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archives for 01/2011

Jan 2011
Anna Thaw

Stacking the wood pile
The woodpile melted enough that I could stack logs in the shed....

Water dripping off firewood
...and the firewood is already dripping dry.

Strawberry leaves in the snow
The snow is melting off the garden.

Filling the thousand gallon tank
The wash water tank is full again, and Mark's insulated exit point clearly works.

Best of all, for the first time in months, the birds are singing!  Happy New Year!

Our homemade chicken waterer starts the year off right with fresh, clean water.
Posted Sat Jan 1 08:20:39 2011 Tags:
dead bees on a ledge close up

Anna in her bee keeper suitOur bees took advantage of the recent warm snap to do some house cleaning by bringing out the dead bees that expired recently.

Bee keeping sure is easy when all you have to do is take a few pictures of your wife doing the actual work and then let the bees do the rest.

Of course I help when it comes to eating the honey, which makes it a sweet spectator chore that I recommend to all homesteading husbands out there.

Posted Sat Jan 1 15:43:39 2011 Tags:

Stack cakeWhen Mark and I got married, Mark's family kept saying that they wanted to bring a stack cake to our wedding.  We both looked at them in confusion since neither of us like apple butter, and we instead ended up with the most delicious and beautiful cake known to man (thanks, Sheila!)

Years later, Mark's mom sent me the following email, and suddenly the obsession with stack cakes made sense:

This is the old apple stack cake, also known as the Appalachian wedding cake.  Years ago, people would come to a wedding and it was a tradition, the guest would bring one layer of the cake, baked very thin, like with molasses, ginger, etc.  It would Rose Nell cutting the stack cakebe real dry, could travel without ruin.  Then the hostess would put them all together with apple butter, between each layer, so the more layers meant that the bride & groom were that well known.

This is Mom's favorite cake.  I was able to bake one this year, wanted to share with you how pretty it came out.  I am freezing part of it, so you and Mark can taste it.  Yum yum.  This one is 12 layers.

Now that the tradition has been explained to me, I almost wish we'd gone old-fashioned and had each of our guests bring a layer to our wedding.  Doesn't a stack cake sound like a fun center-piece for a potluck, but perhaps with chocolate cakes instead of apple?  Or maybe with any cake that goes well with chocolate frosting?

Thanks for the beautiful photos and for not minding our cluelessness, Rose Nell!  We're looking forward to tasting such a traditional cake.

Sometimes newer is better.  Our homemade chicken waterer takes the poop out of poultry-care.
Posted Sun Jan 2 08:39:29 2011 Tags:

Pitcher irrigationA couple of inches of rain and a lot of melting snow mean that our garden is about as wet as it gets right now.  Still, I was intrigued when I read about pitcher irrigation.  This traditional technique is a bit like drip irrigation for dummies --- you bury an unglazed ceramic pot in the soil, fill it with water, and the liquid seeps out into a three to six foot diameter area, keeping the soil at a constant 80% of saturation.  If the soil gets too wet, water will actually seep back into the pot, so there's no need to worry about overwatering, and there is clearly no runoff.

I've read that 1.5 to 2.5 gallon ceramic pots are ideal, but infonet-biovision suggests using a dried sweet monkey orange fruit (whatever that is.)  Makes me wonder if a dried gourd would work?  I'm very content with our irrigation method for the main part of the garden, but would like to have something more low-tech in my arsenal, especially for watering trees and other perennials that are spread out across the yard.  I can even see pitcher irrigation being a fun way to keep those potted plants wet during a dry summer on a hot patio.  Has anybody tried it?

Posted Sun Jan 2 18:52:41 2011 Tags:

Cooking a chicken in a Dutch oven on a wood stoveAfter trying out the kindergarten level of cooking on the wood stove, I decided to move on to first grade.  Joey gave us this beautiful Dutch oven after our power outage last year, and it seemed to be the obvious choice for expanding our culinary arts to roasting a chicken.  I prepared the veggies and chicken as I usually do when roasting in the electric oven, settled the fire on a medium-low setting, and then put on the lid of the Dutch oven.

I stirred the vegetables a few times so that they wouldn't stick to the bottom --- which I assume is more of a problem in a Dutch oven since the heat comes up from the bottom --- but I didn't have to baste the chicken at all.  That made this roast chicken a bit lower work than my oven-roasted chicken, where I try to remember to baste every ten minutes or so.  Chicken roasted in a Dutch ovenOn the other hand, the chicken took about half an hour longer than usual to cook, and I was glad I had a meat thermometer so that I'd know when the meat was safely done.

Our taste test declared the Dutch oven roasted chicken and vegetables just as good as the oven-roasted version, but the aesthetics weren't quite as good.  I didn't get the crispy skin I usually end up with and the vegetables turned into a mush, making me think that I probably should have cooked the chicken alone for about an hour before adding the root and onion mixture.

In fact, the Dutch oven roasted chicken reminded me of the results I've seen from folks who roast their chicken in a crock pot.  That makes me think that crock pot recipes would be a good place to start when looking for meals I can cook in the Dutch oven on top of the wood stove.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Mon Jan 3 08:14:21 2011 Tags:

Do-nothing grain patchIn the garden, one of our biggest experiments in 2010 was embarking on the first stage of experimentation with grain.  We tried a do-nothing oats bed, grew amaranth and quinoa in the vegetable garden, and tried out buckwheat and oats in the chicken pasture.  We learned a lot, but we still have a long way to go before we achieve grain independence.

First, I have to admit that our eating habits changed dramatically in the middle of our grain experiment, which veered my priorities away from grain.  After extensive research, I decided that we needed to increase the percentage of protein in our diets.  Since I wasn't going to cut back on fruits and vegetables, that meant reducing our carbohydrates to leave more room on our plates for beans and meat.  Growing oats suddenly seemed much less important once I stopped eating them for breakfast, and other grains were similarly sidetracked to the chicken feed category.  But we both felt that the change was a plus since we started feeling perkier, our brains flowed faster, and we even lost some weight.

Buckwheat in the chicken pastureThat said, we learned a lot about growing grains anyway.  Our do-nothing patch (first photo) wasn't very successful --- leaving the chicken tractor on a patch of ground for a week in the winter is not enough to kill off the weeds, and the oats had a lot of competition and ended up patchy and scrawny.  A more effective do-nothing method turned out to be planting grains in a paddock of the chicken pasture that was scratched bare over the early summer and then had the last few hardy weeds hoed out by  hand.  Of course, growing grains in the vegetable garden was easy, but seemed like a waste of space since the plants were hardy enough to put up with the minimal work chicken pasture situation.

In terms of variety selection, the results were once again a mixed bag.  I was intrigued by hullless oats, but in practice found that they were much more finicky than traditional oats.  I can't draw many conclusions from the failure of hullless oats in the do-nothing patch, but I did grow side by side hullless and traditional oats as cover crops starting in August and the former achieved a height of perhaps a third the size of the latter.  I suspect that it's better to just grow traditional oats and find a way to hull them if you want to eat them yourselves.

Amaranth for grainIn the unusual grain category, quinoa was a flop --- perhaps I need to try another variety?  On the other hand, Manna de Montana Amaranth was extremely productive, and grew so tall that I suspect I could grow it in the chicken pasture and let the flock graze between the plants without worrying about them reaching the seeds.  Amaranth was also very easy to thresh and winnow, although I'm still learning how to cook it.

Back among traditional grains, we're experimenting with growing wheat this winter, but the jury is still out.  I have enough data about buckwheat, though, to say that it's a so-so grain that I probably won't repeat (except as a cover crop.)  Buckwheat did relatively well in the chicken pasture, but complained about drought --- I think that for maximum yields, I Winnowing amaranth in a siftershould plant it in a part of the garden that gets irrigated.   On the other hand, buckwheat wasn't a fan of the waterlogged soil where I grew it as a cover crop.  The plants also didn't seem to produce all that much grain, and it would have been tough to pick the individual seeds if I hadn't just turned the chickens in to eat it up. 

Looking toward the future, our grain patches next year will look very different.  The only grains we eat much of nowadays are a bit of rice and wheat, but since I can't grow the former I'll be planting wheat and amaranth for our table.  For the chickens, I want to try out millet and field corn, but will focus more on the high protein sunflower seeds and perhaps some sort of legume.  My hope is that I can continue to grow our grains in the two chicken pasture paddocks which are on flat ground, utilizing the chickens to prepare the soil for me and to delete most weeds.

Turn your invention into a salary with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our 2010 experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jan 3 12:00:38 2011 Tags:
traditional appalachian ice sculpture

1. Leave a 5 gallon bucket out in the yard to collect rain.

2. Wait for water to freeze.

3. Remove top layer of ice and position on an old fence post.

Posted Mon Jan 3 16:27:01 2011 Tags:

Frosty treesAfter over four years gardening on the same two acres of vegetables, orchard, and chicken pasture, I'm constantly surprised at how little I know about the yard's microclimates.  As Eliza pointed out on her blog, snow-melt is a perfect time to get those microclimates pertaining to sun figured out --- sunny spots will be the first to melt while shady spots will keep their snow for hours or days longer.  Our accumulated December snow took days to melt (tiny bits of it are still out there), so I had a perfect opportunity to scope out sunny spots day by day.

We live in pretty much the worst place for gardening in the winter --- on a north-facing slope on the north side of a hill.  As the sun sinks lower into the sky during the colder months, more and more of the area up against the hill remains in shadow, and I look with longing at our neighbor's hay field, across the creek and far enough from the hill that frost on the field Melting snowmelts hours before it does in our garden.  So I was a bit surprised to realize that a gap in the hills made an area just beyond the mule garden melt off even before my neighbor's field did.  Doesn't this look like the absolutely perfect spot for a winter forest pasture?  Can't you just imagine how happy our flock would be, scratching through these leaves, when their current pasture is still socked in under three inches of snow and ice?

Gully with melted snowMoving back toward our main yard, I realized that we had another abnormally sunny spot --- the south-facing side of the gully that divides our mule garden from our back garden.  Seeing the bare soil on this sheer south face while everything around it was covered with snow made me realize that I'm leaving a lot of sun on the table by letting this spot grow up in weeds.  Maybe we should put Mark's hobbit cave here (assuming we could deal with drainage since the bottom of the gully stays good and damp.)  Or perhaps this would be a good spot to terrace and plant sun-loving something-or-other halfway up the south face?  If we went to all of the work of building a stone wall behind the terrace, I'll bet we could gain as much as two climate zones and plant just about anything we want there.

Map of sunny microclimates in the garden

Line where shadow extends snow longevityAnd now for the bad news.  Since the gully has never been reclaimed (aka mowed), young trees, briars, and Japanese honeysuckle create a wall along the south side of the mule garden.  Here, in our sunniest piece of flat ground, I'm wasting an eight foot strip of growing area along the southern edge due to deep shade from my briar bushes.  We clearly need to find a way to get that gully under control so that the mule garden will work even better as our sunny winter garden spot.

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps our flock well hydrated wherever they roam.
Posted Tue Jan 4 08:27:50 2011 Tags:

Straw mulchOne of our goals for 2010 was constant mulch cover in the vegetable garden.  We didn't get there, mostly because I got so caught up in weeding in the middle of the summer that I forgot I could have been spending half that time mulching and getting the same results.  But we did try out a lot of different mulching materials, discovering in the process which ones work well for our garden.

The easiest and best-suited mulch (in terms of C:N ratio and water infiltration) for the vegetable garden is straw, but straw costs an arm and a leg in our non-grain-growing region.  I have high hopes that we will eventually be growing our own straw as part of our grain experiments, but in the meantime, I wanted to see which free mulches would work in its place.

Cardboard mulchCardboard showed a lot of promise early in the season, but ended up keeping the soil too dry.  In the early summer, soil was wetter under the cardboard mulch than in unmulched areas, but I suspect that was due to the cardboard preventing evaporation of water that was already in the soil.  Even though I punched holes in the cardboard to promote infiltration of rainwater, the cardboard-mulched beds started drying out by mid-summer.  In the fall, it was clear that the cardboard-mulched beds were bone dry, and even our dry-soil-loving peppers started to wilt near the end of the year.  Cardboard seems to be more useful as part of sheet mulches to delete weeds from new garden areas or from around woody perennials, and I don't think I'll be using it in the vegetable garden again.

Paper mulchPaper was even less promising.  If we subscribed to the newspaper, we probably would have had better luck, but the junk mail I mulched with had too high of a percentage of colored dyes and glossiness, and the plants around the paper mulch mostly died.  I'd be curious to see if running the paper through a shredder first would make it a slightly better mulch by adding fluffiness and air pockets, but we'll probably use up our junk mail in the worm bin and perhaps with mushrooms in the future.

We used tree leaves as a winter mulch on most of the garden last year, but they were a bit too high in carbon to be optimal for the vegetable garden.  This winter, we're using tree Elderberry leaves as mulchleaves as bedding in the chicken coop, where they mix with manure and (I hope) will turn into a perfect mulch by spring.

Green leaves --- like grass clippings, elderberry leaves, and comfrey leaves --- are well suited to being used directly on the vegetable garden as mulch, but each has flaws as well.  Elderberry and comfrey leaves work great, but it feels like the juice isn't worth the squeeze unless I can find a quicker way of harvesting them, and grass clippings are really only suitable in the spring before the plants start to go to seed.  I think that this year, I'm only going to have Mark bag grass clippings for the first month or two, then let the grass grow up in out of the way parts of the yard in late summer to use as hay for the chickens.

Wood chip mulchThe final mulch possibility is wood chips.  Well aged wood chips make the best mulch for our woody plants, full of beneficial fungi and other soil microorganisms.  I suspect that wood chip mulch that has been well worked over by the chickens and looks like it's halfway on its path to becoming stump dirt would also make a perfect mulch for the vegetable garden since chicken manure would keep this mulch from locking up nitrogen in the soil.  Unfortunately, I rarely have enough really good (aka homemade) wood chip mulch for the trees and berries, let alone for the vegetable garden.

In 2011, we'll probably continue to buy quite a bit of straw for the garden, but we'll supplement it in the spring with grass clippings and with the deep bedding from the chicken coop.  In the long run, someday I'd like to be making enough compost (from cafeteria food scraps?) and wood chip mulch to keep the garden happy with entirely homemade mulches.

Quit your job and start to live with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our 2010 experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jan 4 12:00:38 2011 Tags:
L.E.D. deer deterrent low budget diy home made easy to make

I've been experimenting with one of these L.E.D. night lights to see if it can function as a low budget deer deterrent that shows motion during vulnerable night hours.

