The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.
Sugar snap pea

Current events aside, this has been a crazy spring. It was so warm in March that I started doubting it would ever frost again. Despite that aerial warmth, the soil was colder than average (perhaps due to winter cloudiness?), with predictable impacts on available nutrients. Then, of course, we ended up having a couple of late, hard freezes.

Want to see what happened when I planted things way too early during that weird spring? Read on!

Baby carrot

The carrots loved it! They sprouted well after being planted on March 12, grew happily, and are now providing us with the first baby carrots.

Peas also did pretty well...the ones that came up. I ended up having to sprout a lot of peas inside and set them out to fill in the gaps though. I probably would have been better off waiting until mid to late April after all.

Insect protection

Broccoli was even less pleased. Cold soil meant these heavy feeders weren't getting the nutrients they craved, so leaves started turning purple. I topdressed with worm castings to solve that problem then covered them up with Mark's awesome caterpillar tunnels.

The final product is early, smallish heads on the prettiest plants I've ever grown. Since there are no cabbage worms nibbling, we'll get to keep the plants around long enough to eat lots of side shoots. Overall --- success!

Squash flower

Warm-weather crops, of course, hated my crazy early plantings. In case you're curious, baby squash plants melt into piles of goo when the lows dip to 34. The only early cucurbits that survived my early plantings were a few cucumbers set out at the end of April and covered with two layers of row-cover fabric during a late frost.

As you can see in the photo above, even the squash plants set out right after the frost-free date didn't thrive due to cold soil. Another plant of the same variety transplanted into the garden two weeks later than this one has already overcome the older squash in size (although it hasn't yet bloomed).

Moral of the story: let the poor cucurbits wait!

Blackberry flower

The one warm-weather crop that did okay with my jumping the gun was bush beans. These nitrogen-fixers don't mind low soil nutrients, and they only lost a little bit of leaf when covered with two layers of row cover during the last freeze. So if you really, really want to plant summer crops too early, start with beans!

(No, the photo above isn't a bean. But it's now Blackberry Winter --- the conclusion of this crazy spring in which it's forecast to drop to 42 on the first day of June, so the picture seemed apropos.)

Posted Sat May 30 15:08:53 2020 Tags:
Caterpillar tunnel

Mark's taken advantage of the lockdown to perfect a prototype for what we're calling caterpillar tunnels. The idea is to block cabbage white moths from laying their eggs on crucifers. I've used row-cover fabric for this purpose in the past, but the thicker cloth overheats cool-weather crops. Plus, Mark wanted to improve upon my quick hoops, which are a bit of a pain for frequent ingress.

To cut a long story short, he tweaked and came up with a no-work organic solution for controlling of one of my least favorite pests --- cabbageworms. Of course, I mean no work for me once the caterpillar tunnels are installed. Building them was work for Mark!

Framing garden protection

He started with 2X3s, a compromise between what he wanted (2X6s for longevity, but which I argued would shade plants too much and be too heavy) and what I wanted (2X2s, which he considered too flimsy). It still counts as meeting in the middle if he comes almost all the way over to my side of the fence, right?

Adding hoops to a garden bed

After building two frames out of 2X3s and hinging them together along one long side, Mark used a 3/4-inch hole saw to install our usual quick hoop pipes (1/2-inch PVC). Your measurements can match your garden, but ours were:

  • Frame --- 8 feet by 4 feet for maximum use of lumber
  • Pipes --- 6 feet long

Painting a caterpillar tunnel

A furring strip along the top gave the hoops a bit more rigidity while also providing something for the eventual covering to bite into. Since we didn't have treated lumber on hand, Mark gave it all a good coat of barn paint.

Building handles out of lumber

Oh, and did I mention handles? For the first prototype, Mark had some really awesome storebought handles to use. But for the later ones, he's building our own out of wood.

Wedding tulle as caterpillar netting

Anyway, back to the prototype. We covered it with wedding tulle, which  will let air and light through (meaning it's summer-garden friendly) without allowing in bugs. Various forums suggest this stuff lasts almost as long as the much-more-expensive garden netting you can buy from farm-supply sites.

Plumbing strap to attach tulle

How did we attach the tulle? Mark used plastic plumbers' strapping plus screws --- fast and easy as long as he borrowed another set of hands (mine) to hold the tulle in place.

Did you notice the small rip? Be careful! Splinters can damage your covering as you pull the fabric tight.

Opening stop

Mark also used the plumber's strapping to prevent the top from hinging all the way open. This way, it won't fall on the bed behind it and is easy to grab and pull back closed.

Caterpillar tunnel in the garden

Here's the finished product, taking over for my quick-and-dirty tulle-only covering. The broccoli are enjoying having room to stretch out.

Oh, but, honey, I need three more....

Posted Thu Apr 23 15:25:12 2020 Tags:
Toad calling

(This is a personal post, mostly written for my future self. It gets long, so feel free to ignore!)

