There has been a lot of failure around Gnome Knoll lately, and not just a failure to blog. The biggest failure has been my own inability to be patient and go with the flow. Rather, I have been trying to get too much done in too little time and then creating more problems for myself that slow me down even more. I’ve been pushing myself and my equipment too hard and then things break. Fortunately I haven’t broken anything that I haven’t been able to patch up myself, at least temporarily.

Someday maybe I’ll think back on these events and laugh at myself. For now I will try to slow down, reassess what needs to be done, and set more realistic goals for myself.

What is a Gnome Knoll?

Every paradise needs a name. When we first bought Gnome Knoll in late 2002, it was called the Hall Brook Camp because it was our camp on the Hall Brook. But as far as names go, while that was descriptive, it wasn’t inspiring.

The name Gnome Knoll just popped into my head one day. Once I had hit on the silent alliteration, I couldn’t let it go. I am a geek and it tickled my funny bone.  While I don’t know exactly where it came from, there were some influences that lead to the name.

There is a good sized knoll right there in the middle of the property. It’s got a rather flat top, and certainly might be a good place for a community of gnomes if they were looking for a place to live. The real estate agent had suggested that it would be a good location for a house. Since the knoll is the only good location for a house on the property that’s not saying much.


Lengthwise shot of the knoll, or most of it.

Ben was attending the nursery program at Cape Ann Waldorf school at the time and that curriculum is heavily influenced by folk tales of fairies, gnomes and other mythical creatures. They had little knit gnomies in the classroom, and it was something he was familiar with.


Picture of the northwest end of the knoll from 2002

Then, of course, there was our neighbors up the hill at Faerie Camp Destiny. If faeries occupied the top of the hill, then no reason that gnomes wouldn’t be down in the valley.

In 2012 I got a job up here in Vermont and bought the house across the street. So now Gnome Knoll applies to all the acreage in the two lots. Gnome Knoll isn’t just a place to visit on the weekends anymore, it is home.

Blogging with few readers

Why am I doing this blog? It is a lot of work, especially for a slow and somewhat deliberate writer like myself. Isn’t it taking away time from getting something else done? Well, I happened to see You should blog even if you have no readers on a techie blog and I thought it described some of the reasons I started blogging, and that it made the subject worthy of a post.

Nathan’s main points are that it makes you a better reader when you’ve been writing more and that it makes you smarter by making you focus on your thoughts. Go read his blog for the details. That’s not all the benefits that I personally get.

Blogging keeps me from wasting time doing other things on the Internet. I gave up TV a long time ago, but can still try to relax looking at stupid fails and silly cats. It doesn’t help as much as blogging. It takes a lot of energy to blog. When its the end of the day and I’m tired, but I have some pictures to upload and write about the energy spent pays returns in uplifting my spirit. It doesn’t matter whether someone reads it so much as someone could read it. Someone could be inspired to do that little bit more in their yard, garden or life to be more resilient.

Blogging also puts my ideas out there for feedback. Maybe someone will read it and have an idea to do something better than I have. I am always eager to learn better ways of doing things, and it is only through dialog that I’ll learn about them.

Blogging also captures my failed experiments. This also goes under making you smarter. When you blog about something you’re trying and you fail, you are going to learn more from that failure by blogging about it. And you are going to blog about it because of that one reader who might have thought that was a neat idea too.

So I am going to keep blogging, even if my Mother again says “Oh, I forgot about your blog.”

Containers too!

Raised beds are a great way to get a garden going in poor soil by just building up good soil and going from there. However they are not the only way and not the only way we’re growing stuff here at Gnome Knoll. Containers can work well to do the same thing and there are some advantages to containers as well.


Buckets with broccoli and kale.

Containers can be moved. Perhaps to a sunnier spot. Or into a greenhouse or even the main house when it gets cold out. That can be helpful to extend the seasons somewhat. Perhaps the containers just need to be moved out of the way when the something big needs to roll through, or spread further apart when the plants really leaf out.


Buckets and milk crates. The crates are waiting for pepper transplants.

We have a hodge-podge of containers collected over the years here at Gnome Knoll. In a suburban environment, the neighbors who haven’t learned reduce, reuse and only then recycle, will be putting lots of good containers at the curb for pickup. There is everything from perfectly good plastic pots that came from the store with something in it, to all sorts of big plastic containers for bird seed, laundry detergent, etc.


