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

archives for 08/2010

Aug 2010
Anna Farm tour

Ruth Stout style garden, year 1Everett and Missy (from Living a Simple Life) were kind enough to invite us over to their new homestead for lunch on Saturday and I leapt at the offer.  There are few things I like better than a farm tour --- a great chance to walk around someone else's operation and get ideas.

The farm was beautifully manicured (way out of my weed-overgrown league), and I'm sure lots of you would love to see pastoral photos.  However, being who I am, I took a few pictures of the chickens and then a whole bunch of pictures of the garden.
Straw mulched garden
Everett and Missy made the wise choice to spend their first year on the farm focusing on infrastructure, but they didn't ignore the garden entirely.  Instead, they planted a few cucurbits down by the creek, hired a nearby farmer to plow up a field to plant a clover cover crop in a second area, and then spread thick straw mulch over a third area.

This third area, of course, was the one that caught my eye --- a patch of lawn being transformed into a budding Ruth Stout garden.  Mushrooms were already hard at work improving the soil, and worms had clearly been attracted to the moist, bare soil beneath the Buckeye chickensmulch.  The couple's free range Buckeye chickens loved scratching up the mulch to find critters...and depositing their own organic fertilizer in exchange.  I wouldn't be surprised if this plot turns into a bountiful and trouble-free garden next year.

Of course, we didn't escape the farm tour entirely unscathed.  Like they say, August is the only time you have to lock your car in Appalachia --- otherwise, you'll come back to discover it full of zucchinis.  Thanks for the produce, the delicious lunch, and the tour!

Everett and Missy's chickens are the only ones I've met who honestly don't need our homemade chicken waterer --- they prefer the fresh, flowing water in their personal creek.
Posted Sun Aug 1 08:54:17 2010 Tags:

truck load of mulch being shoveled
Although The Mulch Company has a fine product with great service, we've decided their price is too high.

Anna's mulch instinct is telling her we can get more for less somewhere else, and when it comes to mulch I choose to yield to her organic intuition.

Posted Sun Aug 1 19:36:03 2010 Tags:
Succession planting corn

Congratulations to Bladerunner, the winner of our most recent giveaway!  Bladerunner, drop me an email with your t-shirt size and we'll get your prizes out to you as soon as possible. 

Thanks to everyone who helped spread the word!  Don't despair if you didn't win --- we'll start up another giveaway before long.

Since this is a light post, I thought I'd throw in a photo I've been saving for a couple of weeks.  There's not really much to say about it, except that succession planting corn is the best way to sweeten dinners all summer long.  Sweet corn patch part two is about to hit the plate....

Our homemade chicken waterer is one of our giveaway prizes.
Posted Mon Aug 2 07:04:16 2010 Tags:

Tying up a tomato plantLast year, the blight took me by surprise and sent me reeling.  Since then, I've done a lot of plotting and researching, and I feel like I have the possibility of harvesting a crop after the fungus hits.

I've talked about our extreme tomato pruning before, but I want to add a few notes since I can already tell that I'll be pruning slightly differently next year.  Most importantly, I plan to snip off the bottom leaves repeatedly rather than spending my weekly pruning sessions solely cutting back suckers and tying up the main stems.  I've noticed that even leaves attached a foot above the ground bend downward with age until they are dipping into the splash zone.  Unsurprisingly, the first symptoms of the blight show up as yellowing and browning of these leaves --- a sign that fungal spores are being exposed to the air.  In the future, I'll clip off low leaves as soon as they droop.
Cracked tomato stem

And if --- just hypothetically --- I happen to run out of rebar and don't tie up a few exuberant tomatoes one week, I'll be positive to get back to them pronto rather than letting the vines bend and crack under the heavy weight of ripening tomatoes.  Luckily, rebar is a long term investment, so we shouldn't have that problem next year.

Escape the rat race with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Organic Tomato Blight Control lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Aug 2 12:00:38 2010 Tags:
Predatory stink bug

Stink bug spearing an asparagus beetle larvaStink bugs are usually bad news in the garden.  They suck the juices out of your plants and the chickens won't even eat them because of the Learn to keep bugs at baynoxious fluid they squirt out when disturbed.  But if I'm honest, my antipathy toward the insects dates from childhood.  You see, stink bugs love blackberries, and so do I.  Pop a blackberry in your mouth without looking and there's a good chance a stink bug might come along for the ride, leaving the most awful taste in your mouth imaginable.

Despite my scarred childhood, stink bugs have now been redeemed in my eyes.  I was out on my weekly bug-picking expedition Monday, squashing asparagus beetle larvae and tossing all of the other bad bugs into a cup of water to give to the chickens.  Guess who was already helping with the asparagus beetle control?  This predatory stink bug uses its long proboscis to spear insects and drain them dry rather than sucking a plant for lunch.

I'm glad I decided to use manual control this year on our insects, even though it is a bit of a pain to pick bugs for an hour a week during the growing season.  I've noticed spiders, ladybugs, and now this stink bug moving into the asparagus, keeping the beetle populations in check.  Maybe in a few years, our beneficial insect populations will be so healthy that I won't have to hand-squash larvae?

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Tue Aug 3 08:07:35 2010 Tags:

Blighted tomatoBut what do you do if, despite preventative pruning, your tomatoes begin to show signs of late blight?  Rather than sticking your head in the sand the way we did last year, your best bet is to take decisive action immediately.  Single out any tomatoes on which the blight has progressed beyond the very lowest leaves and delete the entire plant.  Then clip off any blighted lower leaves on nearby plants.

During this extensive pruning expedition, you should wipe your clippers with a rag soaked in alcohol every time you move from one plant to another, or from a more blighted area to a less blighted area.  In addition, you shouldn't even think about going into a blighted tomato patch when dew or rain are heavy on the plants --- blight spores move around and germinate on wet surfaces.

Pruned tomatoesThis is also the one time I advocate removing biomass from the farm.  You should definitely not incorporate the blighted tomato residue into your compost pile, but I feel that it's dicey to even toss it off into the bushes at the edge of the woods.  Instead, I actually let Mark haul our blighted tomato parts away to the dump.

Finally, I take the first sign of blight as a signal to get realistic.  All of your hard work pruning off diseased foliage is not going to cure your tomato patch of the blight --- it will merely slowly the disease's spread.  You might be able to stay ahead of the blight for a while by removing any yellow or brown leaves, but you'll have to stay vigilant.  So harvest while you can!

Find time to pursue your dreams with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Organic Tomato Blight Control lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Aug 3 12:00:37 2010 Tags:

truckload of lack luster compostWe tried a new mulch source that has more down to Earth prices than The Mulch Company... including a sale on compost for just 10 bucks a scoop.

Don't get too excited. Their "compost" was just aged wood chips mixed in with average looking dirt.

I still took 2 scoops because I wanted to believe the lady at the desk when she said it was just "pure aged wood chips", and I was a bit fatigued from following a map that was not quite accurate on what may have been one of the hottest days of the year.

I knew right away something was amiss when Anna didn't get that same giddy laughter of joy I've become so accustomed to when I bring truckloads of compost home.

"We can still use it for areas in the forest garden where the clay doesn't drain well," she said trying to make me feel better.

BFR Mulch in Norton has a distorted definition of compost, but I guess it's a subjective term that will vary from person to person. The stuff will make okay raised bed material, but was barely worth hauling home when you gauge it on the Anna meter.

They have aged oak mulch for 21 dollars a scoop, which is what we'll try next.

Posted Tue Aug 3 20:32:54 2010 Tags:

do it yourself cinder block fordThe dry season makes for good conditions to catch up on some minor ford maintenance.

The do it yourself cinder block ford hasn't really needed much repair in the past 4 years. This  turns out to be a low budget creek crossing solution that continues to work.

Posted Tue Aug 3 21:35:11 2010 Tags:

Victory garden poster

During World War II, 40% of American vegetables came from 20 million victory gardens.  With American men fighting abroad, women were raising their kids alone, working outside the home (to fill those men's jobs), and still finding time to till up their backyard and grow food for their families. 

(Doesn't that make you feel a bit silly for saying you don't have time to plant a garden?  There's still time to put in lettuce and greens for the fall, by the way.)

"Don't waste food" poster

Canning poster
Posters like these from both World Wars admonished women to plant a garden, can and dry the excess, and never waste a crumb.  The propaganda definitely worked --- Americans ate potatoes instead of wheat so that the less perishable grain could be sent abroad, and they generally managed to subsist on what those remaining at home could grow.

As Sharon Astyk pointed out in her fascinating analysis of why and how we have been trained to believe that our individual consumer choices make no difference to the world, victory gardens are clear proof that your personal actions can have a worldwide impact.  Leading by example, you can even suck your friends and family into a mode of eating that is lighter on the earth.

Poster advocating running water

America has plenty of food posterBut after the war ended, the propaganda took an abrupt about-face.  Suddenly, posters were telling us to buy, buy, buy!  And, once again, we followed along like sheep, dropped our shovels, and went out to spend some money.

While I'm tempted to talk here about our current government's admonitions to spend money to prop up our ailing economy rather than striving to become more self-sufficient, frugal, and debt-free on a personal level, I won't.  Instead, I think the takeaway message from the victory garden campaign is clear --- think globally, act locally.  If you believe that the environment would benefit from food grown in an ecologically conscious way, then look into permaculture and plant a diversified garden.  Anyone living anywhere can plant something, preserve something, and cut back on food waste.

To see the source of these posters (and peruse many more --- huge time sink, I warn you), visit Beans are Bullets, a website/exhibition put together by the National Agricultural Library. 

If you're thinking of adding a laying flock to your homestead, consider providing a homemade chicken waterer for healthier hens and more eggs.
Posted Wed Aug 4 06:37:28 2010 Tags:

Blondkopfchen tomatoesThe agricultural extension websites are quick to tell you that no tomato variety is immune to the blight, but I've discovered that several are resistant.  In general, tommy-toes seem to fare quite well, losing the battle much later than the larger-fruited varieties.  On the other hand, the Green Zebra we were testing for the first time this year turned out to be the most blight-prone of any of our tomatoes --- we won't grow Green Zebra again.  So far, all of our other slicing tomatoes are faring pretty well.
Martino's Roma
The heart of our tomato patch is our romas, and I'm starting to get a feel for which roma varieties last longer when blight is in the air.  Large-fruited romas do the worst, and I don't think I'll even save seeds from Italian San Rodorta this year since the plants blight so quickly.  In contrast, the even more hefty-fruited Russian Roma plants are only barely blighted.  Yellow Roma and Martino's Roma are currently my roma winners --- the fruits are small, but they ripen quickly and copiously, and the plants are blight-free so far.

I suspect that if I tweaked my plantings to focus solely on the most blight-resistant varieties, the fungus might not enter our patch until weeks later.  Or not at all?

Give yourself time to pursue your dreams --- quit your job with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Organic Tomato Blight Control lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Aug 4 12:00:20 2010 Tags:
eco modded Toyota Previa

Marcus Sabathil is a glass artist and furniture maker who managed to modify his Toyota Previa in such a way to increase highway mileage from 20 to 36 mpg.

I've often wondered how much of a gain we might get from our Toyota Previa if we fabricated a similar boat tail.

Posted Wed Aug 4 16:26:49 2010 Tags:

Watermelon and potato polycultureWhile weeding the mule garden this week, I discovered an unintentional polyculture.  I had pulled out all the seed potatoes from my fall potato experiment because they weren't sprouting --- or so I thought.  It turns out that one potato was overlooked, and it popped up between the leaves of a watermelon I'd planted at the end of the bed.

Meanwhile, my primary purpose for the bed was to plant fall carrots.  I seeded three different beds with carrots this summer, but very few seedlings came up in two of the beds.  However, in my polyculture bed, the watermelon took off and ran across the carrot area, shading the soil and retaining Carrot seedlingsenough moisture for the seeds to sprout.  All three vegetables seem to be growing quite happily together so far, though I recently moved the watermelon tendrils aside to give the baby carrots room to grow.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that the carrot seeds in the other beds may have had shoddy germination rates because they were a different variety than those sown in the polyculture bed.  I usually have very good luck with Jung's Sweetness hybrid carrots, but the pack this year seems to have been a dud --- germination was low in our spring carrot bed too.  Next year, I might change my loyalties to one of the seed companies recommended by Steve Solomon.

Take the guesswork out of DIY.  Our homemade chicken waterer kit comes with an instruction manual that helps you make the very best waterer for your specific flock.
Posted Thu Aug 5 07:06:14 2010 Tags:

Japanese black trifele tomatoI like to call step four in our campaign against the tomato blight "tomato islands."  While it's quite true that blight spores can travel up to a mile in damp weather, planting patches of tomatoes in different parts of the garden can be relatively effective in keeping the blight from spreading if the summer stays hot and dry.  So while our romas (and a few slicers) are all clumped together along the sunniest edge of the mule garden, I've got slicing tomatoes and tommy-toes in three other areas.  The ones in the far-off front garden still seem to be blight-free.

I'm also taking a page out of our neighbor's book.  Last year, while touring a friend's garden at the end of the summer, I saw that he had a healthy tomato plant  still spitting out fruits.  "How did you do that?!" I exclaimed, and he told me that he'd thrown some seeds in the ground in early June.  This year I followed suit and seeded three more tomato plants a couple of weeks after our frost-free date.  These late plants are starting to set fruits, and so far look pristine.  Perhaps they will give us a fall harvest?

Are you too busy making a living to live your life?  Microbusiness Independence is the solution.

This post is part of our Organic Tomato Blight Control lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Aug 5 12:00:34 2010 Tags:
aged oak mulch

I went back to BFR Mulch for two scoops of aged oak mulch today.

It's an excellent product that made Anna smile when she noticed the rich organic smell.

It was 21 bucks per scoop, which is about half of what The Mulch Company demands for their mulch which is made from pine.

Posted Thu Aug 5 16:52:53 2010 Tags:

Permanent beds in the back gardenOur back garden is a trouble spot.  As I've mentioned before, previous owners had a pasture there and I suspect allowed all of the topsoil to erode away.  What's left is dense clay over a high water table --- a recipe for crop failure.

And then there are the problems that are my own fault.  When I built the back garden's raised beds, I believed it was best to merely scoop up the topsoil from the aisles to create the beds.  But there was so little topsoil present that the beds turned out to be barely higher than the surrounding aisles.  A couple of years later, the beds have collapsed a bit more, which means that the grass and clover in the pathways encroach constantly on the "beds", and grass seeds also drift up into the growing area as a matter of course.  Yet more problems.

Again my fault --- I was new to pathway planning when I laid out the back garden, so for some reason I can no longer fathom, I created a checkerboard of tiny beds.  Mowing takes twice as long since you have to go across the garden horizontally, then again vertically.  Yuck!  Can you tell this is my least favorite gardening spot?

I took advantage of Mark's load of topsoil (aka "compost") to start fixing all of the back garden's problems.  First step --- merge all of the beds on a contour line into a single long bed by dumping topsoil in the dividing aisles.  Suddenly, I wanted two more truckloads of soil so that I could also build up the empty beds (which had been planted in buckwheat and are waiting to be planted in oats next week.)  My goal is to create a replica of my current favorite garden --- the mule garden --- with long raised beds at least six inches high.  Then I could start to consider the high groundwater a boon --- subirrigation!

Our homemade chicken waterer provides constant clean water for your flock.
Posted Fri Aug 6 08:36:34 2010 Tags:

Italian San Rodorta tomatoesThe final element of our tomato campaign is "never waste a tomato."  Mark and I completed our vine-ripened versus indoor-ripened tomato taste test last week, concluding that the former had just a hint of extra flavor.  Still, the kitchen-ripened tomatoes were ten times better than storebought.  So when I had to pull out three blighted tomato plants last week, I first picked every tomato that had at least begun to whiten and am now ripening them under the kitchen counter.

Imperfect tomatoesMeanwhile, fruits with a bit of blossom end rot or a cosmetic crack are fine additions to sauce --- just slice off the troubled spot.  On the other hand, our volunteer tomato plant turned out not to be worth saving even under these drastic conditions.  I suspect the volunteer came from a storebought tomato seed, because fully two thirds of the fruits that I left on the vine to ripen rotted before turning red.  I guess those hard, pink tomatoes in the grocery store don't ripen all the way, no matter what you do.  That vine came out to give more space to its neighbor.

Turn your invention into a part-time job that pays all the bills in just a few hours per week.

This post is part of our Organic Tomato Blight Control lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Aug 6 12:00:58 2010 Tags:
mulch pile

Mitsubishi dump truck 4x4
My last trip to BFR Mulch in Norton gave me a chance to ask the guy about delivery options.

It seems they have a small Mitsubishi 4 wheel drive dump truck that can haul 5 times what we can do in the truck. The delivery fee is 30 dollars from Norton to Coeburn, which is about the half way mark for us and why the guy guessed the charge to be around 60 bucks for our zipcode.

Posted Fri Aug 6 16:40:50 2010 Tags:

Basket of tomatoesI've been putting a lot of thought lately into how we invest the fruits of our labors.  A decade ago, I read a basic investment book that told me to put 10% of my income in a mutual fund for retirement, and I've been following along like a sheep ever since.

But investing in a combination of stocks and bonds means that I believe in a growth economy.  Do I?  I certainly don't believe a growth economy is good, and I'm not so sure that I believe our economy will grow over the next forty years.

On the other hand, I don't really believe in apocalyptic scenarios either, so I don't plan to invest in gold.  (As Mark pointed out, coins worth over a thousand dollars apiece are unlikely to be terribly useful in an apocalyptic scenario anyway.)  I'm guessing social security will be around when I retire, but may only pay out half of what my statements tell me to expect.  Perhaps our best bet is to put our dribs and drabs of retirement money in some combination of ultra-safe investments (like CDs) and into farm infrastructure to make our annual operating costs lower.
I'm curious to hear our readers' take on investment in today's climate.  Do you stick to the rosy view that the economy will rebound, meaning that social security will fulfill most of your needs and you'll round out your retirement income with some sort of mutual fund?  Or do you think society as we know it will collapse and social security will be completely absent, so you'd better stock up on firearms?  I'm most curious to hear from folks who think the future will be somewhere in the middle --- how do you invest for your old age?

Do you have a neighbor or friend who keeps chickens?  Why not tell them about our homemade chicken waterer and support the Walden Effect.
Posted Sat Aug 7 08:43:20 2010 Tags:
automatic chicken waterer profile

Big thanks go out to Travis and Kacy for the nice post they wrote about us.

They're still on the cross country journey and have visited about 90 farming types.

I'm looking forward to reading their book about these travels which now has a working title of "Stewards: Stories and Perspectives From American Farmers".

Posted Sat Aug 7 15:20:28 2010 Tags:
Lucy eating a peach

White peach"Lucy, where did you find a brand new tennis ball?" I asked our frugivorous dog, catching sight of a yellowish sphere in her mouth.  She dropped...the first peach from our kitchen window peach tree.  Then promptly gulped it down, pit and all.

I had smelled the scent of ripe fruit wafting from the tree as I walked past earlier that morning, but I was so sure the peaches weren't ripe.  You see, I had planted a Loring peach in that spot three years ago --- a yellow-fruited variety with a nice red blush on the skin.  And the fruits on my tree were steadfastly pale yellow with white flesh.
Center of a white peach
But Lucy likes her fruit ripe, so I went back to check again.  Sure enough, the peaches were just barely starting to ripen, even though the flesh was pale as can be.  What's the statute of limitations on complaining about being given the wrong tree variety?

The trouble is, I adore yellow peaches, while white peaches are considerably lower on the totem pole --- like the difference between strawberries and blackberries.  Luckily, I have another peach tree out back that's one year younger but already gave me four little peaches with great flavor and bright orange flesh.  By next year, I should be glutted with yellow peaches.  But what to do in the meantime?  Perhaps I need to check out some recipes for peach leather?  Now's your chance to shower us with your favorite peach recipes.

Our homemade chicken waterer is perfect for chicken tractors --- it never spills on uneven terrain.
Posted Sun Aug 8 07:59:32 2010 Tags:

tomato reaches towards skyThe new tomato support structure is helping our plants reach towards the sky.

This one is already over 7 feet tall, which might require a step ladder to harvest the ones up high.

The Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County in California evaluated 11 different ways to support tomatos and summed up the pros and cons of each in an easy to read report from 2001.

They used just over 100 varieties of mostly heirloom tomatos to finally get to the bottom of which system works the best.

Posted Sun Aug 8 16:09:09 2010 Tags:

Driveway through the woodsPerhaps in other parts of the world, it's not considered abnormally dry when you've had a steady one inch of rain per week for most of the summer?  Around here it sure feels dry, though, after a month with abnormal highs in the nineties nearly every day.  The floodplain has dried up, meaning that even though there are puddles of water in the driveway, the ground between is hard rather than mud.  Perfect weather for hauling.

Last winter, when we were trying to ferry in building supplies through endless muck, Titus gently noted that she tries to do all of her hauling during the dry season.  So when we realized the driveway was firm enough to allow Joey's truck to pass through, we dropped everything from the list and instead focused on ferrying supplies into the farm.  That's why Mark went to town nearly every day last week, hauling in compost and mulch.  It wasn't photogenic enough to post about, but he also hauled out a year's supply of household garbage --- a truckload and a half full.
We hope to finish bringing in the year's supply of biomass this week, and also cut up and haul in firewood from deadfall trees along the driveway.  Round it all out with some lumber for the solar dehydrator and picnic table projects, and we should be done hauling for a long, long time.  I just thought you all deserved an explanation so that you didn't think we were on a crazy spending spree.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Mon Aug 9 07:35:28 2010 Tags:
truckload of firewood

This round of firewood cutting reminded me of a saying my uncle Art once told me.

"The man who cuts firewood warms himself twice".

I think I've cheated myself out of one of the warmings by cutting on a day like today, but I think it's still worth the effort nonetheless.

Posted Mon Aug 9 20:41:34 2010 Tags:

Butternut squash"Look at all the butternuts I harvested, honey!" I said proudly.  "And we've got four more left in the garden."

Mark glanced over at my 22 pounds of butternuts and replied --- "Four more baskets?"  Shame-faced, I had to shake my head no.  I only had four more squash in the garden.

The truth is that when I planned our three butternut beds this year, I should have realized that Mark had turned a general preference for these winter squash into an outright craving.  Already, he's talking about buying some butternuts from a friend, and he has the right idea.  Now's the perfect time of year to stock up on any vegetables of which you have an unexpected shortfall (or ones that your husband suddenly decides he adores and wants three times as many of.)

Bed of butternut, ready to be harvestedIf you planted your butternuts a bit late (which would have been smart), they might not be ready to harvest yet.  Wait until your vines are dying back, your fruits are fully tan, and the stems have begun to brown (but be absolutely certain to harvest before the first frost.)  Then carefully cut each butternut off the vine, leaving an inch of stem on the fruit.  Never toss the butternuts around --- even though they look hardy, they actually bruise quite quickly if treated harshly.

Some people wash their butternuts gently in a solution of bleach water after harvesting to kill off any fungi living on the skin, but I've had good luck storing our butternuts as is.  For best flavor, allow the squash to cure at 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit for a couple of weeks, then store in a cool (50 to 60 F), dry place.  We keep our butternuts in a kitchen cabinet and eat them until the middle of the winter...or until we run out.

Our homemade chicken water ensures that your flock doesn't run out of what they need most --- water.
Posted Tue Aug 10 08:13:45 2010 Tags:
Stihl chainsaw 039 or 390

When we first started off clearing away the driveway we were using a very small pruning chainsaw because we didn't know any better and funds were limited.

We finally realized the limitations and decided to splurge for a bigger saw. We found a good deal on a much bigger chainsaw through E-bay, and used it to finish clearing the path.

It's a Stihl 039, or what they call a 390 these days. A fine machine, but after it's all said and done I think we would have been better off with a smaller one. It gets real heavy real fast, especially after you've been cutting for a while.

Posted Tue Aug 10 16:19:38 2010 Tags:

Collapsed combAfter extracting four and a half gallons of honey from our hives, I proceeded to ignore them for over a month.  We had more pressing matters on our plate (like killing all of our broilers), and I figured, what could go wrong now that we've taken out a lot of honey and the hives are all built up to summer levels?  I should have known that I had more beginner mistakes ahead of me.

When I opened up the east hive on Tuesday, everything looked fine in the top super.  But the next level down was a disaster.  Every frame (most of them at least half full of honey) Feeding the bees honey from collapsed combshad collapsed under this summer's extreme heat, turning horizontal so that they blocked the flow of air out of the hive.  Small surprise that the next level down was completely collapsed as well.  Only the lowest brood box (thank goodness!) still had vertical frames of wax.

The honey was mostly uncapped, so I couldn't extract it.  Instead, I yanked out all of the trouble frames and carted them over to an out of the way spot in the forest garden, figuring the bees would clean out the honey and pack it away in the remaining, uncollapsed frames.  Granted, the strongest hive quickly found this bounty and joined in the feast, so I will probably have to equalize honey between the hives at a later date, adding a super of honey from elsewhere onto the east hive to make up for the collapsed frames I removed.

This is the traffic jam that arises when the strongest hive sends out every one of its workers to snag the free honey.What did I learn from this beginner mistake?  First of all, I should have propped the hive lids up with small sticks to accelerate air flow as soon as I saw bees "bearding" (sitting on the side of the box and fanning their wings.)  I think I also should have left the supers at ten frames per box for a week or so after harvesting the honey so that the bees could firm back up the wax damaged by the extraction process before filling it up with so much honey.

Finally, I definitely should have checked on the hive a week or two after extraction.  I've read that collapses domino through the hive if left in place, since the horizontal frames from the first collapse make the hive heat up further.  If I'd caught the collapse in its early stages, chances are I could have prevented the large scale catastrophe.

Don't make a beginner mistake and let your hens die of heat exhaustion when their water spills on a hot summer day.  Our homemade chicken waterer never spills even on uneven terrain.
Posted Wed Aug 11 06:57:16 2010 Tags:
Mitsubishi Fuso 4 wheel drive dump truck
Mitsubishi Fuso 4 wheel drive dump truck close up of front

The BFR Mulch guy called this morning saying he could only deliver us 6 scoops of compost instead of the 9 that was mentioned last week due to the dump mechanism not being able to handle the extra weight.

I was thinking it was still a good deal that would save me from making 3 round trips to Norton. Add the travel time with the time to unload each load and it equals up to somewhere over a day's worth of labor. The delivery charge was going to be 75 dollars.

I was very clear on the phone that I needed them to cross a creek and requested the 4 wheel drive Mitsubishi Fuso dump truck by name.

They made it as far as our ford when they had to stop and give up. It seems like someone decided to add a snow plow attachment that shrinks the clearance down to a paltry 8 or 10 inchs!

I can see how they would want to take advantage of this 4 wheel drive beast in the winter by pushing snow, but why not install it so that you could unbolt it for the summer? It was welded on and the only obstacle to getting the load back to our garden.

I almost had them dump the load out by our parking area, but decided that would be even more work loading back on the truck and then unloading it at the garden.

The driver was a nice guy and apologetic about the handicapped truck.

"I guess most people don't live this far back in the woods anymore these days?" I asked the guy while we puzzled over the problem at the creek.

I felt bad about sending him back with the full load, but even felt worse over the wasted morning with nothing to show for it. This still seems to be a good option for mulch and compost delivery, just don't expect them to go up any sort of hill or over a big bump.

Posted Wed Aug 11 16:18:14 2010 Tags:

Holey shirtHalf of you are going to find this post ludicrously basic, but I suspect the other half of you never learned the facts of life from your mother.  Paper towels seem to be the last bastion of consumer society found in many homesteaders' households, but the truth is that you already have a free alternative --- rags.

How to make rags
The first step in making rags is wearing your clothes into the ground.  After a certain point, there's no purpose in mending a piece of clothing --- the fabric has degraded so much that it will merely rip along your mended seam.  Or maybe your t-shirt now has half a dozen holes that seem to get bigger every day.  Put it in the rag bag.

Cutting up ragsOnce a year or so, I get around to pulling out the rag bag and taking a look.  First, I sort my old clothes into three piles --- 100% cotton, partially synthetic, and fully synthetic or bulky.  The last category doesn't have much use on our homestead, so we tend to relegate it to winter pet bedding, but all of the others will be used.  We turn 100% cotton clothes into fodder for my bees' smoker, and everything else becomes rags.  Underwear and t-shirts make the best smoker fodder and rags, and luckily they're the pieces of clothing that wear out the quickest.

Making rags is simple.  Just cut through any turned-under edges, then riiiiiiiip.  (Rag production is also a great way to improve your mood if you're down in the dumps --- so satisfying.)  It's best to tear off and discard underwear waistbands and t-shirt collars, but otherwise there are no rules.  Just be sure to end up with rags roughly eight inches by eight inches.

Burning rags in a smokerHow to use rags
Now, how do you use rags?  The first line of defense in our household is the wash cloth.  These storebought items (costing perhaps a quarter apiece at the dollar store) will last years as long as you use them for gentle cleaning like doing dishes and wiping down counters.  I only pull out rags when I'm going to be working in more goopy or disgusting situations, like wiping oil off a machine or cleaning up fecal matter.

RagsWhat do you do with a dirty rag?  If it's not too filthy, rinse it out in the sink, then drape it over the side of the laundry basket to dry.  Rags can then be washed with your regular laundry.  On the other hand, we reserve the right to throw rags away if they're too awful --- that's why we use them for the more disgusting tasks that would retire a wash cloth.

We tend to go through rags at just about exactly the same rate we go through clothes.  You're probably discarding your clothing too soon and buying too much of it if you're overrun with rags.

For those of you who were raised using rags, I'm curious to hear what you'd add to my rag tutorial.  Any helpful tips for the uninitiated?  Any uses for those bulky blue jeans and fleece shirts?

Our homemade chicken waterer prevents heat exhaustion during the hottest summer in recorded history.
Posted Thu Aug 12 07:47:38 2010 Tags:

automatic chicken coop door openerYoutube user clintfisher has created what I would call the most sophistitcated automatic chicken coop door opener I've seen so far.

It uses Arduino technology that allows for wireless control and will be powered by a solar cell that charges a small 12 volt battery.

The locking mechanism is impressive and he makes use of an old battery powered drill for the motor action.

I doubt if there's any racoons out there smart enough to get through this level of security. Automatic chicken door

Edited to add:

After years of research, Mark eventually settled on
this automatic chicken door.

You can see a summary of the best chicken door alternatives and why he chose this version here.

If you're planning on automating your coop, don't forget to pick up one of our chicken waterers.  They never spill or fill with poop, and if done right, can only need filling every few days or weeks!

Posted Thu Aug 12 17:27:21 2010 Tags:
Harvest sunflowers when the backs turn yellow and the disc flowers rub off easily

Drooping sunflower heads are ready to harvestLast year, oilseed sunflowers were an experimental crop for us, so of course the deer ate them and we didn't have any seeds to harvest.  Deer aren't so interested in the sunflowers this year, preferring to nibble our experimental beans, so I've been thrilled to watch these low-work vegetables do their thing.  The plants quickly shot up above my head, opened huge yellow flowers, and then dropped the petals as the seeds swelled up and the heads drooped under their own weight.

Some people advocate leaving sunflowers to dry in the field, but I know for a fact that our local wildlife would consider that a "free lunch" sign.  So as soon as the backs of the flower heads began to yellow and the tiny yellow disc flowers in the center of the "flower" easily rubbed off the black seeds, I snipped the tops off the sunflower stalks and hung them to dry under the porch eaves.

Hang sunflower heads to dryThe harvest came not a moment too soon.  As I worked, a brilliant yellow goldfinch flew to one of the headless stalks and chittered at me.  "Hey, no fair!  I was counting on that to feed my family!"  A couple of hours later, he'd gathered his wife and brothers to peck seeds out of the drying heads, so I had to cover the whole mass with row cover fabric.  I hope he isn't bright enough to slip up underneath the fabric, but even so I'm considering rubbing the seeds out of the heads ASAP and putting them in a sealed container.

If I get my act together and buy or make an oil press, I'll let you all know how much oil you get out of two beds of sunflowers.  Or maybe I'll just save them and feed the high protein sunflower seeds to the chickens.

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps our hens happy and healthy.
Posted Fri Aug 13 08:04:18 2010 Tags:
Stihl 039 chainsaw

It would be great if all the downed trees would fall like this one.

Being elevated off the ground makes it so much easier to cut and avoid letting the chain dip into the dirt, not to mention being safer.

I start at the far end and just let each log fall to the ground, and then let Anna load them up in the truck.

Posted Fri Aug 13 21:23:02 2010 Tags:

Garbanzo beans and podsAfter carefully snipping butternuts off the vine and felling towering sunflowers with a single blow, it was time to harvest our experimental beans.  First came the garbanzos --- aren't they lovely?  The only problem is that what you see in this photo is nearly the entire harvest.  I'm not giving up on the variety, though, since a reader commented a few months ago to let me know that the extremely confusing instructions on the seed packet were really trying to tell me to plant the garbanzos at the same time as peas.  I planted them at the frost free date instead, so I'll have to give the crop a more fair shot next year.

Shelling dried beansNext stop "shelly beans", as folks around here like to call beans that you grow for drying.  The harvest in this bed was much better, despite the fact that bean bugs ate the plants down to nubbins...then moved on to my delightful Masai beans.  I'm tempted to blame the arrival of this new garden pest on the shelly beans, but I suspect that it just took the beetles a few years to find us.  Next year, I'll add the Mexican Bean Beetle to my list of bad bugs to squash weekly, and maybe all of our beans will do better.

Cayamento CranberryAlthough the quantity of pods from the shelly bean bed was good, I discovered that I should have picked the drying beans much sooner.  Many people leave beans for drying to harden on the plant, but our climate is just too damp for that sort of harvest.  By the time I picked them, many of the older pods had begun to mold, and over half of the beans were discolored.  Next year, I'll harvest the beans when the pods are still slightly green, then allow them to dry inside, out of the weather.

Urd beans in the podFinally, I came to our Urd Beans (a variety of sprouting bean.)  I thought this bed was a goner after the deer nibbled it nearly down to the ground...then repeated the maneuver a week later.  But the Urd Beans have a saving grace --- bean bugs don't like them.  Despite the name "Bean", Urd Beans are in an entirely different genus than Phaseolus vulgaris (which includes green beans and the green-bean-like shelling beans I planted.)  Instead, Urd Beans (Vigna mungo) are in the same genus as black-eyed peas, a group that seems to be of little interest to our current crop pest.

Urd bean podsI was also pleased to see that Urd Bean pods are hairy, a feature that seems to repel moisture, keeping the seeds inside dry even after the pods turn black.  I harvested half of the pods, leaving the green fruits on the vine to be picked at a later date.  The only problem I foresee with Urd Beans so far is their size --- shelling these little guys by hand would take all day.  (For a sense of scale, that's my thumbnail on the left side of the first picture of urd beans.)  I'm hopeful, though, that after I let the pods dry for a week or two, they'll be brittle enough that I can thresh them and then blow the empty pods off the seeds.

So, to sum up what became far too long of a post --- garbanzos need to be planted in early spring, shelly beans need to be harvested before the pods turn brown, and Urd Beans are my new favorite experimental bean.

Want to try something new?  Our homemade chicken waterer will never spill or fill with poop.
Posted Sat Aug 14 08:05:27 2010 Tags:
Food City Saturday Night

Saturday night in small town America shot about an hour ago.

Posted Sat Aug 14 20:46:07 2010 Tags:

Peach maggotOur peach tree had another surprise in store for me.  I chomped down on one of its luscious fruits...and spit that bite right back out, along with the maggot happily consuming the peach's center.  Yes, nearly every one of our peaches has a little blob of gum on the outside marking the entrance path of these little, white larvae.

The first step in combatting any insect infestation is figuring out what you've got, but I had quite a time identifying my maggot.  My handy Garden Insects of North America narrowed down the Gum on the outside of a peachplaying field to a mere score of "fruit chewers": plum curculio, plum gouger, cherry curculio, speckled green fruit worm, peach twig borer, eyespotted bud moth, oriental fruit moth, navel orangeworm, lesser appleworm, cherry fruit-worm, mineola moth, cherry fruit sawfly, apple maggot, walnut husk fly, cherry fruit fly, western cherry fruit fly, black cherry fruit fly, chokecherry gall midge, European earwig, or green fruit beetles.

Oriental fruit moth larva

An expert at Bug Guide took a look and gave me a tentative ID of coddling moth or oriental fruit moth, the latter of which is more likely as a pest of peaches.  Although most of the mainstream websites tell me to spray chemicals on my tree, an Australian site recommends running chickens in the orchard.  I wonder if putting up a temporary fence around our peach trees and running chickens inside during critical periods in the spring and fall would be sufficient to cut down on our peach damage?

That Australian site (which I am thoroughly impressed by) also suggested some other permaculture style control measures for the oriental fruit moth. My favorite involves taking advantage of the fact that the moth goes through several generations in a year.  Before the fruit are large, the larvae instead grow inside twigs, which are highly visible because they wilt and produce gum.  By cutting off and destroying these infested twigs in the spring, you Basket of peachescan cut back the population, which means there won't be adults present to lay eggs on your precious peaches.

A final method of control involves putting out artificial pheremones around the tree.  These pheremones mimic the scent emitted by the female moth when she's trying to attract a mate, so they disrupt the moths' mating behavior.  At four pheremone ties per tree, replaced twice a year, though, this method could add up.

Despite the problematic centers, our white peaches are growing on me.  I cut them in half and scoop out the bad spots, then gulp down half a dozen a day.  Now that they're at their peak of ripeness, I've discovered I prefer homegrown white peaches to storebought yellow peaches!

Our homemade chicken waterer solves another homesteading problem --- filthy chicken water.

Learn to keep bugs at bay

Posted Sun Aug 15 07:37:14 2010 Tags:

butternut squash on cedar table
I managed to supplement our butternut squash supply by about 35 various sized beauties grown by a friend of mine for the grand total of 20 dollars.

I also talked him out of this nice cedar table for an extra 50 bucks.

Posted Sun Aug 15 18:27:56 2010 Tags:

Ripe peachStep 1: Call up Mom.  There's a knack to cutting up wormy fruit, and chances are your maternal helper will make the work go three times as fast.  Bribe her with less wormy peaches and other garden produce.

Step 2: Prepare the peaches.  Unless you bought your peaches from a commerical orchard, chances are they need some bad spots cut out.  Our peaches are the worst case scenario since our oriental fruit moth infestation means that over half the fruits had rotten, wormy centers.  The quick and easy way to deal with troubled fruit is to cut them in half and scoop out the rotten centers with a spoon.  Slice off the skin last in this case, or first if your peaches are pristine.

Puree peaches for peach leatherStep 3: Puree the raw peaches in a food processor.

Step 4: Add honey to taste.  Honey gives the finished leather pliancy and helps preserve the peach puree as it dries.  We added almost a cup of honey to about a gallon of fruit puree --- use your own judgement here.

Step 5: Pour the puree and honey mixture onto cookie sheets.  The official method of making fruit leather involves spreading your puree on skins of saran wrap, but we don't Shaking a pan of peach pureekeep that kind of disposable in the house.  Cookie sheets work fine as long as you don't mind your finished leather getting bent out of shape for storage.

Step 6: Spread the puree to about 1/8 inch thick.  At first, we tried spreading the peach mush with spoons and butter knives, then Mom had the great idea of just jiggling the pan.  The moist peach mixture quickly settled out across the entire surface.

Drying peach leather in a carStep 7: Dry the fruit leather as quickly as possible.  We haven't built our solar dehydrator yet, so last time I dried our fruit leather by moving it between our east-facing sunny window (in the morning) and our west-facing sunny window (in the afternoon.)  Mom had the great idea of drying the leather inside Joey's truck, which seems to be working even better.  You need hot temperatures around 100 F or higher to dry the leather before it ferments and molds.  Maximum drying time should not exceed two and a half days.

Peach leatherStep 8: Scrape the fruit leather off the trays with a spatula.  Depending on how much moisture is left in your leather, it may peel off, or rumple up as shown in my pictures.  I prefer the slightly wetter leather even though it's less pretty.

Step 9: Store your peach leather.  Fruit leather will last at room temperature for about a month, but I'm planning to use the peaches as a supplement to our winter fruit.  In the freezer, fruit leather should last about a year.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Mon Aug 16 07:37:21 2010 Tags:

backyard mowing

The bad thing about procrastinating on mowing is once the "lawn" gets so high I can't run the
mulch machine with the bag due to it bogging down.

It's much more powerful once you take the bag attachment off, but still has its limits.

Posted Mon Aug 16 17:23:29 2010 Tags:

Early blight on a tomato leafThe good news is that closer inspection of our tomatoes shows they are infected with early blight, not late blight.  Notice the yellowing of the leaves and (not pictured) the absence of problems on the stems and fruits.  Although both are fungal diseases, early blight tends to be less devastating, and I'm having very good luck keeping the fungus in check with my blight control measures.

The bad news is that early blight tends to stick around after it shows up.  Unlike late blight, which needs living tissue to survive, early blight can overwinter in plant debris or even in saved seeds.  Although it pains me to remove biomass from the farm, we'll continue to take our blighted leaves to the dump.

This week, I ripped out another three tomato plants that showed too much damage to save.  But I can't complain, since the tomatoes have been pouring in.  Here's our August 6 harvest:

Basket of tomatoes

Then skip ahead a few days to August 10, and you'll notice I had to upgrade to the bigger basket:

A bigger basket of tomatoes

No photos of the next few harvests, but suffice it to say that I'm now harvesting large masses of tomatoes three times a week.  We've already frozen a gallon of pizza sauce and three quarts each of spaghetti sauce and tomato-based vegetable soup.  When the peach leather comes out of the automotive dehydrator today, I plan to replace the fruit with a batch of sun-dried tomatoes.

Our homemade chicken waterer is a time-saver on the homestead.
Posted Tue Aug 17 07:49:58 2010 Tags:
sk1ppy14's awesome automatic chicken door closer

sk1ppy14 from somewhere in the United Kingdom has done a fine job fabricating this automatic chicken coop door closer/opener from an old gate opener.

These medium sized gate openers will sometimes get weak over years of heavy usage and require replacement. What a great way to extend the usefulness of this farm gadget. Automatic chicken door

Edited to add:

After years of research, Mark eventually settled on
this automatic chicken door.

You can see a summary of the best chicken door alternatives and why he chose this version here.

If you're planning on automating your coop, don't forget to pick up one of our chicken waterers.  They never spill or fill with poop, and if done right, can only need filling every few days or weeks!

Posted Tue Aug 17 17:25:37 2010 Tags:

DIY solar diagram
We still think that plug and play is the way to go for our cheap solar backup, but we've tweaked the specific components a bit.  We wanted to find a powerpack that we could pick up at a physical store since powerpacks bought online have often been stored in warehouses for years and have dubious longevity.  We figure that by picking one up locally, we can easily return it if it turns out to be old.

Back of the Harbor Freight 5-in-1 Power packThe 5-in-1 power pack at Harbor Freight is the best we could find at a physical store --- it's only two thirds as voluminous as the Duracell 600 watt power pack, holding 216 watt-hours of energy, but the price commensurate.  And the reviews are quite good --- one user notes that his powerpack is only starting to lose its gumption after five years of use.

The 45 watt solar panel kit is really too big for our system, but it's irresistible at the current sale price ($170 on Harbor Freight's website --- print out the price page to use as a coupon at local stores.)  Since we've oversized our solar panel, we have to throw in a $26 charge controller, bringing the total cost to just under $300 for the entire backup system.

On a sunny, summer day, our 45 watt solar panel will probably be wasting quite a bit of juice, since it should pull in 135 watt-hours of energy a day even in the dead of winter.  I suspect that there will be a way to capture that excess, perhaps by plugging an inverter directly into the included power center to run electronics while also charging the powerpack.  Or, better yet, we might buy a (roughly) $100 grid tie inverter, which would allow us to plug our solar panel directly into an electric socket in the house and sell power back to the grid --- no muss, no fuss, and easily detachable to plug the solar panel into an inverter when the power goes out.

We'll update you as we experiment, but Mark is currently on his way to pick up our components, so this phase of the project is now set in stone.

Our homemade chicken waterer is an even simpler DIY project to make your homestead more self-sufficient.
Posted Wed Aug 18 07:31:15 2010 Tags:
Harbor Freight store front image

solar cell in box 45 wattHarbor Freight in Johnson City is an awesome store!

The manager was in a good mood and gave us the additional 2 year warranty on each solar power kit along with the portable power packs.

Stay tuned for more details as I unbox and set up this new technology.

Posted Wed Aug 18 16:25:20 2010 Tags:

Doppler radarWednesday morning, the doppler radar looked like this.  We'd had 5 inches of rain already in the past week, the alligator swamp was filling back up, and the main creek was once more creating a waterfall off the edge of the ford.  Clearly, our three week dry season had come to an abrupt end.

At times like this, I feel like I'm always a step or two behind the weather, scurrying to catch up.  I'd just gotten into the swing of drying fruit without a dehydrator and would have liked to continue my success with tomatoes.  I also had another Rainy afternoon outside the kitchen windowweek's worth of hauling on Mark's agenda.  But the weather has mandated that we shift gears, so we will --- on to weeding and mowing, planting the last of the fall crops, and maybe finally finishing the shed.

To be fair, drippy summer afternoons when I'm just barely chilled in a t-shirt and shorts are probably on my top ten list of favorite times.  The rain encloses me in a cocoon of gray noise and my mind becomes so clear I can feel deep thoughts gelling in the corners.

Rainy days give Mark time to work on his inventions, like his homemade chicken waterer that now graces coops in every state in the union.
Posted Thu Aug 19 08:02:59 2010 Tags:

Lucy in a muddy creekI wrote about the resumption of rainy weather yesterday afternoon, after Mark drove Joey's truck out to leave it across the creek and out of harm's way.  It seems like we made the right call.  Rain pounded on the roof all night, bringing our week's total up over 7 inches.  By the time I walked Lucy, the creek had risen from my ankle to my knee.

Hill through the fogI dawdled a bit more than I should have since I knew from the doppler radar that I only had about twenty minutes between cloudbursts.  But how could I resist trying to capture fog between the hills or a box turtle catching a huge leech right along the edge of the public road?  My dawdling was worthwhile --- two trucks of tree trimmers/chippers rolled by and I flagged them down to ask if they would dump some wood chips in our parking area.  They agreed (although they've agreed before, and no wood chips have shown up), so I scurried around to move our vehicles out of the way and give them a place to dump my biomass.

Now an hour had passed and the rain was pouring down.  The muddy creek had risen past the middle of my thigh, and at the rate the rain is still falling, I suspect we may attain flood conditions today.  I love the neverending excitement on our farm!

Want to be excited about being flooded in rather than wading through the water to get to work?  Microbusiness Independence shows you how to escape the rat race.
Posted Thu Aug 19 09:41:07 2010 Tags:
Harbor Freight 10 inch wheel

I've been looking everywhere for a replacement wheel for this small wheelbarrow.

A bit of browsing at the Harbor Freight store yesterday lead me to this pneumatic wheel with heavy duty bracket for just 10 dollars.

Stay tuned for more pictures of the installation process.

Posted Thu Aug 19 16:56:42 2010 Tags:

Pots of tomatoesWhen I was a junior in college, I spent my first summer away from home with no cafeteria.  In preparation, I picked my father's brain for instructions on making my favorite vegetable soup, pinning him down on a specific number of onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and more.  But it was a struggle to turn Daddy's words into a recipe, because that wasn't the information he was trying to impart.  Over a decade later, I've finally figured out what my wise father was saying.  Yes, I am a slow learner.

Putting together the soup baseDaddy was teaching me the trick of cooking in season with the easiest in-season recipe --- harvest catch-all soup.  He was trying to get through my thick noggin the notion that meals should begin in the garden with what's fresh and numerous, rather than with a detailed shopping list at the grocery store.  Clearly, this soup had been his mother's way of using up odds and ends --- bits of browned carrots, wilted greens, anything that wasn't rotten but wasn't prime enough for being served plain.  And, in essence, the soup was simple --- make a stock, then throw in whatever vegetables you have lying around.

Simmering the soup baseThe first step was to make a soup base. Daddy's method involves one onion, some garlic, and a cup and a half of cabbage all sauteed in a bit of oil, then simmered for a couple of hours with two stalks of celery, an 18 ounce can of tomatoes, and enough water to fill up the pot.  My method (at the moment, and ever evolving) starts with three quarters of a pot of halved tomatoes, enough chicken stock to submerge the fruits, two onions, six big cloves of garlic (minced), a big handful of parsley (chopped), and about half a cup of dry beans (pre-soaked.)  This is the part of the soup where you'll want to follow a vague recipe, but you'll notice that parsley is a great substitute for the much harder to grow celery, and that if you start with stock you don't need to bother with the sauteeing step.  This is also where you can tweak the flavor to suit your particular tastes.

Ladle full of soupAfter simmering the soup base for two or more hours until it has halved in volume, you can pretty much throw in whatever you want --- preferably whatever's in season that you're sick and tired of freezing.  Vegetables will cook in a bubbling pot of soup stock at about the same rate as they cook in a pot of boiling water, so add the veggies a minute before you eat (for sweet corn), ten minutes before you eat (for beans, okra, summer squash, etc.), or forty-five minutes before you eat (for potatoes.)  You can make the soup into a stew like Daddy's, chock full of so many vegetables that it should be eaten on a plate, or you can keep your soup more Cambell's-like and just add in perhaps a quart of vegetables in the final step.

Daddy concluded his lesson with these words of wisdom: "Use a big pot.  Your soup will expand to fill the space provide."  Nowadays, I make two pots of soup at once during harvest time, the better to concentrate summer goodness for winter delight.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Fri Aug 20 08:09:27 2010 Tags:
wheelbarrow closeup repair

wheel barrow close up medium sized repair
The old wheel shaft rust was holding hard and required cutting.

The Harbor Freight tire was a tight squeeze with the spacer and washers.

I used a slightly smaller bolt to avoid making the holes on the wheel holder bigger.

Posted Fri Aug 20 19:21:58 2010 Tags:

Shelling urd beansLast week, I wrote that I was concerned shelling tiny Urd Beans might be difficult.  I needn't have worried.  A few days later, when hot sunlight was streaming in the front window and across my pan of drying beans, I was startled by a loud pop.  "Huckleberry!" I exclaimed, sure that our spoiled cat had gotten into something he shouldn't have, but Huckleberry was asleep on the couch and the popping continued.

I eventually figured out what every Urd Bean grower out there already knows --- warm, dry weather will shell your Urd Beans for you.  When the pods reach a certain level of dryness, the two halves curl apart and the seeds explode out in every direction.  Picking Urd beansanother batch of pods this week, I had to carefully enclose entire fruits in my hand since even the gentle pressure of my fingers was enough to pop some pods open, just like pressing on a touch-me-not pod.

Green or damp pods don't pop on their own, but if you catch them during a dry day, you can gently roll a handful between your palms and remove the hulls from several pods at once.  Or just wait until the sun comes out and your kitchen turns into a rice krispies commercial --- snap, crackle, pop.

Our homemade chicken waterer is the perfect fit for a suburban chicken tractor --- clean and easy to use.
Posted Sat Aug 21 09:42:21 2010 Tags:

wheelbarrow repair medium shotThe only thing the new wheel needs is a locking nut, which will have to wait for the next town trip.

I know the body is rusted and has holes, but this repair gives me a warm fuzzy feeling that a new wheelbarrow could never deliver.

Posted Sat Aug 21 17:22:31 2010 Tags:

Plug and play grid tie inverterI got so excited when I read that you can buy a plug-and-play grid tie inverter and pump the electricity from your solar panel directly into the grid for less than a hundred bucks that I snatched up the first one I saw on ebay.  The theory is sound and would make small-scale solar fit into the average person's price range...if it wasn't illegal and potentially hazardous.

The dream is that you can simply plug a solar panel directly into one of these small inverters, and plug the other end of the inverter into an electric socket in your house.  On the level I'm interested in, there's no way you'd actually be feeding energy back into the grid since continuous loads in your house (like the computer, fridge, etc.) will suck up all the juice you've created.  But you would lower your electric bill, and would also remove the most disposable part of a solar power system --- the batteries.  Without the repeated purchase of batteries, I figured even the solar panels you can buy at Harbor Freight for less than $200 would pay for themselves before they began to seriously lose efficiency.

The problem with the dream is that utilities require you to jump through such a series of hoops before tying into the grid that you might as well not even think about it unless you're willing to sink a few thousand dollars into the project.  I contacted our local electric company (Appalachian Electric Power) and found out that in order to plug in a grid tie inverter, we'd need to:

1.) sign an interconnection agreement, 2.) install a certified (UL 1741) inverter(s), and 3.) install a disconnect switch (alternating current, accessible, lockable, with visible open position) near the meter.

The employee I emailed with (who went to great lengths to make his emails understandable by the layman) explained that the existing disconnect below the meter is not sufficient to fulfill step 3.  In addition, more extensive reading on the internet shows that a certified inverter costs around $2,000, putting grid tie-in completely out of our league.

Working on the electric lineThe electric company has a few valid reason to squash cheap plug-and-play inverters.  The biggest hazard from these inverters comes during power outages, when the electric company shuts down the juice on a line so that it can be repaired.  Without the proper precautions, your solar panels would continue feeding electricity into what is supposed to be a dead line, and you could fry the linemen who come to fix the problem.  Granted, even the cheap power jack grid tie inverter we found on ebay has anti-islanding protection, so presumably this problem wouldn't occur.

I read an excellent point on a forum that our grid tie inverter is inherently unsafe since it has live electricity on the male end of the plug rather than protected within a female plug.  This is where my (very mild) libertarian leanings come out --- we live in a household of two adults who can remember to unplug the solar panel before yanking the inverter out of the wall.  We're not going to fry ourselves.

Many people buy these plug-and-play grid tie inverters and surreptitiously put them to use in their own homes.  Chances are, no one at the electric company would ever find out (although if you go the illegal route and have a fire in your home, your fire insurance will probably refuse to pay for the damages.)  Unfortunately, breaking the law would keep me up at night, so we've wasted $90 on a useless grid tie inverter and will have to figure out a better way to harness the extra energy that doesn't go into charging our power packs.

Looking for a cheap homestead gadget?  Try our homemade chicken waterer that will never spill or fill with poop.
Posted Sun Aug 22 08:20:50 2010 Tags:
cinder block mini ford instructional image

You can barely make out where the left rut here has several cinder blocks laid next to each other in an attempt to harden up an area that sometimes has running water passing through.

It's been over 4 years now and the cinder block mini ford has proven itself to be a long term workable replacement to big gravel, which has a tendency to spread out and sink even deeper under these conditions.

The only problem was a 20 degree tilt over time as heavy trucks and golf carts weighed heavily on its outer edge. I think the angle might even help some of the tires grip easier in wet conditions, but it's never been a problem.

Posted Sun Aug 22 17:45:40 2010 Tags:

Young oat plantsYes, the pictures don't lie --- I've been planting grass in our garden.  Perhaps an eighth of our garden beds are currently fallow, partly because I didn't water carefully enough and had a hard time getting my fall crops to germinate.  As August winds to a close, it's too late to replant the turnips, cabbage, beets, and carrots that had spotty (or no) germination.  Instead, I can double up on greens and lettuce, plan ahead for the fall garlic, and then fill all of the remaining beds with cover crops to improve the soil.

As you'll recall, buckwheat has been relegated to my list of cover crops that can't handle heavy clay and high groundwater --- the precise type of trouble spot I want to remedy with cover crop planting.  The next cover crop on my experimental list is oats, and already this grain seems to be growing much more hardily than buckwheat.  Hopefully, the oats will be winter-killed in a couple of months and will leave the beds happily mulched with straw of their own making.

I had some hull-less oat seeds leftover, but not nearly enough to sow all of the beds I was hoping to turn fallow for the rest of the summer.  After looking at shipping rates on the internet, I realized that cover crop seeds are best bought locally.  Our feed store had a 50 pound bag for about twelve bucks, allowing me to plant as heavily as I pleased with plenty of the moderately high protein grain left to feed to the chickens.

Our chickens love whole grains, but they love clean water even more.  Mark invented a homemade chicken waterer that keeps our water poop-free at all times.
Posted Mon Aug 23 07:57:42 2010 Tags:

Zimmy's off grid home in the snowSince our own solar experiments are so low-key at the moment, I thought you might enjoy hearing from one of our regular readers who has built an extensive grid tied solar and wind alternative power system.  Zimmy and his wife live in a 1974 mobile home (14 X 60 feet):

...but [it] is no longer mobile.  We had a basement built underneath and a gable roof put over the metal roof.  Like most older mobile homes, the insulation was 3 1/2" in the walls, 6" in the floor, and 6" of fiberglass in the roof.  So that would be R11 in the walls and R19 in the roof and floor.

Solar panel on Zimmy's homeI was intrigued to hear more about Zimmy's project since we live in a similar trailer (although ours is a third smaller and a decade older.)  We thoroughly approve of starting out with a living situation that is as cheap as possible, then improving the efficiency of your space over time.

Mobile homes are usually barely insulated, but Zimmy proved that you can turn even an old model into an efficient and beautiful living space.  This week's lunchtime series follow's Zimmy's journey to insulate his home and then provide a good proportion of his own power.

Escape the rat race with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Energy Efficient Mobile Home lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Aug 23 12:00:30 2010 Tags:
mr lee's awesome gps tracker

mr Lee's GPS map up close
Have you ever wondered how far out your pet roams during the day and at night?

Thanks to a cat named Mr Lee it is now possible to track your animal on a plug and play level.

The low end gizmo records up to 30 hours of prowling and needs to be downloaded via USB cable. 44 dollars.

The high end version transmits live data through GMS cel phone technology.
125 dollars.

Both interface with Google maps and claim to be easy to use.

I could see this being handy for goats and sheep or just about any level of livestock bigger than a chicken.

It would be interesting to see where Lucy spends her time, but I predict Huckleberry's map would only consist of him going from the couch to the chair to his basket with multiple trips to his food dish.

Posted Mon Aug 23 18:47:44 2010 Tags:

Egyptian onions sprouting from dormant bottom bulbsSeveral people have asked me, "Do I have to pull up my Egyptian onions and replant them every year?"  I'm not surprised that they ask --- even though Egyptian onions are perennials, the tops die back for about a month at the peak of summer and the plants look a bit dead.  But as August draws to a close, new green shoots poke up from the bulbs, proving that the onions are still very much alive.

In the past, I've yanked out the bottom bulbs during the dormant month and replanted top bulbs in new beds.  But the bottom bulbs don't rot in the compost pile, so I ended up with a lot of onions.  This year, I'm letting the Egyptian onion beds alone to see if I can treat them like true perennials.  The only problem I foresee is overcrowding --- each bottom bulb has now split into several new bulbs.  Since I yank whole plants now and then to make Butternut Squash and Egyptian Onion Soup, hopefully this overcrowding won't be an issue.

As a final note, we sold all but about a hundred of our onions, and I saved the last ones for a quick giveaway.  Just leave a comment on this post before August 29 and I'll choose one lucky winner at random to receive the last of our onion top bulbs.

Our homemade chicken waterer makes backyard chickens as easy as no-work Egyptian onions.
Posted Tue Aug 24 07:35:40 2010 Tags:

A truckload of foamboard insulationAdding a roof and basement to his mobile home made it much easier for Zimmy to insulate his house.  We've tried to wrap our minds around insulating our trailer better, but since Mark's head already almost brushes the ceiling, we would clearly have to follow a similar route and we're not quite ready to embark on such a huge project.  Still, it's great to see how a trailer can be insulated relatively cheaply once you have a roof and basement in place.

Zimmy didn't give me figures on how much it cost to build his new roof and basement, but he did say that the subsequent insulation job cost about $500.  He managed to insulate so cheaply because he spent some time scrounging for materials:
Adding foamboard insulation to the outside of a mobile home

The local bargain paper had a listing of seconds 1"x4'x8' sheets of foil-faced insulation board [$3 apiece] and rolls of fiberglass insulation [$20 apiece] for sale so I just bought a whole truck load of the foam board and another load of fiberglass insulation. I also bought a load of door cut outs that are vinyl coated foam (haven't figured out a use for them yet).

With his supplies compiled, Zimmy and his wife ripped off the inside paneling and installed 6 mil plastic as a vapor barrier, putting drywall over that.  They tacked an additional two inches of insulated foam board to the outside of the trailer and coated it with 1/2" of plywood.  The resulting combination of insulation in the walls now reached R26.
Adding insulation above the ceiling
"The roof already had R19 of fiberglass insulation in it and the company I worked for sold me at cost bags of rock wool insulation," Zimmy wrote.  It was simple to add more insulation under the roof, bringing the insulative value up to at least R60.

Zimmy made sure that I knew he still planned to put vinyl siding over the outside walls of the mobile home.  I could tell that the insulating project had been a lot of work, but I'll bet he and his wife consider that $500 a very wise investment.

Fund your own journey back to the land with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Energy Efficient Mobile Home lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:


Edited to add:

Learn more about insulating and improving the efficiency of a mobile home in
Trailersteading.  Now available for $1.99 on Amazon.

Posted Tue Aug 24 12:00:52 2010 Tags:
golf cart with Gary driving off trailer

golf cart driving away

This is Golf Cart Gary. He's the guy to go to if you need help getting your golf cart fixed.

Gary came and picked her up, took her back to his lab, fixed a burned out wire, and delivered her back to a waiting Lucy for only 60 dollars.

I think I may need to consider modifying the golf cart under carriage to be more water proof to avoid another break down like this.

Posted Tue Aug 24 17:32:02 2010 Tags:

Septoria leaf spot on tomato leaves
Late blight on tomato leavesAlthough I thoroughly enjoyed last week's deluge, the tomatoes didn't.  I had been keeping a pretty good handle on the early blight, but several days of damp spread other fungi and I can tell our tomatoes are now on the decline.

The pictures at the top of the post show our new septoria leaf spot infection.  At a quick glance, these spots look a lot like early blight, but notice that the septoria spots are smaller, more numerous, have a pale center, and aren't ringed by a halo of yellow.  (There is some yellowing on the leaf, but it doesn't encircle the spots.)

Meanwhile, late blight has struck as well.  About a third of the leaves on a couple of plants have curled up and turned brown, and I'm beginning to see rotten tomatoes on the vine.

Perhaps if the septoria and late blight had hit the tomato patch during dry weather, I would have been able to use extreme pruning to keep them at bay.  But somewhere in the course of last week's dozen inches of rain, the septoria managed to colonize every tomato plant in our garden, infecting even the upper leaves.  My only option is to harvest as fast as possible and accept that our tomatoes won't be much longer in this world.

Despite all of this death and destruction, I can't complain.  We're close to our goal of frozen tomato products --- enough to make pizza, spaghetti, and vegetable soup twice a month apiece for an entire year.  I was hoping to experiment with ketchup and add some dried tomatoes to the larder, but at this point I'm happy to take what I can get.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Wed Aug 25 07:07:33 2010 Tags:

Foamboard window insulationAlthough I usually think that buying insulation for the ceiling is the quickest and cheapest way to improve heating efficiency, one article I read suggested that I was on the wrong track.  They noted that infiltration and air leakage are the most problematic causes of heat loss in the winter, making up around 35% of all heat lost from the average home.  Windows and doors followed behind at 18 to 20%, then floors at 15 to 18%, walls at 12 to 14%, and finally ceilings at 10%.  Clearly, fixing any holes or cracks should be your first priority, closely followed by dealing with windows and doors.

Quilted window insulationWe installed double-glazed windows in our trailer, but even the air gap between those panes of glass is a drop in the bucket.  Double-glazed windows tend to have an R-value around 2 --- compared to a preferred R-value of at least 13 in walls.  Is there a way to make windows more efficient without living in a cave?

Zimmy made some quick and easy window coverings to insulate his windows when they aren't in use.  He used foam board on basement windows and some upstairs windows (top photo), then bought quilted window blinds for windows in his main living space (second photo.)  The quilted blinds run on a track and Roman shade window insulationseal all around the window.  I estimate that Zimmy gets an additional R-6 from his foam board (although the gaps at the edge of the foam board may drop this down some) and perhaps as high as R-7 for his quilted blinds.

Maine Home Energy has a very well put together page about different window insulation options, including price per square foot and R-value of each.  They recommend quilted blinds like Zimmy's (which they call "insulated Roman shades") on south-facing windows since they are easy to open for passive solar gain on sunny days, then seal shut for the night or on cloudy days.  Insulating windows has always been on our priority list, but after reading the statistics on heat lost through windows, then seeing simple how-to instructions for making our own insulating blinds, I think this project will have to move closer to the top.

Quit your job and start to live with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Energy Efficient Mobile Home lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:


Edited to add:

Learn more about insulating and improving the efficiency of a mobile home in
Trailersteading.  Now available for $1.99 on Amazon.

Posted Wed Aug 25 12:00:43 2010 Tags:
sky roof mark fix

The height of the summer busy season is starting to calm down enough for us to dedicate some time to getting the 2009 winter building project wrapped up.

With any luck we should have the sky light boxed in and sealed up by the end of the week.

Posted Wed Aug 25 14:15:26 2010 Tags:

2010 extended forecast map"Did you know that we're forecast to have a warmer than average fall this year?" I called to Mark as he set out to work on the shed's roof.  Mark came in and looked over my shoulder at this prediction by Weather Services International that forecasts abnormally warm temperatures through November everywhere in the U.S. except on the Pacific coast.

"What would you do differently if you knew the growing season was going to extend for an extra month?" Mark probed.  Well, that was easy --- I would start a lot more of the
fall crops that didn't come up in the dog days' heat, tricking them into germinating indoors in flats then transplanting them to the garden.

Seed starting flatOur traditional first frost date is October 10 --- 46 days away --- and I need about 55 to 70 growing days to make it worthwhile to replant all of the roots and cabbages that failed me in the garden.  Even that is an optimistic estimate, since you should usually add two weeks to the "days to harvest" on your seed packet when planning fall crops to take into account shorter days as the year fades.  I figured there was no way fall crops would have time to mature if I planted them this late, so I assumed we'd just make do without them.

But what if the killing frost really did hold off for an extra few weeks?  Isn't it worth wasting a dollar's worth of seed on a gamble if you could instead win a bushel of carrots, beets, cabbage, broccoli, and turnips?  I wonder what it says about me that I would never buy a lottery ticket but have no problem gambling on the garden?

Our homemade chicken waterer is perfect for the backyard chicken keeper.
Posted Thu Aug 26 07:33:59 2010 Tags:

Energy star kitchenI can just hear Roland now --- "All of this talk about insulating the home is great, but you shouldn't be using electricity for heat anyway.  What did Zimmy do to lower his non-heat electricity use before going off the grid?"  Well Roland-in-my-head, I'm glad you asked that, because Zimmy went all out.

Zimmy installed aluminum bars on his baseboard heaters as a thermal heat sink and bought a Geyser heat pump water heater.  In the kitchen, he put in a Sunfrost refrigerator, Solartubean induction cook top, and a vent to channel excess heat to the water heater (or outside.)  He switched over to Energy Star appliances, buying a new freezer among other things.  Finally, he installed a dual flush conversion on the toilet to help save water.

I wasn't surprised to see fluorescent and LED lighting on Zimmy's list, but I did get hung up for a moment on what a solar tube is.  These special skylights use a combination of a domed "daylight capturing surface" on the outside of the house and a lens on the inside of the house to maximize the amount of sunlight you receive through a small skylight.  Solar tubes are sure to warm the inventive cockles of Mark's heart, but at a few hundred dollars apiece, we won't be installing them anytime soon.

Turn your invention into a salary with our microbusiness ebook.

This post is part of our Energy Efficient Mobile Home lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Aug 26 12:00:41 2010 Tags:
Spike helping me with smoothing out the compost

This is Spike, it was nice of him to help me smooth out our 4th load of chicken manure compost.

It took the previous 3 loads for me to wise up to the idea of covering the entire truck bed with a large tarp, which most likely helped to save several 5 gallon buckets worth from blowing away during the trip back.

Posted Thu Aug 26 19:43:50 2010 Tags:
View of one field at Abingdon Organics

Anthony FlaccaventoWednesday, Mark and I attended a riveting presentation about biochar at Abingdon Organics, the home and farm of Anthony and Laurel Flaccavento.  The first time I toured Anthony's farm, I was blown away by his experiments, and by the colors and sheer beauty of his crops.  I figured there was no way I could ever achieve such perfection.

Even though he's still head and shoulders above us, I actually felt a little better about my own garden after this visit.  Anthony's tomatoes were keeling over even faster than ours (although he had been eating them since May) and he told us that this was the worst year he'd ever seen for Mexican bean beetles.  I guess misery loves company....

On the other hand, Anthony never throws in the towel, even when faced with total bean defoliation.  He discovered that you can buy a Mexican bean beetle larva parasitized by a Pediobius waspparasitic wasp (Pediobius foveolatus) that will lay its eggs inside the bean beetle larvae and wipe out your least for a season.  The brown larva shown here is a parasitized bean beetle that won't do any more eating on Anthony's beans.  (In the background, you can see a yellowish, unparasitized larva of the same age.)

Unfortunately, Pediobius wasps are tropical imports and won't overwinter in our climate, so you have to keep buying them each year, making the proposition less sustainable than I Loyal blog readerswould like.  Still, if you're dying to grow beans and the Mexican bean beetle is your archnemesis, you should give Tom Dorsey a call at 609-530-4192.  He doesn't appear to have a website, but is Anthony's wasp source.

Stay tuned for more tidbits from our exciting day in the big city (and, hopefully, a lunchtime series on biochar!)  Meanwhile, I have to end with another highlight of our trip --- meeting two loyal blog readers who came over to compliment us on the Walden Effect.  Thanks for your kind words, Rocky (and sister, whose name I didn't quite catch.)

Our homemade chicken waterer turns a dirty chore into a breeze.
Posted Fri Aug 27 07:19:14 2010 Tags:

Wind turbineZimmy and his wife rounded out their energy efficient home by producing some of their own power.  They live in northern Ohio where it makes sense to supplement solar power by capturing the wind blowing down off the Great Lakes. 

The couple has been building their homestead infrastructure for about as long as I've been alive, so it's no surprise they've been able to snap up good deals.  "Almost everything we buy, build, install, is seconds. We live in the world of surplus," Zimmy emailed when I asked him the cost of his alternative energy system.  He went on to say that he has two different sets of solar panels as well as the wind turbine.

Electric boxThe solar panels on the ground put out about 3kw.  They came from a demonstration solar power plant in the south California desert.  After being cooked in the sun with concentrating mirrors they were dumped onto the surplus market.  I installed them in 1994. I don't remember the cost, but it was cheap at the time.

The panels on the roof were installed last year by Mary and I.  They are a 1.6kw array, and they came from as seconds.

The [17.5 kw] wind turbine....well that's another story.  It was installed in 1984.  The turbine was bought as a damaged unit that was damaged in a wind storm.  The tower was bought from a scrap yard and they bought it from the local airport.  I also found other sections of  the same type tower from another person.  The tower is 150' tall and I have 20' left over to be used for my water tower when I get time.  The turbine has been hit by lighting several times, mechanical failures, electrical failures, modified and upgraded several times.  I have lost track of the cost, but I have a spare alternator, gearhead, governor, blades, and spare inverter boards.  The turbine had some damage over the winter that cost $3,500 for repairs but insurance paid for it. 

Battery bank for an alternative energy systemWhenever I consider alternative power --- beyond our simple solar backup --- I get caught up in the disposable nature of batteries and whether the unit will really pay for itself.  Unfortunately, Zimmy wasn't really able to answer my questions about the economics of his grid-tied system.  He noted: "I don't keep track of power produced and power used.  We use every bit of power we produce, and have some amount of electric bill to pay.  The utility co. is happy and so are we."

Whether or not Zimmy's system is cost-effective, I can tell he's had a wonderful time tinkering.  Keeping our eyes open for salvage and seconds is a good lesson for everyone to learn.

Achieve true freedom with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Energy Efficient Mobile Home lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Aug 27 12:00:32 2010 Tags:

home made diy sky light from window
This skylight will be right above my bed so that I can look out at any stars in the night sky while I'm drifting off to sleep.

After I've got it all sealed up I'll make some sort of shutter that can be closed during the day.

Posted Fri Aug 27 18:33:48 2010 Tags:
Homemade high tunnel

Closeup of a homemade hoop houseOne of the first aspects to catch your eye at Abingdon Organics is half a dozen high tunnels.  Anthony Flaccavento uses these 150 foot long hoop houses to give his plants a head start in the spring --- his secret to having May tomatoes without heating a greenhouse.

The first high tunnels at Abingdon Organics were purchased for thousands of dollars apiece, but the newest hoop houses are DIY versions.  Imagine 4,500 square feet of protected growing area for just $900.

Anthony and his farm manager built the DIY high tunnels from locust posts, a steel purline, PVC pipes, brackets, and a huge sheet of plastic.  Clearly, the hoop houses are still being perfected, and Anthony noted that he lost two during heavy storms this summer.  Still, at a cost of only about 20 cents per square foot, his high tunnel design is definitely worth continued experimentation.

Mark ponders a smaller hoop houseMark's ears perked right up when Anthony started discussing homemade hoop houses, but I had to point out the negatives.  Like any greenhouse or other protected area, Anthony's high tunnels become breeding grounds for molds and spider mites.  Mark's rebuttal is that we could easily build a small, movable unit that was just used to give the tomatoes a couple of months' head start.  Clearly, cheap, DIY high tunnels are making their way onto the drawing board.

Read more about sunrooms in this 99 cent ebook!

Looking for an easy DIY project to make homesteading life simpler?  Our homemade chicken waterer kits can be completed in less than an hour.

Posted Sat Aug 28 07:50:42 2010 Tags:
Sailing on the Holston lake

We had a great afternoon learning some of the basics of sailing from Anna's mom. Thanks Adrianne.

Posted Sat Aug 28 19:19:00 2010 Tags:

Abingdon OrganicsRoland sent me a link to an intriguing article in the New York Times called "Math Lessons for Locavores."  The author argues that locavores need to take a harder look at the facts and realize that the distance food travels before it reaches their plates accounts for only 14% of the total energy costs of their eating habits.  While I like Stephen Budiansky's focus on numbers, the author's conclusion doesn't make as much sense to me.  He ends his article by saying, in essence, that our current agricultural system is just peachy.  I couldn't agree less.

Compost pilesHere's a quick example to help you see one small reason why I think that even mainstream organic farming is fatally flawed.  While touring Abingdon Organics, I was shocked to hear that Anthony tosses 200 pounds of culled tomatoes and peppers in his compost pile every week.  Mark and I once attended a few meetings as potential growers for Anthony's organic gardening marketing association, and I can personally attest that those culls aren't nearly as bad as the tomato I chewed Mark out for throwing to the chickens a few weeks ago.  Chances are, the culled vegetables had a slightly odd shape, were too big or too small, or had a minute blemish.  A hundred years ago, those culls would have been known as "food", or, at the worst, would have fed pigs or chickens that would quickly become human food.

Farm size over timeIn my opinion, the problem with mainstream agriculture is not the miles food travels to get to our plates; the problem is sheer size.  Over the last hundred years, farmers have been forced to grow food on larger and larger acreages or go out of business, with the result that they simply cannot keep the farm ecosystem balanced.  Pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations is yet another example.  Just as today's culls used to turn into yesteryear's soups, today's problem manure used to be yesteryear's black gold.

Nellie and I ponder tomatoesAlthough the average eater can't shut down factory farms or change the policies that make the typical American farm a 400 acre monoculture, we can take simple actions that will start to change the system.  Forget the greenwashing labels on the food from the grocery store and start thinking about your own growing, cooking, and refrigerating habits.  In "Math Lessons for Locavores", Stephen Budiansky wrote that 32% of food energy costs come from refrigerating and cooking that food at home.  If you grow your own vegetables, you won't need to run one of those huge refrigerators that grace the modern home --- you just take the food out of the garden, cook gently, and throw it on your plate, putting the leftovers in a smaller, energy-efficient model.  A rocket stove is on our winter project list to further lower our energy footprint.

Pondering cucumbersTruthfully, though, I think that even those steps are a bit cosmetic.  The real way to make your eating habits an asset to the planet rather than an oozing sore is to grow your own food on a small enough scale that you can put all of the "waste" back into the farm to feed the soil.  Although you don't hear it bandied about much, I see no reason why adding compost to your soil and growing cover crops wouldn't count as carbon sequestration --- after all, humus can take up to a thousand years to decompose.  Add in some livestock to make the ecosystem more complete, and you've got a simple permaculture farm that feeds butterflies and birds as well as humans.

An urban vegetable gardenIf growing your own food is so great, why don't we see more people jumping on the bandwagon?  Well, there's very little profit in it, for one thing, so marketers feel no need to spread the word.  Growing your own food also takes time and effort, and we're all inherently lazy people who would far rather think we were changing the world by paying double for a zucchini marked "organic" than putting down a kill mulch in the backyard and getting to work.  To top our reasons off, everyone knows that the average American is far too busy to commit 15 hours a week to growing crops, even though we easily spend that much time in front of a TV.  And, heck, what can one person's actions do?  How quickly we forget that during World War II, little backyard victory gardens produced 40% of Americans' food.

I'll step down off my soapbox now.  Thanks for reading a post that got way too long!  Feel free to tear my reasoning apart in the comments.

Our homemade chicken waterer makes the permaculture system easy and fun.
Posted Sun Aug 29 09:10:44 2010 Tags:

food chain ecosystem of pondIn my opinion the biggest benefit you can gain from growing your own food is the ultra freshness, which removes all the middle men involved in conventional food production.

I think it may be one of the most efficient ways to reconnect more with the rhythm of nature.

For me the change was gradual and I didn't notice the full impact of the reward until about the 2 year point of my  WaldenEffect journey.

Posted Sun Aug 29 16:52:36 2010 Tags:

Putting up the sail in a small sailboatCongratulations, Jessica and Bladerunner --- you are both giveaway winners!  Jessica won our most recent Egyptian onion giveaway, while Bladerunner won our previous giveawayDrop me an email with your mailing address and I'll put your goodies in the mail ASAP.

I get the feeling Bladerunner doesn't check our blog every day --- tsk, tsk --- and these onions need to get in the ground.  So, if I don't hear from Bladerunner by Thursday morning, I'll send all of the top bulbs to Jessica.  But don't despair --- the rest of your goodies will be waiting for you when you check in.

If anyone can think of a better way for me to get in touch with giveaway winners rather than hoping they'll read my announcement entry, I'd be glad to hear it.  I don't want them to have to leave their email addresses on the blog, and I also don't want to have to keep track of a slew of emails in my own inbox, so I'm a bit flummoxed about other solutions.  Perhaps you've seen a better method elsewhere in the blogosphere?

Quit your job and start to live with Microbusiness Independence.
Posted Mon Aug 30 07:30:35 2010 Tags:

Although we clearly got a lot out of visiting Abingdon Organics, our real purpose was to listen to several biochar experts talk about charcoal's potential as a soil amendment.  The seminar turned out to be the most exciting presentation I'd attended in several years, so I was glad that Mark filmed the whole thing.  Once we got home, I edited the video down into bite-size segments for your lunchtime enjoyment this week.

Today's video is an introduction to biochar.  What is it?  Does it occur in nature?  Is biochar the same as terra preta?  Watch the video and find out.

Our homemade chicken waterer saves work in coops and tractors.

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

Posted Mon Aug 30 13:43:26 2010 Tags:
Pro Tech 10 inch table saw

Pro Tech saw blade close up
This 10 inch Pro-Tech bench saw has made some of the really hard cuts for our latest building project a breeze.

I would say it's a must have if you want to get clean and crisp cuts without wearing out your arms using a hand saw.

You can use a reciprocating saw to do most of these applications with a lot less accuracy and neatness. Once you get a taste of the table saw you'll feel like you can't live without one if you want to make the occasional building project painless and fun.

Posted Mon Aug 30 18:21:09 2010 Tags:

Swiss chard leaves eaten by an insectI've been known to tell people that swiss chard is the easiest vegetable to grow since nothing seems to eat it.  I won't be saying that anymore. 

You see, an absolutely adorable, striped insect showed up around the swiss chard this summer, and I left the critter alone because it was so cute.  Only weeks later did I catch the chomper in action and figure out why it was so plump.

The disillusionment made me so mad at my buddies that I smashed every single one, so I don't have a photo to show you (nor can I figure out what the bad bug Katydid eggswas.)

Even though it set me way behind my frozen greens allotment for the summer, my swiss chard insect taught me a good lesson --- identify, identify, identify!  Now, whenever a new insect shows up in my life, I pull out the books and figure out what it is right away.

During my weekly bug picking and smashing expedition Monday, I came across these fascinating grey scales shingling a dead asparagus twig.  Ten minutes later, I knew that they were mostly harmless --- just katydid eggs to serenade me to sleep next year.  Thank goodness!

Fund your journey back to the land with Microbusiness Independence.

Learn to keep bugs at bay

Posted Tue Aug 31 07:09:43 2010 Tags:

Part 2 of our biochar video series covers the benefits of biochar.  One backyard enthusiast calls the charcoal "condos for microbes," and biochar also has a host of other beneficial properties in the soil.  Julie Major from the International Biochar Initiative and Rory Maguire from Virginia Tech point out biochar's most impressive features in this short video.

Take a weekend vacation without worrying about your flock once you install our homemade chicken waterer.

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

Posted Tue Aug 31 12:00:24 2010 Tags:
diy home made table saw splitter

Roland made a good safety point on my post yesterday that sent me back 25 years to Mr Beaver's woodshop class in High School. Yes...that was his real name.

The Pro-Tech 10" bench saw was a hand-me-down and already had the splitter removed. I think I've got it in the barn somewhere.

I decided to take Roland's advice and look into what it might take to replace the splitter, which is a piece of metal that prevents the cut wood from drifting back to the blade.

The above picture is from The, a great website that has encountered this problem due to the original splitter/guard being too flimsy. They came up with a strudy do it yourself version that looks easy to replicate. The guard only functions to prevent scraps from being dropped onto the blade, but the splitter seems like it should work better than the original.

Posted Tue Aug 31 16:16:17 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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