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

archives for 11/2010

Nov 2010

Cow in the road sticking out its tongue
Dwarf meyer lemon"Hey, Junior, would you mind moving off the road?"  Maybe I wasn't being polite enough, because the calf just stuck out his tongue at me.

I was on my way over to my movie star neighbor's farm to stream monitor when I had my bovine encounter.  The folks who live in my neighbor's intentional community spend a lot of their time off the farm, so they let their neighbor run his beef cattle on their fields in exchange for working on their driveway.  This calf clearly wasn't used to having anyone in his turf, but he ambled Butternut squash and sweet potatoes curingaway when I inched my car up to his snout.

After freezing our feet in the Clinch River, we all headed inside to warm up and enthuse over my neighbor's stunning dwarf Meyer lemon tree.  The lemon has its own alcove (as well as a patio where it spends its summers) and, as you can see, the tree is completely laden with fruit.  Upstairs, ten baby lemon trees are growing up while 57 butternuts and a slew of sweet potatoes cure in the risen warmth.

Covering tomatoes to protect them from a frost

Green tomatoLater, we headed down to the garden to see a surprise trio of extremely late tomatoes.  My neighbor stuck the volunteer seedlings in the ground a month and a half ago and has been covering them with a tarp during frosty nights.  Despite getting a bit nipped on the edges, huge tomatoes are hanging in the middle of the vines.  My neighbor is bound and determined to pick a ripe tomato on Thanksgiving, and I'm keen on seeing how his experiment goes.

Fund your journey back to the land with Microbusiness Independence.
Posted Mon Nov 1 09:27:41 2010 Tags:

Persimmons in the snowBack when every yard in the Deep South had a hog butchering station, ordinary farmers used to practice permaculture.  They planted persimmons in their pastures to feed their pigs, cows, and horses, and the smartest farmers hand-picked persimmon varieties so that they ripened continuously from August to February.  Since no livestock --- even goats and sheep --- like the leaves, persimmons can be planted directly into pastures with no protection.  Can you imagine seven months of free livestock feed growing on your hillside?

As always, I'm looking for plants to include in our chickens' forest pasture, and I think persimmons might be a good addition.  The downside of persimmons, in my opinion, is that the fruits are nearly completely sugar, with only about 3% protein by dry weight.  However, my experience with sugary fruits lying on the ground is that they attract Yellow jacket on a persimmonnearly their own weight in insects, a chicken's favorite food.  Even in the winter, insects seem to show up if they've got something to eat, and fresh food of any sort is highly appreciated by my flock during the cold season.

This week's lunchtime series highlights the most interesting and useful facts about persimmons, drawn out of Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, by J. Russell Smith, Organic Orcharding: A Grove of Trees to Live In, by Gene Logsdon, and Two Promising Fruit Plants for Northern Landscapes, by E. Goodell (the last of which you can download by clicking on the link.)  It's amazing what delicious reading material turns up when I take the time to go through my bookcase!

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps water poop-free in pastures, coops, or tractors.

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

Posted Mon Nov 1 12:00:57 2010 Tags:
Dewalt drill mini review update

The new 18 volt DeWalt portable drill continues to impress me with its over abundance of power.

I've been trying to estimate when I hit halfway with the battery time and recharge it at that point instead of waiting till it drains all the way down. This might extend the life of each battery. It would help if the next generation drill had a little indicator light that let you know when you hit 50 percent.

Posted Mon Nov 1 17:23:52 2010 Tags:

Fall gardenThe cross-quarter days (rather than solstices and equinoxes) mark the beginnings of seasons in ancient Irish and east Asian cultures.  Even though these four days --- halfway between the solstice and equinox --- are primarily pagan holidays, we tend to celebrate them without knowing it with Groundhog's Day, May Day, and Halloween.  And I've noticed that the cross-quarter days do feel like more realistic representations of the annual divide than the more mainstream seasonal holidays of Christmas/Solstice and Easter/Equinox.

Newly painted East WingMark and I mostly took All Soul's Day off to celebrate the onset of winter.  (As you can see, I couldn't quite resist putting the first coat of paint on the newly christened East Wing since the afternoon was so brilliant.)  Although a bit of greenery remains here and there, most of the leaves have fallen and we crossed two big hurdles this weekend --- the first fire in the wood stove and the first summer produce thawed out of the freezer.  Neither was really necessary since days are quite warm (once the sun comes up over the hill around 11 am) and there's still gobs of food in the garden.  But both felt like nice splurges to mark the changing seasons. Happy Winter!

Escape the rat race with Microbusiness Independence.
Posted Tue Nov 2 07:00:37 2010 Tags:

Traditionally dried persimmonsAlthough I'm primarily interested in growing persimmons as food for livestock, the persimmon has a long history as a people food.  Here in the United States, Native Americans added the fruit to their cornbread as sweetener, dried the pulp for winter fruit, ground seeds into meal, and even made a beer-like drink by combining persimmons and honey locust pods.  In Asia, persimmons were such a large part of the traditional diet that farmers cultivated varieties perfect for eating fresh and others just for drying, then planted them in large orchards.  American cookbooks that are at least a few decades old often include recipes for persimmon bread and persimmon pudding, the former of which tastes to me a lot like banana bread.

There are dozens of species of persimmons scattered around the world, but most people talking about persimmons are interested in just two species.  The persimmon cultivated in Asia (and which you can find in fancy supermarkets in the U.S.) is primarily Diospyrus kaki, which has large fruits that ship well and often competely lack the Diospyrus kakipuckery astringency that marks our native persimmon when the fruits aren't quite ripe.  A few people grow the Asian persimmon (sometimes called "kaki", "Japanese persimmon", or "oriental persimmon") in the United States, but cultivation is risky north of zone 7, so I'm focusing on our native species.  If you live in the Deep South, the Asian persimmon is worth looking into since you can find dozens of named varieties, at least one of which is bound to suit your needs.

The American persimmon (Diospyrus virginiana) grows wild throughout the southeast and is often ignored by locals in modern times.  Little work has been done on breeding tastier varieties and the fruits have to turn to mush before they are fully ripe, so they're impossible to ship and will probably never show up at your local supermarket.  On the other hand, the American persimmon is a more dependable bearer of fruit than the Asian persimmon --- American persimmons bloom late and are almost never impacted by spring frosts.  According to may people, the American persimmon has a better taste and is also higher in nutrients like vitamin C and calcium than the Asian persimmon.

Our homemade chicken waterer is always POOP-free.

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

Posted Tue Nov 2 12:00:56 2010 Tags:

wall painting with a brush
It has taken me a long time to wise up to the fact that you usually get what you pay for when it comes to paint products.

A lesser grade paint may have needed a 2nd or even a 3rd coat to look good, but this Kilz stuff has what it takes to cover a wall right the first time.

We got lucky and found a few cans of this high quality paint discounted where someone had ordered a mixed color and wasn't quite happy with it.

Posted Tue Nov 2 16:30:44 2010 Tags:

Oat cover cropRecent visitors to my garden have been drawn to the brilliant yellow-green oilseed radish leaves like moths to a flame.  They skip right past all of my edibles --- lettuce, broccoli, mustard greens, garlic, potato onions, parsley --- and beg to eat my cover crops.  I don't let them, but I am having a love affair of my own with the oats, even delaying cutting down the waist-high stand in the waterlogged back garden because I'm so attached to their beauty.

Late fall cover cropsThe garden is turning into a patchwork quilt of color --- purple swiss chard, yellow radishes, dark green oats, tan straw.  This photo shows the last corner of the garden that still needs to be put to bed for the winter.  I'll weed the strawberries and mulch them heavily, then cover up the few bare beds.  Due to my extensive cover crop trials and a moderate fall garden, there are only a handful of beds that have nothing growing in them.  A stroll through the vibrant garden fends off any winter blues.

Find the time to follow your passions with Microbusiness Independence.
Posted Wed Nov 3 07:00:59 2010 Tags:

Range map of the American persimmonBoth American and Asian persimmons can be tricky to grow, which in part explains their absence from many permaculturalists' gardens.  Although you can buy named persimmon varieties from nurseries, you're taking a big chance since persimmons put down a long taproot and hate to be transplanted.  In addition, Gene Logsdon reports that persimmon seeds germinate better and trees transplant better into forest soil rather than into garden soil, suggesting to me that there may be some kind of soil microorganism the tree needs to associate with in order to grow well.  From all I've read, your best bet for growing persimmons is to mimick natural conditions, gathering wild seeds and planting them into a wild habitat.

In tomorrow's post, I'll run through all of the tricks I've read about for getting your persimmons to sprout and grow, but there are a few other things to consider as you plan your planting.  On the positive side, once that seedling sprouts or that transplant puts down new roots, persimmons can live quite well in poor soil, seeming to thrive in just about every soil type out there.  The trees will grow in the shade (although they need sun to fruit), so you can get away with starting them in a small gap in existing forest, opening up the canopy bit by bit as your persimmon tree grows.
Persimmon flowers
Keep in mind that persimmons are large trees, requiring at least 30 feet spacing, and that most trees are either male or female.  Although you might get lucky and find a variety that is self-pollinating (like the one in the photo to the left), in general you should plan to plant at least one male for every twelve female persimmons.

Finally, be aware that there are two races of American persimmons and that the races can't interbreed.  The tetraploid race, with 60 chromosomes, is found in the southern Appalachians while the hexaploid race, with 90 chromosomes, grows further north and west.  In general, the latter has larger fruits that ripen earlier and has wider, more fuzzy leaves.  If you're going to try to start an orchard from seed, you may want to include both races to extend your harvest, in which case you'll need to be sure to plant both a tetraploid and a hexaploid male to pollinate your females.

As a final side note, persimmon flowers are reportedly beloved by bees.  Maybe that will push a few beekeepers over the edge into including persimmons in their forest pastures.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.

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

Posted Wed Nov 3 12:00:49 2010 Tags:
Eat Me!

The tree we identified lately as having wild oyster mushrooms growing out of it decided to fall in our driveway, which felt to me like it was screaming "Cut me up....take me home...and Eat Me!"

I guess I'm always happy to oblige a talking mushroom tree when it offers up such a yummy gift.

