Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2014 Cat of the Year, Voting is Open!

It is that time of the year again, to step away from the garden, from birding, and from re-purposing projects to focus on our family. More importantly, to recognize the contributions of some exceptional individuals.

2014 has seen a change in personnel in the Marler- Schmetterling household. Natalie, our once big and faithful cat, passed away in July. However, Natalie, the (undeserving) 2012 Cat of the Year did complete more than the requisite .5 of the year, so she (according to the official rules) is eligible this year for competition. Our newest acquisition, Winston, a re-purposed, recycled Persian, will not be eligible for the title this year, but we included his statistics below for consideration for 2015.
After the voting in 2013, it was brought to our attention, that Miles, our wire-haired chihuahua is not a cat.  Following some research, careful observation and consideration, we concurred.  Therefore, miles will not be eligible for the title of the 2014 Cat of the Year.
Don't feel too bad for Miles, he had a good year.  He has explored a lot of mountain lakes and even met the governor.
In addition to adopting Winston, in 2013 we were the high bidders at the Missoula County Fair's livestock auction for these three chickens. Not just any chickens, but the grand champion layers! All three are Rhode Island Reds, and they are named Winnie, and the other two.
Verdict: not cats
So the 2014 Cat of the Year title comes down to a classic showdown between two former champions, two heavyweights: Alex vs Natalie for the crown.


He is hard to photograph.
Alex is the defending 2013 Cat of the Year and also winner  by a landslide in 2009, defeating not only Natalie, but Squeak and Junebug (a two time champion herself).  The prestige and glory of his victory never changed how he goes about his day.  He has retained his unassuming nature, almost as if he was unaware of his victory.
Since Natalie’s passing, Alex, the once aloof weird cat we adopted, has become affectionate and cuddly. It has been quite a transformation. In a strange turn of events, he is the most normal pet we have now. I never would have guessed it. We have long sought a playmate for Alex, especially since Squeak, his only friend, died in 2010. Alex enjoys playing the classic games like "Hit," "Bite" and "Chase."  Since Squeak left, no one plays with him. We looked for months for a young male cat with whom he could play and bond. So we got him Winston. (Whoops. More on that later.) But, being his Alex self, he doesn't mind. He is completely unflappable.  He has seen worse, he was hoarded.

Age: 15+

Weight: 6 lbs 12 oz, holding steady (down 1 oz in a year).

Background: Innocent victim of a hoarder. A Bitterrooter, he was at Bitterroot Humane Association's Hamilton shelter for 2 years because no one wanted to adopt an adult black cat. We adopted him in summer of 2007 as a friend for Natalie.  Until her last breath she thought of him as her mortal enemy and nemesis.  Alex loved her.  We are not very good at match making.
Health: chronic warts (cancer), good health otherwise, no signs of pain and has never complained.

On a recent trip to the vet (the amazing Dr. Z at Animal Blessings) his diagnosis was “Aging.”

Accomplishments in 2014: Sits on my chest while I am reading. Improved cuddly-ness.


Natalie's one true friend, the mountain lion rug.
Oh Natalie, our once big and faithful cat withered in 2014. Whereas she once possessed great stomp and vigor, her age betrayed her.

Age:  19

Weight:  She was big boned.  In her heyday, she was well over 18 lbs.  Through some dieting and excercise (read: mandatory lifestyle change) she maintained her weight around 13 lbs.  Sadly, toward the end, she was below 6 lbs.

Accomplishments: Retained her mighty purr until her final day. Also retained her ill will toward Alex and disdain for Dr. Z, her mortal enemy, yet savior.  They have a complicated relationship. Good sleeper.  Liked to help with crafts, but not new for 2014.
Though not a new skill in 2014, Natalie liked to help with sewing projects.


Good lord. We thought we had seen it all. He is a nice guy, but something is wrong with this cat.
Thanks to inbreeding, his face is too small for his tongue.
Winston spends all day sleeping on the northwest corner of our bed. That is, until he RUNS into the kitchen and drinks approximately one gallon of water and sits there for about an hour. Then he RUNS to the bathroom, where he, wait for it… pees and poops in the bathtub. Yep. That is how he rolls. 

