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Mar 2015
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Building a bee waterer

How many batteries do I need for my solar panels?

Smallest wood stoves

How to help chicks during hatching

Wood stove in a mobile home

Mar 2014

A year ago this week:

The best chicken breeds for homesteaders

A good camping axe

What to do if you overcook maple syrup

Cleaning up old barn wood

Mar 2013

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Playing with goats

I'm stealing Mark's spot to hit up our readers for timely advice. This morning, I became convinced that Abigail was going into labor, but now I'm not sure if what I'm seeing counts as contractions. At intervals, I'll see a ripple slide across her baby bump, often with a bulgy kid-part pushing out in an ungainly fashion. Once, I put my hand there and felt a hard kid hoof. Is this simply kids repositioning pre-labor, or do those movements count as contractions?

Goat chewing her cud

Other signs of imminent delivery abound. I caught Abigail arching her back like a cat once this morning, she's been yawning frequently, and she seems intent upon scratching the top of her head against the fence. Actually, our usually standoffish goat even came over and lay down right in front of me, then put her head in my lap asking for a head scratch. Meanwhile, Abigail has also been adamantly chasing our little doeling out of her immediate vicinity. Otherwise, though, she seems content to eat hay and chew her cud as usual.

So, what do you think --- should I be camping out in the starplate coop and locking our doe in her kidding stall, or relaxing until tomorrow?

Posted Sat Feb 28 15:23:13 2015 Tags:
Homemade bokashi starter culture

One of the soil additives that I'm researching this year for my upcoming book is bokashi --- a method of composting food scraps in a sealed five-gallon bucket at high speeds with little or no smell. The jury's still out on whether this is a trendy technique primarily of interest to apartment dwellers, or whether land-based homesteaders should also give it a try. I suspect Soaking newspaper in bokashi culturethat after reading the book and doing a few experiments of my own, I'll be far more loquacious about my feelings on the topic.

In the meantime, I followed some internet instructions to make a starter culture out of one cup of whey drained from plain yogurt, one cup of molasses, and six cups of warm water. Soaking newspaper in this mixture, letting the excess water drain off, then sealing the wet newspaper in a ziplock bag to ferment on top of the fridge for two weeks is supposed to create a bokashi-like starter culture (although author Adam Footer believes that this culture isn't as high quality as the store-bought cultures some use). Mark's trying to talk me into buying some of the official starter culture too as a side-by-side comparison, which does sound like a useful way to dip into the advance from my publisher.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you. Have you tried bokashi? What did you feel were the pros and cons of the composting technique?

Posted Sat Feb 28 07:50:14 2015 Tags:
starplate roof snow load observations

Our Star Plate roof seems to handle snow a little better than the barn.

The steep angle produced twice as much clearing when the barn roof tended to accumulate more each snow episode we've had.

Posted Fri Feb 27 15:12:37 2015 Tags:

Soil compactionIf you don't want to destroy soil texture, burn up organic matter, and decimate your microorganism population by plowing or tilling the soil, what do you do to counteract compaction? Of course, your first step should be not to allow compaction to begin in the first place. I've trained everyone in our household (except Huckleberry) to only walk on our permanent aisles, staying out of the growing beds in our garden, and that goes a long way toward keeping soil compaction to a minimum. In addition, if you're not tilling, you're unlikely to be working the soil during wet weather --- another leading cause of compaction.

Still, who knows what happened to your ground before you moved in? Our core homestead was seriously overfarmed a few decades ago, and I can guess where permanent pastures once existed based on barbed wire that we're still digging out of the ground. Given the wetness of our homestead, I wouldn't be surprised if cows (the most likely animals to have been grazed here) seriously pugged winter soils, repeatedly treading the mud until all of those essential pores between soil particles collapsed.

Oilseed radishIf you suspect compaction, there are a variety of remedies available for the no-till gardener. Adding lots of organic matter never hurts and can greatly improve your soil structure when earthworms collect the compost or mulch and bring it deep into the soil, leaving handy channels for air and water in the worms' wake. Oilseed radishes and some other cover crops (such as alfalfa) are often planted for their tillage traits since the roots extend deep in the soil, then rot and create organic-matter-lined pathways much like the ones earthworms leave behind.

