The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.
Gathering firewood

Every location has a few easy tree species to harvest for firewood. Here on the ridge, we have a massive pile of lumber that was pushed aside during the construction of our septic system. And just about all of it is either honey locust or osage orange. The question became --- are either or both good for firewood?

Short version: both burn hot and well. Of course, it's more complicated than that.

Honey locust turns out to be a pretty optimal firewood (as long as you're careful not to jab yourself with the thorns). At 26.7 million BTUs per cord, it burns nearly as hot as black locust (27.9) and is much easier to split. I'm so glad to have such an excellent keep-the-fire-going wood close at hand!

Only downside? Honey locust is not a kindling wood. If this was our only wood, we'd have a bear of a time getting a fire started.

Osage orange sawdust

Unlike honey locust, osage orange is impossible to confuse with anything else. As soon as we cut into our first log, we were wowed by the yellow sawdust. Then we brought some to the chopping block and started swearing --- despite what the internet says, our osage orange was pretty difficult to split. Luckily, most of the logs were small enough they could go into the fire whole.

Inside, I soon found that osage orange is great for starting fires. Even though the logs feel heavy (and do burn extremely hot, clocking in at 32.9 BTU), they have a chemistry that makes them spark heavily. I suspect that same chemistry makes kindling light fast.

One warning: do not leave an osage-orange fire unattended unless you completely close the stove air vent because the sparks travel far and wide. On the other hand, the same feature can be very entertaining if you're sitting in front of the stove with a cat and a book listening to the snap, crackle, pop.

Overall, I'd say we got very lucky with our first round of firewood species here on the ridge. High BTUs mean much less work per unit heat. I'd say we've put about half as much effort into our fire this winter compared to what we used to do when burning tulip poplar, box elder, and black walnut down by the creek.

Posted Wed Feb 5 14:59:50 2020 Tags:
Indoor lettuce

We've had so much kale under our quick hoops this winter that we're starting to get tired of it. But lettuce was nipped back by an early cold spell, which left us buying salad greens at the store.

"Why not try to grow some lettuce inside?" Mark asked.

"Okay," I said dubiously. "I'll try."

Cutting lettuce

I filled a flat with damp potting soil, sprinkled seeds on top, then put the lid on. Sure enough, sprouts happened, leaves grew, and in about four weeks we cut our first harvest!

Now, four weeks after that, we've enjoyed about eight servings from this one small flat. I haven't plugged in a kill-a-watt meter to be sure running the light 14 hours a day is worth the harvest, but it certainly is nice to have something green to look at, along with one meal a week of homegrown lettuce on our plates.

As usual, Mark was right!

Posted Fri Jan 24 14:43:50 2020 Tags:
Wood stove through-the-wall chimney

My greatest joy this winter has been getting our old wood stove into our "new" place! Yes, we dragged our darling Jotul from Virginia then let it sit in the corner for two years before installing. Instead of boring you with the vacillating in the middle, how about I skip to the happy ending?

Through the wall kit

Rather than building a new room or piercing a non-leaking roof, we opted for a through-the-wall kit. My top takeaways from this project:

  • Despite warnings on the internet, a horizontal stove pipe didn't mess with our draft all. The stove starts and runs just as delightfully as it did in Virginia.
  • Heat output with the wood stove in the middle of the room is even greater than we saw with the same stove in an alcove. Our little Jotul easily heats the open central half of our trailer (about 400 square feet) while burning on medium or low.
  • Creosote is more tricky. Make sure the horizontal part of the interior stovepipe isn't really horizontal and instead slants slightly down toward the stove so you don't end up leaking black goo in unwanted places.
  • The price tag was higher than expected because Amazon's through-the-wall kit requires triple-walled stovepipe once you get through the wall. It might be worth paying the higher price for Lowes' through-the-wall kit so you can use slightly cheaper double-walled stovepipe (available locally) instead.
  • On the other hand --- safety first! We're very pleased to find that the outside of the thimble (black part that goes through the wall) isn't even warm to the touch.

Are we glad we did it? The cats and I are basking in the radiant heat, our inside temperatures are 15 degrees higher than the minisplit managed, and the electric bill is $100 less per month. At that rate, it won't take too long for installation to pay for itself.

(Short answer: yes!)

Posted Fri Jan 17 13:25:49 2020 Tags:
Jack-o-lantern mushroom

During the last month, we had a very late first frost (November 1), rapidly followed by a freeze down into the teens. I went on a caving adventure, Mark learned to make movies on a hand-cranked, black-and-white, film camera, and I published a new werewolf novel.

But none of that is the topic of this post.

Instead, I want to talk more about --- fungi!

Hare's Foot Inkcap

Fantastic Fungi
Mark and I just got back from a showing of the documentary Fantastic Fungi at the nearest art-house theater. We both highly recommend you check this movie out!

