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archives for 01/2017

Aquaponic water testing

Even though we started with a kit, no aquaponics system is truly plug and play. Instead, you have to build up handy bacteria to change fish waste (ammonia) into the form of nitrogen plants can use (nitrate). While you can do this by putting some fish in your tank and hoping the bacteria will grow faster than their poop will build up, most folks cycle the tank using chemistry instead.

Transplanting into a grow bed

Cycling is pretty simple. Basically, you set up both your tank and grow bed (with pump running), then you add a source of ammonia to bring the content of the water up to 4 to 6 ppm. After that, it's just a waiting game while the bacteria accumulate and do their job.

So where do you get ammonia? Supposedly, you can buy it in the cleaning section of some stores...but it's hard to find straight stuff without dyes, perfumes, and soaps. I went for the cheaper approach --- aged pee.

pH testing

(This picture actually portrays a pH test. But let's pretend, shall we?)

Half a cup of aged pee in a ten-gallon aquarium actually overshot the mark a bit, hitting 8 ppm. I could have changed out a bit of the water to bring the aquarium back into balance, but I also had another ace up my sleeve --- a quart of wild pond water added to the mix.

I figure seeding some beneficial microorganisms might let me get away with higher ammonia levels than are really recommended. Hopefully the pond water will also lower the usual cycling time of three to six weeks too. The sooner I can add fish, the better!

Posted Sun Jan 1 07:54:03 2017 Tags:
mark Wabi-Sabi



I recently learned about Wabi-Sabi.

A Japanese world view centered on acceptance of transience and imperfection.


This video I made from 2009 might come close to capturing one of those moments.

Posted Sun Jan 1 16:15:23 2017 Tags:
Aquaponics

I've been getting a lot of aquaponics questions both on and offline, so I thought I'd sum the most common ones up in a single post. Questions have been paraphrased to save space.

"What kind of fish are you putting in your tank? Are you going to eat them?"


I'm very new to aquariums, so I was surprised to learn that a 10-gallon tank is actually too small for even a single goldfish. The aquaponics aspect also mean that you're better off raising tropical fish, since a heated tank makes the biology of the waste conversion work better.

To cut a long story short, we'll probably stock the tank with five guppies once the setup has cycled. Or possibly with some of AquaSprouts' other suggested ornamental combos: 8 neon tetras plus 4-6 dwarf corydoras catfish; 5 tiger barbs plus 2-4 kuhli loaches; or 5-7 zebra danios plus 2 dojo loaches. Nope, we won't be eating our teaspoon-sized fish.

Expanded clay aggregate
"Are you growing potatoes? If not, what are those little round things in the grow bed?"


The growing medium in a hydroponics or aquaponics system needs to be something inert that holds water between drenchings but doesn't disintegrate like soil would to fill the water below with gunk. In this case, we're using expanded clay aggregate --- an extremely light-weight, rock-like substance formed by baking clay at a high temperature. You'll soon see some rock wool enter the setup when I start my basil seeds since seedlings can't handle the large spaces between the clay pellets.

"Are you concerned about the sustainability of your aquaponics setup?"


I consider our tank in the toy category rather than the tool category. It's 95% for prettiness and 5% for production of herbs, and I'm well aware I could get the same production results with less input of electricity by growing the plants in a pot on a shelf. But it'll be fun and educational to watch the ecosystem develop, and I figure that's worth a little electricity!

"Doesn't cycling with pee as your ammonia source mean the tank stinks?


It actually did smell worse than I'd expected, but the odor disappeared within 24 hours. Perhaps that's a sign that my ecosystem is starting to work (although there's still no measurable presence of nitrite in the water). Stay tuned for more nitty-gritty details as the project progresses!

Posted Mon Jan 2 07:21:47 2017 Tags:
Aquaponic reflector.

We added a small strip of flashing to block some light and reflect the rest back.

Posted Mon Jan 2 16:09:16 2017 Tags:
Primer

The trouble with me learning about the joys of paint is that now every project takes three times as long. Gotta lay down some primer and then pretty colors before Mark can start putting it all together.

I'm attempting to keep the obsession in check, though. For example, I didn't paint the underside of the upcoming sofa loft...although I really did think about it.

