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

archives for 01/2010

Jan 2010

Electric line against a gray sky(I know Mark has already told you some of this, but it's so momentous I wanted to post about it too!)

Mark and I finally got away from the farm Wednesday to visit my family in Bristol.  When we got home, we were thrilled to see the powerline back in place atop its poles!  We scurried into the trailer...only to discover that the juice was still off.

Remember how I lost faith on day 1 of the outage?  Now it was Mark's turn.  When the electricity was still off on Thursday morning, I could see his spirits plummeting into his (cold, wet) boots.  It was too rainy outside to heat anything up on the wood stove for lunch, so we shivered in the kitchen, eating cold chicken sandwiches and bemoaning our fate.

Then I gasped.

"Oh, no!" Mark responded.  "What's wrong now?"

Speechless, I pointed down the hall to where our CFL had flickered into light.  "Look, Mark!  Electricity!!!!!!"

We stared in rapture at the glowing bulb for a couple of minutes, then jumped into action.  Mark plugged in the stove fan and freezer while I started up the fridge and internet.  I turned on the drinking water pump and filled up our emergency milk jugs of water, then we headed out to pump water from the creek to fill the thousand gallon washing-water tank.  (We'd been caught, very unfortunately, with it nearly completely empty, which really made the outage more difficult than it should have been.)

Heating up water on the stoveNext, Mark plugged in the golf cart while I filled pots of water to heat on the stove.  Near instant hot water, and plenty of it!  After skimping for nearly two weeks, washing each day's dishes in a scant gallon of melted snow,
I was so excited that I filled our sink with gallons and gallons worth, even though there weren't really that many dishes.

Before I was able to calm down enough to check my email, I had to twirl around outside in the snow, singing at the top of my lungs, "Elec-tri-ci-ty!  Light!  Heat!  Water!"

My weather-forecaster buddy warns that bitter cold weather is on its way tonight, with all next week slated to stay below freezing.  Right at this instant, though, I can't muster any doom and gloom at all.

Check out our ebook about starting your own microbusiness and quitting your job.

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

Posted Fri Jan 1 07:27:09 2010 Tags:

Honeycrisp appleTo hear Michael Phillips write about it, you would think that apple trees are fortunate to make it through the year, let alone set fruit.  He fights a slew of insect pests along with fungal, bacterial, and viral diseases, struggling to end up with a harvest of fruits pretty enough to sell to his customers.

I feel lucky to be a homesteader who cares mostly about taste.  Still, I plan to take some of his preventative advice to heart.  We're slowly cutting down nearby cedar trees and would do the same if we had nearby crabapples or hawthorns since all three serve as alternate hosts for apple diseases.

Once our trees are bearing, we'll rake up their leaves in the fall and compost them since fallen apple trees can innoculate the tree with diseases the next year if left in place.  While thinning our hypothetical fruits, we'll be careful to remove insect-damaged apples and will also rake up June-dropped fruits to feed to our chickens.  Old timey apple farmers used to run poultry and swine under their trees during that period --- maybe we'll have pigs by then and can work something out.

For now, though, we're in that golden period before the apple trees mature when we can fantasize that our fruits won't fall prey to any diseases or pests.  I'll dream while I can, and remember The Apple Grower for organic tips when the time comes.

Don't miss our homemade chicken waterer.

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

Posted Fri Jan 1 12:00:07 2010 Tags:
mark 01-01-10
Posted Fri Jan 1 15:55:24 2010 Tags:

Wineberry in the snowA few quick book-keeping notes for the new year....

First of all, thank you to everyone who posted comments this month to enter our daffodil giveaway!  I've really enjoyed hearing all of your feedback and getting to know you better.  The grand prize winner is my father --- I swear it was random! :-)  We had a really good month selling automatic chicken waterers, so there were only about 20 daffodil bulbs left to give away.  I'm tossing in some poppy seeds to round his flower bed out.  Stay tuned for another giveaway soon!

On another vaguely chicken-related topic, I'm posting a long series about chicken tractors on our chicken blog this month.  Some of the posts you've already seen over here while others are totally new.  My goal is to really think through all of the chicken tractor designs we've used in the past so that our next tractor will be awesome.  I hope my musings will also help other folks design a cheap and effective tractor and get those hens out of the mud.  You can subscribe to the RSS feed of that blog just like this one --- I look forward to seeing some of you over there!

Finally, I was going to post a review of the best non-fiction books I'd read in 2009 over here, but instead decided to finally set myself up a Goodreads account.  If I stick to it, I plan to post all of my fiction and non-fiction book ratings over there (although I'll keep posting lunchtime series over here.)  Feel free to friend me and share your own books!

And have a great 2010!

Posted Sat Jan 2 08:37:33 2010 Tags:

knee brace powerThe University of Michigan has made some impressive strides in the area of human generated electricity.

Their latest prototype is a knee brace that harnesses the energy normally lost when the knee is bent. It can produce up to 5 watts of power, which would be enough juice to run 10 mobile phones.

It would be interesting to see how much electricity the average person generates over the course of a day?

Posted Sat Jan 2 18:25:06 2010 Tags:

Winter hillsideLast week, I was paging through old blog entries from this summer and literally couldn't remember the earth looking so green.  On the south side of the trailer, the ground is still covered by snow where it's shaded by the hill, and the rest of the world is mostly brown.  I watch deer pulling honeysuckle out of trees and dream of a big, black bull calf doing the same in search of green leaves.

Silhouetted rosemaryHow do I relieve winter gardener's blues?  Luckily, I've got some house plants in need of attention.  My citrus trees (dwarf Meyer lemon and dwarf tangerine) have sunken down in their pots over the long growing season and need a new infusion of stump dirt.  I also have a rosemary in need of potting --- one of the six sprigs I got from my father finally sprouted roots.

So I climb the hill halfway to the cars, heading straight to my favorite, hollow beech.  This old beauty churns out around seven or eight gallons of stump dirt every year, which I scoop out with our yellow-handled shovel, savoring every teaspoonful.  I chose a warm day so that the stump dirt would be shovelable, but that means the driveway is too wet to drive on.  So I lug the dirt home in five gallon buckets.  It's all worthwhile, though, when I get to sink my fingers into rich soil, the combined scent of actinomycetes and rosemary smelling as good as baking bread.

Dream of spring with me.  Check out our automatic chicken waterers, great for chicks.
Posted Sun Jan 3 09:02:05 2010 Tags:

  hand cranked back up power diy

10 years ago I found this hand cranked radio in the discount bin of a Radio Shack just after the Y2K hype was settling down. Most hand powered devices use a small dynamo that charges an even smaller battery that will eventually stop holding a charge over time. This unit uses a medium sized spring that slowly releases its mechanical power after the energy is stored in the form of hand cranks. It will hold up to 40 cranks, which equals about 20 minutes of power.

The radio is very basic and also works on a little solar cell that is embedded in the top, but only if you place it directly in the sun. I like to have it on hand as a back up power source and someday dream of building a larger version that might be more capable of powering something like our modem and router and maybe a laptop or two. It only produces enough electricity for a small flashlight, which can be considered night time entertainment during a power outage.

Posted Sun Jan 3 14:53:59 2010 Tags:
Amaranth - weed and food

In response to my post on easy to grow grains, two of you asked whether I was concerned about amaranth being a weed.  I decided to do a bit of research and disentangle fact from fiction.

The word "amaranth" can be used to refer to any plant in the genus Amaranthus --- 70 species total.  Some species are weeds and some are useful foods dating back thousands of years. 

The weed species are generally known as pigweed and include Amaranthus albus, A. blitoides, A. hybridus, A. palmeri, A. powellii, A. retroflexus, A. spinosus (the one that wreaks havoc on my bare feet in the summer), A. tuberculatus, and A. viridis.  I wonder whether any of these plants were also grown by Native Americans for food, accounting for their widespread growth across the U.S.?  Unfortunately, I couldn't find any data on this.

On the other hand, A. caudatus, A. cruentus, and A. hypochondriacus are grown as food plants, with the latter being the species most often grown in the U.S.  Amaranth was grown by the Incas, the Aztecs, and various Native Americans in what is now Mexico until the conquistadores came and nearly wiped amaranth out of existence.  Nowadays, you can find the seeds of the edible varieties for sale from some of the more heirloom-inclined seed companies.

We opted to buy some Manna de Montana Amaranth from Seeds of Change --- I'll let you know how it goes as the growing season progresses.  Meanwhile, I splurged on a few more experimental crops --- Hungarian Blue Breadseed Poppy, Temuco Quinoa, Urd Sprouting Bean, Black Kabouli Garbanzo Bean (since we have to drive an hour to get these in the store), Hullless Oats (thanks for the tip, Sena!), and Afghani Sesame.  I figure at least one or two should work out and make it onto our list of regulars!

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Posted Mon Jan 4 07:37:37 2010 Tags:

GraduationMy brother posted about the last decade of his life so vibrantly (and succinctly) that I decided to give it a go.  The last decade fills up pretty much a full third of my life to date and my entire post-college adulthood --- yikes!

2000 started with the last few months of my senior year at college.  Although my freshman, sophomore, and junior years had been life-changing and fun, my senior year was stressful and angsty.  By the beginning of July, I was glad to see campus disappear and to instead be hopping on a plane to England (then Australia, then Costa Rica) for a solid year of camping and drawing plants.

Drawing in FranceAlthough I'd dreamed of living on a homestead in the woods ever since I was ripped from our family farm in elementary school, I think my world travel year cemented the deal.  I backpacked the whole time, and was shocked to return home to the U.S. and discover the size of stores and supermarkets, and to see the many boxes of possessions I had waiting for me in my mom's basement.  Why would I need all of this stuff when I'd happily lived with just fifty pounds of camping and drawing equipment for the last year?

Check out our chicken tractor info over on our chicken blog.

This post is part of our Decade in Review series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jan 4 12:00:13 2010 Tags:
Posted Mon Jan 4 16:46:40 2010 Tags:

Daddy told me that it looks fishy for him to win the giveaway, and one of our regular readers agreed. :-)  So the daffodils will go to whoever of the following top five randomly selected commenters emails me their mailing address first:

Jerry from SoapBoxTech
Shannon (who got two votes from the random number generator!)

Among the folks whose blogs I read, several people have made a New Year's resolution to post at least three sentences every day on their blogs.  I, on the other hand, have a hard time limiting myself to two posts a day. :-)  I didn't want to "waste" an entry on this, so here's a quick note that's not an entry, really!  (See, no picture!!)

Posted Mon Jan 4 16:52:17 2010 Tags:

Framing up a wallI'd be the first one to tell you that our homemade storage building has growing pains.  Although I've read a lot of books and websites, this is the first time I've ever put screw to 2x4, and it shows.

We probably could have the whole thing done by now if we knew what we were doing, but we've still got two walls to raise and the roof to put on before we even start on the interior.  Still, I can feel the building process picking up momentum as we repeat steps we've figured out in the past.

