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

archives for 04/2009

Apr 2009

SheilaWe rushed up the highway into another world.  Farms are horse pastures surrounded by painted wood fences.  Home prices are slung in bold type on billboards --- "from the high $200s".  I imagine what would happen if life as we know it came to an end while we were stuck in this madness --- how we'd barter the six dozen eggs we'd brought as hostess gifts in exchange for gas to get us home, or maybe would find our way to the Appalachian Trail and eat our eggs as we marched south.

Tuesday night, we stopped to visit Sheila on a thousand acre property on the side of the Blue Ridge --- a breath of fresh air.  I've known Sheila for 8 years, and she hasn't changed a bit, except maybe looking more alive every year.  This is what I want to be like when I reach my 70s, bushwhacking up the side of a creek with the wind roaring through the trees.

Posted Wed Apr 1 14:57:25 2009

April gives a bit of a reprieve from spring planting around here.  Your cold weather crops should have gone in already and your warm weather crops aren't ready to hit the soil just yet.  Here's our planting calendar for April:

  • Rue AnemoneApril 1 - 7:
    • Plant lettuce.  You'll notice that I plant fresh lettuce every month in the winter and early spring --- that's the trick to sweet leaf lettuce without a hint of bitterness.  This is the first planting in the bare soil with no protective cold frame.
    • Start tomatoes and peppers.  Last year, I discovered that my tomatoes grew much better in a cold frame than under a grow light in the house, and this year I want to try peppers the same way.  Cold frame tomato seedlings are used to a bit of chilly weather, have less transplant shock, and are never leggy.
  • April 8 - 14:
    • Take advantage of this lull to start weeding the garden in earnest.  Tiny weeds sure are a lot easier to pull before they put down taproots.  (Or go out and look at the wildflowers like the Rue Anemone here.)
  • April 15 - 21:
    • Set out your broccoli seedlings.
  • April 22 - 30:
    • If you haven't already, take this week to prepare the soil for the big May rush --- form your raised beds, add in compost, etc.

Enjoy the peace and quiet while it lasts --- the first of May brings gardening craziness.

Posted Thu Apr 2 06:57:14 2009 Tags:

Splicing a thermometer sensor cableEvery gardener should have an indoor/outdoor thermometer which records maximum and minimum temperatures.  Especially in the spring, temperature is very important, and your local weather forecast is likely to be off by up to 15 degrees, especially if you live in the mountains.  By writing down the daily maximum and minimum, you can start to figure out what the temperature is really going to be like, and whether those peach flowers need some protection from an unexpected frost.

I admit that I tend to obsess over keeping data like this, so when my thermometer stopped showing external temperatures last week, I felt lost.  I finally took a look at the unit, after days of mourning, and realized that the sensor wire had twisted partway loose.  Totally fixable!  I unscrewed the thermometer casing, cut the sensor wire all the way loose, and stripped the plastic off the two ends of the wire.  The wire was actually two wires, so I carefully twisted one cut end on the thermometer side to one cut end on the sensor side, wound that wire in electrical tape, and repeated with the second wire.  Success! 

Mark's usually the fix-it guy around here, but it sure feels empowering to fix it myself. :-)

Posted Fri Apr 3 08:30:21 2009 Tags:

robotic montageI've often wondered how long it will take to have smart enough robots for practical everyday chores.

The folks at MIT's artificial intelligence lab are making me believe that day may be sooner than I imagined.

Their robots are constructed from modified Roomba vacuum robots, which might not handle the real world gardens out there, but the concept has a lot of potential. They have a promising project that uses a swarm of robots working together to tend to an experimental tomato garden. I think a weed pulling robot could be very handy and fun to watch, but that day is most likely in the very distant future.

Posted Sat Apr 4 06:32:20 2009 Tags:
Anna Home!

bee, peach blossom, garlic, tulip, and rhubarb






Okay, so I promise you a post with substance tomorrow.  Let me just tell you that in the last five days, the farm has turned so green it took my breath away.

We are so glad to be back!

Posted Sat Apr 4 19:28:48 2009 Tags:

Flowers at Longwood GardensBesides catching up with wonderful old friends, the highlight of my trip was a visit to Longwood Gardens on Friday.  I know I blab about plants endlessly, but the truth is that I often get bored by gardens which are simply ornamental with no fruits or vegetables.  But despite being beautiful, Longwood was anything but boring.

Another photo of the beautiful Longwood, and some of its features....

Posted Sun Apr 5 07:44:49 2009 Tags:

garden cameraFinally someone has made a weatherproof time lapse digital camera. It can take a picture every hour for a few months before the batteries need to be replaced, or you can adjust the interval from 5 seconds to 24 hours.

It gives a whole new meaning to that favorite past time of watching the grass grow. Now you can watch the same grass grow over and over.


Posted Sun Apr 5 19:24:27 2009 Tags:
I've been thinking about doing a worm box but I'm a little scared of it. Where do you keep your box? Would it be too cold if I kept them in a garage?
--- Erin

Worms from our worm binI've been meaning to post a worm update for a while, so I appreciate the question.  The savvy reader will recall that we were given a bunch of worms three and a half months ago and made them a low tech worm bin which gave us a bunch of compost tea a month later.  And then I stopped talking about them.

The reason you didn't hear any more about worms is because they are the easiest livestock you'll ever have....

Posted Mon Apr 6 07:24:10 2009 Tags:

Espaliered fig at Longwood GardensWe're just back from five day trip through the urban mid-Atlantic states and what do I want to talk about?  Espaliered fruit trees, of course.  This photo shows an espaliered fig inside the conservatory at Longwood Gardens.

"Espalier" refers to a fruit tree trained against a flat surface, traditionally a space-saving technique used along the inside of defensive town walls in the Middle Ages.  Nowadays, people just think they're pretty, and I agree.  But as more and more of our readers begin to create their own mini-homesteads in small urban yards, I thought it would be worth focussing on espalier techniques for this week's lunchtime series.

Do you have an espaliered tree?  If so, drop me an email with some photos!  If not, stay tuned --- you'll soon be hooked.  If you can't wait until tomorrow, check out this page's extensive gallery of espalier fruit trees or read this longer explanation of the benefits of espaliered trees.

Note: "Espalier" is pronounced "

This post is part of our Espaliered Fruit Trees lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Apr 6 11:01:17 2009 Tags:

April wedding collage
A fun wedding can only lead to a marriage filled with fun. This was a very fun celebration with lots of warm and happy folks wishing Seth and Melissa a ton of love.

Posted Mon Apr 6 18:39:19 2009 Tags:

Peach trees wrapped with sheets to protect them from the frost.It was 39 F at sunset, the forecast was for a low of 29 F, and the critical temperature at which 90% of our peach blossoms will die is estimated at 28 F.  Oh, and did I mention that this is the first year our peaches might bear fruit and I'm dying to taste them?

