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

archives for 09/2009

Sep 2009

Interplanting various ages of broccoliOur oldest broccoli is getting a bit buggy, as you can see in the foreground.  But I'm not worried --- we'll be eating those heads this week.  The broccoli and Egyptian onion omelet we had for lunch Monday was truly delicious.

If you remember, we put in broccoli seeds as gaps came open in the garden during the height of the summer.  The seeds went in over the course of a month from early June to early July, and I couldn't have planned it better if I'd actually put thought into the process.  The late-planted broccoli is a bit stunted, nestled amid the larger early plants.  As the early plants head up, I rip them out, opening up space for the late-planted broccoli to thrive.  I'm hopeful that we'll be eating broccoli through the end of September, or maybe even later.

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

Posted Tue Sep 1 06:00:28 2009 Tags:

Asparagus recovering from an asparagus beetle infestation.Despite pretty much beating last year's top farm problems, we still had some sizeable learning experiences this year.  First and foremost, we discovered that it really is possible to get too much rain.  On a similar vein, grapes hate wet feet and tomatoes need to be planted as far apart as possible in the sunniest spot if you're overwhelmed with summer precipitation.

We also had a major run-in with asparagus beetles this year.  When I first noticed them this spring, I thought they were an interesting phenomenon, but by July they had escalated to the point where the beetle larvae nearly killed all of my asparagus ferns.  My garden guru suggested spraying Bt on the larvae, and even though the label says that Bt is only effective against caterpillars, our asparagus has begun to recover.  I hate to advocate spraying (even of a bacterium), but it seems like weekly spraying of Bt is a very effective method to wipe out asparagus beetle infestations.

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

Posted Tue Sep 1 12:00:18 2009 Tags:

Adding a 25 ohm variable resistor gave the Black and Decker battery powered deer drill deterrent enough control to be dialed down to an effective range. It would be easy to recycle an old battery powered drill into this configuration which could keep the cost well under 20 bucks if you're lucky.

Stay tuned for a solar powered version in the near future.

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 Sep 1 16:52:17 2009 Tags:

First fall pea flowerThe fall garden is nearly coming into its own now.  This week, I saw the first pea flowers --- surprisingly, the bush shelling peas opened first even though they're considerably shorter than both the snow and sugar snap peas.

We have a few tommy-toe tomatoes still coming on, even though their plants are blighted.  For a couple of weeks, we're able to eat the typical American salad of lettuce, tomato, and cucumbers --- summer and fall gardens overlapping on our plates.  Meanwhile, the week's freezer bounty includes pesto, swiss chard, broccoli, a tad of tomatoes, green beans, corn, and okra.

We're actually watering everything this week, since it's been 10 days since our last serious rain, but the year never really gave us the usual summer break from weeding and mowing.  Instead, Mark and I are still putting in many hours a week keeping the yard and garden ship-shape.  But I'm starting to put a few beds down for the winter rather than filling each gap with new seeds.  Soon it will be too late to plant anything except lettuce, spinach, and garlic.

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

Posted Wed Sep 2 08:03:27 2009 Tags:

Keep pets out of the garden with small branches.We've learned a lot about animals this year too.  Strider joined our menagerie and has since become an indispensible purrer.  Now that our pet count has reached three, we've gotten a bit more serious about bad behavior.  Last year, it seemed like Lucy picked a couple of garden beds and lay on them every day or so, crushing all of the vegetables there.  Huckleberry would also pick favorite beds and tear up young seedlings in the loose soil.

This year, we've pretty much nipped that behavior in the bud.  When I see the first signs of pet damage in the garden, I loosely stack branches on the bed to keep all animals out.  The branch technique seems to be 100% effective, and branches can be safely removed once the veggies get tall enough to make a scratchy bed.

We've also added two new types of livestock to our farm this year --- earthworms and honeybees.  We're still learning how to make the best use of them, but I'm thrilled to learn that both are relatively easy and that honeybees aren't scary.  Probably by this time next year, I'll have something more to say about bees and worms.

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

Posted Wed Sep 2 12:00:07 2009 Tags:

 bee merging photo montage

We decided to merge the weak hive with a stronger one today using the newspaper trick. You place a layer of newspaper between the two hives and cut a few slits here and there. It takes the bees a few days to eat through the them time to acclimate to a new frequency of the same hive mentality.

Posted Wed Sep 2 18:23:56 2009 Tags:
Broody hen in a drainage tile

Our Cochin has been almost too good of a mother --- f
or days at a time, it looked like she hadn't moved an inch.  Only lowered water levels in her Avian Aqua Miser reassured me that she wasn't going to die of thirst.  (Yes, I am a worrywort.)

Then the worst happened.  One morning I peeked in her brood coop and noticed five eggs lying on the ground!  Our brood hen had worked her way to the edge of the drainage tile and a full third of her eggs had slipped off the nest.

Mark risked his life by tossing all five gently over the hen's back, hoping that they hadn't been away from her warmth for too long.  The he stacked a cinderblock and brick in front of the culvert as a temporary lip.

If everything goes according to plan, we should see the our farm's first homegrown chicks sometime tomorrow or Saturday.  Whether we'll have thirteen chicks or just a few, though, is still up in the air.

Read all of the entries about our broody hen:

Posted Thu Sep 3 08:23:13 2009 Tags:
The back garden

As long as I can remember, I've hopped from obsession to obsession --- Robin Hood, water gardening, identifying native plants.  This year's obsessions are permaculture and forest gardening, topics that will probably take me decades to truly mull over.  In the last year, we have started two forest gardens around young fruit trees in the yard and a more traditional forest garden in existing young woods, all of which are in early stages.

One of the biggest things I've learned about permaculture is that comfrey is unstoppable.  We started off the year with one large, two-year old plant.  All summer, I hacked off pieces and spread them around our new forest gardens.  Now we have dozens of thriving comfrey plants that don't seem to mind being mown to the ground once a week.

I'm also starting to feel the homestead turn into a closed food web. 
Mulching with grass clippings has turned our grassy areas into working elements of the forest garden.  Nitrogen flows from chickens to grass to my garden beds, and I get pure joy out of seeing my plants thrive.  Meanwhile, our honeybees pollinate garden plants and will eventually feed us honey.  Around and around the permaculture wheel rolls.

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

Posted Thu Sep 3 12:00:42 2009 Tags:

interesting deer sculptureI used up our last extension cord last week when I installed the first Black and Decker deer drill deterrent which meant I had to unplug units 1 and 5 to get my share of electricity for a drill press project I was doing this afternoon.

Well....I got busy doing something else and forgot to plug deer deterrents 1 and 5 back that makes about 45 minutes of down time. I looked out our living room window in shock to see the ugliest deer I've ever seen munching down on a few sweet potato leaves like it's nobody's business!.....I quickly ran out the door and chased after the four legged monster to show it who's boss around here.

Now I know the local deer population is so bad I can't take a brief pause even during a sunny day from the new mechanical deer drill deterrents without being munched on.

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 Thu Sep 3 18:17:13 2009 Tags:

Automatic chicken watererEvery week, Mark and I mail off dozens of chicken waterers.  They seem to disappear into the void, since we seldom hear back from any of our customers.  We especially miss not getting to see how our waterers fit into other folks' lives.

In hopes of dredging some photos out of that void, we're holding a photo contest over on our automatic chicken waterer site.  If you bought one of our waterers, or just made our own waterer, we hope you'll wander over there and email us your photos.  To sweeten the pot, we're giving away three ready to go waterers to one grand prize winner.  Good luck!

Posted Fri Sep 4 08:34:12 2009 Tags:
Front garden

Perhaps our largest learning experience this year has been our microbusiness.  At this time last year, I was just starting to burn out on my job, but I was terrified to quit.  Everyone was talking about the economy tanking and I knew that jobs in our area were scarce.

Homemade chicken watererBut I did it anyway, and together Mark and I started marketing his automatic chicken waterer.  It took a few months for us to get our feet under us, but before long we were making more money and working fewer hours.  We had shed 85% of the stress associated with my old job, and we both felt immensely empowered by the experience.  Why did we ever want to work for someone else?

We have a lot of projects in the hopper for the next year, of course.  As I mentioned a couple of days ago, we want to share all of our deer deterrent secrets with the world --- we figure we owe the community something totally free.  Next on the agenda is finishing up the ebook we've been drafting to help other folks mimic our microbusiness success.

We don't plan to expand our gardening perimeter over the next year, just to keep bringing it closer to a state of equilibrium.  I want to keep exploring permaculture, and Mark has several new inventions on the drawing board (automatic bug feeder for your chickens, anyone?)

Most all, though, we want to keep feeling the power of the Walden Effect.  I hope you can all catch a whiff of the fragrance through your monitors.  Just as this year was better than last year, I suspect next year will be the best one yet!

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

Posted Fri Sep 4 12:00:31 2009 Tags:

  5 gallon bucket manure montage

One manure lesson we learned this year was the 5 gallon bucket method. It makes the portions easy to handle and load into the back of the minivan. The haul in this picture is a typical amount we get in trade for a dozen fresh eggs from some friendly neighbors down the road.

Posted Fri Sep 4 18:24:43 2009 Tags:

Cochin hen with straw on her head.Friday afternoon, I stopped by to check on our broody hen.  At first, I thought she was turning her eggs --- she was raised off the nest a little bit, and her beak was underneath her belly.  Then I saw that one egg seemed to have a small hole in it.  I leaned closer....

"Grawwk!!"  Rather than losing a finger, I backed off and the mother hen settled back into place.  I started to leave, then heard the first tiny "peep" from underneath her.

I sat by the coop for about an hour, hoping to catch a shot for you all to see (or at least a glimpse for myself.)  But despite hearing several peeps, and what seemed to be the sound of a tiny chick pecking its way out of its shell, I never got a glimpse of a chick.

Do we have one homegrown chick or a dozen?  Maybe I'll know by the end of the day.  Meanwhile, I'll leave you with this photo of the mother hen, a piece of straw stuck to her comb.  She may look cute and fluffy, but I won't be petting her anytime soon.

Read all of the entries about our broody hen:

Posted Sat Sep 5 08:20:49 2009 Tags:

wood golf cartI've had a few of those small ratchet straps for a couple of years now and they really come in handy...but they also have a problem getting hung up and stuck in some pretty nasty tangles if the load shifts.

We got a set of the medium sized ones a few weeks ago and I'm still kicking myself for wasting so much time on the small version. No more pinched fingers and frayed straps with the bigger more substantial mechanism.

Posted Sat Sep 5 19:37:38 2009 Tags:

Renovated strawberry bedWithout deer to nibble them back, our strawberry beds have turned into a sea of three-part leaves.  While the beds look lush and beautiful, the farmer inside me knows that the plants are overcrowded and won't bear well next year.  Time to take drastic action.

Many gardeners mow their strawberry beds to the ground in early summer as soon as they pick the last berries.  Their goal is to stimulate the production of runners so that new plants will form.  My strawberries didn't get this treatment, nor did they seem to need it --- runners formed every which way, growing across the aisles to the next bed over.

Instead of mowing, I finally bit the bullet and ripped out three quarters of the plants, giving the remaining strawberries room to breathe.  I tucked well-rotted manure around their roots, and plan to add a nice load of grass clippings after our next mowing.  Although it would have been smarter to renovate my beds in June, I'm hopeful that there's still enough growing time left for the plants to suck up summer sun and prepare for spring berries.  Hopefully next year, we won't be disappointed by micronutrient deficient berries the way we were this spring.

Posted Sun Sep 6 07:06:11 2009 Tags:

corded drill deterrent optionA variable speed drill with a conventional cord turns out to be a good and cheap option for the locomotion of our mechanical deer deterrent contraption.

A quick search of E-bay shows that several can be had in the 10 dollar range, and new ones go for a bit over 20 at the big box stores.

I wonder if a lamp dimmer switch would be strong enough to provide a variable speed option for drills that only have on and off and nothing in between?

Posted Sun Sep 6 18:02:42 2009 Tags:

Digger WaspThese wasps have been flying low over the garden for a couple of weeks now, but I only got a closer look on Sunday morning.  Five had settled down on a young apple tree, and the cool, dewy morning kept them in place even when I stuck the camera in their faces.

I'd assumed the insects were adult squash vine borers, but I wasn't even in the right ballpark; instead of being garden pests, these wasps are our new best friends.  Digger Wasps (Scolia dubia) are the primary natural enemy of both Japanese Beetles and June Bugs.  The female wasps burrow into the soil in search of beetle grubs, paralyze the immature beetles with their stingers, then lay an egg on each paralyzed grub.  The grub serves as a comatose but living buffet for the baby wasp, who eats the grub beyond repair.  Now I just need to figure out how to further encourage our Digger Wasp population and knock out the Japanese Beetles once and for all!

Posted Mon Sep 7 08:18:57 2009 Tags:

Homemade deer deterrentAutumn is peak deer damage season in gardens across the U.S.  Your neighborhood doe probably had a couple of fawns this spring, and those three mouths are hungry. 

I've fought deer in the garden for nearly a decade now, and I have to admit that until this year they've won every battle.  Give the deer half a chance and they'll wipe out your garden in short order.  Last year, they ate our strawberries and sweet potatoes, then moved on to swiss chard, and ate onions for dessert.  We barely had anything fresh from early autumn on.

But as our regular readers know, Mark saved the day with a homemade deer deterrent that really works.  He's been working on making a version that everyone can copy out of cheap supplies, and I've been working on a deer repellant website to go along with it. 
This week's lunchtime series skims over the highlights of what we've learned, but feel free to head over to the other website for more information.

This post is part of our Homemade Deer Deterrent lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Sep 7 12:00:23 2009 Tags:

Our number 5 deer deterrent got hung up today due to some cracks in the metal flashing. No doubt the increased banging was the cause. I replaced it with some thicker metal salvaged from a junk pile. I then moved some longer flashing towards the back for it to absorb the second hit, which provides a unique vibration and some added motion for any potential 4 legged garden poachers out there who have yet to get the message that our vegetables are off limits.

Posted Mon Sep 7 16:22:57 2009 Tags:
New freezer, hauled by golf cart

You may have noticed that our website has received a face lift.  Hopefully now it will show up properly for all of you Internet Explorer users.  Stay tuned for other upgrades as we celebrate our first year on the internet!

Meanwhile, Mark and I splurged and got a brand new, Energy Star freezer.  We'd filled our small freezer to the gills over the last few weeks, but I didn't want to plug in the big freezer because of its leaky gasket.  The new freezer has handy sliding baskets and lots of room to put away more produce, and its annual energy usage is on a par with our little fridge.  Can you believe that Mark attached it to the golf cart and hauled it back to our trailer all by himself?

Finally, the bad news.  I've waited to post about this until now, because I didn't want to think about it.  Remember how I said that our broody hen was poking around under her belly when I heard the peeping Friday evening?  It seems that she was killing the chick, not helping it out of its shell.  She continued to pummel the dead chick with her bill Saturday morning until I scooped it out of the nest, and now the hen is happily sitting on top of what may be more dead chicks for all I know.  No more peeping.  I have no idea what we're going to do with this hen who is so obsessed with brooding that she kills her offspring when they get in the way.  (Well, the stew pot beckons....)

Posted Tue Sep 8 07:34:02 2009 Tags:

Homemade deer deterrentMark's homemade deer deterrent is based on a cheap drill you can get at Wal-Mart for $10.48.  He used a transformer to switch the drill from battery power to AC electricity, then wired in a potentiometer to allow him to speed up and slow down the drill.

The drill bit has been modified to attach to a wire, chain, and golf ball.  The golf ball swings around, hitting a piece of tin and making a metallic noise.  The combination of man-made noise and motion has been 100% effective in keeping deer out of our garden this summer, and has even kept them away from our perimeter.

Check out our step by step instructions to make your own deer deterrent for $30 (or much less if you scavenge supplies.)  In case you're curious, I did the math on operating costs too --- each deterrent costs a little over $3 to run per year.  Definitely within my skinflint price range.

This post is part of our Homemade Deer Deterrent lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Sep 8 12:31:03 2009 Tags:

freezer strappedHaving 2 medium ratchet straps made it possible to hold the freezer in place while I used the other strap to finalize the mount.

Speaking of freezers, We saw a fresh independent film last month by the name of Freezer Burn. The hero is a quirky scientist who sells his house in order to raise enough money to modify a freezer so that he can be frozen for 15 years in an effort to capture the attention of a girl he has a thing for. It's that good kind of whacky that makes you feel just a little bit more alive after viewing it. I give it 2 thumbs up for its charm and wit.

Posted Tue Sep 8 20:05:27 2009 Tags:

Mexican sour gherkinOne of the new vegetable varieties we're trying out this year is the Mexican Sour Gherkin (Melothria scabria).  It's billed as a tiny cucumber that is resistant to the wilts that tend to kill normal cucumbers on our farm, and I can attest to the species being much less disease-ridden.

On the other hand, I don't think they really taste like cucumbers --- the gherkins are more sour and lack that cucumber tang.  Another disadvantage is that Mexican Sour Gherkins get off to a slow start...but maybe that's an advantage since in our garden they started bearing at about the same time our cucumbers gave up the ghost.

Mexican Sour Gherkins are certainly cute, and they are tasty even if they don't really taste like cucumbers.  It's also pretty cool to be growing a vegetable variety which seems to have been cultivated unchanged since before Europeans showed up in North America.  While they're not a new superhero of the garden, I think we'll keep growing gherkins.

Posted Wed Sep 9 07:42:22 2009 Tags:

Locations of deer deterrents in our garden.The trick to keeping deer out of the garden with our deer deterrent is understanding deer behavior.  Deer follow the same paths day after day from one known food source to another.  Chances are that if your garden has been nibbled, deer have one to several well worn paths through the perimeter.  A deer deterrent should go smack dab in the middle of each path.

Finding deer paths is pretty easy.  Head out after a rain to look for the heart-shaped hoof prints in soft soil, and follow them backward to where they breached your garden.  If the ground is too hard for tracking, keep an eye out for freshly nibbled leaves and use those to track the deer's path through the garden.

If your garden is large, the deer may try to bypass the first deterrent and make a new path.  That's why I recommend that you keep a close eye on your garden for the first couple of weeks after you put your deterrent(s) up.  If you see a new path forming, immediately build a new deer deterrent.  It's much easier to keep deer out of the garden before they consider it their main food source.  As you can see in the aerial photo above, it doesn't take many deterrents to protect even a large space --- we have six devices to cover about two acres.

This post is part of our Homemade Deer Deterrent lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Sep 9 12:00:32 2009 Tags:

 frame support tool

I was describing my new home made frame perch tool design to a friend and he furrowed his brow when I mentioned how I used wood instead of metal. He was concerned about a full frame of honey being too much weight for such a "light duty" structure.

That possible problem was fixed easily with the next size down L bracket being secured in each corner. You might need to chisel out a groove for the bracket depending on how much wiggle room your frames have to move back and forth while still staying snug.

Posted Wed Sep 9 18:09:27 2009 Tags:

White Cochin hen with black chickWe never did anything about our murderous hen because I didn't want to think about it, and there's always plenty of other stuff on the farm to catch our attention.  Then, on Wednesday afternoon, I heard peeping from her coop again.  I wandered over and...chick!  Living chick!  Hatched and dried and playing nice with Mama!

So, I'm revising history.  Perhaps that first dead chick wasn't quite strong enough to make it out of its shell, as sometimes happens.  Maybe Mama tried to help, but the chick died anyway, and the extra pecking was just pecking at a dead thing in her nest.

Maybe Wednesday's chick didn't hatch on day 21 as it should have because of temperature inconsistencies.  We got our eggs from a friend who had been storing them at room temperature for a couple of days.  Maybe it took the eggs a few days after getting under our broody hen to warm back up to incubation temperatures.  Maybe even more chicks are due?

One of Mark's favorite phrases in relation to me is "ye of little faith."  And...I guess he's right!

Posted Thu Sep 10 06:29:00 2009 Tags:

Deer huntingWhen I talk to locals about the deer overpopulation problem, their inevitable response is "why don't you get a gun?"  The problem with hunting as a solution to deer in the garden is that it's illegal to kill a deer out of season, even on your own property, unless you get a special permit from the game warden.  Hunting during the normal season does keep deer out of your garden...for about a week.

That said, I'm convinced that hunting is the long term solution to our deer overpopulation problem, but only if our game laws are changed.  Currently, most game management agencies are actively working to promote deer population growth, a throwback to a few decades ago when deer were scarce.  If laws are changed to allow hunters to kill more does, we might be able to get our deer populations back under control.

This post is part of our Homemade Deer Deterrent lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Sep 10 12:00:09 2009 Tags:

Dwarf Meyer Lemon nutrient deficiencyOur movie star neighbor has an absolutely stunning Dwarf Meyer Lemon that he brings inside for the winter.  Last year, he got 91 delicious lemons from a tree no more than three feet tall (though more like six feet wide.)

Mark's mom heard us enthusing over our neighbor's tree, and Christmas 2007 a baby lemon tree was waiting for us at her house.  We put our tree in a five gallon pot, showered the lemon with love, compost tea, and vermicompost, and ate our first four lemons at this time last year.

This year, there are two big fruits starting to ripen, seven baby lemons no more than a couple of inches in diameter, and another passel of blooms just opening.  But as you can see in the photo above, the older leaves are starting to look chlorotic (turning yellow between the veins), denoting a nutrient deficiency.  Our movie star neighbor fertilizes his tree regularly with Miracle Grow, but we're trying to go the organic route.  This spring, we topdressed with a gallon or two of compost, which prompted scads of blooms, but our lemon has clearly worked her way through all of the nutrients.  I fed her again this week, this time with a gallon of composted horse manure, and am hoping that the recent rain has washed enough nutrients over her roots to keep her producing.

Mark dreams of some day having two mature dwarf lemon trees, which we figure would be just about enough to keep us in lemons all year.  I'm hoping our dwarf tangerine (a year younger than our lemon) will join the mix and keep us citrified.  Citrus is often one of the hardest things for locavores to give up, and we'd like to avoid that sacrifice.

Posted Thu Sep 10 19:01:02 2009 Tags:

Dominique or Black Sex-Link ChickDue to the new trend of backyard chicken-keepers, figuring out the sex of chicks at birth has turned into big business.  Most people with a small flock of chickens can only handle one rooster or they'll end up in a lot of cock fights, while other people want only male birds since males put on weight faster and thus make better broilers.  If you check out the major online hatcheries, you'll see that you can buy all male chicks, all female chicks, or a straight run (mix of both.) 

The eggs I was given are from two breeds that are easy to sex at birth.  I believe all of the eggs have Dominique fathers while some have Dominique mothers and some have Black Sex-Link mothers.  In Dominickers (as Dominiques are fondly called), yellow feet and a diffused white spot on the head mark males, while grayer feet and a compact white spot mark females.  Black Sex-Links are even easier to tell apart (that being the whole point of the hybrid breed), with males but not females showing a white spot on their heads.

Chances are that Wednesday's chick is a male, due to its yellow feet and white spot. That means we won't get too attached and will instead start calling him "Thanksgiving Dinner."

Posted Fri Sep 11 07:38:54 2009 Tags:

Homemade deer deterrentAlthough our deer deterrents work like a charm, Mark's got a lot of other related ideas in the pipeline.  We enjoy the sound of our deterrents --- they're on a par with the crickets at night --- but I suspect they wouldn't go over well in suburbia.  We're also intrigued by the idea of running a deer deterrent on some kind of cheap solar panel, and finding a way to make them even cheaper for folks to build.

We're testing out a Creative Commons open source system for our deer deterrent, giving away the information for free, but asking folks to credit us if they use it.  We're hoping that adding several hundred inventors to the mix will result in an even better deer deterrent by this time next year.  So, feel free to tell all of your friends about the plans, and get them to send us their innovations and pictures!  If you're interested in hearing about those innovations, subscribe to our deer deterrent blog --- we won't be posting all of the nitpicky details here.  And good luck with keeping the ravenous deer out of your garden!

This post is part of our Homemade Deer Deterrent lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Sep 11 12:00:29 2009 Tags:

Diagram of a hive union between a weak and a strong hive.Soon after we united our two weakest hives, the weather turned cool and wet --- bad bee-checking conditions.  Finally, I got impatient and went out to inspect the bees between showers.

Outside the hive, a fringe of newspaper was clearly evident between the merged hive sections, so I figured I'd need to remove the paper divider.  But when I took off the super from the weak hive, I saw that the industrious bees had carefully eaten away the entire newspaper up to the wooden hive walls! 

The hive merge is complete and very successful.  While our other two, formerly strongest hives are still filling up their first super apiece, our newly merged hive is starting to store honey between hatching brood in the big top super!  I can only assume this means that the queen from the weak hive has been assassinated and her workers assimilated into the population.  Although I probably wouldn't repeat my frame swap experiment, the hive merge is going to be added to my toolkit.
Bees ate away all of the newspaper between the two supers.
Note: Mark hasn't been posting because he's a bit under the weather.  I expect him to be back online in short order, but until then you'll just have to put up with me.  If you miss his ingenuity, go visit his homemade chicken waterer site and his homemade deer deterrent site.  There, don't you feel better?

Posted Fri Sep 11 15:07:19 2009 Tags:

Blooming sunflowerThursday night, our new chick (nicknamed Thanksgiving Dinner), squeezed out of the brood coop through a tiny hole.  His mother couldn't follow him, and apparently he wasn't bright enough to squeeze back in.

Temperatures dropped to the low fifties.  When I found Thanksgiving Dinner the next morning, he was cold and peeping desperately.  I popped him back into the brood coop, but Mama Hen no longer seemed interested in him despite his obvious need for warmth.

The next best bet, I figured, was to rig up a light over a box to warm him the way you do with motherless chicks.  The problem is that we've completely converted over to compact fluorescents and don't have a single incandescent bulb left in the house!  I dashed to town, but by the time I got home an hour later, Thanksgiving Dinner had given up the ghost.

I honestly can't blame this second chick death on Mama Hen.  It's entirely my fault for not chick-proofing the walls of the brood coop better (and for not keeping an incandescent bulb on hand for emergencies.)  I feel awfully guilty (strange since I was going to eat him in a few months anyway!), but have resolved to try again in the spring.  I suspect our second attempt will be a lot more successful --- surely we've done everything wrong that we possibly could on this first attempt!

Posted Sat Sep 12 08:55:34 2009 Tags:

Anna and I finally got a chance to watch a film my cousin was in a couple of years back and I couldn't resist the urge to swipe the scene under the fair use doctrine. He's the one sleeping on a bench. I slowed down the video to half speed so you won't miss him.

The film was directed by Fred Durst and it's a period piece set in the early 1970's titled "The Education of Charlie Banks". It was a good coming of age story that unfolded nicely and captured our attention.

Great job Ben, can't wait to see what you star in next.

Posted Sat Sep 12 15:24:58 2009 Tags:
Haircap moss spore cases and hickory leaves

Summer and fall are starting to intertwine in the woods, just like they are in the garden.  Our "unused" 56 acres really pull their weight, providing us with unlimited natural beauty and a great buffer from our neighbors.

That said, a few neighbors made the half mile trek back to our trailer Saturday afternoon, beers in hand.  One suggested that we could sell the siding from our hundred year old barn for $17 per board foot.  This price seems phenomenal to me --- could it have been the beer speaking?  Surely our barn isn't worth tens of thousands of dollars?

Fallen Red Maple leaves
Don't forget to check out the homemade chicken waterer that makes this possible.

Posted Sun Sep 13 08:37:47 2009 Tags:

mule from blue ridge blogLike Anna said this morning, we had a few visitors drop by yesterday, and I still can't get over what they were thinking as they made the hike back here.

What they heard was a lot of banging from the home made deer deterrents, what they assumed was that we were "working like mules back here!"

The nice picture of the handsome mule is from the Blue Ridge Blog, which has some really nice photos of farm life on a similar frequency as our own here.

I wonder if our other neighbor within ear shot has the same misconception of our work day, and if I should make a point to let them in on the secret to working like a mule without breaking a sweat?

Posted Sun Sep 13 11:12:28 2009 Tags:

Yellow squash bloomI've been watching our second planting of summer squash like a hawk, waiting for the first sign of the vine borers that killed our spring planting.  I even dreamed about the huge, spiky leaves multiplying and growing.

Sunday morning, just like the climax of my dream, the first plant opened a glowing yellow flower.  I guess we won't be squashless after all!  I wonder if I could plant in early August every year and not have to spray Bt?

Dew on a summer squash leaf

Brought to you by our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Mon Sep 14 07:45:16 2009 Tags:

Okra seedsMany homesteaders save seeds because they don't trust the big companies to keep producing varieties they care about.  Skinflints like me save seeds because seed prices have been skyrocketing in the last couple of years.  Whatever your reasoning, saving seeds can be pretty painless if you understand a bit of plant biology.

First of all, let me say up front that we don't save all of our seeds --- we basically stick to the really easy species.  Some types of vegetables --- like carrots and onions --- are just not worth bothering with since they are biennials and take two years to mature and produce seed.  Other types of veggies, like lettuce, have seeds that I find hard to catch and harvest at the right time.

Even within certain vegetable species, some varieties are much easier to save than others.  Many of the varieties you'll pick up at the local feed store or big box store are hybrids, produced by mating two different types of plants together.  Gardeners are often impressed by hybrids because of hybrid vigor --- the tendency of hybrid offspring to be bigger and sometimes better than either of their parents.  Unfortunately, if you save seeds from a hybrid, your seeds will sprout into plants that all look different and that often are not as exciting as the hybrid you started with.  If you want to save seeds, look for varieties marked as heirlooms --- these varieties will breed true, with your seeds sprouting into plants just like their parents.

Saving seeds in a box, divided up by categoryThe rest of this week's lunchtime series will explain how to save seeds from some easy vegetable varieties.  But before you go, a couple more words of wisdom.  First of all, you won't need to save seeds every single year --- many seeds last up to five years, so you can easily skip a season or two and your seeds will still sprout.  Second, most places recommend that you store your seeds in an airtight container, but I have to admit that I'm lazy and just throw my homemade paper packets into a cardboard box, with no ill effects.  I do put in dividers, though, and sort the seeds by plant family and growth habit so that I know what I've got.

Finally, don't forget the plants that you can reproduce without resorting to seeds.  If you have some leftover potatoes next spring, you can just cut them up and put them in the ground.  Garlic, of course, can be divided into individual cloves and planted in the fall.  This year, we also had great luck with sprouting our leftover sweet potatoes to make slips.  You can do it too!

This post is part of our Seed Saving lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Sep 14 12:00:27 2009 Tags:
Carolina Raspberry

Two and a half years ago, the mass of brambles in the photo on the right started as one freeby Caroline Red Raspberry seedling.  Now the plant has expanded to cover an area about eight feet long by three feet wide, and has also spawned two new raspberry patches in other parts of the yard.

There are varieties in my garden that I grow because they're okay, and then there are ones that I'd recommend to anyone.  The Caroline Red Raspberry fits in the latter category.  It's an everbearing raspberry, which means that it starts bearing near the first of June, takes a break for part of the summer, then is dripping with fruits again from the middle of August until the first frost.  It isn't my tastiest bramble in the spring (Wineberries and Black Raspberries tend to win the contest there), but by summer its cultivated red raspberry taste hits the spot.  It grows and bears so well in our soil that I'm considering replacing my waterlogged grapes with Caroline Red Raspberries.

Shameless plug: Don't miss our homemade chicken waterer!
Posted Mon Sep 14 19:05:30 2009 Tags:

Transplanted strawberryWe were disappointed with the flavor and size of our strawberries this spring, so we're working to remedy the situation.  A week or so ago, we renovated the one and a half year old beds, pulling out a lot of the plants so that the ones left behind had room to grow.  Meanwhile, we transplanted strawberries from the two and a half year old beds to start entirely new beds, in preparation for rotating the old strawberry beds into a garlic patch.

Most gardeners are used to planting new strawberries in the spring, and if I'd had my act together that would have been a good time to start my new beds.  But spring is such a frantically busy time in the garden that I never got a chance to touch the strawberries.  Instead, I'm following the lead of the local you-pick operation that transplants its strawberries in early September then eats fruits from them the next spring.  If you plant early enough in the fall --- and your plants don't die from the heat or get deer-munched during their critical period of gaining a foothold --- they should get enough fall sunlight to do nearly as well as spring planted strawberries. 

We experimented with planting strawberries in the middle of the summer (the end of June), and those plants mostly died.  The ones I planted a week ago, though, are doing well, already putting up new leaves.  I can't wait to taste them in spring 2010!

You have less than a week left to enter your photos in our homemade chicken waterer contest.
Posted Tue Sep 15 08:15:35 2009 Tags:

Snow pea seedsOne of the biggest risks when saving seeds in a diverse garden is unintentional hybridization.  Say you're growing two varieties of okra relatively close together, the way we did last year.  If you try to save the seeds from those okra plants, bees will have moved pollen between the two varieties, and you'll end up with a mixture of different types of okra when you sprout your saved seeds.  None of the offspring of the cross-pollinated okra will look like either parent, and chances are most of them will be substandard.

Luckily for us, some vegetables are primarily self-pollinating, so they don't have the hybridization problem.  Peas and beans are two of the easiest self-pollinating varieties for beginning seed savers since you can usually plant different varieties right next door to each other and still have each variety breed true (meaning that the seeds sprout into plants just like the parents.)

The actual process of saving pea and bean seeds is also simple.  Some people set aside a whole row just for the purpose, but I don't go to all that trouble.  I inevitably miss picking some pods on each pea plant, and by the time I find them the pods are too woody and old to be tasty.  Alternatively, with my bush beans, I pick the first heavy flush of beans, then let the next flush go to seed.  In either case, I let the pods ripen on the vine for a month or two until the pods turn brown and dry up.  Then I pick all of the dried pods, shell out the peas and beans, and put them in a bowl or open jar to finish drying for a few weeks.  When I stumble across the seeds again, they're ready to be sealed in homemade paper packets, or just sealed into a canning jar.  Don't forget to label the variety and year!

This post is part of our Seed Saving lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Sep 15 12:00:39 2009 Tags:

  Lucy in the gravel with tractor

When we first moved to the farm we had fantasies of owning our own mini-tractor. Once we did the math and figured out just how many times we would really need such a piece of equipment we scaled down the dream to a golf cart.

I've discovered it's far more efficient to hire out what little tractor work we need. Today we got 6 tons of crushed cinder blocks for 40 bucks delivered. The same guy is half way through scooping it up and spreading it around to troubled spots on our driveway for an equally reasonable fee.

It sure beats filling up 5 gallon buckets and spreading it around the old fashioned way.

Posted Tue Sep 15 17:02:52 2009 Tags:
As I was out picking beans on Tuesday evening, I came eye to eye with a Chinese Praying Mantis.

Closeup of mantis eyes

Imagine my surprise when I looked to my left and saw a second mantis!  One mantis had brilliant green eyes while the other had brilliant brown eyes.  Could they be male and female?

Two praying mantises amid buggy beans.

That would be a resounding yes...  The green-eyed male leapt across my buggy beans and landed on the female's back.

Praying mantises mating

They stuck together for three hours until dark, when I stopped checking on them.  Below is a closeup of their alien-looking mating paraphernalia.

Closeup of mantises mating

By the way, technically these guys are praying mantids, not praying mantises, since they're not in the Mantis genus.  Also, chances are the female won't consume the male's head after they finish mating since praying mantis cannabilism is probably an artifact of captivity.

Posted Wed Sep 16 07:13:45 2009 Tags:

Zucchini flower turning into a fruit.Cucurbits (squashes, pumpkins, cucumbers, and melons) are a bit more difficult seed-saving candidates than peas and beans because cucurbits hybridize readily.  If you're careful, though, they can be on your easy seed-saving list.

The trick to saving cucurbit seeds is understanding which varieties are related.  If you haven't had biology in a while, now's the time to remember that any individuals within the same species can interbreed, while individuals of different species mostly can't interbreed.  (That, after all, is the definition of a species.)  So, if you only grow one variety in each cucurbit species, you're pretty much home free.

Butternut squashSome species are simple --- cucumbers are all in the same species (Cucumis sativus) while most melons are in a related but distinct species (Cucumis melo.)  Watermelons are in their own species --- Citrillus vulgaris.  So, if you want to save cucumber seeds, plan to only grow one variety of cucumber in your garden.  Same with melons, though you can grow watermelons and canteloupes side by side with no problems since they're in different species.  If you want to save seeds from two different kinds of watermelons, you need to either separate the plants by at least half a mile (hah!), or cover the flowers with a bag before they open and hand-pollinate them.  That clearly goes beyond our easy seed-saving mentality.

How about squashes?  That's where the taxonomy gets messy.  Even though gardeners divide squashes up into winter and summer squash, there are actually four species which cover the vegetables we call squashes:

  • Cucurbita pepo --- all summer squashes (zucchini, yellow squashes, etc.), some varieties of pumpkins, and pattypan, spaghetti, delicata, and acorn squash
  • Cucurbita moschata --- butternut squash
  • Cucurbita mixta --- cushaw, some pumpkins
  • Cucurbita maxima --- kabocha squash, some pumpkins

Now, if, like me, you've decided that the only winter squash worth growing is butternut, you can save your seeds with no problems since butternuts are in their own species.  However, if you want to save summer squash seed, you should plan to grow only one variety and to delete the other members of that species from your garden (and from your neighbor's garden if they live within half a mile.)

This post is part of our Seed Saving lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

 worm table digesting cam

If you've ever wanted to have a table that eats food scraps and entertains you with visions of worms crawling about, then Amy Young has an interesting design you can build if you've got the stomach for it.

It's basically a fancy worm bin with a low light security camera wired up to an LCD screen embedded into the table for your viewing pleasure. I like the idea, but wonder about the smell level and the possibility of a fruit fly problem?

Posted Wed Sep 16 16:27:36 2009 Tags:

Grass going to seedIf Mark and I seem a bit flaky this week, it's because we're planning a big party for four or five dozen of our closest friends and relatives on Saturday.  We figured we owed them a get-together for running off to get married in secret last December.  My original goal was to grow a lot of the food for the picnic ourselves, but it seemed that every crop I earmarked for the party --- tomatoes, potatoes, etc. --- failed miserably.  So we've been buying a lot of food, and tidying up the farm so that it looks more presentable.

Throwing a party for masses of people where I'll have to be the center of attention is up there on my list of nightmares (right after being a long distance truck driver, in case you're curious.)  So I've been using mowing therapy to keep myself calm.  My favorite method of mowing is to spend time up front getting the difficult edges so that I can then walk in easy circle after circle, ending up smack dab in the center of the area.  I wish it was so simple to find the exact center of worry circles....

Since this is a homesteading blog, not an angst blog, I'll end with a little factoid.  We took the mulching bag off the mower for my therapy this week because the grass is starting to go to seed.  As someone (Everett?) warned us when we first got our mower, grass clippings only make great mulch when there are no weed seeds involved!  If your lawn is made up of cool season grasses, chances are they're going to seed now too, so put those clippings in the worm bin or on the compost pile (or just let them fall back down and feed the lawn.)

This post has been brought to you by Mark's awesome homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Thu Sep 17 07:04:57 2009 Tags:

Drying watermelon seeds on a saucer.Okay, now that you've planned your cucurbit garden with seed-saving in mind, how do you actually save the seeds?  With melons and winter squashes, all you do is wait until your fruits are mature, scoop out the seeds, rinse them, and dry them.  You don't even have to waste the flesh since it's at just the right stage to go on your plate!

With summer squashes, just leave a few fruits on the vine the way you do with pea pods.  Surely at least one zucchini will miss the knife and get too big to be tasty.  Wait until the summer squash has developed a hard rind, like a winter squash, then cut it open and harvest the seeds.  Again, rinse and dry the seeds before storing them.

Cucumbers are the only relatively difficult cucurbit seed to save.  Like summer squashes, they need to be allowed to mature on the vine beyond the point at which you would usually pick them.  Then the seeds and surrounding liquid should be scraped out of the flesh and allowed to ferment in a jar for three or four days.  Stir the mess every day, and when the seeds sink to the bottom, pour off the goop, rinse the seeds, and save them.  The fermentation is necessary in order to break down a covering over the seeds that inhibits germination.

This post is part of our Seed Saving lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Sep 17 12:00:29 2009 Tags:

 best home made worm bin design

What makes a good worm bin better? A series of multiple levels that takes advantage of gravity, making it easy and fun to harvest the super valuable worm juice.

You can spend about a hundred bucks on a fancy commercial worm bin complete with drain spout, or you can build your own home made worm bin for well under half of that and use the left over cash to build a 2nd unit. Why build another one? It might help to experiment with some different kinds of worms to better match your climate, and 2 cups of worm juice is better than one.

The difficult part of outdoor worm bins is finding a warm place to move them in the winter or rigging up some sort of passive solar or electric blanket set up to keep the little rascals from freezing.

Posted Thu Sep 17 17:30:28 2009 Tags:

Chinese praying mantis on okraThis seems to have been a very good year for praying mantids in our garden.  I stumbled across this green-eyed male as I picked okra for our supper on Thursday.  Can you believe how full his belly is?

No one else on the internet seems to believe that eye color is a good way to tell male and female praying mantids apart, so it's possible the field marks I noted on my mating mantises were just a fluke.  If for some reason you really need to know if your mantid is male or female, count how many segments are in the abdomen.  Males have 8 segments (though sometimes only 7 are visible) while females have 6 (though sometimes only 5 are visible.)  My okra mantis passed both the green-eye and the 8 segment test, so he's definitively male.

Check out Mark's homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Fri Sep 18 07:43:58 2009 Tags:

Remove the core of the pepper and harvest the seeds.The last of the easy seeds we save are tomatoes and peppers.  I've combined them into this post even though they have different seed-saving techniques since they're in the same family.  If you've been reading along daily, these guys are just a repeat of the methods we've been discussing all week.

Pepper seeds are a lot like squash seeds --- easy to save as long as you keep hybridization in mind.  Many hot peppers are in the same species as your bell peppers, so don't grow them close together or you may be surprised by the zest of next year's "sweet" peppers!  However, peppers don't hybridize quite as readily as cucurbits, so you'll probably be okay saving two different varieties from the same garden as long as they're separated by at least 50 feet.  To save pepper seeds, allow the peppers to ripen completely (to yellow, orange, or red, depending on the variety).  Then cut out the core, brush off the seeds, dry the seeds in the open for a while, and put them in your seed box.  Just keep in mind that the hottest part of hot peppers is the seeds, and you won't be thrilled if you touch your face after handling hot pepper guts.

Fermenting tomato seedsAlthough some sources say differently, in my experience heirloom tomatoes don't cross-pollinate.  I've had good luck saving seeds from different types of tomatoes growing next door to each other, and I suspect you will too.  To save tomato seeds, pick ripe tomatoes, squeeze out the guts into a jar, add a bit of water, and ferment the seeds for a few days just like you did the cucumber seeds.  Then pour off the liquid and film of fungus, rinse the seeds, dry them, and save them.

I'd be curious to hear if anyone out there has reached beyond the basic seed-saving level we've attained.  What would be the next vegetable on your list to save after the ones mentioned in this series?

This post is part of our Seed Saving lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Sep 18 12:00:21 2009 Tags:

I couldn't resist the urge to grab the camera for a close up view of my window spider embraced in a fierce battle with a wasp 3 times its size.

After several tries I got lucky and seemed to have captured the moment when the spider demonstrates control by securing all the legs of the wasp into one spot as if he's been handcuffed. You can notice less fight in the buzz of his wings and an overall feeling of giving up.

If you listen close you can hear the mule garden deer deterrent in the background.

Posted Fri Sep 18 17:44:53 2009 Tags:

Tangerine Pimiento Sweet PepperWe like our peppers red or yellow and sweet, but I'm not usually willing to put in the time to start them indoors in early spring.  They seem to be more tender than tomatoes, and unable to be started in a cold frame.  That means I direct sow peppers right around our spring frost free date, and hope some will have time to ripen all the way before the first fall frost.  Last year, we didn't have much luck --- I gave away grocery bags full of big, beautiful green peppers right before the frost, but only got to eat a few ripe ones.

This year, we tried another variety which may prove to be our new favorite.  Tangerine Pimiento Sweet Pepper is extremely early producing --- we've been eating the sweet, orange fruits since early September despite direct-seeding them at the end of April.  The peppers are small, which is probably how they're able to ripen so early, and are held upright so the bottoms point at the sky.  I can't find any data on whether Tangerine Pimiento Sweet Pepper is an heirloom, but I'm saving some seeds anyway and hoping to have an equally good pepper season next year.

Posted Sat Sep 19 07:23:33 2009 Tags:

 Anna,cake, and me

Thanks to Chaos for taking these pictures, and thanks to everybody for helping with our picnic/wedding party, and a big hug to all those who have sent warm wishes and provided positive thought in helping the celebration be a smooth one with fun to be had by all.

A super huge thanks goes to whoever is in charge of the weather control network and the wonderful delaying of that thunderstorm until well after the party was over.

Posted Sat Sep 19 19:11:08 2009 Tags:

Daddy and Jay grillingNow that it's over, I think I understand the point of a wedding.  It's the one time in your life when you can count on the people you care about to show up together and at least look each other in the eye --- the bare minimum for community formation.  Mark's uncle and my dad talked about tinkers, my college buddy and my brother talked about Debian, and every sibling I own came together under one picnic shelter for a few hours.

My college buddies.Although to many women, their wedding is their "big day," I now realize that in a proper world the ceremony is not really about the bride and groom.  It's about forming connections between two circles of family and friends, hoping that maybe something will stick.  After a week of angst and tearing out my hair, it's pretty funny that I finally figured out the point of our wedding after the fact!

Brought to you by the color red and the letter C and our homemade chicken waterer!
Posted Sun Sep 20 07:41:36 2009 Tags:

 Lucy in the golf cart with mud

If you listen closely you can hear the very distinct sound of Lucy's tail hitting the seat of her golf cart, which is one of my personal top 10 favorite sounds of all time.

It's really nice of her to let us use it whenever we need to haul anything or anybody back to the trailer.

Posted Sun Sep 20 20:01:25 2009 Tags:

White Cochin on a chicken tractorOur White Cochin started her broodiness early this spring, and spent most of the rest of the year on one nest or another.  She barely got off the nest to nibble on some chicken feed and definitely didn't do much pecking in the grass for months.

So when her chick died, I decided that she needed some supplemental vitamins to help regain her strength.  I've been letting her run around free all week --- her spa week, I call it.  She's taken to roosting on top of one of the tractors, though she seems to prefer hanging around with a second tractor during the day --- quite a social butterfly!

Brought to you by the color white and the letter H and our homemade chicken waterer!
Posted Mon Sep 21 08:16:46 2009 Tags:

Farmers in Central AmericaGood Farmers: Traditional Agricultural Resource Management in Mexico and Central America by Gene C. Wilken explores the methods Central American farmers have used for centuries to maintain the health of their farms without fossil-fuel-driven machinery or chemical fertilizers.  Farms were small, and the materials used came from the farm itself or from nearby. 

Although farmers in Central America are now giving in to modern farming techniques, those of us intrigued by the permaculture concept of creating a healthy food web within our garden have a lot to learn from traditional American farmers.  I'm going to skip over the traditional techniques everyone's heard of --- like interplanting legumes with hungrier crops to keep the soil rich in nitrogen or applying manure to the soil.  Instead, this week's lunchtime series explores four intriguing management techniques we are considering working into our own farm ecosystem.

This post is part of our Central American Permaculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Sep 21 12:00:31 2009 Tags:

big pile of fire woodWe bought a large truck load of firewood recently due to the fact that we were too busy to cut any this summer, and we've decided the extra time we get will be well worth the price.

I believe it takes a certain amount of experimentation when contracting out essential chores in order to find the most comfortable balance point of having enough time and money left over to relax. I already have a good feeling about the value of this wood pile and how much time it will free up for a few projects we have on the drawing board this winter.

Posted Mon Sep 21 19:09:53 2009 Tags:

Basket of butternut squashThere's nothing that says "first day of autumn" quite like a heaping basket of winter squash!  People obsessed with appearances grow pumpkins, but folks who are attached to flavor grow butternuts.  You can guess which camp I fit into....

You can leave winter squash on the vine until just before the frost, but our wet weather was starting to rot the fruits so I harvested early.  We got an overflowing peach basket full of squash from our four plants, which is a bit low due to vine borers, but not bad.

Unfortunately, I had to cook up over a third of the butternuts immediately due to nicks and rotten spots.  The best way to cook a butternut is to roast it --- slice each squash long ways, scrape out the seeds (don't forget to save some!), and place them cut side down on a baking tray in the oven to roast until soft.  Scoop out the sweet, orange flesh and use it in butternut squash soup or turn it into a pie every bit as tasty as pumpkin pie.  (We may try both of these options this week to use up the nicked fruit.)

The photo above shows the squashes we plan to store for the winter.  I gently rinsed off the mud, cut off bits of vine attached to stems, and will now let the squash cure for a while at room temperature.  The optimal curing period for winter squash is 10 days at a temperature of 80 to 85 F and a humidity of 80 to 85%.  Our humidity will probably fit the bill, but our temperatures have already cooled down so that we'll probably have to cure longer.  After curing, I wouldn't be surprised if our butternut squash feed us all winter --- we gave away a cushaw this month that had been sitting in our kitchen for nearly a year!

Brought to you by our Avian Aqua Miser homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Tue Sep 22 08:03:34 2009 Tags:

Collecting leaves for the garden.Guatemalan farmers harvest vast quantities of fallen leaves (broza) out of nearby woods to incorporate into their soil.  Wilken estimates that farmers rake up leaves from 5 to 8 acres of forest for each acre of crop they cultivate, although he hastens to add that farm fields are small.   Some farmers just hoe the leaves directly into their soil, while others use the leaves as animal bedding for a week, then incorporate the poopy bedding into the soil.  The latter method is especially effective since nitrogen in the manure and urine offsets the nitrogen lost during the initial stages of leaf decomposition.

Leaves are an especially intriguing soil amendment for our farm since they improve soil structure and water retention/drainage in clayey soils.  In fact, Guatemalan farmers use leaves primarily in clay soil, while they tend to lean toward manure in sandy soils.

Last year, I begged my city-living family members to scavenge bags of leaves left on the curb, and we ended up with 31 big garbage bags full.  I used them as mulch around our berries and trees, but I could have used about ten times as much leaf matter.  Since we've decided to buy firewood this year, maybe we'll have enough free time to rake masses of leaves out of the woods and use them as soil amendments.  I may experiment with using our chicken tractors as leaf-shredding and manure-amending factories, or may try to harvest the nitrogen in our urine by peeing on our leaves.  Stay tuned for lots of leafy experimentation this fall and winter!

This post is part of our Central American Permaculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Sep 22 12:00:31 2009 Tags:

cedar post haulingI was working on a small structure to protect the firewood today. Stage 1 is to obtain 4 really long posts to work as the frame. It will be like a mini pole barn without the walls.

Reducing our nearby cedar tree population has been on the list of things to do for a while due to the fungal disease known as cedar apple rust.

It's always especially sweet when you can get 2 things marked off the list with just one task, although we still have several more cedars that need to come down.

Read all of the entries about our Firewood Shed Building Project.  The project took a couple of afternoons and cost about $5.

Posted Tue Sep 22 16:00:03 2009 Tags:
Cross-striped cabbageworm on broccoli

Reports of first frosts trickle down to me from friends in New England.  We're supposed to be safe in southwest Virginia until October 10, but I can feel the change of season pushing against our garden.  Tuesday, I scurried around freezing the year's last batch of corn along with some okra and broccoli.  Cross-striped cabbage worms had crept in amid the broccoli florets while I ignored the garden last week, so I tried to soak the heads in salt water with little success, instead ending up just picking off the caterpillars.

Sweet cornStill to be harvested this week are peas, swiss chard, green beans, basil, and summer squash (ate our first squash from the fall bed Monday!).
  We might even dig up our sweet potatoes since they need a warm curing period just like winter squash.

Suddenly, other projects are also asserting their importance.  That water line we nearly buried in the spring needs to be finished, our bathing and chicken waterer construction shed looks awfully important all of a sudden, and even the worm bin will require some care to bring it through the winter.  Since we do our laundry in a wringer washer outdoors and dry the clothes on the line, now's a good time to hurry up and wash all of our bedding before cold weather makes drying comforters impossible.  We'd also like to turn our broken fridge into a cheap root cellar, but that project may not make it onto this year's agenda.  Fall sure is a busy season!

Posted Wed Sep 23 07:29:33 2009 Tags:

Sambucus mexicanaToday's traditional soil amendment method was little more than a footnote in the book, but I'm intrigued by it nevertheless.  In southwest Guatemala, elderberry bushes (sauco) are interplanted amid vegetable crops.  Every year, the farmers cut back the bushes to stumps, and use the young leaves and branches to mulch around crop plants.  The leaves have a high nitrogen to carbon ratio (a lot like grass clippings), so they decompose rapidly, feeding the crop plants in the process.

The elderberry bushes in Guatemala are closely related to the elderberry bushes that grow wild here --- depending on who you talk to, the Mexican Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana) is either a subspecies or a closely related species to our Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis.)  We have elderberry bushes growing in our garden that I've tried to eradicate, but which keep sprouting back up from the stumps.  This year, I stopped the eradication campaign and instead decided to include the bushes as a mulch source in our forest garden since elderberry flowers are useful nectaries to attract beneficial insects.  I'm intrigued to read that some Guatemalan farmers also consider elderberries so important that they let them take up valuable crop space.

This post is part of our Central American Permaculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Sep 23 12:00:32 2009 Tags:

home made diy firewood shed animation
We decided to use some scrap tin pieces from the old house for the roof of the firewood shed.

I already feel warmer knowing that our prime energy source for heat will be out of the rain and close by.

Read all of the entries about our Firewood Shed Building Project.  The project took a couple of afternoons and cost about $5.

Posted Wed Sep 23 18:40:19 2009 Tags:

A big sweet potatoWe want to plant twice as much garlic this year as last year (more on that later), so I started eying the sweet potato beds this week, wondering if they could be dug.  A search of the internet admonishes you to harvest your sweet potatoes before the frost to avoid damage to the tubers.  But how long before?

One easy way to know when to harvest crops is to look at the variety's days to maturity.  Beauregard sweet potatoes (our variety) require only 90 days.  Since we put out our slips between May 12 and July 1, they should be ready to harvest between August 12 and September 1.  Looks like we can take a look!

Wheelbarrow of sweet potatoesI dug up a few test plants and discovered a good selection of large, medium, and small tubers.  Presumably, some of those useless tiny tubers would turn into useful medium tubers if we let them wait another week or two.  But I decided to harvest anyway.  After all, harvesting at this time last year let us cure our sweet potatoes completely before the frost and we're still eating those tubers.

I dug up a quarter of our sweet potatoes on Wednesday and was very impressed by the showing.  Last year, the deer ate our sweet potato plants mercilessly, which led to small tubers that were few and far between.  Looks like Mark's deer deterrent is doing its job!

Posted Thu Sep 24 07:30:17 2009 Tags:

Mexican system of applying silt to farm fields.While Guatemala is full of methods of adding plant matter to farm fields, it seems like Mexicans spend more energy on harvesting sediment out of water.  In the Tehuacan Valley of southwest Mexico, elaborate systems of canals and dams are used to apply just the right amount of top quality silt to fields. 

Neighboring farmers all work together to build the infrastructure required to channel water from rivers to nearby farms.  Each farmer builds retaining walls around his fields out of soil, then decides when to open gates and allow flood water to flow from the canals into his fields.  Silt settles out as the water sinks into the ground and the result is about half an inch of high fertility topsoil per flood.

Israeli silting basin
Farmers have about a dozen floods a year to choose from, and most opt to open their flood gates for just three or four.  Since storms in the region are often spotty, silt quality varies widely from flood to flood.  Floods fueled by storms in a certain part of the watershed will wash high quality topsoil into the river while storms in another region result in lower quality silt.  Experienced farmers are able to tell the difference and pick the right floods to feed their fields.  Even when floods contain high quality silt, farmers usually let the first flush of water flow past unharvested since it tends to contain trash and dead animals they don't want on their fields.

We actually saw a system like this at work in the Rio Grande Botanic Garden several years ago (although the primary purpose there was irrigation), and I've been intrigued ever since.  Our creek floods several times a year, but we just let the muddy water flow past, untapped.  Our current garden is up out of the floodplain and wouldn't be eligible for silt harvesting, but this is certainly an idea I'd like to keep on the back burner.

This post is part of our Central American Permaculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Sep 24 12:00:28 2009 Tags:

home made floor for firewood
We cut down a small sassafras tree today to provide a crude floor for the firewood to be stacked on in the new shed. I think it's going to work nicely.

The next step will be to install 2 middle columns to support the center stack on each end.

Posted Thu Sep 24 19:20:44 2009 Tags:
Swiss chard, summer squash, and green beans.

We bought a bunch of cheap, plastic bowls at the Dollar Store in preparation for last week's party, and they're already coming in handy.  It sure is nice to be able to carry a week's worth of green beans into the house without having the veggies drip away over the sides of our formerly largest bowl....

It's been quite a harvest week, with gallons of vegetables making their way into our freezer.  I'm most excited by the scads of summer squash from our late planting.  We've been spraying them with Bt just in case, but this week I decided to leave a few plants unprotected.  If those guys get bored, we'll know we have to keep spraying until the frost.  If not, we might be able to leave our fall planting of summer squash completely unprotected next year.

Don't miss Mark's homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Fri Sep 25 08:17:17 2009 Tags:

Harvesting muck out of drainage canalsA more arduous method of harvesting the silt carried by water is to wait until it settles into drainage canals and then dredge out the muck.  This method is employed in wet areas of south-central Mexico that were turned into farmable land by a series of drainage canals.  Farmers have to dredge muck out of these canals about once a year in order to keep the canals from turning into swamps, and the harvested muck makes a high quality soil amendment.

Since muck is so energy-intensive to harvest, it is traditionally poured into small molds made by mounding up a soil lip around four sides of a rectangle on the ground.  The water quickly soaks into the underlying soil, leaving a rectangle of solidified muck that can be cut into small squares.  A seed is planted into each square, then the resulting seedlings are transplanted into the main fields.  The muck seed bed gives the seedlings a good start on life, and the cubes of muck are a good amendment to the regular seedbed after transplanting.

We certainly have plenty of muck going to waste on our farm.  Previous owners rerouted the main creekbed, leaving behind an old creekbed that we've dubbed the alligator swamp.  I suspect that we could harvest many buckets of muck out of the swamp and add the high fertility soil to our garden with the help of the golf cart.

This week's lunchtime series only covered the first third of Good Farmers.  Stay tuned for another series if I get my act together before the library book is due!

This post is part of our Central American Permaculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Sep 25 12:00:24 2009 Tags:

liquid nail repair photo
Liquid nails.

More liquid nails.

And still yet a bit more of the liquid nails to the time battered roof of our trailer. Each dab of glue getting us that much closer to a completely leak proof home.

Posted Fri Sep 25 17:00:12 2009 Tags:

Silverwhite Silverskin GarlicAfter two years of failed garlic harvests, last year I spent $45 on a sampler pack of four types of garlic from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.  I'd read that garlic needs to acclimate to local conditions, and they were the closest company I could find with garlic for sale.  I also figured that by trying four varieties, we could find one well suited to our farm and our palates.

I planted about two thirds of the two pound sampler (giving away the other third), and was stunned by our harvest in June.  Both the Silverwhite Silverskin and the Inchelium Red grew like gangbusters, while the Music and Italian Softneck made a pretty good showing.  I figured the garlic we harvested would last us all year with some to give away.

But then two things happened.  First, we went out of town immediately after the harvest and didn't cure the bulbs properly, so about a quarter of them went wormy and rotted.  And our tastes seem to have changed.  Not many years ago, I wouldn't even eat garlic, but lately the bulbs have been taking a more and more prominent place in our diet.  Suddenly, our June harvest looked...small.

So this year we're planting twice as many beds as we did last year --- 18 instead of nine.  (Each bed is approximately 18 square feet.)  I put the first half in the ground on Friday and plan to plant the rest early next week. 

It's always a good sign when I stumble across two snakes in the course of a planting day --- the garter snake below was hiding in the moldy straw I used as mulch while a worm snake (and a toad) slipped out of the soil as I dug in manure.  Here's hoping that the snakes are telling me that next year we'll have garlic to give away!

Garter snake

Check out Mark's homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Sat Sep 26 08:43:15 2009 Tags:

Rainy day on the farmMark's out saving the world this weekend, so I thought my Mom might like to come over for the day and keep me company.  She drove up from town and arrived as the rain started to pick up.

After a drenching ride to the trailer in the golf cart, we settled in for girl time --- hot chocolate and board games.  The rain kept drumming on the trailer roof, but I didn't pay much heed.

"Will the creek flood?" Mom asked worriedly.

Three inches of rain."Naw," I reassured her.  "Unless we get three inches in a day, we'll be fine."

We glanced out the window.  Was the rain gauge really full nearly all the way to the top?!  That looks a lot like three inches!

"Um, I just made that three inch figure up..." I said as we scurried around collecting wet clothes and produce.  Down we rolled into the floodplain, through the first miniford without a problem, splashing through a wet second miniford, then stopping in distress in front of the third miniford.  Time to leave the vehicle and head out on foot!

The water was too high to make boots worthwhile.  Even rolling up your pants gets pretty useless when the muddy floodwater reaches above your knees.  We splashed through the last miniford and peered at the raging waters in the creek itself --- about chest high.  No way we were walking through that.

FloodwatersLucy was in her element, galloping along the water's edge.  She jumped onto the footbridge, thrilled at the way the creekwater was even with the boards.  Bits of trash washing down the creek lodged on the side of the bridge so that she barely had to bend her head to grab them.  A farm dog paradise!

If Lucy could get across, so could we.  I took one of the produce-filled backpacks and carried it across, then came back for the other and to hold Mom's hand.  My mother is pretty plucky --- most folks won't even walk across our footbridge when the creek is low and the boards are dry.  But Mom cut down a Christmas tree and dragged it home when she was nine months pregnant with me.  She canned endless loads of produce when she was nine months pregnant with my sister.  A floating footbridge was no problem.

The good thing about raging water is that it blocks out the sound of old walnut logs creaking and cracking beneath your feet.  The water under the footbridge actually made it feel more stable than usual --- like walking on a waterbed!  Mom reached her car safely, then Lucy and I braved the footbridge again for the wet walk home.  Now I'm holed up with two dry cats, hoping the flood waters recede in time for Mark's return tomorrow evening.  Too bad he missed all the excitement....

Posted Sat Sep 26 19:20:41 2009 Tags:

Homemade chicken watererOur homemade chicken waterer photo contest ended last week, and we were thrilled by the ingenuity of the entries.  Alexandra Kent submitted our favorite entry --- a bucket waterer mounted on a plant hanger.  Why didn't we think of that?

Homemade chicken waterer
The photo to the right by Vance Foster was a  close runnerup.  I like the simplicity of the drinking water bottle reservoirs, and I have to admit that the pullets made me laugh.

Many thanks to everyone who took the time to capture their chickens in action.  Stay tuned for another photo contest next year!

Posted Sun Sep 27 08:26:48 2009 Tags:

The Walden Effect for me is a path from noise to nature and what happens when you manage to surrender to the everyday beauty of life. My understanding of its exact nature is a work in progress, although I think it's safe to say that it has an emotional element that relates to dealing with unresolved conflict of whatever one feels strong about.

Youtube user Holofractalist has made a clever edit of a Greg Braden interview that goes a long way in explaining what I'm trying to say here. I liked it so much I watched it twice in a row and I'll most likely review it again and again. A fantastic 10 minute chunk of enlightenment that I give 2 thumbs up.

Posted Sun Sep 27 17:00:04 2009 Tags:
The aftermath of the flood

The aftermath of the flood reveals no major damage, though I had to clear a lot of debris off the footbridge.  At least four snails seemed to have survived washing down the creek, and I carefully plucked them to safety on the shore before brushing the rest of the debris back into the water.  I pondered whether it would be worth it to harvest all of the sticks for mulch --- maybe next time.

Brought to you by Mark's homemade chicken waterer.

Posted Mon Sep 28 08:01:11 2009 Tags:

Cold frames allow you to eat fresh vegetables for most of the winterThe gardener lives for fresh produce straight out of the garden, but the homesteader wants more.  She wants to be eating her own vegetables straight through the winter and into the spring.  But how?

Last year, I got obsessed with freezing, and we did eat our own vegetables all winter long.  With some judicious use of cold frames, we even had fresh lettuce and greens for most of the winter to keep us healthy.  But by late winter, I was still craving more fresh produce.

The solution to the fresh-produce-in-winter problem is growing more vegetables that can be kept fresh straight through the winter.  Why freeze those carrots and cabbage (like I did last year) when you could crunch into them fresh and crisp in February?  This week's lunchtime series explores storage vegetables --- what to plant, how to harvest, and how to keep them fresh through the winter.  I drew my information from personal experience and from Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables by Mike and Nancy Bubel.  I highly recommend the latter if you want more information.

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

Posted Mon Sep 28 12:00:28 2009 Tags:

mr. shed picture
Secrets of shed is jam packed with information on building a wide variety of sheds. You can tell the people who put it together really have a passion for everything shed related.

There's a place you can ask questions about your shed project with someone to give qualified answers for free.

If building it yourself doesn't sound like fun then maybe you could get something out of their review section of available shed kits and shed building companies.

I think I might incorporate a few tips I've learned from this site into our next firewood shed, but that won't happen until we fill the first one up with split logs.

Posted Mon Sep 28 19:42:41 2009 Tags:

Where to shoot a deer Our deer deterrents are still working like a charm, but one got hung up this weekend and a deer came through the gap in the sound barrier.  After looking at my munched strawberries, I resolved to kill a deer before the fall season is over.

I spent a while Monday afternoon poring over the Virginia hunting laws.
  Turns out that if we were good enough, Mark and I would be allowed to kill 5 deer apiece on our own property without a license.  The rules are complex and confusing --- no hunting on Sunday (even on your own land?!  What happened to separation of church and state?), no more than two bucks per person (great --- I want to kill does!), and no more than one deer per day per person.

We were thinking about hunting last year, but never found the time to practice amid the rush of winter preparations.  But this year we freed up some time by buying firewood, and are even prepared with a 40 caliber rifle.  I'm hoping that in the next six weeks before hunting season begins, we'll have time to become proficient marksmen.

Posted Tue Sep 29 07:56:13 2009 Tags:

Ripening pumpkinAlthough a lot of fruits and vegetables can be saved for a few weeks or even a couple of months in the fridge after harvest, I'm most interested in the ones that will stay fresh long into the cold months.  White and sweet potatoes, winter squashes (including pumpkins), carrots, onions, and garlic are the obvious six.  We're starting to experiment with some other good keepers too, including beets, cabbage, parsnips, and turnips.  Once our trees mature, we'll add apples and pears to the mix.

You should start thinking about winter storage while planning your garden.  First, take a look at your soil conditions.  Did you know that soil with higher levels of potassium will produce vegetables with better storage quality?  (Add manure, compost, wood ashes, comfrey, and citrus peels to increase your potassium levels.)  Too much nitrogen in the soil will have the opposite effect on root crops since the vegetables will be watery and will spoil quickly.

Next, consider planting dates.  Your goal should be to have your storage crops ripening in early to late fall, just in time to tuck them away for the winter without any risk of them becoming overmature.  The spring carrots I've been munching on all summer are now starting to get woody and bitter --- no point in storing vegetables already past their peak perfection.  Instead, I planted a fall garden with storage carrots that are just now starting to ripen.  Although I didn't think this far ahead in spring, I should have planted my winter squash at the end of May rather than at the end of April, so that the squash would be turning ripe in Sepetember rather than having sat in the rain and started to rot for a few weeks before harvest.  Basically, you should plant your storage vegetables as late as possible to still get a mature crop.

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

Posted Tue Sep 29 12:00:25 2009 Tags:

plymouth rock animation

The green plastic material we used for the latest chicken tractor has an added advantage of being a nice comfortable size for each hen to poke her head through to access some goodies outside the tractor.

Posted Tue Sep 29 17:28:43 2009 Tags:

Summer squash, green beans, sweet peppers, and broccoliNights have started dropping into the low 40s this week --- time to get serious about freezing the last of the summer crops.

Now that we suddenly have enough summer squash to preserve, I decided to try to find a mush-free way to freeze them.  Last year, I steam-blanched the squash then froze them, and the thawed squash turned out watery --- okay in a spaghetti sauce, but not so great otherwise.  A friend of mind grills her summer squash before freezing them with great results.  I decided to slice the squash lengthwise and broil them in the oven rather than firing up the grill.  The result was certainly tasty in the short term --- we'll have to wait and see how they thaw out once winter hits.

Brought to you by our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Wed Sep 30 07:30:28 2009 Tags:

Curing garlicNow the fun part --- the harvest!  The frost is already looming large in our minds, but most of our storage vegetables don't care so much.  Do be sure to take in your onions, garlic, winter squash, and sweet potatoes before the frost, but don't be concerned about the other root crops.  Some --- like carrots and parsnips --- convert starches to sugars after a frost and become much tastier.  These guys can be harvested as late as October or November as long as you make sure that no parts of the roots stick up above the soil surface.

When harvesting vegetables for storage, try to dig them in dry weather when less soil is clinging to the roots and the vegetables themselves are less turgid with water.  Gently brush off the dirt, but don't scrub or wash the vegetables.  Although you may be tempted to toss these seemingly indestructable roots into a basket or wheelbarrow, you should instead handle them gently since the smallest bruise can make vegetables rot in storage.

Pick through your haul as you harvest and take out any imperfect, bruised, or cut vegetables to be eaten immediately.  These guys probably won't last long in storage and will rot the surrounding vegetables in the process.  Cut off any leaves immediately, but don't break off small feeder roots.

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

Posted Wed Sep 30 12:00:23 2009 Tags:

 somple shed floor support solution

When installing the 2 middle posts for the new firewood shed I decided to take a cue from the original barn builders and use a simple stone support for each 2x3.

The tarp is a temporary addition for the next couple weeks to protect several garden items from the rain as they cure.

Read all of the entries about our Firewood Shed Building Project.  The project took a couple of afternoons and cost about $5.

Posted Wed Sep 30 16:52:29 2009 Tags:

Anna Hess's books
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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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