Monday, Mark let me try my hand at framing a wall.  Those square bits that come in the screw boxes make it much easier for a novice like me to drive screws without stripping the heads.

I nearly finished the half wall section I was working on before I ran out of lumber.  Unfortunately, we had to call it quits for the day since we got a flat driving the golf cart through ice to the cars where the rest of the 2x4s are stored.  Mark's teaching me that things happen on a farm --- you just have to roll with it and allow plenty of extra time to get projects done!

Want to become a homesteader? 
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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 Tue Jan 5 08:20:31 2010 Tags:

Eating spicebush leavesAlthough backpacking gave me a glimpse of simplicity, I didn't have any money to buy a farm, so I instead spent the next few years wandering around in other peoples' woods.  Every year, I moved to a new property where I identified the plants and animals and told the owners what they were doing right or wrong.  Some of my hosts turned out to be my best friends, and I got all of my maternal urges out of my system by helping with one set of kids who I still adore (even though they're all grown up now!)

Old houseIn 2003, I finally achieved the goal I'd been saving for and dreaming of for so long --- I bought 58 acres of swamp and hillside about an hour from the farm I grew up on.  With no experience under my belt, I took my father's advice and decided to build a little house by hand, first tearing down the old house on the property to get some supplies.  Crowbarring on winter days, I came down with carpal tunnel and ended up dropping that dream for the time being.

Dreaming of spring chickens?   Make your own homemade chicken waterer.

This post is part of our Decade in Review series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jan 5 12:00:17 2010 Tags:

 flat golf tire

I had my 2nd flat tire of the week just as I got yesterday's fixed. The first one was due to a sharp tree root jutting out of the frozen ground and jabbing itself into the side wall, but today's deflation could have been avoided if I'd had an inner tube in the tire, which it now has.

At least we got all the 2x4s shuttled back to our storage building project before this next storm sets in.

Posted Tue Jan 5 18:05:47 2010 Tags:

Slide a grocery bag in your boot to keep your foot dry.Today's homesteading tip originated with my mother, I swear, not with a homeless person.  On a farm, it's awfully easy to get your boots wet even if they're waterproof.  Maybe the world is full of deep, damp snow (like last week) and clods drop down the back of your heel.  Maybe you slip off the creek bank while sawing through a grapevine (like this week) and your foot submerges in frigid water.  Either way, the worst thing you can do is keep working with wet feet.  But if you don't have a good pair of spare boots, what do you do?

Take a plastic grocery store bag and wrap it around your dryly socked foot.  Then slide the whole shebang into your boot --- this has the added bonus of making boots slide on even easier!  The grocery store bag separates your foot from the damp boot wall until the evening, when you can set your footware by the stove to dry.  Dry feet!

Our microbusiness ebook doesn't just tell you how to set up a business, it gives you tips for living simply.
Posted Wed Jan 6 08:21:59 2010 Tags:
Anna Courtship

Mark winching a fallen treeWhen I had to put my farm dream on hold, I ended up moving back in with one of my inventory families, to help with those same kids.  The family matriarch had plans for me, though I didn't know it.  She (Sue Ella) and her sister (Rose Nell) were playing matchmaker and believed that Rose Nell's son and I were perfect for each other.  Sue Ella tried every trick in the book to get us to meet, but I scurried the other way just as quickly as possible.  He'd be coming down for Thanksgiving?  Sorry --- I have to go visit my father!  You want me to help him drive your son's possessions across country?  Are you nuts?!  Even though I'd traveled the world, I'd never kissed a boy --- women in my mother's family tend to be late bloomers --- and I didn't particularly see why I should start now.

When Sue Ella finally pinned me down in 2005, she and Rose Nell didn't trust us to go on this first, blind date on our own.  Intead, Sue Ella put me in her car, Rose Nell put Mark in her car, and all four of us met at a restaurant in the middle.  After our date, we browsed for a while in the Dollar Store, and went our separate ways.  In fact, Mark fled all the way to New Mexico, but he emailed me and slowly wiggled his way through my defenses and into my heart.  Four months later, we kissed for the first time while listening to a chorus of spring peepers.  When we kissed again in a cave, my knees went weak, and 17 months later we moved onto the land.  Mark had been the missing link in my farm dream, even though I hadn't known it at the time.

Looking for the missing link in your chicken coop?  Check out our automatic, poop-free waterer!

This post is part of our Decade in Review series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jan 6 12:00:16 2010 Tags:
mark Ice water

cold water

Using this utility pump to fill a proper water container feels like a huge improvement over last year's 5 gallon bucket method. The biggest downside was lifting the bucket back out once you filled it as full as you dared.

Posted Wed Jan 6 14:46:33 2010 Tags:
The wall I framed.
Measuring the wallThis is my new wall --- I'm so proud of making it (nearly) all by myself.  That said, I should have measured a little better to make it "square" (a perfect rectangle) so that we didn't have to take it back apart to get the window to fit....

Next time, I'm not going to assume that the diagonals being off by a quarter of an inch is okay.  Unsurprisingly, Mark decided he would be in charge of putting in the door, which is the next step.

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 Thu Jan 7 08:28:07 2010 Tags:

Fall washingThe last three years of the decade, we got the farm running and I learned to garden.  I've always been torn in several directions --- between art and writing on one hand and biology on the other.  The farm --- and this blog --- turned out to be the junction of the two fields, letting me create beauty and play with plants all at once.

After moving to the farm, I first worked as a part-time professor at a local college, then as an employee at a non-profit organization.  Both of these jobs were fun in parts but also stressful.  Only last year did we reach what had been Mark's dream all decade --- such a simplicity of needs and diversification of income sources that we could both quit our jobs and work for ourselves.

Sheila with our wedding cake
Meanwhile, Mark and I grew together in delightful ways.  Every day seemed (and still seems) to be better than the last, and his kisses still make me weak at the knees.  In December 2008, we finally decided to get legal, so we went to the courthouse and got hitched.  Last year, we celebrated with our family and friends with a picnic at the park.

Check out our automatic chicken waterer.

This post is part of our Decade in Review series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jan 7 12:00:17 2010 Tags:
Posted Thu Jan 7 20:31:58 2010 Tags:
Anna More snow

IcicleWe kicked off Mark appreciation week on Thursday with a trip to the big city to see Avatar in 3D.  Even though the story had some flaws, the world building and visuals were so stunning that by the time we stepped back out the door, we were shocked to see snow falling on a dark, cold night.

The roads get dicey fast in the mountains, and it took us about two hours to drive what usually takes 45 minutes.  On the north side of the hills, the snow that knocked out our power three weeks ago is still hanging on, but is now invisible under another layer of white.  Luckily, Mark's an experienced driver and we made it home with no mishaps.

The world has been white and frozen for so long that I feel like I've moved to New England for the winter!

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Posted Fri Jan 8 08:15:46 2010 Tags:

Moundville Archaeological ParkWhat do I foresee in the twenty-teens?  Honestly, if you'd asked me what my life would be like a decade later in 2000, the only part I could have imagined would have been the farm, so I don't think my predictions should hold much weight.  But I can tell you what I'd like to see.

In ten years, I hope that Mark and I will still be living on this same farm, but hopefully a slightly more advanced farm with a pasture or two, a growing forest garden, and maybe even an indoors bathtub and outdoors greenhouse.  By then, I want to have streamlined the garden process to cut back a bit on the time we spend on repetitive chores like weeding and increase the time we spend on the more fun part.  Maybe by then we'll truly be food independent, having figured out grains, oil, and a few more meats.

I hope to have built my social network a little more by then.  My college years were blissful in that regard, and ever since I've been looking for a similar community where I can feel accepted and at ease.  We're slowly making friends in the area now that we're settled, so hopefully this community will grow organically with time.

Carnival Holiday cruise to MexicoLast decade, I found Mark --- he and the farm were really the highlights of the 2000s.  This decade, I hope that we'll find someone to back us up on the farm when we go on our explorations.  Whether that will be a live-in apprentice, a nearby farmer who we can trade caretaking with, or something else entirely, I'll leave up to the toss of the dice.

Lately, I've started to find a good balance of computer work, physical work, and relaxation --- hopefully by the end of the decade I'll have it as well figured out as Mark does.  Maybe this decade will be all about balance.

Cut back on the work in your chicken coop with an automatic chicken waterer.

This post is part of our Decade in Review series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Jan 8 12:00:15 2010 Tags:

 avatar screen image

A new layer of snow and some frigid temperatures kept us working inside today. Brrrrr.

The movie Avatar was a fantastic initiation into the new realm of 3D cinema. Science fiction is the perfect genre for this new technology and Avatar was a non stop ride that remains with you long after the house lights come on. A great way to celebrate the beginning of my 41st year.

Posted Fri Jan 8 16:51:25 2010 Tags:

Fluffy whole wheat breadLast year, I posted about the most delightful, fluffy, completely whole wheat bread recipe that counts on wheat gluten to increase the fluff factor.  Ever since then, folks have been asking me, "Isn't gluten bad for you?"

Some people are gluten intolerant, which means that their bodies can't break down gluten.  If these folks eat foods containing gluten, they end up with all kinds of health problems.  On the other hand, gluten isn't like trans-fat or any of the other components of food that cause problems in everyone.  If you don't have a gluten sensitivity, you can dive right in with no problems!

Gluten is found naturally in most grains, and is currently added to a long list of other foods (including things like chocolate, soup, and potato chips.)  Basically, if you're not making an effort to be gluten-free, you're almost certainly eating gluten on a regular basis.  As long as you aren't showing any gluten intolerance symptoms, you might as well get in the habit of adding gluten to your whole wheat bread for a tastier texture (and extra protein.)

Check out our ebook about becoming financially independent.
Posted Sat Jan 9 07:42:32 2010 Tags:

 diy home made solar powered laptop charger

The team at KMS woodworks has made some interesting progress in bringing together a compact solar charger that can be used for several low end power needs like a lap top. They are still in the testing stage, but it looks like they might make them available for sale in the 300 to 350 dollar range in the not too distant future.

It would be worth that much to me if it could power our modem and both lap tops for a few hours per day, especially during a power outage.

I really like the idea of having a portable off the grid option, especially one that can be taken on a back pack to provide the power for blog posts in some random ancient megalith site or more Mayan ruins.

Posted Sat Jan 9 15:23:13 2010 Tags:
The barn and chicken tractor in the snow
I read a bunch of homestead blogs, and we all seemed to be united last week --- it was just too cold to do much outdoors work!  Between having snow on the ground for over three weeks running and soil that's frozen so hard that it hurts to kneel on it, I feel like I've moved to New England.  Or maybe Canada.