Posted Wed Nov 3 17:49:14 2010 Tags:

Oilseed radish rootEverett posted over on Living A Simple Life about the things he wishes he could do (or at least do better.)  He tagged me and Mark to share our own lists of dream skills, and I got quite inspired by the project.  I'm a student at heart, and there's nothing I love more than setting up my own lesson plans.  So, here's my current course of study:

  1. Learn all of the skills necessary to create a permaculture system that feeds us with few non-waste inputs from outside the farm.  This set of skills is what the Walden Effect is all about, and includes lots of things I'm currently learning: propagating mushrooms, figuring out forest pastures, growing our own straw, pressing our own oil, and much more.
  2. Stream monitoringLearning to live in the moment.  Mark has helped me make enough progress on this step that I can see how amazing it would be to be able to fully relax and self-indulge, to let go of time completely and simply be from time to time.  I've got a lot more to learn, though.
  3. Becoming fluent in Spanish.  Ever since my family took me on a field trip to New York City and I heard some kids chattering away in Spanish on the subway, I've dreamed of being fully functional in another language.  Despite four years of high school Spanish, though, I barely made any progress until I began studying the Platiquemos system on my own this year.  Finally, I think I might be able to speak Spanish at the level of a two year old!  Clearly, I have a ways to go.
  4. Hunter sailboatLearning to create community.  My weakest point is my extreme introversion which makes it tough to make new friends or hang out with strangers.  But I dream of tempting some of our blog readers and other like-minded folks to settle here in our county where we can bandy ideas back and forth a little better than we do over the internet.  I'm not sure exactly what skills I would need to make this happen, but it's a dream, so it goes on the list.
  5. Learning to write fiction in a way that doesn't make me cringe.  Non-fiction is easy for me to write, but I've always been drawn to a challenge, so I dream of one day writing a fiction piece that I can look at the next day without blushing.

Everett's list is 19 items long, so I feel a bit silly stopping at five, but I did include about a dozen in the permaculture goal.  I've never had a shortage of skills I want to learn, so I'm sure that in a decade when I've figured all of this out, I will have another five or ten items to teach myself.  What skills do you dream of perfecting?

Pursue your passions with Microbusiness Independence.
Posted Thu Nov 4 07:00:33 2010 Tags:

Starting persimmon seeds in a potIf you haven't already, please read my previous post to learn about persimmon spacing, varieties, and other factors to consider when planning your persimmon orchard.  This post is a quick rundown on three methods of persimmon propagation.

Starting persimmons from seed.  The cheapest (and probably least problematic) method of growing persimmons is to gather seeds from wild trees and sprout them right where you want your own persimmon to grow.  I've had mixed success with sprouting persimmon seeds, but I now know that if you use a couple of tricks, your persimmons will germinate quite well.  First, gather whole persimmon fruits and remove the seeds, but don't let the seeds dry out.  Your seeds will need to stratify, so plant them in fall or winter, no more than an inch deep in the soil.  Persimmon seeds won't germinate until late spring, so if you want to be able to keep track of them, you might try planting your seeds in outdoor pots at this time of year, then transplanting them into their final location as soon as they germinate and before they send down their long tap root.  If you choose the pot method, plant your seeds in soil taken from the woods to promote germination.

Pulp around persimmon seedsAs I cleaned my first batch of persimmon seeds, I noticed that a layer of pulp continued to cling to the seed, so I'm experimenting with whether persimmon seeds also need a  fermentation stage.  I planted half of my seeds directly into pots of woodland soil, and am letting the other seeds soak in water for a week or two the way I do with tomato seeds.  I'll report back this spring about which method gave me better germination rates.

Grafting persimmons.  Starting persimmons from seed is relatively easy, but your final tree may or or may not be exactly the way you want it to be.  You can develop your own, locally adapted persimmon varieties by setting aside a patch of land to test out dozens of different seeds.  The persimmons in your test strip can be planted much closer together since you just need them to grow to about five feet tall, at which point they will begin to fruit.  Select your favorite varieties from this test bed (maybe an early, mid-season, and late tree?) and graft scion wood onto seedlings started at the same time in their permanent location.  I won't go into the basics of grafting here, but I've read that persimmons can be grafted using the same methods you would use to graft apples.

Root pruningTransplanting persimmons.  If at all possible, it's best to plan your persimmon orchard so that you don't need to transplant.  However, if for some reason it's essential to move a persimmon from one spot to another, orchardists have developed a method that is time-consuming but which seems to work.

The best time to transplant is at the beginning of the third growing season.  To prepare, prune the roots the previous summer by digging your spade into the soil a few inches from the trunk of the tree in alternating sections, as is shown in the image to the right.  Two months later, repeat the process, cutting into the areas that were left uncut last time.  This process will make your persimmon grow roots close to the trunk where you'll be able to dig them up (although you'll still lose the taproot.)

During the next dormant season, lay out black plastic in the area you plan to transplant into.  This will warm the soil up so that when you transplant the persimmon in early spring, it is ready to grow immediately.  Prune back the top of the tree extensively so that only half to a third of the branches remain, then transplant the persimmon into its new location.  Keep the persimmon very well waterered until mid summer --- a flush of growth right off the bat doesn't mean that your tree is established and can be ignored.  If your persimmon is still alive, stop watering in August to let it harden off for the winter.
American persimmon fruits
After reading all of that, you probably think, like I do, that it's best to just start seedlings!  I'm currently gathering seeds from persimmons that ripen at various times, with the goal of putting some directly into the forest pasture in the spring and others into a test strip for later grafting onto male seedlings in the pasture.  Like many parts of my forest pasture experiment, growing persimmons is a long term project, with seedlings slated to bloom in four to eight years and then the grafted persimmons not beginning to fruit until three years after that.  Maybe by 2020, persimmons will make up a significant portion of our chickens' diets.

Keep your chickens healthy with a homemade chicken waterer.

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

Posted Thu Nov 4 12:00:51 2010 Tags:
daytime chicken roosting

I've always heard chickens like to roost at night off the ground and on some sort of stick.

Well for whatever reason our chickens don't seem to like the roost I made for them in the coop. They prefer hunkering down on the ground in the weeds instead.

The above stump has been a popular place at night, which is why I thought a roost extention might just be the thing to remind them how nice it is to sleep off the ground.

Posted Thu Nov 4 17:10:48 2010 Tags:

Saucer of dirt to hold rainwater around a new treeRegular readers may remember that we're creating a forest garden in a patch of young woods, leaving some useful trees but replacing others with cultivated species that do well in partial shade when young --- mostly nuts.  Since nut trees grow so big, there's really only room for three or four trees on the little table of flat forestland, and last year I thought I'd filled it up with a butternut, a persimmon, and a Chinese chestnut.  Now I know that persimmons hate to be transplanted, so it's no surprise that my Carpathian walnut budtransplanted persimmon kicked the bucket.  I didn't mark the chestnut, and thought it had died too (although, as you'll see later, it didn't.)  Having read that Carpathian walnuts are a more cold hardy version of the English walnut, I decided to buy a pair and fill in the gaps.

The nut orchard is too far from our usual stomping grounds to have running water or golf cart access, so trees planted there suffer from neglect and I decided to see if a better planting job might help our new walnuts survive without supplemental watering.  I planted each tree in a small depression and mounded up dirt on the downhill side to catch rainwater, then I raked up leaves from under nearby trees to mulch each walnut heavily.  Since I'm fall planting, the trees should have time to establish a good root structure before they're faced with any potential summer droughts.

When placing my second walnut, I wandered around the woods until I found the spot with the best canopy gap, then proceeded to dig my hole, ripping Chinese chestnut budup small trees in the surrounding area.  My hands plucked out the Chinese chestnut I'd carefully planted in the exact same spot last year just as my brain was saying "No!  Wait!  That's a good tree!"  I have no clue if the seedling will survive the abuse, but I gave it a new home thirty feet further down the the plateau, and I really do plan to mark it...the next time I'm up that way.

Need to leave your flock alone for the weekend?  Our homemade chicken waterer lets you go out of town without worrying.
Posted Fri Nov 5 07:00:34 2010 Tags:

Plate of persimmonsThe tannins in unripe persimmons are thoroughly unpleasant, so it's no wonder that folklore has arisen to teach us how to ripen the fruits.  Every real Appalachian knows that frost ripens persimmons, and some of us even go so far as to simulate the frost.  I once put a bag of persimmons in the freezer then pulled them out a week later, hoping they would be sweet and ripe.  When I went over to visit my movie star neighbor last week, I saw that he had laid his persimmons outside in a platter so that a hard freeze would ripen them up.  Too bad we were both on the wrong track.
Ripen persimmons by putting them in a bag with an apple
Scientists have discovered that persimmons ripen like most other fruits, and that frost near the time of ripening is purely coincidental.  That said, you can hasten the ripening of your fruits by putting persimmons in a plastic bag with an apple.  The ethylene released by the apple will make your persimmon ripen up as long as the persimmon fruit has already become somewhat soft on the tree.

Chickens eating persimmonsWhat do you do if you bite into a persimmon and the puckery astringency makes you spit it right back out?  I tested a few puckery persimmons on our flock, and our chickens gave persimmons two thumbs up.  In fact, the persimmons started a soccer match --- the most intense one I've seen among our flock yet.  Clearly, chickens think persimmons are delicious, tannins or no tannins.

Keep your flock happy and healthy with a homemade chicken waterer.

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

Posted Fri Nov 5 12:00:29 2010 Tags:

practical electrics1. How to make my own music.

2. How to tell a story with animation.

3. How to make our own electricity.

4. How to be more in touch with nature.

5. How to fly a powered parachute cross country.

6. How to grow more of our own food.

7. How to meet people as weird as myself.

8. How to sail a boat to Mexico.

9. How to make a Hobbit cave.    10. How to be an alchemist.

I would also like to know who really shot JFK, what really happened on September 11th 2001, and why Huckleberry never seems to be satisfied.

Image credit goes to for sharing the secret of perpetual motion.

Posted Fri Nov 5 16:05:50 2010 Tags:

Build a loop of netting to hold in leaves and protect your figOur Chicago Hardy Fig arrived on the same day as our Carpathian walnuts even though it was coming from a different nursery --- clearly, this must be prime fall-planting time in zone 6.  Like rosemary, planting figs outdoors is a dicey proposition in our region, but I'm hopeful that careful variety selection and winter protection will let us harvest our own fruits in a few years.

If various fig-growers on the internet are to be believed, the hardiest fig varieties are Chicago Hardy, Mission, Brown Turkey, Alma, Nordland, and Celeste.  Chicago Hardy won my admiration since it's reputed to be able to produce fruit on new wood even if the top dies back to the ground, which means that as long as the roots don't die, we will get some sort of crop from our fig every year.  In contrast, if you're growing another variety of fig, you will have to wait until the next year (and risk being winter-killed again) before tasting fruits from your fig after a cold winter.

A fig protected for the winterDespite the promise of cold hardiness, I went ahead and protected my fig, staking a loop of trellis fencing around it and then filling the loop up with leaves.  In coldier climates (zone 5), fig growers go to more extremes, sometimes carefully bending the plant over and burying it in a trench of soil.  Other growers simply convert their fig to a potted plant and bring it in for the winter.

As a final note, growers of Chicago Hardy do have one warning I plan to take to heart.  This particular variety of fig fruits much less if unpruned, so be sure to cut stems back to 30 inches every year and clear out all but three main branches.  If all goes as planned, we could be tasting our first homegrown fig as early as 2012.