Posted Tue Jan 3 06:57:48 2017 Tags:
Cutting boards with circular saw with Lucy.
We finished up the board cutting for the new elevated storage loft.
Posted Tue Jan 3 15:32:24 2017 Tags:
Airship diagram

Aimee needs help designing a steampunk airship. Any takers? (Roland?)

http://www.strangevehicles.com/content/item/102694.html

For story reasons too complicated to get into here, I'd like to have most or all of the living quarters down in a gondola suspended below the balloon. So more like the semirigid or nonrigid airships in the diagram above, although I'm not actually set on it not having a rigid frame.

The Hindenburg had capacity for 72 passengers and 40 crew members. It was 250 meters long and 40 meters in diameter and used hydrogen gas to stay afloat.

I'm thinking of using hydrogen gas in my story too despite (or perhaps because of) the fire Hydrogenase airshippotential. How big do you think my airship would have to be to need about 8 to 15 crew members while having capacity for about 15 passengers (hotel-like setting, not just seats) with an equal-sized cargo space?

I'd like to create the hydrogen in situ using Chlamydomonas reinhardtii algae, similar to Vincent Callebaut's dream, but built like a ship rather than a city. What kind of lightweight medium would you grow algae on in an airship setup?

Airship design
R34 Airship

Here are a couple of other diagrams that floated my boat. (Click on any image to find the source of the pretty pictures.) Now I'm ready for your ideas --- go!

Posted Wed Jan 4 07:41:31 2017 Tags:
Elevated storage couch.
The new elevated storage sitting area is a huge improvement.
Posted Wed Jan 4 15:48:55 2017 Tags:
Elevated sofa bed

Our elevated sofa bed is complete! Time for a long, step-by-step post showing how we did it.

Bed frame

Putting plywood on the frameAs Mark mentioned earlier, we began by building the base for the mattress to sit on top of. Since the sofa may hold multiple people at a time, we wanted it to be sturdy, so we built a rectangle out of two-by-fours, added two braces in the middle, and topped it all off with a big sheet of plywood.

Build bookcase

Next came the supports. One end will be open to the room, so we decided to make a bookcase to both hold the sofa aloft and increase our storage area.

The other end butts up against my office area, so we simply cut four-by-fours to act as legs there.

Pry up carpet rails

Inside, we pulled the ancient futon out and started preparing the space. Our trailer came with carpeting, which we ripped out nearly right away. I never got around to dealing with the metal rails that held the edges in place, though, and one strip was going to get in the way. So Mark pried it loose, nails and all.

Cut through door frame

Hollow door frameThe door frame was also going to impact sofa placement, so Mark cut a notch with a sawzall. You might not want to try this at home in a real house. But trailers are so underbuilt they're easy to manipulate. Turned out that what looked like a massive hunk of wood was actually a hollow piece that was easy to pry loose.

Loft supports

Legs and bookcase in place and ready for the top....

Elevated bed

We set the plywood box on top of the bookcase and legs and tapped it into place.

Installing a bracket

Next, Mark added brackets to connect the legs to the top...

Elevated bed leg brace

...and a two-by-four at the bottom to finish bracing the structure.

Elevated sofa

He also added a two-by-four set on edge on the front of the bed platform to hold the mattress in place. Add in a memory-foam mattress (half the cost of the entire project), and Huckleberry was ready to check the new lounging station out.

It's great fun to sit a little higher and view the world from a new angle, although we might have to do something about heat in the summer months. In the meantime, we're pondering where to put a step to make the top easy to access and what to do with the storage space underneath. As Mom suspected, it's a little too low for winter-coat hanging and Mark's not sure about my idea of turning it into a seed-starting station. We'll see what happens after we've lived around the new piece of furniture for a few weeks.

Posted Thu Jan 5 07:19:13 2017 Tags:

Muckmaster boot review.

My old Muck boots were 4 years old and starting to leak on creek crossing days.

I upgraded from the chore boot to the Hi-Cut MuckMaster.

I think the extra height is worth the extra money and I like the way the MuckMaster hugs the calves compared to a big gap with the chore boots that would sometimes get water splashed up and into.

Posted Thu Jan 5 15:12:55 2017 Tags:
Hydroponic daffodils

The good news is that the plants in my aquaponics setup are doing well. One celery transplant bit the dust, but everyone else is either hanging in there or actively growing. I even dug some daffodil bulbs out of the yard for faster prettiness --- 24 hours after taking the photo above, their leaves had already turned green and begun to grow.