I felt like such a wimp complaining, but it turns out that this weather really is out of the ordinary.  There's a high pressure zone sitting on Greenland that's deflecting cold air into the U.S., a situation that hasn't been this extreme since 1950.  But all's not lost --- Dr. Walter Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Center wants us to know that “pretty much all of the Arctic is above normal."  There, don't you feel better now?

Cheer yourself up --- check out our automatic chicken waterers that brighten your hens' day!
Thick ice and a tulip-tree seed pod in the snow
Posted Sun Jan 10 07:54:04 2010 Tags:
mark 01 10 10

 2010 B day dinner

We made it out this afternoon for a wonderful Christmas party that had been rescheduled due to the Blizzard of 09. A big thanks to Steve and Maxine for making such a fantastic chocolate cake and helping to ring in my 41st year with a delicious bang.

Posted Sun Jan 10 18:20:30 2010 Tags:
Canned tomatoes and apples

Homemade shelves and canned food.
You know when you're a homesteading geek when...

  • you go to a party and one of the big attractions is heading down into the basement to check out your host's stored produce...
  • ...and all of your friends want to go too so you have to wait your turn.

Check out these homemade shelves spaced apart with log sections.  Very classy!

Want to have time to be a homesteading geek too?  Check out our ebook about how to quit your job and have time for what really matters.
Posted Mon Jan 11 08:23:33 2010 Tags:

Growing Gourmet and Medicinal MushroomsRegular readers will remember how Mycelium Running sent me on a quest to propagate our edible mushrooms cheaply.  Paul Stamets' enthusiasm was so contagious that I've spent the last nine months experimenting (with semi-success, which I'll discuss later.)  I reached a point where I needed to know more, so I requested another one of his books on interlibrary loan.

The 574 page Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms arrived at my library a few weeks ago, and I've been reading it ever since.   This book is more technical than Mycelium Running, since the purpose is to provide the information new commerical growers need to start their operation.  The result is a book that is slightly more tedious than Mycelium Running, so I can't recommend it to the general reader quite as whole-heartedly.

Nevertheless, Stamets' enthusiasm shines through...along with so much information that I'm struggling to pare it down to fit into two lunchtime series!  After reading the book from cover to cover, I seem to have come up with twice as many questions as I started with, but at least my original questions got answered.

Check out our POOP-free, automatic chicken waterer.

This post is part of our Growing Gourmet Mushrooms lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jan 11 12:00:14 2010 Tags:

 Club car golf ice

I puzzled over these strange ice formations for several minutes this morning wondering how such a thing could have occured and where the source of water was coming from.

I got my answer when I noticed Anna trying to hold back a serious case of the giggles when I went back in. Turns out she thought it would be nice to break off a couple sticks of ice and implant them as "dragon horns" for the golf cart.

Posted Mon Jan 11 17:05:42 2010 Tags:

Dryer door used as an opening to a chicken tractor nest box.Baking a cake on the farm is always an adventure.  As the culmination of Mark appreciation week, I decided on a rich chocolate cake that called for seven eggs...only to look in the fridge and see a mere four eggs!  So I put on my boots and coat and headed outside in search of three more.

Usually, our nine hens give us more eggs than we can eat, but this abnormal cold spell has frozen the chicken tractors in place and put our hens in a bad mood.  Some days this month, we've only gotten one egg between them.  Would we get lucky today?

I opened the nest box door in the Plymouth Rock's tractor --- one egg.  The young Golden Comets are always good for at least an egg, so I wasn't concerned there --- sure enough, one egg.  But the last tractor has Golden Comets who are finishing up their fourth year of life and are starting to slow down in their laying.  I opened the dryer door and peeked in the last nest box...and breathed a sigh of relief.  One last egg!

Mark's birthday cakeBack inside, I melted and beat and mixed.  It was the first day this year that had reached above freezing (even if only by a degree) and the cats were feeling their oats.  Every time the sun came out from behind a cloud, both cats begged to be let out.  Five minutes later, the clouds closed and two chilly cats wanted in.  My routine was a bit like this --- turn on the microwave, let in a cat, stir in the butter, let out a cat, measure the flour, let in a cat.  I think I didn't miss any ingredients (or cats.)

Finally, the cake was ready to hit the oven...except that I couldn't find the second round cake pan.  After a few minutes of looking around the kitchen with a furrowed brow, I realized that I hadn't baked a double layer cake since we stopped watering the bees in a marble-filled cake pan.  Out came the marbles, in went the batter.  Finally, the cake was in the oven and I could relax.  Happy birthday week, Mark!

Check out our ebook about making a living on the farm.
Posted Tue Jan 12 07:24:00 2010 Tags:

Diagram of mushroom uses in permacultureI checked out Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms to learn a bit more about just what the title says, but I ended up getting sucked in by the chapter on permaculture.  (I know, what a shock.)  In the multi-use world of a working farm ecosystem, one species stands out --- the King Stropharia (Stropharia rugosoannulata).

King Stropharia mushrooms are supposed to be both edible and tasty, but their utility doesn't stop there.  Paul Stamets reports food webs that I wouldn't have believed coming from anyone else.  I wasn't so surprised to read that vegetables growing near the King Stropharia grow better since I've read about how many fungi team up with plant roots.  But I was shocked to hear that honey bees feed on the mushroom's mycelium!  Is this a possible method of providing our bees with supplemental food other than sugar water?  Do bees feed on other species of fungi?  I've personally seen our workers harvesting something out of urine-soaked soil, and ever since have been dubious of the the popular wisdom that bees just need nectar/sugar and pollen.

As if that isn't enough of a reason to grow King Stropharia mushrooms, Paul Stamets notes that the species is a potent bioremediator.  He sends runoff from his cow pasture through beds of wood chips full of King Stropharia mycelium and sees clean water flowing out the other end.  Since Stamets has shown than the mushrooms can filter bacteria and nitrogen out of contaminated water, I think that a King Stropharia bed might be a perfect fit for our graywater leach field to clean the water running out of our kitchen sink.

King Stropharia mushroomIf you're as sold on the idea of King Stropharia mushrooms as I am, you'll probably want to know how to grow them.  Once you get a start from one of the mushroom companies (such as Paul Stamets' Fungi Perfecti), this species is reported to be extremely easy to grow outside.  Just rake fresh wood chips to a depth of one foot, add five to twenty pounds of sawdust spawn per hundred square feet, water for four days with a sprinkler, and keep the bed moist thereafter by watering for half an hour in the morning and evening.  If you start your King Stropharia bed in the early spring, as is recommended, you should see fruits by late July and continue to eat this permaculture king until autumn weather cools the ground.  Be sure to pick the mushrooms young and expand your bed once it's in full swing using the stem butt method!

Want to give your chickens clean water cheaply?  Make a homemade chicken waterer.

This post is part of our Growing Gourmet Mushrooms lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jan 12 12:00:24 2010 Tags:
Posted Tue Jan 12 17:58:35 2010 Tags:

Putting down the mudsills.Halfway through our homemade storage building project, we opted to make a few changes.  It was originally envisioned as a workshop where Mark could build our chicken waterers, but once we decided to put the exterior wood stove inside, it made sense to repurpose it as Mark's bedroom/office instead.  In its new incarnation, though, the bed would have been too close to the stove, and Mark wanted to raise his mattress up a bit, so we decided to add another four feet to the  length of the structure.

Adding in the floor joistsTuesday, we installed the floor for the bed addition, which felt a bit like doing homework math problems --- you get a chance to correct the misunderstandings you made the first time around and to cement the proper method into your motor memory.  This time, I took Shannon's advice and put the rim joists on right away, which had the added benefit of meaning that we didn't need to use expensive brackets.

Putting down the floor.We used salvaged three by fours for the floor joists.  The sawmill lumber wasn't exactly straight, but I suspect it'll be just as strong as store bought two by sixes.  After all, the three by fours really are three inches by four inches, so they have nearly half again as much cross-sectional area as the two by sixes.

Check out our microbusiness ebook for tips on making a living on the homestead.

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 Jan 13 07:52:53 2010 Tags:

Best locations to clone a mushroomOf course, the meat of Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms is information about how to take an existing mushroom and turn it into thousands of new mushrooms.  My previous lunchtime series about how to cultivate edible mushrooms for free explains most of the first step for turning an existing mushroom into a mass of mycelium (the vegetative growth form of the fungus.)  Basically, you can either choose to start with spores (like growing your mushroom from seed) or clone a mushroom you really like (like taking cuttings of a grape vine.)

The stem butt method of cloning was the one mentioned in Mycelium Running, and I have to admit that this method is a winner.  I managed to create a mass of mycelium this fall using oyster mushroom stem butts with nearly no effort.  Still, I've always interested in learning new techniques, and Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms had a few in depth mushroom cloning tips.

First of all, it's best to start with a young mushroom in the button stage when cloning.  Also, I probably should have used only the inside of the stem butt since the outer portion is likely to be contaminated with competitor species, especially when cloning ground-fruiting mushrooms.  Other locations on the mushroom are just as useful for cloning, including the area just above the gills on the cap and the area on the stem right below the disk of the cap.

Sick of dirty water?  Your hens are too.  Make a POOP-free chicken waterer.

This post is part of our Growing Gourmet Mushrooms lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jan 13 12:00:16 2010 Tags:
Posted Wed Jan 13 16:22:30 2010 Tags:

Carrying salvaged lumberAs we pull together our first semi-serious structure on the farm, we've received a lot of feedback from really helpful folks who want us to build something more sturdy.  Some of the feedback is right on track --- we are new to this after all and we just miss some steps.  For example, we'll be adding a header to both load-bearing walls to fix the window/door problem and will add rim joists on the ends of the floor joists.

On the other hand, we've intentionally underbuilt some areas rather than following the conventional wisdom to build a house that'll last two hundred years.  Americans seem to be obsessed with building things to last centuries --- odd since Europeans have only been on this continent for a few hundred years.  As a nation, we build out of steel and concrete, then opt to tear it all down twenty years later to build something bigger and better.  The rubble is unusable --- pure waste.  It's almost as if we're struggling to overcome our own mortality, or to prove ourselves immune to the natural cycle of decay.

When we visited Mexico, our tour guide told us that traditional Mayan families tore down their houses and rebuilt them every few years.  The structures were made of plant matter that could end up back in the garden, so this wasn't really waste.  They also built modularly, making several small structures instead of one huge house so that when one hut had to be taken down it didn't turn their lives inside out.  Similarly, the folks who lived on our farm before us believed that a dozen rocks sitting on the ground were a fine foundation for their house --- and the structure stood for three quarters of a century.  I think all of these people had a good point --- why not build something simpler and cheaper that won't last forever and instead plan to repair or replace in a decade or two?

Strider sitting on what remains of the old houseGranted, if you live in the city or are paying off a mortgage, you probably have to build for the long haul and abide by nitpicky building codes, spending ten times as much money on your house as is actually necessary.  The freedom to do our own thing is one of the many reasons we love our farm.  Sure, some of our experiments will probably fail, and our building piers may start to rot out in ten or twenty years.  But we've barely put any cash into it, so we can just rebuild.

