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How many batteries do I need for my solar panels?

Fighting tomato blight with pennies

Smallest wood stoves

How to help chicks during hatching

Plug and play grid tie inverter

Aug 2013

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Eleven months of the composting toilet

Why jam won't gel

The perfect chicken coop

New and improved chicken drinking device

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Aug 2012

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Canned goods

Ripening tomatoes"You know, my parents' house used to be a trailer," Kayla mentioned after I posted about looking for a few more trailersteaders to profile in the upcoming print edition of Trailersteading.  It turns out that her family home is an elegant example of turning a mobile home into a beautiful and functional living space...but you'll have to wait to read about that in the book.

Bed turned bench

Still, I can't resist sharing some highlights from my tour.  From a purely aesthetic standpoint, I was taken by the canned goods that Kayla and her mother have stocked away in their pantry (including lots of pickles from our cucurbit overflow).  And aren't ripening tomatoes always beautiful?
Silverware wind chimes
More functionally, some of you might want to follow the family's lead and turn a yard-sale bed into a beautiful bench like the one shown above.  Just use the headboard for the back and cut the footboard in two to create the sides.  Kayla's mom decided to make her own bench after seeing a similar one selling for $150; in contrast, her version cost only about $10 to produce.

On a similarly crafty note, I was so taken by the harmonious sound of Kayla's silverware wind chimes that I traded a chicken waterer for a set to take home.  When I first saw photos of these wind chimes, I expected them to be a bit tinny like the cheap chimes you can get from big box stores, but I was very wrong!  Want a set of your own?  Kayla has four more already made and up for sale in her Etsy store.

Thanks so much for letting me invade your home and take photos, Kayla and Alice!

Posted Sat Aug 23 07:41:09 2014 Tags:
Chicken tractor predator protection

"Do you have problems with raccoons?  My neighbor has tried chickens for almost 10 years and every single time except this last time (when it turns out the "hens" were roosters. Oy!) raccoons figured out how to get into the chicken tractor (which is really very well built) and EAT them.  Got any suggestions?" --- Nayan

It's tough to make a chicken tractor light enough to pull and still strong enough to keep out predators.  The photo above shows how Kayla used movable screens to keep a hawk from reaching through the mesh into her chicken tractor.

We recommend not trying to beef up your tractor to keep out raccoons.  Instead, keep your chicken tractor very close to home (and get a good dog, if possible) to scare any potential predators away.

With raccoons, it's also handy to make sure your birds eat any kitchen scraps very quickly.  We learned the hard way that raccoons will come for scraps and stay to eat your chickens.  Better a flock that only eats store-bought feed and grass than birds with a more diverse diet who end up in a raccoon's belly.

Posted Fri Aug 22 16:57:22 2014 Tags:

Kefir grains
Brandy is the original source of my kefir grains, and she's been experimenting with wild fermentation for much longer than I have.  So I was thrilled when she offered to share a bit about her experiences...along with a free starter culture for one lucky winner.  Scroll to the bottom of this post to enter the giveaway, but be sure to read Brandy's tips too.  (And don't forget that you've still got a few hours left to enter our notecard giveaway!)


Kefir ice cream sandwichIt's been more than five years since my kefir grains arrived in the mail, packed in a small zippered bag and looking all squished. I don't think I knew what was ahead then, that it would be the one thing I'd keep up with through good times and bad, through morning sickness and two new babies. My kefir grains have traveled, too. After sharing them with dear local friends, they've been packed up and shipped all over the country. I'm still just as excited about kefir as I was when they arrived, so I thought I'd compile some of my thoughts and favorite recipes.

Kefir biscuitsI got the grains on a whim, thinking it would be fun to try them out. I'd had some serious antibiotics a few months before and I was not feeling all that great. I started by making berry and peach smoothies and putting the kefir into biscuits. I'm still doing that, and more. I haven't bought buttermilk in years and I don't really buy much yogurt since Anna enlightened me on the differences. My stomach feels so much stronger, too.

