Anthony Valterra

How to Build a Squash Tunnel out of Bamboo - for Almost Nothing!

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By Anthony Valterra

My father is a very handy man. He's the type of guy who sees a brick patio and thinks, "I could do that." And then he figures out how to do it. And actually does it. And it looks awesome. As his son, it is both heartening to see what can be done and discouraging when you see how often your attempts at doing something awesome falls short. But as my grandfather used to say, "It's good enuf fer who it's fer." It took me years to translate that from his Oklahoma twang to my more prosaic American standard into, "It is good enough for whom it is for." I always liked Grandpa's attitude towards life.

So, it is with this familial background that I announced with a casual and cavalier attitude that I would build a squash tunnel for the Dragon Flower Farm. I had no idea how. But we have the Internet, and I undertook some research. These days, however, it seems like there is nothing you can't buy pre-made. 

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This one is available from www.gardeners.com. No, we don't have any kind of arrangement with them. I'm just offering this as an example of a squash arch that's pre-made.

But with a limited budget, and with a DIY attitude, we decided to forego purchasing in favor of building. Most people build squash tunnels from things like cattle panels. Here's a step-by-step guide for doing that over at Jobe's. 

The cattle panel versions seem to be very functional, and we were leaning that direction for some time. In fact, we may have used that method if the shelter-in-place quarantine had not occurred. We were about to pull the trigger and go to our local big box garden/home supply store, buy some cattle panels, and go for it. But once the virus hit, we avoided going out to large, crowded stores, and the whole thing became a bit trickier and more DIY. One solution is the rustic, "let's-tie-some-sticks-together" look.

That one struck me as just a bit too rustic. I was hoping for something in the middle. Lisa and I were out for a walk, and we passed by one of our neighbors, who has a large grove of bamboo growing on the side of his property. Bamboo grows really fast. So, he has to cut it back a couple of times a year. He just has the city come and pick it up as yard waste. We'd already snagged a few of his excess bamboo canes previously, using them as tree stakes. And then the light went on - bamboo is great building material! He has all kinds of lengths and thicknesses. And since the shutdown, yard waste has not been picked up (with reduced staff and more garbage and recycling material being produced by everyone staying home, the city's workers were overwhelmed, and so they temporarily suspended pick-up). Well, talk about your win-win. He was thrilled to have us haul away all of his bamboo, and we got free building material.

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You need close to 30 canes to do this right. Any leftovers can be repurposed as garden stakes.

Now, all I had to do was figure out how to build a squash tunnel using bamboo. No biggie, right? Here is what I came up with. Will it work? I guess we will all find out by the fall. It will either collapse from the weight of the plants on it, be blown away in a storm, or be standing and provide some lovely images. Stay tuned to find out which scenario plays out.

First things first - what tools and supplies did I need? Well, other than the bamboo itself, this is literally all I needed.

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Saw, tape measure, twine, hand cutters, and a rubber mallet.

So the arch, all total, can be had for the cost of twine, provided you get the bamboo for free and already have these tools. Now here's how I built it.

I laid out two bamboo rods that were going to be my base supports to get an idea on the length of the tunnel.

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I then cut 6 pieces of bamboo into one-foot lengths, with a sharp 45-degree cut.

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These were going to become my stakes. They were surprisingly easy to drive into the ground. Using my hand and bodyweight, I could push them 6 inches into the ground and then use the rubber mallet to drive them down until about 2-3 inches stuck up above the ground. I then lashed the base supports to the stakes with the twine.

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Then I cut the side vertical supports the same way I cut the stakes - with a 45-degree end. This allowed me to drive them into the ground using just my bodyweight next to the stakes. 

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Overhead view - the sharp end will be driven into the ground next to the stake.

Once the vertical supports were in place, they were strengthened with horizontal supports on each side, which was lashed to the standing vertical support.

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Here you can see the vertical support driven into the ground and tied to the stake at the bottom and the horizontal support lashed to higher up.

All that was left to do was to bend the vertical support bamboo to form the arch and tie them together. If there is a place where this falls apart, it is here. I wish I had started this project as soon as I had the bamboo when it was still green and very supple. But I waited a few days and the bamboo had begun to dry out and become more brittle. It still bent, but I think it might be more likely to break.

