Saturday, January 31, 2009

Garden Journal: 31 Jan 2009

Today I filled the tomato bed with soil from the raised beds, reducing the level in the small bed so we can use it to start tomatoes and whatever.

That chore done, we were then able to plant spinach and lettuce in the big bed. In this picture, it's spinach on the left, lettuce on the right. Shown is Julie watering the seeds with collected rain water (although we'll probably install a soaker hose before too long).

We're still working out the details on the potato tower: I added more rebar uprights as just having eight didn't allow for a tight enough weave. We're also starting to think that we might have to cut the bamboo green and then immediately weave it. We also discovered that split bamboo is sharp and splintery. Who knew?

Dada planted sunflower seeds in her flower bed.

My next project is to assemble a cold frame cover from the windows I got last weekend.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Garden Journal: 28 Jan 2008: New rain barrel

Yesterday and over night we got maybe a half inch of rain, the first significant rain we've had in quite a long time.

As reported earlier, I had gotten a new rain barrel over the weekend but hadn't set it up. But hearing on the radio that it might rain and that it would get colder as the day went on, I jumped out of bed and set up the new barrel (the white one). The green one is our primary barrel and was still full from the last rain (we haven't needed to water anything in a while).

I filled the white barrel from the green barrel and then put it in a better position (it had been partly hanging off the edge of the porch) and positioned the grey barrel where it could more directly take the rain chain, which channels the water from the gutter for this roof.

From that less than 1/2 inch of rain we gathered about 25 or 30 gallons, which isn't too bad for a very small roof (the roof involved is about 8' by 16').

This will certainly be enough rain water to supply what we need for planting our first crop of spinach and lettuce, setting out the potatoes, and getting seeds started in the cold frame.

You can't see it in the picture, but the white barrel has an outflow pipe at the bottom with a standard hose fitting. At some point I'll gang the barrels together so that water flows from one to the other and we don't have to worry about moving the chain around to fill one barrel or the other.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Garden Journal: 25 Jan 2009: New (To Us) Rabbit Hutch

We have been getting more serious about raising rabbits in our little urban homestead so I started checking Craig's List for people selling or giving away rabbit equipment, in particular, hutches.

While I could of course build a hutch (I built one for a friend back in North Carolina some years go), I know the time and materials required and given that you can find used cages for 20 bucks or less and given that I didn't have the required materials on hand, it just didn't make sense to try to build one.

We were in no particular hurry either, so we started watching and waiting for an appropriate opportunity to present itself. Worst case, we would break down and order some cages from Murray McMurray or something.

A few days ago I found a listing on Craig's List for a variety of rabbit raising items being offered by a Jo Wilhelm, who lives out near Perdenalles Falls State Park, about 45 minutes south of us.

I made an appointment for 10 a.m. Sunday (today) and showed up not knowing what to expect. I was met by Jo, a woman somewhere in her mid to late 60's. She asked me why I was interested in the rabbits and when I said for poop (for worms) and for eating, she really perked up.

She explained that her husband had passed away and she had sold the property and now had to get rid of all the stuff on it, including her rabbit hutch and whatever of the accumulated "junk" she could before she had to pay somebody to haul it off.

She showed me her chicken house and then the coop. Everything had been hand built by her and her husband as part of their attempt to develop a low-impact, sustainable farmstead with the goal of being Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farmers.

The hutch was just what we needed: space for a breeding herd of three does and a buck. It looked like something I could have easily built myself and even included repurposed realtor signs for cage floors (Jo is a Realtor by trade). It included the requisite accessories: water bottles, hay mangers, etc.

I said I would take it, at which point Jo said that I was the first person who had expressed an interest who was interested in raising rabbits for food and profit and not as pets and for that reason she would give me the hutch. I was floored and grateful.

That just left the challenge of getting the darn thing out of the barn. Long story short, we had to cut some bits off and shorten the legs and take apart part of the barn door but we got it out.

I also got a small finishing hutch, which is used to raise young rabbits (technically "bunnies") to eating weight, which you can see in the picture next to the main hutch.

