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

archives for 09/2008

Sep 2008

This past spring, Mark decided he wanted to try a cash crop, something which required minimal care and could grow in crappy soil. Last year, we'd grown sweet potatoes in the good soil of our upper garden --- we planted them, ignored them, then harvested the beautiful tubers you see below. We were overwhelmed by the bounty and gave away perhaps a third of the harvest, then ended up not having quite enough to last us through the year.

Given last year's success, sweet potatoes were an obvious choice for a cash crop this year. Mark bought $50 worth of starts and planted them in the much worse soil of the mule garden. We had so many slips that we even planted a dozen in a pure clay raised bed outside our kitchen window --- an effort which I figured was doomed to failure even though we'd been assured by our gardening friends that bad soil wouldn't be a problem.

Mark watched with pleasure as the sweet potatoes twined out across the clayey mule garden soil, unfurling their heart-shaped leaves to soak up the sunlight. The sweet potatoes outside the kitchen window grew much more slowly, struggling to stay afloat in the pure clay, but they still managed to cover their bed and dip down over the sides.

Then came the deer. First they just nibbled on a few plants at the end of the mule garden row, then they defoliated every sweet potato we'd planted (except for the ones by the kitchen window.) I rushed in with row covers and was able to cover up perhaps a fourth of the sweet potatoes, but the damage had already been done --- Mark's heart was broken.

For the rest of the summer, the deer nibbled on new sweet potato leaves after every rain and Mark avoided the mule garden. Finally, with the deer encroaching more and more every day, I decided it was time to get the sweet potatoes out of the ground before the deer did it for me.

The plants which had been covered by the row cover made a respectable showing, but the uncovered plants barely produced enough to make it worth my while to pull them out. All told, the mule garden rows --- which covered an area approximately five times the size of last year's sweet potato beds --- produced just about the same amount of of sweet potatoes we'd gotten last year. Mark's dreams of a cash crop were sunk.

I did make him smile, though, when I finally went to dig out the pure clay bed by the kitchen window. I'd made such a point of telling him --- repeatedly --- that there was no way we'd get any sweet potatoes out of that bed. But when I slipped my fingers into the cracked clay, I pulled out the biggest tubers we'd grown this year or last, and the most of them! At least we now know that the sweet potatoes really do thrive on long as we can get the deer to neglect them too.

  • Sweet potatoes are started from shoots called "slips."
  • Plant in full sun (very important!) where no animals can nibble.
  • Harvest before the frost.
  • Cure the sweet potatoes before eating to convert starches in the roots into sugars.  Lay them out on screens at a temperature of 80-85 F for 10 days (or for longer if the temperature is lower.)
  • Store at 55-60 F (not in a root cellar.)

Posted Fri Sep 26 15:47:41 2008 Tags:

A couple of weeks ago marked the end of our second year on the farm.  The changes that have occurred in the past two years are striking when viewed from a distance....

First year drawing
"Sept. 2007 ---
  • Water pumped from creek to tower, flows into house and garden. 
  • Corn, beans, squash, lettuce, okra, greens, and thousands of tomatoes. 
  • A ramshackle clothesline, attached at one end to the electric pole, at the other end to a stump. 
  • Chicken tractors three, eating weeds, laying eggs. 
  • Lucy, waiting on her master, beside the Ubiquitous Red Bucket. 
  • A house with brake lights."

Second year drawing

"Sept. 2008 --- Sinking Creek year two ---
  • Our reach has expanded into three garden patches, grapes, berries, trees (only peaches thriving.)  Our freezer is 3/4 full with garden produce.
  • Our flock has shrunk --- five hens, a rooster, and seven pullets.  Mark has built a Cadillac chicken tractor with wheels.  Huckleberry and Lucy still reign.
  • Our amenities have steadily improved.  The red bucket has made way for a pump and thousand gallon tank.  We drink treated water from the well.  Our wood furnace keeps us warm.
  • The Club Car is the new star of the show, effortlessly (and silently) whizzing up the driveway.  The truck has been hauled off to the crusher.
  • Our trials and tribulations --- fencing out deer, not enough hours in the day.
  • Our joys --- a perfectly redesigned kitchen, growing veggies I've never grown before (peppers, watermelon, eggplant), lightning bugs, each other..."

Posted Fri Sep 26 20:46:11 2008 Tags:

A retrospective from November 2006

Summing it up:
  • Total cost: $800
  • Time: 1 week
  • When would I need one? If you have a creek to cross for cheap
  • Hints: Rent a bobcat and your friends will be clamoring to help!

