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

archives for 12/2010

Dec 2010

Worm towerDarren pointed me toward worm towers, which are a way of integrating small-scale worm bins into your garden.  As Milkwood explains, "Essentially a worm tower is an in-garden worm farm that allows the worms and their nutrients to interact directly with the surrounding garden bed."

Simply take a two foot long, 6" diameter PVC pipe, drill a bunch of holes around it for aeration, bury it a foot deep in the soil of your garden, and fill it with worms and bedding.  Top the worm tower with a cap (like an upturned flower pot) to protect the worms from the sun and then toss in your food scraps and extra bedding just as you could in a normal worm bin.

The innovative part is that the plant roots and microorganisms in the surrounding soil can also interact with the worm bin, sucking up worm tea and eating castings as they appear.  The worms can migrate down into the below-ground portion of the worm tower when cold weather strikes, which makes Making a worm towerthis small-scale worm bin much more able to deal with outdoor winter temperatures than the typical household-size worm bin.

I'm enthralled by the idea and am suddenly envisioning a worm tower in each of our garden beds, fed each week with cafeteria scraps and paper waste from the local school.  I guess the sticking point would be Lucy --- would she dig up the worm tower to get to those rotting hamburgers?

Looking for other homestead innovations?  Our homemade chicken waterer stays clean and full all day long.
Posted Wed Dec 1 08:12:23 2010 Tags:

Shredded paper bedding in a worm binAlthough various waste products (like sawdust and wood chips) can be used as bedding in the worm bin, Binet Payne found that shredded paper was the most effective.  I've just about talked myself into buying a shredder to turn junk mail into worm bedding since that's one of the few waste products we don't fully utilize on our farm, and since I've had bad luck keeping worms going in the bedding materials I've used in the past (leaves, unshredded paper, etc.)  The trick is that worm bedding should be high in carbon to counteract the high nitrogen food wastes, should hold water well to keep the worms moist, and should stay fluffy to allow plenty of air to circulate through the bin.

When preparing your worm bin the first time (or adding bedding later to cover up food), soak your shredded paper with three times its weight in water.  The perfect bedding is damp but not soggy, so you can't squeeze any water out by hand.  If the bedding is too wet, just let it drain in the bin for a while before adding your worms.  As the bedding drains, sprinkle a shovelful of dirt over the damp paper to provide grit for your worms and to stock bacteria to expedite the decomposition process.  Then toss in a bit of food waste and manure worms (Eisenia fetida), cover them up, and let your worms get to work.

Eisenia fetidaYou need to provide two pounds of worms for every daily pound of food waste you'll be adding to the bin, which should also equal two pounds of worms for every cubic foot of bin space.  So, your 2 cubic foot kitchen sink worm bin will need to start with 4 pounds of worms, and your 8 foot by 4 foot by 1 foot bin will need 64 pounds of worms.  These aren't the same worms you can dig up in your backyard, and buying manure worms can be expensive, so you might need to stock your bin with fewer worms than is recommended.  In that case, add less food waste to the bin at first, slowly putting in more as the worm population grows.  Binet Payne notes that 8 pounds of worms will fully stock a 32 square foot bin within three months.

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

Posted Wed Dec 1 11:00:01 2010 Tags:

inside the new chicken coop configuration
another view of inside of the chicken coop
We spent some time today re-organizing the roost and nest box placements in the chicken coop.

A fourth roosting location is in the corner you don't see in the picture, which might be high enough for our rooster to finally feel like he's captain of the coop.

I'll check in on them a bit after their bedtime tonight to see who ended up roosting on the top spot.

Posted Wed Dec 1 16:49:46 2010 Tags:

Sycamore leaf with snowI've been doing a lot of thinking about self-sufficiency lately.  When I was in my early twenties and dreaming of (and saving for) a homestead, my goal was complete self-sufficiency.  I imagined parking at the corner of my wooded property and walking back to a tent, where I lived until I'd cut down enough trees to make my home.  I had absolutely no contact with the outside world in this dream, and needed none.