What does it feel like to begin our fourth week in lockdown? Surreal, knowing the world is imploding while (if I can get my head out of the news) my days are filled with beautiful hours of sunshine and garden and wildflowers and a perfect husband.

Mayapple leaf

The first week was the toughest. Warned by my tuned-in brother, Mark and I went into voluntary lockdown while our neighbors were still poo-pooing widespread issues arising locally from COVID-19. It was odd to watch the social unacceptability of our stance --- why are you standing so far away? why can't we come into your house? --- fade into fear as our forward-thinking governor put increasingly restrictive rules into place.

The change has been extreme. Mark and I moved to Ohio two years ago to take advantage of the excitement of a university town, with all of its educational events and sustainable initiatives. Now, it feels like we've been tossed back to our solitary lives in Virginia (albeit with more amenities and neighbors who stroll by on the road and say hi).

Tree yoga

I leave home once a day to go to the park, carefully choosing trails I'd already scoped out as having few or no people on them. My selection is due to the fact that park visitation is about four times as high as it used to be and passing a single person on the trail can be daunting if they're not tuned in to social distancing. I now have a face mask to pull on in desperate situations, although I haven't had to use it yet. Instead, I feel like an antisocial weirdo as I bushwhack eight feet off the trail...only to find, as I did yesterday, that the other hiker has a similar mindset and is grateful for my preventative action.

Chainsawing out a stump

Mark and I are also lucky on the food front, both because we stocked up on a month of frozen meat and non-perishables before the rush and because it's far enough into spring now that the garden would feed us the bare minimum vegetables without much fuss. We run out of fruit and salad toppings within a week, though, and figure out curbside pickup and even (surprisingly) delivery to our little homestead fifteen minutes from town. I'm scared to do even that, but Mark insists. Shortages result in strange substitutions while basic items like tylenol are only available online for exorbitant prices. We make do.

Delivery ends up costing only $10 plus tip (another $10), which seems like very little money for the delivery driver to risk her life repeatedly entering a building likely full of COVID-19. But, a few days into our statewide lockdown, she's one of the people poo-pooing the danger. Beginning as I intend to go on, I talk to her from ten feet away (social excuse --- on the other side of the garden fence, pruning blackberries). After she's gone, I laboriously wash every item in soapy water doctored with bleach, ending up with hands dry and bleachy smelling.

Eastern Towhee male

Hands --- that's one of the big changes from the last month. At first, before mandatory lockdowns, elected leaders just told us not to touch our faces and to wash our hands as often as we could. I didn't try to stock up on hand sanitizer (impossible to find anyway), and instead learned the real way to wash hands. Tops and bottoms, tops and bottoms, interlace.... Working my way through the various steps to the tune of Frere Jacque, my hands dried out fast.

But once we were in solid lockdown, I didn't have to lotion up quite so often to counteract endless handwashing (and I also stopped wiping down door knobs and light switches daily). I stopped waking up in terror, having dreamed I was touching my face.

Redbacked Salamander

The mail, though, remains a daily contagion point. I usually save it until I know I'm paying attention, then I'm careful to leave the door ajar as I go out so I won't have to touch the knob coming back in. Grabbing the mail, I carry it back up the driveway to the trash and recycling bins, shedding outer layers of packaging there along with junk mail. Anything I want to keep comes inside, paper set aside for a day while hardier items are washed in soapy bleach water.

All of this extra work feels like overkill when only three people in our county have been confirmed to contract the virus. But one of those people died, and I believe strongly that the it's better to assume COVID-19 is everywhere rather than lowering your guard and regretting it. Plus, Mark is ten years older than me and a man, which puts him in a higher risk group. I'm adamant that I be the one to touch anything dangerous and that we minimize all risk.

Black cat

Speaking of Mark, I feel like lockdown is a little harder for him than me. At first, I was the one melting down as I missed weekly joys --- dance class! neighbor twins invading with their mess and loudness! --- but my life was due for a little extra focus on home. Mark's was ready to expand, with new and old friendships at that precarious stage where you can't really connect other than in person. While I learned to video chat and started actually using facebook for more than "work," Mark was the one who began to admit to occasional dark days.

The trick, I've found, to dealing with the darkness is to expand the accessible brightness in your life while taking the rest one day at a time. I'd never explored the far reaches of our property in the two years we'd lived here, but now I pulled out a deed, compass, and flagging tape and found the boundaries. I dove deep into iNaturalist bioblitzes, both of local nature preserves (very lightly trafficked) that had requested citizen identification sprees and of our own land. And the garden, of course, rewards me daily with both food and spring grace.

Shoveling manure

After the first week, I started sleeping better and my brain started letting me write again without strain. Mornings spent the way I always spend them --- lost in fantasy worlds --- ease my way into the new normal.

