Monday 26 January 2015

Making planks

raw material

Living in a forest with lots of trees on our land we do a lot of work with wood. When we have a lovely healthy trunk, like this section of a beech tree, it seems wasteful to simply chop it up for firewood although that is our major fuel need.

We've tried lots of traditional ways to get workable wood for furniture and building from trees but splitting and sawing and smoothing huge boles that weigh tons by hand needs a full team of burly lumberjacks or much more time than we have.

However commercial sawmill equipment is very expensive and not economic for the relatively small amounts of wood that we process for home use, so we've been investigating alternative ways.

alaska mill

Chainsaws are the dangerous but extremely useful and powerful tools that have become standard equipment for cutting down trees but they are much more difficult to use for anything like precision work, some very clever chainsaw sculptors notwithstanding. However a method has been devised to frame them and use the frame as a guide to make parallel cuts through a body of wood, which might more easily be described as making planks.

This kit of parts for a Granberg chainsaw mill came from Alaskan Mills. This was our first attempt at using it.

tools and ladder

As part of the preparation for the work it's necessary to make the knobbly and uneven surface of your felled tree horizontal. You can buy another kit of bars to support the saw during this difficult first cut but, if you have one, a light ladder (provided it's not warped) will do the job. It simply has to hold the saw frame level for one cut and after that the trunk itself provides the bearing surface.

prepped log

First the larger bumps were trimmed away so the ladder would lie fairly flat. This was freehand chainsaw work.

ldder in position

We held the ladder to the trunk with some plywood and screws. It's important to set the depth of the first cut to allow for the ladder frame and the ends of the screws within the wood, cutting metal with a chainsaw ruins your chain at best.

Once the ladder or frame is secured you can make the first cut. The piece of wood you remove will mostly be bark and sapwood and will end up as firewood.

 first cut

Making the first cut is quite scary. Although the chainsaw is enclosed in bars and firmly held in position it still seems wrong to have it on its side and to be pushing it along a trunk.

finishing first cut

I had to stop taking photos at this moment and hold the near end of the ladder down so that the whole thing didn't lift up with the weight of saw, frame and overhanging ladder as the cut was completed.

bearing surface

After the first cut you can still see an indention but the majority of the top surface is now levelled and ready to start turning into planks.

nice and flat

Nice and smooth, the surface is clean and will require relatively small amounts of finishing for a good appearance. Not so much positive can be said for the appearance of my thumb there.

first plank

The first plank cut was just 2" thick and has a hole in it where that indentation was still visible. I'm going to have this one and turn it into solid beech chopping boards, hoping eventually to build a small business selling natural wood products as a sideline.


We took three 3" planks but it quickly became more difficult to work as the trunk was removed and each cut was closer to the ground.

more low cut

In this picture you can see the wedges that were inserted into the cuts as they were made to hold the slab up, keeping the cut level and easing the work of the chainsaw.

A final thin and narrow plank was taken before the bottom bark was sent to the fire. Now the wood has to season until it's ready to use. Apart from my slice it's currently destined to become a new workbench in a couple of years time.

Friday 16 January 2015

Mashua and Yacon and Tiger nuts


The end of a wildly windy and wet but mild spell drove me out of  the house today to harvest the three remaining plants of Mashua before the hard frosts come - regular readers won't be surprised to hear I left a few behind but even so the crop exceeded all my usual expectations of the roots of the Andes. That's a full washing up bowl and the tubers are, compared to oca or ulluco, huge. If it wasn't for the taste they'd be a worthy addition to the potato crops, blight free, almost pest free, productive and attractive.

A few days ago I also lifted the yacon. No picture of these mucky roots, but you can imagine. I'm not much of a fan of these for eating either although I should experiment more, I think they'd do in Chinese style stir fries with five-spice powder and coriander. What I hope to do eventually is juice them and boil down for syrup in the manner of maple or birch sap, but I suspect that this year that's not going to happen. It would be nice if someone could breed a variety that wasn't quite so brittle during harvest, a lot of good roots won't keep now, not a problem if they were going straight to the juicer but no good for winter storage.

Three crowns look like they'll have propagation material for next year and they've been brought into a cold room to sit out the winter, just frost free.

Finally tiger nuts or chufa. I had great hopes for these and they were planted out in a row that initially seemed to be growing well. Then in the warmer days of summer the plants inexplicably started to wither and become loose in the soil before dying completely. I can only think the resident voles were to blame for this. I can't decide whether to try again. Sometimes it really is easier just to buy a pound or two from someone better placed than struggle on alone.

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Crop curation

Not a great picture, sorry

Finally, the tubers are counted. Pathetic aren't they. To be fair, these were grown from the survivors of the great deer attack in 2013 before the fence was installed but I was hoping for a better return.

From the top left, oca Rose Pink originally from a another enthusiasist, Ian Pearson I think, who gave me two types from his breeding programme. A very light pink and white and a slightly darker pink and white one which was very similar. One of these has fallen by the wayside but I'm not sure which. Anyway, what's there is barely enough to try next year - a story that's going to be repeated again and again sadly.

Still on the top line the next oca is the "shocking" pink variety I saved from Waitrose all those years ago. As can be seen they make a good sized tuber when they're happy but again I don't have enough to actually eat any.

In the middle at the top is the so called Wild ulluco. These were sent to me in a selection pack by Bill Whitson of Cultivariable seeds and this is the first year I've grown them. Compared to the other ulluco they finished early and I wonder if a greater yield would have happened had I been able to keep the plants going a little longer. Anyway, there's enough there to try again, if it seems worth it.

Next along that row are the ulluco I've managed to keep going from my original Realseeds varieties. They might possibly be Cusco Market if a name is helpful and last year I tried growing the two very slightly differing variants separately to see if it was possible to distinguish them more clearly. The jury is still out. These are the pinker sort, and immediately below the more yellow type. It's obvious that some are pinker than others and in the yellow team ditto. So who can tell?

