Outdoor Gear for Infinite Power, Light, Water, and Fuel

I really liked the combination of gear I took with me on my recent backpacking trip, so I thought I’d do a post about it. It’s not a large amount of gear, but I had no trouble keeping my phone charged (for navigation) or running a reading light at night, and didn’t have to worry about running out of cooking fuel or clean water. Basically, just 5-6 pieces of gear took care of many of my basic needs, and could do so practically indefinitely, which I think is pretty cool. The post below covers many of the same points as the video above, along with links to the products I talked about.

(Disclaimer: I’m the founder/owner of BootstrapSolar. I am otherwise unaffiliated with the other products/companies discussed, and these are my personal opinion.)

  • BootstrapSolar Chi-qoo – I designed this myself, so of course I like it. But, specifically, what I like is the compact but powerful 5W solar panel, which can be mounted on top of my pack to gather sun when it’s high in the sky. Many competing designs will have solar panels mounted vertically on the back of the pack, which doesn’t get as much exposure. Also, I think 5W is the right size. Anything smaller and you won’t generate enough power. Anything larger and you won’t be able to mount it on the top of the pack and so you won’t actually get as much power. The charger also has a nice big 6000mAh/22Wh battery pack, so a full charge will give you 3+ recharges of a smartphone right off the bat. I also like that the battery pack has 2 USB ports, so you can recharge/power up to two devices simultaneously.
  • Steripen Ultra – I carried 3 forms of water sanitization (not counting boiling) and the Steripen is, in some ways, the one I trusted most because it can kill things filters can’t get. Filters generally don’t effectively remove viruses because they’re too small, though they can be destroyed by the Steripen’s UV light. The only downside is that it takes 1.5 minutes to sterilize a liter, and when you’re filtering 6 liters every morning, it can be a drag to sit there stirring that pen. On the other hand, unlike filters that eventually need to be replaced, the Steripen will keep going as long as you have power.
  • Bosavi Headlamp – In the past, I used a cheap headlamp that ran off of AAA batteries, but keeping those batteries recharged was a pain (in addition to requiring a separate battery charger). So I went looking for a headlamp that could be charged from the Chi-qoo’s USB port, and found the Bosavi. It’s got a bunch of different settings, including 2 different types of white light and one red LED, but… yeah, it’s a headlamp. It works. I can keep it recharged indefinitely. That’s good enough for me.
  • GoalZero Luna USB lamp – At night, I used the Luna in my tent to read a book (yeah, how decadent!) or study the map to plan the next day’s hike. It runs beautifully from one of the Chi-qoo’s USB ports, and it’s bright enough to read with without any discomfort. The bendy cable/neck is a pretty useful feature too, so I could plug it into my battery pack and put it on the floor or in a side pocket in the tent, then reorient the light as I wanted.

    Mmmm… water!

  • Platypus Gravityworks water filter – All my water first got filtered through this filter before being sterilized with the Steripen. Unlike some other water filters out there, the Gravityworks works using gravity (surprise!) rather than some hand pumping action. This is obviously much easier, but I had to learn some tricks to get it to flow well (e.g. once hooked up, you first have to reverse the system to get air bubbles out of the filter, and occasionally it seems to help to reverse clean water through the filter to remove gunk). The other minor gotcha is the pouch. It’s really difficult to fill the pouch from shallow water sources, so I carried an empty plastic bottle to collect water and pour into the pouch. Also, just a note of caution: if you’re filtering pond water like what you see above, the filter will not make it clear. I didn’t realize this until I got back to my cabin and poured some of my filtered pond water into a white mug…
  • BioLite stove – I really like the BioLite stove. It’s basically a portable rocket stove that has its own thermal electric generator to power a fan. I like the BioLite + Chiqoo combo because some things (like the Steripen) won’t always charge directly from the BioLite, probably because the BioLite won’t always output enough amperage. But the Chiqoo is designed to charge off of unstable power sources (like solar panels) so it’ll happily take whatever the BioLite can output. As far as backpacking stoves go, the BioLite is heavier than many modern gas-powered backpacking stoves, but then, if you’re in the woods, you don’t have to worry about running out of fuel, so that’s a pretty big plus. It could be tricky to get going (I found that tipping it sideways to get the kindling going, then turning on the fan and setting it upright works best), but once it’s going, it burns very hot and very cleanly, thanks to the rocket stove principle. I also use it as a mini-campfire at night, so I’ll just sit there and zone out while throwing sticks into the fire and staring at the flames. Caution: If you use one of these, I would strongly recommend having s’mores ingredients handy, or you’ll wish you did.