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The full arch. I put another horizontal brace at the very top where the two sides of the arch meet for more support. We chose to leave some of the leaves on because we thought they looked nice. But as the bamboo dries, they may just fall off or be stolen by birds for their nests. We'll see. The real question is... will it support our squash? That is unknown. It also might be that the horizontal bracing is too high off the ground for the squash to reach, and there may just need to be more bracing on the sides for the squash to grow on. But that will be an easy addition if needed.

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Lisa inside the tunnel. This clearly shows the first horizontal brace might be too high up. It is about thigh-high on Lisa. We may need to put another one below it about halfway to the ground. And perhaps one above it as well. Stay tuned!

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Chaos Is a Garden

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Peonies on a floor of wild violets seen through a thicket of wild garlic.

By Anthony Valterra

Chaos isn't a pit.
Chaos is a ladder.

- Little Finger, Game of Thrones

...the idea that paradise is a walled garden is an echo back to the chaos and order idea… Walls, culture, garden, nature… The proper human habitat is a properly tended garden...

- Jordan Peterson

As we work on the Dragon Flower Farm, we are also developing our philosophy around what we are doing, and why. At this point (and it will likely change) I would say it is a philosophy of the mean - the middle way, if you will. One aspect of that philosophy is the role of chaos. In Jungian thought, the forest represents the primeval, the chaotic, nature red in tooth and claw. The home represents order, civilization, humanity's dominion. The garden is the place where the two intersect. It is ordered, but it is still influenced by the power that resides outside of its walls. 

Generally speaking, our culture tries to push that chaotic force as far away from ourselves as possible. We use chemical pesticides to kill insects we don't want, we erect barriers to keep out animals we label pests, and we root up plants we call weeds. That is one extreme. On the other side of the garden wall, we have people who are advocating never weeding anything, letting everything grow as it will, and the only intervention being the introduction of plants that are desired. We fall somewhere in the middle.

DFF (Dragon Flower Farm) is trying to ride the edge of order and chaos. We believe that it is possible to have intention in planting, engineering, and maintaining your garden, while still understanding that you are not really in charge. Nature will surprise you with volunteers, odd combinations of plants, and even insect populations that you did not expect. You can pour huge amounts of energy and resources attempting to fight against nature, or you can have a little humility and journey with her. Maybe you will even see some beauty that you could not have planned.

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Daffodils growing up through sedum - completely unplanned.

We have an intent for our space. We are trying to grow a significant portion of our own food. Ironically, we began this project way before COVID-19. But the pandemic has sharpened the seriousness of this goal. We are also attempting to support our native flora and fauna. Pollinators are particularly important, and growing native plants supports those insects, which supports our goal of growing our own food. Finally, we are trying to be good environmental stewards of our space. We avoid the use of chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides. But in all of these endeavors, we do not hold ourselves up as pristine. We do not see ourselves living only on the food grown on our land, we have non-native plants in the yard, and we have used outside inputs such as mulch from another source. 

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A sycamore volunteer plant - maybe the act of a squirrel, or a bird, or maybe it drifted in on the wind. 

Our culture tends to favor order over chaos in the natural world. We want our plants and animals to conform to our needs and wants. To a traditional gardener, our space would probably look chaotic (sorry, Dad!). On the other hand, we fly in the face of many non-traditional philosophies. We are more than willing to uproot winter creeper, tree of heaven, and bush honeysuckle. This makes the native plant people happy but gets us a frown from some permaculture purists. However, we are OK with some non-native volunteers, which reverses the praise/frown equation just mentioned.

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One pod is local praying mantis; the other is a non-native, introduced mantis species; both are welcome at DFF.

How do we decide? We're guessing. But we know that we are not really in charge. Nature will abide. We can only do our best in the short time we are here and hope to pass on something to the next generation - a bit of wisdom, some life lessons, and maybe a small patch of healthy land.

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How about this little bundle of chaos? Native? Invasive? Food? Stay tuned to find out!


The Skillet Feeding You! How to Cook with a Cast Iron Skillet

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Note: This is part three in a three-part series devoted to cast iron skillets.

By Anthony Valterra

If you've read the previous two blog posts in this series (here and here), your pan is well-seasoned, and you know how to care for it. Before you start using it, the first thing you need to do is a bit weird, and it sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, but you need to get to know your pan. Remember, listen to your pan more than you speak.

Cast iron skillets have personalities (no, I don't know what their D&D stats would be1). Some heat up very fast, some more slowly. Some need a lot of oil regularly; some can get by on the oil in your foods. All cast iron pans heat up unevenly. Once they are hot, they give off a nice, even heat that lasts for some time, but as they are heating, you can hold your hand above the pan and feel temperature differentials.

