Saturday, February 26, 2011

Jiffy Greenhouse

The sun gently warming seeds planted for this year's garden this morning inspired me to start a poem:

I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a Jiffy Greenhouse

A greenhouse whose acreage is prest
Against my wife's line-of-sight into the back yard...

Although plans are to add a few more similes to flesh it out, you have to admit those first few lines have an award-winning ring to them.

In the following picture, I realize that experienced gardeners need no further explanation. But since I can't tell by looking, I will share that there are multiple plantings of tomato, bell pepper, thyme, basil, and parsley seeds waiting to sprout and lend words to the poem’s next verse.

The herbs were an afterthought, and may not germinate because the seeds are two years old (the dog was a major player in what happened to the seeds from the packs’ first planting). If they do sprout, plans are to include them in a separate bed.

Back to the poem...


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Garden Layout v2.0

Thanks, everyone for the comments, and I have taken them to heart as you can see below.

While the new layout actually yields more corn stalks, I may not benefit - the last time corn seeds were planted, the garden was meticulously cared for, and near the projected harvest date, I raced to the backyard after work every day to check the silk's color with basket in hand. Anyone who has had corn fresh off the stalk understands why I wanted to hover.

On Mother Nature's appointed day, I got home to find the garden decimated by squirrels. Those buggers had harvested almost 3/4 of what had been planted, and to my extreme annoyance only nibbled a quarter of what they left on the ground.

But what I did get makes this effort worth it.

Please feel free to comment on either the current, proposed layout, or critter control strategy.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Garden Layout v1.0

I took a first cut at this year's garden layout. Comments are welcome about everything's placement (click the image to read the words).

Plans are to erect a trellis for the green beans & snow peas similar to what this fella did.

The "drop dead", last frost date around here is April 15. Plans are to start the tomatos & peppers in my personal greenhouse on this new shelf in the laundry room in the next week or so.

SpongeBob will just have to get over the competition.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

2011 Garden Step 1

After looking at what we all eat, and spending a lot of time at two stores agonizing over the different seed varieties available, I have decided on what will be in this year's garden.

The seed packets' backdrop, if you did not recognize it, is one of those compressed peat moss greenhouses, and will be used to germinate some of the seeds while the weather is still too cold to plant. I've never used one, but it looks like a cool idea.

Since I have all the yard space I want to commit to this adventure, the next step will be deciding the general size of the garden, and how many seeds from each bag will end up in the first planting. Fortunately, I have grown some of these vegetables before, and know what yields to expect. The ones I haven't, well, there are still people around here who do not lock their cars during the harvest season.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Early Start on This Year’s Garden

For quite some time, I have wanted some blackberry bushes because of fond memories bicycling long ago around the undeveloped Sharondale subdivision collecting wild blackberries. While looking at vegetable seeds at Lowes the other day, I noticed the store was also selling fruit bush, rooted cuttings (bushlings?). Taking note of what they had, I returned home empty-handed for follow-up research.

After reading that most of the Internet agreed now is the time in this area to plant berry bushes, a strategy for placement & spacing was mapped. A day or two later, I stopped back in and purchased two each of the blackberry, blueberry, and raspberry offerings.

Since part of the area chosen for the orchard included my watermelon patch of a couple of years ago, I decided to till the planting zone with the vintage rear-tine tiller I got recently instead of just digging six holes. Plus, I was dying to check out the tiller in actual operation.

The first use of the new tool ended up being more of a workout than expected. My experience with garden tillers up to this point had been with front tine tillers, and I had developed a reasonable experience base of the amount of continuous muscle power required to control that variety. But I was thrilled to get a rear tine tiller in part because of the manufacturer’s propaganda of people sweatlessly tilling a field with only one hand gently guiding the machine.

Well, I found out the hard way that that only works after the hard pack is broken up. I had the depth gauge set too deep to start with, and the drive wheels could not get traction before the tines dug in and had me chasing the machine as it fled the designated till area. My upper body muscles were plenty pumped before realizing that this style of tiller has to be handled differently finally hit home. But after the top inch or two of soil was broken, the effort got considerably easier, and several subsequent passes in the desired zone were made to end up with about a foot of deep-tilled soil.

The crabapple seeds pointed to are part of an effort started last fall, and are planted in a [buried] terra cotta pot for easy transplanting if/when they germinate. That’s hardy grass growing in the pot.

As long as the dog doesn’t chew the stuff up before the thorns can grow, hopefully I will be posting some cobbler/pie recipes in a couple of years.


Monday, February 14, 2011

John Deere’s Plastic Surgery

Many years ago, I had a dog that simply lived to bark at my riding mower as the grass was being cut. Being part pit bull, he had no qualms about getting right up next to the front grill and barking slobber all over it when the mower was going slowly through tall grass. In time though, several cracks were noticed on the plastic hood due in part to too many snout bumps. I drug my feet in doing anything about it because some plastics are tough to reliably patch.

