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

archives for 03/2010

Mar 2010

Shoveling up a garden bedI amused myself Sunday morning with a sudoku puzzle --- figuring out which beds each crop will grow in this year.  The process is actually quite fun, with three axes to consider --- soil depth, amount of sun, and plant family over the last three years.  As an example, I wanted carrots to grow in an area with deep soil, where carrots and parsley hadn't grown lately, with any kind of sun exposure.  In contrast, my peas don't mind thinner soil, but I want them in one of the sunniest spots since I plant them so early, and of course the bed can't have hosted peas, beans, or peanuts lately.

The puzzle was engrossing and fun, but I quickly realized that we don't have enough beds in rotation to plant all of the veggies I hope to grow this year.  Two years ago, I was working for a non-profit, trying to keep the garden going between writing grants and attending meetings.  I was so stressed out, that when I planned last year's garden, I cut out nearly a quarter of the growing area.  In farmer speak, I let those areas go fallow; in Anna speak, the weeds grew up.

The downside of last year's smaller garden is that we didn't grow quite enough vegetables to make it through this winter.  We'll probably have to buy some veggies in March and April, which is an unpleasant surprise since we we haven't bought vegetables (beyond onions and potatoes) in years.  On the upside, I managed to keep the beds that were in rotation last year well weeded and mulched and started to cut down on the awful weed population that grew up during my stressed out, non-profit year.  Overall, a year of gardening smaller made sense and was an asset to the farm (and my sanity.)

Chickens tilling up loose soil Even though I advocate no-till farming, I never manage to put down a sheet mulch a year in advance to start new  beds (or re-start fallow ones.)  So, I'm back to a bit of digging to delete the weeds from last year's fallow beds.  I like to plant potatoes in these spots, since the tubers necessitate a second round of digging in the fall, ensuring that few deep-rooted weeds survive the renovation year.

On Sunday, I dug up a few of the beds, just spading the soil enough that the chickens could get a foothold, then watched as our feathered friends went to town scratching up the soil.  After a few days of chicken scratching (and fertilizing), I'll rake the beds to pull out any big root masses, mound the soil back up, and cover the renovated beds with a heavy leaf mulch.  This method has worked very well in the past, as long as I plant the potatoes on raised mounds --- last year I flubbed by putting the seed potatoes below the original ground level and watched them rot in our wet soil.  Hopefully this fall, I'll have delicious potatoes and some newly weed-free beds.

We reward our chickens for a job well done with a poop-free chicken waterer (oh, and all the grubs they can eat.)
Posted Mon Mar 1 08:43:15 2010 Tags:

Microhydro: Clean Power From WaterMicrohydro: Clean Power From Water by Scott Davis is written at a sixth grade reading level...and that's a good thing.  I'm far from ready for an installation guide; instead, I just wanted to know if microhydro is feasible on our farm.

Although most people with an interest in alternative energy go straight to solar cells, microhydro can be a much more economical option if your terrain is right.  I've read estimates suggesting that consumer-level microhydro systems are between 5 and 40 times as cost effective as photovoltaic systems, in large part because water is much less intermittent than the sun so you don't need as many batteries.

Scott Davis divides microhydro systems into five levels, only two of which are of interest to me.  The bare essentials level will run lights and small appliances (like a microwave, radio, telephone, blender, stereo, and laptop) while the modern conveniences level adds in efficient refrigerators, freezers, and well pumps.  A microhydro system running the bare essentials can be put together for as low as $2,000 (or possibly even less if you scrounge some parts) while the modern conveniences level can cost two to three times that much.  Finally, an alternative energy source that wouldn't put us into debt!

Want to become truly independent?  Check out our ebook about starting your own microbusiness.

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

Posted Mon Mar 1 12:00:21 2010 Tags:

 another truckload of rip rap

    Each round of gravel shoveling yields a few improvements on our technique.

Posted Mon Mar 1 16:30:52 2010 Tags:
Anna Edges

Anna in front of a brush pilePainters make conscious choices about their pictures' edges because the edges play a large role in the painting's impact.  Ecologists know that edges promote a diversity of species, more than can be found in either habitat which the edge joins.

I've been pondering edges as I whack back encroaching Japanese honeysuckle, sassafras saplings, and brambles along the boundary of our garden.  I've noticed that my vegetables are sensitive to even the slightest bit of shade, and that the boundary beds closest to the thicket produce about half as many vegetables as do plants in more interior beds.  These brushy edges also delight the deer, who feel safer encroaching if they can retreat back out of sight in just a few bounds.

Over the last few years, we've been beating back the edges, first clipping the woody plants, then running the chicken tractors across them, and finally beginning to mow them into a semblance of a lawn.  I don't believe in lawns for prettiness sake, but I do find them very useful as a way to keep the forest edges from encroaching on our garden, and the mixed herb pasture keeps our chickens happy.

Check out our homemade chicken waterer, great in chicken coops or tractors.
Posted Tue Mar 2 07:33:01 2010 Tags:

hydro2 Pie chart showing the proportion of U.S. energy used for heating, cooling, appliances, etc.Power usage numbers were the first part of Microhydro that caught my attention.  Scott Davis considers a system rated at 50 to 100 continuous watts to be the bare essentials level (running lights and small appliances).  This equates to only 35 to 70 kilowatt-hours per month!  The amount of juice put out by even the so-called modern conveniences level seems inconceivably low at 75 to 125 kwh/month.

For comparison's sake, the average American household uses 936 kwh/month.  During our lowest energy month ever (this past June), we came in at 270 kwh.  Running a household on 75 kwh/month seems almost inconceivable to me.

But Scott Davis makes the excellent point that artificially low electricity prices in North America have led to extremely wasteful behavior.  Specifically, he notes that electricity should never be used for making heat --- since you lose a lot of power every time you convert energy from one form to another, burning coal to make electricity to make heat is a bad idea.

His example household that runs all of the modern conveniences on microhydro deletes any heating appliances from the mix.  Clothes driers, of course, are replaced by the good old solar clothesline.  Rooms are heated with wood or passive solar while water is heated with solar hot water heaters in the summer and coils around the wood stove in the winter.  Finally, cooking is done on propane (or, I would add, on a rocket stove.)

As always, the best and cheapest way to save energy is to become more efficient, so I think we'll do some basic efficiency tricks before saving up for an alternative energy system.  Our biggest energy hogs are clearly our electric stove (which heats our water as well as cooks our dinners) and our back-up space heaters, so these seem like a good place to start.

Check out our ebook about quitting your job and starting to live.

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

Posted Tue Mar 2 12:00:26 2010 Tags:

      Video credit goes to Anna for capturing this 38 second driveway moment.

Posted Tue Mar 2 17:01:44 2010 Tags:

Dark CornishNext week, the cuteness quotient of the Walden Effect will be rising considerably.  We ordered 16 chicks as the first step in solving our chicken reproduction problem.  The goal is to start a self-sustaining flock in a forest pasture --- which I'll be explaining in much greater depth next week on our chicken blog.

After a great deal of research, we settled on the Dark Cornish as this year's experimental chicken breed.  Unlike the white, waddly Cornish Cross chickens that share their name (and a bit of their genetics), Dark Cornish chickens are wiley and nearly feral in their ability to sustain themselves on pasture.  They are also very good at avoiding predators, and one blog even suggested that Dark Cornishes can kill a marauding fox!

The only disadvantage of the Dark Cornish is that the chickens take about twenty weeks to reach cooking size, far longer than most other broilers.  But I've read that their flavor more than makes up for the wait.  If our forest pasture experiment works out, feed costs won't be an issue, so we're excited to give the new system a shot.

Check out our homemade chicken waterers, which will definitely be part of our new forest pasture setup.
Posted Wed Mar 3 08:34:20 2010 Tags:

Despite wanting to consider energy efficiency first, I was still curious whether the copious water on our farm would be a good fit for microhydro power.  The first step in assessing a site for microhydro is to measure stream flow.  Scott Davis suggests two easy methods.

The weir method is used in large streams or rivers.  The water flows through a notched weir that forms a waterfall.  You can use various tables or formulas to determine the flow rate of your creek based on the width and depth of the water in the weir's notch.  I didn't feel like constructing a weir, so I moved on to option 2.

The container method consists of finding a spot where all of the creek's water runs through a culvert or pipe, then sticking a five gallon bucket underneath.  Time how long it takes for your bucket to fill up, then use the following formula to determine your stream's flow:

Flow (gpm) = Container size (gal) ÷ Container fill time (sec) X 60

As you can see in the embedded video, I found a spot where a huge root mass had channeled all of our smaller creek's water into a waterfall, so decided to try out the container method of estimating stream flow.  I couldn't fit a five gallon bucket under the waterfall, but a one gallon cook pot slipped right in between the roots and filled up in 3 seconds.  Our flow in that creek is approximately:

Flow (gpm) = 1 gal ÷ 3 sec X 60 sec/min = 20 gpm

Our smallest creek's flow is pretty low, but is definitely within the realm of microhydro power.  In fact, Scott Davis notes that you can get power from streams running as slowly as 2 gpm (gallons per minute.)

Check out our ebook about paying all of your bills in just a few hours a week.

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

Posted Wed Mar 3 12:00:23 2010 Tags:

 how to sharpen chainsaw tips

There's a really good wiki-how that sums up what you need to know about sharpening your chainsaw with a hand file.

It seems the experts suggest a machine grinding at a shop after every 5 hand sharpening episodes.

You can buy small attachments for a Dremel to make the job easier, but these little hand files are a lot cheaper.

Posted Wed Mar 3 15:03:24 2010 Tags:

Putting fresh wood in the wood shed.Last year, a couple of friends teamed up and bought us a dozen beautiful blueberry plants in honor of our wedding.  We were sorely unprepared, so we only managed to whack down box-elders and open up the canopy, then roll the logs out of the way and plant the bushes in new ground.  This oversight caused a lot of problems since I couldn't really get the lawnmower around the logs, and by the middle of the summer, our blueberry patch had turned into a weed patch.  Luckily, the blueberries survived the neglect, and I promised them a more weeded existence this year.

Lucy chewing on a stick.We spent the morning Wednesday clearing up the tree carcasses in the blueberry patch to make this year's mowing much easier.  Mark's hard work with the chainsaw netted us half a cord of firewood, now drying in the woodshed, and my branch piles are growing too.  Our chipper rental date is tentatively set for this weekend, but Lucy didn't want to wait --- she did her part to increase the farm's wood chip supply while we cleared the brush.

We're finishing up our series on homemade chicken feed over on our chicken blog this week.
Posted Thu Mar 4 06:39:32 2010 Tags:

The other important measurement to take when assessing your creek for microhydro is pressure or head.  The two terms are different measurements of the same thing --- potential energy just waiting to turn your turbine and make some power.

Many homesteaders pipe water from a spring down to their house, and the energy in the water line can be tapped for microhydro power.  To measure pressure directly in such a situation, install a gressure gauge in the line and read the dial.

If you don't already have a water line in place, you're better off calculating a stream's head rather than measuring pressure directly.  Head is simply the change in elevation between the highest and lowest points of a stream, and it can be measured in several different ways.  If you have a gps or watch with an altimeter, this can give a rough measurement of the respective elevations, but I found the water level method (outlined in the embedded video) to be the simplest.