Or maybe we're just young and stupid. :-)  Time will tell....

Check out our microbusiness ebook for more thoughts on living simply.

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 Thu Jan 14 08:15:44 2010 Tags:

Mushroom mycelium on a petri dishSo you've cloned your mushroom --- now what?  Paul Stamet's Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms comes at this from a commercial point of view, so he recommends working in an ultra-sterile laboratory and growing cloned mushrooms on agar in petri dishes.  Once the mycelium has nearly colonized the entire petri dish, he cuts the agar into sections and uses it to inoculate jars of grain.

Although Stamets' lab technique isn't really applicable on our farm, I still teased out a lot of information that will probably be equally true for our cardboard mushroom cultivation.  The purpose of this stage in the procedure --- known as the spawn run --- is to take a little bit of fungal growth and turn it into a lot of growth.  Stamets repeatedly urges you to keep the spawn running at all times by providing the perfect growing conditions --- moderate humidity of around 60 to 75%, a warm temperature around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and darkness to moderate light.

If you play your cards right, the mycelium will run very quickly at this point and it must always have more room to grow into.  Never let the spawn cover all of its petri dish/ cardboard/ whatever or it will use up its food, build up wastes to toxic levels, and lose vitality.  Once the mycelium comes near the edge of its container, expand it by mixing the spawn into five to ten times as much fresh substrate.  Feel free to expand your spawn twice (which means it can become 100 times bigger than it was to start with!), but use caution when expanding beyond that or your mycelium may show loss of vigor.

Make your own homemade chicken waterer for as little as $1 per bird.

This post is part of our Growing Gourmet Mushrooms lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jan 14 12:00:16 2010 Tags:

happy birthday!

Today was a great day for laughing and celebrating Anna's mom's birthday.

Posted Thu Jan 14 14:18:42 2010 Tags:

Clothes lineOne of the least important casualties in the blizzard of '09 was our clothesline.  The wet snow clung to our old cotton line so heavily that three of the four strings snapped!  They were pretty rotten anyway, so rather than tie yet another knot in them, I opted to replace all four.

Our barn is a royal mess, but it has its uses.  A few minutes of poking around turned up a spool of some kind of cable --- plastic over wire.  Perfect clothesline replacement at an unbeatable price!

Once I cut the new line pieces to the right length and tied them in place, I started wondering whether that cable should have been saved for something more important.  I hope it wasn't leftover ethernet cable from Joey's yurt....

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Posted Fri Jan 15 08:02:27 2010 Tags:

Growing mushrooms on cardboardNext week, I'll continue my summary of the techniques Paul Stamets uses to cultivate mushrooms in a commercial setting.  But I wanted to take a break and talk about my own experiment.  If you haven't already, you can read how I sandwiched oyster mushroom stem butts between layers of wet cardboard in a flower pot --- this is the cloning stage of the operation.  After a week, I saw mycelium running across the cardboard, so I expanded it by putting the mycelium between more layers of wet cardboard in a bigger container.

And then I messed up.  The electricity went out and the trailer's interior temperature dropped pretty low --- nearly to freezing on the floor furthest from the wood stove where I happened to have my spawn.  When I checked on it, my mycelium was just sitting there and some of it had died back.  Drat!  I'm hoping that the cold temperatures just put my fungi into temporary hibernation, so I've moved them to a warmer location and will report back in a few weeks.  If I don't see growth by then, I'll go back to the beginning with new mushrooms in the spring.

Growing oyster mushrooms on cardboard in a milk crateMy dream is to develop a relatively simple method of propagating oyster mushrooms on the home scale, without petri dishes, autoclaves, or even storebought grain.  Wouldn't it be great if mushroom-keeping was as easy as building a worm bin and if those mushrooms could be fed with your junk mail and cardboard, turning waste into food and garden soil?  In case you think I'm living in an ivory tower, check out this website where the author turned cardboard and junk mail into mushrooms --- it is possible!  I just need to work a few kinks out of my system.

Don't miss our POOP-free chicken waterers!

This post is part of our Growing Gourmet Mushrooms lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Jan 15 12:00:06 2010 Tags:

chopper 1 reviewWe got the Chopper 1 axe up and running thanks to a couple of replacement springs and clips from the Chopper 1 website.

I've only just started using it, but I can already say I like it a lot.

It feels like I'm getting more splitting action for less energy input, which is a very good thing. What I like most so far is the feeling of increased safety. When there's not enough power to split the log the Chopper 1 just sort of bounces as opposed to grazing off out of control like the Super Splitter has been known to do if your aim is a little off.

Credit goes to Anna for capturing the exact moment when the Chopper 1 is completing a split.

Posted Fri Jan 15 17:25:43 2010 Tags:

Snow retreating toward the hillside.The temperatures rose above freezing at last, and the month-old snow began to creep back toward the hill.  The first daffodil leaves peeked through the soil in the sunniest spot, and an amorous cardinal started to sing.

I celebrated by washing our laundry, pumping water down the hill from the thousand gallon tank since our water line is still frozen.  Then I turned off the pump...and water kept right on flowing.  Gotta love capillary action!  Now I know that I only need to use electricity to get the suction started --- after that, water will flow four feet up out of the tank all by itself!

Check out our ebook about starting your own business and quitting your job.

Posted Sat Jan 16 08:09:49 2010 Tags:

water jug faucet

The frozen water shuffle got a bit easier after I installed a plastic faucet onto the pour spout of our 6 gallon jug.

Posted Sat Jan 16 15:30:32 2010 Tags:

Cluster of honey bees on a superWinter is the season that makes or breaks bee hives.  Our goal is to be such good bee stewards that our fuzzy little friends have no problem with the cold weather.

Although the hives look abandoned during most of the winter, during warm spells we can see the bees fly out on "cleansing flights" --- this is a euphemism for the fact that honey bees won't use the bathroom in the hive.  Luckily, bees are able to hold it and only need one warm day a month for their cleansing flights.  While they're out, I've also seen them poking around on the ground, seeming to lap up water from melting snow.

During the rest of the winter, the bees huddle together around the queen (and the honey.)  They slowly rotate from the outside to the center so that no one gets too cold.  At the core of this cluster of bees, workers shiver their bodies and raise the temperature of the cluster as high as 95 Fahrenheit, but just outside the cluster, the unheated portion of the hive may drop below freezing.

Winter honey bee hive check

Our job as winter beekeepers is quite simple --- make sure that the bees have enough honey to keep shivering.  We took advantage of a day above 50 on Friday to quickly open up the hives and count the frames of honey.  All three still have good stores, though one has significantly less than the others.  If that hive is still low on honey during the February check, I'll give them a few frames of sweet stuff from our strongest hive, which has plenty to spare.

Check out our ebook about starting your own business and quitting your job.
Posted Sun Jan 17 08:38:17 2010 Tags:

shed and or cottageIn doing some research for the home made storage building I discovered the term garden office which is how they describe some sheds in parts of Europe. is a great place to browse pictures of other garden offices to spark your imagination and learn new techniques.

I'm partial to this thatch roof design, but don't think it would work for us here.

Posted Sun Jan 17 17:27:01 2010 Tags:

My sister has been doing a lot of thinking and writing about the impact of routine in her life, and that got me thinking about my own routines.  The first half hour of my "work day" is always the same --- walking Lucy and then taking care of the chickens.

Although I rarely write about it here, the morning chores are a very important part of the Walden Effect.  They clear my head and give me time to think through any thorny issues that need my attention.

Saturday, I brought the new camcorder along to document my journey.  I hope you enjoy seeing a glimpse of my daily life rather than finding it boring --- if the latter, take heart that the video is less than two minutes long.

Check out our ebook about combining a business with the simple life.
Posted Mon Jan 18 07:30:23 2010 Tags:

Oyster mushroomsLast week, I posted how to clone mushrooms then expand your spawn as the first steps toward growing your own mushrooms.  Of course, if you have extra cash and little time, you can always buy spawn from one of the many companies that cater to the home mushroom grower.  Regardless of how you get it, what do you do with that spawn?

The pros grow their mushrooms indoors in bags, trays, or jars.  These methods are definitely the most cost-effective for large-scale growers since the growing conditions can be tweaked easily to speed up mushroom production.  However, I'm leery of indoors growing since it requires sterile conditons and lots of up front equipment costs.  Basically, by providing the perfect conditions for your mushrooms, you're also providing the perfect conditions for lots of molds and bacteria, so you need to fight contaminants constantly.
Growing mushrooms on logs
On the homestead scale, I think that outdoor growing is usually the best way to go.  We've had good luck growing both oyster mushrooms and shiitakes on logs, and a similar method can be used to inoculate fresh stumps. 

A new method I want to check out is growing mushrooms in beds of wood chips, straw, or other materials.  If you inoculate your chips in early spring or fall, the mycelium will naturally expand through the substrate and you may get mushrooms within the same year.  Just be sure to give the fungus at least four weeks to grow before cold weather kicks in and put your mushroom bed in a damp, shady, north-facing area.

Already choosing new varieties of chickens for this year?  Protect your young chicks from drowning with an automatic chicken waterer.

This post is part of our Growing Gourmet Mushrooms lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jan 18 12:00:17 2010 Tags:
Posted Mon Jan 18 17:02:14 2010 Tags:

This video started out as a serious summary of Monday morning's work on the homemade storage building.  Then I sped it up so you wouldn't be sitting around waiting for something to happen.  And suddenly the chipmunk noises made me laugh.

Mark watched it and said something along the lines of, "That's nice, dear."  I think I may just have an odd sense of humor....  Hope at least a few of you get a kick out of it. :-)

Check out our ebook about quitting your job and having time for what really matters.

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 Tue Jan 19 07:16:08 2010 Tags:

Growing mushrooms on grainThe material which mushrooms are grown on is known as the substrate.  Although some species are very picky, others (like the oyster mushroom) can be grown on almost anything that started life as a plant.  We'll provide sterilization instructions for all of these substrates tomorrow.  For now, here are recipes for turning your plant matter into growing media.

When commercial growers start their mycelium in a petri dish, they often expand it into jars of sterilized grain.  Millet, rye, and wheat are most often used, but Paul Stamets reports that any grain will do.  To fill a one quart jar, mix 200 grams of grain, 220 mL of water, and 1 gram of gypsum (to keep the kernels separated and provide calcium and sulfur.)

Later, mycelia can be expanded onto a mixed wood substrate made up of different sizes of chips and sawdust.  The fungus will quickly colonize the smallest sawdust grains, while the larger chips provide for air flow and allow the fungus to form rhizomorphs that lead to big mushroms.  Paul Stamets recommends using only one species of tree at a time, if possible, and sticking to fast-growing and -decomposing species like alder.  These trees have more sapwood, which is easy for your mycelium to colonize quickly.  His recipe for sawdust spawn is very simple --- moisten the sawdust to 60 to 70% water, sterilize, and innoculate.

