Dirt Simple Blog

Make watering a snap

As I put away my hoses and shut off faucets for the winter, it reminded me of something I figured out a few years ago that saves me a little time and effort. So, I thought I’d share this quick tip to make your watering chores a tad easier too.

I use a variety of nozzles on my hoses; hand nozzle, extended handle nozzle, oscillating sprinkler, and soaker hoses, depending on the application. Twisting these on and off each time I needed to change to a different one was a pain. So, I installed quick-connects on both of my hoses, and each of my nozzles. Now its literally a snap to switch them out.

A quick-connect is a device that allows you to push on a nozzle, and remove it by pulling back a ring. This is much faster, and far less frustrating then fighting to remove nozzles you’ve over-tighten to prevent leaking, or that have rusted in place. By the way a little plumbers tape placed around the threads of the quick-connect couplings before attaching them to your hose and nozzles will help keep those from leaking or getting frozen in place as well.

quick connct
Hose Quick-Connect

You can pick a set of quick-connects up at any hardware store for about $5 for a set of 2. There is a great set on Amazon for $11.99 that will outfit 2 hoses and 6 nozzles.  Where ever you get yours, make sure you get mettle. The plastic ones are likely to crack and not last more than a season. You’ll get many years out of a good aluminum or brass set for only a buck or two more. So snap up a set of quick-connects when your picking up an extra extension cord for those holiday lights, and you’ll already have one task simplified for next spring.

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Why I welcome my weeds, and why you should too

Dandelions. The single word that strikes fear in the heart of every suburban homeowner. The yellow spring invaders disturb the sanctity of pristine expanses of green grass in every subdivision from coast to coast. And we respond with pulling, burning, and all-out chemical warfare. How misguided.

I’m here to tell you that rather than a blight, dandelions, and the other frequent lawn invader, clover, are a great blessing. If you’re goal is food production and greater self-sufficiency, these gifts from nature are the way to turn your lawn from a money sink, to a source of nutrition for your garden, and for you.

If you live in a typical suburban neighborhood, and particularly if it has an HOA, lawns are going to be a fact of life. Even if you’d prefer to commit 100% of your property to gardens, and never push another mower in the hot sun ever again, for reasons of regulations, conformity, and not upsetting your neighbors, you will likely need to maintain some portion of your property as lawn.

Plus, lawns are not completely without utility; as access ways, picnicking spots, spaces to play ball with your kids and let the dog run, patches of lawn do have value. But if we drop chemical fertilizers and weed killer on them, they suddenly become expensive to maintain, and potentially toxic to those kids and that dog. And you sure don’t want those chemicals leaching into your gardens.

You can get even more utility out of that lawn as a tremendous source of green mulch if you let nature be. Dandelions and clover are two of the greatest nutrient mining plants you’ll ever find. Dandelions have tap roots that pull valuable nutrients including magnesium, zinc, potassium, iron, and calcium from deep in the soil. Clover mines nitrogen out of the air. By inviting these wonderful agents of fertility into your lawn, you can harvest them to feed your fruits and vegetables. And the great part is “inviting” them takes zero cost and effort. Just don’t spend time and money killing them.

Instead, let them be. Then, every other time you mow your lawn, bag the clippings and spread the as mulch around your plants, or add them to your compost pile. The blend of clover, dandelion, and grass makes for a great, nutrient packed fertilizer that you obtained for free from your yard. How cool is that!

These same helpful plants also fertilize your lawn. Notice my recommendation was to bag ever-other time you mow. On alternate cuttings simply use the mulching setting on your mower and add the clippings back to the yard. If you stay on top of your mowing, you won’t have so many yellow flowers or white puffy heads that it disturbs your neighbors or invites a “helpful” notice on how to control weeds from your HOA. (full disclosure: I got one of these once when a vacation allowed my lawn to get away from me). And we haven’t even touched on the many ways dandelions can be directly consumed. But I’ll save that for another post.

