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

archives for 12/2009

Dec 2009
Wet washtub

Mark and the farm are training me to be more flexible, to resist my urge to set up trips weeks in advance.  Monday, I took a look at the weather forecast and saw chilly rain all week with nights above freezing.  Cold rain is the absolute worst weather for working outside, and with the warmish nights from the cloud cover we won't have to worry about our chickens' waterers freezing.  Time to head up to Ohio to visit with Marks' family!

I have to admit that my new-found flexibility was due in part to not wanting to do our laundry outside in the rain.  I'm usually pretty hardcore, but now and then I wimp out and look forward to using a real, live washing machine.  Warm water, here we come!

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Posted Tue Dec 1 07:00:19 2009 Tags:

Silvoforestry --- cows and pinesThe USDA National Agroforestry Center is experimenting with ways to combine trees and pastures.  Livestock (primarily cows) are grazed between widely spaced pine trees that are grown for timber.  The cows don't eat the trees, but they do benefit from the shade and wind shelter.  If I was a large scale farmer rather than a homesteader, I would find this idea enticing, but I'm really looking for a system in which the plants and animals are more intertwined.

While looking into the history of forest gardening, I stumbled upon Forest Farming, by J. Sholto Douglas and Robert A. de J. Hart.  The book isn't a riveting work of art and it spans too many climate zones to be a useful how to book, but I was inspired by the presence of livestock in the forest farm systems.  Douglas and Hart suggest planting pastures of trees that drop edible fruits and nuts to feed the livestock.  The multi-layered nature of the forest allows for higher productivity than a single layer pasture can produce, and the livestock add fertility back to the system with their manure.

Check out our Avian Aqua Miser website this week for innovative bucket chicken waterer designs.

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

Posted Tue Dec 1 12:00:22 2009 Tags:

foam rubber padI learned a while back that a good set of knee pads can make a big difference at the end of a day when you need to be close to the ground. What I never got used to was how they tended to cut off the circulation. My new favorite knee protector is this red foam rubber pad. It provides a bit more wiggle room and doubles as a place to sit when you need to take a break.

Posted Tue Dec 1 21:02:22 2009 Tags:

Grilled venison steaksA couple of weeks after my big kill, we've had time to try out a few venison recipes.  I've learned a lot, and find myself enamored of the taste, which seems closer to high quality beef than anything else.

Our first and best experiment was grilling the tenderloin (on either side of the backbone) and upper ham (the top of the "thigh" of the back legs).  We let the meat marinate in oil first since venison tends to be very lean, then rubbed it with some salt and pepper before tossing it on the grill.  That was so delicious, we all ended up in rapture.  Hard to beat.

For my second attempt, I wanted to try some of the stew quality meat --- the front legs, the lower parts of the ham, and other random spots around the deer.  I tried roasting the venison up with some root vegetables, but I was disappointed --- the taste was good, but I hadn't taken out all of the white stuff (tendons?) that is so ubiquitous in the lower quality cuts of the deer.  The white stuff cooks up to be very chewy and hard to eat.  I considered this a failure, though Mark gamely munched his way through and proclaimed it a success.

My third attempt went much better.  Again, I used some of the stew quality meat, but this time I threw it in the food processor first to be chopped to little bits.  The white stuff stayed unchopped and was easy to pull out, then I mixed up potsticker filling with the remaining meat.  Those were some of the best potstickers we've ever eaten!  More rapture.

For my next experiment with the stew meat, I want to try to make Italian sausage.  Stay tuned....

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Posted Wed Dec 2 07:00:26 2009 Tags:

Pigs on pastureAlthough pigs haven't really been the focus of our livestock fantasies in the past, everything I read about forest farming pushes me toward swine.  Unlike goats and sheep, pigs aren't woody plant eaters.  In fact, once a tree exceeds two feet in height, they tend to leave it alone.  Although they are prone to root up the soil, if pigs are rotated through several small pastures, they do minimal damage.

Mulberries were the biggest factor that pointed me toward pigs.  In Tree Crops, J. Russell Smith notes that an everbearing mulberry tree can provide all of the food a pig needs for three solid months (from July through September.)  I would add in a chestnut tree and a persimmon tree (to bear in the fall) and a honey locust tree (to bear in the early winter), then count on my pigs getting a lot of their nutrition from fresh green undergrowth in spring and early summer.  It sounds like I might be able to devise a system where I wouldn't need to feed my pigs supplemental grain except in late winter.

Traditionally, farmers around here used to turn their pigs loose in the woods in the fall to fatten on fallen acorns, so oaks would be an obvious addition to the pig forest pasture.  However, I don't think we'll include oaks in our plans since they tend to fruit heavily only once every few years, which leaves gaps in our production cycle.

Check out our hanging chicken waterer, great in tractors!

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

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

home made chicken tractor arkIn the 4th generation of our home made chicken tractors I decided to add a day time roost in addition to the night time area. I don't have any proof, but I think it's good for the morale of the flock to have multiple areas where a hen can be to herself and get some personal space.

Posted Wed Dec 2 18:20:25 2009 Tags:

DaffodilTime for another daffodil giveaway!  I said it best last year:

Daffodils are a fact of life here at Wetknee Farm, one of the few remants of the previous owner who left decades before we arrived.  When we first came to the farm, we discovered that daffodils had spread out from the old homeplace to cover nearly an acre of good garden ground.  I gave away hundreds, sold hundreds, and ended up transplanted another thousand or so out of the way. 
Now the garden is once again encroaching on my daffodil patch --- time for a daffodil giveaway

I don't know quite how many daffodil bulbs we'll be giving away.  We've got a couple of hundred at the moment, but we're also giving them away with our Avian Aqua Miser orders.  So, whatever's left come January 1 will go to our lucky winner.

To enter the giveaway, just leave a comment on any post by December 31.  I'll throw your name in the hat (multiple times if you make multiple comments) then will contact the winner through the blog.  (Be sure to check back on January 1 to see if you won!)  That way you have an incentive to leave us lots of comments.  I look forward to hearing from you!

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Posted Thu Dec 3 07:00:27 2009 Tags:

PollardingSheep and goats are a bit more difficult to grow in a forest pasture situation since they like to eat twigs and thin-barked trees.  There is also less data available for good ways to combine these livestock with trees, but I've got a couple of thoughts.

First, I suspect that sheep and goats would work very well in the power line cut if I planted it with trees that don't mind being coppiced (willows, alders, hazels, and elders.)  By rotating the sheep and goats through small pastures, we could give the shrubs time to grow back rather than being decimated by gnawing teeth.

We might also get away with grazing sheep along with pigs amid large, widely spaced trees.  Unlike goats, sheep can live entirely on pasture and they might eat up the woodier plants on the forest floor that pigs would ignore.

Avian Aqua Misers make great Christmas gifts and are currently 10% off.

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

Posted Thu Dec 3 12:00:21 2009 Tags:

best work glove review updateThe palomino grain cow hide work gloves are still my preferred glove for handling heavy jobs. I estimate that the work load here at Wetknee seems to chew through them somewhere between 9 and 12 months, which is a good value when you consider the wear and tear you're saving on each hand.

Posted Thu Dec 3 17:01:55 2009 Tags:

Potato onion shootsI keep getting questions from folks wanting to know the difference between Egyptian onions, potato onions, shallots, and multiplier onions.  All are perennial onions that reproduce by bulbs, and it's easy to confuse them.

Egyptian onions
(also known as walking onions) are easy to distinguish because they reproduce by little bulbs at the top of leaf stalks.  They don't make big bulbs, so are best eaten as green onions or scallions.

"Multiplier onion" is a term used to refer to any onion that reproduces by dividing its underground bulbs (just like garlic does.)  Multiplier onions can be separated into two categories --- shallots (which form bulbs up to 1.5 inches in diameter) and potato onions (which form bulbs up to 3 inches in diameter.)

We're growing potato onions for the first time this fall, and I have to say that I've already decided I love them.  I carefully planted them in raised beds a month ago and mulched them heavily with leaves.  Then, just as everything else in the garden and woods was turning brown and dying, the potato onions shot up fresh, green sprouts.  Hooray for perennial onions!

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Posted Fri Dec 4 07:00:31 2009 Tags:

Blackthorn in a Welsh hedgerowAll this talk of rotational grazing makes Mark cringe because he knows it means lots of fences.  Is there a way to delete the fences and instead add in more multi-purpose trees?

When I was in Great Britain, I loved their tradition of using hedgerows to separate fields.  The hedgerows consisted of closely planted trees and shrubs, many of which produced fruits or nuts that could feed livestock (or humans.)