Age (and Mark's mitigating influence) have slowly redefined my vision of self-sufficiency to include the local community and beyond.  Rather than living without electricity for a couple of decades until we saved enough for an off-grid power setup, we went ahead and plugged into the cheap, mainstream grid, and reaped the benefits by making a living online.  We take advantage of the copious waste in American society, living in a forty year old trailer that was being thrown away and trading fresh eggs for horse manure.  Nowadays, my vision of self-sufficiency involves tricking talking enough like-minded --- but subtly different --- neighbors into settling nearby so that we could trade peaches for fresh milk and homegrown honey for half of a pig rather than having to raise every sort of livestock ourselves.
Flooded creek
That said, I have to admit that I love days when we're flooded in and it becomes clear how self-sufficient our homestead already is.  Even without high creek waters, we generally only go into town two days a week to mail our chicken waterers, hitting the grocery store once every week or two for the scant provisions we don't grow ourselves, and visiting the big city perhaps once or twice a month for other supplies.  Who cares if it floods Tuesday night when you're not due to go into town until Friday anyway?

Posted Thu Dec 2 06:00:35 2010 Tags:

Binet Payne's method of worm bin management is quite complex, but it can be summed up as follows:

  • Pouring food into a worm binOnly add as much food as your bin can handle.  The first step is to audit your food waste over the course of a month and then build an appropriately sized bin that you stock with the right number of worms.  Then weigh your food waste each day as you put it in the bins to make sure the amount of food is close to the daily average.  If you get a sudden glut of food waste, use the extra in a traditional compost pile or feed it to your chickens rather than overwhelming the worm bin (and promoting fruit flies.)
  • Keep food under cover.  Every day when Binet's students add new food to her bins, they dig a trench across the width of the bin, put in the food, break up any large pieces of food with a shovel, then completely cover the food with bedding.
  • Turn bins at least once a week to double the compost speed.  If you use the complicated filling method I'll outline below, you'll need to turn each section separately so that you don't mix old and new food waste together.
  • Give your worms six weeks for the first round of composting.  Binet Payne splits each of her four bins into eight sections and fills alternate sections every day, so she has completely filled the 32 sections in her bins at the end of six weeks.  Although the method is complicated, I can see the utility --- you don't overload one bin all at once, and worms can move between areas with lots of fresh food waste and areas with fresh bedding as necessary to keep themselves healthy.
  • Shoveling worm castingsTempt your worms to migrate to fresh bedding after six weeks.  After the first six weeks passes and each of the sections in her four bins are full, Binet Payne rakes the contents of each bin to one side, leaving three quarters of the bin bare.  The bare part of the bin is filled with fresh bedding and is then divided into six sections, which she will fill with food waste in the same alternate manner she used to fill the bin the first time.  Meanwhile, worms will be migrating out of the older composting materials and into the fresh bedding as they finish composting the older section.
  • Move nearly completed compost to the finishing bin.  Five to ten days after raking the old material to one side of the bin, begin to move those castings to a finishing bin.  The worms should have migrated sideways and down out of the top two inches of the old material, so you can rake that part off wth a hand rake.  Wait a day and rake two more inches and repeat until you're near the bottom of the bin.  The last bit of material may be chock full of worms, in which case it is scattered across the new material in the rest of the bin to speed up decomposition.
  • Use castings only from the finishing bin.  The finishing bin is like another worm bin, but the materials inside are nearly or completely done composting.  Binet Payne found that compiling all of the finished castings into one bin made it easy for other members of the school to use them in gardening projects and science experiments without bothering the busy worms in active bins.

Worm factoryWhen I first read Binet Payne's method, it felt overly complex, but as I sum it up for you, I can see the importance of each step.  For anyone who's not an obsessive list-maker, though, I suspect this sytem would be tough to stick to, which makes me think somebody needs to invent a system that does all of the thinking for you.  I've seen worm bins where you fill the bottom bin up, stack on another bin which you fill up and into which worms migrate as they finish the bottom bin, and so forth, but this would be a very bulky system on any scale larger than a few cubic feet.  I'm sure we can come up with something better.  Any suggestions on how to scale this idea up to a farm-sized version?

Quit your job and start to live with Microbusiness Independence.

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

Posted Thu Dec 2 11:00:39 2010 Tags:
chicken roosting at night on a roost

It was a relief to see all 6 chickens off the ground and on a roost last night.