    BioLite charging a Chiqoo

Ten Life Lessons Backcountry Backpacking Taught Me

14380490986_9cf4048fab_b

I’ve gone on a couple of solo backcountry backpacking trips, and both occasions proved to be excellent opportunities for introspection and reflection. There’s something about paring my life down to the very bare minimum and spending my time in nature that allows me to go deeply into myself, and to confront parts of myself that I otherwise might run/hide from in an ordinarily busy life. I’ve also found that backpacking in particular, of all activities, seems to have many parallels to life it self. Here are some “life lessons” that I’ve extracted while backpacking (though, I must add that these are lessons that I find myself often having to relearn).

  1. It’s a process, not a destination – Backpacking is one of the relatively few activities where it’s really about the process rather than the results. That is, every minute of backpacking is backpacking. It’s backpacking when you’re walking, it’s backpacking when you stop to admire the scenery, it’s backpacking when you’re in your tent, it’s backpacking when you’re pooping in a hole, it’s backpacking when you’re cooking, it’s backpacking when you’re eating. Every minute of it is backpacking. And life is like that too, though it’s easy to forget. I think it’s easy to get into a trap of thinking like life will happen once you’ve achieved/obtained/finished this or that. But the reality is, every minute of life is life. It’s life when you’re working, it’s life when you’re playing, it’s life when you’re sad, it’s life when you’re happy. It’s life when everything seems to go wrong, and it’s also life when things go well. Every minute of our existence is life, so we should do what we can to make the most of it.

  2. It’s hard, most of the time, and that’s normal – Backpacking isn’t exactly a picnic at the park. You have a heavy pack, you’re probably hot or cold, you’re dehydrated, the food isn’t great, your feet hurt, your shoulders ache, your hips are chafed, there are bugs and filth, maybe there are bears or snakes, and you’re never there yet. But if you love backpacking, you learn to accept all of this. Sure, you try to make yourself comfortable as much as possible, but I don’t think any backpacker has illusions of it generally being easy or comfortable. And once you accept that it is what it is, you barely notice the discomfort and you become more receptive to the good parts. I find that life is like that too. Life is hard. If you delude yourself into thinking that it should be peachy all the time, you will be dissatisfied, frustrated and maybe depressed most of the time, and if you’re dissatisfied or frustrated most of the time, you won’t be in a mindset to appreciate the finer moments. But if you accept that life is often hard, and things don’t always go the way you want, then it paradoxically becomes easier to accept setbacks unfazed and appreciate those good moments.

  3. You need less than you think - Whenever I go backpacking, I’m struck by how little I truly need to feel happy. Water, food (and not much of it), shelter. That’s pretty much it. Sure, eventually I’ll want to bathe. Sometimes I miss human contact. But I believe it’s important to know what your needs are, vs what your wants are. Needs are things that keep you alive and physically or mentally healthy. Everything else is a want. Most things in modern society are wants. A big house? A want. A shiny new phone? A want. A nice vacation? Probably a want. The prestigious job? A want. You can tie your happiness and sense of self worth to your wants, but you don’t have to, and don’t worry, letting go of your wants won’t kill you either (that’s the definition of a want). That’s not to say that you shouldn’t get things you want. But I find that I appreciate getting what I want more, because rather than feeling like I’m getting something I’m entitled to, I can feel like I received an unexpected gift.