So my advice is become a “weed huger” and embrace natures volunteer plants. You’ll do less work, spend less money, and get more fertility as a reward. Where else are you going to get that kind of deal!

Essential Bike Accessories for Safety, Comfort, and Performance – Part 3

When it comes time to step it up and use those two wheels to get you in shape, a few additions will help you get more out of your bike and yourself.

Bike computer. Nothing helps you turn you bike from simple transportation to motivational fitness tool like a good bike computer. Prices can vary from under $50 to $100’s depending on the features, functions, displays, and connectivity. But even entry level models will show you the basics like speed, pace, distance, and time.

Bike computers usually work by mounting a sensor to your front wheel and fork that count tire rotations. A little internal computer math, along with proper initial set up of your tire size, translates that spinning tire into status that help you know how much ground you are covering at what speed, and thereby monitor your training over time.

Baskets or Toe-Clips. By simply attaching your feed to your pedals, you suddenly can apply power in more directions then just the down-stroke, increasing your efficiency, speed, and training. Baskets are basically straps that go over your toes. They allow you to gain some forward push, and even some upward pull, on your cranks. It’s just the bottom 30% or so of your crank, when your foot is moving backwards, that remains lost power. Other basket advantages are that they don’t require special shoes, and it’s relatively easy to learn to get your foot in and out of them.

Toe-clips require special pedals and custom shoes. They do just what you would think, clipping your shoe securely to your pedal, allowing you to apply close to 360 degrees of power to your cranks. If you want to get the most out of your bike, or compete in races, you are going to want toe-clips.

Bike lights. Why did I put lights in fitness and not safety? Well usually I don’t consider it safe to bike at night.  I recommend avoiding it if you are anything less than a serious rider. But for those with a goal, life is going to require you to get up early, or stay out late one day to fit in that ride, and you better have some lights for that occasion. Most come in sets for the front and back of your bike, and take the place of your reflectors. (they are reflective when not switched on). It doesn’t hurt to keep the back on in a flashing mode during the day either. There are rechargeable LED models, and those using AA or AAA batteries. The conservationist in me wants to recommend rechargeable, however for any battery powered device I’m going to depend on away from home, the ability to swap out a set of easy to carry, readily available batteries that will allow me to keep going, is going to win-out every time. So, get some lights where you can do so, and carry an extra set of batteries in your bike bag.

Well there you have it. Safety, comfort, and fitness. You can make the versatile bicycle into whatever you need with just a few additions, and get the most out of the time you spend in the saddle.

 

 

Essential Bike Accessories for Safety, Comfort, and Performance – Part 2

After you’ve been biking for a while, and have the basic maintenance and safety items covered, you may find yourself ridding more often over longer distances. When you start doing that, comfort starts to become a priority. Here are a few essentials to extend your range.

Bike Shorts. The biggest pain from biking is in the tush. Hopefully you were properly fitted for your saddle when you purchased the bike, but no matter what, you’ll want some padded shorts to ease the pressure on you buttocks and pelvic bones. If you are not into the look of bike shorts, you can always wear a pair of athletic shorts over them. I’ll do this on family bike outings where my teenage sons would otherwise be mortified. I also layer up with a pair of pocketed hiking shorts on adventure races for the added storage spots for food or gear

Bike gloves. A good set of gloves provide protection from blisters, wind, minor bike repairs, or the road in the event of a spill. Bike cloves come in both half and full fingered styles for cold or warm weather.

Water bottle holder. These nifty and simple devices attach easily to your frame. All bikes have at least 1, and often 2, sets of mount points for accessories like hand pumps and bottle holders. I highly recommend metal, and not plastic holders for their durability. Keeping water with you on a ride, like any athletic activity, is a matter of both comfort and safety frankly.

There are plenty of other items you could add to a bike depending on how you plan on using it, but these simple three are the best place to start to help you enjoy every ride and keep coming back for more.

Essential Bike Accessories for Safety, Comfort, and Performance – Part 1

Beyond 2 wheels and a frame that can get you form point A to point B, a bike is also a platform for fun and fitness. In all these capacities, there are many accessories on the market that can enhance your enjoyment of ridding. A few I consider essentials for safety. Others are nice-to-haves that can make ridding more pleasurable, or more effective as a fitness training tool.  Because there is so much to discuss in this topic, in this post I’ll discuss safety, saving the other categories for future tips.

Safety first

There are a few things everyone should have on their bike at all times to stay safe on the road and get you where they are going and back again.

Reflectors. If your bike did not come with these, add them. Front, back, and on the wheels. No matter the lighting conditions, these will help you be seen by motorist; your second biggest threat after potholes.

Mirror. On you helmet or on your bike, if ridding on the road you should have a left side mirror to help spot traffic overtaking you.

Spare inner-tube, bike repair tool, and means of inflation. The further you plan to ride, the more important these items become. Pushing a bike home with a flat for 10 miles will be long and exhausting. Far better to be prepared for a road repair so you can keep riding. See this post on how to change a flat.

Make sure you have the proper sized tube for your bike, and a bike multi tool that includes tire tools. I favor the combination over separate tire tools for space saving and simplicity.

For inflation, you can carry a miniature hand pump, these all come with some means of attaching them to your frame, or CO2 cartridges. There are pro’s and con’s of each. Small hand pumps can take a long time to fill a tire, and they don’t always seal that well to valve stems. It’s also near impossible to generate 150psi to fully inflate road tires with these small pumps, but they are infinitely reusable – unlike CO2 cartridges which are only good for a single tire refill. If your seal to the stem is less than perfect, you blow that CO2 into the air rather than your tire (I write from experience here) and then you’re stuck. I consider CO2 a convenience therefore, and the hand pump the essential tool.

Bike Bag. You are going to need a spot to carry the tube, tools, and CO2, so a bike bag is the next essential. Unless you are touring and getting a full set of paniers for your gear, there are two basic bag types a day-rider is likely to choose from; under saddle, and on-frame. The seat type clips to the bottom of your saddle, and secures to the seat post as well. Frame style bags either sit below or above your top frame bar. The above-style often has a clear pocket for your phone; great for displaying fitness app data. But please don’t try to text and cycle. Any type will do. It’s just a matter of personal preference.

With these items (and a helmet, but that’s a given), you’ll be able to ride more safely, which means more serenely, which leads to greater enjoyment. And that’s really what bicycling is all about.

How to Replace a Bike Chain

If you spend enough time around bikes, eventually you are going to need to replace a chain. It will wear out, get rusty, bent, or break. Chain replacement is not hard, but it does require a special tool called, appropriately enough, a “chain tool”. You can pick one up for about $5 – $10. You’ll also need a new chain. To find the correct length, count the number of gears on the cranks and rear wheel of your bike. Replacement chains are sold based on a range of gears or speeds they can accommodate. Multiply the number of front gears by the number of rear gears to find out how many speeds your bike has. For example, if you have 2 in the front, and 6 in the back, you have a 12-speed bike.

To do the job correctly, it is helpful to understand how a bike chain works. Unlike your typical chain made up of linked loops, a bike chain is designed to mesh with a set of gears, and run smoothly through a series of guides that allow you to shift from one gear to another. To accomplish this, it has a flat profile made up of 2 plates per link, connected with pins. In this respect, it shares more in common with a metal watch band than an anchor chain. The pins are what meshes with the gears, allowing you to transfer power from your feet to the wheels.

Now that you understand how your bike chain is put together, begin the replacement by setting your shifters so your chain is on the smallest gears front and back. If your bike is not ridable, you can get the chain on the proper gear by flipping your bike over or getting someone to hold up the back end, and then turn the cranks with one hand while shifting with the other. If your chain is broken or jammed, you can skip this step. It makes removal and replacement easier, but is not essential.

Now before going any further, take a few pictures of how your chain winds through the derailleurs (the guides near the gears that move the chain when you shift). This will give you a reference so you can make sure to reassemble it correctly later.