Draining an aquaponics tank

The bad news is that I'm having a harder time getting the chemistry to even out. Half a cup of pee was apparently way too much, and I soon discovered that urine also tends to dramatically raise the pH of the water as the urea decomposes into ammonia. So I had to change out about half the tank's water to get down to an ammonia concentration of 6 ppm and will be slowly adding lemon juice to bring the pH back on track as well.

All-told, though, I'm thoroughly enjoying my experiment so far. The hourly pump action is a handy clock, and the sound of running water soothes me even as it reminds me to get back to work. All that fun and I haven't even added fish yet!

Posted Fri Jan 6 07:01:09 2017 Tags:
Lumber hauling in the Kubota X900.

The elevated sofa project went so well we decided to make another elevated storage/bed in the bedroom.

Posted Fri Jan 6 15:32:23 2017 Tags:
Water testing

48 hours after my partial water change, my aquaponics tank experienced lift off! The nitrite reading had been stubbornly sitting at 0 since the beginning, but abruptly that light turquoise changed to a very faint violet. Progress! Looks like those critters are finally getting to work now that the pH is closer to proper values. (I actually overshot and went too low this time, but I think it's going to even itself out...or I'll add a bit of well water to bring us back up to speed.)

Grow bed

Meanwhile, the grow bed is really greening up. The chives have grown nearly two inches and I think the celery might be putting out new leaves. I'm excited to see how quickly the plants and bacteria work through the nitrogen and how well the ecosystem stabilizes now that it's gotten its start. Once the ammonia disappears and then disappears again after I add a second dose, I'll consider adding fish!

Posted Sat Jan 7 07:50:35 2017 Tags:
Cutting plywood with a fork lift.

The place we get local lumber is going to be closing in a couple months.

I'm sad to see them go. They custom cut our plywood at no extra cost with a smile.

Posted Sat Jan 7 16:52:45 2017 Tags:
Elevated storage bed

"What's next?" I asked Mark once the living room remodel was basically complete. "Hauling in manure for the spring garden? Cleaning out the composting toilet?"

"None of the above," my husband replied, and I could see him thinking that he might never get me into remodeling mode again if he let me stop now. "Next up is your room."

Bedroom start

Before anyone gets concerned about the state of our marriage, I should explain that I'm the world's lightest sleeper. After battling with insomia for decades, I finally developed sufficient sleep hygiene so I mostly sleep when and where I should. But nothing living is allowed to be anywhere near me when I sleep, and my sleeping room can be used for nothing except sleeping and changing clothes...which means it looks significantly worse than my office area did pre-remodel. Sleep hygiene, to me, doesn't seem to involve actual, well cleaning.

Raised storage bed

What's the plan? Mark helped me purge about two-thirds of my accumulated possessions, then I packed the rest into bins to sit under the sofa during remodel part two. I've picked out paint, Mark brought home the lumber, and next week will be time for rejuvenation of my sleeping space!

Posted Sun Jan 8 07:52:54 2017 Tags:
Snow capped shitake mushrooms in a white bowl with snow background.

Our first Snow Capped Shitake mushrooms came during a recent dusting of snow.

Posted Sun Jan 8 14:05:15 2017 Tags:
Snowy garden

Our first truly cold spell of the winter hit this weekend, with two inches of fluffy snow and daytime highs below freezing. Saturday night it dropped to 7 degrees and I was worried about our outside critters.

Chickens in the snowTo my surprise, everyone carried on as usual. In fact, we harvested 10 eggs from our 14-hen flock --- not bad for girls who've spent the day freezing their toes outside!

Winter chicken care is pretty basic, actually. You want your chickens to be dry and draft-free (both of which are far more important than warm), to have plenty of thawed drinking water and food, and to enjoy light in the coop during part of the night to ensure regular egg harvests. Do all of that and your hens will ignore the fact they originated in the tropics and carry through quite well down to 0 degrees and lower.

Now, if I could just train myself not to worry when the mercury plummets, then we'd be all set....

Posted Mon Jan 9 07:38:15 2017 Tags:
mark Rut ice
Kubota X900 getting stuck for the first time.

The Kubota X900 got stuck today about halfway out to our parking area.

Really thick ice chunks get wedged in the ruts in the wrong way.