Keep your chicken coop clean with a homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Sat Nov 6 07:00:28 2010 Tags:

Urban homesteadIf you're looking for a wide variety of heirloom apple trees grafted and tended by a master, the Urban Homestead in Bristol, Virginia, is the place for you.  I could spend hours poring over the descriptions of their old-fashioned apple varieties, of which this excerpt is a prime example:

Ben Davis - The most widely planted apple variety in the South after the Civil War.   Think of it as the nineteenth century’s Red Delicious.  A large, dull-red apple; hardy, vigorous, Apple nurserydependable, productive.  Keeps like a cobblestone.  Often described as having only passing flavor.  Ms. Genevieve Gray, an octogenarian from South Elgin, Illinois sent us a story several years ago that well illustrates the point:  “There was a joke going around when I was a girl about a fellow who claimed to be such an expert in recognizing apples by taste that he could identify any kind blindfolded.  He was challenged, of course, and given apple after apple to taste--identifying each correctly.  Finally, in desperation to fool him, one of the challengers grabbed a large piece of cork, carved it into the shape of an apple, and offered it to him.  He bit out a chunk, hesitated, bit out another, then reluctantly admitted that he wasn’t real sure.  “I think it’s a Ben Davis,” he said.  And then he quickly added, “But if it is, it’s the best one I’ve ever eaten.”  We would add only that any tree that can stand up to 125 years of ribbing Potted edible perennialshas earned its place in the orchard.

The Urban Homestead offers just shy of 100 old and new favorites, and yet they feel obliged to add this apologetic note to the website: "Economics dictates that we keep a tight rein on the number of varieties we graft each season.  We have access, however, to a large number of stock trees, and offer a custom grafting service for some of the harder-to-find varieties."  Basically, if you've heard of it, they can probably get it for you.  I was thrilled to read that they have not just one, but two versions of the old-fashoned Winesap (as well as the easier to find Stayman Winesap.)  I ordered a Winesap and Liberty from them to round out our orchard.

Two of Tim Hensley's kids

Tim HensleyTim Hensley is the man behind this 2 acre operation, which he fits into his suburban backyard and a rented lot across the street.  I was charmed to see three of his sons digging and labeling apple trees while I snooped around the premises, and their father said that all of his kids help out --- except for the four year old, who isn't terribly handy yet.  I'm going to have to reserve tomorrow's post for notes on his intriguing permaculture techniques, but suffice it to say that he's not an old-fashioned apple grower even if his apples have deep roots.

In addition to apples ($18 to $28, depending on size of tree), Tim Hensley also sells a selection of other edible plants, not all of which are listed on his website.  For example, I was shocked to see rows of Chicago Hardy figs, just like the one I mail-ordered --- I wish I'd realized I could pick them up in person at the Urban Homestead!

Swinging at the urban homesteadSpeaking of picking them up, if you live closeby, I highly recommend that you make the drive to the Urban Homestead, not only to get your trees in the ground ASAP so that they will thrive, but also to explore Hensley's operation.  Mom wants you to know that they have the best swing she's enjoyed in years.  On the other hand, don't let distance stop you --- Tim Hensley mails his trees across the United States.

Apple trees for scionwoodThe Urban Homestead is located on 818 Cumberland St., behind the library in Bristol.  Give them a call at (276) 466-2931 or an email at  Don't forget that buying heirloom apples not only preserves a vanishing tradition but also means your trees are more likely to survive the pests that nature throws at them with no need for posionous sprays.

Looking for the perfect gift for the backyard homesteader on your list?  Our homemade chicken waterer keeps water poop-free.
Posted Sun Nov 7 07:00:14 2010 Tags:

chopping with Chopper 1

We've had the
Chopper1 in service for one complete firewood chopping season and I'm ready to declare it my all time favorite axe.

What I like most about this invention is the fact that it never gets stuck in a wedged sort of way that the old Super Splitter was prone to do. Not only did it take more energy to separate the maul from the wood but it breaks up your pace.

Sometimes the Chopper1 will bounce off a log, but that's only when I haven't applied enough force in my swing.

Posted Sun Nov 7 19:08:54 2010 Tags:
Espaliered apple trees with chickens running beneath

Tim Hensley holding trifoliate orange fruitsEven though he had customers to the Urban Homestead showing up right and left, Tim Hensley was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his Saturday afternoon to give me a quick tour of his backyard.  There, I learned answers to three pressing questions that I've been pondering for a while.

How do you keep enough adult apple trees on hand to provide scionwood for 100 heirloom varieties in a tiny city lot?  Tim espaliers many of his apple trees so that they can fit in a small space, then he adds a permaculture twist, running his chickens under the espaliered trees to prevent populations of bad bugs from building up.  In addition to planting these espaliered trees just a couple of feet apart, he has a few rows of adult trees in his nursery planted five or six feet apart.  Clearly, close spacing is okay if you're growing the trees for scionwood (or, presumably, as a test orchard.)

Trifoliate orange fruitsI've read that the triofliate orange is a species of citrus that is hardy enough to fruit in zone 6, but I've heard varying reports on its flavor.  What do you think?  Tim Hensley just happened to have a Flying Dragon trifoliate orange on the side of his house.  It was loaded with lovely fruits, and I could tell the mass of thorns would make good hedge material.  However, Tim was less impressed by the flavor.  Trifoliate oranges are really only good enough for making lemonade or marmalade, and Tim said that the resulting food had a "plasticky" flavor.  I guess I'll stop considering planting a trifoliate orange.
Chicago Hardy fig
Will my hardy figs survive the winter and fruit?  Tim has two huge and lovely fig trees growing in his yard.  The first --- LSU Purple --- has never fruited for him and he doesn't recommend it in our climate.  On the other hand, he told me that his Chicago Hardy fig has never been winter-killed, perhaps because it is tucked into a beautiful nook surrounded on two sides by his house and with the dryer exhaust vent coming out nearby.  I feel like he told me he wasn't getting many fruits off of the Chicago Hardy, but all of the information I was trying to take in is starting to get mushed up in my head.  Maybe Mom can chime in with her memory here....

Body from DamascusFinally, I enjoyed trading broiler tales with Tim and one of his customers, Brody from Damascus.  Brody told us that he likes to soak his newly killed chickens in a bath of icy saltwater, which he said hastens the end of rigor mortis so that he can freeze his chickens nearly right away and still get tender meat.  I'd be curious to hear if anyone else has had any experience with the saltwater trick.

Keep your chickens happy and healthy with a homemade chicken waterer.

Posted Mon Nov 8 07:00:33 2010 Tags:

Mini caddy wood furnaceWe were thrilled when Mark's mom gave us an external wood furnace a couple of years ago, and we are still very grateful.  However, over time, we've discovered that external wood furnaces have a variety of problems associated with them:

  • Extremely inefficient.  Even the most efficient new wood furnance I could find in my web searches (the Mini-Caddy, listed as an Energy Star furnace, and pictured here) is vastly inferior to moderately efficient wood stoves.  You can download a list of EPA certified wood stoves which will tell you the emissions and efficiency of all tested models.  The Caddy, which the Mini-Caddy is based on, has 6.6 g/hr emissions and 63% efficiency.  Compare it, for example, to the Drolet Savannah wood stove (which has slightly less output than the Mini-Caddy and is much cheaper)  --- 6.28 g/hr emissions and 75% efficiency.
  • Expensive.  We got very lucky and were given our furnace as a gift, so I wasn't prepared for the price tag when we considered upgrading to a more efficient model.  The Mini-Caddy seems to retail for somewhere in the $2,000 range, compared to efficient, non-catalytic wood stoves that can be got for closer to $700 (and which also have higher efficiency, don't forget.)  You can get a 30% federal tax credit on either purchase.
  • Smokey wood furnaceNot suited for indoor use.  After finishing up the East Wing, we moved in our wood furnace, figuring that we'd be able to capture some of the heat previously lost to the outside air.  I know that the term "exterior wood furnace" should have tipped me off, but we were shocked at how smoky the East Wing got when we lit our first fire this year.  Granted, our model (LTD Limited by Jordahl Mfg.) is very old, and its drawing problem may not be found in more modern wood furnaces.
  • Fails during power outages.  Without electricity to turn on the electric fan, we had to burn huge fires in our furnace to keep the trailer at all habitable during last year's 10 day power outage.
  • Wood smokeIs meant to heat the whole house rather than a small section.  You have to burn a lot more wood in general to keep your house warm using an exterior furnace since you depend on fans to move the hot air throughout the house.  With an indoor wood stove, you can situate the stove in the population center of the house and burn small fires to heat just that area.

All told, our exterior wood furnace has definitely been better than heating with electric space heaters, but we run through wood like nobody's business.  This week, I'm going to post about some of the options we're considering --- I suspect you'll all have good advice, so please chime in!

Fund your journey back to the land with Microbusiness Independence.

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


Edited to add:

Learn how to safely install an energy-efficient wood stove in a moibile home in
Trailersteading.  Now available for $1.99 on Amazon.

Posted Mon Nov 8 12:00:29 2010 Tags:
digging with Jackson shovel to bury waterline

The project to bury our waterline is now at the point where the pipe comes out of the tank.

My plan is to build a small, insulated enclosure that follows the pipe out of the tank for 5 or 6 feet before it begins to be submerged.

Stay tuned to see if this experiment prevents pipe freezing like I think it might.

Posted Mon Nov 8 17:00:42 2010 Tags:

Varroa mite test stripsI was a bit concerned by the bee hive that dropped 540 varroa mites in three days when I tested in the middle of September, so I decided to do a re-test and see what the mite populations are like in early November.  This time, all I had on hand were some four inch wide strips of cardboard that are a byproduct of the way we package our pre-made chicken waterers, so I went ahead and lathered those with petroleum jelly and stuck them under the screened bottom boards of our hives.

Varroa mite populations in three hives over timeThree days later, I counted mites and did a bit of math to determine what the total mite fall would have been if I had put something under the entire bottom board.  As you can see from this graph, the hive with all of the varroa mites in September dropped down to a far more manageable level (223 mites) in November.  None of the other hives have mite populations in the danger zone at all.

Most sources report that mite numbers rise as autumn progresses, so I'm not quite sure why I saw declining varroa mite numbers.  I assume that as workers die and aren't replaced, the hive hosts fewer varroa mites as well.  Regardless of the reason for low mite populations in my hives, I'm happy to be heading into the winter without chemical pesticides in the hive.

Ready to think outside the box and keep other members of your homestead healthy?  Our homemade chicken waterer always stays clean, so your hens stay healthy.
Posted Tue Nov 9 07:00:31 2010 Tags:

Installing a wood stove in a mobile homeWe started out with an exterior wood furnace because we had been told by reputable sources that you can't put a wood stove in a mobile home.  It turns out that's just not true.  Instead, there are a series of guidelines to follow when installing a wood stove in a trailer, and you also need to choose a wood stove specially tested to be mobile home safe.

This Mother Earth News article (from which I snagged the diagram in this post) and this more up to date site together tell you everything you need to know about installing a wood stove in a mobile home.  The differences between mobile home and traditional home installation come down to six main points:

  • A close clearance pipe must be used to connect the stove to the chimney.
  • Spark arresters are installed in the chimney cap.
  • The stove should be grounded to the home chassis.
  • The stove must have tie downs to attach it to the floor so it won't shift around when the trailer is moved.  (Presumably, this is only relevant if your trailer is less than forty years old and will actually be moved again.)
  • The stove should use exterior air for combustion.
  • Wood stoves are not permissable in mobile home bedrooms.

