May Garden Update

We have been having a beautiful rainy Spring here in SW Idaho. The garden is doing well. Here are some progress shots for the record. Some things need thinning, but all of them are planted according to Dick Raymond’s wide-row method. This method spaces plants closer together in a wide row which makes better use of space, produces an exponentially greater harvest per row-foot, and uses growing plants as “living mulch” to help control weeds because they grow together and block light underneath them.

The newer peas did well. The older peas I planted (2013 seeds) did not – hence the patchiness there. Lesson: use new pea seeds even if you keep your seeds in the freezer.

We have been enjoying radishes and bags of delicious fresh spinach.

Freshly tilled space.
Potatoes are off to a good start. We planted a variety of potatoes for the early crop.
Leeks and Onions have gotten a foothold.
Beets – pre-thinning.
Broccoli, turnips.
A few peas. They are sparse because some seed was old. We have also had a lot of rain.
Turnips and peas. Turnips haven’t been thinned.
This was one of those dry, boxed rhubarb plants from the hardware store. So far so good I guess.
A row of asparagus barely visible there.
Newly tilled space. We’re going to put squash and melons here.
Romaine Lettuce is doing well.
Broccoli
Cabbage. There are actually 3 dozen plants here.
More lettuce. Buttercrunch, romaine, Green Ice leaf, Ithaca, and Summertime.

April Gardening Update

These blow-by-blow gardening posts will be boring if you aren’t into this sort of thing. I’m posting these mostly for myself so I can look back later and see progress. I’m also going to type in some basic instructions along the way in case someone web searching a gardening topic might be helped by some tips or how-tos.

We’ve had a wet spring here in Southwestern Idaho so far with quite a bit of drenching rain. But in between rains, I was able to till up a raised bed and plant some spinach, radishes, and carrots in it. I was also able to transplant some early broccoli, lettuce, and cabbage seedlings. Finally, I decided to buy and plant one of those rhubarb roots in a box that you get at the hardware store. They’re dry as a bone but after planting and watering, I can see a lively little crimson bud starting to grow already! I want at least 2 more rhubarb plants but I’m going to buy potted plants from the seed store for those.

Raised bed of early stuff

I love spinach. This raised bed has 3 varieties: Avon, Space, and Bloomingsdale. I plant mass quantities because any extra we don’t use for salads can be steamed and frozen. Since spinach really cooks down, it doesn’t hurt to have bags and bags of it. And we use that frozen spinach a lot for lasagna and other dishes. I also planted 3 varieties of radishes: Early Scarlet, Pink Beauty, and a random gift-packet one called Crunchy King. It’s time to succession-plant a few more of those already, but we don’t eat a ton of radish, so I’m going easy there. Finally, for carrots I planted Nantes Coreless and another one called Tendersweet. Berlin Seeds says Tendersweet is their No. 1 seller. We’ve never tried it. I’m saving my Berlin variety for a fall planting as I am told they are good keepers. Carrots are something I will succession-plant all season in these raised beds. We love them and they keep well. Storing them in a refrigerator crisper they will last 6 months. Storing them in a large cooler full of peat moss in the garage they will last all winter and beyond.

Early Broccoli
Lettuce (L) and cabbage (R) Transplants
More lettuce

In between rain showers, I was able to set out the broccoli, lettuce and cabbage transplants you see above. With wind after rain, it’s time to cultivate already and break up that upper wind-dried crust of soil.

I planted a few varieties of lettuce: buttercrunch, romaine, ithaca (head), igloo (head), and a leaf lettuce called Green Ice. The broccoli is always Coronado Crown Hybrid. I tried a local variety and it didn’t perform as well. The cabbage is Copenhagen Early Market but I’ll be trying some Late Flat Dutch later for Fall as well. Like Spinach, we can always find something to do with any extra cabbage such as fresh fermented and canned sauerkraut or kim chi.

Store bought rhubarb root

The little dry rhubarb root-in-a-box that I bought at the hardware store is showing signs of life already after only being planted a few days ago.

Peppers

Its time to transplant these pepper seedlings. Don’t ask me where I am going to find room for 72 pepper plants under lights, but that’s how many there will be. I planted Ace Bell, Yellow Belle II, Anaheim, Carmen, Garden Salsa, Poblano, Inferno, JalapeƱo, Serrano, Super Chili, and Sweet Banana. All of them will do well in the hot summer here.

