Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Planter Project - Part 1

I decided to make some planters that go along the parapet walls of our green roof, so we have more growing space.

Keiter and I rented a zipcar SUV and went out and bought 125 6-foot Forestry Stewardship Council Certified redwood fence pickets.  We had a little adventure getting them, because the only way they would all fit in the car was if we put the passenger seat all the way forward, the driver's seat as far forward as we could, and if Cindy (who is considerably shorter than I) drove home.  I had to ride home laying on the stacks of lumber in the back.  It's a good thing they were pretty wet.  Had they been dry, my entire front side would have been full of redwood splinters!

Anyway, we survived, got things stacked in the basement, and had the zipcar returned on time.  Here's a shot of the stack after I'd built one or two planters... Yup, I own a perfectly serviceable mitre saw, but I'm using a hand saw.  It's good exercise and practice.

The following Sunday, the experiment began!  My plan was to make planters that were three boards tall, sleeved over the capstones, and functioned as self-irrigating or wicking planters.  I wanted to get one long side and one short end out of each fence picket (using 6 fence pickets per planter).  I started  by working on finding the right dimensions for the planter.  I made a rectangle the same width as the capstones, carried it up to the roof, and took a look.

I like the look of it, but I wanted it to sleeve down father over the capstones.  I'm planning to use a pond liner for the bottoms of these (to make them lighter, and to save wood), and I wanted the bottom edges of the sides of the planter to sit relatively close to the capstones, so the pond liner didn't pooch out the sides once the water got in there.

 I ended up making the planter wide enough to sit on the outsides of the flanges.  I cut the contour of the capstones into the end boards to make the planter sit low enough.  Before pulling them up to the roof, I staple the pond liner to the sides.

Then I fit these corner pieces in - they hang down below the edges of the capstones, and I'll be able to attach brackets to the bottoms of the corner posts that wrap around the underside of the capstones if the planters aren't stable enough on their own.

Here's one after the pond liner is installed and trimmed, and I'm starting to stretch the filter fabric.

This is what it looks like after the filter fabric is stretched, stapled, and cut around the corner pieces.  I've created a water reservoir in the bottom section of the planter.  The dirt will sit on top of the fabric.  How will the water get up into the dirt?  You'll see in a minute.

In the basement, I pre-assemble the wooden rectangles of the planter (you can see the 2nd and 3rd courses in the background in the photo above).  So, once the fabric has been trimmed, I sleeve the wooden rectangles over the corner posts and screw the whole thing together, like so: 

This is how the water is going to get up into the soil:  I set three little net cups in position on the fabric in the bottom of the planter.  The soil is going to wick water from the lower trough up into the upper chamber through those net cups.  You can learn more about this style of planter by doing an internet search for "Self Irrigating Planter" or "Wicking Garden."  

I install the net cups in the fabric by cutting a little "X" through the fabric and pressing the cup in.

Finished.  Don't ask me how I'm going to get water into the bottom reservoirs; I haven't finished deciding about that yet.

By the way, it sure is easy to tell which side of this picture is our roof and which is our neighbor's!  I can tell you from personal experience, black roofs (or is it "rooves"?) are HOT - and not in a good way!

I set the first planter on the wall between my house and my neighbor to the East to see what it looked like.  On this side, I plan to install trellises on the backs of the planters to act as a bit of living screen.  I already like how much of my neighbor's unfinished roof is obscured by the body of the planter box.

A wider perspective:

The next day, I made 3 more.

And then I made 4 more.  I spent both of my days off this week making planters.  4 planters/day is the speed at which my process has settled.

In case it wasn't clear earlier, I make the bottom rectangle (with semi-attached pond liner) and the 2nd and 3rd rectangles in the basement.  Then I hoist them up to the roof on ropes.  Ignore the messy back yard.

So, after another weekend spent making planters (today and yesterday), I've got a grand total of 12.  I really hope they work.

I had originally planned to have the planters in groups, with some empty space in between.  But now that we have so many of them up there, we have really started to like the way they define the space and give us a bit more privacy.  We have decided to make enough planters to fill both walls on both sides.  I've already ordered more pond liner.  I guess I know what I'm doing next weekend too!

So, I have to make more planters, figure out whether I need to level the planters to make the water in the reservoirs submerge all 3 net cups equally (since they follow the slope of the roof), decide whether I want to buy and install float valves in each planter (which is probably going to be too expensive, since I can't go with valves that can be fouled by roots growing into them), or if I just want to plumb tubing into the planters from the drip irrigation system and fill them according to a timer rather than their water levels.

And I've got to buy a ton of potting soil and carry it all up to the roof.

Nevermind thinking about that, though!  Here's Keiter - showing off her chicken wings!

Monday, May 11, 2015

How to Get the Lead Out Of Your Soil... Maybe

Urban Farming Nerd Alert!
Today's topic is phytoremediation!  

