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

archives for 06/2010

Jun 2010
Basket of broccoli with leaves

We've been eating broccoli for a week, but the crop finally reached critical mass Monday.  Perhaps a third of the plants had heads at full maturity --- if I left them any later, they'd start to degrade.  So I picked a basketful...

Broccoli with leaves removed
...stripped off the leaves to feed the chickens...
Freezer containers of broccoli...and put over a gallon away for the winter.

Last fall, I cut the tops off our broccoli and let the plants send out side florets for a couple of months, but I manage spring broccoli quite differently.  With my spring crop, I cut down the whole plant when I harvest the top, peeling the stems to be added to the steamer pot.

Part of the reason for this different management is pests.  As we reach June, the few, easily-picked cabbage worms are joined by the southern cabbageworm, which burrows up under the florets and is very difficult to pry out.  I figure it's not worthwhile to fight the bugs for a few sideshoots.

I also planted the broccoli a bit too close together this spring, so it's good to thin the crop and give the smaller plants room to grow.  Once the little guys mature, I want to hurry and put in a different summer crop in the broccoli beds while it still has time to grow.  Finally, I just really love the taste of broccoli stalks!

While I was at it, I froze 5 pints of spinach, collards, and swiss chard.  I've resolved that we will not have to resort to buying vegetables next March and April!

Our homemade chicken waterer is perfect for chicken tractors.
Posted Tue Jun 1 07:13:41 2010 Tags:

Symphytum officinaleThe primary reason for the mixed reports on comfrey's efficacy stems from a confusion of terms.  Even after reading the entire chapter in Hills' Russian Comfrey about comfrey species, I had to do a bit more research to make sure I had the story straight.

There appear to be three comfrey species in cultivation at the moment (as well as several others growing wild.)  The least interesting from a permaculture point of view is Prickly Comfrey (Symphytum asperrimum, aka S. asperum.)  This comfrey is easily identified by its sky blue flowers, and is only useful as an ornamental.

On the other hand, Common Comfrey (sometimes just called Comfrey, Symphytum officinale) is largely cultivated as a healing herb.  The plant usually has winged stems and yellow, cream, white, or dark purple flowers.  Common Comfrey is relatively easy to confuse with the third species of comfrey, but yields much less biomass.
Russian comfrey
Finally, Russian Comfrey is the star of the permaculture show.  To make it nice and simple, Russian Comfrey has been known by the following scientific names: S. peregrinum, S. officinale x asperrimum, S. uplandicum, or S. asperum x officinale.  To cut through the Latin for you, that means that some folks think Russian Comfrey is a hybrid between the first two comfrey species I discussed, while others think it merits species status.

The best Russian Comfreys --- which may not be all of them --- are very palatable to livestock, have magenta flowers (or perhaps blue flowers that fade to pink), and have solid, wingless flower stems.  Russian Comfrey can produce up to 120 tons of plant matter per acre per year, while Common Comfrey clocks in at about a third that.

Although he didn't write about it in his book, Lawrence Hills apparently went on to select a super productive Russian Comfrey now known as "Bocking 14".  Since I'm pretty sure that the comfrey I've been playing with is merely Common Comfrey, I've put "Bocking 14" on my plant wish list.  Anyone out there have a cutting you can spare?

Quit your job and start to live.  Microbusiness Independence shows how to make a living in just a few hours a week.

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

Posted Tue Jun 1 12:00:16 2010 Tags:
creek pump sprinkler

When we first started using the large well pump to supply water to the irrigation sprinklers I was timid about how long it should be used at one time.

I was concerned that too much continued pumping might damage the motor, but little by little we kept using it for longer episodes. Now it's not uncommon to see them going for hours at a time.

Every now and then a sprinkler head will get clogged with some creek debris, but it only takes a minute to unscrew the hose and remove any offending algae or sand.

What's most challenging is getting 220 volts from the trailer to the creek. More on that in part 2 of this creek pumping series.

Posted Tue Jun 1 16:10:59 2010 Tags:

Potato flowerInternet sources tell me to harvest new potatoes when:

  1. The potatoes begin to bloom.
  2. The calendar changes to June.
  3. The peas are ripe.

I noticed the first flowers on our potato plants this weekend, so I decided to dig around and see what's there.  The result?  The potatoes are past the tiny new potato stage I love, and are already swelling into the half-fist-size zone.  I guess option 3 is the best indicator for my garden since the peas have been ripe for a week or two, which is just about when I should have harvested new potatoes.

Potato tubersMost people harvest new potatoes by grubbing them out from around the bases of plants, leaving some tubers in place to finish growing.  I opted to just yank out two plants since they were encroaching on my biggest tomato's growing zone.  This gave me a great opportunity to explore the benefits of my modified Ruth Stout method, and I'm totally sold on the heavy mulch.  The potatoes required just a little digging with the trake, but they came out clean and beautiful, with nary a spot of green.  The area is also nearly weed-free despite never being weeded (though I did toss a few more handfuls of grass clippings on insipient weeds a few weeks ago.)

I picked a bowlful of our stunning sugar snap and snow peas, cut up the first basil leaves of the year, and added the rest of the ingredients for a modified Green Bean and Potato Salad.  The taste of summer!

Sick of poopy water?  Your hens are too.  Treat them to a homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Wed Jun 2 06:34:15 2010 Tags:

Race horse fed comfreyThe traditional farm use for comfrey has been as livestock food.  Once dried, comfrey contains up to 26% crude protein, along with an assortment of minerals sucked from the subsoil by eight foot deep roots.  In addition, comfrey contains less fiber than grass does (10.9% of dry weight), which makes it a good feed for non-ruminants like pigs and chickens that have a hard time digesting fiber.  Anecdotal evidence exists for feeding comfrey to horses, cows, donkeys, sheep, goats, chickens, and pigs, and at the time Lawrence Hills wrote his book (the early 1950s), race horses were being fed comfrey as a way of keeping the animals in top condition.

The question is --- how much of these animals' traditional diets can be replaced by comfrey?  Little data existed at the time Hills' book was written, but he suggested several hypotheses based on information about various animals' known nutritional needs and a few on-the-ground trials.  One farmer noted that providing pigs unlimited comfrey allows you to lower their storebought feed by 50%, and another farmer used the exact same figures with his two horses.  Comfrey can be used to replace up to 10% of chickens' feed without lowering egg yield (though chickens are the most sensitive to excess roughage of all the livestock mentioned, so you might not want to go much higher than that.)  Lawrence suggests slowly increasing the proportion of comfrey included in an animal's diet until signs of negative effects are noted.
Russian comfrey with flower stalks
When I first heard that chickens eat comfrey, I got excited and tossed some in the tractor...and my girls looked at me like I was crazy.  Hills says that most livestock will learn to like comfrey, but not in the fresh form.  The prickly hairs that make me use gloves when harvesting can't be pleasant in an animal's mouth, but luckily the prickles are merely a thin layer of silica stiffened with water.  If you cut the leaves and wilt them for a day or so, animals can eat the comfrey with no ill effects --- I'll have to give that a shot!  Other farmers cut comfrey to make hay for the winter, or even turn goats and sheep (who don't mind the prickles) onto a pasture of comfrey in the spring and fall when grass pasture quality is at its worst.

If you're considering comfrey as animal feed, you should cut your comfrey often so that it never sends up flower stalks (like those shown in the second image.)  The percentages listed in this post are all for comfrey in the leafy stage, while flower stalks have nearly double the fiber and less than half the protein.

Have you tried feeding comfrey to your animals?  What did you think?

Fund your journey back to the land.

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

Posted Wed Jun 2 12:00:47 2010 Tags:
how to wire a well pump

When we first started this irrigation project the budget was a bit limited.

I'm sure it breaks every law of proper electric wiring, but sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do.
                                                                                                                                            awesome sprinkler in action

It's basically four 100 foot extension cords cobbled together and wired so each pole is carrying 110 volts. I'm pretty sure this is close to the maximum distance you should think about stretching these cords. Electrical tape works well for sealing up the junctions where each cord is plugged into.

We're going on the third year of this setup. There was a problem in the beginning with the pump connections, but I solved that by figuring out how to make the contact points waterproof.

If you feel like you're testing the limits of safety try picking up the cord in question to see if it's giving off much heat while you have your pump working. It's this heat that can be dangerous and must be dealt with by making the distance shorter or the electrical cord thicker.

Posted Wed Jun 2 16:51:06 2010 Tags:

Walden Effect t-shirtMark and I are thinking of printing up some Walden Effect t-shirts roughly based on a petroglyph, but tweaked to more closely resemble our farm.  Poll time!

Even if you hate t-shirts, please vote in the first poll so that we can get an idea of the size of our readers.  We want to make sure to have the right sizes on hand for giveaways.

What size t-shirt do you wear most frequently?

Small (12%)

Medium (24%)

Large (14%)

XL (24%)

XXL (17%)

XXXL (7%)

Total votes: 57

Are you interested in buying this t-shirt (somewhere in the $10 to $15 range)?

Yes (42%)

No (21%)

Maybe (36%)

Total votes: 33

Do you like this t-shirt design?

Yes (33%)

No (40%)

Maybe (26%)

Total votes: 30

Would you be interested in a t-shirt larger than XL even though it costs about $5 more?

Yes (26%)

No (73%)

Maybe (0%)

Total votes: 23

Thanks!  Once we get an idea for sizes and quantity, we'll figure out a price --- our cost plus shipping --- and will put in an order.

Our homemade chicken waterer inspired part of the design...but you probably knew that.
Posted Thu Jun 3 06:51:57 2010 Tags:

Comfrey at the leafy stageHills boldly states that no other plant will produce as much biomass for composting when grow in an out of the way corner as comfrey.  In addition, comfrey is a much-lauded dynamic accumulator, able to stretch its roots deep into the subsoil and draw up calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and trace minerals that are out of reach of most other plants.  Finally, comfrey's C:N ratio is so low that it nearly melts into the soil, creating compost in next to no time.  What's not to like?