It only took a few minutes to wrap electrical tape around the cracks to make it water proof and mounting was even easier as shown in the image above.

A little sensor knows when the sun goes down and begins projecting different colored light patterns on the side of the barn, which will hopefully appear as human/hunter movement to any potential night nibblers.

Posted Tue Jan 4 18:51:56 2011 Tags:

Fellowes strip-cut shredderWorm bin experiment 2011 is gearing up.  Our new shredder came in the mail yesterday --- the Fellows PS-60.  As usual, I over-researched the decision, but was glad I did.  Most of the shredders on the market today are cross-cut or confetti shredders, made to turn your paper into pieces too small for your nosy neighbors to read.  However, the whole point of a shredder for me is to get long strips that won't mat down quickly in the worm bin, so I kept hunting until I found what's called a "strip-cut" model.  Mark talked me into choosing a shredder in the $100 price range since he figures the ones half that price will break down much faster.

I pulled her out of the box, sorted my paper into glossy and unglossy, and let her rip.  Junk mail is suddenly a joy!  The Fellows shredder will take twelve sheets of normal paper at a time, which means I could feed unopened envelopes, big hanks of catalogs, and even the thin cardboard that tea bags come in through with no trouble.  Flattened toilet paper center rolls were too much for her, but you can just turn the switch to reverse if you overdo it and your paper will come right back out.

Meanwhile, I've talked it over with my non-profit, and they're on board for being the public face of asking the local school for their food scraps.  I hope that with a non-profit behind me, I won't look quite so much like a kook.  My letter to the principal is going in the mail this week.  Wish me luck!

Our homemade chicken waterer takes the guesswork out of chicken care.
Posted Wed Jan 5 07:55:05 2011 Tags:

Oats planted Aug. 20 and mowed in early Nov.Cover crops were another innovation in 2010, doing double-duty as weed suppressors and compost creators.  My first goal was to find varieties that like our clay soil and work well with no-till conditions in zone 6 (i.e. they die over the winter or are easy to kill by mowing), while also building up as much organic matter in the soil as possible.  Meanwhile, I wanted to learn the best planting dates in order to grow vegetables for as much of the year as possible and still find time to slide in a cover crop planting.

Crimson clover planted on October 8Here's a rundown on each species I tried, with the caveat that the December snow coat prevented a winter kill in several species that I suspect will still die out before spring planting time.  I also can't tell how much organic matter has been added to the soil yet --- I'll try to remember to post again when I delve into the dirt in each bed and notice the differences between crops, but for now I'm just making guesses based on how much vegetation is on the surface.

  • Oats are currently my very favorite cover crop.  They had no problem with our heavy clay soil and thrived even in the most water-logged beds, creating more top growth than any other cover crop we tried.  Forage oats that I bought in a 50 pound bag at the feed store grew much better than hull-less oats, and the oats also seemed to need a top-dressing of compost to achieve maximum growth (which is worth it to me, although some people might wonder about using compost to grow compost.)  The best planting period for oats in our garden seems to extend from the beginning of August (or possibly earlier?) through mid September --- the earliest ones bloomed two months later and had to be cut down, which is a bit of extra work but not a significant deterrent, while the late September and October planted oats just didn't get big enough to make it worth our while.  The jury is still out on whether oats will winter kill, but mowing them is easy and weakens the plants enough that they die in even a moderate cold snap.
  • Oilseed radishes planted on Sept. 1Oilseed radishes are currently my second favorite cover crop, perhaps to be promoted to favorite once I dig into the dirt --- they produce most of their biomass below ground, so I can only guess at how their organic matter production will stack up compared to oats.  The only downside of oilseed radishes is seed cost --- you can't buy the seeds at the feed store, so you're stuck paying shipping and a higher price through online suppliers (and they're new and trendy, so they cost a lot.)  Otherwise, though, the radishes do just as well as oats at growing fast, putting up with clay soil and waterlogged conditions, and outcompeting weeds.  They are currently about two-thirds winter-killed too, so I'm pretty sure I won't need to do any mowing to wipe the radish cover crop out in the spring.  As for planting date, I planted radishes each week in September, and the earliest ones definitely did better than the later ones, so I suspect their optimal planting date is around the same as for oats, perhaps leaning a hair toward earlier planting.
  • Annual ryegrass planted on Sept. 1Annual ryegrass got off to a much slower start than oats and oilseed radishes, but it seems to have kept growing later in the year as well.  When I went out to check on it after the snow melted, I was surprised to find such a dense growth on the ryegrass beds, and it's possible ryegrass might do as well as my oats, especially when a bed opens up for cover crops later in the year.  Beds planted on September 1 did the best, but those planted at the end of September did better than oats planted on neighboring beds on the same day.  The real question will be whether annual ryegrass will winter kill since we're on the edge of its hardiness zone and the beds are still bright green.  If so, I'd plant annual ryegrass on any bed that opens up between mid September and early October.
  • Buckwheat was a disappointment.  The plants hated waterlogged clay soil, and even where buckwheat seemed to grow well, very little biomass was left behind.  Buckwheat's main advantages are that it will grow fast, reaching maturity in just a bit over a month, and that the crop is very easy to mow-kill.  I could envision planting buckwheat in a bed that was being reserved for a late spring planting, but I don't think it's worth using up prime fall beds with buckwheat.
  • Conlon barley planted in late OctoberBarley is still a big question mark.  I planted it on a whim in late October, and the plants didn't do much.  Clearly, I'll have to try again at a more realistic planting date.
  • Crimson Clover is also a "who knows."  I seeded clover in early October, and it came up and produced its first set of true leaves before the cold weather hit, but it's hard to tell anything else.

Looking beyond the minutae, cover crops are a great addition to the garden, and I can't imagine why it took me so long to come on board.  (Well, I know why --- I thought they were incompatible with no-till.)  Cover crops keep the soil from eroding and the food web alive in the fall after the main garden is done, and it really perks me up to look out at a sea of colors in November rather than at a lot of dead stalks.  If I had to make only one recommendation to gardeners based on my 2010 vegetable garden experiments, it would be "Plant cover crops!"

Invent your way out of the rat race with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our 2010 experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jan 5 12:00:29 2011 Tags:

truck driver close up crossing creek on cold day
2010 was the year we figured out the power of having a large truck to haul big loads and just how much of a time saver it can be.

Joey was kind enough to make us an offer to transfer ownership and we were happy to accept. Of course he retains shared custody for times when he needs to move something large.

It's that time of year when the ground temperature determines if the truck can move or just spin in the mud. So far when it gets stuck the course of action is to wait till it freezes, which is a lot easier than using a hand winch like we did in the good old days with the Isuzu baby truck.

Posted Wed Jan 5 17:17:45 2011 Tags:
Anna Holy Shit

Holy ShitI saved up a few special books as treats to take along on our recent cruise, one of which was Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind by Gene Logsdon.  I have to admit that I was partly saving the book because it made me laugh to envision reading a book called Holy Shit on a cruise, but I was also really looking forward to learning more about one of my favorite forms of biomass.  I've thoroughly enjoyed several of Gene Logsdon's other books, like Small-Scale Grain Raising, so I figured I was in for a treat.

Unfortunately, Holy Shit let me down.  I was hoping for some data and hands-on information that would help me use manure more effectively on our homestead, but the book was instead an extended rant on how our society is broken because we throw away our manure.  I kept my pen poised on my notebook for hours, and couldn't come up with a single tip to write down and pass on to you folks.  If you're interested in reading Gene Logsdon's latest book, I recommend you check it out of your local library as light reading rather than seeking any answers in its pages.

Our homemade chicken waterer kit is a quick and easy project to provide clean water for your chickens.
Posted Thu Jan 6 08:03:06 2011 Tags:

Urd beanAfter four years of hard-core gardening, the vegetable garden doesn't require much experimentation any more.  I've mostly figured out when to plant our crops, which varieties grow well in our soil, and how to fight the worst diseases and pests.  I do keep trying out new experimental varieties, but I've discussed this year's successes and failures previously (for example: amaranth, urd beans, other experimental beans, and quinoa, sesame, and poppies.)  In this post, I just want to sum up our dealings with some of the thornier issues --- how to keep tomatoes from getting blight, how to keep cucurbits from dying of anything and everything, and some work with woody plants.

Dried tomatoes2009 was the year without a tomato, when every tomato in the eastern U.S. seems to have been impacted by blight.  We adore tomatoes, so we tried a lot of techniques to keep our plants blight-free in 2010, including pruning tomatoes to keep their leaves away from the damp soil, ripping out any plants that contract the fungus, planting blight-resistant tomato varieties, scattering tomatoes throughout the garden and planting some later in the year, and weeding out volunteer potatoes and weedy nightshades that can harbor the blight.  The combination of factors all added up to a good tomato year, despite blight spores wafting through the air, although I don't think that the tomato islands and succession planting did much good.  We put away enough tomatoes for pizza and spaghetti sauce, soups, and general cooking to last us through the winter, and the only thing I would have done differently would be to start drying tomatoes earlier in the year so we could have more of those delicious treats!

Summer squashWe also mostly licked our cucurbit problems.  In the past, we've lost many of our squashes to vine borers and our cucumbers and melons to wilts and blights, and we've tried lots of complicated methods to solve these problems.  In the end, it seems like the lowest tech answers are the best when it comes to cucurbits.  Among winter squashes, we simply converted over to an all-butternut garden, which deleted all of the issues and also fed us the tastiest of the winter squashes.  For summer squashes, we settled on succession planting, seeding a new bed May 1, May 15, June 1, June 15, July 15, and July 30.  As soon as the earlier bed succumbed to vine borers, the next bed was producing, and our freezer is chock full of squash slices.  We used nearly the same succession planting technique with cucumbers, with the addition that we chose a more mildew-resistant variety (Diamont Hybrid), and for the first time we were overrun with cucumbers for most of the summer.  We had a so-so watermelon year, but the problem there was mislabelled seeds.  In the end, the only cucurbit that still eludes me is canteloupes --- since these plants need a long growing season like winter squash, I can't just succession plant to beat the blight.  Maybe some research will turn up a more resistant variety, or perhaps I'll follow my movie star neighbor's lead and plant canteloupes atop black plastic for faster drying.

Starting persimmon seeds in a potI've learned a lot about propagating perennials this year, too, but was much less successful with my first attempts.  I easily got hardy kiwis to root from softwood cuttings, but then transplanted them straight into the unirrigated part of the garden when their roots were too small, and the plants promptly kicked the bucket.  Since the original kiwi vines seem to have really taken off this year (their second full summer in the ground), I figure I'll have a lot more material to root next year and can try again.  I also completely failed at starting various trees from seed since I didn't count on their slow germination and lost track of exactly where I'd planted them.  This year, I'm starting seeds that need stratification in pots, and also plan to put down a kill mulch and start a little nursery area up by the water tank.

Most farm-based businesses pay minimum wage.  Learn how to be your own boss while paying yourself $50 per hour with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our 2010 experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jan 6 12:00:28 2011 Tags:
medium sized pile of horse manure

This picture shows a medium size pile of horse manure in front of the large mass of wood chips near our parking area.

That load of horse dung represents years of back and forth with the guy who scoops it out of the neighbors barn. My timing was just right last week on New Years Eve when I was driving home from the store with some beer and happened to notice the guy pull in to the driveway of the barn full of organic gold as Anna sometimes calls it.

I stopped....shared a couple beers....casually mentioned how easy it might be for him to dump the latest horse manure next to our wood chips instead of the previous place. Talked about chicken waterers and sweet potatos and headed on home.

In my opinion the moral of this story is to never under estimate the motivation that a cold beer can inspire.

Posted Thu Jan 6 17:16:04 2011 Tags:

Sawdust coming out of a miter sawDoesn't that look like a useful pile of biomass? 

Mark pointed out to me last week that our miter saw channels the sawdust (mostly) through a little tube in the back of the saw.  Presumably, the purpose is to enable you to hook the saw up to a bag or vaccuum system to keep your house from turning into a mess when using the miter saw indoors, but Mark has a plan to add a hose to the opening and channel that sawdust into a five gallon bucket.  Meanwhile, I've just been scooping it up and adding it to various mulch piles.

Mark dreams of providing so much biomass that I get sick and tired of it, a bit like parents who make their kids smoke a whole pack of cigarettes if they catch them easing into the bad habit at a young age.  I'm afraid I'm already too addicted, though, for his strategy to work.

Treat your chickens to a spill-free, poop-free chicken waterer.
Posted Fri Jan 7 08:18:26 2011 Tags:

White peachI'll end my run-down on 2010 experiments with the ones nearest and dearest to my heart --- the forest garden.  My forest garden trials are by far the most experimental, so it's no surprise that most of them didn't do all that well.  You should also keep in mind that I planted my primary forest garden in the worst part of the yard, where the topsoil eroded away under the care of previous owners leaving behind solid clay with an abnormally high groundwater.  Quite possibly, these techniques would have worked in more prime garden soil.

Comfrey as a living mulch under a nectarineI've read in several books that comfrey makes a great living mulch beneath fruit trees, sucking up nutrients from deep in the subsoil with its taproots and then depositing the hard-to-find minerals right by the tree roots.  Unfortunately, my experience with comfrey around fruit trees is entirely negative --- the tree with comfrey around its base seems to be growing slower and its summer leaves were yellowish, suggesting that the comfrey is fighting the tree for nitrogen.  While this experiment has no control (I put the comfrey around my only nectarine and can only compare it to the closely related peaches planted in another part of the yard), I'd be leery of planting comfrey around any other fruit trees, and am planning on putting down a kill mulch to try to eradicate the comfrey from around my nectarine.  It's possible that comfrey makes a good living mulch around the drip-line of more established fruit trees, but for now I'm sticking to planting my comfrey where it won't fight with anyone, then cutting the leaves for mulch.

Swale filled with waterMeanwhile, I installed swales around several fruit trees in an attempt to drain a bit of water away from their roots and keep the forest garden from turning into a morass of mud in the winter.  In areas where the groundwater is extremely high, the swales just made the muddy area larger --- ditches would have been a better choice.  On the other hand, in moderately problematic area, the swales nearly did the job, just leaking a bit of water to the downhill side.  When I find enough organic matter, I plan to fill the good swales up with mulch and also to add an extensive kill mulch around each fruit tree in this trouble area so that the tree roots can benefit from the concentrated water in the dry period of summer.