It turned out that Jo was even more into sustainability than we could ever be, living in an straw bale house with composting toilets and rain water as the only water source. She had even raised tillapia at one point, although she said she gave up when she couldn't keep their pool warn enough (tilappia perish below about 40 degrees F, so you have to be able to heat their water if you want to keep them year round here in Central Texas--easy to do with a small tank but a tall order for a big pool).

I had the opportunity to explore the junk pile and came home with a rain barrel already plumbed and two water softener tanks that will make excellent rain water catchments to expand our front-porch capacity. In addition, I snagged two aluminum-framed, double-glazed windows and a wooden-frame window, which will make excellent cold frame covers. I also got a stack of 5-gallon buckets and various other odds and ends.

I paid Jo 20 dollars for everything, which seemed like a great bargain to me. I was disappointed that I didn't have more time to explore or more cargo space. As it was I had to borrow Joanna's pickup to go back and get the hutch itself (breaking inbetween trips for another birthday party in Dada's busy social schedule).

The hutch will require some cleaning up: it needs to be hosed down, cleaned out, and disinfected before we put any new rabbits in it, but that shouldn't take too long.

Now we just need to find a source of rabbits to put in the hutch and let them do their thing....

And I have verified through a bit of online research that the going rate for red worms is $30.00/lb and there does appear to be a ready local market. I found one listing on Craig's List for worms being sold by somebody in north Austin and their listing said "they go fast". I took that as a good sign. If I could sell even just enough worms to cover the feed cost for the rabbits, that would be pretty cool, since we'd get meat and high-quality compost out of the deal. That would be about 1 or 2 pounds a month, I think.

Oh, and I'm thinking of raising meal worms, just because it's really easy to do.... They would be primarily a supplemental food for the chickens and (should we actually set up a little fish farm) fish.

And one more thing: Jo has a yard full of old refrigerators and dishwashers. I'm starting to form an idea of a constructed wetlands built using refrigerators as the tanks--they're water tight (or can be made so), are about the right capacity, insulated, and can be easily finished out so as to be attractive as a water feature. Just an idea for now--I need to keep thinking about this.

In any case, in one busy day of hauling, we have gotten a long way toward our goal of raising rabbits, doubled (or better) our rain water capture capacity, found a potential source for other useful bits of junk, and made contact with somebody who has lived the life and made the mistakes and knows a few things about raising rabbits.

All-in-all, a good day's work.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Garden Journal: 22 Jan 2009

Today Julie prepared the seed potatoes according to the directions we got from the Natural Gardner, which involves cutting them up and dusting them with dusting sulfer (to prevent mold). They have to sit for about five days before planting.


Garden Journal: 24 Jan 2009

Today I dug up and dug out the compost that had become the tomato bed and distributed about half of it among the two raised beds and the potato tower, which is starting to take shape.

The cedar pollen has been at near record levels the last few days, which makes working outside difficult but I wanted to get the raised beds ready to plant spinach and lettuce, which we can plant now if the soil is ready.

From this picture you can see that the composting-in-place approach created 4-6 inches of new soil. The bottom of the stones indicates the original dirt level (I hesitate to call it soil). I simply built the compost pile on top of the soil and a thin layer of cedar mulch. That was early last year.

My plan is to combine the remaining compost with the remaining soil we bought and plant more tomatoes there this year. But first I need to put down something to discourage the grass that had invaded that bed last season.

I'm starting to think that the grass that is growing in our yard is the grass that kept the plains in place--it is growing despite our best efforts to keep it from doing so and will not take no for an answer. Certainly a loose dry stone wall was no impediment. I'm planning to put down several layers of newspaper sections around the edge of the pit before putting the new soil in.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Garden Journal: 21 Jan 2009: Potato tower phase one

Today I took my lunch hour to start setting up the potato tower. I set 8 pieces of rebar, each about 7' long, into a circle, and then started weaving split bamboo around it.

It looks like it should work pretty well.

The rebar was recovered from the gutter in front of a house they had been remodeling around the corner from us. The pieces were quite long, maybe 14 or 16 feet. I used our cutting torch to cut them a more appropriate size.