  4. The things you carry should nourish you - You might think of backpackers as “people who walk around with big heavy packs”. And to some degree, this is true. But the point of backpacking isn’t to walk around with a heavy pack. The heavy pack is there as a necessity, so that we have what we need to keep going. That also means, though, that there’s no reason to carry things that we don’t need. In fact, many backpackers religiously reduce waste, shaving grams and ounces where ever possible. When you’re backpacking, anything you carry that doesn’t serve you in some way is basically unnecessary baggage (more on this below). In our society, I think it’s easy to think that the goal is to collect as much stuff and responsibility as we can. After all, if you have a bigger house, more money, more kids, and a fancy job title with big responsibilities, we’d probably call you “successful.” But, does that really make us happier? For some, maybe, but for others, maybe not. I think the analogy of the heavy pack is one worth keeping in mind. When you’re thinking about adding a new burden to your life, whether it’s a mortgage, or a car loan, or a child, or a fancier job, I think it’s worth asking “Is it really worth adding this burden to my life?” And if the answer is no, don’t put it in your “pack”. If whatever you’re signing up for doesn’t nourish you, it’ll just weigh you down.

  5. Carry your own baggage - When you’re backpacking, you should try to be as self-sufficient as possible. Sure, if you’re with a group or with another person and you want to distribute the load, there’s nothing wrong with that. But, as a general rule, you should carry your load, and this is particular true if you have ‘baggage’ (as defined above, something you’re carrying that you don’t need). I believe this holds true in real life too. As someone who admittedly has perhaps a bigger load of historical baggage than others, this is perhaps the one lesson I struggle with most. But, it’s one I like to remind myself often, and if someday I am fortunate enough to find someone to share the load with, I would like to think that I’d be able to carry my own baggage.

  6. If the spring is dry, go to the next one – When I’m backpacking in the backcountry, I rely on springs (or ponds, streams, lakes) for water. Water, of course, is absolutely necessary to survive out there, so there’s inevitably a strong emotional attachment to finding water at the springs I visit. Naturally, and especially on a draught year like this one, many springs are dry, or barely give a trickle. It’s easy to be frustrated, or maybe even be slightly panicky, but that’s just a waste of energy. If this spring is dry, the sooner I can accept that and move on, the sooner I’ll actually get to water. We find “springs” in life too, to provide things we need. Maybe it’s a dream job, maybe it’s that cute girl/guy, or a high profile gig. Whatever it is, we want it, and we want it bad because we think it’ll give us something we need. Often times, it doesn’t work out. We don’t get the job, the girl/guy rejects us, or we don’t get the gig (or if we’re having a bad day, all of the above). As upsetting as it could be, the sooner we accept that we didn’t get what we wanted and move on, the sooner we will find the job, girl/guy, or gig that does work out.

  7. Know your North. Know your bearings - If you were to stop me in the woods and ask me which way was north, I’d be able to tell you. If you don’t know which way is north, you can’t navigate, and if you can’t navigate, you can’t know where you are or where you’re going. You’re lost. I’ve never gotten lost in the woods, but I’ve felt lost in my everyday life. I don’t mean ‘lost’ in the physical sense, but more in the sense that my life feels directionless and I find myself muttering to myself “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.” Upon introspection, it usually turns out that it’s not that I don’t know what I’m doing; it’s usually that I’ve lost sight of what’s important to me — I’ve lost my True North. Once I remember what’s truly important to me, I can usually find my way back, or at least give myself a bearing to head in.

  8. Enjoy the scenery – When I’m backpacking, sometimes I’ll find myself in almost a zombie-like state, where I’ll be physically walking, but my mind will be entirely self-absorbed in some thought or another. When I’m in that state, I’m not present, and I’m not seeing what’s around me. So it helps to sometimes stop, take a deep breath, set aside whatever thought is occupying my mind, and take in the scenery. Sometimes all I see is trees. But sometimes I see breathtaking beauty, and all the hard work becomes worthwhile. Life can be that way too. We can get busy living our lives, doing work, running errands, dealing with whatever mini-crisis that has struck that day. But, I think it’s good to stop occasionally, and look around, both literally and figuratively. You may notice something you otherwise might’ve missed. You might gain a different perspective. You might see the big picture, and see that you’re sweating the little stuff. Whatever it is that there is to see, you’ll only see it if you stop and look.