All things considered, this "litterbox" strategy is pretty good and if nothing else, consistent.  We have had to deal with worse (Junebug, the 2010 and 2011 Cat of the Year). It could be he is very environmentally conscience and eschews clay based cat litter. Kudos to him for that. However, we use a wheat based cat litter and provided him with two boxes for his exclusive use..

He snores.  Loud.  Obviously.

A classic profile.

The good news is that he eats dry food.  And wet food.  And Miles' dog food.  And even rejected dog food.
He doesn't really interact with us or the other pets. He is really lazy and apart from his running to pee, running to drink, and running to eat, all he does is sleep. He only uses the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. He has no interest in visiting the rest of the house, nor greeting us, nor sitting on our lap, nothing. He does spend a lot of time grooming, but I think he is doing it wrong. He gets his fur soaking wet (this is probably where all the water he drinks goes), and then promptly rolls over for a 15 hour nap. A warm, moist, sleep. He is in fact felting his coat.

Age: 9

Weight:7 lbs

Health: treating him for chronic diarrhea. He has some teeth. His tongue sticks out of his mouth all the time. Just plain weird.  Seriously, there has got to be something wrong with him.

Other tidbits:  Nothing fazes him.  He is he afraid of nothing.

UPDATE:  since I started writing this, Winston has switched from sleeping on the northwest corner of the bed, to underneath the bed on top of a backpack.  So basically, what we have now is a cat that lives under our bed and poops in our bathtub.  Awesome.

Vote now!  Voting is open until Dec 31, 5:00 pm!
If you are using a mobile device, scroll to the bottom and select "View web version" and cast your vote on the right hand tool bar.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Trailer Mover

Beyond plants in the garden we have a lot of structure- trellises, outbuildings (greenhouse, tool closet, chicken coop, grill shed) and even our camper.  The camper makes a delightful addition as a little "guest house" in our backyard when we are not in the mountains or prairies camping.  People often ask how we get our camper in the garden tongue-first (as opposed to backing it in, the conventional way).  

That is a good question. After some research, I purchased a "heavy duty" trailer dolly Like the one below (I don't have a picture of mine anymore, because I cut it up for scrap and reused some parts of it).
Not my photo, don't buy one of these.
Not surprisingly these are all made in China, and since I don't buy anything new from China,  (A little sidebar, this reminds me I need to update this buy nothing from China project, it has been almost two years since I began that endeavor, but I digress...) I was able to find one used.  I was a little dubious about the quality, but people swore by them.  The first time I used it I noticed a lot of flexing, so I strengthened it with some welds and bolstered it in a few places with some steel supports.  This seemed to help the rigidity and it seemed to transfer torque and force to the matter at hand.
Nevertheless, I wasn't really satisfied with it.   Those trailer dollies probably work really well on a level compacted surface (like a concrete driveway) but going from our alley into our garden was a two or three person job.

Unfortunately, it was usually me and my wife struggling to move it, which usually lead to the trailer going where it was supposed to, but also involved an argument (probably my fault). So I figured I could find a better way to do this and I could probably build something that would make it a one person job.  After some searching online for dolly plans, I found plans to make a battery powered trailer mover.  The plans came in either heavy duty or light duty plans.  I went with the heavy duty.