Growing mushrooms on wood chipsSawdust and wood chips are a bit hard for your mushrooms to digest quickly, so if you want to boost your yields you may choose to supplement them with some source of protein.  Lots of homestead and farm waste products fit the bill, including rice, wheat, or oat bran; ground corn; grape pumice from wineries; spent barley from breweries; vegetable oil; and stale bread.  Enriching your substrate, though, is a double-edged sword --- the extra nutrients also help contaminants grow quickly, so you'll need to double your sterilization time.  Paul Stamets' recipe for enriched sawdust is as follows: 100 pounds of sawdust, 50 pounds of one half to four inch wood chips, 40 pounds of bran, and 5 to 7 pounds of gypsum, moistened to 60 to 65% water and then sterilized. 

The last widely used mushroom substrate is straw --- this is Paul Stamets' favorite for economical oyster mushroom production.  He chops wheat, rye, oat, or rice straw into 1 to 4 inch lengths, then pasteurizes it and inoculates.

Although grain, wood chips, and straw are the main substrates used in commercial mushroom production, you shouldn't stop there!  Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms teased me with notes that mushrooms can be grown on newspaper, cardboard, books, corncobs, corntalks, peanut shells, tea leaves, coffee grounds, and much more.  I hope that by this time next year I'll have information on the best ways to turn these waste products into mushrooms!

This month, our chicken blog is chock full of chicken tractor info.

This post is part of our Growing Gourmet Mushrooms lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jan 19 12:00:16 2010 Tags:
Posted Tue Jan 19 16:58:27 2010 Tags:

Burying the water lineJust keeping the farm going uses most of our energy, but we like to end each year a little better off than the last.  I get easily frustrated, though, when the big projects have to get pushed to the back burner to accomodate planting, weeding, and the usual cycle of farm chores.  The solution?  Take the dozens of big projects we'd like to complete and narrow them down to the top ten to be completed each year.

I thought you might enjoy seeing last year's top ten goals (and our status on each project).  This is my version of New Year's resolutions --- why make a resolution when you can instead make a plan?

  1. Honey bee hiveBetter steps to the house.  We shored up the existing steps and they work fine.
  2. Fence deer out of the full perimeter.  After some fencing, Mark invented our deer deterrent, which solved the same problem for vastly smaller amounts of time and money.
  3. Start saving for retirement (again.)  This goal fell by the wayside for a few years as we poured our finances into the farm's startup costs.  Luckily, this year we got back on track and started putting money away again.  (Check out our ebook for information about becoming fiscally solvent on the farm.)
  4. Running water in the trailer.  We came close to reaching this goal, burying about 75% of the water line from the thousand gallon tank to the trailer.  We've still got a bit more to go, though, which is why our lines froze up and we went back to carrying water.
  5. Innoculating mushroom logsBees.  We started our bees!
  6. Irrigation to all plants.  Due to an extremely wet summer, we didn't water much at all.  But we did put in most of the irrigation infrastructure we'll need.  We'll test it out during the next drought.
  7. Expand the shiitakes.  We not only added a few more shiitake logs, we even started oyster mushrooms (which fruited already!)
  8. Fridge root cellarRoot cellar.  After embarking on a huge root cellar project, we changed directions and decided to work on making a root cellar out of a fridge.  We completed it, but the dirt slumped in a rain and pushed the fridge over.  We need to dig it out and add a roof.
  9. Fix the barn roof.  We didn't get to this....
  10. Build a wider, higher footbridge.  We shored up the existing bridge instead, but it gave out in early winter.
  11. Build a woodshed.  Done!
  12. Build Mark a loft/office space.  We built him a loft inside the trailer, then made a good start on our new building.

Firewood shed
As you can see, we didn't manage to narrow our goals down to ten, but we did complete seven and make good progress on another four.  Not too bad for working around all of the little things that inevitably come up on a farm!  Stay tuned for this year's overly ambitious goals in a later post.

Posted Wed Jan 20 08:30:09 2010 Tags:

Sterilize grain spawn for mushrooms in a pressure cookerWhen growing mushrooms, your goal is to get your mycelium to colonize a new substrate as quickly as possible --- definitely within two weeks.  As every gardener knows, nature abhors a vaccuum.  Just as your garden beds will quickly become coated with weeds if you don't plant your veggies thickly or mulch them, your mushroom substrate will be full of harmful contaminants if you don't make sure your mushrooms get a head start.

The best way to jump-start your mycelium in a new substrate is to sterilize or pasteurize the material to kill off the harmful competitors.  Heat is the primary method used, but you have to be sure not to raise the temperature of your substrate over 200 F or you'll do more harm than good by waking up bad molds.

Sterilization sounded very difficult to me until I realized that the methods used at the home scale are basically the same as canning.  Want to sterilize jars of grain?  Just boil the grain in water for an hour, put it in clean quart jars, and then cook the whole thing in a pressure cooker for another hour at 15 psi. 
I soaked my cardboard substrate in hot water before inoculating, which I assume did a bit of sterilization at least.

A metal drum can be used to sterilize mushroom substratesOf course, if you want to inoculate masses of wood chips or straw, they probably won't fit in your pressure cooker.  Paul Stamets offers an alternative method for pasteurizing bulk substrates at home --- fill a big pot or metal drum with water, put your substrate in a wire basket inside, and place over a propane burner or a fire.  Straw needs to cook at 150 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour while wood chips should be cooked for twice as long.  If you've enriched your wood chips, you may need to cook for as long as 5 hours.

No matter how you sterilize your substrate, let it cool, then inoculate it with that mycelium you carefully grew according to last week's instructions.  The fungus will do most of the rest for you!

Check out our POOP-free chicken waterer, great in tractors.

This post is part of our Growing Gourmet Mushrooms lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jan 20 12:00:12 2010 Tags:

Buckle up Arctic-like boot extensions

This was my solution yesterday to the problem of the creek still being a few inches too high.

You still get some water creeping in, but your pants and socks stay dry for a quick trip into town to visit the post office and hardware store.

Posted Wed Jan 20 16:10:31 2010 Tags:

Lucy beside Mark's bootLast weekend, Mark had a two day board meeting out of town, which culminated in being towed home since his car wouldn't start.  He descended from the tow truck with his backpack of overnight gear, his laptop, and his wading boots in hand.

But while Mark was gone, warm rains melted a lot of our snow and gushed into the creek in frigid, muddy rivulets.  The creek had risen far past the point where wading boots would do any good.  Luckily, Mark had a backup plan --- scoot across the creek on a handy log.

For future reference, when scooting across a raging creek on a log, it's best to carry as little as possible.  Mark knew the drill, so he paused before embarking to toss his wading boots to the other shore.  Boot number one whizzed through the air and landed on the creekbank.  Boot number two swung aloft and --- thunk! --- hit an arching limb, then --- splash! --- landed in the flood waters.  With a last gulp of air, the boot sank.

Now, you have to understand that those boots are Mark's babies.  He bought them less than a month ago in an attempt to keep his feet dry through the freeze/mud cycle.  So when his boot landed in the flood, Mark went in after it...waist deep in cold, cold water.  But the boot got away, and Mark came home dripping wet and worn out.

Ever since, Lucy and I have been patrolling the creek on our daily walks.  Finally, Wednesday morning, the waters cleared up enough that we could see all the way to the bottom.  And, just fifteen feet downstream, there was our quarry!  We pulled it out and brought it home, triumphant.  Lucy won three dog bones and I won a kiss.  Sure is nice to be the hero.

Check out our ebook about starting your own business and making a living on the farm.
Posted Thu Jan 21 07:31:04 2010 Tags:

Innoculating a jar of grain spawnGrowing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms presents so many options for substrates that I got a little lost.  Luckily, the last half of the book gives specific inoculation paths that Paul Stamets has used to successfully grow various species of mushrooms.

I started out on this journey wanting to propagate shiitake mushrooms, but have since determined that oyster mushrooms are the easiest and least expensive to grow and thus my top choice.  Paul Stamets' tried and true method for growing oysters begins with mycelium on agar in petri dishes, then expands onto grain, and again onto straw (or enriched sawdust.)  At each step, the mycelium are expanded onto substrates that are 5 to 10 times bigger and are given a week or two to colonize the new substrate.  Stamets warns that it is possible to skip steps, but that doing so can result in slower colonization which in turn leads to contamination.  In either case, the inoculated substrates should be incubated at 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit and 85 to 100% humidity.

Want to grow King Stropharia mushrooms too?  Their spawn prefers 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and 95 to 100% humidity.  Stamets goes from petri dish to grain to wood chips/sawdust.  Check out Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms for instructions on growing all kinds of other species.

Make your own homemade chicken waterer and make sure your hens stay hydrated!

This post is part of our Growing Gourmet Mushrooms lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jan 21 12:00:14 2010 Tags:

 3 hens in a tractor plus an Avian Aqua Miser

These hens seem to be getting along better since I installed the additional 2 roosting posts.

Posted Thu Jan 21 17:58:03 2010 Tags:

Footbridge over flooded watersIf you read our rundown on 2009's top ten goals, you may be asking --- what are our major projects for 2010?

  1. Revisit the creek crossing.  Maybe build solid, higher stepping stones.  Or a zip line.  Or a better bridge.  Still pondering this one.  The goal is to get us across the creek during moderate to high water.
  2. Finish our homemade storage buildingNumber two on our list, but number one on our agenda.
  3. Experiment with ways to get humanure to our fruit trees.  We're considering building a movable "outhouse" that will let us fill pits with human waste interspersed with leaves and bones.  My goal is to safely dispose of all of the wastes, but in such a way that they'll rot down into fertilizer that the trees can grow their roots into.  We hope to develop a method which will ensure that we don't have to handle the waste.  Again, still pondering --- more on this once I read the Humanure book that I skimmed last year.
  4. White CochinRunning water in the trailer.  Finishing up last year's waterline burying expedition.
  5. Figure out chicken reproduction.  Yeah, yeah, I know all about the birds and the bees.  But our broody hen is a terrible mother, so we'd like to give our electric incubator another try.  But our house has too much temperature variation for the incubator to work as is (we've tried), so Mark's going to build an insulated brood box to keep the incubator at more of a steady temperature.  Hopefully we can raise enough chickens this year to eat some.  Whether we'll break down and take on a free-loader rooster is still up in the air.
  6. Figure out a way to keep a constant mulch cover over the entire garden.  This may mean buying a chipper or hunting down those utility line trucks to get a mass of wood chips for longer term mulching (once they rot down.)  Or raking more leaves.  Or getting more serious about grass clippings (maybe with a riding mower so we can cover more territory?)  Probably some combination of the above.  No matter how we do it, I want to spend less time weeding so that we can expand the garden in 2011 to grow some of our own grain.  Right now, we can't expand anything or I'll go nuts during weeding season!
  7. Figure out mushroom reproduction.  As you've read in our mushroom lunchtime series, we're well on our way.
  8. Osage OrangeFind a temporary caretaker to check on the farm when we're away.  This isn't essential right now but is a prerequisite for any potential dairy animals.
  9. Start fencing or hedging pasture areas for potential sheep/goats/pigs.  Big livestock are on our ten year plan, so we'd better get ready for them!
  10. Bathing room.  Once the storage building is in place, there'll be room in the trailer to make a really nice bathtub with a view of the garden.  Maybe I could even have a supplemental bathing area outdoors for the summer months too?
  11. Solidify the driveway with more rocks.  This mostly just means money to hire someone to haul rip-rap for us.  And tracking him down to do the hauling.  Then some rock spreading.
  12. Fix the fridge root cellar.