Yes, I went a little overboard and wrapped both fruit trees in all of our spare bedding.  I filled up 5 gallon buckets and the washtub with water to sit below their branches in an effort to create a microclimate warm zone.  I stopped myself before I got to the point of trying to set up an irrigation system to sprinkle the blooms overnight, though --- I do have limits.

And, of course, the outside temperature only dropped to a very safe 32 F.  It's supposed to get down to 27 F tonight, though....  Only time will tell whether my swaddled peaches make the cut.

Posted Tue Apr 7 07:52:20 2009 Tags:

Espaliered fruit trees at Longwood GardensOn our long drive up the interstate, we stopped at a feed store outside Staunton.  Mark wanted to see about selling our do it yourself chicken waterers in a brick and mortar store, and I'm a sucker for browsing through the fruit tree section.

Along one side of the "outdoor living" section, I was intrigued to find an sapple trained into the beginning of an espalier system.  The tree was probably four years old and had two nearly horizontal branches spreading out from each side of the main trunk (an awful lot like Monday's fig.)

I wasn't planning on buying it, but I was so intrigued to see an espaliered fruit tree for sale that I checked the price tag.  Sixty bucks!!!  I hope none of you rush out to your local nursery and pick up a plant like that.  Stay tuned and I'll give you step by step directions to prune and train your own espaliered tree.

Note: The trees in the photo are more espaliered trees from Longwood Gardens, this time nectarines.

This post is part of our Espaliered Fruit Trees lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Apr 7 12:17:54 2009 Tags:

        snow day collage
We had blizzard like conditions at the Wetknee farm that kept me working indoors most of today. I discovered a bounty of royalty free music on the internet that will work in nicely with the video project I'm editing. It's easy to download MP3 formats, and the introductory descriptions make searching for specific music speedy and efficient.

Posted Tue Apr 7 17:51:36 2009 Tags:

Peeing on a compost pile using a pstyle.Okay, so I figure about 60% of you will be seriously squicked by this post.  Feel free to skip it.

Well, squick-free 40%, you will be glad you stayed on board.  Because two weeks ago I saw an ad in a magazine which broke through my internal ad-blocker software.  "Eliminates the need for toilet paper!" it exclaimed, and I perked right up.  I visited Krista's pStyle website, and before I knew it, I was hooked.

The pStyle is a little plastic cup/funnel which fits between your legs (women only, but guys obviously don't need one) and lets you pee standing up.  Our "outhouse" (such as it is) is a good little distance from the house, so I generally don't wander all the way over there to pee, especially if I'm hard at work in the garden.  Plus, if you pee in the yard, it attracts scads of butterflies.  I'm pretty good at squatting, but let me tell you, there's splattering now and then, and drips at the end.  And, in the winter, it's cold.  The pStyle solves all that.

Once you get over your gender normative reaction, you might come on board too.  Here are a couple of testimonials from other rural livers....

Posted Wed Apr 8 07:46:46 2009 Tags:

Espaliered nectarine at Longwood GardensSo, you want to create an espalier fruit tree without paying $60 for a starter?  Don't worry --- many types of fruit trees can be grown using the espalier technique.  It's really just an exaggeration of the pruning and training techniques you'd use on your free-standing fruit trees.

Your first step is to find an appropriate tree.  Apples and pears are highly recommended (along with citrus if you live in a suitable climate.)  Peaches and nectarines (like the one shown here) are supposed to be more difficult, especially if you want to grow them in a system with horizontal limbs like Monday's fig.  European plums, cherries, and apricots are not recommended.

Choose a tree grafted onto a dwarf rootstock so that it won't try to take over the world.  You'll want to find a one to two year old "unbranched whip" --- basically, a tree which is young enough to only be a trunk with no side branches.  As usual, consider what zone you live in, disease resistance, and pollinators.

This post is part of our Espaliered Fruit Trees lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Apr 8 16:21:16 2009 Tags:

standard hive toolWe finally got around to putting the new bee boxes together this afternoon.

I'm really glad we went the extra mile when we bought the standard hive tool pictured here. I guess we could get by without it, but after using it for scraping the excess wood from the new frames and comparing that process with a knife, I'm convinced this tool was worth the money.

Posted Wed Apr 8 17:30:19 2009 Tags:

Starting sweet potato slips.Irish potatoes can be cut into chunks to plant, but starting your own sweet potatoes requires a bit more TLC.  Tubers are generally sprouted in either water or moist sand, beginning at this time of year.  Each tuber can create a dozen shoots, which are then broken off and put in water to grow roots.  These "slips" are then planted in the garden after all danger of frost is past.

Last year was our first attempt at creating our own sweet potato slips, and it was pretty much an abject failure.  We put tubers in jars partially full of water and watched as the tubers slowly rotted into gelatinous blobs.  Then we went to the feed store and shelled out far too much cash to buy slips.

This year, I've resolved to do better.  I think our problem last year was that the trailer is very chilly at this time of year as we move out of wood stove season.  We wear sweaters, but sweet potatoes are unthrilled by sweater weather and instead require warm room temperature for sprouting.  So this year, we've put a car seat heating mat under the tubers and a space heater beside them.  The space heater only goes on at night when it's really chilly, but I've had the heating mat on constantly since Monday and already a quarter of the tubers have started to sprout!  I'm keeping my fingers crossed, but so far the experiment seems to be doing well!

This post is part of our How to Start Sweet Potato Slips series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Apr 9 07:54:54 2009 Tags:

Three main espalier formsNow it's time to choose your training system.  There are scads of shapes out there to choose from, but they come down to one basic decision --- will your main branches be horizontal, vertical, or at an angle?

Longwood Gardens has discovered that you get the maximum fruit per tree by using a 45 degree branching angle, like the one shown in the bottom picture.  This shape is often referred to as a "fan" and is also one of the few espalier techniques which really works with peaches and nectarines.  If you want your garden to wow the neighbors, though, you might consider creating your own artistic shape.  Just keep the optimal branch angle in mind!

Your chosen training system will help determine what kind of trellis or other support system you'll build.  Walls are a traditional support --- keep the espaliered fruit tree about six inches from the wall to allow for air flow and attach the trunk and branches at intervals with eye bolts or anchors.  Wooden or metal trellises can also be used.

This post is part of our Espaliered Fruit Trees lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Apr 9 12:20:53 2009 Tags:

craftsman mowerThe quest for an affordable mulching mower with big wheels and a bag attachment was completed today thanks to a nice guy on Craig's list.

Lawn clippings are some of the best mulch you can use on the garden, and now we can take advantage of the lush grass that's been growing in patches around the trailer.

I'm coming to the realization that a person can find anything and everything with a bit of browsing and patience on Craig's list.

Posted Thu Apr 9 18:05:22 2009 Tags:

Nail placement on a bee frameNail placement on bee frames seems to be a bit of a thorny issue --- either that or it's just difficult to explain.  The best description I came across is here, but even that one gave me fits.

These photos show my best guess of nail placement.  I put eight nails in each frame --- two in each side of the bottom bar (see below), and four through the side panels into the top bar (see right.)

Nail placement on a bee frame
Note that the top bar is asymmetrical due to removing the foundation-retaining wedge, so the nails which go into the top bar are placed asymmetrically.  Although many websites recommend putting nails through the middle of the top bar, I was sold on horizontal nails for two reasons.  First, nailing vertically through the top bar doesn't give the frame any structural support against the weight of the honey pulling the frame apart vertically.  Second, one website mentioned that nailing into the top of the top bar makes it difficult to scrape the frame clean.

Frame nailing has definitely been the most tricky part of the hive assembly process.  I hope I did it right!  Meanwhile, if you want a bit more procrastination before you begin your work day, you should totally check out this blog entry about the new White House bees.

Posted Fri Apr 10 07:46:19 2009 Tags:

Espaliered fruit treeNow for the fun part --- pruning and training!  Basically, pruning and training an espaliered fruit tree is a lot like pruning and training a free-standing fruit tree.  In both cases, you use judicious cutting to get the tree to branch or change direction, then you tie the resulting limbs into place.  The trick is that you need to stay on top of it --- no ignoring the espaliered tree for eleven and a half months then whacking at it one winter day.  Instead, you need to use winter pruning and summer pruning to create a solid skeleton.  Meanwhile, train the branches onto their support, catching new branches as they form when they are easy to mold to your will.  The best in depth description I've found on the internet is here.

An espaliered fruit tree may take up to a decade to train into its eventual shape, and you should be aware that espaliers will also take longer than a freeform tree to fruit.  But Europeans heartily believe that the resultant plant is healthier and more productive than its wilder counterpart.  I'm not sure I'm ready to give it a shot, but city dwellers could do worse than an orchard of fruit trees trained against the side of their house.

This post is part of our Espaliered Fruit Trees lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Apr 10 12:42:22 2009 Tags:

blue latex paintThe guy we bought the bee hive supplies from had some good advice about painting bee boxes.

He recommends the big box stores of Lowes and Home Depot because they usually have a few cans of mixed latex paint that didn't quite turn out to be the right shade of a color they were going for. These cans are a fraction of what they usually charge.

Most people paint their boxes white, but he points out how they stand out from a distance, and a more appropriate color might discourage the random bee box thief. Luckily we don't have that problem here due to being tucked so far back in the woods.

Posted Fri Apr 10 18:02:28 2009 Tags:

Row cover fabric on a lettuce bed.I swear by row covers.  I use heavy ones on my cold frames instead of glass, which means I don't have to water or worry about overheating.  I use light ones on the deer's favorite foods to protect them from nibbling.  In fact, I could use about forty times as many row covers as I now have.

I used to be able to get row cover fabric really cheaply since folks around here used it to start their tobacco beds in the spring.  But after the tobacco market stopped being subsidized and most folks stopped growing tobacco, row cover fabric became hard to find.  I hate to buy it from online magazines because it's really pricey, and my current stash has been slowly decaying.

But Gardens Alive! just made my day.  They sent me a catalog with a coupon for $25 off your order of any size.  I can get 55 feet of row cover fabric for $1.90 after I add on the shipping and subtract off of the coupon savings.  If you've bought things from Gardens Alive! in the past, you'll probably get a similar catalog --- keep your eyes peeled.  If not, you might be able to order the catalog with coupon online here.  Unfortunately, I can't seem to get the online order form to accept my coupon, but it's worth the cost of a stamp to get so much row cover so cheap!

Posted Sat Apr 11 08:32:22 2009 Tags:

chickens on the roadGary Larson has given me more laughs and chuckles than all other comic artists combined.

His surreal sense of humor has really spoken to me in the past, and I was one of the many folks who were bummed out when he retired in 1995.

The reason he stopped even makes me admire him more. He felt like it was getting repetitive, and didn't want to be trapped in what he called the "Graveyard of mediocre cartoons".

His artwork and punch lines still hit me where it's funny, and I wished more comic strips would follow his lead by making such a graceful exit when they feel like all the good jokes are used up.

Posted Sat Apr 11 17:14:41 2009 Tags:

Marbled Salamander

In April, the garden changes from a world of potential to a real world of accomplishments and disappointments.  I had a little of both yesterday.  The disappointment is that the battered row
cover fabric I'd used to cover my broccoli and cabbage cold frame had tattered to the point it lost its protective powers --- my crucifers are pretty much shot.

First strawberry bloomsThe most exciting positive is the Marbled Salamander, shown above, which I found under a board in the garden.  The first strawberry blooms are nothing to sneeze at either!

I've been sick all week --- too much city last week --- so I only got a chance to put in my tomato and pepper cold frame Saturday afternoon, ten days later than I'd planned.  I suspect the lateness won't make too much difference, but I poured a little extra love on the seeds just in case.

Posted Sun Apr 12 09:31:56 2009 Tags:

bunnies It's that time of year when male rabbits fight other males for the privilege of mating with a female.

The female often turns the male down a few times before she gives in, making the process look a bit crazy and out of character for the normally quiet and reserved bunnies.

This is where the phrase "mad as a March hare" comes from, which might explain why some chocolate bunnies will arrive with an ear missing, or maybe one of the parents got hungry while building a few Easter baskets.

Posted Sun Apr 12 16:42:32 2009 Tags:

Varroa miteVarroa mites are the worst pests affecting honeybees in our area.  In fact, most beekeepers around here will tell you that you can't keep hives without using chemical treatment for mites --- they put in chemical strips religiously every fall to kill off the arachnids.

Of course, telling me I can't do something is like waving a red flag in front of a bull*, so I'm bound and determined to prove my friends wrong.  If you need a more scientific reason to forego the chemicals, you should also be aware that beekeepers are overtreating and the mites are developing a tolerance to the chemical.

One of the causes of our varroa mite epidemic is the foundation most beekeepers fill their frames with.  Foundation is a thin sheet of beeswax imprinted with hexagons to show the bees where to build their comb.  The foundation does a good job of keeping the bees from building crooked combs, but the width of the store-bought hexagons is significantly larger than the width of hexagons bees would build by themselves with no foundation.  The larger cells give the varroa mites lots of room to slip down into the cells with bee larvae and suck them dry, but beekeepers put up with it because the larvae that do survive tend to be bigger and are able to produce more honey.  So what's the solution?

Read other posts about foundationless frames and varroa mites:

Posted Mon Apr 13 08:09:39 2009 Tags:

Our mules.Mark and I spent lunch on Saturday brainstorming our biggest mistakes made on the farm, hoping to come up with five "don't repeat our mistakes" for a lunchtime series.  Between my lack of memory and his optimistic bent, we were unable to list more than three big mistakes  though --- buying mules when neither of us has dealt with equines, planting fruit trees before we had the infrastructure to care for them, and...was there something else?

Then we wandered off into a discussion of the top five things we'd done right as early homesteaders.  Our trailer quickly leapt into the number one position.  I know that many folks consider living in a trailer a miserable failure, but for us it's been a stunning success.  And so this week's lunchtime lecture series is all about the trailer --- how we got it, why we got it, and why we love it.

This post is part of our Low Cost Housing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Apr 13 11:15:38 2009 Tags:

On a bookkeeping note, Michelle is the winner of our spring giveaway!  Michelle, drop me an email with your mailing address and I'll put your goodies in the mail to you ASAP!  I really appreciated hearing all of your comments, and I hope you'll keep commenting even though the giveaway is over.

Posted Mon Apr 13 17:37:49 2009 Tags:

queen bee
The shipment of honey bees arrived early today. They were shipped from Kentucky on Saturday.

We were a bit alarmed to see our separately packed queen was not alone. There were several other worker type bees inside her little cage.

The book never mentions this fact, and we were a bit concerned something was wrong.

Turns out the queen can't live that long without having one of the other bees feed her, and we just assumed she got fed through the holes in her little cage...not true. She comes shipped with enough help to get her through the early days of travel and home building.

Posted Mon Apr 13 21:23:54 2009 Tags:

Befuddled bees hover as I clip lettuce, read in the sun.

Our new winged livestock seem unready to sip nectar, fill their hive with honey.  Instead, they push the grass aside and slip in and out of the tiny hole in their wooden box.

Bees going out of an entrance reducer filled with grass.

They test the air around my body, smelling the sugar syrup I sprayed on their travel crate to calm them.  Maybe they catch the scent of the queen whom I momentarily slipped into my front pocket to protect and keep warm.

I can see the bees sniffing, tasting.  Is it captivity if you choose to live in a painted blue box?  If you choose to accept the ministrations and thieveries of a warm-blooded mammal?  Or is it friendship?

Posted Tue Apr 14 09:21:56 2009 Tags:

Trailer trash.You won't see trailers discussed much in the homesteading world.  Everyone wants to build their dream home, and I have to admit that I began my homesteading voyage with a similar inclination.  I researched strawbale houses, earthships, and cob.  I drew floorplans and crunched the numbers on passive solar heating.

And then I crunched some less enticing numbers.  Using a very lowball figure of $20 per square foot, a twenty by twenty foot house would cost $8,000 to put together, plus months of labor.  Neither Mark nor I was interested in getting a full time job just to pay for building a house, and we knew that if we jumped into the rat-race we'd have to hire folks to help us build the house since we'd no longer have time to do the building ourselves.  When I sat down and thought about it, I realized that what I wanted was to be on the land right away, to be putting energy into creating a wonderful garden.

"What about a trailer?" Mark asked tentatively.  "We could move in almost right away, and then if we want to build a house later, we can."  As usual, his suggestion was brilliant.  A trailer it was!

This post is part of our Low Cost Housing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Apr 14 12:38:28 2009 Tags:

seed might be a solution for those of you out there who want to have a garden this year but already feel like the time is slipping away.

We plant seeds the old fashioned way around here and it's worked out pretty good so far.

The strips are biodegradable and take the guess work out of spacing, which can be a problem with tiny carrot seeds.

Of course seed planting is only a small part of getting started for the year...just keep in mind that a thousand mile journey begins with the first step.

Posted Tue Apr 14 19:40:45 2009 Tags:

MorelsAround here, folks guard their morel-hunting grounds with as much secrecy (though less firepower) than they use on their moonshine stills.  I distinctly remember a friend of mine telling me about the bags of morels ("dry land fish") he hauled out of the woods one spring, adding that there were so many present that he left behind over half of the mushrooms.  "Where are they?" I asked naively.  "I'd love to gather some morels."  "Oh, up that holler there aways," he said vaguely, pointing his chin toward two or three valleys in the distance.

Mark's friendships are obviously stronger than mine.  He came home on Monday with a little mess of morels which he and his friend had gathered together.  Morel stem butt propagationI was ecstatic because I'd been dying to try out my mushroom cultivation techniques, and now I have the raw material to do it.  I cut the stem butts off and slapped them between wet cardboard.  Another fun experiment!

Posted Wed Apr 15 09:13:05 2009 Tags:

Our trailer in the trailer park.Our initial search for a trailer took us far afield.  We hunted through classified ads, looking at trailers in the $1,000 to $2,000 range.  The world was astonishingly full of trailers for sale --- big ones, small ones, trailers reeking of cat pee, and fresh new trailers which seemed as fancy as any home I'd lived in.

Then reality struck.  The price of the trailer wasn't the big consideration; location was.  We were going to have to hire a trailer-hauling company to transport our new trailer and those companies didn't come cheap, so the closer our find was to the farm, the better.  We stopped reading classified ads and started rolling down back roads near our farm.  Within hours, we stumbled across a trailer park fifteen minutes away and asked its proprietor if he had a trailer he was willing to sell for $2,000 or less.

"You can have that one there for free," he said, pointing at a 1960s model, windowless and empty at the edge of the park.  "If you haul it off."  And that's how we found our new home.

This post is part of our Low Cost Housing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Apr 15 11:20:51 2009 Tags:

chicken hoseI modified the mounting on one of the chicken tractors in an effort to simplify things even more. Now there's no need to open the front door when topping off the water level.

Two Avian Aqua Misers side by side give your hens a choice, and it might take them all season to determine which one has the best water.

Posted Wed Apr 15 18:36:43 2009 Tags:

Asparagus bed mulched with grass clippingsOur new mulch machine is the most amazing  lawn mower I've ever touched.  It starts on one light pull, and runs so quietly and smoothly!  Then out of its bag comes delicious clippings which, after drying on a tarp on a sunny day, turn into what Organic Gardening Magazine decided is both the most aesthetically pleasing and the most nutritious  (highest nitrogen) mulch around.

Last year, I struggled to keep the "lawn" mowed.  This year, I'm begging the grass and weeds to grow faster!  One cutting yielded only enough to mulch a single asparagus bed and I've got a couple hundred more beds in need of weed control.  I guess I'll have to hunker down and deal with weeds the old fashioned way.

Posted Thu Apr 16 07:45:24 2009 Tags:

Pulling the trailer into the yard.We were lucky that our free trailer was small --- 10 feet wide by 50 feet long.  Because when we got the trailer-hauling guys to come look at our property, they said a larger trailer would have been impossible to move in.  Even for our tiny trailer, we had to cut big openings in the forest at each curve in the driveway to give the trailer room to maneuver around.  And we had to wait and wait and wait until the driest day of the year when a bulldozer wouldn't get stuck in our floodplain.

My father was never keen on the idea of me living in a trailer, and though I have happily ignored that piece of advice, I wish I'd taken his advice to absent myself from the farm on moving day.  At a rate of hundreds of dollars per hour, I could see my small stash of backup cash slipping away with every hangup.  I watched our crew jack the trailer up so that it could roll across the creek, my heart in my throat, and I gulped as a low-hanging branch ripped a hole in the tin wall.  But, finally, the bulldozer yanked our new/old trailer into the spot we'd mowed for it between the blackberry brambles.  Home!