More seedlings under lights

I have more broccoli, more onions, and some eggplant (just started) under lights yet.

Red Onions

This year I have two varieties of Red Onions started: Redwing, and Red Wethersfield.

These sweet onions and leeks are ready to transplant out this weekend.

Planted Asparagus

We decided to put in a few root crowns of asparagus this year. I started with a dozen but I think we could use a dozen more.

I was losing my light but got it done before it was too dark.

The local garden store had the Mary Washington variety which is fine with me.

Growing asparagus from root crowns is faster to harvest than growing them from seed. Still, it’s the 3rd year before you can harvest. I have some more work to do back there tilling around the beds and mulching. It will help to have longer evenings.

To plant asparagus, dig a trench 12-18 inches deep and about 20 inches wide. Add as much as 6″ of compost or manure to the trench and a dusting of 10-10-10 fertilizer. Mix or till this together with some soil from the trench and make mounds about 1 foot apart in the bottom of the trench. Drape the root crowns over the crowns and fill the trench to cover the roots with about 2 inches of soil. The tops of the roots should be about 4 inches below the surface. As the asparagus grows, add more dirt until the trench is full to provide support.

Don’t harvest the first year at all. Water well and let the spears grow ferns and feed the root crowns all year. Mulch to control weeds and fertilize at least once in the spring. Asparagus is a heavy feeder. You can also add compost to the surface to keep the soil rich. Next year, cut the ferns down in Spring before new growth starts. Harvest only lightly the second year, allowing most of the spears to grow into ferns. The third year harvest until the weather warms and spears begin to get thinner, then let them go to ferns.

Time to seed Peppers

Here in Idaho, we’re now only 7 weeks away from average last frost (about May 10) and about 10 weeks away from June 1st which is the safest time to set out heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers. I know that by planting now, my peppers will be blooming vigorously in their pots by June 1, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I’m anticipating a warmer year this year so I’m hoping to be able to set these out a little before June 1.

Peppers germinate best at 80 degrees so I use a reptile warming mat under my seed tray to simulate Mexican conditions here in March and control it with a thermostat.

Pepper seedling tray on warming mat

The light you see is coming from the shelf above which has other seedlings on it. It isn’t needed for germination. Here is a close-up of the thermostat I use below. You can get these on Amazon or maybe at your favorite gardening store.

Heat Mat Thermostat

You can see the little wire running into the middle of the seed tray in this picture below. That’s the temperature sensor.

Temperature sensor

I seeded some lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, leeks and onions a while back and they’re all doing great so far. I hope we have a cool spring for their sakes.

I can tell right now I’m going to need more lights, more shelving, and more storage for all the veggies we’re going to freeze, can, ferment, juice, preserve, dehydrate, and otherwise store and enjoy this year (Lord willing) – and give away.

Gardening is such a joy. It’s relaxing even though it requires some strenuous labor, and it’s endlessly fascinating how God makes it all work. It makes me think of the creation story because the Bible says God made man and placed him in a garden (Gen. 2:8). Apparently, we were quite literally made to do this. It also reminds me of all sorts of other Bible truths, such as the law of sowing and reaping (Gal. 6:7) and the future resurrection and transformation of all believers who will receive new immortal heavenly bodies (1 Cor. 15). I have time to think about these things while I’m gardening. It also reminds me of the tragedy of sin when the weeds come up, diseases appear, pests devour, and adverse weather cause failures (Gen. 3).

The Benefits and Joy of Dot Matrix Printing

I was fortunate to grow up in the 80s. I remember writing school papers on the TRS-80, or the Atari 800 with the Bank Street Writer word processing program, and printing those documents on printers like the Atari 825 or the Star SG-10.

Later, when I “upgraded” at home to an IBM clone, I got a Panasonic KX-P1091i, a printer that printed in Epson or IBM Proprinter mode. Back then, printing text was fast, direct, and cheap. Graphics looked bad, mostly. But you could print a long Happy Birthday banner for your younger sister or school buddy’s birthday party using The Print Shop or something if you wanted to. And you could print pages and pages of text before you had to change the ribbon.