Kefir makes a wonderful substitute for buttermilk, even for those who enjoy buttermilk plain, and adds a lovely leavening kick to quick breads. We put it in waffles, pancakes, biscuits, smoothies, cobblers, coffee cakes, anywhere that buttermilk would normally go. I've even used kefir cottage cheese in place of ricotta in lasagna! My mother, who is gluten-free, enjoys kefir as a way to add a yeasty taste to wheat-free baked goods. All this is making me hungry, let's get to some recipes! Kefir smoothies

Fluffy Kefir Biscuits
Kefir Cottage Cheese
Vanilla Kefir Ice Cream
Kefir Cream Cheese
Long-Fermented Sourdough Biscuits
My simple kefir tutorial


If those recipes sound good, you can get started on kefir in your own kitchen.  Enter the giveaway using the widget below for a chance to win a starter culture, or buy your own for just $10 (plus $5 shipping) in Brandy's etsy store.  Enjoy!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Posted Fri Aug 22 12:00:53 2014 Tags:
Ripening hazelnut

Nuts are notorious for taking a long time to bear.  For most species, you probably shouldn't expect a harvest for at least a decade, and during that time nut trees may spread to cover an area fifty feet in diameter.  So it's no surprise that many homesteaders instead turn to the bush growth habit and relatively fast bearing nature of the hazel.

Of course, "relatively fast" isn't exactly speedy.  Almost five years after planting, our unnamed hybrid hazel variety from the Arbor Day Foundation is finally starting to take off, and I was excited to see both male and female flowers on the bush this spring.  I'd thought the latter dropped off, but closer inspection this week turned up a few developing fruits nearly hidden amid the foliage.  Since only one of the three bushes I originally planted survived, this bush is either self-pollinated or (more likely) the wild hazels about a hundred feet away in the woods provided enough pollen for everybody.  No matter who the nuts' daddy is, I'm excited to think that we'll get to taste our first homegrown hazels this year after all!

Hazel bush

Despite our bush's slow initial growth, it has proven itself able to handle waterlogged soil, as is evidenced by the "pond" in the photo above, which is actually a pit I dug to gauge groundwater levels and to elevate the surrounding soil.  Unfortunately, the two named varieties I planted in the starplate pasture this spring have been less resilient in the face of heavy deer pressure.  Only one of the two bushes has survived and I recently decided that the hazel would probably do better if transplanted into the safety of our core homestead close to its cousin.  In fact, I might even dig the little survivor up now rather than waiting for the usual transplanting season (after the leaves fall) since I'm not sure how much plant will be left after a few more months of deer grazing.

Rambling aside, the purpose of this post is really to tell my father to go check on his hazel bush.  Yes, you think it's never born fruit, but I had to look really, really close to see the developing nuts on my bush, so yours might have them as well.  Or you can wait a few more weeks until the husks turn brown and look less like leaves, at which point I suspect the nuts will be more evident.

Posted Fri Aug 22 07:20:52 2014 Tags:
Strider posing with new fixed spatula

Our good spatula broke in two. I tried gluing it once, but it didn't hold for long.

It works okay like this...but we lost a pastured beef meatball last week due to it separating.

Today I got lucky with drilling a hole through both the plastic and metal and securing it with some found hardware. With any luck this will put an end to any future meatball casualties.

Posted Thu Aug 21 15:58:45 2014 Tags:
Homesteading gear

It turns out that a like-minded neighbor was living a mere half mile down the road from us all this time, and we only learned the extent of our similarities when she got ready to move away.  For health reasons, our neighbor is having to return to her home state, and she decided that much of her homesteading gear wasn't worth shipping south.  Did we want a rocket stove, hand-cranked generator, solar oven (with one broken pane), and much more?  Definitely!

Sun pantry drying rack

I'm most excited about experimenting with the rocket stove and the solar oven, while the Chinese military-issue generator from 1972 tops Mark's list.  However, what I actually used first was an item I thought wouldn't be much use to us here.  A simple wooden rack of drying trays makes sense if you live in a climate where the humidity doesn't often hover around 80%, but if we tried to dry food in such a device without building a solar dehydrator around it, we'd just grow mold.

Still, when I realized I'd picked too much basil for my current batch of pesto, I thought --- maybe the simple drying setup would work for herbs?  I filled the four trays with basil, oregano, chives, and Egyptian onions and will report back in a few weeks once I discover which, if any, dry quickly enough to maintain their flavor in our wet climate.

A huge thank you to our soon-to-be-ex neighbor for sharing the bounty with us!

Posted Thu Aug 21 07:19:08 2014 Tags:
how to modify an old military Chinese hand cranked generator?

An old hand cranked Chinese military generator found its way back to us recently. (More on those details tomorrow.)

It was designed to power Army radios in the field. Cutting the 4 pin cable reveals black, red, and white wires. The red and white wires equal 30 regulated volts at 1 amp and the red and black outputs 25 regulated volts at 2 amps.

I'm surprised at how little effort it takes to create 12 to 15 volts. The first experiment I want to do is hook up an additional voltage regulator/charge controller to try charging a golf cart battery.