So far our only cash outlay has been for the soil and seeds.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

From The Archives: Dada Taking Flight

For grins I installed Windows 7 beta yesterday on my home desktop and set up the screen saver that cycles through photos. I have it set to use our full photo archive.

This picture came up and I was struck by the composition, entirely accidental, of Dada and the airplane behind her.

Unfortunately, the composition isn't as good as I'd want it to be--Dada needs to be higher relative to the background and closer to the camera, but I thought it was a pretty good shot nevertheless.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Garden Journal: 19 Jan 2009

Our soil arrived today and we spent a feverish hour or so shoveling it into the raised beds (and Dada's little flower bed).


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Garden Journal: Fishy Dreams

One of the concepts in the Toolbox for Urban Sustainability is the constructed wetlands.

A constructed wetlands is just that: a complete wetlands ecosystem constructed artificially. They are most often seen as part of a waste water handling system, one that can be applied with a minimum of technology or used for grey water treatment or whatever.

They can also be used for high-density, low-impact fish farming, since the wetlands both provides some forage for the fish and manages the fish wastes, producing both fish and excess vegetation, useful for eating by humans or animals or as green material for composting.

Such a wetland can also function as a water feature, something I've wanted for a while but was fairly low down the priority list (and fairly expensive to set up and maintain, to boot).

However, the constructed wetlands changes the equation: it plugs into the larger sustainable system, is itself inherently sustainable, and provides another source of home-grown animal protein at very low cost given the appropriate fish.

So now I'm actively, but slowly, working toward this dream of a having a small constructed wetland acting as a water feature and fish production system at the same time.

I had already had the idea of having a water feature that was powered by some combination of wind, solar, and human power (powering the pump for a waterfall, that is). A small-scale constructed wetland does require constant pumping and aeration (to ensure sufficient oxygen for fish in tight quarters), so having it be partly solar and wind powered would add to the sustainability (it would have to be plugged into the grid for backup if nothing else).

I've researched fish and the ideal fish is some species of Tilapia, which is essentially the chicken and rabbit in one of the fish world: it eats almost anything, grows quickly, reproduces prolifically, and tastes good too (in the sense that it produces a very mild white fish like catfish or cod).

It turns out that one species of tilapia, O. mossambicca (Mozambique tilapia) is legal to stock in private ponds without the need for any sort of exotic species permit or aquaculture license. The main challenge will be to get some (other than the challenge of actually building the wetlands itself)--I can't find any place on the Web that is closer than 5 hours away that sells tilapia for pond stocking.

But I am excited that at least this one species of tilapia is allowed in Texas—they are the optimal aquaculture fish and I didn't really want to have a catfish tank (although that would work ok too).

So we'll see how it goes—my next challenge is to scrounge the containers I need to build the four tanks that make up the wetlands—as with the rest of this project, I want to spend as little as possible on this. 55 gallon food barrels would be ideal and I know they can be had if you just find the right restaurant to talk to. But there's no hurry. And you never know what might show up on freecycle or Craig's list....

We are also close to pulling the trigger on rabbits. We've determined that the feed cost is acceptable and we have some room to put some hutches that's out of the way. So next step is finding some cheap rabbit cages and knocking together a little shelter for them.

All in good time....


Garden Journal: 18 Jan 2009

Today I set up a new worm bin, as my current bin is ready to be harvested.

I'm trying the low-work approach of putting the new bin on top of the old bin and just let the worms from the lower bin migrate into the new bin as they use up the available food in the old bin (of course, you have to put some food in the new bin, which I did).

I'm not sure how long this process will take–I expect at least a month.

I also harvested the chicken bedding from the chicken house and added it to the leaf compost bin, which should heat things up nicely.

The bin itself is a mixture of shredded newspaper and leaves. Dada helped me shred the newspaper (using a small office shredder), which she seemed to enjoy doing.


Garden Journal: 17 Jan 2009

Today I got the second raised set into the ground, ready for soil.

The two beds are 12' x 4' by 24" and 7' x 4' x 20" (determined by the dimensions of the lumber we had on hand, all leftovers from the house construction).
Front yard jan 18, 2009
Front Yard 17 Jan 2008
Our plan is to put the potato tower at the end of the 7' bed, where there is just the right amount of room for a 3'-4' diameter circle.