To measure head using the water level method, find an inflexible length of pipe and start at the stream's highest point.  Completely submerge the pipe, then slowly lift the downhill end out of the water.  Creek water will flow out of the pipe's downhill end until it is raised level with the uphill end, at which point water will stop flowing.  Measure the vertical distance between the downhill end of the pipe and the ground and you have the change in elevation between the two points.  Now scoot the pipe downstream until the uphill end rests where the downhill end used to be, and repeat your measurement.  Lather, rinse, and repeat until you run out of, reach the end of the stream.  The head is the sum of all of the elevations measured along the creek's length.

The downfall of our property's creeks is their valley-bottom flatness.  Our small creek has the largest head, and even there the total change in elevation is barely over three feet.  Granted, microhydro applications can work with as little as 2 feet of head, but the setup becomes much pricier if your head is less than 50 feet.

Check out our ebook about making a living on the land.

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

Posted Thu Mar 4 12:00:25 2010 Tags:

 home made do it yourself table top brood coop

We decided to make the new home made brood coop big enough to handle the little styrofoam incubator for future chick operations.

best brood coop chick waterer
The trick will be to monitor the temperature over the weekend to see if any adjustments need to be made.

I used a few scrap pieces of 2x4 to secure up each corner, which worked nicely as a support for both Avian Aqua Misers.

Posted Thu Mar 4 16:51:32 2010 Tags:

Decaying stump dirt at the base of an old stumpEvery morning this week, I've woken up to a light coating of snow on the ground.  The snow cover gently melts off by lunchtime, meaning that the soil in the floodplain has been too wet to drive on since Tuesday.  As a result, we couldn't haul in loads of manure from our neighbor to fertilize the onion beds I need to plant this week.  What could I do?

The obvious solution is chicken manure, but onions like soil high in organic matter and chicken manure melts into the ground almost like chemical fertilizers.  Clearly, I needed humus.  But I wasn't keen on the idea of carrying heavy five gallon buckets a third of a mile from the parking area to the garden.

Stump with dried up turkey tail fungi on it.As I stood peering around me with furrowed brow, I noticed Lucy digging frantically around a tree stump.  Four years ago, we cut down young forest in the mule garden, but we left the stumps in place since I refused to let Mark buy dynamite and blow them out.  We've been mowing and working around them ever since.

I'd forgotten about the stumps, but Lucy hadn't.  She was hard at work rooting out a shrew at one stump's base.  If I'd been in a comic strip, a light would have gone off above my head at that moment.  "Lucy digs for shrews, shrews love earthworms, earthworms love compost, and I want compost..."

I pushed Lucy aside, and ran my fingers through the rich stump dirt that had been sitting right in front of my face.  Over the last four years, turkey tail fungi had colonized the stumps and broken the cellulose down into compost.  By digging around at the soil line, I quickly came up with four beautiful bucket-loads of the soft, fluffy compost.  Thanks, Lucy!

Preparing for your own spring chickens?  Check out our homemade chicken waterer, great for getting chicks off to a strong start.
Posted Fri Mar 5 07:03:27 2010 Tags:

Our small creekThe final step of assessing your stream for microhydro is doing a bit of math to determine the creek's power.  I'm simplifying a bit here because you will lose some power due to friction as the water rubs up against the inside of your pipe, but this formula is good enough for estimating whether your creek is worth looking into further.

Power output (continuous watts) = Flow (gpm) X Head (ft) ÷ 10

If you'd rather have your estimated energy output in kwh/month so that you can compare it to your electric bill, continue on to this formula:

Kwh/month = Power (continuous watts) X 0.72

So, it's finally time to see if our little creek passes the test.  She puts out 20 gpm of water and has a head of about 3 feet.  So:

Power output = 20 gpm X 3 ft ÷ 10 = 6 continous watts

Kwh/month = 6 continuous watts X 0.72 = 4.3 kwh/month

Sadly, our little creek failed miserably --- that would be enough to keep the lights on in our house, but nothing more.  As a rule of thumb, you need either a large head or a large flow to make microhydro appealing, and our little creek had neither.

On the other hand, we have several other possibilities on our property that look more appealing.  If we were willing to pay a lot for a run of the river system, or to build a big dam, our primary creek would definitely provide all of our power.  On the cheaper side, it's possible that it would be worth our while to tap energy from the spring that comes out way up on the hill, although it does stop flowing during dry weather.

Finally, I'm curious whether there would be a way to make electricity from the water running off the barn roof if we installed gutters.  I envision using tanks as a storage system and just letting the water leak out slowly, rather than buying expensive (and environmentally unfriendly batteries.)  I estimate that nearly 4,000 gallons of water flow off the roof each month, but I guess that's only 0.09 gpm.  Back to the drawing board....

Check out our ebook about breaking out of the 9-to-5 grind.

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

Posted Fri Mar 5 12:00:21 2010 Tags:

 40 caliber damage

The occasional water line damage is to be expected when your wife is just starting to learn the finer points of 40 caliber marksmanship.

Posted Fri Mar 5 16:20:20 2010 Tags:

Rabbit skullWhile digging around in the stump dirt Thursday, I uncovered some found art.  Lucy must have buried a carcass in the base of the stump because my scrabbling fingers turned up tufts of fur and leg bones...and then this perfect skull.

I found a very useful key for identifying mammal skulls and soon discovered the skull's owner.  The answer is after the second picture for those who want to guess.

Rabbit skull from below

The first distinguishing feature is the large gap between the majority of the teeth and the incisors, which determines that the animal was either a rodent or a rabbit.  If you look closely below the big incisors at the front of the jaw, you'll notice two smaller teeth tucked back into the skull.  These peg teeth are used for grabbing or cutting food and identify my skull as a rabbit.

I find skulls endlessly fascinating and once had a collection, but eventually learned that collections bog me down.  So I gave this rabbit to our winesap apple tree as a source of calcium.

Check out our homemade chicken waterers, the perfect way to get your chicks off to a healthy start.
Posted Sat Mar 6 07:20:19 2010 Tags:

 Homesteading center cabin drawing
Last week's Arctic homesteading documentary really managed to stay with me and inspired a medium sized search for another similar type story.

That seems like all there is of the free stuff, but the Homestead National Monument of America just updated the movie that plays in their Museum. It's not online yet, but if you're in or near the Beatrice Nebraska zipcode you might want to plan a visit.

160 acres of land free for the taking sounds like a good deal, but I'm not sure if I would have gone for such a dream if I were alive back then. I guess it would depend on if there were any other options at the time.

Posted Sat Mar 6 15:55:22 2010 Tags:

Lettuce seedlingThe lettuce I planted a solid month ago in a cold frame is up at long last.  Usually, we would have been eating the February lettuce by now and would have planted a bed of March lettuce to eat next month.  But this abnormally cold winter has resulted in abnormally cold soil which sets our seeds back.

Luckily, I can tell that the ground temperatures are finally rising.  Not only is the lettuce up, but our water line has started thawing during the days --- more signs of spring!

On the bad news side, I've been overdoing it and my carpal tunnel is flaring up.  That means I don't sleep well, which means I'm grumpy and my head goes wonky during the day.  I apologize if nothing I write makes sense. :-)

Check out our microbusiness ebook and cheer me up.
Posted Sun Mar 7 08:34:58 2010 Tags:

This short video provides an accurate yet boring picture of how the rental chipper cuts a rug.

Our share ended up being 1/3 of the weekend time which worked out to be 65 dollars.

It was a great opportunity that would not have been possible without our neighbors' suggestion of sharing the time and the aid of their tractor to pull the thing all the way back here. Well worth waking up early tomorrow morning to drive it back to it's home in the big city.

I imagine this might be the closest thing we have to participating in an old fashioned barn raising which is too bad because this neighborly cooperation thing is a pretty darn good feeling at the end of the day.

Posted Sun Mar 7 18:11:52 2010 Tags:

Sitting in a pile of wood chipsWood chips make me chipper.  What can I say --- some women like roses, but I like mulch, even if it won't be properly aged until several months from now.

We spent most of the day Saturday over at our neighbors' helping them chip the biggest pile of saplings I've ever seen.  Sunday afternoon it was our turn.  One neighbor drove the chipper over to our place with his amazingly huge tractor, and then we chipped up a storm for about four hours before giving in to exhaustion.

Rented wood chipper in action

Yellow crocusDespite being pleased as punch about our wood chips, I have to admit that I think the chipper rental won't be an experiment we'll be repeating.  Once I put on my wrist braces, my carpal tunnel simmered down, but it was still an awfully wearing weekend for about as many chips as we could get for free if we hunt down the utility line guys.  Add in a few hours drive to pick up and drop off the chipper, and we might have been just as well off to buy mulch.

On the other hand, we did clear up some brushy edges that needed work, and I have my wood chip piles segregated into partially decomposed (for mulching with this year), fresh pine (for mulching the blueberries next year), and fresh box-elder (for planting mushrooms in.)  The control freak in me is well pleased.  And, look, the year's first crocus!!

Try a homemade chicken waterer with your new chicks and watch them grow stronger and faster.

Posted Mon Mar 8 07:01:39 2010 Tags:

Christopher Lloyd's cottage gardenAs you've probably surmised, I'm intrigued by traditional methods of gardening and farming.  In previous lunchtime series, I've explored Central American farming, Chinese farming, and tropical forest gardens from around the world.  This week I want to look at a gardening technique that is much less exotic --- British cottage gardening.

The Cottage Garden by Christopher Lloyd is a pretty and chatty book, perfect for flipping through when you're yearning for spring.  It's nearly a picture book, and doesn't have any in depth information, but the book is a helpful look at the tradition that helped give rise to Robert Hart's forest gardening.  Cottage gardening also has something to teach anyone who strives to be self-sufficient.

Check out our ebook about making a living on the farm.

This post is part of our Cottage Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Mar 8 12:00:28 2010 Tags:
mark More mulch

 truck load of mulch close up

Dropped off the rental chipper bright and early today in Kingsport which happens to be down the road from the Mulch store.

We bought 2 cubic yards of double ground, slightly aged mulch for 48 bucks.

Anna got a bit weak in the knees from her first handful and sniff not unlike the reaction you see when a wine expert gets his or her hands on a glass of 1943 Chateau Picard.

Posted Mon Mar 8 15:52:18 2010 Tags:

Mourning Cloak butterflyWhen it snowed the first four days of March, I started feeling like maybe we weren't getting spring this year.  But then came four days of brilliant sun, and our farm now looks completely different.

As I worked more buckets of stump dirt into the garden and planted greens, I felt like I was living in the climax of How the Grinch Stole Christmas:

It came without snowdrops!
It came without droughts!
It came without lettuce,
spring peepers, or sprouts!

And what happened then...?
Well...on our farm they say,
That my tiny winter heart
grew three sizes that day!

Not only did my heart grow three sizes, I saw two species of butterflies out flitting about --- the Mourning Cloak I captured in pixels and either a Comma or Question Mark.  The bees were foraging in earnest, though I didn't take the time to hunt down their quarry.  Best yet, Mark got the golf cart all the way out to the parking area with just a bit of encouragement.  We're back in business!

Our homemade chicken waterer can be made by anyone who can use a drill.
Posted Tue Mar 9 06:46:50 2010 Tags:

Traditional cottage gardenThe cottage garden arose naturally over the last half millenium as British peasants planted gardens around their small houses.  These were hard-working laborers who didn't have the time or energy to spare for mere prettiness, so they planted large vegetable, herb, and fruit gardens, interspersed with a few flowers.  The cottage garden traditionally held a pig sty, a chicken coop, and bee hives as well to round out the cottager's fare.

Around the end of the eighteenth centuries, these poor peasants were joined by the first wave of back-to-the-landers.  Members of the gentry began to idealize the cottage life and to create their own cottage gardens.  This is when the cottage garden began to veer toward prettiness for its own sake, with scads of flowers often replacing the original mixture of edible plants and animals.