Mark's first lockdown project was his not-really-teardrop camper, hooking up a solar cell to a battery and radio. On the other hand, the film class he was taking at the local university extended its spring break then turned into an online class...and after much hassle and consideration, he dropped it. Like me, he's coming to realize that it's not worth pounding your head against a wall at a time like this. Better to focus on easy and fun.

Green Frog eye

Because, even though the world is fighting a physical illness, those of us hiding from the virus have to focus on our own mental health. The hardest part right now is fear for other people, who either refuse to acknowledge the danger, are unable to wrap their heads around changing their lifestyles, or are financially/ethically unable to do anything but continue going to work.

A gardening mindset helps me move forward. I imagine lockdown the same way I would imagine nurturing a young peach tree. You plant and mulch and weed and prune, dreaming of future joy while knowing there will be bugs and fungi to knock your aspirations off track. Even if you end up cutting the tree down after realizing spring frosts plus summer rot wipe out 99% of the fruit, you'll still have rich soil in which to grow something else.

For now, I'm building soil.

Posted Sun Apr 5 08:54:39 2020 Tags:
Homegrown Humus

To give folks an easier entrance point to self-sufficiency, I enrolled most of my books in Kindle Unlimited for the spring season. And one of them --- Homegrown Humus --- is free today!

This book, full of tips on improving your soil with cover crops, has sold over 10,000 copies since it launched in 2013. If you've been gardening for a while, you'll understand why. The idea of turning your garden soil black through the application of a few seeds is like magic. I hope you'll grab a copy and work some magic today.

Worm bin

Speaking of black gold, I finally delved into our two bathtub worm bins to see how they fared over the winter. The bin we'd left alone had a few large worms in it --- perhaps enough to recolonize the half-composted manure by summer. The bin in which Mark had installed an electric heat pad on low, though, was so full of worms of all ages that we could have seeded a dozen more bins!

Since we don't have that infrastructure in place at the moment, I instead raked the finished castings to one side and filled the other half of the bin with semi-fresh horse-stall leavings. Hopefully the worms will migrate over, leaving uninhabited castings for me to spread on the garden in a few weeks. (I also scooped some of the worms over into the other bin to get that composting process moving a bit faster. Experiment is complete --- time to make double the black gold!)

Cat with kale

March is the season when our garden really gets going, and this year's coronavirus outbreak has made me more serious about the task than I have been since our move. Luckily, the winter was mild, so a bit of overwintering lettuce and spinach plus masses of kale are all available to keep us healthy without hitting grocery stores.

Leafy greens do get boring after a while, though. That's why we have new lettuce and peas coming up, lots of seedlings inside, and are planting potatoes for the first time in quite a while.

Yep, potatoes. When I feel insecure, I stock up, and potatoes are an easy way to ensure we'll have calories in a few months no matter what. Plus, the more time I spend in the garden, the less I'm listening to the news. Win-win!

Posted Tue Mar 17 14:25:46 2020 Tags:

Effects of social distancing
It was a tough call given that there is only one community-spread case in our state as of yesterday. But deeper reading suggests what we are seeing is only the tip of the iceberg. While I'm at very low risk from coronavirus, each person who contracts the disease spreads it to three other people and mortality rates skyrocket each decade for folks over 60. Between us, Mark and I could be responsible for a grandmother's death.

So we're going into social-distancing mode. We stocked up on a month's worth of non-perishables earlier in the week and voted early yesterday. The only reasons to leave home now are optional.

I'm keeping some of those optional outings. Hikes at the park seem very safe, playing in my garden safer yet. Letting the neighbor twins come down (with new, strict handwashing procedures they reluctantly agreed to comply with, plus new surface-cleaning protocols after they leave) seems like a worthwhile risk now that school is out and their worlds are smaller. I'll likely still go down the road to buy eggs from another neighbor, although we'll chat outdoors and keep our distance.

It feels a bit silly at this stage...but all of the experts I've heard in the last week explain that social distancing is most effective when it feels silly. If we wait until the ax looms, the health-care systems will be in danger of being overwhelmed. (Don't forget that 5+ day lag between getting sick and showing symptoms!)

Broccoli sets

So what am I telling you to do? All of the obvious stuff mentioned above...and maybe also hurry up planting your spring garden.

Don't know where to start? Take a look at your region on this soil-temperature map, then compare it to the minimum germination temperatures for crops here. Easy and fast crops at this time of year include lettuce, radishes, and most leafy greens.  These will be great for keeping the monotony of beans and rice at bay!

High-calorie crops that can be planted now --- in case your stored staples don't last the length of the outbreak --- include potatoes and carrots and peas. For us, now is also the time to start a lot of summer crops inside to jumpstart the frost-free date. Our broccoli sets are at the two-leaf stage and I'll be filling a flat with tomato, basil, and pepper seeds today.

I know that many of you can't simply hunker down in place. But if you can stay home, just think how much more fun it will be to social distance within a vibrant, food-filled garden.

And don't forget to wash your hands!

Posted Thu Mar 12 12:24:31 2020 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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