Building a hugelkultur moundMy hugelkultur mounds --- rotting wood topped with soil --- did what I wanted only too well.  I hoped they would keep plants out of the groundwater in the trouble spots, but the small amount of soil and large amount of not-yet-rotted wood in the mounds meant that during year one, they were too dry for anything except rosemary.  Also, Lucy loved digging my mounds up in search of small mammals.  On the other hand, I think that hugelkultur has a lot of potential for my forest garden if I can put them in spots where nothing needs to grow for a year or two until the wood really breaks down.  This year, I'm creating hugelkultur extensions to each tree mound to give my fruit trees more dry ground to spread out, and this time I'm putting a layer of cardboard below each mound so tenacious weeds won't grow up through.

Forest garden islandAs you can tell from the photos, my favorite part of the forest garden is that I get to play with it in the winter when a dormant vegetable garden combined with the garden itch would otherwise itch drive me nutty.  The forest garden pretty much takes care of itself for the rest of the year, so it's hard to complain about some growing pains.  And, lest you still become disheartened from this dismal list of problems, I should also tell you that my forest garden island (in the portion of the garden with good soil) is huge and provided masses of fruits for us --- clearly, permaculture concepts have a lot of merit even if they have to be tweaked a bit to work in the most problematic parts of the yard.

This post is part of our 2010 experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Jan 7 12:00:34 2011 Tags:
mark Free wood

high quality pallet from wood stoveThe guy at the wood stove store mentioned how they have a problem with these high quality pallets stacking up behind their store.

I'm thinking of planning the next big city trip with a visit to this alley. He just wants to get rid of them and says the local pallet guys aren't interested because of the irregular shapes. They seem to be of a higher grade than normal pallets which should make good firewood if no other uses come to mind.

Posted Fri Jan 7 15:33:23 2011 Tags:

Soil temperature under the snowI've been itching for a soil thermometer, but haven't wanted to pay for shipping and couldn't find one locally.  When we were in Wal-Mart the other day, I stumbled across a meat thermometer in the cooking section that I suspected would do the job.  As far as I can tell, the only difference between a typical meat thermometer and a soil thermometer is that the latter tends to measure lower temperatures, and the Mainstays Quick-Response Thermometer goes all the way down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit so that you can test meat temperatures in the freezer as well as on the grill --- perfect!

Deep bedding temperatureI gave my new soil thermometer a test run in the chicken coop's deep bedding yesterday and was highly impressed to see that composting action raises the temperature from the exterior soil temperature (27 degrees Fahrenheit) to a toasty 58 degrees!  Just think how useful this thermometer will be to help me figure out when the soil is warm enough to plant peas (35 to 40 degrees.)  Usually, I just put the seeds in the ground two or three times throughout the late winter in hopes that I'll hit on the right soil temperature by chance, and I suspect adding a little science to the mix will save me the $7.97 cost of the thermometer in lowered seed costs during the first year.

Now, if I can just remember not to stick my chicken-poop-covered thermometer into a juicy steak....

Our homemade chicken waterer rounds our our flock's comfort with unlimited clean water.
Posted Sat Jan 8 08:17:43 2011 Tags:
cooped up chickens in a group of 3

I sometimes wonder if our flock ever feels cooped up on a day like today?

view from inside a chicken coop at beak level
Posted Sat Jan 8 17:02:18 2011 Tags:

Seeds for a germination testDays when the snow fills the air are perfect for planning next summer's garden and ordering seeds.  The first step is to go through all of my old seeds to see which ones will last another year and which ones need to be replaced.  I've posted previously about how long seeds last, but you have to take that chart with a grain of salt --- we live in a very humid climate and I haven't gotten around to making a good seed storage box, so some of our seeds have less longevity than they should.  For example, some turnip seeds that I thought had a year or two left in them completely failed to germinate in 2010, so those bit the dust and will be replaced.

Meanwhile, I had five species that I just wasn't sure of.  One was parsley that I harvested this year in the garden, but am not sure I matured well enough on the plant.  Another is bean seeds saved from 2009 (or was it 2008?).  Last  year's corn and peanut seeds should still be good, but both can have low germination rates after the first year, so I wanted to try them out.  Finally, I have extra onion seeds from last year, but they didn't germinate well in the spring garden --- did I just plant them when the soil was too cold, or were the seeds a dud to begin with?

Seed germination test containerI placed five seeds of each questionable variety between two moistened cloth napkins in a plastic container for a germination test.  Those of you with conventional kitchens may choose to use paper towels, but disposables are verboten in our household.  Since all of these seeds prefer relatively warm temperatures for germination, I've situated the container on the back of the electric stove where heat from the wood stove keeps temperatures around 70 degrees during the day.  Night temperatures will fall much lower, but I'll just add a few days onto my germination test to take that into consideration.  In conventional kitchens, finding a warm spot is often easier --- just put your germination chamber on top of the fridge or hot water tank.

Now I just need to wait and see what happens.  See this site for optimal germination temperature and time to germination for many common vegetables.  After two and a half weeks have passed, I'll conclude the experiment and order any of the seeds that didn't germinate well, or choose to just double or triple my seeding rate for the spring.

Our homemade chicken waterer takes the guesswork out of backyard chickens.
Posted Sun Jan 9 08:19:49 2011 Tags:
close up of truck stuck in the mud with crushed cinder block pieces piled up to help increase traction

This is the 2nd time I've managed to get the truck stuck in the mud this winter season.

Each time has been an opportunity to help gauge the limitations of its traction.

I think getting stuck pushes my "loss of power" buttons in the same way not knowing where I'm at does.

The lesson I've been trying to learn lately is to not get so bent out of shape when these dips in power happen. My first instinct is to react in a way that solves the problem in the easiest and quickest way possible, but my latest findings seem to indicate that there is often an advantage to stepping back and looking at a problem from a few different perspectives.

Posted Sun Jan 9 16:00:37 2011 Tags:
Copier repair man

The week before Mark's birthday, I try to take a bit of time every day to appreciate the specialness of my sweet husband.  I don't buy him flowers or candy, but I do try to cook his favorite foods (especially things like hamburgers with white buns that don't make the diet-police cut during the rest of the year, or more time-consuming treats like potstickers that don't spring to mind when I'm pulling together a quick supper.)  This year I took over the dishes for the week --- I suspect Mark would rather have those couple of extra hours of freedom rather than a toy I picked up on a whim at the store.  It's not much, but I hope he feels appreciated.  Happy birthday, honey!

Show your appreciation for Mark by telling all of your friends about his invention, the homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Mon Jan 10 07:59:05 2011 Tags:

Perennial VegetablesPermaculture books trip over themselves to toss out the names of intriguing perennial vegetables, but the books are short on specifics of where and how these vegetables can be grown.  When I heard that Eric Toensmeier (co-author of Edible Forest Gardens) had written a book called Perennial Vegetables, I knew I'd fond the holy grail, but I put off reading Toensmeier's book for one simple reason --- I knew that I'd want to buy every vegetable listed.  So, be forewarned --- don't pick up this book unless you've got $100 or more burning a hole in your pocket.

Perennial Vegetable provides cultivation information for over 100 plants that are grown for edible leaves, shoots, tubers, and more.  In this lunchtime series, I've picked out the crops that I find the most intriguing, but I highly recommend that you read the book yourself, especially if you live further south than zone 6 --- over half of the species like warmer temperatures, so I skipped over them.  My list is also low on tubers because we don't eat that may of them and I'm very happy with our potatoes and sweet potatoes.  Tuber-lovers should look up Perennial Vegetables to read about additional crops like lotuses, skirret, Jerusalem artichokes, and Chinese yams.

Finally, if you want to get a head-start on checking out which plants might suit your climate, you can go directly to Eric Toensmeier's website and find plant lists for various parts of the U.S., a list of other books to read, and sources for perennial vegetable seeds and starts.  Or drop a comment here to let me know which perennial vegetables you've tried in your own garden.

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This post is part of our Perennial Vegetables lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jan 10 12:00:43 2011 Tags:
How to make muffins on a wood stove

This experiment is still in the planning stages...but one of these small metal tubs placed on top of the Jotul F 602 wood stove does a good job at reaching temperatures suitable for baking.

The goal is to see if it's possible or practical to bake muffins.

Of course the temperature will depend on the size of the fire, but this first test proves that reaching the main baking temperature of 350 degrees is indeed workable. The idea is to use a couple of fire bricks to support the muffin pan which might be enough to prevent the pan from getting too hot and burning the product.

Posted Mon Jan 10 16:30:11 2011 Tags:

Testing the temperature on top of the wood stoveWhen I mentioned our goal of making a small oven on top of the wood stove, Roland pointed out that it's essential to do some basic tests first and make sure the stove top temperature is within baking range.  Purchasing an oven thermometer in order to make those tests was the real reason we were in the kitchen section of Wal-mart to pick up my meat thermometer turned soil thermometer.

I compared three different permutations to get an idea of stove top temperatures while the wood stove was running at medium to high heat.  First, I just put the oven thermometer on a fire brick on the hot-plate section of the wood stove top and got a reading of 210 degrees Fahrenheit --- not that hot.  But when I upending the galvanized basin Mark had bought for the purpose over top of the whole wood stove, the addition raised the internal temperature to 525 degrees.  (You don't see the fire brick in the photo because I actually did a test without it the first time around, but figured the off-the-chart reading just couldn't be right.)

Oven thermometer inside a Dutch ovenThe fire brick didn't quite fit into the Dutch oven, so I first tested with the thermometer set on the bottom of the cast iron pot and got a reading of 475 degrees.  Figuring a lot of heat was getting conducted from the metal of the pan to the metal of the thermometer, but unable to add in a fire brick because it was too large, I set a pot holder on the bottom of the oven with the thermometer on top.  Ten minutes later, a foul stench filled the trailer --- the pot holder had spontaneously combusted.  So, unfortunately, I can't tell you whether Mark's idea of cutting down the sides of a 6-pack muffin tin so that it sits on a fire brick inside the Dutch oven will give me temperatures sufficient to bake his favorite sweet treat.  Clearly, more experiments are required.

Make your own poop-free, homemade chicken waterer in an hour or less.
Posted Tue Jan 11 07:45:12 2011 Tags:

Dandelion greensBefore I delve right into the most intriguing plants from Eric Toensmeier's Perennial Vegetables, it's worth taking a minute to see if perennial vegetables are right for you.  The advantages are intriguing.  Since you don't have to plant them every year, perennial vegetables are low maintenance and work very well with no-till systems, building soil quality with their decaying leaves.  Some are shade tolerant, which is seldom true with annual vegetables, so you can slide these perennials into out of the way spots in your garden.  Even more intriguing, perennial vegetables extend the harvest season, often providing food when your annual vegetable garden is at its worst.  I was won over this March when I wandered out into the yard and picked some mulch-blanched dandelion greens long before any of our annual greens were ready to eat --- who wouldn't want delicious food that they hadn't worked for when no other fresh food is available?

Picky eaterAs a certified picky eater, the answer could be "me."  Toensmeier is very realistic about the potential of perennial vegetables, and goes so far as to explain that many perennial vegetables are too strong-flavored to be a mainstay of the diet.  Perennial greens are usually at their best just when I picked my March dandelions (which were scrumptious, by the way), but later in the year after the perennials bloom, you'd be much better off eating swiss chard out of your annual garden.  Another disadvantage is that many perennial vegetables take years to establish, just like asparagus or fruit trees, and since you can't rotate perennials through your garden, viral diseases can build up and wipe out your crop.  Other perennials are altogether too tenacious, turning into weeds in your garden, and non-vegetable weeds can be yet another problem among your perennials if you're not adept at creating weed-free no-till beds.

The conclusion that I came to is that perennial vegetables are really a complement to your annual vegetable garden, not a replacement.  If you're happy with the amount of work you're putting in and with the year-round output of your vegetable garden in a certain area (like tubers for us), you  might decide to forego perennial vegetables in that category.  But if you've had problems with making your annual crops produce in a certain category (like storage onions) or provide fresh food all year (like greens), there's almost certainly a perennial vegetable that can be slid in to fill that niche.

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This post is part of our Perennial Vegetables lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jan 11 12:00:32 2011 Tags:
mark Stump hump
truck is stuck due to stump in the way

It sure was easy to back up over this stump, but now it's causing some problems when we try to get back over it.

We thought waiting for the ground to freeze might make things solid enough for an escape, but it still just spins in place.

The next attempt will involve trying to use a hand winch to get over the hump, which sounds like a good title for a country western song if I could just think of something catchy that rhymed with winch.

Posted Tue Jan 11 16:12:45 2011 Tags:
Palm thatched roof

Hoisting a bucket up to the roofI promised you all pictures of thatched roofs...and then promptly forgot about it.  When I remembered and took the time to go through my Mexican photos looking for thatching, I realized that I had far too many shots to fit in one post, so I instead posted a series about Mexican architecture over on our travel blog.  Head over there to see Mexican thatched roofs, a picturesque Mexican barn, the ubiquity of Mexican hand tools, and a Mexican gravity water system.  The posts were almost homesteading-related enough to share over here, but I didn't want to annoy anybody with what (in an earlier era) would have been an endless slideshow of travel pictures.

Heating rocks for the steam lodge Finally, in case you haven't already, you can now read about our entire adventure over there as well.  Highlights included an amazing journey by train to get to the pier, a restful cruise (complete with security guards knocking on our door), seeing a trail of army ants and their associated wildlife at the Mayan ruins of Coba, and a fascinating glimpse into Mayan culture at a steam lodge on Cozumel.  I hope you'll especially pass around the link to the last adventure since the steam lodge is run by a very like-minded soul who could use some better exposure.  Tell all your friends!

Posted Wed Jan 12 08:01:34 2011 Tags:

GroundnutsSince the plow wasn't introduced to North America until after European settlement and since perennial vegetables are much easier to manage with hand tools than annuals are, several of the vegetables profile in Eric Toensmeier's book were important in the Native American diet.  In some cases, the Native Americans just hunted down the plants whenever they wanted a meal, but in other cases they would transplant these perennials into the woods around their settlements for easier harvest.  I sometimes wonder whether the high percentage of "wild" edibles on our farm is the result of just such an ancient forest garden.

Our farm is naturally home to four major perennial vegetables --- arrowheads, poke, groundnuts, and nettles --- and a fifth (ramps) grow in nearby woodlands.  All five of these natives are good candidates for simply harvesting sustainably out of the wild, or for introducing to wild habitats where they might have once grown.  I hope to hunt each one down this year and give them a taste test to determine whether they're worth cultivating in our forest garden or encouraging in our wild areas.  For those of you unfamiliar with the quintet of wild edibles, here's a run-down on their uses and cultivation.