The Problem

Then came inkjet. Wow, look at the great quality, right? But then people started to realize what they had gotten themselves into when replacement cartridges came at a cost of $35 – $75 a piece. We could hardly bring ourselves to buy them but soon, we hardly had a choice. We couldn’t afford a laser printer at home so most of us had inkjets, and dot matrix printers became increasingly hard to print to with every new iteration of Microsoft’s dominant operating system. And with the inkjets came new papers and labels. No more giant boxes of tractor feed anything was available. And this new stuff wasn’t cheap either. I remember paying $30 once for a single pack of Avery address labels for my inkjet printer at Staples. Sure, the new inkjet-printed, peel-n-stick labels were nice looking, but at what cost?

The Benefits of switching back

So I looked online and found a Panasonic dot matrix printer that is still being produced and supported. The KX-P1150. So I bought one.

My Panasonic KX-P1150 at home

Actually, I bought two. One for home, and one for the office. Then, I looked online and found that ribbons are still available for these. I get them on Amazon.com for $11.49 a 6-pack. That’s $1.92 per cartridge!

The Panasonic printer ribbon

These ribbons print until the cows come home, and then some. And when the text starts to look a little light, you stick a pen into the little hole on the front like you see pictured there, and it magically darkens up again for a while longer.

Great, right? Wrong. Because the problem you run into, is that while most modern operating systems can technically print to these things, they no longer do so by sending *draft text* to the printers, so the printers can print in those native, fast, simple draft text fonts like they used to under old 8-bit computers, or under MS-DOS. Instead, modern printer drivers send image data to these things that the printers then try to approximate graphically, and it is horrible. It’s slow, and it looks bad, and for some reason, it takes several passes of the print head just to print one line of text. So after a lot of experimentation and disappointment, these printers ended up not getting used very much. For quite a while. At work, I would print internal documents on them that end up in the filing cabinet anyway, like bank reconciliations and things like that, and that worked fine mostly. Employees complain about the noise, but I just tell them that that is the sound of savings.

The Joy of beating the game

Then I decided to solve the problem once and for all. I bought an old IBM AT clone, a 286 if you remember those, and it runs DOS, just like the old days.

My Packard Bell PB-800 286/10 MHz PC

Now yes, I can virtualize DOS on my home computer (running Linux) using built-in tools, and I might be able to get virtual DOS talking to a local printer, but guess what? I don’t have a parallel port on my current main home PC. And the USB to parallel technology is iffy and only works with some printers. Besides, I wanted the fun of running a vintage PC again anyway. So, here’s what I did.

I Win

I searched the DOS software archives at vetusware.com and finally found an old abandonware version of Act! 1.10 for DOS. It even came with a pdf file of the complete user manual. With this program, I can store my small mailing address lists and print labels from them directly to this printer and it knows just what to do. I even found these old-school tractor feed labels at Amazon.com for about $22.00 a box shipped.

This box contains 5,000 labels. This will get us through many decades of Christmas letter mailings! For printing single labels, I found a little program called LabelPro that lets me enter an address and print out a quick label on the fly. Nothing could be easier, or cheaper, and dot matrix is more than adequate for addressing mail. In fact, it looks *nice*. For the Christmas letter itself, I use MS-Word version 5.5 for DOS and just print out 120 copies. It prints fast using native fonts on tractor-feed paper, and it is cheap per page for that ink and paper. It is still the cheapest way to get ink on paper that I know of.

So I win! I beat the inkjet cartridge racket once and for all just by resurrecting some old technology that should have never been completely, forcibly replaced in the home. Now I have the joy not only of saving gobs of money every year, but also of using and keeping alive nostalgic vintage computing and printing technologies that remind me of the good old days, and that obviously still offer a lot of value!

How to connect to OpenVPN server with Debian Linux (8.11 Jessie) using Network Manager

To me, using the Network Manager GUI tool is the preferred way to connect to a VPN server because I can easily switch the connection on and off or see if it is active or not as needed without bringing up a terminal and issuing any commands (though there is nothing wrong with doing it that way!) For those of you new to this, Network Manager is a GUI applet in Gnome and other GTK-based desktop environments (its the default in Cinnamon, and is available in XFCE, MATE, etc.). It’s the Ethernet Jack icon in the middle of the system tray in Cinnamon:

The first thing you want to do is install OpenVPN and the OpenVPN Network Manager plugin on your computer. (The ‘openvpn’ package in the Debian repositories will install the server and the client). The plugin is another package. Use ‘sudo’ or ‘su to become superuser and install the packages:

apt install openvpn network-manager-openvpn-gnome

Once you do this, you will find a new category of connection types available to create in Network Manager called “VPN”. First, click the Network Manager icon and select “Network Connections” – then click “Add” to add a new connection. Under “VPN”, you will find “OpenVPN” and “Import a saved VPN Configuration”. We’re going to choose “OpenVPN” and configure it ourselves.