Efficient mobile home wood stoveIn addition, you should choose a wood stove that has been approved for use in a mobile home.  In general, these stoves are on the small to medium side and have a top-exiting flue collar and a heat shield on the back.  These characteristics combine to make the clearance around all sides of the stove less, which in turn lets them fit into a mobile home.  In fact, from browsing the internet, it sounds like the small size of mobile homes is really the biggest danger feature, so your goal should be to find a spot for your wood stove where you can provide plenty of air space around it.

The cheapest mobile home compatable wood stoves that I've found are the Drolet Savannah 55,000 BTU stove (83% efficient!) and the Century Heating 50,000 BTU stove for $700 and $650, respectively, from Northern Tool and Equipment.  For our tiny trailer, even these would be overkill, so I was glad to hear that many other models can be converted to mobile home wood stoves by adding on an outside air kit (around $50 to $60.)

Escape the rat race with Microbusiness Independence.

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


Edited to add:

Learn how to safely install an energy-efficient wood stove in a moibile home in
Trailersteading.  Now available for $1.99 on Amazon.

Posted Tue Nov 9 12:00:25 2010 Tags:
water box details

I ended up using the standard foam pipe cover and then added a couple wraps of Reflectix for the new water tank anti-freeze box.

Now we wait for the next freeze to see how well this protection holds up.

Posted Tue Nov 9 16:13:49 2010 Tags:
Head of broccoli

Frost on poke berriesFor the last few years, our first frost of the year was a killing frost, but this year we got a bit of a reprieve.  Even though our first frost came right on schedule in the middle of October, we didn't have a killing frost until November 6.

In case you're scratching your head in puzzlement, a killing frost is generally considered to be a frost with temperatures at or below 25 degrees Fahrenheit.  Lighter frosts will kill your summer-loving plants like tomatoes and okra, but fall crops shrug these baby frosts off and keep right on growing.  A killing frost, though, tends to take out all but the Frost on the hayfieldmost hardy garden plants --- the few uncovered lettuce plants were mildly nipped by our recent frost and the broccoli was slightly damaged, but mustard and kale were still green and happy the next morning.

The first killing frost also tends to knock the last of the autumn color out of the trees, so now only a few oak leaves cling to the branches.  Our hills suddenly seem much lower when you can see through the trees.

Our homemade chicken waterer is always POOP-free.

Posted Wed Nov 10 07:00:33 2010 Tags:

Diagram of a catalytic wood stoveI've recently come to the conclusion that there are two ways of being green --- the Prius method and the penny-pinching method.  Followers of the Prius method spend a lot of money to buy the most expensive model, not realizing that the increased efficiency they're paying for could be obtained just as easily (and much more cheaply) by downsizing a bit.  For example, my 20+ year old Ford Festiva has gas mileage nearly compatible with the Prius for a fraction of the up-front cost (and a fraction of the construction cost since my Festiva has already been on the road for two decades.)

 Which is all a way of saying that there are two ways to buy a very energy efficient wood stove.  Followers of the Prius method will jump on a catalytic wood stove, an innovation that will lower their emissions and increase their burning efficiency.  On the negative side, catalytic wood stoves are extremely expensive, and the catalyst will have to be replaced in two to six years, which has environmental repurcussions and makes a deep dent in your pocketbook.

Diagram of an efficient, non-catalytic wood stoveMiddle of the road wood stove buyers will gravitate to Energy Star non-catalytic wood stoves.  The use of baffles, firebox insulation, and preheated combustion air combine to make these wood stoves nearly as efficient as the catalytic versions and at least 60% more efficient than old-fashioned wood stoves.  Like the catalyst in a catalytic wood stove, the baffle in a non-catalytic wood stove may need to be replaced from time to time, but my understanding is that this replacement is considerably less expensive.

Then there's the penny-pinching route, which I'm seriously considering.  Even the most efficient wood stoves only burn at peak efficiency if you keep your fire hot, and the smallest Energy Star wood stoves seem to clock in at about 60,000 BTU.  Although it's only a rough guide, many sources suggest planning on 50 to 55 BTU per square foot in the extreme north of the U.S., 30 to 35 BTU per square foot in the deep south, and around 40 to 45 BTU per square foot here in southwest Virginia.  Using those numbers, we should be in the market for a 20,000 to 22,500 BTU wood stove for our 500 square foot trailer, since we'd lose a lot of efficiency by damping down a larger wood stove.  Even if a tiny stove is much less efficient than a big Energy Star stove, we'd burn less wood and make less pollution with the penny-pinching method.  Plus, tiny wood stoves are considerably cheaper, as I'll explain tomorrow.

Turn your invention into a salary with Microbusiness Independence.

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

Posted Wed Nov 10 12:00:39 2010 Tags:
leverage in action

Step 1 in making room for the new woodstove is to take down the old water tower.

Posted Wed Nov 10 16:26:55 2010 Tags:

Kitchen shelvesWe've decided to make a tiny addition to the trailer to ease wood stove installation.  The four foot by two foot "room" will give us a bit more air space around the stove inside and (more importantly) will allow us to send the stove pipe straight up and then out a roof built around it, rather than risking causing leaks by cutting a hole in the trailer roof.  The supreme ease with which you can extend the wall by a couple of feet is one of my favorite parts of trailer life.

While Mark is making space outside, I took on the task of clearing space inside.  Kitchen remodeling, Walden Effect style, consists of finding room for endless sacks of sweet potatoes and garlic.  Oh, and can I fit a few more butternut squash on that shelf?  I was very proud of myself for being able to take down shelves from one wall and put them up in a new order on the other wall --- an easy task for Mark, but I wouldn't have even known where to start when faced with such a project just four years ago.  Everything I build could be better, but I don't mind living with my imperfections since each is a lesson in self-sufficiency.

Treat your chickens to the healthiest and cleanest waterer around, the Avian Aqua Miser.
Posted Thu Nov 11 07:40:40 2010 Tags:

Vogelzang Lit'L Sweetie stoveIf you're in the market for a tiny wood stove, the choices are relatively limited.  The smallest stove I've found among mainstream stores is the Vogelzang Lit'L Sweetie, $199 from Northern Tool and Equipment.  This cast iron stove is marked on their website as being eligible for the federal tax credit, which suggests that it must be efficient, but I can't seem to find any efficiency data on the internet and the model is small enough that it is exempt from EPA certification.  On the other hand, even this 19 by 25 by 23 inch stove feels too big for us since it's rated at 63,801 BTU.  Various reviews also suggest that it isn't very well put together and may leak smoke or be unsafe.

Four dog stoveMoving down to smaller stoves, you'll find the Two, Three, Four, and Five Dog Stoves.  These stoves are made for use in tents and yurts, so I find them very difficult to compare to more traditional stoves.  The Four Dog Stove ($305 once you factor in shipping) has a 15.5 by 11.5 by 24 inch firebox and "will heat up a 14' X 16' wall tent at -30".  Its smaller siblings heat progressively smaller spaces.  All of the stoves in the Four Dog line have baffles and an airtight gasketed door, which make the stoves more efficient and safer while also concentrating heat on a hot spot on the surface for cooking.  On the negative side, the stoves are light-weight with walls made of 3/32 inch hot rolled steel, no fire bricks, and aren't designed to preheat their combustion air, so they lack some efficiency and maybe longevity.  I wonder if it would be possible to take a Four Dog Stove (which I suspect might be too big for us) and retrofit it with fire bricks to turn it into a more efficient model with a smaller firebox.

Jotul F 602 wood stoveIf we want to spend an arm and a leg, the Jotul F 602 is just the right size for us, with a 19 by 12.5 inch firebox (with a guestimated third dimension of around 16 inches) and a heat output of 28,000 BTU.  Due to its baffles, the stove is 75% efficient, has low emissions of 5.2 g/hr, and is eligible for the federal tax credit.  The price seems to be a bit harder to figure out, but one review lists it at $700 (which would end up costing us $490 after the tax credit.)  One website notes that this model is "alcove approved", perhaps because of its heat shield, which makes me wonder if it might be the safest of the options to put in a mobile home.  The Jotul stove even has a cookplate on top, which is something I'm yearning for as a backup cooking option.

I estimate that any of these stoves would cut our wood use (and the associated labor) at least in half.  However, we would have to install one stove in the trailer and another one in the East Wing, so the up front cost would be pretty steep.  I'm pondering a Two Dog Stove in the tiny East Wing ($240) and a Jotul F 602 or Four Dog Stove in the trailer, and am counting on spending a few more hundred dollars on associated hardware for the safest installation (and we might even splurge beyond that to pay for a professional to install the stove in the trailer.)  If we went the most expensive but most efficient route (the Jotul), it would probably take us about six years to pay back the cost through wood savings, whereas we'd pay ourselves back in five years using the cheaper option.

Quit your job and start to live with Microbusiness Independence.

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


Edited to add:

Learn how to safely install an energy-efficient wood stove in a moibile home in
Trailersteading.  Now available for $1.99 on Amazon.

Posted Thu Nov 11 12:00:43 2010 Tags:

spud bar in actionThese railroad ties were in pretty bad shape when we got them 5 years ago.

Two of them broke off at ground level while I was working on digging them out.

Not the best option for making such a tower, but a whole lot cheaper than buying new lumber. I remember paying 5 bucks apiece for these from a guy who owns a junk yard.

Posted Thu Nov 11 16:40:22 2010 Tags:
Winter weeds

"Why mulch the garden now?" Daddy asked when he was visiting in October.  "Weeds aren't going to grow this late in the season."  It turns out that weeds were growing, and if I'd had my act together, it would have been smarter to get the garden mulched down by the end of September when a lot of the winter weeds germinated.  Your garden may have different trouble plants, but these are our three most common winter weeds.

Common chickweedCommon Chickweed (Stellaria media) loves bare, disturbed ground and will quickly spread its runner-like stems across your garden.  Identify this alien species by the rosette form of its growth, by the small, roundish leaves, and the tiny white flowers.  Although chickweed is a pain in the butt to hack out of half-frozen ground when you want to plant your early spring crops, if you do let the chickweed get ahead of you at least you'll know that the chickweed greens are beloved by your flock of chickens.  In fact, I've read that common chickweed is often eaten by humans either in salad or as a cooked green.

Purple dead nettlePurple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) is easy to identify when it blooms in the early spring --- the top few leaves turn purplish to set off the pink flowers, and the square stem proclaims it to be a member of the mint family.  At this time of year, the non-stinging dead nettle takes a bit more care to identify, but once you feel the fuzzy leaves, you'll realize few other wild plants have the same gestalt.  Like nearly all of our garden weeds, Purple Dead Nettle hails from Europe, probably introduced for the edible young leaves that can be eaten like chickweed.  Although Purple Dead Nettle does like to fill up the winter garden, the flip side of the coin is that it will bloom even in the winter if the weather is mild, providing food for honeybees during warm days. 

