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Jul 2014
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Most visited this week:

Building a bee waterer

Fighting tomato blight with pennies

How many batteries do I need for my solar panels?

How to help chicks during hatching

Plug and play grid tie inverter


Jul 2013
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A year ago this week:

Rainy summers are good for fall crops

Compacting a pond floor

$10 Root Cellar

Cinder block rut repair

Best blueberry varieties for southwest Virginia


Jul 2012
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trickle charging ATV battery

It took a few minutes of trickle charging to get the ATV going today.

I cleaned the contacts last week due to a low charge and I guess the short trip from here to our parking area wasn't enough to charge it up.

Posted Tue Jul 29 15:51:49 2014 Tags:
One week of bee work

I've come to understand that a natural beekeeper's primary job is to make sure the bees have just enough space to continue working without wearing themselves out patrolling large expanses of empty hive.  So, when the third box of our mother hive went from looking like the top photo to looking like the bottom photo in a mere seven days, I figured I'd better give them some room to grow.

Opening up a warre hive

The question was --- should I add the extra box to the top or to the bottom of the hive?  In general, Warre beekeepers nadir instead of super, meaning that empty boxes are added to the bottom rather than to the top of a hive.  The theory is that keeping the lid on the hive and simply hoisting the whole thing up to put a new box underneath causes less disruption to the critical heat and scent within the brood chamber.  In the past, I have only nadired Warre hives, and last week I added the third box to our daughter hive at the bottom, as usual.

Supering a warre hive

However, once a Warre hive has more than two boxes mostly full of brood and honey, it becomes much less feasible to nadir the hive without rigging a lift (or roping two more people into helping you).  In addition, this excellent page suggests that supering is really the best way to add extra boxes onto a booming Warre hive during a heavy summer nectar flow.  In case you don't want to read the long version, the gist is that bees only build down as quickly as they need the space for brood, adding honey into cells above the brood chamber as young bees vacate that space.  So during heavy nectar flows, nadiring simply doesn't give the bees enough room to store the sweet liquid as quickly as it comes in.

Weeding around the hieve

With that data in mind, I opted to super the mother hive (and then to clean up the weeds around the hive entrance, a task that was long overdue).  Before supering, a quick peek down into the top box proved that the upper chamber was full of capped honey, so hopefully that buffer will mean taking the top off the hive had less impact on that all-important brood chamber.  And if this flow keeps up, we might get a box or two of honey this fall despite slowing our mother hive down by splitting her in half this spring!

Posted Tue Jul 29 07:09:18 2014 Tags:
replacing the fly wheel shaft key on a lawn mower

I had to replace the flywheel shaft key on the lawn mower today.

It's my second flywheel shaft key, and it went faster this time. Less than 30 minutes.

The things I'd like to remember for next time would be try not to forget the bell shaped spacer that goes on top of the flywheel and the oil spout goes first before putting the gas tank back on.

Posted Mon Jul 28 15:58:03 2014 Tags:
Starplate pasture

I'd been planning on setting out our newly grafted apple trees into the tree alleys in the starplate pasture this winter, but my gut says the soil there isn't ready to support tree growth.  Sure, the texture looked great when I dug into it last winter --- well-drained and loose --- but plants have been slow to colonize the bare soil.  In our climate, all I should have to do is avert my eyes if I want weeds to grow over my head, and instead, the ground is still spottily covered with bits of grass and white clover despite the copious addition of chicken manure from our pastured flock and the last mowing over a month ago.  As a result, I figure those tree alleys need another year or two of TLC before I put beloved perennials in place. 

First-year apple trees

So...what am I to do with 11 beautiful apple trees?  Even though a late frost kept our two-year-old high-density apples from fruiting this year, I've been very happy with the vibrant growth resulting from the training method.  So I decided to keep this new round of apples small and closer to home using similar high-density methods.  Sure, if I train the trees to stay diminutive, I'll probably end up getting fewer apples from each plant, but I suspect I'll get the same or more total apples since close-to-home trees are more likely to survive and thrive.

Time to find gaps to fill!  I have five trees on M7 rootstock (usual spacing 12-15 feet) and six trees on MM111 rootstock (usual spacing 15 to 20 feet) to play with, so if I planted them traditionally, they would take up most of our garden.  However, the M7s should make good espaliers along the front of the trailer and the MM111s can be trained to the high-density method if I space them at least five feet apart (based on this handy calculator).  I'm curious to hear from folks who have played with espaliering --- do you think a six-foot spacing for apples on M7 rootstock will work?  And, given that I'm most interested in productivity over beauty, which shape would you recommend?

Posted Mon Jul 28 07:07:41 2014 Tags:
close up of hose repair

I first started using these cheap plastic hose repair kits 4 years ago.

There's been no trouble with any of the repairs all this time.

I used the last one today after a mower mishap.

Posted Sun Jul 27 15:22:36 2014 Tags:
Weedy forest garden

It seems like I reinvision the forest garden every couple of years, always thinking this new plan is going to turn a problem zone into an area of bountiful harvest.  So take what I write here with a grain of salt.  But, really, I think I've got it this time!

