Life in a Dol house 
2016 - Week 14

How do you start a petrol engine when the cord retract has failed?

The week started with beautiful weather, bright sunshine but with some early morning fog on the Stari Grad Plain, but as the weekend approached, we got a little rain. Not enough to do much good though. The winter and spring has been very dry and the wells and cisterns have not been filled.

I watch the weather closely, not only because I am interested in the subject, but because it helps to inform my work plans for the week, especially where there are so many jobs to do in the garden and orchards. 

I noticed that there were a number of plants which are suffering stress from lack of rain. These include the bare rooted fruit trees I planted back in March and some plants I have over wintered in the greenhouse, then planted outside recently, for example Horseradish. 

The sunny weather has meant that the solar water heater has been working overtime, so in the kitchen I have been using water from the hot tank for just about everything, to prevent pressure building up in the tank and causing the pressure relief valve to go off. When that happens, water cascades down the roof into strategically placed buckets, which have to be frequently emptied onto the plants in need. What I have also been doing is to use all the "grey" water to irrigate plants and trees by hand.

But this is hardly a long term solution, so with early summer temperatures already here, I have installed an irrigation system into the citrus orchard. Something I discovered in Abu Dhabi was that the standard black plastic pipe which is used for irrigation systems is not UV stable, so it degrades in sunlight and becomes brittle. Having purchased a couple of hundred metres of new pipe, this week I set about installing the system underground. While the soil is bare, this is the time to do it. The system is designed as a circuit, to equalise pressure around the whole of the orchard. At the moment, I have only installed emitters under each of the citrus trees, but there is scope to increase the number so that if I want to add emitters in the herb border which runs the length of the orchard on one side, or for the wild flower border on the other side, I can.

After drawing the plan, I used a narrow but long trenching spade to create trenches about 15 cm deep.
Into these I carefully laid the pipe, joined up the connections to individual trees, then carefully back filled the trench with soil.

All the trees have weed mats covered with mulch to prevent evaporation around the delicate root area. As all the trees are new, until they establish their own root systems, I will have to supplement rain water with irrigation water from my two cisterns. In due course, I will add irrigation systems in the Drupe orchard too.

I really need to do some work my big orchard. This is where I felled half of the diseased yellow plum early in the year. After dismembering the biggest branches, I had left them on the orchard floor, and had then made the decision to upgrade to a commercial size shredder/wood chipper, to make compost. Being unable to get the rotavator around the orchard because of these limbs, I decided this week to sort and shred the various remains.

It took one full day to cut and pile up the remains. On the left is the pile of smaller branches and twiggy bits, which will go straight into the main hopper of the machine. In the centre are the thicker branches, that will go into the chipping chute. This can take branches of up to 7 cm in diameter. On the right, in the foreground are the large limbs which will have to be attacked with my chainsaw. The dark stain of disease is clearly visible in every piece, right through to the end of the smallest branch. By the time I had finished, the left hand pile of smaller branches was completely gone and the pile of thicker branches was considerably diminished, whilst I now have a large pile of chippings, ready to be spread around trees which I need to protect for the summer.

I am trying to practice sustainable arboriculture. Whilst I do not like using chemical weed killers, I have had to do so, simply because of the size of the weed problem, but this means that my Dol house could not be considered to be fully "Organic". Rather I follow Organic Farming principles where ever possible, with the intention of moving towards being fully organic in the due course of time. Mulching is one of those elements I want to continue to use and develop. Another is the use of bio-fumigants.

Last October I planted a crop of Caliente Mustard, Brassicaceae, in what is now the Drupe orchard. This is an example of a bio-fumigant. Over the winter, It has grown well, smothering weeds and protecting the soil. It started to flower back in February and over the past month, the crop has grown considerably, to stand at over two metres tall. With the threat of rain this weekend, I wanted to cut and crush the stems down and then turn everything into the soil.

Once cut, as the stems start to decompose, they give off isothiocyanate gas. This acts as a bio-fumigant, ridding the soil of unwanted pests like Nematodes and diseases including Verticillium wilt, Rhizoctonia, Pythium, Fusarium, and Sclerotinia. But to be completely effective, the crop has to be cut, chopped and then ploughed in within 20 to 40 minutes of cutting, so no messing about then once the work starts!