Finally at the end on their own are the Purple ulluco  also from Cultivariable. These did best of all this year (not saying much) and look clean and attractive. I may have enough tiddlers to offer a few for swaps if anyone is interested in giving this most unrewarding novelty a go.

On the left again for the bottom row, just two tiny white oca tubers (Realseeds, years ago) survive. These white ones were the only reliable flowerers I had, so seed breeding looks like a no go area for a while yet. Hopefully I can bring them back from the brink.

Next to them the dark red New Zealand type collected from Waitrose at the same time as the pink. I have a particular fondness for these, the colour is pretty and I've already lost and found them back in 2007/8 when the crop failed but I found some volunteers from a previous year in a piece of land returned to scrub.

In the middle at the bottom some white ulluco from Bill. I am a fool as these were sent from his trials and identified only by a working title, some letters and numbers which I kept meaning to transcribe somewhere safe but then forgot to do. So I've no idea what they are exactly. However, they were chosen as part of an attempt to get flowers for seed production and I've been calling them 'flowering' on labels. Interesting looking long white tubers but not many of them. Another one to nurture (or not) next year.

Next to those the yellower Cusco Market ulluco mentioned above.

It's not a very inspiring collection. This year was, in terms of late maturing root crops, practically perfect with a long golden autumn and next to no serious frost before Yule but the field crops were non-existant and the potted ones nearly the same. I keep hoping I'll perfect my growing techniques and start to get usuable quantities. I'm beginning to think that this isn't ever going to happen.

Tuesday 13 January 2015

A Tuesday in pictures

This was quite a surprise, a daffodil out already. Sadly, I can't find any snowdrops even though we had a few last year.

A beautiful self seeded chard has had no trouble with the mild winter and is bountiful.

I put the swedes in far too early last year but they've done surprisingly well and we'll probably be able to eat the last few here before they get too tough.

A quick peek into the forest, not a hunting day today but they were out in force yesterday. Makes you a bit nervous about going for a walk there.

Something lovely in the woodshed, lots and lots of wood.

Water over the bridge. Well, it's a weir really but for most of the year it's a dry pond boundary.

pink primrose
It is a cultivated variety gone feral but this pink primrose is far earlier than the native yellow sort.

jan sunset
The sun sets much further to the south west at this time of year.

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Three from the top

You know things are bad when it's not even possible to drum up enthusiasm for the seed catalogues. There are just three new to me plants that I have an inclination to try this year. The first is vila vila also known as Solanum sisymbriifolium, the Litchi tomato or Morelle de Balbis in France.

I've long wanted to give this prickly relative of the tomato a go, spotting both its blight resistance and antagonistic foliage as vital components in my fight to produce a range of vegetables outside in the menace of Phytophthora infestans and deer. For a while Alan Romans was offering it as pest reducer for potatoes on his now sadly defunct seed potato site but I was always going to try it another year and left it too late. Promises of swaps from other gardens were never taken up so I'd let it slip away again until some mad enthusiasts started a facebook group - here - and was lucky enough to receive some seeds from a group member. So I'm all set for this year's experiment.

Joe's long cayenne pepper is a chilli pepper I spotted when we went to the Eden project in the autumn. Chillies aren't my obsession but I'm looking for a range of fruit with medium heat for my rather moderate chilli heat requirements and so am mostly pinning my hopes on the tree chilli but these were stunningly attractive and if they taste nice are worth a space for the added appeal of the plants.

The picture (and the plants at Eden) are Suttons and the link will take you to them where they offer seeds and plants this year but they once offended me so I won't buy from them any more. The seeds are also available in other places, I'll probably be getting mine from the supplier in the name link.

A range of achocha

Another plant that doesn't exactly meet my criteria for truly delightful is the achocha. It's an attractive climber, good for covering a trellis and absolutely adored by insects, tree wasps and other little creatures but the fruit, used as a vegetable, is utterly tasteless and only useful as a filler in curries and stews or paradoxically stuffed. Even then it's best used as small as possible and life's too short to stuff a tiny achocha. But it seems the Bolivians have thought of that and developed a variety where the fruit grow huge. That picture above is of the ordinary sort I had from the HDRA years ago but imagine the largest one as as long as a man's hand. That's quite a giant lady's slipper achocha  and although it may need a bit more protection than its smaller siblings I thought I'd give it a chance.

Thursday 1 January 2015

Bish bash bosh, it's another year.

jay feather

Here we are in 2015 and the stream of consciousness that is this blog is lurching it's way into another arbitrary temporal period. I really really meant to make more posts last autumn but I didn't and there's no point in beating myself up about that. So, since most people take this time of year as a moment to reflect on the past and future I may as well go with the flow.

Last year wasn't a good one for me. Nothing particularly bad happened but my mental state, which has been hovering around near the bottom of the spectrum of depressed for some time now didn't even manage to reach previous sun fuelled highs, the whole year in retrospect is a beigy-sepia colour without any merit. It even lacks any significant disappointment, it might just as well have not been there. I might just as well have not been there. So that's that.

Now, although I can't really bring myself to believe that one second differentiates from the next in any significant way, it's traditional to draw a line and start again. Can it be done, can I do it? I have no idea.

I'm going to spend a few days mulling it over, identifying with more precision exactly what it is that's bringing me down - that sounds back to front but I can assure you, I don't spend much time examining bad things, they're too scary. But being Pollyanna can be too much as well. It's time to disinfect the dark side. A simple one is this lousy laptop I bought. It's not wrong but it's an impediment to easy working, I need the formality of a desk.

Resolutions be gone, when I do it, whatever it is, that will be action not intent.