Our native arrowheads (Sagittaria latifolia) were once important in the diet of Native Americans, while the related Chinese arrowheads (S. graminea) are still planted in rice-paddy-like farms in Asia.  In both species, you eat the small tubers which can be located quite a distance from the parent plant along its roots, cooking them like potatoes.  Toensmeier recommends planting arrowheads four to five feet apart in sunny ponds, or in pots in water gardens for easier harvest.  The native species is more cold hardy, but you might get away with growing the Chinese species if you can keep the roots from freezing (and, presumably, the Chinese species has been bred to have a better taste.)

Poke shootsPoke (Phytolacca americana) is a common weed in our area, and most old-timers can tell you exactly when and how to eat it.  Although poke has clear potential as an early spring green, I was always turned off by the careful preparation required to delete the poisons --- you have to harvest shoots before they are eight inches tall, carefully cut off any portion that is pink, then put the edible parts in a pot of water and bring it to a boil.  After the water boils, pour it off and refill the pot with another round of boiling water, simmering for about five minutes this time.  I can't seem to wrap my head around the idea that there would be any nutrients and flavor left in the poke after this double boil, but Toensmeier wrote "I was shocked to discover that the hearty, rich flavor left me wanting more!", so maybe poke is worth a try after all.

Groundnuts (Apios americana) are another edible that our farm grows in spades, but which I've refrained from eating for fear of poisons.  I'd read previously that a few people are allergic to groundnuts and have severe adverse reactions, but Toensmeier points out that's also true of peanuts and other common staples.  He recommends trying every new perennial vegetable in small amounts for the first two times before eating your fill thereafter.  Groundnut is an annual vine that naturally grows up through shrubs and other understory plants in open, damp forests.  You harvest the small, round tubers year-round and cook them like high protein (16%) potatoes.  If we try them out and like the taste, it would be worth buying one of the varieties that Louisiana State University has been breeding since those tubers can be up to 5 inches in diameter rather than the usual one inch.  When cultivating groundnuts rather than just digging them in the wild, plant tubers one foot apart in the fall and provide a trellis for the vines to twine around.  Groundnuts prefer full sun to partial shade and like moist soil.  After a couple of establishment years, the groundnuts should be harvested heavily since they tend to take over the garden otherwise.

Both Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) from Europe and Wood Nettles (Laportea canadensis) from the U.S. are well-spoken of as early spring greens.  Once again, I've known about the benefits of nettles for a long time, but have steered clear, this time because of the painful stinging hairs.  This spring, I'm going to try to remember to hunt down these early, nutritious greens, harvest them with gloves, and then boil for two minutes to deactivate the sting.  I don't have any plans to add them to my garden, though, because Wood Nettles grow quite profusely right up the hill.
Ramps (Allium tricoccum and Allium burdickii) are the final wild edible that made the cut to be included in Toensmeier's book.  Ramps are so well loved in our area that they are threatened in the wild from overharvesting, so I've never tasted them, but I've read that both the bulbs and leaves are edible, with the former tasting like garlic and the latter like leeks or scallions.  Last year, I transplanted a few ramps into my forest garden a bit willy-nilly, and this spring I hope to plan ahead a bit better and get a start that's more likely to take hold.  Toensmeier suggests that ramps can probably be transplanted into many moist, deciduous forests in the eastern United States and that their current relative scarcity is due to ant-dispersed seeds which make ramps slow to recolonize an area after it has been opened up by logging or agriculture.  Ramps are easiest to propagate by dividing clumps, preferably when they're dormant, but the plants can also be divided when in leaf if you work with care.  You can grow ramps from seed,  too, but it may take two years for the seedlings to come up from under their preferred thin mulch of leaves.  In either case, space plants 12 to 18 inches apart and harvest lightly until they are established.

I dug a small batch of groundnuts up while writing this post, but the other four wild edibles are going to have to wait until spring for the taste test.  My memory is notoriously faulty, so I hope all of our readers can help remind me --- if you see that it's ramp, nettle, arrowhead, or poke season, drop me a comment and send me out in the woods to harvest our dinner!

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This post is part of our Perennial Vegetables lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jan 12 12:00:32 2011 Tags:
motorized chicken close up

Took today off to have a tooth pulled in the big city of Bristol.
Posted Wed Jan 12 16:04:21 2011 Tags:

Average temperatures on our farmLong-term readers have probably noticed that I'm a big fan of numbers and graphs, so you won't be surprised to hear that I peruse local climate data with a fine-tooth comb.  Back in my wandering years, my favorite way of getting to know a new area was making a graph of the monthly average highs and lows and the inches of precipitation.  I generally had to dig pretty deep to find that information, then graph it myself, so I was thrilled to find's average climate feature

The link above takes you to information for the town where I spent a lot of my childhood which is only about 50 miles away from where I now live.  The geekiest among you may enjoy comparing data from my hometown to data from my current town --- if can be trusted, my current location is 8.5 inches wetter than my hometown!  Although the data says that we're only two tenths of a degree colder here on average, I suspect that information is less relevant to our homestead --- without any pavement nearby, our farm's temperatures are regularly as much as five degrees colder than the website reports for our nearest town.

Average precipitation on our farmThe real reason I looked up this data, though, was to remind myself that we're on the upswing of the year.  Although just the word "February" is enough to make me shiver, the cold hard facts say that February isn't all that cold or hard.  In fact, January is our coldest month --- maybe my boots won't be freezing to the floor any more in a few weeks.

Dealing with a hot summer or a cold winter?  Our homemade chicken waterer will help your flock cope.
Posted Thu Jan 13 09:00:26 2011 Tags:

Chicory greensThe main niche that I would like perennial vegetables to fill in our diet is extending the fresh greens season to the early spring.  While I read Eric Toensmeier's Perennial Vegetables, I kept jotting down notes on species that might fill that niche, and here are the top contenders.

Chicory (aka Italian Dandelion, Cicorium intybus) and Dandelion (aka French Dandelion Taraxacum officinale) are currently at the top of my list for perennial spring greens.  Both are popular in Europe as salad or cooked greens, and after my experience last spring with dandelions, I can see why.  Like other perennial greens, the leaves are ready much earlier in the year than any annuals you can grow, although you will probably give up on eating chicory and dandelion for the season once they bloom and the leaves turn bitter.  (Pick off flowers and blanch the leaves by piling mulch on them for a longer harvest season.)  You can easily find dandelions and chicory in the wild, but I suspect that the cultivated versions are even tastier, so I plan to buy some seeds and give them a shot this year.  Both species are easy to grow from seed, and should be planted a foot apart in full sun or light shade.  The most difficult part seems to be wading through seed catalogs in search of varieties that are perennial, since annual and biennial versions of chicory exist (although all French Dandelions are perennials.)

Good King HenryGood King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) is probably mentioned more than any other perennial vegetable in permaculture texts.  (Well, except for rhubarb and asparagus, which are both so common I'm not talking about them in this lunchtime series.)  Good King Henry is primarily grown for its edible shoots (think asparagus), which poke out of the ground three weeks before asparagus is visible and extend for a three month season.  If this glut is not enough, leaves, young flower clusters, and seeds are also edible, although it sounds like the last need to be soaked overnight and none of the three are taste-test winners.  Seeds or root divisions are planted 18 to 24 inches apart, and the shoots are harvested beginning in the second year.  A friend gave me a start of Good King Henry last spring, which I planted in the forest garden island and promptly forgot about in the bustle of the annual vegetable garden.  If it survived the neglect, we might be able to taste a few leaves this spring.

Characterisics of edible bamboo speciesBamboo shoots are more of a texture addition to meals than a nutrient powerhouse, but since the plants are useful for so many other things, I decided to plant a species that provides shoots as well.  If you want to cultivate edible bamboo, your first choice is between clumping bamboos, which have more and bigger shoots and won't take over your garden, but which also need warmer temperatures, or running bamboos, which will definitely take over your garden, are sometimes hardy as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit, and make smaller shoots that are considered by some to be tastier.  The chart to the right lists the size, hardiness, and edibility of the top bamboo species --- Toensmeier profiles several more in his book, but I've excerpted the bamboos that make the largest stalks (aka "timber bamboos"), will survive in our climate, and are listed in his book as having excellent flavor.  In terms of hardiness, zone 6 can get as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit, but I suspect that most or all of these bamboo species will grow here since the temperatures listed are simply those at which the leaves die.  With a good mulch cover, your bamboo will come back from the roots even if the entire cane freezes during a cold winter.  To harvest and eat bamboo shoots, pick them when they are just barely poking through the soil, remove the leafy sheath, boil, and then use the pre-cooked shoots in stir-fries.

LovageFinally, Lovage (Levisticum officinale) looks like it might be a good addition to our anti-celery garden.  I really enjoy adding celery to soups and salads, but find that the vegetable is very difficult to grow in our garden.  Instead, I plant lots of parsley, which has a similar taste and grows much better for me.  Lovage seems to fit into the same celery-alternative category, especially in the spring before the plant becomes too strongly flavored for normal consumption.  To grow lovage, start the plants from seed or by divisions of fully dormant plants and set them out where the six foot flower stalks won't cause problems.  Enjoy the greens very early in the spring, blanching them with mulch for a milder flavor. 

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This post is part of our Perennial Vegetables lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jan 13 12:00:32 2011 Tags:
chopper 1 in hand

The improvised spring repair on the chopper 1 has been holding up very well these past 2 weeks.

Before that I was using it with only one spring working and I can't really tell a big difference since I got them both going.

I think in most cases gravity helps the fingers return to home position when the axe is being pulled back for a swing and I suspect the springs help to prevent a strike while the finger is fully extended.

Posted Thu Jan 13 17:01:24 2011 Tags:

Shredded paperSchool's back in session, and I've started the ball rolling on our worm bin project.  I sent a letter to the principal of our closest school and then gave her a followup phone call yesterday.  She seems cautiously optimistic, and we've got a plan to meet with her and the cafeteria workers on Monday to work the kinks out of the plan.  I'm over the moon --- I've been aching to find a source of food scraps for years!

In case any of you would like to follow suit in your own neck of the woods, here's the meat of the letter I sent to the principal (with various identifying features removed.)  Feel free to edit it and use it with your own local school. 

In the late 1990s, a school teacher in California began feeding the cafeteria's food waste to worms. The worms turned the scraps into high quality compost, students learned hands-on science, and 3,600 pounds of food waste were sidetracked from their path to the landfill. Best of all, the 400 student school saved $6,000 in dumpster fees.

Although Binet Payne documented every step of her adventure in Worm Cafe, over a decade later most cafeteria food waste still ends up in the landfill. Why hasn't her system spread across the nation? Payne's program relies on at least one passionate teacher to lead the way in turning garbage into black gold, a tough call when most teachers are already up to their eyeballs in other projects.

Clinch River Educational Center would like to use ***** School as a pilot project as we work the kinks out of a community worm bin program. Our plan is to team schools up with passionate gardeners in their community who are willing to take over the day to day chores of a worm bin in exchange for the high quality compost that will be produced. We would like to start out by simply putting food waste containers in your school's cafeteria, providing one container for each day so that they can be sealed after lunch and placed in an out of the way location for pickup on Fridays. We would provide the containers, signs, and the person to pick up the scraps. Your teachers would just need to spend a couple of minutes explaining the project to their students, then your cafeteria workers would need to be aware of the system so that they could point kids in the right direction.

I will give you a phone call next week to discuss the project with you, but feel free to contact me before then if you want to get the ball rolling sooner. If you have any questions, my personal contact information is ***** and *****. You can read more about the Clinch River Educational Center on our website at

Thank you for your time considering this project.

Our homemade chicken waterer makes backyard chickens easy.
Posted Fri Jan 14 07:34:46 2011 Tags:

Potato onion harvestI was thrilled to learn about multiplier onions a year ago, a category that includes both shallots and potato onions.  The latter is potentially a replacement for the pesky storage onion, a crop that most small gardeners grow from expensive sets that produce bulbs with a short storage life, or from seeds that are often difficult to germinate and are picky about soil.  Potato onions promise to replace both of those problematic storage onions with a type that is as simple to grow as garlic --- just save some bulbs every year to toss back in the soil and seed next year's crop.

Potato onion topsUnfortunately, the results of my first year of experimentation were not that great.  I ended up with a lot of little potato onions that were too small to consider eating, and just a few big onions.  Figuring that I might have planted them too late in the fall for optimal results, I turned around and put every single bulb back in the ground this September, but I wasn't all that confident that I'd get onions that were worth my while.
Potato onions in November
Eric Toensmeier clued me in to some information about potato onions that makes me much more confident of my results.  He wrote that if you plant small bulbs, they turn into one to two large bulbs by the next year, while if you plant big bulbs, each one instead turns into up to a dozen small bulbs.  The trick is to always plant a mixture of both large and small bulbs in your garden --- the former will produce seed bulbs for replanting while the latter will produce your eating onions for that year.  If he's right, we should have lots of big bulbs come spring and just a few small bulbs for replanting.  Assuming that Toensmeier knows what he's writing about, potato onions may be the salvation of our garden after all.

Escape the rat race with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Perennial Vegetables lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Jan 14 12:00:31 2011 Tags:
truck stuck with snow in background

Sometimes you have go back a step in order to get 2 steps ahead, or at least that's what I've been telling myself this week.

We managed to back up a few feet which got us out of the frozen holes the spinning tires have been digging, but a medium sized tree is blocking any further passage.

The next step will be to get some fuel for the chain saw, take out that tree and see if we can drive out past the problem stump.

Posted Fri Jan 14 15:42:00 2011 Tags:

Microbusiness IndependenceOne of the most common things we hear from Walden Effect readers is some form of "We'd love to be full time homesteaders.  But how do you find the time while working a job?"  Our answer is --- why work a job?

Over the last two years, we've made a living by selling our automatic chicken waterer, a simple product that Mark dreamed up and that we build and mail off to customers in about 13 hours a week.  (That's 6.5 hours apiece, in case you're wondering.)  We don't charge an arm and a leg for our waterers and we don't exploit child laborers in China, but we're still able to make a very good living in what amounts to less than two work days per week.

Monthly gross income over two yearsWe summed up a series of simple steps that we think anyone can follow to achieve this financial self-sufficiency and published it in the form of an ebook a bit over a year ago.  At that time, we had just barely poked our heads above the poverty line, which I thought was just fine --- it really is quite possible for a couple to live simply on $14,000 and not feel pinched at all.  Unfortunately, I could tell that our ebook readers weren't excited enough by that low income existence to quit their jobs.  So when we streamlined the process and tripled our income while putting in no extra work hours in 2010, I figured I should revamp the ebook and perhaps tempt a few hardy souls to escape the rat race.