After we lost Buddy one winter, I decided it was time to fix the hood before the next grass cutting season. As expected, the plastic from which the hood was molded was not solvent weldable, and since I owned no plastic heat welding tools, the only option was to patch the cracks with fiberglass & resin.

The best way to address the issue would have been to drill holes on either side of the cracks to provide the resin anchor points. But for aesthetics, I only wanted to patch from the inside, and decided that laying out a large acreage of mat & resin stood a good chance of working. So that’s what I did, and most of the repair lasted for almost 10 years.

Last grass-cutting season, new cracks developed, and pieces of plastic started falling off around one of the hinge points. The lack of a sturdy pivot point made opening the hood really tough. In what was out of character for me, even though the mower never needed additional oil between changes, my solution then was to just stop checking the oil. If nothing else, the mower was 15 years old at that point. The hood is of a two-piece design, and the Dealer wanted $600 for a new lower section. Maybe it was just time to replace the mower.

This past weekend, as the oil was being changed in my vintage roto-tiller, I decided to go ahead and change the oil in all the other small engines in the garage. This meant it was time to open the John Deere’s hood for the first time in almost a year. Everything was pretty dusty, and since the battery needed to be checked, the opportunity was taken to hose the accumulated dirt off.

After cleaning, the motor looked like new, and I could re-read the words “iron sleeved cylinder”. As expected, the oil was at the ‘full’ mark. So, even though the hood was falling apart, the rest of the mower was not, and it seemed reasonable to investigate broken hood option 2 – Run without a hood.

Nope - Kim did not care for the look of that option at all. So the hood and all the broken pieces I could find were trotted off to the shop for option 3 – anchor-hole reinforced fiberglass mat & resin.

The goal was to have a functional hood good for a minimum of 10 more cutting seasons that did not look too bad. The repair’s first step was drilling a bunch of holes everywhere to act as anchor points. The individual pieces were then Super-glued together.

In a stroke of overkill, nylon twine was then sewn in a pleasing pattern through most of the holes.

Having through-holes drilled meant both sides of the hood would have to be worked during the same session. To keep the resin from dripping off of the hood’s out-side, a piece of 30 mil sheet poly was taped to it after glassing the first coat. The hood was then flipped to work on the in-side.

The hood’s pivot points also needed attention. After drilling a couple of anchor holes, a dam of hot glue was laid out to create a reservoir for a T-nut and resin.

I could have declared “effort complete” at this point. But even though the goal of “…that did not look too bad” is subjective, I decided to sand the area in preparation of painting it.

Fortunately, Rust-Oleum sells ‘John Deere’ green, and it was a fairly good match.

The family thought it looked pretty good.

The reassembled end result turned out looking better than I thought it would.

All it needs in time for spring is some painted-on flames running down the sides.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

New Tool: Vintage Roto-tiller

Every so often, I get a wild hair to plant a garden, and borrow a roto-tiller from family or friend, instead of renting one, to till up the ground. While this approach has worked out fairly well, I really don’t like to borrow gas-powered equipment for a variety of reasons, and have kept an eye out for a good used tiller. Since I used to really enjoy working on small engines, to keep costs down the hope was to find a tiller that needed some level of repair.

A week or so after the start of the New Year, my friend Kenny asked me if I was still looking for a roto-tiller. From a previous conversation, I knew he had picked up one some time ago at an estate sale with a plan of fixing up & selling it. After getting a few more details, I decided he had made a New Year’s resolution to lighten the number of projects he had at his house, and the tiller was one of them.

Kenny told me he had cleaned out all the old gas to get the tiller started only to have it die & not re-start. In the brief time it ran, he also noticed a bad bearing on the transmission jackshaft. Between these problems, and wanting to show his appreciation to me for resolving a computer problem he had had, Kenny made me a great deal on a 1982 Lazy Boy model 5-RT, rear-tine roto-tiller made by the Parmi Tool Company.

This thing is a hoss. Weighing in at around 200 pounds, its 5-hp Briggs & Stratton engine powers a 20 inch rack of 12 inch tines, and rotates the 16-inch drive wheels via a transmission with three forward speeds and a reverse. Being as old as it is, the machine is blissfully unencumbered by today’s safety-mandated litany of safety interlocks – This machine will till the operator into the ground if an appropriate amount of attention is not paid to the task at hand.

To troubleshoot, I disconnected the spark plug wire, and held it in my hand while pulling the starter cord. No ouch. The grounding wire to the throttle lever’s stop position was then disconnected. No change. After finding nothing visibly wrong with the coil or its distance from the flywheel, the points & condenser were now suspect.

Oddly, the flywheel had no tapped holes for a removal tool. No problem, though, because a piece of angle iron drilled to accept carriage bolts fished out of the spare parts supply worked just as well.

It did not appear anyone had had the flywheel off recently. The points looked okay, but the gap was really big. So big, in fact, that the points never made contact. After checking the capacitor with an ohmmeter & dressing the contacts, the point gap was reset to 0.020”, and everything reassembled. Slowly pulling the starter cord this time, I got mildly bit by electricity.