  9. For a real adventure, go off the well-trodden paths – Paths are easy to follow without thinking. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing, if the path is taking you somewhere you know you want to go. But, when you step off the path, you need to focus on what you’re doing, and where you’re going. You need to check your progress, check your compass, scan ahead for potential hazards or openings through some thicket or perhaps a way down a rocky slope. It requires thought, focus, perception, creativity and decisiveness. It’s a richer experience than simply following a path, and it can also be hugely rewarding because you might reach a place nobody else has. We are often presented with well trodden paths in life too. Go to school, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids… It’s all planned for you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you want, you also can step off the path, and find your own way too. If nothing else, you’ll be in for an adventure.
  10. Learn to fall gracefully – If you walk enough, you will fall. It’s bound to happen. Learning to fall gracefully can save you from injury or worse. Likewise, if you live fully, you will suffer failures and setbacks from time to time. Learning to handle these challenges with grace will help you ultimately be successful, because if you let a setback stop you or deter you, you’ll never get there. If you don’t learn to accept failure with grace, you also may become more fearful of taking risks, and as they say, no risk, no reward. So, take risks, fail gracefully, then try again and repeat as often as necessary.

News from Serenity Valley, June 2014

deed

I can’t believe it’s already June. Time seems to be flying by faster and faster these days. I wonder what they’re putting in the water… Anyway, it’s time for a long over-due update, and I’ve got some big news!

The first piece of news is, as you can see in the photo above, I finally got my property deeds! I’d sent in my last payment last summer, but it took a while for the deeds to get to me, probably because I hadn’t kept the seller up to date on my mailing address. But, I have them now, and the property is officially mine for ever and ever. It feels great to have that taken care of. For as long as I can afford to pay $500/year in property taxes, I’ll have a patch of ground I can call home.

The other piece of big news is that I quit my job (again)! I’d been working in San Francisco as the Chief Technology Officer of a startup for the last couple of years, and recently decided it was time to move on to my next adventure. So what’s my next adventure, you ask? Well, that’ll have to be another post, but for now, I’ll just say that I anticipate being able to spend slightly more time on my property, and having more time for blog posts, and definitely more adventures (for starters, I went on a 7-day 85-mile backcountry backpacking trip!).

IMG_3120

As far as other updates go, the rain barrel I set up late last year (and finally hooked up earlier this year) managed to capture over 800 gallons of water off my cabin roof, despite it being a severe draught year. So, I decided to plant another tree (the cherry tree I planted a couple of years ago died last year). This time I opted for an apricot tree, and I’m fairly confident I’ll be able to keep it alive, assuming the irrigation system works properly while I’m away.

One thing I’ve been trying to figure out, is how to make decent dirt. I’d like to grow more plants and vegetables in the future, and I’d like to avoid buying soil if possible. But the native soil is this dusty red dirt that compacts into a hard lump when moistened and dried, and hardly has the texture of soil. After some experimentation, I’ve found that mixing a naturally occurring mulch-like substance from a decomposing tree along with sand into the native dirt produces something that has the texture and water absorption properties of proper gardening soil. I’m currently experimentally growing a couple of squash plants and a tomato plant in this home-made soil (with a small amount of commercial planting soil around the roots), so we’ll see how they do.

Other than that, I’ve got a bunch of projects or project ideas, so I’ll keep y’all posted on those as/if I make progress!

1000 Gallon Tank, Evapotranspiration, and Other News

20131202-194806.jpg

I can’t believe it’s already December! This year definitely flew by… and now I only have a month left to try and beat last year’s abysmal blogging record of 4 posts for the year. Good news is, with this post, I’m up to 2 for the year, so I’ll only need to squeeze in a few more this month to beat that.

It’s been a quiet year in Serenity Valley. I’m spending most of my time working in the city, so I only get to go up there every now and then. On the other hand, all this working allowed me to keep paying the bills, and I’m happy to say that I finished paying off the property this summer. So, from here on out, as long as I can afford to pay the $500 or so a year in property taxes, I’ll have a patch of ground I can call home. Having grown up moving from place to place and never feeling like I had a home, it’s tremendously gratifying and comforting to know that there’s a place on this earth that is mine; a place I can go to at any time; a place nobody can take away; and hopefully at some point in the future, a place that can sustain my basic needs (it already provides free shelter, free electricity and nearly infinite heating fuel — which is more than you can say about most homes).