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When we first started cooking with our cast iron skillet, it seemed like food was always sticking to it, no matter how well we greased it. After doing some research, the problem became obvious. We were treating our skillet like a Teflon-coated pan. We would put it on the heat, toss in some oil, fat, or grease, and start cooking. As I mentioned above, cast iron skillets heat up slowly. And they need to be hot in order to not have food stick to them. We needed to adjust our cooking process to give the skillet a few minutes to heat up. Generally, I heat up the skillet about one notch on the heat dial above what I intend to cook food at. For example, if I am cooking a hamburger and will cook it at a "5" on the stove dial, I will set the dial to "6" for a few minutes, and then turn it down to 5 when the pan is hot. Then I will add the cooking fats and finally, the hamburger.

Next, you will need to get metal cooking utensils to use with your cast iron. First of all, you can't hurt your pan with a metal utensil like you can a coated pan. And secondly, you will want that metal-on-metal ability to get the pan cleaned of all food. Finally, cast iron can get very hot, and the last thing you want is for a rubber or plastic cooking utensil to leave traces of themselves on your lovely pan.

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Although it has been mentioned a number of times, it bears mentioning again: cast iron skillets can get very hot. And they will get hot all the way up the handle. You need to remember that and use a good thick oven mitt when handling your cast iron while cooking with it. Also, don't forget that it will be hot and it will stay hot for some time. Don't set it down on the counter to cool, or you will end up with a burnt spot on your counter. If you drop it into your stainless steel sink when it is hot be prepared to hear a loud bang as the hot pan hits and bends (temporarily) the cool sink bottom. A better option is to leave it on the stove on a cold burner to cool down for a 5-10 minutes, and then rinse it with water and clean it out.

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The final point I will make is that while I've been cooking with cast iron for about five years, I don't have a huge variety of personal experiences. I have yet to make brownies or sweet rolls or anything not savory in my cast iron. But the word on the street (the mean streets of the Internet that is) is that one should keep one set of cast iron for sweet cooking and another for savory. Just as your choice of oil for seasoning your pan can impart a small amount of taste to your foods, the theory is that the foods you cook will impart a small amount of taste to the pan and then to other foods you cook. If you have just cooked a savory dish, and you are cooking another savory dish, the taste will likely be so subtle that it will be unnoticeable. But, some people swear that if you cook a sweet dish and then a savory dish (or vice versa), the taste is distinct enough that it can be noticed. I plead ignorance on this one, but it does make some sense. I guess if you had a very sensitive palate, you might choose to have one set of pans seasoned in coconut oil for sweet cooking and another seasoned with a different oil for savory cooking.

With that, I conclude my three-part series on cooking with cast iron. As I learn more, I will put out updated posts. Also, as the Dragonflower Farm investigates other pre-fossil fuel-based technologies, I will post our experiences of those as well!

(1) OK, OK, you forced me.

Simple Melee Weapons
Weapon Cost Damage Weight Properties
Battle Pan 2 gp 1d4 Bludgeoning 3 lb. Light, Versatile (1d6), Special

+1 to your AC if you are wielding it and have no shield. However, due to the nature of the weapon, it is ineffective against heavy armor, which causes a -2 to damage rolls.

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The Care and Feeding of Your Skillet

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Note: This is part two in a three-part series devoted to cast iron skillets. Part one is here.

By Anthony Valterra

Generally, there are a few rules for cast iron skillet care and a few myths that can be dispelled. First of all, there is cleaning the pan. A well-seasoned pan, that is being used properly, should not be difficult to clean up. Hot water and a metal spatula are usually all you need. If you are cooking something that has a lot of sugar or starch (say potatoes), then you may need to break out the non-soap steel wool. But once again, you won't be "scrubbing;" you will be scraping gently. Soap is usually considered a bit of a no-no, and we don't use it. But everyone I've read says a small amount is 'no big deal.' If you are going to use soap, as I said in my previous skillet post, I would recommend something with few chemicals and/or perfumes. If you want an alternative to soap, you can try salt and a bit of oil. 

Once clean, depending on whether you want to save paper or save energy, you can go one of two directions. If you want to conserve energy, you can wipe the pan dry with a paper towel or a clean cloth. If you want to conserve paper, you can dry the pan by shaking off as much water as you can and then setting it on the stove on low heat to evaporate the remaining water. If the pan only requires some hot water to get clean, there is often a good amount of oil remaining from the cooking. If so, just wipe that into the pan, and once the pan is dry, put it away. If it took more scraping, or if you used soap or the pan looks or feels dry, then just rub a bit of oil onto the surface before you put it away.

Pans store best hung. As always, the reason is purely practical. The worst thing you can do to a skillet is to let it sit with water on it. Unless you are extremely careful, it is very easy to have a wet pan sitting on top of another pan. But not everyone has the ability to set up a pan-hanging rack like this one.

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This image courtesy Pixabay. All others by Anthony Valterra.

We are still working out how and where we would put something like that in the kitchen. So, for now, we are stacking our pans and being careful about drying them. This is what we have. At least they are not resting on each other. 

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Moisture really is the enemy of iron pans, so there are a few things you should avoid doing. Baking in a pan is one common way of using them. If you are making pan pizza or lasagna, then you could use the pan to bake the dish. But what you don't want to do is store the food in the pan. It may be tempting to just put the leftover pizza (leftover? How big is your pan?) into the refrigerator, still in the pan, but don't do that. The food has moisture in it, and it is sitting on the pan. As an example: here is a lovely shepherd's pie baked in a pan (no blackbirds, I swear). We had plenty of leftovers, but they were taken out of the pan and stored in another container.

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Along the same lines, a common solution for cleaning pans is to let them soak in hot water to loosen food. I would not do this longer than the length of a meal. So, if you finish cooking and before you sit down, you put hot water in your pan, and then after the meal is done you clean the pan, you are probably fine (I have certainly done this). But don't give in to temptation and leave it overnight.

Proper care of your pans will ensure that you need to re-read the first entry in this series of posts less often. But just in case, seasoning your pan can be found here. Next up, we will look at the right ways to use this well-seasoned, well-cared-for pan.

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The Skill That Goes Into a Skillet

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By Anthony Valterra

Right now, it is trendy to reach back for older technologies. There are, likely, a number of reasons for this. First, nostalgia is ever-present in our culture. When I was a young chap in the early 1980s, the decades of the 1950s and 60s were all the rage. We watched "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley." My junior high even referred to our dances as "sock hops." Secondly, I believe there is a growing dis-ease within our society over the constant updates on technology. I am sure that I am not the only one who has vented out loud over some new improved version of an app, program, or website that is less functional, convenient, and/or easy to use. People are beginning to wonder, "Is there really that much value in the latest gadget?" Maybe some of that old technology is perfectly fine, does the job at least as well (if not better), and doesn't try to steal your private information in the bargain.

Cooking is one of the subject areas where some people are embracing older technology. I now grind my own coffee beans. And I use a hand grinder. It takes almost exactly as long as it takes for my water to boil to grind beans for my French press, I use no electricity, and my grind is exactly the way I want it. I think my coffee is now better than what I get at my local coffee shop. I also use cast iron skillets. And that is the subject of today's blog post.

I am aware that there are new technologies emerging in the realm of non-stick pans. I've heard that these new "blue diamond" pans are supposed to be toxin-free, non-stick, and virtually indestructible. I've also heard that they chip and/or scratch easily, and lose their non-stick surface quickly. Well let me introduce you to my little friend, "the cast iron skillet." The cast iron skillet is, truly, nearly indestructible. It used to be common for skillets to be passed down from generation to generation. They can lose their non-stick surface, but re-seasoning them is easy to do. I suppose, if you really tried hard, you could scratch one, but not with any kitchen utensil I know about. So, why have we switched to these new tech pans?

Well, cast iron does require a bit of thought and effort. But in return, you get a device that will not wear out and will not add toxins to your food or your home. In order to use cast irons, there are a few things you need to do:

  1. You need to season your pan (which I will cover).
  2. You need to learn how to care for your pan (covered in an upcoming post).
  3. You need to learn how to cook with your pan (covered in an upcoming post).

Seasoning Your Pan

Seasoning a pan is not difficult, but it will take some time. I would set aside an afternoon. You can get plenty of other things done at the same time, but you will want to be around to monitor the process. 