In walking through the area, to plan my attack, I discovered that a large number, a very large number of snails were happily munching on the Mustard, and leaving everything else alone.

I spent an hour one morning, with plastic bag in hand, carefully removing as many of the gastropod molluscs as I could. I have never, ever seen as many snails anywhere, as there are around Dol. These are mainly small Helix aspersa which are edible, and I am told that in days gone by they were eaten by locals in the village. I personally do not enjoy the Gallic charm of snails - Escargot - or for that matter Frogs Legs - and had no intention of continuing the local menu habit. Rather a shame though, as by the time I had finished this first round, I had collected more than 1½ kilograms of the slimy creatures.

These were ever so sensitively disposed of through municipal recycling. On Thursday, doing another round of collecting, I gather ¾ of a kilo and when I cut the stems down on Friday, there were still more!

In terms of a useful crop, Caliente Mustard has more than paid for itself because of its weed suppressant, bio-fumigant, soil enrichment and composting. And now I can add that it has acted as a magnet for snails. That number of mouths would have done some serious damage to everything else in the garden I think. If snails are going to be such a problem, and I had experience last year of having to collect a lot as well, I think I will plan to sow a strip of mustard every winter, so that it attracts the snails and makes it easy to collect and remove them.

In addition to the snails, there were large number of beneficial pollinating bees and insects, Rose Chafers, several species of Shield Bugs and probably large numbers of other invertebrates which I could not see.

I have been unable to identify this insect, with a long nose and a penchant for bathing in Mustard pollen!

Planning to cut the mustard down, I got my brush cutter out. This is a multi function tool, which is a motor unit attached to a long shaft, on which you can put various attachments, including a chain saw. The stems of the mustard being quite thick, I used the cutting blade. However, having filled the tank with petrol and primed the carburetor, when I pulled the starter cord, the cord failed to retract.

This led to a frustrating afternoon while I tried to disassemble and repair the starter unit.

I say "try" because a large screw that held the whole thing together simply would not budge. I could see that the spring had become disconnected, but without being able to get into the unit, I couldn't fix it. The unit is made of plastic and when I did get the securing screw to move, it was because the brass ferrule was moving as well. The screw was seized into place and now I had it apart, the spring did what springs do and became like a Slinky (remember those?).

After several tries, I could get the unit to work, in a fashion, at least enough to try and start the engine.

Once I had the unit reinstalled, I became aware of another problem. The cord was not turning the engine over, so I removed the pull cord unit yet again. The collar which mated with the starter cord was free wheeling. I wasn't able to decide whether it was the thread which had stripped on the light alloy collar, or on the engine crank shaft - or possibly both.

It took a number of hours work with a variety of tool, plus help from my neighbour Steve, to drill out the nut that was welded into the centre of the collar, before it could be removed.

Once out, I could see that there was damage to the crank shaft, some caused by the drilling. I re-threaded the shaft with a die cutter, but then that left me with the question, how do I start the engine when the starter retract has failed.

There are two answers to this conundrum. The first is, "With great difficulty", but the second more practical answer is "Using lateral thinking". 

It was then that I remembered my aeronautical history, and the Hucks Starter.

Captain Bentfield Hucks RFC, was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, then a test pilot at Hendon and in 1917 he designed and built a contraption to start aircraft engines, which had formerly been started by hand. Mounted on a Model T Ford chassis, and complete with a signal light for the pilot, it worked and automated a process which had previously caused many injuries to the engineers who had to 'hand swing' aircraft propellers.

So with this idea in mind, I fixed an M8 hardened steel nut onto the engine crankshaft, then used a 13 mm socket in an electric drill, primed the engine, ran the drill for a few seconds and the engine fired and ran immediately.

It did not take long to cut and crush the Caliente Mustard
Then with my big Rotavator, plough the remains in so that the gases and decomposition can start to work.

Now all we need is some rain, which although some was forecast and it was raining ever so slightly when I got up at 6am on Saturday, it has only enough to register 0.75 mm on my weather station rain gauge.  Having said that, as I write this weeks edition, I can hear rain beating on the roof of my greenhouse, but for how long?

So at the end of a week which seems to have been filled with frustrations, I am looking forward to the next phase of development in my orchards - Voedselbossen with some DIY Hügelkultur