The fact that one of our hens is on a lower perch is more than likely some sort of expression of our particular flock dynamics.

I suspect it's the white Cochin hen who is not letting the loner girl play any reindeer games.

Posted Thu Dec 2 17:33:53 2010 Tags:

Flipping the box overEven though I've got some last mulching and transplanting to slip into the early winter, we've turned a lot of our attention inside for the colder months.  One of the projects I hope to tackle is turning Mark's old bedroom into a chicken waterer construction room and general work space, and the first thing it needed was a big work bench.

Mark's usually the carpenter in the family, but he was nice enough not to mind me Drilling on a legspreading my craftsman wings.  As usual, the goal was to build something with as little storebought materials as possible.  After a bit of poking around, I came up with a used kitchen counter (from Mark's mom --- thanks, Rose Nell!), some used 4X4s (from my mom --- thanks, Mom!), and some slightly used 2X4s that we'd taken out of another project.  The only really storebought component was a heaping handful of screws, worth perhaps four dollars.

Homemade work benchI built a box the shape of the counter out of the 2X4s, attached the 4X4s in each corner as legs, and screwed the counter on top.  Instant work bench!  Next, I plan to add a shelf underneath and a bunch more shelves on the walls to get our tools organized and off the ground.

It's hard to believe that I didn't even know what a cordless drill was when we embarked on this adventure four years ago.  Mark has been a very patient teacher, and has barely cringed when I broke his favorite drill bit, sometimes offering a gentle "Are you sure you want to do it that way?", but generally letting me make my own mistakes.  Thanks, honey!

Posted Fri Dec 3 06:00:30 2010 Tags:

Compost thermometerI'm ashamed to say that we haven't done very well with our worms in the past.  Part of the problem is that we had very little waste to give them since nearly all of our food scraps go to the chickens, and another part of the problem is that I didn't use optimal bedding.  From reading Binet Payne's Worm Cafe, though, I'm also starting to realize that small-scale worm bins are inherently finicky, a problem that is overcome by expanding the worm bin to compost more waste. 

Binet Payne notes that her 32 cubic foot worm bins are very forgiving of environmental conditions.  She places them in the shade, but otherwise doesn't worry too much about the weather even though the bins are located outside.  When the top layer of vermicompost freezes in the winter, the worms just move a bit deeper into the part of the bin where microbial decomposition warms the bedding.  During the summer when Bins to collect food wasteschool is out, the worms do fine coasting along on just a couple of feedings.  Not only do mid-scale worm bins provide enough castings to actually make a dent in a homestead's needs, they are also easier to handle.

But where do you get ten to twenty-five pounds of food waste per day?  After failing at our attempt to beg food waste from the local grocery store, I've got my eye on the school down the road.  I'm on the fence about whether to try to find funding so that I could help them implement Binet Payne's entire program (estimated cost $1,000 to $3,000), or whether I just want to come up with air-tight containers that we could pick up on our bi-weekly trips to town and then compost the food waste on our own farm.  I'll probably present both ideas to their principal and see which one seems most exciting to her.

Follow your dreams with Microbusiness Independence.

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

Posted Fri Dec 3 11:00:50 2010 Tags:

clicken chicken training image montage
Training chickens is a new way of learning dog training skills.

Operant conditioning from B.F. Skinner involves a clicker and yummy snacks for reinforcement. You can train a chicken to discriminate between shapes, navigate an obstacle course, or just ring a bell.

I wonder if a chicken could be trained to open and close an automatic chicken coop door by pushing the right button?

Does anybody reading this have an especially outrageous task they've always wanted to train a chicken to do?

Posted Fri Dec 3 19:30:51 2010 Tags:

Carrying firewoodOut of curiosity, I've had Mark keep track of how much wood he's been splitting and stacking for our new Jotul wood stove this week.  Even though the Jotul is very efficient, I've been very profligate with wood, keeping the trailer perhaps ten to fifteen degrees warmer than we did last winter with the beast, and temperatures have been on the lower end of average outside.  Even so, at the rate we're burning, it would take us nearly two months to run through a cord of wood.  For the sake of comparison, we burned 1.75 cords of wood in perhaps four to six weeks last year and then were cold for the rest of the winter.