Hairy BittercressHairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) always cheers me up since it's the first flower I see most years, blooming as early as February or March.  Although the bittercress grows its leaves in a rosette, they are very different from chickweed, never taking on the sprawling appearance and usually reaching only two or three inches in diameter.  Like the other weeds, Hairy Bittercress is from Europe and is considered to be edible.

Learn more about cover crops in my 99 cent ebook! As I read all of the benefits of our three "worst" winter weeds, I nearly talk myself into leaving the ground unmulched.  But I know that all three of these guys will quickly go to seed and overrun the garden, a no-no when running a no-till operation.  Next year I hope to mulch earlier before the seeds germinate.

Sick of filthy waterers?  Our homemade chicken waterer is always POOP-free.
Posted Fri Nov 12 07:31:09 2010 Tags:
pile of lumber stacked high

We got lucky today when we were buying some supplies for the new woodstove project and happened upon the annual Lowe's military discount sale.

Usually you need to be active duty or retired to get the 10% off, but this weekend they have decided to extend it to former military, which includes me.

I guess that makes this Veterans Day the luckiest one I can remember.

Posted Fri Nov 12 20:35:26 2010 Tags:
Truckload of bagged leaves

If you had told me that I'd find anything more exciting than a pickup truck full of bagged autumn leaves (thanks, Mom!), I would have said you were nuts.  But we spent a very, very long day in town yesterday picking up everything we need to add heat to our trailer, and our beautiful new stove is even more exciting than free biomass.  More on that later --- my head is still too fuzzy from eleven hours in the big city to make an insightful post.

Bringing home our Jotul wood stove

(The princess is our highly expensive, but highly efficient wood stove, in case you couldn't figure that out.)

Worried that your chickens will get thirsty while you're away from home?  Stop worrying with our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Sat Nov 13 09:23:16 2010 Tags:

woodstove ceiling support kit

Posted Sat Nov 13 18:36:41 2010 Tags:
Underground house

Outhouse"Ooh!  That's a pretty outbuilding!  I could live there," I enthused as we toured the property Joey's renting.

"That's the outhouse," explained my long-suffering brother, rolling his eyes.  He'd already put up with me snapping photos of his solar array (pictured below), the wood stove, the grape arbor meant to shade the long wall of south-facing windows in the summer time (pictured above).

I hadn't shown nearly enough interest in the ingenious way he'd thought of using a car radio to work with the existing voltage in the structure, and I had instead peered at every fruit tree, at the uncovered hoop house, and even down the cistern.

Solar panels

Joey at the controls of the solar system"Did you know you have a swiss chard plant in there?" I asked him as he pointed out a weedy cold frame the previous owners had left behind.  "And there's a volunteer kale, and one lone collard.  Is that an apple tree?"

Joey kindly didn't explain to me that three tiny plants weren't going to give him enough greens to bother picking.  He just smiled and nodded as older brothers learn to do with their babbling younger sisters.

If you ever get a chance, I highly recommend touring someone else's homestead.  It's a great game to guess why they put this here and that there, and to see things in action that you've only read about in books.  All of the fun with none of the work --- what's not to like?

Walking on the roof of an underground house
Our homemade chicken waterer takes minutes to put together and provides poop-free water for years.
Posted Sun Nov 14 07:00:28 2010 Tags:
stainless deluxe rain cap reflection
Posted Sun Nov 14 16:45:21 2010 Tags:

Supervent Ceiling Support Kit componentsWe've been guilty of somewhat ramshackle construction around our wood stove in the past --- permissable since it was an exterior wood furnace.  But since we're going to be putting our new darling in the trailer (or at least in a tiny addition on the side of the trailer), we decided to pay the extra money and toe the line.

It probably goes without saying, but I highly recommend that you not buy your chimney setup from the wood stove store.  The prices they quoted us on getting smoke from the stove to the outside air were about twice what we later found for the same products at Lowes (where Mark snagged a 10% discount as former military.)  Instead, start with the Supervent Ceiling Support Kit and you'll just need to add in black stovepipe, a damper, and a bit of sealant between the stove and the ceiling and a double-walled chimney pipe to extend three feet above the local roof (and two feet above the highest point within 10 feet on the roof.)  Total cost for the chimney assemblage, done the right way, was $261.

Chimney height above the roofThis year, one of our financial goals is to sink any extra cash into long term farm infrastructure which will make our bills lower in the long run and which will (hopefully) last for many years to come.  If that hadn't been our goal for the year, I might have been tempted to cobble together some of the elements in the ceiling support kit from cheaper components.  For example, you can reproduce the double-walled chimney pipe ($62) by sliding your six inch chimney pipe inside an eight inch chimney pipe of the same length and filling the gap with a non-flammable insulation like ceramic strand insulation or a welding blanket.  The attic insulation shield (part of the $158 kit) can be made just as easily by cobbling together a box two inches away from your double-walled pipe out of basic lumber.  But for amateurs like us, the extra cash was worth it since it's helping us piece together the proper way to build a chimney out of pipes.

Simplify your chicken-keeping routine with our homemade chicken waterer.

TrailersteadingEdited to add:

I summed up everything I learned about installing a wood stove in a mobile home in Trailersteading, which is now available for $1.99 on Amazon.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Posted Mon Nov 15 07:34:00 2010 Tags:
brick and a box being built during the day

We made some good progress today on the woodstove alcove project.

It will be a mini-pole structure with the above cinder block acting as part of the foundation.

The design of this type of block brings back some good memories of building with Legos when I was a kid.

Posted Mon Nov 15 16:25:19 2010 Tags:

Buckwheat cover crop a few weeks after being mown downI'm sure you're all dying to read another installment in my obsession with cover crops, so here goes!  You may remember that we last left our heroes in a state of disarray, with the buckwheat and then the oats cut to the ground to prevent seed-setting.  So what does the garden look like now?

Buckwheat continues to fall behind my expectations.  The succulent stems melted into the soil so quickly that weeds grew up through them just a few weeks later.  (Bonus points to readers of my winter weeds post who can identify the problem plants in the photo above.)  I had to come back by and toss a heavy coat of straw mulch on top of the greenery to keep the weeds at bay.  My conclusion is that buckwheat has just a few advantages and many disadvantages.  On the pro side, the cover crop grows very quickly, feeds the bees, and will cope with the summer heat (which most other cover crops hate).  But buckwheat can't handle waterlogged clay soil and leaves very little organic matter behind, defeating the purpose of a cover crop as a soil builder in our garden.  In the future, I'll only use buckwheat to fill quick gaps in the summer garden that would otherwise be bare.
Oat cover crop a couple of weeks after mowing down
Oats is the exact opposite, exceeding my expectations at every turn.  The early oats, which I mowed down with hedge trimmers, covered the ground so well that no weeds are poking through (though I did throw a few handfuls of straw around the edges of the beds just in case.)  A quick and dirty job of mowing killed about 90% of the plants, and I suspect that the few green stems still standing will die back over the winter.  In addition to all of the organic matter which their roots are depositing below ground, the oats produced such a mass of leaf growth that the beds I cut now look nearly identical to nearby beds that I mulched with straw.  I wish I'd planted every square inch I could get my hands on with oats!

Our homemade chicken waterer kit takes all of the guesswork out of clean water.
Posted Tue Nov 16 08:38:12 2010 Tags:
mark Tamping
Lego cinder block foundation

I used a spud bar to tamp down the ground for the first three Lego cinder blocks and then discovered the blunt end of a 4x4 takes only half as much effort to lift and tamp.

Posted Tue Nov 16 15:36:45 2010 Tags:

97 butternut squashButternut squash have only about two-thirds the calories, pound per pound, as potatoes, but otherwise they're relatively similar in the macronutrient category.  Protein makes up 9 to 10% of the calories, and the rest of the calories come primarily from sugars and starches.  Despite what I read in Gardening for Maximum Nutrition, though, the USDA Nutrient Database shows butternuts trumping white potatoes in three-quarters of the vitamins and minerals measured.  If you're going to eat a vegetable that's primarily starch, butternut isn't a bad choice.  Plus, we just plain love them.

Storing butternuts by the tangerine and banana treesSo when Mark came home with 97 butternuts, I was thrilled.  The same friend who sold him 35 butternuts for 20 bucks in the middle of August was now looking to unload the rest of his harvest, this time with no money changing hands.  I guess that people at farmers markets in late fall feel about the same way about butternuts as they do about zucchini in August (although I can't imagine not wanting to eat all of those butternuts myself.)  Mark finally felt that we had enough butternuts on hand that I could make a batch of butternut squash and Egyptian onion soup to go along with our butternut squash pie --- scrumptious!  Thanks, Dennis!

Treat your chickens to a poop-free chicken waterer.
Posted Wed Nov 17 07:53:56 2010 Tags:
how to put a woodstove in a mobile home

We managed to install the floor and put up 3 walls on the woodstove alcove project before quitting time today.

Posted Wed Nov 17 16:45:02 2010 Tags:

Tearing out the trailer wallEverything is always easier the second time around, and building is no exception.  Last year, we mulled over every step in our building project, and I made so many measuring mistakes that I begged my father not to point them out when he came to visit.

Although we're still making the odd mistake here and there, our wood stove alcove project is flying along.  Since we caught up on inside chores during a rainy Tuesday, we were able to spend all day building on Wednesday.  We cut the piers to size, topped them with a couple of sill plates for bracket-less joist attachment, then a box of treated 2X6s with an extra one in the middle for an extraordinarily sturdy set of floor joists.  Add a sheet of heavy plywood and we had the subfloor in place by lunchtime, despite having to tear off the trailer wall to get to it.

Alcove wallsNext came the alcove walls.  After some head-scratching, we figured out that if we put three sides of the wall box together on the ground, we could top it off with the exterior plywood and square the wall in no time.  Then it was just a matter of adding on the top 2X4 and the ones in the middle and we had plumb walls.  Let me tell you, nothing is plumb in the East Wing, so all of these ninety degree angles blew me away.

Now, if the rain will just hold off while we put together the ceiling and roof....

We've worked all of the kinks out of our homemade chicken waterer so that you don't have to.
Posted Thu Nov 18 06:00:44 2010 Tags:
mobile home woodstove roof project

It was a lot of trips up and down the ladder for the mobile home woodstove project, but well worth it when I stepped back and saw all the progress we made today.

Posted Thu Nov 18 16:31:51 2010 Tags:

Insulating the roofI think of our trailer as being just a little bit better than a tent as far as retaining heat.  After all, with walls built out of 2X2s and a roof made from 2X4s, there's barely room for insulation.  However, when we opened a great gaping hole in the side of the trailer, I could really feel the difference, with autumn chill creeping in as soon as it got dark.  So I was very relieved we got the wood stove alcove nearly closed in on Thursday before showers sent us scurrying for cover.  (I'll be even more pleased when we add in the wiring so that the kitchen isn't operating on extension cords.)

Continuing to learn from past mistakes, I tore the backing paper off our leftover insulation before handing it up to Mark to lay multiple batts in our alcove's "attic" (between the ceiling and roof.)  I had gone a bit overboard leaving space for insulation, laying 2X8 rafters over a ceiling made of 2X4s, which allowed us to put in around R38 in the lowest part of the roof and more closer to the trailer.  It's a lot easier to talk me into overbuilding when we're working with a space only twelve square feet.