Getting ready to drill a bucket with a 5/8 inch spade bit. Yes, I was drilling left handed.

My favorite are the Tidy Cat kitty litter buckets because they have ribbed bottoms that can retain some water. That is, after you drill holes in the high part of the rib so that they drain. You’d think that we have lots of cats based on the number of buckets we have collected over the past two years, but no, we use a recycled newspaper kitty litter that comes in paper bags.

If you’re going to drill plastic containers for drainage, make sure to do so over newspaper or somewhere where it is easy to pick up all the little bits of plastic made by the drill. We don’t want those escaping into the environment if we can help it. Best do it inside, too. A mat knife may be necessary to clean up the edges of the hole as I always seem to end up with some bits still attached.


The bottom all drilled. Ugh, those plastic bits need cleaning up.

We successfully grew lots of things in the buckets last year and will have even more for this year. We had things you might expect in a container like basil, lettuce, spinach and kale, but also grew carrots. We had peppers growing in a different container made from an old milk crate lined with weed block. I’ll show how to make that in a future post.


This mustard plant overwintered in the container.

We had several buckets that were brought into the breezeway when it got cold in the fall. After they had mostly been picked over they were just ignored. Well one of the mustard greens survived all winter out there, buried under other stuff and is now bolting.

One drawback to buckets is that they will get washed away in a flood easier than the raised beds. Some of our original Tidy Cat buckets are probably somewhere in the Connecticut river thanks to Irene. I didn’t mind losing the buckets so much as losing the soil, as I had put a lot of work into preparing it, but that is a story for another day.

Building raised beds

I was working on more raised beds the past few days, and took a few more pictures to describe some steps in detail. See the Recycling Fence Panels post for more details on why I building out of old fence panels.

Closeup bed

A closeup of the end of the bed showing the three nails through the laterals.

First, assembling the bed. I do this in a flat area in the grass. It is easier to work in the grass than in the dirt where the bed will go. It is also easier to build a few boxes at a time and as we’ll see in a bit you can’t do that in building in place. I cut the fence laterals between every fourth slat which actually works out evenly for a typical panel. I examine the top and bottom of the cut sections and use ones that don’t look as nice for the sides that must be trimmed off. Then the four sides get laid out in the grass and I start nailing.

Completed bed

The completed bed with the big hammer and jug of nails.

I use 16D galvanized nails, three to a corner. I bought a huge box on clearance a couple of years ago and keep some in an old jug to take to my projects. I also use a 22oz hammer as these are big nails. It is well worth having the proper tool for the job. I nail the former laterals to laterals so that the nails are in the thickest wood available. As I said in the prior post, I put the laterals on the outside so that they don’t stay perpetually wet in the soil.

Once the bed is in place it is time to fill it with soil. I use loam that I have dug up from pond making to fill the beds. Because there are rocks, roots and clumps of grasses and ferns in the loam, I hand screen it all before it goes in the bed. Nothing fancy, I just put the bucket of loam over the bed and using my hands and a garden fork screen through and pull out anything I don’t want. This takes time, but will result in soil that is much easier to work in the future. I also put in some composted manure into the bed when its made. Over time we’ll add mulch, compose and biochar so that the soil in the beds will improve over time.


A bucket full of loam ready to be screened.

One more important step, and that is to plan the building of the beds in an order so that the tractor can get to them while they are being made. It would be much harder to move the loam and do the screening without the tractor. In the above picture, the tractor bucket is right over the first bed and the second bed is off to the right. The below picture shows the second bed in place after the first has been filled. The tractor is not getting back to the first bed.

Next Bed

The next bed is placed after the first is filled.

For the first few beds that were put in place, we put clean cardboard down underneath to try and keep the prior occupants of the space from growing up through the soil as we’ve had happen before. For this row of beds, I used the blade of the tractor to remove nearly everything first. We’ll see what the difference is.

To the left of the first bed is a great big rock just under the soil. I was going to put thinner beds here at first, but when I found the rock, I decided to use wider beds to avoid putting a bed on the rock. I won’t build any more rows  to the left this year, but I’ll be extending all the rows as I work back toward the yard. More to come.

Tadpoles not safe yet.

I took a look at the Rescued Pond today and was surprised how low the water had dropped. The land bridge between the two sides was almost back again.