When growing comfrey as the raw material for compost, Hills recommends taking six to eight cuttings between April and November.  If you're using a highly productive Russian Comfrey variety, you can produce 100 or more tons of leaves per acre in this manner, and you could potentially double or triple that yield in heavily fertilized patches on a small scale.  The plants are cut two inches above the ground when they are between one and three feet tall, allowed to dry for 48 hours to lower their moisture content, then gathered and added to the compost pile.

Nectarine with comfrey planted around the baseAn alternative use of comfrey as a fertility plant is found in forest gardening literature, which suggests planting comfrey below fruit trees as a sort of living mulch.  Last year, I tried this out, planting comfrey around the base of our nectarine, and now I'm cutting the comfrey every week or two, allowing the leaves to drop down and produce a heavy mulch and then compost around the tree's trunk.

On the positive side, I've noticed that the under-tree area requires nearly no weeding, but I feel like the comfrey may be competing with the tree more than it's giving back with my frequent cuttings --- the nectarine's leaves aren't as vibrantly green as the leaves of our two peach trees.  Unfortunately, I have no other nectarines to compare mine to, so the data is very inconclusive.  However, Hills agrees with my gut reaction, noting that comfrey will steal potassium from fruit trees and requires more nitrogen than the tree can handle well.  I'm going to keep searching for some other literature to the contrary, but for now I'm thinking I would probably be better off planting comfrey beyond the tree's spread and cutting the leaves to drop around my tree's base.

Invent your way out of the rat race.

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

Posted Thu Jun 3 12:00:27 2010 Tags:
cute baby chick drinking from Avian Aqua Miser

Having a mother hen cooped up with a baby chick presents a small adjustment issue for the Avian Aqua Miser that is easily resolved with a booster step.

I prefer the look of something natural like this piece of firewood that Lucy has long since carried away and gnawed.

Posted Thu Jun 3 16:36:32 2010 Tags:

Looking at a baby turtleWeeding may be a boring job, but it has its perks.  While ripping up big weeds in the upper raspberry patch, Mark came across this tiny box turtle.  Ten minutes later, he found another!  I guess our berry patch has the box turtle seal of approval.

I have to admit that I'm a bad, bad farmer.  A good farmer would move the box turtles out of the area since they like to eat strawberries and tomatoes.  Instead, I carefully relocated the pair to the shade under the worm bin and gave them a strawberry apiece.  What can I say --- finding a hatchling box turtle has been my life-long dream.

Hatchling box turtle

Our homemade chicken waterer is a quick and easy DIY project.
Posted Fri Jun 4 06:39:05 2010 Tags:

Comfrey cuttingsHopefully you're sold by now and can think of at least one use for comfrey on your homestead.  So how do you grow it?

Choose a good location.  Comfrey isn't picky about soil quality, but it requires deep soil with no hardpan, rock layer, or high water table to prevent the roots from reaching deep.  Heavy clay is no problem, and is in fact preferred.  Although comfrey is moderately shade tolerant, it will be less productive when planted out of the sun.

Propagate your plants.  Comfrey is only grown from cuttings, so unless your pockets are deep you will want to buy a few plants and then divide them up.  The good news is that one good-sized comfrey plant can be divided into dozens of small plants, many of which can be harvested starting the first year.  First dig up the large plant and cut off sections near the top containing leaves --- each leaf crown area can become its own plant.  Then take all of the small roots that are left, cut them into one inch sections, and plant them in a nursery bed one inch deep and two inches apart.  These youngsters can be transplanted into permanent locations the next spring.

Rows of comfreyPrepare your ground.  Comfrey will outcompete almost anything once it gets a foothold, but you could lose your crop to weeds while it's getting established.  So take a bit of time to root out any perennial weeds.

Plant your comfrey.  Comfrey needs a permanent location, much like an orchard, since it's very difficult to eradicate once comfrey has gained a foothold on a plot of ground.  Space plants three feet apart in good soil, or half that in poor soil.  Plant in the fall (September to November) or spring (March to May.)

Chickens cleaning weeds out of a comfrey patchWeed and fertilize.  One tantilizing system consists of planting comfrey in the chicken run.  Since chickens don't like unwilted comfrey leaves, the birds will weed between the comfrey and fertilize it in the process, only requiring you to add wood ashes or another form of potassium every few years to balance the fertility.  You can cut a plant or two every day while feeding your chickens, and the poultry will eat up the cuttings the next day once they're wilted.  If you're not using chickens, dig out any perennial weeds by hand and fertilize annually.

Harvest.  You can begin cutting leaves as early as the first year, but the plants produce the maximum yield starting in the third year.  After several more years, productivity will begin to decline as the centers of the huge comfrey plants die out.  This is the point at which you'll want to dig up the plants and divide them, or just turn in pigs to root out the comfrey and start a new comfrey patch elsewhere.

Learn to market your invention with Microbusiness Independence.

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

Posted Fri Jun 4 12:00:39 2010 Tags:
flock block close up with chicken

The flock block is wearing down to more of a bowl shape.

It seems to be a good value compared to the 50 pound bags of feed due to what I think is an increase in protein.

Posted Fri Jun 4 16:08:24 2010 Tags:

Peas in the podLet's look at a contest between the six beds of shelling peas I planted in early March and the six beds of broccoli I transplanted in early April.  This week, I've harvested about a quarter of the shelling peas, and about two thirds of the broccoli, freezing all of the peas and most of the broccoli.  Elapsed harvest and freezing time?  Half an hour for the peas, an hour and a half for the broccoli.

So far the two crops seem to be about even, right?  Now let's look at how much food we've gotten out of those beds --- one cup for the peas, two gallons for the broccoli.  When you look at the food produced per hour harvest time, that's like the difference between being paid $2.50 per hour and $50 per hour --- I know which one I'd choose.

Granted, peas do have a lot going for them in other ways.  They provide protein for our bodies, and also fix nitrogen to feed the soil.  They freeze well (but so does the broccoli) and are finished in time for me to plant a summer crop (though broccoli wins here, coming out a precious week or two earlier.)  We find them tasty and easy to cook with, too, but no more so than broccoli.

This is the fourth year we've grown shelling peas, and each year I was certain the problem was the pea variety.  Having run through four different varieties now, I'm ready to accept that maybe shelling peas aren't the best crop for our farm.  Our snow and sugar snap peas seem to produce about four times as much plant matter per bed, but we can't really grow more of them since we only like them fresh.  Maybe we'll skip the shelling peas next year and double up on broccoli instead?

In fact, we could have tripled our broccoli planting since I still have five empty beds that are waiting to be filled with the other half of our sweet potato slips, slowly budding in the sun room.  Why maintain empty beds all spring when they could be feeding us broccoli?

I'm not suggesting we actually get $50 worth of food per hour with the broccoli.  I didn't count in the planting, transplanting, weeding, and watering time, and I actually have no clue how much frozen broccoli costs in the store.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Sat Jun 5 07:12:26 2010 Tags:
actual trake in use

Did we really need the extra Trake?

Yes...the Trake is one of those garden instruments that when backed up with a twin can become twice the tool if you've got the extra hands to wield them.

Posted Sat Jun 5 17:07:11 2010 Tags:

Capped honeyI've been known to tell prospective apiarists that bee stings don't hurt.  "It's about like getting a shot," I tell them.  "You feel it for a minute, but pretty soon you've forgotten it even happened."  Friday, I learned that I was lying.

I've been going into the hives every week lately, trying to keep the brood boxes open while the bees try to fill them with honey in preparation for an eventual swarm that I'm determined won't happen.  Last week, I added a second brood box on one of the hives, checkerboarding empty frames and full frames so that the hive now had two half empty brood boxes rather than one mostly full one.  I wanted to see how that experiment was working out, but when I opened the hive all I saw was honey.

We've barely had any rain in the last few weeks, so I shouldn't have been too surprised to see that two supers were chock full of mostly or completely capped honey.  I carefully removed two frames for extraction, and paged through the other frames to make sure the queen hadn't moved up to lay in the supers.  So far so good --- all twenty frames were brood free.  But there was just so much honey that I accidentally nicked a couple of frames, and sweet, gooey honey dripped down through the hive.

Maybe the open honey got the bees' dander up, or more likely the bees sensed the first few clouds converging and the dropping barometric pressure that forecast a storm moving into our neighborhood.  All I know is that halfway through my inspection of the top brood box, a bee stung me on the arm.  Whatever --- no big deal.  But I know that when one bee stings, the other bees can smell it and I should close up the hive.  Unfortunately, a sting also jars me out of my "bee zone" --- a zen-like state where I move slowly and the bees barely know I'm there.  I started to close the hive too quickly and the second sting came, then the third.

Those of you who've been following along at home have probably noticed that I wear a pretty tight shirt when checking on the hive.  It shouldn't be that tight since having cloth appressed to skin makes it easy for a bee to sting through, but it's the only light-weight, non-button-up, long-sleeved shirt I own (a wardrobe choice that is soon to be remedied.)  Anyway, the bees were mad, and they made straight for the big things bulging out at them, which unfortunately happened to be a very sensitive portion of my anatomy.  Ten stings later, the hive was closed, and I was nearly in tears.

Jar of honeyOnce I calmed back down and did a bit of research, I discovered that --- as usual when I get stung --- I was doing several things wrong.  As soon as I noticed the first clouds gathering, I should have packed everything up and gone home.  Secondly, I should have stuck to either checking on the brood box or robbing honey, not both.  Finally, when I did get stung, I should have immediately left the hive, puffed a little smoke on the wound, and given both the bees and myself a couple of minutes to calm down.  I suspect if I'd taken that first sting as a warning, brought myself back to the bee zone, and closed up the hive slowly, all would have been well.  I certainly don't want to leave any potential beekeepers thinking that the hive is a dangerous place, but it is quite easy to get stupid, especially as a newbie.

One final note: Although the bees clearly won that round, as you'll see in my next post, the ending was sweet....

Our homemade chicken waterer makes poultry care quick, easy, and clean.
Posted Sun Jun 6 07:47:09 2010 Tags:
make your own pet door detail

next diy pet door detail
The first do it yourself pet door lasted a few months before the screen broke free. Not a good choice of material.

I found some see through material that is working out much better once I installed a layer on each side.

It got Huckleberry's meow of approval, but Strider is still reserving judgment due to his fear of change.

Posted Sun Jun 6 16:33:48 2010 Tags:

Side view of a honey extractorAlthough I was running toward the trailer at top speed and swatting at my breasts, I still had the presence of mind to grab those two full frames of honey.  My beekeeping mentor (aka movie star neighbor) had admonished me that, at this time of year, the frames need to go back on the hive ASAP.  Within a couple of hours, he warned, bees will start building comb willie nillie to fill that empty space.  So, even though I mostly felt like crawling into bed, I needed to extract our honey and open the mean hive back up.

I iced my wounds, but my head wasn't quite on straight when I got to work on the honey.  In fact, this post really should be called "how to do everything wrong while extracting honey."  I hope you'll learn by seeing the error of my ways.

Step 1: Remove the bees from the honey.  I actually managed to do this step well, moving the frames a good distance from the hives (which calmed the bees down), then gently brushing one frame at a time free of bees.

Step 2: Uncap the honey.  Here's where I failed miserably.  For future reference, a plain kitchen knife will mangle your comb so that it falls apart in the extractor.  A bread knife works great.

Step 3: Extract the comb honey.  Place the cappings in a collander on top of a bowl and mash the wax with a spoon to let the honey begin to drain out.

Small honey extractorStep 4: Place a bowl under the spout at the bottom of the extractor.  With the state my head was in, I'm surprised I remembered this step.

Step 5: Extract.  Place the frames in the extractor opposite each other so that they are balanced.  With new comb like ours, it's best to gently spin the extractor a few times, then flip the frames around and fully empty out the other side of each frame, before flipping the frames a second time and giving the handle a few hard spins.  My beekeeping mentor explained this to me in great detail, but when I tried the gentle spin, I couldn't see honey coming out (even though it was), so I spun harder.  As a result, the comb on my mangled frame from step 2 fell apart, and even the other frame got a bit distorted.

Honey comb in a bowlStep 6: Cut out the mangled frame to join the cappings.  Oops.

Step 7: Put the frames back on the angry, angry hive, along with an extra super since the bees are clearly making honey faster than we can extract it.  Your hive won't be angry.  Mine was because I made a mistake.

Step 8: Pour the honey from under the collander and from under the extractor into canning jars for storage.  No need to can --- honey will keep indefinitely if harvested when fully capped and stored in an Jar of honeyair-tight container.  Some people strain the honey first to remove the little bits of wax, but I didn't bother.

Step 9: Taste a bit of honey.  It was all worth it!

I'm actually glad I tried a couple of frames before embarking on a larger extracting expedition.  Now I'll know what I'm doing this week when we remove a gallon (!!!) from the hive.

Our homemade chicken waterer is perfect for tractors and coops.
Posted Mon Jun 7 07:24:46 2010 Tags:

Mark holding a bowl of swiss chardSeveral friends of mine have neither the inclination, time, nor space to grow their own vegetables, so they join a CSA to be part of the local food system.  Inevitably, a few weeks in, they regret the decision.  "What do I do with a huge basket of mixed greens?" they moan.  Or, "Five butternut squash?  I don't know how to cook squash!"

The truth is that the beginning gardener often feels the same way.  We're used to buying whatever vegetables suit our fancy or are mandated by our favorite recipes, and we don't know how to make a salad when we realize that lettuce and tomatoes are never in season at the same time.  On a similar note, we might want to start a garden, but we don't know which vegetables are within our reach and which ones are the domain of experienced green thumbs.  How can we even start when the whole endeavor looks so daunting?  It's much easier to pick up some organic produce at the grocery store and figure we're doing our part to save the world.

Although I know that many of our readers are long time gardeners and cooks who use in-season produce without thinking about it, I also suspect that others of you are afraid to put the first plants in the ground because you just don't know how to go from seed to gourmet feast.  This week's lunchtime series launches a new facet of this blog geared toward giving beginners the information they need to start a quick and easy garden and then to enjoy the bounty.  I hope that you experienced gardeners and foodies will read along and add your own advice on which plants are easy to grow in your neck of the woods, and on simple recipes you use to produce delicious, in-season meals.

Don't have time to put in even the smallest garden?  Our microbusiness ebook will show you how to make a living in just a few hours a week so you can spend time doing what really matters.

This post is part of our Beginner's Guide to Gardening and Eating in Season lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jun 7 12:00:27 2010 Tags:
garlic harvest 2010

Anna says this is somewhere around 10 percent of our total garlic harvest.
Posted Mon Jun 7 18:14:34 2010 Tags:

An extracted frame of honeyI picked my beekeeping mentor's brains this weekend, and decided to go ahead and harvest a lot more honey out of the overflowing hive.  My mentor told me that when he harvests honey, he takes the super off the hive, closes the hive back up, turns the super on its side on top of the hive, and blasts the bees out with a leaf blower.  Wow!

I was a bit too scared to do that (and don't have a leaf blower), so I tried the same method I used last week, carrying the frames around to the other side of the trailer to confuse the guard bees, then brushing off the frames one at a time.  Since I took two whole supers off the hive this time, though, rather than just a couple of frames, the method didn't work so well.  There were gobs of bees present, and when I brushed them loose, they flew around the front door in a writhing (and not very amused) mass.

No major stings resulted, but I had once again riled up the hive.  They began to harass Mark in the garden so much that he had to come inside, and when my cousin-in-law stumbled in from the yurt, he was a bit surprised to be divebombed on his way through the door.
Extracting equipment
Apparently I'm still making basic beginner mistakes.  Next time, I'll try brushing the bees off near the hive so that they can head home quickly.  It also turned out that only five of the frames were fully capped, so I probably would have been better off picking frames out of the hive rather than disrupting so many workers' lives.  Still, no harm done, and we've now harvested about five and a half quarts of honey.

I still haven't even opened up the most productive hive, though.  Maybe in a few days once my poor cousin-in-law flees the farm.

Our homemade chicken waterer takes the guesswork out of chicken care, even for raw beginners.
Posted Tue Jun 8 07:54:10 2010 Tags:

Lettuce bedThe easiest way to lose the gardening bug permanently is to start a huge garden with a bunch of vegetable varieties suited only to an expert, then see everything disappear down insect gullets in a few months.  I recommend that beginning gardeners instead start small, with just a few vegetables that are nearly impossible to kill.  Here are my top contenders:

Leaf lettuce - The time has already passed for this cool season crop, but fall will be here before you know it.  Lettuce is great for beginners because you can't do anything wrong and you get to harvest a month after planting.  One of the easiest to grow in our area is Black-seeded Simpson, but I like to mix in a red variety for eye candy.  Read all of my tips on growing lettuce here.

Red-stemmed swiss chardSwiss chard - Most greens are extremely easy, but Swiss chard takes the cake.  Unlike other greens, swiss chard doesn't get bitter, nor does it bolt the first year.  The greens are mild in flavor and can be substituted in recipes which call for spinach (a vegetable that does bolt quite quickly.)  Although they taste the same as the white-stalked variety, urban gardeners will love Swiss chard varieties with leaf stalks ranging in color from white to yellow to red since they're pretty enough to mix into your flower border.  This warm season crop should be planted after your frost-free date --- for nearly all of you, that means you can go ahead and plant now.  Once the leaves are four inches tall, I start cutting them just like leaf lettuce once or twice a week, making sure I don't cut the growing bud, but taking most other leaves.

Cherry tomatoesTomatoes - In my opinion, tomatoes are really a year two crop, but the flavor difference between a homegrown tomato and a storebought one is so great that few people can resist planting them.  For the raw beginner, you should go ahead and buy a transplant or two from the feed store and put them out after the frost-free date.  Choose a slicer or a tommy-toe (or both).  Be sure to cage or stake your tomato, and if you're starting this year, I highly recommend pruning since the blight is still in the air.  In later years, I think you'll be happier starting your own tomatoes from seed and growing primarily romas for ease of storage, but in year one you should stick to simple vegetables that go straight on your plate.

Basil - I see people buy basil transplants, and I can't figure out why.  Basil is the easiest herb you can grow --- throw the seeds on the ground around your frost-free date and you'll be picking off leaves a couple of weeks later.  The trick to a summer-long harvest is to cut your basil back regularly (at least once a week) and never let it bloom.  With lettuce and swiss chard, I told you to be careful not to harvest the central growing bud, but with basil I advocate the reverse.  Cut the whole top off the plant, leaving one or two pairs of older leaves at the base, and it will branch out into a bush.  Keep cutting the youngest, tastiest leaves, and your plant will just get bigger and bushier.  When the basil does start trying to bloom, pick off the flower buds.  I recommend a simple Sweet Italian or Genovese basil for your first year, but later you can branch out into the varieties that taste great in other ethnic foods.

Sweet cornSweet Corn - The only major thing that can go wrong with corn is lack of pollination if you plant too small of an area.  I try to plant at least two short rows together, and three or four are better.  Your corn will mature nearly all at once, so for a full summer harvest, I plant a bed on our frost-free date, and continue planting another bed every two weeks until the end of June.  Like tomatoes, there's no comparison between homegrown and storebought sweet corn.  But this is the one vegetable where I like to stick with fancy hybrids --- heirloom varieties are starchy instead of sweet.

Okra - Okra may seem like an odd choice for the beginner, but in the South few crops beat its ease of growth.  In fact, the plant has such huge, beautiful flowers that okra can easily pass for an ornamental.  Plant the seeds at the frost-free date, and in a couple of months you'll see blooms and little, furry fruits.  Cut the whole fruit off at the stem when it is less than three inches long and steam it --- the trick to defeating okra slime is to never let water touch the interior of the fruit.  We eat our steamed okra with our fingers, holding it by the stem and eating the fruit portion off, but you could cut the tops off after steaming them if you like.  The traditional method of eating okra is to slice, batter, and fry it, but I can't really recommend that approach.  Our favorite variety is Clemson Spineless.

The beginner should pick two to four of these varieties to try out their first year, steering clear of okra if you live in the north and of tomatoes if you live in a very hot area like Texas.  Plant a very small garden, no more than perhaps 100 feet square, and mulch the whole thing if possible to cut down on weeding.  If you have anther choice, steer clear of pots, which are harder than they look, and keep good records of when and where you planted and what happened.  Most of you still have time to start something this year, so go do it!

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This post is part of our Beginner's Guide to Gardening and Eating in Season lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jun 8 12:00:36 2010 Tags:
flywheel removal procedure talked about

I only made it 2 weeks before I hit another fatal stump with the mower which took out the new flywheel shaft key that was installed recently.

This time I used a different guy who was a lot closer and 3 bucks cheaper. I was all ready with a long screw driver/pry bar and mini-sledge to try to do the operation myself, but once I started taking it all apart I realized the first guy tightened down some of the nuts too tight. I remember him using an air wrench, and not seeing a torque wrench being applied. Most experts think they can gauge it by feel, but this nut was on so tight I broke 2 sockets trying to get it off.

The moral of this story is to make sure your nuts don't get over tightened.

Posted Tue Jun 8 16:21:17 2010 Tags:

Pruned tomatoIf you ask ten gardeners the best way to manage tomatoes, you'll get twenty answers.  We've tried out a different method every year, and still haven't found one we're truly happy with.  This year we're using out the old standby --- one stake per plant, then prune to three main stems.

The Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County have a very comprehensive page about the advantages and disadvantages of different tomato support methods.  They note that the one stake method results in less productive plants, which is the reason I've steered clear of pruning in the past.

On the other hand, the tomato blight is still in the air this year across the eastern U.S., and I'm willing to accept a lower yield if I actually get something.  Pruning does have the advantage of keeping the plant drier, which means that fungi don't have the humid environment they need to thrive.  Here's hoping that drastic pruning and other blight prevention will give us a crop.

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps day old chicks healthy and hydrated.
Posted Wed Jun 9 06:38:12 2010 Tags:

In season saladIf you take my advice and plant a few of the easy vegetables mentioned in my last post, you will quickly be overrun with fresh produce.  Now what do you do with it?

First of all, it's essential that you get over the grocery store mentality that a slight blemish means a vegetable gets tossed in the trash.  Your vegetables may have a bug nibble here and there, or even a crack in the side.  Don't worry about it.  I can't for the life of me find a link, but I was recently told about a sect of monks who were quite healthy vegans until they began to buy commercial produce and came down with nutritional deficiencies.  It turned out that the insects they were accidentally ingesting in their previous diet of non-commercial vegetables had been keeping them healthy.  I don't wash our homegrown produce, and we find it delicious, bugs, dirt, blemishes, and all.

Yellow cherry tomatoesChances are, once you discover how good your homegrown vegetables taste, a good amount of the bounty won't even make it out of the garden.  Eventually, you'll probably want to present the vegetables as part of the meal, which is the purpose of this post.  Tomorrow I'll give you pointers on becoming a bit fancier.

Lettuce - By the time fresh tomatoes and cucumbers reach my plate, lettuce is long gone, which blows my traditional salad out the window.  Here are some in-season salad ideas.

Swiss chard - The easiest way to prepare stellar greens is to cut them into bite-size pieces and steam them for a few minutes until the stems are soft.  Drizzle them with balsamic vinegar and eat.  Once you get bored with that, try sauteing the greens in a large pot in a bit of oil, adding minced garlic for the last minute of cooking.

Tomatoes - Once you get sick of just eating tomato slices (if ever), try our cucumber and tomato salad.  Some people add goat cheese and/or mozarella to the mix for a heartier salad.

Homegrown mealBasil - Pesto is the obvious solution to an overdose of basil.  I've posted my recipe for chestnut pesto, but we usually use walnuts in our daily lives.  Pine nuts are the classic pesto component, but are extremely pricey.

Sweet corn - In my opinion, the only way to eat sweet corn is to very lightly cook it.  Bring a big pot of water to a boil while you shuck the corn, then drop the ears in for less than a minute, just until they change color.  Carefully pull them out with a pair of tongs and eat immediately (with salt and/or butter if you prefer.)

Okra - I already mentioned that I prefer steaming okra, and that most people fry it.  What's your favorite way to eat okra?

Whatever you do, remember that freshness is key.  As soon as you pick an ear of corn, the sugars begin to turn to starches and the flavor declines.  Although the difference isn't quite as pronounced with other vegetables, the trend is the same.  For maximum flavor and nutrition, pick produce right before eating it.

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This post is part of our Beginner's Guide to Gardening and Eating in Season lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jun 9 12:00:38 2010 Tags:
universal flywheel removal tool review

I was all set to get a Craftsman 24 inch pry bar/flywheel remover when I found this one for only 4.99 at Harbor Freight.

Usually the Craftsman no questions lifetime warranty is enough to push me into spending more for a tool, but in this case I think I'll be okay with the cheaper model....especially when it also has a lifetime warranty at a third of the price.

It says Pittsburgh, but it's made in Taiwan and it feels heavy duty. Stay tuned to see how it handles some real world pressure when I replace my first flywheel shaft key in hopefully what will be far in the future.

Posted Wed Jun 9 15:40:13 2010 Tags:

Ripe strawberries

Fruit (nearly) past.

Caroline Red Raspberry

Fruit present.

Unripe peach, blueberries, and blackberries
Fruit future.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Thu Jun 10 07:27:44 2010 Tags:

In season mealIf the beginner recipes in my last post look boring to you, you're probably ready to become an experimental, in-season chef.  Most cookbooks are chock full of fascinating recipes...which call for ingredients from three different seasons per dish.  Here are my intermediate tips for learning to cook in season.

First, start with the ingredients.  Rather than saying, "I feel like lasagna tonight," take a look in the garden and see what's ripe.  Our recipes at the moment revolve around snow and sugar snap peas, new potatoes, eggs, broccoli, greens, basil, and parsley, which is why we've been making meals like pesto pasta with balsamic vinegared greens and a fried egg on the side.

Egyptian onions are a good substitute for leeksOnce you know what you're cooking with, head to one of the recipe websites like epicurious and type your ingredients into the search box.  The website will spit out a whole string of recipes for you to choose between.

Chances are, you still won't have all of the ingredients required by a recipe, so you should be willing to substitute for a more appropriate, in-season vegetable or herb.  Some of my favorite replacement plants are Egyptian onions for leeks and parsley for celery since I can harvest Egyptian onions and parsley for at least 11 months out of the year.

Finally, some vegetables are such good keepers that they can be considered to almost always be in season.  Bulb onions, potatoes, garlic, and carrots are a few examples.  You can add them to your recipes with impunity.

Market your invention and become self-employed with little to no startup cash.

This post is part of our Beginner's Guide to Gardening and Eating in Season lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jun 10 12:00:29 2010 Tags:
shovel Jackson closeup

more shovel picsThe Jackson Titanium Xtra is hands down the best shovel I've ever moved dirt with.

The soft rubberized grip makes it easy to hold, but what sold me was the power step feature, which increases leverage by allowing your foot and legs to do more of the work.

It costs over twice what a cheaper shovel goes for, but well worth it in my opinion.

Posted Thu Jun 10 18:32:03 2010 Tags:

Butterstick Hybrid squashThe squash vine borer will be hitting our farm shortly --- I know because the first brilliant flowers have come out on the summer squash.  With the impending collapse of our plants looming, I've resolved to find a better solution than Bt.  Bacillus thuringiensis is rated organic but is still a relatively broad spectrum insecticide, which means it may be doing more harm than good by killing beneficials that would otherwise wipe out the borer.  In addition, try as we might to spray once a week and after rains, Bt doesn't seem to be preventing the total destruction of our summer squash crop each year.  We're both willing to do without summer squash for a year or two, if need be, while we figure out a better option.

This year, we're keeping our experiments simple.  I'm planting a new bed of summer squash every two weeks to give me an idea of the timing of the infestation.  In the north, you can just plant your summer squashes late, after the fourth of July, and the vine borer Unopened female squash flowerwill have finished its flying stage.  In the south, though, the vine borer has multiple generations, so I'm not sure how early I can plant squash and still miss the insect's depradations.  A planting at the beginning of August 2009 netted us a bounty of summer squash...for about two weeks before the frost hit.  I'm hoping to be able to plant a bit earlier than that and still miss the borer.

Other options to try in later years if the easy route fails include:

  • Planting a more resistant summer squash variety such as Summer Crookneck
  • Using a floating row cover over the plants to physically exclude attack
  • Wrapping something around the stem (panty hose and aluminum foil have both been used) to keep the larvae out
  • Mounding up dirt over the stem at intervals to promote rooting (which would require a different squash variety since we've been planting bush squash)
Our homemade chicken waterer treats our hens to clean, clear water all day long.
Posted Fri Jun 11 07:05:53 2010 Tags:

Praying mantis in the okraThis week's lunchtime series has barely scratched the surface of learning to start a small garden and eat the fruits of your labor.  If you catch the bug, you're sure to want to learn more.  Of course, you'll keep reading our blog, but where else should you turn?

Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle may help to get you inspired, and also includes some in-season recipes.  For more solid information about growing your food, many beginners report getting a lot out of Square Foot Gardening, despite its flaws.  The basic spacing, planting, and harvesting information about all vegetables can be found on extension service websites using a quick google search.  (I've found keyword combinations like "tomato cultivation" get good results.)

Year one is a good time to start learning about the soil food web, and Teaming With Microbes is a quick, fun way to open your eyes to what's going on beneath the surface.  I don't have specific books to recommend, but other important topics to consider include composting and beneficial insects.

Finally, why not take a master gardener class?  Most state extension services now offer these semester-long classes for a small fee.  You'll meet other gardeners in your area and will come away with a great grounding in basic concepts.

Whatever you do, don't put the process off until next year.  If all you have the time and energy for is throwing one tomato plant in the ground, do it!  Right this instant!  Turn off your computer, pick up your trowel, and plant!