We went to the Natural Gardner garden center and ordered soil, to be delivered on Monday. We bought a variety of cool-weather seeds (spinach, carrots, lettuce) as well as seeds to start: tomatoes, beans, etc.

For soil I ordered 4 cubic yards of the "Hill Country Garden Soil", which is a basic garden soil, and 1 yard of turkey compost, which will be mixed in the truck. That should be enough soil to fill both beds to a depth of 16" and leave enough left over for the potatoes, Dada's flower bed, and whatever else we might do this spring.

We thought about asparagus, which grows well in the Austin area, but decided it would take up too much space--it supposedly grows 5 to 8 feet tall. The up side of asparagus is that once you plant it you're pretty much done, except for the harvesting, for some number of years.

The cost of the soil was $308.00 delivered. This is Julie and Eliot's Christmas present to each other and will hopefully be the only outlay of any significant size we'll need to make for this garden.

We also went to Callahan's, the local feed store where we get chicken supplies and whatnot, and got some more seeds (corn, squash, gourds) and new bedding for the chickens (so I can harvest their current bedding for the compost bin).

Our plan is to use the 7' bed as a cold frame for seed starting, planting spinach and lettuce in the 12' bed. Our primary concern at the moment is birds: we'll have to protect the seeds and seedlings from marauding gangs of grackles.

After we got home from our errands, we went out to the creek behind our house to collect bamboo to use in the potato tower. Shown is Dada exploring the creek. The bamboo in the creek grows to about 20 feet tall and 2" diameter at the base, making it ideal for splitting into the strips we want, as well as for making poles for beans, trellising tomatoes and so forth. We got about 10 good stalks.

Having no experience splitting bamboo, I gave it a try and discovered that it's actually quite easy to get nice long strips just by drawing a blade up the length from the base to the tip.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Dada opens presents

Dada's birthday party was last Saturday. We had perfect weather: 80 degrees, sunny, no wind. Dada had several friends from school as well as her friend Jane (pictured).
The kids had a great time playing on the playscape and running around. The parents seemed to appreciate not being at some fun factory. The kids decorated cupcakes with sprinkles and that seemed to go over well. We did however forget to do candles and sing happy birtday as the kids got into the cupcakes before we were ready and in all the confusion we totally forgot. We ended up doing a cupcake at bed time and then Dada and her daddy baked cake together on Sunday.

Garden Journal: Raised bed one in place

Raised bed one in place in front yard. Constructed from 2x12 lumber left over from house construction. Dimensions are 4' x 12' x 2'.
Took about six hours to build and place more or less.


Sunday, January 04, 2009

Garden Journal: Getting Serious about Urban Homesteading

We are starting on a more-or-less serious attempt at sustainable, productive, urban gardening. I will be using this blog as our garden journal. This is the first entry.

When we moved into our new house we did no landscaping (not in the original budget). The yard was a combination of decades-old compacted caliche (probably contaminated with toxins) and fill dirt with little organic matter.

In order to keep the yard from blowing away we put down two truckloads of cedar mulch. Then we had one of the wettest springs and summers on record. Also, we applied the leftover retainer from our architects to a bit of professional landscaping in preparation for our house being on the 2006 Green Homes Tour, which resulted in some rose bushes, a pomegranate bush, and various assorted things around the front porch. Our builder gave us a mountain laurel, which Julie planted by the street and made a little flower bed around. Julie also started a little kitchen garden around the back porch.

Otherwise we did nothing with the yard except attempt quixotically to keep the weedy grass under control with the rain and all. We probably needed at least twice as much mulch to fully control growth of grass. And since this grass was what grew naturally in the soil we had it must have been pretty hardy stuff.

In 2006 we pretty much let stuff grow as it would and tried to keep it knocked back. I composted all of our neighbors leaves (or rather, built a large compost pile that I struggled to keep wet enough to actually compost). I also got their grass clippings over the course of the summer (essentially I am transferring the fertility of that yard to our yard, which isn't very neighborly, I suppose, but they would just waste the material--at some point our yard will be sufficiently restored that I can start putting the compost on their yard--but note that the neighbor house is a rental and the guys living there now are not exactly focused on the yard).