Land Bridge

The soon to be gone land bridge.

There was only a small chance of rain today and I didn’t want to run the risk of the sides getting split apart and the old side drying out again. The challenge is that there are tadpoles everywhere, so it is hard to do a lot of digging without disturbing or crushing them. Well, better disturbed then dried out so more digging was in order.

All gone

Murky water where the land bridge was removed.

It is hard being deft with a backhoe, even one as little as mine. Overall I thing I did a decent job of not disturbing too much and getting one side of the bridge removed. I don’t like digging in water because I can’t see what I’m doing and I’m sure it isn’t good for the joints. Still I dug down pretty deep so that it won’t have to be dealt with again later.

I still have more digging to do in the pond, but I’ll do that over time so that I’m not disturbing too much at once. Eventually I’ll have another go at making it a lot bigger, but I’ll probably wait until winter when there is less around to disturb.

Also, now that I’ve given the pond a name (Rescued Pond), I created a category for it so the whole story is easier to find.

West Garden, Camp Garden?

I wanted to do a post about the older garden area at the camp, but as I was working on it I was having difficulty with the names of places. This is something I thought about a few years back, but never got around to addressing properly. When you are trying to describe something, it always helps to have a good name for it. None of us in the family are really good at names, but if we use them often enough they will stick. We just have to figure out what to use and agree on it.

So this post will have two purposes. To describe the layout and features of the camp garden (I don’t like that name), the west garden (might not be scalable) or whatever we’re going to call it, and to generate discussion about the names. I could wait, but in the spirit of not trying to get everything right up front, I’m just going to describe it without a proper name. Don’t forget you can click on it to see the full size version.


High view of most of the garden.

This picture was taken from way up a ladder against a tree. Why that ladder is there will be a post for another day. The next picture is the same, except that I’ve annotated it with various names.

Garden annotated

Same picture as above with annotations

Some of those names are OK, as they are descriptions that are unique, such as the raspberries. Others don’t work at all, such as old pond and new pond. What happens when I dig another one?

Initially I was going to describe all the different labelled areas in more detail in this post. However, it is getting late so let me just give an overview today.

All of the garden is surrounded by fencing. It is a mix of four foot metal wire fence and seven foot plastic deer fence. So far that has kept the deer out. The metal fence on the south side is barely standing up as I never went back to redo it after Irene, but it is holding. There are three gates out of the picture that I can open to get the tractor through.  For people, the shed is on the fence line and has doors at both ends and there is another people gate by the ‘old pond’.

There is still a lot of area for beds within the existing fence perimeter. Some of that I have held off on building beds because I knew I’d need space to dig the ‘new pond’. Other areas don’t get as much sun and I just haven’t gotten to building beds there yet.

South is to the upper left of the picture as labeled. The garden gets OK sun, but some areas are much better than others due to the forest all around. This location was picked for the proximity to easy water and that there were a few trees down already so I could get started without cutting as many at first.

The things I need names for are the whole garden which can’t just be called garden, because there are going to be gardens at the house as well. I also need to name the ponds a bit better. As labeled there is ‘old pond’, ‘new pond’ and ‘watering holes’ which are a series of little ponds that may eventually be connected. The ‘watering holes’ are under the trees on the west side and can’t be named that, because there will be more of them around as well, such as the new one up the hill from the house.

I could be a geek and just number them, but then I probably couldn’t remember them that well. I was thinking of maybe naming some things for North Shore towns. Any other ideas?

Solar Shed

John Robb at the Resilient Communities web site is looking for examples of Solar Sheds. OK, he’s talking about sheds that power a house. Still,I’ll take that as a sign that I should write up about my own simple solar shed.

The garden area at the camp is off grid, but there isn’t a need for a lot of power. Lighting and a little pumping are the primary needs. A radio is nice to have. I might have some low power automation for the garden some day. Wifi would be cool. Whoa! Getting carried away there.

The primary lighting is through integrating plexiglass panels in the roof for daylighting. I alternated metal roof panels with plexiglass ones. The shed was located under trees to keep it from overheating in the sun in the summer, otherwise this would allow too much heat in with the light. You don’t really want regular windows in the shed if they can be avoided, because they take up valuable wall space that is needed for storage. Putting windows in the roof works well for this situation. The plexiglass and the metal roof panels both have two inch ridges that overlap nicely. In the winter it even gets some solar heat after the leaves fall.