Once again, my ability to count to 10 is in serious doubt.  But listing twelve top goals gives me some wiggle room so that if we complete ten we'll still have succeeded.  It's clearly going to be another exciting year on the farm!

Check out our ebook about starting your own microbusiness on a shoestring.
Posted Fri Jan 22 08:10:55 2010 Tags:

Expanding oyster mushroom primordiaNo matter whether you've gone the cheap, at-home route of growing mushroom spawn on cardboard or carefully followed the optimal growing instructions using petri dishes, jars of grain, and sawdust, mycelium is just mycelium.  I've been talking about this stuff for two weeks, and I know you're anxious to get to the mushrooms themselves.

Mushrooms aren't like plants which pay attention to day length and then bloom and fruit on cue.  Instead, you need to give your mycelium a hint when it's time to get some mushrooms.  First of all, the mycelium has to have completely colonized the substrate --- reaching the end of its habitat is one natural cue that prompts mushroom formation.

When growing mycelium in an unnatural habitat, like plastic bags, you will also want to lower the carbon dioxide levels, which simulates the fungus reaching the outside world.  Many growers punch small holes in the bags where they want the mushrooms to emerge.  Increasing the light levels at least slightly also tells the mycelium that it has reached the surface and should send up a fruitbody.

Meanwhile, your mushroom is probably waiting for a specific season (though which one depends on the species you are growing.)  Increase the humidity to nearly 100% and either increase or decrease the temperature to signal a seasonal shift.  Oyster mushrooms are split into warm weather varieties which should be prompted to fruit at temperatures between 50 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit and cold weather varieties that need a few days at 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you give your mycelium the right cues, they should form what are called primordia --- little buttons on the surface that can grow into mushrooms.  To prompt the mushrooms to develop properly, lower the humidity a bit and retain lower carbon dioxide levels and moderate light.  If you want mushrooms fast, raise the temperature, or just leave the temperature where it's at and wait a few more days.  Soon, you'll be feasting on gourmet mushrooms!

Need to leave your hens unattended for the weekend?  Check out our automatic chicken waterer.

This post is part of our Growing Gourmet Mushrooms lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Jan 22 12:00:07 2010 Tags:
Posted Fri Jan 22 16:01:05 2010 Tags:

RaftersAs we reach the rafters of the homemade storage building, we're using primarily scavenged lumber and are discovering that it has its pros and cons.

On the pro side, that old wood is hard --- Mark screws straight into storebought lumber as if it's balsa wood, but our scavenged boards require pilot holes.  The scavenged lumber also comes in much thicker sections --- no 1.5 inch lumber here.  From a very project-specific standpoint, the scavenged wood makes awesome rafters because it's already cut to the length of the tin (that we plan to reuse) and has a handy notch in just the right place.

Cutting a bracket in half with the saw-sawOn the other hand, scavenged lumber isn't quite so modular as those regular 2X4s.  We've had to add a spacer here and there since some rafters are thicker than others.  Furthermore, the brackets that Mark found in the barn to secure the non-notched ends of the rafters to the header would have fit 2X4s but not our old rafters.  Luckily, Mark was able to cut the brackets in half and they worked just fine.

Of course, you all know my main motivation in using scavenged lumber --- price.  It's hard to beat free, especially since it doesn't take any longer to tear the boards out of the old building than it would take to drive to the nearest big box store.  You sure do buy less when you live in the middle of nowhere.

Check out our ebook about quitting your job and making a living on the farm.

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

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

Posted Sat Jan 23 08:43:45 2010 Tags:

Digram of the creekSeveral of you have expressed an interest in Farm Goal '10's "Revisit the creek crossing."  I'm always interested to see what clever ideas people come up with, especially while we're in the planning stages.  (We'll be in the planning stages for another couple of months until the water warms up.)  So here's some extra info to get those creative juices flowing.

The drawing here is a top view of the creek crossing area.  As you can see, the creek is relatively shallow a lot of the time, but regularly rises to 16 to 20 inches after normal rains.  About once a month, it rises to the top of (and over) its approximately five foot high banks, at which point it washes away anything that isn't securely bolted down.

Cinderblock fordCreek crossing 1.0 is a cinderblock ford that still works perfectly for its purpose --- getting vehicles across the creek when the water is no more than two feet high.  However, we really only drive across the creek a few times a month.  This year's priority refers to the much more frequent times that we walk across.  Just so you know, we don't want a big, fancy bridge to drive across --- we like our moat.

Homemade foot bridge

Creek crossing 2.0 was a footbridge that we built from trees felled on the property.  It lasted for about two years, and was nearly perfect.  The only flaw was that everyone except me, Mark, and my mom refused to walk across it because the five foot drop below it terrified them.  Wimps. :-)  One option would be to rebuild a similar footbridge, but actually spend a little bit of money for treated lumber and add a handrail.  To deal with high water, it would probably need to be about twenty feet long.

Walking across the creek on stepping stonesCreek crossing 3.0 consists of three cinderblocks placed along the edge of the ford.  When the water is only a foot deep (80% of the time), these are actually one of the best crossing options.  You hop from block to block and keep your feet dry.  They can be a bit wobbly, but folks seem to be less scared of them than of the footbridge.  They do wash away during floods, though. 

Cinder block stepping stoneOne option we're considering is building a more high tech version of creek crossing 3.0 --- cementing stepping stones to the bottom of the creek using rebar and making them two blocks high to accommodate higher water.  Or perhaps three blocks high with half of the bottom block sunk into the creek bottom.  Not sure if we'd need to make the stepping stone four blocks in diameter like this drawing to make people feel comfortable or just two.

There's also a log spanning the creek that we shimmy across when desperate to get in or out during extremely high water.  This is vastly suboptimal, and we've considering replacing it with two ziplines --- one to take you across the creek and the other to take you back.  When I started researching ziplines, though, they looked to be out of our price range for our current creek crossing plans.  I'm not interested in spending more than $100 on the creek right now.  Plus, clearly the folks who wouldn't walk across the footbridge are unlikely to brave a zipline, so we'd have to create an alternative option anyway.

So, what do you think?  Bridge, stepping stones, zipline, or another option entirely?  I'd love to see links to other websites where people have installed low cost creek crossings.  Just keep in mind that anything less than five or six feet off the creek bottom will be washed away unless extremely securely attached. 

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Posted Sun Jan 24 09:04:19 2010 Tags:
Posted Sun Jan 24 15:53:31 2010 Tags:

Filling up the thousand gallon tankIt's been a beautiful week of spring, with temperatures above freezing and highs in the low fifties, but winter is returning this week. 

Until finishing our water line moves its way to the top of our list, we've instated a new rule --- fill the thousand gallon tank as soon as it empties halfway.  This is harder than it sounds since there are usually only a few days a winter month when the ground is thawed enough to pump water and the creek is clean instead of flooded brown.  We got lucky and stocked up on Sunday.

Meanwhile, I've doubled the number of milk jugs of drinking water we keep on hand --- now we've got twenty eight gallons.  We should be okay on both drinking and washing water for at least two or three weeks regardless of flood, freeze, or lack of electricity.

Want to give your chickens clean water?  Check out our poop-free chicken waterer.
Posted Mon Jan 25 07:47:47 2010 Tags:

Small-Scale Grain RaisingAs the next step in my pursuit of easy to grow grains, I decided to take everyone's advice and read Small-Scale Grain Raising by Gene Logsdon.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, although (as usual) I felt it glossed over some very important aspects of bringing grain growing to the backyard.  Still, the book made me feel that growing grain was within my reach.

I have to admit that before reading Small-Scale Grain Raising, I fell into the category of folks who don't really think about where their grain comes from.  The only grain commonly grown in my area is corn, and I grew up thinking that flour came from the store.  I assumed that grain-growing was an esoteric undertaking requiring vast amounts of land, equipment, and know-how.  And could you really grow it around here?

But some rough and dirty math suggests that I could create the three cups of flour I use in my favorite pizza crust recipe from 22 square feet of soil --- about the size of one of my raised beds.  As I'll explain later, Logsdon has had success threshing and winnowing grain on the backyard scale.

Harvesting rice in ChinaMany of you are probably thinking --- why grow grain when you can buy flour so cheaply in the store?  My primary motivation is a bit geeky --- I just like knowing how to do things myself.  But growing your own grain has other perks.  When I read Farmers of 40 Centuries, I was a bit jealous of the endless rice straw these farmers seemed to have on hand for mulching.  Straw is a major byproduct of all kinds of grain-growing, and I am always on the lookout for more sources of mulch.

Growing your own grain is also the key to independence from store-bought chicken feed.  And if you grow your own grains, you can make true whole grain flours, without the healthy germ removed.  All in all, it looks like an endeavor worth experimenting with.

Check out our automatic chicken waterer, great for starting new chicks!

This post is part of our Backyard Grain Growing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jan 25 12:00:06 2010 Tags:

Easy straw bale building lessons that are fun

Carolyn Roberts from house of has made a fun and informative 8 minute video that takes you through all the hoops she had to jump through to make her straw bale dream a reality. What sets this collection of information apart from others I've come across is the level of detail she shares when it comes to building codes and materials.

We considered the straw bale approach briefly, but decided against it for multiple reasons, mainly the fact that we get a lot of moisture around here, and it's not really as cheap as you might think.  Carolyn spent 50 thousand dollars and a good chunk of her precious time to finish the above home, which was way out of our price range and would have delayed our garden infrastructure building considerably. Her Walden castle is hands down more beautiful and efficient than our recycled trailer, but we would have had to go in debt to attain that level of comfort, an option that shouldn't even be on the table for anyone who prefers time over money, which goes to the very core essence of what the Walden Effect is all about.

Posted Mon Jan 25 18:45:24 2010 Tags:

Seed-starting flatDespite swearing up and down that I wasn't going to start any seeds indoors this year, I filled a flat with stump dirt Monday and sprinkled in tiny alpine strawberry seeds.  I tossed a few in the ground outdoors, too, as a control since I believe that plants people baby indoors often do just as well when planted straight in the garden.