Good thing it's getting warmer later on in the week.

Posted Mon Jan 9 16:31:20 2017 Tags:
Goats eating honeysuckle

While the weather has been so cold and snowy, I've been taking the honeysuckle to the goats rather than the goats to the honeysuckle. They don't get quite as much nutrition out of armload deliveries, but Artemesia still prefers the couch-potato approach. After all, she's been eating so much hay to feed her babies that she's a bit unsteady on her feet on uneven ground and doesn't feel like reaching up in search of climbing vines.

Cooking carrots

To further spoil my herd, I decided to cook up their carrots and butternuts on the coldest morning, adding a handful of rolled oats for extra carbs. Unfortunately, even after draining the soup, Artemesia still turned up her spoiled nose and required me to go home for an uncooked version. Lucy ate the discarded goodies while my pregnant doe happily crunched away on her usual cold breakfast. So much for hot mash!

Posted Tue Jan 10 07:34:08 2017 Tags:
Young Mark

Happy birthday, Mark! I've only known you during one of the ten factors of your current age, but I imagine you brought peace and joy to everyone around you during the others as well. I feel so lucky to spend every day in your presence and I look forward to saying I've celebrated three of your factor birthdays with you when you're twice this age.

Now my question for the reader --- how old is he?

Posted Tue Jan 10 13:24:19 2017 Tags:
Permaculture School

Permaculture Design Certificates can be very costly to come by, so I thought I'd share this opportunity for a program that actually pays you to learn. You spend six months studying on-site with room and board paid for, then you commit to a year of community service (that comes with a $18,000 stipend) to cement that education. In the end, you walk away with a (presumably) very deep understanding of the topics plus that certificate which can help you make a living by teaching or consulting.

Here's the summary of the syllabus:

  • Full season organic gardening
  • Rotational grazing
  • Small animal husbandry
  • Permaculture design
  • Soil science
  • Conservation
  • Mushroom cultivation
  • Beekeeping
  • Cooking, preserving & fermentation
  • Nutrition & wellness
  • Community development
  • Nonprofit management
  • Food access issues

Interested? Check out their website and work up your resume fast because applications are due February 1. Good luck!

Posted Wed Jan 11 07:10:50 2017 Tags:
Using wedges to split firewood.

I end up doing 90% of the wood splitting with the biggest wedge.

Makes me wonder if an even bigger wedge would split faster?

Posted Wed Jan 11 15:23:33 2017 Tags:
Aquaponics water testing

Daffodil bloom budBack when I was first getting the pH and ammonia levels in my aquaponics tank close to recommended values, the water went crystal clear. I'm now realizing that sparkling water is actually a bad sign in aquaponics.

In contrast, as soon as I did a partial water change and began seeing both nitrites and now nitrates in the water, turbidity levels rose once again. Those nitrogen-converting bacteria --- not stirred up sediment --- must be what's causing the cloudiness.
I'm thrilled to be able to see my microbial partners as they work!

In other news, one of my forced daffodils is already sending up a bloom bud. Looks like my grow bed is going to turn pretty sooner rather than later!

Posted Thu Jan 12 07:25:14 2017 Tags:
Plywood curtain on two hinges.

A thin sheet of plywood on two hinges makes a good plywood curtain.

Sometimes a full moon shines too much light in this window for sleeping.

Posted Thu Jan 12 15:46:36 2017 Tags:
Arthur wall

Joey took these great shots of an Arthur wall --- a heated wall to train espaliers against for freeze protection. Since fruit plants need lots of light, you'd probably only plant them against the south side (or the north side if you lived in Tasmania where these photos were taken). So what would you put on the opposite face to utilize all that heat? Perhaps a chicken coop to up your egg production?

Posted Fri Jan 13 07:33:23 2017 Tags:
Kubota X900 gets stuck and then unstuck.

How long was the Kubota X900 stuck earlier this week?

Just a couple days. The ice melted enough to crush through the big chunks.

I think we could've busted up some of the ice with a spud bar to get unstuck but we were on our way to the dentist for a cleaning and didn't want to be late.

Posted Fri Jan 13 16:49:56 2017 Tags:
Aerial silks

Some move I don't know the name of"Wanna go to circus school with me?" I asked Kayla one day last week.

"Um, sure?" responded my long-suffering friend.