And then there's the broadfork. Given my penchant for winter digging, I've always eyed this tool speculatively, but the high price tag turned me off since I wasn't certain that my soil really needed the help. Still, leaving broadforks out of my upcoming soil book seemed like a major oversight, and when one of the bloggers I follow did all of the research for me and determined that Meadow Creature offers the best model in the U.S., I was sold. When I learned that Meadow Creature was willing to send me a review copy to try out, I was even more thrilled.

BroadforkThe big question then became --- which size broadfork should I choose? Meadow Creature offers three versions, each of which is a little bit bigger and heavier (and will also reach deeper into the soil) than the last. Margot Boyer at Meadow Creature wrote, "The 14" is our best seller; it weighs 20 pounds and provides deep cultivation in an ergonomic design. The 12" is also popular, especially with people who are 5'4" or under --- at 15 lbs it's easy for most folks to use and still digs deeper than any other forks we're aware of. I'm not suggesting the 16" size; it's a heftier tool and of interest mainly to professional farmers."

After talking it over with Mark, I finally settled on the smaller size. Yes, I consider myself to be pretty strong, but I'm also short and I know that the 17-pound t-post driver is right at the upper limit of my strength for repeated use. Plus, experience has proven that tools are much more likely to be used if they're easy to handle and fun.

Which is all a long way of saying that, once the snow melts and my new toy arrives, I'll be improving the structure of my garden beds with a broadfork this spring! I'll probably begin by hitting just half of most beds the first time around so I'll be able to report how much of a difference the broadfork action makes on this year's plant growth. Stay tuned for updates!

Posted Fri Feb 27 07:46:00 2015 Tags:
warped door being fixed

The extreme cold temperatures have caused one of our doors to warp.

We fixed it with some foam weatherstrip seals, but might have to upgrade the door if our Winters get much more extreme.

Posted Thu Feb 26 15:48:06 2015 Tags:
Seed starting

I give myself about a week of wiggle room in my planting calendar, figuring that a few days early or late won't impact the seedlings much and can allow me to fit each planting into a much more favorable weather period. On the other hand, I sometimes use that week of wiggle room for the sake of my own sanity instead. For example, I planted a flat of tomatoes, borage, and cabbage a little earlier than I'm supposed to as a way of keeping the is-it-really-still-white-outside? blues away. Huckleberry was less than impressed at the way I continue to fill up the sunniest spots with seedling flats, but I reminded him that he's not really supposed to sit on the table anyway.

Herb seedlings

The previous round of seedlings are doing well, with only the fennel yet to sprout. Age might be a factor, but it's also possible that the fennel are just taking longer than the members of the mint family --- after all, my lovage seedlings only started poking out of the ground a day or two ago.

I did go through and thin the faster sprouters, slaughtering hundreds of baby seedlings in one fell swoop. I hadn't expected to have such near-perfect germination rates!

Bleaching seedling flats

I've also been pleased to see absolutely no damping off, which could be due to a number of factors. Honestly, I think the most relevant is the time of year and weather --- my earliest plantings often tend to skip that problematic fungus, presumably because it hasn't woken up in the wild yet. But it can't hurt that I've been soaking the seedling flats in bleach water before planting, and that I've been more careful about taking off the clear lids as soon as I notice the first sign of germination. The latter technique lets the surface of the soil dry out just enough to keep seedlings happy but fungi out of the picture.

I've still got a flat of broccoli to plant, but I finally ran out of non-frozen stump dirt. I'll probably break down and buy a bag of potting soil from the store, but that's a slippery slope --- with unlimited soil, I go a little crazy, and there are only so many sunny windows to go around. In fact, Huckleberry thinks I'm already past quota! Maybe I'll have to pull out the seedling card table sooner rather than later.

Posted Thu Feb 26 07:43:42 2015 Tags:
Lucy helping with truck

We ended up damaging our truck battery with all the recent draining and jumping and had to replace it with a new one..