Got those photos?  Ok, now remove the tension from the existing chain by pushing the rear derailleur arm forward, which will allow you to lift the chain off the rear gear set. Now, grab your chain tool, which resembles a miniature vice. Its purpose is to push out the chain pins and separate the links of the chain. Use it to remove any convenient pin, then slip the separated chain out from the bike.

Lay the chain out on your garage floor. Line it up with your new chain and measure out the number of links. You must use the exact same number of links on the replacement chain or your gears will not work properly.

Again, using your chain tool, remove the pin on your new chain that mirrors the one removed on your old chain, so you end up with the same number of links. You may also need to remove a pin at the opposite end of the chain, depending on how it was packaged. If the opposite end is already “open you don’t need to do this.

Some chains also come with a “quick link”. In this set up one pin is fixed in place to each plate making up this special link. The other end of the plate has a slotted hole, so when the plates face each other, the pin fixed to the opposite plat can fit in the opposing hole. When tension is applied to the chain, the pins lock into the slots, securing the chain.

Once you have the correct length of chain, re-route your chain around the front gears and through the derailleur set, checking your photo to make sure you’ve done it correctly. Re-connect the ends of the chain using the pin removed from the new chain. Use your chain tool to push it back in place. (or link together your quick release link). Take the tension off again by pushing the derailleur arm, and loop the chain over the smallest front and back gears. Slowly release the derailleur arm while making sure the chain stays in place. Give the crank a few turns to ensure everything is moving properly. Then try shifting front and back while hand cranking, watching that gears change correctly as well.

If your chain came pre-lubricated you’re done. If not, follow the oiling steps in my blog on basic bike maintenance. You are now ready for your next ride!

 

Bonus Tip!:  When ever working on a bike chain, you are going to encounter grease. Wear work gloves or rubber gloves to keep the grease off your hands.  Forgot to do this?  Clean up with some WD-40 sprayed on a paper towel. You can scrub till your blue in the face with soap, but the WD-40 will get it off almost instantly.

How to change your 1st bike tube

Beyond general care for you bike, the first repair you are likely to face is a flat tire. Unlike a car, where you change the entire wheel, on a bike you replace just the inner tube. This is both economical and convenient because an uninflated  tube not only costs much less then an entire wheel, it also takes up a lot less space. That makes it easy to keep one on hand or carry it with you on the road.

You’ll need 3 things for this job.

  1. spare tube
  2. tire tools
  3. bicycle pump

To being with, you need to remove the flat wheel from your bike. In the case of the front wheel this is simple, just open the quick release by lifting the arm and loosening the bolt until your tire pulls easily off the forks. It’s also helpful to loosen the breaks by squeezing the calipers (the part that grips the tires) by hand, and un-hooking the break cable. For the back tire you first have to disengage the chain. Press the derailleur lever to create slack and lift the chain off the rear gear set. Open up the back breaks as above. You can then open the back quick release and remove the tire and gear set from the rear fork.

Once your wheel is off, you’ll need a set of tire removal tools to get the tube out. Please don’t use screw drivers or other improvised tools as you are likely to puncture your tire, or worse yet your hand. Tire tools come in a set of two, and look like a cross between a small wedge and a hook. Typically made of plastic, they help you carefully pry the tire from the rim of your wheel without damaging it or yourself. Still, it takes some force and fineness. Here is how its done.

Use one of the tools to pry up the tire by slipping the wedge end between the tire and rim, and levering a small spot on the tire up and over the outer edge of the rim. Leave that tool in place. Sometimes the hook is designed in such a way that you can put it around one of your spokes to help hold it steady. Next take the second tool and using the hook end, work it under the tire next to the firs tool. Then slide the hook along the tire, lifting it up out of the rim as you go. When you get all the way around back to the first tool, the tire will be disengaged from the rim.

You can now remove the old tube from inside the tire, pulling the valve stem free last. Your stem should have a small nut on the outside of the tire keeping it in place. Be certain to remove that before trying to pull out the stem.

Get out your new tube and open it up. Inflate it partially, just enough to give it some shape. This helps when inserting it into the tire. Start with the valve stem first, inserting it fully through the tire, and securing it on the outside with the new nut that came with the tube. Hand tighten only. Use of any tools is likely to over-tighten and rip the stem off the tube, rendering it useless. Work the rest of the tube carefully under the tire and inside the rim.

Now it’s time to put the tire back on the rim. Again use one tire tool to wedge one part of the tire back up and over the rim. Leave that one in place and use the second to work your way around the wheel. This can get pretty tight at the end so watch your fingers. If you find the tube is in the way, you may have pre-filled it to far. Just let a little air out and continue.

Once you have the tire back on the rim, you can completely inflate the tube, or do so after re-attaching the wheel. For the back wheel ensure you are inserting it on the forks with the gear set on the proper side. Tighten the quick release and loop the chain back on the gears. Give the crank a few turns to ensure the chain is on the proper gear for your shifter settings.

For the front, make sure you attach the wheel with the rotation arrows on the tire (if present) facing the right way. Hand tighten the quick release and press the release arm in. Be sure to have the arm in line with the forks, as this minimizes the chance it will snag on anything. Finally, for either tire, re-secure your brake cables on the caliper fork, and test your breaks to ensure they are functioning properly.

Your done! Your bike is now back in business and you can keep rolling along.

Why I’m Grounded By 2 Wheels

You’ll hear the virtues of bicycles espoused in many environmental circles; and with good reason. From both an energy and material use stand point, they truly are one of the most efficient forms of transportation. They are also, at their most basic, a simple technology that is in reach of most people to both afford and maintain. Bicycle use, along with dedicated lanes and pathways, are springing up all over the U.S.

I like bicycles for another reason as well. They connect you to place. The speed of bicycle travel is both fast enough, and slow enough, to cover reasonable distances while seeing and experiencing and places you are traveling through. I’ve learned the back roads, side roads, and country lanes surrounding my home by bike. I appreciate the topography better, and have taken in the vistas of the hills and farms because I’ve peddle up and down and past them on my bike. I’ve seen much more than I ever could have on foot (I’m not a marathon runner) and have been able to realize details I would never have by car. Things like who has eggs and straw for sale, the diversity of homes and properties, the course of streams, and the smell of fields and the soil beneath the vineyards. A bicycle is truly a gateway to connecting you to where you live, and grounding you with a sense of place.

Weather your passion is roads or trails, if you want to get out to explore and experience your part of the world from the saddle, you’ll need to keep that bike in good working order. Here are my basic maintenance steps to take before and after each ride.

Before

  1. Oil your chain. A properly lubricated chain is essential for getting the most power, and smoothest ride, from you bike. First, don’t use WD-40. It’s a degreaser, not a lubricant. Use lite machine oil or specialty bike-chain oil. Run a few drops over the top of your chain, crank the petals about 1/3 of a turn, and oil the top again. Repeat 2 more times. This ensures the entire chain is oiled. Don’t use too much though or it will drip and collect dirt, degrading performance.
  2. Oil your front bearings. Just a drop on each side, applied between the rubber gasket and the front forks.
  3. Inflate your tires. The proper inflation range will be printed on the side walls. Depending on the terrain you will be tackling you may want to inflate toward the high end (smooth roads) or low end (rough surface) of that range. I never go to the max, always preferring 5 to 10 psi of margin for both un-anticipated rough surfaces, and to prevent blow-outs.
  4. Check your breaks. I’m assuming this is not a children’s bike and that you have hand breaks. To set them correctly you want them to clamp tightly when you have squeezed the hand lever to about 50% of its maximum travel. This will give you quick response at the maximum power point in your grip. Break cables all have small nuts at either end of the cable that can be adjusted to set the break point. If unsure about this, consult a few YouTube videos first before making the adjustment.
  5. Set your proper seat height and make sure the nut or toggle bolt is tight. You don’t want that seat twisting or collapsing mid-ride. (Or falling off. I’ll tell that story another time).
  6. Wear a helmet. Always. Period.