Since we live in Brooklyn, and Brooklyn has an industrial past, I read that our soil was likely contaminated with lead.  As I understand it, the lead gets into the soil by settling out of the air (in the form of pollution) and flaking off of buildings (in the form of paint).  

I had our soil tested by Brooklyn College in Autumn 2014.  The middle area of the yard tested at 332 parts per million (ppm).  The flower beds around the edge of the yard tested at 413 ppm.  The front yard tested at 453 ppm.  The green roof soil and the potting soil in all the containers on the roof were lead-free.

Once I got our soil test results, I had to figure out what to do about it.  

Brooklyn College's recommendation is: 
  • for lead levels below 100 ppm, no precautions are necessary (the green roof and all the potted plants are safe).
  • for lead levels between 100 and 400 ppm, follow best‐management practices for garden soils, i.e. don’t grow green leafy vegetables or root crops, children should not play in areas of bare soil. Other suggestions would be to further investigate actual lead distribution in the area and to test the blood lead levels of children. (this applies to the middle section of our back yard)
  • for lead levels above 400 ppm, the soil should not be used for growing food plants, and remedial actions should be taken for residential use. (this applies to our front yard and the garden beds around the edges of the back yard)
So, for the middle area of the back yard - where the lawn has been - the recommendation is "best-management"...  The lead levels are below 400, so it's okay that we've got an apple tree planted in that section, but the soil is still pretty contaminated, and I'd rather it wasn't.

For the surrounding garden beds, the lead level is over 400, which means we're not supposed to be growing any food plants in that area, and the soil should be cleaned up.  Unfortunately, that's where I've got black raspberry vines, may apples (a native species of plant that produces small fruits in July, not May), and ramps.  I have two theories as to why the edge beds tested higher than the central section of the yard.  First, I've been putting a lot of compost in the central section to try to raise its level up to match the brick walkway.  If I understand my research properly, compost can make heavy metals less accessible to plants.  Maybe the compost also makes heavy metals less detectable to soil tests?  Second theory: the back bed runs along the rear side of our neighbor's garage, and the paint has been peeling off that thing for a long time.  I took soil samples from all around the edge beds, including the back, so maybe the soil from the back skewed the results.

Regardless, I don't want to live with lead in our backyard soil.  I want to clean it up.

Back when I lived in Boston (in the 1990's), I worked with a community action group to get an area along the Chelsea Creek cleaned up.  The soil there was throughly contaminated, and we were told that the only way the land could be made safe enough to become a park was to actually scrape the top 12" of the soil off the land, send it to a land fill, cap the remaining earth with plastic, add new topsoil over the plastic, and, voila: Safe park!  By the looks of it, that's exactly what was done to create "The Condor Street Urban Wild":

It's a wonderful triumph that the site was cleaned and made into a public park.  However, before the soil was scraped off, capped and/or replaced, the land had varied contours.  It had trees.  It was interesting.  I like interesting.

Digging our own backyard down 12", throwing all the soil away, buying 12" of clean replacement soil, and carting everything through the house both ways (we don't have an alley or any other way of accessing the backyard) didn't sound like a viable option.  It sounded wasteful in every way, and it would likely remove any character that's there.

But then I remembered I had once heard that sunflower plants pull toxins out of soil.  I did a lot of internet research and found that sunflowers aren't the only plants with the ability to "clean" soil.  In fact, other species of plants draw lead up into their roots, stems, and leaves even better than sunflowers!

According to my research, indian mustard (Brassica juncea) was one of the best plants for bio-accumulating lead and phytoremediating soil of all those I read about.  Here's how it is supposed to work:  

You seed the contaminated soil with indian mustard, grow the plants to maturity, pull them out (roots and all), and dispose of them.  While I could find no record of any land that had been 100% cleaned by this process (perhaps because no one has tried for long enough), The Boston Health Department conducted a study for 2 years in Dorchester, MA in 1997-98.  During those two growing seasons, they managed to reduce the lead in the soil by 63%.

So I thought this year I'd give it a shot!  I tilled the middle part of the back yard with a pitch fork and sowed the whole thing with indian mustard seeds.  I left the side beds un-touched for a control to my experiment.  In the Fall, I'll pull up all the indian mustard plants and retest both the central area and the side beds to see if there has been any change in the lead content.  Of course, I'm hoping we see a noticeable improvement in our lead levels.

Half-way through tilling the back yard with our new tiny pitchfork.
Mustard Greens (about 3 weeks old)
Below is a wide shot of the back yard today.  You might notice that I've taken down the back fence, scraped and painted the back wall of the neighbor's garage, and thereby hopefully stopped the flow of lead into the soil from that source.  

In my next garden post, I'll explain the cube-shaped contraption in the back.  In the meanwhile, baby mustard greens look nice as a lawn!