We also had our flock of chickens established. I use the "deep bedding" approach to coop maintenance, in which you use a deep (about 1 foot) layer of bedding in the coop. You then clean this out once a year, which provides a rich mixture of partly-composted wood shavings and chicken poop and minimizes the effort needed to keep the coop clean. I use pine shavings which are available in convenient bales from the feed store. All the chicken books say not to use aromatic woods like cedar and pine but so far I've noticed no problems using it.

At the end of 2006 I harvested the first batch of chicken bedding and added this to the existing leaf compost pile. That heated things up nicely.

Our friends and neighbors Jay and Kay gave us an oak tree, which we planted in the front yard. Eventually it will shade the south-eastern half of the house but for now it is just a small sapling barely 8 feet tall, struggling to survive in the hideous soil that is our front yard.

In 2007 our thinking about the front yard was to prepare the soil to eventually plant a native, low-growing, drought-tolerant grass such as some of the new buffalo grasses developed at Texas A&M.

Toward that end, in April, I decided to compost in place, with the goal of having a batch of compost ready for the fall. I borrowed a friend's truck and picked up a load of horse manure. I dumped that in the front yard and then combined it with the leaves and chicken bedding to create a compost pile about 5 feet square, enclosed in chicken wire. In restrospect I realize this would have produced only a fraction of the compost needed to prepare the soil properly for a lawn. I covered the pile with a plastic tarp to retain moisture. It immediately heated up nicely.

I also decided to try growing tomatoes in the compost pile, having heard of people doing that to some success. I bought a variety of plants and stuck them in the pile, cutting holes in the tarp. I was afraid the compost would be too hot and it almost was: the plants barely survived. Then we entered an abnormally hot and dry summer and the plants barely clung to life. Meantime, the weedy grass, now emboldened by the compost pile, attacked the pile. Once the pile had collapsed to about a foot-high pile, I removed the chicken wire and built a dry-stone enclosure using stones left over from the construction of the stone facia on the house (we had insisted that the builder not remove any of the leftover construction materials, especially not the stone).

I added soaker hose to the pile and hooked it up to a cheap timer, which proved to be only marginally reliable. Oh well.

Over the summer the grass took over the pile and I stopped trying to cut it back. About September some sort of tipping point was reached and the tomato plants exploded. Unfortunately, I had failed to provide any sort of support, so the plants trailed on the ground, which made finding and harvesting the tomatoes a little more difficult and probably resulted in more loss to bugs (but less loss to birds, perhaps).

This last spring Julie also got two 55-gallon rain barrels that capture the runoff from our front porch roof, which is the only roof not plumbed for rainwater capture (which currently drains away as we ran out of budget and decided to put in the solar electric system rather than the rain water cistern since we had no landscaping to irrigate). Even in this dry summer, this has provided a reasonable amount of water and we could have had much more if we'd had more barrels. I'm thinking I'd like at least two more, which might provide enough capacity to irrigate the raised beds assuming we get a frogstrangler now and then.

In the meantime we changed our minds about the lawn idea and decided that we'd rather have raised beds for growing vegetables. We also found two books to be both inspiring and helpful:

- The Urban Homestead, which focuses on gardening and foraging

- Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A do-it-Ourselves Guide, which focuses on land reclamation, waste management, and general sustainability

So for 2008 our plan is to put raised beds in the front. Julie and I have given each other a supply of soil for Christmas--it would take several years and more material than I have easy access to to make enough compost to fill even two 4x8 beds. So we'll have to buy some soil. I'll be able to build the beds from leftover construction materials (from the house and chicken coop).

I've started a new compost pile with this fall's leaf crop. I'll need to get another pickup load of horse manure to add to it. I would love to have access to a supply of rabbit manure but that would probably require actually raising rabbits, which probably doesn't make much practical sense. Rabbit manure can be immediately and directly composted by worms--in fact it's possible to make a self-sustaining business from selling red worms raised in rabbit droppings (especially if you also sell or eat the rabbits). Something to think about anyway.

We're shopping for soil now and I'll build the raised beds today or next weekend--if we get them in now we can start a crop of greens right away.