Speaking of home, both structures have faired well so far. Hut 1.0 is going into its 5th winter, and it’s still looking about as good (or shabby) as new, at least on the outside. On the inside, though, a few gaps that opened up in the walls have given the local mice community a free run of the place. I still use the hut for storage, and set up traps every now and then as token resistance against the invaders, but I fear it’s a losing battle. Nonetheless, given that the original intended lifespan of the structure was 5 years, I’m happy it’s still standing and in as good of a physical shape as it’s in.

Hut 2.1 is doing very well going into its 4th winter. Unlike Hut 1.0, 2.1 has been remarkably free of mice, and is doing quite well structurally. The dry climate certainly helps keep all the wood in good condition, and I’ve recently started adding some braces in the corners as seismic reinforcements. About the only thing that’ll destroy the structure is a forest fire (or carpenter ants), but other than that, it’s probably not unreasonable to expect the structure to stand for a couple of decades or more. It’s pretty remarkable what you can build for so little money…

Other than paying down debt, I’ve also started putting money into various improvements as well. The 300 gallon rain barrel I wrote about in the previous post this Spring was one such improvement. And more recently, after watching water slowly (very, slowly) accumulate in that 300 gallon tank over the course of the (very dry) year, I decided to expand my water collection system by adding a 1000 gallon tank.

I’m still not completely done hooking everything up, but I’m already starting to dream about what I could do with all this water (assuming there’s enough precipitation to fill the tanks this winter). I know, 1300 gallons isn’t that much water in the grand scheme of things, but it’s far more water than I’ve ever had on this property. My meagre attempt of a garden back in 2010 was irrigated from a 50 gallon tank, which I was only able to re-fill every other week, and that wasn’t enough water for most of the plants. At 3 gallons per plant per week, 1300 gallons would be enough for over 400 plant-weeks (or 20 plants for a 20 week period). That’s certainly a far cry from achieving self-sufficiency, but it’s enough to at least start experimenting in earnest.

Incidentally, you may wonder where that aforementioned “3 gallon per plant” figure came from. Well, I said I’ve been “dreaming” about what to do with all that water, but actually, said dreaming has included some actual research into plants and water usage (a topic I knew nothing about — for some reason, they didn’t teach us this stuff in any of my computer science classes). As it turns out, the amount of irrigation a plant requires is largely a function of “evapotranspiration” (ET), which is a combination of soil moisture evaporation and plant transpiration. As you may imagine, ET is affected by things like temperature, humidity, soil, the size of the plant and many other factors, so it gets pretty complicated pretty quickly. There’s a formula called the Penman equation which can be used to estimate ET (here’s a handy dandy online Penman calculator), but that’s more for estimating ET over an area of land. If using drip-irrigation as I have, (and would in the future) you really want to know how many gallons of water each plant should receive. For that, I found this nifty water-usage table by plant size and climate (the same site has a great page on irrigation in general), and according to that table, it looks like a small plant or shrub would use somewhere around 0.2 ~ 0.75 gallons of water per day during the hottest days of the year. That translates to 1.4 ~ 5 gallons per week, so I decided to call it an average of around 3 gallons.

One last project for the year is to build a covered deck in front of the cabin, which will further expand my rain/snow collection surface. But I’ll talk about that in another post… For now, I’ll leave you with some pictures of the 1000 gallon tank.

20131202-194915.jpg
U-Haul trucks are for moving things, right?

20131202-194956.jpg
The frame of the octagonal base.

20131202-194935.jpg
A little trig goes a long ways…

20131202-195045.jpg
The octagon was filled with gravel to create an even and level surface…

20131202-195117.jpg
The tank on the base. You can’t see it in the picture, but there’s a layer of OSB between the gravel and tank.

Rain Barrel!

I finally got around to setting up the rain barrel I bought last year. The wet season only lasts a couple more months, but hopefully I’ll be able to harvest some water to help keep my cherry tree watered during the dry months. In any case, I’ll tell this story with pictures, so… here we go!