Aerial silks was surprisingly fun --- the hour flew by and I'd be a regular if the gym wasn't located an hour from our farm. Here's the link in case anyone else in the area wants to run away and join the circus.

Kayla: "That was definitely a once-in-a-life-time experience."

Anna: "Is that the polite way of saying you aren't going back?"

Posted Sat Jan 14 07:33:00 2017 Tags:
Basket of carrots with snowy background.

Our big carrot harvest of 2016 continues to feed us and both Aurora and Artemesia.

Posted Sat Jan 14 15:49:36 2017 Tags:
Demolition

The trickiest post of remodeling (for me at least) is deciding how much of a perfectionist to be. For example, in the bedroom there's a lot of water damage in the ceiling tiles from a leak that came before our time. I'm sure the pros would have told us to rip the panels out and replace them...but instead I just laid down a coat of primer and then a coat of paint.

Primer over wood paneling

Similarly, I decided not to deal with the indented lines of the wood paneling and even avoided spackling over nail holes. This room will see low use during daylight hours and will generally be viewed under low light, so less disruption of my sleep during remodel trumps polished perfection. Plus, it lets me get to the fun part faster --- painting!

Posted Sun Jan 15 07:39:19 2017 Tags:
Mushroom mountain climbs up a tree.

Mushroom Mountain is now offering online courses that include on demand and live webinars.

Anna and I took a class from Tradd Cotter in Asheville and were very impressed with his teaching style and content.

Posted Sun Jan 15 15:18:51 2017 Tags:
Grazing goats

Artemesia has been putting so much food in her belly lately that she's a bit ungainly on her feet. Meanwhile, the only good grazing is now on steep hillsides full of thorny blackberry Honeysuckle tanglebrambles. So while it's been cold and wet, I've been pulling honeysuckle off the side of the barn and taking it to my pregnant doe in the coop. (No, of course she's not spoiled!)

But Saturday was so beautiful, Artie seemed more willing to go out. She gamely climbed up onto the rise that separates our trailer from the floodplain and everything was delightful...until the time came to get her down. Then I had to beg her and tease her and even pull on the leash a little bit. But I'm sure the sun still did her good and all that fresh forage will be much appreciated by her growing kidlets.

Posted Mon Jan 16 07:31:04 2017 Tags:
Elevated bed platform.

Finished up the elevated bed platform this afternoon.

It went a little faster than the couch thanks to some improved building skills.

Posted Mon Jan 16 15:52:00 2017 Tags:
Anna Frog Tape
Green masking tape

When Mark and I went to pick up the bedroom paint, there was a new type of painter's tape beside the traditional blue stuff. "Frog Tape: Keeps Paint Out. Keeps Lines Sharp. 10% Bonus Length." the advertising read. Plus, it was a dollar cheaper than the blue stuff. I bought a roll.

Bedroom remodel

So did the product live up to its claims? I didn't do a side-by-side comparison, but I'm not sure I'm sold on the Frog Tape.

I masked off either side of the raised ridges we'd decided to paint a darker shade of green about 18 hours after slapping on the final coat of pale paint. But when the time came to take off the tape...it took off some of the dry paint behind it as well.

Meanwhile, the crisp edges didn't really materialize (although they might have been a little less blurry than what I would have gotten with blue tape). To cut a long story short, I'll be doing some touch-up work when it's all said and done. Oh well, it's hard to complain about getting to play with paint!

Posted Tue Jan 17 07:06:08 2017 Tags:
Aquaponic daffodil.

Our first touch of color this year showed up in the form of an aquaponic daffodil.

Posted Tue Jan 17 15:28:49 2017 Tags:
Bean seedling

While I was sick this past summer and fall, I doubted everything about the homestead (well, everything except Mark and Artemesia). Now that I'm bouncing back, it's easy to settle into old patterns. But I've decided to be smart instead and make the necessary changes so I don't go down the same dark road again.

To that end, my garden ambitions this year are extreme --- I hope to cut back my work by 50% while still feeding us most or all of fresh produce we eat. Spreadsheets to the rescue!