Which is all a long way of saying --- the second edition of Microbusiness Independence is now available for immediate download for $2.  You can just click on this Buy Now buttton, or visit our Wetknee Books page to download the first three chapters for free and read more about the ebook.

Please be aware that our ebook is not a get rich quick book.  Instead, it gives you tried and true, up to date information on how to make a comfortable living in just a few hours per week by marketing your invention.  (Don't worry, we'll help you figure out what your invention is too.)  We start with basics and walk you through developing your product, selling it to the world, and living the dream with a modern perspective.  If you're aching to leave your job and are ready to tighten your belt for a few months and pinch pennies while building your own empire, Microbusiness Independence is for you.  I hope you'll download a copy and give it a try.

Posted Sat Jan 15 08:48:13 2011 Tags:
steel garden cart with collapsable sides

TC1840H steel yard cart with snow in background
It's been over 2 years since my first review of the TC1840H steel yard cart and it's still holding up to some heavy work outs.

I've noticed the price has gone up about 10 percent since we got ours 4 years ago.

If the factory asked me for some input on the next generation I would request wheels that were more heavy duty like what most wheel barrows have and maybe some slightly taller sides to increase the capacity.

Posted Sat Jan 15 16:26:07 2011 Tags:

Sprouting bean seedsIn our seed germination test, 100% of our corn seeds and 60% of our bean seeds germinated in 2 days.  The other two bean seeds promptly got moldy, suggesting to me that they probably weren't viable.  The beans are seeds that I grew myself, and I didn't go through and pull out obviously damaged seeds (something I often do while planting), so I suspect the germination rate of the ones I hand select for planting is more like 80%.  I concluded that the corn is a definite keeper, and I'll just plant the beans a bit more thickly than I normally would due to their age.

Sprouting corn seedsNothing much seemed to happen for the rest of the week, except for a peanut  and some parsley succumbing to mold.  The same temperature and humidity that promote seed germination are perfect for mold growth, but I figure that a viable seed should be able to survive mold and sprout.  Finally, seven days after starting the experiment, one peanut sprouted and an onion seed showed a tinge of white that might be an incipient root pushing through the seed coat.  I'll give the seeds one more week, then put in my seed order.

By the way, I realized that the days to germination chart I linked to last time is really days to emergence from the soil.  That's a very different length of time since seeds first send down their roots and get established before sending up their cotyledons to poke out of the soil.  As my experience suggests, you should see sprouts of at least beans and corn in a couple of days if conditions are optimal for your germination test.

Our homemade chicken water is the poop-free alternative for the backyard chicken keeper.
Posted Sun Jan 16 08:29:42 2011 Tags:
hand winching a truck up a hill on a cold snowy day

We tried hand winching the truck out of trouble last week but just couldn't get it to budge more than a few inchs.

The winch is rated at 8000 pounds, which may have been enough if gravity wasn't working against us with the incline. Usually we manage to creep forward with a combination of me cranking on the winch and Anna easing forward, but that was with a truck about half the size of this one.

Posted Sun Jan 16 15:29:19 2011 Tags:
Anna Dead hive
Dead honeybees

We had our first ever bee hive casualty this month...and it's all my fault.  I would love to follow the lead of modern beekeepers and blame the death of hundreds of bees on colony collapse disorder, but I'm pretty sure the problem was mismanagement.

Varroa mite on a dead honeybeeThis was my prize hive that began 2010 with double deeps, bulked up its colony in record time, and socked away nearly our entire year's harvest of honey.  When I checked them at the beginning of November, they had about 84 pounds of honey --- more than any other hive --- but I was a bit concerned because the hive's varroa mite numbers were also high (180 mites per day in September, declining to 74 mites per day in November.)  I considered either using an organic or chemical varroa mite treatment, but in the face of insufficient data on how many mites is too many, I instead decided to test my boundaries and see how the bees survived the winter.

Dead, small cluster of beesMaybe they had too many mites, but I don't think that's what killed them.  I was so confident in our hives' honey stores in early November that I skipped a month and didn't check on them until December 30.  At that time, the writing was already on the wall --- the bottom of the hive was littered with a thick carpet of dead bees and the cluster looked too small to cope with this winter's abnormally cold temperatures.  Sure enough, when sun returned on January 16 and bees came flying out of the other two hives, my prize hive was silent.  I pried the lid off and found a hive full of dead bees.

Starved honeybeesMy autopsy turned up only a couple of varroa mites clinging to dead bees, but lots of bees with their heads poking into empty honey comb,  desparate for dinner.  There was plenty of honey left, but the problem is that it was too far from their cluster for the bees to eat during December and January's long spells of sub-freezing weather.  When I checked on the hive two weeks ago, I noticed that the bottom brood box (where the bees were) was nearly out of honey, so I moved a bunch of full frames down from above.  Too late.  None of the fresh honey was touched, and I suspect the colony died soon after I checked on them in December.

Shun the fault I fell in!  Don't be lulled into a false sense of security by a fall check with copious honey.  Especially if you have a hive with a very large bee population, check in at least once a month (or more often!) and move honey around as needed to make sure the bees have plenty of food right in their living rooms.

I'm trying not to be too heartbroken by the loss, and to instead consider it a learning opportunity.  After all, this makes up my mind --- I'm definitely going to have to learn to propagate hives this year.

Our homemade chicken waterer arose out of a similar homestead disaster.  When two chickens died of heatstroke after their traditional waterer drained dry on a hot summer day, Mark developed a waterer that never spills even on uneven terrain.
Posted Mon Jan 17 07:48:34 2011 Tags:

Liquid GoldTo round out my cruise reading, I hunted down Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants by Carol Steinfeld.  I've been wanting to integrate urine into our homestead fertility plan more rigorously, but got stuck on not knowing if the salts would build up in the soil.  I'm disappointed to say that Liquid Gold didn't precisely answer that question, but it is a great jumping off point for our own experiments.

The book is very slim, but the price is low --- $10 plus $2 shipping on the Liquid Gold website --- so I wasn't too disappointed that I could sum up the garden-related information in just a few short pages.  And I was certainly amused and intrigued by the cute pictures and fun factoids.  For example, did you know that in nineteenth century London, people sold their urine for a penny per bucket for fixing dye?  And that numerous cultures have drunk human urine for ceremonial or health purposes?  Clearly, there's a lot to learn about plain old pee.

Why work a full time job when you can make a living in just a few hours per week with Microbusiness Independence?

This post is part of our Urine Fertilizer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jan 17 12:00:32 2011 Tags:
The cadilac of wheel barrows

We finally got around to upgrading the ramshackled wheel barrow with this state of the art Kobalt, six cubic foot beauty.

The handles are steel and the tire is a new type of technolgy made from some sort of solid material that never goes flat yet feels just as easy to push as our old air filled version. These two features boosted the price by 20 dollars, which I figure will be worth it in time saved from future flats.

Posted Mon Jan 17 16:45:10 2011 Tags:

Operation food scraps is underway...and we need your help!  Before I tell you all of the exciting details of our visit to the principal's office, I hope you'll each put on your thinking caps and help me come up with a name for this project.  If all goes well this semester, we've already got a couple of folks who'd like to expand the project to collect food scraps from schools in nearby counties, and we desperately need a catchy project title.  Please comment with your ideas!

Anyway, to get back to the exciting part....  We had an appointment with the principal of our nearest school Monday to talk the project over, and we were trying hard not to get our hopes up although she had sounded guardedly enthusiastic on the phone.  Even if the principal gave our project the go-ahead, we didn't know what kind of volume of food waste to expect, so we figured we'd wait until after the meeting to buy the food scrap bins.  This was to be a reconnaissance mission --- get approval and figure out exactly what kind of bins to buy.

It turns out that our local school is one of the tiniest schools you're likely to come across, with only 80 students, along with 20 headstart students.  This may sound bad from the point of view of food scrap volume, but the small size of the school is actually a boon --- the principal is able to try out projects like ours without too much paperwork or hassle.  Mark and I sat down with the principal, lunchroom lady, and janitor, who together take care of the entire lunch operation.  I'd been a bit afraid that the lunchroom staff would roll their eyes and turn up their noses at our idea even if the principal was in favor, but I was pleasantly surprised --- all three of the staff turned out to be enthusiastic, down-to-earth, and just plain good folks who I'm pleased to have had the opportunity of meeting.

After explaining that we wanted the food and napkins, but not the milk cartons or straws, I asked "How much food waste do you think you produce per day?"  Unlike bigger schools, the lunchroom lady cooks all of the food for the students herself, and she clearly kept a close eye on the waste stream.  "On pizza day, we hardly have any waste," she said with a smile, "but today we served chicken noodle soup with carrots and crackers on the side, and kids just don't like carrots...."  The janitor jumped in with his estimate that the school puts out one to two large trash cans of food waste every day.

The sheer volume of waste produced by such a tiny school blew me away.  Granted, the school serves breakfast as well as lunch, so that's only about a third of a gallon of food waste per kid per meal.  Okay, that still sounds huge.  Clearly this project was bigger than I'd thought, and it's a very good thing we started with a very small school.

With the volume information in hand and the support of all three cafeteria personnel, we've now decided to buy a rolling trash can for each day of the week.  The principal and janitor decided that it would be no problem to store a sealed trashcan of food waste in the Dungeon for a few days until we can pick it up.  Yup, I did say "Dungeon" --- maybe I wouldn't have wanted to go to that school after all?

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps our chickens happy and healthy.
Posted Tue Jan 18 07:57:43 2011 Tags:

Urine diverting toiletWhile most homesteaders know all about the potential of humanure, I've seldom heard talk of using urine.  After reading Liquid Gold, I was much more surprised by that oversight since urine has a far lower potential for creating health problems and contains a higher percentage of plant nutrients than the solid portions of humanure.

I'll write in more depth about the safety issue in later posts, but it's worth running through a quick overview right off the bat.  Unless you have a urinary tract or kidney infection (or live in a tropical climate), urine is nearly always sterile.  That means you can use fresh urine around food plants with very few concerns about food-borne illnesses.  Contrast that with composted fecal matter, which most humanure advocates recommend using only around the base of fruit trees or ornamental plants.  Why not start your humanure journey by just using urine and delete the worry?

Unfortunately, in traditional western culture, urine is channeled into the waste stream along with solid human wastes.  The additional volume of waste means that we spend more money and resources treating our wastewater...and that treatment does nearly no good to the urine.  After treatment, we release the whole shebang into natural rivers and streams, where the high nitrogen from the urine (not removed by our conventional treatment processes) causes excessive plant growth, which leads to drastic drops in dissolved oxygen levels and the resultant death of aquatic animals.

Swedish farm fertilizing with urineSwedish scientists thinks they've found a better way.  Separating toilets (like the one pictured at the top of the page) are becoming common in Sweden, where a funnel in the front of the toilet diverts the urine into a separate waste stream for eventual application to fertilize fields.  Studies suggest that one person's pee provides all the nitrogen needed to grow half or more of that person's food, and we can ship urine for more than 100 miles to apply it to agricultural fields before the energy usage matches that used to "treat" urine in a wastewater treatment plant.

Although it would be great if our municipal wastewater systems followed Sweden's example, I'm aways more interested in what each of us can individually do in our own lives.  Stay tuned for more home-scale applications of urine.

Learn to make a living on your homestead with our ebook.

This post is part of our Urine Fertilizer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jan 18 12:00:35 2011 Tags:

outhouse technology detail 2011What's the easiest way to dig an outhouse hole?

Carlos Mullins, West Texas.

Thanks for the question Carlos.

I use a combination of post hole diggers and a spud bar, but once you get past a few feet the going gets tough due to the distance you need to bring the dirt up and out of the hole.

One possible easy solution would be to hire someone with a tractor that has one of those power augers on the back. You would still need to get the dirt out of the hole, but it would be considerably more easier with it all broken up.  I would say by the time you went to all the trouble of tracking someone like that down you could have dug two or three holes and saved around 50 bucks.

Posted Tue Jan 18 16:40:43 2011 Tags:

Indian GiversIndian Givers by Jack Weatherford is a thought-provoking look at ways contact with Native Americans changed the face of the rest of the world.  For example, Weatherford suggested that the new crops of potatoes and cotton from the Americas were the driving force behind Industrialization.  The addition of potatoes to the European diet reduced the amount of grain grown, which in turn left many mills idle.  At the same time, cotton replaced wool as the fiber of choice for making clothes.  Farmers were able to produce a lot more cotton than wool since sheep require considerable acreage to graze on, so the bottleneck in the clothing production process shifted from land to manpower.  Wait, didn't we have a bunch of idle mills lying around just waiting to power a clothing factory?  From the union of potatoes and cotton, Industrialization was born.

The book is full of other agricultural (and non-agricultural) tidbits like the war that almost broke out between Peru and the young U.S.A over access to guano for fertilizer, or the tale of how feeding corn to livestock increased Europeans' dietary intake of animal products and caused a population boom.  On the other hand, many of the author's arguments felt a bit over-simplified and biased toward giving complete credit to the Native Americans, and after I found a few botanical flaws in the book I started to wonder how carefully the author had done his research.  So don't take anything in this book as gospel, but do read it as a good way to open your eyes to parts of world history you might have missed learning about in school.

Getting ready to start chicks this spring?  Our homemade chicken waterer works for chicks from day 1, preventing drowning and diseases.
Posted Wed Jan 19 08:56:28 2011 Tags:

Glass of peeSince we're considering using urine as a fertilizer, it makes sense to figure out what's in that yellow liquid.  The actual percentages of each component can vary depending on what you eat, but pee from an average Westerner has an NPK of 11-1-2.5.  For those of you not familiar with NPK, that's a fertilizer that's very high in nitrogen, low in phosphorus, and moderate in potassium.

After water, the major components in urine are high nitrogen chemicals including urea, creatine, ammonia, and uric acid.  Pee also contains a significant amount of salt (sodium chloride), and a bit of calcium, magnesium, and sulfur.  Rarely will urine contain a few disease-causing organisms --- primarily leptospirosis and schistosoma in the tropics, and salmonella (which dies quickly in soil.)

Beyond the unbalanced NPK (which can be fixed by mixing the urine with other nutrient sources, like chicken manure to increase the phosphorus and wood ashes to increase the potassium), the primary problem with using urine as fertilizer is salt.  If you fertilize solely with urine, your soil may build up salts to a level which harm the plants growing there, so Carol Steinfeld recommends using urine as fertilizer only in regions with regular rainfall to wash salt away.  A high tech option consists of buying a Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) meter from a hydroponics store to monitor salt content of your urine, then diluting the urine down Fertilizing a garden with reduced-salt urineto 1,700 ppm salt before using it as fertilizer.  Alternatively, just spread urine around a lot, never focusing on one part of the garden, and salt buildup will probably be minimal.  Finally, a doctor-gardener profiled in Liquid Gold (and pictured here) took a more proactive approach --- he put himself on a low-salt diet so that his plants wouldn't be hindered by the salty urine.

I wasn't entirely content with Carol Steinfeld's answers about salty soil, so I did a little research of my own.  Although extension service and USDA websites don't talk about applying urine to your plants, they do have answers for salt buildups from other sources.  Reading between the lines, I would suggest applying your urine to salt-tolerant crops such as asparagus and zucchini, while steering clear of salt-haters like beans, carrots, okra, onions, parsnips, peas, and strawberries.  Don't apply urine to waterlogged or high clay soil since these soils will hold onto the salt no matter what you do --- sounds like we should keep our urine out of the badly-drained back garden.  If you're concerned that Pots of plants fertilized with urineyou've overdone it, you could send your soil in to be tested by the experts, or you can follow the Colorado State University Extension's lead and use bean plants as biological indicators: "Bean plants are rather salt sensitive and can be used to help assess salt problems.  In a garden, if beans are doing well, soluble salts are not a problem."  The cure for salty soil is adding lots of water (6 to 24 inches in a slow, continuous stream) to leach the salts out.

As long as you understand how to prevent salt buildup in the soil, it sounds like urine is a great fertilizer.  Liquid Gold's website includes some beautiful pictures from gardeners who fertilize with urine, and we're keen to work the kinks out of applying urine to our own farm.  Stay tuned for tomorrow's post about the nitty-gritty of urine fertilizing.

Don't just grow your own food, make your homestead pay its own bills with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Urine Fertilizer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jan 19 12:00:34 2011 Tags:
The cadilac of wheel barrows with starpped down big load

I figured the best way to test out the Kobalt never flat wheel barrow tire was to load it down and push it about a quarter mile over uneven ground, across the creek and up our little hill that proved to be too much for the truck.

I'm not sure how to test the rolling resistance, but it feels comparable to the old air filled one with the added security of knowing the tire pressure is always going to be right where it needs to be.

Posted Wed Jan 19 16:58:30 2011 Tags:
Tree shadows on melting ice

By my calculations, yesterday was the last Persephone Day here in southwest Virginia!  That means that right around today, plants will really start growing again, and I'll be putting 2011's first crop (lettuce) in the ground in just two weeks.  Time to hurry up and make my seed order!

If you live further south, your Persephone Days are already gone and you should probably be thinking about planting.  My condolences to those further north --- you get a few more days or weeks of winter.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Thu Jan 20 07:47:20 2011 Tags:

Applying urine to the gardenCarol Steinfeld's Liquid Gold presents a wide array of methods to use urine in your garden.  Since urine has a C:N ratio of 0.8:1, it is far too high in nitrogen to be used as a straight fertilizer in most instances or you'll burn your plants.  Instead, dilute one part urine in three to ten parts water, at which concentration urine can be used like a chemical fertilizer.  However, keep in mind that diluted urine has all of the same pitfalls for disrupting soil microorganisms as other chemical fertilizers do, and use it with care.  The only place that I would feel comfortable applying diluted urine directly to our plants is our potted citrus since they crave nitrogen and are too isolated from the soil to get their full nutritional requirements from compost.

Peeing on the compost pileIn my opinion, a better use of urine is as a high nitrogen source to round out your compost pile.  You can simply pee onto a big pile of wood chips, leaves, sawdust, or a bale of straw turned so that the cut ends go up, and you'll have a smaller but richer pile of compost in six months to a year.  One experimenter put a lot of cardboard vertically in a plastic container and filled the container with urine, ending up with rich compost in a year.  For a lower work option, Carol Steinfeld recommends peeing directly onto woody mulches (three or more inches deep) around your trees and shrubs --- the high carbon mulch will mitigate the high nitrogen urine and your woody plants will get a slower meal.

Graywater bedFor those of you with small city gardens (or who want to pee in the bathroom and forget it), you might consider building a graywater bed.  Channel the urine from a urine-diverting toilet in your bathroom to a garden bed with a layer of sand and pea gravel on the bottom topped by good garden soil and plants.  The urine filters out through holes in the bottom of the pipe while air comes in from the other end of the pipe to keep aerobic bacteria happy.  Replacing the sand and pea gravel with bales of straw captures any urine leaching away and provides high quality compost, but you have to turn and rebuild this type of bed once a year to add in new straw bales and take out the excess compost.  For best results, consider diverting laundry water or other graywater into the bed to dilute the urine.

Graywater gardenBe aware that using fresh urine to grow your own food is pretty safe since you can't give yourself a disease you don't already have, but if you find a way to collect a whole community's urine and apply it to your farm, you'll probably want to sterilize it first.  The simplest way to sterilize urine is to store it in a sealed container for six months.  (Don't let air come in contact with the urine or a lot of the nitrogen will turn into ammonia and escape, which smells bad and also lowers the nutritional quality of your pee.)  For added safety, apply urine to crops where edible parts don't touch the ground or wait one month after applying urine before harvesting the crops.  The absolute safest way to apply urine is below the soil surface (such as in the graywater beds in the last paragraph or by drip irrigation) since a healthy soil food web will make short work of any pathogens that might happen to be present in your pee.

Sick of your job?  Escape the cubicle with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Urine Fertilizer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jan 20 12:00:36 2011 Tags:
2011 creek crossing

golf cart in the mud stuck
It thawed enough today to convince the golf cart into bringing in some supplies and Anna's mom for a visit. Too bad it wasn't in the mood for the return trip.

Now I can see how the truck has been increasing the rut depth to a point where the golf cart bottoms out in certain areas of what we loosely call our driveway.

I think a short term fix would be to dig out the middle high ground between the problem ruts...but not today.

Posted Thu Jan 20 15:55:28 2011 Tags:

Partly filled woodshed
Pile of firewoodLast year at this time, we'd run out of wood.  I was too ashamed to admit to the blogosphere that we'd gone back to electric heat in January (albeit setting the thermostat around 50), which is too bad because that means I don't know exactly when we ran out of wood in 2010 or even whether we bought one truckload of wood or two.  So I thought I'd post a state of the woodshed report so that we'll be able to compare next year --- hopefully we'll have tightened our house up more and maybe have used even less wood!

Ice in the drivewayThe photos at the top of the page show how much wood we've got left in the shed --- I figure it's perhaps a quarter to a third of the first truckload.  The princess has clearly served us well, cutting back our wood use considerably despite much colder than average conditions through most of December and January.  Meanwhile, our second truckload is still waiting at the parking area to be ferried in now that this iceberg has mostly thawed out of the driveway, making it passable by golf cart again.  (Well, mostly passable --- I managed to get her stuck twice yesterday, but Mark popped her free.)  It's a good feeling to know that even if February is a doozy, we'll be warm.

Our homemade chicken waterer gives you peace of mind in the chicken coop.
Posted Fri Jan 21 08:35:34 2011 Tags:

Homemade urinal"I'm sold on the idea of using urine in my garden," you may be saying.  "But how do I collect it?"  Urine collection for men can be as simple or complex as you want.  In addition to just peeing outside or straight into a milk jug, you can make a simple urinal with a bleach bottle, a milk jug, a length of hose, and a ping pong ball.  Cut the bleach bottle into a funnel shape and connect it to milk jug with the hose, then drop the ping pong ball into the funnel as a stopper.  When you pee in the funnel, the ping pong ball floats and rises out of the way, allowing your urine to flow into the milk jug reservoir.  When the pee's all gone, the ping pong ball falls back into place to make the whole setup relatively air tight and cut down on smells.  Liquid Gold has a great diagram of this simple urinal, but I can't find one on the internet, although you can read a longer description by its creator, Chris Melo.  I've included a related homemade urinal picture instead, but this one looks like you'd need a bit better aim.

Another DIY option that is more suited to women consists of a five gallon bucket full of sawdust underneath a potty chair.  The sawdust soaks up the urine, and the combination is Privy kitemptied onto the compost pile when you start to smell an odor.  Alternatively, women can get a pStyle and pee straight onto the compost pile along with men (although I have to admit that I got sick of my pStlye after a while --- too much work.)

If you want to get fancy, you can always buy a urine-diverting toilet, although a quick search of the internet suggests that they start at around $600.  A more interesting storebought option is the Ecovita Privy Kit for $112 (plus $15 shipping), which fits onto your outhouse seat and diverts the urine away from the solid wastes.  After looking at the Privy Kit diagram, it seems like we should be able to retrofit our biochar composting toilet into a urine-diverting biochar composting toilet with a funnel and length of hose.  We may have to start our experiments there!

Quit your job and start to live with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Urine Fertilizer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Jan 21 12:00:33 2011 Tags:

Black oilAfter plugging away in the office a few hours a week for the last two months, I've finally cleared out enough mouse nests, deleted enough junk, and organized enough tools that I figured I deserved a treat --- putting the oil expeller to work!  I had a few jars of dried sunflower seeds (still in their hulls) leftover from the 2010 garden, so I decided they would be my first experiment.

Taking Daddy's advice, I used some kerosene we had in the barn instead of the lamp oil recommended by the manufacturers.  Big mistake!  The impure kerosene blackened the surface of the expeller so much that the dark color made its way into the oil.  Meanwhile, foul-smelling smoke filled the air, and I had to open all of the windows to make expelling possible.

Sunflower seed cakeMost people would have stopped there and tried again once they bought lamp oil, but I really wanted to see if the expeller worked, figuring I could always mix the blackened oil back into the seed cake and feed it all to the chickens.  On my first try, the wick was too high, causing a large flame that overheated the expeller tube and made oil come out the seed cake end rather than out of the slit partway down the expeller tube.  After trimming the wick much lower, though, I was able to get a seed cake to form in the end of the expeller and soon had (black) oil dribbling out into my jar.  All told, I spent maybe half an hour expelling 5.5 cups of sunflower seeds and ended up with around a quarter of a cup of oil.

The conclusion?  The Rajkumar oil expeller works as advertised.  It's not terribly fast, but I figure we could probably crank out a week's worth of oil pretty easily in an hour or less, producing nutritious seed cake in the process to feed to the chickens.  Next experiment will involve using actual lamp oil (and storebought sunflower seeds since I've run out of the homegrown ones) to produce homemade oil good enough for a taste test.  Stay tuned!

Our homemade chicken waterer is the best way to get your chicks off to a healthy start.
Posted Sat Jan 22 07:39:33 2011 Tags:
automatic chicken coop door detailed d.i.y.

I found a new take on the power antenna automatic chicken coop door opener/closer that includes over 30 images that take you step by step from ordering your parts to wiring up the timer and power supply.

What I like best about this approach is the detailed photos. I doubt if you even need to undertand the English language to comprehend the few steps needed to put this project together.

Image credit goes to an anonymous backyardchicken forum member. Automatic chicken door

Edited to add:

After years of research, Mark eventually settled on
this automatic chicken door.

You can see a summary of the best chicken door alternatives and why he chose this version here.

If you're planning on automating your coop, don't forget to pick up one of our chicken waterers.  They never spill or fill with poop, and if done right, can only need filling every few days or weeks!

Posted Sat Jan 22 16:47:29 2011 Tags:

Golf cart stuck in the ruts
One of the best things about the golf cart is that I can drive it with impunity.  I'm not the world's best driver in the slippery, rutted driveway, and I have a tendency to try to push the envelope, driving the golf cart in conditions when it would be better to leave it at home.  Often when I just get a bit stuck, I can disembark and push the cart free by leaving one foot on the gas pedal.  But when the two wheels on the right side of the golf cart are in different ruts, I have to call Mark for a bit of extra muscle.

You would think we'd have to slave over the above situation for hours, but Mark just lifted up the back of the cart using the spud bar while I pushed the back wheel up onto the center island.  Then I got in, Mark lifted the back of the cart again to keep it from bottoming out, and I gunned her out of there.  Elapsed time: 3 minutes.  Motherly impression: "Awesome!"

Our homemade chicken waterer makes life on the farm simpler with clean water you can depend on.
Posted Sun Jan 23 08:47:25 2011 Tags:
ultra low budget do it yourself solar heater

This low budget solar water heater could be made for free if you're good at scrounging material and taking advantage of scrap pieces.

I've been thinking of making a modified version of the one above that would link two or maybe three refrigerator coil grids together with a small pump.

Image credit belongs to the online community of

Posted Sun Jan 23 14:02:03 2011 Tags:

Ford FestivaMy darling little blue Festiva, the first and only car I've ever owned, kicked the bucket.  (Her sister is pictured here.)  Our very competent and cheap mechanic explained that when the timing belt broke, it knocked a bunch of things apart in there, and that it would cost $500 to fix it.  My gut reaction was, "I don't care!  Fix her!"  But after crunching the numbers, I'm afraid we're going to let her go.

I estimate that we drive around $10,000 miles per year, and when I started crunching the numbers, I realized that 75% of that time, we're hauling supplies and have to use the truck or the van.  Another 20% of the time, Mark's driving on long trips and doesn't feel like cramming his tall frame into a clown car, so it's only the 5% of the time I drive by myself that we were using the Festiva.  Her selling point is her great gas mileage (over 40 miles to the gallon), but at current gas prices and driving methods, it would take 50 more years driving her to make it worthwhile to fix the Festiva.

Farm truckSo I went on to consider a couple of other options.  The truck and the van fit a similar niche since we've taken the back seats out of the van and use that area for hauling supplies.  If we sold the van (estimated value $500) and bought a good gas mileage car to replace the Festiva, making sure we choose one that's big enough to fit Mark's long legs (estimated cost $2,000), then we could probably use the lower mileage vehicle 25% of the time.  At current gas prices, that would save us around $400 per year, which means the switch would be worthwhile in around 4 years.  On the other hand, you have to factor in a major hassle value for selling the van and buying a used car, and the possibility that we'd get a lemon.

The final option would be to stick with the van and truck and just admit that we're not the kind of family where it makes sense to have a gas efficient vehicle.  We don't commute, we don't drive separately (because I hate to drive), and we're often hauling big masses of compost or mulch or chicken waterer supplies that won't fit in a passenger car.  In that case the question remains --- what do we do with the Festiva?  Mark rolled his eyes when I suggested hauling her home to use as parts for the parts Festiva (and as a solar dryer.)

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Mon Jan 24 07:58:02 2011 Tags:

Corn storage pitIt's amazing how finding the right words expedites research.  Ever since I learned that modern forest gardening is based on traditional farming practices in the tropics, I've wondered "What do Native Americans from my own neck of the woods have to teach us?"  Delving into North American native agriculture, I quickly learned that corn dominated the area's fields and diet in a near monoculture for the last thousand years, causing health problems I don't want to repeat.  But corn had only travelled north from Mexico in the last couple of millenia --- what did people around here eat before that?

During our visit to Sunwatch, I splurged on a couple of books, one of which was a type-written and home-bound writeup of the archaeological history of the site, not so succinctly titled A History of 17 Years of Excavation and Reconstruction --- A Chronicle of 12th Century Human Values and the Built Environment: Volume 1Can you blame me that I put this tome on a back shelf for a cold winter day?

Exhibit of Native Americans harvesting cornIf I'd opened this remarkably easy to read volume back in the summer, though, I would have shortened my research journey considerably.  The text provides an overview of not only the diets of the Sunwatch inhabitants (living in the era of corn), but a comparison with the diets of people who lived in the same area before corn became king.  Best yet, one chapter is entitled "Paleoethnobotanical Research at the Incinerator Site."  Eureka!  Using my newfound understanding of the eras of prehistory in the eastern U.S. and the name of the field, I quickly found several (also easy to read) scientific and layman's texts about the paleoethnobotany of Archaic and Woodland Native Americans.  If only I'd known that's what I was looking for eighteen months ago!

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This post is part of our Native American Paleoethnobotany lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jan 24 12:00:32 2011 Tags:
unsticking the truck

It only took cutting down a tree, jacking up the rear wheel, scooting a grid thingamajig under the tire, and adding some weight to finally get the truck free.

The green grid thing got left behind by the crew who leveled out our trailer. They got their truck stuck in the mud and used a few of them to get out and I guess didn't want to get muddy by retrieving them.

I think we'll keep the cinder blocks in place to increase our traction.

Posted Mon Jan 24 17:09:29 2011 Tags:

Honeybees with a bit of capped broodA beautiful sunny afternoon on Monday gave me a chance to dip into our two remaining hives.  I knew they were both alive because I've taken to holding my ear up against the lower brood box now and then to listen for a happy hum, but I didn't want to risk another hive dying of starvation.  Just like at this time last year, both hives seem to have barely eaten anything since I checked on them near the end of December, probably because they're down to such a small cluster, so starvation is no longer an issue.

Honeybee on a bare handThe east hive surprised me by having a small nursery already in action!  A few capped worker cells and more uncapped larvae and eggs suggest the hive is already bulking up for spring.  I'm thrilled that they're building their numbers, although a few dead larvae on the floor of the other hive's brood box suggests cold weather put a damper on the other colony's early brooding efforts.

Meanwhile, I've decided to take advantage of winter's minimal bee colonies to learn to work the hives with no gloves.  I hate to squash bees, especially when their numbers are so low, but clumsy gloves make bee kills inevitable.  (It's also a lot easier to take pictures without gloves on.)  During my first attempt, I got stung once on my thumb, but I was surprised to realize that my tough fingers barely register any pain from a bee sting.  And most of the bees who landed on my hand just chatted for a while, then flew on, so I guess I'm on the right track.

Our homemade chicken waterer is the perfect way to get your chicks off to a healthy start.
Posted Tue Jan 25 07:45:15 2011 Tags:

Area in which the Eastern Agricultural Complex crops were grownMost laypeople believe that eastern native Americans didn't start farming until corn, beans, and squash made their way north from Mexico, becoming common crops around 1000 AD.  But well before then, Native Americans in the area shaded on this map had domesticated a whole suite of other crops.  These plants, known as the Eastern Agricultural Complex, may have made up as much as 67% of the diet of the Native Americans 2500 years ago, with the history of the plants' cultivation extending perhaps as far back as 2050 BC.

Sumpweed plant and seedsOily seeds were an important part of the Eastern Agricultural Complex.  We're still familiar with one of these eastern North American natives --- sunflowers.  Another oil-seed crop is familiar for a different reason --- the original squashes cultivated in eastern North America had an inedible flesh and were instead grown for their tasty seeds.  Finally, sumpweed (also known as marsh-elder) was an important crop which produced nutritional seeds made up of 32% protein and 45% oil, but which has largely disappeared from our knowledge-base.  Gayle Fritz's Laboratory Guide to Archaeological Plant Remains from Eastern North America notes that "Harvesting experiments using wild stands show that sumpweed holds considerable economic potential."

Small "grains" (meaning plants with starchy seeds in this context) were also important, and are mostly familiar to us now as garden weeds.  Look for lamb's quarter, maygrass, erect knotweed, and little barley in your garden and think of their long history.

In the case of most of the species in the Eastern Agricultural Complex, Native Americans selected for plants that were easier to harvest or better to eat, so we can distinguish the wild ancestors from the domesticated versions in the archaeological Chenopodium berlandierirecord.  As a result, you shouldn't assume that the lamb's quarter you pull out of your garden every year is the same as the one the Native Americans grew.  First of all, the most common lamb's quarter weed is in a different species (Chenopodium album instead of Chenopodium berlandieri).  Even if you tracked down a wild Chenopodium berlandieri, it probably wouldn't look much like the domesticated version since the Native Americans bred their lamb's quarter to produce all of its flowers at the same time and to concentrate the enlarged seeds in the top inflorescence for easy harvest.  In fact, like most of our current garden vegetables, the varieties in the Eastern Agricultural Complex had changed so much from the wild type that they depended on humans to propagate them and many couldn't reproduce or compete naturally in the wild.

Maygrass and Little BarleyAre you interested in trying to grow some of North America's most ancient crops in your own garden.  Too bad!  Just as modern farmers are ignoring the hundreds of varieties of heirloom vegetables well-suited to their climate in favor of a few industrial varieties, Native American farmers quickly ditched most components of the Eastern Agricultural Complex when corn came on the scene.  By the time of European contact, all domesticated varieties except sunflowers and squash were extinct.

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This post is part of our Native American Paleoethnobotany lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jan 25 12:00:37 2011 Tags:
mark Jotul 2.0
Jotul wood stove

We started the east wing wood stove project today.

It feels smoother this time compared to the first chimney we built last year. I attribute that to Anna's advanced skills in calculating dimensions and translating them into measurements that work.

Posted Tue Jan 25 16:43:51 2011 Tags:

WatersproutsI can just see Everett pulling out his notebook and thinking, "Drat!  There's a step I forgot about even before I start guessing at how to prune my apple trees?!"  Don't worry --- prepruning is an obsessive-gardener extra step that consists of peering out the window at our peach tree and dropping by to visit with the other fruit trees all winter before pulling out my pruning shears.  As the old adage goes "Measure twice and cut once," so I guess prepruning is just my first measuring step.

Tent caterpillar eggsI fell down on the job this summer and neglected to summer prune, so part of my winter prepruning is figuring out how to make up for that mistake.  The thicket of watersprouts on my favorite peach tree should have been clipped back in June so that the tree would direct its energy into flower buds, and even though I missed that boat, I'll still need to shorten the watersprouts so that they won't shade my crop this summer.  Meanwhile, I remember what Praying mantis eggsa big difference in size, flavor, and beauty existed between the sun-kissed peaches and the few that sprung up on twigs hidden in the underside of the tree, so I'll just cut all of those soon-to-be-shaded twigs off so that my tree can pump her sugars into prime peaches this year.

I'm also keeping an eye on the trees for signs of other problems, like the encrustation above which houses tent caterpillar eggs and should be removed.  The larger, spongy egg case, though, is the overwintering home of baby praying mantises, so I want to make sure that my pruning doesn't impact these good garden predators. 

Finally, I'm guessing that these slightly swollen and blackened twig tips are the spot where our Oriental fruit moths went through their spring larval stage before burrowing into my peaches.  While the pests are probably overwintering under loose bark and in my mulch, I'll probably snip these problematic areas off and burn them just in case.  (Now's Oriental fruit moth twig damagealso the time for me to decide if it's worth it to try to build a short-term chicken paddock around the peach to let the chickens delete this year's pests before they invade my fruit.)

It's amazing how productive I can feel while peering out into the rain....

Our homemade chicken waterer will follow your flock anywhere, keeping water clean in a coop, tractor, or pasture.
Posted Wed Jan 26 08:09:15 2011 Tags:

Native Americans from the Archaic period preparing hickory nutsBefore eastern Native Americans domesticated the crops in the Eastern Agricultural Complex, they still relied heavily on plants for their nutrition.  Between 8000 BC and 2000 BC (the so-called Archaic period), Native Americans in our area ate a variety of un-domesticated native plants, including the fruits of sumac, blackberry, grape, hackberry, hawthorn, plum, pawpaw, cherry, mulberry, and persimmon; the nuts of hickory, oak, hazel, walnut, chestnut, beech, and pecan; and the sweet insides of honey locust pods.  They also ate the fruits, leaves, or tubers of Jerusalem artichoke, two wild beans, groundnut, maypop, black nightshade, amaranth, pokeweed, carpetweed, dock, chickweed, ground cherry, purslane, carpetweed, panicgrass, hog peanut, and a spurge.  Most of these plants continued to be important in the Native American diet for thousands of years thereafter.

Native Americans used fire to encourage edible plantsIf you've ever picked up a book on eastern North American edible plants, you'll have noticed that most of the top edibles are listed above.  So the Native Americans just figured out what was edible and they wandered around all day looking for them, right?  In Cultivated Landscapes of Native North America, William E. Doolittle makes a strong case for the hypothesis that most or all of these "wild" plants were cultivated to some extent, even though they weren't domesticated.  You'll notice that nearly all of the woody plants listed aren't old growth species and instead require some space and extra sunlight to produce plenty of fruits.  Native Americans cut the competition away from favored plants, burned out the undergrowth, pruned trees and vines to make fruits larger and easier to harvest, and transplanted edible-fruited trees to the edges of their fields after they began growing domesticated crops.  A great deal of evidence exists to suggest that grapes were propagated by cuttings and planted in vineyards, mulberry trees were planted near homes, and chickasaw plums and pecans were carried east from their natural range to plant throughout the South.

Indian gardenSmaller edibles were also encouraged in much the same way that a modern gardener might let a volunteer vegetable alone once he recognizes its worth.  A wide range of small plants weren't completely dependent on the Native Americans for their care (like the Eastern Agricultural Complex was) but still benefited from a bit of encouragement and were then eaten.  Many of the plants listed in the last sentence of the first paragraph are weedy species that require some disturbance in order to grow, so they sprang up in the Native American's cultivated fields.  At the time of European contact, it was common to see maypops, Jerusalem artichokes, and other "weeds" allowed to grow in the corn fields, to be harvested for food.

Although the native North American systems of encouraging wild plants weren't as intricate as the forest gardens you see in the tropics, the widespread range and abundance of many of the species mentioned in this post can probably be linked back to the continent's earliest human inhabitants.  It begs the question --- are you really wildcrafting when you harvest the ubiquitous pokeweed growing behind your house, or are you just eating the remains of a Native American garden?

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This post is part of our Native American Paleoethnobotany lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jan 26 12:00:30 2011 Tags:
Jotul woodstove prep work concrete pad

Today we learned how a pair of safety glasses can make stuffing insulation above your head a lot less painful.

We also managed to get the concrete pad secured down with all 12 tiles glued in place.

Posted Wed Jan 26 16:30:23 2011 Tags:

Oat cover crop is mostly winterkilled by end of JanuaryWhen I summed up 2010's no-till cover crop experiments, the only question left was how various crops would winterkill here in southwest Virginia.  Now that the traditional coldest month of the year is just about over (and the garden is finally free of a coat of snow), I went out to check on the state of the cover crops.  For those of you who haven't been following along, I was looking for the opposite of what gardeners usually aim for --- dead plants so that I won't have to till them in.  Here's what I saw:

  • Oats have a green leaf here and there, but look pretty much dead.  If any of the plants sprout back up when warm weather comes, it won't be hard to mow them down, but I suspect I won't have to do that.  It looks like the remains of the oats will make a good mulch for the coming growing season.
Oilseed radish winterkills and starts to decompose
  • Oilseed radishes have a wisp of green here and there, but the plants are clearly dead --- I can easily tear the huge taproots apart with gentle pressure.  Inside, the roots are soft, spongy, and mostly decomposed already.  The plus side is that the biomass will probably have melted into the soil enough that crops I plant in old oilseed radish beds can use the nutrition this coming year.  The flip side of the coin is that I'm going to need to mulch the oilseed radish beds soon because bare ground will quickly grow full of weeds now that the snow is gone.  As a final note, I feel that I should mention that the stench most websites report from their decomposing oilseed radishes didn't Annual ryegrass is still green in Januarymaterialize in my garden, perhaps because the radishes spent so long under a coat of snow.
  • Annual ryegrass is still mostly green, so it looks like I'm going to need to find a way to kill it.  I've read that ryegrass is easy to mow-kill, so that will be my first  option.
  • Buckwheat is frost tender and is long gone.
  • BarleyBarley is still green, despite the fact that I planted it in late October and the plants only got a couple of inches tall before growth ceased for the winter.  I'd be tempted to leave it alone and see what it does this spring, but the barley is located in beds that are slated to go back into early spring vegetable production.  So I'll probably just weed or smother the baby barley out.
  • Crimson clover is green in winterCrimson Clover is still bright green and small.  Unlike the other cover crops I'm trialing, the clover is a legume, which means its benefit isn't so much adding biomass to the soil as adding nitrogen.  Some people have good luck leaving crimson clover as an intercrop among large vegetables, so I'm going to see if the clover can share beds with broccoli and other large crops this spring.

Based on this winterkill data, I've got some changes to make for next year.  I think I'm going to delete ryegrass from my winter cover crop rotation, plant barley and crimson clover in the shady part of the garden where I don't start vegetables until May and could allow the cover crops to mature in the spring, plant oats where I want a mulch the next summer, and plant oilseed radishes where I want to direct-seed early spring crops.  It's great to finally be wrapping my head around the niche of each cover crop.

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps your coop clean and your chickens healthy.
Posted Thu Jan 27 08:08:55 2011 Tags:
I dropped off the large plastic trash cans for the local school scrap program today.

All 5 cans fit nicely along the wall of the hallway that leads to the coal furnace (also known as the dungeon).

We'll know more about how much volume to expect in a few weeks.