Since our livestock dreams are a few years in the future, we have time to plant some hedges now in preparation.  So far, the most interesting edible hedge species I've read about include crab apples, wild plums, Nanking cherry, trifoliate orange, blackberry, elder, hazel, and rose.  The goal is to plant them close enough together that they create an impenetrable thicket and keep animals from breaking through, but not so thickly that they drown each other out.  I've got a lot more reading to do on hedges, though, before I put anything in the ground!

Check out Mark's automatic chicken waterer invention.

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

Posted Fri Dec 4 12:00:19 2009 Tags:

 ohio landscape backyard view

These are a few pictures from our peaceful trip up north where winter feels just a couple of weeks stronger.

Posted Fri Dec 4 17:43:53 2009 Tags:

Honey locust podsWe had a very fruitful visit to Ohio, both literally and figuratively.  I had my eyes peeled for useful seeds and was thrilled to stumble upon a patch of honey locust and osage-orange growing together in a floodplain.  It was easy to gather up two big bags of osage-orange fruits to turn into a hedge, but I had to do some serious foraging to find un-gnawed honey locust pods.  I take this as a very good sign --- if the wild animals are so fond of honey locust seeds, hopefully our idea of feeding honey locusts to pigs will pan out.

The persimmon seeds were even easier to find.  A medium-sized tree near Mark's mom's house is always loaded when we go up for our winter visit, and this time was no exception.  I also pruned her grapes and came away with a big handful of cuttings to turn into new grapevines, assuming the scion wood lasts the winter in the root cellar. 

And, of course, the human part of the visit was great too. :-)

Now's a great time to start your own business --- learn how with our ebook.
Posted Sat Dec 5 08:09:29 2009 Tags:

refrigerator root cellar update with snowWe had a slight problem with one of the retaining walls for the refrigerator root cellar. It seems like a sturdy metal bracket will be needed to secure the wall to the side of the refrigerator.

You might notice a faint circle of melted snow around the chimney output. This was more noticeable a couple of hours ago, which is a nice way to illustrate how warm the air must be that's coming out.

Root cellar ebook
Posted Sat Dec 5 14:36:49 2009 Tags:

Persimmon in the snow
It's awfully nice to visit friends and family, but when you live in the middle of nowhere without a tv or neighbors, being in the outside world is a lot like going to Disneyland --- overwhelming.  Once we cross our moat and come home, it takes two warm cats, a heavy snow, and a pot of soup boiling on the stove to return to farm mentality.

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Posted Sun Dec 6 09:49:02 2009 Tags:

killer tomato on a truckYes...tomatoes are now considered carnivorous predators who kill insects in order to "self fertilize". Botanists have recently discovered for the first time how the stem of tomatoes has sticky hairs that can capture and kill small insects and then absorb the yummy nutrients when the bugs fall to the ground and decay.

Some people think this trait developed in the wild in an effort to boost the nutrient levels in poor soil areas, but most domestic varieties have the same ability.

Posted Sun Dec 6 16:15:16 2009 Tags:

Swale full of waterThe farm got an inch of rain while we were away --- perfect conditions to test out our new swales.  So far, I'm quite impressed by how they're working.  The ditches (swales) have filled up with water, but the surrounding ground seems firmer and less waterlogged than usual.

Unfortunately, I don't think the swales are quite big enough since the soil downhill still has some standing water.  Next time I'm working in that area, I'll decide whether to deepen the swales, add a berm, or just add more swales.

Celebrating our first twenty ebooks sold over on our small business ebook site.

Posted Mon Dec 7 08:23:41 2009 Tags:

Chinese carrying polesIf you enjoyed my series on traditional Central American farming practices, you'll love Farmers of Forty Centuries by F.H. King.  Precisely 100 years ago, the American author visited the eastern sections of China (along with Korea and Japan).  He documented his journey with anecdotes, photos, and vivid prose like the following description of a Cantonese house boat:

Sometimes husband and wife and many times the whole family were seen together when the craft was both home and business boat as well.  Little children were gazing from most unexpected peek holes, or they toddled tethered from a waist belt at the end of as much rope as would arrest them above water, should they go overboard.  And the cat was similarly tied.  Through an overhanging latticed stern, too, hens craned their necks, longing for scenes they could not reach.

I'm excerpting the portions of the book which appeal to my organic gardening and permaculture leanings, but I highly recommend that you read the whole thing as an ultra-cheap Asian vacation.  Although Farmers of Forty Centuries is currently back in print, you can still read the full text (minus the photos) for free on Project Gutenberg.

Check out our homemade chicken waterers.

This post is part of our Traditional Asian Farming lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Dec 7 12:00:20 2009 Tags:

fatal error foot bridgeThe foot bridge suffered a fatal error recently when the weaker walnut support cracked and sagged, making it unsafe for anyone to use.

We've decided to not rebuild it and instead upgrade the stepping stone crossing and install a zip line for when the water would be over the new steps.

Posted Mon Dec 7 18:24:24 2009 Tags:
Powerline cut in the snow

Diagram of the powerline cut pastureOur top choice for a pasture is the powerline cut area down in the floodplain.  The electric company chopped a big swathe through the woods, and we can't let trees grow there, so we might as well put it to use.

This weekend, I did some measuring and discovered that the open area along the powerline is approximately one sixth of an acre.  It used to be farmed, long before we bought the land, so two ditches bisect its width (and so does our driveway.)  At the moment, I'm thinking of using osage-orange hedges to split the powerline cut into four paddocks along these obvious dividing lines.

If we ever feel ready to have dairy animals, I've recently been thinking our best bet would be miniature goats.  They're short, so fences don't have to be quite so intense, and they use less pasture per animal so we might be able to fit in two does and a buck.  With four tiny paddocks, we'd be able to keep the buck separate and still have room to rotate all the animals frequently to prevent overgrazing and parasites.  Of course, this is still very much in the dreaming stages --- I expect our hedges to take anywhere from a year to five years to be beefy enough to deter critters, and we still need to find someone willing to milk when we're away from home!

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Posted Tue Dec 8 08:10:20 2009 Tags:

Chinese farmlandIn the early twentieth century when Farmers of Forty Centuries was written, Asia was immensely overcrowded compared to the United States.  Chinese farmers only had about two acres of agricultural land to feed each person, compared to twenty acres per person in the U.S.  In addition, many parts of China had been farmed constantly for four thousand years --- clearly, Chinese farmers weren't subscribing to American tactics of using the land hard then moving on.

Although many of the traditional farming practices outlined in Farmers of Forty Centuries have probably been replaced by mechanization and chemical fertilizers in the last century, I think we still have a lot to learn from the book.  Urban homesteaders will be enthralled by traditions that allow a person to be fed on as little as a sixth of an acre of prime farmland.  And those of us watching the U.S. population explode will be equally interested since we currently have only about three acres of farmland to feed each American.

So how did Chinese farmers feed themselves on such small farms?  Read on.

While you're waiting for tomorrow's installment, drop by our homemade chicken waterer site.

This post is part of our Traditional Asian Farming lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Dec 8 12:00:31 2009 Tags:
Mark, if you had to pick a single tool to take with you to another farm like the one you have, what would you choose?

--- Errol, South Carolina

cutting down a tree diagramThanks for the question.

It didn't take me long to come up with an answer to this one. The Stihl chainsaw would be my choice. You can get an attachment these days that can turn any chainsaw into a heavy duty hedge trimmer, which would be handy for clearing a new place. Firewood production would be my main motivation.

If you've got the time and talent a good chainsaw can also be used to make some impressive wood sculptures.

Posted Tue Dec 8 16:15:52 2009 Tags:

Honey locust seedsMost vegetable and annual flower seeds are pretty easy to grow --- just throw them in the ground at something close to the right depth at the right time of year and they sprout just fine.  When you start trying to plant tree, shrub, and perennial herb seeds, though, propagation techniques often get a bit more tricky.  I always stumble when I'm told to scarify or stratify seeds, but both techniques are actually quite easy, as I discovered when I started looking up information about growing honey locusts and persimmons from seed.

Persimmon seeds need to be stratified before they will germinate.  People try to make stratification more difficult than it actually is, telling you to put the seeds in a pot of dirt or in a ziploc bag with a wet paper towel and leave them in the fridge for a certain length of time.  In practice, I've discovered that native plants have evolved to stratify quite nicely in the garden.  Just plant the seeds in the fall and they'll be exposed to plenty of cool temperatures and will germinate as usual in the spring.  I tried this with persimmons a few years ago with good success and am trying again this year.