It turned out to be a really fun project and very enjoyable, and even a little challenging.  But best of all, it works!  And it looks cool.  And it was fun to build.  And it helped save our marriage.  
The skeleton of the mover.
The mover uses a 12V winch you modify to accept a sprocket. The winch turns a HUGE sprocket on the axle connected to the front wheels (those big lawn tractor tires). From a welding and fabrication standpoint, it was a really fun project.  Did I mention that already?
The completed mover.
It is slow, but it could probably move a house.  In retrospect, I could have probably gotten away with the gearing or the smaller front tires from the lighter duty model. But I would definitely recommend the rear tire configuration of the heavy duty model for traveling over uneven surfaces (the light duty model uses swiveling casters).
Hooked up the the trailer- a thing of beauty.
Here it is hooked up to my trailer before I bring it into the garden through the removable fence panel.
Easily making the 90 degree turn from the alley into our backyard.
Moving the trailer is now a one person job. It is really easy to maneuver over rough ground, and even in mud.  The motor (the winch) is controlled by a remote switch I mounted to the handle, so you can toggle forward and backward with your thumb.  Turning the mover (and trailer) is easily done with the long handle.
Now moving the camper is a one person job.
I was able to get a lot of the components for it from Home ReSource (some steel, wheels, and hardware), and used parts (like the winch) online, and even from cutting up the original dolly! I was able to get a pretty big used (made in the USA) gel battery for it from the Axman, for only $45.  On a single charge I was able to move the trailer back and forth from the garden to the alley all spring, summer and fall.  Since it is a gel battery, I don't have to worry about it in the winter, which is good, because I just wanted to leave it outside.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

SponCon 2014 Recap

When I get asked why I like Spontaneous Construction (SponCon), I inevitably say because it is such a unique event.  It is challenging; it is a difficult test of your skills, creativity, and craftsmanship.  It is so different from other Missoula events. Yes it is a building competition (I am not aware of any others), but the competition is not really with the other teams, but with yourself.  I love building things and every year I challenge myself to build something and unique out of discarded materials.  
What a day.  SponCon 2014 is done, and it didn't disappoint.  It is always demanding and exhausting.  I look forward to it every year.
All our tools, supplies, and dreams loaded into the truck on our way to SponCon
A day devoted to building something- I love it.  Every year brings its own set of challenges and this year was no different.  We were already down a team member (my good friend and excellent woodworker, and welder, Barry, was on a much deserved vacation this week) so it was just me and my wife, Marilyn.  I was concerned about having enough time for building the project I in mind.  So concerned, I woke up at 3 am stressed about this.  Maybe I was just excited.
Moments before the competition began- team Butterfly Properties, me and my beautiful wife.
I quickly cut, grinded, and prepared all the steel stock for assembly (all of the steel in this project was from discarded bed frames- something there are a lot of in the world, and the landfill).  I switched over to welding, and that's when the day took a turn for the worse.  I turned on my welder, and pulled the gun's trigger, and got nothing.  I spent the next one and a half hours trying to figure out what was wrong with my welder, and never could get it to work.  It worked the night before- I changed the spool and tip in preparation for the day.

Around noon, with a non-functioning welder, for what I had planned to be primarily a welding project (!), I came to terms with the fact I wouldn't be able to complete a project. I was incredibly disappointed.   I had looked forward to this day for so long, and I was afraid of letting everyone down.   In retrospect I realized that there was the challenge this year, and this is why this event is so difficult- one thing goes wrong, and time keeps going by.  This is why I enjoy this event so much- you put yourself into a difficult and unique situation, and you just don't know what is going to happen.

I ended up borrowing a welder from one of the most talented SponCon builders, and former Home ReSource employees, Jimmy Willet (pictured on the left below).
Jimmy Willet (on left), the man that saved SponCon for me, and his teammate Josh Decker
I then spent the rest of the time figuring out how to use his welder!  His is actually better than mine, but I was used to using mine.  By the time I was done with all the welding, I was finally producing some good welds.
Back in the game
I ended up reevaluating my project and scaling it back.  In the end, I am happy with how it turned out, though it was not quite how I envisioned it.
Our completed potting bench
We made a potting bench that has all the features you need: a place to store soil, hooks for hanging tools, a big work surface, large lower shelf, and a grate (made from wrenches) over which you can pot plants or water them and have the soil and water drain to a basin below.   But, it also functions as an outdoor side board or buffet.
The tool hanger (made from a garden rake) also serves as a wine glass holder, and the soil container could hold ice to cool beverages and the grate works as a trivet for hot serving dishes.