In the configuration box that comes up you can name the Connection at the top, then under Gateway, enter the public IP address or DNS-resolvable name where your server resides. Then, select the Authentication type used by your server. There are four types available: Certificates (TLS), Password, Password with Certificates, and Static Key. In my case, I’m connecting to a Synology NAS and the server is configured to give VPN Server access to Synology users, so I set the type to “Password” and the credentials here are my NAS user credentials. Your connection may require certificates and keys. Check with your IT Department or person, if you have one, about whether you need to use credentials or certificates and keys for accessing your OpenVPN server.

For the certificate, I simply specified one of the certificates given to me in the zip file that came from the OpenVPN server.

Next, I simply opened the configuration file that I got from the OpenVPN server in a text editor, and then clicked the “Advanced” button here (above, bottom right) and toggled/entered the corresponding configuration in the GUI tool so it matched the config file. For example, here is a condensed version of the config file I got:

dev tun
tls-client
remote YOUR_IP_ADDRESS_HERE 1194
float
redirect-gateway def1
dhcp-option DNS DNS_IP_ADDRESS
pull
proto udp
script-security 2
comp-lzo
reneg-sec 0
cipher AES-256-CBC
auth SHA512
auth-user-pass

—–BEGIN CERTIFICATE—–
**Certificate data omitted**
—–END CERTIFICATE—–
—–BEGIN CERTIFICATE—–
**Certificate data omitted**
—–END CERTIFICATE—–

As you can see below, many of these configuration file options have corresponding checkboxes in the GUI tool:

Check the boxes that correspond to the options in your configuration file. On the security tab, you can set the encryption options:

Here, set the correct cipher and authentication methods. When you’re done, if you’ve done everything right, you should have a new, easily toggleable VPN connection in Network Manager to turn on and off as you wish.

Toggle it on and see if it works, and tweak the configuration until it does. To test the connection, click here and follow the instructions near the bottom of the page under “Testing”.

Time to Start Onions & Leeks

Late February is time to start some leek and onion seeds indoors. Here in Southwest Idaho, we’re 11 weeks from the average last frost date of May 10th. It’s on the early side for seeding my sweet onions, but this has been a warm winter and I’m anticipating being able to do a lot of earlier gardening this year.

My favorite reference book says onion seeds should be seeded 10-12 weeks before the last frost date so they have time to develop a strong root system, or 8-10 weeks prior if you have heavy clay soil. So I’m seeding a batch now at 11 weeks, and I will do more later since we do have heavier clay soil here.

Seeds in trays

I had a stack of foil trays from the dollar store handy so I used those this time. I poked holes in the bottom so they can drain. I did about 15 seeds per tray so that gives me 60 Candy Onions, 30 Walla Wallas, and 15 Leeks (American Flag variety). The Leeks take the whole season and come on basically all at once. We don’t use a ton of them so 15 will be plenty.

Seed trays

I get almost all of my seeds from Berlin Seeds in Ohio via mail order. They don’t have a website (they’re Amish Mennonite) but their information can be found here. They offer 100% non-GMO seeds at reasonable prices and have most of the varieties that I am looking for.

Seed trays under lights

I have a metal rack of shelves with my growing lights setup on it. These are just regular flourescent bulbs on a timer. Regular bulbs work well for veggies. You may need special grow lights for flowers or other types of plants. I cover the seeds with plastic wrap or with the clear lid that comes with the seed trays from the store to keep moisture in until seeds sprout. That way I don’t have to water them again until they’re up.

Keeping track

My second favorite gardening book comes with a handy form page for keeping track of plantings. After seeding, I write down the type and variety, number of seeds, and the seeding date. I also keep track of when I set them out. It’s helpful to track harvest dates to so you can time things better next year. For these sweet onions planted around the last frost date, I know I will be harvesting them (Lord willing) this summer in July some time. So I don’t have to track the harvest date precisely. But some onions will be for winter storage, for example. I’m not planting those yet, but when I do I’ll keep track of when they’re done so I can make sure I time the harvest for right around the cool-down time before the first frost.