This year's reinvision is the result of rain and rodents.  When voles girdled the three apple trees that were supposed to grow into the canopy of the forest garden, I finally had to admit that those trees had been ailing for quite some time.  The issue in the forest garden is the same as in the neighboring back garden --- high groundwater drowns anything with roots more than two or three inches below the surface in the winter.  I've worked hard to build tree mounds up out of the wet using copious organic matter (logs, branches, leaves, weeds, manure, etc.), but as the plant materials inevitably break down, my trees' roots end up right back down in the submerged zone.  As of this year, the only perennials that are thriving in the so-called forest garden are a hazel bush and tons of comfrey.  Time to change gears.

Flower bed

The first thing I'm admitting is that high groundwater probably does mean a poor place for trees.  All of my soil amendments have created a rich layer of topsoil, but the quality dirt soon gives way to waterlogged clay that kills deep-rooted plants in the winter.  While I could keep working to make the forest garden a tree habitat, chances are I'd be better off using my efforts to turn it into a shrub and herb (in the botanical, not the culinary, sense) playground.

Forest garden swales
However, raising the planting zone up out of the groundwater enough to keep a foot or so of soil dryish does seem feasible now that I've experimented with a sky pond and chinampas.  Both have worked quite well, with Mark's only complaint being loud toads singing on spring nights (requiring him to turn on a fan before bed).  Why not combine the two winning strategies, using dug-out aisles to raise the planting surface while gently sloping excess water toward a sky pond at the lowest point?  As a bonus, I'll get to discover whether a sky pond with no gleying will hold water as well as the experimental one I semi-gleyed last year.  And, as Mark said tongue in cheek, we really need more toads.  Right?  Who doesn't!?

Posted Sun Jul 27 07:48:25 2014 Tags:
putting together third rack on porch

I put together this last storage rack in about 10 minutes.

Plenty of room for the upcoming onion harvest.

Posted Sat Jul 26 15:04:21 2014 Tags:
Cooking soup

It's now officially freezin' season!  The tomato crop is far smaller than I'd hoped for, but enough fruits are coming in to produce one or two big pots of soup per week, most of which ends up as winter meals.  And, as if to make up for the moderate tomato harvest, the green beans are extremely prolific this year, allowing me to freeze half a gallon at a time once or twice a week.  Add that on top of this spring's bountiful broccoli, plus the stir fry I'm experimentally freezing, and we've already got 8.5 gallons of winter vegetables socked away in the deep freeze (along with a bunch of homegrown and purchased meat).

Freezing green beans

Whenever I write about our winter stores, commenters always ask about our frozen-food goal for the year.  I'd post a link to my previously written answer, but we're constantly tweaking our diet to include more fresh produce even in the winter months, and are also streamlining non-fresh winter stores to include only the foods that taste best frozen and rethawed.  Last year, we had barely enough winter stores from 6.75 gallons of green beans, 11.25 gallons of vegetable soup, 0.6 gallons of sweet corn, and 0.25 gallons of tomatoes --- just shy of 19 gallons of vegetables total.  Since we plan to stock up on the same amount of storage vegetables (onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbages, and butternut squash) and to continue pushing the weather boundaries with brussels sprouts, kale, and lettuce under quick hoops, twenty gallons in the freezer should do us this year as well.

Posted Sat Jul 26 07:19:36 2014 Tags:
using cardboard in the garden

The last piece of big cardboard went to some brussel sprout transplants.

Posted Fri Jul 25 16:03:23 2014 Tags:
Mulching high density apples

"Guess what this is?" I said to Mark yesterday morning as he walked past.  My voice was full of the excitement of finding a new source of organic matter to mulch with, so he hit the nail on the head with his first try.  "Humanure," my long-suffering husband answered, a distinct lack of enthusiasm coloring his voice.

Cleaning out the composting toilet

We closed off the first bin of our composting toilet last November, and I wrote that I planned to wait a year...or maybe two...before breaking into the stash.  However, my standards always start slipping when I clean out the deep bedding in the chicken coops and still need more high-carbon materials to mulch the perennials.  I figured, as long as no chunks of poo were visible in last year's humanure bin, I could use it beneath plants that wouldn't be producing until this time next year.  Really, that gives the material almost 24 months between excretion and eating, right?

Mulching with humanure

HumanureWhen I opened up the composting toilet bin, I was surprised to see that the contents really just looked like slightly aged sawdust.  There were some chunks of toilet paper around the edges, where the contents were too dry for decomposition, but all other signs of human waste were gone.  I set aside most of the residual toilet paper as we went along and used the four wheelbarrows of organic matter that remained beneath our high-density apples, our hardy kiwis, and our black raspberries.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that despite a lack of odor in the composted humanure, it slightly grossed me out, especially early in my cleanout efforts.  As with slaughtering chickens, I immediately went and took a shower after finishing the cleanout, even though the biologist in me knows that nine-month-old humanure is probably less likely to make me sick than relatively fresh chicken manure and horse manure are.  I handle the latter with barely a sniff, but I definitely still have a hint of the fecophobia that made Mark lack his usual enthusiasm about my crazy experiments.

Berry patch

Mental issues aside, Mark and I have some thoughts for improving our composting-toilet before changing back over to the now-emptied bin this fall, but I'm pretty happy with version 1.0 as-is.  Human "waste" has become an asset to the farm rather than a hindrance --- just what I was looking for!

Posted Fri Jul 25 06:46:54 2014 Tags:

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