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

archives for 09/2010

Sep 2010

Automotive dehydratorI thought the drying season had left us behind, but this week the sun came back out and let me test a few tomatoes in our automotive dehydrator.  It tickles me pink to be drying vegetables in a totaled car, even if it is running fine and useful for ferrying supplies back and forth rather than being up on blocks in the front yard.  My test tray dried nicely, so today I'll add more tomatoes to the drier.

Sun-dried tomatoMy goal is to make Mark stop talking about our movie star neighbor's sun-dried tomatoes and start talking about mine.  Hollywood sun-dried tomatoes (as I've decided to call the delicious concoction) are so tasty you can't keep them in the fridge or they'll be gone overnight. 

Part 1 of the recipe is simple --- slice plum-sized romas or other small, meaty tomatoes in half, sprinkle the cut side with a hint of salt and pepper, and dry until slightly moist (like a dried apricot).  Stay tuned for the taste explosion of part 2 once I have enough tomato morsels dried to show you the steps.

Market your invention with Microbusiness Independence.
Posted Wed Sep 1 07:31:20 2010 Tags:

The internet is chock full of articles glowing about biochar's potential, but I seldom find any useful, hands on information.  The Abingdon Biochar presentation we attended delved into the nitty gritty.

Today's video highlights methods you can use to make biochar on any scale.  I was especially intrigued by the idea of modifying a rocket stove to produce biochar while cooking your dinner.

Our homemade chicken waterer is a simple DIY project that requires an hour or less to produce clean water for your flock.

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

Posted Wed Sep 1 12:00:39 2010 Tags:
ladder in a truck
What can you do when your 8 foot ladder needs a few more feet?

Call in Joey's truck for some assistance.
Posted Wed Sep 1 16:47:37 2010 Tags:

Forage radish rootsWhile hanging out with other farmer geeks last week, I discovered that there is a cool new cover crop making the rounds --- radishes.  Everyone's glowing about the way tillage radishes, oilseed radishes, groundhog radishes, fodder radishes, forage radishes, and daikon radishes mellow clay soil, adding copious amounts of organic matter and tilling through hardpan.  If you play your cards right, you can even graze your livestock on the radishes a time or two during the fall since most of the cover crop biomass comes from the roots.  What really caught my interest, though, is news that these cover crop radishes winter-kill here in zone 6, meaning that they work perfectly with no-till systems.

I clearly had to give a radish cover crop a try, but which one to choose?  A little research made the choice simpler since all of the names I listed in the last paragraph refer to the same species (Raphanus sativus.)  Now, to be fair, cabbage, broccoli, and collards are all members of Brassica oleracea, so it's clearly possible to come up with multiple subspecies that act quite differently.  But in the world of cover crop radishes, there is really only one huge distinction --- the daikon radish has been bred to be eaten while all of the others have been bred primarily for biomass and are types of oilseed radishes.  Groundhog radish and tillage radish, specifically, are terms that plant breeders have trademarked for their line of oilseed radishes.

Oilseed and tillage radish rootsThe differences between the varieties seem to come down to the roots.  Many people want a long, thin taproot like that found in the tillage radish, but we don't have hardpan, just heavy clay, so I chose to go for a more branched root instead.  That said, cover crop radishes are so trendy that the ones I wanted the most were sold out and I had to settle for a generic oilseed radish from Johnny's Select Seeds.

Before you go out and seed your front lawn with radishes, though, I should warn you of one factoid I noticed on every website.  When oilseed radishes freeze and rot over the winter, the resulting smell is quite foul.  Maybe it's best not to plant them beside your front door.Learn more about cover crops in my 99 cent ebook!

Too busy to garden?  Microbusiness Independence shows you how to find time for the things that really matter.
Posted Thu Sep 2 08:14:58 2010 Tags:

So you've made some charcoal.  How do you get it into the soil in such a way that it helps your plants grow?  The embedded video in this post walks you through using biochar in your farm or garden.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.

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

Posted Thu Sep 2 12:01:56 2010 Tags:
do it yourself roof building

another roof picture of a worker working
Putting the final piece of tin on the roof sort of feels like the last piece of a marathon jig saw puzzle.

man holding a ladder
We recently upgraded the WaldenEffect blog camera from the Fuji Finepix S1000fd to a beefier Canon Power Shot SX20. I can already tell a difference, but will wait for more experimentation before I give a full report on how awesome it is.

Posted Thu Sep 2 15:52:49 2010 Tags:

Double deep hiveBoth the bees and I are starting to plan ahead to overwinter our three hives.  After harvesting honey this summer, I put all of the empty supers back on the hives to make it easy for the bees to clean out the precious juices left behind.  Many of those frames are now empty, so I consolidated all of the frames of honey and dehydrating nectar into one super per hive, removing the other supers for winter storage.

Each hive now sports two deep brood boxes and one super, a clue to my indecision.  Last winter, I overwintered each hive with one full super of honey atop a single brood box partly full of honey and pollen --- this is what our neighbors do.  But I've had good luck with a double brood box this spring and summer and have read that continuing the double deep through the winter helps bees find their honey during cold weather.  (Apparently, bees are British and "mind the gap.")  Anyone have thoughts on whether I Ragweedshould stick to double brood boxes or go back to one brood box and one super for the winter?

The bees aren't all that interested in my experimentation.  Instead, they're harvesting ragweed pollen as fast as they can so that the first spring hatchlings will have a high protein diet.  I like to tell visitors to the farm that the ten foot tall ragweed plants around our yard were intentionally left behind --- of course they didn't just spring up where we forgot to mow!  Good thing neither of us is prone to allergies.

Stuck in a cubicle?  Microbusiness Independence will set you free.
Posted Fri Sep 3 07:23:46 2010 Tags:

The last video in this week's lunchtime series may be too scientific for some of you, but I highly recommend it to folks who are serious about giving biochar a try.  Ken Revell, graduate student at Virginia Tech, is experimenting with turning overabundant poultry litter at commercial chicken farms into biochar.  He'll tell you precisely how much biochar is beneficial in soil and why it shouldn't be applied beyond a certain rate.

Want your chickens to have a higher standard of living than the average bird?  Our homemade chicken waterer provides unlimited clean water.

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

Posted Fri Sep 3 12:00:38 2010 Tags:

work light 4 in 1
I got this 4 dollar worklight at Harbor Freight as a replacement for our night time reading lamp.

It's a great value for the price and flexible enough to fit several of work light

Posted Fri Sep 3 15:23:15 2010 Tags:

Garlic and olive oil in a food processorI posted earlier about Hollywood Sun-dried Tomatoes --- how much we love them, and how to dry the tomatoes in preparation for the main event.  Now it's time for the fun part --- assembling the concoction.  This recipe makes about 1 cup of Hollywood Sun-dried Tomatoes.

Step 1: Put 3 large cloves of garlic in the food processor and cover them up with olive oil.  Blend.  (Yes, I can count.  I figure those two small cloves on the right equal one Bowl of basillarge clove.)

Step 2: Add about a cup of loosely packed basil leaves to the food processor.  Blend again.

Step 3: Line the bottom of your container with one layer of sun-dried tomatoes.

Step 4: Spoon on enough of your garlic, basil, and oil mixture to liberally cover the tomatoes.

Sun-dried tomatoesStep 5: Lay down another layer of tomatoes, another layer of goop, another layer of tomatoes, and so forth, until you reach the top of your container.

Step 6: Pour olive oil over your tomatoes until the oil completely fills the container, as in the photo below.

Step 7: Put on the lid and let your concoction marinate in the fridge for a few days.  The tomatoes will plump Layering basil, oil, garlic, and tomatoesback out and become infused with the herb flavors.

Alternate Step 7: We consider Hollywood Sun-dried Tomatoes to be a winter treat, so we toss them in the freezer immediately after step 6.  After they've frozen, then thawed back out in the fridge months later, the flavors have blended perfectly.

How do we eat the Hollywood Sun-dried Tomatoes?  Mark scarfs them down like potato chips, but I like to save some for more serious cooking.  A few of these tomatoes act very much like a couple of slices of bacon in a dish --- instant crowd-pleaser.  Try them in egg salad, mixed with pesto over pasta, or as a pizza topping.  I usually throw the tomatoes and a bit of their oil back in the food processor and whir them up into little bits to make the taste go further, but you can put whole tomatoes straight onto your winter sandwiches.
Side view of Hollywood Sun-dried Tomatoes
Our movie star neighbor told me that the only flaw in his recipe is that it requires so much oil, but I don't consider that a problem.  Once you pull the tomatoes out of the juices, you're left with flavored oil that will spice up just about any dish.  If you can't think of any other way to use it, try brushing the oil mixture over a piece of stale bread and toasting it for instant, delicious garlic bread.

The real problem with these tomatoes, in my opinion, is that there's never enough of them.  This week's bowlful of Martino's and Yellow romas shrunk down into two scant cups of dehydrated beauties --- just enough for birthday celebrations for two.

Our homemade chicken waterer is perfect in coops or tractors.
Posted Sat Sep 4 09:18:13 2010 Tags:
Canon SX20 power shot feline image in bowl

My first indoor picture with the Canon Power Shot SX20.

I thought this was a good demonstration of the automatic setting with the subject bathed in a mixture of direct light and shadow.

Huckleberry likes to express ownership of something by taking a nap on it.

Posted Sat Sep 4 16:45:48 2010 Tags:

Mushrooms and the light through the trees
Even though the woods is still green and vibrant, this weekend's chilly mornings herald fall.

Leaves in the water
Colored leaves are beginning to wash up on the ford.

Cut logs stacked in the woods
I've turned my mind to winter and filled an entire page with chores that absolutely must get done before cold weather hits.  Near the middle of the list --- finish cutting and hauling the deadfall from along the driveway to heat our trailer through the winter.  These logs wait patiently for our attention.

Reflections in the creek
Top of the list --- soak up the green and sun to savor on a winter's day.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Sun Sep 5 07:48:42 2010 Tags:

This is a short video of a new deer deterrent experiment that makes use of a 4 dollar toy.

I glued a small hex key to the wheel which creates a sizeable amount of vibration and motion.

The video was created with the Canon Power Shot SX20 and uploaded to Youtube with no problems.

Posted Sun Sep 5 16:41:00 2010 Tags:

View of the Clinch River valley"I'm on the 26th floor of a hotel in downtown Atlanta," our movie star neighbor explained when I picked up the phone.  He never tells me much about his work since I can't tell actors apart and wouldn't recognize the names of even the leads in the Footloose remake he was working on.  Still, I enjoyed imagining our farmer friend rubbing shoulders with these shining Hollywood stars.

Baby dwarf Meyer lemonsBack in his hotel for a three day weekend, the movie star had taken off his sunglasses and put on his straw hat (figuratively, at least.)  The purpose of his phone call was simple --- our neighbor wanted a weather report.  Once I mentioned our scant tenth of an inch of rain, he asked if I would mind heading over to his place to water his baby collards and lemon trees.

Watering the gardenI'm always glad to visit someone else's garden, and I was especially keen on this project since my neighbor had recently added ten baby, dwarf citrus to his collection.  In case you don't remember, he's the one who owns the gargantuan dwarf Meyer lemon that produces dozens of fruits every year.

After checking on the baby lemons, I hosed down his garden and explored his tremendous patch of butternuts.  Although I wouldn't want to live the movie star part of his life, I love the idea that a homesteader can keep a foot in both worlds, growing sweet corn and tomatoes in his down time between making movies.

Our homemade chicken waterer is a great gift for the beginning chicken-keeper.
Posted Mon Sep 6 10:53:14 2010 Tags:
automatic chicken waterer packaging

I've decided that having fun while working a few hours on a holiday makes this Labor Day the best one I can remember.
Posted Mon Sep 6 16:51:03 2010 Tags:

Pink cosmos flowerLast year at this time, I wrote a lunchtime series about lessons learned during year 3 on the farm.  I've been trying to put together a similar series for year 4, but the truth is that my lessons this year are both too large and too small to fit into a lunchtime series.  Basically, I learned relaxation, how to release all worries on Friday afternoon and take the time to let my creativity flow.  I learned to love the journey of the farm rather than becoming bogged down in daily problems and the far off glint of the destination on the horizon.  How do you write a lunchtime series about bliss?

If anyone's interested, I'll post another time about the complicated list of lists I use every day, week, month, and year to keep myself on the bliss track rather than on the overextended "we'll never get everything done in time!" track.  (This is only relevant to type A people.)  But bliss doesn't just come from lists.

Shelf fungus and tomatoesI think that this year's journey toward bliss began when we went on our cruise last October.  Somewhere between gazing out at the ocean for hours and climbing a pyramid, I realized that I'd never been on a true vacation before in my life.  Sure, I'd taken week-long trips to the beach with my family, flown across the country to a friend's wedding, but taking time off with the focus solely on myself?  Never.

After we came home from the cruise, I started to notice how Mark made every day a little special.  A trip to the library turned into a mini-vacation --- just the two of us together in the car, filling the great gaping hole in my life that yearns for the printed word, then running together through the rain into a gas station to splurge on an ice cream cone that we ate under the gas-pump-overhang, licking streaks of sweetness as water poured off the roof.

Broccoli starting to head upAs spring came to the farm, I developed an allergy to mainstream media.  We haven't had a TV since we moved to the farm, but last year I spent days listening to NPR while weeding the garden.  This year, even public radio felt like an intrusion, so I began to weed in silence, watching butterflies mate while I  wove permaculture relationships in my head.  I practiced Spanish as I built chicken waterer kits, dissolving myself into the foreign language until I felt like I'd been on, yes, another vacation during work hours.

Soon, I began to have negative reactions to our twice weekly dose of Netflix movies --- when romantic comedies give you nightmares, you know it's time to back off.  I bid farewell to quick scene changes and hello to sudden urges to write and write and write.  Summer squash plantsOne weekend, I pounded out the first quarter of a young adult novel (to be finished this winter, if I decide the tale is as gripping as it felt at the time.)

Mark knew he'd won when I started to ask him if he'd mind taking random afternoons off.  Previously, I had been the task master, keeping our noses to the grindstone from 9 to 4.  Now I could tell when my body needed a break, or when my mind was full of an idea that was aching to flow onto paper or computer.

So, lessons learned in year 4?  Following my bliss.  Unfortunately, I can't tell you how to get there, but I can tell you that it's possible.

Achieve the leisure to follow your own bliss with Microbusiness Independence.
Posted Tue Sep 7 06:35:55 2010 Tags:
Roof cement being applied

A few more days of dryness and the sky light should be completely sealed.

We got a quick rain shower on Friday just hours after the latest application which set the sealing back a bit.

Posted Tue Sep 7 16:49:16 2010 Tags:

Bean, corn, and tomato saladA couple of years ago, a friend served a salsa that was so good it tempted even me --- a non-salsa-eater --- to go back for seconds.  The salsa was full of fresh corn and tomatoes, and I figured with a little tweaking it could be turned into a less spicy salad suitable to be eaten on its own.  Here's the result --- a quick, in-season dish that is also delicious.

  • 1 c. fresh sweet corn (2 to 3 large ears)
  • 1.75 c. beans (black or pinto are best, pre-cooked)
  • 2 to 3 large tomatoes
  • 1 medium sweet pepper (optional)
  • 1 to 2 cucumbers (optional)
  • 1.5 c. loosely packed green onion tops (or about a quarter of an onion, finely chopped)
  • 0.5 to 1 tsp chili powder (or finely minced fresh hot peppers.  The smaller amount makes a relatively mild dish, the latter a tangy one.)
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice (or lime juice)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Fill a pot with water and bring it to a boil as you harvest the sweet corn from your garden.  Drop the cleaned ears into the water and lift them out nearly immediately (30 seconds or less).  Cut the kernels off the ear with a sharp knife, then run the back of the knife down the cob to pull out the sweet juices left behind.

Chop the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and green onions and add them to the sweet corn.  Add the beans, chili powder, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.  We're not fans of cumin or cilantro, but this is the kind of dish that could use either or both if you like the flavor.

Marinate in the fridge for an hour or two to meld the flavors, then pour off the excess juices.  Serve as a side dish for burritos, fajitas, quesadillas, or even pork chops and rice (as I did.)

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills in chicken tractors.
Posted Wed Sep 8 08:20:03 2010 Tags:

man using liquid nail substitute known as "Beats the Nail"
Our local hardware store doesn't carry Liquid Nails, which means I've been using an alternative glue known as "Beats the Nail".

It seems like a fine substitute at a slightly cheaper price.

One thing to remember with a product like this is to read the safety label on the tube.

Most of these construction adhesive chemicals give off an "extremely explosive" vapor that could be a real danger if you're in an enclosed space. Make sure to keep a window or door open and avoid any sources of flame or sparks.

Posted Wed Sep 8 16:38:00 2010 Tags:

Stropharia rubosoannulata mushroomI'm a bit shocked by my own mycophobia --- I almost threw away the first King Stropharia mushroom that popped up from our graywater mycoremediation project.  This is our first year growing Stropharia rugosoannulata, but that's really no excuse.  I was the one who researched and chose the species and personally inoculated the wood chips.  But the mushroom that sprang up didn't look all that much like the pictures I'd quickly browsed on the internet, and I thought a wild fungus had invaded my mycoremediation project.

After a more lengthy perusal of the internet (and my field guide to mushrooms), I decided this lovely specimen was indeed a King Stropharia.  We ate it sauteed in garlic last night, so I assume I was right.  Here are the top tips I've run across for King Stropharia identification.

Closeup of a Stropharia rubosoannulata ringFirst, take a look at the ring around the mushroom's stem.  Several other mushrooms have rings, but the ring on a King Stropharia mushroom has indentations from the gills along the top, giving it a lined appearance.  The lined ring is probably one of the most diagnostic features of King Stropharia.

Next, take a look at the gills on the underside of the cap.  Notice that they are attached to the stem and are a purply-gray in color.  If the gills are free, then you might have an Agaricus, so beware!  Some Agrocybe mushrooms can look similar too, but have brown gills.

Stropharia rugosoannulata gills

Cap of a Stropharia rugosoannulataThe top of the cap is often maroon in young specimens, but can also be plain old brown (especially as the mushroom ages), so cap color isn't so diagnostic.

I find it interesting that our mycoremediation patch has fruited while the patches I inoculated at the same time under the canopies of nearby fruit trees have not.  Clearly, the bit of bleach in the dishwater doesn't hurt King Stropharia one bit, and frequent soakings are a boon.  Paul Stamets has written that King Stropharia mushrooms may actually depend on coliform bacteria for growth --- perhaps the bacteria going down the drain have helped our mycoremediation patch come out ahead?

Our homemade chicken waterer prevents the leading cause of backyard chicken burnout --- filthy water.
Posted Thu Sep 9 08:01:14 2010 Tags:
gray water cat

These two PVC pipes connect to opposite sides of our double sink. We deleted the drain trap as an experiment to see if I could get an increase in drainage. I was a bit worried about a gray water smell making its way into the kitchen without the trap, but after a year of heavy dish washing I think I can safely report it works just fine without being stinky.

What you don't see here is a large layer of gravel about a foot below the King Stropharia wood chip bed to prevent standing water.

Posted Thu Sep 9 16:59:07 2010 Tags:

Charging a Chicago Electric 5-in-1 Portable Power PackEven though we haven't set up the solar panels from our plug and play solar backup yet, I wanted to test out our Chicago Electric 5-in-1 Portable Power Packs and see what kind of use we'll be able to get out of them.  We charged the power packs up using house AC for 48 hours (as instructed in the manual), then I plugged my laptop into one power pack and turned on the inverter.  Everything was going just fine...until 13 minutes later, my laptop stopped drawing juice.  I turned the inverter off and on again --- still no electricity.  Did I break it already?

Charge meterAfter a more thorough read of the manual, it sounds like it's best to turn the power pack's inverter on for a two minute warmup, turn it off, plug in the laptop, then turn the inverter back on.  After following those directions, my laptop ran quite happily for another three and a half hours.  It probably would have run longer, but we want our power pack's battery to last as long as possible, so I turned it off when the indicator hit 50% charged.

AC plugs and inverter switchEven though my laptop's power block rates its energy consumption at 60 watts, a previous experiment with a kill-o-watt device estimated the laptop's actual usage at 25 watts.  (The much higher wattage listed on the power block assumes that I have lots of USB devices plugged in, which I seldom do.)  So I drew roughly 94 watt-hours from the power pack --- a bit less than half of the 216 watt-hours the battery is rated at holding.

The only (very minor) flaw with the power pack is that the inverter has a fan that's about as loud as a desktop computer.  I'd gotten used to the near silence of my laptop, but I know I DC power plugwon't be complaining about a little white noise when I enjoy nearly four hours of laptop use during a power outage.

Although I'm quite pleased, I've got another trick up my sleeve to stretch our power pack usage further.  The power pack has two cigarette-lighter-type slots in the front, so I'm going to buy a "car charger" for my laptop and see how much more runtime I can get when I'm not wasting energy converting DC to AC and back to DC.  Stay tuned for more information as the experiment progresses.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Fri Sep 10 07:53:09 2010 Tags:
deer deterrent hex key close up

The latest deer deterrent experiment ran good for several days, but I forgot to build a roof for it. When it rained a few days ago water seeped into the motor and burned it out. This is version 2.0.

The picture illustrates the one detail that gives this contraption enough unbalanced movement to make it a funtional deer deterrent.

It also provides a good example of the Canon Power Shot SX20's macro capability in a low light setting.

Posted Fri Sep 10 15:57:04 2010 Tags:

Joey roasts venison While my sister is experimenting with Plug and play solar backup, I am in the process of learning to live at a isolated, off the grid, solar powered house.

This house was built in the mid 90's, and designed for both passive solar power (with its southern exposure and earth-sheltered rear), and solar power, with a wiring system that is entirely 12 volt throughout. But 15 years is a long time for a solar system to age, and as it degraded, the occupants adapted to living with less and less power.

That is an adaptation I have not made yet, so will this aging system be able to meet my needs? Like Anna, I am starting off with some experiments. The first was to go live there for a week and use as much power as I wanted.

Today I'm back in town. After approximatly 4 full days of use, the first battery bank dropped to 9 volts, my cutoff point for safe use. Which turned out to be below the safe use point of my laptop power adapter, which burnt out the last evening I was there.

I decided to come back while the other bank is still relatively full, leaving the low one connected to the four 64 watt solar panels to charge.

My modest PV array

Hurrying downtown to grab lunch in between work on Branchable, I noticed it was a beautiful sunny day, and I realized that this makes such days even better, because besides enjoying them, I know I'll be enjoying the yield on chilly nights sometime later.

Well, in theory. Actually, the very antique charge controller in the house was dead and bypassed, so I removed it. I called its manufacturer wondering if it could be refurbished, but they suggested it belonged in a museum. So I've ordered a new controller, a Xantrex C-35. Until that comes, pretty days like today will charge, or possibly over-charge the batteries, which will then drain back out at night.

Posted Fri Sep 10 16:44:26 2010 Tags:
Castlewood Community Cannery

Canning in Mason jars at the canneryAt this time of year, fruit is often free for the asking.  We went on a tour of the Castlewood community cannery this week and stumbled across a quartet of ladies who had gathered enough apples from trees going to waste to fill a huge vat of apple butter.  Their tale of frugal scavenging reminded me that one of our neighbors has an orchard of apples that fall to the ground and rot unless someone collects them.  Off Mark went with an empty basket and a dozen eggs, and home he came with enough apples to turn into a year's worth of apple sauce.
Vat of apple butter
I opted to preserve my apples at home since I generally put food in the freezer (and process it a bit at a time, a quart here, and a gallon there.)  But community canneries make a lot of sense for folks who don't want to buy (and maintain) a pressure canner, or who do most of their year's preserving in one fell swoop.  The Castlewood Cannery will sell you cans for less than a quarter apiece (if you live in Russell County), or let you bring in your own Mason jars (charging you a few pennies per jar for use of their facility.)

The canning ladies regaled me with tales of the bounty they had canned there, ranging from the usual to cornbread, sausage, and apple sauce cake.  I could tell that spending a day at the Castlewood Cannery would earn me years of free wisdom, along with the cheap use of kitchen facilities.  To find a community cannery in your area, visit this website.

Cans and steam at the cannery
Our homemade chicken waterer is a clean alternative to the traditional waterer.
Posted Sat Sep 11 09:52:17 2010 Tags:

3 in 1 yard machine 21 inch self propelledSince the start of the summer I've been trying to figure out how I can install larger, front swivel wheels on our Craftsman mower.

I found this Yard Machine yesterday for 25 bucks that might just fit the bill once I fix the left wheel.

The swivel action is said to make manuvering around corners easy and fun.

Posted Sat Sep 11 18:21:15 2010 Tags:

Slice of butternut pieDo you like pumpkin pies?  If so, you're in for a treat because butternut squash pies are twice as good.  You can make pumpkin-like pies out of any kind of winter squash, but after taste-testing pie pumpkins, acorn squash, cushaw, and butternut we concluded that the last was by far superior.  That said, the recipe below can be used to create a pie out of any kind of winter squash.  You can even turn Jack-o-lanterns into pie if they haven't been sitting out for too long.

Baking a butternut squash

Step 1: Bake the butternut.  Cut your butternut squash in half (carefully!) and scoop out the seeds.  Lay the two halves, cut side down, on a cookie sheet and bake until the skin begins to blacken and the flesh is very tender.  You can bake the squash at just about any temperature, so I try to plan this step to coincide with my other baking needs, such as pizza night.
Mash the butternut
Step 2: Process the butternut.  Cool the butternut and peel off and discard the skin.  Then mash up the flesh with a potato masher (or just with the back of your spoon.)  Measure out two cups of flesh, which will equal one medium butternut, half of a large butternut, or two small buttercups.  I don't worry too much if my butternut is a quarter of a cup too large or too small --- I throw it all in.

Pat in the pan pie crustStep 3: Make your crust.  I'm lazy, so I've settled on a quick and easy, pat-in-the-pan recipe.  I throw 1 cup of white flour, 0.5 tsp of salt, and 7 tablespoons of cold butter in the food processor and blend until the butter is cut into coarse pieces.  After adding two tablespoons of cold water and blending a bit more, the dough generally starts to stick together --- depending on your humidity, you might need to add more or less water.  Pour the dough into the bottom of your pan and press it into place.  Then put the pan in the fridge to stay cool while you make the pie filling.  (I like to make our pies in a cake pan to leave room for more filling.)

Nutritional information for butternut squash pieStep 4: Mix up the pie filling.  Combine 2 cups of baked butternut squash from step 2, 1.5 cups of evaporated milk or rich cream, 0.25 cups of brown sugar, 0.5 cups of white sugar, 0.5 tsp of salt, 1 tsp of cinnamon, 0.5 tsp of ginger, 0.25 tsp of allspice, and 2 eggs.  Blend well.  (I seldom have evaporated milk or cream on hand, so I substitute a concoction of powdered milk and water --- fill a cup with milk powder and slowly add water, stirring, until the cup is full of liquid, then repeat with a half cup measurer.  The nutritional information reflects the extra protein from using powdered milk rather than cream.)

Step 5: Pour the filling into the crust and bake at 425 F for 15 minutes, then at 350 F for about 30 minutes.  This combination of temperatures just happens to work quite well for baking a chicken as well, so once again you can double up your oven time.

Cutting a butternut pieStep 6: Cool completely before eating.  I usually ignore this admonition, but with butternut pies, the spices really do meld and taste better once the pie is thoroughly chilled.

These pies are the reason Mark became so obsessed with making sure we have plenty of butternut squash on hand.  Although no dessert is precisely good for you, the hefty dose of protein and vitamins found in an eighth of this butternut pie make me feel better about baking one every week.

Ditch dirty water with our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Sun Sep 12 06:47:13 2010 Tags:
Mark on a bike on a Fall Sunday

bike rack guy

We spent a great day in Damascus coasting down the mountain with some friends today.

It was our first bike adventure together and we had a lot of fun. I'm sure it won't be our last.

The bike guy charges 25 bucks for the bike rental which includes a ride up to the top.

Posted Sun Sep 12 19:55:21 2010 Tags:

Rainbow towelI suspect I won't be seeing this view from my bathtub for much longer.  For the first time in months, I actually heated up water for bathing --- winter is surely on its way.

Gojiberry flower

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Posted Mon Sep 13 07:36:38 2010 Tags:

Map of the fertile crescentAbout 10,000 years ago, nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Fertile Crescent (in the modern Middle East) cultivated wheat and became the world's first farmers.  They left their nomadic ways behind and settled down into villages, domesticating animals and other vegetables to go along with their grain.  Food surpluses allowed the villagers to specialize, and soon their arts and technologies exploded, giving rise to the world's first civilizations.

Although a few hunter-gatherer societies remain in remote areas, most humans have followed these peoples' lead and created their own agriculture-based societies.  Those of us Early agricultural village in Chinaliving in agricultural societies tend to take a manifest destiny approach to the history of farming and civilization, considering both to be part of an inevitable march forward toward better times.  As Roland pointed out in a comment to a previous lunchtime series, agriculture is at the root of what has allowed us the spare time to develop ipods, refrigerators, and modern medicine.

But a closer look at the dawn of agriculture shows that farming had at least as many detrimental effects as beneficial ones.  Is there a seamy underbelly to the advent of farming?  Can modern societies overcome the minefield left behind by early agriculture?  This special two-week lunchtime series explores these intriguing questions.

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

Posted Mon Sep 13 12:00:50 2010 Tags:
Black soldier fly stock tank bin

This slightly damaged stock tank was rescued from the dump recently by someone who thought I could use it for one of my contraptions. Thanks Dennis.

One of the many winter projects on the drawing board is a do it yourself black soldier fly bin, and I think this container will work just fine.

Posted Mon Sep 13 17:21:35 2010 Tags:

Homemade sticky boardPeople like to say that varroa mites on honeybees are a lot like ticks on a dog, but when you compare the relative sizes, you'll see that a varroa mite is more like a blood-sucking squirrel latched onto your dog's back.  Given the size of the mites, it's not surprising that a heavy varroa mite infestation can weaken a hive so much that it dies over the winter.

Most beekeepers treat their hives with insecticidal strips during the fall and winter, but the chemical control method has obvious problems.  You have to be extremely careful not to eat any of the honey that was in the hive during the treatment period, which makes life difficult the next spring if the bees didn't consume all of their winter stores.  Beekeepers who throw in chemicals every year without testing to see whether their hives need it also start to run up against pesticide-resistant mites --- bad news.  Finally, the organic gardener in me has to wonder what such a heavy dose of insecticide does to the honeybees.  Luckily, there are alternatives.

We use quite a bit of passive management designed to reduce varroa mite populations in the hive.  Foundationless frames and screened bottom boards both help cut down on varroa mite infestations, and the latter also allows us to monitor how many varroa mites are actually present so that we don't put chemicals in a hive that isn't very heavily infested.  With winter looming, I figured I'd better check the mite levels in our three hives.

Debris on a sticky board after three daysHomemade varoa mite test sheets

You can buy varroa mite test sheets ("sticky boards") from bee supply stores, but I'm too cheap so I've experimented until I figured out an easy way to make the sheets at home.  Just cut a piece of cardboard to 13" by 20", tape down white scrap paper on one side, and smear on petroleum jelly (vaseline) until it covers the entire surface of the paper.  If you've got more than one hive, it's best to label your various test sheets before bringing them outside in order to avoid confusion.  Slip one test sheet under the screened bottom board of each hive, then remove it three days later and take a look.

Varroa mite on a sticky boardChances are, your test sheet will be coated in debris, so you'll need to look carefully to see the round, dark brown varroa mites.  If you're industrious, you can count every mite on the sheet, but I generally just rule off three strips, each one inch wide, and count the mites in each one.  Since the screened section of the bottom board is ten inches wide, adding up the number of mites in my three strips, dividing by 3, then multiplying by 10 gives a rough estimate of total varroa mite fall during the three day period.  My three day mite counts came to 57 and 40 in my two smaller hives, and a whopping 540 in my biggest hive.

Counting off a one inch segmentVarroa mite threshold

The hardest part of checking on varroa mites is figuring out how many mites you can have in your hive without worrying.  A quick search of the internet and my bookshelf yields up numbers ranging from 50 mites per day to 200 mites per day as the treatment threshold.  For a three day mite count like mine, that means I can have somewhere between 150 and 600 mites on my test sheets without taking action.

The reason the threshold figures vary so much is that you'll get widely variable mite fall numbers from the same hive when you test during different parts of the year even if the percentage of bees infested by mites stays the same.  Since the typical hive has few bees in it during early spring, few mites will fall to the ground.  The same hive in the middle of summer may have ten times as many bees present (or more), so you'd expect to see ten times as many mites.  With that information in mind, it's not all that surprising that the hive we bulked up with early double deeps has many more varroa mites than the hives which began the year with a single brood box.

A North Carolina beekeeping document suggests a way to deal with this inherent problem in the sticky board test method.  They tell you to estimate how many adult bees are present in the hive by counting how many frames are completely coated on both sides with bees during your inspection.  A medium frame thus coated will hold about 1,250 bees and a Formula to determine total varroa mite falldeep frame will hold about 2,000 bees.  If your sticky board count shows more than 2 mites per thousand bees per day in mid-August or more than 4 mites per thousand bees per day in September, you should find a way to reduce the mite population.  Unfortunately, I hadn't read this the last time I opened the hive, so I don't have any data available except my gut reaction that one of my hives has many more bees than the others.

Clearly, I don't need to worry about two of my hives at all since they averaged 13 and 19 mites fallen per day.  My biggest hive, though, has ten times as many mites even though I estimate it only has perhaps two or three times as many bees in the hive.  I could treat that hive, but I had a colony that was similarly on the edge last fall and it made it through the winter with flying colors, so I'm going to take my chances.  As I turn into a more experienced beekeeper (and have more data from my own hives), I'll feel more confident about which varroa mite levels are no big deal and which ones require drastic action.

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Posted Tue Sep 14 07:56:23 2010 Tags:

Guns, Germs, and SteelBefore I launch directly into the history of agriculture, I want to spend a post citing my sources.  Nearly all of the information I'll discuss later comes from three books, each of which is a fun read and chock full of fascinating information I didn't have time to include in this lunchtime series.  The books also provide more in depth evidence for each of the assertions I'll make in the following posts --- I've glossed over certain bits of data to keep the posts short, sweet, and to the point.  To paraphrase an old folk song, if you want anymore you can read it yourself.

Diamond, Jared.  1997.  Guns, Germs, and Steel.  W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

Guns, Germs, and Steel is a well-researched and intriguing look at why Europeans and Asians now largely rule the world.

Leonard, Jonathon Norton.  1974.  The First Farmers.  Littlehampton Book Services Ltd.

The First FarmersThe only flaw in The First Farmers is the book's age.  Presumably, some of the individual facts are a bit out of date, but the book is still a very good introduction to the advent of farming, focusing primarily on the Fertile Crescent.  It's easy to read and full of beautiful photos, but at the same time is clearly based on specific scientific studies.

Manning, Richard.  2004.  Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization.  North Point Press, New York.

This book shocked me by parallelling all of the conclusions I had come to on my own from previous reading.  Very nice of the author to do the research so that my assertions in this lunchtime series have more of a ring of fact rather than of mere musings.

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

Posted Tue Sep 14 12:00:46 2010 Tags:
truck load of straw

We squeezed 18 bales of straw in the truck today for around 100 bucks.

I predict this will save us 2 to 3 hours of weeding per bale.
Posted Tue Sep 14 15:43:43 2010 Tags:

Cutting up applesIn my early childhood memories, it seems like my mother was always cutting up apples.  Perhaps she was carefully removing the skins so that my younger sister could wrap her toothless mouth around them (allowing me to eat the parts left behind.)  Or maybe Mom was making a "Dan'l Boone apple pie" --- whole wheat crust with barely a hint of butter, apples cored but not peeled, filling mildly sweetened with a dab of honey.  Often, though, it seemed like she was just cutting up apples to be cutting them up, and she never minded me snagging one or two or ten out of her bowl.

Skin-on apple sauceMom's apple sauce was simply stewed apples, skins left on.  Although I heartily approve of eating fruits and vegetables skin-on so that you don't lose the vitamins, I like the texture of skinless apple sauce (which can easily be made at home by stewing apple wedges, then passing them through a Foley mill to remove the skins.)  I invited Mom over to help me cut up our scavenged apples, then experimented with various methods of making skin-on apple sauce.

The best method seemed to be --- cut the apples into quarters, removing the cores; cook in a pot with some water until the apple meat begins to fall off the skins; then blend in the food processor.  You're less likely to scorch the bottom of the pan if you cook up your apple sauce in a skillet rather than a pot and fill at least a couple of inches in the bottom of Apple tree with fruitthe pan with water.  The result is very much like storebought apple sauce in texture, but with flecks of skin here and there.  (The photo above shows the result of my experiment.)

I'd be curious to hear if anyone else has a different method of creating skin-on apple sauce.  Meanwhile, if you're overflowing in scavenged apples (and you should be --- it's that time of year), you might want to check out a post I made a couple of years ago about how to make apple cider in a juicer.

Our homemade chicken waterer is a great gift for the backyard chicken keeper in your family.
Posted Wed Sep 15 07:54:57 2010 Tags:

Wild barleyMankind has fed ourselves as hunter-gatherers for 99% of our time on earth.  Why did we suddenly put down our spears and pick up the hoe?

Archaeologists agree that several factors coincided to make agriculture possible around 8500 BC.  Wild cereals were already part of the diet of nomadic hunter-gatherers, but around 10,000 years ago climate change increased the extent of these fields of native grain in the Fertile Crescent.  At about the same time, we began to develop tools and tricks necessary to take full advantage of the wild grains --- we created sickles, baskets, and mortars and pestles; we figured out how to roast grains so that they wouldn't sprout during Stones for grinding wheatstorage; and we developed underground storage pits.  Suddenly, a family could gather enough seeds to feed itself for a year during the three week ripening season of the wild wheat.

Now, as someone who spends months during the summer carefully tending my crops, I was a bit stumped when I read that last fact.  If I could just go out and pick wild swiss chard, okra, and tomatoes for three weeks once a year and not have to plant and weed all season, I think I would choose the former occupation.  Why did these early wheat-eaters turn into farmers?

The switch from gathering this abundant wild wheat to growing it seems to come down to one factor --- overpopulation.  At the same time that wild wheat was expanding in the Fertile Crescent, large wild game was becoming much less numerous, either because of climate change, because we became better hunters, because our numbers exploded, or some combination of these three factors.  Whatever the reason, hunting was no longer really working for us, so wheat became more and more important in our diets.
Young wheat plants
It seemed sensible to settle down near the important wheat fields, and this change in turn dismantled the factors that had previously kept our population in check.  As nomads, our women had been limited to bearing children about four years apart in age since the first child had to be old enough to walk by itself before baby number two could come along --- Mom could only carry one kid at a time during frequent moves and I guess Dad wasn't the nurturing type.  But we no longer had this restriction in our new, settled lifestyle, so our reproductive rate doubled, with women producing on average one child every two years.

When previously ample wheat fields suddenly became too bit puny to feed our burgeoning numbers, agriculture was the clear solution.  By clearing new ground outside the natural wheat fields, we were able to plant wild wheat seeds and reap harvests from a larger area.  Agriculture was born.

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

Posted Wed Sep 15 12:00:44 2010 Tags:

animated 5 gallon bucket method of moving compost
5 gallon bucket method continues to be an efficient solution for moving large quantities of horse manure from the neighbor's field to our compost pile.

This latest trip yielded almost 150 gallons of organic matter, which we traded a dozen eggs and one of our valuable butternut squashes for.

Posted Wed Sep 15 16:41:10 2010 Tags:

Ripe peachAfter researching fruit growing for a decade, I moved to the farm and quickly discovered how much I didn't know.  I've written previously about how our heavy clay soil with high groundwater requires that we plant our fruit trees on mounds --- learning that set us back about two years.  But what I want to talk about in this post is how to choose a combination of fruit trees that will keep you fed throughout the year.

Once I found the right farm, the young, exuberant, farmer-wannabe Anna browsed the catalogs and gleefully picked out my favorite fruit varieties.  Now, I'm not going to tell you to plant a variety you don't like, but there's a lot more to planning a homestead orchard than planting Stayman Winesaps because that's the kind of apple you've always bought in the store.  Our Stayman Winesap tree will be hitting the burn pile this winter because it is so sensitive to the Cedar Apple Rust that there's no point in even trying Dead cherry leafto grow a Stayman here with organic methods.  Similarly, the self-pollinating, white dwarf cherry I was so sure would start producing fruit in 2009 gets so badly defoliated by Japanese Beetles every year that it may never give us a cherry --- I'm going to experiment for another year or two before I rip it out, but I wouldn't say the variety was a good choice.

One way to find varieties that will survive your local bugs and diseases is to check out what kind of fruit trees your organic gardener neighbors grow.  The apples we scavenged are from Liberty apple trees that are never pruned or sprayed, and yet provide a bountiful crop every year.  Not only that, I felt like the apples were tastier than storebought Stayman Winesaps --- a Liberty apple will definitely be making its way into our garden this winter.

Ripening dates for fruit trees

Red raspberryI also didn't put enough thought into spreading our ripe fruit throughout the year.  I learned with our mature peach this year that I wouldn't want to have more than one tree in full fruit during any given week --- it just takes a lot of time to process that bounty.  On the other hand, if you're like me and think that the only real way to eat fruit is fresh, you'd better fill in all of those gaps so that you don't spend a month in August wishing you had fresh fruit.  Although our vine and bush fruits bear relatively continuously through the growing season, I'd still like to add in a late July and early August fruit tree, replace our problematic cherry with a different early fruit, plant a mid-season apple tree to feed me before the pears fully ripen, and perhaps expand our storage apple selection to keep me in fresh fruit through the winter.

My final word of wisdom is --- don't price shop for fruit trees.  I am a skinflint, and have been guilty of picking the cheapest tree from the cheapest catalog in the past.  That's how I ended up with an unknown white peach after three years of nursing along what I thought was going to be a yellow peach.  (Luckily, the white peach was still delicious.)  Choosing a fruit tree is a lot like choosing a spouse --- it will be an integral part of your life for a long, long time.  Choose quality.

I'm still barely a seedling in a tree's eyes, so I'm sure I have a lot more to learn.  What other pitfalls would you point out for a new orchardist to sidestep?

Our homemade chicken waterer is perfect for house chickens, backyard chickens, and for the farm flock.
Posted Thu Sep 16 07:38:24 2010 Tags:

Sumerian tabletThe results of the Neolithic Revolution were striking.  On the positive side, a farmer was able to grow more food than he needed to feed his family, so for the first time in human history we saw specialization.  Agricultural societies were able to support leaders, artists, craftsmen, priests, scribes, and soldiers, none of whom had to worry much about where their food came from.

We also had time to create new tools and technologies.  The first example of writing sprang up in the Fertile Crescent, probably as a method of recording information about ownership and production of land.  In fact, you can follow the trail of agriculture all the way to present, tracing the domestication of wheat, maize, and rice foward to most of humanity's most striking accomplishments.

Agriculture basically created civilization as we know it.  In fact, using anthropologists' definition of civilization, farming was a prerequisite for civilization in every part of the world.  This is the explanation you'll see in most modern history texts --- doesn't it sound a bit like a revisionist history?  "Look, the people with agriculture won!  Let's say that agriculture created civilization."

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

Posted Thu Sep 16 12:00:41 2010 Tags:
man on roof with ladder in foreground

The first bit of feedback I have on the new Canon Power Shot SX20 comes after only a few weeks of experimentation.

It's been my experience that the automatic setting is not quite acceptable in most situations, that is to say the picture either has the color off or it's a bit too washed out. Anna has some good examples of this on her more in depth review.

The good news is that the manual mode is easy to use and understand. Making this camera maybe not a good choice for someone who struggles with basic point and shoot units.

The above picture was taken today by Anna on the SCN setting.

Posted Thu Sep 16 16:19:38 2010 Tags:

Almond flowersIn addition to expanding our fruit orchard, this winter we plan to branch out into nuts.  In the past, I've steered clear of nut trees for a couple of very good reasons --- most nut trees are much bigger than fruit trees and it takes a long time to crack all of those nuts.  However, I just discovered that almonds are peach-sized trees sometimes no more than 15 feet tall, and Mark has promised to invent an automatic nutcracker for me by the time they bear.  As you can see, almond flowers are also so beautiful that the trees are sometimes grown as ornamentals.  Time to pick out some nuts!

A quick search turns up the following nuts being sold to backyard growers:

Pros and Cons
5 - 9
10 - 22 ft.
With new, self-pollinating varieties on the market, the small size of almonds makes them easy to fit into a nook in your garden.  On the other hand, rain and high humidity in July and August can rot the nuts.
Black Walnut
5 - 9
30 - 40 ft.
Very large trees with very hard nuts.  We actually have dozens of these growing on our property already, but I rarely bother to gather the fruits since you have to crack them with a hammer.
Butternut 4 - 9
30 - 40 ft.
Very winter hardy and tolerant of poor soil.  However, most of our native butternut trees have been killed by a blight, so be sure to pick out a resistant variety.  Shells are very hard and the tree is large and needs a pollinator.
Carpathian Walnut
5 - 9
25 - 40 ft.
The Carpathian Walnut is significantly more cold hardy than the English Walnut, but is still damaged by spring frosts.  The nut is supposed to be very similar to the walnuts you buy in the store.  The trees are large and require a pollinator.
Chinese Chestnut
4 - 9
20 - 40 ft.
The trees are large and two trees are required for good fruit set.  The prickly cases around the fruits are very tough on bare feet.  Chestnuts don't store well and must be harvested every day or two or they will rot on the ground.  All of that said, though, chestnuts are delicious and have a thin shell that can be pried off without a nutcracker --- I can bite them open in a pinch.  Chestnuts are the most common nut trees grown in our region.
English Walnut 5 - 9
40 - 50 ft.
Sensitive to cold weather and spring frosts.  Very large trees, but most don't require a pollinator.  These are the walnuts you buy in the store, with relatively thin shells and a taste everyone can enjoy.
5 - 8
15 - 20 ft.
We've already planted a few hybrid hazels and wrote extensively about them here.  In short, they're small and easy to fit into your backyard, but you need to pick out a blight-resistant version and plant two for pollination.
Heartnut 5 - 8
20 - 25 ft.
This is a variety of Japanese Walnut.  It seems to be mostly a gimmick --- people like the heart-shaped nut.  It needs a pollinator.
Hickory 5 - 8
20 - 40 ft.
Large tree that needs a pollinator.  Nut shells are very hard and the meats are small.  If I want hickory nuts, I'll gather them out of the woods.
Pecan 4 - 9
40 ft.
The pecan is a southern specialty, but some hardy varieties can be grown as far north as zone 4.  Like walnuts and almonds, the nuts are familiar and delicious.  The downside is size and the need for a pollinator.
Stone Pine
The Korean Nut Pine is hardy down to zone 4, while the more common Stone Pine (Pinus pinea) is only hardy to zone 7.  They seem to require very little work, but take more than a decade to bear.  I can't seem to find any real spacing data on the internet --- some sites say you can plant them 10 feet apart, while others tell you to go for 40 feet.

As I mentioned, we're already trying out hybrid hazelnuts (highly recommended, though they're not big enough to fruit yet), and I planted a Korean Nut Pine from seed last year (which is now about an inch tall.)  Of the other types of nuts, I'm most interested in trying out an almond in the sunniest part of the garden, where perhaps our humidity won't be so devastating, and an English Walnut in the shadiest part of the yard, where I might trick it Almondsinto flowering late after hard spring frosts have passed us by.  Almonds (part of my breakfast at the moment) and walnuts (integral to pesto) also happen to be the nuts most frequently served in our household's meals.

I've read varying reports about whether you need to buy named varieties or can just sprout shelled nuts out of the grocery store.  Almonds seem to be a bad candidate for growing from seed since the nuts are bitter in most of the offspring, so I'll probably go ahead and buy named varieties for both of our nut additions.

As you can tell, I'm still very much in the research stage, but I thought you might enjoy some of the information I'm digging up.  I'm very curious to hear about your own experience with growing nut trees in your backyard.  Which trees did you choose and why?  How did your experiment turn out?

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Posted Fri Sep 17 07:44:55 2010 Tags:

Kalahari bushmenDespite the innovations that sprang out of agricultural societies, Jared Diamond and Richard Manning both argue that the first farmers were actually less healthy than their ancestors.  We can look at this question from a lot of different angles, by comparing the skeletons of the first farmers with the skeletons of contemporaneous hunter-gatherers or by looking at modern hunter-gatherers.  In both cases, average height is a basic indication of nutrition, and hunter-gatherers come out literally on top nearly every time.  Did you know that only in the last century in the richest parts of the world have the statures of agriculturalists regained the heights of ancient hunter-gatherers?

Other indications of ill health abounded among the first farmers.  Tooth decay became Hunterprominent along with high infant mortality, iron deficiencies, and an increase in disease.  Farmers also had a significantly shorter life span than contemporaneous hunter-gatherers. 

The bad health of early farmers was partly due to human populations expanding faster than the farmers' ability to grow food for themselves, as well as to famines when crop failures or fires destroyed hoarded grain.  But information from early agricultural societies in the Americas show that it also took us a while to figure out how to nourish our bodies adequately while eating huge amounts of just a few foods rather than bits and pieces of this and that --- for example, we had to learn to nixtamalize corn to unlock niacin and to combine that corn in the right proportions with beans to create a well-rounded diet.  Mineral deficiencies were also more likely in a farming society since nearly every soil is deficient in one more more micronutrient, a deficiency that farmed crops pass on to their farmers.

Even in the seventeenth century, the lifespan of an average European was around 40 years, while transplants to Massachusetts (where colonists by necessity had a partly hunter-gatherer diet) lived to the average age of 71.8 years.  Part of the increased life span Native Americans and colonistsof the colonists can be attributed to the lower population in North America at the time, which carried with it a lower risk of parasities and disease, but nutrition was a key factor as well.  (As a side note --- yes, the Native Americans were taller than the first European settlers.)

But we're better off now, right?  Actually, Jared Diamond notes in Guns, Germs, and Steel that even in the modern world, only those of us fed by agribusinesses are really better off than our hunter-gatherer neighbors.  Most modern peasant farmers and herders spend more hours working than those in hunter-gatherer societies and live less healthy lives.  True, our lifespans are now longer due to advances in modern medicine, but I have to wonder if we would have needed those medical advances if we hadn't weakened our bodies by changing over to a grain-based diet.

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

Posted Fri Sep 17 12:00:57 2010 Tags:

diy golf cart dump boxThe original do it yourself golf cart dump box had to be deleted when we had the recent repair work done.

This next version will be more sturdy thanks to a few lessons learned.
Huckleberry posing as a cute cat for a change
Stay tuned for more details.

Posted Fri Sep 17 16:45:21 2010 Tags:

Ketchup ingredientsDespite getting hit by early blight, septoria leaf spot, and late blight, our tomatoes are still plugging away.  We've met our quota of spaghetti sauce and pizza sauce frozen for the winter, have run out of days hot enough to dry whole tomatoes, and can only make two batches of harvest catch-all soup per week since I didn't plant enough parsley this spring.  Time to experiment with ketchup!
Processing tomatoes in a Foley mill
The internet is chock full of ketchup recipes, so it took me a while to discover a recipe that tasted a lot like the stuff in the grocery store's squeeze bottles.  (Yes, we have unsophisticated tastes when it comes to ketchup.)  The recipe that follows is quite mild, so you might decide to increase the seasonings, or perhaps add some of the alternate spices found in other recipes --- celery, cloves, hot peppers, cinnamon, paprika, Blending onions in a food processorground mustard, etc.  If you've developed your own ketchup recipe, please tell me about it in the comments!

For my simple recipe, you start with a medium-sized bowl full of ripe roma tomatoes.  Cut off the tops and any bad spots and blend in the food processor until liquified.  Pass the blended tomatoes through a foley mill to remove seeds and skin.  You should now have a large skillet mostly full of thick tomato juice.
Homemade ketchup and fries
Next, remove the exterior skins from 2 cloves of garlic and 1.5 large onions.  Cut into pieces small enough to fit into the food processor and blend until liquified.

Add the blended garlic and onions to the tomatoes, along with 3 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, 0.5 teaspoons of allspice, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 4.5 tablespoons of honey.  Nutritional information for homemade ketchupCook on high heat, stirring as necessary, until the mixture resembles ketchup --- about an hour.

Allow the ketchup to sit in the fridge for a couple of hours before tasting it.  Then make some baked sweet and white potato fries and dig in!

This recipe makes about 2.75 cups of ketchup.  Since you don't put in corn syrup and do use all fresh vegetables, I tend to agree with Ronald Reagan and consider it a vegetable (although a very small serving of one.)  Compared to storebought ketchup, this concoction has about half the salt, two-thirds of the sugars, and a third again as many vitamins and minerals.

Our homemade chicken waterer is great in coops or tractors.
Posted Sat Sep 18 07:12:14 2010 Tags:
big pile of firewood

We got two small dump truck loads of firewood delivered yesterday for 300 dollars.

The guy at the hardware store looked at me funny when I told him this news.

"Don't you guys have plenty of trees you could cut down?" He inquired.

I then briefly explained how I've been converted by Anna to recognize how important a tree cover is for the wetland area we live in. If we cut down too many trees the fragile ecosystem could be damaged. I for one like to see the occasional blue heron and wood duck stop by for a visit along with hundreds of other signs of life in a swampy area.

Buying firewood feels like part of the price that needs to be paid if we want to keep our little piece of nature here humming along with such high levels of balance and harmony.

Posted Sat Sep 18 16:26:27 2010 Tags:

Storing potatoes in the fridgeA couple of months ago when I mentioned that I was storing our potatoes in the fridge, Daddy emailed me to say that was a bad idea.  So I poked around on the internet, and quickly found lots of unofficial sources agreeing with him.  However, when I went to the experts, I discovered that the worst thing to happen to potatoes in the fridge is that cold temperatures result in starches being converted to sugars, making your potatoes taste sweet and fry up dark.  We plant Yukon Golds specifically because we like the sweet taste, so that chemical change wasn't enough to deter me.

With digging out our fridge root cellar still on the back burner, I actually had to toss two thirds of the potatoes under my bed for safe-keeping.  I wasn't sure how they would do, but the spuds are still hard and happy despite warm summer temperatures.  And every time my hand drifts down and rubs up against a potato, I dream about my ancestress who was pulling potatoes out from under her bed when Indians came to visit....

Our homemade chicken waterer prevents coccidiosis.
Posted Sun Sep 19 08:11:14 2010 Tags:
fully automatic chicken house design
has a great post on how he fully automated his chicken coop so he could leave for a 3 week holiday and still come back to a happy flock still alive and clucking.

It even handles his two ducks by giving them their own door at the bottom. Ducks like to stay out about an hour past dusk which means he had to set their door on a timer.

My favorite feature is the internet chicken cam, an innovation I've been trying to make happen for over a year now. This allows him to check up on his birds online, which I'm sure gives one a good feeling knowing their chickens and ducks are safely tucked in for the night.

The only thing I would do different here is replace his clunky, old fashioned waterer with an Avian Aqua Miser. He's got it set up to have the water flush his system for 2 minutes twice a day, which is acceptable, but in my opinion an Avian Aqua Miser would be a more simple solution that would be less prone to fail while providing cleaner water for both his chickens and ducks.

Siblify's chickens and ducks and the rest of the flock

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 Sun Sep 19 16:23:42 2010 Tags:

New potato onion sproutsWhen brainstorming reasons why my potato onions stayed so small, I never thought to consider planting date.  Last year, I put in my potato onions at the beginning of November, but the few bulbs I left in the ground this summer to finish up their bloom cycle (no seeds resulted unfortunately) started sprouting fresh leaves in mid-August.  I tend to believe that plants know best, so I went ahead and planted our summer harvest a month ago rather than waiting for the late fall date I'd chosen last year, and the onions are nearly all up.  In fact, one plant that had gotten a bit uncovered is clearly already splitting into two bulbs.
Potato onion
I can't remember why I planted the onions so late last year, but most sources recommend you treat potato onions like garlic, and many sources do recommend late fall planting dates for garlic.  However, I've always had great luck planting our garlic at this time of year --- the extra couple of months of non-freezing weather seems to boost my yields considerably.  I'm hopeful that planting our potato onions in late summer will give them time to produce the larger bulbs I crave to wean us off annual onions.

Treat your backyard chickens to a homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Mon Sep 20 08:01:02 2010 Tags:

Mayan offering atop a pyramidLast week, I pointed out how farming actually made us less healthy than our hunter-gatherer forefathers.  Agriculture seemed to make us less pleasant as well.

I started becoming interested in early agriculture due to my obsession with Mayan pyramids and Native American mounds.  As I read about the cultures that built these inspiring structures, separated by thousands of miles and years, their stories began to look eerily similar.  Corn showed up, kings sprang up, and the common guy got roped into building giant edifices rather than paying attention to his own life.  When the same story (albeit with a different grain) was repeated in the Fertile Crescent, I figured corn wasn't the culprit; agriculture was.

Evidence from modern hunter-gatherer societies suggests that these people have and had a Ancient Chinese grave goodsvery egalitarian structure with a focus on the good of the tribe.  Peopled lived in communal villages where sharing with the group was the first priority, and individual families and possessions weren't a big deal.  There was no such thing as richness and poverty.  Instead, the whole tribe ate, or the whole tribe went hungry.

As soon as people began farming (and had the ability to store a surplus), our entire social structure changed.  The family became the the first obligation of the individual, and certain families became much richer than others.  Rather than living in nearly identical houses, rich families built large edifices while poor families lived in hovels.  The rich were buried with luxurious goods, while the poor were tossed alone into their graves.  Ironically, surplus food had created poverty.
Building the pyramid
This new notion --- rich and poor --- quickly gave rise to totalitarian governments.  Elite leaders were able to convince or coerce their followers into building the huge structures that still remain as tourist attractions in Central America and Egypt.  Fast forward ahead to the present and we see that even modern democracies are ruled by an elite few.  In essence, the first farmers seem to have harvested inequality along with their wheat.

Escape the rat race with Microbusiness Independence.

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

Posted Mon Sep 20 12:00:43 2010 Tags:

sweet potato harvest
Anna decided it was time to check on the sweet potatoes and discovered that we have some huge tubers!

I'm guessing this year's harvest is bigger than all our other sweet potato years combined.

Posted Mon Sep 20 19:23:58 2010 Tags:

Stupice tomato plantYou might remember that I planted tomato islands and late tomatoes in various parts of the garden in hopes of getting a crop even if the blight hit my main tomato patch.  I regret to inform you that the tomato islands didn't do any good.  In fact, since I planted the "islands" on the shady side of the garden to get them as far away from the main tomato patch as possible, once the blight hit, it wiped out the loner plants even faster.

On the other hand, the idea of succession planting tomatoes has merit.  I planted a yellow roma from seed in our main tomato patch at the same time I transplanted in the seedlings.  Although that roma did catch the blight from its neighbors, its youthful vigor somehow helped it out, and the late roma is now producing more fruits than its neighbors.

Blighted Blondkopfchen plantMy supposedly blight resistant tommy-toe, on the other hand, seems to be more susceptible to one of our diseases (maybe the septaria leaf spot?) than its neighbors, so it's actually doing worse, not better.  Meanwhile, the Blondkopfchen tommy-toe that I thought would do well in blight situations is the first of our tomato plants to become totally defoliated by blight --- little yellow fruits are slowly ripening on a dead vine.  This year, Stupice seems to be our blight-free winner, putting out new green growth despite shrivelled bottom leaves.

Next year, I plan to do away with the most blight-prone roma varieties, to continue my pruning campaign and succession planting, and to plant all of my tomatoes in the sunniest part of the garden.  I'll also continue planting half a dozen or more species of eating tomatoes, figuring that at least one of them will be resistant to that year's fungal diseases.  Meanwhile, we continue to eat as many fresh tomatoes as possible to store up those fond memories until next July.

Don't want to experiment on your own?  Mark has taken all of the guesswork out of chicken waterers with our homemade chicken waterer kit.
Posted Tue Sep 21 07:28:35 2010 Tags:

Cro-Magnon cave paintingNearly as soon as people in the Fertile Crescent started to farm, they embarked on world domination.  If you'll recall, I argued that overpopulation lay at the root of the original farmers turning to agriculture, but agriculture only exacerbated the overpopulation problem.  Not only did sedentism allow early farmers to double their birth rate, children suddenly became useful as farm hands and old folks became fonts of wisdom rather than a drain on the tribe.  Ill health wasn't enough to counteract this trend toward increased population, and those new people had to go somewhere.

From the moment agriculture began to spread beyond the Fertile Crescent, it took a mere 300 years for farming to displace hunting and gathering throughout Europe.  I'd like to Map of Indo-European Languages, 500 ADbelieve that the contemporaneous hunter-gatherers (like those pictured above) saw how much fun it was to grow wheat and jumped on the bandwagon, but archaeological evidence suggests a different story.  Archaeologists can tell the difference between the artifacts of the hunter-gatherers and farmers of the time, and there is absolutely no evidence of cultural interchange between the two groups...except for spear points.  By mapping the offshoots of their language --- known to linguists as Indo-European languages --- we can see that these people not only took over Europe, but also spread out across southern Asia.

As Jared Diamond eloquently argues in Guns, Germs, and Steel, you can continue to trace the spread of the first farmers to the domination of the Americas.  Europeans' early domestication of plants and animals turned us into war machines --- we had enough spare Conquistador fighting Incas from horsebackfood to feed full-time soldiers and the leisure to invent technologies of war like swords, guns, armor, and far-ranging ships.  Farming also led to the ability to write, and effective communication was a big factor in our ability to win battles against stronger foes.

Domesticated animals were also essential in the European march toward world domination.  Horses were important because foot soldiers can't stand long against a warrior on horseback, but the real reason we devastated the native people of North, South, and Central America was disease.  Many experts believe that by the time Europeans returned to the Americas with conquest in mind, smallpox and other diseases from earlier contact had already wiped out around 95% of the native population.  Europeans had evolved a partial immunity to the deadly disease since we'd had to face smallpox ever since we domesticated its original host --- cattle.  In contrast, Native Americans had only domesticated the turkey and the dog, so they had no similarly deadly diseases to rebuff us with.

In essence, overpopulation gave us the impetus to dominate the world and agriculture gave us the means.  Clearly, wheat has a lot to answer for.

Find the time to follow your own path with Microbusiness Independence.

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

Posted Tue Sep 21 12:03:31 2010 Tags:

I've spent a day in an epic adventure to install a Xantrex C-35 charge controller in the old solar powered house that I am trying to fix up. It seemed it should be easy, there are only 4 wires to connect to it. Hah! After hours working by kerosine lantern light last night, and more hours this morning, it's hooked up and working well, though not in its final configuration.

charge controller temporarily badly installed

I have left the details of that adventure to my own blog, but thought I'd guest post here some more general thoughts of a mostly untrained electrician working on concrete floors way up in the holler, miles from any help.

I'm only mostly untrained because I did study electronics in high school. Sort of. Much of it didn't stick, and I mostly get by with what I intuited about electricity playing with batteries, wires, and motors as a kid.

What did stick, and what I kept thinking as I worked near potentially fairly high voltage from a PV array today, is the safety mantra of my teacher: "Use only one hand!" I also wore gloves, and insulated shoes. I've had one 120v AC shock through my body at 13, and one DC electric fence grab shock around 8, and either was more than enough.

Of course I also threw breakers when I could, but I needed live wires whose voltage I could check during some of the process of untangling the house's existing wiring. That included figuring out what the unlabeled wires went to, and what labels were wrong.

As I pulled open wiring boxes, disconnected breakers, and generally simplified the existing rats nest until I could understand where to hook the charge controller up to it, I found it very helpful to keep detailed notes and drawings of how the system was when I found it, and what I observed and changed.

I've also started a solar logbook to record data from the charge controller, since it's not an expensive model capable of recording data for download to a computer.

battery bank layout

With the charge controller hooked up, I've enjoyed a sunny day with plenty of power to use, and a good start at topping up the battery bank.

Posted Tue Sep 21 16:21:46 2010 Tags:

Small sweet potatoesI went out to dig the other 20% of the sweet potatoes Tuesday morning and came home with this measly wheelbarrow full.  And for the rest of the day, I pondered why Monday's beds yielded up dozens of mammoth tubers while Tuesday's beds gave me just a few skinny roots.

I considered planting date, since I put in a bed every week or so between mid May and late June, but my measly beds were planted near the beginning of that succession and even the latest-planted bed yielded up good-sized tubers.  Or maybe it was the type of fertilizer?  Nope, I gave all of our sweet potatoes the same chicken manure compost.

Clip off the leaves before digging sweet potatoesI had just read Steve Solomon's Gardening When it Counts when planting our sweet potatoes this year, so I spaced the slips nearly twice as far apart as last year (only four slips in an average sized bed.)  That planting method might explain why I had so many huge tubers, but since I used the same method on the measly beds, it doesn't explain the disproportionate yield between beds.

Finally, the simplest answer came to me --- location.  All of my hefty tubers came from the upper garden where we enjoy a slightly clayey loam, while the measly tubers came from the mule garden which is pure clay.  I was tricked into thinking the mule garden would be Dig test tubers to check for sweet potato ripenessokay for sweet potatoes since I've had good harvests from garlic, white potatoes, and carrots there, but my failure with onions in the mule garden clay and with all of the above in the back garden's even more clayey clay should have clued me in --- root crops just don't like clay.  Next year, I'll stick to the front garden for our sweet potatoes.

Check out my previous posts to learn more about when to harvest sweet potatoes and how to cure sweet potatoes.  Or, if you're really into planning ahead for next year, learn to make your own sweet potato slips!

Our homemade chicken waterer is great for the backyard chicken keeper who doesn't like filth.
Posted Wed Sep 22 07:19:28 2010 Tags:

Graph of tons of world food by categoryModern agribusinesses are the clear descendants of an agricultural system that gave rise to ill health, poverty, and wars of conquest.  I'm not going to bore you with a rundown on how modern agribusinesses have created environmental devastation, poverty in developing countries, the demise of the small farmer, and yet more concentration of wealth in the hands of a few --- I assume you've heard it all before.  Instead, I want to talk for a few minutes about the modern diet and processed foods.

Currently, twelve plant species make up 80% of the world's crops by weight --- wheat, corn, rice, barley, sorghum, soybeans, potato, manioc, sweet potato, sugarcane, sugar beet, and banana.  Of those, the big three are vastly dominant, and grains provide over half of the calories for most people in the developing world.  In the United States, corn is king, and its derivatives can be found in nearly every processed food on the supermarket shelves.
Sylvester Graham
The current American obsession with processed food can be traced back to a Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham who preached a message in keeping with the traditional Christian belief that mortification of the body can elevate the soul.  Graham advocated vegetarianism, and pushed a particular cracker recipe so hard that it now retains his name.  Later advocates built on Graham's ideas and argued that food is inherently dirty, having been grown in the soil.  Only by processing that food can we turn it into something pure.

Agribusinesses took the idea and ran with it.  The market for food was starting to butt up against its boundaries --- people can only eat so much --- but processing that food turned it into a value-added product that could be sold for more cash.  The businesses marketed processed food as a status symbol and time saver, and the American public lapped up both the advertising and the corn syrup laden sodas.

USDA food pyramidThese agribusinesses quickly discovered that they could grow far more corn and wheat than Americans would willingly eat, so they turned to the government for help.  I grew up believing that the old USDA food pyramid was gospel, but only recently did I realize that the USDA has motives beyond making me healthy.  With agribusinesses giving huge donations to political leaders and those leaders funding the USDA, it's no surprise that the food pyramid was used to tell Americans to eat more of the foods we were growing in surplus --- grains.  During the Depression, our government even handed out two types of food coupons; only after using the one for wheat and other surplus commodities were Americans allowed to use the other and take home fruits and vegetables.

Given this history of our spiritual leaders and government pushing processed foods and grain-based diets, we shouldn't be surprised that America is caught in the throes of an epidemic of obesity, especially among the lower class where people have little choice but to accept the government's handouts.  But the sad truth is that for most of us, eating processed foods is a choice.  Every day, we make a decision about what we want to eat --- will we turn vegetables and fruits from the farmer's market or our garden into the modern incarnation of a hunter-gatherer's diet, or will we pull out that frozen pasta alfredo or stop by McDonalds for a Big Mac?  I believe that we owe it to ourselves to see past the marketing and be aware of what we lose by buying into time-saving processed foods.

Stuck in a cubicle?  Microbusiness Independence shows you the path to freedom.

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

Posted Wed Sep 22 12:00:43 2010 Tags:

I'm swinging on the front porch shade, with happy wifi bars lit up on my laptop. A good network makes for a happy home, isn't that how the saying goes? (Maybe not yet.)

Typically that's easy to achieve -- here it wasn't. The house is solar powered, the only connection to the outside is a phone line. So I needed a computer that would work in that environment, using minimal (12 volt) power, and getting the most out of the limited dialup bandwidth while providing those happy wifi bars.

Tecchies have been building little servers like this for years, to be used in our homes and the homes of family. We've only recently came up with a name for them -- "FreedomBox". Expect to hear more about FreedomBoxes soon.

All right then, here's my latest FreedomBox build. Some of its parts are recycled from a FreedomBox I set up years ago when Anna and Mark were just getting started at their farm, and were on dialup.

  • Computer: Linksys NSLU2. There are faster choices than the "Slug", but on dialup, speed doesn't much matter, and there are not many lower-powered choices. And with the NSLU2, I can take advantage of years of development and experience, that has resulted in great support for running eg, Debian on it, and deep available knowledge of hardware hacks. It's proven, cheap, highly reliable hardware, and I had it lying around.
  • Power: The NSLU2 is a 5 volt computer. There are some highly (90%) efficient 12 volt to 5 volt converters, which I covet. But the cheap and easy option is a automotive USB power adapter. So power is coming in to the NSLU2 on a USB cable. It's possible to just plug that into its usb port and it will run. But that wastes a port. Instead, I made the other end of the usb cable have a NSLU2 power socket on it. So, no wasted ports. The system has available as many amps as the voltage converter supplies. Not many. Booting it with too many usb gadgets attached could be an issue. (If I need to run an external usb hard drive, it had better have its own power supply.)
  • Wireless: ZyDAS 2501 USB dongle. Not my first choice, just one I had lying around. This device cannot run in AP mode. It is, by the way, possible to use some USB dongles in AP mode with a modified hostapd, but the few I know that work are out of stock. No problem; this house won't have many visitors, and I can tell them the details for connecting using Ad-Hoc wireless mode.
  • Storage: 64 gb thumb drive I had lying around. Hmm, last time I touched a NSLU2, I had only 1 gb drives lying around. Progress.
  • Modem: My NSLU2 is modified to have an external serial port, so I can use an external modem if desired. But I suspect a USB modem will use slightly less power, even though this third USB device means I need a USB hub too. I was doubtful about finding a USB modem dongle that works with Linux, but it was actually no problem, the USR5637 Just Works.
  • Software: Debian Linux. For the first time I'm using the polipo web proxy cache, and it works marvelously on dialup and on this low-spec system. Combined with dnsmasq, this makes web browsing over dialup actually not painful.
Solar charge controller mounted in the kitchen

(This guest post was previously posted on my blog.)

Posted Wed Sep 22 14:14:51 2010 Tags:

Curly mustardNow that the weather has finally turned autumnal, the few fall crops I managed to germinate are growing very quickly.  I don't like leaving beds empty in the summer, and didn't want to waste the warmest part of the garden on cover crops, so as other fall crops failed to come up, I just kept throwing curly mustard seed onto bed after bed.  On some beds, I had to throw the mustard seed down two times to get good coverage, but now our winter garden is bright green and full of delicious leaves, ones that I don't plan to eat yet.

In the past, I've started eating my fall greens as soon as the plants got big enough, and they lasted well into the autumn.  However, last year I was stunned to be served fresh greens in the dead of winter at a friend's house, and he told me his trick.  He lets the plants put out a lot of growth in the fall, then starts to eat the greens in the winter.  Although the plants don't have enough sunlight to produce new growth in the winter, under a row cover they do manage to hold onto the green leaves they made in the fall (now turned sweet from cold weather.)  I would far rather eat from my summer garden now and save our fall greens to be a winter delicacy, so I'm following suit.

Granted, mustard isn't the most winter-hardy green, so I might be disappointed.  Kale is a more dependable winter crop here, but kale was one of the autumn plants that barely germinated in the summer heat, and I didn't have spare seeds on hand to replant.  Here's hoping the mustard is hardy enough to make my experiment succeed.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Thu Sep 23 07:08:40 2010 Tags:

Agriculture was humanity's solution to the problem of overpopulation --- a farmer can Graph of grain production during the Green Revolutiongrow ten to 100 times as much food in a certain area as a hunter-gatherer can collect from the same amount of land left in its wild condition.  But in the early twentieth century, it looked like even agriculture couldn't save us from starvation.  In the United States, we were farming all of the arable land, but people kept having babies --- clearly, we needed to find a way to increase the yield per acre.  So modern science came up with hybrid corn and dwarf wheat that could be combined with chemical fertilizers to feed our growing population.

The Green Revolution is only a short term fix, though.  One day, humanity will find the limits of our planet's ability to support us --- unless, that is, we can discover a method of bringing our population growth under control.  That's a tough order since every introductory biology course teaches that the basic evolutionary urge of reproduction lies at the root of all animals' actions, including humans.  That urge --- to have as many kids as possible so that our genes will spread across the world --- led us to agriculture and our wars of conquest.

The ThinkerBut humanity has a saving grace.  We are able to use rational thought to decide when and how to override our ingrained evolutionary urges.  For example, since males of most species spend so little energy creating sperm, it's understood that the most efficient male reproductive strategy is to have sex with as many females as possible.  And yet, in modern society, most men have found a way to sublimate that urge --- in fact, some men even choose to practice monogamy and are quite happy with that anti-evolutionary choice.

All of us are probably familiar with another way that we buck our genes on a daily basis.  We've evolved in a world where salt and sugars are scarce, so most of our bodies tell us to eat more potato chips and candy.  And yet, we somehow manage to listen to nutritional advice and keep our salt and sugar intake within reasonable bounds --- human rationality wins over bodily urges yet again.

I believe that modern humans must make another ethical decision and choose to limit our own birth rates, just as hunter-gatherers once limited their own population growth.  If we each opted to have only one child (or no children at all), we could halve our population at the same rate the first farmers doubled theirs.  Of course, that would mean directing our societies away from "growth economics" --- living within our means as a nation, saving more since we won't have so many young workers to support us as we age.  In short, choosing to limit our birth rate would mean living sustainably.

Mark and I chose the no-children route years ago, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.  If I had been completely honest, I would have put Mark's vasectomy on the list of factors that turned our fourth year on the farm into the best year ever.  Being child-free by choice gives Two is enoughus a lot of benefits besides unprotected sex, though --- lack of children is one of the reasons we can live so happily on very little income, and we also have lots of free time to research permaculture, shoot photos, and travel.

Neither Mark nor I have an overwhelming urge to rear children, which isn't as unique as you might think.  I've spent a lot of time in the last few years feeling out my friends and acquaintances about their decisions to reproduce.  Leaving aside those whose religion or laziness forbade them birth control, the reasons people cite for having kids are varied --- societal pressure, an assumption that having kids is simply what adults do, a way out of an annoying job (a surprisingly common reason among women), a way of bonding the spouses together, an urge to find meaning in a currently unfulfilling life, etc.  I suspect that none of these reasons feels quite as important after those new parents spend two years without adequate sleep, and I pity the children who are reared by people who looked at kids as a means to an end rather than as the full time, lifelong commitment they really are.

Sometimes I dream of a utopian world where the only people who embark on parenthood do so out of an urge to raise a child to the best of their abilities.  From my informal poll, it seems like these people make up perhaps a quarter of the population, if that, which makes me feel like these true parent types could actually have three kids apiece and the world's human population would still plummet.  In this real world, there are a lot of options for those who feel called to the path of parenthood but who don't want to clutter up the world with more humans --- fostering and adoption are at the top of the list.  In fact, I feel like I got all of my parental urges out of my system by being an informal nanny to Mark's cousins for a few years.

If you have already become a parent, you can still be part of the solution.  Why not teach your kids and grandkids about birth control (and pass out condoms like candy?)  Various studies have shown that having the ability to choose if and when to have kids is especially important for women who may opt to have kids at an older age, preserving the mother's health and allowing her to attain a higher standard of living.  (There's a reason the terms "barefoot" and "pregnant" go together.)  You might even consider cluing in starry-eyed young men and women about the realities of parenthood seldom spelled out on mainstream television shows.

Just as overpopulation initiated poverty, wars of conquest, and ill health, I think that voluntarily reducing our population can solve many of these problems.  Choosing a route other than childbirth is the biggest contribution most of us can make to environmental protection and world peace.

Fund your own adventure with Microbusiness Independence.

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

Posted Thu Sep 23 12:00:44 2010 Tags:
club car golf cart detail

I improved the anchor points for this new version of the do it yourself golf cart dump box so as to increase the stability.

The whole thing can be put together for the price of six 2x6's, a handful of hardware, and half a sheet of plywood.

Posted Thu Sep 23 16:27:17 2010 Tags:

Immature peanuts in late AugustFiguring out when your peanuts are ready is a lot like deciding when to harvest sweet potatoes.  First, check the days to harvest.  We grow one of the few varieties with a short enough season to mature in zone 6 (Early Spanish --- 100 days to harvest), which means that we could potentially dig our peanuts anytime after the first of September.

Various websites admonish you to wait until the leaves on your peanuts are starting to yellow, but it's now nearly a month after our peanuts are supposed to be ripe, and we haven't seen any yellowing.  However, the plants did mostly stop blooming a couple of weeks ago, which I suspect is a good sign that they're nearing maturity.

Peanuts attached to the plant rootsIf you think the date is close enough, dig up a test plant.  To dig peanuts, sink your shovel straight down into the soil about six inches away from the plant's stalk and lever the pointed end toward the plant, loosening the soil underneath.  Then gently lift the plant out of the soil.  If the ground is clayey and too wet or too dry, you'll lose peanuts in the process, so it's best to make sure your soil is moderately damp before digging a test plant.

Shake off any clods of dirt, then take a look at the beautiful peanuts clustered around the plant's roots.  There will definitely be a few paler peanuts that aren't yet fully formed, but if the majority are full-sized (like in the photo above), you're probably in good shape.  To make sure, crack a shell Nitrogen-fixing nodules on peanut rootsopen --- are the nuts filling up the whole shell inside?  If so, your peanuts are ready to dig.  (Take a minute while you're peering at the roots to notice the nitrogen-fixing nodules lower down --- pretty cool, eh?)

Dig your whole patch just like you dug the test plant, then put them on a screen or in another airy location to dry.  Don't eat any of your bounty yet (including that test peanut!)  Fresh peanuts contain a mild toxin and need to cure for a few days before they can be eaten.  Once you've waited the requisite time, check out my post about making your own peanut butter!

Our homemade chicken waterer is always POOP-free.
Posted Fri Sep 24 07:09:31 2010 Tags:

Cost of food as a percentage of American income over timeIt probably seems a bit strange to some of you to commit so much energy to thinking about agriculture as the root of societal woes.  After all, most people in the developed world are so cut off from food production that a cashier at our grocery store this spring had to ask me to identify the asparagus in my cart before she could ring it up.  Thanks to government subsidies and externalization of the true environmental effects of agriculture, modern agribusinesses feed Americans at a cost of only about 9.8% of our income (5.7% for food eaten at home), a rate that has been steadily declining since 1970.  Modern agriculture means that food is easy and cheap --- who cares about the historical problems associated with farming?

We should care.  Because, as the National Institute of Health wrote, "Over the next few decades, life expectancy for the average American could decline by as much as 5 years unless aggressive efforts are made to slow rising rates of obesity."  Because that cheap food in the grocery store also results in malnourishment and starvation in the world's less developed countries, where peasant farmers grow our shrimp and beef but can only afford to eat our cheap corn.  Only the truly short-sighted can believe that the ketchup we buy for pennies at Food City doesn't have strings attached.

Paleo dietLuckily, there is a solution.  We can overcome many of the evils associated with mainstream agriculture by planting our own backyard garden.  Most of us will plant vegetables, perhaps some fruit and nut trees, and keep a few pastured poultry --- if we subsisted solely on produce from such a homestead, our health would improve markedly.  Permaculture and organic gardening --- while only moderately suited to industrial scale agriculture --- work perfectly for the home grower, allowing us to create a sort of hybrid farmer/hunter-gatherer paradise in our own backyard.  If we raised our own pastured meat and killed deer to fill in the gaps, those Third World farmers wouldn't be stuck in a trap of spiralling malnutrition.

A couple of weeks ago, Mark and I met a man who regaled us with the tale of his struggle to conquer diabetes.  He was 80 pounds overweight when his doctor prescribed insulin, but through daily exercise and a strict diet, he dropped the excess pounds and avoided medication.  We ran into this determined soul as he worked his second job --- a weekend addition to the usual 9 to 5 grind that he took on not for the spare cash but because he needed a way to mentally escape the pressure cooker of his main job.  "You must have a big garden?" we asked him, thinking of how the fresh food would make his strict diet more palatable, how he could put some of those hours of excercise to work building something tangible, and how planting and weeding would help him release the stress of his office work.  The man looked at us as if we were crazy.  No, of course he didn't have a garden --- he simply didn't have time.

Community gardenLack of time to grow our own food is the neverending refrain I run into among people who care deeply about world peace and the environment.  We have been lulled into a false belief that gardening is simply not important, that our personal actions make no difference in the grand scheme of things, that our time is better spent pecking away at the keyboard in pursuit of a buck or relaxing in front of the TV.  Even Mark and I fall into that trap from time to time, and we admit that we are still a long way from the food self sufficiency we crave.  But we know that every successful experiment is a step in the right direction and every failure is time well spent.

By the way, if you live in zone 6 or warmer, you can still plant fall greens if you hurry.  Or just put down a cover crop or kill mulch to jump start the spring bounty.  Gardening does matter, and we can each be part of the solution...if we have enough time.

Why work 40+ hours a week when you can make a living in 6?  Our ebook shows you how.

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

Posted Fri Sep 24 12:00:50 2010 Tags:

Anna bananaDefinition:

1. Elongated crescent-shaped yellow fruit with soft sweet flesh being transplanted by someone with the first name of Anna.

Look how big these miniature banana plants got after a solid summer of non-direct sunlight!

Posted Fri Sep 24 16:18:07 2010 Tags:

Seed garlicAs I poked holes in a straw mulch to plant individual garlic cloves this week, I pondered whether we were saving money by growing our own garlic.  I usually figure we're saving quite a bit of cash with our garden, but we did buy a lot of soil amendments this year as a long term investment in our soil's fertility.  Are we still coming out ahead?

A cost-benefit analysis of the backyard garden is a tough task because it's hard to know where to begin and end your calculations.  Seed is the least straightforward part of analyzing this year's garlic cost --- we didn't spend anything on seed this year, but we did buy two pounds of seed garlic a couple of years ago for $45.  On the other hand, while seed potatoes tend to accumulate diseases over time, seed garlic only becomes more acclimated to your region and produces bigger yields in subsequent years (as long as you are careful to always plant the biggest cloves from the biggest bulbs.)  I figure we'll use the descendents of that seed garlic for the next sixty years or so, giving me a cost of around 75 cents per year, or 4 cents per bed.

Straw mulch on a garden bedWe traded a dozen eggs and a butternut squash for the horse manure I used to fertilize the beds, which probably shouldn't even factor into the cost, but I'll give it a shot.  Our chickens are currently eating about $30 worth of chicken feed per month and giving us back about 90 eggs (on the low side since the days are getting shorter and we have a hanger-on who needs to go in the pot.)  That's $4 per dozen eggs (mental note: we need to get off the commercial chicken feed.)  I saw a butternut for 99 cents at a fruit stand the other day, so I'll say we spent $5 total, or 28 cents per bed, on fertilizer.

Straw is expensive in our region since no one here grows grain --- about $5.50 per bale.  (This is another input I want to work on growing myself.)  But a bale is also a lot more mulch than it looks like.  Once you fluff up the flakes, one bale of straw mulches 6 beds, giving me a cost of about 92 cents per garden bed.  Total of these three storebought inputs is $1.24 per bed.

Assuming our harvest is about the same as last year's (even though it's likely to be higher, as the garlic continues to acclimate to our soil and weather), we will get about 1.4 pounds of garlic per bed.  That comes to about 89 cents per pound of homegrown garlic.  The internet tells me that non-organic garlic in the grocery store costs roughly $2.50 per pound, so we're nearly tripling our investment in just eight months.  Clearly, growing our own makes financial sense.

Our homemade chicken waterer makes financial sense too.  It saves the average chicken-keeper hours per week previously spent cleaning filthy waterers.
Posted Sat Sep 25 08:00:07 2010 Tags:
anchor point of Club Car golf cart diy dump box

Once the back wheels are off you can install 4 wood screws on each side while the rear plank is resting on the bumper.

The seatback support bars are what helps to secure the front plank.

One should be able to figure out the rest from the previous pictures under the title of do it yourself golf cart dump box.

Posted Sat Sep 25 16:19:11 2010 Tags:
Late summer harvest
Just add spices, onions, cheese and two tortillas.
(Then freeze the other half bowlful of ripe, sweet peppers.)

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps the coop clean.
Posted Sun Sep 26 08:18:31 2010 Tags:

wild oyster mushroom tree treatAnna found these wild oyster mushrooms the other day while walking Lucy.

It took us a while to make a 100% identification, but now we know where to watch for future meals.

Very yummy, and very similar to the ones we cultivated on logs last year.bowl of oyster mushrooms wild

Posted Sun Sep 26 16:07:04 2010 Tags:

Mexican sour gherkinsI'm still on the fence about whether Mexican sour gherkins will be a permanent addition to our garden, but since the seeds are so expensive, I decided to save some just in case.  With no seed saving information on the internet, I merged a tutorial on saving cucumber seeds with my own observations on the natural history of the Mexican sour gherkin to come up with the experimental protocol below.

First, I left some of the earliest fruits on the vine to see what would happen.  When saving cucumber seeds, you're supposed to leave a cucumber on the vine until it Mexican sour gherkin cut in halfturns yellow and is fully matured, but Mexican sour gherkins never seem to turn yellow (although they do take on a yellowish cast.)  Instead, after a while they drop to the ground.  I figured these fallen fruits must be mature, and gathered them for my seed-saving experiment.

Cutting open one of the fallen gherkins, I could see that the seeds now made up nearly the entire interior of the fruit.  I squeezed out the guts of several fruits by poking a finger in each half.  Like tomato seeds, these gherkin seeds were surrounded by a frog-egg-like sack of fluid that must be fermented away before the seeds can be saved.  So I poured some water into the cup with my gherkin guts and left it alone.
Mexican sour gherkin seeds
The internet reports that the sack will have fermented away from cucumber seeds within three days, but my experience has shown that these sacks tend to take about a week to deteriorate in cool weather.  Sure enough, a week later, the water in my cup had become milky and, when swished, I could see bare seeds settled at the bottom.  So I carefully poured off the water, rinsed the seeds in another round of water, then turned them out onto a saucer to dry.

I'm very good at remembering to save seeds, but once they get to the drying stage, they tend to accumulate in jelly jars, cups, pans, saucers, and bowls in a long row along our windowsill.  I finally got around to Drying seeds on the windowsillputting away tomato, cantaloupe, watermelon, garbanzo, drying bean, urd bean, okra, pepper, and poppy seeds while taking photos for this post --- see, a blog is good for something.  Check out last year's lunchtime series for more tips on which seeds are easy to save and how to start your own seed saving campaign.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Mon Sep 27 08:28:39 2010 Tags:

Gardening for Maximum NutritionIf you were looking for a hearty dose of vitamin C in plant form, what would you eat?  If you answered "an orange", you're way off track --- you'd actually get more of the immune-system-boosting vitamin from a serving of broccoli, leaf amaranth, sweet peppers, or brussels sprouts.  In Gardening for Maximum Nutrition, Jerry Minnich exposes nutritional myths and drops hints for getting the most nutrition out of your garden.

Minnich notes that between 1925 and 1971, the American diet saw a 42% decrease in fresh fruits and vegetables, with the slack taken up by a lot more processed food.  Perhaps as a result of the focus on processed food, the nutritional value of those fruits and vegetables declined by 10 to 20% during the same period.  However, processing wasn't the only reason for the nutritional downturn --- growing methods and vegetable varieties also led to the watering down of our nutrition.

Gardening for Maximum Nutrition was published in 1983, so it has a seventies perspective on which food groups are bad for you (meats and fats are bad, the potato is swell.)  If you ignore that part, though, the book is easy to read, full of fun line drawings, and very informative.  And the author boldly states that following the tips in his book will allow you to double the nutritional output of your garden without spending any more time or expanding your growing area.  With a claim like that, how could you stop reading?

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This post is part of our Gardening for Maximum Nutrition lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Sep 27 12:00:40 2010 Tags:

how to use a toy as a deer deterrentThe cost per day for the experimental 4 dollar deer deterrent was just under 50 cents before it crashed and couldn't get back up.

It did provide some protection while I waited for our additional rotisserie motors, and I think if I had gone for one of the 10 dollar toys it might still be working.

Posted Mon Sep 27 16:54:57 2010 Tags:

Dwarf Cavendish BananasWe've had such good luck with our Dwarf Meyer Lemon that we decided to try out a few other dwarf tropical fruits.  These are all house plants that live outside in pots during the summer and then come in to sit in a sunny window in the house through the cold months.

Mostly, we're trying out different types of dwarf citrus, but Mark talked me into taking on two Dwarf Cavendish Bananas as well.  The bananas are very pretty plants that many people would consider Repotting a Dwarf Cavendish Banana with pupworthwhile as simple ornamentals, but I'm bound and determined to raise them all the way to fruiting.  If you can pull it off, Dwarf Cavendish fruits are only a bit smaller than the bananas you buy in the store, and a single plant can produce up to 90 bananas!

We've only had our bananas for five months, but I can already tell that they are a very different beast than lemons.  While our lemon loves light and reaches toward the window, my bananas got sunburned when I let their beautiful leaves get too close to the glass during the summer.  Lemons can deal with some sub-freezing temperatures (although too cold weather will make them drop their fruits), but bananas are supposed to be sensitive to drafts and stop growing below 57 F.

Banana pupAlthough they seem to be more sensitive than lemons, bananas are quite easy to propagate since they aren't grafted.  From time to time, a plant will send out an offshoot ("pup") from its base, which can be teased away from the mother plant during repotting and will grow into a new banana.  You'll need to take advantage of these pups because your original banana will eventually produce one huge mass of fruits and then die.  The pups are your next generation, slated to produce bananas in one to two years under good conditions.

While repotting our two bananas (and separating out our first pup), I discovered that bananas have a very different root form from lemons.  The latter likes to spread its roots horizontally, but our banana had instead already sent big roots down to the bottom of the pot.  I'll have to remember to buy deep pots for our bananas rather than wide.

So far we're quite pleased with our bananas, but I reserve judgement until I have a fruit in my hand.  Until then, our Dwarf Cavendish Bananas are yet another Walden Effect experiment.

Save yourself time and let us do the experimenting for you.  Our homemade chicken waterer kits help you make a poop-free chicken waterer in less than an hour.

Posted Tue Sep 28 07:35:18 2010 Tags:

Most nutritious vegetablesJerry Minnich considered the nutritional content of 89 common and not so common fruits and vegetables then developed lists of all-star garden crops.  In case you're curious, here's his list (in declining order of importance) of the crops that provide the most nutrition per serving: leaf amaranth, sunflower seeds, broccoli, soybeans, almonds, navy beans, collards, cowpeas, potatoes, dandelion greens, peanuts, peas, avocados, lima beans, great northern beans, kidney beans, okra, watermelons, kale, spinach, butternut squash, sweet potato, and turnip greens.  Are you as shocked as I am to see that the only fruit that makes the top 23 is the watery watermelon?

Minnich also provides another list of vegetables that I choose to call multivitamins.  While the previous list merely takes into account the total nutrition coming from the crop, this list looks at versatility and chooses vegetables that provide a little bit of all or most of the top vitamins and minerals: broccoli, leaf amaranth, lima beans, cowpeas, watermelons, almonds, collards, peas, potatoes, soybeans, and sunflower seeds.  Why not choose a plant off this list to go with your dinner every day rather than popping that multivitamin pill?

Keep in mind that these lists of nutritious vegetables are based on USDA serving size, which I suspect might be why they're so strongly weighted toward seeds.  Half a cup of cooked beans is one serving (350 calories) versus half a cup of broccoli (15 calories), 1 cup of collards (11 calories), or half a cup of watermelon (23 calories.)  Another list in the book breaks 39 of the most common foods down by pound per pound nutrition, which is probably more useful (though dry weight would be even more useful).  That list is topped by broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, lima beans, peas, asparagus, globe artichokes, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, and carrots.

Clearly, the healthiest vegetable is still up for debate (although it can't hurt to cultivate a liking for broccoli.)  Still, we've decided to try out a few of these high nutrition crops next year:

  • Leaf amaranth --- We're experimenting with grain amaranth this year, but are going to have to spread out and try leaf amaranth next year.  The latter is a summer green, which is a category underrepresented in our garden.  (We only grow swiss chard during hot weather.)  Since amaranth provides a hearty dose of calcium, iron, potassium, vitamin A, riboflavin, and vitamin C, along with lesser amounts of protein and niacin, it's hard to turn down.
  • Dandelion greens --- We already gather these in the wild in the early spring, but I've nearly been pushed over the edge into buying a cultivated version and finding it a bed in the forest garden.
  • Naked seed pumpkin --- These come under a huge variety of names, such as Eat All Squash, Sweet Nut Squash, Styrian Pumpkin, Lady Godiva Pumpkin, Kakai Pumpkin, etc.  The idea is that the seeds don't have a hull, so they don't require any processing before eating (except roasting, drying, or whatever you like to do with squash seeds.)  The downside is that the squash's flesh isn't very good compared to our darling butternuts so people usually give the insipid flesh to livestock and grow something tastier for pies.

Escape the rat race with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Gardening for Maximum Nutrition lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Sep 28 12:00:59 2010 Tags:

Lucy with turtle
This seems to be the time of year when box turtles come out more than usual. If you pay attention you can experience multiple sightings during a short walk in the woods.

box turtle close up

Posted Tue Sep 28 19:17:06 2010 Tags:

Ripe bell peppersAt this time of year, everything in the garden feels like a bonus.  Since I don't care enough to start my peppers inside, we usually only have a couple of weeks of sweet peppers, but this year we've already frozen over half a gallon.  Despite the blight, our tomatoes keep producing, and my succession planting means that our summer squash are loaded with fruits.

This week alone, we've put away three quarts of summer squash, two quarts of vegetable soup, a quart of ketchup, 1.5 quarts of green beans, a quart of swiss chard, and 1.5 quarts of stewed tomatoes.  Meanwhile, we're scarfing down cucumbers and fall raspberries, huge heads of broccoli, and the first few snow peas.  Just like the spring to summer changeover, the summer to fall changeover is a time of tremendous bounty, and we're enjoying every minute.

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps backyard coops clean as a whistle.
Posted Wed Sep 29 07:49:57 2010 Tags:

Florida orangeDid you know that one study comparing Valencia oranges grown in Florida to those grown in California showed that the former had only 33% of the vitamin A found in the latter?  Another study comparing the biggest to the smallest red cabbages showed that the huge heads had only 5% of the vitamin C by weight as the small heads.  Clearly, even within the same type of fruit or vegetable, growing conditions can have a huge impact on the quality of your food.

The Florida problem is related to soil quality --- Florida's soil tends to be sandy and lacking in organic matter, compared to the much richer loams found in California's orange groves.  Jerry Minnich explains that organic matter is key to good food quality since the humus binds soil together into aggregates, promotes microorganism growth, and as a result holds onto micronutrients that quickly wash beyond the reach of crops in soil low on organic matter.  If micronutrients aren't within reach, your plants won't be able to provide those micronutrients on your plate --- even plants are what they eat.

Soil organic matterThe solution is to add copious organic matter to your garden in the form of compost, mulches, and cover crops.  Minnich notes that manure is a very good, all-around source of nutrients since most livestock need many of the same micronutrients that you do, and tree leaves are also especially useful since deep-rooted trees can soak up micronutrients from the subsoil that are usually deficient in the topsoil of your region.  On the other hand, if you buy your food, it might make sense to pay the extra money for organic since various studies have shown that organically grown produce has up to 3.6 times the vitamin C, 2.3 times the betacarotene, and 1.7 times the protein as conventionally grown produce of the same type. 

Light is another very important factor, especially in the vitamin C content of your crops.  I've noticed that certain crops (particularly berries) are twice as sweet if harvested on a sunny afternoon compared to on a rainy day.  During sunny weather, your crops not only produce those delicious sugars, they also stock up on vitamin C --- one study showed that when a plant was shaded for 24 hours, it lost a fifth of its vitamin C content.  Other studies have suggested a similar loss of vitamin A and iron during low light conditions.  To prevent this nutrient loss in your garden, give your crops space so that overlapping leaves don't shade the produce and harvest your bounty in the afternoon.

Red Delicious appleI feel like I can taste the final factor resulting in watering down our produce's nutritional powers as well --- overuse of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.  Have you ever noticed how grocery store apples taste like they've taken the flavor from an apple half that size, combined it with half a cup of water, and left behind a crunchy but nearly taste-free fruit?  When plants are given too much readily available nitrogen, they grow quickly, but don't suck up micronutrients in the same proportion.  The result is a big, watery vegetable with little nutrition or taste.  Organic sources of nitrogen, on the other hand, tend to be released slowly over several years and don't cause this problem.

Feed your soil compost, delete the high nitrogen fertilizer, and watch the sun --- that sounds easy enough.

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This post is part of our Gardening for Maximum Nutrition lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Sep 29 12:00:42 2010 Tags:

rotisserie motor deer deterrent
After months of trial and error I think I've finally found the most sustainable motor for the
do it yourself deer deterrent project.

A rotisserie motor has been going non stop for over a month now with no sign of letting up. We just picked up 3 more at the local Ace hardware store in Abingdon to increase our garden protection and test this solution even further.

It's a lot less obnoxious, yet still unatural enough to stick out.

Posted Wed Sep 29 16:36:22 2010 Tags:

Shadows on the gardenAs the days shorten, the sun quickly dips behind the hill and provides only a smattering of sunlight to our upper garden.  I took this picture yesterday at 11:30 am when a third of the upper garden was still in shadow --- no wonder the summer plants like okra are starting to give up the ghost despite this garden's prime soil.

Since the front garden is mostly out of the running until April or May, I decided to see whether I could put at least some of those chilly months to good use by growing cover Buckwheat flowerscrops.  Cool weather cover crops need around 6 to 10 weeks to produce optimal biomass, and our first killing frost is due anytime between early and late October.  Planting cover crops now is another gamble on a warm fall, but any growth at all will be appreciated.

As you may recall, I have four experimental cover crops already planted in various parts of the garden, seeded between mid August and the first of September.  Here are my early thoughts on their productivity:

  • Oat cover cropOats - So far, I'm very happy with the growth of oats, which took to our waterlogged back garden soil like ducks to water.  The plants are knee high, but have fallen in on themselves a bit, perhaps because I planted them too close together or gave them too much fertility.  Despite the lodging, there is clearly a lot of biomass already above ground, and weeds are nonexistent.
  • Buckwheat - My second planting redeemed itself in the upper garden, where the buckwheat is twice as tall as the contemporaneously planted oats.  Our honeybees and wild bumblebees are lapping up the nectar, making buckwheat the most versatile summer cover crop, even if it failed in the waterlogged back garden.
  • Oilseed radishOilseed Radishes - In just four weeks, this cover crop has seemingly produced as much biomass as the neighboring oats which have been in the ground half again as long.  I can tell that any weed that had the nerve to sprout in the radish beds has long ago choked and died.
  • Annual ryegrassAnnual Ryegrass --- I put in a few beds of ryegrass on a whim at the same time I planted the radishes.  The ryegrass beds look like a pretty lawn, but seem to have produced significantly less bulk than the neighboring radishes and oats.  Annual ryegrass is the least likely to winterkill in zone 6, so I may have to deal with resprouting ryegrass in the spring.  On the positive side, wet soil didn't phase the ryegrass one bit.

This week, I put in more oats, radishes, and ryegrass in the front garden, skipping the frost sensitive buckwheat since I'm already pushing the envelope.  I scattered cover crop seeds on the few sweet potato beds not filled with garlic, slipped cover crops in between squash plants soon to keel over, and even seeded an understory below buggy beans and fading okra.  Despite the new cool, wet weather, I went ahead and spread a thin layer of damp compost over the seeds to hasten their sprouting.  I'll let you know how much mulch each crop leaves behind on the soil surface once the real cold weather hits.

Our homemade chicken waterer gives chickens something to peck at other than each other.
Posted Thu Sep 30 07:24:04 2010 Tags:

Vegetables lose nutrients between the field and tableYou can grow the world's most nutritious produce, then lose most of the vitamins and minerals before that food gets to your plate.  I picked up many of Jerry Minnich's tips for preparing, cooking, and storing produce at my mother's knee, but others are new to me.  I figured I'd share them all in case your mothers weren't as health-conscious.

Eat your food as soon as possible.  My favorite method of cooking a meal is to wander out into the garden, grab a bowlful of fresh vegetables, then cook them up immediately.  Since fruits and vegetables begin to lose nutritional quality the moment they leave the vine, it's best not to pick your crops in the morning then cook them up in the evening, or toss them in the fridge to be dealt with over the weekend.  In fact, this probably explains by grocery store produce feels so dead in my mouth --- the plants have been losing vitamins and minerals for days between the farmer's field and my table, and very little nutrition is left.

Never let your food wilt.  If you must store your food for some length of time before eating it, put it in the fridge immediately rather than leaving it out in the sun or on a hot counter.  One study showed that kale lost 89% of its vitamin C when left at 70 F for two days after picking, compared to 5% for kale stored just above freezing for that same period Washing vegetables loses vitaminsof time.  On the other hand, a few crops are better stored outside the fridge unless your kitchen is unusually hot --- okra, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes are shocked by cold temperatures and lose more nutrients in the chill.

Wash food using as little water as possible.  Many vitamins are water-based, so if you fill a bowl with water, pour in your green beans, and pluck out one bean at a time over the next hour while stringing them, you've lost most of those beans' nutrition.  With produce from my own garden, I don't wash anything unless I see dirt, and even then try to swipe the offending particle with a cloth rather than submerging the food in water.  I figure a little dirt is good for you.  (Don't follow this procedure with grocery store produce, of course!)

Pre-packaged fruitCut your food at the last minute.  When any part of a vegetable except its protective skin is exposed to air, the vegetable loses nutrients rapidly.  So, those bite-sized baby carrots in a bag at the grocery store?  Probably pretty nutritionally empty.  In your own house, you can wait to cut up fruits and vegetables until just before dumping them into the frying pan or onto your plate.

Eat the skins.  In many fruits and vegetables, vitamin C, niacin, riboflavin, and vitamin A are concentrated in the skins, so don't peel anything.  Those same skins are usually high in fiber, which everyone knows is good for you.

Cook food quickly and away from water.  The best ways to cook your food for nutrient preservation are steaming, pressure cooking (at least it's over fast), sauteing or stir frying.  If Boiling vegetables loses vitaminsyou really feel the need to boil your green beans for three hours with a hunk of bacon, you shouldn't even consider them vegetables.  As a side note, Jerry Minnich also recommends cooking only in stainless steel, glass, cast iron, enamel, or lined copper pots.

Don't store your food.  Once you've chopped and cooked your food, the nutrients are fleeting.  After a day in the fridge, they're probably gone, so try to cook only as much vegetables as you'll eat at one sitting.  (Meats, cheeses, and grains lose much less nutrition upon storage, so these make better leftovers.)

Don't add salt.  Salt in your cooked vegetables expedites loss of nutrients.

Apply the same theories when preserving your food.  Anything that can be stored in a root cellar is best stored there (with the rare exception of potatoes, which are more nutritious but also more prone to sprouting if stored between 50 and 60 F.)  After root cellaring, freezing is usually the best way to preserve nutrients, but be sure to steam blanch, cool without Don't cool blanched vegetables in ice watersubmerging in water, and freeze at the coldest possible temperature.  The long cooking time required for canning results in the loss of three times the nutrients lost during freezing, so increase the pressure to 15 pounds for all produce and decrease the processing time accordingly.  Store your canned goods in a cool, dark place (where they will not lose any more nutrients --- a year later, canned goods might actually be higher in nutrients than produce in an old freezer where the temperature is 30 F instead of the recommended 0 F.)  Finally, drying is probably the worst way to preserve your food since you lose significant quantities of vitamins C, B, A, and thiamine, especially if you use sulfur.  In all types of food processing, keep the time from vine to larder as short as possible.

Follow your bliss with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Gardening for Maximum Nutrition lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Sep 30 12:00:53 2010 Tags:

pile of straw bales for mulchOur truckload of straw bales is going to good use as a premium mulch for this year's garlic crop.

I'm thinking we might go for another load so that the other beds don't get too jealous and everybody feels tucked in for the winter.
pile of straw bales next to compost pile

Posted Thu Sep 30 16:44:22 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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