Posted Thu Jan 27 11:48:11 2011 Tags:

Strophostyles helvolaNow that I've finally answered my question about what eastern Native American food looked like before corn dominated their fields, I can start to tease permaculture implications out of the information.  First of all, the intricate layering (trees planted above vines above shrubs above groundcovers) often focused on by forest gardening fans seems to be more of a tropical and semi-tropical concept, and I suspect we just don't have enough sunlight in our temperate climate to make layering work well.  I don't think it's just coincidence that the Native Americans from our area used techniques that basically turned their wild food tree systems into orchards by burning and clearing out the undergrowth.  Instead, it sounds like the admonition in Edible Forest Gardens to give your trees lots of space and diversify horizontally (a grape vine just beyond the canopy of your apple tree, for example) rather than vertically is more appropriate for our climate.  Those of you who live in zone 8 or warmer are more likely to be successful with the vertical layering advocated in earlier forest gardening books.

Phaseolus polystachiosI also see implications for the chicken pasture in the ten thousand years of research carried out by the Native Americans.  Perhaps the food plants that were simply encouraged by the Native Americans rather than domesticated and planted can fit into our chicken pasture scheme?  I'm especially interested in the small, weedy species that like disturbance and are also edible, like the wild beans, maypop, black nightshade, amaranth, pokeweed, carpetweed, dock, chickweed, ground cherry, purslane, carpetweed, panicgrass, and spurge.  Black nightshade and chickweed sprang up naturally in our chicken pasture last year and were two of the chickens' favorite natural foods, so the idea probably has some merit.  It sounds like I've got my work cut out for me in 2011, gathering weeds to test them on the chickens.

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This post is part of our Native American Paleoethnobotany lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jan 27 12:00:37 2011 Tags:

do it yourself Jotul installation 2011Jotul how to install photo
We got the new Jotul woodstove installed onto the hearth today.

The first fire will need to wait till we finish sealing up the chimney which is contingent on nice weather for the cement to cure right.

One of these days I'll figure out the secret to connecting a piece of stove pipe to itself. I'm not sure if it's my technique or a weak design, but something tells me there's a trick to snapping them together that must be easier than the round about way I've been doing it.

Posted Thu Jan 27 15:48:16 2011 Tags:

Field peasLast year, I remember thinking that it was wasteful to have half of the garden fallow until May, with some beds being held open all the way until June.  Sounds like a spot for spring cover crops!

The goal for fall cover crops is usually weed suppression and soil building, but spring cover crops are often used to boost soil nitrogen so you don't need to add so much compost to the soil.  I've narrowed down our spring cover crop choices to one familiar candidate and one newbie:

  • Oats don't add nitrogen to the soil, but they can be planted much earlier than other spring cover crops.  Although soil temperature is variable from year to year, I suspect we'll achieve their recommended planting temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit in February or early March.  That will give the oats their full six to ten week growing season before I mow them down in mid to late April, and the leaves can decompose a bit and then provide mulch through the summer.
  • Field peas are a good source of nitrogen and their flowers are an early source of nectar for honeybees too.  Field pea residue breaks down quickly in the soil, so it's best to plant the legumes where I'm going to be direct-seeding summer crops and need bare soil.  I suspect we can plant field peas in early March (minimum soil temperature 41 degrees Fahrenheit) and give them a couple of months to grow before mowing them down in time to plant our summer crops.

Measuring soil temperatureSince I have about 35 pounds of oat seed leftover from the fall and only an expensive 1 pound of field pea seeds on their way from Johnny's Select Seeds, I suspect I'll plant mostly oats for my spring cover crop.  I do want to try at least one bed of oats and field peas together, though, since the two make a good duo --- the oats give the peas something to grow up, and when the cover crops are mowed down the high nitrogen peas give the mixture a C:N ratio that promotes more rapid decomposition.

At the moment, though, our soil temperature is hovering right around freezing (a little warmer in the sunny mule garden and a little colder in the shadiest end of the front garden), so I've got to wait a while before planting.

Our homemade chicken waterer takes the guesswork (and mess) out of backyard chicken care.
Posted Fri Jan 28 08:37:08 2011 Tags:

Cultivated landscapes of native North AmericaI've focused on the southeast and midwest in this lunchtime series because I'm interested in what's going on in my own neck of the woods.  If you want to learn more about your part of the country, you might like to check out some of the texts I used in my research.  Here's an annotated bibliography to get you started.

Doolittle, W.E.  2002.  Cultivated Landscapes of Native North America.  Oxford University Press.

This book answered my questions about whether native North Americans impacted the wild landscape or just grew their crops in gardens and fields.  You can read most of the book using the preview feature on Amazon.

Heilman, J.M., M.C. Lileas, and C.A. Turnbow.  1988.  A History of 17 Years of Excavation and Reconstruction --- A Chronicle of 12th Century Human Values and the Built Environment.  Volume 1.  The Dayton Museum of Natural History, Dayton, OH.

This is the book that got me started on my journey.  It's a summary of research at the Sunwatch site in Dayton written by the scientists, but is remarkably easy to read.  If you live nearby, you should pick up a copy from the site's gift shop.

Imperfect BalanceLentz, D.L.  2000.  Imperfect Balance: Landscape Transformations in the Precolumbian Americas.  Columbia University Press.

This book seems like it might be the layman's summary of the whole subject and might be the place for you to start, but I'd already read the scientific versions so I just quickly skimmed relevant sections. Read it through Amazon's preview feature.

Scarry, C.M.  1993.  Foraging and Farming in the Eastern Woodlands.  University Press of Florida.

I get the impression that paleoethnobotanists are just an easy to read bunch.  This book is a series of papers summarizing information presented at a conference in 1988, but it's very untechnical.  The book has summaries of what people grew and ate throughout the Archaic and Woodland periods.  Although Google Books blanks out a page here and there to try to get you to buy the book, you can read nearly the entire text on Google.

And, of course, if you're completely new to the topic and want to learn a bit more about what North and South America looked like before European contact, I highly recommend the mainstream books 1491, Indian Givers, and Guns, Germs, and Steel.  What books do you think should go on the reading list of those interested in Native American agriculture?

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This post is part of our Native American Paleoethnobotany lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Jan 28 12:00:39 2011 Tags:
3M vs DAP fire barrier caulk comparison review

I've been paying attention to the caulk section of building supply stores since this project began and have observed only two choices when it comes to fire barrier caulk.

We used DAP on the first stove. It got the job done but was very stiff to work with. A salesman at the store who helped us that day advised a liberal coat of water to loosen it up so you could shape it into the areas you need. The color is black.

The second stove involved a 3M product that was much easier to work with but had a red tint to it, which is no problem for me but might be an issue for someone concerned with a color scheme.

Posted Fri Jan 28 16:41:57 2011 Tags:
Bees visiting a pile of sawdust

Honeybee on a notebookThe bees and I agree --- when it's fifty degrees in January, you have to be outside.

We also seem to share an obsession with sawdust piles.  With the whole world soggy, I can't imagine our fuzzy friends flew all the way around the trailer just to suck water out of some sawdust, so I assume they're getting something more interesting.  Minerals?  Fungi?  Any ideas?

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps our flock healthy and happy all year round.
Posted Sat Jan 29 08:15:25 2011 Tags:

Jotul small stove installA friend of mine asked me nicely while actually scratching his head why I decided to install the Jotul woodstove "backwards".

"Most folks start with the stove and then install the pipe on top of each other".

That does make a lot of sense, but jacking the stove into the pipe lets you slowly connect the pieces together, which require a bit of adjusting to get fully seated, and taking this process a centimeter at a time really decreases the grunt factor.

Posted Sat Jan 29 17:08:30 2011 Tags:

Joey tastes sawdustOur honeybees were visiting my sawdust pile by the dozen yesterday, so I decided to see if I could track down what they were up to.  The internet was not very helpful --- several people reported seeing honeybees visit sawdust in the early spring when there's nothing else around to eat and they suggested that honeybees were collecting sawdust in lieu of pollen.  The sole piece of data backing up this assertion, though, seemed to be the coincidence that pollen is absent in the wild at this time of year and that this is the only season when people have noticed honeybees collecting sawdust.  While it's possible that honeybees could be tricked into thinking that sawdust is pollen (although at the bee scale, the two substances are orders of magnitude different in size, shape and texture), I suspect that bees who expend their precious winter energy on such a frivolous pursuit would die out in the wild.  Surely there's a better explanation.

Joey was visiting, and he suggested that the bees might be extracting some residual sap out of the sawdust.  We reached down amid our buzzing workers and snagged a pinch of sawdust apiece, then savored the dust.  At first, I couldn't taste anything at all, but after Joey's more discerning palate caught a hint of nutmeg, I thought that I might taste something too.  No proof there, but it made for an interesting photo.

As we continued to watch the honeybees, I became relatively convinced that they were putting something in their pollen baskets rather than sucking the liquid out of the sawdust.  I could see the insects using their legs to push at their pollen baskets, and none of the bees seemed to be sticking out their probosci.  The honeybees also seemed to be expending a lot of effort to kick through the pollen in search of their desired object --- by midafternoon, the pile of sawdust had turned from a volcano into a wide, squat hill.  Despite all this work, when I watched the bees returning to the hive, I couldn't see any sawdust in the pollen baskets, suggesting that the insects were collecting a much smaller substance than sawdust.

Bees visiting sawdustBack to the internet I went, this time delving into the scientific literature.  Several scientists repeated the pollen dearth maladaption hypothesis, but none cited any sources.  Instead, I was drawn to a series of articles by Dorothy Shaw, who reviewed over 100 years worth of reports on bees collecting fungal spores all over the world.  Most of the bees gathered spores from rusts or Neurospora, both of which have a protein content comparable to high quality pollen (around 25%).  Although in some cases bees seem to collect fungal spores when other foods are absent, other bees fly right past good pollen and nectar sources to gather fungal spores, returning to the hive with 100% spores in their pollen baskets.  Shaw suggests that the high protein content of the spores makes them a nutrition source comparable to pollen and that collecting spores can sometimes be a better use of a bee's time than gathering pollen since large masses of fungi allow the bees to fill their pollen baskets quite quickly.

I can't prove that our bees are picking through the sawdust in search of fungal spores, but I'm guessing that's the case.  If they're gathering rust spores, I might be able to test my hypothesis next time I look in the hive since scientists have been able to pick out rust spores stored in the brood chamber of honeybee hives by looking for their bright orange color.  I remember seeing bright orange "pollen" in our hives before, and now I wonder if I was actually seeing spores?

Our homemade chicken waterer takes the "yuck" factor out of backyard chicken care.
Posted Sun Jan 30 08:53:16 2011 Tags:
chicken water heater timer closeup

cute hen nesting in a milk carton boxThe new chicken water heater is working well since we installed it.

I think the light may be helping to stimulate an increase in egg laying during what is usually a slow producing time of the year.

Do chickens sleep better with the light off at night? I'm not sure, but to be on the safe side I added a timer that shuts off a bit before my bedtime and comes back on an hour before the crack of dawn.

Posted Sun Jan 30 15:37:32 2011 Tags:

Sprouted peanutIn the past, I've planted crops a certain number of days before or after our traditional frost-free date.  But the more I think about it, the more the date-based approach feels like eating your meals at set times with no wiggle room if you've been chopping wood and are starving early or have been loafing around all day and aren't really hungry at all.  By planting seeds on set dates, I'm trying to estimate times at which the soil temperature is warm enough to let the seeds germinate and the air temperature is in the right range to let the seeds grow well.  So why not measure soil temperature and plant seeds when I know it's warm enough?

The table below tells the minimum and optimum soil temperatures for germination of most common vegetable seeds.  For spring planting, you can probably get away with planting at the minimum temperature (especially if you soak the seeds to get them off to a quick start), but for many of the summer vegetables it's often best to wait until you reach the optimum temperature range.

Minimum temp. (degrees F)
Optimum temp. (degrees F)
Swiss chard

Calibrate a soil thermometer in ice waterTo test your soil temperature, first calibrate your soil thermometer in a jar of ice water to check its accuracy.  (The thermometer should read 32 degrees Fahrenheit.)  Then stick the thermometer three to four inches into the soil first thing in the morning and read the temperature.  If you don't have a soil thermometer, you can get a rough estimate of your soil temperature by looking at this soil temperature map.

If you're like me and are dying to put spring seeds in the ground as soon as possible, you can make the soil warm up more quickly by raking back your mulch, adding a thin layer of dark compost to the surface of the soil, laying down a sheet of black or clear plastic (although I don't like blocking off air to soil microorganisms), or building a cold frame or quick hoop.  You should also be aware that the temperature of the upper layer of soil in your garden can change quite quickly --- a couple of degrees per day --- if a cold snap or warm spell hits your area, so even if the soil has reached 35, don't plant lettuce if an arctic blast is forecast for tomorrow.

While waiting for the soil to warm up, why not treat your chickens to a homemade chicken waterer that never spills or fills with poop?

Posted Mon Jan 31 08:37:49 2011 Tags:

Natural BeekeepingNatural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture by Ross Conrad is the beekeeping equivalent of Weedless Gardening or Gardening When it Counts --- an intermediate text for those of us who want to reach beyond the mainstream, chemical techniques.  I love these intermediate books because they tend to turn me onto topics to experiment with on our own homestead, but you have to take the whole category with a grain of salt. 

For example, intermediate texts tend to fill up space with beginner's information that their intermediate readers don't need while not providing enough of that basic info to take the place of a book like The Backyard Beekeeper.  Especially in the case of this book, intermediate texts often lack essential organization and are prone to extended bouts of philosphizing.  And although the author makes a concerted effort to pull together related information from the literature and from other beekeepers, Natural Beekeeping is essentially the summation of one man's experiences trying to raise healthy hives without chemicals in Vermont.  (Hmm, those flaws sound a lot like the flaws of our blog....)

I guess what I'm trying to say is, don't take any book like this as the gospel, but do mine out as much data as possible.  Which is exactly what I've done for this week's lunchtime series.  If you've never petted a bee, the information I present might be too confusing, but I hope established beekeepers will enjoy seeing a different perspective on bee care.

Learn how niche marketing can help you escape the rat race.

This post is part of our Natural Beekeeping lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jan 31 12:00:34 2011 Tags:
on the roof with caulk

more caulking on the roof for chimney
The new Jotul chimney is all sealed up and connected thanks to some spring like weather today.

I'm guessing this part of the process took about half as much time due to the difference in the fire barrier caulking material.

Posted Mon Jan 31 17:11:12 2011 Tags: