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

archives for 08/2009

Aug 2009

Fall broccoliI've been refraining from saying this because I don't want the water gods to think I'm ungrateful.  But...please...can we have just a little break from the rain?

The fall crops have all sprouted with no problem.  In fact, the broccoli looks so lush I wonder if the plants are going to head up prematurely.  We haven't had to water in over a week.

But the tomatoes.  My poor, darling tomatoes.  They are so plump and juicy and totally green on the vines.  Whenever I talk to my garden friends, our conversation revolves around the lack of ripe tomatoes.  For goodness sake, the ironweed is starting to bloom and I'm still eating last year's pizza sauce!
Green tomatoes
My work pants have developed mildew and the roof has sprouted a leak.  There's so much humidity in the air that it cost significantly more to mail out our chicken waterers this week.  I really could use a few sunny days to dry my laundry and ripen the tomatoes.  Please?

Posted Sat Aug 1 08:17:28 2009 Tags:

Nest eggA few weeks ago, our Barred Rocks stopped laying in their nest box.  Something must have clicked in the lead hen's head, because she suddenly decided it made a lot more sense to lay her eggs hidden back under the weather flap of the chicken tractor.

A quarter of the time, I'd catch the first hen to lay and move her egg to the box, then the other hens would lay in the right place.  Another half of the time, we found the eggs before dragging the tractor across them.  The rest of the time, the eggs got smashed and Lucy got a treat.

Last week, I tossed a golf ball in the nest, hoping it would act as a nest egg and prompt the hens to lay in the right place.  Sure enough, the ball did the trick!  The few times I manage to outsmart them, I'm awfully glad that chickens are none too bright.

Posted Sun Aug 2 09:00:57 2009 Tags:

  diy solor powered refrigerator
Emily Cummins is a 21 year old student/inventor who has come up with a clever and simple way of using the sun to cool things like perishable food and temperature sensitive medications. The concept works with no electricity and can be built with materials like cardboard, sand, and recycled metal.

It takes advantage of conduction and convection to create an evaporative cooling effect. You place what you want to keep cold in the interior chamber and either some sand, wool, or soil in the outer chamber that gets saturated with water. The sun warms the water soaked material...the water evaporates, reducing the temperature of the inner area to 43 degrees Fahrenheit for days at a time. To recharge you only need to add more water once your material gets dry.

Posted Sun Aug 2 20:43:26 2009 Tags:

My garden mentor pointing to her lettuce.I've decided to give up on my pleas for a break from the rain.  We did get 24 hours of partial sun on Saturday which mostly dried three loads of laundry and brought the first blush of red to a few tomatoes.  And then Sunday brought another deluge, filling all of the puddles back up and dripping onto our kitchen floor.

I could whine and complain, but the truth is that the best farmers roll with the punches.  If they get record low July temperatures, they plant more cool season crops.  While I gave up on lettuce as soon as the first heat wave hit, my garden mentor just kept planting and is still eating sweet lettuce.  Time to follow her lead and focus on the fall garden!

Posted Mon Aug 3 07:33:28 2009 Tags:

Disney's PocahantasI have to admit, I was raised on the "Noble Savage" belief that American Indians had a pure connection with the nearly untouched wilderness they lived in.  I spent my childhood running wild and pretending that I was an Indian, not a plain old American of mixed European descent.  My preservation ethic was built in large part on these beliefs...which have now been debunked by the scientific community.

In actuality, evidence suggests that the pre-Columbian American Indians lived in a highly constructed landscape.  Over two thirds of the United States was devoted to farmland, game was scarce (having been hunted close to extinction near settled areas), and forests were young and impacted by frequent, human-lit fires.

Then Europeans arrived and brought with them diseases that nearly wiped out the Native American population.  The suddenly human-free, formerly cultivated landscape gave rise to huge populations of bison, elk, deer, and passenger pigeons, which feasted on corn left uneaten by dead Indians.  Then the forests began to grow up and take over the cultivated land, so that explorers in the eighteenth century reported vast expanses of "virgin" forests.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the deeply human-impacted nature of the American landscape, we have a lot to learn from the American Indians.  This week's lunchtime series summarizes the permaculture implications of Charles C. Mann's fascinating book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.  I highly recommend you check the book out of your local library and peruse it on a suddenly sunny Saturday between visits to the wringer washer, the way I did.

This post is part of our American Indian Permaculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Mon Aug 3 12:00:22 2009 Tags:

  funky chicken combo package

The Graupner Funky Chicken is your chance to really give that troubled rooster something to think about when he sees a super large hen flying overhead. These birds won't be laying any eggs, but they seem like a fun way to enjoy an afternoon at the park while spreading the word on how cool it is to fly a chicken.

Posted Mon Aug 3 18:29:06 2009 Tags:

Egyptian onion top bulbCongratulations, Allie!  You are our new Egyptian Onion winner!!  Drop me an email with your mailing address and we'll pop your top bulbs in the mail.

For everyone who didn't win --- don't worry, those onions produce like crazy.  There will be more to give away next year, and I already know we have surplus snow pea seeds and daffodil bulbs to give away soon.  It was great to hear from you all!

Posted Tue Aug 4 08:02:18 2009 Tags:
Artist's rendition of Cahokia.

Cahokia was an ill-fated, American Indian settlement near present-day St. Louis.  When the city was settled around 1,000 A.D., Indian populations had grown to such a level in the eastern United States that game was becoming scarce.  Luckily, maize (corn) was making its way north from Central and South America, allowing the Indians to replace their hunting lifestyle with a more agricultural one.

Maize One visionary leader realized that changing to a lifestyle centered around maize would require building granaries to store the kernels over the winter.  He figured the best way to go about it would be to create a huge communal granary so that the combined might of the community could protect the maize from depradations by neighboring groups.  Some 15,000 people joined this unnamed leader in his quest to construct a giant city --- the largest north of the Rio Grande --- and to plant vast fields of maize.

Unfortunately, the population of Cahokia grew so large that the water from the stream  flowing by the city couldn't support the city's people.  So the Cahokians channeled a nearby stream from its normal path, rerouting the water to join their existing stream and turning their water supply into a river.  More water!  More maize!  More people!

The Cahokians continued to clear the surrounding land, cutting down trees as building material, for fires, and to open up land to grow more maize.  Eventually, disaster struck.  Heavy storms which would have been soaked up by forest quickly ran off the agricultural fields, bloating the river, and causing floods and mudslides in the city of Cahokia.  A subsequent earthquake was the last straw which broke Cahokia's back.  Within a few hundred years of its inception, the city had dissolved back into the earth.

The story sounds astoundingly familiar.  Clearcutting, stream channelization, monoculture, and overpopulation leading to flooding and ecological collapse --- it could be set next door to my house.  The end of the story, though, is something I only see dimly in modern agriculture's future.  The Indians fled the city and developed a more sustainable agricultural system based on small fields of maize surrounded by managed forests of fruit and nuts.  Maybe those Noble Savages were pretty smart after all.

This post is part of our American Indian Permaculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Tue Aug 4 12:00:05 2009 Tags:

We added anti-deer machine#5 to the upper garden to cover a another weak point in our perimeter. I had to use the cat bowl to get a more full dinging sound. Sorry, Huckleberry....

Just found out today from a neighbor that a large black panther* has been spotted less than a mile from us. Maybe this shield of noise will send a signal to this new player in the woods to stay away from us and our chickens?

*"Panther" is the local word for Mountain Lion. Although Mountain Lions are usually light brown, the half dozen sightings we've heard of locally in the last two years have all been of large, black cats.

We finally solved the deer in the garden problem, and the solution was so elegant we gave it a new website.  Check out our deer deterrent website for free plans!

Posted Tue Aug 4 18:13:15 2009 Tags:

Yellow blueberry leaves in high pH soil.Remember how I experimented with chemical versus organic methods of acidifying the ground for our blueberries?  The results are in, and I'm afraid the chemicals won.

I only had a dozen data points, so the results of my paired t-test weren't significant.  But there was a definite trend toward better health among the blueberries grown on sulfur-treated soil versus those grown on pine-needle-treated soil.  The photo to the right shows one of the stressed plants --- yellow leaves with green veins are a textbook sign of iron deficiency due to high pH.

I guess I'll probably buy some more elemental sulfur to drop the pH in the short term, but will also keep applying pine needles as more of a long term fix.

Posted Wed Aug 5 07:59:01 2009 Tags:

Slash and burn in the Amazonian forestThe Amazonian forest is considered by many environmentalists to be the Holy Grail of untouched biodiversity.  Or it was, until recently when scientists started uncovering evidence that anywhere from 8% to 100% of the Amazon forest is anthropogenic.

Slash and burn agriculture is currently the norm in the Amazon basin, and for a long time scientists assumed that slash and burn was the ancient method of managing the forest.  In this technique, farmers hack a small opening out of the forest, burn the fallen trees, then plant crops in the resultant rich bed of ash.  After a few years, trees begin to grow up in the gap, and farmers move on to cultivate a new area.  Although slash and burn is harmful to the air, the method is vastly superior to trying to till the poor soil, which would ruin the land in less than a decade.  Instead, slash and burn seems to be marginally sustainable.

Amazonian forest garden.The slash and burn technique, though, is clearly dependent on the European introduction of metal axes.  Using the Amazonians' indigenous stone axes, scientists estimate it would have taken about three weeks to chop down a single tree.  Creating a forest gap in this scenario must have been a long term undertaking with long term rewards.

Scientists are now beginning to understand that slash and burn was merely a method that Indians resorted to after disease devastated their populations.  Previously, the Amazonians did hack gaps out of the forest canopy, but into each gap they planted small food crops like manioc between carefully selected tree species.  The trees were the real crop, with the manioc being a secondary addition to their diet.  Over one hundred carefully bred tree species now dot the Amazonian forest with their edible fruit.  In essence, the Amazonians were creating a forest garden.

This post is part of our American Indian Permaculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Wed Aug 5 12:00:23 2009 Tags:

mower drawing patentThe new mower lost its get up and go today, which prompted a search of the internet for some free advice.

Samuel Goldwasser has a fine collection of tips and instructions for the do it yourself crowd. He is of the opinion that most lawn mowers function on a low compression ratio and therefore can do without the high octane fuel.

Our mulch machine just needed a new spark plug and a bit of oil to get back in the game.

Posted Wed Aug 5 17:20:20 2009 Tags:

The year's first tomatoes.Finally!  The first four tommy-toes!  (Yes, I can count --- Mark snitched one before I was able to take the picture.)  They are nearly two weeks later than last year, but are no less delicious for their lateness.

Our butter dealers told Mark that you just have to expect to lose the whole harvest one year in ten down in these bottoms.  I'm a huge believer in diversification in farming --- unless the flood waters come up here and physically wash us away, we're bound to do well with at least a few crops.  The fall peas and broccoli, for example, are growing a mile a minute.

And I believe our luck is changing.  Folks nearby got six inches of rain in a sudden downpour Tuesday, but we only got a quarter of an inch.  Maybe we'll have a summer harvest yet!

Posted Thu Aug 6 07:36:45 2009 Tags:

Terra preta compared to untouched soil.Amazonians also developed a method called terra preta to increase the fertility of their low-nutrient soils.  Scientists estimate that up to 10% of the Amazon's soil consists of this man-made, high fertility, "dark earth."  Terra preta is high in phosphorous, calcium, sulfur, and nitrogen, is rich in organic matter and microorganisms, and has been shown to have elevated moisture and nutrient retention capabilities.  The soil grows good crops too, even hundreds of years after being created.

Although popular articles about terra preta suggest that all you have to do is create charcoal and work it into the ground, terra preta production is actually more complicated.  The Indians mixed charcoal with excrement and animal bones in long trenches when creating terra preta.  The charcoal consisted of charred wood, weeds, cooking waste, and crop debris.  Copious pottery shards in the terra preta suggest to me that the technique may have begun as simply a modified midden heap.

I'm curious about whether terra preta could be the answer to some of our waste disposal problems.  I try to keep our homestead as self-sufficient as possible, and the influx of cardboard from our automatic chicken waterer microbusiness doesn't seem to fit that model.  I've tossed some of it on the worm bin, but am starting to suspect that I'm overwhelming my poor worms with the mass of sodden cardboard.  (Recycling isn't really an option since we live an hour away from the nearest facility.)  Could I use the excess cardboard along with those troublesome chicken bones and maybe even our excrement to create terra preta?  Only time and experimentation will tell.

This post is part of our American Indian Permaculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Thu Aug 6 12:00:22 2009 Tags:

hot hand fridge

Hae-Jin Kim has an interesting idea to harness the waste heat generated by a typical refrigerator. It's not quite enough to function as a hot plate, but 150 degrees might be able to dry a pair of socks or keep a burrito warm? I wonder if this heat could be channeled to a small green house structure for a steady flow of warmness as long as the refrigerator is on?

Posted Thu Aug 6 18:29:21 2009 Tags:

ShiitakesI was raised on the old USDA food pyramid, and even though I know it's not quite healthy, I still tend to plan my meals based on its teachings.  I try to make sure every meal has plenty of vegetables, a bit of protein, a bit of starch.  And, of course, I eat fruit like it's candy.

But mushrooms mystify me.  They have so many vitamins and minerals in them that they are clearly in the vegetable group.  On the other hand, they are relatively high in protein, which means that I might lump them in with meats (where I put eggs and legumes.)  Given this week's massive harvest, I'm tempted to say that shiitakes fill both niches.  After all, we have enough mushrooms this week to cover the entire food pyramid!

Posted Fri Aug 7 08:25:31 2009 Tags:

14911491's summary of American Indian agricultural practices reveals societies full of people a lot like current farmers.  Neither Indians nor farmers aren Noble Savages who live in totally harmony with the land, but we are constantly striving to achieve a more sustainable system.  I hope that recent forays into permaculture show that we are on the cusp of reaching a new relationship with the natural world.

Although I'm a bit sad to see my childhood image of Indians dashed, in a way the reality is much cooler.  I wonder what other ancient, permaculture-like techniques scientists will turn up in the years to come?

This post is part of our American Indian Permaculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Fri Aug 7 12:00:19 2009 Tags:

black and decker drill with shadowI've had this 18 volt Black and Decker Firestorm drill for over 4 years now and it's still as strong and dependable as the first day I got it.

Its taken some serious drops and bangs over the years ...proving itself in the heavy duty tool league at a price well below the heavier brands. I've worn out one battery so far...but still have 2 more that provide more than a day's worth of work at an impressive charge time.

Posted Fri Aug 7 19:32:02 2009 Tags:

Hauling trash to the dumpOver the last year, we've made mountains and mountains of trash, which we tossed in the barn to be dealt with later.  This photo shows about half of the trash, and I'd estimate three quarters or more of it is plastic packaging.

We cut down on our trash by buying in bulk and by using food scraps, paper, and cardboard on the farm.  But plastic seems inevitable.  Milk jugs, styrofoam meat trays, thin sheets of plastic wrapping everything from toilet paper to boxes of tea bags.  In many cases the plastic is entirely redundant, seemingly tacked on for the sole purpose of filling my barn with trash.

The worst part is that plastic isn't really recyclable.  So how can we cut down on our mountain of trash?  The best options I can come up with are:

  • finding a way to buy even more things in bulk
  • growing more of our own food
  • buying less

If you have any better ideas, I'm all ears!  I'm especially interested in ways you might reuse plastic on the farm.

Posted Sat Aug 8 09:27:40 2009 Tags:

pedal power setupThe folks at pedalpowergenerator have added some step by step videos to the free diy section.

This setup takes advantage of an adjustable V-belt, which will cost you 50 bucks. You take the tire off your wheel and replace it with the V-belt to get maximum efficiency from the exerted energy. The Duracell power pack functions as a storage unit with a built in inverter and usually sells for a bit over a hundred dollars. The generator will cost you more depending on which one you choose, and all that's left is the charge controller and blocking diode, which can be had for under 100. I almost forgot the bike stand....which could be made from scrap material or you can just buy the industrial model.

I've been studying different versions of pedal power over the years and would say this configuration is the smartest one I've seen yet. If you add a small solar cell and reduce your use you might just make enough power to get you through the day.

Posted Sat Aug 8 16:52:40 2009 Tags:
Honeybee on a Virgin's Bower flower

The fall flowers are starting to bloom, so I wandered outside to see which plants are attracting the honeybees.  Our worker bees seemed to be flying right past ironweed and wingstem and making a bee line directly toward the Virgin's Bower.

These pretty white flowers are relatives of the cultivated Clematis you might grow in your flower bed, but around here Virgin's Bower grows wild in open, weedy areas.  The vine is currently twined around several spots which I plan to "clean up" this winter --- knocking down the wild plants to make way for some extra berries.  Given Virgin's Bower's attractiveness to the bees, though, I wonder if I should move some into the forest garden to act as a nectary.

Posted Sun Aug 9 08:11:23 2009 Tags:

  micro hydro power in a stream has some exciting new products that allow the common guy to harness the power of a small stream for the purpose of generating electricity.

Their setup will cost you about 3 thousand bucks...and then you'll need to figure out how to store it and get it where you need it.

Not a bad solution for home made electricity if you live close enough to a steady stream of water.

Posted Sun Aug 9 18:48:24 2009 Tags:
Summer pruning peach trees

Remember how I pruned and trained my peach trees to the open center system last winter?  A good orchardist would have done a followup pruning and training in June, but I missed the boat and only just now got around to my summer pruning.  As you can see in the photo on the left, water sprouts had sprung up vertically from the center of the tree, so I had to do a lot of cutting.  Optimally, these water sprouts would have been trimmed back when they were much shorter so that all of that energy would have gone into growth of the main branches.

Last winter's technique of training the tree with yarn seems to have worked very well.  Sunday, I cut off the old pieces of yarn since they were starting to grow into the branches.  (Once again, this would have been better done six weeks ago.)  I was expecting branches to spring back to their former vertical form, but instead they sat just where I'd trained them --- success!  So I added a few new training yarns back in to hold down lengthened branches and called it a day.

Shame-faced plug: Check out our new Avian Aqua Miser website full of information about the home made chicken waterers which fund this blog.

Posted Mon Aug 10 07:24:20 2009 Tags:
So we're finally moving to our little plot of land (an acre in suburbia) at the end of the month. Now my head is spinning and I don't know where to start. Any chance you'd do a lunch time series on where to start when you finally get that homestead rolling?

--- Naomi

Building the fordThat's a wonderful question, Naomi!  The truth is that when I bought our farm, my head was in a similar state.  As a result, it took us years to actually move here.  After that we wasted a lot of time running around like chickens with our heads cut off, trying to figure out where to start.  Hopefully we can save you from making the same mistakes.

Before we dive right into the specifics, I'd like to point you to a previous lunchtime series on the top qualities you'll need to be a successful homesteader.  I'm going to stick to the nitty gritty in this week's lunchtime series, but it's worth cultivating the qualities I recommend there too --- moderate strength, frugality, ties in the community, and pacing.

This post is part of our Starting Out on the Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Aug 10 12:36:41 2009 Tags:
Mark Blight

blight damageOur tomatoes are now just a big blob of twisted and mangled branches in a few piles outside the garden.

The blight took hold pretty strong here. We're holding off on deleting the tommy toe varieties in hopes of getting some more healthy ones before the blight robs them of all their delicate juices.

It was just too depressing to think of watching them die a slow death over the next few weeks. This way we can double down on some fall peas and other Autumn crops.

Posted Mon Aug 10 19:14:02 2009 Tags:

Yellow watermelonFor one week, we ate tomatoes --- a handful of Blondkopfchen tommy-toes, a Cherokee, and a Green Zebra.  Then, much faster than their ripening, the blight consumed the plants.  Walking out our door, all I could see was curling, brown tomato leaves.  Green fruits were dropping to the ground while red fruits were rotting on the vine.

We did nearly everything right.  We started our heirlooms from seed, rather than risking the infected plants in the big box stores.  We fed them well and gave them trellises.  But the endless July rain took its toll, and blight spores found their way to our tomatoes.

Monday morning, we made the hard decision to pull them all out rather than building up our farm's blight spore bank further.  I couldn't bear to be involved, so I begged Mark to do the deed.  Still, I was nearly in tears.  Goodbye, dreams of tomatoes.

Hello, dreams of the best fall crop ever!  We're going to fill the holes with even more fall veggies so that we can, hopefully, eke out our harvest much later in the year.  Although tomatoes are my favorite vegetable crop, I suspect that extra months of fresh peas, greens, and root crops may heal the wound in my heart.  Meanwhile, take a look at this yellow watermelon we had for lunch yesterday!  (I can't bear to include a photo of the blight.)

Shame-faced plug: Our new Avian Aqua Miser website gives Mark's invention space to spread its wings.

Posted Tue Aug 11 08:07:36 2009 Tags:

Fields of broomsedge, while pretty, are a sign of poor soil quality.When we finally moved onto the farm, I had spent years dreaming and planning about what I wanted our eventual homestead to look like.  I was so excited to be realizing my dream that I started planting things willy-nilly, with the result that a lot of my early effort went for naught.  I wish I'd had the foresight to spend a few days assessing my property before beginning on any of the projects.

If I could go back in time, my first step would be to make a map of the farm.  Since most of my property is wooded, I'd just focus on the areas we plan to to farm for now.  Within that area, I'd map existing structures, water sources (well and creeks), power and telephone lines, septic systems and/or sewer lines, and driveways.  I'd also keep my eye out for existing cultivated fields, orchards, or pastures.  Fences are very useful --- put those on the map.

Next, I'd start thinking about the land as a farm.  Which areas are flat or have little slope?  Which areas have good soil or poor soil?  It's very much worth it to send off some soil samples to the extension service to find out if your soil needs help in certain areas.  But you can also learn a lot by just looking at what's currently growing in an area --- blackberry brambles are a good sign because they mean your soil is relatively rich, while broomsedge is sign of worn out soil.  You should use high quality soil for your garden and orchard, if possible.

This post is part of our Starting Out on the Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Aug 11 12:00:20 2009 Tags:

 tomato blight detail

I was talking with one of my uncles on the phone today about this year's blight and he still has some hopes for his tomato crop. His remedy is to clip off the offending leaves stricken with blight, get them far away from the garden, cross your fingers and wait.

Anna and I considered this option...but decided the stress from multiple leaf trimming would set back the fruit production even more.

This episode of vegetable loss has further reinforced my new way of thinking which involves rolling with mother nature instead of fighting her. Not unlike the theme of my favorite Rolling Stones song "You can't always get what you want".

Posted Tue Aug 11 19:43:34 2009 Tags:
trellising cucumbers

Although the traditional three sisters method of growing beans, corn, and squash together worked miserably in my garden last year, I decided to modify it and give the method another shot.  The concept is sound --- the problem was that my vegetable varieties weren't right.  The squash was too vigorous for my sweet corn and bush beans and ended up overwhelming the entire garden plot.

This time around, I'm instead growing cucumbers amid my beans.  Since cucumbers are much less vigorous than squash, they haven't taken over the bush beans.  They did try to run off the sides of the beds, though, so I gave them some teepee trellises to climb.

The nitrogen from the bean roots seems to be doing its job well.  The cucumbers I planted amid the beans are much larger and greener than the ones I planted earlier this summer on their own.  And the beans don't seem to mind the little bit of competition the cucumbers give.  Success!

Shame-faced plug: The new Avian Aqua Miser website is chock full of information about chicken waterers.

Posted Wed Aug 12 08:01:59 2009 Tags:
This is what our long term goals looked like in 2006. They've changed a lot since then, but gave us a good start.

Based on your assessment of the property, it's time to make some long term plans.  These plans don't have to be set in stone, of course, but they will definitely help you prioritize which areas to work on first and will prevent you from having to move your fruit trees three times.

Burying the water line.Start out with a ten year plan.  What are your goals for the next decade?  To grow all of your own food?  To live in a forest garden?  To be running a chicken hatchery as your full time job?  What physical changes to the property will those goals entail?  Break your goals down into manageable chunks and prioritize each one.

Do you plan to build any new structures?  If so, where will they be?  Do you need to bury water lines or build driveways?  These steps will be easiest if you put them early in your long range plan rather than trying to bury a water line through your vegetable garden, the way we did.

If you want to have an orchard, pasture, or garden, it's best to start planning them now.  If possible, plan your trees where they will shade your house in the summer but won't block passive solar heating in the winter.  Gardens are most effective if they are very close to the house so that you can step out the door and pull a weed.  Make a copy of your map and add your long range goals onto it.

This post is part of our Starting Out on the Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Aug 12 12:00:25 2009 Tags:

homemade mechanical deer deterentIts been over 2 weeks now since we've had any deer damage to the garden.

We've got all 5 deer deterrent devices running 24 hours a day now due to the cloudy days we've had lately.

The experiment will continue till the end of our fall growing season, at which time we should know if this is indeed a cheap and long term mechanical solution for the deer problem.

We finally solved the deer in the garden problem, and the solution was so elegant we gave it a new website.  Check out our deer deterrent website for free plans!

Posted Wed Aug 12 20:43:16 2009 Tags:

Centipede in the forest garden.Remember my ambitious plans to construct a forest garden between the baby fruit trees near the barn?  I planted a couple of beds, then the normal gardening season started and the project got pushed onto the back burner.

Since then, I've started a slightly less ambitious method of forest gardening, one that fits in the scanty time gaps between vegetable gardening.  Instead of trying to create an entire forest garden in one step, I've been creating "forest islands" by slowly extending the raised beds around each tree.  Whenever I pull weeds and don't have anything better to do with them, I'll dump a wheelbarrow load against the side of a tree's raised bed.  A few weeks later, the weeds have rotted down into rich soil.

Creating a forest garden island around a peach tree.My oldest peach tree has been receiving this treatment (albeit in a more willy-nilly fashion) for nearly three years now.  Wednesday, I pulled out another mass of weeds and poked around at the humps of soil which now expand out in two directions from the raised bed.  White threads of fungi, a startled toad, and a brilliant centipede all turned up --- signs that my little ecosystem is healthy.

A little judicious shoveling and transplanting later and I've created a forest island there.  I planted comfrey and bee balm under the peach's canopy, and fennel, echinacea, rhubarb, and Egyptian onions further out from the trunk.  My primary goal with these plantings is weed control, with a secondary goal of strengthening the soil using dynamic accumulators, and a tertiary goal of feeding hummingbirds and parasitic wasps.  Of course, I also chose the plants because I have masses of them that need to come out of other parts of the garden.  I'm excited to see how this new forest garden island will take hold!

Shame-faced plug: Create your own unique chicken waterer with our DIY instructions.

Posted Thu Aug 13 07:38:39 2009 Tags:

WormsUnless you happen to have bought a farm from an organic gardener, chances are that fertility should be your first concern when it comes to gardening.  Although I don't recommend that beginning homesteaders do much in the way of livestock, I do believe that everyone should start a worm bin immediately.  Worms take nearly no time and create some high quality compost to get you started.

If you have a half hour per day to put into the operation, I also recommend that you build a chicken tractor with two to five chickens in it.  (Start small!)  You can use the chicken tractor to add fertility to worn out parts of the soil while you start gardening in higher quality areas.
Chicken tractor
Next, start scrounging for free fertility in the surrounding area.  If you live in town or near town, stock up on garbage bags full of leaves in the fall.  If you're out in the country, start asking your livestock-owning neighbors what they do with their manure.  Chances are they'll give it to you for free if you haul it away.  If your farm has a large wooded area attached, you should also go out hunting stump dirt, which is some of the best potting soil around.

Stop and chat with the tree cutting folks and ask them if they will dump some mounds of wood chips in your yard --- they often need a way to dispose of these chips and will give them to you for free.  Be aware that you need to let wood chips rot for a couple of years before using them as mulch.

Building the fertility of your soil is a long term investment in your land.  Not only that, mulch will cut your weeding work in half while increasing yields.  You will have a better garden in the long run if you hunt down fertility sources before planting a huge garden.

This post is part of our Starting Out on the Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Aug 13 12:00:24 2009 Tags:
Mark Brood coop

  new broody hen chamber

Our one Cochin hen is in a broody mood again. The plan is to put her in this new mini-coop sometime tomorrow when we pick up some fertilized eggs from a friend who has a rooster.

I'm looking forward to this for completely selfish reasons. Each time I urge her off the nest and steal her eggs she immediately begins chewing me out with her very harsh tongue. It usually only lasts for a few minutes....but I've always had a problem with listening to angry females on a tyrannical rant.

I installed an Avian Aqua Miser so that she can get to it without leaving the nest. I hope this makes her stay a bit more comfortable.

Read all of the entries about our broody hen:

Posted Thu Aug 13 18:02:25 2009 Tags:

Checking a frame of brood in the honeybee hive.We took advantage of a brilliantly sunny day on Thursday to peek into two of the hives.  The weak hive was still just as weak --- the photo to the left shows how they still haven't finished building on all of the frames in their brood box.  Worker populations in that hive are distressingly low, which means they're not saving much honey and may not survive the winter.

So I popped out an empty frame from the weak hive and swapped it with a frame of capped brood from one of our strong hives. 
The capped brood will hatch out into hundreds of workers who will build up the weak hive's population, and I suspect the strong hive won't miss the new workers that much.

I hadn't thought ahead to realize that the frame of capped brood would be covered with nurse bees tending to the brood, so I got a little bit worried as I carried this buzzing frame to the new hive.  I needn't have been concerned --- I've now read that the nurse bees will be assimilated into the weak hive with no problems.

The strong hive was not thrilled at having their lives interrupted during such a big honey flow, so I made my inspection as fast as possible and got out.  No stings this time, though --- I'm so glad not to have to be inspecting on a cloudy day when the hive is crowded!

Shame-faced plug: The Avian Aqua Miser poultry waterer works great for turkeys and ducks as well as chickens.

Posted Fri Aug 14 07:30:45 2009 Tags:

IrrigationIf you're like me, planning is fun but you really want to start eating your own tomatoes ASAP.  My gardening advice for beginning homesteaders is --- think big, start small.

You will be a lot happier in the long run if you spend most of your energy the first year working on garden infrastructure.  Plan permanent paths based on nodes, and make sure that your paths are wide enough.  I've found that paths between garden beds should be about three feet wide to give me room to easily maneuver a wheelbarrow, lawnmower, and garden cart through them.

Think about irrigation from the beginning.  We started planting before we had any way to get water to our crops, so we ended up hauling water in five gallon buckets from the creek.  Don't repeat our mistakes --- check out our irrigation series for more information.

Raised bedsChances are you're going to have to deal with deer or other animals nibbling your crops.  If you have a small garden, go ahead and put in the time up front to build a fence.  If your garden is going to be large, like ours, now's the time to start experimenting with deer deterrants the way Mark has.  There is nothing worse than waking up one morning to find out that your carefully tended garden has been eaten overnight.

When you are ready to plant, I highly recommend building wall-less raised beds.  Or, if you have access to the materials, build no-till raised beds to protect your soil ecology.  Raised beds are very energy intensive at first, but they're good for your garden and will also force you to start small.

You may also be dreaming of fruit trees.  It can't hurt to put in a few your first year, but make sure that you have time to take care of the ones you put in.  It's better to build a really good raised bed for one tree the first year than to hastily throw ten trees in the ground and watch them all die.

This post is part of our Starting Out on the Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Aug 14 12:00:27 2009 Tags:

  Cochin's new brood chamber

It was a smooth transfer from the chicken tractor to the mini coop.

We picked 15 of the best looking fertilized eggs for our Cochin to adopt as her own. Now we wait a few weeks to see how dedicated she is to bringing in the next generation of egg layers and broilers.

Read all of the entries about our broody hen:

Posted Fri Aug 14 19:58:23 2009 Tags:

Praying mantis lunchIt looks like butterflies aren't the only insects who like our echinacea.  I caught this praying mantis in the act of consuming a butterfly from the head down yesterday afternoon.  Yum!

Shame-faced plug: Mark's invention is built around a device called a chicken nipple.  Sometimes I think he invented our waterers just because he liked the name.

Posted Sat Aug 15 09:07:56 2009 Tags:

Lucy, a Chesapeake Bay RetreiverEventually, every homesteader will be faced with the thorny issue of livestock.  Chances are that your homesteading dreams included lots of animals giving you fresh milk, eggs, and meat.  The reality, though, is that animals can use up your time so quickly that you're working for them instead of vice versa.

My first piece of advice for new homesteaders is to make a distinction between pets and livestock.  Use your own judgement on the pet front --- we love our cats and dog and believe that the time we put into them is totally worth it for our own mental stability. 
We don't even pretend that our pets pull their weight on the farm with their limited mouse-catching and deer-chasing abilities.  But we also know that having more than our current two cats and one dog would be too much for us to handle.

HoneybeesIn the world of livestock, as I mentioned earlier I do recommend that all homesteaders start out with a worm bin.  Most homesteaders will also be able to handle a few chickens either their first or second year, especially if they are careful to start small.  If you are big honey eaters the way we are, I would recommend getting honeybees around year two or three, once you're established and have a bit of time to devote to their care.

MuleWhat about bigger animals?  We divide larger livestock into three main categories --- draft animals, dairy animals, and meat animals.  Due to our own failed experience with mules, I recommend that unless you've had experience with draft animals in the past and have at least an hour a day to devote to them, you save draft animals for later (if ever.)  To me, dairy animals are in the same boat --- you need to be willing to be tied down twice a day for the rest of your life.  (With just our pets, chickens, bees, and worms, we can go out of town for a few days without needing to find a farm-sitter.)

If you want to branch out beyond worms, bees, and chickens, I would start with meat animals.  Even so, I wouldn't consider embarking on the project unless I had a good pasture and a place to store hay for the winter.  Small meat animals like poultry and rabbits might fit into year three or four of your ten year plan, but I suspect that larger animals would be closer to year nine or ten.

Of course, as with all parts of your homesteading plan, you should decide what's most important for you.  If all you've ever dreamed about is having a milk cow, then by all means move it up to year two and put off the garden until year four.  After all, the best part of a homestead is the way it allows you to choose your own adventure.  Don't forget to have fun!

This post is part of our Starting Out on the Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Sat Aug 15 12:00:22 2009 Tags:
Anna A new hope

A volunteer tomato with green fruitsWe didn't really completely give up on tomatoes for the year, despite pulling out our blighted tomato plants on Monday.  The saving grace of tomatoes is that they come up prolifically from seed, so every garden tends to have volunteers.  Ours is no exception.

I tied up the best volunteers who were already in okay spots --- beside the pear tree and in the berry patch, far from the blighted tomatoes.  Then Mark transplanted some younger volunteers to garden beds.

I even started a few tommy-toes from seed.  I figure we probably don't have time for them to bear before the fall frost, but it's worth a shot!

Shame-faced plug: Lots of our customers have started using our DIY kits to make chicken bucket waterers to water up to 50 birds.

Posted Sun Aug 16 08:07:18 2009 Tags:

Diy brood box animationWe tried incubating some eggs with an incubator a couple of winters back and didn't have any to make it because the outside temperature was fluctuating too much. has a nice set of free plans to make your own brood box for the typical Styrofoam incubator.

If I didn't have the Cochin hen to do most of the mothering work I'd be building one of these to get ready for operation brood.

Posted Sun Aug 16 19:55:36 2009 Tags:

Sweet potato flowerOne of our sweet potato plants started blooming last week, clearly illustrating the plant's relationship to morning glories.  I'd never seen sweet potato flowers before, so I poked around on the web to see if I should cut off the blooms the way you do with garlic.

It turns out that sweet potato flowers are extremely unusual, and are actually in pretty high demand.  Since sweet potatoes are propagated vegetatively, it's hard to develop new varieties.  Blooms add an element of randomness to the plant's reproduction --- a lot of the seeds will probably turn into shoddy or mediocre plants, but one of the seeds might just turn out to be the next best thing in sweet potato land.

Scientists have tried a lot of tricks to get sweet potatoes to flower, and one of the most effective seems to be high humidity combined with damp soil.  Check!  Another method they've tried involves clipping off the ends of sweet potato vines, hoping to stimulate apical bud growth.  Since the deer got in and nibbled our sweet potatoes once before we added a deer deterrent to that part of the garden, we accidentally used that method too.

I plan to collect the seeds from our sweet potato flowers and give them a shot next year.  Maybe we'll develop a new variety of sweet potato and name it after Huckleberry!

Shame-faced plug: To me, the best part of the Avian Aqua Miser is that it's an automatic chicken waterer.  If you put a couple in a small tractor, you won't have to worry about water for days on end.

Posted Mon Aug 17 07:59:27 2009 Tags:

American Hazelnut fruitsLast winter when I started reading and dreaming about forest gardens, I put hazels on my list of possible forest garden plants.  I was  primarily interested in the shrub because I knew we had wild hazels growing in young areas of the woods nearby, where the honeysuckle tends to strangle them every year and prevent them from fruiting.  The fact that Mark and I are addicted to Nutella, and that hazels can grow well in partial shade, also added to my interest.

I kept considering transplanting some of the strangled shrubs out of the honeysuckle and into the forest garden.  I never got around to it, though, because I wasn't sure if I should devote precious garden space to unproven wild plants, or if I should find a cultivated version instead which might bear more nuts.  Last week, I finally took an hour to research hazels, and I found so much information I had to turn it into a lunchtime series.  Stay tuned and be prepared to end up as enthused as I am.

This post is part of our Hybrid Hazelnut lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Aug 17 12:00:23 2009 Tags:

homemade cat screen doorI tried to find something like this in the pet department of the big store I was in last week and struck out.

It's just a compilation of 5 scrap pieces of wood and a folded over flap of screen material. A notch on the right side with a dab of glue seems to be enough to anchor it to the screen frame. I hope our cats are smart enough to adapt to a proper pet entrance which can be easily closed down at night by shutting the window.

Posted Mon Aug 17 16:34:20 2009 Tags:
Anna Farm news
A farm supper and watermelon seeds

There's so much going on here on the farm that I can't for the life of me choose a single thing to post about.  We're still eating all garden meals whenever possible, and I've discovered that I suddenly like omelets with Egyptian Onion greens in them.  Our ever-bearing raspberries are starting to fruit again, which turns the meal into a feast.

I'm also getting a bit more serious about seed-saving.  We've never had a good crop of watermelons before, so this year we tried out four varieties.  The most successful and prolific was Sugar Baby, which is billed as being both disease and drought resistant.  I'm hoping it didn't cross with its less prolific neighbors and that these seeds will give us an equally exciting crop next year.

Brooding hen and broccoli

Meanwhile, the abnormally cool and rainy July has tempted my broccoli to start heading up in August.  The bug damage has been minimal and I staggered my plantings so I expect to be eating broccoli for several weeks once this one is ready.  Finally, a success  big enough to outweigh our potato and tomato failures!

Our broody hen has settled in for the duration.  She did hop off the nest for a couple of minutes on Monday to eat her breakfast, but otherwise has barely moved.  It seems like she has the entire farm's biological clock energy.  We'll enjoy eating the fruits of that energy this fall and winter.

Shame-faced plug: Our DIY kits include information on how to make a chicken waterer for as low as $1 per bird.

Posted Tue Aug 18 08:31:10 2009 Tags:

Eastern Filbert BlightMy primary question about hazels was --- is there a more prolific, cultivated variety that I should plant instead of the wild shrubs growing around my yard?

The answer is that here in the eastern U.S., we have both Beaked and American Hazelnuts, but both of these wild species produce small nuts in thick shells.  In contrast, all of the hazelnuts we buy in the store are a completely different species of hazelnut --- European Hazelnut --- which has big seeds and thin shells.

Unfortunately, we can't just grow European Hazelnuts here.  The European species is very sensitive to an American disease known as Eastern Filbert Blight, which you can see in the photo above.  If you try to grow European Hazelnuts in the eastern U.S., your shrubs will wither away.  Only American and Beaked Hazelnuts are able to resist the fungal infection.

Is there a solution to the small nut vs. dead shrub dilemma?  You bet!

This post is part of our Hybrid Hazelnut lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Aug 18 12:00:34 2009 Tags:

Small onionsOur garden learning curve has been steep this year --- that's my new way of looking at our copious failures.  Last year, I tossed onion seeds in the ground, watched them grow like crazy until they were as big as storebought, then ate them until Valentine's Day.

This year I rotated to another part of the garden, planted twice as many beds, and expected to eat onions for a solid year.  Instead, we ended up with a slightly lower volume of harvest and much smaller onions.  What happened?

I'm starting to realize that some crops (like onions and potatoes and, to a lesser extent, carrots) just don't like heavy clay.  We have three different garden patches, one with excellent loam, one with mediocre loam-clay mix, and one that's pretty much all clay.  I grew our onions in the excellent loam last year and in the nasty clay this year, with predictable results.  Next year, I'll have to be sure to put my root crops in the loam where they'll excel and leave the clay for veggies like greens and peas who don't really care what their soil's like.

Shame-faced plug: I usually make our DIY chicken waterer kits while Mark makes the ready-to-go waterers.

Posted Wed Aug 19 08:00:38 2009 Tags:

Hybrid hazelnutsMany of you have probably heard of the breeding experiments currently underway to cross American Chestnuts with Chinese Chestnuts and hopefully develop a hybrid that can be reintroduced to the woods without succumbing to the chestnut blight.  Scientists are taking a page out of the chestnut project book by crossing American, Beaked, and European Hazelnuts, hoping to develop a hazel variety resistant to the Eastern Filbert Blight but capable of producing high quality nuts.

Efforts have been underway for twenty years, and the hybrid hazelnuts are finally beginning to bear fruit.  According to Badgersett Research Farm and the Arbor Day Foundation, the results are delicious!  Good quality nuts, thin shells, and disease resistance --- just what I was looking for.

This post is part of our Hybrid Hazelnut lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Aug 19 12:00:33 2009 Tags:

 white cochin hen and egg company

It would seem that 15 eggs is one egg too many for our broody Cochin hen to sit on because she ate one the other day bringing the total down to 14.

You might want to consider leaving the empty egg shell in there with her for safe keeping.....unless you need to know what it feels like when a chicken's beak bites down on a human finger.

Read all of the entries about our broody hen:

Posted Wed Aug 19 18:57:50 2009 Tags:
Honeybee gathering pollen from ragweed

A couple of weeks ago, my mom came to visit.  As I took her on the grand tour of the garden, she looked toward the back of the trailer where tall annuals had grown up over the roof.  "What are those beautiful plants?" she asked in awe.

"That's ragweed," I answered, and hurried her on by, to a more manicured area of the yard.  The truth is that we have patches of ragweed growing all around, wherever it's hard to mow.  I'd been meaning to pull them out...until yesterday when I noticed that they are our honeybees' new favorite plant!

Busy honeybee hive and a fly on ragweedAll of that pollen which makes ragweed the bane of allergy sufferers also means that honeybees can load up on winter protein with ease.  I was first alerted to their activity when the bees' buzzing broke into my weeding trance Wednesday morning.  I stopped to watch as the worker bees brushed their hind legs together, pushing pollen into the bright yellow sacs at the base of their legs.  I even noticed other insects visiting the ragweed, like the little fly in the skinny photo to the right.

The picture on the far right is an example of what our three strong hives look like during sunny days when there's a good nectar or pollen flow.  The first time I noticed this, I thought something was wrong, but the truth is that it's merely a bee version of rush hour congestion.  I guess I'll have to leave some ragweed around after this --- good thing neither Mark nor I has allergies!

Shame-faced plug: Check out the chicken waterers which fund this blog.

Posted Thu Aug 20 07:28:18 2009 Tags:

Hazelnut oilI started this adventure merely searching for a tasty hazelnut to plant in the understory of my forest garden, but the researchers who produced the hydrid hazel have loftier ambitions.  They figure hazels can produce food for people, a new cash crop for farmers, a high protein feed for livestock, and an efficient way to make biofuel.  The scientists even promise that planting woody hazels instead of the usual annual vegetable crops will help combat global warming.

I'm most intrigued by the potential to produce hazelnut oil.  As long-time readers probably know, we've been interested in the idea of making our own cooking oil for a while.  We had settled on sunflowers as the easiest crop to turn into oil on our farm, but now I'm starting to wonder if hazelnuts wouldn't be easier.  Hazelnuts have the definite advantage over sunflowers of being perennials which need less care after the initial planting.  And even though deer and squirrels love hazelnuts, birds are less attracted to them than to sunflowers --- our sunflower crop this year went into the bellies of birds.

Producing our own oil is a long term goal which will require several steps, but it wouldn't hurt to start growing hazels as a potential source of oil.  After all, hazelnut oil has a nearly identical nutritional makeup compared to the healthy olive oil.

This post is part of our Hybrid Hazelnut lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Aug 20 12:00:28 2009 Tags:

nice hive mind artworkI was picking up some bee hive supplies today and heard a weird tale of some unusual honey bee activity from the owner Ken.

He's got a group of 7 hives that seem healthy but have not produced any honey this year. They have over 6 acres of clover to work with along with their neighboring hives which seem to be doing fine. The local inspector was giving him a visit just before I got there and the mystery had him stumped as well.

Maybe it's the quality of the clover, and maybe it's connected to the reason why hay fields around here only got one good cutting this year?

Posted Thu Aug 20 20:27:19 2009 Tags:

Mammoth Melting Sugar and Sugar Daddy PeasOne month after putting our first set of fall peas in the ground, differences between varieties is extremely apparent.  Usually we just plant Mammoth Melting Sugar snow peas and some random kind of shelling pea (I'm still choosing my favorite variety there.)  But on a visit to Ohio, Mark fell in love with sugar snap peas, so I added a third type --- Sugar Daddy.

The photo to the left shows the massive size difference between the Mammoth Melting Sugar peas (behind the trellis) and the Sugar Daddy peas (in the foreground.)  Yup, the snow peas are already four times as big when planted in the same ground at the same time!  None of the peas are supposed to start bearing fruit until nearly October, but our snow peas look like they might start flowering any second.  I sure do love our prolific and delicious Mammoth Melting Sugar peas.

Shame-faced plug: Check out the chicken waterers which fund this blog.

Posted Fri Aug 21 09:05:27 2009 Tags:

Young hybrid hazelnutsAfter learning about all of the benefits of the new hybrid hazels, I had to go out and buy one.  A quick search of the internet turned up two options.  If I was willing to buy at least $75 worth of shrubs, I could get proven hybrids for $3 apiece from Badgersett Farms.  I was sorely tempted, but twenty plus shrubs seemed to be a bit too much for us to handle.

Instead, I joined the Arbor Day Foundation's Hazelnut Project for $20 and will soon receive my three "free" bushes.  On the down side, these bushes are experimental and may not have the proven results I would have gotten from Badgersett Farms.  On the up side, I'll be participating in a scientific experiment, seeing how new hazel varieties grow in different parts of the U.S.  I'll look forward to seeing how the hybrid hazelnuts integrate into our forest garden.

This post is part of our Hybrid Hazelnut lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Aug 21 12:00:41 2009 Tags:

  Lucy near the boxes with a smile

Time to put together the 4 supers I picked up yesterday.

I wonder if some Gorilla glue might work as a quicker substitute to the old fashioned tiny nails that sometimes cause a crack in the wood when being hammered in?

Posted Fri Aug 21 20:29:09 2009 Tags:

Lucy Pringle photoIf you have ever wanted to know more about the mechanics of the mind and how consciousness works then you might find a new website I discovered a few months ago of great value.

It's a husband and wife team that have struck out on their own with what they call the Conscious Media Network. They interview authors of books in the growing field of consciousness and awareness and varying degrees of finding the truth. They have hours and hours of interviews going back to 2005 and it's all free at this time. You need to become a member to view the interviews the same month they come out, but the archives are generously offered as a gift to the public. I've heard enough really good free interviews that I'll probably get around to sending them a donation as a show of gratitude for a job well done.

Each interview is like a juicy sample snack of what new and or old concept the author is exploring in their book or documentary. It's a great way to taste a book and its essence before dedicating your valuable time and resources to actually obtaining the book and finding the time to read it. I dare anyone out there to listen to the Bob Dean or Jim Marrs interviews of the most far out and fantastic material out there and try to dismiss what they're saying as "fantasy" or "crackpottery". If anything it's going to really make you think...Question Everything is the Conscious Media Networks motto and it's a simple way to sum up this kind of search for truth at its most fundamental level.

Posted Sat Aug 22 20:02:57 2009 Tags:
Teasel and zinnias
I've been feeling autumn looming all week.  Don't get me wrong --- I love autumn --- but on the farm autumn means that winter will be here soon.  No more drifting through summer.  It's time to get serious about stocking up the harvest, burying our water line the rest of the way, finding firewood, and building our shed.

For this weekend, though, I'm just enjoying the floral abundance.  The seeds I tossed in the ground this summer are finally starting to bloom, like the brilliant red zinnia on the right.  At the edges of the woods, goldenrod, joe-pye-weed, wingstem, thistles, jewelweed, and ironweed are blazing.

In the garden, we're eating our first crisp lettuce with none of the summer bitterness.  Butternut squash vines are dying back as sugars concentrate in their fruits and the last of our staggered corn plantings is starting to tassle.  Even the air is starting to smell of autumn --- that first tang of falling leaves.  The dog days of summer are over.  It's all downhill from here.

Shame-faced plug: Check out the chicken waterer that funds this blog.

Posted Sun Aug 23 08:58:08 2009 Tags:
When will you start getting honey from your hives?
                --- various people including my mother and friends

Harvesting honeyLike many aspects of homesteading life, beekeeping is a long term endeavor.  A new package of honeybees is a very small colony, and they spend a lot of their energy in the first year beefing up into a regular size colony.  If you do everything right, they'll put away enough honey to get through the winter, but they won't have much to spare.  So, we don't plan to harvest any honey until next fall.

Many American beekeepers harvest a lot of honey immediately, planning to feed their bees sugar water or corn syrup to keep them going through the late winter and early spring.  We did feed our new package bees sugar water, but I consider sugar water feeding a last ditch effort afterwards.  My gut reaction is that sugar water for honeybees is a lot like corn chips for humans --- tasty, but not fulfilling all of their nutritional needs.  Instead, I want to overcompensate and make sure they have plenty of honey to last them until the first nectar flow next spring.

I read on one website that the modern tradition of harvesting honey in late summer or early autumn is a recent invention.  Supposedly, beekeepers traditionally harvested honey in mid spring after the first nectar flow began so that the beekeeper could be sure that the honey they were taking was truly excess.  Of course, you can't do this if you use chemical mite control over the winter, but otherwise this option seems to make a lot of sense.

Shame-faced plug: Check out the chicken waterer that funds this blog.

Posted Mon Aug 24 07:42:16 2009 Tags:

Lucy, our chesapeake bay retreiverAfter television watching, our number one pet peeve with American society is probably dog care.  Most dogs we meet are neurotic and/or out of control.  We're not saying that Lucy is the best dog in the world (well, Mark might say that....), but she is a pleasure to be around and makes life on the farm easier.

Lucy keeps predators out of the yard, sits patiently as we eat outside, doesn't hurt our cats and chickens, and only gnaws on gloves now and then.  This week's lunchtime series is a brief look at quick and dirty techniques you can use to turn your pampered pet into a working member of the farm without any inhumane treatment or expensive dog obedience courses.  Chances are your dog will end up happier too.

This post is part of our Training a Farm Dog lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Aug 24 12:00:26 2009 Tags:

  Frame perch update

I made a slight improvement to the home made frame perch tool by drilling an additional hole on the L brackets for another screw. It's more solid and has less wiggle room between the frame box and the tool.

It did the job with no problems today during its first field test.

Posted Mon Aug 24 20:17:52 2009 Tags:

  home made frame perch diyframe perch animation

I almost bought one of those fancy metal frame perch tools the other day at the bee keeping supply store. What stopped me was my cheapness. I thought there might be a less expensive way to make one with a couple of L brackets, some scrap wood, and no welding.

Posted Mon Aug 24 20:20:52 2009 Tags:

Golden Muscat grapesOne of the hardest parts of running a homestead is killing.  It took us quite a while to wrap our heads around killing our chickens...but it seems to be taking me even longer to wrap my head around pulling out perennials which just aren't functioning properly.

Monday, I realized that we had ripe grapes on one of the Golden Muscat vines we put in this spring in the well-drained soil of the mule garden.  The grape vines there, despite being less than a year old, have grown rapidly until their tendrils nearly touch the next plant over along the trellis.

The mule garden grapes' exuberance makes it hard to continue ignoring the sad state of the grapes along the driveway.  These grapes are anywhere from one to three years old, but none have ever fruited. Most of the vines there are French hybrids, so the Japanese beetles have eaten the leaves down to lace despite my thrice-weekly picking.  Their decline is exacerbated by soil that is pure clay where water puddles during wet weeks.

And yet, even though my mule garden grapes have done more in one year than these grapes have done in three, I have a hard time pulling the driveway grapes out.  Why is it easier for me to kill a spare rooster or bottom of the pecking order hen than to kill a grape vine?

Shame-faced plug: Check out the chicken waterer that funds this blog.

Posted Tue Aug 25 07:48:14 2009 Tags:

Lucy sits before her walkWe based our extremely simple dog training regimen on Cesar Millan's book Cesar's Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems.  The entire book can be broken down into a couple of paragraphs --- Cesar argues that dogs are naturally pack animals with one leader and a lot of followers.  Rather than training your dog lots of fancy tricks to get her to do what you want, you only need to make her understand that you are the pack leader.  Then be sure that your pet also gets plenty of exercise and you'll have a well-behaved dog.

Cesar solves both the pack leader and exercise problem with one simple answer --- walk your dog.  Sounds simple, but most people (including us before we read the book) do it all wrong.  When you walk your dog correctly, she should be walking at your side or behind you --- you're in charge of determining where you're going and how fast you're going.  The dog shouldn't be stopping to sniff and pee unless you decide to stop and let the dog sniff and pee.  The goal is to get the dog used to following your lead and looking to you for directions.

The correct way to walk a dog.Cesar recommends that your dog should have an hour of exercise a day.  We are a bit more lax than that --- I generally walk Lucy in the morning for about 20 minutes and Mark generally walks her in the evening for about 20 minutes.  If she were cooped up indoors all day, though, rather than able to run around on the farm, we'd probably have to walk her longer.

Food is also an integral element in the walk.  Rather than giving your dog meals as if it were his or her due, you should start feeding your dog after the walk.  When I come back from walking Lucy in the morning, I take off her leash and tell her to sit and stay at the door.  She waits for a couple of minutes as I go in the house and get her breakfast, and she stays seated until I've put the food in front of her.  This is yet one more way to make sure that Lucy knows that I'm in charge of the food and that she has to be calm and obedient in order to get any.

The walk is an important ongoing piece of training for your dog.  When one of us isn't feeling well and we just toss her a bowl of food without a walk, Lucy is far more likely to misbehave the next day.  When we're out of town for a few days and she doesn't have any walks, she's a bit wild when we return.  I like to think that walking Lucy is like keeping an eye on our relationship.  Strong human relationships are based on constant negotiations, and your relationship with your dog is no different.

This post is part of our Training a Farm Dog lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Aug 25 12:00:05 2009 Tags:

A video montage of all 5 home made deer deterrent noise signatures back to back inspires me to dream up the next level of mechanical deterrence for the garden.

We finally solved the deer in the garden problem, and the solution was so elegant we gave it a new website.  Check out our deer deterrent website for free plans!

Posted Tue Aug 25 19:40:15 2009 Tags:

Grasshopper emerging from its nymph skin.I stumbled across a grasshopper slipping out of its nymph skin this past weekend.  The old skin was clinging to a corn leaf so that the living insect dangled below.  Backlit by the falling sun, the empty skin glowed and the grasshopper seemed to be descending out of summer.

Earlier this year, I obsessively listened to NPR as I weeded the garden.  Lately, though, I've been backing off from the radio and listening to my own thoughts.  Sometimes I find it hard to be in the present without distractions, but the occasional glimpses into the profound make it worthwhile.

Shame-faced plug: Check out the homemade chicken waterer that funds this blog.

Posted Wed Aug 26 07:22:43 2009 Tags:

Now, I have to admit that you won't see instant results the first time you walk your dog correctly.  When we got Lucy, she'd been tied up for months on end and she was wild.  I could barely hold her leash as she galloped up the driveway --- no way I was going to be able to get her to walk beside or behind me.

Gentle LeaderSo, we bought a couple of tools to get Lucy to pay attention to us (and to wear down a bit of her boundless energy!)  The one dog-lovers are least likely to approve of is the Gentle Leader.  No, this isn't a muzzle --- your dog can open her mouth just fine.  The Gentle Leader is a lot like the harness on a horse --- it allows you to steer a large, powerful animal by turning its head rather than by trying to make the whole animal go where you want it to.  The Gentle Leader also puts pressure on top of your dog's nose if she tries to pull.  This simulates the way a pack leader will put its mouth around a follower dog's nose if the follower misbehaves, and both the pack leader's mouth and the Gentle Leader's pressure cue your dog to calm down and listen.

Dog backpackWe also bought Lucy a doggie backpack and weighed it down with water bottles and gravel.  Carrying the backpack gave her quite a workout, even when walking at human speed.  I think that without the backpack, we would have had to walk Lucy for a couple of hours a day in the beginning when she was blowing off her leftover steam from being tied up.

Both the Gentle Leader and the doggie backpack did their job admirably, but after a few months Lucy had learned that we were in charge.  We slowly stopped using them --- after all, both were just tools to get our dog's attention.

This post is part of our Training a Farm Dog lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Aug 26 12:00:38 2009 Tags:

deer deterrent motor sourceI did a few experiments today on using one of the 10 dollar Black and Decker drill/drivers as a turning force for the next generation of home made deer deterrent.

It spins a bit on the fast side...but with some adjusting and tinkering it might just do the trick as a more easily constructed do it yourself deer deterrent.

We finally solved the deer in the garden problem, and the solution was so elegant we gave it a new website.  Check out our deer deterrent website for free plans!

Posted Wed Aug 26 18:35:28 2009 Tags:

Green beans and a cucumber.We're in the midst of harvest season on the farm, gorging ourselves on things like cucumbers, watermelons, and lettuce while freezing masses of everything else.  So far this week, I've put away a quart of okra, a gallon of green beans, and about half a gallon each of pesto and pizza sauce.  Still on the horizon for tomorrow are broccoli and more green beans.

Despite plenty of other farm chores, I stole Wednesday afternoon to visit the intentional community where my movie star neighbor lives.  There, an ex-nun and I splashed in the river, counting critters to determine the water quality.  Stream sampling was my very favorite part about my old job, and I was thrilled to realize that when I'm not getting paid I can do the fun stuff (play in the water and count the bugs!) rather than just training other folks to do them.  In case you're curious, the river passed with flying colors, chock full of mayfly larvae.

It was even fun when the ex-nun's car got stuck in the mud and we had to call the movie star to bring the huge rusty tractor and pull us out.  He and I talked bees while she and I talked blight, then I headed back home to our own harvest.

Shame-faced plug: Check out the homemade chicken waterer that funds this blog.

Posted Thu Aug 27 07:08:57 2009 Tags:

Training Lucy to leave the chickens aloneWalking your dog is really most of what it takes to create a good farm dog, but we did put in the time to teach Lucy four basic commands --- sit, stay, come, and no.  There are lots of books and websites that will tell you how to get those few commands into your dog's head, but once you've got her used to looking at you as the pack leader, it's pretty simple to train her.

It's nearly as simple to train your dog to do things against her nature --- like leaving cats and chickens alone rather than eating them for dinner.  When we brought home our first chickens, Lucy was extremely excited and I think she might have killed a chicken immediately if we'd let her.  Instead, we took her for a long walk to calm her down and remind her who was in charge, then we made her sit and stay beside the chicken tractor.  Every time the first bit of predator instinct kicked in and Lucy started getting excited about the chickens, we said "no" very firmly.  After about 15 minutes of this, she understood.  Now, when chickens accidentally get out of their tractors, Lucy has been known to try to help us herd them back in.

When introducing your dog to "prey" animals, you should always have a way to enforce your commands.  Your dog should be on a leash so that she can't lunge forward and grab the chicken.  If you play your cards right, your dog will catch on very quickly and you'll be able to take the leash off and trust her alone with your livestock in short order.

This post is part of our Training a Farm Dog lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Aug 27 12:00:38 2009 Tags:

club car haulingA day spent fabricating, packing, and driving to the post office is a good day indeed.

I keep expecting the excitement of going to the post office on shipping days to wear off, but it just seems to get stronger as I settle in on the fact that a micro business lifestyle is a perfect fit for me and our way of life here on the farm.

Posted Thu Aug 27 18:08:24 2009 Tags:
Shadows advancing across the garden

I woke up just before dawn on Thursday, shocked that the sky wasn't yet awake at 6:30 am.  Even after the sun came up, it stayed behind the hill, settling already into its sulky winter pattern.  I was able to weed in the shade until 11 am --- which I have to admit felt pretty good given current warm temperatures!

This is our upper garden, where the tomatoes have been ripped out and replaced by seeds for fall crops.  Still, the garden is very alive with okra, corn, cucumbers, herbs, and next year's strawberries.  Peas and carrots have come up, but I think I may have to replant a couple of beds due to the cats getting excited by the soft bare soil....

Shame-faced plug: Check out the homemade chicken waterer that funds this blog.

Posted Fri Aug 28 07:55:49 2009 Tags:

Patting Lucy on the head.Of course, Lucy isn't a saint.  She's been known to carry off tools and spread the contents of trash bags all across the yard.  She used to tear up the garden pretty badly too, running across raised beds and choosing a few as favorite napping spots.

Dogs aren't large picture thinkers the way we are --- I'm pretty sure that I could train her not to chew on a tool, but I'd have to train her on every tool we own to really get the point across.  Similarly, Mark trained her not to go in the front door of the barn...but then caught her trotting through the back door because all she got out of the training was "don't go through the front door" not "don't go in the barn."

In cases like this, we've figured out that it's better to train ourselves rather than train the dog.  How hard is it to keep trash in the barn and gloves in the house?  We also developed main paths in the garden based on Lucy's regular routes, and when necessary put branches on the beds she was obsessed with to physically keep her off.  In our early days on the farm, I yelled at Lucy a lot.  Now, we've trained her and she's trained us and we're like a happy married couple.

This post is part of our Training a Farm Dog lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Aug 28 12:00:28 2009 Tags:

cochin hen close up with avian aqua miserShe's taken to facing inward for some reason, and she ate another egg.

I wonder if she can somehow sense if the egg is bad or not?

We'll know how good she's been sitting in about a week. That reminds me that I should chick proof the mini coop so the little guys can't jump through the holes once they arrive.

Read all of the entries about our broody hen:

Posted Fri Aug 28 17:19:17 2009 Tags:

At first, I thought my weak hive had remarkably grown stronger.  Then I realized I was watching a full scale battle --- a stronger hive had decided to rob the weaker hive.

Robbing is a honeybee behavior most prevalent among Italian bees during a nectar dearth.  Our strong hives have hundreds (thousands?) of worker bees who just a few days ago were out collecting pollen and nectar from the late summer flowers.  Suddenly, the ragweed stopped blooming and nothing else filled in the gap.  Who can blame these out of work bees for stealing honey from their weaker neighbors?

At first, Mark and I were just going to let nature take its course.  That weak hive has been on its last legs for a month, and I don't think they're worth babying through the winter.  (In fact, I'm a little surprised they had any honey to be robbed!)  But then the robbing swarm moved on to our second weakest hive, which I actually consider a pretty strong hive.  I slapped on gloves and a veil and smashed entrance reducers in all four hives. 

Now, only a bee at a time can go in and out of our hives.  This makes it a lot easier for the robbed hives to fight off the marauders, but I'll have to be vigilant and take the reducers out if we get another honeyflow.

Shame-faced plug: Check out the automatic chicken waterer that funds this blog.

Posted Sat Aug 29 06:00:27 2009 Tags:


Today was the day our windshield wiper blades decided to give up the ghost, and after stopping by 3 different auto part stores on our way home we discovered that our Toyota Previa is rudely excluded from the computer list of replacement wipers.

4 dollars worth of Rain-X solved the problem nicely. This stuff really works. You just apply the transparent polymer to a clean and dry surface, let it dry, and buff it in for a coat of near magical protection.

Posted Sat Aug 29 17:39:19 2009 Tags:

Graph of bee mortality when fed nydroxymethylfurfuralAlthough small backyard beekeepers like us traditionally feed bees a mixture of sugar and water when their colonies need help, commercial beekeepers largely use high fructose corn syrup.  The corn syrup is cheap and easy to get in the U.S...but now scientists are starting to suspect that feeding bees corn syrup could be one cause of colony collapse disorder.  Maybe that's why commerical operations seemed to be a lot harder hit than folks with one or two hives?

When heated to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, a substance called hydroxymethylfurfural is formed from high fructose corn syrup.  In the scientific article that the popular article linked to above is based on, nearly all bees fed hydroxymethylfurfural died within 25 days.

Even if you don't keep bees, you should be concerend about hydroxymethylfurfural.  Our much larger bodies probably aren't as easily affected by the chemical as bees are, but scientists are beginning to wonder if the high fructose corn syrup in soft drinks and other processed food may be bad for us.

Posted Sun Aug 30 08:50:04 2009 Tags:

Young summer squash plants about to bloom.It's a bit of an exaggeration, but I think of this as the year without a summer.  Our tomatoes succumbed to the blight and our summer squash gave up the ghost due to vine borers.  Usually, we're able to keep the borers at bay with weekly sprayings of Bt, but this summer was so wet we just couldn't get the bacteria to stay on.  About a month ago, I threw in the towel and ripped out the soggy squash.

But I didn't really give up.  Without blogging about it here (didn't want to give the borers any ideas!) I pushed more summer squash seeds in the ground at the opposite side of the garden.  The copious rain did its job and sprouted the seeds in no time, and now there are flower buds on my second planting of squash.  Even though the weather is still a bit soggy and foggy, I'm hopeful that we can keep Bt on these plants.  It's also possible that it's late enough in the year that vine borers are no longer active, but I'm not taking any chances.

In the long run, I'd like to find a variety of summer squash which the borers don't find so tasty.  Last year, we tested out half a dozen winter squash varieties and were thrilled to find that butternut was both the tastiest to humans and the least tasty to vine borers.  If any of you have discovered a similar miracle summer squash, I'd love to hear about it!

Posted Mon Aug 31 07:36:14 2009 Tags:
The mule garden

September 14 is our big anniversary --- three years after the day we moved to our farm!  Every fall, I take a bit of time to think back over the year before, and every year I'm stunned by how far we've come in a short twelve months.  This navel-gazing lunchtime series explores the top lessons we've learned this year on the farm.  I'll start where I left off last fall: "our trials and tribulations --- fencing out deer, not enough hours in the day."

We've discovered that it is quite possible to keep deer out of the garden without a fence!  Last week, I tentatively pulled the last protective row covers off our sweet potatoes and strawberries, and still nary a nibble.  Deer damage was one of my hardest trials last year, and I can barely believe it's a thing of the past.  Pretty soon, we'll be rolling out a website entirely devoted to helping other farmers and gardeners beat the deer problem, so stay tuned.

As for not enough hours in the day --- well, some days I still feel that way.  But due to the wonders of taking weekends off, I suddenly feel like I have more time.  We've managed to pretty much stay on top of the weeding and mowing and harvesting, and still zip through some long term projects.  Maybe by this time next year, I will have forgotten feeling pressed for more daylight hours.

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

Posted Mon Aug 31 12:00:14 2009 Tags:

automatic chicken waterer home made has an interesting picture of an automatic chicken waterer one can build from scrap material in 5 minutes or less.

This might be fine for small chicks who aren't strong enough yet to knock it over, but once those little chickens start growing up they're curiosity increases and eventually the clown of the group will get out of hand one day and spill everybody's water all over the pretty wood chips.

For just 15 bucks(shipping included) they could have ordered a do it yourself kit from us and installed an Avian Aqua Miser in about the same amount of time it took to throw a 2 liter plastic bottle into a mixed nut container.

Posted Mon Aug 31 17:46:27 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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