Cutting firewood with a miter sawBut are we saving any time?  We've discovered that it's a lot easier to fit wood into the Jotul's smaller firebox if it's split well, and since the fire is so easy to start I've been letting it go out a lot and restarting it with finely split box-elder kindling.  And some of the logs are too long to fit in our new stove, so we cut them in half with the miter saw.  That's a lot more prep per log than our exterior wood furnace required.  Even so, I estimate that Mark spent only about 15 minutes per day splitting, cutting, and hauling wood, which is probably half the time he spent processing wood for the beast.

All things considered, I think the Jotul is actually going to save us more time and money than I initially estimated.  We had been planning on a cheaper option for the East Wing, but we're now seriously considering just saving our pennies and buying a second Jotul.

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps your flock happy and healthy.
Posted Sat Dec 4 08:10:03 2010 Tags:
roosting at night for 5 hens and a rooster on a cold December evening

The loner hen now gets to sleep on the top roost, but the trio of popular girls still won't let her perch at their table.

Posted Sat Dec 4 16:41:21 2010 Tags:

Closeup of frozen oyster mushrooms
Oyster mushroomsI find it hard to believe that it's December and we're still eating fresh produce for almost every meal.  I snagged these oyster mushrooms a couple of days ago while walking Lucy --- they had sprung up on the part of the fallen oyster mushroom log that I thought was mushroom-free and thus left behind.  Even though the mushrooms were frozen solid, they thawed out to make tasty fajitas.

Meanwhile, we're filling our salad bowls with lots of lettuce and the steamer with masses of mustard and swiss chard greens along with a weekly dose of broccoli side florets.  There are parsley and Egyptian onion tops for extra fresh greenery, and our house is full of stored sweet potatoes, white potatoes, butternuts, and garlic.  We've still got a few ripening tomatoes, but they're not anything to write home about.

In the interest of variety, we've thawed out a gallon and a half of vegetables from the freezer, but in terms of quantity, we could still be eating entirely from the garden if we felt like it.  Even though half of our fall garden didn't germinate, the plants that did come up have given us the tastiest early winter ever!

Keep your chickens healthy through the winter with a homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Sun Dec 5 06:00:37 2010 Tags:
roosting during a cold day in December

I think a good way to determine if it's going to be a cold day is when our flock decides to stay in.

Today was one of those cold days.

Posted Sun Dec 5 17:39:17 2010 Tags:
Quick change adapter and drill bit

Although I'm sure 75% of you know all about this, I was thrilled to be clued into one of Mark's best tool add-ons --- the quick change adapter on the cordless drill.  This adapter hooks onto the front of the drill and allows special drill bits and drivers to be popped in and out with a Shelves in the new officeflick of your wrist.  (To be more literal, on our drill, you just push part of the adapter backwards and the drill bit pops out.  I've read that different brands require slightly different motions, but they're all easy to do with your hands full.)  Some other names for the same thing include hex-shank or ultralok drill bits.

With a quick change adapter in place, it's simple to swap back and forth between drilling pilot holes and then driving in the screw.  The only problem is that you have to use special bits with a hexagonal (rather than round) base, so if you lose your favorite snap-in drill bit, you might spend as long looking for it as you would have swapping between the drill bit and the phillips head driver.  Maybe once all of our tools are organized, we won't have this problem any more?

Our homemade chicken waterer is easy to put together by anyone who can handle a cordless drill.
Posted Mon Dec 6 08:10:44 2010 Tags:
how to prevent water from freezing in a automatic bucket waterer

Ice and Easy de-icer + 4 feet of Reflectix= Experimental chicken water heater.

We'll know in the morning if this will be good enough to keep the automatic chicken nipple from freezing.

Posted Mon Dec 6 16:41:07 2010 Tags:

Adrian EckbergMy maternal grandfather died when I was six, so I can't actually remember anything about him.  But lately I've realized that I probably get my obsessive list-making from Grandpa Eckberg.