Scarified honey locust seedHoney locust seeds, on the other hand, need scarification to germinate.  The problem is that many seeds evolved to be eaten by animals and to pass through the gut relatively unharmed.  Seeds need thick coatings to survive the stomach acids, but these thick coatings are often impenetrable to water, meaning that your seed won't sprout unless it's scarified.  The natural way to scarify seeds is to pass them through some animal's stomach and let the acids break partway through the seed coating.  Barring a handy animal, people will drop the seeds in a vat of acid or hot water, or will manually damage the seed coat (hopefully without damaging the seed inside.)  I tried to file my honey locust seeds with no luck, and instead ended up snipping through the edge of the seed coat with fingernail scissors.  This is my first attempt at scarification, so I'm very curious to see whether it works!

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Posted Wed Dec 9 07:57:32 2009 Tags:

Transplanting rice in ChinaTraditional Chinese agriculture made extremely efficient use of space and time.  One trick they used was to apply heavy inputs of organic fertilizer, allowing crop plants to be spaced very close together.  (More on the fertilizers tomorrow.)

Farmers also used several techniques to tease two to four crops out of their farm each year.  They started most plants in seed beds so that space in the main part of the farm was left open for an early season crop.  A typical rotation might include early season beans, followed by a grain (such as the rice shown here).  During the final month of a grain's growth period, a third crop (like cotton) was often interplanted so that the cotton could get a few weeks' head start on the fall season.  Those of us who are lax about our fall gardens should take heed!

As we all know, animals require about five times as much land per calorie as vegetables do, so it should come as no surprise that the traditional Chinese diet is very low on meat.  King noted that the primary meat animal was pigs, which he explains convert plant matter to meat at the most efficient rate.

And how about tree crops?  The best example of space-saving orcharding in the book was the technique Japanese farmers used to raise pear trees.  The branches were trained to grow horizontally along an arbor just high enough off the ground that farmers could walk underneath and easily pick the fruit.  Trees were spaced just twelve feet apart, and the dense foliage shaded out most undergrowth.  The technique sounds a lot like espaliered fruit trees to me.

Shameless plug for Mark's homemade chicken waterer here....

This post is part of our Traditional Asian Farming lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Dec 9 12:00:04 2009 Tags:

refrigerator root cellar wash outThe refrigerator root cellar suffered a set back last night during a heavy down pour.

It should only take a few hours to dig back out, and the new plan is to add a small roof like the one on our home made firewood shed to prevent this from happening again.

Root cellar ebook
Posted Wed Dec 9 16:56:42 2009 Tags:

Two and a half inches of rain following a week of frozen ground means flood!

I'm working on my video skills, so hopefully this one will be more entertaining than my previous flood video.

If you hate videos (Mom), here's a photo of a snail I caught climbing a wingstem stalk to escape from the rising waters.  Also, feel free to check out our newest feature --- a link to the week's top three most visited articles at the bottom of the sidebar.  If you go read all three, it's almost like being popular!

Snail fleeing the flood
Sure is fun to be flooded in when you work from home.  Check out our ebook to learn how.
Posted Thu Dec 10 08:42:01 2009 Tags:

Roadside outhouse in China to tempt travelers to deposit their manure.I have to admit that my primary goal in reading Farmers of Forty Centuries was to discover whether farmers really put outhouses along public roads, hoping to trap travelers into depositing their wastes therein.  The book gave me a resounding yes, and noted that contractors also paid for the privilege of removing human waste from cities so that they could sell the precious substance to farmers.  Humanure was often diluted with water and applied directly to fields or dried and then applied in a powder form.

Of course, it took a lot more than humanure to maintain the fertility of fields for thousands of years.  King saw farmers building huge compost piles, planting nitrogen fixing plants (especially clovers) as a green manure, and cutting plants from the hillside and grave mounds to apply to the soil or to add to their compost piles.  Just like in Central America, Gathering green matter in Chinahigh fertility silt was excavated from canals and applied to fields, and King noted that the snails in the canal mud were also important in the fertilizing campaign.  Farmers scavenged animal wastes from the roadsides and carefully husbanded any wastes from their own livestock, and they also drained fish ponds at intervals so that they could scoop up the high quality mud on the pond floor.  The addition of ashes from their cooking fires and all plant residues from their fields rounded out their organic matter.

Visit our homemade chicken waterer site.

This post is part of our Traditional Asian Farming lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Dec 10 12:00:11 2009 Tags:

 golf cart lug nut fix pic

What happens when you don't tighten down the lug nuts on your golf cart and drive for several weeks as they slowly loosen? The lug nut threads get worn, creating a problem that requires a replacement.

A trip to the local hardware store proved the special nuts were not a common item, but a regular one was that had the same thread ratio, and to compensate for the lack of shoulder I just added a beefy washer. We've been driving it this way for a couple of months now with no problem.

Posted Thu Dec 10 17:23:36 2009 Tags:

Bags of clothes to give awayI've always been fond of Boxing Day...even though few people have actually heard of it in the U.S.  In the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the day after Christmas was traditionally a time for people who could afford it to give a box of gifts to their poorer neighbors.  Granted, Boxing Day is now more akin to our Black Friday, but I like the original holiday I read about in British children's books during my formative years.

Until I moved to the farm, I was a bit of a vagrant, moving every year.  The yearly move gave me a great opportunity to go through all of my possessions and cull out items that I really didn't feel like carrying up and down several flights of stairs, donating them to Goodwill.  Now that we've been living on the farm for over three years, lack of a yearly move has led to far too much clutter.

This week, Mark and I started on our own version of Boxing Day.  We each went through our clothes with a fine-tooth comb, culling about half of them to be given away.  The result is immediate gratification --- space!  Next on my "Boxing Day" agenda will be culling my books, the only other items that seem to build up in my living space.

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Posted Fri Dec 11 08:49:18 2009 Tags:

Chinese traditional agricultureIn addition to lacking space, China has a serious shortage of wood.  Even a hundred years ago, King noted that trees were scarce and small, and even those trees were heavily utilized by cutting the lower limbs for firewood.

As a result of the wood shortage, most buildings were traditionally made out of straw and clay.  Although the straw and clay tended to need frequent replenishing, the old building materials were perfect for throwing in the compost pit. 

Farmers were also very good at utilizing other types of plants for fuel.  Woody vegetable stems (especially rice straw) were frequently burned.  Although I approve of making full use of the resources at hand, King's description of the cooking fire requiring one person to constantly feed it small bits of straw sounds like a bit too much work.

Otherwise, King made the Chinese traditional agriculture system look so rosy that I find it hard to remember that, a century later, farming looks a lot different.  If you're interested in what's happened in the last hundred years, you should check out the overview on Wikipedia.

Check out our homemade chicken waterer invention.

This post is part of our Traditional Asian Farming lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Dec 11 12:00:10 2009 Tags:

automatic chicken waterer frozen protocolA simple system that works well for our automatic chicken waterers is to have at least 2 available for each group, that way if you forget and leave one out overnight when it freezes you'll have the back up to set out while the frozen one takes the day off by warming back up.

Posted Fri Dec 11 16:40:35 2009 Tags:

Looking down into our wellAlthough people used to live on our farm during the Depression, the farm's only drinking water supply is a shallow, hand dug well that tested positive for coliform bacteria.  Granted, many people drink from shallow wells and springs just like this around here.  You build up a tolerance and tend to do just fine, but if you give water to unsuspecting visitors, they get sick.

To avoid this problem, we spent our first year or two lugging drinking water back to the farm.  My mom would rinse out empty milk jugs and save them for me, then we'd fill them up at her house when we went to visit.  Other times, we'd fill up our milk jugs at various other friends' houses closer to the farm.  Sometimes, we were able to haul the jugs of water back to the trailer in our four wheel drive truck, but a lot of the time the truck wasn't working and we'd just carry them in --- it's not too hard to haul a jug of water in each hand while walking Lucy in the morning.

Water feels more precious when the supply is limited.  We cooked and drank the special water, going through about a gallon a day between us.  For everything else, we used creek water, treated with some bleach when we did dishes, but plain for other tasks.

Drinking water treatment systemThen we splurged on our water filtration system and were blessed with unlimited, safe drinking water.  I felt like we'd moved from a third world country to a second world country!

The only flaw is that we still haven't quite gotten our water line all the way buried since my wrists can't take much heavy digging and I tend to set Mark on tasks that seem more important.  So this week we fell halfway back to our third world country.  I dragged all of the old milk jugs out of the barn, rinsed them out, and filled them up with our treated water.  By Friday, the freeze set in and we started dipping into stored water.

It's funny to read on other peoples' blogs about disaster preparedness --- people filling up empty milk jugs just in case the world comes to an end or a heavy storm knocks out their power for days on end.  It doesn't really feel like a disaster to be pumping our drinking water during thaws and drinking out of jugs during cold snaps.  I guess it's all a matter of perspective....

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Posted Sat Dec 12 08:48:28 2009 Tags:

 Club Car golf cart frozen rut challenge 2009

These past few days have been a real test for the new mud traction golf cart tires. I thought the frozen ruts might create too much of a challenge, but the ice isn't quite frozen through all the way and seems to break easily with a dramatic crashing sound that sends my imagination racing to an Arctic exploration story I once read.

Posted Sat Dec 12 17:07:51 2009 Tags:
Is that a lemon tree in the background? I've been babying a Meyer lemon for 10 years now. No flowering, no fruit, just a beautiful tree that gets bigger and frustrates me more and more each year.
--- Fostermamas

Lemon meringue pieWe love our dwarf Meyer lemon.  We got it as a tiny tree two years ago and ate our first four lemons last February.  We just got three more lemons that turned into the most delicious lemon meringue pie, and the tree still has four half-grown lemons and an explosion of flowers on its branches.

We've now met four other people who have dwarf Meyer lemons, and the reports are varied.  Our neighbor has a several year old tree that had 91 lemons on it last year:

Dwarf Meyer lemon with 91 fruits

On the other hand, my father's lemon tree is a year old with no sign of blooms or fruits.  Another friend's lemon tree looks even more puny.  What's going on?

I'm far from an expert on dwarf Meyer lemons, but I'm starting to think that the trees require heavy feeding and big pots.  Our lemon tree is in a five gallon pot that I filled with stump dirt, topped off later with worm castings, and now fertilize regularly with compost tea from the worm bin.  My neighbor's amazing lemon tree is in an even bigger pot and he feeds it Miracle Grow.  On the other hand, the less happy trees I've seen have all been in smaller pots.  Remember, creating lemons takes a lot of energy, so your tree needs plenty of nitrogen.

My advice, for what it's worth --- transplant your lemon into a big pot and feed it, feed it, feed it!  Under the right conditions, dwarf Meyer lemons are a great source of citrus for those in cold climates who want to grow their own as a houseplant.

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Posted Sun Dec 13 08:27:38 2009 Tags:

 home made golf cart dump box

I think this is the design I've settled on for increasing the load capacity of the golf cart. You can order the shiny new metal version for about 350 dollars, or maybe a sheet of plywood with a few 2x6's could become a nice low budget home made dump box for your golf cart. Soon this project will move from my imagination to the Wetknee drawing board once the storage building project gets wrapped up.

Posted Sun Dec 13 14:25:59 2009 Tags:

Meyer lemonMy post yesterday about care of your Meyer lemon tree got long, so I didn't have room to fit in what I've learned about cooking with the fruits.  Since Meyer lemons are actually a hybrid between a true lemon and an orange, their flesh is a bit sweeter than the lemons you'd buy in the store --- just sweet enough that sour-lovers like me can eat them raw.  When cooking with Meyer lemons, I tend to lower the amount of sugar in the recipe a bit so that we're not overwhelmed with sweetness.

I've also noticed that the zest (grated rind) isn't as tangy as that on a true lemon.  Here I tend to cheat and throw in a bit of extra zest from a storebought lemon.  On the other hand, Martha Stewart will tell you that the white part of a Meyer lemon isn't bitter, so you can just cut up the whole lemon and put it in various dishes --- I'll have to give that a try!

If you want to learn more about the Meyer lemon, I recommend this NPR article.  Did you know they've been grown as container plants in China for over a century?

Don't miss our sister blog about starting your own business.
Posted Mon Dec 14 08:31:27 2009 Tags:

Teaming with MicrobesI was sucked into Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis this weekend.  Teaming with Microbes took the information from my Living Soil lunchtime series and turned it into what felt like a fast-paced action novel, complete with stunning photos of the characters.

As you probably remember, a healthy soil food web equates to a healthy organic garden.  If you have the right critters in your soil, you'll have better nutrient retention, better soil structure, and better defense against diseases.

But Lowenfels and Lewis took the story one step further, explaining that not every soil food web is created equally.  Nor will one type of food web make all plants happy.  The key is to come up with the right fungi to bacteria ratio for each garden.

Looking for a gift for the homesteader on your list?  Our automatic chicken waterers keep water poop-free!

This post is part of our Teaming With Microbes lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Dec 14 12:00:10 2009 Tags:
mark Monday mud

 2009 mud festival

           I'll take warm and muddy over cold and frozen any day.

Posted Mon Dec 14 16:49:31 2009 Tags:
Mark Twain: “Buy land. They’ve stopped making it.”
Seasteaders: “Production Resuming.”

SeasteadingDo you want to go back to the land without being under the sway of the federal government?  If so, the Seasteading Institute suggests you should instead go back to the water.  They envision intentional homesteading colonies constructed on floating platforms in international waters.  Out there on the sea frontier, you can do whatever you want since no nations' laws apply.

The nonprofit is founded by libertarians, and they bill seasteading as a method of testing out new political systems.  I can also see the appeal of building your own nation from an entirely nonpolitical point of view --- homesteaders everywhere wrestle with restrictive building codes that don't allow them to build strawbale houses or composting toilets.  Wouldn't it be nice to be able to choose environmentally sustainable options without jumping through months of hoops?

Mark's response was, "One word: pirates."  (Though the Seasteading Institute thinks that pirates wouldn't be a big deal.)  And, granted, I'm far too attached to my hills to leave the land for the sea.  Still, I thought you all might be interested.  After all, the first colony is planned to go live in 2015.

Meanwhile, check out our ebook about starting your own microbusiness.
Posted Tue Dec 15 08:13:23 2009 Tags:

Fungi to bacteria ratioWhat is a fungi to bacteria ratio?  The fungi to bacteria ratio is simply the mass of fungi in the soil compared to the mass of bacteria in the soil.  In most cases, all you really need to know is whether the soil is dominated by fungi, dominated by bacteria, or has an even proportion of both.

In nature, disturbed soils like those after a mudslide or in your recently tilled garden have a strong bacterial dominance.  As the soil is left alone for a while, fungi start to move in until habitats like prairies or your lawn have a relatively even proportion of fungi and bacteria in residence.  Later, as shrubs and trees take over, the fungi in the soil build up even more so that forest soils are strongly fungi dominated.

Scientists have started to look at the fungi to bacteria ratio preferred by garden plants as well.  They discovered that carrots, lettuce, and crucifers enjoy strongly bacteria dominated soils while tomatoes, corn, and wheat like soils that are closer to evenly matched (though still leaning a bit toward bacteria.)  On the other hand, most perennials, shrubs, and trees like the soil to be full of fungi at ratios from 10:1 to 50:1.

Clearly, folks like me who have been treating our trees just like our lettuce beds need to stop!

Automatic chicken waterers are on sale this month for 10% off.

This post is part of our Teaming With Microbes lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Dec 15 12:00:10 2009 Tags:

 Entrance Reduction-The Movie

Anna installed these entrance reducers in all three hives today. Without this you run the risk of a mouse making its way into your hive and making a sweet feast of all that delicious honey.

Posted Tue Dec 15 16:30:09 2009 Tags:

I took advantage of temperatures above 50 to check on our hives Tuesday.  We've been feeding sugar water pretty much continuously for the last six weeks, stopping only when winter set in and started freezing our feeders.  My hive check showed that the girls have been dehydrating the sugar water and packing it away very nicely --- we're now up to 46, 64, and 69 pounds of honey in our three hives, which should carry them all through the winter.  I'm a little concerned at the apparent lack of pollen in the hives, but hopefully our early blooming hazels will provide pollen just as brood-rearing begins in the spring.

Dead honeybees

Outside the hive, dozens of dead bees litter the ground.  Although it looks like a massacre took place, this is perfectly normal.  Every hive cuts down its numbers in early winter, first kicking out the drones then letting the older worker bees die as well.  I guess that's one way to control your population so you don't run out of food!

Check out our ebook about inventing your way out of the rat race.
Posted Wed Dec 16 09:02:56 2009 Tags:

Soil nitrogen cycleWhy do some plants like fungi around their roots while others like bacteria?  The answer takes us into the realm of chemistry...hang in there.

Most soil bacteria secrete a slime that holds them to soil particles so that the tiny microorganisms don't wash away.  This slime tends to be alkaline, so as bacteria build up, the soil pH rises above 7.

Meanwhile, the type of nitrogen in the soil changes.  Decomposers in the soil excrete ammonium as a waste product, but when there are lots of bacteria around, the bacteria convert the ammonium into nitrate.