We also have some grow lights for starting seedlings that we could set up and use to start plants now if we can find the wherewithal--it's a lot of work to save a few dollars on plants later, but probably the right thing to do from a self sufficiency standpoint.

Over this weekend I made compost tea following the directions from the Toolbox, which requires that you use a fishtank aerator to oxygenate the water for 24 hours while the beneficial bacteria and fungi grow in the water. This recipe is for soil detoxification--I have no idea if our soil actually needs it but it probably does and I have no idea if my tea will actually help--I'd have to do before and after soil tests, but I figured it can't hurt and I can always make more (I used worm castings for the innoculant, of which I have a ready supply [we maintain a worm bin for our kitchen waste that doesn't go to the chickens]). Anyway, it felt like I was making a difference. And I walked to the fish store to buy the air pump and air stone, so there.

Our immediate plans are:

- Build two roughly 4x8 raised beds adjacent to the driveway. I will be able to build these with leftover construction lumber and fasteners I have on hand. These will be filled with purchased organic soil and augmented with our worm castings and compost.

- Build a potato tower. The urban homestead book suggests using tires for this but that doesn't appeal. So our plan is to build it out of bamboo, which grows prolifically in the creek behind our house (and it's tall stuff too). We're thinking split bamboo woven into vertical posts set in a circle. The idea with the potato tower is that you keep adding soil as the potatoes grow, maximizing the volume of potatoes for a given area.

- Maybe also build a bean teepee, which we can also make out of bamboo from the creek. This is a tall teepee that you let beans grow up the outside of. We'll see.

- Seed the rest of the yard with wildflowers or whatever. Judy and George sent us some seeds from Monticello that look interesting.

- Start some plants for spring planting: tomatoes, peppers, etc.

That's probably more than enough to keep us busy and will go a long way towards making our yard look more maintained.

So, out to the yard to knock some beds together....


Friday, January 02, 2009

This is the Year That Was: 2008

You may rightly infer from the lack of blog posts the last few months that our life has become both busy and routine. Here is a rundown of what we've done since May:
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    We traveled to Boise to see Nei Nei's house. Shown here: Judy and Dada in downtown Boise.
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    From Boise to Coeur d'Alene for a little Hyatt family reunion (with some Bacon's thrown in for flavor). Shown here: Dada in a princess dress as part of the the dressup fashion show put on by all the girls (Booker declined to participate).
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    From there to Tacoma to see Ba. Shown here: Dada and Ba at the Point Defiance Zoo.
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    In traveling from Boise to Cd'A we visited Judy's friends Cris and Nanci who have a cabin up in the wilds of Idaho where Dada got to experience a little off-the-grid wilderness living and have a marshmallow roast.
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    We traveled to Amarillo for a reunion of Julie's family. Shown here: Julie and Dada at a rest stop somewhere between Lubbock and Amarillo on Highway 87.
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    We played in the new fountain in the new park downtown.
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    Dada started a new pre-school that is a 5-days-a-week and much closer to our house. She likes it a lot and has made lots of friends. Shown here in her skunk costume for Halloween (she refused to wear the skunk headpiece).
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    Dada started at a new gymnastics studio that is much closer to our house and a better fit for Dada generally. Shown here: Dada receiving her medal following the end-of-year gymnastics show.
  • We spent as much time as we could at the pool.
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    Replaced Dada's WeeRide bike seat with a tagalong behind dad's bike.
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    Went to the Austin City Limits music festival.
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    Spent way too many hours playing Spore[tm].
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    Reconnected with our family cache of Lego, which had been in the attic of our old house since we moved into the new house. It had been packed in a large box. We spent the better part of a weekend sorting and organizing it into the bins you see here.
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    Went to Maker Fair in Austin
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    Adopted a new dog, Humphrey
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    Went to the Fall Festival at St. Mark's (where Dada's school is).
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    Saw Clifford at the Texas Book Festival
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    Took several trips to Houston to see Boo over the holidays. (Shown: Not Boo's house but another house in Houston.)
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    Grew tomatoes into January (our volunteer cherry tomato plant continue to produce even now)