Make a living in just a few hours a week with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Beginner's Guide to Gardening and Eating in Season lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Jun 11 12:20:49 2010 Tags:

best hose repair parts

I've decided these plastic hose repair kits are better than the metal ones.

It's easier to install, and most importantly won't snag on every other thing that comes by.

I know the metal might stand the test of time better, but this is some hard plastic, and I'll do almost anything to prevent any more entanglement with the mower.

Posted Fri Jun 11 17:41:52 2010 Tags:

White Cochin hen and Dark Cornish cockerelsThe current small subset of the forest pasture has finally been mostly denuded.  In preparation for switching the cockerels over to the larger paddock (where the weeds are now waist-high), I opened the dividing gate and let the mother hen and her chick mingle with the flock.

I was a bit concerned that the lone chick would be no match for 25 mostly grown cockerels, but I needn't have worried.  When I went in to feed the combined flock Friday morning, the cockerels stampeded me and even rushed out the door.  Were they starving?  Nope.  They were just terrified of Mama Hen, who was walking behind them.

Dark Cornish cockerelsAll the mother hen has to do is glare in their general direction and 25 teenage males scatter in terror.  How's that for a matriarch?

On a semi-related note, next week we'll be slaughtering our first round of cockerels.  If you're not ready to see that part of the life cycle, you have now been forewarned.

All of our chicks were raised on our homemade chicken waterer from day one.
Posted Sat Jun 12 08:23:15 2010 Tags:
Snap On long ratchet driver in hand

Was that a Snap On magnetic, ratcheting, screwdriver I saw in yesterday's picture of the plastic hose repair kit?

Kevin, Carlsbad, CA.

You've got a keen eye for quality.

Yes, It's one of the few tools I still have from my copier repair days of the 1990s.

The handle is hollow and can be used to store spare bits, but what I like most is the magnetic tip and long reach. The additional leverage combined with the ratcheting feature make this screwdriver in my opinion the best money can buy.

It's got a steep price of 67 bucks, but somehow I justified it by using it 5 days a week as the main tool that began each copier operation. Could I have gotten by with a cheaper one? Sure, but one stripped screw in a hard to reach place can really ruin your day and once I started applying the added leverage the days of stripped screws were long gone.

Posted Sat Jun 12 19:51:05 2010 Tags:

Pinched tip of black raspberryTwo weeks ago, I pinched off the tops of the black raspberry canes.  Left to their own devices, black raspberry primocanes will grow so long they bend down and root a new plant at their tip.  This trait is useful if you're looking to expand your berry patch, but is less useful if you actually want to be able to get into the patch to pick berries.

If you choose to keep your plants contained, you can pinch off the tips when the brambles reach waist high.  In most plants, apical dominance tells the plant to put all of its energy into growing the main shoot, but if that main shoot is gone, the side buds are allowed to grow.  The bottom photo shows what one plant looks like two weeks after pinching.  Notice how the side shoots have grown out --- these will all be coated with fruits next year when the primocane becomes a floricane.

Black raspberry two weeks after summer pruningI've similarly pruned our cultivated blackberries.  Blackberries usually aren't tip-rooters, but mine are, and I've also found that they will grow primocanes a dozen feet long if left to their own devices.  I prefer the plants to stay contained in my obsessive rows, so I take a few minutes to summer prune.

Make a homemade chicken waterer and escape for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Sun Jun 13 07:57:56 2010 Tags:
garden closeup

It's that time of year when some robotic weed control would really come in handy.
Posted Mon Jun 14 03:34:24 2010 Tags:

Cabbage headCommon wisdom (perhaps apocryphally) holds that children were originally sent home from school for three months of working on the farm in the summer.  Although we're child-free by choice, I wouldn't mind a few extra field hands at this time of year.

June is the overlap zone between spring and summer, when we're harvesting honey, chickens, broccoli, peas, and greens as fast as we can, but are also nurturing the summer crops in preparation for the main event.  Meanwhile, we're starting to plant the first of the fall crops in beds freed up by the spring bounty, and Mark's mowing his heart out, trying to stay ahead of the grass.

In the winter, I literally can't remember the tastes, scents, and sights of June.  The days are so long, the garden and woods so green, that I wake up at dawn ready to get to work.  Garden tasks feel urgent --- we both know how easy it would be to lose all of our hard work in just a few weeks of getting behind on the weeding.

Green tomatoWhen the sun finally sets around 9:30, lightning bugs drifting through the garden and tree frogs calling from the floodplain, my eyelids are drooping.  We're currently subscribed to one netflix at a time, and I can't remember the last time I actually made it through the movie before falling asleep.

Which is all a long way of saying --- our lunchtime series will be going on summer vacation starting this week.  Look for a return to deep thoughts in a few months when I want to dream of the garden again, rather than live in it.  (There may be a series thrown in here and there if I just can't resist, though, so don't get your hopes up too high.)

Want to devote your summers to living?  Our microbusiness ebook walks you through starting a small business that won't take over your life.
Posted Mon Jun 14 07:45:56 2010 Tags:
bed weeding

This is what's called a 6 person bed weeder.

I like the idea of always having a shade cover that follows you around and it seems like it has to be easier on the back than the old standard method.

Afternoon siestas must be mandatory when you have such a shady place to lay down at after lunch?

Posted Mon Jun 14 16:54:32 2010 Tags:

Curing garlicMark dug the rest of the garlic on Monday and hung it under the eaves to dry.  I can honestly tell you that there's more garlic beside our front door than I've ever seen in one spot in my life!

Learning from last year's drying fiasco, we hung up the garlic in small clumps immediately after digging.  This photo shows some of last week's garlic --- notice how it's already drying up nicely due to the air movement around the exposed bulbs and leaves.  If we had room indoors, we could also have spread the plants out in a single layer on screens to dry.

Either way, the bulbs will be thoroughly cured and ready to move to storage two weeks after harvest.  At that point, the garlic will have sucked all of the nutrients out of the leaves and roots, so it's safe to cut off the excess plant material.  We store our garlic in mesh bags we save from buying winter oranges.

Heads of garlicLast year's garlic is still lingering on our kitchen shelf, proving that it is quite possible to eat your own garlic for an entire year without any special storage area.  The trick for preventing your garlic from sprouting is counter-intuitive --- keep it warm.  Once garlic has been cooled and then re-warmed, the plant thinks it has survived a winter and starts to grow.  Keep the heads warm (but not hot) and they'll linger in an eternal summer.

One last note on garlic curing and storing --- be sure to pull out the biggest heads for next year's planting.  I'm pretty sure that the few small heads mixed in with our many large heads were due to me not being vigilant enough about planting only the biggest cloves from the biggest heads last fall.  Even though you might want to brag by giving away those beautiful big heads to your friends and family, just think how much more you'll get to brag next year when every one of your garlic heads is that size!

Escape the cubicle with Microbusiness Independence.
Posted Tue Jun 15 07:34:30 2010 Tags:

day of the chicken 2010These new dark cornish chickens we've been pasturing are said to be more predator resistant than most birds.

We've yet to see any signs of predator trouble thanks to Lucy and the new K9 electric fence strand.

What predator resistant really means for this operation is a substantial increase in the challenge to catch your bird when it's time to process.

It gets easier with practice, but I think we'll experiment with a different breed next time.

Posted Tue Jun 15 16:37:51 2010 Tags:

Dark Cornish cockerelsWe dispatched the first third of our cockerels Tuesday morning.  They were quite small at 12 weeks old, dressing out to only 2.25 pounds apiece (not counting the necks and giblets), and they clearly don't compete with grocery store prices at $5.64 per bird.  Of course, we didn't set out to save money with these broilers or we would have stuck to the traditional Cornish Cross.  The real test will be flavor --- can we tell a difference between our pastured chickens and storebought?

We're going to kill another third of the cockerels in a month, and then the last third at 16 weeks old, testing to see how the price per pound and the flavor of the meat changes over time.  Although everyone is in agreement that Cornish Crosses should be killed at around eight weeks, the internet lists widely varying maturity dates for the Dark Cornish, and I like experimentation.

On the other hand, despite enjoying the experiment, I don't think we'll be raising Dark Cornish again.  They didn't live up to the hype of being good foragers --- they mostly sat around and waited for their feed, even going so far as to run away when I tossed grubs into their pasture.  Instead, I'm torn between several alternatives:

  • Cornish Cross --- This is the traditional way to go, but raising these grain-only-eating broilers at home is little better for the environment and our bodies than buying grocery store meat.  Also, since they're hybrids, we would have to buy chicks every year, which doesn't pass the sustainability test.
  • Freedom Rangers --- Many small growers swear by this breed, reporting that Freedom Rangers are good foragers (although they said that about Dark Cornish too.)  The major downside is that we couldn't create our own breeding flock since Freedom Rangers are a cross of carefully bred parental lines owned by European corporations.
  • Create our own Cornish cross --- We could save back the biggest cockerel and cross him with our Plymouth Rocks to create our own Cornish Cross.  We might get hybrid vigor, but I can't quite see where the foraging ability would come from, and I'm bound and determined to grow chickens without such large inputs of grain.
  • Eat the roosters from our layer flock --- Traditionally, farmers used to just raise dual purpose breeds and eat the roosters from their flock along with the old hens.  We've been well trained to think we want big breasts and tender meat, so I'm not sure if we could stomach this option.  But it would definitely be the most sustainable, and probably the best for our health if we stuck to a good forager like Rhode Island Red.

What do you think?  Have you given some of the above options a shot and think they've got merit (or should be avoided at all cost?)  We won't be raising another batch of broilers until next year, but we need to make a decision soon about whether to save back one of the Cornishes from the chopping block.

Our homemade chicken waterer is the perfect way to keep fast-growing broilers healthy.
Posted Wed Jun 16 07:15:43 2010 Tags:
cute chick with her mom

cute chick with mom from behind

Things got a bit more crowded for the mother hen and her cute chick today when I installed a west wing door to the coop.

This allows us to cut off the previous pasture so we can give it a rest and plant something more edible than the weed buffet they started off with.

Posted Wed Jun 16 16:11:28 2010 Tags:

Cardboard mulchI'm sure you've all been perched on the edge of your seats for the last couple of weeks wondering: Will cardboard mulch retard water penetration and harm our plants?  A couple of days after I posted about our cardboard mulch, Mark had the great idea of poking a bunch of holes in the cardboard with a pitchfork.  Even so, I was a bit concerned that the perforated cardboard would keep the soil too dry.

Chart of soil moisture under cardboard mulchRather than waiting to see if our vegetables started struggling, we bought a $10 moisture meter from Lowes and took some measurements.  As you can see, the perforated cardboard actually kept the soil wetter than either whole cardboard or bare soil, especially in the top inch of the soil.  Whole cardboard, on the other hand, was a loser --- I headed out with the pitchfork to perforate the overlooked bed right after taking these measurements.

Some days, I wish I had about ten acres of research farm and three or four interns to turn my little play experiments into real experiments.  I'm well aware that three data points for each treatment isn't enough information to draw any scientific conclusions.  But the numbers were remarkably uniform, suggesting that perforated cardboard mulch is definitely a plus when it comes to water retention.

Mark's homemade chicken waterer is another Walden Effect farm innovation.
Posted Thu Jun 17 06:26:49 2010 Tags:

Travis and Kacy interview team 2010
We took the morning off to be interviewed by fellow bloggers Travis and Kacy from the Portrait of a Farm blog.

They're on a cross country adventure that will evenutally end up in Ashland, Oregon.

I liked the questions they focused on and was refreshed by their enthusiasm for this project, which is to interview farmers and homesteaders along their way back to the upper west coast with a twist towards  permaculture techniques.

Posted Thu Jun 17 16:52:34 2010 Tags:

We have a huge basswood at the edge of the yard.  It shades part of the garden in the late afternoon, but pays for itself in the middle of June when the flowers open up and feed every insect within a few mile radius.  I'm not exaggerating here --- before we got our honeybees, the basswood attracted so many bees from our neighbor's hives that it hummed like a not-so-distant highway.

Like many nectar trees, basswood can't be depended on to bloom every year.  It often blooms heavily one year, skips the next year, then works back up to a heavy bloom over the next few years.  Our tree took last year off, and this year seems to be only blooming at about 50%.

But even 50% seems to be a lot of nectar, and our honeybees are going crazy.  I'll be harvesting more honey today since I suspect our bees will fill up their supers in short order with the current basswood flow.

Fund your journey back to the land with Microbusiness Independence.
Posted Fri Jun 18 07:22:27 2010 Tags:

diy low budget geothermal cooling

I've been interested in taking advantage of geothermal energy for heating and cooling since I first heard of the idea.

The main problem is the high installation and material cost.

After several hours of research I finally found some comprehensive information on tackling a project like this from an angle that won't break the bank.

Free home air conditioning is a simple website that covers several details I wouldn't have thought of. Like how important moisture control is and if you select the wrong material you might create favorable conditions for mold to multiply.

I would not try to dig trenches like this by hand unless it was an emergency situation. The time and energy a Ditch Witch can save is what makes this project practical.

Posted Fri Jun 18 22:02:28 2010 Tags:
Anna Bee-shy

Bee suitI'm ashamed to admit that I've been bee-shy ever since the rout.  Sure, I got right back on the horse, but I felt like I flubbed the second honey harvest (though not as badly as the first.)  I was scared and grabbed two full supers, one of which had a bit of drone brood at the bottom edge.  In retrospect, I think it was stealing the drone brood that made the hive so angry.

No matter what the cause, I riled up the hive so much during honey harvest two that our bees have been mad at me ever since.  As I weed the garden, they chase me away from the poppies.  As I hang up the clothes, they buzz me, then get stuck in my hair, and I retreat to the house to frantically flick the worker free.  (It's a bit daunting to have a bee buzzing angrily an inch from your ear, even when you know that she's just trying to tease herself loose.)

Jars of honeyBeing bee-shy is a vicious cycle.  I'm leery of the bees, so I don't act calmly around them, and that makes them madder, which makes me act stranger.

Luckily, I have a thoughtful husband who knows the right times to overcome my resistance to spending money.  "That settles it," Mark said firmly.  "We're getting you a real bee jacket." 

Friday morning, I donned my new suit and the jitters faded away.  (Cleaning out the smoker so that it worked again was also helpful.)  When I opened up the first hive, bees rose up around me, but I felt safe in my fancy jacket and the bees soon shrugged and got back to work.

This time, I went slowly, picking through each super on all three hives to remove just the fully capped honey.  Then I loaded fourteen frames into the golf cart for the short ride to the edge of the forest garden.  (Last time, I carried heavy supers in my arms from the apiary, and the next day my back told me not to do that again.)

I had gently brushed off the frames of honey near each hive, but there were still plenty of bees clinging to their winter stores.  So I braked a good distance from the trailer and brushed the frames again, sending the last few workers up into the air somewhere other than around our front door.

Four hours later, I had extracted ten quarts of honey, returned the supers to the hives, and not been stung or scared a single time.  It sure tastes sweet to conquer my fear.

Our homemade chicken waterer is always poop-free.
Posted Sat Jun 19 09:07:29 2010 Tags:
diy geothermal cooling low budget

If you live near a lake or some other source of cold water you could pump that water through an old radiator and then blow the coldness out with a simple fan.

I found this clever solution at the Straw Bale Retreat blog.

Now I'm wondering how much cold air I could harvest from our nearby creek using this method?

Posted Sat Jun 19 17:04:42 2010 Tags:

Potato onion leavesPotato onions were one of our experimental vegetables this year, and I'd be hard-pressed to call them a success.  The total production from one garden bed was 60 bulbs, but most were too small to bother skinning for supper.  I figure that all together they'd add up to enough onion flesh to feed us for about two weeks.

On the other hand, potato onions do have a lot of potential.  These storage onions can be grown from multiplied bulbs, a bit like Egyptian onions, with no need to buy seed or sets every year.  If we tweak our growing technique a bit, I think we could turn potato onions into a dependable part of our annual harvest.

We began our experiment with an eight ounce starter package of Loretta Yellow Multiplier Onions from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.  The company told us that we could choose to plant bulbs in the fall for a larger yield, but Potato onion bulbs beginning to splitalso a higher likelihood of losing onions to freezing, or could wait and plant in the spring.  We opted to toss them all in the ground at the beginning of November.

I'd like to say that we lost a third of the bulbs to winter cold, but instead I have to admit to mismanagement.  After planting, I mulched the bed heavily with autumn leaves since I knew from experience that garlic will push up through a heavy mulch with no problem.  Potato onions are made of weaker stuff, though, and the bulbs under the thickest mulch languished and died.

Potato onion flowersSpring came, and our remaining onions were doing well.  As the original bulb divided into multiple bulbs, the plant pushed the dirt aside and I was able to watch the onions grow.  I was pleased to see each individual plant turn into six to ten smaller plants, and then the bulbs began to swell.

I thought we were in for a bumper crop, but then over half of the potato onions threw up flower stalks.  An exhaustive search of the internet turns up little data about potato onion flowers, except that they're rare and channel energy away from the bulbs.  A few anecdotes suggest that potato onions are more likely to bloom when fall planted, so next year I'll stick to spring planting.  I was disappointed but not surprised to find that the blooming plants produced only small bulbs.

The few non-blooming onions, though, sparked my interest.  Each plant produced one to two big bulbs about two thirds the size of a Potato onion harveststorebought onion, along with several small bulbs for replanting.  I plan to eat the big bulbs and put all of the small ones in the ground early next spring.  If we can tweak our planting method to prevent blooming, I foresee doing away with fiddly seed onions and expensive and ephemeral onion sets and instead planting potato onions every year from our own offset bulbs.

Like perennial vegetables, our homemade chicken waterer is a time-saver.
Posted Sun Jun 20 07:50:09 2010 Tags:
anna in kayak

Today was a great day to kayak down the Clinch river.

Posted Sun Jun 20 15:27:37 2010 Tags:

Nine frame superMark's friend Dennis looked at my first honey extraction post and gently asked Mark, "Do you all use nine frame supers or ten frame supers?"  The honest truth is that I'd read about nine frame supers, but hadn't quite wrapped my head around them.

A quick search of the internet explained that a nine frame super is quite simple --- you remove one frame from each honey super and space the remaining frames a little further apart.  The bees will extend the wax out further from the frame, making the frame much easier to uncap during extraction.  As an added bonus, some websites suggest that nine frame supers actually hold more honey than ten frame supers since you lose less room between frames.

When I was harvesting honey last week, I turned all of our ten frame supers into nine frame supers, which had the added bonus of providing me with an extra super full of frames to pop onto the third hive.  Some people buy special tools to let them space nine frames apart evenly, but I just spaced the frames by eye.  I guess we'll see how the nine frame supers do on our next honey harvest day.

Fund your journey back to the land.
Posted Mon Jun 21 06:33:54 2010 Tags:

Goat glove final updateI made the mistake of using my goat gloves during our recent round of chicken feather plucking.

This material isn't bouncing back like leather.

I suspect the chicken dunking is what caused them to dry up in such a stiff manner.

Posted Mon Jun 21 21:03:58 2010 Tags:

Sun through a straw hatI hope you all didn't miss us too much.  Our power's been out for the last day or so, but an intrepid worker just came and cut the tree off our line, restoring juice.  Stay tuned for your regularly scheduled farm updates returning tomorrow.

If you need your homesteading fix (Walden Effect Junkie, this is for you), you might enjoy reading all of the details of our forest pasture experiment which I've spared you all by posting on our chicken blog instead.

Posted Tue Jun 22 21:28:20 2010 Tags:

Roast chickenI didn't want you all to think we had a bad taste in our mouth about Dark Cornish chickens.  Sure, they're inefficient at converting feed to meat and can't forage to save their lives, but the flavor is phenomenal!  We roasted up one of our cockerels, and it turned out as juicy and tender as those rotisserie chickens in the grocery store.

The last couple of times we've killed and eaten our own chickens, we thought we'd get the best flavor by eating the meat as fresh as possible.  Since then, I've read that it's best to let the chicken sit in the refrigerator for a couple of days so that rigor mortis can relax, tenderizing the meat.  I suspect the two day wait was part of the reason our latest home grown chicken was the best I've ever tasted.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Wed Jun 23 07:39:58 2010 Tags:
can of Seafoam closeup detail #9

The Champion generator started on the second pull Monday night when the power first failed here.

Tuesday rolled around and I made a big mistake by topping it off with some old gas. I thought the fuel was fine due to just using some in the lawnmower, but I guess this generator is more sensitive.

My first solution was limited by our local hardware store and the Dollar shop. They only had STP and Gumout, which I think is the same thing. I added both with very little results to show for it. It would start up...but putter and stall due to what I assume was the bad gas or water in there somewhere? My second mistake was not deleting as much of the old gas as I could before adding the supplements.
Seafoam closeup detail #11
The next round of repairs involved a longer trip where one can find a proper auto parts store. I went right for the Seafoam and after a short consult with one of the clerks was off to the gas station for some premium grade petrol.

Dumping out the old gas and adding the Seafoam helped, but it continued to putter and eventually stalled due to what I'm guessing is some sort of blockage. I think it's going to take running it a while for it to smooth out.

Luckily the electric guy showed up with a chainsaw and a smile and cut down the offending tree that was hanging on one of our power lines. It was touch and go for a while as I watched the line hold the entire weight of the tree and finally allow it to fall without  breaking. I let out a loud enough cheer so he could hear me and we had power restored within the hour.

Posted Wed Jun 23 19:02:46 2010 Tags:
Roasted summer squash

Homegrown cabbageAfter the internet, what I missed most during our power outage was the ability to pack food away for the winter.  With the freezer closed and halfway full, 30 hours without power wasn't a big deal, but there was no way I could introduce warm food without negatively impacting the old.  So I watched the summer squash achieve, then surpass, their optimal size, and as soon as the power came back on I was ready to freeze.

Roasted squash, cabbage for winter potstickers, and a few meals worth of green beans left the garden for cold storage.  I also dug into our fresh garlic to make nine cups of pesto for quick winter Bowl of basil with garliclunches.  While I was at it, I picked the second to last meal of broccoli --- these plants are buggy and ugly since they took so long to grow, but they still tasted great in cheese sauce for supper. 

While poking around, I discovered that we are overflowing with cucumbers for the first time ever.  Our farm is hard on cucurbits, and cucumbers are the worst, coming down with some kind of wilt disease every year just as they start to bear.  This year, I sprang for a wilt-resistant hybrid --- Diamant --- that is vigorous enough to (mostly) withstand our annual bane.  Since we don't like pickles, I'm suddenly serving Cucumbers and green beansfresh cucumbers with every lunch and dinner (and am seriously considering making the prolific vegetables part of a complete breakfast.)

Last year, the weather was against us and we only managed to pack away 13 gallons of food for the winter.  As a result, we bought grocery store produce for a couple of months this spring, and I vowed to do better.  With 6 gallons of vegetables, 7 cups of pesto, and 7 whole chickens already in the freezer before the end of June, we're starting to ponder what we'll do with the excess.

Too busy making a living to live?  Escape the rat race with Microbusiness Independence.
Posted Thu Jun 24 07:38:50 2010 Tags:
sprinkler closeup 2010

After much trial and error I've concluded that the water we pump from the creek is too rich in particles for these little screen filters to handle.

Anna started experimenting with deleting the filters back in the spring. So far the results suggest we don't need them for this application. I suspect the high pressure is enough to push any stray particles out through the sprinkler nozzle.

Posted Thu Jun 24 17:06:17 2010 Tags:

Hardy kiwi softwood cuttingsOur hardy kiwi plants sulked for the first two years, but as we begin their third summer, they're suddenly acting like vines.  Each plant has put up multiple stems, the longest of which has twined for five feet along its trellis wire.  At this stage, I want the kiwis to focus their energy on one main trunk, so I clipped off the extra shoots springing up from each rootstock.  Time to propagate!

Hardy kiwis are best grown from softwood cuttings, which means cuttings taken from new growth during the summer.  (In contrast, grapes are best grown from hardwood cuttings, which are the dormant, woody stems pruned out in the winter.)  I clipped the excess kiwi stems into six inch lengths, cut off the growing tips, and then clipped each leaf in half.  Although people who want 100% success often root softwood cuttings under misters using rooting hormone and applying bottom heat, I prefer a simpler method with a lower success rate --- put an inch of water in a jar, drop in the cuttings, and ignore for three weeks.

Rooted kiwi cuttingAnd now, look --- little roots all over the ends of the cuttings!  Once the roots expand enough to feed the cuttings, I'll put my new kiwis in the ground in a permanent location.  My original kiwis arrived in late July two years ago, so I assume the nursery used the exact same tricks I did, and that these new cuttings will really take off in the summer of 2012.

Getting started with perennials is always pricey --- our three hardy kiwis came to nearly fifty bucks.  But if you're in it for the long haul, you can turn that initial investment into a large orchard.  I'll bet at this time next year, I'll be giving baby kiwi plants away to everyone who can fit one in their garden.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Fri Jun 25 07:48:59 2010 Tags:
bee box painting

It took me several boxes to figure out this 5 gallon bucket method.
Posted Fri Jun 25 17:16:28 2010 Tags:

Dragonfly on a stumpAlthough it seems hard to believe at the end of two weeks with highs in the 90s, now is the time to start your fall garden.  Luckily, your spring garden should be pretty much kaput --- all we have left is a stray broccoli plant or two, and some bedraggled potatoes fading back into the soil.  You can fill the gaps your spring garden left behind with most of the same crops, just switching around locations to ensure each plant family is in a new spot.

This coming week, we'll be direct seeding broccoli, beets, parsnips, and carrots (along with some late beans and corn).  In a few more weeks, we'll throw in peas, turnips, lettuce, and spinach.  Then come greens (and more lettuce) in August and garlic (and yet more lettuce) in September.

If you want to put in a fall garden, but this teaser just leaves you confused, check out last year's lunchtime series about the fall garden.  On the other hand, if you have garden areas that need some help and don't have time to tend fall vegetables, why not plant some buckwheat as a cover crop?

Our homemade chicken waterer gives your chickens something to do other than picking on each other.
Posted Sat Jun 26 08:09:32 2010 Tags:
grass hog weed eater

I found this used battery powered weed eater today for 40 bucks at a yard sale.

The guy included an extra battery, which just happens to be the same size as my old Black and Decker drill, which I still have 2 good batteries for.

Stay tuned for a full review on how well this so called "Grass Hog" lives up to its name.

Posted Sat Jun 26 22:12:54 2010 Tags:
Immature butternut squash

Immature canteloupeIf 2009 was the year without a summer then 2010's heat has made up for every drippy, rainy day.  Luckily, with our irrigation system humming along happily, garden plants are thrilled by the heat and sunlight.

Immature watermelon

Look at this --- baby butternut squashes!  Little watermelons hiding under the leaves!  Plump tomatoes just waiting to turn color!  And could that really be a canteloupe, the first one we've ever successfully grown on our farm?

Green tomato

Treat your flock to a homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Sun Jun 27 08:13:49 2010 Tags:
Can of Starting Fluid Spray in action

can close up of starting fluid sprayWhen we first got our used tiller it worked fine for the first season, but when I went to get it going the next year it wouldn't seem to start, so I used a couple squirts of Starting Fluid spray and off it went. I only did this a few times, but that was enough to get our innocent Statesman tiller addicted to Ether, which is the main ingredient in this wicked spray. Now it won't start without this high end boost.

Don't get me the hands of a qualified expert a short spray of Starting Fluid can be used to safely troubleshoot several specific problems.

The trouble happens when a back yard mechanic like myself was never told in Health class how repeated use of Starting Fluid begins to wear off the oil that usually coats the inner walls of each cylinder, which leads to accelerated wear on the rings, piston, and the cylinder itself. This creates a decrease in compression and explains the increased difficulty in starting.

Is there any kind of rehab center I can send my tiller to? I would assume a complete engine rebuild would be in order to get the compression back where it once was.  Maybe one of those expensive oil additives might rejuvinate things back to normal? It's been a couple of years since I've had to till up new ground due to our no-till method of growing and the tiller repair is way at the bottom of the "fix me now" list.

Image credit of the close up shot of Starting Fluid being sprayed goes to dazecars at

Posted Sun Jun 27 13:05:12 2010 Tags:

Wildflowers on a hugelkultur bedDavia asked me if I'd ever heard of Hugelkultur.  I thought the answer was no, until I googled the term and discovered that hugelkultur is very similar to the mounds I built last fall using dirt tossed over decomposing branches.  Putting a name to the method really expedited my research and turned up a lot more information than I thought was out there.  Thanks, Davia!

The idea is pretty simple --- adding wood to a raised bed acts as a sponge, evening out soil moisture so that the ground doesn't become waterlogged and also doesn't dry up.  As the wood rots, it turns into wonderful organic matter a lot like the stump dirt I rave about.

However, I think I made a few mistakes with my hugelkultur beds.  If you research the technique, you'll discover that the correct way to make the beds is to bury the woody material at least a foot or two under the earth.  I just built up piles of partly rotten branches and shoveled dirt in the gaps, a method that worked okay for the hazels and wildflower mixes I grew there, but that wouldn't have worked for vegetables.  I'm sure the branches are locking up nitrogen out of the soil as I type, but everything I put in the beds is extremely resilient and seems to be surviving.

The real problem is that my beds are too dry.  The wood hasn't rotted down enough yet to act as a sponge, and the loosely shoveled clay has a lot of air pockets that let water drain right through.  Granted, I located the mounds in an area where the groundwater is so high nothing will grow there, so this "problem" isn't so bad --- it made a nice spot to put in rosemary without ending up with root rot the way my rosemary plants usually do.

Weedy moundsProblem number two is also related to my haphazard construction.  I left bits of branches sticking out around the edges, which made Mark very leery of mowing up to the sides of the mounds.  Add to that the fact that my mulch mostly blew away over the winter and I forgot to refresh it or weed the mounds, and the result is a weed thicket.  Surprisingly, the thickly seeded wildflowers seem to be holding their ground against the weeds, and the honeybees consider this area their second home, so all is not lost.

Now that I know more about the technique, though, I want to try hugelkultur again as another winter project.  This time, I'll bury the wood deeper and plant a cover crop to add fertility for the first year or so before planting anything important.  I'll be curious to see how quickly the rotting wood starts benefiting my plants.

Start a microbusiness on a shoestring and escape the rat race.
Posted Mon Jun 28 07:35:38 2010 Tags:

PuddleEvery morning, I walk our dog through the floodplain and peer at puddles.  A few months ago, high waters stranded baby fish in ephemeral pools, puddles that are bound to dry up before the summer ends.  My first instinct was to scoop these babies out and carry them back to the creek, but then I paused to consider the consequences of my actions.

While it seems like a good idea to save the minnows, how do I know that these stranded fish aren't part of another animal's life cycle?  Do crawdads depend on pools like this for easy prey or do tree roots need the quick burst of nitrogen left behind as the minnows' bodies break down in the parched puddle?

Three damselfliesAnd what if moving those fish back to the creek disrupts the ecosystem there?  Will I singlehandedly overpopulate the stream, lowering reproductive rates of the other fish?  What if my minnows are better competitors but are actually less fit because their offspring will be more likely to drift into puddles and die without continued human intervention?

In the end, I left the puddles alone, choosing to let the fish die rather than setting off a chain reaction, the results of which I can't begin to predict.  The experience sent me off on a thought tangent, though, one that ballooned out into a lunchtime series (even though the lunchtime series is supposed to be on summer vacation.)  This week's topic is pretty controversial and is bound to make many of you decidedly uncomfortable, so I hope you'll bear with me rather than jumping to the wrong conclusions.  In fact, I'll even make you wait until tomorrow to learn the theme.  How's that for a teaser?

Don't let your chickens die of dehydration on hot summer afternoons.  Install a homemade chicken waterer that will never spill.

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

Posted Mon Jun 28 12:00:43 2010 Tags:
Q water container in action 2010

When we first moved to the farm here one of the chores was to haul water from the creek in 5 gallon buckets to a small raised bed of baby apple trees.

Q water container inventor and designer with userThis was before we were living here full time and pre-electricity. I remember trying to run a small pump off the power of the truck in desperation. This produced a small trickle and seemed to strain the engine to the point where I figured it wasn't worth the risk of blowing a fuse or worse.

Pictured here is the Q-Drum, invented by Hans Hendrikse in 1996. It can carry 20 gallons with ease thanks to the rolling nature of it's design. From what I can gather it's only available in South Africa and cost around 500 Rands. This invention might have been enough to hydrate those poor little apple trees. The unusaully dry summer was a problem, but the real mistake was not mulching. A couple of Q-Drums might have saved the day.

I've often tried to imagine what would be the ultimate water storage container for a possible future where energy is scarce. This might be it.

I wonder how much it would take to make the inner walls glass or copper?

Posted Mon Jun 28 15:59:33 2010 Tags:

Snow pea seeds in podsAs long as you choose a non-hybrid variety, peas are one of the easiest garden vegetables for seed-saving.  To that end, I let the snow peas stay in the ground for a couple of weeks after the pods began to turn woody, giving them time to mature their seeds.

Last year, I left the pods on the vine until they were completely brown, but this year I'm experimenting with harvesting them a bit earlier when they're in the pale yellow stage.  My goal is to counteract the mildew that struck about a third of last year's seeds.  Rather than expecting the pods to dry on the plant like last year, this year I carefully shelled out the peas and put them on a rack to dry.

Learn to make a living on the farm in just a few hours per week.
Posted Tue Jun 29 07:29:42 2010 Tags:

The point of my fishy anecdote yesterday is simple --- choosing to protect an individual animal may be harmful to the entire ecosystem.  Caring people are often attracted to vegetarianism because we hate the thought of killing a living thing.  But what if swearing off meat has the same effect as transplanting that minnow out of its puddle?  What if we're actually doing more harm than good with our well-intentioned actions?

While I understand the horror many people feel when they think of slitting a chicken's throat and cutting out its innards, I think a more important measure of the ethics of our dietary choices is the overall ecosystem.  How many thousands of bacteria, fungi, insects, salamanders, lizards, snakes, birds, and mammals died when the farmer plowed his thousand acre field of soybeans to make your veggie burger?  How many more will die due to global warming resulting from the gas burned to till that field, the chemical fertilizer produced to feed the field, and the transportation of the veggie burger to your table?  I believe that the sheer number of lives dependent on a native ecosystem should give that ecosystem more importance than the life of any single meat animal.

When you look at the big picture, food choices should revolve around minimizing the two worst agricultural byproducts: habitat destruction and global warming.  Tomorrow, I'll crunch the numbers on the former, so let's discuss the latter for a minute.  A very thought-provoking study by Edwards-Jones et al. showed that we have a long way to go before we can assess the effects of our current agricultural system on global warming.  He noted that while many people focus on transportation as the largest energy cost of farming, for many crops the biggest problem is actually the production of fertilizer.

Why do we have to drench our fields with fertilizer?  The answer is simple --- we've taken animals out of the equation.  Natural ecosystems are made up of mixtures of plants and animals, and productive agricultural systems are no different.  On the small family farm, manure feeds the crops, which feed the animals, which feed the people.

A recent study by
Peters et al. considered the ability of New York state's current agricultural areas to feed its people.  While the traditional American diet fared badly in their calculations, the authors noted that New York could feed more people eating a moderate amount of meat and dairy than if those people were vegetarians.  Not only would the animals be preventing global warming by providing organic fertilizer for the crops, they would also be lessening habitat loss since a smaller acreage of land would be required to feed the same number of people.  It's time to do some soul-searching and see whether we really think the life of a cow is more important than the life of thousands of animals living in a native forest.

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

Posted Tue Jun 29 12:00:36 2010 Tags:
refrigerator root cellar update 2010

The refrigerator root cellar is being over taken by weeds due to its low position on the "list of things to fix before winter".

Digging it out and installing a roof over the top will most likely be a winter project.

Root cellar ebook
Posted Tue Jun 29 16:18:12 2010 Tags:

Double deep hiveSome people give their hives just one deep brood box apiece (plus several supers), but I've read that if you provide the bees a second deep brood box, you'll have a larger colony and can harvest more honey.  Last year I didn't know any better, but this spring I decided to give the double deep method a shot.

In the middle of May, I added a second brood box to our middle hive, checkerboarding the drawn brood frames with empty frames so that the bees were using both deep boxes to raise their young.  After extracting a bit more honey Tuesday, I added up how many frames I'd taken from each hive --- 2 frames from the east hive, 4 frames from the "mean" hive, and 20 frames from the double deep middle hive!

Since I've been extracting all of the capped frames of honey I see this summer, I figure these statistics are a pretty accurate assessment of how hard the hives have been working.  If Preparing to enter the hiveanything, I think the middle hive has produced even more honey than it seems --- the second brood box has a lot of honey in it that I've just left alone.

Now all three hives are converted over to double deeps.  I don't expect it to do much good for this year, but now I'll be ready for the queens to lay like gangbusters next spring.  In fact, barring another serious honey flow (and both basswood and sourwood are now past), I think I'm going to let the bees save the rest of the year's honey for their own consumption.  Four and a half gallons of honey --- not a bad haul for three hives in year two!

Escape the rat race with Microbusiness Independence.
Posted Wed Jun 30 07:22:55 2010 Tags:

Pullet on pastureThe effects of dietary choices on global warming are hard to disentangle, but all we need is a bit of number crunching to look at the amount of calories we can produce per acre when growing different kinds of food.  The numbers below are drawn from a lot of different sources for U.S. agriculture and include dozens of assumptions, but they should give you a rough idea of comparative acreage required to produce a few staple crops.

Million calories per acre
Cows fed solely on corn, feed to meat conversion ratio of 8, 1000 calories per pound of beef
Pigs fed solely on corn, feed to meat conversion ratio of 3.5, 1385 calories per pound of pork
Chickens fed solely on corn and soybeans, feed to meat conversion ratio of 3, 591 calories per pound of meat

Soybean plantI remember when I first started considering my dietary options, I was told that we could feed many more people with the same amount of land if we all became vegetarians.  I was swayed...until I realized that we're talking about feeding people only corn and potatoes.  The truth is that creating protein is expensive in terms of land use whether you're growing soybeans or raising cattle, and if we compare apples to apples you'll notice that pigs actually win over beans.

But the table at the top of this post only considers conventional agriculture (aka CAFOs for meat.)  What about if we instead raise our livestock on pasture and feed them food waste where appropriate?  For cows, you won't see much difference, but pigs and chickens really begin to shine once you return to a more traditional feeding system.  Both of these animals are well adapted to foraging on scraps --- the Vermont Compost Company raises chickens on compost alone while Sugar Mountain Farm cuts their feed bills drastically by raising their pigs on pasture with the addition of waste dairy products.

In societies that don't depend on huge agricultural corporations to feed the masses, a family is likely to have a pig and a flock of chickens that they feed mostly or solely on waste from the farm and kitchen.  Remember that adding some livestock to your diversified homestead also equates to manure to fertilize your veggies, and it's suddenly hard for me to merit the idea of planting a field of soybeans instead.

Farmstead Feast

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps your backyard chickens happy and healthy.

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

Posted Wed Jun 30 12:00:29 2010 Tags:
diy worm bin out of garden cart update

The biggest mistake I made with the do it yourself garden cart worm bin was to not allow enough space at the bottom for the tea to drip to.

The next error was to use a drinking container spigot as a drain valve. It needs to be bigger with the ability to be turned on and left on as opposed to the push button mechansim of the spigot.

The good news is that the worms did great! Which goes to show you how easy it is to grow your own worms. Once the kinks are worked out I think this garden cart will make a fine over sized worm bin. One that will provide buckets and buckets of compost tea in the future.

Posted Wed Jun 30 20:11:46 2010 Tags:

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

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