Bits and pieces. Let’s hope I have everything!
20130211-211739.jpg
Putting up the gutters. I intentionally hung them low so that snow would slide off without snagging them. I may eventually put rails on the roof to keep the snow there so that I can collect more water as it melts. I’ll need to assess whether the additional load on the roof will cause problems. I also set these up on the south side so that exposure to the sun willl hopefully keep things from freezing too badly.
20130211-211750.jpg
Gutters and downspout all finished. Part way down the downspout is the RainReserve rain diverter. Instead of diverting everything, it captures water that falls along the interior sides of the downspout, while allowing bigger pieces of debris (like leaves) to fall through. Or so the theory goes…
20130211-211809.jpg
Building a platform for the rain barrel, using the only flat surface within a half-mile radius.
20130211-211821.jpg
Setting up the base. One side sits on cement blocks, while the other side sits on ice and rocks. It’s what we call MGEP (Mostly Good Enough, Probably) — the impeccable standard to which things are built on Serenity Valley. Actually, I’m not entirely confident it’ll support the weight of a full 300gal tank (2400lb). I guess we’ll find out!
20130211-211958.jpg
Ta-da!!
20130211-211844.jpg
Close-up of the rain diverter and tank hookup. The green hose is the overflow, which could also be hooked up to a second tank.
20130211-211853.jpg

Halloween in Serenity Valley

I managed to escape the city and head up to Serenity Valley for Halloween weekend, which was a real treat. Autumn is one of my favorite seasons up in the mountains, with the beautiful colors, the damp smell of the woods, and perfect 75-degree weather. And this most recent trip also turned out to be a quite productive one to boot…

On Saturday, I was walking down the dirt road to go visit my neighbor, when I stopped dead in my tracks. What did I see? Acorns! And tons of them. Now, with hundreds, maybe thousands, of Oregon White Oak on my property, you’d think it’d take more than the sight of acorns to get me excited. But, the truth is, I haven’t noticed very many acorns in the past. Sure, I’d see maybe a few worm-holed and mildewy acorns here and there, but I’d never seen shiny plump acorns littering the ground the way I saw this time.

So, I did what any sensible member of a hunter-gatherer species would do: I started gathering. I’d heard that Native Americans ate acorns, and with not much else on my property that’s edible, I was excited to finally come across a native edible crop.

As I filled my bag with these shiny orbs, giddy as a kid on Halloween, I started wondering: why haven’t I seem so many acorns in the past? And why so many acorns under this one particular tree? None of the trees neighboring this one tree by the dirt road had any significant number of acorns under them. Odd…

I stood up, stretched my back, and pulled out my iPhone to do some research. As it turns out, oak trees don’t start producing acorns until they are 20 – 50 years old. Many of the trees on my property are small and skinny, and might not be that old yet. Additionally, it could take trees 2 years or more to save up enough energy to produce acorns, and that’s assuming a late frost doesn’t destroy all the buds. Indeed, further exploration of my property confirmed that while not all of my oak trees had acorns, many of the larger ones did.

Within an hour or two of casual gathering, I had collected several pounds of acorns. But what exactly are they good for? Well, on their own, not much. I cracked open one of the acorns, and the nut inside looked juicy and inviting. Of course, a small nibble confirmed what I already knew: they’re mouth-puckering-ly bitter. I also tried roasting some on my wood stove, which made them edible, but just barely and only if I were desperate. To get rid of the bitterness, they need to be leached with water. It appears the easiest way to leach them is by first crushing them into acorn meal, then repeatedly soaking and straining them until all the bitterness is gone. You can then dry the meal over a fire or in an oven. The resulting acorn meal can be consumed as-is, or can be milled into flour and used for baking.

So, as far as edible crops go, acorns aren’t exactly the easiest to consume. But, I could see how they could be useful as a food source nonetheless, simply because of their abundance and ease in gathering, as well as their (presumably) high caloric content. They apparently don’t keep very well due to their high fat content, but I could see an autumn harvest of acorns lasting through the cold winter, and providing valuable calories during those lean months. It’s also exciting to know that if I grew some corn, I could use corn meal and acorn flour to make bread, without “importing” flour.

***

The other big news is that, my neighbor came up to help, and we (finally) got the rest of the cement board siding up! As far as I’m concerned, the exterior siding is mostly aesthetic, though it’s definitely more fire resistant than the previously exposed insulation boards, quite weatherproof, possibly somewhat insulating, and it might add a bit of rigidity to the structure, so it’s good to have them up. There’s still some parts that are exposed, so I need to cover those bits up, then put trims on the corners and around the windows, paint the whole thing, and I’ll finally be able to call it done. It’s a project that’s been 2 years (and counting) in the making, but it still feels good to make progress…

Anyway, I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story:

My neighbor came up to helpMeasurements for all the custom-cut panelsNow with more siding!Hut 2.1 - Now with more siding!

I planted a cherry tree!

On a recent trip to Serenity Valley, I planted a cherry tree. Now, planting a fruit tree in the high desert, where there is no rain nor running water for half the year, may seem foolish. And maybe it is. But I planted it anyway. I think of it as an act of commitment; I’ve planted a tree, now I have to keep it alive.

Water

A couple of recent developments make this decision slightly less foolish than it may sound at first. One is that I got a 300 gallon water tank, which I plan on hooking up to my gutters to collect run-off this Winter / Spring. There’s usually 20-30 inches of precipitation in the wet months, and even if I manage to collect 10″ of that, I should be able to harvest around 1000 gallons off my cabin roof alone. (If you want the math, it’s 0.6 gal / 1″ of precipitation / 1 sqft of surface area. So, 0.6 gal * 10″ of precipitation * 170 sqft roof = ~1020 gallons.) If my math is right, my 300 gallon tank won’t capture all the available water, so I’ll probably add more. The other recent development is that I (or, rather, a neighbor) found a couple of sources of water closer than the gas station in town, some 17 miles away. It turns out there’s a volunteer fire station 3 miles down the road that has its own well, where locals can take as much water as they want for a very small monthly fee. There’s also apparently a local who owns a water tanker, and will deliver water (if he likes you). So, between my rain barrels and an abundant water source just 3 miles away, I’m fairly confident I can keep the cherry tree watered for the foreseeable future.

Selection

So, why a cherry tree? Because I like cherries. Well, first of all, not all fruit trees can survive the cold winters we sometimes experience up here in the mountains. While not common, temperatures can drop down into the negative (Fahrenheit), with record lows down into the -20Fs. So anything that can’t withstand -20F won’t make the cut. At the local hardware store, that narrowed the selection down to: apricots, apples, and cherries. Of those, I like cherries the best. I suppose apples might be more versatile, since you can make cider and apple sauce, use them for baking, and the fruit lasts a long time if kept cool. (Hmm… maybe my next tree will be an apple tree.)

The next step was to choose a variant. They had a few options, including famous sweet variants like the Rainier cherry, but all the sweet variants need pollinators (i.e. another cherry tree). So I ended up picking a Montmorency cherry tree, which is a self-pollinator and semi-dwarf; two characteristics that should work well for me. On the other hand, the sour fruit that the Montmorency bears will only be good for canning or baking. It’s a bummer I won’t get to eat sweet fruit right off the tree, but seeing how cherries have a short shelf-life, having a variant suitable for preservation probably isn’t such a bad idea.

Planting

Planting a tree isn’t terribly exciting in and of itself. Digging the hole ended up being a lot of work because I encountered a rock-hard layer of clay that I decided to try and bust up  – by repeatedly driving a pitch-fork into it with a sledge hammer. A pick-axe probably would’ve made things easier, but I didn’t have one.

Once I had the tree planted, though, I decided to try something new. I’d read that Native Americans and others living in arid regions were known to mulch their plants using rocks. The theory is that the rocks would slow moisture evaporation, dampen extreme temperatures by acting as a thermal mass, and possibly also improve the soil by slowly leeching minerals. I know that moisture evaporation and extreme temperatures are a concern where I am, so I decided to give it a shot. I also placed 3 drip irrigation heads (of which two you can see in the photo) between the rocks. Incidentally, the drip irrigation is the same gravity-fed system hooked up to my water tower that I set up in previous years, which keeps my garden watered while I’m away with the help of a garden timer. Finally, I covered the whole thing with straw to provide further shade from the harsh sumer sun and cold winter frost.

So, we’ll see how that goes. If all goes well, we’ll start seeing cherries in a couple of years…