I am the daughter of two back-to-the-landers who retreated to the city when their kids were in elementary school. Up until the age of eight, I played in creeks, climbed trees and hills, and peered at wild animals --- and didn't do a lick of the farm work. By the time my father became worn out from working a full time job then coming home to fields of tobacco, beef cows, and a vegetable garden, I had idealized life on the farm and couldn't imagine living anywhere else. I threatened to run away rather than move to town. In the end I didn't run away, but as soon as I was able I ran back.

The creek before constructionAs the crow flies, the land I purchased sixteen years later is only about twenty miles from the farm where I grew up. Winding on highways and back roads through mountain passes and over rivers, the drive takes an hour and a half. I brought my childhood memories along for the ride and fell in love with the 58 acre property the first time I saw it. The property's crowning jewel is Sinking Creek which runs near the eastern border through land which my biology training calls a floodplain but which my childhood on a farm calls the perfect place to wade and look at minnows on a hot summer day.

The property had been a farm a few decades ago, until the last inhabitants tired of crossing Sinking Creek and wading through a third of a mile of mud to reach the one area both flat and dry enough to support a barn and house. Neighbors tell me that the land had been on the market for years, every prospective buyer scared away by the same creek which immediately enchanted me.

Or perhaps prospective buyers were understandably worried by the tendency of Sinking Creek to rise from low on a pair of rubber boots to up above my waist in less than an hour during particularly heavy storms. Sinking Creek drops out of sight into an underground cave system a short way downstream from my property, and when the small opening becomes clogged with floating debris, the creek backs up. To do Sinking Creek justice, it soon reverts to its mild-mannered ways and can be crossed without getting my feet wet after only a day or two of dry weather. Since I work over the internet, I have the flexibility to use floods as an excuse to stay home and enjoy the wet world.

The chink in my plans arose when I began to consider the realities of life at Sinking Creek. With no way to drive into the interior of the property, I would be unable to get electricity and telephone hookups (both essential for my internet work). Although the barn was in excellent shape, the house was falling down and building materials would need to be brought in to shore it up or to build a new living space. So I began to consider bridging the creek.

My upstream neighbors had installed three huge metal culverts to span Sinking Creek, but rushing water soon washed the culverts out. The creek is too wide to be spanned by one length of used railroad ties, and attempting to install a pier in the middle of the creek seemed to be asking for trouble.

I was obviously out of my league, so I asked a professional builder to come out and give me an estimate on building a bridge. He recommended buying used steel beams from the department of transportation, but said that just the beams themselves would run me upwards of $4,000. The driveway leading up to the creek is too narrow for a concrete truck to get through, which would create even more problems. As much as I pushed, the builder seemed reluctant to even wager a guess at the final price of bridging Sinking Creek.

I gulped. Although the land had come cheap, the purchase had wiped out my scanty savings and I was not inclined to go further into debt to build a bridge. My goal was to live simply on the land, producing most of my food and supplementing my income with internet work. Debt would force me into a full-time job, and, eventually, off the land I had dreamed of for so many years.

At about this time, I acquired a very handy boyfriend (Mark) who shared my dream of living on the land. Between us we cooked up a way to cross the creek at minimal expense and with a structure which wouldn't be washed away in the first big flood. Our plan was to create a shallow water crossing lined with cinderblocks --- a ford to drive across with four wheel drive vehicles. Luckily, my property is only a ten minute drive from a quarry and a cinderblock plant, so I would be able to get rock and cinderblocks relatively cheaply.

As the first step in our venture, we hauled in several loads of cinderblocks, choosing six inch blocks for their cheapness and ease of handling. The blocks cost $500 --- the most expensive part of the project --- and we later discovered that “seconds” (slightly chipped blocks) were available for about two-thirds of the price.

The next step was to get our family and friends excited about coming to play in the dirt. We invited as many people as we could think of to come to a work day that weekend, and four hard workers showed up. We also rented a bobcat to help us move dirt around --- an expense of $150 which could have been avoided if we'd wanted to do all of the digging by hand. We rented the bobcat on a Saturday morning, which gave us two days for the price of one since the office was closed on Sunday and the machine wasn't due back until Monday morning.

Early on a chilly November morning, Mark fired up the bobcat and began to grade the bank of the creek. Sinking Creek's banks were originally vertical walls of clay about three feet tall, and our goal was to turn them into shallow ramps which any vehicle could navigate as it drove into or out of the creek. Southwest Virginia's creeks are home to many rare mussel species which can be harmed by muddy water, so we worked to push the dirt up onto the banks rather than down into the creek itself.
Digging out the creek bottom
After getting the bobcat stuck in the creek once, we decided that it was best to do any digging in the water by hand. Luckily for our backs, all we had to do in the creek was to remove a thin layer of creek gravel so that the blocks would lie just above the level of the creek bottom. I knew that the weight of driving across the blocks was likely to cause them to sink slightly into the ground. After sinking, I wanted the blocks to lie at about ground level so that they would not impede the flow of the creek and get washed away.

Initially, Mark and I had planned to lay the cinderblocks on their sides so that the water could run through the holes. However, we soon discovered that the strength of cinderblocks lies in their proper orientation, with the holes pointing from the ground up to the sky. Whenever possible, we gained additional strength by staggered the rows of blocks just like a bricklayer would do.

My work party enjoyed digging out the mud and laying the blocks. Everyone from my sixty-two year old mother to Mark's teenage nephew had work which was within their physical capability. In fact, they had so much fun that they continued to beg for more work parties for weeks into the future.
Filling dirt into the blocks
At the end of the work weekend, half of the ford was completed. We had dug out the bed, laid the blocks, and filled the blocks' holes back in with bank dirt and creek gravel. Mark and I ended up digging out the far bank by hand in the next week after returning the bobcat. We laid block for about ten feet on each approach to the creek, since these areas had been dug out and were likely to be slippery when wet.
Digging out the bank
Sinking Creek's floods weighed heavily on both Mark's and my minds, so we decided to add a little further insurance against our ford washing away. We drove five metal fence posts into the holes in five cinderblocks on the downstream end of the ford, then mixed some bags of concrete in a wheelbarrow to pour into the holes and hold the fence posts in place. We also poured a bit of concrete into the blocks at the edge of the ford where a slight bend in the creek forces quickly moving water against the bank.
Mixing concrete.
Finally, we went to the quarry and got some gravel to add to the road leading up to the ford. We also bought rip-rap --- stones about two to six inches in diameter --- for the price of roughly $5 per small pickup truck load. One load of rip-rap was enough to pile against the downstream end of the ford. This rip-rap prevents erosion of the creek bottom due to the slight waterfall effect as water flows over the ford and then falls three inches or so to the ground.

All told, construction of our ford cost less than $800 and about a week's worth of our time. Since the initial blocks were laid, we have made a few minor adjustments to our design. We dug out some more of the far bank to decrease the slope since our pickup truck's bumper scraped slightly while going up and down. We also added a bit of width to the ford to make it easier to navigate.
Adding gravel
A year later, our ford has survived numerous floods without a single cinderblock coming out of place. Mark and I now live in a fifty foot trailer which we dragged across the ford using a bulldozer --- all without harming the ford in any way. The electric company was able to cross our ford and hook us up so that I can write this while peering out at the fifty-eight acres of trees which I have yearned to live in for so long.

FloodNowadays, Mark and I consider Sinking Creek to be our moat, a method of keeping out unwanted visitors. On hot summer days, I paddle in the water, and our Chesapeake Bay retriever fetches sticks in Sinking Creek's deep pools even in the dead of winter. The mussel, fish, and snail populations in the creek seem to be as healthy as ever, as is my wallet. Although the reality of life on a small farm involves more work than I recall from my childhood, I am thankful every day that Mark and I call this bit of land home, and that we decided not to fight the creek with a bridge and instead went with the flow.

Posted Fri Sep 26 22:31:15 2008 Tags:

Last year we planted a few pounds each of Yukon Gold, Kennebec, and red potatoes and discovered the Kennebecs were by far our favorite.  So this year we bought a 50 pound bag of Kennebecs and planted them in every spare corner of the garden.

Unfortunately, the feed store did us wrong --- the "Kennebecs" weren't actually Kennebecs.  They acted, tasted, and looked more like Yukon Golds, which we really don't like much.  So now it's time to harvest our potatoes and we just don't like them! 

What should we do?

What should we do with our potatoes?

Eat them anyway --- they're better for you than storebought!
Turn them into vodka! (Dubious legality?)
Give them to a food bank. (Dubious morality --- if I don't want to eat them, why should they?)
Let them rot in the ground. (We have plenty to do without digging them.)

Posted Sat Sep 27 08:35:41 2008 Tags:

Nipped basilLast Tuesday and Wednesday night, the outside temperature dropped down to 38 F --- not quite a frost but close enough to nip the sensitive basil leaves.  When I went out the next morning, I could see brown bruises forming on the leaves and knew that if I wanted to make another basil harvest I'd better act fast.

Mark and I grow one bed of basil (about four feet by three feet), which gives us enough of the spicy herb for the whole year.  We adore pesto, which I use as our "I'm starving and need dinner in fifteen minutes with no work!" meal year-round by freezing it like crazy all summer.  Luckily, basil is the easiest crop in our entire garden --- I plant it thick so that after weeding it once it outcompetes the weeds and needs no more care for the rest of the year.  Until frost threatens, that is...
So I got to work this morning snipping off the tops of the basil plants with my garden scissors then whirring them in the blender with walnuts, olive oil, garlic, parmesan, salt, and pepper, before scooping them into individual ziplock bags.  I've read that other people like to freeze them in ice cube trays, but to me that's a lot of work....  Instead, I freeze about a cup at a time --- enough to make a big batch of pesto to feed me and Mark for two meals.

An hour later, I had eleven baggies of pesto ready to pop in the freezer.  There are few things more heartening as the first frost approaches than a nearly full freezer!

Posted Sun Sep 28 12:17:41 2008 Tags:

By the time late summer rolls around, many gardeners are ready for a break.  Others, though, like to zip on into their fall garden.  Fall gardens have historically given me heartbreak --- I either plant them too late, or the deer eat them down to the ground in that critical phase while they're building up maturity to prepare for the frost. 

This year, I worked to solve at least the first problem.  I took a Master Gardener class a few years ago and ended up with a wonderful 600 page reference guide which I am constantly flipping through as I search for information.  I've reproduced one page of it below.  (This version is actually from a factsheet called "Fall Vegetable Gardening" which you can download for free from the extension service website.)

Fall Planting Guide

In case you haven't used one of these charts before, it deserves a few words of explanation.  First you have to find out what your area's average first frost date is --- for us it's October 10.  Write "10/10" (or your frost date) above the "00" at the top of the chart, then each column to the right of that date is 10 days after the first frost date and each column to the left of that date is 10 days before the first frost date.  So, for me, fall bush beans should be planted between June 2 and July 2 and can be harvested from August 1 to the first frost.

As you can see, now that we feel the first signs of fall, it's too late to plant anything except mustard.  However, don't lose heart if you haven't planted a fall garden --- there's always cold frames!  (More on those later --- lettuce in cold frames is one of my favorites!)

Posted Sun Sep 28 20:30:12 2008 Tags:

I am very much interested in wanting to live this type of lifestyle. However I am a city boy. What advice would you give to someone like me?


MapMy first suggestion for someone like yourself is the old phrase realtors throw around. Location. Location. Location. When I'm unsure of what part of the planet I should be near I cover my walls with maps of potential spots.

There are several factors to consider in your deduction process and it can get overwhelming very quickly. Choose your top three locations and begin to educate yourself with as much information from these places as you can handle. Give yourself at least a couple of weeks to marinate in all the possibilities your favorite three might hold. With any luck you may recieve some guidance from your subconscious in the form of a dream, a synchronistic event, or some kind of sign or omen that may help to steer you in the right direction. Plan some field trips to the places in question and start doing some good old fashioned exploring.

No matter how much money you have to spend on such a project, the goal should be to find the best deal you're most comfortable with. Most people in the United States don't realize just how much affordable land is still out there in this country and a lot of it is never advertised. Choose one of your three locations and commit to living there for a month or two. Find an affordable place to rent while you intensify your search for the perfect piece of property that will fit you like a well worn work glove.

A real estate agent can be very helpful and exhausting at the same time. Choose yours wisely and don't be afraid to dump them if you're not happy with the attention you're getting. Investigate the foreclosure properties in the area. Drive around with your imagination open and be on the look out for run down and abandoned properties. Once you find one that may fit your needs go to city hall and look it up in their tax records. Contact the owner and express your interest. Some folk may even offer you a "land contract" which basically means you bypass the bank and pay the owner payments. SatireThe most important part of a journey like this is your intention. It helps to rate your desire for change on a scale of 1 to 10. I would say if you don't score at least a solid 9 on that scale then you should go back to the drawing board and find another top three places to live with for a while. Trust in your intuition and know that time is running out. You don't need to be an economist or a fortune teller to know that something is not right with the direction of this country.

Credit goes to David Dees for the photographic satire.

Posted Mon Sep 29 16:04:43 2008 Tags:
Indoor plantsWhen I recorded the daily maximum and minimum temperatures before going to bed last night, I was shocked to notice that it had gotten down to 33 F outdoors the night before.  So I scurried around in the dark to bring in my most sensitive plants, just in case it got one degree colder that night.

Top of the list was the dwarf Meyers lemon tree.  Mark's mom gave me this tree as an infant at Christmas last year (the best Christmas present I've ever received!) and already it's sporting four baby lemons.  No way I was going to give it any chance of getting nipped by the frost!

Luckily, we didn't get our first frost last night, but I know that it's time to start making serious decisions.  Like --- should I try to bring in one of the unblighted tomato plants even though that experiment didn't work well last year?  Should I move the row covers which are currently protecting my strawberries from being munched onto the bell peppers which are just starting to ripen so that they'll have time to give us more than the three fruits we've currently eaten?  Or should I give up the ghost and pick the dozens of peppers as green instead of red?

Unfortunately, I took last week off, so this week I'm scurrying around to catch up with work for my nonprofit and may have no time to do any of that!  I may have to leave it all in Mark's capable hands.
Posted Tue Sep 30 08:49:34 2008 Tags:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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