It is made for the garden, so appropriately, it is made of garden tools and adorned with a couple of insects, a lady bug (whose feet are also tool hooks) and a long horned beetle, made from various shovels and diggers.
The frame is made of bed frame steel for long life outdoors and the wood is all 2 x western red cedar from a deck and raised garden beds.
It was a long, exhausting day, and I am already looking forward to next year.
Miles and Marilyn after a long day of SponCon
Miles was happy to see us when it was all over.
If you are interested in seeing this and the other creations that are grand prize contenders, from SponCon 2014, come by Home ReSource where they will be on display.  And if you are interested, you can bid on them at the auction on October 24 at the Doubletree Hotel in Missoula.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

SponCon's Coming...

This Saturday (September 20) is our favorite event of the year- Spontaneous Construction! This is Home ReSource's annual festival of creative reinvention. It is a celebration of reuse and a building competition where teams have 7 hours to build anything they want from stuff found at Home ReSource. I love it! Seven hours of designing and building fun. It is a great event for competitors and spectators alike, including lots of fun activities for kids.

As usual, our garden coaching business (Butterfly Properties) is a proud sponsor of the event and we will also have a team.  Though this year our team is smaller - just me and Marilyn. Our friend, expert welder and craftsman , and loyal team member is taking a well deserved elk hunting vacation. So, Marilyn and I will have to pick up his responsibilities the best we can. 
It is always helpful to divide up jobs for this sort of project, so here is the division of labor this year:
  • David: designer, welder, woodworker
  • Marilyn: chief information officer, custodial maintenance engineer, and paint application specialist.
Each year we build something for the garden. Who knows what we will make this year, but here are a few projects from the last three years:

2011- a mobile garden cloche (my favorite of our projects)
2012- a garden bistro table and chairs, made from garden tools (and the full Butterfly Properties team of Barry, me, and Marilyn)
2013- an outdoor garden shower


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bird list

Although I’ve been spending a lot of time posting on this blog about birds, and spending time in the garden watching birds, it has been our new chickens
However, after a social at our garden, I was reminded it was time to update my garden bird list. After some investigating, I realized the bird list on my blog had become woefully out dated (and I realized I was not the Montana "Chicken" Gardener, but the Montana "Wildlife" Gardener). I hadn’t formally updated the bird list on my blog since about 2009. 

Despite that I spend a lot of my time at work building, maintaining, accessing and editing databases, evidently my bird list is not in one! So, after some copy and pasting, and tediously searching my blog, I have revised my bird list. And here it is.

For those interested in exclusively the number, that number is 71.

Some details about my bird list, this list probably under-represents some species (like flycatchers- I don’t even really try with those!), and I only count birds that use the garden. That is, I don’t count fly-over’s, or even birds I can see from my yard- they have to be doing something like scratching on the ground, gleaning insects from leaves, bathing, nesting, eating one another, etc… To me flyovers are just happenstance- they do not reflect what I am trying to accomplish in the garden, that is, to create habitat for a variety of wildlife using plants native to the Missoula area.

I was struck by several things after reviewing the list.

  1. Apparently I need to spend some time reading my own blog. This year I remarked that the vesper sparrow as a new arrival in the garden- they same way I made that proclamation in 2010. 
  2. Birds that were once annual common like common redpoll and pine siskin in the winter, I haven’t seen in 10 years. 
  3. A lot of common, local birds aren’t in the garden, and some uncommon local birds are. 
  4. If I counted fly-over’s, I would have a lot more birds on my list (bald eagles, red tailed hawks, osprey, great blue heron, turkey vultures, red tailed hawks, Canada geese, canvasbacks, blue winged teal, mallards, California gulls, etc…) regularly fly overhead. Even rock doves. 
  5. I grudgingly acknowledged the trash birds- the one’s I try to keep out; house sparrows, Eurasian collard doves, and European starlings in this list
In all, it is pretty cool to see this list. I can remember almost every one of these species, and I am really excited about attracting them to our little garden on 8th Street. And it all comes down to the fact that birds eat insects, and insects need our native plants.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


The coop is complete, and full of chickens.