On the other hand, soil fungi secrete acids that they use to break down organic matter, making it easier to digest.  The acids in the soil make the environment more difficult for bacteria to inhabit, so most of the nitrogen in the soil stays as ammonium rather than being converted to nitrate.

As every gardener knows, plants care about pH.  What many gardeners don't realize is that plants also care about the form of nitrogen they take up.  Vegetables, annuals, and grasses tend to prefer nitrate, while trees, shrubs, and perennials prefer ammonium.  Now we know why lettuce is going to throw a hissy fit if the soil is full of fungi.

This month is a great time to stock up on homemade chicken waterer kits.  A fun project for a snowy night!

This post is part of our Teaming With Microbes lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Dec 16 12:00:02 2009 Tags:

sunset hensThis chicken tractor is slated for upgrade in early 2010. I got a bit carried away with the construction and ended up making it too heavy, which creates a problem when dragging it to a new location.

The other problem is an issue of access. It really needs another door close to the ground. That way if they escape you can coax them back in easily with a bribe of chicken feed.

Posted Wed Dec 16 16:38:25 2009 Tags:
Anna Demolition

Drawing of the old houseThe old house at the edge of the yard has been on its way out ever since I bought the property.  It was built with no foundation and no structural elements except for thin walls, and yet it stood for three quarters of a century.  By the time I arrived on the property, it had developed a bit of a lean and the porch and one room had collapsed, but we probably could have shored it up.  Mark wasn't in the picture yet, though, and I knew nothing, so I commenced to tear it down.  Here's an animation showing me tearing down the second of the four rooms:

Tearing down an old house

Old building torn down to the roof raftersBy the time Mark stepped in and stopped me, I had torn the house down to the original two rooms, then had ripped half the walls off what remained.  What little structure the house once had was long gone, but the house stood for another year or two anyway.  Finally, it developed such a major lean that we were afraid it would fall on Lucy in the night, so we yanked it down with the hand winch, but never managed to take the time to disassemble it.

This week, I've finally put house demolition back on the to do list.  Mark's got the homemade storage building walls nearly complete, and then he'll be needing a roof.  I figure we can save about $200 by reusing the old tin, and that doesn't even take into consideration the thick rafters that are already cut to just the right length.  Finally, the old house is worth taking apart.

I have to admit my ulterior motive, though.  The old house sits on some of the richest soil in our yard, ground that I've been eying for years.  By taking the house apart, I'll have yet more garden space!

Read our ebook about starting our own business and quitting our jobs.
Posted Thu Dec 17 08:42:45 2009 Tags:

Wood chip mulchSo how do we build vegetable gardens with soil dominated by bacteria while creating fungi-dominated soil around our trees?  The first step is to start being more sophisticated about our mulch choices.

Bacteria are good at breaking down what composters like to call "greens" --- grass clippings, food scraps, and even straw (since the grain was cut while it was still growing and full of sugars.)  Bacteria also thrive on easy to digest manures.  On the other hand, fungi shine when given "browns" --- fallen leaves, wood chips, and anything else full of lignin and hard for most other organisms to digest.

The consistency and application method of the mulch matters too.  Wet, finely ground mulch supports bacteria, even if the mulch consists of fallen leaves.  On the other hand, dry mulch in big chunks will encourage fungi.  Any mulch that is worked into the soil will feed bacteria first, while mulch placed on the soil surface will feed fungi.

So an optimal mulch for a vegetable or annual flower garden would probably consist of finely chopped, wet grass clippings.  Under our trees, the best mulch would be big chunks of leaves or wood chips.

Dreaming of spring chicks?  Our homemade chicken waterer prevents drowning.

This post is part of our Teaming With Microbes lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Dec 17 12:00:10 2009 Tags:

2009's first fire


We now have the exterior wood burning stove operating in the half finished storage building. This must be what it felt like when early cave men figured out that keeping your woman warm equals keeping her happy.

Posted Thu Dec 17 15:25:07 2009 Tags:
Hauling kindling with the golf cart

Cutting up kindling with the miter saw.Since Mark now has our wood stove up and running, I figured it was high time to gather some kindling.  The windy days last week knocked down a lot of dead, dry branches out of trees in the floodplain, and it only took a few minutes to pick up a heavy hauler load.

Last winter when the chainsaw wasn't working, we discovered that the miter saw makes short work of small and medium-sized branches.  First, I broke all of the small branches over my knee, then I sawed through the larger branches.

I was a bit shocked at how small one heavy hauler load of kindling becomes once sawn to size --- the resulting pile was only about knee high.  That should be enough to start a week's worth of fires, though.  Warmth sure does make me happy!

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Posted Fri Dec 18 08:15:12 2009 Tags:
Planting a raised bed with a hen

Teaming with Microbes made it clear that we have to make some major tweaks to our mulching and fertilizing campaign.  The horse manure and grass clippings we apply to our vegetable garden beds are perfect, but next year we should shred our tree leaves much more before applying them as a winter mulch.

On the other hand, I'm starting to rethink whether I should have applied horse manure to our fruit trees.  It sounds like heavy mulches of rotting wood chips or leaves are more likely to lead to the fungi dominated soil communities these trees prefer.  At least we didn't fall into the trap of trying to grow grass under our fruit trees --- a big no-no since grass prefers bacteria while trees prefer fungi.

Check out our automatic chicken waterers, on sale now.

This post is part of our Teaming With Microbes lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Dec 18 12:00:11 2009 Tags:

solar power golf cart creditThese new peel and stick solar panels are more efficient than the fragile glass panels and cost about 300 bucks less. This new design allows for more robust applications, such as on the roof of a golf cart without the fear of your expensive panel breaking. Having the sun constantly charging your batteries prevents the sulfates from building up and extends the life of the battery bank by a minimum of 25%.

Since a golf cart is sometimes considered an electric car by the IRS you can deduct a nice 30% of your solar investment and you may even qualify for a few hundred bucks per year as a battery credit. These kits usually cost about 1600 dollars, weigh about 4 pounds and take about 15 minutes to install.

Add an inverter and it can double as an emergency back up power system for your home if you can manage to park it close enough to reach an extension cord to.

Posted Fri Dec 18 16:16:03 2009 Tags:
Joey blizzard

Anna's brother and site admin Joey filling in for my sister -- The blizzard of '09 has cut off power and snowed Anna in. With wood heat she'll be ok. I will try to get her on the phone for a farm update later.

Posted Sat Dec 19 09:34:42 2009

Crossing the creek with the chainsawOur power and phone are out, and look like they'll stay out for the near future.  Honestly, the hardest thing for me about life without the grid is an inability to blog.  We've made it to town for a quick check in so that I can upload the masses of posts I've written while off the grid --- I've set them to autopost over the next couple of days so that you'll have something to read while we're out of touch.

Don't feel rejected if your comments don't show up until I return to the internet and if I don't respond to your emails.  We're thinking of you, in between our efforts to stay warm and dry.  Meanwhile, Happy Winter Solstice!  Merry Christmas!  And, if the electric company doesn't bring us back to the mainstream by then, Happy New Year!  Many thanks also to Joey for letting you know we're alive and well.

Can't live without us?  Download our microbusiness ebook and have some fun reading while waiting for us to come back.

This post is part of our Two Weeks Without Electricity series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Dec 22 13:38:25 2009 Tags:

The farm in the snowThe trees started splintering before sunset on Friday.  Heavy snow weighed down their limbs and kept falling, heaping up four inches deep.  By dark, the wet snow took down an electric line somewhere, and suddenly the trailer powered down.  Off went the furnace fan, the computers, the fridge.  I called the phone company and was informed that power is off all over the county and that they expect it back on by Sunday at midnight.

The snow kept coming.  When we went to bed, it was already six inches deep, and all night gunshot-like cracks heralded trees crashing down.  I slept fitfully and was out at dawn to assess the damage.

During power outages, I'm constantly expecting a miracle --- the lights will flicker, the fridge will hum, and we'll be powered again.  At first light on Saturday, I discovered that wasn't going to happen anytime soon.  Our powerline was down straight up the floodplain, across the garden, and then up the powerline cut going the other way.  I called my mom to share the excitement, hung up, and then picked the phone back up.  It was dead.

I don't want to overwhelm you with the whole story at once, so stay tuned for part II soon.  Until then, feel free to check out our ebook about starting your own business and quitting your job.

This post is part of our Two Weeks Without Electricity series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Dec 22 17:00:05 2009 Tags:

Chicken tractor in the snowOur first full day without power brought us back to basics: animals, water, food, and shelter.  The animals, luckily, weren't too hard.  Huckleberry and Strider came bounding up to the trailer through snow over their heads (nearly a foot deep now, but finally slacking off) and Lucy pranced and played in the drifts.

The chicken tractors were completely covered, and one had half-collapsed under the weight of the snow.  I brushed the tops clear and saw hungry hens eager for their breakfast...once I'd shoveled out the tractor so they wouldn't get their feet wet.

Without electricity, the fan on our exterior wood furnace doesn't run, which means that most of that heat dissipates into the great outdoors.  Mark first rigged an ingenious setup using a DC fan and the golf cart's battery banks, but the plastic fan quickly melted out of whack and stopped running.  At this point, I gave up and curled myself under a sleeping bag on the sofa with Huckleberry and a book.  But Mark wasn't deterred.  He dusted off the generator, and soon we were back in business!  Lights, power, action!  Heat!  Even electricity to top off the cold level in our fridge and freezer and keep our food safe.

Luckily, we had drinking water stored up, but food was going to be difficult since we cook on an electric stove.  It took most of the next day for me to figure out how to cook in and on the wood stove, ending up with food that wasn't charred at one end and cold at the other.  But at least we had the basics we need to keep the farm rolling along.

Stay tuned for part III soon.  Meanwhile, feel free to check out our ebook about starting your own business and quitting your job.

This post is part of our Two Weeks Without Electricity series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Dec 23 02:00:15 2009 Tags:

GeneratorWe bought the Champion 3000 watt generator about a year ago for back up power. I took it out of the box, made sure it was all there, and installed the wheels and handle and pretty much forgot about it till this past Friday when our power went out.

It was a great relief to feel its gas-powered throaty engine come to life. We only have about 4 gallons of fuel on hand, so we decided to ration our generator time to a few hours in the evenings. This way we can alternate between the freezer and refrigerator, giving them each about an hour of cooling off time, charge our laptop batteries, and power the blower fans that send heat from our exterior wood burning stove to the inner sanctum of the trailer. The new stove configuration is able to keep the back room heated during the night without the fan as long as we keep it fed with fresh firewood.

We've got a bit of kerosene, and nearly a full tank of propane as back up for heating and cooking, but I don't think we'll need it if we're able to get out tomorrow and top off our generator fuel.

I was most impressed with how easy this generator started. I barely have to pull on the rope and it springs to attention.

I'm not sure when we can expect to have our electricity fixed, so I guess I'll be expecting nothing and gearing up to be ready for anything.

This post is part of our Two Weeks Without Electricity series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Dec 23 07:00:06 2009 Tags:
Snow on the neighbor's farm

By Saturday afternoon, the snow was a bit mushy on the bottom layers.  Trees began to shake themselves like wet dogs, tossing off their mantle of wet snow and turning back up to face the sky.  The cracks of falling limbs and trees slowed and finally stopped, and Sunday morning I decided it was time to explore our world.

Tree fallen under the weight of snow.I borrowed Mark's knee-high over-boots, put on damp jeans over dry fleece pants, and headed out to see what the outside world looked like.  I had to cross the downed power line, which I had skittishly steered clear of for the last day even though it was coated in snow and Lucy, Huckleberry, and a deer had all trotted across with no problems.  This time I was determined, though.  So I tucked Lucy's leash over her back and took a running leap across the white snake of wire hidden under the snow.

Nothing happened.

Lucy, of course, trotted over the wire behind me and waited for me to pick back up her leash.  We trudged down the driveway, past dozens of fallen tree limbs.  Some trees had ripped their whole root masses up out of the wet soil and toppled over, making me laugh that I'd thought a little leaf raking would do any damage to the forest compared to this catastrophe.

The cars were, luckily, branch-free, but the driveway between our parking area and the public road hadn't fared so well.  I counted seven full grown trees toppled across the driveway and when I reached the main road, I knew we would be stuck on the farm for a while.  Two trees had collapsed across the asphalt within sight and the road was unplowed.  I began to suspect that the electric company's estimate of giving us back our power by Sunday was a pipe dream.

Stay tuned for part IV.  Meanwhile, check out our microbusiness ebook.

This post is part of our Two Weeks Without Electricity series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Dec 23 12:00:08 2009 Tags:

Mark changing into wadersMonday morning, I was bound and determined to get to town, if only to let my mother know that we hadn't been wiped off the map.  Mark and I both geared up and filled our backpacks and hands with the bare essentials --- chainsaw tools, mixed gas, empty gas jugs in case we made it to town, my laptop for the same reason, two oranges in case we got stranded on the way, and the chainsaw.  We only have one pair of waders between us at the moment, so Mark had to cross the creek, change into his work boots, then toss the waders back across the cold water to let me cross.  I was very glad that he has a good throwing arm.

The driveway was just as much work to clear as we'd thought.  It took a couple of hours of hard sawing and dragging to move the pines that had fallen across the road, but the work was for naught.  We got in the car...and watched as its tires spun vainly on the icy snow.

Snow on round hay balesMy next thought was to walk to the neighbor's house a quarter of a mile down the road and beg the use of their phone.  The public road had been plowed, but was seriously icy, making me glad that our little car hadn't made it out of the driveway.  Along the way, we ran into another neighbor who gave us the bad news --- everyone in the area has no power or phone.  The electric company is hoping to restore the juice by Christmas to those on the main road, which I figure leaves us looking at New Years.  Time to hunker down for the long haul.

Stay tuned for part V soon.  Meanwhile, check out our ebook that gives the secret of not worrying that your boss is going to fire you while you're incommunicado for a week or two.

This post is part of our Two Weeks Without Electricity series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Dec 23 17:00:03 2009 Tags:
Homemade Dutch oven

When we learned that electricity was a long way off, I decided it was high time to start really cooking rather than hastily heating up leftovers and hot dogs in the wood stove.  Our exterior wood stove is singularly ill-suited for cooking, with a sleeve around the stove providing hot air to be blown indoors and also preventing the surface from reaching cooking temperatures.  The inside is generally far too hot to cook in without charring.

But I had nothing else to keep me busy, so I decided to create my own Dutch oven.  I dug up an old roasting pan out of the barn, set it up on a cinderblock, and filled it with hot coals shoveled out of the wood stove.  A pizza pan fit well on top, and a big lid enclosed the heated surface.  I had moderate luck "baking" chocolate chip cookies but great luck frying up bacon.  Maybe the latter tasted so good because of the bit of leftover chocolate melding with the bacon juices?

Melting snow into water on the wood stoveMeanwhile, I was starting to get worried about our water situation.  We still had seven jugs of drinking water, but I could easily see us running out and the dirty dishes were stacking up.  I was pleased to discover that packing a pot full to the brim and then half again as high with clean snow melted down to a nearly full pot of warm dish water in three hours on the wood stove.  I added a bit of bleach for safety and revelled in the feel of warm water on my hands as I cleaned up the dishes.

In a pinch, we probably could have gotten away with drinking the melted snow, but our generator made that unnecessary.  We've allotted ourselves an hour and a half of generator time every evening, plenty of time to turn on our drinking water pump and UV light to fill up another dozen or so milk jugs.  And time to feed my blogging bug!

This is the last installment on the Monday CD.  Stay tuned for more details soon (I hope.)  Meanwhile, check out our microbusiness ebook.

This post is part of our Two Weeks Without Electricity series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Dec 24 07:00:10 2009 Tags:
Anna Contact

Wod shed in the snowMonday night as we read by solar flashlight, the telephone rang!  I'm a confirmed phone-o-phobe, but that sound was the nicest one I'd heard in days.  I leapt up and pounced on the receiver, then enthused in my father's ear, called my Mom and sister, and even talked to my equally phone-phobic brother.

Earlier that day, I'd resorted to putting a letter to my mother in the mailbox to assure her that I was alive.  When I got her on the phone, it was clear that Mom had been worried, but she also told me how she'd often been snowed in at my childhood farm and unable to contact her own mother for a solid month.  "No news is good news," Mom said...then admitted that she'd emailed two of my neighbors to check on me.

Daddy gave me equally good words of wisdom.  "Isn't it nice to go without so that you'll really appreciate power when you have it?"  I have to admit that in the past I've wished my ancestors hadn't opened up Pandora's box of industrialization.  But living without for just three days, I can completely understand how we ended up in our current era of modern conveniences.

Tuesday morning, the phone was once again dead.  Farewell, civilization!

One of these days I'm going to get up to date, really....  For now, though, enjoy reading our backstory, then check out our microbusiness ebook.