The stunningly beautiful time-lapses alone were worth the price of admission. But it was equally fascinating to hear Paul Stamets speak about his life and work. (Michael Pollan, although listed in the description, plays a much smaller role. There is also a cameo appearance by Tradd Cotter!)

I was a little uneasy about certain New Age/overly-poetic language. But Mark felt like the subject matter merited the flourishes. The second half also goes deep into psilocybin/consciousness/mental-health experiments and theory, which was thought-provoking but may turn certain members of the audience off. (I can't decide whether or not I'm among that number.)

Girl gathering mushrooms

New Mushroom Field Guides
Of course, my feet remain firmly planted in the dirt, so I got just as much out of the two new field guides I splurged on a couple of months ago. When I experienced my first round of mycophilia two decades ago, there were so few book choices out there that I was soon disappointed by the fact many of the species I found weren't ID'able. Nowadays, there are lots of local field guides that contain most of the species in certain areas.

For our region, I settled on two new editions. First, Appalachian Mushrooms by Walter E. Sturgeon feels like a (big but) traditional field guide. Species are divided up by category with great images and descriptions.

In contrast, Mushrooms of the Midwest, by Michael Kuo and Andrew S. Methven is a little denser and more scientific (arranged alphabetically by scientific name), although still with excellent photos and good descriptions.

The rule of thumb when identifying mushrooms you intend to eat is to use at least two field guides for ID, preferably also begging backup from a real, live person. Together, Appalachian Mushrooms and Mushrooms of the Midwest make me feel good about at least some of my IDs. Obviously, I don't eat the ones I don't feel good about.

Tiger Sawgill mushroom

Mushroom ID Websites
Of course, you don't have to pay for books unless you want to. As I think I mentioned in a previous post, iNaturalist is a great social-media-style gathering place to share information about species you find in the wild. Don't eat something just because someone on iNaturalist tells you it's okay! But, beyond that caveat, you can learn a lot by posting your tentative ID and waiting to see what others think.

A more field-guide-style website is MushroomExpert.com. This labor of love is put together by one of the authors of Mushrooms of the Midwest, and it has even more photos and species than Kuo included in his book. Definitely worth a visit if you have an unknown fungus in your hands!

Mushroom log

And that's probably about as much mushroom enthusiasm as you can handle for one day. I hope you enjoyed the photos, which came from various hikes over the last few months.

Posted Sun Nov 17 18:46:31 2019 Tags:
October harvest

Life on a ridge is very different from life in our former swampy bottomland. On the plus side, we miss a lot of gentle frosts and we never have to deal with waterlogging. On the downside, this past summer's hot, dry weather was really, really dry.

Dealing with drought is very new for me. So this post is probably Drought Homesteading 101 for many of you. Still, just in case this is new....

Composting in dry conditions

Manure pile

I'm so used to piling up organic matter then coming back in a few months to beautiful humus, so this was a shock to me. But the lovely pile of manure above...did absolutely nothing all summer long.

Worm composting

What worked? Our bathtub worm bins. I actually had two side by side, one seeded with worms and one not. Both promoted a lot more composting action than happened with the compostables piled up out in the open.

In retrospect, this is pretty obvious. Contain the moisture with an impermeable bin, then top it off with a lid that holds in water while letting a little rain drip through. Voila --- perfect composting environment!

So, yeah, bins are clearly the solution if you need to compost in the dry.

Seedling germination during drought
Compost, of course, was the least of my worries this past summer. In retrospect, I should have started watering the instant the ground went a little dry and kept it up multiple times a week. In reality, I let the soil grow so parched before I started irrigating that getting seeds to sprout and seedlings to stay alive was an uphill battle.

Volunteer lettuce

Luckily, nature is resilient. Remember those wood-chip aisles I put between my beds? I let spring kale and lettuce go to seed before pulling them out, and both managed to self-seed into that high-humus, moisture-rich environment. Which sure is lucky because almost none of the seedlings in the beds themselves sprouted!

Transplanted kale

Transplants moved from aisle to bed at the couple-of-true-leaves stage saved the fall garden (although I wasn't so lucky with the pea and carrot crops or with a lot of my second and third summer plantings). Phew! Lazy garden-bed cleanup to the rescue!

More to learn

Rain gauge

Obviously, I have a lot more to learn about ridgetop gardening. For example, we need to get gutters on our trailer so we can capture rainwater, and we need to try some other irrigation tactics. (Impulse sprinklers were awesome in our damp, free-water environment of Homestead 1.0 but didn't cut it here when the ground was deeply dry.) But that can wait for another post and another drought. For now, the rain has returned!

Posted Tue Oct 22 14:05:07 2019 Tags:


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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.







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