We were the highest bidders at the 4H/ FFA livestock auction on the GRAND CHAMPION layer pen!  It was an exciting day.  Not only did we get some beautiful Rhode Island Red hens, had fun at the auction, but we got to support 4H and some young livestock producers.  My wife was in 4H when she was young (she raised steer) and has a lot of very fond memories of it, so it was really gratifying for us to be on the other end of the auction and be able to buy some animals from kids.
If you have never been to a livestock auction, and in particular a 4H/ FFA auction, you are missing out of such an important part of the community.
The auction was a lot of fun- it was a great and supportive crowd full of local business people supporting the kids and the organizations, the auctioneer was excellent and the spotters were super engaged.  It is wonderful to see the kids with their animals, and the fair and auction represents a culmination of months of work.  All, when asked what they were going to do with their money, said "it was going toward savings".  It makes you feel good about the world.
We were only looking for two hens (based on space and the number of eggs we eat), but we ended up buying a pen of three, now we have to decide what to do with the third.  We asked about donating it back to the auction, but that was forbidden.  So I think we are just going to have three hens.  Perhaps expanding the run, too.

So, are these backyard chickens and example of sustainability?

These chickens will provide us with local eggs, and we can control how they are kept and fed, which is nice, but fiscally, this endeavor is not sustainable. I have enjoyed designing and building the coop, and the opportunity to support 4H has been great.  Between the cost of the annual permit, building materials, the Grand Champion layers, it will take us roughly a decade to save money on eggs!  We don't even eat many eggs.  However, we have met our goals on this one.
Proudly displaying our framed chicken permit in the coop.  It has only been recently (2007) that backyard chickens have been allowed in Missoula, and like most things in Missoula, the passage of an ordinance to allow up to six hens was controversial.  Like roundabouts and most things that are proposed, opponents actually said, that if passed, this would kill many children (I am not making this up).  Like the roundabouts, and backyard chickens, they passed. My wife was part of the city council then (and now), and a strong supporter of this ordinance when it was adopted.  So, when I say the permit is proudly displayed, I am proud as a chicken owner, but really proud of my wife's work on council for so many things, including this ordinance.

Here are some pictures with some more coop details:
 On top of the run is a green roof where I planted strawberries.
 Miles (our wired-haired Chihuahua) does not know what to make of the new residents.
 A couple of the roosts.

Yes, I embellished the rafter tails by cutting eggs...
it only made sense after cutting a hen-shaped vent.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Progress on the Project List: chicken coop update

I have made a lot of progress on the garden project list,

but the one item I have been spending the most time with recently is the chicken coop and run, and it is nearly done.

With the exception of some paint, staples and some insulation, everything was reused, re-purposed and reclaimed and everything I purchased for the project (with the exception of the tin roofing- Craigslist) came from Home ReSource.  So, like many of these projects I have been accumulated parts and pieces as I find them for some time.  That means my little shop has been full of stuff for a while.  It is nice to see some space opening up, but that just means I have some room for the next project!

So, although the chicken coop and outdoor run are not done yet, here are some pictures of the progress and some details...

 The nest box is a re-purposed kitchen cabinet and the perch is an oak towel bar.

Access to the enclosed run is provided by a little sliding barn door.  The hardware is from a sliding closet door.
Yes, that is a chandelier.  The interior paneling, roof sheathing and other interior and exterior details are made from my old cedar fence boards when I replaced some panels last fall (click here for details of that project).
 The exterior (and interior) is made from salvaged tin roofing and cedar shakes.

The coop fits in nicely in the vegetable garden.  

You can see the repetition of a theme with the divided light door, trellises etc..

The outdoor run will have a green roof (in progress).  The plan changed; originally the run was going to be south-facing and in the native plants, but now it is to the north of the coop and in the vegetable garden.

So, in keeping with the vegetable theme, I will plant strawberries on it. That means now I will have about 100 potted Sedum lanceolatum, that I have been growing since the winter and babying all summer, to deal with...