I'm excited to add alpine strawberries to our current repertoire of June-bearing and everbearing strawberries.  I've read that alpine strawberries can cope with partial shade and make a good addition to the herb layer of forest gardens.  Plus, the fruits are reputed to have the best flavor of all strawberries, even though they're so tiny that you probably don't want to pick too many.  Best of all, alpine strawberries can be started from seed as long as you do so indoors, which eliminates the high startup costs of traditional strawberries.
Alpine strawberry fruit
This is our second shot at starting strawberries from seed.  We grew some our first year on the farm, planting the seeds in the middle of January and eating fruits by summer.  Yields were good but, unfortunately, the variety we grew (fresca) was some sort of odd hybrid with full-sized berries that were quite tasteless.

In case you're a botany geek like me, you might be interested to know that the various types of strawberries are in different species.  The big June-bearing strawberries are Fragaria x ananassa, which is a hybrid between the eastern North American native Fragaria virginiana (which grows wild in our woods) and the large-fruited, South American Fragaria chiloensis.  Alpine strawberries were bred from Fragaria vesca, a native strawberry to parts of North America, Europe, and Asia.  Although we don't hear much about Alpine strawberries, they have been eaten since the Stone Age and literal tons are still picked commercially each year in Turkey.  I look forward to picking our own this summer!

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Posted Tue Jan 26 08:22:41 2010 Tags:

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for me in growing my own grain was that I just didn't know where to start.  There are at least a dozen grains available in the grocery store, but since none of my neighbors grow any of them, I didn't know which ones are suited to my climate and to my uses.

Here's a quick rundown on the pluses and minuses of various types of grain, from the backyard perspective.  I've put the most promising varieties near the top so that you can stop reading if you get bored.

Field cornCorn is the king of high output per unit area, but low protein.  This is the only grain commonly grow in the backyard, for a good reason.  You can easily harvest corn on a small scale, picking the corn and shelling it by hand or in a hand-cranked sheller.  Corn makes up the bulk of many animal feeds and is, indeed, a cheap and easy way to start breaking your dependence on storebought feed.

Wheat is the other primary grain that Americans eat, and you can't beat the taste.  As a backyard grain, it's harder than corn but easier than many others.  It can be used as animal feed and can also be grazed by livestock in the spring without unduly affecting your grain harvest.

OatsOats are one of the best grains, health-wise, due to their high protein content.  They are a bit more difficult than wheat since the seeds are coated in a tough hull that is difficult to remove at home, but I plan to try a hull-less oat variety that lacks that problem.  In addition to being used as human and animal food, oats were traditionally grown as a cover crop for strawberries in England.  The oats were planted in late summer to early fall between the strawberry plants, grew for a while, then were naturally killed by frost before setting seed.  The grass-like plants fell and mulched the berries --- how can you beat a mulch that spreads itself?

SoybeansSoybeans clearly aren't grains, but Gene Logsdon includes them in his book because they make up the other major portion of commercial animal feeds and are a great source of protein.  They are grown like garden beans, and can be eaten at the green stage (aka the delicious edamame you might have tried as an appetizer in a Japanese restaurant) or dried and used like soup beans.  Soybeans also make a good hay and green manure.  When feeding to animals, though, you shouldn't feed soybeans raw because the beans contain a substance that interferes with digestion and protein absorption.  As long as you roast the beans first, they are a cheap and easy way to add protein to your chickens' diets.

BuckwheatBuckwheat is only kinda-sorta a grain as well.  (It's in the smartweed family instead of the grass family.)  One of our readers suggested that we give this a shot, and I have to admit that it looks like a homestead winner.  Buckwheat is high in lysine, an amino acid that other grains lack, and is a dynamic accumulator of phosphate.  It can be planted in early summer when gaps start opening in the garden from spring crops, and the fall flowers are an excellent source of nectar for honeybees.  You can go the normal route of threshing and winnowing, or just pick a cup or two by hand in the garden.  Logsdon reports that his chickens love buckwheat.

SorghumSorghum is a grain I've never eaten but one that my neighbors actually grow.  You can grow grain sorghum (aka "milo") specifically for the edible seeds or grow sweet sorghum and use the stalks for molasses and the grain for food.  Sorghum has yields as high as corn, and is very easy to harvest for animal feed since you can just cut the entire seed head and toss it to your chickens.  Threshing is also easier than other grains --- just rub the sorghum heads between your hands and the seeds will drop right out.

Pearl millet
Millet isn't often used for human food in the U.S., but is a primary grain in northern China.  Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) seems to have potential for the backyard since it threshes free from the hulls naturally, and chickens can be fed a whole seed head, as with sorghum.

Rye has the most potential as a pasture plant since it is very tolerant of cold weather and will stay green all winter.  Unless you love the flavor of the grain (which I don't), there's no real reason to grow it for grain the backyard.

Barley makes good livestock feed and beer, but is also not one of the top backyard grains.

Rice is, unfortunately, a backyard loser.  The grain requires at least forty days with minimum temperatures greater than 70 degrees Fahrenheit, conditions that can be found in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and California, but not Virginia.

Wild rice
Wild Rice is a delicious, native North American alternative to cultivated rice.  Unfortunately, we are again outside its range.  You might try growing wild rice if you live in New England or the Midwest.

If you're interested in growing your own chicken feed, stay tuned for a later installment this week, or visit our chicken blog where we're currently beginning a rundown on making your own chicken feeds.

This post is part of our Backyard Grain Growing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jan 26 12:00:14 2010 Tags:

 chain saw cutting afternoon

We finally got around to trimming a few of the downed pine trees this afternoon left over from the blizzard of 2009.

Posted Tue Jan 26 16:33:52 2010 Tags:

Roof with rafters and cross-pieces, ready for tinWhy, you ask, are we out cutting wood when we're trying to hurry up and finish our homemade storage building?  Well, Monday it poured all day and the creek went up, so when we headed out to work on Tuesday, we were chagrined to discover that the screws we'd bought last weekend were on the other side of a raging flood.  Then we started pondering how to seal in the skylight over Mark's loft in the new roof, and realized that none of the roof sealants are going to dry properly at temperatures hovering around freezing.

And, of course, there's the siren song of mulch.  We got in touch with one of our neighbors this weekend and have decided to go in on renting an industrial chipper one weekend soon.  (At a lot of the rental places, you can take a piece of equipment home on Saturday morning and not have to return it until Monday morning for the price of a single day since they're closed on Sunday.)  We want to get the most bang for our buck, so that means consolidating all of the brush into a few big piles for easy access.

My mouth starts watering every time I think of the chipper, and I keep having to remind myself not to count my chickens before they hatch.  But every brush pile is already earmarked for a project.  We've got two big piles of pine limbs that I figure will make an awesome, acidifying mulch on our blueberries, and a pile of freshly cut and fallen branches that will make a great substrate for the King Stropharia spawn we plan to order in a few weeks.  Then there are the three year old brush piles that we originally planned to burn like our neighbors do, but instead decided to let rot down --- I figure that these will turn into instant, semi-composted mulch to go straight on perennials.  Hopefully, we'll have a few more afternoons to build our brush piles before the chipper comes through.

Check out our ebook about quitting your job and making a living on the homestead.
Posted Wed Jan 27 08:48:23 2010 Tags:

We certainly aren't going to jump to the level of growing all of our own grains immediately, but I wanted to crunch the numbers and see if that would even be feasible.  The first step is to figure out how much of each type of grain we eat.  That part was pretty simple since we started buying our flour in bulk last year, and thus know that we go through about 100 pounds of wheat flour, 5 pounds of cornmeal, and 25 pounds of oats in a year.  Here's my estimate of how many pecks of whole grain those pounds of flour and rolled oats are equivalent to:

Logsdon's suggestions for a typical family (pecks)
How much we currently eat per year (pecks)
Square feet needed to grow 1 peck
Corn (for meal)
Grain sorghum
Triticale or rye or barley
348 (rye), 122 (barley)
Soup beans
less than we should...
Alfalfa for sprouting
1 to 2 quarts
less than we should...

As you build your own estimate of how many pecks of grain you eat per year, you might find the following conversions useful:
  • 1 cup of wheat converts into just a little more than a cup of whole wheat flour, and that weighs about a quarter of a pound --- this might help you convert from the five or fifty pound bags of flour you buy to cups.
  • A peck is equivalent to about 37 cups (and is also a quarter of a bushel.)  So if you go through one five pound bag of cornmeal each year, like we do, you're probably eating 0.5 pecks of corn, very roughly.
How much land would you need to grow your own grains?  Basically, to provide our current near monoculture diet of wheat, corn, and oats, we'd need about a fourteenth of an acre.  That's an area about 56 feet by 56 feet --- pretty big, but not unfathomable.  It would simply mean expanding our garden by about a quarter.

Check out our poop-free chicken waterer, a great time-saver on the homestead!

This post is part of our Backyard Grain Growing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jan 27 12:00:14 2010 Tags:
mark Roofmate
Posted Wed Jan 27 16:32:11 2010 Tags:

Pedestrian scale drawbridgeFor those of you who aren't following the cheap creek-crossing options discussion, I thought I'd showcase some of the interesting ideas our readers have suggested to get us across the creek.  Mom posted a cool video of a road-sized drawbridge in action, to which Roland responded with this image of a pedestrian-scale drawbridge.  Roland commented to let us know that these are quite common in the Netherlands --- who knew?!

This video of a really cheaply constructed rope swinging bridge also tickled my fancy.  Swinging bridges are quite common in our area, which suggests they might be one of the best options.  I'd thought they were beyond our price-range, but they might be feasible using rope and two by fours.

Incan rope bridgeRoland, again, peaked my curiosity with his note that the Incas have been making grass rope bridges for centuries.  Isn't the one shown here awesome?  (No, we won't be weaving straw ropes --- I just think it's cool.)

Meanwhile, Dudley suggested two quick and dirty (and cheap) options --- using a junked flatbed tractor trailer, or using a ladder as the supports for wooden planks.  The former reminded me of the idea Mark had floated a while ago about using the frame of a burned down mobile home.

Daddy and Erich suggested using telephone poles as the supports for a footbridge --- this may indeed be our cheapest and easiest option, if we found used telephone poles and were able to haul them.

Footbridge planA couple of you have suggested pontoon bridges, but these don't seem very feasible for our creek --- the water goes up and down too fast, I think, and floating trees would be a problem.

Daddy let me know that my stepping stone option isn't nuts since he'd been to a park that used three foot high piers as stepping stones along a trail.

Finally, two of you drew up bridge plans for us!  The drawing on the left is Titus's plan, using the existing telephone poles on each side of the creek as anchors.  It depends on I-beams for support.  The drawing below is Roland's tensegrity bridge.  (I'd never heard of it either!  Check out his comment for more info.)

Tensegrity bridge sketch

I don't think we're any closer to making a design decision, but we sure have enjoyed seeing all of these ideas.  Keep them coming!