This post is part of our Two Weeks Without Electricity series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Dec 24 12:00:05 2009 Tags:

Bringing gas cans to town to fill up for the generatorDespite the phone dying again on Monday night, Tuesday was an outstanding day.  By mid morning, the sun started to poke through the clouds that had kept the sky white for the last three days.  Solar radiation quickly started melting the snow, and it only took a bit of hoeing to work our way out of the driveway.

On the one year anniversary of our marriage, we ended up in the parking lot of the same courthouse...but this time we were poaching wireless.  Our goals for this trip to town were really quite simple --- we wanted to fill up some big jugs of gas so that we could continue to run the generator an hour a day and I wanted to upload all of my past posts (thus the poaching).  While we were out, I figured we should also stock up on some other essentials --- citrus, chocolate, and flashlights.

Back home, we thawed out the top of our wedding cake on the wood stove and ate it along with some chicken cooked in my homemade Dutch oven.  And then two miracles!  First, an electric company employee came wandering through our yard.  He was lost and needed help reaching the road, but the mere fact that he was scouting the downed power line gave us hope (even though he said it may still be a week before we get juice.)  Finally, halfway through our generator hour, I picked up the phone and heard a dial tone.  Internet at home!  Rapture!

You all have been astoundingly patient with my shut-in, run-on blogs.  Now you're up to date!  Starting tomorrow, we'll be posting in real time (and will hopefully have a video to share with you.)  Meanwhile, check out our microbusiness ebook for some Christmas reading.

This post is part of our Two Weeks Without Electricity series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Dec 24 17:00:03 2009 Tags:

Dead shrew in the snowLucy's worst trait is her tendency to dig up garden beds, diving in and sending dirt and vegetables flying in every direction.  Usually, I berate her and grumble under my breath about darn dogs, but lately I've had a change of heart.  I've been reading about how damaging mice and voles can be in the winter, girdling young fruit trees.  Granted, this guy that I found in the snow near one of Lucy's manaical digging sprees is a shrew (meaning that it eats insects and earthworms instead of plants), but I often find dead rodents left in her wake as well.  I wonder if she does more good than harm with her digging episodes?

Merry Christmas!  If you didn't get what you wanted under the tree, why not treat yourself to a poop-free automatic chicken waterer?
Posted Fri Dec 25 07:00:15 2009 Tags:
mark Snow hoe

snow hoeOur driveway snow was close to melting, and this hoe method really worked in helping to break up the icy spots where the Festiva was slipping in the ruts.

Lately when I've been using a hoe I can't help but to think of the original Hobo from where the term came from. Hoe boys were a large group of soldiers from the Civil war who came home to a devastated farm. Most of them started traveling around with their hoes trying to find a place to belong and perhaps a garden to tend to.

This is the image I've had since I heard the short explanation on a radio show, but it seems like nobody is exactly sure where the word came from if you can believe what Wikipedia says about the term.

Posted Fri Dec 25 17:00:06 2009 Tags:

Walking across the creek animationSomeday, we'd like to be off the grid by choice, so we've considered this extended (and still ongoing) power outage as a useful dry run.  It's been very helpful in giving us an idea of infrastructure we need to be adding to the farm, and reminding us which aspects of our electrified lives are really just optional.

Here are the top electricity-free items we've added to our wish list for next year.  Some are to buy, but a lot can probably be made from the parts at hand.

  • DC fan to keep the wood stove blowing hot air while the generator's off.  (Daddy suggested that we look into the fans that cool off car engines --- we might be able to get one cheap at a junkyard.)
  • Alternator setup to get juice out of the golf cart so that we can run low electricity items (like the fan and maybe a router!) for much longer periods.
  • Solar charger for the golf cart so that we can fill the golf cart batteries back up.
  • Rocket stove (which we might be able to build) and a real Dutch oven for easy cooking.
  • A second sub-zero sleeping bag so that we can both stay toasty during short-term emergencies.
  • Solar LED lighting.  You'd be amazed at what a difference it makes to have enough light to read by on long, dark, electricity-free nights.  Flashlights have served us well, but we'd really like to take some of those solar yard lights you can get so cheaply in the big box stores nowadays and turn them into indoors lighting with the solar panel outdoors for charging.  Even though our current bulbs are CFLs, I suspect that this would lower our electric bill during our on-the-grid times too.

I also need to remember to keep more library books on hand --- I'm starting to run a bit low, which is a pain since the creek has flooded as the snow starts to melt so I can't get to the library.  We would have had a much easier time with water, too, if we'd had the water line completely buried and the big tank all the way full.  Still, all told, I think we've done pretty well so far.

When Mark mailed our week's chicken waterers (made without the benefit of electricity) this week, he overheard a lady in the post office complaining about how difficult the power outage was since she couldn't do her dishes.  I feel so lucky that Mark's ingenuity has enabled us to want for very little during this power outage!

This post is part of our Two Weeks Without Electricity series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Sat Dec 26 07:00:04 2009 Tags:

 help from above

We had a visitor from the sky come out this afternoon just before dinner. It seems like this iron bird was inspecting our downed power lines, which gave us hope that we might get our power turned back on before next year.

This post is part of our Two Weeks Without Electricity series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Sat Dec 26 18:52:36 2009 Tags:
Flood in the snow
We had hoped to visit my mom for Christmas, but I awoke to rain.  The water melted the top layer of snow, and by mid afternoon the creek was over its banks.  This has really been a crazy month for floods!

Instead of going visiting, we celebrated Christmas with a full day of generator power.  It felt as sinful as living in a mansion, running a hot water heater 24/7, or buying an SUV --- a guilty pleasure.  All day long, I was able to peruse the internet, try (in vain) to get our new camcorder working, and fill up drinking water jugs in anticipation of colder weather.  The trailer got so warm from all of that fan action that I stripped down to my t-shirt and even managed to wash up for the first time in far too many days!

Over the course of the day, we discovered that the generator runs much longer on a tank of gas than I'd previously reckoned.  The tank holds four gallons and the generator runs for about twelve hours on a full tank, so electricity by generator costs about a dollar per hour.  Definitely not an every day splurge, but feasible on a special occasion.

Want to splurge?  Check out our microbusiness ebook which you can download for just $4.

This post is part of our Two Weeks Without Electricity series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Sun Dec 27 07:00:12 2009 Tags:

mud choppingThe snow is almost gone, which means mud, mud, and more mud.

My mom gave us some baby crib pieces back in the summer left over from an emergency turkey transport she was constructing which have really worked out well as a catch for my wood splitting station.

It was a real bummer to watch a nice dry piece of firewood split its way directly in the mud.

Posted Sun Dec 27 17:00:09 2009 Tags:

Agricola, the board gameMy big brother arrived on Sunday bearing gifts!  He looked just like Santa, walking up the trail with his sack of goodies over his back...except for the way his legs were bare from where he'd stripped down to his underwear to wade through the creek.

Mom and Maggie sent delicious pies and treats and Joey brought a real, live Dutch oven!!!  Then he pulled out yet another package --- Agricola, a great homesteading board game.  The board looks just like the dream farm I drew six years ago, where I allowed myself to pencil in another square of orchard or pasture or creek every time I saved up a thousand bucks for an acre.  We played Agricola twice, then heated up supper in the Dutch oven --- what a luxury!

As a certified non-Christmas-gifter, I feel a bit hypocritical enthusing about my gifts, but they sure made me happy.  Thank you, everybody, for the Christmas treats!

And thank you to everyone who has bought one of Mark's automatic chicken waterers this year!
Posted Mon Dec 28 07:00:05 2009 Tags:

The Apple GrowerOld timey apples are one of my oldest loves.  The first June apples, translucent against the sun, are far too tender to sell in the grocery store.  We used to gather them from abandoned roadside trees, then Mom turned them into the world's best applesauce and pies.

In the winter, Daddy would buy us Stayman Winesaps by the bushel.  We kept them in the basement with a bowl of sweet, tangy fruit always at hand in the house.  Since I was raised without sugared treats, that crunchy fruit was like nectar.

When I grew up and left the nest, I realized that most folks don't eat real apples.  They subsist on tasteless Red Delicious, insipidly sweet Golden Delicious, or blandly sour Granny Smith.

Which is all to say that I could see myself --- in another life --- running an organic apple orchard full of unique varieties, just like the one Michael Phillips documents in The Apple Grower.  I've critiqued his apple orchard microbusiness over on our microbusiness blog, but over here I'm going to pull out the gems that we small-time growers can learn from a master.

Check out our homemade chicken waterers and dream of spring!