Solar Shed

Skylights on the roof. Solar panels down low on the north east corner where they will get the most sun with that big birch to the south.

Battery and wires

The battery and the mess of wires with the controller. Not the prettiest, but it works.

The rest of the power comes from three 15 watt cheap amorphous silicon solar panels. This type of panel can work in partial light which, given the location of the shed, is critical. I have them mounted low on one side of the shed that gets some sun in the morning. It might look weird to have them located there, but that is the best location given the primary goal of keeping the shed cool.

Charge Controller

This one has three connections. Panels, battery and load with a low voltage disconnect on load to protect the battery.

The solar panels feed a low end charge controller that is usually connected to a 12v deep cycle battery. I have a separate smaller 12v gel battery that I used for pumping that gets swapped in for a recharge when needed. In prior years, I was only at the camp on weekends so it was easy to get the watering battery recharged over the week. This year I may have to look into another way of working.

The deep cycle battery powers 12v LED landscape lighting in and around the front and back of the shed and a 12v radio designed for car or boat use. The lighting was bought on the cheap from one of those job lot stores and is supposed to be run off a 12v power supply, but they do fine with a 12v battery operating in normal voltage ranges.


Outside 12v LED landscape lights retrofitted for the shed. I used 120v plugs because they were cheaper than anything I could find for 12v.

So that’s my simple solar shed. It gets the job done and it was pretty cheap. Nothing really fancy, at least not until I get wifi working over the old Dish TV receivers.

If you eat it, it’s not a weed

Dandelion greens ready to be picked from a yard

Dandelion greens ready to be picked from a yard

When I was growing up I was taught to believe that weeds were particular plants, like crabgrass or dandelions. Now I know better. Weeds are simply things that are growing where you don’t want them. Therefore one way to get rid of weeds is to change your attitude. “Well, nothing else grows there easily, at least the crabgrass is green.”

Or “Hey look, free greens for my salad, right in the middle of my lawn.” Now I’ll be the first to admit that dandelions are not the tastiest of salad greens, but they are not too bad either and the price is hard to beat.

As a kid, another thing I was told about dandelions when I was sent out to dig them up from the grass was that I had better be sure to get the whole taproot or it would just grow back again. Anyone who has tried to do this knows it is very hard to get that whole taproot to come up with the rest of the plant. Even with a special weeding tool, I never seemed to get the whole taproot.

Here I pulled up harvested some dandelions that were growing in a raised bed. Because the soil in the raised bed is loose, it was easy to pull up the whole taproot. I was surprised at how long they can be. No wonder I couldn’t get them out of hard compacted soil. Below you can see that the taproot is longer than the leaves.

A very long dandelion taproot

A very long dandelion taproot

Edited to add: Another advantage of pulling the dandelions out with the taproots intact is that they won’t wilt as fast. So if you leave them lying in the kitchen until after you finish eating dinner, hanging laundry, blogging, etc. they can still be washed and put away in the fridge.

Also check out these articles on the value of dandelions: The dandelion is a healthful, great tasting weed you can eat 

Eating Dandelions

It appears that now is the time to pick them, and they are best before they flower. Though the ones that I picked were not that bitter whether they had flowered or not.

Lots of water

So we finally got some rain for a few days. Now that’s its stopped raining, I can report that the new work on the little pond has really helped it collect more water. This first shot is from last Wednesday when it had just started raining. The water and tadpoles are moving freely between the two parts of the pond.

Water across bridge

The water level is high enough so that it is even one both sides of the former divide.

The next shot is from today after more rain on Friday and Saturday. Woohoo! The pond is much deeper now. Of course it rained, but if I had not dug the creek it would not be this deep. I think we have enough water to get us through the summer now without me having to use the pump to try and save it. I probably can get water right from here for the gardens without worry.

Water is so deep now, the former divide is barely visible.

Water is so deep now, the former divide is barely visible.

Well, not exactly without worry. There are all those tadpoles in the pond that must not end up in the watering buckets. At least all the pond critters are fascinating to sit and watch.

The family enjoys looking at all the critters in the newly expanded pond.

The family enjoys looking at all the critters in the newly expanded pond.

I apologize for not posting for a few days. I was having technical difficulties with spam comments. I think I have it under control now.