Check out our ebook about quitting your job and making a living on the farm.
Posted Thu Jan 28 08:02:33 2010 Tags:

Wheat shockNow that you've got an idea of which grains to try growing in your backyard and how much space you need to grow the grains, let's talk about the actual growing process.  Most of grain-growing is pretty similar to growing anything else.  Some grains are planted in the spring and others in the fall, then you weed them and hope that bugs and diseases don't do much damage.

One major difference between grains and vegetables is that grains are traditionally planted in solid blocks in America rather than rows.  Commercial farmers depend on heavy applications of herbicides to keep these fields of grain weed-free, but Logsdon suggests that the American farmer might be better off using the Chinese method of planting in rows so that your grains can be hand-weeded.  Alternatively, you might rotate your grains after a crop that's cultivated intensely for weeds like strawberries or potatoes.

The main differences between growing grains and vegetables, of course, come during the harvest.  On the backyard scale, most grains are harvested by cutting the whole plant down with a scythe when the seeds are mostly or fully mature.  You can tie plants into bundles and then into shocks to dry in the field, or bring them under cover and let them dry inside.  Either way, in a couple of weeks once the plants are fully dry, it's time to separate the seeds from the head.
Threshing wheat
The first step is threshing --- lay the plants down on a big bedsheet on a flat surface and whack the daylights of out them with a bat or stick.  Alternatively, beans can be threshed by putting the whole plants in a bag and beating the bag around.  When you're done threshing, the seeds should have fallen out and you can take away the bulk of the plants for the chickens to peck through and then to be used as mulch.

Winnowing grainOf course, a lot of bits of chaff (excess plant matter) end up in with the seeds after threshing, so the next step is winnowing --- removing the grain from the chaff.  Logsdon advocates pouring the grain and chaff mixture from one bucket to another, either outside where a breeze can pull away the chaff or in front of a big fan.  In either case, you will need to pour each bucket of grain six to ten times to end up with clean seeds.

If you're working with wheat or some other grains, you are now done with the grain separation steps, but oats, barley, buckwheat, and rice all need to be dehulled.  These seeds are coated in a tough substance that won't be very tasty, and which is, unfortunately, hard to remove effectively at the home scale.  Logsdon suggests heating the grains at 180 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour and a half, putting them through a blender, then sifting out the hulls, but he admits his method is only moderately effective.  Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has instructions for turning your grain mill into a dehuller, which might be worth a shot.  Or just grow hull-less oats and feed hull-covered grains to your livestock.

Try your hand at a homemade chicken waterer that dispenses clean water all day.

This post is part of our Backyard Grain Growing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jan 28 12:00:14 2010 Tags:
Posted Thu Jan 28 16:17:31 2010 Tags:

Making a pilot hole in a tin roof with a nail.Like every part of our homemade storage building project, the roof was a learning experience.  We chose to reuse salvaged tin from the old house we tore down, and I wish I'd taken the time during demolition to mark the order in which the sheets of tin came off the roof.  Instead, we ended up with a mixture of pieces of tin from different parts of the roof, and when we put them up on the new roof, the holes in the overlapping ridges didn't line up from one piece to the other.  It wasn't too hard to make a pilot hole in the bottom piece of tin with a nail then fit in the roofing screw, but extra holes in your roof are never a good thing.

Learning experience two was all about lining up the tin.  Our building isn't quite square, and I decided to line up the long side of the tin with the short edge of the building and let the short side of the tin be not quite parallel with the long edge of the building.  Mistake!  By piece of tin number three, it was clear that my tin was no longer Mark in the doorway of the storage buildinggoing to cover the top wooden cross-piece unless I gave in and tugged it up a bit.  I ended up with a roof with slightly jaggedy top and bottom edges rather than straight lines across.  Hopefully when we add the gutter, the jaggediness will be less visible.

Mark kindly didn't comment on my roofing inadequacies....  Thanks, honey!

Check out our ebook about starting a microbusiness on a shoestring.

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

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

Posted Fri Jan 29 08:42:56 2010 Tags:

Pig in a cornfieldIf the process of threshing, winnowing, and dehulling your grains for human consumption seems a bit daunting, you might choose to start growing grains for your livestock instead.  Your animals are likely to be less picky than you are, so you won't have to go to quite so much trouble when adding homegrown grains to the menu.  I'm hopeful that as we start growing our own chicken feed, we'll begin saving money and end up with healthier chickens due to a more well-rounded diet.

Currently, we're starting a new series over on our chicken blog with all of the nitty gritty info on formulating your own chicken feeds.  If you're interested, you might want to subscribe to that blog to read all about recipes, protein content of grains, and non-grain alternatives over the next few weeks.  Meanwhile, here's a brief summary of the tips in Gene Logsdon's book about growing grains specifically for livestock.

Tips for the lazy farmer

Grazing sheep on wheatIf you're a lazy farmer, like me, you're probably interested in ways that you can feed your animals with the least work possible.  One option is to plant winter wheat (or barley or rye) at the end of the summer, around September 15.  About a month after the grains go in the ground, they will be established enough that you can graze your animals on them during the winter and spring.  With careful rotation so that the plants aren't overgrazed, you will be able to harvest nearly as much grain from these plants as you would have without grazing them.

Pigs are a great tool for the lazy farmer.  Logsdon notes that you can turn pigs into a cornfield in the fall and they'll harvest the grain themselves, fattening up just when they should.  I envision planting a small corn paddock as part of my forest garden grazing rotation and moving the pigs in at just the right time of year.

What grains should I grow for my animals?

Chicken feedIf you're going to go the traditional route of harvesting grain for your livestock, you will probably want to grow some combination of corn, oats, barley, grain, sorghum, and soybeans.  The bulk of commerical feeds are made up of two components --- corn and soybeans --- but your animals will probably be healthier if you give them a bit more variety.

Although we tend to think of grain as being aseasonal, you can in fact plan your garden so that your animals (and you) eat nearly fresh grains throughout the year.  Rye and barley are the first grains to ripen in early summer, then wheat, oats, buckwheat, and sorghum are ripe in the fall.  In the winter and spring, you can feed the easily stored corn and soybeans.

How much grain should I grow for my animals?

Logdson estimates that a single chicken needs about a bushel of grain per year.  A hog needs 12 bushels of corn to be fattened to butchering weight and a cow needs five to six bushels.  A ewe and lamb need just one bushel of grain per year between them if they are on pasture, and goats may not need much at all except when they're being milked.

How do I prepare grain for my livestock?

Sprouting beans for chickensSome grains can be fed whole, but nearly all grains are more digestible if they are ground.  If you're grinding grain into flour for yourself, you can use the same hand-cranked mill to grind a bit of grain for your chickens.  On the other hand, if we really get into growing our own feed we'll probably find a way to make or buy a better mill.

Old timey farmers knew that sprouting was even better than grinding.  If you're willing to put in a little extra time, you can sprout all of the grains you feed your animals, a process that makes them even more nutritious.

We're in the very early stages of our homegrown grain experimentation, but we'll be sure to update you as we test all of these methods of growing grain for both ourselves and our animals.  Stay tuned!

This post is part of our Backyard Grain Growing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Jan 29 12:00:20 2010 Tags:

liquid nails in use close up and personal

We ended up with several small gaps once everything went together with the salvaged wood for the storage building project. I was a little apprehensive about using liquid nails yesterday because I knew it was predicted to get colder today, but it looks to be setting up just fine.

Posted Fri Jan 29 16:58:35 2010 Tags:

One of my favorite bloggers posted about the new plants she'll be trying out in her garden this year, and I thought it was an interesting meme.  So, without further ado, 2010's experiments and additions:

  • New mushrooms: Winecap (aka King Stropharia), White Morel (reported to be a crapshoot, but I feel lucky), and a summer fruiting Oyster Mushroom --- just ordered the spawn from Field and Forest Products!
  • New woodies in the forest garden: Osage-orange (for hedges), honey locust (for forest pasturing), and Korean stone pine (for pine nuts).  I'm starting them all from seed, the first two from seeds collected in the wild and the last from seeds I bought on ebay.  All are experiments!
  • New fruits and veggies: Alpine strawberries, hulless oats, soybeans (labeled as edamame for fresh eating), garbanzo and urd beans (the latter for sprouting), Afghan sesame, Hungarian breadseed poppy, manna de montana amaranth, and temuco quinoa.  All are from Seeds of Change except the strawberries, soybeans, and poppies from Renee's Garden.

Osage orange fruits rotting down to seed pulp.And, of course, there's the usual trial of new varieties of common fruits and vegetables (most of which I buy from Jung.)  What's new in your garden this year?

(This image, by the way, shows the osage-oranges I collected slowly rotting down to seed pulp for the spring.  They're already quite mushy and stinky.)

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Posted Sat Jan 30 07:33:30 2010 Tags:

 cosmic cookout

Cosmic Cookout is a project that's been in the back of my head for years now, and thanks to Anna's help as webmaster it's finally ready to see the light of day.

It's a place to help me distill down some of the more interesting and fantastic information that has been gushing out of the physics of consciousness field the past few years with some attention paid to the disclosure movement.

The intention is to stimulate debate and conversation through a process of observation and questions and hopefully increase awareness and understanding and perhaps move to a higher level of consciousness.

Credit goes to Neuronarrative for the fine images above.

Posted Sat Jan 30 16:33:24 2010 Tags:

Storage building with first roof rafters onWe've decided to wait on putting the tin around the skylight until we're forecast to have some sustained warm weather, but otherwise the homemade storage building is under roof and enclosed to the same level as the pre-made buildings you can buy at Lowes.  Of course, we've still got a lot of work to do --- painting the exterior,  adding gutters, sealing cracks, adding insulation, throwing some linoleum on the floor, and finishing the interior walls.  But I thought now would be a good time to crunch the numbers and see whether it was smart to build the structure ourselves rather than buying one pre-made.

The finished exterior of the storage buildingOur building is 8 feet by 20 feet (with the last four feet on the long side being a raised loft.)  The total cost in supplies has been $1,063.39, or $6.65 per square foot. We could have gotten a metal shed from Home Depot for a similar price per square foot, but it would have only been six feet tall (which would have bumped Mark's head!)  A similar sized wooden shed on the lot at Lowes (with more adequate head room) costs three times as much, is constructed out of two by twos instead of two by fours, and only has one small window.  I think we got a good deal --- plus we learned an awful lot about building in the process!

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:

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Posted Sun Jan 31 08:42:41 2010 Tags:

 panaramic snow 2010

The home made storage building passed its first heavy snow test...yes, I know, 6 inches doesn't count as heavy for some of you out there, but it was heavy enough to dominate the small talk in both the Dollar store and the Post Office around here during the days leading up to this latest visit by Jack Frost.

Posted Sun Jan 31 13:02:11 2010 Tags:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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