How do you know if your pan needs seasoning? The simple answer is that it looks dirty. If you are using your pan correctly (which will be covered in an upcoming post) and food is consistently sticking to your pan, or if it will not wash up easily after use, then it probably needs seasoning. If you can see rust, or discoloring, or the surface is uneven, you probably need to season. Rust is the enemy. You really want to get that off. If it does not scrape or wash off, here is an odd trick that really works; cut a potato in half, sprinkle the rust with baking soda and use the cut potato to rub the rust off. 

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A dirty skillet that needs re-seasoned.

But if you have no experience with a cast iron skillet, you may not know what to look for. So, this is what a well-seasoned cast iron skillet looks like. The surface of the pan should look like a black mirror. It will not be reflective enough for you to actually see yourself in it, but it does reflect light. The surface will be smooth and even. When you wipe it with a paper towel, the paper towel should show little or no residue.

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A well-seasoned pan

Step 1: Wash the pan

One thing seasoning does is use a lot of heat to clean your pan, but let's do our best to give the process a head start. You can start by using a metal spatula and water, as hot as you can take it, to melt and scrape any food or rust off of your pan. If you have food or gunk that is really baked on, put a bit of water in the pan and simmer it for about a minute to loosen it up. To get the pan really clean, I recommend steel wool without any soap embedded in it (like SOS pads have). You don't have to be religious about not using soap on your pan, especially if you are about to season it. But those steel wool pads are handy to have around after your seasoning, so why not buy a box? And if you are going to use soap, I recommend avoiding soaps with perfumes or chemicals.

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Plain steel wool - no soap

Once the pan is clean, heat up your oven to around 375 degrees. Make sure the pan is bone dry. You can even heat it up on the stove, on a low temperature, to make sure you drive off all the moisture. Using a paper towel, wipe the surface of the pan with oil. If you have done a good job cleaning it, the paper towel should come off clean. If it is not perfect, like I said, the process will clean it. Put your pan into the oven face down and let it bake for an hour. After an hour, turn off the oven and let it cool down naturally. Remove it from the oven (carefully - it might still be hot) and wipe it with oil again. Is the paper towel coming off showing nothing but the oil (no black gunk)? Congratulations, you're done! If it is still blackened by wiping the surface of the pan with oil, clean it, and bake it again. Repeat this process until the pan wipes without leaving residue.

I hear some of you remarking, "You say 'oil,' but you don't say what kind." That is a tricky subject and one that people feel pretty strongly about. Here are some guidelines. Any oil (except olive oil) that is liquid at room temperature is in danger of adding PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) to your diet. Some people think PUFAs are liquid death; others think that in a proper ratio with saturated fats they are fine. Traditionally, skillets were seasoned with lard, tallow or other animal fats. These work well, but if you are not using your skillet regularly (multiple times a week), they can go rancid. Some oils add flavor to the pan, which can transfer to your food (avocado, sesame, coconut, flax). Some people dislike that, and some people are looking for that. Finally, some people need their pan not to smoke at a very high temperature. They are planning to use their pan to do things like sear steaks before cooking them. In that case they need to use oils with very high smoking points (avocado, safflower, refined olive oil). If you've been following this blog you know that we render our own fat, so it will be no surprise that we use tallow. We cook with our skillet almost every day, so there is no real concern with the fat going rancid.

Can you mess up the process? You bet. I managed to make cardinal error number one seasoning the pan for this post. I did not make sure the pan was bone dry before wiping it down with oil and putting it in the oven. When you do that the oil clumps up, and your pan looks like it is wearing a camouflage pattern.

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Terrific - I messed it up

The fix is elbow grease. I got to spend a whole lot of time with steel wool in my hand and hot water. I even used salt instead of soap. It took a good 20 minutes of work, but in the end I got the pan seasoned correctly.

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A well-seasoned pan

Seasoning a skillet is one of those processes that anyone can do without understanding what is going on. It's like getting water scale out of the bottom of a teapot. You can know that an acid will likely break up that alkali residue, or you can do what your grandma did and pour some vinegar into the teapot and let it sit before cleaning it. But for those who are curious, here is the layman's science behind seasoning. The iron in the skillet is porous, and the high heat opens those pores wide enough to let the fat seep into the pan. This forms a layer that both protects the metal and creates a non-stick cooking surface. Thus, the effects of flavored oils, high heat oils, and the risk of oils that can easily go rancid. The oil you use to season the pan is still there after the process, even after you wipe it away.

The nice thing about seasoning is that it is not like coating a pan with a non-stick teflon. That is something that can only be done once, and only done in a factory. Seasoning can be done, redone, and done by you in your own home.

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