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

archives for 11/2009

Nov 2009

Shooting out the cat door.When three of the deer deterrents faltered during our honeymoon, the deer got bold.  They danced in our mule garden, kicking up their heels amid the summer squash and ripping every last vestige of swiss chard out of the ground. 

The really bad part, though, is that at least two individual deer learned that the deterrents weren't scary.  Since then, we've seen them in or near the yard several times even though the deterrents are running.  It's clearly time to thin the herd.

On a rainy Halloween morning, I turned off the deterrents and settled in with a cat on the sofa to wait for deer.  Luckily, I'm the exact opposite of a macho man --- I see nothing unsportsmanlike about stalking the deer through the kitchen window as long as the end result is venison in my freezer.

At 2 pm, I looked up from my forest gardening book...and into the eyes of a doe ten feet from the kitchen window.  I shoved the cartridge thingummy into the base of our semi-automatic rifle, loaded a shell in the chamber, and flicked off the safety.

The doe watched me but didn't retreat as I walked toward her across the linoleum floor.  My plan was to slide up the window pane and shoot directly out the cat door which just happened to be in a perfect spot.  Unfortunately, the sound of the window set my doe running, so our bellies will be deer-free tonight.  Stay tuned for further adventures of the kitchen marksman!

Posted Sun Nov 1 07:58:01 2009 Tags:

highpoint 40 caliber carbine rifle
What makes the Highpoint 40 caliber carbine rifle a good choice for the modern day homesteader? It's affordable...a bit over 200 bucks, it's easy to use with minimal kick back, and it serves two roles on the farm as a weapon for home defense and a tool for hunting.

We could have gotten by with hunting our garden raiding deer with the trusty Winchester shot gun, but that thing has a hard kick to it and you only get one shot before you need to stop and reload.

Posted Sun Nov 1 15:34:17 2009 Tags:

Propagating an oyster mushroom from stem butts.Some of you may remember that I experimented with propagating morels this spring.  Paul Stamets made it seem so simple --- snip off the mushroom's end, put it between layers of wet cardboard, and wait a few months.  Mushroom propagation might be that easy in the Pacific Northwest, but even during a very wet summer around here, our cardboard had plenty of time to dry out.  My stem butts shriveled and no spawn formed.

When we got our second flush of oyster mushrooms, I resolved to try again.  Oyster mushrooms are supposed to be some of the easiest to propagate, and I've learned a bit from my mistakes.  This time, after soaking the cardboard, I ripped off the flat layers on either side to leave just the corrugated part behind.  I sandwiched my stem butt sections between layers of corrugated cardboard inside a flower pot, and stuck it under the sink where I can check the moisture content periodically.  If all goes as planned, we might have spawn to expand our oyster mushroom collection in the spring.  Or maybe I'll keep experimenting and learning.

DIYers should check out Mark's homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Mon Nov 2 07:09:41 2009 Tags:

The New Forest is one of England's oldest forests. Trees were coppiced regularly, but allowed to regrow from the stumps. Pollarding is a version of coppicing where tree limbs are cut several feet above the ground to allow them to regenerae amid grazing animals.I've bandied about words like permaculture and forest gardening with great abandon in the last year.  But what do they mean?  Where did they come from?  This week's lunchtime series attempts to fill that gap so that I can go back to the delightful nitty gritty.

Both permaculture and forest gardening are ways of feeding ourselves without demolishing the environment.  Think of them as organic gardening, cubed.  The concepts (which I'll go into later) are reactions to modern agroindustrial systems that spray, fertilize, and till the natural ecosystem into submission, using more energy to produce crops than we get out in useful food.  Obviously, the modern monoculture system isn't sustainable.  But how can we feed the world without it?

Permaculture goes back to basics, reminding us that we did manage to feed ourselves before chemical fertilizers and monoculture came along.  Remember how Amazonians produced edible forests that look so natural scientists are only just beginning to realize they are man-made?  How Central Americans left serviceberries in their vegetable fields as a source of mulch, or raked organic matter out of nearby woodlands?  Did you know that Europeans have used coppicing to turn forests into sources of fuel, fiber, fodder, and mulch for hundreds of years?  All of these systems are examples of ways that people have worked with the natural world rather than against it and still managed to make a living.  Can't we do the same?

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

Posted Mon Nov 2 12:00:51 2009 Tags:

heap of hoses in a heavy hauler

We've been using these light duty water hoses for about 3 years now and the only disadvantage I can see is the ease at which they tend to kink up.

Posted Mon Nov 2 17:29:53 2009 Tags:
Using leaves as mulch in combination with chicken tractors.

I'm still working the kinks out of my garden bed mulch plan.  Leaves are awesome (when you can get enough), but they really need an input of nitrogen to decompose well.

The method I used while away on our honeymoon worked pretty well.  We filled the chicken tractors up with leaves and let the hens shred and fertilize them, then shoveled the resultant goop onto garden beds.  The downside of this method is that it requires two rounds of leaf movement, and I'm always trying to handle our soil amendments as few times as possible.

Lately, I've been trying a different method.  I've been letting the chicken tractor sit on a bare raised bed for a few days, then moving the chicken tractor on and covering the poopy soil with freshly raked leaves.  I hope that the unshredded, unmixed leaves will still decompose due to the high nitrogen poop under them.

Of course, the real problem is that I want my garden completely covered ASAP, at least within the next few weeks.  And I just don't have enough chickens to poop on each bed in that time period.  Drat!  What shall I do?

Did you notice the old hen drinking out of a homemade chicken waterer in the background?
Posted Tue Nov 3 07:19:36 2009 Tags:

Although permaculture-like systems have been around for centuries, the name didn't come about until the 1970s when David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, the fathers of permaculture, met in Tasmania, Australia.  Holmgren was a student working on his thesis and Mollison was a professor at a nearby university.

The result of their collaboration was permaculture, which they later defined as "consciously designed landscapes
which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs."  The embedded video is part of a television series starring Bill Mollison that helped spread the concept of permaculture around the world in 1991.  (If you like it, you can find a lot of other portions of the series on youtube as well.)

Chicken tractors are a great example of permaculture in action.  Since some of the fertility in many natural ecosystems comes from animal excrement, adding animals back into our gardens reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.  Check out our permaculture lunchtime series for examples of other permaculture features of our farm.

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

Posted Tue Nov 3 12:00:54 2009 Tags:

digging in the dirt

The new plan for a root cellar is to bury the old refrigerator that stopped working. I still need to modify it to take advantage of the chimney effect so that cool air will flow from the bottom and out through some sort of PVC pipe.

This post is part of our Fridge Root Cellar series.  Read all of the entries:

Root cellar ebook
Posted Tue Nov 3 17:41:13 2009 Tags:

Carrots and a turnipAs we dug and ate the last of our blighted potatoes, peeled our last onions, and ate all five of our turnips this week, I figured it was time to take a good hard look at the food we'd managed to stock up for the winter.  Clearly, if we run short it's not the end of the world, with the grocery store fifteen minutes away.  Still, I feel much more nourished eating our own vegetables, and I'd hate to run out halfway through the winter.

On the surface, our haul of 17 gallons of frozen produce this year looks measly compared to last year when we froze about 44 gallons.  On the other hand, about a third of last year's produce was excess, so I doled it out to my family over the spring and early summer months.

Last year I froze things like carrots and winter squash that do quite well storing on the shelf.  I figure our carrots add up to another 4 gallons, our sweet potatoes to maybe 8 gallons, our (undug as yet) parsnips to another gallon or two, and our butternuts the same.  We still have an inspiring four pounds of garlic and we're eating greens, oyster mushrooms, broccoli, and lettuce out of the garden every week.

Clearly, we'll be eating many more roots this winter.  That was actually my goal --- to grow more food that could be stored unfrozen so that we keep getting fresh food throughout the winter.  We'll see if I'm heartily sick of orange things by spring....

Check out our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Wed Nov 4 07:48:14 2009 Tags:

Robert Hart, founder of forest gardeningDue to the concept's Australian origin, many permaculture books have put a lot of emphasis on water management and on plants that thrive in the tropics or in hot and dry climates.  Forest gardening takes the concepts of permaculture and applies them to temperate regions where forest is the natural plant community.  Here in the eastern U.S., most of the specific suggestions in the original permaculture books just don't make sense since our garden plants and pests are completely different from those found in the Outback of Australia.

Robert Hart was the first to bring permaculture to the temperate forest.  After working with permaculture in the tropics for many years, he moved home to England and turned his tiny, twelfth of an acre lot into a forest garden.  Hart knew that he was getting older, but he wanted tasty food.  One of his primary goals was to create a garden that mimicked natural forests and thus was self-sustaining, requiring very little work from him beyond harvesting dinner.

The garden Hart developed had an overstory of plums, apples, pears, and rowans (along with some native forest trees along the edges) and an understory dominated by shade-loving gooseberries and currants, along with some herbs.  His garden seemed to have provided at least some of his food until his death in 2000.  Can we all create self-sufficient gardens that even our 87 year old selves can maintain?

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

Posted Wed Nov 4 12:00:53 2009 Tags:
Posted Wed Nov 4 17:20:09 2009 Tags:

Broccoli forms small florets from the leaf axes after the main head is cut off.Fall broccoli has been one of my favorite crops this year.  I tossed the seeds into garden gaps in June and July, and all through August and September we ate the main heads that ripened at different times on different plants. 

Come October, all of the main heads were eaten up, but the plants started putting out small florets where the leaves attach to the main stem.  Since then, we've been eating one meal of broccoli per week from these small side heads --- they're perfect in an omelet with Egyptian onion tops and fresh mushrooms.

I've tried a lot of broccoli varieties and I think this one --- Packman Hybrid --- will definitely be our mainstay from now on.  Calabrese and Bonanza and Broccoli Raab never really grew for us, probably because of some microclimate condition on our farm.  It's worth noting that there are two kinds of broccoli --- ones like Packman that are bred to form a big single head and ones like Calabrese that are bred to sprout lots of small side florets.  In practice, though, Packman seems to manage both strategies quite well!

Check out Mark's homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Thu Nov 5 07:47:24 2009 Tags:

Forest garden layers and guildsRobert Hart was a pioneer of Forest Gardening, but Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier are its eastern U.S. advocates.  Together, they've created my favorite books of the year --- Edible Forest Gardens, volume 1 and volume 2, which give you the theory behind forest gardening and all of the specifics you need to create your own.

Jacke and Toensmeier define an edible forest garden as a "perennial polyculture of multipurpose plants."  In essence, they use an understanding of ecology to mimic the temperate forests you can find in wild places around you.  But instead of letting nature take its course, they fill each niche of their forest with species that provide food for humans, nectar for beneficial insects, or enrich the soil.

Comfrey growing under a nectarine.Each plant in the polyculture has a different growth form and different needs, so they don't actively compete for the most important resources.  For example, consider growing comfrey as a thick groundcover under fruit trees.  Most of our fruit trees have shallow roots that feed primarily in the top few inches of the soil, while comfrey grows taproots that delve deep into the subsoil in search of water and nutrients.  Since the roots of the two species are in different parts of the soil, the comfrey and fruit tree won't compete much for nutrients, and the comfrey will actually help feed the tree when the comfrey's high quality leaves die back and rot into the surface of the soil.  Meanwhile, the comfrey crowds out grass and other shallow-rooted weeds that would otherwise compete with the fruit tree.

Forest gardeners talk about creating guilds --- groups of useful species that grow together without undue competition.  When creating guilds for your forest garden, you need to understand each species' growth form, size, root pattern, need for light, water and nutrients, and seasonal growth pattern.  Then mix and match plants that seem to fill different niches, paying special attention to the most limiting resource (be that light, nutrients, or water, depending on your environment.)  Check out volume two of Edible Forest Gardens for very helpful lists, or just browse through the guilds I'm starting to build in my forest garden.

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

Posted Thu Nov 5 12:01:02 2009 Tags:

  bomb shelter from the 1960's

Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing pointed me to an interesting collection of fallout shelter designs that the Department of Defense put out back in the early 1960's. Not sure if I would want to stay too long in something so small and confining, but the image above got me to thinking about a modified version as a root cellar. Those big culverts are expensive, but if you already had one laying around this might be a good way to provide protection against the bad things out there while at the same time creating a place to keep food from freezing.

Root cellar ebook
Posted Thu Nov 5 16:56:51 2009 Tags:

Hauling leaves in the heavy haulerThis week's theme has been biomass transport.  Mark, the innovator, tripled our leaf productivity by changing our collection method.  I had been raking up leaves that fell on the driveway, stuffing them into our leaf bag, and driving back to the garden to spread them one bag at a time.  Mark figured out that we could put two to three leaf bags' worth of leaves into the heavy hauler with some judicious smooshing and a tarp tucked on top.

He also figured out that we could rake the leaves down off the hillside above the driveway and get scads of leaf matter for very little effort.  There's a chance the bared soil will erode some, but I have to weigh a little bit of erosion that will never reach the creek against extra transportation (aka, coal burned in the nearby power plant to pollute our air and water).  Some days, it feels hard to be human --- no matter what we do, it causes harm somewhere.

The good thing about the hillside leaves is that we get some duff with them, which helps solve our nitrogen problem.  Meanwhile, Mark has started peeing on some of our leaves to give them an influx of nitrogen and help them decompose faster.  Suddenly, the garden feels under control!  We topped all of the beds in the mule garden this week, which means we only have about two to three times that much garden left to put to bed for the winter.

Check out our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Fri Nov 6 06:48:09 2009 Tags:

One of the nuclei in our young forest garden.I first started noticing the term "permaculture" about a year ago, and the idea quickly struck my fancy.  My background is in forest ecology, and everything I read about forest gardening and permaculture just made intuitive sense.

Those of you who have been reading along know that we started planning our first forest garden last winter. That forest garden is still slowly taking shape, but hopefully in a decade it will be mature and bearing.  Every year we look forward to a greater yield with less work.  And, of course, to lots more fascinating permaculture books to keep our brains active!

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

Posted Fri Nov 6 12:00:46 2009 Tags:
Posted Fri Nov 6 16:57:22 2009 Tags:
Old fridge to be turned into a root cellar.I got a kick out of your refrigerator burying idea, but wonder about the
cooling fluids, if there are any, and if there might be any chemicals you'd not want, seeping into any vegetables you might be storing?
--- Mom

That's a great question!  A century ago, the chemicals used to keep refrigerators cold included ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide, which leaked out of fridges and killed people.  As a result, we switched over to freon, a chemical that isn't toxic to humans but does rip big holes in the ozone layer if it escapes from your fridge.  In the 1990s, we switched again and started using a chemical that neither harms us nor the ozone layer.

Our fridge may date from the freon era, but since the fridge stopped cooling our food even though it kept running, we can be pretty sure that the refrigerants leaked out already.
  The book we got the fridge root cellar idea out of suggested removing the cooling coils, but we think that we'd be more likely to puncture them and release refrigerants in the process.  Hopefully, any remaining refrigerant gases will be safely sequestered in the soil.

Looking for other fun DIY projects?  Visit our homemade chicken waterer page.

This post is part of our Fridge Root Cellar series.  Read all of the entries:

Root cellar ebook
Posted Sat Nov 7 08:18:45 2009 Tags:

spiral root cellarWhile researching the refrigerator root cellar I came across an interesting concept known as a spiral root cellar. This design is for folks with very little space who want to have easy access to their chilled products. Most versions seem to be installed in the kitchen floor with a trap door for access. This solution seems to be only available in Europe, and it's not cheap. About 12 thousand dollars, which in the long run would be cheaper than an expensive wine cooler thanks to the fact that it uses the earth for cooling. Of course I'm wondering if some modification can be made to be able to build one yourself, but I think we will be sticking with the refrigerator root cellar design for now.

Posted Sat Nov 7 15:29:23 2009 Tags:

Net primary productivity of wetlands, tropical forest, temperate forest, coniferous forest, and agricultural land.Jacke used the numbers shown here as one of his arguments for forest gardening.  He noted that forests are much more productive environments than annual agricultural land in terms of the amount of solar energy converted to biomass after the needs of the plants in the ecosystem are met.

His point is well taken, but I was more intrigued by another part of the graph.  Notice how wetlands are just as productive as tropical forests --- nearly double the productivity of temperate forests?  Can we create swamp gardens that mimic wetlands just like forest gardens mimic forests?

Some folks already make use of wetlands, but they seem to focus on the potential of wetlands to break down contaminants in graywater or sewage.  Since we have lots of floodplain land on our property, I can't help wonder if we could do something more interesting with it.  Maybe find a way to harvest biomass for mulch and compost to feed my hungry vegetable garden?  Rotate animals through it at a low enough rate that they take advantage of the fertility without causing erosion?  I'd be curious to hear if anyone has better ideas!

While we're on the topic of water, check out our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Sun Nov 8 08:52:21 2009 Tags:

empty can of sea foam after a year outside under my trailerI was experiencing some power trouble with the Ford Festiva last week. It stalled out three separate times during a short trip to town. My first thought was that the repair last year with a dab of silicone to the ignition coil was giving out, but then I decided to try a 10 dollar can of Seafoam. You put this stuff right in your tank and top it off with whatever fuel you usually use and presto...I noticed an immediate improvement. I could now get up hills with only dropping down to 4th gear instead of 3rd or 2nd. Technically speaking something happens that cleans some internal stuff to make things run smoother. No more stalling! I'm now a believer in Seafoam.

Posted Sun Nov 8 18:02:51 2009 Tags:

Black soldier fly larvaeI think we may have found a partial solution to our goal of feeding our chickens without storebought ingredients.  Black soldier fly larvae can be grown in worm-bin-like containers, decomposing food scraps.  The best part is that when the larvae reach full size, they naturally crawl out of the container and fall into a bucket on the side.  You can just remove the collection bucket once a day and feed the high protein larvae directly to your chickens.

This article by Harvey Ussery has all of the information you need.  He uses a pre-made container that costs $179, but I strongly suspect we can build something just as effective on our own for pennies.  Unfortunately, this project will have to wait until spring since black soldier flies are dormant in cold weather.  I can barely wait!

Posted Mon Nov 9 07:18:14 2009 Tags:

Sugar Maple leafAs you know, I'm obsessed with leaves at the moment.  I want to know which tree leaves break down quickly for use in my vegetable garden, which ones provide the nutrients needed by my fruit trees, and so on.

The scientific literature is full of intriguing answers.  Agroforesters in the tropics have been untangling the costs and benefits of using tree leaves as a fertility source for decades and some suggest that tree leaves can make up nearly 100% of the nutritional requirements of vegetable crops.  But no one seems interested in using tree leaves on a large scale in the U.S.  I can only assume that chemical fertilizers are so much cheaper than labor here that using tree leaves isn't worth farmers' while.

Can we apply any of the lessons learned in the tropics to our southeast U.S. garden?  This week's lunch time series will at least give it a shot.

This post is part of our Leaves for Fertility lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Nov 9 12:00:52 2009 Tags:
Posted Mon Nov 9 16:36:49 2009 Tags:

Oyster mushroom spawn starting to grow on cardboard.I know this photo doesn't look like much, but you are witnessing a real, live break through!  (Yes, I am excited.  How could you tell?)

A mere week after starting our oyster mushroom propagation experiment, the fungus has already taken hold.  Its mycelium is running across the damp cardboard and even growing up through the cardboard to the next layer.

As oyster mushrooms ripen on our mushroom logs, I've been cutting off the stem butts and putting them between new layers of wet cardboard in my flower pot.  I hope that in a few weeks, the pot will be chock full of mycelia.  Then I can use the mycelia to seed new containers of damp cardboard, eventually growing enough to innoculate a bunch of new logs in the spring.  No more paying top dollar for mushroom plugs!

Looking for a fun DIY project?  Make a homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Tue Nov 10 07:36:02 2009 Tags:

Rotted wood chipsYou may have heard that putting fresh wood chips on your garden is a bad idea.  Wood contains lots of lignin, which binds to nitrogen and won't let it go for months or years.  When soil microorganisms begin decomposing the wood chips, there isn't any nitrogen for them to eat, so they have to take nitrogen out of the soil.  The result is that plants whose roots are in the soil under fresh wood chips can't get any nitrogen and they struggle to grow.  After a while, the wood chips break down to the point that they release nitrogen rather than hogging it --- then your plants get happy.

Although leaves contain much less lignin than wood, the same effect can occur. 
Leaves that contain more than 15% lignin are difficult to decompose.  Although I couldn't find a comprehensive list of the percent lignin in all the tree species in my woods, I think I can use a pretty simple rule of thumb --- if leaves feel thin and melt into the ground within a couple of months, they clearly have low lignin levels.  Trees like oaks, beech, and sycamore with thick leaves that stick around for a long time have high lignin levels and might leach nitrogen out of my soil before giving any back.

I'll have to wait to see the results of my winter leaf mulching, but I suspect that the thin leaves I've put on my garden beds will melt in by spring and enrich the soil.  The thicker leaves may need to be raked back or supplemented by urine and manure.  Next year, I'll be more prepared and will use oak, beech, and sycamore leaves as mulch over manure in my perennial plantings while reserving leaves from maples and tulip-trees for my vegetable garden.

Mafongoya, P.L., K.E. Giller, and C.A. Palm.  1998.  Decomposition and nitrogen release patterns of tree prunings and litter.  Agroforestry Systems.  38: 77-97.

This post is part of our Leaves for Fertility lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Nov 10 12:01:12 2009 Tags:

 review of spud buddy concept

The Spud Buddy is a device that gets mounted to the side of an old broken freezer or refrigerator and uses a fan and a steady supply of water to keep the inside temperature and humidity where it needs to be in order to function as a root cellar.
I've never seen one of these in action, but the concept seems solid enough to work. Expect to spend about 160 bucks on the unit, and maybe some extra pennies per day for the additional electricity.

A clever solution for someone with limited time and space who wants to turn their old broken refrigerator into a functional root cellar.

Root cellar ebook
Posted Tue Nov 10 16:24:33 2009 Tags:

Spider with egg sacAs I sink my hands into mass after mass of fallen leaves, I am always happy to see creepy crawlies.  Tuesday was no exception.  The leaves I raked out of the woods came with mushrooms, daddy-long-legs, one salamander (who I returned to the woods), and several spiders.

Despite many folks' odd antipathy to spiders, the arachnids are in fact a very helpful generalist predator in the garden.  Spiders will eat just about anything that moves, so they keep insect population explosions from getting out of hand.  But spiders hate bare soil, so they are often absent from conventional agricultural situations.

Mulching is the best way to attract spiders to your garden, but having perennial plants around is also a good bet.  Comfrey seems to be especially attractive, even more so if you let the winter-killed leaves lie on the ground rather than "cleaning" them up.  One study in Switzerland found 240 spiders for every square meter of soil beneath comfrey leaves.  Wow!

From: Burki, H.M., and A. Hausammann.  1992.  Uberwinterung von Arthropoden im Boden und an Ackerunkrautern kunstlich angelegter Achkerkrautstreifen.  Agrarokologie. 7:1-158.  (I can't actually read this, but the study is cited all over the organic gardening world, so I assume someone can read German.  I got it most recently out of Edible Forest Gardens.)

Check out our homemade chicken waterer.

Posted Wed Nov 11 08:12:23 2009 Tags:

Decomposition rates of leaves are studied using mesh bags.One of my favorite studies was by Cornelisson, who studied the rate at which senescing leaves from 125 British plant species decomposed.  While other scientists carefully measured the percentage of lignin, nitrogen, and tannins in the leaves, Cornelisson wanted to know if he could predict the speed at which leaves broke down using more easily measured plant characteristics.

He discovered that the plants that decomposed fastest were woody climbers, followed by flowering herbs, deciduous shrubs, deciduous trees, grasses, and deciduous subshrubs.  The leaves that were slowest to decompose came from evergreens.

He also found that plant family was related to speed of leaf decomposition.  From fastest to slowest decomposition were Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle Family), Asteraceae (Composite Family), Salicaceae (Willow Family), Fabaceae (Bean Family), Rosaceae (Rose Family), Betulaceae (Birch Family), Poaceae (Grass Family), Pinacaceae (Pine Family), Ericaceae (Blueberry Family), and Fagaceae (Oak Family.)  Perhaps this is a quick and dirty way to choose which leaves to throw on the veggies and which on the trees?

Cornelissen, J.H.C.  1996.  An Experimental Comparison of Leaf Decomposition Rates in a Wide Range of Temperate Plant Species and Types.  Journal of Ecology.  84(4):573-582.

This post is part of our Leaves for Fertility lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Nov 11 12:00:43 2009 Tags:

 gas to electric chipper conversion

The old gas powered chipper/grinder got moved up to the front of the get fixed line this week in an effort to increase our mulch production. Its 50 year old Briggs and Stratton engine won the first battle yesterday afternoon, but today I figured out exactly what to do with that stubborn motor.

Delete it.

The first step was to remove the four bolts that hold the engine to the frame. Then it's easy to lift out. Next fabricate some sort of vibration plate for the electric motor to be attached to, I used a scrap piece of 2x6. Once you get the pulley lined up secure the whole thing down to the frame and wire up a switch.

Posted Wed Nov 11 17:03:11 2009 Tags:

Fruit tree spacingAs I've been learning more about roots, I've started wondering --- does that mean we should be spacing our trees differently?  The official spacing recommendations you find in most books or on extension service websites are based on the width of the trees' crowns.  But if roots extend out 2.25 times as wide as the crown, on average, won't the trees be competing underground?

My Edible Forest Gardens book gave a good suggestion.  They recommend deciding which resource will be the most limiting for your plants and choosing spacing based on that.  For example, if you live in a dry climate, have sandy soil, and don't irrigate, you probably should be spacing your trees based on the extent of the roots since water will be the limiting resource.  On the other hand, if you have plenty of water but are on the north side of a hill, chances are that light will be the limiting resource and you'll need to space based on crown diameter (which tends to be the official recommendation.)  If nutrients are the most limiting resource on your site, you should probably go back to roots to determine your spacing.

In our garden, water isn't a problem (except when there's too much of it) and we add nutrients.  So I guess we can stick to the official tree spacing recommendations for now.

Water won't be a problem for you either once you build a homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Thu Nov 12 07:58:39 2009 Tags:

Elderberry flowersAlthough the tree leaves I've been adding to my garden have some nutrients, they are really the iceberg lettuce of the organic fertilizer world.  They're primarily useful as an erosion-resistant mulch and, eventually, to boost the organic matter of my soil.  As I read about leaf decomposition, I came to realize that if I want to put really high quality leaves on my garden, I need to pick them green.

Green leaves are chock full of micro and macronutrients.  But trees aren't dumb; when autumn comes, the plants suck as many nutrients as they can out of their leaves.  Nitrogen content of fallen leaves is often less than half that in the same tree's green leaves, while the percent of lignin in fallen leaves more than doubles.  The result?  Green leaves decay much faster and release more nutrients into the soil.

Suddenly, I understand why various books have recommended growing shrubs like elderberries and hazels to be coppiced.  If I cut green shoots of these trees during the growing season and use them for mulch, the mulched plants will get a much greater boost of nutrients than if I'd waited and raked up the fallen leaves.

Mafongoya, P.L., K.E. Giller, and C.A. Palm.  1998.  Decomposition and nitrogen release patterns of tree prunings and litter.  Agroforestry Systems.  38: 77-97.

This post is part of our Leaves for Fertility lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Nov 12 12:00:52 2009 Tags:

The new chipper/grinder seems to have a problem with sticks and branches any bigger than what you see here in this short video. It's sort of a hassle to stop everything and flip it on its side to reset it once you send something through that's too big.

It still might find a place here on the farm, but today the verdict is too small and wimpy for the level of mulch production we are looking for.

Posted Thu Nov 12 16:06:01 2009 Tags:

Microbusiness Independence ebookOne of the best things about our farm is our "moat" --- the large creek that you have to cross to get to where we park our cars.  After a heavy rain like the one on Wednesday, the creek floods and we're cut off from the outside world.  Priorities shift, and I manage to work on projects that have sat on the back burner nearly finished for far too long.

Since I quit my job a year ago, Mark and I have been feeling our way toward an independent existence.  It was scary at first, hoping we'd manage to pay the bills every month, but we slowly figured out how to sell Mark's chicken waterer invention over the internet and the money started pouring in.  Suddenly, we had the time we craved to focus on the garden and the infrastructure of our homestead.

Before long, we started getting emails from customers who said they wished they were able to quit their jobs and start a microbusiness the way we have.  "I want to go back to the land," one wrote, "but I know I'm not going to be able to support my family selling produce at the farmer's market."  It's true --- small farm-based businesses tend to pay minimum wage or less, which leaves the homesteader scant time to do the real work of running the farm.

"Why don't we write an e-book showing people how to replicate our success?" Mark asked.  He always has the good ideas.  Several months later, our ebook is finally polished and ready to meet the world.  We want it to be accessible to everyone, not just the rich or the desperate, so we're selling it for $4 (although I reserve the right to raise the price in a few weeks if I decide to start advertising.)  You can read the first chapter for free on our microbusiness ebook site and decide if you'd like to forego your Big Mac today and read a good book instead.

Posted Fri Nov 13 06:01:36 2009 Tags:

Hepatica flowersSo far, I've been talking mostly about tree leaves, but what about smaller plants?  Jacke writes that understory plants make up only about 11% of a forest's biomass, but they contain 37% of the forest's nitrogen, 29% of its its phosphorus, 33% of its magnesium, and 32% of its potassium.  Clearly, non-woody plants would be my best choice for fertilizer.  I'm already using green comfrey and grass leaves as mulch, but I suspect I should expand this program.

I was intrigued to read that the understory of a forest can also help prevent nutrients from washing out of the soil during the winter.  As fallen tree leaves decay, they release soluble nutrients that can quickly leach away during winter rains.  Early spring ephemerals like bloodroot and hepatica are the only forest plants active at this time of year, so they are able to suck up the nutrients and use them to grow leaves and flowers.  When the trees leaf out a few weeks later, the early spring ephemerals die back and rot into the soil, releasing the same nutrients to be sucked up by hungry tree roots and complete the cycle.  I guess there's a reason other than beauty (and bees) to add early spring flowers to my forest garden!

This post is part of our Leaves for Fertility lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Nov 13 12:00:47 2009 Tags:

 refrigerator root cellar digging hole

We decided to dig the refrigerator root cellar down a bit deeper to accommodate a large cinder block in each corner. I thought two post holes in the middle might help to increase the cold surface area that will hopefully stream a steady flow of cool air up through the refrigerator and out the soon to be installed vent pipe.

This post is part of our Fridge Root Cellar series.  Read all of the entries:

Root cellar ebook
Posted Fri Nov 13 18:30:35 2009 Tags:

Even though hunting season only started today, I've been hunting in my mind for two weeks.  After a serious bout of target practice at the beginning of the month, the gun has sat in front of the living room window.  At intervals, I would turn off the deer deterrents and let the deer into the yard, but every time I cracked a window, the deer were gone.

I learned that we have two sets of deer that visit our garden --- a doe with a relatively young fawn and a pair of adults.  I learned their paths, too, and the time of day they like to come to call.  Half a dozen times, I thought I might get a shot at them.  Three times, I took the safety off the gun and pumped a shell into the chamber.  But I wasn't going to shoot until I was sure I would kill the deer, not just wound it.

I turned off the deer deterrents last night, then woke at 5:51, dreaming of deer hunting.  At dawn, I opened the door --- and two deer fled up the hillside out of the yard.  Was that my one chance, gone?

Still, it was the perfect dusky morning, just the time when deer like to travel.  I leashed Lucy, made sure the safety was on the gun, and headed off for our morning walk.  In the powerline cut, I startled our other set of deer, but these two only ran a few feet and stopped.  I crept forward and the deer watched me but stayed put.  My second chance!

I silently ordered Lucy to sit, then crouched down myself and took the safety off the gun.  Lucy is a good dog, but she's not used to hunting --- she tried to crawl into my lap with the gun, and the ensuing scuffle sent the deer running again.  But again they stopped and waited.  Again I crept forward.  This time, Lucy sat, I crouched, the deer watched. 

I'd been practicing to hit the heart, just behind the front leg.  But the deer in my sights was only visible from the neck up.  I could try for a head shot and risk missing entirely,  or guess where its heart might be and fire blindly into the weeds.  I chose the latter, checked one last time to make sure my aim was accurate, then pulled the trigger.

I can't even remember the gun going off.  Suddenly, the second deer was fleeing in huge bounds, her white tail a brilliant flag against the brown woods.  The deer I'd shot at was invisible.  Did I hit it?  Wound it?  Kill it?

I beat a path through the brambles to the spot where the deer had stood.  Nothing.  But I faintly smelled a hint of gunpowder and blood so I let Lucy off the leash, hoping she'd track
Dead white-tailed deerdown the wounded deer.  She set off like a shot and I raced behind her until she crossed the creek to the neighbor's hay field.  Was my deer really gone?

I circled back around toward home and nearly stumbled upon my deer.  It had fled about twenty feet, then died just outside the powerline cut.  Upon further inspection, I saw that my shot had been about five inches off, hitting the lungs instead of the heart --- still a pretty good hit.

Carrying the deer home.I have to admit that at this point, my adrenaline was pumping so hard that I couldn't think what to do next.  So I made sure the safety was on the gun and ran home to my husband, waking him out of a sound sleep to come help me gut the deer, tie it to a board, and carry it home.

My very first deer!  I guess I shouldn't feel so special since the newspaper is always full of photos of six year olds and their first kill at this time of year.  But I'm oddly exhilarated, floating on air.  A deerslayer wannabe no longer, Mark has taken to calling me "Killer."

Posted Sat Nov 14 07:59:34 2009 Tags:

 refrigerator root cellar vent hole picture

After thinking about lowering the refrigerator root cellar into our new hole I decided to see just how hard it would be to strip off the metal coil from the back of the unit. It turns out it only took about a half hour to take everything off including the compressor and wiring harness. I think it's going to make sliding down the hole a bit smoother and safer.

I'm planning on mounting some screen material over the new holes in the bottom. The good thing about this approach is that it will be easy to add more holes if we think the air flow needs to increase.

This post is part of our Fridge Root Cellar series.  Read all of the entries:

Root cellar ebook
Posted Sat Nov 14 17:01:51 2009 Tags:

Deer entrails.Shooting the deer, of course, is the easy part of getting free meat out of the woods.  The next steps left me floundering and wishing I had a pro with me.  At least I had the internet!

Everyone you talk to says that it's essential that you disembowel the deer immediately.  I was surprised at how thick the hide was on the belly --- I hacked and hacked and didn't even make it through the hair before turning the knife over to Mark.  He did a better job and then I had no problem pulling out the steaming entrails --- a lot like gutting a chicken but with the addition of what seemed like a gallon of blood sloshing over my hands.

After carrying the deer back to the barn, we hung it up and went inside to figure out whether we should age the meat.  Some people seem to age their deer for up to two weeks, leaving them hanging out in the open.  A few minutes of research, though, suggested that you shouldn't age your meat outside if the temperature is above 40 or 50, and the day was beautiful.  So we moved on to plan B --- cut the deer up and age the meat for a day or two in the fridge.

Hanging a deer to skin it.Between the two of us, with the help of a sharp knife and hacksaw, skinning was fun and relatively painless.  Then we whacked off the head (to be composted), the legs, and the tenderloin before cutting up the rest of the meat for Lucy's dinners.  I've been reading Sharon Astyk's thought-provoking blog and was especially struck by her entry that calls us to task for buying mainstream pet food.  Although I would consider it wasteful to throw away all of the meat I plan to give to Lucy, it'll help lower our dogfood footprint (and will save me a lot of time cutting little bits of meat off the bone.)

I spent the next two hours chopping meat off the carcass and bagging it in meal-size portions.  I'm a terrible butcher, and I suspect this part could be done much better by someone with a bit of knowledge.  Still, it's hard to complain when a third of our fridge is now full of free range meat bought for the cost of a single bullet! 

We ended up with 24 pounds of meat for us humans, which includes the kidney (but not the heart, since I seem to have missed that.)  Nearly half of the meat is from the front legs and lower parts of the back legs and will be turned into roasts or sausage.  The rest is steak-quality meat, I hope.

All told, from my pre-dawn wake-up call to the last wiping down of the counters, it took six hours to kill and process my first deer.  If our chicken killing experiments are any indication, this time could be halved with practice.  Still, I think I'll wait a while before trying my hand at another deer!

Posted Sun Nov 15 08:58:43 2009 Tags:

 flame grilled venison at night

The word delicious doesn't even begin to describe how wonderful it was to grill up part of Anna's first deer last night.

Posted Sun Nov 15 13:59:37 2009 Tags:

GooseberriesIt's a bit heartbreaking when you wake up in the morning and see an email from your mother with the subject line "Gooseberry Fool."  Turns out she was just passing on a recipe that my grandmother got from one of her older relatives.  We don't have gooseberries yet, but I thought I'd record the recipe for posterity.  That way, we can give it a shot once we're swimming in gooseberry fruits.

"This is a recipe Ruth made for us June 20, 1980 with her berries. I guess you can do the same with raspberries.

1qt. green gooseberries. Put in sauce pan with cold water to cover and bring to boiling, but remove from heat before fruit cracks and juice escapes. 

Strain off water, let cool and press thru colander with a wooden spoon, adding sugar and a little milk at same time.

Sweeten again to proper taste and add more milk if necessary to bring to proper consistency.

Serve when cool with whipped cream or regular cream. Strained juice may be used in drink.

"Perhaps with raspberries you will need a little lemon juice to make milk thicken, and not so much water, but more berries."

--- Frances Tirrell Eckberg

Check out Mark's homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Mon Nov 16 07:27:00 2009 Tags:

Traditional forest garden in GuatemalaWith an armload of new permaculture books waiting on my attention, I figured it was high time to finish up my series on traditional Central American farming practices.  The first half of Gene Wilken's Good Farmers has already tempted me to to embark on a huge leaf-raking project.  Where will the second half lead?

To start with, the book noted that Central American farmers have been forest gardening since long before the term was invented.  Large scale farms were usually all annual vegetables, but most farmers had a kitchen garden that modern permaculturalists would approve of.  Coconuts arched over papayas and mangos which in turn shaded cacoa, bananas, peaches, avocados, pomegranates, ad oranges.  Enough light filtered down to the ground to feed maize and beans, and chickens ran free under everything.

Farmers noted that their kitchen gardens required more work than their less diverse fields of vegetables, and that crop quality was often lower in the crowded forest gardens.  On the other hand, the farmers seldom saw weeds or pests, didn't have to worry about erosion, and enjoyed having a diversity of food at their finger tips.  Clearly, forest gardening was worth their while.

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

Posted Mon Nov 16 12:00:56 2009 Tags:

 refrigerator root cellar chimney installation

Two drill holes and a few minutes with the jig saw was all it took to create the new chimney hole for the refrigerator root cellar.

I also removed the foam and plastic barrier that separates the freezer from the rest of the refrigerator. One of the metal shelves slid right into its place, which will provide plenty of open space for the cool air to flow while at the same time working as a sturdy surface to store apples on.

This post is part of our Fridge Root Cellar series.  Read all of the entries:

Root cellar ebook
Posted Mon Nov 16 16:25:31 2009 Tags:

Forest soil raked bare.Am I harming the forest, I wonder, by raking out leaves for my garden?  Leaf litter in the forest lowers light on the forest floor, changes the temperature of the soil, and affects soil and water nutrient dynamics.  Depending on which plants you identify with, leaf litter can be a bane or a boon.  The fallen leaves prevent many seeds from successfully sprouting and growing, but on the other hand the decreased competition is good for other types of seeds that are well adapted to pushing up through the leaf litter.

Garden mulched with leaves.Basically, raking leaves out of the forest turns the clock backwards a bit, making the ecosystem act a bit younger.  Wild Turkeys are constantly scratching, and one set of scientists found that turkey scratched areas tend to help Red Maple seeds sprout but prevent oak seeds from sprouting.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if there is some forest plant, animal, or fungus out there whose niche is forest soil scratched bare by turkeys.

I figure that as long as I keep my leaf raking on a turkey-like schedule and don't take leaves from the same spot every year, I won't do much harm.  I might cause some early successional plants to sprout, but they'll just be swamped by next year's leaf fall and likely won't get a toehold on the forest.

For more information, check out:
Rinkes, Z.L., and B.C. McCarthy.  2007.  Ground layer heterogeneity and hardwood regeneration in mixed oak forest.  Applied Vegetation Science.  10: 279-284.

Sydes, C., and J.P. Grime.  1981.  Effects of tree leaf litter on herbaceous vegetation in deciduous woodland: I. Field investigations.  Journal of Ecology.  69(1): 237-248.

And while you're at it, read our ebook about starting a small business or visit our homemade chicken waterer site.

Posted Tue Nov 17 08:10:25 2009 Tags:

Camellones ae Central American raised bedsAnother familiar concept --- the raised bed --- is very widespread in Central American farming.  Unlike the fancy raised beds many Americans make with walls of wood or stone, Central American raised beds look an awful lot like our low cost garden beds.  The beds are simply mounds of earth of varying heights and sizes and with various purposes.

The most familiar to me are camellones (like the ones shown above), which average about 5 feet wide and a foot high by many feet long.  Camellones provide loose earth for easy planting and root development, improve drainage and lift plants above flood or irrigation water, retain moisture on slopes, and make it easy to control weeds and mix in soil amendments.  This type of raised bed is typically used for maize and other vegetable crops, although taller mounds are often created for planting mango trees in flooded areas.

Even more widespread are mules, a type of raised bed created by hilling up soil around young maize plants.  The process is reported to be very labor intensive and reminds me of hilling potatoes.  The mules are important in windy areas, where they keep the maize plants from blowing over, and mules everywhere seem to improve drainage and aeration, decrease evaporation, and control weeds.  Oddly, modern farmers don't think that mules are worth the effort, but some continue to hill up mounds of earth around the perimeters of their fields to serve as a sort of windbreak.

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

Posted Tue Nov 17 12:00:45 2009 Tags:

 refrigerator root cellar bury time

It took both of us to lower the refrigerator root cellar into its new home below the earth. Once it was in place I decided to make some side panels from a couple of 2x4's and some scrap wood. It seems to be helping by keeping the dirt away from the hinge and door opening as I begin to bury it.

This post is part of our Fridge Root Cellar series.  Read all of the entries:

Root cellar ebook
Posted Tue Nov 17 16:35:46 2009 Tags:

Jean Pain methodWe dream of someday leaving the mainstream electricity grid behind and becoming energy independent.  Although solar panels or hydropower have been top of our list in the past, Jerry clued me in to the Jean Pain method --- a technique of converting wood chips into methane, heat, and compost.  We're nowhere near taking the plunge to that level of production, but maybe it would be a loftier goal than saving our pennies for solar panels?

Posted Wed Nov 18 08:18:07 2009 Tags:
Anna Tablones

Tablones are Guatemalan terraces.Much of Central America is mountainous, so it's no surprise to find a broad range of terraces throughout the area.  Tablones are a type of Guatemalan terrace created on steep slopes.  Farmers simply hoe soil downhill, using gravity to ease the work and creating step-like terraces about two feet wide.

Hoe down part of the terrace above to form two inches of loose soil on the terrace below.Every year, tablones are re-formed by hoeing a bit of soil from the terrace above onto the terrace below.  Crop stubble is left in place and ends up being buried under the new dirt where it will decompose quickly.  Farmers can easily plant their seeds in the loose soil, then hoe down a bit more dirt to cover it.  The result combines the best of no-till and till techniques --- the majority of the soil isn't moved, so erosion is minimized.  But the soil is loosened, which makes it easy to plant and keep down weeds. 

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

Posted Wed Nov 18 12:00:22 2009 Tags:

refrigerator root cellar chimney capI was almost going to buy one of those heavy PVC caps for the refrigerator root cellar chimney, but when I walked past a foam faucet cover I stopped in my tracks, looked at the PVC cap in one hand and the foam cover on the shelf and weighed the coolness factor of the foam geometry along with the fact that it was only a buck compared to the 6 dollar price of the PVC.

Anna thinks it adds a sort of mother ship look to it and I agree.

The next step will be to drill some holes in the side towards the top of the chimney and then attach some screen material to keep out any unwanted bugs.

This post is part of our Fridge Root Cellar series.  Read all of the entries:

Root cellar ebook
Posted Wed Nov 18 17:36:00 2009 Tags:

Nectarine leaf changing colorThe regular reader may have noticed several changes to our site over the last few weeks.  First, my sweet brother helped me turn our archives into a much more usable format.  You can now browse through past entries by year and month.  So, if you get busy and miss a week of our blog, it's easy to check back in and catch up in one gulp.  Alternatively, why not read back over last year's posts to see how much our farm has changed in the last twelve months?

Meanwhile, I put some extra ads at the top of the page.  I appreciate no one whining and complaining --- I hope the ads don't impinge too much on your experience.  Including some advertising on the blog helps fund our adventure so that we can put in lots of time experimenting and relaying our experiences to you rather than getting a real job.   If you haven't lately, please go window shopping on some of our advertising sponsors' sites.  (Alternatively, if you're morally opposed to advertising, feel free to subscribe to our RSS feed and read our posts in your own, ad-free reader.)

Last stop on Walden Effect --- I've revamped our tag system.  Now you can read all of our posts about permaculture in one place.  Ditto for posts about our golf cart.

Finally, I've started blogging part-time over on our microbusiness ebook site.  If you're interested in learning tidbits about starting a home-based business to fund your own homestead adventure, I hope you'll subscribe to our home-based business blog.  I'll probably be posting over there two or three times a week.

Okay, now I'll return you to your regularly scheduled discussion of leaves, leaves, leaves!

Posted Thu Nov 19 07:40:41 2009 Tags:
Anna Cepas

A cepa is a circular pit terrace around a tree.Cepas are expanding pit terraces created around trees planted on a slope.  When the seedling is first put in the ground, a bit of the hillside is hoed down to create a circular terrace with a lip at the downhill side to hold in water.  As the trees grow, farmers continue to hoe down the hillside, enlarging the cepa.

Farmers take advantage of gravity during the formation of cepas, just like they do during the formation of tablones.  The terraces around the trees trap water and debris flowing down the hillside, irrigating and feeding the trees without any work on the part of the farmer.

I love all of the terrace ideas presented in Gene Wilken's book, but he does include a word of warning --- slope management requires constant maintenance or it can cause dangerous conditions!  Everyone in my area knows about badly built settling ponds constructed in strip-mined areas, and about the disasters that ensue when the dams fail and downstream houses wash away.  Although I find terracing intriguing, I think I'll kick these ideas around for awhile before putting them into practice.

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

Posted Thu Nov 19 12:00:53 2009 Tags:

 refrigerator root cellar latch details

The gaskets on the refrigerator root cellar are old and don't quite seal up the two doors. A simple screen door latch is all it takes to solve that problem. I installed them a little on the tight side in order to pull the door firmly closed with no gaps. The refrigerator latch required a piece of scrap wood behind the handle for the eye to bite into.

This might work for a low budget fix to a working refrigerator that has a weak gasket. I've often heard a new gasket can cost nearly as much as a good used refrigerator.

This post is part of our Fridge Root Cellar series.  Read all of the entries:

Root cellar ebook
Posted Thu Nov 19 17:19:15 2009 Tags:

Trellis materials.For the first time ever, I'm actually putting the garden to bed for the winter properly.  As of today, all of our garden beds and trees are safely tucked away under leaves.  I've just got the berries and grapes to go, and then everyone will be weed-free for the winter. 

In addition to cutting down weeds and adding fertility, I've read that mulching your trees at this time of year can give you several extra months of root growth.  By keeping the ground temperature above 40 F, the mulch prevents your roots from going dormant and results in a lot more growth through the winter months.

I even got a chance to take down all of the trellises and haul the netting and supports over to the barn.  I'm hoping that all of this hard autumn work will pay off in the summer when we have fewer weeds and healthier soil.

Check out our homemade chicken waterer and our work at home ebook.
Posted Fri Nov 20 07:08:51 2009 Tags:

The capillary fringe is the area where water creeps upwards from the groundwater.The final Central American farming technique for this week's lunchtime series is subirrigation.  Although I'm used to watering plants from above (or at least using drip irrigation slightly beneath the soil surface), many traditional Central American farmers watered their plants from below.  When farmers raise the water table to 1 to 6 feet below the soil surface (depending on soil texture), water naturally creeps upwards to roots through capillary action.  This damp but not wet region of the soil is known as the capillary fringe.

By raising or lowering the level of the groundwater, farmers can keep the damp soil within reach of plants' roots, allowing the plants to water themselves.  The zanjas (canals) I mentioned in a previous lunchtime series are primarily built to manage the depth of the water table in the surrounded garden beds.  Beds can be 40 feet wide in clay soil and still be watered by the surrounding zanjas, although beds in sandy soil are no more than 10 feet wide.  In either case, farmers do some hand-watering (dipped out of the canal) for shallow-rooted plants.

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

Posted Fri Nov 20 12:00:33 2009 Tags:

 refrigerator root cellar vent protection

The refrigerator root cellar is now generating a cool and damp atmosphere which needs to be protected from insects looking for the perfect home to ride out the winter.

It was easy to secure down the lower vent screen with several small dry wall screws. They drive straight into the plastic without the need for a pilot hole.

The top vent was just as easy. Cut some scrap screen material to the desired length and use some electrical tape to fasten it down.

This post is part of our Fridge Root Cellar series.  Read all of the entries:

Root cellar ebook
Posted Fri Nov 20 16:47:06 2009 Tags:

Roseto, PennsylvaniaIn the 1950s, Dr. Wolfe stumbled upon a medical anomaly.  The small town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, was unbelievably healthy, with a death rate about 35% lower than it should have been.

Seventy years earlier, the town had transplanted nearly whole-cloth from a town of the same name in Italy.  The Roseto in America was peopled by immigrants who knew each other, so unsurprisingly the town continued to grow as a close-knit community.  After ruling out diet, genetics, and several other factors, Dr. Wolfe came to the conclusion that the Rosetians' longevity was due to that sense of community --- happiness really seemed to make them live longer.  (You can read the whole story in the Washington Post article.)

We struggle with building community as much as any other Americans, but I couldn't help wondering if our homesteading lifestyle might not have a similar effect on our health.  Over the last three years, as we've worked the kinks out of our relationship and figuring out how to work from home, I've got happier and happier and happier.  If you need an incentive to pursue a life of simplicity, that might just be it.

Don't forget to promote your chickens' longevity with a homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Sat Nov 21 07:00:14 2009 Tags:

 home made automatic chicken waterer bucket

It's easy to make your own home made automatic chicken waterer with a 5 gallon bucket and one of our do it yourself kits.

Posted Sat Nov 21 18:34:52 2009 Tags:

Anole and sageOn Friday morning, we hopped out of bed, fed the animals, and jumped in the car for a quick trip to South Carolina to visit my father.  We drove out of the Great Valley, up over the rumpled Blue Ridge Mountains, and then down into the Piedmont.  By the time we reached Daddy's house, I had slipped out of my winter coat and was marveling at the number of leaves still on the trees.

The difference that a bit of mountain elevation makes to the climate is amazing.  Daddy's garden seemed to be a month behind mine, with the basil dead but the last cucumbers and peppers still littering the ground.  We gave him a bucket waterer to keep his chickens hydrated, along with our first homegrown lemon of the year.  In exchange, we loaded up the car with some more wild River Cane starts, some oregano plants (part of my endless search to find the most tasty type), and sage and rosemary cuttings.  The last two are long shots, but I figure if they don't root, I can put them in dinner with no harm done.

Speaking of food, we ate our first Thanksgiving dinner of the year..and our second from the leftovers the next day.  Thanks, Daddy!

Want free time to go on trips?  Read our ebook about starting a home business.
Posted Sun Nov 22 09:21:56 2009 Tags:

 home made cat door

In doing some research for an upgrade to the home made cat door I stumbled upon this fascinating project by

This home made cat door uses a low budget and clever way of taking a picture just before the cat reaches the door to enter. If the picture shows anything in your cats mouth like a mouse the computer tells the door not to let him in. Same thing is true if a skunk or other animal tries to get in. If he's all by himself the computer grants permission and unlocks the door. You can also use this system to keep track of how many times your cat goes in and out, complete with a fancy program that will send a picture to your cell phone every time an event happens.

Our cats have always kept their hunting prizes outside, and Lucy does a great job of keeping other small animals out of the yard, so we won't be going to this extreme. Quantumpictures is working on a self contained unit that will be available from their website in the near future.

Posted Sun Nov 22 17:31:39 2009 Tags:

Temperature is the real test of a successful root cellar, with optimal temperatures from 32 F to 40 F, but with temperatures from 40 F to 50 F considered quite good.  I've seen quite a few fancy root cellars constructed with vast quantities of labor and cash which fail the simple temperature test.  Can our $10 root cellar do better?

We won't know for sure how our root cellar holds up until it has to deal with really hot days and really cold nights, but so far it's running great.  Over the last few days since Mark completed the fridge root cellar, it has held a semi-steady temperature between 40 F and 52 F.  I'll keep you updated on the temperature variations as the year progresses.

If you missed parts of the construction details, you might want to read back over our old entries (linked below), or watch the video here which sums it all up in a two and a half minute nutshell.  I hope that some of you are inspired to eschew the fancy root cellar craze and make your own root cellar for cheap.

This post is part of our Fridge Root Cellar series.  Read all of the entries:

Check out our homemade chicken waterer and our ebook about starting a small business.
Root cellar ebook

Posted Mon Nov 23 08:23:55 2009 Tags:

Soil bacteriaIf you raked back the leaves and carefully weighed out all of the life in a forest's soil, the sheer quantity would astound you.  The soil invertebrates would add up to the equivalent mass of four to thirteen sheep per acre.  In a coniferous forest, where fungi are king, the threads of fungi in a single teaspoon of soil would unspool to stretch forty miles.  Tickle out the tiny bacteria and they'd add up to a few tons per acre as well.

That said, the volume of soil microorganisms doesn't hold a candle to their essential functions.  This week's lunchtime series is based on Dave Jacke's Edible Forest Gardens volume 1.  I didn't have room to present all of the rivetting information there, so if you're intrigued by this teaser, I highly recommend checking his book out and flipping straight to chapter 5.

This post is part of our Living Soil lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Nov 23 12:00:50 2009 Tags:

 storage building window wall frame

It's time to begin framing up the walls of the new storage building.

We decided to fill the wall that gets the most sun with windows we've managed to salvage from a few different places. Thanks Bill B.

The landfill can be a good place to find used windows for a project like this if you don't have generous neighbors who've cleaned out their barn recently. New construction sites have also been known to provide the frugal builder with discarded windows if you know where to look and who to talk to.

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 Nov 23 17:00:35 2009 Tags:

Building swales and planting moundsOur hybrid hazel plants arrived on Saturday!  Hazels are one of the few food-producing plants that grow well in partial shade, so I made them a home in our young forest garden.

This part of the garden is a trouble spot in wet weather.  I suspect that the topsoil eroded away when the land was pasture (before we bought the property), so the remaining soil is pretty much pure clay.  As soon as the grass dies back in the winter, the area turns into a waterlogged mess.  I've tried to plant directly into this soil a few times and ended up with dead plants, so this time, I opted for building mounds and swales.

My first step was to graze chickens pretty hard on the area.  They ate every bit of greenery and dropped a lot of good fertilizer.

Next, I mounded up some semi-rotted branches, asparagus tops, and wingstem stalks to give the mounds some structural integrity.  I dug ditches on the downhill sides of the mounds and piled the excavated soil up onto the branches. 

When raked flat, the mounds were a couple of feet off the ground --- that should provide plenty of good drainage.  I planted baby hazels in each mound, mulched the shrubs with leaves, then planted some comfrey along some of the mound walls to increase the structural stability.  I transplanted some horsetails from the floodplain into one of the swales to add fertility since horsetails accumulate silicon, magnesium, calcium, iron, and cobalt.  If they like it there, the horsetails should spread out to take over the whole ditch.

I'm hopeful that our new swales will help dry up a trouble spot.  If not, I'll dig the swales deeper and add a berm on the downhill side.

Our chicken waterers make great chicken gifts.
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Posted Tue Nov 24 08:33:41 2009 Tags:

Soil food webFor plants, the primary purpose of soil is as a reservoir of water and nutrients.  If you fertilize your garden with commercial fertilizers, the nutrient cycle is simple --- the fertilizers dissolve in the water and the plants suck them up.  But if you're an organic gardener, nutrient cycles are a lot more complicated.

Some nutrients, like potassium, calcium, and magnesium are extremely soluble in water.  The good news is that they quickly leach out of debris, and the resulting solution of nutrient water is easy for plants to absorb.  On the other hand, if plant roots can't suck the nutrients up fast enough (such as in the winter or during heavy rains), these nutrients are washed away into the surrounding streams or deep into the soil where roots can't reach.  One study showed that half of the calcium and potassium leached out of soil in just four hours.

Other nutrients stay put in dead plant leaves and other debris.  Although they don't leach away as often, these nutrients present their own problems to plants --- how to get at them.  Luckily, soil microorganisms are just waiting for their chance to enter the food web.

This post is part of our Living Soil lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Nov 24 12:00:50 2009 Tags:
Posted Tue Nov 24 16:37:44 2009 Tags:

Brown eggsDo you live in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area and want some chickens?  Carolina Waterfowl Rescue is trying to find homes for 16,000 organic, brown-egg layers.  The hens are one to two years old and come from a certified chemical-free farm that is being closed down.

This is a great chance to get some pet chickens or to start your laying flock for cheap.  (The organization does request a donation to cover their costs.)  Be forewarned that your adoption application will probably be denied if you are like us and slaughter some of your chickens for meat.  Click here for more information.

Once you get your chickens, be sure to check out our homemade chicken waterers, currently 10% off!
Posted Wed Nov 25 05:02:28 2009 Tags:

Fungi in forest soil.Just as the sun forms the focus of the above-ground food web, plant roots form the nucleus of the below-ground food web.  Every plant exudes sugars, carbohydrates, and proteins from their roots, sometimes giving away as much as 40% of the high energy foods they worked so hard to produce.  Why?

Plants are, in essence, farming bacteria and fungi.  These microorganisms cluster around roots and soak up the high quality plant exudates, then provide services to the plant in return.  Mycorrhizal fungi bind to the plant roots and carry nutrients and water from long distances away to feed their plant buddies.  Fungi also store easily leachable calcium in crystals on their backs, where the nutrient can cycle through the food web and return to plant roots rather than being lost.

Bacteria do their part in the root zone too, cycling nutrients out of forms inaccessible to plants and into forms roots can easily suck up.  In addition, good bacteria (and fungi too) protect the plant from pathogens.  They both bind tiny soil particles into larger particles, thus improving the soil structure, drainage, and aeration.

This post is part of our Living Soil lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Nov 25 12:01:00 2009 Tags:
Posted Wed Nov 25 16:41:04 2009 Tags:

ParsnipsI probably could have left them in the ground a little longer, but the day before Thanksgiving just felt like the right time to dig the parsnips.  I ended up with a big bowlful, and the roots slipped quite nicely between layers of damp creek sand/gravel in a large flower pot.  They have now become the first inhabitants of our fridge root cellar!

Meanwhile, inside, I checked on the carrots I've been storing in the fridge.  After about a week, the top layer started to lose a bit of its crispness, so I wet a dish towel and laid it on top.  It seems like I need to re-soak the dish towel once a week, but the carrots are now staying nice and crisp.  The only problem is that we've eaten half of them already!  I guess next year we'll have to grow twice as many.

I still have a bed of younger parsnips and a couple of beds of young carrots in the garden.  I planted these too late to get large roots this fall, so I'm hoping that they'll overwinter in the ground under a heavy leaf mulch and grow for me in the spring.

Check out our Avian Aqua Miser sale if you're looking for a gift for the chicken lover on your list.  Or feed your own independence with our ebook about starting your own microbusiness.
Posted Thu Nov 26 08:48:14 2009 Tags:

Magnified sow bugRoot exudates aren't the only products plants provide to the soil food web.  Dead plants (and animals too) add organic matter to the soil, spawning an entirely different web of soil microorganisms.

Bacteria are great decomposers of fresh, green plant matter, while fungi prefer the more difficult to decompose lignin and cellulose found in many tree leaves and in wood.  Protozoa and nematodes help too, although they also enjoy munching on the microorganisms smaller than themselves (and on each other.)

But most decomposers are too small to eat debris on their own.  Instead, they depend on soil arthropods (like sowbugs, millipedes, and ants) to chew up the debris for them.  The soil arthropods come back later when the bacteria and fungi have multiplied and the debris is well decomposed to get their reward --- the released nutrients in the organic matter and the tasty bodies of the decomposers themselves.

And don't forget the plants.  What do they get out of this mess of soil life?  Nutrients, of course.  At each stage in the decomposition process, some nutrients leach out into the water and get hungrily sucked up by the plants whose roots run through the whole ecosystem.

This post is part of our Living Soil lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Nov 26 12:00:51 2009 Tags:

 Thanksgiving 2009 KY trip

Finding a quicker and safer route to take to my Grandmother's house feels like discovering the Northwest Passage of Eastern Kentucky.

Thank you Google maps.

Posted Thu Nov 26 17:54:23 2009 Tags:
Oyster mushroom spawn on cardboard

Inoculating new cardboard using previously inoculated cardboard.A little over three weeks ago, I started propagating our oyster mushrooms from stem butts.  Two weeks ago, I saw that the mycelium was starting to run.  But I was still shocked when I peeked this week and saw fuzzy, white threads of fungus engulfing most of the cardboard in my flowerpot.  Time to move our experiment up a notch!

I soaked a lot more cardboard and found a much bigger container.  Since it worked so well last time, I crumpled up the flat pieces that peel off either side of the corrugated cardboard and laid them on the bottom of the container to keep the spawn out of any standing water.  Then I alternated layers of freshly soaked cardboard with layers of innoculated cardboard as if I was making a lasagna.

If our spawn keeps growing at this rate, I suspect we'll have to divide it again a few more times before the weather is right to innoculate logs.  I feel so empowered --- like growing tomatoes and broccoli from seed rather than relying on seedlings from the feed store!

Want to feel empowered?  Make your own homemade chicken waterer.  Or read our ebook and create your own small business.
Posted Fri Nov 27 08:56:57 2009 Tags:

Diagram of soil with microorganismsAs a gardener, it's not enough to simply know that your soil is teeming with life.  You probably want to know how to adjust that life to make the best possible environment for your plants.

Soil organisms detest most components of traditional agriculture.  Chemical fertilizers, soil disturbance (aka tilling), lack of oxygen, and excessive wetness can wipe out your soil food web in a heartbeat.  Growing annual plants with no perennials around will starve all of the beneficial bacteria and fungi that depend on root exudates so that next year when you plant your seeds, the soil is barren.

Instead, try no-till techniques and mulching in your annual gardens.  And if you really want a healthy soil environment, start forest gardening.  Some tree roots keep growing (and secreting sugars) all year --- just what your bacteria and fungi are craving!

This post is part of our Living Soil lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Nov 27 12:01:15 2009 Tags:

 mushroom farm

Anna's mushroom post this morning sent me on a research trail that led all the way to a Fungus farm in Singapore. These nice pictures illustrate how one can make their own man made logs out of a simple plastic bag. I imagine the bag is filled with some sort of saw dust.

We've been thinking of trying something like this in the refrigerator root cellar to see if we can achieve mushroom production on a year round basis.

 mushroom farm secrets in a bag

Posted Fri Nov 27 17:16:24 2009 Tags:

Feeding honeybees water
Honeybee drinking from a pan full of marbles and water.We're still feeding our honeybees, helping them sock away some extra honey to make it through the winter.  I've been giving them really strong sugar water (half sugar, half water) to make it easier for them to dehydrate the liquid into honey in the cool weather, but that seems to make the bees exceptionally thirsty.  At the same time, I poured out our kiddie pool of water since it's too late in the year to be soaking mushrooms.  The combination of factors sent the bees searching for other water sources, and we started finding drowned bees in every standing body of water around the farm.

Guilt-stricken, I set up a water feeder by filling a pie pan with marbles and then water.  The marbles give the bees a spot to land so that they don't drown when they come to drink, and the bees were suitably impressed.  No more drowned bees!

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Posted Sat Nov 28 08:55:34 2009 Tags:

 mushroom secret tip

Lawrence Weingarten was kind enough to share his oyster mushroom cultivation secrets in an easy to understand web page with plenty of pictures. He starts by shredding up a bale of wheat straw and then cooking it in water at 160 degrees for about an hour. You've now made your own pasteurized substrate. Drain it and carefully mix in the proper amount of spawn, which is mycelium growing on grain or cardboard. Stuff it all in a tall plastic bag and hang it up somewhere safe. Follow his instructions on humidity and temperature levels and you'll have a serious harvest of fruit to enjoy in less than a week.

Posted Sat Nov 28 18:54:34 2009 Tags:
Frosty onion

Indian Summer ended this weekend with temperatures in the low 20s.  Although the calendar doesn't agree, winter is finally here.

We're not ready --- it seems like we're never ready for winter.  Our water lines are frozen, our wood stove not really ready to be fired up.

But the refrigerator root cellar is working like a charm --- no temperatures below 38 F!  The shed is nearly ready for its roof, and I foresee warm bathing in our future.

When living on a farm, it's easy to think of winter as an adversary to be overcome.  But when the frost is so beautiful, I remember that winter can be my favorite season.

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Posted Sun Nov 29 09:28:42 2009 Tags:

mycelium jarThere are many secrets to cultivating mushrooms, but the technique that seems to be most employed if you want to increase your yield is to use the glass jar method.

This involves using something like organic brown rice or brown flour, staying away from anything with preservatives that will work against mushroom growth.  The trick is to keep the mixture sterile, with about 1/4 cup of distilled water. Most people seem to think a pressure cooker is needed at 15 pounds for an hour to guard against contamination, once it's cool it acts as the perfect environment for your spawn to multiply in. It would be interesting to compare Anna's  wet cardboard method with the jar trick and see just how much more you can expect for all that extra fuss.

Posted Sun Nov 29 16:36:49 2009 Tags:

Decaying osage orange fruit.A month or two ago, osage-orange fruits started washing up on the ford.  I've always been intrigued by the brain-like fruit, but as far as I know they're not good for anything so I let them wash on by.

But then I saw a blog post by Julie A Carda, reminding me that osage-oranges are also called hedge-apples.  As you'll read in this week's lunchtime series, I have a new bee in my bonnet about hedges, so I immediately set out for the floodplain in search of osage-orange fruits.

Floods had washed the ford bare, but a quick wade downstream through frigid water turned up one osage-orange fruit rotting on a sandbar.  I scooped it up and headed home with my prize.

According to, it's quite easy to turn your osage-orange fruit into a hedge.  Just let the fruits sit in a damp place all winter (my fruit is already well into this stage), mash up the goo in early spring, and spread it into a shallow trench.  The seeds will sprout thickly and turn into a hedge.  Just what I need!  Too bad I was only able to find one fruit.

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Posted Mon Nov 30 07:24:56 2009 Tags:

Comfrey at the base of a nectarineAlthough Edible Forest Gardens inspired me to think about gardening in a different way, I have to say that I am disappointed by the book's suburban focus.  If we're really mimicking a forest ecosystem,  shouldn't we move to a farm where animals would be present?

Some day, we'd like to be more meat independent, expanding past chickens and deer to sheep, goats, and pigs.  The problem is that livestock require well developed pastures, and I can't wrap my head around chopping down a lot of trees to create them.  Is it possible to combine the idea of forest gardening with the needs of animals to create a pasture that is more than a solid expanse of grass?

Speaking of animals in permaculture, check out our chicken waterer invention.

This post is part of our Forest Pasturing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Nov 30 12:00:24 2009 Tags:

label close up number 1

We are thrilled with how the new labels turned out for the automatic chicken waterer.
Anna did a great job on the drawing.
It's good to know someone who knows someone in the label business. Thanks, Jayne.

Posted Mon Nov 30 16:01:53 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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