This post is part of our Growing Organic Apples lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Dec 28 12:00:08 2009 Tags:

Ford Festiva stalling fix updateThe Ford Festiva stalling issue came back when the gas tank hit the 1/4 level point. Something the chainsaw repair guy said after he tuned up our Stihl recently got me to thinking. His comment was that he had to use his special carburetor bath 4 separate times to get all the gunk cleaned out. This prompted me to give the Festiva another Seafoam treatment, and it took over half the tank before the problem finally went away, but it's running like it should now and it's all thanks to Seafoam.

Posted Mon Dec 28 16:33:05 2009 Tags:

Newton's apple treeThe most vivid part of the entire book is a quote from a nineteenth century text about apples and bones.  Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, was buried with his wife beside a large apple tree.  The tree was attracted to his bones and sent a root from his skull, down his backbone to the hips, then divided in two to trace each leg.  The root bent at the knees and formed a man-like shape, in the process digesting every bit of Roger Williams' body.

From this anecdote, Michael Phillips determined that apple trees like bones.  In fact, calcium is a limiting factor in the trees' fruit production, just as it is for tomatoes.  If the proportions of calcium, magnesium, and potassium aren't just right in the soil, the apple tree may not be able to suck up enough calcium and the fruits will develop bitter pit.

Poultry bones are, in fact, one of the few waste products that shouldn't be a waste product on our farm.  I turn carcasses into rich stocks, but the stewed bones are no longer safe for Lucy to consume, so we carefully bury them out of her reach.  Given apple trees' need for calcium, we've started putting those carcass pits around our young apple trees in hope that the trees roots will find the bones and suck up the precious calcium.  Maybe someday we'll dig up the apple roots and find them curled into the shape of a bird.

More interested in living chickens?  Make your birds a homemade chicken waterer.

This post is part of our Growing Organic Apples lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Dec 29 12:00:07 2009 Tags:

Mark moving branches out of the creekAnna moving branches out of the drivewayAfter a week of hunkering down and getting by, we went back to work on Monday morning.  The first order of business was to clear the rest of the driveway of fallen limbs.  Last week, we just cut through the ones between the car and the road, but I wanted to be ready to drive the golf cart from the cars to the trailer to ferry in supplies.  So we pushed and pulled tree-sized branches out of the way to clear our path.

Later, we scooted across the creek on a log to keep our feet dry.  In the neighbor's field, we ran into two more power company employees, scouts who promised that the chainsawing guys weren't too far behind.  I'm not quite sure why it takes two separate on-foot scouting expeditions and a helicopter to assess the damage, but I'm not complaining as long as the real workers aren't too far behind!

Drop by our other website for tips on starting your own microbusiness and becoming independent.
Posted Tue Dec 29 12:49:25 2009 Tags:

  another pre fix visit

I spotted this small crew off in the distance while I was working outside on the do it yourself storage building project. It gave me a glimmer of hope that something was going to get started today, but that was not meant to be.

Maybe they're getting everything ready for an early start tomorrow?

This post is part of our Two Weeks Without Electricity series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Dec 29 17:37:39 2009 Tags:

Using a crowbar to tear down the old houseRather than getting his feet wet on Tuesday, Mark opted to tear down the old house.  I've been poking away at this project a tiny bit at a time as my wrists allowed, but Mark dove in with a vengeance.  Before I knew it, the roof was gone!

Now we've got wood to create the roof supports on our new homemade storage building.  The lumber is three quarters of a century old, but most of it is still good and hard.  The wood is probably oak or maybe even chestnut and is significantly harder than the soft two by fours we buy at the lumber yard.

The old house with the roof gone

Check out our ebook about creating a microbusiness and quitting your job.

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 Wed Dec 30 07:00:10 2009 Tags:

Apple root diagramI learned last week that the worst thing you can do to your soil biology is to grow grass under your fruit trees.  So I was surprised to read that Michael Phillips grows grasses in his orchard.  His technique, though, is nothing like the often-mowed lawns found in other orchards.

Michael uses gravel directly around the base of his trees to prevent any weed growth.  Outside this gravel circle, he mulches his young trees with rotten hay.  Once the trees have reached bearing age, though, the purchased mulch gives way to what he calls a sod mulch system.

Under these mature trees, grasses and broad-leaved weeds are allowed to grow outside the gravel ring until the petals fall from the apple flowers.  Then the groundcover plants are cut and the resulting hay is spread beneath the trees, shading out most of the plants it initially grew from.  The quickly rotting hay combines with compost to give the apple tree a quick boost of fertility, but the weeds are able to grow back through the next spring to create another year's mulch.

A 1923 study showed that this sod mulch system gave two to four times the yield compared to simply growing lawn beneath the apple trees.  On the other hand, some apple varieties responded slightly better to the surrounding soil being tilled and planted with a cover crop annually.  I like the direction I've been going in with comfrey under my fruit trees, but sod mulch would definitely be worth a shot if I was running an entire orchard and needed to mechanize the process.

Check out our automatic chicken watererers.

This post is part of our Growing Organic Apples lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Dec 30 12:00:06 2009 Tags:

sierra saw review

This hand saw might look a little on the cheap side with its plastic handle and small size...but it cuts like the Dickens.

You will be impressed at how fast this thing can cut through a tree limb.

Posted Wed Dec 30 17:00:02 2009 Tags:

QuinoaOne of the biggest chinks in our food independence is grain.  We grow sweet corn and could grow field corn though our consumption of corn meal is so low that the latter doesn't seem like a good use of space.  But we also buy masses of wheat flour and rolled oats every year, along with some rice.  Can we become less dependent on commercial supplies of grain?

I've held off on planting grains because, frankly, I'm terrified of the extensive process of cutting, threshing, winnowing, and what all.  Instead, I'm currently looking at two grains that used to be staple crops for Native Americans --- quinoa and amaranth.  It sounds like both can be easily harvested by hand and their seeds aren't covered with a hull, so they don't need extensive processing.  (Quinoa seeds are covered by a soapy substance called saponin that can be removed by washing them in cold water in a blender, changing the water five times or until it is no longer sudsy.)

Maybe I should splurge and buy some of the grain to eat first to see if we like them, but I've heard they're both delicious cooked like rice, and that amaranth can also be ground into a flour.  Both are higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates than more traditional grains, which can't hurt.

Has anyone had luck growing quinoa or amaranth?  I think we may splurge and buy some seeds this year and give them a shot!  (Can you tell I'm in the midst of garden-planning for next year?)

Want to be more independent?  Check out our ebook about becoming financially independent.
Posted Thu Dec 31 07:00:11 2009 Tags:

Apple flowerApple trees can take up to a decade to bloom and produce their first fruit, so the rest of the book presents information I can only consider theoretically.  It sure is nice to dream about white apple blossoms and growing fruits, though.

I was stunned to read that an apple flower requires an average of 68 bee visits to ensure proper pollination!  It turns out that the multiple seeds inside an apple need to be individually pollinated, and that a fruit with only one or two seeds is likely to be dropped by the tree before it is mature.  Michael Phillips borrows honeybees to put in his orchard at the critical period and sometimes even cuts his dandelion flowers down to make sure the bees concentrate on apple blossoms.  He also encourages wild flowering plants at other times of the year to build up his bumblebee and orchard bee population.

Then, after carefully getting as many of his flowers pollinated as possible (usually 1 in 8 will make fruit), he goes back to the orchard and manually thins the tiny fruits to one apple per cluster.  He also picks off fruits until they are no closer together than four inches along the branch.  Thinning the apples about 35 days after full bloom helps make sure his trees bear every year rather than lapsing into biennial fruiting.  He ends up with about the same weight of fruit as he would without thinning, but the resulting apples are much larger.

Need a Christmas present for yourself?  Check out our automatic chicken waterer that will keep your birds' water poop-free.

This post is part of our Growing Organic Apples lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Dec 31 12:00:06 2009 Tags:

  power in some mason jars

We got our 5th visit yesterday from the electric company. I tried appealing to this guy's sense of duty by casually mentioning that we've had four other visits, each ending with a bit of looking around and head scratching at how deep our creek is.

"I didn't come all the way from North Carolina to just look around," he calmly stated. His confidence filled us with with a newfound hope and sure to his word the lines were back up before he headed back home last night.

We spent the morning waiting, trying not to think of all the obstacles that could be keeping the flow of cheap electricity from coming back to our trailer when all of a sudden the hallway light came on and the power outage of 2009 was officially over.

It's good to know we can get by without the grid, but this has been a wake up call for us by pointing out a few areas we can improve upon for a more streamlined approach to off the grid living.

This post is part of our Two Weeks Without Electricity series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted Thu Dec 31 15:11:02 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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