In either case, though, cottage gardens were beautiful.  While the vegetable patch was usually planted in bare, straight rows, the rest of the garden consisted of plants pushed together until no soil could be seen between the leaves.  This informal clumping is the signature feature of the cottage garden and can also be seen in the hodge-podge of closely packed plants in Robert Hart's forest garden.

Check out our ebook about starting your own microbusiness and living the good life.

This post is part of our Cottage Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Mar 9 12:00:30 2010 Tags:

 home made diy golf cart dump box plans

Total cost on this home made golf cart dump box was just over 5 bucks thanks to using scrap wood from the old house.

It expands the back hauling capacity of the golf cart from 2 buckets to 7, with about 3 buckets worth in between the cracks.

Next up is a wooden rack to take advantage of some space up front.

Posted Tue Mar 9 17:04:49 2010 Tags:

Straight pipesThese are our straight pipes.  The operation isn't as environmentally unfriendly as it sounds since the water only flows from our kitchen sink, the worst pollutants are a bit of dish soap and toothpaste, and there's no way any of it can run into the creek.  Still, the cesspool is unsightly, and Lucy likes to drink out of it, which we highly disapprove of.  Time for some mycoremediation!

This is a hunk of King Stropharia (aka Winecap) sawdust spawn.  When we put in our mushroom order this winter, I asked Mark if we could experiment with a five pound bag of this new species.  I told him how King Sawdust spawnStropharia is great at filtering graywater and is also a food source for honeybees.  But Mark still seemed displeased by my order.  "Should I back off to two pounds?"I asked.  "Nope," Mark countered.  "Double it!  Double it!"

Just in case you're curious, ten pounds of King Stropharia sawdust spawn is enough to innoculate just over a cubic yard of wood chips.  I broke the spawn down into two pound sections so that I could innoculate several smaller beds.  First, I mounded up our fresh wood chips to a depth of about six inches, then I crumbled up the appropriate amount of sawdust Wetting down the new Stropharia bed with a sprinkler.spawn to put on top.  I covered the spawn with about an inch of additional woodchips to protect it from drying out, then set up the sprinkler and soaked the whole operation for a while.  I'll need to check every day for the next few weeks to make sure the mushroom beds stay damp, watering them as necessary.  Then there's no work involved until the mushrooms appear this summer.

In addition to our graywater filtration bed, I'm experimenting with four other locations.  Three are under the canopy of our young peach and nectarine trees, and the fourth is out in the open but in a very damp spot.  Hopefully the spawn will take hold in at least one bed so that next year we'll know what optimal King Stropharia habitat looks like.

Check out our homemade chicken waterer, great for chicks, adult chickens, and even other poultry.
Posted Wed Mar 10 07:44:07 2010 Tags:

Hedge around a cottage gardenThe traditional cottage garden had to be enclosed by a fence, hedge, or wall to prevent wandering sheep from eating up the plants.  Of these three options, a hedge was the most traditional enclosure since it was cheap and relatively easy to create.  A well developed hedge kept livestock and wind out of the garden with ease.

Traditional British hedges often contained a mixture of native trees, roses, hazelnuts, blackberries, forsythia, quince, damsons, and hawthorns.  Christopher Lloyd noted that hedges did double-duty, both keeping out unwanted livestock and providing edible plants without taking up valuable garden space.  The hedges did require trimming once or twice a year, but that was a small price to pay for free and tasty fencing.

Check out our ebook and learn to escape the 9 to 5 grind.

This post is part of our Cottage Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Mar 10 12:00:21 2010 Tags:

 diy golf cart dump box image close up

Today I discovered that 7 buckets of manure in the back with 3 buckets riding shotgun and 2 buckets of gravel on the floor board is about the load limit for the new home made golf cart dump box.

I can't believe it took us this long to make such an obvious improvement in carrying capacity.

Posted Wed Mar 10 15:52:44 2010 Tags:
Salamander, earthworm, and rhubarb buds

Huge pink buds under the leaf mulch give way to pale yellow leaves --- the rhubarb is ready to grow.  I rake autumn leaves off the rhubarbs, strawberries, and asparagus to give my early risers an opportunity to bask in the early spring sun.  Within minutes, I count two salamanders, half a dozen spiders, and innumerable worms.  It may just be my imagination, but the soil seems more alive than in mulchless Marches.  Once my plants spread out a bit, I'll push the dead leaves back underneath as mulch, but for now I don't want my perennials to fade away from lack of sunlight.

Meanwhile, with our freezer nearly empty, I'm eying those rhubarb buds with uncharacteristic glee.  I'm ashamed to say that even though I've had a very healthy patch for years, I don't think I've eaten a stalk.  What's your favorite rhubarb recipe?  (Not strawberry-rhubarb pie --- I consider any cooked form of strawberries a waste of their vibrant goodness.)

Don't miss my series on wild chickens, chicken coops, tractors and more this week on my chicken blog.
Posted Thu Mar 11 08:00:29 2010 Tags:

Old bee skep (hive)I can easily imagine how a beehive would be an essential part of a cottager's garden since they probably had no other source of concentrated sugar.  Due to the ubiquity of bees in the cottage garden, Christopher Lloyd's The Cottage Garden contains a whole section on bee-attracting plants.

Christopher Lloyd recites the common wisdom that the mint and aster families are bee favorites, but goes on to add several other species that are a must for bee habitat.  Crocuses and willows are on his list as good sources of early spring pollen, allowing the hive to quickly build up their numbers so that they'll be ready for the summer rush.  Speaking of the summer rush, Hydrangea villosa, basswood, borage, fennel, thyme, sage, clematis, and white clover are all given pride of place as bee-friendly summer flowers.  Finally, Christopher Lloyd notes that fall-blooming Sedums are important nectar-providers.

I tend to overlook flowers in the garden, but will have to consider adding some of these top bee plants to nooks and crannies over the next few years.

Turn an invention into a cash cow with the tips in our ebook.

This post is part of our Cottage Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Mar 11 12:00:17 2010 Tags:

 radical permaculture

I really enjoyed the recent interview with Frank Aragona on the Diet Soap podcast.

Frank goes into some detail about a new project he's working on with a group in New Mexico that wants to expand a program that teaches gardening skills to school children.

It's a concept that is long overdue and I can't help but to feel like a couple of hours working in the dirt might actually help to calm down some of the more energetic students that can never seem to stay in their seats.

I would take it a step further and teach the kids some basic janitorial skills and put them to work cleaning the school like students do in Japan.

Posted Thu Mar 11 15:52:08 2010 Tags:

Newly planted garden bedsOne of the most common questions I hear from new gardeners is, "When should I plant my first spring vegetables?"  I'm not surprised that folks are confused since there seem to be several schools of thoughts on the matter.

Around here, many people plant by the signs.  You pick up a calendar at the local hardware store with phases of the moon and planting dates on it, then put your seeds in the ground when the moon dictates.  People who plant by the signs also tend to believe that you need to put in your fence posts at a certain phase of the moon, but I've yet to meet anyone who set up a controlled experiment to test the effects of the moon's phase on their garden.  I dismiss planting by the signs as voodoo, although I would like to see some scientific data one way or the other.

The next faction is the scientific set, of which I'm partially a member.  They figure out their local frost free date (May 15 here in the mountains of southwest Virginia) then download a spring planting chart and use some simple math to figure out their planting dates.  The chart below comes from the Virginia Cooperative Extension, and I've posted an explanation of how to use it here.  Note that the example assumes a frost free date of April 15.

Spring planting dates from the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service
I used a chart like this to make a spreadsheet with optimal planting dates on it, but I don't mark the exact dates on my calendar.  Our seasons can be so variable that I suspect the best way to figure out optimal planting dates is to pay attention to natural signs, like when the first chorus frogs begin to call or when certain flowers bloom.  These plants and animals are more alert to the intricacies of soil and air temperature than we are, and chances are they know best.

Newly planted onion bedUnfortunately, I haven't got this method really figured out yet, beyond the old saying that you'd best plant your corn when the oak leaves are as big as a squirrel's ear.  So, for now, I just add in a one week window on either side of the "optimal planting dates" to allow for rain, drought, strange freezes, or warm spells.  For example, although I'm slated to plant our main crop of peas next week, we rushed and put them in the ground on Thursday morning before the rain came.  The ground is warm enough that my hands don't freeze as I pull weeds, and the less clayey areas are actually drying up on top (though some of the clayey beds would have liked a few more days to evaporate winter's moisture.)  I figured I'd be better off putting my peas in the ground now than waiting until the ground is dry again, which may not happen for over a week.

Of course, the real reason I planted our main crop of peas early is because I talked to my garden guru on Monday and she'd just planted peas in her own garden.  Gotta keep up with the Joneses!

Don't forget to feed your extra peas to the chickens, and then check out our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Fri Mar 12 08:57:59 2010 Tags:

Flowers in a cottage garden are spaced close togetherI wrote earlier that traditional cottage garden plants were primarily edibles or medicinals, but some flowers were included just for prettiness.  Cottagers couldn't afford to buy flowers, but they often dug up pretty wildflowers to transplant into their garden, or traded plants with their neighbors.  The flowers in a traditional cottage garden sound exactly like the flowers I allow in my garden --- they were easy to propagate and often self-sowed, needing little care.

The close spacing of flowers in the cottage garden helped minimize the amount of time the cottager spent weeding since the flowers choked out any weeds.  Forest gardeners use this same technique, talking about filling all unoccupied niches so that unwanted plants don't have any space to gain a foothold.

I'm unlikely to focus on flowers anytime soon, but I have started setting aside patches for self-seeding annuals like cosmos and fennel and have some spring bulbs that require very little care.  I like to think that my garden is more closely akin to the traditional cottage garden than modern "cottage gardens" are, complete with fruit trees, herbs, lots of vegetables, bees, and chickens.  All I need is a pig.

Don't miss our simple living series, currently over on our Wetknee Press blog.

This post is part of our Cottage Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Mar 12 12:00:19 2010 Tags:

gallon bucket methodBefore picking up our latest load of mulch I lined up all the 5 gallon buckets we had in the center of the bed.

I was a bit curious to know if they would stay in place or get knocked over by the force of the load.

Now that I know it works we plan to add another 10 buckets before the next load.

Posted Fri Mar 12 16:34:10 2010 Tags:

Mulching with composted wood chipsWith the driveway finally dry enough to drive over, Mark spent most of his time this week hauling in load after load of soil amendments.  In the process, I've been learning to visualize a much larger unit of measurement than I'm used to --- a cubic yard.  Obviously, a cubic yard is a volume that's three feet on each side, equal to 27 cubic feet.  That's equivalent to about 40 five gallon buckets, or half of Joey's pickup truck bed.

By my estimate, we netted two cubic yards of wood chips during our chipper rental weekend, for a cost of about $33 per cubic yard (not counting our time and gas.)  Ten pounds of King Stropharia spawn used up a full cubic yard of those fresh chips, with the other cubic yard set aside for later.

On his way home, Mark bought two cubic yards of well composted wood mulch, for a cost of $24 per cubic yard.  The mulch covered the ground around a dozen blueberries, eight grapes, and about seventy linear feet of blackberries and raspberries.  The seemingly huge amount of mulch was perhaps a third of what I use on my woody perennials each year (and maybe a tenth of what I could easily put to use if I had an unlimited supply.)

Hauling manure in the golf cartWhen I sent Mark over to the neighbors' to shovel up some of their horse manure, I decided to translate the five gallon buckets into cubic yards for comparison.  He filled up the truck with twenty buckets of well composted manure, which is about half a cubic yard.  That scantily covered twenty garden beds.  In fact, I put the manure into the garden nearly as fast as Mark could haul it in to me, and figure I will need at least 5 cubic yards of compost/manure to feed the vegetable garden this year (and could use twice that much or more without overfertilizing.)

I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this thought, except to say that I really like soil amendments, and I could use many, many cubic yards of them.  I guess I just like to keep track so that we can work up to providing all of the mulch and compost our farm needs.

This post has been brought to you by the letter "C", the number "3", and our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Sat Mar 13 08:02:43 2010 Tags:

 know your chicken

I recently discovered that 1 in every 10,000 chickens turns out to be gynandromorphous, half hen, half rooster, thanks to a recent BBC article.

Dr Michael Clinton of the Roslin Institute has just published some of the latest research on the subject in the scientific journal Nature.

They came up with a surprising conclusion. The system is different from mammals in that there is no mutation and the birds are full male on one side and full female on the other.

Of course the hope is to find a way to increase production in the poultry business by making female birds with the same growth characteristics as the male to "increase productivity and food security".

Posted Sat Mar 13 15:29:53 2010 Tags:

I don't think I've ever been happier to see rain in March than I was this weekend.  After our cold, wet winter, a week of sunny days in the fifties and sixties was irresistable and it took the rain to remind me that working from dawn until dark every day requires intermittent days of rest.

The frogs were happy to see wet weather reappear as well.  Spring Peepers and Chorus Frogs were joined by dozens of Wood Frogs (captured in the embedded video) by Friday night.  Ever since the first spring when I hunted them down by flashlight, I've had a very soft spot in my heart for Wood Frogs --- hopefully you'll see the appeal too.

Want your chickens to be as happy as our frogs?  Give them an automatic chicken waterer and they'll amuse themselves for hours.
Posted Sun Mar 14 09:23:51 2010 Tags:

 suburban chicken dot org

In researching designs for our future chicken pasture coop I came across a great collection of photos detailing the construction of what might be the sturdiest chicken coop ever built.

I really like it when a project can be broken down into a series of pictures, and Suburban did a great job documenting their new chicken palace.

They use that same level of detail to describe their varied flock of beautiful hens of which I seem to be partial to Mabel...the one in the bottom right hand corner. It's a good collection of data on various breeds, but I wonder how brutal the pecking order is in such a diverse crowd? The more experience I get with chickens the more I'm inclined to believe the old cliche "birds of a feather flock together" which is why we've decided to go with just one breed for the pasture experiment.

Is it cruel to segregate chickens is such a way? I guess I don't know the answer to that question, but when I see one chicken being a bully to another it tells me that the stress level is going up for that one bird which means its health and egg production might decline in direct relation.

Posted Sun Mar 14 17:34:33 2010 Tags:
Map of spring frost free dates

The runner-up question, after "When should I plant my first spring vegetables?" is always "What is my frost free date?"  I have to admit that frost free dates are unimaginably vague, and if you ask three different people, you'll probably get three different answers.  For goodness sake, I asked two different extension agents (supposedly your best bet for local information) and got two different answers.

Officially, you can use the frost-free map reproduced above (which seems to think we're frost free somewhere between April 1 and April 30) or city tables like this one (if you happen to have a city in your vicinity, which we don't.)  No matter where you find your local frost-free date, you should be aware that microclimate effects mean everything in the changeable spring.  If you live on a north-facing slope, you may really be one zone colder than if you lived on the south-facing slope across the valley.  If you live near a large body of water or in an asphalt-laden city, you may be one zone warmer than if you lived just a few miles away.  Higher elevations, of course, will also be colder than lower elevations (although many mountains have frost lines with apple orchards safely protected at the higher elevations from late spring frosts.)

The best way to know your frost-free date for sure, of course, is to start keeping a weather journal.  Last year, we had a frost on May 18, so I'm sticking with my May 15 prediction and ignoring folks who think we're frost free any earlier.

Check out our homemade chicken waterers, perfect for raising healthy chicks.
Posted Mon Mar 15 08:25:20 2010 Tags:

Sir Roland on a chargerOne of the most popular topics among homesteaders is alternative energy.  We've done some thinking in that direction ourselves (and recently posted a series on assessing your site for microhydro.)  Unlike gardening, though, which is largely intuitive, really understanding alternative energy requires some grounding in physics.  My high school physics is unbelievably rusty, and I suspect many of our readers may be equally out of practice, so I thought it would be a good idea to bring us back up to date in a lunchtime series.

This is where Roland came to the rescue.  Regular commenters have probably noticed lengthy, well-thought out comments by Roland in the past, often correcting our engineering mistakes.  (Oops.)  Roland is a design and manufacturing engineer in the Netherlands, and when I asked him if he might be interested in writing a lunchtime series about energy, he quickly whipped off a primer on the physics of energy sources.  I have to admit that I'm beyond impressed at his writing skills since English is not his first language --- I barely cleaned up what he wrote at all.  If you're similarly enthused, maybe we can tempt him to write another series for us in the near future.

While you're waiting to hear from our guest writer, check out our ebook about quitting your job and making a living on the land.

This post is part of our Energy Primer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Mar 15 12:00:20 2010 Tags:

Starting up the deer deterrents is our newest spring time tradition.

Posted Mon Mar 15 17:21:48 2010 Tags:
Before and after shots, pruning and training a young cherry

I've learned the hard way that if our woody perennials aren't taken care of before spring gets underway, they are quickly pushed to the end of the list and lost in the shuffle.  Last year, a third of our raspberries never got pruned, fertilized, or mulched, and as a result their fruits were half the size of the more tended patch.  So, this week we're going to focus on perennials and get them all sorted out and ready to taken on 2010.

I started on Monday by pruning the fruit trees.  In past years, I've spent hours out there, looking back and forth between my trees and the pruning section of my master gardener handbook.  But this year --- my fourth year of pruning --- I suddenly felt empowered and able to make short work of the tree pruning.  It helped that last year's summer pruning and training had left the trees in really good shape, so my "pruning" mostly consisted of retying my training strings a little further out on the branches, with a snip here and there to take out dead wood, watersprouts, or crossing shoots.

I'm also starting to get the hang of the two systems I'm using.  I'm training our peaches and nectarine to the open center system and our plum, cherry (pictured at the top of the page), apples, and pears to the central leader system.  I still don't know if my pruning method is right, but at least it's starting to become consistent from year to year.

Check out our homemade chicken waterer which also works great for ducks, turkeys, and other poultry.
Posted Tue Mar 16 08:14:45 2010 Tags:

Global energy carriers in 2006Before we speak about energy, it is useful to lay some groundwork to understand it better. Most people, when talking about energy sources, are really talking about energy carriers. Think about gasoline, coal, ethanol, water, wind. Where does their energy actually come from?

The conservation of energy law and the first law of thermodynamics state that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only change form. Einstein showed that mass and energy are equivalent, leading to the famous equation E=mc².

So physically, there are no "sources" of energy, because it doesn't just come into existence. It just looked that way to us before we understood what energy is. What we see as an energy source is just energy being taken from a carrier and transformed from one sort into another. But since the use of the word "source" is so ingrained, I'll not confuse you be being a stickler for accuracy.

Potential energy and kinetic energyWhile it is possible for most kinds of energy to be transformed into other kinds without loss (e.g. dropping something converts potential energy into kinetic energy perfectly), it is impossible to convert thermal energy into other forms with 100% efficiency. This is usually called the second law of thermodynamics; systems tend to evolve towards larger entropy.

In mechanical systems, friction usually consumes a part of the energy put into the system, and dissipates it as heat. That is why machines are not 100% efficient. The ubiquitous ball bearing uses rolling resistance to reduce friction. But by using fluid bearings it is possible to reduce friction considerably more. Small machines are usually less efficient than big ones.

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This post is part of our Energy Primer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Mar 16 12:00:04 2010 Tags:

 Do it Yourself wringer washing machine repair

Where do you get a belt for a wringer washer that went out of production during the Nixon administration?

The local auto parts store of course. Just take in the old belt and ask the nice person behind the counter if they can patiently size it up with the masses of belts they stock or tell them you want a Dayco GPL Premium V-belt model number L432 which is what I ended up with.

Posted Tue Mar 16 17:00:43 2010 Tags:

BlackberriesTrick number one for growing great blackberries is choosing the right variety for your climate.  Daddy gave me some starts of his Navaho and Arapaho berries that grew like gangbusters in his South Carolina garden, but they were a bust here. 

After three years with no fruits, I ripped Daddy's  berries out and replaced them with some unnamed blackberries from the midwife who delivered my sister.  My new blackberries produced huge, beautiful berries...and also extended their primocanes for twenty feet along the trellis in each direction.  Now that's a blackberry that likes our climate!

Blackberries after pruning

Rooted blackberry caneSince I neglected to summer tip the blackberries at three feet tall to promote branching, my winter pruning involved cutting out last year's dead canes and then whacking off about 75% of the living canes.  I didn't have the heart to prune them quite as hard as I probably should have --- the photo above is the after pruning shot.

Several of the canes had touched the ground and produced massive root structures, and I dug up about a dozen of the best ones to expand my blackberry patch.  I also cut the tops off the everbearing raspberries, pruned out the old floricanes on the other raspberries, trained the grapes onto their trellises, and cut out the dead bits on the blueberries.  Our woody perennials are now all pruned --- a good thing too since the blueberries are already thinking of leafing out.

Chick season is upon us!  Be sure to start them off right with a poop-free chicken waterer.
Posted Wed Mar 17 07:25:59 2010 Tags:

Hydrogen fusion produces helium and energySo where does the energy we use actually come from?


In stars, hydrogen atoms undergo fusion producing helium. A very small part of the mass of these atoms is converted into energy which emanates from the sun as radiation. This is one of the two basic energy sources.

Fissionable elements

The other primary energy source is also formed in stars, but in a different way. When a star substantially bigger than our sun runs out of fuel, its core collapses and the star explodes in a process called a supernova. During this process, very heavy elements can be formed that release energy when they are split. These are called fissionables, and they are the second primary energy source. Supernova One should realize that nuclear fission happens naturally in every fissile material. This is known as nuclear decay. Without this process we could not exist, since it is this process that is largely responsible for the fact that the earth's core is still liquid, which helps to keep us warm and generates a magnetic field that protects us from cosmic radiation. The heat flow from nuclear decay inside the earth is around 30 [tera][]watt. (30 000 000 000 000 Watt!)

At least one instance has been found where a natural nuclear fission reactor has existed and run for a few hundred thousand years.

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This post is part of our Energy Primer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Mar 17 12:00:23 2010 Tags:

 home made diy bio char toilet composter

Bio char toilet composter is just a fancy name for a portable out house structure in a strategic location near a fruit tree.

The bio char element comes into play by having a bucket of charcoal and leaf matter on hand to be mixed in the composting section for maximum fertility.

Stay tuned for a more detailed break down and the final construction pictures.

Posted Wed Mar 17 15:59:23 2010 Tags:

Biochar in IndonesiaBiochar (aka terra preta) is the new darling of organic gardeners.  Everyone's talking about it, and no wonder since terra preta in the Amazon has turned poor ground into high fertility soil that seems to last hundreds of years without any additional input of fertilizer.

What most people don't realize, though, is that biochar is more than just charcoal buried in the ground.  Amazonians probably stumbled upon the mixture accidentally when they combined human waste, crop residue, charcoal from their cooking fires, animal bones, and plain old trash in their midden heaps.  Scientists aren't quite sure why the resulting mixture is so good for plant growth, but until a biochemist tells me otherwise, I'm going to assume that all of the traditional elements are necessary to create true biochar.

Mark and I have decided to experiment with our own biochar composting toilet as a method of adding fertility to our young forest garden.  Our first incarnation is simply a four foot pit dug in the ground.  We'll poop in the hole and intersperse our humanure with leaves, charcoal and ashes from the woodstove, and the poultry bones we need to hide from Lucy.  Presumably, the nearby fruit trees will begin to send their roots into the terra preta as it ages and will get a good meal.  Meanwhile, our system won't require us to handle the humanure at all, unlike most composting toilet systems, so there's absolutely no risk of contamination.  Maybe the biochar composting toilet will replace composting toilets in the near future.

Are you ordering chicks this week like everyone else?  If so, order an automatic chicken waterer as well to get them off to a good start.
Posted Thu Mar 18 07:44:45 2010 Tags:

Remember how energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed from one type to another?  The primary sources of energy in the stars are transformed on earth into the various energy carriers you are probably more familiar with.

Fossil fuels

Coal formation

These are (hydro)carbons (i.e. chemicals mostly built up out of hydrogen and carbon) formed by anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms, over geological timescales. Organisms can be plants, or creatures that feed on plants, or creatures that feed on other creatures. If you follow the chain back, you'll come to plants collecting solar energy and using it (via a process known as photosynthesis) to convert carbon dioxide into organic compounds, mainly sugars.

So essentially, fossil fuels are chemically stored solar energy! The problem with fossil fuels is that we're currently using them at a much faster rate than they are formed. Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide released by burning them influences the climate.

Wood and other plant matter

Since these were the basis for fossil fuels, they hardly need explaining. If they aren't dried before burning, a substantial part of their energy will be consumed by evaporating the water in them. The energy in this water vapor is usually not captured and is lost.


Ethanol production

Ethanol can be made via fermentation or as a petrochemical via the hydration of ethylene. Of course, only ethanol produced by fermentation can be considered carbon-neutral.

Fermentation is the process where sugars from plants are converted into ethanol by yeasts. The sugars in the plants, again, are formed by photosynthesis.

The problem with this process is that it results in a lot of biomatter that is of no use to the fermentation process. For example only the grain seeds can be used for ethanol production. Most of the plant is useless in this way. Producing cellulosic ethanol would make this process much more sufficient. Another worry is that growing plants to produce ethanol might hurt food production.

But again, the root source of the energy embodied in ethanol is the sun.

Biodiesel / vegetable oil

Biodiesel production These are lumped together because biodiesel is usually made from vegetable oils or used cooking oil, via a process called transesterification. These oils are pressed from seeds or fruits or beans of plants. The main reason to make biodiesel is that diesel engines usually require modifications to run on straight vegetable oils, while biodiesel requires little to no modification of a diesel engine.

As with ethanol, only a small part of any plant can produce oil. And the same oils that can be used for biodiesel are also used as food. The process uses a strong base like NaOH or KOH as a catalyst, and produces glycerin as a by-product.

Since it is made from plants, the real energy source is again the sun.

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This post is part of our Energy Primer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Mar 18 12:00:27 2010 Tags:

 Big horses in a field

I thought it was finally time to give some photographic credit to the two horses that provide most of the organic material for our garden.

Posted Thu Mar 18 17:40:34 2010 Tags:

Busy honeybee hiveWhen the sun came out Thursday morning, so did the honeybees.  For the first time this year, they seemed to be deep into a pollen or nectar flow of some sort --- there were aerial traffic jams as the bees piled up, trying to make it through the little hole in the entrance reducer.  Honestly, I'm not sure what their primary food is right now, since I've seen them on the crocuses (more in the embedded video) and on the tiny speedwell, dead nettle, and chickweed flowers in the yard.  I suspect there may be something much larger blooming out in the woods to account for this much traffic --- maybe those swollen elm or hazel buds have burst open?

Honeybee eggsSo much for the outside of the hive --- what's going on inside?  Once the day was thoroughly warm, I went ahead and opened up the hives to see how the end of winter was treating the colonies.  I found tiny white eggs, grub-liked larvae, and capped cells of pupae in two of the hives, along with scads of leftover honey.  I took out the entrance reducers and popped a new super on each hive just in case the bees get really industrious before I check back.

The queens are clearly just starting to lay their eggs, but I saw a troublesome sign in one hive.  The bees had extended three of the larvae's cells out beyond the comb's normal face --- it looks to my untrained eye like they're thinking of building queen cells.  That would mean that I let the hive get too congested with honey and the bees are thinking of swarming.  I'll check on them again next week and, if necessary, split the hive in two to keep all of the bees under domestication.

Small cluster of starved honeybeesI also found a tiny cluster of eleven starved bees.  The poor things were face down in adjacent cells, searching for honey.  I've read that little starvation clusters like this happen when a sudden cold snap strands some of the bees outside the main cluster.  They can't find the frames of honey, even though food can be quite nearby.  Still, a death toll of less than a dozen bees is not bad since most beekeepers lose a third of their hives over the winter.  Our chemical-free hives are still happy and healthy.

We're writing about chicken breeds over on our chicken blog this week.  I hope you'll drop by and put in your two cents!

Posted Fri Mar 19 08:22:17 2010 Tags:


Hydrologic cycle

Very simply put, everything that sits at a higher altitude in a gravitational field has potential energy. The trick is to convert that potential energy into something we can use, like e.g. kinetic energy that we can use or convert into electrical energy. Kinetic energy is the energy embodied into something that is moving.

Water is a prime candidate for tapping potential and kinetic energy, because of its abundance and the fact that it is usually a liquid under normal conditions. Either we use the flow of water directly (e.g. low head hydro, or wave power), or we use the height of a body of water (the "head") to create a high-velocity stream of water.

The crux of the matter is how do you get a flow of water or a large body of water, since water doesn't flow uphill? This is what is called the water cycle, or hydrologic cycle. Our friend the sun (again) heats water and vaporizes it. The water condenses at cooler (higher) places and runs downhill. So hydropower is indirectly solar power as well. The water (sitting higher-up in the gravity field) is just a storage medium and carrier for the energy.


Again it is ultimately the sun that drives the wind. Very simply put, sunlight heats earth and water, which heats the air. Hot air rises, causing a flow of air from colder parts. Of course there are lots of other phenomena at play; the aforementioned hydrologic cycle has a large part in it as well.

Geothermal energy

Geothermal energy

The temperature of the earth increases with depth. This is known as the geothermal gradient. It is mostly caused by the aforementioned nuclear decay happening inside the earth. So ultimately this is also solar energy.

Now a peculiar property of heat is that the higher the temperature, the more efficiently you can convert heat into mechanical energy, which is the most used form to provide transportation and is the most-used precursor to electric energy. In most places the gradient is between 25 to 30 degrees Kelvin (or Celcius) per kilometer depth, which means you've got to drill a pretty deep hole to get at the really hot stuff, unless you're near a geologically active area. Of course you don't need a very high temperature for heating your house. If you've got enough water of say 27 degrees Celcius (80 F) you could very well heat your house with it. Of course, drilling a hole over a kilometer deep is quite expensive.

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This post is part of our Energy Primer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Mar 19 12:00:22 2010 Tags:
Appalachian gate

This view of our neighbor's gate prompted me to start a series of pictures dedicated to Appalachian fences and the gates that connect them.

Posted Fri Mar 19 15:46:15 2010 Tags:

Dwarf Meyer lemon with fruits and flowersWe took our movie star neighbor's advice, and hit a nursery in search of a bigger pot for our dwarf Meyer lemon.  The ten gallon pot we came home with has twice the capacity of our old pot, and also has better drainage since the holes are on the sides rather than the bottom.  This kind of pot can be quite pricy new, but you can often find them pretty cheap at nurseries where trees have died or been transplanted, leaving slightly used pots behind.  Ours was $8.

I hadn't taken our lemon tree out of her pot in years, just added stump dirt, manure, and worm juice on top.  So it was a bit of a surprise to discover that her roots only extended two thirds of the way down into the soil.  I'm not sure if the small root mass is a result of the soil in the lower half of the pot being too wet (though it was far from sodden), or whether Meyer lemons are just really dependent on the soil flora that tends to live in the top few inches of soil.  Either way, the next time we repot her we'll try to find an even wider but shallower pot.
Repotted dwarf Meyer lemon
Since I figured I'd be unable to lift ten gallons of dirt and fruiting citrus tree, we went ahead and repotted her straight in the not-quite-finished storage building.  One of our primary purposes for the building was to give our citrus room to grow in front of a floor-to-ceiling, south-facing window.  We put our tangerine (not a star yet since she's yet to bloom) in the other corner, and the place suddenly looked lived in.

If any of you are interested in starting your own dwarf citrus collection, I highly recommend hurrying over to Spring Hill Nursery.  Currently, they have an offer for $20 of free plants where all you pay is shipping.  For $7.95 (shipping), you can get three dwarf naval oranges or three dwarf key limes (or one dwarf Meyer lemon.)  I can't vouch for the nursery since our plants haven't arrived yet, and I don't get any affiliate cash for sending you to them (drat!), but we decided to jump on the deal and will soon be trying out several new dwarf tropical fruits.

Treat your laying hens to refreshing, clean drinking water with the Avian Aqua Miser.
Posted Sat Mar 20 07:15:32 2010 Tags:
how to make a home made diy gate

I know why the caged gate swings, oh me,

When its frame is warped and its hinges sore,

When it scrapes its bottom and almost swings free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

But a squeal that it sends from its deep rooted core,

But a plea, that someday again it will swing-

I know why the caged gate swings.

There's a lot of places on the web that claim to be an authority on making your own gate, but Jeff Greef's wood working site delivers detailed pictures backed up with a real world explanation of each step.

If you've never built a gate before, or remember how the last gate you built sagged and rubbed on the ground then save yourself some grief and skim over these three pages before you draw up your plans.

Posted Sat Mar 20 15:00:57 2010 Tags:

Garlic greening up in the springEven though the grass in the aisles is starting to green up, the garden looks pretty bare and brown.  But if you peer closely enough, you'll see signs of life.

Despite an unusually cold winter, our Valentine's Day peas popped up a few days ago with an excellent germination percentage.  In a nearby cold frame, cabbage and broccoli seeds bathed in the absurdly high temperatures required for germination (60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit) and have already opened up their cotyledons.  We even have true leaves beginning on the lettuce in the other cold frame.

Meanwhile, the garlic and Egyptian onions are putting on their spring growth spurt.  Even if I didn't like garlic, I think I would plant them for their beauty in the spring, so firm and tall against the brown leaf mulch.

Wild beeOn the wild side, I've been keeping an eye on pollinators (other than our honeybees, of course.)  The unintentional bed of chickweed outside our kitchen window has been buzzing with these small native bees --- does anyone know what they are?  Don't forget to leave some weedy patches in your own garden to give these guys a home!

Read how we started a small business that started paying all of our bills in just a few months.
Posted Sun Mar 21 07:52:45 2010 Tags:
store bought gate

The last gate in my series is the only one we can see from our property besides the low budget garden gate which is only for foot traffic.

This is a classic example of a store bought metal version. A good choice compared to a home made wooden gate when weight is a factor.

Posted Sun Mar 21 17:30:19 2010 Tags:

Sugar Hill: A Microcosm of Central Appalachian EcologyDuring the winter of 2008 to 2009, I quit my job and finally had time to work on a book about central Appalachian ecology.  I started studying the topic as a hobby in high school, majored in biology in college to round out my expertise, then worked for a half dozen years leading hikes and conducting ecological inventories.  When an acquaintance broached the idea of publishing a trail guide about a local park, I jumped at the chance to get those ecological stories down on paper.

Yellow Trout LilyAll winter, I wrote and polished, but once we got to the final publishing stage, the deal fell through.  Basically, the aquaintance and I had been operating under two different assumptions about how our collaboration was going to work, and neither of us was willing to bend to meet the other's reality.  (Note to self --- ignore Appalachian conventions and get agreements down on paper on later deals.)  For me, it came down to not wanting to have to be the one marketing the book --- how would I have time to obsess over my garden and keep you all informed about the most boring aspects of my daily life?

Meanwhile, I'd discovered that publishing ebooks just makes a lot more sense than publishing paper books for niche subjects.  With the success of Microbusiness Independence under my belt, I decided to publish my Appalachian ecology book in the same format.  As an experiment, I'm also making the entire book available for free on the Clinch Trails website.

Sugar Hill: A Microcosm of Central Appalachian Ecology
spans 300 million years, with tales of chemical warfare, sex changes, and murder.  The book is one part trail guide and two parts stories about our local ecology, flora, and fauna.  Even if you never plan to visit southwest Virginia, I suspect the book will explain at least one mystery relevant to your own ecosystem.  I hope you'll check it out and let me know what you think!

Posted Mon Mar 22 07:39:14 2010 Tags:
Early New England garden with bee hives

A few months ago, we checked out PBS's Colonial House on Netflix.  The reality TV show plunks a few families down in New England where they replicate what life was like in Plymouth Colony in 1628.  Although the series was interesting, I was sorely disappointed by the lack of time spent focusing on the gardens --- that's the whole point of a reality TV show about the past, right?  Early New England Gardens: 1620 - 1840, a little booklet put out by Old Sturbridge Village, filled in the gaps.

The early American colonist generally had two separate gardens.  First, a house plot (also known as a merestead) was equivalent to our kitchen garden.  It was placed right by the house and was full of vegetables, herbs, and flowers used every day.  Further off, the settlement fields were planted with large-scale crops --- the staples backyard gardeners don't often grow much of anymore, like field corn, parsnips, turnips, beans (for drying), pumpkins, and cabbage.  Personally, I've found that putting a garden any further than two steps out the front door means that it gets neglected (and eaten by deer), but I guess these colonists felt the need to concentrate their houses close together for mutual protection.

Early New England settlement field

There were two general patterns evident in meresteads in early New England --- the cottage garden style and the formal garden style.  The former predominated in the Plymouth colony and among the poorer colonists while the latter was more common in Massachusetts Bay colony and among richer folks.

I've described cottage gardens in a previous lunchtime series --- you may remember that cottage gardens are a very informal hodgepodge of plants and animals, with herbs, flowers, vegetables, fruits, and even pigs and bees mashed together in a small space.  The people who settled in Plymouth Colony believed that gardens should be austere and utilitarian, and that flowers with no use were frivolous and extravagant.  The booklet notes, "There was actually an early Connecticut statute declaring it unlawful to walk in the garden on the Sabbath."

Plan of an early New England formal gardenIn contrast, the more prosperous Massachusetts Bay colonists based their gardens on the English manor garden.  There was usually a long central path, ending at an arbor, summer house, or dovecote.  Beds along the side were usually linear (though still informally planted with mixtures of plants).

As New England colonies became more prosperous in the eighteenth century, the more formal type of garden became widespread.  Soon, flowers were separated out of the vegetable gardens and the layout began to resemble the American landscape seen today.  Most houses had a large front garden composed purely of flowers and/or lawn running down a path to their front gate, with the vegetables tucked away out of sight.

As a final note, all of the photos in this week's lunchtime series come from Old Sturbridge Village's website.  I got a bit lost browsing their images and comparing colonial life to my life.  If you're bored, you might wander over and look for a while too.

This week, I'm plugging my brand new book, chock full of information about Appalachian ecology!

This post is part of our Early New England Gardens lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Mar 22 12:00:25 2010 Tags:

It seemed to take these new chicks about an hour to warm up and settle down from their long journey. Tapping on the Avian Aqua Miser nipple with a finger for a couple of minutes was all it took to train the first chick to drink, and they all caught on like a chain reaction after that.

Posted Mon Mar 22 17:17:39 2010 Tags:

Box of chicks from a hatchery

What's it like to order 25 chicks from a hatchery?  Well, first you wait, and wait, and wait for the day when the postmistress finally calls you up and announces that your flock has arrived.  Then your honey carries the cheeping box 'o chicks home, and you dump them into their brood box.

Chick drinking out of an automatic chicken waterer

If your experience is like ours, they will be a bit chilled, but spunky, ready to crowd under the heat lamp, pushing against their neighbors to be the first to warm up.  Our box came with a "bonus" chick which was half the size and had a tenth the vigor of his boxmates, and he kicked the bucket in the first five minutes.  On the other hand, the rest of the chicks soon forgot their traumatic journey and settled in to do what chicks do best --- eat, drink, poop, and be merry.

Sleeping chick

Then, in the midst of his play, a chick's head will suddenly nod, and before you know it he's lying prostrate on the ground.  His siblings will jump on his noggin, but he's so sound asleep that he doesn't even stir.  If you're a worrywart like me, you'll be terrified the chick has joined his puny boxmate in the happy hunting grounds, but when you poke him, he'll hop up and go back to the daily grind of pecking, peeping, and scampering.

Chicks eating
I have nothing to compare these chicks to, so I don't know if all varieties are as quick to peck and poke and search for food as our Dark Cornishes.  I tossed in three worms to give them a taste of the wild side, and the wrigglers quickly disappeared down chick gullets.  I hope that's a sign of good foraging habits to come.

Yes, that is our homemade chicken waterer in the second photo.  As our customers reported, chicks can learn to drink from a nipple as soon as they come out of the box!
Posted Tue Mar 23 08:25:30 2010 Tags:

Woodcut of an onionThe earliest American gardens were much less diverse than vegetable gardens today.  Seed companies didn't come into existance in the United States until after the Revolutionary War, so people saved their own seeds and tended to grow the same varieties year after year.  Gardeners would trade seeds with their neighbors, but since there was very little seed traffic between the United States and Europe at the time, neighbors weren't likely to have anything extremely different or innovative.

So what did early American colonists grow?  Early New England Gardens lists asparagus, beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, corn, melons, onions, parsnips, peas, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, rutabaga, squashes, turnips.

Many of the vegetables that we now consider common were missing at the time, but not because they were unknown in Europe.  Instead, vegetables like tomatoes, broccoli, and garlic were eaten only by the very poor or by certain ethnic groups, entering mainstream American culinary tradition in the early nineteenth century (tomatoes) and the early twentieth century (broccoli and garlic.)  I can't imagine life without tomatoes and garlic!

My new ecological ebook is full of tales of sex changes, chemical warfare, and murder.

This post is part of our Early New England Gardens lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Mar 23 12:00:04 2010 Tags:
DIY home made heat pad for sprouts

I found this car seat heating pad at a thrift store a couple years back thinking it might come in handy for something farm-related in the future.

There's an interlock switch that tells the heater if anyone is sitting on it or not which needs to be bypassed for this application. Hook up a 12 volt DC power supply and you've got yourself a homemade do it yourself heating pad for sprouting sweet potatoes and anything else that needs to be kept warm during these cold spring nights.

Posted Tue Mar 23 17:06:32 2010 Tags:

Hardwood grape cuttingsThe last week in March is cloning week around here.  First, I pulled the grape cuttings out of the crisper drawer, where they'd been sitting on top of a dwindling pile of last fall's carrots since December when I pruned Mark's mom's vines.  Scionwood is supposed to keep for months in root cellar conditions, which I simulated by draping a damp dish towel over the top of the drawer's contents, rewetting weekly to keep the carrots and cuttings moist.  I really didn't think the grapes were still alive after three months off the vine, but when I snipped off one end to test them, the cambium was fresh and green just under the bark.  Storage success!

Soaking hardwood grape cuttingsI tossed all of the cuttings into the kiddie pool where we're experimenting with duckweed for the chickens.  The grapes will take a few weeks to grow roots once I stick them in the ground, so it's essential that the cuttings hydrate now in preparation.  After three days of soaking, I'll push them most of the way into the ground in a well-drained and semi-shady spot, mulch them well, and ignore them until the fall.  I consider grapes to be one of the easiest perennials to propagate --- read last year's tutorial about starting grapes from hardwood cuttings and give it a shot!

Starting sweet potato slipsNext, I pulled nine firm tubers out of the cupboard to begin sweet potato slip production.  I submerged the bottom third of the sweet potatoes in warm water and placed them on a heating pad (only necessary because our house is kept cold.)  In a couple of weeks, the bottoms of the tubers will grow roots and the tops will sprout shoots.  I'll clip the shoots and place them in another cup of water, then set out dozens of free slips in May.  Sweet potato slips are extremely expensive at the feed store, so it's thoroughly worth setting aside a bit of space in a sunny window to start them yourself.

Cutting up seed potatoesFinally, Mark cut fifteen pounds of seed potatoes into sections, retaining two or three eyes on each one.  Last year, my potatoes were an abject failure, mostly because I planted them in heavy clay, it rained all summer, and a blight swept through the east coast.  I want to take a bit of extra care this year, letting the cut portions of the seed potatoes callous over before they go into the ground by leaving them exposed to air for a day or two after cutting.  I also plan to give them well-drained raised beds in hope that our potatoes will do better this year, regardless of the weather.

Posted Wed Mar 24 08:22:46 2010 Tags:
Wood cut of ploughing

If you're growing all of your own food, early spring is the hungry time, when your stores are running low and you're craving fresh vegetables.  Over the three and a half years that we've been farming our land, we've slowly learned that sun exposure is the most important factor in early spring gardens, and early American colonists came to the same conclusion.  Whenever possible, they planted their gardens on south-facing slopes to jumpstart the gardening season, and hilled up soil on the north sides of rows to trap even more heat and block the wind.

Modern organic growers put down black plastic around their strawberries to heat the ground and promote earlier crops.  Once again, the early colonists were way ahead of us.  They saved charcoal dust from their fires and spread it on the soil around early crops to absorb the sun's heat.

Applying manure to a field

New England's growing season is short, so it was especially important to start some seedlings inside.  Instead of the modern plastic growing trays, colonists dug sod in the fall, stored the clods of earth and grass in their cellars over the winter, then planted their seedlings in the inverted sod clumps the next spring.  This worked especially well for crops that didn't like to be transplanted --- the colonists could simply bury the entire hunk of sod into the garden where it merged with the soil and protected the seedling's roots.

Pest control was pretty minimal at the time.  One technique I'd like to try is placing fresh onion skins on cucumber hills to control squash bugs.  Another of the settlers' methods --- scattering ashes on plants to control flea beetles and other insects --- is still common today.  If you're having a problem with slugs or snails, why not do as the Plymouth colonists did and scatter cabbage leaves between your plants, then collect the sluggy leaves in the early morning and burn them?

Woodcut of corn harvest

My ebook about Appalachian ecology can be read online for free, or bought in a print-friendly version.

This post is part of our Early New England Gardens lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Mar 24 12:00:23 2010 Tags:
5 gallon bucket trick

The bigest downside to using 5 gallon buckets for hauling mulch is when two buckets get stuck together.

One easy way to avoid this is to carry a bundle of twigs to use as spacers.

I can remember being on a construction job site and needing to separate two buckets that were hopelessly married to each other. A co-worker held one end while I pulled on the other. After about 5 minutes of struggle we decided to stop trying to recreate a scene from the 3 stooges and threw the buckets in a dumpster.

Posted Wed Mar 24 18:06:53 2010 Tags:

Daffodils in the forest gardenI've been struggling with daffodils in the garden for years.  You see, they come up as weeds in my raised beds and cover ground I want to farm.  For years, I've been giving bulbs away by the hundred, but we still have scores of them blooming beside the old house, as well as two thousand in straight rows by the driveway where I transplanted them out of the way our first spring.  I can't bear to just weed them out and be done with it --- the blooms are just so pretty.

This past winter, I read that early spring ephemerals are useful in the forest garden since they suck up water-soluble nutrients when nothing else is active.  When their leaves die back in the summer, the plant matter rots down and releases those nutrients which might have otherwise washed away.  In essence, the ephemerals have acted as a nutrient bank, holding onto nitrogen until the trees are actively growing again.

Given that bit of information, our daffodils finally found a purpose on the farm and I transplanted about a hundred of them into the soil around our fruit trees.  I know you're not supposed to transplant daffodils in the spring, but I've honestly had a hard time killing them and I like to move the bulbs when I know I'm getting ones big enough to bloom immediately.  And bloom they did --- the yellow flowers have been unfurling all week, brightening my day every time I look in their direction.

Our homemade chicken waterer is working like a charm with our new chicks.  Try one and you'll never go back to poop-filled waterers!
Posted Thu Mar 25 08:58:28 2010 Tags:

Old woodcut of apple pickingIn 1648, the governor of Massachusetts traded 500 apple trees for 250 acres of land.  I figure that means the trees were worth at least $500 apiece in today's dollars.  Can you imagine how scarce and important fruit trees must have been in early New England to command that kind of price?

Old fashioned plums and pears

As nurseries began to open up, fruit trees became a common component of the New England garden.  The most common were apples, pears, peaches, and cherries, but all of the following woody fruits were recorded in New England gardens before 1840: cornelian cherry, white and black mulberries, currants, highbush cranberry, fox and muscadine grapes, apricots, barberries, gooseberries, nectarines, plums, quinces, walnuts, chestnuts, and raspberries.

Old fashioned apple and gooseberry

Entire orchards were planted, but fruit trees were also tucked into gardens wherever they might fit.  Perhaps the colonists have something to teach us about forest gardening too?

More interested in history than ecology?  My newest ebook covers Appalachian historical specialties like herb-gathering, sugar maple tapping, along with a historical whodunit.

This post is part of our Early New England Gardens lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Mar 25 12:00:23 2010 Tags:
mulch pinup picture

We got a few piles of wood chips from the local cutting crew almost 4 years ago.

I'd say it was well worth the wait for such fine looking mulch.

Posted Thu Mar 25 15:41:53 2010 Tags:

Dandelion leavesLast winter, my forest gardening map put dandelions amid the other dynamic accumulators around the bases of my fruit trees.  But I just couldn't make myself put the dandelions in the ground.  Here I was hacking at the long taproots in my vegetable garden beds, and I wanted to plant some dandelions elsewhere in the garden?  Was I nuts?

But a bit of research suggests that dandelions have a lot going for them.  They are dynamic accumulators of sodium, silica, magnesium, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and copper, which means they could bring trace minerals to the surface where the tree roots can access them.  Dandelions are also an early, prolific bloomer that feeds honeybees both pollen and nectar in the spring before many other flowers are out.  Plus, dandelions are perennials that self sow readily, so they can fill gaps in the forest garden that might otherwise come up in less helpful weeds.

I didn't get pushed over the edge, though, until our larder started getting pretty bare and I decided to find some spring greens to saute for lunch.  I'd been eying the dandelion greens since early March, remembering that they were an edible but suspecting that they were also quite bitter.  When a walk around the yard turned up only a handful of creasies and Egyptian onion tops, I decided to round out my pot with young dandelion leaves, and the result was scrumptious!  Perennial greens that are ready to eat in early March with no care on my part?  I think dandelions have finally won a place in the forest garden.  Now I just have to decide if I'm going for the wild version or am actually going to pay money for cultivated dandelion seeds.

Check out our homemade chicken waterer and watch your chickens become refreshed.
Posted Fri Mar 26 07:36:12 2010 Tags:

Bee balm I was amused to see that most of the flowers in my garden were already being planted in New England gardens before 1700.  These included sunflowers, columbine, crocuses, bee balm, grape hyacinth, evening primrose, star-of-bethlehem, and tulips.  I didn't set out to plant old-fashioned flowers, but I think that the early colonists, cottage gardeners, and I all share similar notions about flowers --- there's little time in our lives to tend to them, so the blooms had better take care of themselves and also have a use.

Like cottage gardeners in England, American colonists transplanted easy to care for wildflowers into their meresteads.  Of course, these were different wildflowers than the colonists had at home, but they're probably familiar to you --- milkweed, butterflyweed, celandine poppy, larkspur, wood lily, cardinal flower, musk mallow, forget-me-not, and black-eyed susan are some examples.  When I was in high school, I was also prone to transplant wildflowers into my garden and I gave over half of these flowers a shot.  It sounds like I should probably consider the other flowers used by the early colonists since the plants are likely to be right up my alley.

The early spring ephemerals currently blooming in the woods are highlighted in my new ebook.

This post is part of our Early New England Gardens lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Mar 26 12:00:20 2010 Tags:
chick close call

We had a close call today. The electricity went off, which prompted Anna to make some adjustments to the do it yourself table top brood box to keep the heat in. Once the juice came back on I went out to set the light back up, not knowing the new upgraded light can not be closer than 18 inches from anything flammable.

Fast forward about 20 minutes and I'm smelling smoke. Luckily I got there in time to remove the smoldering wood chips and adjust the lamp accordingly.

The chicks are fine, and I learned a valuable lesson about heat lamp safety.

Posted Fri Mar 26 15:26:01 2010 Tags:
Dark Cornish chick

I'm astonished by the changes I see in our chicks after a mere five days.  When they arrived a few of them had their first wing feathers poking through, but most were pure fuzz balls.  Now they all have wing feathers, and are even starting to realize that they are birds.  Mark moved our homemade chicken waterer to hang on the wall so that he could raise it up a bit, and our chicks decided the empty mounting ledges are perfect for practicing vertical hops.  As a short person, I can understand the urge to be taller than everyone else.

Chicks scratching in their food dishMeanwhile, their food consumption has been doubling every day.  I realized near the end of day two that the chicks weren't actually eating all of that food.  The palest chick has learned to scratch --- he'll hop up into the food dish as soon as I fill it and send chick feed hurtling throughout the brood box.  Kind bird that he is, he taught his friends how too.  Although I'm thrilled that our little foragers are scratching already, the time has come to develop a better feeding system.

Posted Sat Mar 27 09:49:02 2010 Tags:

do it yourself trellis post extension

These small metal fence posts come about 10 inches shy of reaching the top of the new pea trellis.

It only takes 2 small sheet rock screws to attach each extension to the inside groove of its respective post.

I'd be surprised if there's an easier way to make a temporary trellis and still have it easy to take down and put up.

Posted Sat Mar 27 16:48:09 2010 Tags:
PermacultureYou keep talking about permaculture, and it does sound cool.  But it's so complicated!  What are a few simple permaculture steps I can take around my own home or farm?

--- Various people over the last few months

Introducing permaculture into your life starts with changing the way you think rather than with changing a specific action.  Like the natural ecosystems that permaculture is based on, our man-made environments are so variable that no single answer works for everyone.  Instead, we need to take the central permaculture principles and apply them to our own mini-ecosystems on our farms or in our yards.  Here are my top three favorite permaculture concepts:

There's no such thing as waste.  Despite the 14 billion tons of used materials that Americans deposit in landfills every year, waste is more of a state of mind than a reality.  Most of you probably have a worm bin and/or compost pile to turn your food "waste" into productive soil.  Hopefully, you've also done away with paper towels, swiffers, and anything else that is billed as a disposable.  Permaculture admonishes us to think beyond these basic steps and eliminate all types of waste from our lives.  Mark and I have a long way to go, but we've started buying some of our staples in bulk, seriously cutting down on packaging.  We're experimenting with growing mushrooms on our junk mail and cardboard, and are also using these "wastes" as decomposable weed barriers under mulch in the garden.  Our most recent step is harnessing graywater from the kitchen sink to grow King Stropharia mushrooms.  I'd love to hear what your waste-free household looks like.

1 week old chicksEvery aspect of your permaculture system should have multiple functions.  The earth is full of non-human life, so we are ethically bound to make our homesteads compact, leaving as much natural space as possible to house salamanders and wildflowers.  The trick to keeping your homestead small is requiring each facet to serve multiple functions.  For example, chicken tractors allow you to raise a useful food in the aisles of your garden or even in your city lawn, while at the same time keeping your poultry healthier than they would be in a coop situation and providing fertilizer for the garden.  Even if your neighborhood association restricts you to only growing ornamentals in your front yard, why not intersperse edibles (colored swiss chards and cabbages make elegant show-plants) and focus on nectary species to increase the local population of beneficial insects?  If you've got a multiple acre farm, how about turning a few acres of woodland into a multi-purpose forest garden which will provide your firewood, some fruits and nuts, and wildlife habitat all at once?

Focus on perennials.  While I don't see any permaculturalists getting rid of their cucumber and tomato plants, they do advocate using perennials instead of annuals wherever possible.  Perennial edibles generally require much less input of organic matter, don't tempt you to till up the soil, and need less maintenance.  Perennials also tend to encourage wildlife and discourage soil erosion, another example of multiple uses in a single system.

I could go on and on for hours, but I'd rather hear about your own experiences.  Which permaculture concepts have you applied to your life?

This permaculture post has multiple functions.  It tells you about permaculture (duh), sneaks in a photo of our chicks so that I don't have to bore you with another chick post, and now reminds you to check out our chicken waterer. :-)
Posted Sun Mar 28 08:08:10 2010 Tags:
diy aquaponics

If you've been thinking about gettng started with permaculture why not try a simple aquaponics set up?

You take advantage of the fish waste by having the water pumped up to a reservoir holding the plants in place with some sort of medium like sand or gravel that easily drains.

Photo credit goes to the who has a great section on his experiences with do it yourself aquaponics. If that floats your boat you might want to check out this short video from permaculture expert Sepp Holzer and his impressive pond set up in Austria.

Posted Sun Mar 28 16:14:30 2010 Tags:
New raspberry and blackberry leaves

Last year my three exclamation point spring post came on March 26 --- the plant world had awakened, with peaches and dandelions in bloom and blackberry and pear leaves unfurling.  This year, we're at least a week behind...which is a good thing.
New gojiberry leaves
A few of our fruit trees --- the oldest peach, for sure, but also maybe the younger peach, nectarine, and cherry --- are old enough to set fruit, but only if a hard spring freeze doesn't nip their flowers.  Each stage in the bud-opening process has its critical temperature, below which the bud will be too damaged to set fruit.  For peaches, these temperatures are (for 10% and 90% kill, respectively):

  • Swollen bud stage - 18 F; 1 F
  • Bud shows green (like in the photo below on the right) - 21 F; 5 F
  • First pink on bud - 25 F; 15 F
  • First bloom - 26 F; 21 F
  • Full bloom - 27 F; 24 F
Pear leaf bud and peach flower bud

In the spring, we gardeners tend to get antsy and want everything to happen now, but a chilly winter slows things down and may mean more food in the long run.  Here's a table of critical temperatures for most of the common fruits.  Don't forget to keep your eye on the weather forecast once your fruit trees begin to bloom!

