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

archives for 04/2010

Apr 2010

I finally planted the first of the hedges I've been talking about all winter.  For this initial stage, I'm simply starting a solid mass of Osage-Orange, with plans to intersperse other hedge plants in gaps at a later date.  Osage-Orange was a no-brainer as the hedge base since this first hedge is in the floodplain (optimal Osage-Orange habitat, but likely to kill many other plants due to the waterlogged soil.)  The trees will be liberally decked with thorns and will form a prickly, impenetrable barrier that works well at keeping animals in.  In addition, the seeds are reputed to be edible to humans and beloved by squirrels, so maybe the eventual inhabitants of the forest pasture will get something to eat from the Osage-Orange.

Stratifying Osage-Orange fruits

Osage-orange seedsThe first step in the Osage-Orange process was a unique type of stratification.  I put the fresh Osage-Orange fruits in a sink in the shade and let them soak up the rain and snow all winter.  When I went to look at them Wednesday morning, the result was not appetizing, but the weather had done its job.  I was able to mash the fruits up easily with the trake, exposing the seeds to view. (The pulp is pretty stinky --- you might want to wear gloves for this step if you're following along at home.)

Planting Osage-Orange seeds

Next, I created a very basic mound where I wanted the hedge to go.  Internet sources suggest planting Osage-Orange seeds in a shallow trench, but I've learned my lesson with other trees --- nothing grows directly in the ground in damp spots on our farm.  I smeared the Osage-Orange goo liberally across the turned over sod, planting thickly so that the tree seedlings will be able to compete with the weed roots I was too lazy to remove from the soil.  I didn't cover the seeds, though maybe I should have?  If I see any squirrels at work, I'll head back down and cover them up.  For future reference, my sinkful of fruits created about two gallons of pulp, which in turn seeded about 35 feet of hedge.

Want to learn more about the ecology that our permaculture campaign is based on?  Check out my website about Appalachian ecology.
Posted Thu Apr 1 07:31:39 2010 Tags:

Field of millet in AfricaIn addition to our grains for human consumption, I plan to incorporate some grains into the non-forested part of our new chicken forest pasture.  I'll let the chickens scratch up one of the flat areas well, then turn the birds into another paddock while I broadcast buckwheat, millet, and perhaps corn seeds into the distressed ground.  After three months, I'll be able to rotate the chickens which we plan to keep for the winter into the grain paddock so that they can supplement their winter foraging with grains.

I've already outlined the method for growing buckwheat and everyone knows how to grow corn.  But how do you grow millet?  Unfortunately, several different species (each in their own genus, so only vaguely related) are called by the name "millet" and each has its own growing requirements.  Pearl millet has the largest seeds and the advantage of threshing free from its hulls naturally, but pearl millet also requires warm temperatures and may not set seed in cold climates.  Proso millet can be grown in cooler areas since it requires only 60 to 90 days to mature, and Titus emailed me that her chickens adore the seeds so I suspect the hull doesn't bother them.  Have you grown millet in your garden?  If so, what kind, and how did it do?

Mark's chicken waterer should be part of any chicken pasture since it won't spill and provides copious clean water.

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

Posted Thu Apr 1 12:00:29 2010 Tags:
chicken pasture coop posts

Step 2: Decide on location, choose and trim suitable cedar posts, and install.

Step 3: Catch your breath and have a glass of ice tea.

Posted Thu Apr 1 17:01:06 2010 Tags:

Handful of compostWarm weather dried up the creek enough that I was able to haul in a golf cart load of the storebought compost that Mark so valiantly gathered in the big city.  I'm afraid I hurt his feelings when I arrived back at the trailer --- he was expecting exuberant hugs, but I was actually a bit disappointed by the compost's quality.

The color is a beautiful dark brown, but the compost's structure is heavier than I would like and the smell is musty instead of earthy.  Since it was mixed and aged in a warehouse, the usual beneficial microorganisms seem to be absent (thus the lack of a woodsy aroma).  I think the heaviness is due to the high proportion of chicken manure in the compost, which results in a very high N-P-K for compost (3-4-4), but less organic matter than I'd like.  My holy grail of compost is the sponge-like stump dirt I gather in the woods, and I'm beginning to think that type of compost may be impossible to create on an industrial level.

In loamy soil, a compost high in fertility and low in organic matter would be fine, but in my clay I need the organic matter even more than the fertility.  Luckily, the bulk of my garden won't be going into the ground for 4 to 8 weeks, so I've got time to rectify the compost's disadvantages.  I'm going to sprinkle the compost over the top of my leaf mulch in the May garden beds and hope that the influx of nitrogen will make those leaves compost quickly.  I use no-till techniques, so my soil is brimming with decomposers and ready to take on the job!

Check out our ebook about quitting your job and making a living on the land.
Posted Fri Apr 2 07:28:42 2010 Tags:

DIY pedal-power drum thresherThe last component of this year's grain experiment is equipment.  Backyard gardeners often skip growing grains because of the complicated harvesting, threshing, winnowing, and dehulling procedures.  But Home-grown Whole Grains introduced two pieces of DIY equipment that I'm putting on my honey-do list.

The first is a pedal-power drum thresher --- I've stolen the picture from the book just this once because I can't find anything like it on the internet.  Basically, a bicycle is hooked up to a utility-wire spool.  The spool is inside a collection bin of some sort and is studded with xd nails, pounded in every two to three inches.  One person pedals, which causes the drum to spin, while another person holds the grain heads against the drum.  The nails pull seeds out of the grain heads relatively quickly --- you can thresh about 40 pounds of grain in an hour with the DIY thresher.

If you're growing a grain that has difficult to remove hulls (like buckwheat), you'll be interested in Southern Exposure Seed Exchange's method of converting a hand-cranked grain mill into a DIY huller.  Basically, you temporarily replace the stationary disk on your grain mill with a rubber disk made by gluing soft rubber onto a washer.  With a bit of adjustment, your mill will be able to crack the hull on seeds without breaking the grain kernels.  I can't find any pictures of this apparatus on the internet either, but once we grow our buckwheat I'll give it a shot and post about it.

Want a simple DIY project?  Try our homemade chicken waterer, which you can build in just a few minutes.

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

Posted Fri Apr 2 12:00:27 2010 Tags:
chicken pasture coop bracket

Estimated cost of the chicken pasture coop so far is somewhere between 1 to 2 dollars for a handful of sheet rock screws.

The salvaged brackets continue to prove themselves as a flexible fastener, especially when you have a good size hammer to help preach your philosophy of bracket transformation.

Posted Fri Apr 2 15:45:59 2010 Tags:

Honeybees with capped broodIn the last week and a half, our three beehives have been churning out the babies.  Last time I checked on them, two hives had a little bit of brood, but now all three hives have brood of all ages on several frames.  They're also packing away pollen like nobody's business, and are starting to dehydrate nectar into new honey.  None of them have started using the second super yet, though --- maybe once the fruit trees and dandelions really start blooming.

In other pleasant news, the raised brood cell that I thought might be an incipient queen cup in one hive earlier in March turned into a bit of drone brood (the few bumps in the photo above), which means I haven't crowded the hive too much.  I went ahead and opened all of the brood boxes up, though, to stave off any feelings of overcrowding in the near future.  "Opening up the brood box" sounds confusing, but it's actually quite simple --- just take the empty frames that naturally gravitate to the sides of the box and intersperse them between frames full of brood and pollen.  As you leaf through the opened brood box from one end to the other, it now reads "empty, full, empty, full, empty, full, empty, full, empty, full" rather than "empty, empty, full, full, full, full, full, empty, empty, empty."  The theory is that if the queen has empty frames near her, she won't think she's running out of space, so she won't instigate a swarm.  Hives that don't swarm produce a lot more honey, so swarm prevention is key to getting a good harvest.

In February, I got concerned that our two weaker hives might be running low on honey, so I stole three frames from the strongest hive to give them backup.  When I checked this week, though, the strongest hive had eaten nearly every drop of its copious honey, presumably fueling the huge egg-laying campaign it has embarked on.  So I moved two small frames of honey back from one of the weaker hives to the strongest hive.  This type of maneuver is a sure sign of a far-too-hands-on beekeeper, but I can't help being a nervous nellie about our livestock.

Want to know how we fund our farm adventures?  Check out our microbusiness ebook.
Posted Sat Apr 3 09:52:02 2010 Tags:
chick water danger

One detail to note is the placement of an Avian Aqua Miser in respect to new chicks.

I started off with one in each corner on the starboard side of the box. The height turned out to be a problem when all 24 chicks decided to crowd into that corner during a brief fire episode. The chicks who were bunched up close to the nipple were activating the valve and dumping water on themselves and their immediate neighbors. I'm no expert, but wet chicks on a cold night sounds a bit too close to a country western song for my comfort level.

The lesson is to avoid corner placements of your automatic chicken waterer for the first couple of weeks. After that you should be able to raise the waterer to avoid any such issues in the future.

Posted Sat Apr 3 16:56:33 2010 Tags:

Dwarf navel orangeMeet our newest dwarf citrus --- Washington Navel Orange.  Isn't she cute?
Rootbound orange tree

Unfortunately, she is the textbook definition of rootbound.  One large root had literally grown all the way around the perimeter of the pot...although the plant had eschewed the stagnant dirt in the pot's bottom.

Repotted dwarf navel orange

When  I asked Mark to buy me a pot, he came up with the absolutely best pot possible.  Notice how shallow and wide this pot is?  No more wasted soil on the bottom of the citrus pot!

I teased the orange's roots out and planted the tree in a mixture of partially decomposed horse manure and storebought compost.  I usually try to use worm castings or stump dirt for repotting, but I'm all out!  If the little orange tree seems to be struggling, I'll pop it back out and hunt down some better soil.

Want to quit your job and move back to the land?  It's not as hard as you might think to fund the adventure.  Check out our microbusiness ebook to learn how.
Posted Sun Apr 4 08:19:17 2010 Tags:
baby chick

One obvious omission to the do it yourself table top brood coop is the lack of a front or back door.

The chicks have a moving day planned for tomorrow as soon as I fence in a small segment of the new chicken pasture coop building. That's when I'll remove one of the brood coop panels and cut out a door opening so they can be free to come and go during the day as their nap schedule permits.

Photo credit goes to the intriguing heyburton blog, who has an interesting article on chicks doing some low level math.

Posted Sun Apr 4 19:43:42 2010 Tags:
Anna Bud break

Peach bud showing red.Plant a fruit tree and learn patience.  You'll tend them and love them for three years, or four years, or five years before tasting the first sampling of their fruit.  But then the harvest will steadily grow, until within a decade you have buckets and barrels full of apples, pears, peaches, and plums.

At least that's the dream.  Our first stab at making it a reality failed when we planted fruit trees directly into our wet clay soil and ended up with so many dead sticks.  So we planted again in 2007, this time in raised beds, starting small as we figured out what we'd done wrong, then adding more trees in the following years.
Budbreak in cherry bud
It was really too early to see any fruits last year, but profuse blooms on our oldest peach made me hope for a harvest.  Then a late freeze wiped out every bloom, and I went back to pruning and training and mulching with no reward.

My fruit tree spreadsheet, though, says that this year may be different.  Peaches and dwarf cherries can fruit at three years, and our two oldest trees are coated with bumpy flower buds.  In fact, even our two year old peach and nectarine are similarly laden, though I refuse to get my hopes up about premature fruit this year.

I've been watching the flower buds all winter with avid curiosity, and Sunday the inevitable happened.  A week of summer-like temperatures tempted peaches to go from green bud to red bud stage (top picture), while the cherry buds actually burst open (second picture), revealing the individual flower buds within.  Finally, I reached the nectarine, planted in the sunniest spot against the side of the barn.  I saw a hint of brilliant pink in one bud and just kept photographing my way around the tree until...

Nectarine flower

...a fully opened bloom!

I can't resist throwing in a few more shots of the signs of spring that have been bursting out in the garden this week.  The dandelions are now in full bloom, and the comfrey (top right) has leaves bigger than my hand, ready to take back their job of mulching the nectarine.  Elderberry leaves (bottom left) have been growing slowly for weeks --- these seem to be the first spring tree leaves on the farm.  Finally, the columbine has really caught hold and looks to have bloom buds on the way.  Spring!

Dandelion flower, comfrey leaves, columbine leaves, and elderberry leaves

Spring is in the air and chicks are in the brooder.  Get them off to a healthy start with our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Mon Apr 5 07:30:05 2010 Tags:

Uncommon Fruits Worthy of AttentionInstead of playing the lottery, I play interlibrary loan.  Each week, I hit the library with a stack of request slips for books I've heard about that aren't stocked by our tiny rural book-lender, and every week something trickles down from northern Virginia to fill my voracious book appetite.  This is the saving grace of our tiny library --- interlibrary loans are free.

I try to put in requests for an equal number of fiction and non-fiction books each week, but as luck would have it, this week's haul was entirely fiction.  I gulped in dismay, and headed back into the library's one small room of non-fiction on the off chance that their linear foot of gardening books included a tome I'd not yet read.  And there in front of my snooty nose was a book every bit as good as the ones I'd requested from afar.

In fact, even though I'd never heard of Lee Reich's Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention, all of my permaculture gurus clearly had.  Information about species like the hardy kiwi and the Nanking cherry had eluded me because these plants were nearly impossible to find on the internet (even though every permaculture book mentioned them.)  I flipped open Lee Reich's book and found that it was chock full of cultivation and propagation information for these and seventeen other unusual species.  By the end of the week, at least four of these species will be adequately represented on the internet --- stay tuned!

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

This post is part of our Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Apr 5 12:00:20 2010 Tags:
chicken pasture coop

It's not quite ready for the chicks to move in yet. Maybe tomorrow.
Posted Mon Apr 5 16:54:55 2010 Tags:

Tent caterpillar egg massI noticed some shiny egg masses wrapped around the twigs of our biggest peach tree this winter, but I left them in place since I didn't know what they were.  Sunday, tiny tent caterpillar webs began radiating out from the egg masses.  Bad news!

If you live east of the Rockies, you've probably seen the tent caterpillar before, even though you may not have known what it is.  The caterpillars live inside a spiderweb-like tent of white silk that can reach about a foot in length, easily visible around the limbs of wild black cherries as you drive down the highway.  Tent caterpillars are voracious eaters and can defoliate entire trees in a season.
Young tent caterpillars
Although wild black cherries are their favorite food, tent caterpillars enjoy pretty much every fruit tree you'd plant in your yard.  They like apples, pears, cherries, plums, and peaches.  Large orchards spray chemicals to kill tent caterpillars, but on the backyard scale they're extremely easy to pick off the branch either in the egg stage or soon after the caterpillars hatch.  And our hens want you to know that a web full of tiny caterpillars is a very tasty treat.

Our hens also enjoy our homemade chicken waterer, full of POOP-free water.
Posted Tue Apr 6 07:12:39 2010 Tags:

Fruit of a Hardy Kiwi, Actinidia argutaIf you don't live in the Deep South, you probably thought the luscious kiwi fruit was beyond your grasp --- I know I did.  Enter the Hardy Kiwi (Actinia arguta), whose vigorous vines will ripen fruits up to zone 4.  The Hardy Kiwi originated in China, where it grows naturally in humid mountain forests that share so many species with our own Appalachian mountains.  Asian people have eaten kiwis for centuries, and in 1983, 130,000 tons of kiwi fruit were harvested from wild vines of several kiwi species in China alone.

Hardy Kiwi produces fruits that taste very similar to the kiwi fruits that you buy in the store (from Actinidia deliciosa), but they are much smaller and are hairless.  My understanding is that you pop Hardy Kiwis in your mouth like grapes, and can also store them in root-cellar-like conditions (just above freezing and at 95% humidity) for nine months.  Since one plant can produce up to 100 pounds of fruit, you might be able to provide your winter dessert with just a few vines.

The internet is full of sites singing the praises of the Hardy Kiwi, but it is sorely lacking in specific cultivation information.  Luckily, Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention walks you through the whole process from propagating to planting to pruning and harvesting.  Here's a quick summary:

Where should I plant my Hardy Kiwi?  Hardy Kiwis are sensitive to late spring frosts, so they are best planted on north-facing slopes where they are shaded from early spring sun.  Provide well-drained soil (or plant on mounds), and build a strong trellis to support the plants.  Kiwis should be at least 15 to 20 feet apart.

Do I need more than one plant?
  Since Hardy Kiwis have separate male and female plants, you will need to provide at least one of each to produce fruit.  Only one male is necessary for each eight female plants, as long as the female plants are within 35 feet of the male.
Hardy kiwi on a trellis
How do I train and prune my Hardy Kiwi?  The initial training is a lot like training a young grape vine.  During the first year, develop a trunk by training the strongest shoot up along a one to two inch thick pole, cutting away all other shoots.  When the trunk reaches the lowest trellis wire, split it into two cordons by training one arm along the trellis in each direction.  Once cordons are seven feet long, cut them back to that length each winter and develop fruiting arms at one foot intervals along the cordon.  At the same time that you cut back the cordons, prune fruiting arms to eight buds beyond where they fruited last year.

How do I propagate the Hardy Kiwi?  If you want to perpetuate the same variety, take cuttings.  Hardwood cuttings work, but softwood cuttings root even more easily when taken from new growth in early summer, removing the tips and clipping leaves in half.  Softwood cuttings will root in two to four weeks.  Hardy Kiwis can also be propagated from seed (although you will end up with more variable offspring, half of which will be male.)  To grow them from seed, put the whole fruits in a blender with some water just long enough to create a mush, then sow the pulp and seeds together, stratifying for two months.  Hardy Kiwis bear at two years from cuttings and at three to four years from seed.
Fruit of a Hardy Kiwi, Actinidia arguta
When do I harvest the fruits?  Hardy Kiwi fruits are ready to be picked when the seeds are black, even though the fruits are still hard.  Allow them to soften for a week at room temperature.

Why is the Hardy Kiwi a permaculture favorite?  Permaculture admonishes us to grow plants that are well-suited to our environment and don't require lots of sprays and babying.  The Hardy Kiwi fits a niche very similar to a grape, but seems to have no diseases or pests (beyond Japanese Beetles) in the U.S.

Are you growing them?  We planted two females (Dunbarton Oaks and Ananasnya) and a male in fall of 2008.  They sulked for the first year, but I hope they'll take off this year --- I'll keep you posted.

Check out our microbusiness ebook, full of tips for creating a job that won't take over your life.

This post is part of our Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Apr 6 12:00:30 2010 Tags:
chicken pasture coop detail cute chicks

I can already feel an increase of happiness within the new flock after today's move. Now with a bigger space and some real ground to scratch they should start to settle down and feel at home.

A couple of the more brave chicks managed to jump out of the table top brood box the last few days, which probably means they needed more room a week ago.

We'll still keep a close eye on their well being, but the care taking should be a lot easier now that they have some elbow room.

Posted Tue Apr 6 18:03:10 2010 Tags:

Dark Cornish chick exploringMonday morning, I opened the door to the building where we're keeping our chicks and something skittered away to hide in the corner.  Was it a mouse drawn to the open bag of chick feed?  Nope, it was a chick who had hopped all the way out of the brood box and then flown or fallen to the floor.

Even though I put a lid on the end of the brooder where our homemade chicken waterer's mount provided chicks with a handy stopping stool, our little cockerels were clearly ready for a bigger home.   I caught one perched on the top of the box, then on Tuesday had to chase down two chicks who had flown out and were busily exploring the seed starting area on the floor.

Dark Cornish chicks on pastureAs a result, I was thrilled when Mark pushed through the heat on Tuesday to finish up the chicken coop and expand our chicks' home by a factor of ten.  It took the cockerels about a minute to get their bearings, but then they started to peck and scratch like mad.  I'm not sure what, if anything, they were actually finding to eat --- I suspect the chicks were just practicing their foraging, testing out sticks and stones and leaves to see which ones tasted like food.

Two weeks is very early to move chicks outside, but the weather has been unseasonably warm and I've given them a heat lamp to take the chill off the spring nights.  Next week, we'll let them out of the coop and into the as-yet-unbuilt pasture, the true start to our forest pasture experiment.

Posted Wed Apr 7 08:34:16 2010 Tags:

The Nanking Cherry showed up on a list of edible hedge species, but I didn't know if the plant was actually a cherry botanically and (more importantly) what it tasted like.  Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention, as usual, cut right to the chase. 

Is the Nanking Cherry a cherry?  Nanking Cherry (Prunus tomentosa) is in the same genus as cherries, plums, and peaches, but is a different species than either sweet cherries (P. avium) or sour cherries (P. cerasus).  This means that your Nanking Cherries can't be pollinated by either of these species, just as sweet cherries won't pollinate sour cherries and vice versa.

Does the Nanking Cherry taste like a cherry?  Flavor of the Nanking Cherry seems to be extremely variable, probably due to the fact that American nurseries grow the plants from seed.  In stark contrast, the Nanking Cherry is the most common garden fruit in the Russian Far East, where many named varieties exist.  Some varieties taste like tart cherries and others like sweet cherries (though a quick search of the internet suggests that the former flavor predominates among unnamed varieties in the U.S.)

Nanking Cherry bushHow do I plant my Nanking Cherry?  Since Nanking Cherries are shrubs or small trees reaching between nine and fifteen feet tall and wide, they should be planted about fifteen feet apart.  Alternatively, they can be planted four feet apart and trimmed into a hedge.  Be sure to plant more than one Nanking Cherry for cross-pollination.  Place them in an area with full sun and well-drained soil.

Where can I grow the Nanking Cherry?  They can be planted in zones 3 to 6, which makes them a good choice in more northern areas where traditional cherries can't be grown.

How do I propagate the Nanking Cherry?  If you don't mind the plants not breeding true, seeds are easiest (and will grow a long, drought-resistant taproot, absent in plants grown from cuttings.)  Remove the seeds from the pulp, air dry slightly, then stratify for three months.  Seedlings bear by the third year.  Alternatively, take softwood cuttings when the fruit is ripening, treat the base with rooting hormone, then keep the cuttings under a mist.  Or take 8 to 12 inch hardwood cuttings of one year old wood, planting in well-drained soil in the fall or spring.

Why is the Nanking Cherry a permaculture favorite?  Permaculture emphasizes making maximum use of your gardening space.  Since the Nanking Cherry is a shrub, it can fit into parts of the garden where a standard cherry couldn't grow.  Using the Nanking Cherry as an edible hedge plant has forest pasture implications as well.

Are you growing them?  I'd like to find a named variety (or someone's backyard shrub) that tastes like a sweet cherry, but in the meantime I bought a couple of seedlings to get us started.  If you've tried them and have tasty plants, I'd love to trade for some seeds or cuttings!

Check out our ebook about starting a small business with just a few hundred dollars in startup costs.

This post is part of our Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Apr 7 12:00:32 2010 Tags:
cat scratch fever

Our cat Huckleberry has been using 2 of our young fruit trees for a scratching post lately.

Let's see him try to scratch them now.

Posted Wed Apr 7 16:24:21 2010 Tags:

Driving the camera crew into our farmA film and radio crew came by the farm Wednesday to interview us for the local radio station.  They were doing a piece on how the internet brings opportunity to an economically depressed area, and our Avian Aqua Miser business fit the bill.  Hopefully the segment will air and I'll be able to point you to the station's website to listen and/or watch, but for now I thought you might enjoy reading some highlights of our interview.

We try not to make guests walk through the floodplain (aka the alligator swamp) unless they really want to, so Mark drove the golf cart to pick up the crew.  Four people, a big camera, and an even bigger microphone crammed onto the cart --- I'm glad Mark added on the truckbed in the back since it seated two.  "Hold on tight!" Mark warned, and they were off.  And then, with a bump, one was quite literally off --- the camera woman lost her hold and ended up in the mud.  Luckily, the camera came through fine.

Back at our homesite, we showed off our chickens (though the journalists seemed even more struck by Mark's deer deterrent.)  Then we headed inside our frantically-cleaned-up-this-morning trailer, which is still barely presentable.  Good thing Huckleberry was on hand to take their attention away from the cobwebs --- he seemed bound and determined to answer their questions, and kept meowing as we talked.  (Strider doesn't take well to unusual events like cleaning so he was absent.)

Thanks for coming by Rich, Mimi, and Sylvia!  I hope the dunking in the mud doesn't scare you off for good.

Posted Thu Apr 8 08:27:49 2010 Tags:

Gooseberry and red, black, and white currant fruitI'm familiar with currants and gooseberries by name alone since my New England relatives grew the bushes in their gardens.  I'd barely tasted the fruits and wasn't all that excited until I read that currants were a favorite of Robert Hart's since they will produce fruit even in the shade.  As usual, Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention had answers to all of my top questions.

What's the difference between a currant and a gooseberry?  Gooseberries and black, white, and red currants are all in the Ribes genus.  Gooseberries are a hybrid of R. uva-crispa and R. hirtellum, and they counteract their big thorns with large, sweet berries.  Currants are thornless, but have smaller fruits that are quite tart and are less often eaten uncooked.  They come in two categories --- black currants are a mixture of R. nigrum, R. odoratum, and R. americanum and red and white currants are both a mixture of R. rubrum, R. sativum, and R. petraeum.  Both kinds of currants are unrelated to the raisin-like "currants", which are actually a dried grape like any other raisin.

Where can I grow currants and gooseberries?  Currants and gooseberries are great for northern climates (some are even hardy in zone 2), and some can be grown further south.  In all cases, if you're planting them toward the southern end of their range (below zone 5), you should give them some shade, perhaps plant them on the north side of a hill, and mulch them heavily to keep moisture around their roots.  Gooseberries are often listed as growing all the way to zone 8, while currants are often listed only down to zone 5 or 6.

Pruning diagram for currants and gooseberriesHow do I grow and prune them?  Plant currant and gooseberry bushes four to six feet apart in heavy soil with plenty of organic matter.  Each year, thin out the new shoots so that only two or three stems for red currants or six stems for gooseberries remain from that year, leaving older stems in place.  After three years for currants or four years for gooseberries, begin to remove the oldest set of stems as well during the winter pruning.  The result is a mixture of stems of different ages ranging from one to three years for currants and from one to four years for gooseberries.  Pruning for black currants is a bit different since these bushes bear primarily on one year old wood --- cut out two to five of the oldest branches each year and shorten other branches.

How do I propagate gooseberries and currants?  All can be grown from seed as long as you don't mind them not breeding true; the seeds require three to four months of stratification, and will bear at two to three years.  To maintain your varieties, use one of the several methods of cloning instead.  Twelve inch long hardwood cuttings (excluding the tip) should be taken in the early fall before all the leaves have dropped for gooseberries, or in early spring, autumn, or the end of summer for currants.  An even easier way to propagate gooseberries or black currants is tip layering --- bending down a branch and covering it with soil and a rock, then cutting the new plant free once roots have formed.

What about the white pine blister rust?  The reason that gooseberries and currants are seldom grown in the United States is that they were illegal for decades.  In the early twentieth century, the white pine blister rust showed up in America and began wiping out what was then an important timber tree.  Since some Ribes species were an alternate host for the rust, planting gooseberries or currants was prohibited by federal law, and Civilian Conservation Corps crews began to rip the plants out of gardens and woodlands.  Later, scientists discovered that most cultivated Ribes are resistant to white pine blister rust and don't spread the disease, and the federal ban was finally lifted in 1966.  However, you may still face state restrictions against planting gooseberries and currants, especially against black currants which are most susceptible to the white pine blister rust.

Why are gooseberries and currants permaculture favorites?  Permaculture advocates filling every available niche with a useful plant so that weeds don't have a spot to gain a foothold.  Since gooseberries and currants can fruit in partial shade, they can be used to turn orchards from trees-amid-lawn to a multi-storied forest garden.

Are you growing them?  We ordered two gooseberries (Poorman and Invicta) that will be arriving this month.  We chose gooseberries over currants since I am first and foremost a fresh fruit fanatic.

Check out our ebook about quitting your job and working from the comfort of your own home.

This post is part of our Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Apr 8 12:00:23 2010 Tags:
Brood Coop explosion

The heat lamp we had in the new brood coop somehow got damp during this afternoon's rain storm which resulted in a small explosion.

Luckily there were no casualties. I guess I should hurry up and build that heat pad chick warmer that Anna dreamed up a few weeks ago.

Posted Thu Apr 8 17:00:06 2010 Tags:
cute baby chicken chick house

We had to switch to the smaller back up bulb due to the larger heat lamp exploding yesterday.

I used a piece of scrap Reflectix and an old wooden box to form a cozy insulated corner that can hold in enough heat to keep the chicks comfortable.

Stay tuned for more details on the up and coming heat pad chick warmer, which might not make it off the drawing board till the next generation of chicks.

Posted Fri Apr 9 05:00:20 2010 Tags:

Transplanting broccoliA month after planting seeds in my cold frame, the broccoli is big and vibrant.  Many of the seedlings are working on their third true leaves, which means they're ready to be transplanted into the main garden.  With rainy weather predicted for the afternoon and a general cool-down from our recent abnormal heat, Thursday seemed like the perfect day to set them out.

Broccoli seedling I was a bit leery of transplanting the broccoli, though, because the weather forecast says our temperature will drop to 34 Fahrenheit on Friday night.  I know that barely sounds chilly, but our lows are generally about 5 degrees beneath what the nearest weather station reports.  Would 29 F be too cold for our tender broccoli seedlings?

 A search of the internet suggests that broccoli won't get harmed unless the temperature drops to 25, but I still wasn't entirely confident.  Luckily, I always start too many broccoli seeds because I like having seedlings to give away.  So I set out the biggest broccoli plants and put the row cover fabric back on the cold frame to protect the seedlings left behind.  If my transplanted seedlings get nipped, I'll just re-transplant next week.  If they don't get nipped, I'll get an extra week of growth --- a conundrum has been transformed into a win-win situation.

Celebrate transplanting season with a homemade chicken waterer!
Posted Fri Apr 9 08:36:24 2010 Tags:

White mulberry fruitsEvery year when we were kids, my siblings and I picked mulberries out of a large tree in a nearby park.  We liked the fruit, but not as well as the blackberries and raspberries that ripened at the same time, and our one attempt at a mulberry pie was pretty awful.  So I put mulberries out of my mind...until I started reading that mulberries can provide all of the food you need for a pig or flock of chickens for several months in the summer.  Then, of course, my ears perked up.

What are the different kinds of mulberries?  There are three species of mulberries that can be found growing in the United States.  The White Mulberry (Morus alba) is native to Asia, but was widely introduced in the nineteenth century as fodder for a silk industry that never panned out.  White Mulberries are cold hardy, but have rather insipid fruits.  Red Mulberries (M. rubra) are a U.S. native with tastier fruits than White Mulberries.  Finally, Black Mulberries (M. nigra) are members of another Asian species, this one selected primarily for the highly tasty fruits.  Unfortunately, Black Mulberries can't be grown in many parts of the U.S. (like the southeast), but hybrids between Red and White Mulberries (like the Illinois Everbearing Mulberry) produce the best of both worlds --- tasty fruits on hardy trees.

How do you grow and prune mulberries?  Mulberries are one of those trees you mostly leave alone.  Plant them in full sun with fifteen feet of space on every side, then prune out dead branches if you feel like it.

How do you propagate mulberries?  Mulberries are difficult to grow from seeds since you must wait at least a decade to know whether you've developed a good variety, and since trees can change sex when young.  More tried and true propagation techniques include hardwood, softwood, or root cuttings and grafting.  When taking hardwood cuttings, split the lower ends of the cutting or include a small heel of two year old wood to promote rooting.  Take softwood cuttings in midsummer and treat with a rooting hormone.

How do you harvest mulberries?  Be prepared for your tree to grow for a decade or more before it feels like fruiting, especially if grown from seed.  Once mulberries begin to fruit, though, they're highly dependable since they bloom late and are rarely affected by late spring frosts.  Depending on which variety you have, your tree will ripen its fruits over a month to three months during the early to late summer.  To harvest the fruits, spread a sheet under the tree, shake the branches, then pour the results into a bucket of water.  The fruits will sink and everything else will float off.

Why are mulberries a permaculture favorite?  Mulberries are one of the least picky fruit trees out there.  They don't mind drought, pollution, or poor soil, and often grow as weeds even in harsh city environments.  Even the varieties that aren't quite up to par as people food produce wholesome berries that can feed your pigs or chickens for up to three months during the summer.  The leaves are high in protein too.

Are you growing them?  I'd planned to buy an everbearing variety to put into our new forest pastures this year or next, but this post pushed me over the edge and I put in an order for an Illinois Everbearing Mulberry in March.

Read our ebook to learn to create a niche product that pays all of your bills in just a few hours a week.

This post is part of our Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Apr 9 12:00:16 2010 Tags:
Homegrown salad

One of my mother's favorite expressions is "all ye of little faith" --- it's in reference to me, mostly.  Every year, I plant an early bed of peas around Valentine's day.  And every year, I give up on the bed less than a month later and replant it.  As a result, I'm never quite sure whether the Valentine's peas came up, or whether what I'm seeing is the later peas.  This year, I got smart (though no more faithful) and marked my early row of peas, planting the replacement row a couple inches to the side.  So I could tell that both rows of peas came up, and that the Valentine's row came up a week earlier than the March row.

Now what do I do with two rows of peas where one is supposed to be?  Just as I was pondering this problem, I dropped by Eliza's awesome blog and learned that young pea shoots taste similar to snow peas.  Just what I needed to round out the first completely-from-the-farm salad of the year!  Lettuce, pea shoots, baby kale (wintered over), and the last of the fall carrots melded into a delectable side dish.  Last year we lived on salads for the entire month of March, but I say better late than never!

Prepare for summer heat, stock up on automatic chicken waterers.
Posted Sat Apr 10 07:58:20 2010 Tags:
Willow Wall Fence section

We've had this portable wall of willow branches since the winter(Thanks Mom), and today was the day I found its first use.

I put it up by the door to give the chicks some room to scurry off to while I installed the new Reflectix chick warmer.

Soon we'll have a proper area for the boys to run and scratch during the day.

Posted Sat Apr 10 17:00:02 2010 Tags:

Mushrooms growing in a stumpDid you know that you can inoculate stumps with edible mushrooms soon after you cut the trees down?  Since the roots are buried in the moist soil, the stump will stay damp enough for the mycelium to run through the wood, then mushrooms will pop out of the cracks.  After a few years of creating mushrooms, the stump will have broken down into good compost, and the mushrooms might even spread into the soil of your garden and help your vegetables grow.

Sadly, I didn't know this five years ago when we cleared our garden area, so the mushrooms coming out of our stumps are of dubious edibility (though they are quite beautiful.)  I wish I'd been reading my blog when I started working on the farm!  (Although a time loop like that might do more harm than would be merited by a few extra mushrooms.)

We're excited to be sending a homemade chicken waterer kit to France --- country number 4!
Posted Sun Apr 11 07:36:18 2010 Tags:
Craftsman points close up detail

Our new Craftsman lawnmower is a lot easier to work on than its older cousins.

It only took a bit over an hour to take it apart, clean the points, and put it all  back together with no parts left over.

It's still a little rough to start, which I suspect is due to a slight warp in the blade. These blades have a more complex twist to them so they can work as a mulcher and throw the grass cuttings back towards the bag. It's this complexity that seems to make it more sensitive than most mowers and I would have to say gives it a disadvantage for folks like us who have the occasional stump to work around.

Of course this problem should work itself through as we continue to delete the stumps and level out the mowing area.

Posted Sun Apr 11 17:00:19 2010 Tags:

Burdick's wild leek (Allium burdickii)Ramps are a prime candidate for forest gardening.  They are an early spring ephemeral that will keep nutrients cycling through the soil before trees leaf out, they prefer growing in shady spots under deciduous trees, and they are considered a delicacy by many.  Once a patch gets going, it can outcompete other herbs and turn into a solid groundcover, as this photo from the wild shows.

There are two species of ramps in our area --- the stereotypical Allium tricoccum and the slightly smaller Allium burdickii, sometimes known as Burdick's wild leek.  I know spots where both of these grow, but the latter is found at a lower elevation in conditions more like those in my garden, so I thought I'd give it a shot first.

I'd prefer to plant ramps from seeds, but the fruits are difficult to find in the wild, so I dug a few seedlings from the edges of a wild clump.  When digging wild plants, I never take more than 10% of a population (preferably much less), and try to remove plants that are already threatened in some way.  The plants I dug were in the middle of a trail and were already damaged by hiking boots, so I figure they'll have a better chance in my garden than if left in place in the woods.

My Burdick's wild leeks have found a new home nestled amid the leaf mold under my oldest peach tree.  If this experiment works, I may try for some Allium trioccum in a few weeks when the higher elevation plants are out.  I hope to expand the clump by seed once the ramps become established, and to begin to harvest leaves in a few years.

For more information about ramp cultivation, check out this
extension service factsheet.  To see the masses of wildflowers I stumbled across during my ramp hunt, visit my
Appalachian ecology site.

Interested in other ways of adding permaculture methods to your farm?  Our homemade chicken waterer is the first step in giving your chickens a healthy, happy life.
Posted Mon Apr 12 07:35:48 2010 Tags:

Swallowtail butterflyOutside the kitchen window, our peach tree is buzzing with pollinators.  I can see hundreds of insects at a time, but they fly too quickly to really count.  Despite having three honeybee hives, our domesticated pollinators make up a scant 1% of the peach tree pollinator haze, and other gaudy pollinators like butterflies and bumblebees are also in the minority. 

I spent a few minutes last week snapping shot after shot of the vibrant insect population on the peach tree, then went inside to try to figure out who all of these wild pollinators were.  That's when I stumbled across Bug Guide, a website run by amateur entomologists who want to share their love of insects with you.  You can browse through their online guide, which is chock Bumblebeefull of photos and fascinating information.  Then, when you get stumped, you can submit photos of your mystery insects and their experts will give you an ID, often within an hour or two.

This week's lunchtime series showcases four common pollinators that you've probably never heard of.  I hadn't heard of most of them either, and had to ask the experts at Bug Guide for a bit of identification help.  I make no promises that these are the most common pollinators out there --- in fact, the take home message I got from my time spent peering at peach blossoms is that there are dozens of species of native pollinators and no single insect is the silver bullet to make sure your plants produce fruit.  Rather than focusing on saving the honeybee, we'd be much better served to encourage a diversity of wild pollinator species by keeping our farms and gardens on the wild side.

Check out our microbusiness ebook and learn to make a living in just a few hours a week.

Learn to keep bugs at bayThis post is part of our Native Pollinators lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Apr 12 12:00:31 2010 Tags:

flywheel puller close up briggs and strattonBig thanks to Vester for pointing me in the flywheel key direction in the comments section of yesterday's post.

I had to replace the blade twice last summer, and it stands to reason that the flywheel key is now the problem with the uneven timing and toughness to start.

Here's a good 5 minute video on exactly how to replace this part, but in the comments section of the video someone pointed out how the guy used a hammer and a large screw driver to get the flywheel off, which can result in damage to the flywheel if you're not careful.

The fear of fly wheel damage prompted me to order a special flywheel puller tool which is pictured above. This type works on most of the Briggs and Stratton flywheels, but you'll need to check your engine number to see if it's a proper match.

The lesson for today is to check out the comments. You might just learn something new about the wonderful world of small engine repair.

Posted Mon Apr 12 16:14:45 2010 Tags:

I transplanted two beds of broccoli last Thursday then three more a day later.  As expected, it frosted both Friday and Saturday night --- I can't tell you how cold it got since our exterior thermometer is still inside the collapsed refrigerator root cellar, but I'd say it got into the high 20s.  All of my broccoli seedlings got nipped, but the ones transplanted on Thursday were only midly damaged while those transplanted on Friday ended up on death's door.  See for yourself --- here is a typical Thursday seedling:

Lightly frost-nipped broccoli seedling

And here's a typical Friday seedling:

Heavily frost-nipped broccoli seedling

I suspect that the Friday seedlings were still dealing with the worst of their transplant shock when the frost hit, while the Thursday seedlings were in prime condition.  If I had it to do over again, I would have transplanted earlier in the week to give the seedlings more time to get situated.  I wonder if the seedlings wouldn't have been damaged at all if they'd had a few more days to get their roots under them?

Good thing I've got spares!  I replaced all of the badly nipped seedlings and put out a couple more beds' worth Monday evening.  No frost is forecast for the next week, so they should do fine.

Want to give your chickens a treat?  Check out our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Tue Apr 13 07:52:10 2010 Tags:

Sweat beeHalictid bees, also known as sweat bees, make up a large family of insects with over 2,000 species.  Although some are drab colored, the common species that visited our peach (Augochlora pura) was a brilliant, metallic green, which is typical of many other types of halictids as well.

Halictids get their common name from their tendency to lick salt off our sweaty skin, making them one of the better known classes of insects despite their small size.  They're also easily startled, and I get stung by sweat bees more than by any other insect, but the pain fades quickly and is a small price to pay for their pollination expertise.

Like bumblebees, halictids are buzz pollinators, which means they're better than honeybees at pollinating blueberries and tomatoes.  They are also generalist pollinators who are glad to visit any flower full of pollen and nectar.  The combination adds up to a very useful pollinator species that should definitely be encouraged in your garden.

The best way to build a healthy population of wild pollinators is to understand their nesting and foraging requirements and then provide them with good habitat.  Sweat bees nest in bare patches of soil or in wood, packing brood cells full of pollen and nectar then laying an egg on top.  When the egg hatches out, the larval sweat bee feeds itself with no help from its parents, then makes its way out of the nest to live as an adult.  Give them a patch of bare ground and a steady flow of flowers throughout the year and sweat bees will be industrious pollinators in your garden.

Want to quit your job and make a living on the land?  Learn how in our microbusiness ebook.

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

Posted Tue Apr 13 12:00:28 2010 Tags:
cute chick on a roost stumbling

I installed a small roost training limb in the chicken pasture coop today.

Folks around here speak of a mysterious benefit from using cedar in chicken coops.

Someday I'll try to figure out the logic behind that Appalachianism. In the meantime I'll keep using cedar in future chicken tractors and coops just because it looks so good and feels very natural.

Posted Tue Apr 13 16:47:32 2010 Tags:
Young pear leaves

Except for last weekend's Dogwood Winter, we seem to have skipped right over spring and moved on to summer.  The pollinator haze on the peach is starting to die down as the flowers pass their prime and leaves pop out.  Our other fruit trees --- like this pear --- are following suit.

Rabbiteye blueberry flower buds

The blueberry bushes are coated in flower buds, and I keep having to remind myself not to count my berries until the frost free date.  I considered rabbiteye blueberries an experiment here in zone 6, but they seem to be happy and healthy.  We only lost one --- the large, older plant my friends threw into the order so that Mark and I would get to sample blueberries the first year.  The loss is a handy reminder that older woody plants tend to transplant badly and often do worse than a youngster of the same species.

Despite all of the promise, the beginning of summer brings trials and tribulations.  This year's abnormally hot, dry spring led to low germination rates in my spinach and swiss chard, and I can't seem to find a single onion seedling.  I know that I should just plant some onion sets, but sets don't produce good storage onions (and cost so much that it's barely worth your while to grow them.)  Instead, I'm going to be nutty and replant the onion seeds in a shady corner, hoping for a miracle.

Skinny asparagus spear

Our asparagus also breaks my heart.  Last year's asparagus beetle infestation killed back the fronds by early summer, and the spears now poking up out of the ground are far thinner than they should be as three year old plants.  The calendar says that we should be able to eat asparagus this year, but I suspect the right thing to do is give the plants another year to recover...assuming I can keep the asparagus beetles at bay.  I've already squashed a few and had better come up with a solution fast!

Comfrey mulch

But the rest of the garden is growing like gangbusters.  I meant to go back and add some mulch under the nectarine, but the comfrey has done that for me.

Sprinkler behind Egyptian onions

Of course, the real clue that it's summer came when I turned on the sprinklers.  I should have done that two weeks ago --- it might have saved my seed onions!

Our homemade chicken waterer really shines in the summer when your chickens most need water.
Posted Wed Apr 14 07:41:42 2010 Tags:
Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina sp.)

Over half of the pollinators visiting our peach tree were miniscule and flighty, hard to catch a glimpse of let alone capture on film.  I did manage to snag a photo of this Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina sp.), which might be better named Teeny-tiny Carpenter Bee.  Small Carpenter Bees are sometimes confused with sweat bees, but the carpenter bees have a club-shaped abdomen, a dull metallic color (versus the brilliant color of some sweat bees), inconspicuous hair, and a pale yellow patch on the face.

Small Carpenter Bees (Ceratina sp.) are related to the larger carpenter bees that drill holes in your porch and weaken the integrity of the wood, but their life cycle is a bit different.  Ceratina bees are much more likely to be found in wild areas, where they nest in the pith of broken plant stems.  We have all five of their favorite nesting species on our farm --- elderberry, box elder, sumac, blackberry, and sunflower --- and I have a sneaking suspicion the bees might also use the large, woody stems of wingstem which are so prevalent in our floodplain.

Small Carpenter Bees make good pollinators because they can be quite numerous and aren't picky about the flowers they visit.  To encourage them in your yard, leave some brushy, wild areas around for the bees to nest in, or plant sunflowers and leave the stems standing all winter.  You may be rewarded with a horde of tiny bees visiting your flowers in the spring.

Fund your journey back to the land.

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

Posted Wed Apr 14 12:00:28 2010 Tags:
goat glove close up in action

The new goat gloves are breaking in better than the competition. I suspect the smooth molding process is thanks to the elastic like black fabric between each finger.

Posted Wed Apr 14 19:54:10 2010 Tags:

Raised bed built by lasagna methodThe four tons of compost Mark bought me a few weeks ago was actually more than I needed.  I can't quite understand the concept, but I added a five gallon bucket to each of my garden beds and had a lot leftover, enough to make some extra raised beds using the lasagna method.  I put down layers of cardboard and paper as a weed retardant, then piled up masses of compost, leaves, and mostly composted wood chips.  The wood chips are full of happy soil critters, and I'm hoping they'll inoculate the whole pile before I need to plant the beds in a month.

I was so pleased with myself...until I went out to look at my new beds after last week's rain.  Did you know that if you buy compost that has been allowed to dry out all the way, Compost tea running out of a bed of compostthe compost becomes hydrophobic and is very difficult to rewet?  Despite nearly an inch of rain, our lasagna beds were bone dry.  Yikes!

So we hooked up the sprinklers and started soaking the new raised beds.  I watered half the beds for an hour, then let the liquid percolate down through the compost while I soaked the other beds for an hour.  Alternating this way for about fifteen hours finally wet the majority of the compost and I'm hoping the dry spots will equalize out over time.

Eastern tiger swallowtails on compostAs with any farm trauma, there's always a silver lining.  The tiger swallowtails are quite happy with the damp compost and have gathered by the dozen on newly wet raised beds.  Nothing like hordes of fluttering butterflies to brighten your day!

Want to skip other common homestead mistakes?  Our automatic chicken waterer ensures your birds always have clean water.
Posted Thu Apr 15 08:15:15 2010 Tags:

Miner bee (Andrena sp.)Miner bees (also called mining or digger bees, in the genus Andrena) seem to be custom made for fruit tree pollination.  The adults are present only during March and April, right when your trees are blooming, and the bees are seldom distracted by ground-flowering weeds.  (Our honeybees, in contrast, seem to be spending most of their time on dead nettles at the moment.)  Miner bees are also able to fly at chillier temperatures than many of the other pollinators I've discussed this week, so they're active during the morning and evening and on drippy days.

Miner bee legs are hairyI found at least two species of miner bees on our peach tree, which is to be expected since 1,300 Andrena species exist worldwide.  The bees are similar in size to a honeybee --- one of my species is a bit smaller and one a bit larger --- but sparser hair on the bee's body gives the miner bee a mean look.  Luckily, they're not mean at all, and are even less likely than a honeybee to sting.  You can distinguish miner bees by their dark-tinted wings and extra-hairy back legs.  These pollen brushes seem to go, as one website put it, "seemingly in their 'armpits'".

Despite being custom-made for fruit-tree pollination, miner bees aren't all that common in large-scale orchards.  The bees won't fly very far to forage, so they require a wild nesting site close to the trees they feed from.  To encourage Andrena in your garden, provide them with some loose soil near or under shrubs, preferably on a warm, south-facing bank.  Your miner bees will dig a burrow in the soil and lay eggs in brood cells full of pollen and nectar, just like sweat bees do.  The adults will die in late spring soon after laying their eggs, and won't be seen again until your peach trees are once again in bloom.

Check out our ebook about marketing your invention.

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

Posted Thu Apr 15 12:00:16 2010 Tags:

compost composureIt finally happened.

We finally hauled enough compost to satisfy the heavy  organic needs of this year's compost quota.

The new goal is to always have a healthy size pile on hand for emergency fertilizing.

Next to that will be an even bigger pile of mulch.

Posted Thu Apr 15 17:28:48 2010 Tags:

Jared Diamond calls it “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” Bill Mollison says that it can “destroy whole landscapes.” Are they describing nuclear energy? Suburbia? Coal mining? No. They are talking about agriculture.

Kale about to bloomThus begins Toby Hemenway's thought-provoking article "Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?"  Those of you who were intrigued (or irritated) by my post that people worked only 3 hours per day before the Industrial Revolution should take a look at Hemenway's article.

Anthropologist Yehudi Cohen broke societies down into five categories, the relevant three being foragers (hunter-gatherers), horticulturalists (gardeners), and agriculturalists (farmers.)  Based on historical and anthropological data, Hemenway comes to the conclusion that agricultural societies are inherently unsustainable, but he doesn't make the leap several of you made upon reading my previous post that the only solution is to return to a hunter-gatherer existence.  Instead, we can meet in the middle as horticulturalists:

Horticulturists use polycultures, tree crops, perennials, and limited tillage, and have an intimate relationship with diverse species of plants and animals. This sounds like permaculture, doesn’t it?

Mark and I have been going back and forth for years about whether we are farmers or gardeners.  On the one hand, we are serious enough about our endeavor that we consider ourselves farmers.  On the other hand, we don't use tractors or sell our excess --- two signs that we're merely gardeners.  Maybe I should start calling us horticulturalists?

Thanks to Vester for passing on this intriguing article!  I'd love to hear from anyone with an anthropology background who could suggest a bit of reading material for me to bone up on traditional horticultural societies.

Check out our homemade chicken waterer, Mark's solution to the problem of chicken waterers that spill and fill with poop.

Posted Fri Apr 16 07:00:20 2010 Tags:

Bee fly"I've started seeing a different kind of bee lately," Mark said as April rolled in.  "It's a bit smaller than a honeybee and...simpler."

I knew exactly what he was talking about since I'd noticed the same insect hovering in mid-air as I worked around the yard.  It looked like a child's drawing of a bee --- just one big hunk of fluff with wings.  But it wasn't a bee.

The Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major) is a fly that mimics a bee both in appearance and in behavior.  Once our peach flowers opened up, about a tenth of the pollinators drawn to the abundance of nectar and pollen were bee flies.  The flies are easy to distinguish from true bees since they have a habit of hovering, hummingbird-like, in front of flowers, or landing and showing off their extra long legs.

Like many garden insects, bee flies aren't really good or bad.  They're a great pollinator, but the flies also parasitize solitary bees and wasps, thus cutting down on the population of other pollinators and predators.  Unlike other bee mimics that try to piggy-back on predators' aversion to stinging insects, bee flies probably mimic bees so that they can get close to the bees' burrows and fling their eggs inside.  When the bee fly eggs hatch out, the larval flies feed on the larval bees, killing the bees in the process.  Despite the death toll, I consider the presence of bee flies a good sign since it signals a healthy and varied insect population.  It's best not to put all of your pollinator eggs in one basket.

Why not make a living doing what you love?

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

Posted Fri Apr 16 12:00:26 2010 Tags:
home made diy golf cart truck bed dump bed

The home made golf cart dump box is holding up nicely under some serious hauling.

I think adding a couple of seat backs to the protruding frame might help to soften the bumps for a couple of passengers in the back.

Posted Fri Apr 16 17:00:10 2010 Tags:
Chicks picking through grass clippings

Homesteading teaches flexibility.  I was absolutely certain that I would have time to finish weeding the beds of garlic and spring seedlings this week and that Mark would have time to fence in our first chicken pasture.  In reality, we each got about halfway to our goal.  It just seemed more important to visit Mark's mom and my dad, to get the irrigation system back up and running, and to cut the weeds before they were too high for the mower.

I felt a bit bad about leaving the chicks in their coop over another weekend, so I tossed in a bag of weedy grass clippings.  The shady side of the yard came up in a dense stand of chickweed and bittercress this winter, and I didn't get the mower over there before these weeds went to seed.  I figured it was a better idea to let the chicks pick through the weedy clippings than to put them straight on a garden bed, and the chicks agreed.  "These are tasty!" they exclaimed, then proceeded to play king of the hill.

It's getting a bit crowded in the coop, but Mark's homemade chicken waterer is keeping their drinking water poop-free.
Posted Sat Apr 17 07:00:10 2010 Tags:
chick close up

I raised the automatic chick waterer height yet again due to the rapid growth rate of the new flock.

If everything goes as planned they should be running free in their new pasture sometime around the middle of next week.

Posted Sat Apr 17 17:10:38 2010 Tags:

My winter leaf mulches were a wonderful success.  They kept the weeds down admirably, and seem to have improved the soil quality in the process.  While transplanting broccoli last week, I was stunned by the moist, crumby structure of the soil in the loamy upper garden, and by the ubiquity of worms and other good soil critters.

Unfortunately, I can't just keep the leaves in place for the summer.  Some of the mulch has blown away or rotted into the ground, while the big leaves left behind are prone to move onto small seedlings and drown them out.  I raked a few dozen beds bare in March to plant peas and greens, and now weeds are already starting to crowd my vegetables.  Time to experiment with some summer mulches:

  • Grass clipping mulchGrass clippings.  Last year, I learned that grass/clover clippings make a great summer mulch since they are high in nitrogen and feed the soil while drowning out weeds.  We did make a mistake and mulched two beds with clippings that had already gone to seed, with predictable results, but all of the other beds mulched with grass clippings are happy and healthy.  The downside of grass clippings is that they decompose very quickly and need to be refreshed within a month.  Since we get about 32 beds worth of clippings per month, I figure we have nearly 200 other garden beds that will soon be in need of mulch.
  • Newspaper mulchNewspapers.  My father has had good luck with wetting down newspaper and using it as a weed barrier around his plants once they're large seedlings.  We don't subscribe to the newspaper, but we do get some catalogs made of newsprint.  I soaked the catalogs and ripped them into segments about ten pages thick.
  • Cardboard mulchCardboard and junk mail.  Last year, I put a lot of cardboard and junk mail in our summer worm bin, but the worms just didn't have the gumption to eat it once the paper and cardboard matted down into damp layers.  I teased the layers apart and am using the wet cardboard as a mulch. 
  • Tree leaves.  I figure that tree leaves will work as a mulch around more established plants, like our peas that are already several inches high.

I'm trying all four mulches around our peas in the back garden, and will report back in a month or so once I can tell how they're doing.  I'm a bit concerned that the newspaper and cardboard will dry up and blow around since I didn't put anything on top of it, but it's worth a shot!  Anything that reduces our garden's weed pressure makes me a happy camper.

Looking for other ways to simplify your homestead life?  Try an automatic chicken waterer --- copious, clean water with no work.
Posted Sun Apr 18 07:00:30 2010 Tags:
Mike Turner's AeroCivic close up

I first blogged about Mike Turner towards the end of July of last year. Imagine my surprise when I saw him and his AeroCivic at a farmers market down in South Carolina this past Friday.

Turns out he's got some new ambitions on adding an electric 5th wheel to push the car under certain road conditions. At the moment it's not economically feasible due to the high cost of good batteries, but it might not be too long before some clever engineer comes up with a better and cheaper battery that perhaps is somewhat environmentally responsible to produce.

If you'd like to learn more about Mike check back in tomorrow to see a short video interview I did with him where he describes what happened when he hit a deer with the AeroCivic and how it just dented the hood and flipped over the top.

He's also got an excellent website which has a generous supply of construction images while the AeroCivic was being born.

Posted Sun Apr 18 21:23:15 2010 Tags:

Strawberry flowerDriving home from our whirlwind visit to my father in South Carolina, we seemed to be travelling back in time.  The tree leaves shrank back into their buds until they were a mere haze and black locust flowers gave way to redbuds.  As we crossed the border of our home county, we passed a large strawberry field coated with row cover fabric --- a good reminder to check the weather and notice a frost warning in effect.  I followed the strawberry farmer's lead and covered as many of my strawberry and broccoli beds as I could, even though the light frost didn't seem to harm the plants left unprotected.

Broccoli seedlingLucy had broken into one of the chicken tractors while we were gone, not to eat the chickens but to eat their scraps.  So I chased down three hens as they happily scratched through my garlic's mulch (then chased them down again half an hour later when I realized where the hole in their cage was.)  Across the yard, the chicks seem to have eaten the majority of the grass clippings I gave them, along with a gallon of feed, and were begging for more.  We were only gone for 36 hours!  Could everything really have grown so much in a day and a half?

Want to be able to leave your chickens for a few days without worry?  Our automatic chicken waterer takes away all the guesswork.
Posted Mon Apr 19 08:25:17 2010 Tags:

Square Foot GardeningThe method's founder claims that square foot gardening allows you to grow the same amount of food in 20% of the space, saving time and money in the process.  Although several people I know swear by it, I find it hard to believe that square foot gardening lives up to the hype.  Is square foot gardening a trend or a useful technique?

Mel Bartholomew outlines his method at great length (sometimes much greater then I'd prefer) in Square Foot Gardening.  He divides his garden into beds four feet on each side, then subdivides each bed into sixteen blocks, each one square foot in size.  These small sections are devoted to single crops --- big plants like cabbage fill an entire square while smaller crops may have several evenly spaced plants in the square.  That's pretty much all there is to it.

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This post is part of our Square Foot Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Apr 19 12:00:28 2010 Tags:

Mike Turner tells the story of hitting a deer with his AeroCivic in this short video.

If you're inspired to learn more about homemade aerodynamic automobile modifications then you'll want to check out the website. It's a community of above average people taking fuel effeciency into their own hands by experimenting with aero modifications and sharing their results.

The removeable boat tail project for a Geo Metro looks very promising.

Posted Mon Apr 19 18:53:44 2010 Tags:

Healthy vs. frost-damaged strawberry flower
What does a light frost (around 30 F minimum) do in the garden in April?  Strawberry flowers in full bloom were damaged --- notice the blackened ovary in the center of the flower on the left compared to the yellow center of the one on the right.  The former was unprotected while the latter spent the night under a row cover.  The frost-damaged bloom won't bear fruit, but the damage isn't a big deal since the plant has several other flowers waiting to open.
Young potato leaves damaged by a frost
Newly emerged potato leaves were a bit nipped as well, but I'm not overly concerned about them either.  As you can see, only the tips of the leaves were frozen, and there's plenty more growth to come from the tubers underground.

What did I protect unnecessarily?  The broccoli and cabbage seedlings, although still small, are now well established and didn't even notice the cold.  The fruit tree flowers also seemed unphased.  Let's hope the rest of the spring temperatures don't drop below 30 and we'll be in good shape!

Our four year old hens are laying an egg a day apiece, due in part to the copious clean water they drink from our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Tue Apr 20 07:43:43 2010 Tags:

Mel Bartholemew with his gardenThe meat of square foot gardening is permanent beds, but Mel Bartholomew didn't invent the concept.  Alternative gardeners have been using permanent beds for a long time --- for example, camellones have been used in Central America for centuriesMy own garden is completely made up of permanent raised beds, both because our soil tends to get waterlogged and because I want to concentrate the topsoil and prevent soil compaction.

I've experimented with a lot of permanent bed sizes and shapes over the past few years, and the four by four square advocated by square foot gardening is one of my least favorite formats.  I like to be able to weed and plant and harvest sitting down, but I can't reach the center of a four foot bed without either leaning on the bed or standing up and bending over --- hard on the back.  My favorite beds are three feet wide but quite long.  In fact, the best bed shape for me seems to be a long row that I can work my way down it, never turning a corner, pushing the wheelbarrow ahead of me as I go.

Square foot garden with arborWhich brings me to the next flaw in Mel Bartholomew's garden design --- the aisles.  In order to fit his garden into 20% of the space used by a traditional garden, Bartholomew lays down 12 inch lumber and walks on this one foot wide path.  I started out with aisles that are two feet wide, and I can barely fit my wheelbarrow down them, often harm plants on the ends of beds when turning corners, and can't get the lawnmower through some of the aisles at all.  As with permanent bed widths, three feet seems to be the magic number that keeps me from feeling cramped, with four or five foot aisles along main thoroughfares allowing for easier hauling.  Granted, my method uses more space than Bartholomew's, but I suspect it saves time since I don't have to prop back up the plants I break when I lose my balance and fall into the bed.

Small square foot gardenDespite being very critical of square foot gardening, I do think it has a place.  If you live in a city and have only a tiny bit of space out front but the neighbors would yell if you put in a traditional vegetable garden, the formal lines of square foot gardening might fit the bill.  If you work forty hours a week and always plant a huge rambling garden, only to see it disappear into weeds in July when you run out of time, it might be best to scale back to a smaller garden like Bartholomew's (but, perhaps, laid out in a more ergonomic fashion.)  On the other hand, if you're a homesteader with lots of land and a wish to grow most of your own food, square foot gardening probably doesn't have much for you.

(All of the images on this page are official square foot gardens from the Square Foot Gardening Foundation.  I'm actually a bit shocked that these are the best images they have to offer.)

Want to give your garden the time it really deserves?  Learn to make a living in a few hours a week using our microbusiness ebook.

This post is part of our Square Foot Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Apr 20 12:00:28 2010 Tags:
U haul car hauler close up

We used a U-Haul car trailer to tow the new parts Festiva from South Carolina to home this past weekend. (Thanks, Errol.)

The rental price was just over 80 bucks, and I'm happy to report on how smooth the whole operation went even on the large North Carolina hills.

If I ever do it again I'll insist on being the one to ratchet down the front wheel straps. The guy who did ours was in a rush and bunched up part of the fabric causing a small delay in unhooking everything when we got home.

Posted Tue Apr 20 16:45:17 2010 Tags:
A rising storm lifted a chunk of paper mulch out of the garden and flung it across the yard to batter against the side of a towering propane tank.

My mother and brother looked up in alarm as the mulch knocked loose a cable, releasing fuel into the darkening afternoon.  Then...a crack of thunder...a flash of lightning...and suddenly the tank was ablaze.

"We're going to die!" Joey howled as he pushed my mother behind him to shelter her from the wall of flame.  Mom ran one way, Joey the other, as the inevitable explosion shook the farm.

Then I woke up.  What, you don't dream about the possible dangers of your mulch choices?

Wood chips on top of paper mulchMy mulch nightmare was brought on by Daddy's explanation that he always weighs down his newspaper mulch with something to keep it from blowing away.  Sure enough, when we got back from our trip, an uncharacteristic wind had whipped through our farm and blown around about a tenth of the paper mulch.  In contrast, last year's partially decomposed junk mail and cardboard was still in place, suggesting a long term solution to the blowing paper problem.  For now, I just dribbled a bit of composted wood chip mulch on top of the newspaper to hold it in place and stave off those terrifying mulch nightmares.

Our homemade chicken waterer is perfect for use in tractors since it never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Wed Apr 21 09:08:05 2010 Tags:

Square foot gardening diagramI think that Mel Bartholomew could have summed up the unique aspects of square foot gardening in about fifteen pages.  So in order to turn his idea into a book, he had to add about 300 pages of fluff ranging from basic seed-starting advice to how to weed and water.  While I wholeheartedly agree with many aspects of his method, none of them is really new.  In addition to permanent beds, he advocates:

  • Heavy mulches to keep down weeds
  • Starting only the seeds you're going to have space for in your garden rather than planting dozens and thinning
  • Succession planting so that your garden is full from early spring to late fall
  • Vertical gardening by running tomatoes and cucurbits up trellises (which is a method I need to work a bit harder on myself)

On the other hand, I can't get behind some of Bartholomew's other assertions.  He thinks that crop rotation will take care of itself since you're constantly filling up new squares and are unlikely to put the same plant family in a location twice in a row.  In a mathematical puzzle, that might be the case, but in a real life garden you'll discover that your carrots like the spot with deep soil and the spring peas like the sunniest area by the trellis, and you'll tend to plant each crop in the same place from year to year.  Keeping track of planting locations is essential to prevent a buildup of diseases in the soil.

I think the point where Bartholomew really lost me, though, was when he asked who would want more than four heads of broccoli in a year.  Um, me?!!!  I know that Bartholomew's goal is to cut down on work, but after a while, I started to wonder if he really likes vegetables.

Want to get out of the cubicle?  Read out our ebook and learn to make a living doing what you love.

This post is part of our Square Foot Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Apr 21 12:00:33 2010 Tags:

chicken pasture progress close up

The new chicken pasture is one step closer to completion with the final stretch of fence going up today.

Next up is to fabricate a light gate for easy access to the pasture and coop.

Posted Wed Apr 21 16:13:10 2010 Tags:

Kale flower budsEliza's suggestion to eat young pea shoots as a salad green inspired me to make better use of other sub-prime crops in the garden.  About a third of last year's kale successfully made it through the winter, but after a couple of weeks of leaf harvests, hot weather prompted the plants to bolt.  I was tempted to let the kale go and save the seeds, but instead decided to clip the flower buds off and eat them like broccoli (or, really, broccoli raab.)

Meanwhile, the first shiitakes are coming out on our mushroom logs, and here the warm, dry weather has been a boon.  The mushrooms actually started breaking free of the wood a few weeks ago, but lack of humidity retarded their growth and caused a cracked cap.  The result is not only beautiful, but is considered by gourmet chefs to be the highest grade shiitake out there.  Mixed with our kale buds, copious Egyptian onion leaves, and eggs from our chicken tractors, the shiitakes were absolutely delicious!

Shiitake with cracked cap

The world's best omelet starts with chickens raised on pasture drinking copious, clean water from our automatic chicken waterer.
Posted Thu Apr 22 06:55:24 2010 Tags:

Adding soil amendments to a square foot gardenIn addition to using permanent beds with small aisles and copious trellises, Mel Bartholomew gets more vegetables in a smaller space because he brings in a lot of soil amendments.  I'm of two minds about this part of his gardening strategy.

On the one hand, it's clearly expensive (and not very sustainable) to buy bags of peat moss, potting soil, and vermiculite to give your soil good drainage and then add chemical fertilizers to boost the plants' growth.  Mel Bartholemew is basically creating a large container garden, which means that he isn't tapping into the strength of a diverse soil food web.

On the other hand, Bartholomew might be able to get many of the same results by doubling down on compost and manure.  His point is well taken that if you divide the size of your garden in half, you can double the amount of soil amendments on each square foot, possibly resulting in a doubled (or at least larger) crop in the smaller space.

However, I don't grow vegetables just to get the largest fruits from the smallest tract of land.  I've discovered that the tastiest (and, I think, most healthful) fruits and vegetables have to struggle a little to find nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus.  The fruits are often smaller, but they're jam-packed with flavor, and I suspect have more micronutrients from their roots' elongated journey through the soil.  I'm not willing to give up that quality in favor of quantity; otherwise, I might as well just buy my produce at the grocery store.

A permaculture approach to soil is completely different.  Instead of focusing on the plants' output per unit space, a permaculturalist would focus on maintaining a healthy soil ecosystem and on adding varied soil amendments that would boost micronutrient levels.  I would love to see a study comparing the vitamins and minerals in a leaf of lettuce grown in my type of garden versus one grown in Mel Bartholomew's.  Could science tell a difference?

Fund your journey back to the land with our microbusiness ebook.

This post is part of our Square Foot Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Apr 22 12:00:31 2010 Tags:
pasture bottom protection

The most vulnerable spots for the new chicken pasture fence will likely be near the ground.

Since we've got plenty of logs laying around I decided to line them up along the bottom edges to provide a solid wooden surface to staple the fence material to.

I should get the gate installed tomorrow, which will make everything ready for the new flock to get out and roam for the first time.

Posted Thu Apr 22 16:02:11 2010 Tags:

Measuring the amount of water in a containerMost fruits and vegetables require one inch of water per week during the growing season.  Sprinklers are a great backup to natural rainfall, but how long do you turn them on to get that precious inch?  How do you know if your garden is being evenly watered?

Last year, I learned that it's best to situate your sprinklers so they provide head to head coverage, but that trick isn't enough to ensure even watering with an irregularly shaped garden.  Instead, you'll need to put your sprinklers where you think they should go, then run some irrigation tests.  Scatter empty containers every few yards across the garden, blast the sprinklers for an hour, then go back and measure the amount of water in each container.

To help you visualize wet and dry spots, draw a rough map of the garden and write in the water depth at each container location.  Do a bit of math to figure out the average water depth across the garden, then circle areas which ended up with less than average water.

Now it's time to move the sprinklers a bit to make those dry spots go away.  If you're lucky, you will have noticed an abnormally wet spot on one side of a sprinkler and an abnormally dry spot on the other side.  In this case, you can simply move the sprinkler a few feet closer to the dry spot and away from the wet spot.

Watering the mule gardenOn the other hand, you may simply have too few sprinklers in play.  If there are dry spots at the outer limits of two sprinklers, you may need to add a third sprinkler to fill in the gaps.

Once you move the sprinklers, run another irrigation test and repeat the process until your garden is getting the same amount of water in every container.  I chose to stop tweaking the sprinklers once the containers were all within the same ballpark --- how obsessive you get about this is up to you.

It will take a few hours of your time to get the sprinklers set up properly, but the irrigation tests are well worth the work.  Now your garden will be evenly hydrated, and you will even know how long it takes to provide that critical inch of water.  Due to different sprinkler orientations, I figure I need to run each set of sprinklers for three hours to get an inch of water in the upper garden and for two hours to get an inch in the mule garden.  I guess it only took three and a half inches of water to saturate that hydrophobic compost --- not nearly as bad as I thought.

Looking for other DIY projects on the farm?  Our homemade chicken waterer is easy to build and will never spill or fill with poop.
Posted Fri Apr 23 07:55:45 2010 Tags:

Winter sowingWhile I'm on the subject of techniques that I consider to be overhyped, I can't resist a post about winter sowing.  According to the official website, "Winter Sowing is done outdoors during Winter using mini-greenhouses made from recyclables; there are no heating devices, no energy wasting light set-ups or expensive seed starting devices."

Just take a container and turn it into a pot by poking a few holes in the bottom.  Then put in your soil, drop in some seeds, and cover the pot with a clear plastic lid doctored with a few slits.  The container acts like a mini greenhouse and germinates the seeds a few weeks before they would germinate if sown directly into the garden.

Winter sowing is basically a replacement for the easy-to-do-wrong method of starting your seedlings on a sunny windowsill or under grow lights.  Beginning gardeners often fall into a couple of traps when using the windowsill method, both of which result in leggy seedlings that transplant badly --- they usually can't get enough light to their plants, and they start the seedlings too early.  Damping off is another potential problem since moist potting soil tends to grow a nasty fungus that will kill your seedlings.  Then, when you bring your remaining seedlings outside to plant in the garden, they have a severe shock --- they're used to the climate-controlled conditions inside your house, so unless you slowly harden them off, many will die.

Cheap cold frameBut while winter sowing is preferable to starting seeds inside, I think that a cold frame is even better.  Like winter sowing, it gives your seeds a few weeks' head start, but the cold frame provides more protection from freezing temperatures since the seedlings are in direct contact with the temperature-mitigating earth.  Your seedlings have more room to spread their roots through the soil, ensuring a healthy plant, and the permeable row cover fabric I use to cover the frames ensures that you don't have to water your seedlings or worry about them overheating.

Over the last few years, I've tried starting seeds both indoors under a grow light and outdoors in these cold frames and I've decided that the cold frame is preferable for lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, and tomatoes.  On the other hand, peppers are just too tender --- they came up no sooner in a cold frame than when directly sowed in the ground, so I'm starting a few indoors this year.  Read my post about how to build a cold frame for a couple of dollars worth of screws and give it a shot --- I suspect you'll never go back to either windowsill starting or winter sowing.

Do you have a great idea you want to share with the world?  Learn how to turn your invention into your job.

This post is part of our Square Foot Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Apr 23 12:00:13 2010 Tags:
mark Freedom!
New flock freedom

The new flock finally got their first taste of freedom today.

Next up will be to build them a large Avian Aqua Miser bucket waterer so we don't have to keep topping the little ones off everyday.

Posted Fri Apr 23 16:23:25 2010 Tags:

Square foot gardening bedI was thrilled when Ron wrote me an email to tell me the other side of the story on square foot gardening.  All of the images here are of Ron's garden, which he describes as follows:

I feel you’re a little harsh on square foot garden method.

Maybe in your permaculture centered / deep woods homesteading environment, it’s not very effective. But I live in “yuppieville” and we can’t use what “don’t fit in.”

I hear constantly about property values. My neighbors pray to the ChemLawn Gods. “Why grow your own when a grocery store is a half mile away.” So sayeth the neighbors.
Square foot gardening with row covers
This started four years ago and I reside in Upstate NY.
While I live in suburbia, I have “pest” problems. Cats, dogs, grackles, squirrels, possum, raccoons, even deer. Thus the covers made with PVC and Insect screening.  Keeps out most problems. Even torrential hail!!!!!!
Snow-covered gardenOur heavy clay soil that turns into muck in the rains. Full of rocks and gravel. Bad bugs aplenty and I don’t use pesticides. PLUS feet and feet of snow!
Having absolutely NO garden knowledge, I recalled PBS show, Square Foot Gardening. Started with first 2 – 4’x4’ beds. Amazing success. Second year, added 4 more, 4’x4’s and a pea bed 2’x8’.
Such a success, 3rd year, I added, 6 – 3’x8’ beds (not in photo). I also use containers. This year, I added 2 - 28”x5’ tabletop garden beds on sawhorses (used for specialty greens and mesclun). Many additional trellises as I try to “grow up.”
Layout of a square foot gardenEach year I add more compost. Also add other supplements such as Alpaca manure, greensand, kelp, and biochar. Studying remineralization. I keep detailed notes each year. I rotate crops / beds.
Pro vs. Con – every method has some of both. Great for beginners!!!! Cons – getting materials, costs, and very addicting!!!!
My goal is to try replicating the “Urban Homestead” as outline by the Dervaes Family in thePath to Freedom." Like them, will take years. Are you familiar?
Trellis in a square foot garden 
Also a strong follower of Mother Earth News. Have been since a teenager.
I love growing a wide variety of specialty items I can’t afford to buy / refuse to pay the price for. Asparagus was great last night!
I’ve attached latest layout in .pdf format [one page of which is reproduced above].
Hope this changes some of your thoughts.
Take care

I'd love to hear from other readers who have tried square foot gardening.  What did you think about the technique's pros and cons?

Hot weather is on its way.  Install an automatic chicken waterer now and beat the heat.

This post is part of our Square Foot Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Sat Apr 24 09:16:24 2010 Tags:
home made pasture gate brick stop

It seems like old chimney bricks have hundreds of uses.

I wedged these together between the 2 gate posts of the chicken pasture in an effort to discourage Lucy from trying to dig her way under in order to help herself to any future scraps that might get tossed that way.

Luckily she fully understands that chickens themselves are off limits. It's just the delicious food scraps that bring out the bad girl in her.

Posted Sat Apr 24 19:35:17 2010 Tags:

Swiss chard seedlingAs I weeded the peas this week, I stumbled across a patch of volunteer swiss chard growing amid the tendrils.  The swiss chard plants were about three times as big as the seedlings which came up in this spring's bed,  sending me off in mental gyrations.

I never let my swiss chard go to seed last year, so these volunteers were clearly sprouting from last spring's seeds.  Why didn't those seeds sprout in 2009?  Do some swiss chard seeds always take two years to germinate (while others clearly germinate right away)?

Why were the volunteer swiss chard so much bigger than this year's version?  Did they sprout sooner, protected by mulch then warmed in the sunniest part of the garden?  Or do they just like the drainage in the mule garden better than the back garden?

I have no answers, but I do suddenly have a bed of swiss chard that will be big enough to eat next week.  I transplanted the volunteers out of the pea bed and into the many gaps in this year's swiss chard bed, and am anticipating a copious harvest shortly.

Check out our homemade chicken waterer, the best way to keep your chickens happy and healthy.
Posted Sun Apr 25 08:33:29 2010 Tags:

How are the deer deterrents working for you this year, have you done any adjusting to your technique?

Earl from Baton Rouge, LA
cave of the deer hunting

Thanks for asking Earl. Its been a nibble free year so far. The deer deterrent tinkering sort of took on a life of its own and required a separate website which we now call BackYard

The goal is to give away the data we have so far in an effort to stimulate some widespread experimentation to see how well this works in other environments.

We've had some good feedback so far, and Anna posted an interesting piece on a study done by the Canadian government concerning what they learned about keeping deer out of airports.

Image credit goes to Mr Granito for his cave painting of a deer hunt in action.

Posted Sun Apr 25 15:02:18 2010 Tags:
Anna Chicken TV

Month old chicks in a dominance displayMy brother and I sat by the chicken pasture for an hour on Saturday, watching the game.  "Look!" I exclaimed.  "Cock fight!"  Two chicks faced off, their ruff feathers standing on end.  After several seconds of staring, one cockerel leapt into the air, and the other fled all the way back to the coop.

Then, more drama.  25 pairs of eyes peered upwards, and then 25 pairs of feet hit the ground as every chick ran for shelter.  "Hawk!  Hawk!  Hawk!" they were clearly thinking, although the dark shape swooping down from above was just a butterfly.

Dark Cornish cockerelFor our continued amusement, I went inside and brought out the bucket of chicken scraps --- the first time our chicks had been fed human food.  But the cockerels were confused by the odd shapes and instead preferred to run after aerial insects, capturing them in flight.

All chicken amusement aside, I'm excited that our chicken pasture experiment is underway.  If any of you have had experience raising foraging chickens, I'd appreciate it if you'd fill out our poll.  Once I come up with an appropriate prize, we'll be starting an exciting chicken pasture contest shortly --- stay tuned!

Our homemade chicken waterer is an integral part of any chicken range system.
Posted Mon Apr 26 08:21:23 2010 Tags:

Gardening When It CountsSteve Solomon's Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times is the opposite of Square Foot Gardening in almost every way.  While Square Foot Gardening is aimed at the suburban hobby gardener, Gardening When It Counts is written for the serious homesteader.  I complained about pages of fluff in Square Foot Gardening (which Ron rightly reminded me was useful information for the beginning grower), but I wish Solomon had spent twice as much space on many of the topics in his book.

I'm going to attempt to hit the highlights of Gardening When It Counts in a special, two week lunchtime series, but like my series on Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms and Edible Forest Gardens, I highly recommend that you check the book out of your local library and read it from cover to cover.  Twice.  If I'd read Gardening When It Counts two years ago, I would have saved myself a solid year of experimentation.  You can save that year!

Want to quit your job and make a living on the land?  Check out our microbusiness ebook.

This post is part of our Gardening When It Counts lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Apr 26 12:00:30 2010 Tags:
top wire

The downside to using this 5 foot tall chicken wire on the new forest pasture fence is how flimsy it gets towards the top.

I've found that a semi tight stretch of electric fence wire helps to firm it up.

It took me a few times to figure out, but it's a lot easier to measure out the distance first and cut the wire to size and then weave it through.

Posted Mon Apr 26 17:29:38 2010 Tags:

Lucy in front of the newly mowed lawnThe first mowing of the year is always the hardest on our farm.  The stump locations are long forgotten, and this year our chipping experiment left branches strewn around in unlikely spots.  Adding to the mess, Lucy's firewood fetish results in hunks of wood hidden here and there in the high grass where she dragged them, chewed for a while, then wandered off to do doggie things.  Basically, there's a lot of picking up to be done before we can safely run the mower over our "lawn."

Luckily, the grass comes into production at different times on different parts of the farm.  The north side of the garden always starts growing first since it gets the best winter sun, and I've mowed that area twice already.  In contrast, the south side of the yard is shaded by the hill and only started growing a week or two again.  I'd been ignoring that area, but by Monday morning the weeds were clearly getting out of control, so Mark and I tag-teamed it --- I picked up debris while he pushed the mower.  Our farm suddenly looks almost manicured!

Clean up your chicken coop with a homemade chicken waterer that never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Tue Apr 27 07:21:53 2010 Tags:

Steve Solomon with a cabbageSteve Solomon started his garden journey in the 1970s and jumped right on the intensive gardening bandwagon.  Intensive gardening is a term Solomon uses to encompass techniques like square foot gardening and lasagna gardening (and, to some extent, my garden) that promise to grow more vegetables in less space using raised beds and high influxes of organic matter and water.  Solomon was so enthusiastic that he wrote books on the subject, but over time his feelings changed.

In 1979, he founded Territorial Seed company and began to grow large trial gardens to test out his company's vegetable varieties.  He wrote:

"Trials require that you grow plants far enough part that each can develop to its full potential.  One thing I noticed from doing this was that my trial plots didn't need nearly as much irrigation as my intensive veggie garden.  Another was that these well-separated plants got much larger; they tasted better than crowded vegetables did when they weren't harvested promptly; and many vegetable species grown that way yielded more in relation to the space occupied, not less as I had read in books by intensivist gurus."

Solomon goes on to argue that Peak Oil will soon make fertilizers (organic and chemical) and electricity to pump water more expensive.  At the same time, more and more people will need to grow their own food for financial reasons.  Solomon notes that his methods will not only save money by reducing the input of fertilizers and water, but will also require only about half the time you'd spend tending an intensive garden.  Even if you don't believe in Peak Oil, if your goal (like ours) is to grow as much of your own food as possible, it just makes sense to save yourself time and money in the process.

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This post is part of our Gardening When It Counts lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Apr 27 12:00:38 2010 Tags:
15 gallons of frost protection

I was waiting in line today at Tractor Supply with a 50 pound bag of chick feed on my shoulder when I noticed for the first time how they sell disposable hand warmers that last 10 hours. That got me to thinking about how much heat might be captured from something like that with a 5 gallon bucket covering it?

We don't need that level of protection tonight, but it might come in handy if a sudden ice age reared its cold shoulders.

I guess the only way to know would be to test and measure the temperature, but it might work as a last ditch effort to save an outdoor plant if it got more than 10 degrees lower than freezing.

Posted Tue Apr 27 20:03:23 2010 Tags:
Spreading row cover for frost protection

Despite the fact that our neighbors are planting big hothouse tomato transplants, our frost free date is still two and a half weeks away.  Sure enough, we have a frost watch in effect for two days this week.

Time to haul back out my holey row-covers.  Learning from redbud winter's frost, I chose to use my limited protection on the strawberries, some of the potatoes, and our hardy kiwis.  The latter lost their first flush of leaves to a previous frost, and I'm a bit concerned they might have a bad year if they lose their second flush of leaves too.  Here's hoping temperatures don't drop so low that anyone else is harmed.

Treat your chickens to POOP-free water with our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Wed Apr 28 08:15:16 2010 Tags:

Steve Solomon in his gardenSteve Solomon grows vegetables in an area about 2,000 square feet in size (about 2,700 feet if paths are included) to feed himself and his wife half of their daily calories.  He is currently able to use copious soil amendments and irrigation, and also benefits from gardening in an area where the soil doesn't freeze solid in the winter.  Without those advantages, Solomon estimates that he could need as much as 9,000 square feet to feed his family.  If he wanted to include potatoes and sweet potatoes in his garden to fulfill more of his food requirements, he would add another 1,000 to 1,500 square feet for a total of a tenth to a quarter of an acre to feed two adults.

In addition to this garden area, Solomon sets aside another area of equal size and rotates his entire garden every three to five years.  He argues that if you live in an area where the ground doesn't freeze solid in the winter, disease and insect infestations will build up to a point where your yields begin to decline after a few years, even if you rotate crops.  So he manages a ley equal in size to his current garden, where he grows grass and clover, cutting the greenery a few times a year and letting the clippings rot into the ground to increase the soil's fertility.  After a few years, he tills up the ley and turns it into garden, then sows the old garden into a ley.

This is one of the areas where I wish that Gardening When It Counts went into a little greater depth.  While I agree that people have been letting land lie fallow and rotating vegetables through these areas at intervals for a long time, I wonder whether a permaculture approach could result in a garden ecosystem that was resilient enough to prevent disease and pest outbreaks.  I'll discuss in a later post how Solomon uses a mixture of seedmeal, lime, guano, and kelpmeal as his primary fertilizer and only adds a relatively small amount of compost.  If he added more organic matter to his soil every year, would this whole garden rotation be unnecessary since the plants wouldn't get micronutrient deficiencies and would be healthy enough to resist diseases and pests?  The necessity of tri-annual tilling using Solomon's method turns me off, but I can't say for sure whether my method will be any better since this is only our fourth garden year.

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This post is part of our Gardening When It Counts lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Apr 28 12:00:30 2010 Tags:
Spud bar instead of dynamite

I still think it's wrong that the government took away the ability to use dynamite from the regular farmer.

If only it were invented 120 years earlier, then perhaps our founding fathers would have included it somewhere in the 2nd amendment.

Stump clearing would never be the same.

Posted Wed Apr 28 17:05:44 2010 Tags:
Asparagus Beetle

I've resolved to keep the asparagus beetles from denuding my asparagus fronds so that hopefully we can finally harvest asparagus next year.  So far, I've just been patrolling my asparagus a couple of times a week and knocking the adult beetles into a cup of water, then tossing them to the chickens.  Even though the beetles are tiny, my favorite foragers (the old Golden Comets) are quite capable of picking them out of the grass before they fly away.
Asparagus beetle eggs
The picture on the left shows the eggs laid by the beetles.  These are more difficult to deal with, but I've had pretty good luck squashing the eggs between my thumb and finger, a technique that seems to work better than trying to rub the eggs off.  I'm hopeful that killing the adult beetles and squashing the eggs will be sufficient to break their cycle of predation, but if the evil little grubs hatch out, I'm prepared to spray Bt to stop them in the act.  I learned last year that if I let the grubs go, the beetles will reproduce several times in a year and will eat my fronds completely bare.

Check out our homemade chicken waterer, great in coops and tractors.
Posted Thu Apr 29 07:46:36 2010 Tags:

Steve Solomon's raised bedsSo what does Solomon's garden look like?  He makes raised beds nearly identical to my beds, only shallower (two to three inches high.)  When working up new land, first he tills or shovels to break up the sod.  Either way, he loosens the soil to a depth of twelve inches, marks out three to four foot wide beds, and scoops dirt out of the aisles to increase the beds' height.  (It's worth noting that Solomon recommends 20 to 24 inches for bed width instead in non-irrigated areas or for certain crops.)

This sounds a lot like an intensive garden, right?  Although he does like raised beds, Solomon differs markedly from intensive gardeners when it comes to fertilization, seed starting, and plant spacing.

Steve Solomon's gardenRather than enriching an entire bed, Solomon uses a modified Native American technique and plants cucurbits and tomatoes in what he calls hills --- shallow mounds about twelve to eighteen inches in diameter with lots of concentrated soil amendments inside.  The high fertility soil in the mound helps the plants get off to a fast start so that they can outcompete the weeds.  He uses a similar method in miniature to give transplants a quick boost and get them growing quickly.  With smaller plants, he will enrich an entire bed, but just rakes the amendments into the top inch of the soil to give the plants a similarly fast start.

That said, Solomon doesn't fiddle with transplants much.  He argues that (with the exception of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants), most vegetables will reach harvest nearly as quickly if you direct seed as if you begin seedlings indoors and transplant them.  These direct seeded vegetables also tend to be much healthier.  Not only do they never have to deal with transplant shock, they keep their taproots (often damaged during transplanting) and are more drought-resistant.
Steve Solomon's widely spaced rows
Up to this point in the book, I was nodding along happily.  Then Solomon started writing about plant spacing.  The table below shows a comparison of Solomon's recommended plant spacing for some common vegetables and the spacing recommended by intensive gardeners (and me.)  He recommends spacing plants even further apart if you don't plan to irrigate, so that the vegetables will be able to suck water out of the surrounding soil.

Intensive spacing (inches)
Solomon spacing (inches)
Beans, bush green
Cabbage, late
Chard, Swiss
Lettuce, looseleaf
Onion, bulbing
Peas, bush
Squash, summer
Squash, winter
Sweet corn
Sweet potatoes
Tomatoes, indeterminate

Steve Solomon in front of his gardenPart of the goal of Solomon's wide spacing is to be able to fit a hoe between the plants even when they're mature.  I have to admit that I'm extraordinarily jealous of his estimate that he spends about an hour a week hoeing his 2,000 square foot garden --- my garden is maybe half again as big and it takes me more like 5 hours a week to weed.  Now I understand why his method takes half the work!

I can't wrap my mind around putting lettuce and greens so far apart since I prefer to harvest them in the baby stage, but I may take his advice with some of our larger plants this summer.  Maybe I should try out some test beds and compare the results of two different spacing methods?

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This post is part of our Gardening When It Counts lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Apr 29 12:00:30 2010 Tags:
stump shroom removal

I appreciate all the ideas for alternative stump removal from yesterday's post.

This is a new stump we plan on inoculating with Oyster mushroom spawn we've been nursing with wet cardboard all winter.

The plan will be to drill a bunch of holes, push in the cardboard with mycelium, seal it up with some bees wax and check back in about 10 months to see if we beat any other mushroom variety that may have already introduced itself.

Posted Thu Apr 29 17:32:19 2010 Tags:

In most ways, I'm completely uninterested in appearances.  I happily wear goodwill clothes for a decade, until holes in inauspicious places make them inappropriate for public consumption.  I'm pleased as punch with my free trailer, and have no dreams of big, fancy houses.  When I see people drive by with shiny sports cars, I roll my eyes.

But there is a seamy underside to my supposed disdain for mere looks.  A place where I fall prey to beauty before utility, where my common sense is forgotten in the face of mere charisma.

Music garlic

You guessed it --- garlic!  Despite the fact that Silverwhite Silverskin is by far the best producer in our garden, I snuck in two beds of Music Garlic last fall.  Music is a huge hardneck garlic that looks stunningly vibrant when the more productive Silverwhites seem a bit dusty and tired.  In a few weeks, Music will uncurl its scape and put on an even more intriguing show.  Sure, hardneck garlics don't yield as well as softnecks unless you offer them perfect conditions, but the eye candy is worth it.

Looking for a little beauty on the homestead?  Our homemade chicken waterer will keep your coop cleaner and your birds healthier.
Posted Fri Apr 30 07:45:31 2010 Tags:

Map of worldwide micronutrient deficienciesUSDA data shows that the average nutritional content of grocery store vegetables has declined by 25 to 33% over the last 25 years.  Read that line again, because this is a phenomenal finding!  You need to eat a third to a quarter again as many vegetables as your grandparents did to be healthy.

Part of the reason for this decline in nutrition can be attributed to the vegetable varieties being grown today.  Solomon writes that modern plant varieties --- both hybrids and open-pollinated "heirlooms" --- are less nutritious than those developed before 1870.  His reasoning for why this decline came about seems a bit strained to me, so I'll let you check out Gardening When It Counts and read for yourself.

A more solid cause for the lack of nutrition in our vegetables is a decline of soil micronutrient levels in recent years.  The map above clearly shows that the entire continental United States suffers from a medium to widespread zinc micronutrient deficiency, and other micronutrients show a similar decline.  If the soil doesn't have a certain micronutrient in it, there's no way the vegetables grown there will supply that micronutrient to your body.

Steve Solomon's gardenSteve Solomon argues that fertilizing our gardens primarily with compost and manure from the surrounding area can accentuate these micronutrient deficiencies.  Manure quality will vary widely depending on what the animals were fed, with animals raised on substandard pasture producing micronutrient deficient manure.  Similarly, if you make compost out of your garden waste, it will be just as deficient in micronutrients as the garden soil itself.

I'll discuss Steve Solomon's solution --- fertilizing with a mixture of seedmeal, lime, guano, and kelpmeal --- next week.  But as a permaculture addict, I have to admit that I'm dubious that adding large quantities of external fertilizers is the right solution to the micronutrient problem.  We all know that dynamic accumulators can suck up micronutrients from deep in the subsoil, then make those micronutrients available to plants rooting closer to the surface.  Wouldn't it make more sense to create compost out of a diverse mixture of different dynamic accumulators, ensuring a well-balanced compost that adds organic matter to the soil as a bonus?  I'm willing to risk some failures as I build a more sustainable fertilizing regimen.

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This post is part of our Gardening When It Counts lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Apr 30 12:00:27 2010 Tags:
ramshackle wheel barrel

This wheelbarrow insists that it has at least one more season left in it after some quick repairs today.

Posted Fri Apr 30 15:59:30 2010 Tags:

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

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