If you'd like more information on phytoremediation and creating a lead-safe garden, have a look at the Lead-Safe Yard Manual and this paper called Phytoremediation for Lead-Safe Yards.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Where Have YOU Been?

It has been a while since Cindy and I went out to Carmel Valley to work on the Arnold Cabin.  I gave you a peek at the emotional perspective in my previous post on the subject, The Arnold Cabin Project Part 3: The Real Story, but there's always more to say, isn't there?  For the more nuts-and-bolts perspective, I will kick off a little series of "how did" posts (as opposed to "how to").  And, as luck would have it, I've been invited to attend a family function out at Hastings this weekend.  I'll use the occasion to take some update photos of how things look after the Winter.

But first, a word on where I've been: We got back from the cabin project in August of last year.  I've written before about my neuropathy (numbness and nerve pain in my arms and hands), and through the paleo/primal diet and some great work by our chiropractor/functional medicine guy, Dr. Mango, I thought I had put that stuff behind me.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.  By the end of our week working on the cabin, the numbness and pain in my right arm and hand were back.  Working on my computer made the aching worse, and since I have to do so much computer work for my job, I kept it to a minimum at home.  That helped.

Then, in October of last year, I was raking through the drainage rocks on the green roof to wash the silt out of them (so we can collect the rain water from the roof without having to worry so much about filtration).  I was using a little hand fork to move the rocks around... for days.  You know how you can get absorbed in work and not notice what's happening to your body?  Well, I screwed up my elbow and became unable to use my right arm for any real work for months.  I switched to using my left hand to work the mouse on my computer at home and work, which helped a little.  But through January, I still couldn't grasp with my right hand without a sharp pain in my elbow.  Honestly, it was depressing.

Again, Dr. Mango came to the rescue with some intense muscle work.  I've also been working daily to improve my posture (with stretches and mindfulness), keep my inflammation down (by eating primal/paleo and avoiding sugar - within reason), and strengthen my back (with exercises and converting to a standing desk at home).  In March, my elbow finally started to improve.  It's not fully healed yet - I can tell the difference when I work the track pad on my laptop with my right hand for a few hours vs. my left.  But, I'm learning how to keep my shoulders and arms healthy and can add some more typing and computer time back into my life - just in time for Spring green roof updates!

Speaking of the green roof, here's Cindy mixing and adding some store-bought cow poo to our potting soil on the roof last weekend.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Epic Kitchen Door Restoration Project

This past weekend, I finally finished a project that has been no less than 4 years and 3 months in the making: the restoration of our kitchen door and door jamb.  Here's a photo of what it looked like in 2005 when I was in the process of buying our house.  Notice that all the walls in the entire house were painted that weird brown.  And all the original woodwork was buried under several coats of paint.

In 2010, I pulled the door out, took it downstairs to the basement, and started working on the door frame.   You can see I'd re-painted the hallway by then.  I still haven't gotten around to replacing the dark brown plywood cabinets on the right side of these pictures.

In the early days, I didn't have my saw horses built, so I was using my old tablesaw for a work bench.

With the paint removed, I found that the spot for the bottom hinge was completely splintering out.  I screwed some backer wood behind the good wood, and created an oak patch for the hole.  I later plugged the screw holes with oak plugs.

I didn't take any photos of the main door-stripping process.  Cindy did most of the early work with a heat gun and scrapers.  A few of the window panes were cracked in the process, and Cindy felt so badly about it, she basically stopped working on the door, and it sat in the basement for a couple of years.  I built some sawhorses in 2013, and I found them to be perfect for the kitchen door, so I started working on it when it was too rainy or hot for working on the green roof.

I removed the window panes and discovered that the wood around the windows was splintered and too weak to keep.

At first, I hoped to just replace what was too weak to keep.  I couldn't get any kind of router plane (electric or otherwise) in there to make channels for new dividers, so I hand chiseled them by giving my chisel a couple of taps to raise a chip of wood, then moving down the line about 1/16" and doing it again.  Once you've got a bunch of wood chips standing up in the channel, you can go back through, scrape them off, and smooth the bottom of the channel.

Once I'd done all of them, I milled some oak and cut some ship-lap joints for the intersections and glued them in place.

In the photo below, you can just barely see that there was a long strip of light, tight-grained wood along the edge of the door that we uncovered when we stripped all the paint off.  At some point, someone had tacked a long wedge of douglas fir (or some such stuff) along the whole length of the door.  I don't know if the original edge was damaged, or if the house long ago settled and it no longer fit the jamb properly, but because I had no intention of re-painting the door, I needed to replace that wood with something that looked more appropriate.  The trouble is, I wasn't 100% sure the door was oak, and I wasn't 100% sure how to go about replacing that strip properly.

I thought about and procrastinated about that problem for several months while I turned my attention to scraping away the burn marks left behind from Cindy's early experience with the heat gun (another reason why she shied away from continuing to work on the door).

One day, I realized I could clamp a straight edge to the door, pull the offending wedge of wood off the edge, route a clean edge along the length of the door (using the straight edge), nail on a replacement strip of the secondary wood (most doors are actually made of two different types of wood - a cheap one on the inside, and a thick veneer of the good stuff on the outside), and then glue on a strip of primary wood to bring the door back to it's proper width.

There was a good chance the door was oak, but when I started trying to find some oak that matched the door's grain patterns, I couldn't find a match.  So I began investigating American Chestnut wood, which I had always sort of suspected might have been what our woodwork was made out of when I wasn't thinking it was oak.  The American Chestnut tree used to be the most prevalent tree in our North American forests.  But it has been nearly extincted by a blight.  It is essentially impossible for any remaining American Chestnut trees to grow large enough to reproduce or to be suitable for lumber, so the only way to get American Chestnut lumber is through salvage dealers.  After a lot of searching, I found a company in Massachusetts that had a few thin boards of the furniture-grade quality I needed in order to be able to patch my door.

This is a photo of the secondary wood strip attached to the door with the American Chestnut wood glued on for the final "show" edge.

After the glue dried on the above edge pieces, I planed the edge flush with the interior strip of wood and began gluing on the front and back veneers.

Then I clamped the door to my work table and planed the face veneer flush with the edge veneer.  By the way, that antique coffin style plane is dreamy.

It's around this time when I figured out I can wake up early and get some shop time in before my day job, so this project really started to move along much faster.  It took me about 4 years and 2 months to get to this point.  The rest only took about 4 more weeks!

Then I figured out I could use my saw horses as an elegant way of holding the door up while I worked on patching the bad hinge mortises and filling the old screw holes with pegs.

The original screws had probably started pulling out of their holes, so someone moved the hinges to fresh wood at the top and bottom of the door.  That's why there was a second hinge mortise to patch.

One side of the door was originally stained a very dark color.  Here's the stain getting scraped off.

I had left the new edge on the door an extra 3/16" wider than the original, so I brought the door up to the kitchen to see how much of that wood I needed to shave off.  But it fit just the way it was!

You'll also notice that my new American Chestnut wood is awfully bright compared to the original stuff.  Although I didn't take any pictures of it, after I had the door back down to the workshop, I did some experiments with wood dye and made the new wood match the old a bit better.  I was talking to Cindy about making it perfect, and she mentioned that she liked being able to see it a little bit - it sort of tells the history of the door.  In later pictures (below), you can still see the patch, but it's blended in somewhat - just the way I left it.

The light in this photo below is wonky, but you can see that the bottom panel of the door was cracked.  I had been debating about whether to try to glue the panel back together, and after seeing the light stream through, I decided I had to give it a shot.

First, I gently pulled the molding out from around the panel.  I broke one piece in the process, but it glued back together pretty seamlessly.

I put blue tape on either side of the crack to keep the glue squeeze out from making a mess of the wood.  The panel was tucked under the veneer on the side rails of the door on both sides, so it was impossible to take out without breaking.  I decided to thread the end of a ratchet strap around the panel and tie it tight for my make-shift clamp.

I couldn't wait to see how the crack looked after I took the blue tape off, so I flipped the door over for a look.  It's not perfect, but it's not bad either.  The glue wasn't completely dry yet, so that strap was still on there.

Here's my mortise for the lock.

And finally, I turned my attention back to the windows.  I cut new panes of glass to replace all the broken ones (I broke a few myself too - it wasn't all Cindy's fault).  I have collected a bunch of old windows off the street from time to time, so I have a good stock of old glass lying around.  It took a long time to clean it up, but I love that it's a bit scratched and has waves and bubbles in it.

In this picture I'd milled a bunch of sticks out of more of the American Chestnut wood to hold the glass panes in place.

All the sticks were hand mitered to fit.


Then I started shaping them by hand.

Once they were all done, I clamped and nailed them into place.

I finished the door with two coats of a clear, satin water-based polyurethane finish.  That's blue tape to protect the glass from getting a bunch of finish on it.  I was very excited to install the door back in the kitchen, but my first attempt didn't quite work.  You can't really tell from the photo, but the door didn't close all the way.

I had to mortise the lower hinge deeper into the door jamb.

And I had to re-patch and re-install the upper hinge on the door.

I really love those saw horses.  And, yup, that's our kitchen floor.  It was pretty much worn out when we bought the house, and I still haven't found the time to replace it.

The hinge adjustments worked!

I'm particularly proud of how the new wood to keep the windows in place turned out.  And there's Cindy's silhouette reflected in the window.  She was making us eggs and lox.

Man, I can't tell you how nice it is to have that ding-dang kitchen door back in the kitchen where it belongs.  Wow.