This post is part of our Low Cost Housing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Apr 16 11:49:02 2009 Tags:

automatic chicken doorMark Frauenfelder had an interesting post on his automatic chicken coop door he put together based on an informative page at

The meat of such a contraption is a device known as a drapery motor controller, which takes the guess work out of when the door stops and starts and has some built in safety features.

Be prepared to spend around 100 bucks on the motor once you get it shipped, and maybe 20 to 50 more on the door and rail system. A remote control is available for an additional 20 dollars, just make sure you keep it out of reach from wiley coyotes and the random fox.
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 Thu Apr 16 18:15:04 2009 Tags:

Bees building a new comb.Yesterday was the big day --- time to open up the hive and see how our new friends are doing.  Mark's still fighting off the plague, so I decided to leave him in bed and open up the hive myself.  I have to admit, I was intimidated by the idea of hundreds of stinging insects whizzing around my head, so by the time I finished up my computer work and headed outside my stomach was in knots.

I got the smoker lit and popped off the hive lids, bees flying in every direction.  After I finally took a deep breath, though, I realized the bees weren't really all that concerned about me.  I puffed on a little smoke, but it didn't seem to be necessary.

All is well in our new hive.  The queen has eaten her way out of her traveling cage, and her workers are already building comb in three or four of the frames.  The foundation strips had fallen out of two other frames, so I fumbled around for a while, brushed the bees off the frames, and replaced the foundation.  I also took out the entrance reducer and moved the sugar syrup feeder to the front of the hive so that I could remove the extra brood box (and see how full the feeder is without disturbing the hive.)

I was a bit too intimidated to really poke at the newly drawn comb and see whether there were any eggs visible --- which would be proof positive that the queen hasn't flown the coop.  I'll check the hive again this weekend, by which point I hope to have built up a bit more courage.  Because, really, I had nothing to worry about.  Our bees continue to be exceedingly gentle.  I'm very glad we chose the gentle Italians, even though they're not as disease resistant as some other varieties.

Posted Fri Apr 17 09:31:07 2009 Tags:

Installing windows in the trailer.Over the next few months, Mark filled the gaping holes in the trailer's walls with double-glazed windows which we'd gotten free or cheap over the last couple of years.  We ripped up ancient carpet to reveal not-too-bad linoleum, hauled out a broken washer and dryer, and mended a few leaks in the roof.  Overall, I'd say we put maybe $2,500 into our 500 square foot home --- $5 per square foot --- and the vast majority of that went to the trailer-hauling company.

There are two major downsides to living in a trailer.  First of all, your snooty friends will sneer a bit (but who cares?)  More important, the insulation is minimal.  However, the positives vastly outweight the negatives.  After our initial startup cost, we can now live on next to nothing.  After all, while most folks around us are paying rent or a mortgage, our housing bill comes down to a measly $200 per year that we throw at the county in property taxes.

I consider the trailer one of Mark's biggest strokes of geniuses because it has let us work very part time jobs and pour our hearts and souls into becoming more self-sufficient.  If you subscribe to voluntary simplicity, you could do much worse than scouring the countryside for a free trailer to live in.

This post is part of our Low Cost Housing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Apr 17 11:34:02 2009 Tags:

cheaper chicken doorHow can I make a cheaper chicken door opener with parts I can find around my neighborhood?

Tom: Ashland, OH.

A car lock actuator is what Rob from uses. He found two electric car lock actuators on ebay for 11 dollars shipped, which is a lot cheaper than the drapery motor controller.

A junk yard might be a good place to find cheap actuators.
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 Fri Apr 17 14:14:40 2009 Tags:
Muddy foot

When my head is buzzing and I can't find the present moment with two hands, I slip off my shoes and take a few steps.  The hamster wheel in my head slows to a halt and I hear a Lousiana Waterthrush's clear notes from the trees above my head.  I feel the remnant of winter coldness in the ground, realize that tree roots are slipping through the mud under my feet.

All of my life, people have told me to put my shoes back on.  I think that Thich Nhat Hanh would have understood, though.  After all, he wrote:

"If you are trained in walking meditation, with each step you can experience peace, happiness, and fulfillment.  You are capable of truly touching the earth with each step.  You see that being alive, being established fully in the present moment and taking one step, can be a wonder, and you live that wonder in every moment of walking."

So take off your shoes and take a step.  I promise you, it's cheaper than therapy.

Posted Sat Apr 18 08:12:20 2009 Tags:

coop door copier partsThis clever design makes use of some salvaged photocopier parts, which brings a more elegant, and futuristic style to the farm.

I still prefer the low tech method of a properly designed chicken tractor, although not everybody has that much green space to spare.

Posted Sat Apr 18 18:29:48 2009 Tags:

Once in a while, I ponder what it would be like to live in the tropics, where I could grow fresh food year round.  At other times, I marvel over the deep snow of the north.  But the truth is that I adore our seasons so much that I couldn't live anywhere else for long.

Yes, this is another spring adoration post.  Trilling toads in the night!  Tulip-trees just starting to put out yellow-green leaves.  White dashes of serviceberry and pink patches of redbud on the hillside.  Dogwood flowers unfurling outside our window.  And the hillsides alive with the, color...of trilliums.

Posted Sun Apr 19 08:18:26 2009 Tags:

actuatorWhile searching for a cheaper alternative to power an automatic door I found this linear actuator that sells for 30 bucks plus 14 for shipping.

It's rated to pull 450 pounds! Which is more than you need for the average chicken coop door, but with a little imagination this device could be used as a light duty gate opener and closer.

You'll need 120 volts of electricity to power it, unless you rig up some sort of solar cell and battery combination.

This could also be used to open and close a window for green house ventilation.
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 Sun Apr 19 17:47:16 2009 Tags:

Countryside MagazineI ran across a new magazine a few weeks ago that many of you may be interested in --- Countryside & Small Stock Journal.  It's put together by the same folks who brought us Backyard Poultry, and it has the same in depth articles and lack of flashiness.  (Think Organic Gardening Magazine in the '70s before it turned into a mass of color photos and ads.)

Countryside is intriguing because of its large section by readers --- a full twenty pages of firsthand accounts from people who're living the homesteading dream on a big or small scale.  The one I read most recently also had an article by a couple who were homesteading in Canada, 100 air miles from the closest town.  Wow!

While Mother Earth News fills a similar niche, Mother is flashier and, after about a year, became very repetitive.  (I keep reading Mother only because every month or two it comes up with a really cool article like this one on biochar.)  I don't know yet whether Countryside will become equally repetitive, but from the breadth of topics covered in the three issues I've read, I suspect not.  If you're the magazine type, I recommend you check Countryside out.

Posted Mon Apr 20 07:05:06 2009 Tags:

I never heard from Michelle, the winner of our spring giveaway.  So I've drawn another name out of the hat --- Maggie!  I know where you live, so no need to email.  Your goodies will be winging their way toward you shortly.

Posted Mon Apr 20 08:05:47 2009 Tags:

Mark and his cousin hauled in the small freezer by hand in the pre-golf cart era.I spent all day Saturday alternating between defrosting the big freezer and reading a book about Alaska.  It was a bit surreal --- as I hacked through the rainwater-turned-ice which a leaky gasket had allowed to engulf my food, I felt like I was single-handedly enacting a spring thaw.

The problem of our leaky gasket aside, the two free freezers we acquired a couple of years ago have been some of our best farm tools.  I was raised on canned farm produce, and I'm here to tell you that frozen farm produce tastes about ten times as good as canned farm produce.  It's better for you too.

So, in honor of the spring thaw, this week's lunchtime series is an introduction to farm freezing.  Stay tuned!

This post is part of our Introduction to Farm Freezing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Apr 20 11:12:37 2009 Tags:

clock mechanismThe guys at have the cheapest automatic chicken coop door design I could find during my search.

It's use of a basic alarm clock keeps the cost low, but I've got some serious doubts on how solid of a solution this is going to be for the long haul.

The complete design is being given away at their website in what looks like an effort to promote their build your own wind generator plans, which are 10 dollars.
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 Mon Apr 20 18:12:29 2009 Tags:
Anna Bee eggs

Bee egg on new combSee that tiny grain of rice on the left?  That's a bee egg --- proof positive that our queen is still in business.

On Monday morning, I walked Lucy, then carried that calm to the bee hive for our second hive check.  The bees were a bit chilly (55 F outside), so I kept the visit quick, sliding each frame up for a look before letting it drop gently back into place.

This time, I felt like I was dancing with the bees.  I didn't squash anybody, and I felt like I could have left all of the protective equipment in the trailer.  I was proud of their hard work --- eight frames were being built on, all straight down despite our lack of full frame foundation.  Pictures after the cut...

Posted Tue Apr 21 07:21:46 2009 Tags:

The freezer in fall, full of produceAs a newbie to freezing, my first question was "What can I freeze?"  I soon discovered that just about anything can go in the freezer.  With our unlimited freezer space, we even freeze things which taste just as good canned ---- like tomatoes.  On a 90 degree September day, when you've got a bushel or two of fresh tomatoes on your hands, you'll probably prefer cutting off the tops and throwing them whole into freezer bags rather than standing over a huge pot of boiling water at the stove for an hour.  I know I do.

I've run across only a few things which I wish I hadn't put in the freezer.  The biggest one is peaches.  Last summer, I bought a couple of bushel baskets of peaches and cut them all up, dreaming of tasting summer peaches on a cold winter day.  But when I thawed them back out, I discovered that the fruit chunks had turned flabby and brown and lost a lot of their delicious flavor.  This year, I plan to can or dry my peaches.

Two years ago, I made a similar mistake with freezing basil and parsley by themselves.  The thawed out herbs were woody and flavorless, but luckily I froze lots of pesto which preserved the fresh basil taste much better.  If you're going to freeze herbs, try freezing them in oil, or just make up some spaghetti and pizza sauces in advance and freeze those.

This post is part of our Introduction to Farm Freezing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Apr 21 11:02:01 2009 Tags:

chain sawI've been having some trouble with the chainsaw and was ready to take it in for a tune up. Anna mentioned how she read in the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of Countryside magazine that fuel with a 10 percent ethanol mix was not good for 2 stroke chainsaw engines. I checked at the gas station and sure enough it had a 10 percent mix of ethanol. It seems like most gas stations around here sell the ethanol enhanced fuel, but I got lucky and found one outside of Gate City on route 23 that advertised non-ethanol fuel.

Some folks will say it's not that important, but all I did was empty out the 10 percent ethanol fuel and mixed up some 2 cycle fuel with no ethanol and my problems went away. This guy suggests that the problem can be avoided by using the high octane gas, which tends to cancel out the ethanol effect. My chainsaw is of the older generation, and I'm going to keep ethanol away from it if that's what it tells me to do.

Posted Tue Apr 21 18:06:49 2009 Tags:
Collage of garden photos.

The garden grows --- peas on the left, then cabbage sets (thanks, Mom!) on the top right, potato sprouts bottom right, and salad greens center bottom.  My garlic is so beautiful it had to get its own photos at the end of the entry (along with our broody hen.)

Weeded gardenI've spent the last couple of weeks starting to get a handle on weeding the garden.  This photo shows the quarter (fifth? tenth?) of the garden which I've gotten under control in the last week.  I figured I'd better take a picture now since it probably won't look that weedless again until winter!

Our weeding method consists of mowing the aisles then hand weeding the rest.  Not the most efficient method, I admit, but hand weeding works for me since I don't have to weed as often as I might if I was hoeing.  Mark dreams of flame weeders, but I just dream of more mulch.

Garlic and our broody hen.
Posted Wed Apr 22 08:15:13 2009 Tags:

Tomatoes frozen whole.My next newbie freezing question was "How do I freeze food?"  With pesto, tomatoes, applesauce, and a few other things, freezing is as simple as throwing the food in a bag and putting it in the freezer.  But you'll want to blanch most vegetables prior to freezing.

Blanching consists of cooking the food for a couple of minutes, long enough to denature the enzymes so that the vegetables will stop aging and will be preserved in the instant of summer freshness.  I prefer to blanch in a steamer, although you can put your veggies directly in boiling water if you'd rather (though you'll lose flavor and nutrients!)  Read more about how to blanch....

This post is part of our Introduction to Farm Freezing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Apr 22 13:05:06 2009 Tags:

golden rag wort and lucySince I've started learning about bees I find myself paying closer attention to what's in bloom and wondering if it's enough to keep our hive of worker bees busy.

You can barely see it in the picture, but the yellow wild flowers to the right are Golden Ragwort, which started blooming last week around here, and can be expected to produce pollen for about 3 weeks.

Posted Wed Apr 22 19:18:21 2009 Tags:
Sugar water feeder for honey bees

Worker bee with full pollen sacs
The book instructed us to feed our bees for the first few months to help them get established in their hive, so I've been dutifully mixing sugar with water and they've been lapping it up.  Yesterday, I pulled the feeder out into the open (it usually sticks into the entrance) because it seemed to be leaking and I wanted to keep an eye on it.  Now I'm not so sure about leakage --- even out in the open the bees consumed a couple of cups of sugar water yesterday.

I notice that the workers who go out on forays beyond the feeder all seem to come back with full pollen sacs (like the one on the right), which I guess means the sugar water is fulfilling their other needs pretty well.  That's the goal --- to give them a jump start as they build up their colony.

I continue to be impressed by how tame our bees are --- I had the lens nearly touching the bee above when I took her picture and I sat a few inches from the hive for several minutes without wearing a veil, and in both cases no one bothered me.  Such good little bees!

Posted Thu Apr 23 08:10:05 2009 Tags:

Freezing chart.Careful notes are the key to freezer success.  I keep each type of food segregated in the freezer and draw a map so that I can find things easily.  Since I clean out the freezer entirely every spring and freeze in clear plastic containers, I don't even need to label my produce.

I do keep a very careful list of how much of each vegetable I've frozen, though.  Using a piece of graph paper, I list the name of each vegetable at the top, then hash off a square for each cup, pint, quart, or gallon (depending on the food) as I throw the day's produce in the freezer.  Once winter comes and I start pulling food out, I cross off the squares for food I've used.  That way I have a quick visual estimate of what I'm getting low on and don't end up eating all of the green beans in December and ignoring the summer squash until February.  Read more about how much to freeze....

This post is part of our Introduction to Farm Freezing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Apr 23 12:06:06 2009 Tags:

block makerFrank Aragona has an interesting company by the name of Agricultural Innovations. They are using technology to promote permaculture and sustainable practices throughout the United States and Latin America.

I was really impressed with the block press pictured to the right. Two people can make an average of 300 blocks in a day using this machine, which works on hand power. It requires a mix of 90% dirt and 10% cement, although the earth should have some clay and other minerals with agglutinating properties.

I just finished listening to episode 49 of his podcast, and if you like this subject it might be something worth checking out. He's got a good speaking voice and I like his style. I give his podcast two thumbs up.

Posted Thu Apr 23 20:42:50 2009 Tags:
Sprouting sweet potato

I thought you all might be interested to hear how our sweet potatoes are doing.  Since we started them a couple of weeks ago, 8 of the 12 tubers have developed roots and/or sprouts.  This is our best looking contender --- both roots and a little sprout.  I have high hopes that we'll be awash in slips in a month when they're due to go in the ground.

This post is part of our How to Start Sweet Potato Slips series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Apr 24 07:05:05 2009 Tags:

Ice problem in the freezerWe're very lucky to own both a huge freezer and a medium freezer, which makes our food operations much more efficient.  In the summer as we become overwhelmed by vegetables, we start to fill up the small freezer.  By late summer, the small freezer is chock full, so we unplug it, plug in the big freezer, and transfer our wealth over.  And we keep freezing more produce, of course, until the big one is mostly full.

As the big freezer begins to empty out in the spring, we transfer everything back to the small freezer.  This year and last, by freezer transfer time, I've realized that I froze too much of certain types of food, so I gave them away.  It's a good feeling to be able to fill your mother and brother's freezers, then give them some extra to pass on to their fixed income friends.  Read my last few hints --- last chance meat and the Berry Syndrome....

This post is part of our Introduction to Farm Freezing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Apr 24 11:34:08 2009 Tags:

ram pumpIf you want to pump water in a place with no electricity you might want to consider building a hydraulic ram pump.

It's a clever design that uses the momentum of flowing water for pumping.

The Clemson University cooperative extension website has a detailed explanation of the process, complete with a step by step process on how to build your own from plumbing parts and a bicycle inner tube for about 120 dollars.

It seems like the height your flowing water drops determines how much pressure you can expect. You'll need at least a 2 foot distance to get started.

Posted Fri Apr 24 20:30:24 2009 Tags:

Firefox eats Internet ExplorerA couple of you have asked me if you can be notified when new comments are posted on a blog entry.  I told you "no", but it turns out that, unbeknownst to me, there's been a way to do that all along.  When you make a comment on a post, you'll notice that there's a little button at the top of the completed comment which says "RSS".  Click there and you'll be able to subscribe to an RSS feed of the comments, just the way you can subscribe to an RSS feed of our blog.  If you want to be notified every time there are comments on any post, click "Recent Comments" on the sidebar to the left, then click on the "RSS" button at the top of the page you get sent to.

While I'm on a technical note, I'm hoping one of you can help me out with formatting our blog in Internet Explorer.  I highly recommend that everyone use Firefox (or, really, any browser except IE) since Firefox is faster, free, and protects you from web-borne viruses.  But I'm aware that the 50% of you who use IE get a messed up format from our blog --- the sidebar looks twice as big as it should which makes the pictures eat our words.  If anyone out there is adept at finding a way to work around IE's problems with tables, please drop me an email and I'll send you our template to look at.  I'd be eternally grateful!

Posted Sat Apr 25 07:18:34 2009 Tags:

bee classToday was our mandatory bee workshop class in Abingdon.

We were both concerned that it might be a long day of sterile instructions in a boring class.

I'm happy to report that the day whizzed by with an energetic and funny expert who is also head of the entomology department at Virginia Tech.

His enthusiasm for bees was contagious, and I highly recommend a program like this for the aspiring bee keepers out there.

Posted Sat Apr 25 16:47:46 2009 Tags:

Open super of honey beesI hear from a lot of people that they're leery of trying to keep bees because of Colony Collapse Disorder, so I was intrigued when our teacher yesterday explained that only about 10% of hive death in Virginia is due to CCD.  On the other hand, he says that about 30% of new hives don't survive their first winter, due to factors including disease and lack of food reserves.  (That makes CCD responsible for the death of a measly 3% of Virginia's new hives each year, in case you're having trouble with the math.)

Of course, you can counteract some of the non-CCD factors....

Posted Sun Apr 26 08:40:29 2009 Tags:
Spring flight.

Sunday afternoon, I caught a colony of ants launching themselves from shelf fungi for a mating flight.

Tiger beetle.

A tiger beetle flew from sunpatch to sunpatch in the floodplain.

Water strider and shadow.

Wading down the creek, I was captivated by water strider shadows.

Shelf fungus against the sky.

(See a larger version of the images on my Imagekind page.)
Posted Mon Apr 27 07:54:10 2009 Tags:
Back garden in June 2008.

What does it take to become a homesteader, to move back to the land?  If you ask ten back-to-the-landers, you'll get a dozen different answers, so I thought I'd share my personal top four. 

But, before I start, I'd like to make a quick list of qualities you don't
need in your quest for homesteading simplicity.

  • Extensive knowledge of agriculture.  I took a class and became a Master Gardener before I moved to the land, but it was far from necessary.  In our current information age, you can learn everything you need to know from the internet and your local library.
  • A partner in crime.  Again, it wouldn't hurt, but it's quite possible to move back to the land by yourself.
  • A nest egg.  Sure would be nice, but we've done fine without it.

This post is part of our Homesteading Qualities lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Apr 27 11:40:09 2009 Tags:

super garlic flame frame

A propane torch has thousands of uses in the world of a do it yourselfer. The tank is usually about 2 bucks and the nozzle should be in the 10 to 15 dollar range.

The picture shows Anna sterilizing some old bee equipment with the power of fire. Someone at our bee class brought up the possibility of boiling such things in large containers of Lye and our instructor's brow actually furrowed. I think a propane torch might save hours of labor in comparison to the boiling method?

Posted Mon Apr 27 17:43:06 2009 Tags:

Honey bees storing pollenSee the yellow stuff in the photo?  That's pollen, which our bees are busily socking away, along with lots of nectar/sugar water.  They also have capped brood already, which means we'll have new adults popping out pretty soon!  With such positive signs in the hive, I tossed another super on Monday to give our bees room to expand their egg-laying and food-storing.

Our sugar water feeder is seeing less use as the bees find natural nectar sources around us.  Bees in the garden kept me company as I planted the first tender crops of the year --- corn, beans, peppers, and basil.  We have five beds planted and a dozen more to go in before the end of the week!

Posted Tue Apr 28 08:35:24 2009 Tags:

Lifting cinderblocks.One of the most basic qualities you need to be a successful homesteader is moderate strength.  You should be able to:

  • Lift a 50 pound bag of feed to your shoulder.
  • Carry a full five gallon bucket of water in each hand.  (That's about 35 pounds in each hand, but you don't need to be able to lift it beyond your waist.)
  • Walk a mile on level ground without getting out of breath.
  • Move around without keeling over in moderate heat (about 85 F) and cold (about 30 F.)

Don't be tempted to assume your partner can do all of the heavy lifting for you.  I'd be sunk if I had to ask Mark to help me every time I needed to lift a bag of chicken feed from the golf cart into the trashcan by the tractors.  He wouldn't mind, but it'd drive me crazy!

If you live in the city and dream of being a homesteader but have no other way of moving toward your goal, it can't hurt to try to achieve those four abilities.  Step outside your climate-controlled office and gym this summer and build up a bit of tolerance to heat.  Take a walk around the block every evening.  You'd be surprised how easy it is to achieve this level of physical fitness, putting you one step closer to your goal!

This post is part of our Homesteading Qualities lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Apr 28 12:51:14 2009 Tags:

pedal powerI made a discovery recently in my search for some accurate and free pedal power details.
is a one stop shopping spot for everything pedal power. The prices seem fair, and the pictures and diagrams are easy to follow and understand.

We acquired an old exercise bike recently and I'm sure we can modify it to produce small amounts of electricity. Thanks to I'm a few steps closer to understanding why a charge controller is important and where the 15 amp blocking diode is wired. The guy who runs the site is Brad, and he only requests a few pictures of your project if you use his plans, and to be safe and take normal precautions.

Posted Tue Apr 28 20:03:29 2009 Tags:
Tiny peaches forming out of withered flowers.

Remember how I wrapped our two peach trees three weeks ago to keep them from freezing?  Tuesday, I noticed that a few tiny peaches are popping out of withered flowers on the bigger tree, but I still don't know if the wrapping did any good.

There are only about a dozen peaches forming, but is that because it's the peach's first year to fruit and it knows better than to bite off more than it can chew?  Or is it because the other flowers got nipped by the frost?

Are the fruits coming out of flowers which opened after the frost?  (There were a few late-bloomers.)  Or did my swaddling and water treatment do some good?

Next time I protect plants from a freeze, I'll keep better notes.  For now, though, I'm just excited that we may get to taste a peach or two from our own soil this year!

Posted Wed Apr 29 06:39:59 2009 Tags:

Sitting on a pile or riprap.Now that we've gotten the obvious out of the way, let's move on to the more ephemeral traits which most successful homesteaders share.  Frugality is right there at the top of my list.  If you're independently wealthy, you can probably live your homesteading dream while also living up to the American ideal of consumption, but most of us will have to scrimp a bit.

I saved for years before coming up with the cash necessary to buy our farm, and since we've moved here we've realized that the farm is still a huge drain on our finances.  Every season, we have new infrastructure we want to install --- first the trailer, then a rototiller, an irrigation system, a mulching lawnmower, and so forth.  Rather than blowing our income on luxury items (eating out, installing tile floors, etc.), we opt to keep our expenses down and save up for the things that really matter.

Many folks believe they need a nest egg to move back to the land, and while that wouldn't hurt, I don't think it's really necessary.  What you need is an ability to distinguish between your wants and needs, to make a budget, to live debt-free, and to save, save, save!

This post is part of our Homesteading Qualities lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Apr 29 11:46:57 2009 Tags:

refrigerated golf cartOur quest for a more energy efficient refrigerator came to an end today at a used appliance store on the way to a muffler shop.

We got lucky and found a small recent model that is rated a bit more favorably than the new one we were considering.

Having an energy efficient refrigerator brings us another step closer to being ready for a practical alternative to the traditional electrical grid.

Posted Wed Apr 29 18:53:28 2009 Tags:

Out with the mold...ahem...old.To energy star or not to energy star?  That was the question when our fridge started to die over a month ago.  Refrigerators are the single largest drain of electricity in most households, sucking up about 14% of your energy usage.  That's money going down the drain and pollutants going into the air.  But could we afford to go green?

You can download a very useful spreadsheet of energy star appliances' features and energy ratings here.  I was curious about whether the label was a marketing gimmick, but perusal of the spreadsheet made it clear that energy star fridges do save electricity, often 100 KWH per year or more.  The problem with energy star is that new models are out of our price range, with the cheapest ones going for over $500.  No one seems to be willing to sell used ones at all.  Read more....

Posted Thu Apr 30 08:12:28 2009 Tags:

IciclesWhile not essential, ties in a community will really help you out as you head back to the land.  I grew up an hour and a half down the road from where I eventually settled, but my parents are from out of state and my initial forays into the local community were met by a steady stream of "You're not from around here, are you?"

My parents moved to this area during a spate of back-to-the-land migration in the '70s, so I did end up making inroads into the ranks of back-to-the-landers of my parents' generation.  Mark --- even though he grew up in Ohio --- seems to do a much better job of gaining acceptance by normal locals though.  In part, I blame his acceptance on his parents' roots in the area --- they and their ancestors lived an hour away from our farm for generations before fleeing the mountains just as my parents were moving in.

Roots in an area are great, but I really chalk Mark's acceptance up to his ability to make small talk.  He's able to head down to the little hardware store in town and talk about the weather at great length --- the sign of a true local.  If you have to settle outside your home county, it's worth taking a little extra time to shoot the bull with everyone you meet for the first year or two.  "Sure was a cold winter, wasn't it?"

This post is part of our Homesteading Qualities lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Apr 30 11:20:27 2009 Tags:

window a/c modificationHow do you make an air conditioner fit into a window that's just too small?

Samuel: Beckley, WV.

Delete the old window, put it away for safe keeping. Build up the empty space layer by layer. Most folks will mount their unit in the middle in an attempt to be symmetrical. I did this last year and missed out on not having a window I could open.

The picture shows an alternate method of tucking it into the corner, which provides more stability and just enough room for a small window/door on the side. Building up the space in layers allows you to use up pieces of scrap material, which keeps the price of this project under the cost of a cup of coffee.

Posted Thu Apr 30 18:07:51 2009 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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