weeding projects, the grub hoe is an earthmoving tool consisting of a heavy forged head that points at a little less than a 90 degree angle from the handle.

Grub_Hoe

This is a broad-bladed type. My own grub hoe is a narrower and more powerful model from Easy Digging. (Photo credit)

The grub hoe is the primary cultivating tool in much of the undeveloped world. It’s easy to use than a shovel for digging, plus it’s more than strong enough to chop through tree roots, smash through hardpan and till new ground.

I’ve taken antigue grub hoe heads and pressed them back into service with great results; however, the best blade/handle combination I’ve ever used is the grub hoe sold by EasyDigging.com. Their handles are incredible and the blades are forged steel.

You can actually dig easier with a grub hoe than you can with a shovel. Once you own one, you’ll wonder how you gardened without it. I’ve planted a lot of perennials with mine.

Garden Hoe #4: The Wheel Hoe

 

Vintage_Planet_Jr_Wheel_Hoe_AdThe wheel hoe almost disappeared from the American garden decades ago. Recently, however, it’s started to make a comeback thanks to the internet and a lot of small farmers interested in getting maximum output from quality hand tools without resorting to gas-guzzling tillers.

The most famous wheel hoe is the classic Planet Jr. cultivator. Unfortunately, Planet Jr. went out of business years ago though there’s still a thriving trade in their implements on eBay and in the antiques world.

A good old Planet Jr. wheel hoe will usually set you back $200 or more. I know. I’ve searched for one.

So – what’s the deal with wheel hoes and why would a gardener want one for his plot?

Simple: the wheel hoe allows you to clean up a field plot in a fraction of the time it would take you with any other hoe. The wheel in front allows an incredibly efficient distribution of force that works wonders in decapitating weeds, especially when it’s teamed up with an oscillating blade, such as the one on the Planet Whizbang wheel hoe.

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The Planet Whizbang wheel hoe

I own that simple, well-designed kit-built wheel hoe and have found it to be a monster at clearing even tough weeds. The oscillating hoe rocks back and forth as you push/pull the wheel hoe, making it almost possible to cut sod with it.

The Planet Whizbang wheel hoe doesn’t have any additional attachments, unfortunately, but as a dedicated weeder it’s super fast. You can find it here.

For extra features, you need to turn to the leading manufactured wheel hoes such as Hoss, Glaser, or Valley Oak.

Hoss also makes an excellent seeder attachment for their wheel hoes, allowing you to plant a large garden in a limited amount of time.

I own the Hoss wheel hoe/seeder combination and got mine from Easy Digging. It’s an amazing piece of mechanical technology. One man could easy tend an acre with a good Hoss wheel hoe and seeder.

Garden Hoe #5: The Grape Hoe

 

grape-hoe-using

A grape hoe in use. Image borrowed from EasyDigging.com.

The grape hoe is an Italian innovation similar to a grub hoe. Unlike the grub hoe, the grape hoe isn’t made for digging. It features a wide, strong blade that’s angled to the ground at a degree that makes the scraping away of surface weeds a breeze. They’re sold on Amazon though I got mine from EasyDigging.com.

(Yes, I know – I keep coming back to Easy Digging. They’re the best I’ve found for grid-down hand tools, so I’m going to keep pluggin’ em.)

Grape hoes were originally designed for use in vineyards, but they’ll also make short work of weeds in orchards and in garden beds. It’s a large, tough implement not suited to careful weeding but it is excellent for clearing new ground and pathways in a rapid amount of time.

Finally, I covered the grape hoe, the grub hoe and the adze hoe in a short YouTube video that shows you how they work and how quickly you can tear up the ground.

So – what are you waiting for?

Grab a good hoe and start slicing weeds and taking names!

Growing A Tool Handle

Sledgehammer_Tree

My friend Connor invited me and a few other plant geeks (including Andi Houston and Andy Firk) over to his place in Micanopy the other day.

He’s got all kinds of cool projects going on; however, we got there at dusk so it was hard to see much… but one thing I saw and had to share was this innovative way to put a solid hickory handle on a sledgehammer head:

Sledgehammer_Tree

 

When that tree fills in, that head will be encased in immobile hickory wood. He told me that he cut the sapling above the hammer head and slipped the head over, then the tree grew a new top and has continued to thicken.

Brilliant!

I’ve tried researching this method after seeing this at Connor’s farm but haven’t had any luck yet. If you know more, please share!

How To Make Recycled Paper Fire Bricks

recycled paper fire bricks

My friends Kim and Bill showed me how to make recycled paper fire bricks last week and graciously allowed me to film their process (though they didn’t want to be on film themselves).

These paper fire bricks they’re making aren’t the “fire bricks” used in creating a baking oven or chimney – they’re really just compressed paper “wood” for burning. Like paper logs.

You can make paper firebricks from just about any scrap paper. Kim and Bill don’t use any glossy paper in their paper fire bricks so they can later add the ashes to their gardens.

Making Recycled Paper Fire Bricks

First, get yourself a stack of scrap paper. Newspapers, paper plates, napkins, cardboard, shredded paper from the office, $100 bills… whatever.

Then, take those and soak them in a bucket of water until they’re saturated. Bill and Kim recommend letting them sit for quite a while – even a few days – so the fibers can break down.

Once you have them all nice and soppy, shred them up with something. They use an edger blade attached to a drill. An industrial blender would likely work well, too.

Now it’s time to press your paper fire bricks. Any kind of multi-holed receptacle with a follower will work – Bill and Kim used a second bucket with lots of tiny holes drilled in it.

Throw in a good portion of shredded paper. Then press hard and get that water out as much as possible, then put the brick somewhere to dry.

Recycled Paper Fire Brick

These paper fire bricks look very much like something I want to eat. Hard. To. Resist.

Once dried, they’re ready for use… then the ashes can be used to add calcium and alkalinity to the garden.

Consider it another form of composting.

Though I’ve yet to be convinced of the input of labor to output of fuel efficiency of this project, I greatly admire the ingenuity and the fact that paper is being kept out of the landfill.

Winter is on the way, so it’s a great time to experiment with possible fuel sources.

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