Posted Wed Aug 20 15:57:21 2014 Tags:
Battery-powered chainsaw

When Mark's gas-powered chainsaw died after only a couple of years of use, I decided to see if there were any battery-powered chainsaws out there.  It turns out that quite a few battery-powered saws are starting to look like possibilities for homesteaders who just need to cut enough firewood to get them through the winter.  Is a battery-powered chainsaw a good option for us (and for homesteaders like us?).

While attempting to answer that question, I came across many pros and cons for battery-powered versus gas chainsaws.  The major disadvantage of battery-powered chainsaws is that they're not quite up to handling the same extreme cutting conditions that gas-powered saws are.  Most reviews of even the best battery-powered chainsaws suggest that cutting trees more than 9 to 12 inches in diameter (depending on the hardness of the wood) might stress your saw, and you'll need to be pretty careful with maintaining chain sharpness to get even that level of cutting.  Similarly, you can't cut all day with a battery-powered saw since the battery usually gives out after an hour or two, and, in the long run, replacement batteries usually cost over a hundred bucks once the cell stops accepting a charge.  (Of course, Da Pimp might extend that battery life considerably.)

Assembling an Oregon chainsaw

On the other hand, battery-powered saws have a major appeal for folks like us who wouldn't usually be cutting for more than a couple of hours at a time anyway.  There's the quietness factor --- not only are battery-powered saws silent when not cutting, they're much quieter than a gas-powered chainsaw even when zipping through wood.  We'd never have to fight those ornery pull starters (that always seem to get harder and harder to pull as a gas-powered saw ages), and maintenance in general is likely to be much simpler with a battery model.  Homesteaders who go for months without cutting won't need to be as worried about their saws if they opt for battery-powered versions since there's no fuel to go bad, and battery-powered saws probably cause less overall pollution than a typical two-stroke gas saw.  Finally, a battery saw definitely feels safer since the motor isn't running at all as you move between areas to cut.

Is the pleasantness factor worth the lack of power?  We received a review saw from Oregon to see if we can answer that question.  Stay tuned for a bunch of posts from Mark as he experiments with our trial saw, and for a later post from me explaining how we narrowed down the battery-powered chainsaw choices out there.  In a few weeks, I hope that we'll be able to tell you whether or not a battery-powered chainsaw is worth the expense for homesteaders.

Posted Wed Aug 20 08:03:52 2014 Tags:
oregon battery powered chainsaw

We tried out the new Oregon battery powered chainsaw today.

I was very impressed with the power. We cut down a medium sized walnut tree with no problem. We also cut up some small pieces for an upcoming Rocket Stove experiment

It's nice to not need ear protection.

Posted Tue Aug 19 16:09:33 2014 Tags:
Cover crop seeds

Even though I'm quite happy with my current cover-crop campaign (explained in depth in Homegrown Humus), there are some gaps I want to fill in both the book and in my own protocols.  Time for an experiment!

Part of this year's cover-crop experiment is going to take place off-farm.  As with any gardening book, Homegrown Humus is largely based on my own experiences, which means that people who live far away may have slightly different results.  So I tracked down ten readers scattered across the U.S. who were willing to accept free packs of cover-crop seeds in exchange for putting my experiments at work in their own gardens.  Seed packages went in the mail last week for folks living in zone 5 and colder, while everyone else's seeds will be mailed out tomorrow.  I'm really looking forward to learning how buckwheat and sunflowers do during "cold" months in the Deep South and how oats, oilseed radishes, and fava beans fare all over.

Fava bean seeds
"Fava beans?" you may be saying.  "You haven't mentioned that cover crop before."  Very astute of you!  In fact, fava beans are the other part of this year's cover-crop experiment --- trying out a new species for our farm.  I've read a lot about fava-bean cover crops on permaculture blogs, but the legume seems to be hardy primarily in zones 7 and warmer.  Since we live in zone 6 (and sometimes have nearly zone-5 winters due to our north-facing hillside), I figured fava beans were out of our league.  But why not push the envelope?

To that end, I soaked Windsor fava bean seeds for speedy germination, then planted 0.625 pounds in several different locations around the farm.  Soon I'll know if fava beans are worth the high seed price ($12.75 per pound once you factor in shipping), whether they can handle clayey soil, whether they will survive in waterlogged ground, and whether they do well when mixed with oats and oilseed radishes.  Stay tuned for updates!

Do you want to be part of future experiments?  I usually post this type of opportunity to our facebook page, but even if you're already a fan, facebook might not be showing you our updates.  Be sure to click the like button at the bottom of our posts when you notice them if you want to be sure to see them on your news feed in the future!

Posted Tue Aug 19 07:32:05 2014 Tags:

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