Our homemade chicken waterer is perfect for coops or tractors.
Posted Fri Nov 19 07:23:13 2010 Tags:
high temp caulking application process breakdown

The trick to getting this high temperature caulking to adhere to the stainless steel pipe is to have a cup of water to dip your hands in.

Just a little moisture turns it into more of a clay like material which can then be worked to whatever shape you need.

Posted Fri Nov 19 16:21:53 2010 Tags:

Rosemary mound dug up by LucyThe one problem I've run into with my hugelkultur mounds is rodents.  Moles and/or voles tend to move in, and then Lucy routes them right out...along with two thirds of the mound.  I patted the earth and leaves back around my rosemary plant and will hope it survives Lucy's tough love.

Rather than yelling at Lucy (who had forgotten all about the rosemary incident), I took a deep breath and remembered that she's a perfect dog 95% of the time, which is at least 15% more of the time than I'm good.  If Huckleberry hadn't caught his annual mouse this week, I'd say something snarky about our most spoiled cat here, but the truth is that he's higher in my good graces than Lucy today.


Keep your chicken coop dry with our spill-free, homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Sat Nov 20 07:51:38 2010 Tags:
mark Cured
Cured caulk on a Deluxe rain cap for a woodstove in a mobile home

The high temperature caulkng is now a solid blob of water protection.
Posted Sat Nov 20 18:48:24 2010 Tags:

Jotul F 602 clearancesAs you've all probably figured out by now, we opted for the Jotul F 602 wood stove.  Although the princess seemed tiny as we drove her home, staggering down the hallway with her 160 pound weight seemed to swell her ego and she looked larger the closer she got to her alcove.

I'm very glad we opted for one of the smallest stoves out there, because the required clearances for even the tiny Jotul F 602 are pretty extreme --- 21 inches on each side, 13.5 inches off the back (18 inches if you use single walled stove pipe), and then an 18 inch hearth off the front.  Assuming you send the stove pipe straight up rather than out the back, that's a 21 square foot area taken up by our little darling.

Luckily, there are ways to safely lessen your clearances --- a heat shield on the back of the wood stove, heat shields on the walls, and double walled stove pipe.  We didn't opt to use every one of these features, but if we had, we could have lowered the princess's Strider sniffing the princessfootprint to 11 square feet.  The heat shields on the walls felt like enough for us since they can be homemade and will cut down the huge side clearances to a mere 13 inches.

We probably won't slide her into her new home until around Thanksgiving since we still need to finish the inside of the alcove, but the princess already has a place of honor in our living room.  Both cats have even hopped inside and proclaimed her worthy.  (This is Strider, who is such a shy cat he even hides his face in photos.)

Our homemade chicken waterer makes a great gift for the backyard chicken-keeper on your list.
Posted Sun Nov 21 07:40:14 2010 Tags:
railroad tie footbridge idea

I saw this massive footbridge today while we were out hiking and it made me stop and think of how they used railroad ties to anchor it in the water.

I'm pretty sure our little footbridge was too long and a little support like this in the middle might have been enough to save it from a premature death.

Posted Sun Nov 21 18:18:33 2010 Tags:

Ripening tomatoes indoors in the fallWe picked all of our semi-ripe tomatoes at the beginning of October in preparation for a frost.  A week and one light frost later, I went out and harvested every single thing left on the vines, figuring that at the worst I'd end up with a lot of rotten fruits to go on the compost pile.  The result has been tomatoes ripening slowly in the kitchen for six weeks, and we still have about a third left to change color.

Despite the joy of including homegrown tomatoes in a Thanksgiving salad, I do plan to tweak my last tomato harvest a bit next year.  The first tomatoes to ripen indoors had started the process on the vine and tasted delicious, but each subsequent round became more and more tasteless.  Now, I'm throwing all romas straight into soup since they taste pretty insipid on their own.

On the other hand, the Crazy tommy-toes are still ripening up to a pretty good flavor, even the ones that I picked when they were dark green.  Crazy tomatoes also seem to be less prone to rotting on the ripening shelf, which is one of the downfalls of eking out your fall tomato harvest.

Although our remaining tomatoes aren't the prettiest thing around, they sure are a good way to remind me to eat all of that lettuce growing a mile a minute in the late fall garden!

Streamline your chicken-keeping day with our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Mon Nov 22 08:20:08 2010 Tags:

Weedless GardeningWeedless Gardening by Lee Reich is another one of those books that made me say, "If only I'd read this two years ago, I wouldn't have had to read a dozen books and try out half a dozen methods on the ground to learn that stuff!"  Then I remembered how much I love to read and experiment, and am glad I saved Lee Reich's book for a day when it would help me streamline my operation rather than giving me a template to copy.

Lee Reich sums up his gardening method with four simple factors

  1. Minimize soil disruption --- Don't till or dig.
  2. Protect the soil surface --- Keep a constant mulch or crop cover.
  3. Avoid soil compaction --- Walk on designated paths
  4. Use drip irrigation

Although our garden operates better with pulsating sprinklers than with drip irrigation, I'm completely in favor of Lee Reich's other three points.  As he explains, keeping the soil surface mulched and the soil structure intact has a heaping handful of benefits, including:

  • Fewer weeds --- Tilling exposes seeds below the surface to light and air, which tempts them to sprout.  If you don't till and do keep the soil surface mulched, the seedbank of weeds that is inevitably found in all soil will sit in a dormant state and leave you alone.
  • More moisture --- When you till, you disrupt the structure of the soil, which makes it harder for water to move up and sideways by capillary action.  As a result, you have to water often or keep the roots of your plants dipping into the groundwater to prevent your crops from wilting.  No-till soil develops channels that pull water up from below to hydrate your plants.
  • Earlier spring planting --- It's tough to put in a spring garden if you have to wait until the ground is dry enough to till.  With a no-till garden, you can plant as early as you want.
  • Protection from erosion and crusting --- Heavy rain pounding into bare soil is bad news.  If the water doesn't carry your precious topsoil away, it will break up the soil particles and form a crust on the surface that prevents future rain from infiltrating.  A heavy mulch protects the soil surface from the problematic effects of heavy rain, as well as mitigating summer temperatures, slowing evaporation, and allowing more water to soak into the surface without running off.
  • Decline of organic matter in a prairie after tillingMore organic matter --- One of the best parts of the book is this amazing graph which shows how the organic matter in prairie soil stayed steady at 5% until the land was plowed.  During the first decade of conventional farming, the soil lost 40% of its organic matter, and by the third decade it had lost another 20%.  When you till soil, extra air comes in contact with soil particles and sends the decomposing microorganisms into a flurry of activity.  They break down the organic matter quickly, with the advantage that some instantly available nutrients are produced for that year's crops.  However, most of the nutrients in the organic matter are burned too quickly and turn into gases that leave the soil forever.  We all know that organic matter is key to good soil, so any method that burns through 40% of your soil's organic matter in a decade is bad news.

I assume you're all completely sold by now on Lee Reich's weedless gardening method, so I'll spend the rest of this lunchtime series getting down to the nitty gritty.

Fund your journey back to the land with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Lee Reich's Weedless Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Nov 22 11:00:47 2010 Tags:
woodstove alcove project details

We finished the wiring, insulation, and inner plywood walls on the woodstove alcove project along with all 3 heat shields before I ran out of steam today.

Tomorrow should be a good day to learn about tile floors and concrete board.

Posted Mon Nov 22 16:21:48 2010 Tags:

No, not a hintIf I had to list my talents, getting dirty would definitely be in the top five.  Other people somehow manage to evade dirt's magnetic attraction, but I always figure that it's better to enjoy the world than stay clean.  Or maybe I'm just rationalizing the fact that I am completely incapable of thinking before plopping down on the ground or pushing my fingers into the soil.  Have you ever read Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Tom Kitten?  That's me in a nutshell.

As a case in point, consider our visit to Everett and Missy's house a few weeks ago.  At Homemade soapthe end of our farm tour, I was filthy and soaked from the waist down while everyone else looked pristine, so I wasn't too surprised to be the recipient of the thoughtful package above.  Of course their beautiful homemade soap isn't a hint.  What could they possibly be hinting about?

Thanks for the great hike and the awesome soap, guys!

At least one part of my farm day is now pristine, thanks to Mark's invention of a poop-free chicken waterer.
Posted Tue Nov 23 08:17:23 2010 Tags:

Laying down newspapers for a kill mulchLike Square Foot Gardening, Lee Reich's Weedless Gardening is really a rehashing of a lot of older methods that come down to creating permanent beds and keeping them mulched.  I liked Lee Reich's book a lot better because he included more hands on information that answered questions I've been tossing around about my similar gardening method.  For example --- can you start a no-till garden without an initial episode of tilling?  Lee Reich's answer can be paraphrased as "Yes, easily, and here's how..."

Starting a new no-till garden is a simple matter of laying down a kill mulch (also known as creating a lasagna bed or putting down a sheet mulch.)  Lee Reich first applies six cups of 5% nitrogen fertilizer per 100 square feet, then flattens or mows the existing vegetation so that it is as low to the ground as possible.  Next, he lays down a four-sheet-thick layer of newspaper and tops the paper off with one to three inches of mulch.  If he plans to plant into the bed immediately, that mulch would be compost, but the mulch could also be any of the materials I'll discuss tomorrow if you're making a bed for later use.  In his own garden, Lee Reich lays out compost as mulch in the permanent beds and wood chips as mulch in the aisles.

Lee Reich's weedless gardenI got a bit bogged down in Lee Reich's statement that he uses 5% nitrogen fertilizer, as well as by his later explanation that he uses soybean meal to give his garden a nitrogen boost every year.  As with Steve Solomon's complete organic fertilizer, I think that high nitrogen inputs like this may pass the "organic" test, but fail my permaculture test.  Adding nitrogen to the soil in any concentrated form kills off some of the beneficial soil microorganisms, and I can't help feeling that burning oil to cultivate fields of soybeans then using those soybeans to grow vegetables is about as far as you can get from a closed loop.  All of that said, Lee Reich has a valid point that you need a bit of high nitrogen at the beginning of the no-till process to counteract the high carbon of the weeds being killed.  Why not run chickens over that patch of ground instead, or toss down an equivalent amount of chicken manure?

No matter how you get the extra nitrogen to the soil, Lee Reich explains that you don't need to (nor should you) dig up your soil by hand or with a rototiller except in a few rare cases.  If you have to make drastic changes to your soil pH, you will need to dig the lime Lee Reich's gardenor sulfur into the soil, and if you're the unlucky inheritor of hardpan, you'll have to break up that tough soil layer before returning to no-till techniques.  Lee Reich is generally opposed to raised beds, which he notes dry out quickly (and require an initial round of digging), but he does admit that areas with bedrock just beneath the soil surface or with a very high water table (like we have) will benefit from raised beds.