After reconnecting the wire to a cleaned plug, the engine started up after two or three pulls & ran for about five seconds, and then quit.

My “calibrated hand” told me there was still electricity coming out of the coil, but not enough to arc a gap. To verify, another spark plug was gapped to 0.010”, connected to the wire, and left on top of the engine. The engine was then spun by a drill motor. No spark was seen. The points were verified to still be opening & closing. It appeared the coil was bad. But Briggs & Stratton’s FAQ tells me the coil’s secondary circuit resistance should measure between 2500 & 5000 ohms. My coil measured 2800 ohms.

Small engine manufacturers long ago did away with points & condenser ignition systems in favor of maintenance-free, Solid State Ignition systems. Although B&S still sells a points & condenser kit, they also sell an SSI upgrade kit which replaces 1982’s standard ignition.

After talking with some of the guys at work, by the end of the day I had convinced myself that the coil was indeed shorted, and that it would be stupid to not install SSI. But on the way out the door I ran into Bill, and he asked what my latest project was. I had no more than said “garden tiller” when he seemed to kind of light up and interrupted to ask “Briggs & Stratton?” After I nodded, he went on to describe my engine to a T, and outlined ways to improve its performance.

Apparently, around 12 years ago he was ‘Mr. Go-cart Racer’ before having to give it up to save his marriage, the B&S five horse was what he ran. While agreed that installing SSI was best route, he disagreed that my coil was bad, and proceeded to share a few war stories on coils he had run which had considerably less secondary resistance than mine.

So now the angst set in about what to ask for at the parts counter. Do I gamble that my coil is in fact good and just get the kit which replaces just the points & condenser or a different kit which replaces both the points & condenser, and coil? Since electrical parts are seldom returnable, I went with the Magnetron kit that replaced everything.

Although the old points & condenser could have been left in place, the kit came with a plug to install in place of the cam follower so I decided to pull out everything to add to the spare parts box for future projects. Now for the punchline – The screw holding the pivoting point in place had backed out in the five seconds the engine had run the previous day because I had neglected to torque it down. It did not come all the way out, but the point was at an odd angle. First mistake I have ever made…

While this was probably the problem, oddly though, according to my ohmmeter, the points were still making & breaking. Part of me wanted to reset & reassemble to see if the problem was fixed. The other part of me said “Why bother? You’ll just have to disassemble again to install the new electrical part that cannot be returned”.

After the tiller started on the second pull, attention was shifted over to the bearing issue Kenny noticed while the engine ran out a tank of gas. The symptom was that a V-belt which connects the jackshaft to the transmission would not stay engaged on the pulley.

One of the two pillow block style sintered iron bearings was wallowed out, and the other one did not look that great. Fortunately, the 5/8”D shaft was still in useable shape.

From past experience, I was surprised to find sintered iron used instead of the commonly-accepted-as-better sintered bronze. While it would have been nice to ask the Parmi Tool Company about the material choice, they were absorbed by another company long ago, and parts & advice for the Lazy Boy 5-RT are no longer available.

Unfortunately, none of the local small engine parts stores had a replacement bearing for sale. One online resource offered a bearing for a very reasonable $11.33 that would work, but new mounting holes would be required, and I have a thing about not drilling holes in vintage equipment.

Taking another look at the worn out bearing, I noticed it was made by Triangle Manufacturing Company, and Mr. Google told me they were still in business. In a lucky bonus, it was found that Triangle offered both the original sintered iron bearing, and a sintered bronze version. Their $30 minimum order requirement was not viewed as an obstacle because I would have been more than happy to pay $15 a piece for two OEM bearings. But I got tickled when they quoted me $1.05 each for the iron bearing, and $3.16 each for the bronze. Since I was still researching the merits of the different bearing material types, the minimum order requirement allowed me to buy a lifetime supply of each type.

To keep this post as dry as possible, shown below is a bearing comparison. From left-to-right: really worn-out iron, new iron (with magnet stuck on as proof), slightly worn iron, and bronze:

Research into why my tiller had what I considered to be less desirable bearings continued during the three or four days it took for the new bearings to arrive. “Economy” is, I believe, the final answer. Iron bearings are a third of the cost, and while not as “good”, the ones installed in my tiller did last for 29 years. From a design standpoint, my tiller’s record is hard to debate. But, as seen below, my newest tool’s jackshaft is now supported on bronze pillow block bearings (the old iron ones are shown for reference).

While it is still the dead of winter here, all maintenance/checkout/stress tests short of actual ground-breaking have been completed; the tiller is declared ready to go. While the fun I had restoring this vintage tool to operation to me pays for the costs involved in doing so, fiscally speaking, for what I could rent a similar workhorse for, I need to get 2.23 rental days out of my antique machine to break even. Not counting my Mom’s potential requests, that requirement will be met with this spring’s tasks. Since the modern-day-replacement equivalent cost of this machine is roughly $2700, money is projected to be saved.

The only thing that could make the whole setup better would be Number 1 son looking as happy plowing our Victory Garden as he does in the image below.

Stay tuned for gardening updates…