Late Winter Update

With less than a week until spring officially arrives, you'd never know it looking outside here.  The open fields are still about knee-deep in snow.  But things are rolling along in the greenhouses.  In the rolling (unheated) greenhouse, we recently harvested the rest of our mâche from the winter garden.  We really enjoyed it; it was very mild and tender.  I grew it one spring out in California, but it was so bitter that we didn't enjoy it at all and would probably have never grown it again, except for Eliot Coleman's recommendation for it in the winter garden.  In hindsight, it was probably too warm for it to do well in California.  The carrots and spinach are still doing well.  We'll be harvesting the spinach this week, and the carrots within three weeks, to have the ground cleared out for the warm weather crops (nightshades, cukes, herbs) to go in.  Overall, our first winter garden did ok.  I think we should have started it a little sooner in the fall.  We could have harvested more of the less hardy crops in December before it got really cold, and the really hardy ones would have been bigger when the really cold weather causes them to stop growing and just stay alive. We've been harvesting some great romaine lettuce from a small bed in the heated tree greenhouse for a couple months now.  It's been a treat.  I seeded the bed densely and have just kept thinning as the heads grow.  Initially, we were cutting mesclun, then baby romaine, then small heads, and recently full-sized heads.

Medium-sized Romaine harvested a few weeks ago.
Medium-sized Romaine harvested a few weeks ago.

We've had three seed-starting sessions so far for the heated seedling bench.  We make soil blocks for the seeds.  The nightshades were recently transplanted into 4" pots until they go into the ground.  We use a team of two to four people when we do seeds.  It goes faster and is more fun.  Yesterday we did round three, and the newest member of the SCSA team was on hand to help out.

Daniel making soil blocks. Rich and Carol planting seeds.
Daniel making soil blocks. Rich and Carol planting seeds.

Our son Daniel recently moved here from California.  He has assumed primary responsibility for our coffee-ground-recycling program and also helps out wherever else he's needed.  We've been recycling coffee grounds from five of the coffee houses in Keene for about two years now.  It's a true win-win for everybody.  The coffee houses cut down on their garbage load, their employees don't have to make as many trips out to the dumpster, and we get coffee grounds for our compost pile.  We collect the grounds seven days a week, almost every day of the year, and we average about 50 gallons a day total.  That has added up to over 150 cubic yards of coffee grounds since we started.  Although coffee grounds start out fairly acidic, after brewing they end up almost pH neutral.  They're high in nitrogen, and I've read some articles that say they are arguably better than manure in compost.

Basil seedlings.
Basil seedlings.
Tomato seedlings.
Tomato seedlings.
Eggplant seedlings.
Eggplant seedlings.
Onion seedlings.

Onion seedlings.

Our citrus and avocado trees have been in the ground for a year and a half now,  This winter we harvested a few oranges, lemons , and limes.  All the trees are blooming now and putting on new growth.  They seem to be enjoying their biochar-treated soil.

"Littlecado" avocado tree (dwarf Haas) in bloom.

"Littlecado" avocado tree (dwarf Haas) in bloom.

"Holiday" Avocado tree in bloom.
"Holiday" Avocado tree in bloom.
Orange blossoms.
Orange blossoms.
Lemons.
Lemons.
Lime.
Lime.
Minneola tangelo tree sporting new growth.
Minneola tangelo tree sporting new growth.
Clementine tree with new growth.
Clementine tree with new growth.
Our winter oasis, where we can go to relax and enjoy a sunny (but cold) winter day, and enjoy the fragrance of citrus blossoms.
Our winter oasis, where we can go to relax and enjoy a sunny (but cold) winter day, and enjoy the fragrance of citrus blossoms.

We were on our planned biochar retort burn schedule of three times a week up through November, but we had a mechanical malfunction that shut us down for a little while in early December.  Fortunately, Bob Wells of New England Biochar was able to schedule in a repair trip for us and the retort was back in operation.  The malfunction had to do with the drive shaft from a motor to the blower fan that keeps the wood gas that outgasses from the feedstock flowing back to the gasifier.  The fix incorporated a new design that works with a drive belt instead of a shaft.  It works much better because alignment is less critical with the belt and pulleys than for the drive shaft, and because of heating and cooling of the retort, the platform is constantly shifting slightly.  It is also a lot quieter now.  Our retort was the 13th steel one produced by New England Biochar, a couple years ago.  Bob said every one was a little different because they keep incorporating improvements.  The whole biochar movement is still pretty new, and NEB is right on the cutting edge of retort design.  The "best" design hasn't been locked in stone yet.  Even though we were out of our "official" one-year warranty period, Bob graciously performed the repair without charge, saying that the problem in the design was known about before the warranty period ended.  Additionally, we found out when we started our first burn after the repair, that the temperature indicator for the gasifier was not working.  After a little troubleshooting, we identified a thermocouple (temperature sending unit) as the source of the problem.  Bob had a new thermocouple shipped overnight to us, gratis, to get us back in operation.  It has been a pleasure working with Bob and his crew on our biochar endeavors.  We recommend that anybody looking to obtain a leading-edge-design biochar retort to consider New England Biochar.  It is refreshing in today's culture to do business with an honorable and reputable company.

After the repair, in addition to the heavy snowload, we had some personal challenges that kept us from running the biochar retort as much as we hoped this winter.  We didn't make any runs in January or February, but last Thursday we got it going again.  The repair incorporated some design changes that caused it run a little differently than it did previously.  We have to re-learn some operating parameters, but we are pleased with its operation.

Another re-do on the retort was a change that we installed.  The heavy steel lid on the feedstock bin has an elegant, ergonomic, balanced design that allows one person to roll it back and tilt it out of the way for loading and unloading.  It works great for us, except in winter conditions, when the ice and snow keep the rollers from working well.  So, Ron and I designed an electric hoist fixture to raise up the lid instead.  So far, Ron (who does the loading and unloading) is quite pleased with its operation.

New lid hoist.
New lid hoist.
Lid up with safety chain in place.
Lid up with safety chain in place.
Three pins installed temporarily to keep lid aligned with bolt holes.
Three pins installed temporarily to keep lid aligned with bolt holes.
Biochar retort lid going up.
Biochar retort lid going down.

The "re-do" on the retort was not our only challenge this winter.  The new greenhouse we put up for our wood processing nearly came down with a heavy snowload.  It had been shedding snow quite well, but on about the fourth blizzard, we found it sagging severely from a snow drift about three to four feet high on the south side of the roof.  Fortunately it didn't collapse like the previous one, but it will require some reinforcing this summer.

Under heavy snow load on south (left) side.
Under heavy snow load on south (left) side.
Woodshed with heavy snow load almost cleared off.
Woodshed with heavy snow load almost cleared off.

We joke tongue-in-cheek here occasionally that the thing we specialize in most here is re-do's.  It's kind of like Baretta used to say:  "We're gonna do this 'til we get it right."   "And you can take that to the bank."

---Steve