In most cases, though, starting a new weedless garden is as simple as adding a nitrogen input, mowing, tossing down a layer of paper, and then topping it all of with mulch.  In less time than it would have taken to till the ground, you've created a new growing space and preserved the soil structure and organic matter.

Escape the rat race with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Lee Reich's Weedless Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Nov 23 11:00:52 2010 Tags:
how to lay a tile floor without grout

First we secured down a piece of plywood with screws, and then liquid nailed the concrete board to the plywood.

Twelve tiles took us about a half hour to glue in place.

Now we wait for it to dry.

Posted Tue Nov 23 16:10:28 2010 Tags:

Three year laptop failure rateIt's been a tough week since my horse laptop broke a leg hinge and the vet repair service said she had to be put down would cost as much to repair as replace.  I am a very cranky person when I have to baby my computer so that she doesn't fall in half, and poor Mark has had to put up with my moodiness for long enough.  We decided to go ahead and get me a new laptop, then let Mark try his hand at mending the hinge on this computer so that she can be a good backup in case of future problems.

Laptop failure rate by manufacturerI try to be nice to my laptops, but the truth is that I run through them far faster than you would expect.  Two years ago, I paid more for a Lenovo laptop thinking that it would be sturdier than the HP laptop I'd just broken, but the Lenovo turned out to last an even shorter span of time.  A recent study suggests that this lack of longevity on the part of laptops isn't completely my fault, since nearly a third of all laptops fail in the first three years.  That said, there are notable differences between manufacturers, with HP laptops failing at phenomenal rates, Lenovo laptops coming in middle of the pack, and Toshiba and Asus laptops lasting considerably longer.

Laptop failure rate by priceThe question I'm soliciting feedback on is --- do you think it's worth paying more for longevity when it comes to laptops?  Based on the length of warranty that Toshiba provides on their laptops, I suspect their low end laptops last no longer than other low end laptops (although maybe that's not a valid assumption, given the small difference between entry-level laptops and premium laptops on this chart and the larger difference between brands in the last chart.)  If the Toshiba Tecra laptop would survive about three times as long as their low end Satellite laptop, is it worth paying three times as much for that longevity?

We'd save pain and suffering by going for the more expensive model, and would also save the environmental cost of creating three laptops instead of one.  On the other hand, the industry's planned obsolescence of the low end laptop works to the consumer's advantage in a different way since you tend to be able to buy more computing quality every year for your dollar.  What do you think?  Expensive Toshiba, cheap Toshiba, or cheapest laptop that has the computing power I need?

Keep your chickens happy and healthy with a homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Wed Nov 24 08:15:30 2010 Tags:

Lucy on top of a mound of wood chipsMy second gripe with Lee Reich's method is that, for most people, it will devolve into buying a lot of off-farm mulches.  If you put down a new inch of mulch on a one acre garden every year, that means you've come up with a whopping 134 cubic yards of mulch, or around 60+ large pickup truck loads.  I can't even imagine that much organic matter!

I've spent the last year trying to rustle up enough scrounged organic matter to mulch my garden, and we still devolved into buying straw and rotted wood chip mulch.  A continuous mulch won't pass my permaculture test until I'm able to find all of the ingredients as waste products or grow them myself.  And Lee Reich didn't have that many useful suggestions for non-storebought options:

  • Compost --- This is only free if you make your own, which is possible if you can scavenge enough animal manure.
  • Grass clipping mulchGrass clippings --- If we lived in a city, I might be able to top off my garden with grass clippings just by snagging bags from the curb, but that would be a lot of bags since each large sack contains about a seventh of a cubic yard.
  • Hay --- People always talk about finding spoiled hay for free, but this dream has never materialized for me.  That said, if you were able to get a dozen of the big round bales of hay every year,that would top off your acre.  (After you compost them well to kill the weed seeds, of course.)
  • Leaves --- My mom generally comes through every year with a couple of dozen bags of autumn leaves that she finds by the curb.  I adore these leaves, but they disappear so fast!  Like bags of grass clippings, we'd need about 938 bags to mulch an acre garden.
  • Sawdust --- Lee Reich and my father agree that you can often get sawdust for free at a local sawmill.  This is on my list as a source of biomass to track down next year.
  • Wood chips --- So far, this is the only kind of free biomass we've been able to find in large quantities.  My favorite utility line workers dropped off another big truckload last week, and I've already earmarked it for about a dozen uses.  I estimate that I'd have to get them to deliver about fifteen truckloads a year to keep me happy, which might be the most feasible of all of my mulch options.  Lee Reich notes that wood chips make a perfectly safe mulch even on the vegetable garden as long as you don't work them into the soil.
  • Cover crops in Lee Reich's gardenCover crops --- The other feasible option for a permaculture-friendly mulch is to grow your own during the garden's off season in the form of cover crops.  Lee Reich seemed to be at about the same level of experimentation that I'm at, trying to find a series of cover crops that winter kill or are easily killed by mowing, mentioning barley, buckwheat, oats, rape, and a sorghum-sudangrass hybrid as being reliably winter killed through zone 6.  He lists annual ryegrass as hardy in our zone, but notes that it is very easy to mow-kill, along with all of the previously mentioned cover crops except oats.

Round bales of hayI guess it wasn't fair to think that Lee Reich would be able to provide the silver bullet of free mulch products since this type of system is bound to be unique to each person's area.  I'll keep hunting down as much biomass as I can, and will dream of finding enough to one day mulch my whole garden.  Meanwhile, on my daily walk, I covet the neighbor's biomass.

Why work forty hours a week when you can make a living in eight with Microbusiness Independence?

This post is part of our Lee Reich's Weedless Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Nov 24 11:00:51 2010 Tags:
metal trash can

This metal trash can was about 4 dollars more than the same size in plastic.

I estimate we've lost the equivilent of around 2 bags of feed on and off the last year while I kept trying to seal up the lid with silicone.

I'm guessing a plastic trash can that gets sun exposure all day will only last 5 or 6 years before the lid starts to crack and break.

Posted Wed Nov 24 17:42:24 2010 Tags:

Butternut and cranberry pies
What's Thanksgiving without a pie, or two, or three?  I promised to bring a couple to our family's feast, and couldn't resist making two small butternut squash pies and one huge cranberry raisin pie.

I've been doing a bit of experimenting with using our homegrown honey, so the recipes you'll get by following the links above can be made totally sugar-free.  Look in the comments section to see the honey version of the butternut pie and notice the tweaks I've made to the cranberry raisin pie recipe to keep the filling from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Give your chickens the gift of a homemade chicken waterer, always poop-free.
Posted Thu Nov 25 08:18:28 2010 Tags:

Winged WeederAfter laying out his initial weedless garden, Lee Reich's gardening year is almost too simple.  He estimates that he spends only about five minutes a week weeding his 2,000 square foot garden, making sure that he catches the few weeds that appear before they set seed.  Usually, he simply yanks up tiny weeds by hand, but if a slew of small weeds pop up, he cuts the plants off just beneath the soil surface using a colinear hoe, hula hoe, or (his favorite) the winged weeder.

One problem I've noted in my own endless hand-weeding is that I yank up quite a bit of good garden soil around the roots of large weeds and end-of-the-year crop debris (like dead corn stalks and broccoli.)  Lee Reich has a great solution to this problem.  He uses a sharp knife to cut a circle in the soil around the plant, severing the large roots so that he can simply twist the main stalk out with a jerk of his hand.  Not only does the precious soil stay in place, there is less disruption that will allow weed seeds to sprout.  As an added bonus, the small roots left behind quickly rot, leaving channels through which air and water can move, and increasing the organic matter of the soil.

At the end of the year (or earlier if he sees bare spots), Lee Reich adds another layer of mulch to the garden.  He generally uses leaves or wood chips around his perennials, wood chips in his garden aisles, and weedless compost as mulch on the vegetable beds.  An inch of compost feeds his garden while all perennials except his prize fruit trees receive enough nutrients from their three annual inches of wood chip mulch alone.

EdgingI probably spend about a third of my weeding time dealing with the grass and clover that creep up from our aisles into the garden beds.  Lee Reich agrees that edging is a pain in the butt and most of his solutions are tedious and time-consuming --- hand weeding or cutting off the invaders with a half moon edger are the two cheap options.  At the other exreme, if you can spare the biomass, using wood chips in your aisles and as a buffer around your garden will not only cut back on this time-consuming work, but will also feed your soil and give your garden plants a bit more space to spread their roots.  One day, I dream of converting my aisles to wood chips --- maybe if my buddies drop off another dozen truckloads full.

Lee Reich even has contingency plans for what to do if you accidentally let a portion of your garden become over-run with weeds.  Just throw down a new kill mulch complete with paper weed barrier and keep right on planting!

Find the time to pursue your passions with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Lee Reich's Weedless Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Nov 25 11:00:46 2010 Tags:
Thanksgiving in North Carolina 2010

What am I thankful for?

It's been such a great year I don't even know where to begin.

A little person named Kai asked me that today and the first thing that came to my mind was the plate of mustard greens I was passing along, but the truth is just the top 10 on that list would have taken several minutes to get through.

Posted Thu Nov 25 19:23:14 2010 Tags:

Cooking ham bone with beansIf you haven't thrown out those ham bones and turkey carcasses, you're sitting on a gold mine!  While the rest of our family fought over leftover meat, I snagged my favorite meat remnant --- the ham bone.  I'll cook the bone up in a pot of beans today, then freeze the result in small segments to turn into refried beans and additions to soups.  The final bare bone will go to Lucy as her post-Thanksgiving treat.

How about those turkey carcasses?  Although I was a bit lax when we lived on storebought birds, raising our own broilers this year has given me a new appreciation for eating every part of the fowl.  After picking off all of the meat, I cook the remnants in a big pot of water all afternoon, then pour off the first round of stock to be used as the base of soups.  I used to throw out the carcass at this point, but during my summer flurry of putting away garden produce, I needed extra chicken stock for all those harvest bounty soups, and I quickly learned that you can get another batch of rich broth by stewing the bones all over again.  Don't forget to throw in a bit of vinegar to tempt more calcium to migrate out of the bones and into the water.  After two rounds of simmering, the poultry bones are so soft that they seem to disappear when tossed back to our chickens, boosting the all-important calcium levels of our laying hens and giving them a high protein fix that perks them right up.

Perk up your chickens every day with clean water from our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Fri Nov 26 10:21:42 2010 Tags:

Flowers in Lee Reich's gardenI was going to end by telling you that Weedless Gardening is definitely a book worth checking out of your local library since it is the simplest and clearest explanation of why and how to run a no-till garden that I've read.  But I got an email from the author, who kindly overlooked my use of his copyrighted photos, and who mentioned that he sells his books over on his website.  It turns out that a signed copy of Weedless Gardening is only $8.95 direct from the author, with a very minimal $2.50 shipping charge (at least to Virginia.)  The book is worth every penny of that price and more, so I've changed my tune --- go buy a copy for yourself, and another copy for that nice neighbor who can't seem to understand why you don't use a rototiller.

Lee Reich also gave me a bit more information about his gardening methods, which I wanted to repeat here for those of you who don't read every comment on our blog:

As far as mulch, your garden is much bigger than most gardens, perhaps bigger than it has to be.  I grow a year round supply of vegetables for me and my family on a couple of thousand square feet of space.  Wood chips, perhaps a couple of loads per year are delivered free.  Leaves are delivered free or I pick them up in suburban neighborhoods.  I make many tons of compost from garden and kitchen waste, hay scythed from a half acre field here, and, occasionally, some horse manure waste from a local horse farm.

As far as the soybean meal, I've pretty much abandoned it.  One inch depth of compost should supply all plants nutritional needs.  Also, I question the killing of microorganisms from soybean meal; some will thrive on the N, others won't.  The N is released slowly into the soil via the action of microorganisms.  Chickens would mess up the garden and, anyway, don't provide free nitrogen if you feed them.  (Mine get fed only enough to know where home is.)  They mess up the beds so aren't allowed in my garden.

If you're still dying for more information, add Lee Reich's blog to your feed reader like I have.  I'm sure he's got a lot more tips to share with us!

Quit your job and start to live with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Lee Reich's Weedless Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Nov 26 11:11:24 2010 Tags:
stainless steel stovepipe installation

These extra 24 inches cost around 75 dollars due to it being stainless steel.

It was easy to screw on and secure in place with a locking ring and proved to be the last finishing touch to the mobile home woodstove alcove project.

Posted Fri Nov 26 19:25:55 2010 Tags:

Fire inside a Jotul F 602 wood stoveAfter nearly two weeks of laboring over her new home, we fired up the princess for the first time Friday afternoon.  The instructions admonished us to light five progressively larger fires, allowing the stove to cool completely between each one, before burning a full-fledged fire, so we haven't yet tested how much heat our Jotul F 602 will put off at full speed.  So far, though, I can tell you that she's a joy to work with.

Jotul F 602 in an alcoveI'm a very inexperienced fire-maker, and starting our exterior wood furnace (aka the beast) was nearly always beyond my ability.  Mark could get the beast going with judicious application of storebought firestarter logs (wax and sawdust), but even he had to labor quite a bit to build the fire to the point where it wouldn't go out when he shut the door.  There was no point in leaving a small fire burning in the furnace because you'd come back to unburnt kindling and a cold stove.

The princess is nothing like that.  I crumbled up several sheets of newsprint, topped them off with about a dozen mostly dry twigs and a few thinly chopped bits of box elder kindling, and lit her up.  The Jotul is completely airtight and is designed so that the air intake at the front of the stove forms a roaring wind inside as soon as you close the glass door.  By the second of the five mini fires, I had figured out that I could just close the door soon after lighting the paper, and Air regulator on a Jotul F 602the stove would do the rest of the fire-starting by herself.  Within minutes, the flames were so well established that I felt quite confident leaving her alone --- no babysitting involved.

Clearly, the princess is going to be the cure to my constant winter refrain --- "Honey, sweetie pie, darling, will you please light me a fire?"  We may be fighting over who gets to light the fire this season.

Looking for other ways to make your homesteading life easier?  Our homemade chicken waterer cuts chicken-keeping chore time in half.
Posted Sat Nov 27 08:52:10 2010 Tags:
Joutal installation close up image collage

We used a jack out of the car and the truck on each side of the Jotul F 602 to slowly raise it up to a point where it connected with the stovepipe.

A solid cinder block was a nice fit for the front feet to rest on and we only had to add a couple of spare tiles to the back block to even it out.

I would say this raises our comfort level more than any other investment we've made in the past.

Posted Sat Nov 27 17:18:05 2010 Tags:

Smoke coming from a Jotul wood stoveTake a peek at the smoke coming out of our chimney while the Jotul is operating nearly at full blast.  Oh, you don't see anything?  I could hardly make out a hint of smoke either, just a bit of a heat shimmering right around the rain cap.  For the sake of comparison, check out this photo, which was pretty typical of the huge plume of gray smoke exiting the chimney of our exterior wood furnace.

The Jotul's efficiency isn't only obvious out the chimney, but also inside the firebox.  The one part of our tiny wood stove that I was leery of was the lack of a tray for ashes.  Wouldn't the little firebox just clog up after an hour of burning and need to be cleaned out?  Nope.  After our first four small and medium-sized fires, there was only about a quarter of an inch of fluffy ash in the bottom of the stove --- not even enough to bother scooping out.  The instruction manual suggests cleaning out the ashes every day or two, which sounds about right.

By fire number three, I could tell that the Jotul puts off a lot of heat.  On a frosty morning, fire number four heated up the trailer in no time, despite the fact that I opened the back door to air out the scent of curing paint.  (As Roland mentioned and the Huckleberry watching the fireinstruction book for the stove reiterated, you need to be aware that a new stove will probably stink like the dickens the first few times you light it as the paint on the outside cures.)  I figure we burned perhaps two small logs in fire number four, which would have barely been enough to push heat into the trailer with our exterior wood furnace but which the princess used to warm up the whole front half of the trailer to high room temperature.  It sure is nice to be turning that wood straight into heat instead of into smoke and ashes.  As you can see, even Huckleberry approves of our new space heating direction.

Simplify your chicken-keeping life with a poop-free homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Sun Nov 28 08:44:21 2010 Tags:
wood chopping and fire image

A damper is a valve or plate that stops or regulates air flow inside the chimney.woodstove chimney 6 inch iron damper

We bought a damper thinking it was part of what we needed, but found out just in time that our
Jotul F 602 does not require one due to it being air tight and having a rain cap to prevent Santa and other critters from entering.

The downside to a damper is how it restricts air flow even when it's open and makes cleaning the chimney a lot more difficult.

Posted Sun Nov 28 17:47:40 2010 Tags:
Wild oyster mushrooms in the firewood

Now that we finally have an operational wood stove, it's time to pay attention to the wood pile.  For most homesteaders, that would mean getting the wood entirely under cover so that it wouldn't be damp when they go to light a fire.  We do plan to cover up our wood, but right now I'm more interested in picking through the logs salvaged from the oyster mushroom tree to make sure we don't accidentally burn any innoculated with edible mushrooms.  Sure enough, two of the log sections are sprouting oyster mushrooms, so I snuck them away to live in the forest garden island.

Between me snagging mushroom logs and Lucy dragging off huge pieces of firewood to gnaw on, Mark has to chop quite a bit more wood than he should.  I don't know why he puts up with us, but I sure am glad he does.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Mon Nov 29 08:03:15 2010 Tags:
Anna Worm Cafe

Worm CafeBinet Payne's Worm Cafe documents her journey to keep her school's food waste out of the landfill.  She got other teachers, students, and cafeteria staff on board to collect their food and paper waste and process it through four medium-sized worm bins.  During the first school year, her 400 student school composted 3600 pounds of cafeteria waste (and a bunch of paper) and saved $6,000 in dumpster fees.  Meanwhile, the school was able to grow some of their own food using the worm castings and the kids were involved in hands on science.

Even if you're not ready to take on the lead role in turning a local school's waste into black gold, Worm Cafe is a great book for any budding vermiculturalist to read.  As you'll see in this week's lunchtime series, Binet Payne's book is invaluable if you're interested in expanding beyond the little kitchen worm bin or even if you just want to know more about how worms work.  Stay tuned for all of the details of Binet Payne's mid-scale vermicomposting project.

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

Posted Mon Nov 29 11:00:27 2010 Tags:
mobile home cat house diy 2010

inside view of 2010 catdoor entrance/exit to feline patio

The new cat door now has its own enclosed porch for maximum feline comfort.

Posted Mon Nov 29 16:39:15 2010 Tags:
Growth of blog visitors

We were too busy to celebrate the days, but September 14 marked the fourth anniversary of our move to the farm and September 26 marked the second anniversary of the Walden Effect!  We've met so many great people in that time period, both real live neighbors and virtual neighbors who've dropped by our blog --- 333,147 people have visited the Walden Effect from at least 200 countries and territories and have read over half a million pages between them.

Although we probably don't say it enough, we really value our readers.  You change the Walden Effect from our personal journal into a vibrant community as you share their experiences and knowledge.    Meanwhile, for all of you old and new readers, I wanted to give you a chance to ask us any questions that you've been pondering but which might have felt off topic or like we probably answered them before you started reading.  Leave a comment here or on facebook with your question and we'll make some posts to answer them in the near future.  If you're especially interested in hearing either Mark's or my take on a question, be sure to mention that too.
Map of Walden Effect's visitors
While you're at it, feel free to make an account and a user page so that we'll know who you are.  If you happen to have a friend in Svalbard, Greenland, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Benin, Niger, Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon, Equitorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, or French Guiana, you'd make my day if you drop them an email and ask them to visit the Walden Effect to round out my world map.  And thanks for reading!

Our homemade chicken waterer funds our blogging and homesteading adventure.  If you haven't checked it out, now would be a great time to drop by that site too.
Posted Tue Nov 30 09:13:21 2010 Tags:

Worm talking about a binBinet Payne's worm bins are as simple as you can get, but using her figures you can make a worm bin as fancy as you please.  When designing your worm bin, plan to keep it pretty shallow --- twelve inches deep worked well for her --- and to provide one cubic foot of bin space per pound of daily food waste.  A family that produces a pound or two of food waste per day can get away with a 2 cubic foot worm bin (2 feet by one foot by one foot), but Binet Payne's school produces perhaps ten times that amount of food waste per day so she built her bins to be about 32 cubic feet.

The most basic worm bin is simply a wooden frame made of 2X12s with a plywood bottom and lid.  To keep costs low, Binet made her bins 8 feet by 4 feet, so each one used three pieces of lumber for the sides and one full sheet of plywood for the top and another for the bottom.  She warns not to use treated wood, but she didn't find any problems when using cedar to extend the life of her worm bin.

Simple lumber worm binBinet's bins were propped up on railroad ties or cinderblocks to provide a bit of air space underneath, and she drilled half inch holes every nine inches along the width of the bottom and every 18 inches along the length.  In my own experience, I've found that the worm tea is the most valuable byproduct of vermiculture, so I'd add some sort of collection basin underneath to capture any liquid that seeps out the holes.  Lay a sheet of black plastic on top of the bin contents below the plywood lid, and your quick and dirty bin is complete.

For those of you who have gone beyond the under-the-sink worm bin scale, what does your bin look like?  I'd love to hear from anyone who's built a bin that keeps the worms happy, collects compost tea, and is still cheap to put together.

Escape the rat race with Microbusiness Independence.

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

Posted Tue Nov 30 11:00:46 2010 Tags:
close up of a chicken in a coop with chickens in the background

The new indoor nest box was a failure due to multiple birds using it as a sleeping roost.

Everything was fine for the first few nights, but eventually all the extra weight took its toll on the plastic structure and it collapsed onto the floor.

My new goal is to improve the night time roosting options by adding some sort of corner perch a bit higher up than the one shown in the picture and about twice as thick and sturdy....maybe a 2x4 with the edge rounded.

Posted Tue Nov 30 16:40:45 2010 Tags:

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

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