The battery disconnect switch is working out nicely as long as I remember to turn the knob each time I get home.

Posted Wed Feb 25 15:53:43 2015 Tags:
Thawing snow

After a warm weekend that began to thaw our accumulated snow, another couple of inches of snow fell Tuesday and set back my belief that spring will actually come. The solution? Ignore the outdoors and write!

I'm working on two different projects at the moment, and am hoping to pick our readers' hive mind about both. The first project is the sequel to Farmstead Feast: Winter, imaginatively titled Farmstead Feast: Spring. Even though this is supposed to be a cookbook, spring is also the time to be planting to ensure that you have something to cook with, so I was considering throwing in a quick section on how much area we devote to each vegetable variety and when we plant in order to feed the two of us all year. But, of course, that information will be only moderately useful to people with different diets and who live in different climates than us. Would you find that a handy appendix at the end of the spring cookbook, or should I stick to recipes?

Dog in the snow

Second, I'm excited to announce that my fourth paperback, The Ultimate Guide to Soil: A Gardener's Tips and Tricks for Organic, Nutrient-Rich, DIY Humus will be hitting bookstores in spring or summer 2016! I originally tried to sell Homegrown Humus to my publisher, but they felt like cover crops were a little too much of a niche subject. And when my editor came up with that alternative title, I couldn't resist saying that I'd expand the book to include much more than the topic I'd written about so far.

I'm planning on keeping The Ultimate Guide to Soil much more hands-on than all of the soil books I've been perusing in order to educate myself about the topic, so I'm devoting perhaps half of the book to less mainstream methods home gardeners use to build the soil. In addition to cover crops, I've planned sections on remineralization, traditional compost, manure, bokashi, worm bins, black soldier flies, compost tea, hugelkultur, biochar, humanure and urine, leaf mould, and chop and drop. But I feel like there are more soil-building techniques that I'm not thinking of at the moment. Maybe you've got some ideas I should incorporate into the expanded book? Please consider leaving me a comment and brightening this snowy day with your ideas!

Posted Wed Feb 25 07:28:20 2015 Tags:
inside the goat barn

How are the goats coping with all this snow?

Anna has started adding some dried kelp to their morning snacks after she noticed Abigail eating most of the kelp in the free choice bins.

They do bounce the tether ball from time to time, but mostly look out the door and yearn for a snow free pasture.

Posted Tue Feb 24 14:14:09 2015 Tags:
Mini mushroom logs

Oyster mushrooms are easy to propagate on the home scale using cardboard, so I spent quite a few years pushing oysters. But the truth is that, while Mark thinks oyster mushrooms are good, he thinks shiitakes are great.

Unfortunately, shiitake mushroom spawn is less malleable than oysters and won't thrive on cardboard. Enter the mini-mushroom-log propagation experiment!

Cutting mushroom logs

I call it an experiment, but the truth is that Tradd Cotter lists this as a viable technique in his book. Granted, he uses logs that are much larger in diameter than the little rounds I had Mark cut up and drill for me to plug Monday. But I'm hoping that as long as I keep them moist, logs 8 inches long and 3.5 inches in diameter will be sufficient for getting the shiitake mycelium running. Eventually, we can stack multiple rounds together, allow the mycelium to fuse, and thus have enough fungal body to produce a good mushroom flush.

Bagging up mushroom logsThe other thing I'm adding to give this experiment my own personal twist is to bag each log loosely and let the spawn run through the logs at room temperature. This is pure winter-doldrums thinking on my part --- I want something to play with now!

Once I start seeing mycelium on the ends of the logs, I'll put a piece of wet cardboard on top of each log and a fresh, unplugged log above that. Tradd promises that the original spawn will pass through the cardboard and into the new wood, expanding my planting without buying new plugs.

Total cost for this experiment: $3 worth of plugs, plus a bit of electricity to run the chainsaw and drill. I can only peer at my seedlings so many times a day, so having three mushroom logs to pore over while the ground is snow covered is worth the price of admission already.

Posted Tue Feb 24 07:39:33 2015 Tags:

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