 

After

  1. Clean your bike. Your bicycle should always get some cleaning after a ride. How much it needs will vary widely depending on what conditions you encountered. Dry roads on a sunny day? You may just need to wipe of a little built up dirt and grease off the chain, and make sure no pebbles got stuck in your tires. Extreme off road? Then give the bike a good wash with the hose and soap you’d use to clean your car. Even if you never go off road you bike deserves a periodic wash. Treat it as you would your car.
  2. Degrease the chain. Any time you wash your bike you will need to clean and re-oil your chain. There are special tools for this, but here is the easy (and cheap) way. Pull out the WD-40 (yes, now it’s time). Fold up a couple paper towels and spray one side thoroughly. Turn your bike over so it’s resetting on the seat and handle bars. Grab the chain lightly with the folded paper towel in one hand, and turn your cranks slowly with the other several times. Shift to another spot on the towel and repeat. Keep up this process, changing towels as necessary, until you are satisfied you got most of the black greasy gunk off your chain. Then follow step 1 of the before tip to re-oil before putting your bike away. You want to keep that chain oiled to protect it from rust.

 

That’s it. My basic before and after rituals to keep a bike in good working order all season long. With these you should get may miles of enjoyment discovering new places and grounding yourself more fully in the town you call home.

The Easiest Green-House You Can Get

Many gung-ho gardeners yearn for a back-yard green house to extend their growing season, or to have a spot for starting those seeds and early spring greens just a bit sooner in the season. But before you build that back-yard hoop house, why not look to your own house, you know, the one you live in, instead?. Do you have windows? Is your house heated in the Winter? Do you have any house plants? Well why not house vegetables?

A small window garden is the perfect introduction to cold season gardening with minimal expense. At a minimum, every gardener should keep a few herbs and greens growing in a sunny indoor spot in the colder months. There’s no reason not to.  You probably have most of what you need in your garage or shed already.  A few small pots with basic potting soil and regular watering will provide you with fresh herbs in no more space than a couple of window sills or a small stool or table. Start with 3 or 4 favorite herbs, and then see if you want to set aside additional space for your indoor garden.

Several salad greens like arugula, green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, and endive all do well in 6” pots. You can get 3 or 4 cuttings from each by harvesting the outer leaves, then replant. Start a new set from seed every two to four weeks from October to March and you’ll have fresh, indoor greens until you are ready to put in your early spring garden.

Want to go for something more exotic? Many gardening catalogs sell miniature citrus trees, often grafted with lemons, limes, and tangerines on one bush meant to be kept as an indoor plant. What could be better than picking fresh citrus from your kitchen for your favorite dish or cocktail garnish?

Yes, you can keep growing food all year, and you don’t have to take on a big building project to do it.

Simple Dirt

One of the best ways to create rich, beautiful soil, and make use of otherwise wasted resources, is to compost. Many hesitate however because of the presumed untidiness, expected smells, and effort involved in tending compost piles. So how to make use of all those kitchen scraps and yard waste you simply have too much of just to use as mulch? Simple – bury it.

Yep. You can just find a spot where you want to build some future soil and start burring the same stuff you’d otherwise pile up. Now there are some caveats here. Best to do this inside a fenced area where animals won’t dig things up, and you do need a patch of dirt that isn’t too difficult to dig into or it could be more work.

But if you have walk-ways between your garden beds that have already been mulched, or a place you want to expand your garden, just burring your kitchen compost with a little chopped up yard waste will get the fertility process started.

I used this method to build the habit of saving compostable materials before I was ready to tackle a traditional compost pile. You can do the same. And when you run low on decent burial sites, or are ready to create large volumes of compost for spreading, you can graduate to a dedicated compost bin or pile as well.

Meanwhile you’ll get benefit from materials that would otherwise would be waste, and maybe even start changing the way you look at stewardship of the earth and its resources.