Want to have more time to tend your fruit trees?  Check out our microbusiness ebook about starting a small business that pays all of your bills in just a few hours per week.
Posted Mon Mar 29 07:34:35 2010 Tags:

Home-Grown Whole GrainsOne of my goals for this growing season is to experiment with grains.  As I mentioned in my series on small-scale grain-growing, I'd eventually like to be growing most or all of the grains that we humans and our chickens eat.  But my goal for the first year is far less ambitious --- I just want to experiment with a half dozen types of grain to find out which ones like our climate and fit our lifestyle.

I got Sara Pitzer's Homegrown Whole Grains on interlibrary loan to round out the information I've been compiling.  The book is very handy because it provides a lot of specifics I've been unable to find elsewhere about planting dates and growing zones.  That said, quite a bit of the information in this week's lunchtime series has come from previous books and websites I've read on the topic, so don't expect to pick up Homegrown Whole Grains and find it all.  Still, the book has lots of pretty illustrations and is a quick read, so I recommend it.

I also recommend our innovative chicken waterer --- the best way to get chicks off to a healthy start.

This post is part of our Homegrown Whole Grains lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Mar 29 12:00:23 2010 Tags:
compost comparison

Each of these piles represents a truckload of compost from different sources.

The one on the bottom comes from a warehouse where they keep it out of the rain as opposed to the top one which was heavy with moisture.

Even though Lucy's pile cost just over twice as much as the other I think it's going to be our preferred location for tomorrow's load.

Posted Mon Mar 29 21:04:12 2010 Tags:

temp Wheelbarrow full of weedsEvery month, I make a list of the farm projects that really must get done that month.  And at the end of the month, I shake my head in digust and move half a dozen tasks onto next month's list.

But not this March!  For the first time ever in our three and a half years on the farm, we actually finished everything on the month's list...with two days to spare!  In large part, I suspect this unexpected success came about because Mark insisted on buying a truckload of mulch, saving me days worth of work raking leaves out of the woods.  But I like to imagine that we're actually starting to get the farm under control and broken down into bite-size segments.

Of course, weeding didn't even make it onto the March list.  Guess what I'll be doing all of April?  I got a head start on Monday, with sodden soil making it easy to rip out chickweed, deadnettles, bittercress, and dandelions that had sprung up in gaps in the strawberry beds' mulch.  Three wheelbarrow loads of succulent greenery plopped into our four year old Golden Comets' tractor, their prize for laying one egg per bird per day for the last few days despite their age.

Want to create your own schedule and spend time on what's really important?  Read our ebook about funding our journey back to the land.

Posted Tue Mar 30 07:03:38 2010 Tags:

My long-term goal is to grow most of the grains Mark and I eat using Fukuoka's do-nothing farming --- utilizing heavy straw mulches from previous crops and a groundcover of clover to fertilize the soil and prevent weeds from growing in the field.  Unfortunately, I can't seem to find any definitive information from people who have translated this Japanese method to the United States, so I'm prepared for the first few years to be dismal failures.  Here's a rundown on the current incarnation of this experiment.

Wheat is our winter grain
Types of wheatThe first step in a do-nothing rotation is finding a winter grain.  From everything I've read, if you live in a climate colder than zone 7, your choices are slim --- wheat or rye.  (Barley is another option if you live further south.)  I'm not a fan or rye, so wheat will be our winter grain.

Winter wheat should be planted early enough in the fall that the plants grow 5 to 6 inches before going dormant (which equates to 8 to 12 weeks of growth), but late enough that the Hessian fly has died back for the year.  From browsing extension service sites, it sounds like we should plant our wheat in early to mid October, after the first freeze.

There are half a dozen different types of wheat, so I expect I'll be talking about seed choice in more depth in a later post.  Here are the main decisions you have to make when choosing a type of wheat for your garden:

  • Soft wheat, hard wheat, or durum wheat.  Soft wheat has less gluten and protein, and is great for baking biscuits and cakes.  Hard wheat is high in protein and gluten, so it makes great bread flour or all-purpose flour.  Durum wheat is also high in protein, but is low in gluten, so it is primarily used to make pasta.
  • Winter wheat or summer wheat.  This is pretty self explanatory --- one grows in the winter and one in the summer.  This distinction does not necessarily relate to the other distinctions --- winter wheat, for example, can be soft or hard and red or white.  Clearly, we'll be choosing a winter variety.
  • Red or white wheat.  Among the hard winter wheats, you can choose between the widespread red wheat or the newly trendy white wheat.  I'm actually intrigued by the latter since it has just as much nutritional value as red wheat, but results in bread that is paler, less bitter, and softer --- sounds like just the way to complete Mark's conversion to whole grains.

Buckwheat is our summer grain
Buckwheat flowersThe summer grain in a do-nothing rotation should be of a different genus than the winter grain so that diseases and pests from the winter crop won't ruin the summer crop.  In addition, the summer grain needs to mature relatively quickly since the winter grain usually eats up over half of the year.

My top choice for a summer grain is buckwheat.  This "grain" is not even in the grass family, so it shares no diseases with wheat, and it can be planted as late as mid June and still produce a good crop.  I have to admit that I've never actually eaten buckwheat, but the grain is supposed to have a complete set of amino acids (unlike other grains, but like meats) and blooms for at least a month, making it a great nectary for honeybees.  Buckwheat flour is often used in pancakes, but the seeds can also be sprouted or cooked whole (or fed to the chickens if we hate it.)  On the negative side, buckwheat is not a good choice for bread and the hulls must be removed before cooking.

Buckwheat likes warm soil for growing, but cool nights during bloom and seed set, so it is best planted two to three months before the average fall frost free date --- July or August here in southwest Virginia.  Unlike many of the true grains which can be left in the field to dry, buckwheat needs to be harvested before the frost so that the seeds don't fall to the ground.

Check out Mark's homemade chicken waterer, the best way to give your chickens clean water on a budget.

This post is part of our Homegrown Whole Grains lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Mar 30 12:00:23 2010 Tags:
goat glove review start

These new goat gloves claim to be 67 percent better than cow leather, which will be worth the additional 50 percent to the price if they actually last that much longer.

The design and construction indicate an improvement, but time will tell if a goat really is tougher than a cow.

Posted Tue Mar 30 17:04:45 2010 Tags:

Dandelion flowerThe permaculture way is to mix your own compost out of homegrown goodies and waste products from nearby, but our garden has grown faster than our capacity to come up with free compostables.  Last year, I top-dressed each of our vegetable garden beds with about 2.5 gallons of composted horse manure (equivalent to about 0.2 inches of compost, for a total of about 3 cubic yards), and I felt like the garden didn't grow as much as in previous years despite additional mulch.  Feeding the soil is a necessity, so we've broken down and bought storebought compost to allow us to double the application rate for this year.

As always, I have lots of crazy plans for creating as much compost as we need within the next year or two.  Here's a rundown of the top contenders:

  • Horse manure.  We've got a steady annual supply of around two to three cubic yards of horse manure from the neighbors.  In the past, we've been guilty of applying some manure which was only semi-composted because we needed more organic matter immediately.  This year, I'm hoping the storebought compost will tide us over so that we can run fresh manure through a worm bin for use next year.
  • Black soldier flies are on the horizon for this year, primarily because we want the free, high protein food to supplement the bugs our chickens will peck up naturally in the soon-to-be-built forest pasture.  If we find a source of free food scraps (difficult since we live so far from town and only make the trip once a week, on average), we could potentially create quite a lot of compost in the black soldier fly bins.
  • Compost tea from the worm bin and the black soldier fly bins.  In the past, our summer worm bin has been on the ground, which means all of the high quality tea leaches out into the surrounding soil.  Mark's going to build new bins for this summer that collect the tea --- now I'll have enough to use on plants other than the potted citrus!
  • Compost piles.  In the past, I've never had a compost pile, because I just threw the weeds and food scraps to the chickens or used them to build new raised beds.  This year, I hope to build some compost piles in the forest pasture to serve double duty as an insect reservoir for the chickens and a way to supplement my other sources of compost.  Potential components in these piles include leaves raked out of the woods, weeds pulled from the garden, wood chips and/or sawdust if we can find a free source, urine, manure from the chickens (naturally added as they scratch), duckweed, and comfrey leaves from my expanded patch.

I've got a whole 'nother set of goals for the mulch that goes on top of the compost, but this post is already too long!  By the way, the careful reader will have noticed that I included a photo of the year's first dandelion --- I guess this spring isn't a solid week behind last year's spring, at least according to the dandelions.

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Posted Wed Mar 31 07:52:09 2010 Tags:

Hull-less oat seedlingsAlthough I can't make them fit into my do-nothing grain experiment, I want to try three other grains for human consumption this year: oats, quinoa, and amaranth.

Oats are a cool season crop, but are unlikely to overwinter successfully here in zone 6.  They require 90 to 120 days to mature, and should be planted "as early as the ground can be worked in the spring."  I really detest this designation, since some winters our ground can be worked every month of the year, while other winters the ground can't be worked until March....

I planted a test plot of hull-less oats combined with red clover on March 8 in an area where the chicken tractors had sat for a month, killing most of the perennial weeds.  I suspect I should have given the grain its own garden bed instead, but I wanted to try the easiest method possible first (and was afraid of planting a perennial like clover in my vegetable garden.)  So far, a few of the oat seeds have sprouted, but so have some of the perennial weeds that the chickens didn't managed to scratch all the way up.  On the off chance this experiment actually works, I'll let you know, but chances are I'll have to try again in a less weedy spot next year.

Amaranth is an easy grain that I posted about previously.  I bought some Manna de Montana Amaranth from Seeds of Change since pale-seeded varieties like this one are supposed to have better flavor than the black-seeded types.  I plan to put our amaranth seeds in the ground on June 1 when the soil is thoroughly warmed up, and I may try it in Amaranth and quinoa seedsmy do-nothing plots in place of buckwheat next year since amaranth matures in a similarly short three months.  Like buckwheat, you can't leave amaranth heads on the plant too long or the seeds will fall to the ground, so harvest when two thirds of the seedhead is mature.  Be sure to cook before eating since the raw grain blocks absorption of nutrients.  Amaranth can be eatend whole, flaked, ground, or popped, and the young leaves can be eaten like spinach.

Quinoa is a cool season crop that is not winter hardy, much like oats.  But you plant quinoa later, in mid April to mid May, and refrain from watering after germination since the plants are adapted to drought conditions.  Harvest in 90 to 120 days, then wash the seeds to remove saponin and grind them into flour.  Or use the seeds as a rice substitute, toasting first to enhance the flavor.  Just like amaranth, quinoa leaves can be eaten like spinach.  If quinoa finds a permanent place in our garden, it will have to be in separate garden beds like oats.

With warm weather on its way, now's the time to get an automatic chicken waterer that keeps your birds hydrated for days.

This post is part of our Homegrown Whole Grains lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Mar 31 12:00:27 2010 Tags:
Magnolia tree detail

Step 1: Cut up downed Magnolia tree for frame work of the new chicken pasture coop building.

Posted Wed Mar 31 16:11:23 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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