Garden joy spreadsheet

I've attached my garden-planning file in case anyone wants to use it as a jumping-off point for your own work-to-joy analysis. For those terrified by the mere idea of Excel, here's the upshoot:

  • We're cutting everything back a small amount so I won't end up giving so much away
  • I'm not going to preserve any soup for winter, so I dramatically reduced quantities of soup components
  • I generally deleted crops that aren't streamlined to the point where they produce in proportion to the amount of work I put into the project

I suspect we'll end up having to buy a few more goat carrots, onions, and possibly winter vegetables. But otherwise we should still be eating primarily off the farm for the entirety of 2017.

Final estimates: garden square footage will reduce by 43%,  yields will reduce by 38%, and work will reduce by 50%. I hope this means joy will also increase by 100%. Stay tuned for more details as the project progresses.

Posted Wed Jan 18 07:40:25 2017 Tags:
New shelf for fan.

The new elevated bed needed an elevated shelf for the night time fan.

Posted Wed Jan 18 16:01:21 2017 Tags:
Anna Rogue 1
Chickens in the garden

One renegade hen got into the mule garden last Tuesday. "Whatever. It's winter," I said.

The next day there were two. Then three, and the mini flock got bold enough to wander to the front garden on the far side of the trailer.

"Mark!" I called angstfully.

Long-suffering husband stood in the garden for half an hour and waited to see what was going on. Sure enough, renegade number one was flying up onto the top of the gate and over, followed by her sisters. A piece of tin, one more chase of pesky fowl out of the yard...and the next day Rogue 1 was back in the garden. How's she getting in this time?

Posted Thu Jan 19 07:47:35 2017 Tags:
Goat poultice fig trick.

We made a major goat discovery today.

Artemesia will eat all her copper bolus with a little trickery.

Cut a dried fig in half with a gram from the copper bolus in both halves.

Posted Thu Jan 19 16:14:13 2017 Tags:
Painting the floor

A little more paint and the bedroom is done. It's tough to take a comprehensive photo of such a small space (literally about twice the size of a twin bed), so here are a few shots from each direction as a sort of tour.

Storage under the bed

The raised bed gave me plenty of room for storage. Books by me (multiple copies of each, so they don't need to be easily accessible) go in the bookcase support while bins of clothes and ancient journals/sketchbooks are safe in mouse-proof bins.

Closet color

The closet is pretty empty at the moment, but I'm just thrilled to have finally found the spot where rodents were entering my sleeping space. Down beneath a built-in cabinet, we discovered a four-inch hole that Mark has now filled in with wood and liquid nails. No wonder that corner of the trailer was mouse central for the last decade!

Everything has a place

Better yet: my boots and winter coat finally have a home other than draped-over-that-chair and tossed-in-that-corner. Here's hoping that cutting down my possessions to the ones I really use and giving each a place will prevent future clutter. For now at least, it's a joy to have everything so shipshape.

Posted Fri Jan 20 07:37:38 2017 Tags:
Water testing

My aquaponics experiment is a slippery slope. I started out with easy herbs transplanted out of the garden (plus a few daffodils for color), and all they needed was the tiniest of fluorescent lights overhead. But as the ammonia got converted to nitrite and the nitrite to nitrate, I realize the error of my ways --- herbs aren't hungry enough to use up all of the nitrogen in my tank.

Seed-sprouting in an aquaponics grow bed

So I've added some greedier plants, starting these from seed because I don't have any heavy feeders in the garden at the moment. Cucumbers and summer squash, plus some basil and parsley to round out my herbs.

But the writing is already on the wall. These summer beauties will be glad to suck up the excess nitrogen...but they're gonna need more light. And so the cycle continues....

Posted Sat Jan 21 07:19:30 2017 Tags:
firewood chopping station

It's been a year since we moved our firewood station closer to the back door.

I would guess we've saved a couple hours when you total up the time saved.

Posted Sat Jan 21 15:44:22 2017 Tags:
Buckets of manure

Did I ever mention that I love manure? Mix in a healthy helping of high horsepower Kubota action and fertilizing the garden has never been so easy or so fun.

Kubota passenger

Thanks for coming over and taking pictures, Mom! Your wonderful presence and all those delightful bags of leaves were much appreciated too. Next time, maybe I'll let you drive.

Posted Sun Jan 22 07:57:30 2017 Tags:
Shitake mushroom harvesting from logs.

We harvested enough shitake mushrooms today to last several meals.

Might be our biggest shitake harvest so far.

Posted Sun Jan 22 14:43:41 2017 Tags: