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

archives for 10/2009

Oct 2009
Dragonfly on swiss chard

Picking Rhubarb Swiss Chard on a chilly morning, I nearly put my hand into a stunning dragonfly.  The insect was too cold to fly away immediately so it just quivered its wings as I snapped shot after shot.  Finally, its muscles were warm enough for liftoff, and the dragonfly sped off to nibble on gnats.

I suspect our healthy population of dragonflies (and bats) is part of the reason why we aren't plagued by biting insects, despite living next door to a swamp.  If you want dragonflies in your garden (and you do!), putting in even a tiny pond can do the trick, especially if you add some plants to give the dragonflies a spot to land.  As a kid, I transplanted some dragonfly nymphs from a more established pond to my tiny backyard water garden and was rewarded with a healthy dragonfly population for the rest of my childhood.

My dragonfly is a female Common Green Darner, distinguished from the male by the brown eyes.  Even if you don't care about dragonfly identification, you should check out the site linked above for the stunning photos.  Enjoy!

And check out Mark's homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Thu Oct 1 07:43:00 2009 Tags:

Some of your storage vegetables need to be cured before storage; some don't.  If you cure vegetables that don't need to be cured, they'll rot.  And if you don't cure vegetables that do need to be cured, they'll rot too.  Time for a good list!

Curing method
1 - 2 weeks in a warm, dry place
2 - 3 weeks in a warm, dry place
2 weeks at 50 - 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 95% humidity (slightly warmer than a root cellar)
Sweet Potato
2 weeks at 80 - 85 degrees Fahrenheit (dry)
Winter Squash (including Pumpkins)
2 weeks in a warm, dry place.  (Don't cure acorn squash!)

Curing serves a couple of purposes.  In all crops except white potatoes, a primary purpose is to dry the vegetable up so that it won't rot in storage.  White and sweet potatoes and winter squashes develop a hard skin during curing that will protect the crop during storage.

Curing sweet potatoes and butternut squashThe cheapest and easiest method I've come up with for curing vegetables is to lay them out on some old window screens Mom found for me by the side of the road.  I put the first screen on four cinderblocks, cover the screen with drying vegetables, then put bricks on the four corners of the frame to let me put another screen on top for a second drying layer.  The trick is to get good air circulation all the way around your vegetables, so don't pile the roots on top of each other.  If you're a good scavenger, you can recreate my curing rack setup for next to nothing.

People with more space will get away with drying their vegetables inside, but our trailer just isn't big enough to handle that type of operation.  Instead, I harvest my crops a bit earlier than other folks might and put my drying racks under a tarp or roof outside to cure storage vegetables before the frost hits.

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

Posted Thu Oct 1 12:00:28 2009 Tags:
Posted Thu Oct 1 15:53:34 2009 Tags:
Pickerel Frog

Wednesday night reached a low of 37 F --- dangerously close to the frost.  We're not ready to light our first fire, so it took a while for us to emerge from our nightly cocoons.  When I did get up, Strider was unusually affectionate, nestling down beside me as I read my morning blogs, and even Lucy didn't seem quite so keen on uncurling herself before her morning walk.

The great thing about sudden cold weather, though, is wildlife.  "Cold-blooded" animals aren't ready to hibernate yet, but the chilly temperatures make them slow down.  While weeding, I got a great shot of a tiny Pickerel Frog.  Usually, Pickerel Frogs are the fastest amphibians on our farm, pushing off with those long hind legs and disappearing before my mind even registers "frog."  But not today!

Take advantage of the fall slow down to make a homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Fri Oct 2 07:32:04 2009 Tags:

parsnipsThe trick to keeping your storage vegetables fresh all winter is understanding the type of conditions they prefer.  Storage conditions can be measured by temperature, humidity, ventilation, and darkness.  Nearly all crops like it dark and airy, but each vegetable has a favorite range of temperature and humidity conditions.

In practice, I divide our storers up into two main categories --- cool, wet storers and warm, dry storers.  Cool, wet storers thrive in root cellars and can also be kept well in simpler storage operations like mulched garden rows, storage mounds ("clamps"), trenches, a basement, or the crisper drawer in your fridge.  Warm, dry storers will do much better in your attic, an unheated room, or under your kitchen sink.

I'm vastly oversimplifying by dividing crops into these two categories, but it's far too easy to get carried away trying to provide a half dozen different storage conditions to keep all of your crops happy.  The table below gives some storage data on common vegetables:

Optimal storage conditions
My storage conditions
My storage location
32 - 40 F, 90 - 95% humidity cool, moist
haven't done it yet
32 - 40 F, 80 - 90% humidity cool, moist
haven't done it yet
32 - 40 F, 90 - 95% humidity
cool, moist
haven't done it yet
32 - 50 F, 60 - 70% humidity warm, dry
kitchen shelf
32 - 50 F, 60 - 70% humidity warm, dry
kitchen shelf
32 - 40 F, 90 - 95% humidity cool, moist
haven't done it yet
32 - 40 F, 80 - 90% humidity cool, moist
storage mound
Sweet Potato
50 - 60 F, 60 - 70% humidity
warm, dry
under the kitchen sink
32 - 40 F, 90 - 95% humidity cool, moist
haven't done it yet
Winter Squash (including Pumpkin)
50 - 60 F, 60 - 70% humidity warm, dry
under the kitchen sink

Despite ignoring some of the optimal conditions, I've had great luck keeping onions, winter squash, and sweet potatoes fresh until they're all eaten up.  (In fact, we still have some of last year's sweet potatoes to finish up as this year's are curing!)  Don't get too caught up in thinking you have to build a fancy root cellar before you can enter the world of storage vegetables.

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

Posted Fri Oct 2 12:00:28 2009 Tags:

yummy yellow small onesBoing Boing has an interesting post on a National Geographic news article that reports on a recent round of tests to see how productive a mix of human urine and wood ash would be for tomatoes.

The plants fertilized this way yielded 4 times as much fruit as non fertilized plants, and bore a significant increase in the nutrient magnesium.

I would be a little concerned about the long term salt build up that may occur with this method and need more information before I try something as risky as mixing a salty substance with our topsoil.

Posted Fri Oct 2 19:37:21 2009 Tags:

Flower bed and chicken tractorFlowers tend to be at the very bottom of my gardening list, and I only managed to toss some seeds in the ground around June this year.  I ignored them for a month, then gave them a half-hearted weed.  Flowers.  Whatever.

But in the middle of September, the first brilliantly red zinnia popped open.  Our deer deterrents were up and running, so a couple of sunflowers kept their leaves, opening huge yellow heads.  The Cocks' Comb from Mark's mom pushed up brilliant magenta combs and the marigolds turned into a hedge of orange.

Suddenly, my half-hearted flower bed is the heart of the garden.  Why didn't I plant more?  Why didn't I plant them sooner?  I guess next year I'll have to pay more attention to flowers!

Note the homemade chicken waterer in the middle background.
Posted Sat Oct 3 07:57:42 2009 Tags:

autumn bee check up dayWe checked up on our remaining 3 bee hives today and were happy to discover evidence of  well functioning colonies in all of them.

The home made frame perch tool seems to have warped a bit since the last upgrade, which means I should have allowed more distance between the arms.

An easy fix once I finish fixing a few other things around here.

Posted Sat Oct 3 21:16:43 2009 Tags:
Blight resistant tomato
Although I wouldn't wish this year's tomato growing season on anyone, the blight seems to have delivered an unexpected bonus.  Remember how I left several volunteers in the garden and planted a few late tomatoes after ripping out my blighted plants?  The tomatoes I started from seed in August are clearly going to keel over from the frost before they set any fruit, and most of the volunteers already got blighted and kicked the bucket.

One volunteer, though, is going strong.  Its big, red tommy-toes are ripening just about as fast as Lucy can pick them (darn dog!) and the leaves and stem show no sign of blight.  Looks like we found a seriously blight-resistant tomato!

I stole one tommy-toe out from under Lucy's nose and am processing the seeds in preparation to saving them for next year.  There's a good chance the tomato is Crazy, a variety I grew in my garden last year but that didn't make it onto my roster this year due to old seeds.  What didn't kill us will make us stronger!

Visit our homemade chicken waterer website.
Posted Sun Oct 4 08:55:50 2009 Tags:

golf ball as brood egg to trick hensWe started to have some trouble back in the summer with one of the Plymouth Rock hens laying her egg on the ground, which made it easy to miss and pull the tractor over it, creating a scrambled egg in the yard.

It seems like a golf ball is close enough to an egg to fool even our smart Plymouth Rocks. No broken eggs since we installed the fake at a price well under a buck depending on where you get your sporting supplies from.

Posted Sun Oct 4 21:08:20 2009 Tags:

Moss growing on a no-till raised bed.When I was in high school, I was obsessed with water gardening.  My father and I built a little concrete pond in the backyard and I stocked it with plants and aquatic life.  But the places where the concrete liner rose above the surface were an eyesore, so I did everything I could think of to try to get moss to grow there.  I had absolutely no luck.  In the end, I decided that moss was hard to grow.

Looks like my raised beds don't think so.  After our six months of autumn, one bed has grown quite a nice crop of moss amid the Egyptian onions.  I hope that means that my no-till technique has built an equally lush soil ecosystem below the surface!

Like our endless autumn, our homemade chicken waterer delivers a steady supply of water.
Posted Mon Oct 5 07:44:54 2009 Tags:

Designing and maintaining your edible landscape naturallyA week from today, Mark and I will be climbing the Uxmal pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula.  So this week's lunchtime series is actually a two week series, spanning the days we'll be away on our honeymoon.

Luckily, I found just the book to fuel two weeks of permaculture musings: Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally by Robert Kourik.  This book was written about the time I entered third grade, but the facts are nowhere near out of date.  Actually, I can see where the fascinating forest garden book I read a few months ago grew organically out of the rich compost of Robert Kourik's guide.

Robert Kourik's flawlessly researched and referenced book is also based on his years as a landscape architect, tempting clients to include edible plants in their ornamental gardens.  This week's first half of the series sums up his wisdom about the foundation of permaculture plantings --- soil.

This post is part of our lunchtime series reviewing Robert Kourik's Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Oct 5 12:00:22 2009 Tags:

 wringer washer repair details

I found out today that our Maytag wringer washer is the model E2L, the longest running production of any of the wringer machines. The run started in 1945 and the last one was made in 1983.

Judging by how brittle our discharge hose was I'm guessing ours is closer to the 1945 era. I tried building one back from scrap pieces and 2 layers of silicone. Tomorrow will be the test run to see if this operation is a viable solution without any leaking.

Posted Mon Oct 5 17:12:50 2009 Tags:

Orange peppers, summer squash, and broccoliI figure chances are pretty good that we'll return from our honeymoon to a frosted farm, so we're doing frost preparations before we leave.  I've gathered up our curing sweet potatoes, garlic, and butternut squash to be hung in mesh bags in the kitchen.  In the garden, I picked the last of the basil (already nipped by a 35 degree night on Saturday) and what may be the last of the summer squash, peppers, and green beans.  One more gallon of summer bounty hit the freezer and we ate our last batch of pesto pasta with basil fresh from the sun.

I'm torn about whether to pick all of the green peppers and bring them inside to eat when we return, or whether to gamble by draping the plants in row covers and hoping that we'll have some orange peppers when we get back instead.  I vastly prefer the latter, but think I might do the former --- I'm not big on gambling and even green peppers taste pretty good after the frost.

Check out Mark's homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Tue Oct 6 08:34:56 2009 Tags:

Chart of soil microorganism concentrations at various depths.I've been dabbling in no-till techniques for the last few years, due to a vague understanding that tilling is bad for the soil.  Robert Kourik's book gave me the low down on the best no-till techniques and why they succeed (or fail.)

So, what's wrong with tilling?  Although we can't see it, our soil is teeming with microscopic and macroscopic life, most of which lives in the top three inches of soil.  Tilling churns up soil, mixing the microorganism playground with the lower soil and resulting in a lot less life.  Although you might expect that the microorganisms folded deeper into the earth just expand their populations, lack of air and sun quickly kills them off.

Bare soil is another bane of conventional tilling.  Erosion is the obvious problem --- rain washes away the precious topsoil when it is unprotected by plants or mulch.  But sun is just as much of a problem.  When bare soil is exposed to summer sun, the heat vaporizes nitrogen and kills the precious soil microorganisms, resulting in a garden that requires much more fertilizer in order to grow your veggies.

Of course, we can't just throw our lettuce seeds amid the grass in our lawns and expect it to grow.  So how do we garden without annual tilling and bare soil?

This post is part of our lunchtime series reviewing Robert Kourik's Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Oct 6 12:00:50 2009 Tags:

wringer washer repaired and runningThe wringer washer is working again with a small leak, which is a bit smaller than before.

I think silicone was a bad choice for this problem due to the nature of the metal in question, but I went for it because it's what I had on hand.

Next time I think I'll take john wilson's advice and use some of that fiberglass bondo stuff when trying to merge this type of metal with a hard plastic.

Posted Tue Oct 6 15:06:12 2009 Tags:
Honeybee on smartweed

Conventional wisdom has it that honeybees are attracted to asters and goldenrod at this time of year.  The chilly, cloudy weather we've had lately hasn't been conducive to much bee activity at all, but when the sun does tempt our bees out, they go straight to the smartweed instead.  Tiny, pink smartweed flowers seem to be just my bees' speed, especially since the "lawn" right outside their hive is chock full of it.

I have a difficult time identifying smartweeds.  All of them belong to the genus Polygonum, half of them are invasive species, and most areas have about two dozen look-alike species to choose from.  My best guess is that my smartweed is Oriental Lady's Thumb (Polygonum caespitosum), a native of Asia that is common in damp areas.

Mark suggested collecting seeds of the smartweed and expanding its territory since the flowers seem to be so popular with the bees.  I'm not comfortable encouraging invasive plants too much, but I think I will make a habit of skipping the last grass mowing in the fall to give our bees some late nectar right by the hive.

Buzz on over and check out our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Wed Oct 7 07:47:29 2009 Tags:

The Dutch hoe and broad fork are traditional tools used in surface cultivation.I've already written a long post about sheet mulching, one good method of growing plants without tilling the soil.  The problem with sheet mulching is that it requires gobs of organic matter.  Can you get similar results with less outlay of cash?

A traditional British method of gardening without tilling is known as surface cultivation.  Farmers usually till or dig the soil the first year to loosen the ground and increase soil pores, but after this they merely layer two to four inches of compost onto the ground each year and plant without tilling.  A special hoe known as a Dutch hoe cuts off weeds just below the crown, leaving the roots in place to increase fertility of the soil and leaving the tops in place to mulch the soil surface.  By the third year of surface cultivation, very few weeds are left since new seeds aren't turned up through tilling.

My gardening technique has aspects of surface cultivation in it, and I'm looking forward to that decline in weeding (two years from now since my 2008 garden went to seed and set me back a couple of years.)  Robert Kourik notes that the tedious weeding in surface cultivation can be minimized by mulching as much as possible.  My father has good luck laying damp newspapers around his vegetables, a method that I may have to try next year.  This year's grass clipping mulch has also been highly effective.

The problem with surface cultivation, beyond labor-intensive weeding, is that productivity often begins to decline after 5 to 6 years when soil compacts.  Some farmers simply till their garden at that point and begin again.  Others use a spading fork or broad fork to loosen the soil without tilling.  I suspect that simple crop rotation may do the trick in our garden --- we grow enough root crops that require the ground to be churned up during harvest that we will probably end up digging every bed at least once or twice a decade.

This post is part of our lunchtime series reviewing Robert Kourik's Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Oct 7 12:00:14 2009 Tags:

 leaf tarp

Transporting piles of leaf material with a large tarp is a lot easier than putting them in trash bags if your goal is garden mulch.

Posted Wed Oct 7 17:03:54 2009 Tags:

Drying clothes on the grape trellisSeptember gave us 6.2 inches of rain over 10 days.  The days that didn't rain were generally cloudy, so I put off doing laundry until we both ran out of the essentials.

Tuesday, I gave in and washed anyway.  Three big loads of laundry later, I had filled up the clothesline and moved on to draping clothes on the grape trellises.  I didn't even get to our bedding before running out of both laundry detergent and space on the line.

Four hours of clouds later, it started to rain.  I scurried around and gathered up damp clothes, then draped them all over the house while a quarter inch of water fell on our garden.  Wednesday turned out to be the prettiest sunny day in a long time, so I carried all of the clothes back outside, flipping clothes over halfway through the day so that every one finally dried all the way through.  Just this once, I think if I had a clothes drier I would have used it.  (Good thing I don't have one!)

Despite the astonishing amount of effort required to get there, we have enough clean clothes to last us for our entire week long honeymoon.  Most of the posts for the next eight days will be auto-posted --- saved up topics we never got a chance to serenade you with during the height of the growing season.  The farm will be in the able hands of my brother, and we plan to not even check email for most of the time.  So if anything looks funny on the site, I promise I'll fix it when I get home!

Unfortunately you can't float across the blue waters of the Caribbean with us, but you can give your chickens clean water with a homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Thu Oct 8 08:33:48 2009 Tags:

Double diggingAnother no-till technique is double-digging, a slightly complicated method of breaking up the soil to a depth of two feet without inverting the soil layers.  Double-digging is extremely laborious, but can result in porous soil that greatly increases vegetable yields, especially in heavy clay soil like ours.  After double-digging, soil doesn't need to be worked for several years, much like the surface cultivation system.

Our modified double-dug raised bedWe used a modified method of double-digging to create our raised beds.  First, Mark tilled up our topsoil, being careful not to go too deep (not a problem with the tiny tiller I had him working with the first year.)  Then I laid out aisles and shoveled the loose soil from the aisles to the side to create raised beds.  The result is a double thickness of loose topsoil without as much of the back-breaking labor of double-digging.  The grassy/clovery aisles between our raised beds produce high quality mulch, protect the soil from erosion, and promote water infiltration (rather than runoff) during heavy rains.

After the first year, we put the rototiller away and spend the rest of our time weeding, applying manure, and mulching.  I'd recommend our bed system to anyone, with just one caveat.  Raised beds don't work well in sandy soil or extremely hot climates where the soil will dry out rapidly.  Of course, if you have sandy soil, increasing soil porosity won't be a problem for you anyway.

This post is part of our lunchtime series reviewing Robert Kourik's Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Oct 8 12:00:34 2009 Tags:

Filling up the woodshedI was struck by a throwaway sentence in Good Farmers, a book about traditional farming practices in Central America and Mexico.  The author noted that traditional farmers usually lack heavy equipment and funds to pay for lots of hired help, so they have to take a process-oriented approach to big tasks rather than being project-oriented.  For example, if they have a steep hillside that they'd like to terrace and create farmable ground, traditional farmers are more likely to put in a spare afternoon here and there building the terrace bit by bit rather than renting a bulldozer to get 'r done.

Homesteading is slowly teaching me to slip out of my project-oriented mindset and enjoy the journey.  For example, the wood we bought was delivered to our parking area, half a mile from our house.  At first, I was considering just taking a day and making golf cart trip after golf cart trip to bring the wood back to its shed.  But instead I've been taking in a load of wood whenever I need to drive the golf cart out to the cars anyway.  A week later, our shed is already a third of the way full!

Check out our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Thu Oct 8 20:35:39 2009 Tags:

Cat in the Meyer Lemon potHoneymoon, day 1.  We drove south out of the mountains of Virginia all the way down to the flatlands of Alabama.  Roadside pine trees push their way in amid the hardwoods I'm used to and an unfamiliar grass coats the edge of the blacktop.  We don't stop for me to botanize, although we do pass a man pulled off on the side of a six lane highway by a lake, fishing pole in hand.

Down south, the humidity has not yet lifted to give way to a crisp, mountain fall.  I'm a homebody most of the time, but I love the feeling of covering new territory, even if it is pavement and buildings.  Mark and I sleep fitfully and wake up early, in a different time zone, ready to explore a Native American mound!

(Nothing photogenic yet on our trip, so this is a picture of the lemon tree soon after we brought it inside to prepare for our trip.  Huckleberry enjoyed the new addition to his living space.)

Posted Fri Oct 9 08:50:13 2009 Tags:

11 week old winter squash - roots reach 25 feet in diameter.The obvious method to prevent bare soil in a vegetable garden is mulch, but unless you shell out the cash for a dumptruck load or two, chances are there won't be enough to go around.  How else can you protect your soil?

Close plant spacing can shade your soil surface, preventing damage to the underground ecosystem while also keeping weeds from growing.  I often plant my lettuce and leafy greens far closer than the instructions on the seed packet recommend.  The result is an endless carpet of green food, with little weeding after the vegetable seedlings catch hold.

Depth (ft.)
Width (ft.)
Asparagus 4.5 10.5
Beans, kidney 3-4 2
Beet 10 2-4
Cabbage 4-5 3-3.5
Carrot 6-7.5 1-2
Cauliflower 2-4 2-2.5
Corn 5-6 1.5-4
Eggplant 4-7 4
Garlic 2.5 1.5
Horseradish 10-14 2-3
Kohlrabi 7-8.5 2
Leek 1.5-2 1-2
Lettuce 4-6 0.5-1.5
Okra 4-4.5 4-6
Onion 1.5-3 0.5-1.5
Parsley 2-4 1.5
Parsnip 6.5 4
Pea 3 2
Pepper 3-4 1.5-3
Pumpkin 6 13-19
Radish 2-3 1-2
Rhubarb 8 3-4
Rutabaga 6 1-1.5
Spinach 4-6 1.5
Squash, winter 6 13-19
Swiss chard 6-7 3.5
Tomato 3-5 2.5-5.5
Turnip 5.5 2-2.5

Close spacing does have its limits, though.  I've learned the hard way that tomatoes need lots of air circulation in our climate to prevent blight --- Kourik recommends planting them four feet apart.  In addition, roots of our garden vegetables are much larger than I'd ever suspected --- carrot and swiss chard roots reach seven feet deep while pumpkin roots can grow horizontally to 20 feet in diameter.  Without double digging and heavy amendments of compost, roots of these plants will compete with the neighbors and both will struggle.  Check out the amazing root diagrams in John Weaver's Root Development of Field Crops (available free online) for more information.

Roots of a 10 year old horseradish reach 14 feet.


More fascinating tidbits from Robert Kourik's book are coming next week.  If you can't wait, check out his blog.

This post is part of our lunchtime series reviewing Robert Kourik's Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Oct 9 12:00:46 2009 Tags:

 Moundsville October

Moundsville is an exciting and interactive park that provides an interesting glimpse into what life may have been like in this country before European influences began their crusade against all who opposed them.

This post is part of our Moundville and Cruise to Mexico honeymoon series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Oct 9 21:20:09 2009 Tags:

Mark was a good sport and let me take a photo of him with fur on his head, but the sunglasses spoiled the effect.Eight hundred years ago, Moundville, Alabama, was the home of a city of 10,000 people.  Once a year, a thousand of their descendants and random tourists descend on the mounds for a day of fun and edification.  Mark and I were thrilled to discover that the Native American Festival was being held the day before our cruise ship departed, and was nearly on our way.  The stars were aligned to bring us to another Native American mound.

While our visit to Moundville wasn't the same soul-bending experience as our trip to Serpent Mound, we still ended up rivetted.  The mounds themselves were amazing --- a dozen "small" ones and one sixty feet tall, the last of which we were allowed to climb.  But what really captured my attention was the educational booths set up for the festival.  I learned so much about Native American crafts that I'll have to turn it into a lunchtime series --- fire making, river cane baskets, pit-fired pottery!  Then there was the semi-authentic Native American food, an actual archaeological dig, and an astonishing number of vendors whose crafts should have been in a museum.  Despite hundreds of screaming kids, we stayed until the Alabama heat sent us scurrying for cover.  If you're ever close to Alabama in October, I highly recommend that you drop by the festival!

This post is part of our Moundville and Cruise to Mexico honeymoon series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Sat Oct 10 08:32:22 2009 Tags:

ground work photoThe location we chose for the new building has a bit of a slope to it. This requires different size blocks at different intervals to make it all level.

After a shopping spree at the hardware store I learned you can get the solid cinder blocks in both 4 inch and 2 inch sizes, which oddly cost the same even though you get twice as much material with the 4 inch version.

This post is part of our Building a Storage Building from Scratch series.  Read all of the entries:

Part 1: Foundation
Part 2: Floor
Part 3: Walls and scavenging lumber
Part 4: Adding the loft
Part 5: The roof
Summing it up:

Posted Sat Oct 10 17:00:24 2009 Tags:

Monarch butterfly on a drink canteenDuring the last frantic day before our wedding celebration, I noticed a monarch licking the handles of our iced tea jugs.  One of the butterfly's wings was slightly crumpled, and I guessed that the insect was having trouble making the long journey to its wintering grounds in central Mexico.  Even though I believe that nature picks off wounded animals for a reason, I had to carry the monarch over to the sunflowers, where it began feeding greedily.

Monarch on a sunflowerSince we're currently cruising toward Mexico at this moment while my brother watches the farm, I thought this monarch was an apt symbol of this week's mini-adventure.  Despite being a homebody, I've always dreamed of traveling.  Nine years ago, I did --- setting off with a backpack full of camping supplies and sketchbooks for a year-long expedition through Great Britain, Australia, and Costa Rica.

In the end, what I remember most from that journey was the homecoming.  How American grocery stores seemed huge and slighly obscene.  How the dozens of boxes of books and clothes I'd stored in my mother's basement seemed even more obscene --- what did I need with so many possessions?

In a way, that trip was the beginning of my path toward simplicity. 
Slipping outside my own world, I saw myself in a completely new way.  What insight will this adventure bring?

Don't get too simple --- check out our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Sun Oct 11 07:00:11 2009 Tags:
mark Catweed

weed eating feline
I've always said a cat would be worth its weight in gold if it could pull weeds out of the garden.

I guess the next best thing is to have your cat keep you company while you get the job done yourself.

Posted Sun Oct 11 17:00:04 2009 Tags:

Step by step directions for building a potato storage mound.No root cellar, but you still want to store root crops for the winter?  Don't despair --- storage mounds are cheap and easy to build.  You'll see a few more potatoes rot away than you would in a good root cellar, but storage mounds are definitely worth the effort.

We tried out a simple storage mound in 2007 that kept our potatoes fresh for months.  If I'd known what I know now, I suspect we would have had potatoes all the way through to spring.  What I did wrong:

  • I dug my potatoes and stored them in August when the ground was still warm.  I would have been better off leaving them in their rows until October.
  • I put all of my potatoes in one mound, so I had to re-cover the mound every time I wanted a fresh potato.  I would have been better off if I made several smaller mounds rather than one big mound.
  • I should have stuffed straw down the ventilation pipe for additional insulation.
  • I should have begun the mound slightly underground for better insulation.  Digging eight to twelve inches down before laying down the first mulch layer works well.
  • I wrapped a piece of plastic around my mound, hoping to keep the dirt from washing away in the rain.  Bad idea!  You want plenty of ventilation in your storage mound, so leave the plastic off.

Storage mounds --- also known as "clamps" --- won't work well in the extreme north or the extreme south, but if you have moderate winter temperatures, lots of root crops, and no root cellar, they're worth a shot.  Be sure to build your clamps in a well-drained location.  Potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, cabbage, parsnips, and apples can all be successfully stored in clamps.

Check out our storage vegetable series for more information about planting, harvesting, and curing crops for fresh winter eating.

Root cellar ebook
Posted Mon Oct 12 07:00:11 2009 Tags:

In addition to rivetting information about soil, Robert Kourik's Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally is chock full of what may be my very favorite thing in life --- well researched lists!  I took copious notes and even made a few spreadsheets, preparing for the hard day when I have to return the book to the library.

Now, I understand that some of you may find lists less tantalizing than I do.  In fact, my father told me that spreadsheets give him shivers, and not the excited ones they give me.  So, I promise you some tempting tidbits along with the lists.  And for you list-lovers --- start salivating now!  These lists are good!
Annual horse manure (lbs.)
Annual horse manure (4 gallon buckets)
Buckets of horse manure for trees less than 5 years old
0.9 - 1.8
0.7 - 1.4
Peach/ nectarine
0.8 - 1.6
0.8 - 1.6
0.8 - 1.6

This post is part of our lunchtime series reviewing Robert Kourik's Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Oct 12 12:00:18 2009 Tags:

home made Avian Aqua Miser holder

When building a wooden holder for the Avian Aqua Miser one must remember to allow a bit of wiggle room for the container to slide in and out easily. Even though the hens don't seem to mind the tilt, a simple back bracket is all it takes to even things out for a more balanced look.

Posted Mon Oct 12 17:00:10 2009 Tags:
Leaves on the yurt and a Two Dog Stove

Mark wants to live in a round house some day, and I have to admit that the idea has merit every time I go visit Joey's yurt.  The circles and lines in the yurt always capture my interest and I end up taking photos that could almost be abstract, like the one on the left.

Joey considered taking the yurt down for the winter, but instead he bought a Two Dog Stove, specially designed for safe use in tents.  The stove is so small that Joey was able to carry it in by himself soon after our most recent flood.  Setup took mere minutes with the ultra-cool telescoping stove pipe --- no need to laboriously fit pieces together; just grab both ends and puuuullll....  I'm curious to see how well the stove keeps Joey warm during his wintry visits to the farm.

Check out Mark's homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Tue Oct 13 07:00:10 2009 Tags:

Fields of broomsedge, while pretty, are a sign of poor soil quality.Imagine for a minute that you just moved onto a large farm, the way we did three years ago.  How do you know where the soil is ideal for a garden?  Soil tests are a good move, but it would cost an arm and a leg to decipher the microhabitats that cover even a quarter of an acre on our farm.  You can do what I did and just plant things randomly and watch half of them die, or you can use Robert Kourik's list of indicator plants to find good and poor garden spots.

Is your yard overrun with hopclover and whitetop aster?  Chances are your soil is excessively alkaline and needs some acidification before it will make good garden ground.  What if you've got a lot of sheep sorrel, goldenrod, and field bindweed?  That means your soil is sandy.

I took Robert Kourik's three page list of indicator plants and compiled all of the ones that live in Virginia and the surrounding area, adding in an indicator plant or two of my own.  The resulting spreadsheet is easy to sort by category so that you can see all of the wetland or cultivated land indicators in one spot --- oh the wonders of technology!  Download my Virginia soil indicator plants spreadsheet and enjoy!

This post is part of our lunchtime series reviewing Robert Kourik's Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Oct 13 12:00:16 2009 Tags:
mark Bee cold

 cold honey bees in a hive

I was walking by the bee hives today and noticed this crowding by the entrance. No doubt it's due to it being cold this morning, but a steady flow of bees were going and coming which makes me wonder how they decide who gets to stay home on a cold day like this one?

Posted Tue Oct 13 17:00:09 2009 Tags:
Ripe watermelons have dried tendrils and pale bottoms.

There's nothing more depressing than picking one of the two watermelons in your garden, cutting it open, and discovering that it's not yet ripe.  That's what happened in our garden last year, so this year we grew more watermelons and started learning the secrets to ensure we only pick the watermelons when they are fully ripe.

Some folks say they can tell when their watermelons are ripe by thumping the side and listening for a hollow sound.  Good luck.  Others count the days since they planted their seeds and look at the days to maturity on the seed packet --- this is a good start, but doesn't factor in chilly weather droughts, and other features that set your ripening back by a day, a week, or a month.

I've found two signs that seem to be much more fail-safe.  A ripe watermelon will turn yellow, tan, or white on the portion touching the ground --- the Sugar Baby in the photo on the left is a great example.  This pale spot can be harder to see on lighter green watermelons, like the Dixie Queen on the right.  Here, I focus on the tendrils directly opposite the stem running to the watermelon.  Once these tendrils start to dry up and turn brown, your watermelon should be juicy and sweet.

As a final note, we grew four varieties of watermelons this year --- Sugar Baby, Dixie Queen, Early Moonbeam, and Sweet Favorite Hybrid.  Sugar Baby won the prolific fruit prize and Dixie Queen won the taste test (but had very few fruits.)  Early Moonbeam was more of a novelty melon, with its yellow flesh, while we never actually got a fruit from the Sweet Favorite Hybrid.  It's always worth planting several varieties if you have a fruit or vegetable that doesn't seem to be working for you --- chances are that one of the varieties will become your garden's new star!

Check out Mark's homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Wed Oct 14 07:00:08 2009 Tags:

Herbal leyOnce you know the shortcomings of your soil, you can start planning green manures, mulches, and herbal leys to correct deficiencies.  All three of these fertility campaigns are built around dynamic accumulators --- plants that concentrate micro and macronutrients from the soil into their leaves, stems, and roots.  Robert Kourik's book seems to be the source of most of the data in more current books and websites about dynamic accumulators, and once again I compiled the most useful species into a dynamic accumulator spreadsheet.

Looking for a calcium-rich plant to help harden your chicken's eggshells?  Why not grow some comfrey or dandelions.  Need to boost the nitrogen content of low fertility soil?  Clovers and vetches are hard to beat, but you might also be able to gather high nitrogen tobacco-stalks from your tobacco-growing neighbors.

All summer, as I dragged our heaviest chicken tractor up and down a steep hill in the mule garden, I've been considering planting a dynamic accumulator patch there to be mowed at intervals, providing fertility to nearby garden beds.  It turns out that this concept has a formal name --- an herbal ley.  The term herbal ley technically refers to a pasture of mixed grasses, legumes, and herbs, but I see no reason why I can't use a similar patch to feed my darling fruit trees and vegetables.  I'll be playing with my dynamic accumulator spreadsheet this winter to come up with a mixture of plants that provides a well-rounded assortment of nutrients.

This post is part of our lunchtime series reviewing Robert Kourik's Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Oct 14 12:00:10 2009 Tags:

Lucy near the golf cart with bricksThe Club Car continues to be a work horse for hauling in heavy loads, even during this wetter than usual spell we've been going through.

I think it's time to consider building a frame towards the back to upgrade the carrying capacity from 2 full golf club bags to something more farm appropriate.

Posted Wed Oct 14 17:00:12 2009 Tags:
Yellow jacket burrow in the ground

As a budding beekeeper, I've learned that most stinging insects aren't so bad.  Honeybee stings stop hurting in minutes, the wasps that move into our trailer in search of ladybugs rarely sting, and bumblebees generally mind their own business.  But I have a hard spot in my heart for yellowjackets.

Last year was the worst year ever for yellowjackets --- it seemed like every time I mowed the yard, I got stung.  This year, we only seem to have one nest within our cultivated perimeter (and another along the driveway).  Since I've marked the locations and give them a wide berth, stings have been relatively minor.

I've been stung by pretty much everything out there, and I have to say that yellowjacket stings are the most painful.  All summer, I've considering finding a way to kill the colony living between my rhubarb and asparagus, but I can't wrap my mind around poison.  Turns out I've waited long enough that winter will soon do it for me.  Unlike honeybees where most of the colony survives the winter, only the queen yellowjacket overwinters, starting a new colony in the spring.  Sure is nice to be able to put off one more problem until next year....

Don't get stung by traditional waterers.  Check out Mark's homemade chicken waterer!
Posted Thu Oct 15 07:00:08 2009 Tags:

Hover flyIn the rush to produce the world's biggest pumpkin and the world's tastiest strawberries, it's easy to ignore flowers.  But flowering plants should have a prominent place in any organic garden since they attract beneficial insects.  Everyone knows that ladybugs are the cat's meow, but did you know that hover flies (also known as syrphid flies) are great aphid-eaters and that tiny parasitic wasps will eat your pest insects from the inside out?

The problem with attracting beneficial insects is that there are a dozen or more key insect players, and each one needs to be fed supplemental pollen and nectar all through the growing season.  Luckily, many plants support several different kinds of beneficial insects, especially plants like umbellifers, composites, and mints that host scores of tiny blooms.

I compiled another spreadsheet to help me keep track of all of the different nectary plants for beneficial insects, starting with the ones listed in Robert Kourik's book but expanding out to include plants listed on Farmer Fred's website.  It's clear that fennel, goldenrod, and Queen Anne's lace are top nectary plants, while ragweed appears to be as beloved by some species as it is by our honeybees.  Stay tuned for more nectary musings as I plan next year's garden.

Learn to keep bugs at bayThis post is part of our lunchtime series reviewing Robert Kourik's Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Oct 15 12:00:14 2009 Tags:

 phone splice instructions

It's been over a year since our phone line was cut in half by some reckless weed eating on my part. At the time I just stripped each wire and wrapped them together with a bit of electrical tape for protection. Well that kind of repair will only last so long if it's subjected to the outside elements.

I had to repeat that fix twice last winter due to moisture getting into the taped area and knocking out our phone service. Also the twisting of the wires can sometimes cause them to become weak and break.

I was quizzing our local radio shack guy on this last week hoping to find a clever solution and he came through with these phone splice connectors. Expect to spend just under a buck for each one, and get 2 packages if you need more than 4 wires spliced like most phone cables. It's really easy. You just slide each wire all the way in and crimp down with a set of pliers. Make sure you press hard.

Posted Thu Oct 15 17:00:14 2009 Tags:

Our ship - Carnival's Holiday.We're home, safe and sound!  Two purring cats, an ecstatic dog, three tractors of happy chickens.  Deer damage in the garden --- I will consider it a tithe to the earth for our stunning cruise adventure.  Plenty of orders for our homemade chicken waterer --- yay!  The earth smells of damp leaves and the creek is middlin' high.

We'll be more talkative later.  For now, I'm just glad to be home!

Posted Fri Oct 16 07:39:25 2009 Tags:

Tree roots extend past the dripline of the canopy.Now that we're home from our journey, it's time to bring my obsession with Robert Kourik's book to an end too.  Where better to end than with my greatest weakness --- fruit trees?

Robert Kourik's book threw everything I thought I knew about fruit trees on its head.  You know how the roots of trees extend as far vertically and horizontally underground as the tree's canopy spreads aboveground?  That's bunk.  In fact, tree roots often grow 1.5 to 3 times as wide as the canopy of the tree.  And while some vertical roots sink deep to give the tree stability, the majority of the tree's feeding is done in the top two to four feet of the soil, with the primary focus on the top few inches.

What does this mean for folks planting a little orchard in their backyard?  Many of us mulch our trees to prevent them from having to compete with grass for nutrients --- if we do that, we should be mulching much further out than the cute donut around the trunk.  In fact, Kourik recommends planting a cover crop close to the trunk of the tree and instead focusing your mulch on the area halfway between the trunk and the dripline of the tree, then continuing the same distance beyond the dripline of the tree.  (I've marked this area with a red line in the diagram above.)

If all of this talk of roots has whetted your appetite like it has mine, you might want to check out one of Robert Kourik's more recent books --- Roots Demystified.  My copy is already on hold through the interlibrary loan system.

This post is part of our lunchtime series reviewing Robert Kourik's Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Oct 16 12:00:47 2009 Tags:

 carnival cruise ship Holiday 2009

Sailing on the cruise ship Holiday is considered the lower end of the cruise industry, and our expedition was one of its last voyages before it gets retired next month.

It's hard to believe this level of luxury is considered out of date. We had a stellar time aboard the Holiday and have managed to sum it all up with a couple of videos and some pictures for next week's lunch time series.

This post is part of our Moundville and Cruise to Mexico honeymoon series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Oct 16 16:37:44 2009 Tags:

Mixture of root vegetables to be roasted.The frost kindly waited until our return to threaten --- frost by the end of the weekend.  Most major frost preparations are long since complete, but I picked the last of the everbearing red raspberries and Mexican sour gherkins, took in a bowlful of green tommy-toe tomatoes, and picked the last big bowl of shiitakes.

Meanwhile, our first day home glowered coldly at us, so I decided to make some roast roots to warm up the house and our dispositions.  The
Carrot cell showing chromoplastsparsnip I dug clearly wasn't quite ready yet, so I filled up our roasting pan with masses of carrots, tiny sweet potatoes that need to be eaten ASAP, and white potatoes, shiitakes, onions, garlic, thyme, and parsley, all from the garden.  Toss on a storebought chicken, and our dinner was nearly as good as the ones on our cruise.

The second photo is a closeup of a carrot cell, showing the chromoplasts that give the root its color.  More on the fancy, digital microscope the photo was taken with later.

Check out our homemade chicken waterer, now shipping to Australia!
Posted Sat Oct 17 08:14:07 2009 Tags:

rear view from deck of HolidayIn doing a little research on the ship we sailed on I discovered it was one of three ships contracted by FEMA after hurricane Katrina to provide housing for relief workers and victims of the storm.

Politicians from both parties criticized the deal due to the ships not being fully utilized, but with a little hind sight it seems like it was a quick decision in the face of a disaster that didn't quite work out as planned.

I like the idea of relief workers having a comfortable place to recharge after a long day or night of helping people as they try to put various pieces back together. Maybe the government should consider designing a ship with this purpose in mind?

This post is part of our Moundville and Cruise to Mexico honeymoon series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Sat Oct 17 13:51:34 2009 Tags:
Anna Goat song

Goat SongThe best book I read while on our cruise was Brad Kessler's Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, a Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese.  The book traces the first year in the author's life with Nubian milk goats, and I warn you that after you finish it you will want milk goats too.  I had to remind myself repeatedly that I wouldn't have been able to leave the farm if I got milk goats and thus wouldn't have been on the cruise.

The book was almost blog-like in parts, a format that I obviously enjoy.  One chapter ran through the highlights of a season of milking, day by day, and another chapter was a blow by blow account of cheese-making.  He mixed in some monks, a visit to artisanal cheese-makers in France, and the effects that herding has had on our language and culture.  When I closed the cover, I could almost smell new hay, meadow flowers, and goat cheese lingering in our cabin.

If you're looking for easier livestock, stick to chickens and our homemade chicken waterer.

Posted Sun Oct 18 09:46:27 2009 Tags:
mark Uxmal

Our tour of Uxmal in the Yucatan of Mexico was one of the highlights of the cruise. We had an awesome tour guide by the name of Armando Chan who was part Mayan. His words really added a nice element to our understanding of this amazing culture.

The atmosphere of history is fascinating and we decided 3 hours was just not enough time to explore such a mystical place. Maybe we can plan for an extended adventure at Uxmal for our next Yucatan excursion?

This post is part of our Moundville and Cruise to Mexico honeymoon series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Sun Oct 18 16:22:49 2009 Tags:

Mushroom among autumn leavesWe got back home Thursday after dark, so I was shocked the next morning when I stumbled out of bed, looked out the window, and saw huge blobs of color on the hillside.  Autumn leaves!

Sunday, the cloudy weather broke for a few hours, and I took Lucy and the camera out in the woods to explore.  Mushrooms had popped up all over and freshly fallen leaves were strewn around them.  Closer to home, our shiitake logs were all coated in mushrooms, despite not being soaked in weeks.  I guess this is perfect mushroom weather --- cool and wet.

And now, Monday morning, the ground is thick with our first frost and temperatures are in the mid 20s.  Surely we haven't skipped straight to winter?

Check our our homemade chicken waterer.

Posted Mon Oct 19 08:33:52 2009 Tags:

Now that we're back on land, it's time to bombard you with pictures and stories of our adventures.  We can't force you all to come over and watch a mind-numbing, three-hour-long slide show, so instead this week's lunchtime series covers the highlights.  This way, rather than falling asleep in the dark, you can just skip our posts if they get too boring.

As we mentioned previously, before hopping on the cruise ship we spent a day at Moundville's Native American Festival, the highlight of which was learning to make fire.  I summed up the fire-making experience in a four minute video --- my first effort at video editing, so please excuse my growing pains.  The expert on the video created an ember out of two pieces of pine, a bow, and a cap stone in less than three minutes.  It didn't quite catch in his tinder due to humid Alabama weather, but the concept is extraordinarily well explained.  Watch and learn!

This post is part of our Moundville and Cruise to Mexico honeymoon series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Oct 19 12:01:03 2009 Tags:

 cedar post foundation

A friend of mine gracefully brought to my attention the fact that I was ignoring the 6 inch freeze zone when I was laying the ground work for our new building project.

I decided to experiment with some posts from the large cedar tree I cut down last month. It's easier for an amateur like me to use this method compared to leveling out the cinder blocks.

This post is part of our Building a Storage Building from Scratch series.  Read all of the entries:

Part 1: Foundation
Part 2: Floor
Part 3: Walls and scavenging lumber
Part 4: Adding the loft
Part 5: The roof
Summing it up:

Posted Mon Oct 19 16:41:45 2009 Tags:

Filling the firewood shed.At the end of last winter, Huckleberry tore apart the air pipe that channels heat from our exterior wood furnace into the trailer.  Then the stove pipe rusted out.  We were trying to hold off on lighting our wood stove until the end of the week when we would hopefully have the floor of the shed up and could just move the stove there, rather than fixing it in its current location.

All weekend, I shivered in a house that barely reached 50 degrees, baking large dinners to warm up the kitchen.  Mark had a space heater in his room, but I didn't want to break down and use electricity.  Finally, Monday morning, the
interior temperatures were in the thirties.  Yikes!

So sweet Mark threw together some short-term fixes on the wood stove and lit us a fire.  By mid morning, I took off my winter coat, sweater, gloves, and second pair of pants.  Ah, wood heat!

As a side note, you can see that our wood shed is already halfway full.  It looks like we may run out of space before we run out of wood and will have to build a second shed.  A good problem to have!

Check out our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Tue Oct 20 07:45:54 2009 Tags:

Splitting river cane to make cane for basket-making.We also learned about two other intriguing Native American crafts at the Moundville festival --- cane baskets and pit-fired pottery.  The lady on the right is splitting a piece of river cane (a native bamboo) in half, then in half again.  Next, she will shave the top off each quarter to make a strong, slender cane perfect for basket-weaving.

River cane used to be ubiquitous throughout the South, and Native Americans put it to good use, turning the canes into baskets, spears, shelters, and much more.  I was inspired by the demonstration to work harder at planting our own mini cane brake where the power line cut creates an opening in our floodplain forest.
Pit-firing pottery.Crowds of school children pushed us onward, past the basket-weaver to the pit-fired pottery demonstration.  I took pottery classes in high school and college and loved the feel of mud on my hands, but always found the kiln infrastructure too daunting to try on my own.  Native Americans, of course, used simpler techniques than electric kilns.  Instead, they dug shallow pits about a foot deep, placed pots on a mound in the center, and built a fire around the edges.  The fire starts small, but is slowly allowed to engulf the pots over the course of five to six hours, turning the pots first black then back to clay color.  Again, I resolved to try to mine a bit of the clay along our creekbank and give pit-firing a shot.

This post is part of our Moundville and Cruise to Mexico honeymoon series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Oct 20 12:00:45 2009 Tags:

 diy mechanical deer deterent upgrade

Yes.....a couple of the mechanical deer deterrents failed recently due to some simple hang ups. It took me a few attempts before I came up with what I call the supporting arm structure for the clanging surface.

The support provides more adjustment choices when fine tuning the swing and helps to secure this deer deterrent contraption even during heavy winds.

Is a failure like this frustrating? Heck yeah it is, but the feeling of knowing we are one step closer to a better solution helps to ease the pain.

Posted Tue Oct 20 17:49:29 2009 Tags:

Chicken tractor full of leaves.Our chickens are pretty self-sufficient as long as the temperature doesn't get too far below freezing.  We've been known to leave them for up to four days with just an extra automatic chicken waterer and a few scoops of feed sprinkled over the ground.  The only problem with leaving them alone for so long is that they scratch the ground up pretty badly, and in rainy weather the soil turns into a morass of mud.

Before heading out on our cruise, I decided to try a different tactic.  I begged Mark to rake me up a bunch of leaves, and I filled each tractor with a mountain of organic matter.  When we returned a week later, each mountain had sunk to a mole hill of shredded leaves well mixed with chicken poop, but the ground wasn't muddy despite an inch and a half of rain.  I'm emulating the traditional Guatemalan method of using this combination as a well-balanced soil amendment, though I plan to use the poopy mass as mulch on my garlic beds rather than working it into the soil.

Posted Wed Oct 21 08:11:16 2009 Tags:

After Moundville, we got on the boat for our five day cruise.  I had been concerned that spending so much time at sea might be a bit boring, but instead the experience was so astounding that we'll definitely repeat it soon.  I summed it up in my second editted video --- this one's shorter and tighter than the last one, I promise. :-)

This post is part of our Moundville and Cruise to Mexico honeymoon series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Oct 21 12:00:14 2009 Tags:

waving animation in front of heavy haulerYesterday we figured out the hard way what happens when you exceed the load limit in the heavy hauler trailer we use with the golf cart.

Normally it seems to be able to handle a full load of wood half haphazardly thrown in, but when you carefully stack each log next to its neighbor the volume increases to the point of a problem.

heavy hauler flat tire close up
I heard a loud pop coming from the driveway where Anna was hauling firewood and knew some sort of tire mishap had occurred.

I think they sell these replacement wheels at the big box stores, or maybe we'll get lucky and our tire guy will work another rubber miracle by bringing it back to a functional life for a small fee?

Posted Wed Oct 21 16:42:12 2009 Tags:

Carrots in loveThis post is a continuation of the never-ending saga of the weird growing year.  Remember how things like potatoes that are supposed to be carefree kicked the bucket?  Well, our carrots --- which many people find difficult --- grew like kudzu.

Wednesday, I harvested two beds and came up with 27 pounds of carrots, enough to completely fill the crisper drawer of our little fridge.  Many of the carrots were as big as or bigger than store-bought, and I suspect they will store for months if I can keep the moisture level correct.

We've got four beds left to harvest, but I planted those beds late so the carrots are smaller.  I plan to give those to my brother and mother so that they, like us, will turn orange by spring.

Posted Thu Oct 22 08:21:16 2009 Tags:
We spent three hours at the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal, Mexico, walking through air that dripped with humidity.  There was so much information to soak up that I eventually just took in the landscape instead.  So this post is short on information, but long on pictures.

Panoramic views of Uxmal

There are literally dozens of Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula.  We chose to visit Uxmal because it is the second best.  All of the tourists flock to Chichen Itza, which is reputed to be the very best on the peninsula, with the result that the government had to close off most of the structures to protect them.  At Uxmal, we were able to explore and climb everything except the Magician's pyramid.

Workers repairing the Magician's Pyramid at Uxmal
The Magician's pyramid was closed off while it was undergoing renovations.  Workers were carefully marking each stone, taking them off, then mortaring them back in place, all while standing on a flimsy scaffold made of tied together saplings.  The human element softened the ruined stone buildings and captured my imagination.

Stone carvings at Uxmal
Even more tantilizing were the stone sculptures coating the walls of various buildings.  I love the flat animal sculptures with intricate linear patterns, and it's hard not to like the endless versions of Chaac like the one on the right, with his long hooked nose.  Chaac is the rain god --- I wonder if our visit to Uxmal will bring us yet more rain?

Iguana, butterfly, seed pod, and flower at Uxmal

Of course, being who I am, as soon as the tour guide turned me loose I headed in the opposite direction from the rest of the group, toward the woods.  The Yucatan Peninsula is covered with dry, scrub forest due to very thin topsoil over limestone.  Trees were short, and many were legumes --- presumably the poor soil gives trees that can make their own nitrogen an advantage.  Butterflies abounded, as did huge iguanas that had taken up residence in the abandoned rooms all around the ruins.  Swallows soared and chittered, Africanized honeybees gathered pollen in the grass, and Mark and I sat in the shade and lived Uxmal.

This post is part of our Moundville and Cruise to Mexico honeymoon series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Oct 22 12:00:54 2009 Tags:
Posted Thu Oct 22 18:26:35 2009 Tags:

Red cedar heart woodSome of you may be wondering about our decision to use untreated cedar posts as the foundation of our shed.  It almost certainly wouldn't pass the building inspector's eagle eye, but luckily small sheds are often exempt from code restrictions (especially when you live out in the middle of nowhere.)

How long will the red cedar posts last in the ground?  Your guess is as good as mine, but I suspect they'll last a good long while.  Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) wood contains substances that naturally kill termites, but it's hard to say whether the wood is as effective against fungal rots.

The red heartwood, from which Red Cedar gets its name, is the most hardy part.  Mark carefully chose large cedar trunks with plenty of heartwood, figuring that even if the pale sapwood rots away, enough heartwood will remain to support our shed.  People have been using Red Cedar as untreated fenceposts for a long time, and Mother Earth News notes that they will last for 15 to 20 years.  Since our supports are significantly thicker than typical fenceposts and will be protected on the top from water, I wouldn't be surprised if they lasted for several decades.

At Uxmal, we learned that Mayans traditionally tore down their homes and started fresh every 52 years.  It just makes sense to me to create a structure that uses fewer resources (and costs less money), but that will need care and maybe will even have to be replaced in our lifetime.  So far, we're on track to build the shed for around $6 per square foot, including insulation.  At that rate, we could rebuild our shed every 5 years for the rest of our lives and still come out ahead of someone who used more traditional methods.

Check out Mark's homemade chicken waterer.

This post is part of our Building a Storage Building from Scratch series.  Read all of the entries:

Part 1: Foundation
Part 2: Floor
Part 3: Walls and scavenging lumber
Part 4: Adding the loft
Part 5: The roof
Summing it up:

Posted Fri Oct 23 08:18:40 2009 Tags:

Wild gherkin growing a fence in Mexico.Our second day on shore, we decided to take it easy --- our excursion to Uxmal had both worn us out and drained our wallets.  Instead, we got off the boat on the island of Cozumel and simply explored.  We ran the gauntlet, passing vendors trying to lure us into their booths, taxi-drivers anxious to take us for a ride, and time-share salesmen.

The water was the stunning turquoise you see in photographs and never quite believe and so clear that we could look down from the pier and see fish swimming several feet below.  I was intrigued by the plant life in a vacant lot, full of species I had no way of identifying.  One, though, especially caught my eye --- could that be Mexican Sour Gherkin climbing wildly over a fence?  I was 98% sure the plant was at least a relative, but decided against nibbling on its fruits.

Mark and me, posing against a replica Mayan statueAfter walking for a couple of hours in the heat, trying to reach an elusive museum, Mark found us an out of the way corner to relax against a replica Mayan statue.  We posed for photos, let a little Mexican rain sprinkle on our heads, then headed back to the ship for a stunning meal and a nap.

(Do you like my sombrero?  Mark and I got matching hats as our one concession to being tourists.  They should be great for weeding the garden next summer.)

This post is part of our Moundville and Cruise to Mexico honeymoon series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Oct 23 12:00:44 2009 Tags:

Golf cart tire with traction

We decided to upgrade the traction chains on the golf cart to a more respectable solution. Now we can cruise through the mud with a bit more ease.

Posted Fri Oct 23 17:08:38 2009 Tags:

Oyster mushroomOne of the four oyster mushroom logs that we inoculated this spring popped into life Monday.  I was so excited that I tossed the frozen mushrooms into a skillet and then into our bellies right away.

Then I wished I'd waited a little bit.  Don't get me wrong, those mushrooms were a delicacy!  But oyster mushrooms are relatively easy to propagate using one of the techniques in our "How to Cultivate Edible Mushrooms for Free" series, and I wished I'd taken the time to take a spore print first.  Maybe if we get another flush of mushrooms before the cold weather really sets in....

Posted Sat Oct 24 10:58:39 2009 Tags:

Stolen pearsSome of the best fruit I've ever eaten has been stolen.  One fall, I housesat for a friend whose land butted up against an abandoned apple orchard currently being turned into subdivisions.  Those apples were some of the sweetest, tangiest fruits I've ever tasted --- I don't even know what variety they were, but I gathered huge bags full to turn into applesauce.

After we moved into town from our farm when I was in fourth grade, my mother used to take us out hunting abandoned fruit on quiet side streets and alleys.  She scouted carefully and found several trees whose fruit was left to rot on the ground, yellow jackets buzzing ominously between.  Sometimes she rang the door bell and asked for permission.  Sometimes we scurried around and filled plastic grocery bags surreptitiously when no one was home.  This is how we got our June Apples (Early Transparents) --- the type of apple you might envision the gods eating on Mt. Olympus.

Yesterday, I collected some pears --- not quite stealing since the property owner's niece had said I could.  I didn't plan it --- just went walking on the private park to enjoy the autumn colors, then stumbled upon fruit rotting on the ground.  Luckily, my backpack was full of old grocery bags, so I filled them to the brim, stopping only when my backpack refused to zip closed.  Now what will I do with a couple of gallons of delicious, but a bit gritty, country pears?

Posted Sun Oct 25 09:39:59 2009 Tags:

 lawn and leaf bag innovation

The collapsible lawn and leaf bag is a product that works and works well. I imagine most folks would use it to support a big trash bag so that your lawn and leaf material can be bagged up and hauled off to a land fill. We use it in the raw to increase our mulch material, and it makes the job a bit smoother than trying to use a large tarp.

Posted Sun Oct 25 16:14:59 2009 Tags:

Schlereid cells in pears cause them to be grittyAs I wrote yesterday, I was raised on found fruit so I hardly notice things like spots and bruises and gritty pears.  Mark, on the other hand, was raised on Red Delicious --- he doesn't seem to mind insipid fruit as long as it looks and feels pretty.  I chopped up one of my stolen pears for lunch yesterday and he turned up his nose at the texture, which sent me to the internet, wondering about pear grit.

It turns out that the grit in pears is caused by stone cells (also known as sclereids) --- the same material that makes walnut shells and cherry pits hard.  All pears produce stone cells, but there are a few ways to get around them.  The pears you buy in the grocery store have been bred to produce far fewer schlereids, but even old fashioned pears are more edible if raised properly.  To reduce grit, pick your pears
before they are ripe, when stone cells are at a minimum.

Visit our other website to learn about Mark's homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Mon Oct 26 08:13:46 2009 Tags:

Edible Forest GardensEvery year, I let myself splurge a bit on new perennials for the garden.  Last year, my splurge rounded out our traditional fruits --- a cultivated black raspberry, blueberries, a plum --- and started exploring the world of nut trees (a butternut.)  From previous years, we have young apples, pears, peaches, a nectarine, a cherry, cultivated blackberries, ever-bearing red raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus, and hardy kiwis.  We've started grapes, a persimmon, wineberries, and a Chinese chestnut ourselves.

This year, Dave Jack's Edible Forest Gardens volume 1 came in on interlibrary loan just as I was starting to get my cold weather craving for new perennials.  I flipped to the back of the book, to the list of the top 100 forest gardening species for the eastern U.S., and my mouth watered.  So many delicious species, some of which I'd never considered!  This week's lunchtime series highlights the four species I chose to splurge on this fall to fill in gaps in our forest garden.

This post is part of our Splurging on Perennials lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Oct 26 12:00:45 2009 Tags:

 hen escape 2009

There are 2 ways to handle a chicken escape. Scurry around and capture each offender and return him or her to their proper place.... or sit back, take a few pictures, spread a handful of feed in the tractor and wait for your flock to casually return to the roost.

Posted Mon Oct 26 18:28:27 2009 Tags:

Nitrogen content of various tree leavesAs I raked up four big bins of leaves Monday, I couldn't help thinking of all of the other Americans engaged in the same chore.  And yet, as always, I have it backwards.  Here I am raking up leaves out of the driveway, not to clear the driveway of waste, but to salvage a precious resource.  Isn't that mentality at the heart of permaculture --- seeing nothing as a waste product?

I've been wondering which tree species have the highest quality leaves, so I took a little time to search the scientific literature.  The best study I found was "Seasonal Nutrient Dynamics in the Vegetation on a Southern Appalachian Watershed" by Frank Day and Carl Monk.  I've excerpted the nitrogen content of the various trees in the chart above.  I'm not surprised that Black Locust tops the chart since the species fixes atmospheric nitrogen using bacteria attached to its roots.  What does surprise me is that thick oak and rhododendron leaves, which I assumed were low quality, actually have a high percentage of nitrogen compared to puny little maple leaves.  Although I can't find a value for Sycamore (my current leaf of choice), I suspect it may be a high quality leaf based on its phylogeny and texture.

We've started shipping our automatic chicken waterers to Australia.  If you live Down Under, now's a good time to check them out!
Posted Tue Oct 27 08:09:44 2009 Tags:

Korean Nut Pine coneI've always been curious about pine nuts, but never took the time to research them properly.  Stone Pine (Pinus pinea) is the European response to producing pine nuts, but is really only good to zone 7.  Instead, Jacke suggested Korean nut pine (Pinus koraiensis) for our region since it is tolerant of cold weather and makes high quality nuts.

Planting a nut pine is an experiment with a capital E.  The trees are huge, so we'll be cutting a gap in the pine forest on the south end of our garden to plant them in rather than using up precious garden space.  Some folks say Korean nut pines bear in 3 to 8 years.  Others warn you that you'll need to wait 40 years.  Hmmm.... :-)

The seedlings are pricey, so I decided to try my hand at germinating seeds bought on ebay.  (Don't try to just plant the pine nuts you'd buy in the grocery store --- without their protective shell, these rot in the ground.)  Stay tuned for updates on this experiment...over the next 40 years.

This post is part of our Splurging on Perennials lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Oct 27 12:00:49 2009 Tags:
mark Leaf mulch

Lucy in the leaf containment area with diamonds

Our new leaf containment area is starting to fill up fast making me ask the question....will there ever be too much mulch?

Posted Tue Oct 27 17:01:01 2009 Tags:

Okra seedsRain drummed on the trailer roof Tuesday morning. "Slow down," it urged. "Take the day to catch up inside."

Our kitchen had become a disaster zone of epic proportions in the rush of harvest and honeymoon. Baskets and mesh bags of butternuts, sweet potatoes, and pears spread out like a fungus across the floor while our lone counter had become a dumping ground for a big bowl of ripening peppers and tomatoes, crushed eggshells for next year's garden, and much more. Seed heads were scattered hither, thither, and yon, waiting to be dehulled, labelled, and stored away for spring, while the mattress off the futon we moved outside to clear window space for our citrus trees was engulfing half the room. I bought a bushel box of Stayman apples from the back of a pickup truck last week, and those were also tossed blithely on the floor in front of the sink.

Seven hours later, the rain was still drumming on the roof, but the harvest was tucked away, the house much cleaner. (
I sure am lucky to have a handy boyfriend who's also a much better housekeeper than I am!)  "Now sit down," said the wet cat, who had fled the bustle into the rain.  "It's time to purr in a warm lap."

Posted Wed Oct 28 09:12:51 2009 Tags:

GoosberriesOn a less experimental note, I ordered two gooseberry bushes.  Gooseberries and currants (both in the genus Ribes) are some of the best plants for forest gardening since they are able to bear fruit in partial shade.  Ever since last winter when I read the second volume of the Edible Forest Gardens book, I've been trying to decide between digging up a native currant I found in the woods or buying a named cultivar.  After reading this Virginia Extension factsheet on currants and gooseberries, I chose the latter. 

Gooseberries are best for fresh eating, which is how I prefer my fruit, as opposed to currants that are best cooked.  There are two different kinds of gooseberries (very much like there are two kinds of cultivated grapes) --- the European gooseberries tend to keel over here unless you spray them with chemicals while the American ones do well here but may not be as tasty.  Newer varieties combine the best of both worlds.  I decided to try an improved American variety (Poorman), and a European variety with good disease-resistance (Invicta.)

Life cycle of the white pine blister rust.There is one downside to the Ribes genus --- some serve as an alternate host to the white pine blister rust that decimates commercial plantings of white pine.  As a result, most gooseberries and currants were eradicated in the U.S. in the 1900s before people realized that only the European black currant (Ribes nigrum) was really serving as an alternate host to the rust.  Now, many states outlaw planting all Ribes species while other states only outlaw the black currant.  Here in Virginia, you can't plant Ribes nigrum except for varieties that have been bred to resist the rust, but you can plant other gooseberries and currants with no problems.  I chose Indiana Berry to get my two bushes from since the nursery has a good selection of varieties that are supposed to do well in Virginia, and has the lowest prices I could find once you add on shipping.

This post is part of our Splurging on Perennials lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Oct 28 12:00:47 2009 Tags:

golf cart tire traction updateIt's been almost a week now since we upgraded the rear tires on the golf cart and the only regret I have is that we didn't do this as soon as we liberated her from the nice and clean campground that she came from. I would guess that our ground grippage has doubled in comparison to the traction cables we had rigged on her before.

Posted Wed Oct 28 17:00:40 2009 Tags:

Street legal golf cartWant a free golf cart?  Move to Oklahoma!  A federal tax rebate currently allows people buying street-legal golf carts to write off $4,200 to $5,500 of the cost.  Add in the state rebate in Oklahoma and your golf cart is free.  (Although Oklahoma may have figured out this loophole and be working to fix it.)

Even if you don't live in Oklahoma, now might be a time to buy that golf cart for your homestead.  We've been thrilled at the way our electric golf cart acts as a utility vehicle on the farm, hauling leaves, firewood, and bodies (living, of course.)  It runs through the mud with ease, only has to be charged every month or two, and hardly ever breaks down.

Right now, I believe the only types of golf cart that fit the federal subsidy are made by Tomberlin and Star, the cheapest models of which can cost as little as $2,000 once you take your tax credit.  It sounds like a great deal, but some folks suspect these cheaply bought but sturdily constructed golf carts will be available used starting next year for extremely small sums.  So maybe it'd be better to wait and save even more....

Now, use the money you saved to buy Mark's homemade chicken waterer. :-)
Posted Thu Oct 29 09:05:34 2009 Tags:

Potato onionsThe last perennial I bought with my splurge money was potato onions (also known as multiplier onions.)  We've had varying levels of success with onions in the past, and I hope that the potato onions will keep us from having to buy any more onions in the store.

Currently, we grow two kinds of onions.  Egyptian onions are one of my favorite plants --- they are so prolific that I end up giving away lots of top bulbs every year, expanding my patch, and still have the top bulbs sprouting out of my worm bin and compost piles.  We eat the greens nearly all year, but I'm often too lazy to clean the little bulbs that end up being considerably under an inch wide after peeling off the brown skin.

For bulb onions, we instead depend on plants grown from seed.  Copra hybrid has served us well, though we never seem to be able to plant enough to keep us going all year.  This year, I made the mistake of planting my onions in heavy soil and got very low yields.

Potato onions are supposed to be prolific perennials, like Egyptian onions, with big bulbs that store well, like seed onions.  I ordered my starts from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange --- the same company that sent us such great garlic bulbs last year.  I hope that within a few years, we'll have so many perennial onion patches that we'll no longer have to buy seeds!

This post is part of our Splurging on Perennials lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Oct 29 12:00:29 2009 Tags:

  chicken tractor repair

The oldest chicken tractor has been limping along lately due to some wear and tear. I finally took some time today for upgrades to the frame, roost, and nest box.

One thing I learned is that using walnut is a mistake for a project like this. I went for it because we had so much of it on hand and it's nice and straight. In retrospect it looks like a small walnut log that sits on the ground might only last a couple of years before you start seeing serious signs of rotting and decay.

Posted Thu Oct 29 16:36:30 2009 Tags:

Chicken tractor on blocks have a chicken tractor up on blocks in your front yard.

Get a homemade chicken waterer and be a permaculture redneck too!
Posted Fri Oct 30 08:49:54 2009 Tags:
Anna River cane

River caneThe last new perennial we're trying this year is river cane (Arundinaria gigantea.)  This native bamboo can be used for basket-making, trellises, and even for dinner.  (The young shoots are edible, although not quite as tasty as some Asian species.) 

Rather than coughing up the $30 per plant many nurseries are charging, I dug up five wild plants from a friend's property.  Most folks recommend planting a rhizome barrier around your bamboo, but I think we may use our shoots quickly enough that a barrier won't be necessary.  I hope I don't live to regret this decision!

This post is part of our Splurging on Perennials lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Oct 30 12:00:29 2009 Tags:

  Lucy in the field with a squirel

This will be our 4th Halloween here on the farm and still no trick or's hard to complain when that equals extra chocolate for us.

Posted Fri Oct 30 16:41:49 2009 Tags:
Honeybees dehydrating nectar into honey

How much honey does a hive need to survive the winter?  50 to 60 pounds in Virginia (equal to 7 to 9 full depth frames.) 

How much honey is in each of our hives?  25 pounds in two and 35 in the third.  Yikes!  Time to drop my snobbery and feed the bees.

On the bright side, each hive is still evaporating nectar into honey in uncapped cells near the top of the hive.  Presumably this must be aster nectar from the surrounding woods, since every other flower is long gone.

Check out our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Sat Oct 31 08:57:55 2009 Tags:

pumpkin molded into faceLisa Katayama from Boing Boing had an interesting post pointing to the January 1938 issue of Popular Science where they spotlight an Ohio farmer who used a metal mold to form this surreal image of a face onto a pumpkin. Ohio farmers really were ahead of their time when it came to thinking outside of the box.

Richard Twedell is the president of Vegiforms, a company in Ohio that offers a few different plastic molds that might tickle your fancy and satisfy your vegetable sculpting urges. He claims his heart shaped zucchinis sell for 3 bucks to a local restaurant, which could add up to some real money if it caught on as some sort of new holiday trend.

Posted Sat Oct 31 15:30:41 2009 Tags:

Anna Hess's books
Want more in-depth information? Browse through our books.

Or explore more posts by date or by subject.

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.

profile counter myspace

Powered by Branchable Wiki Hosting.

Required disclosures:

As an Amazon Associate, I earn a few pennies every time you buy something using one of my affiliate links. Don't worry, though --- I only recommend products I thoroughly stand behind!

Also, this site has Google ads on it. Third party vendors, including Google, use cookies to serve ads based on a user's prior visits to a website. Google's use of advertising cookies enables it and its partners to serve ads to users based on their visit to various sites. You can opt out of personalized advertising by visiting this site.