Grandpa's bookcase

I also inherited this little red bookcase from him.  The story goes that Grandpa made this bookcase out of orange crates while he and his family were stationed in California during World War II.  Were the wooden orange crates disposable, a slightly more sturdy version of the half bushel cardboard boxes of oranges you can buy today?  Was Grandpa reusing the wood because he couldn't bear to throw the boxes away, or was it just an example of Yankee frugality?  Either way, I figured that Grandpa wouldn't mind me adding a couple of extra shelves and a back to his bookcase to make it easier to fill up with containers of screws.

Making homemade chicken waterersThe pile of miscellaneous stuff awaiting organization in the middle of our office doesn't seem to be getting any smaller, but the space is already easier to use.  This photo of Mark working on our homemade chicken waterers doesn't look like much, but you have to realize that just a year and a half ago Mark was making waterers under a tent in the backyard.  When you start with nothing, every little improvement is exciting.

Posted Tue Dec 7 08:09:05 2010 Tags:
chicken water heater idea that works

The Ice and Easy did a good job keeping the water from freezing in the bucket, but last night it got down to 17 degrees farenheit, which equaled frozen chicken nipples this morning.

They both thawed out this afternoon when the temperature got around 25 degrees.

I installed a light with another layer of Reflectix to keep some of the heat within the nipple drinking area. We'll see tomorrow morning if this is enough to keep water flowing during this sub freezing cold spell.

Posted Tue Dec 7 16:44:13 2010 Tags:

Homemade bookcaseDo you remember learning in high school biology class about mitochondria, those tiny organelles inside your cells which convert sugars into energy?  Remember how they fold their cell membranes up into a convoluted mass to provide surface area for all those reactions?  That's what I've been thinking about all week as I add surface area (aka shelves) to the office, turning it into the powerhouse of the trailer.

Making the bookcase

My most recent addition is a homemade bookcase, sized just right to fit into that difficult spot beside the door.  Although not as elegant as Grandpa's bookcase, it will hold twice as many odds and ends.  Yes, scary pile in the middle of the floor, I'm talking about you.

Our homemade chicken waterers keep the coop clean and the chickens healthy.  As you can see, soon they'll even be heated for even easier winter care!
Posted Wed Dec 8 10:07:32 2010 Tags:
diy chicken water heater home made

It works!

Now I need to simplify the design. Maybe have the light automatically switch off during the day and when it's above freezing, or experiment with Roland's idea of applying heat through an electrical current directly to the nipple in question.

Visit our heated chicken waterer page for more details on designing your own.

Posted Wed Dec 8 16:31:45 2010 Tags:

Bucket of charcoal and ashesOnce I started damping our Jotul F 602 wood stove down at night, I realized that the stove makes copious amounts of first class charcoal.  Thirteen days of fires filled up our bucket beyond the brim --- time to figure out how to filter the charcoal from the ash.

Wood ashes

Both wood ashes and charcoal are good for the garden, but they have different uses.  Ash is high in potassium, and also contains quite a bit of phosphorus, magnesium, and various trace minerals.  More important, though, wood ashes are a quarter to a half calcium carbonate (aka "lime"), so you have to be aware that you will raise the pH of your soil by applying the ashes.  Since our soil already has a pH around 6 and our potassium levels are naturally very high, I don't want to apply too much ash or I'll raise the pH above the optimal 6.5 recommended for a vegetable garden and possibly bring the potassium up to toxic levels.
Sifting charcoal from ash
The charcoal is what I'm really excited about.  We've been sold on the benefits of biochar to soil, but haven't been ready to put in the time to build a biochar production chamber.  Sure is nice of the airtight wood stove to do that job for us while also producing plenty of heat to keep my toes warm.

Glowing coal

I built a sifting box to separate the charcoal from the ashes, a process that went pretty smoothly but needs a bit of tweaking.  First of all, even though the coals had been sitting in the ash bucket for nearly twelve hours, some were still burning, and I scorched the wood Pouring charcoal into a metal bin for storageon the inside of my sifter.  Mark suggested adding flashing to the inside, which is a great idea.  The job was also pretty messy, with ash flying everywhere --- maybe I need to add a lid to the top of the sifter?

Despite needing some optimizing, the sifting operation went quickly once I realized I should only dump in about four inches of stove debris at a time and jiggle the sifter a lot to get the ashes to fall through the holes.  The really difficult bit will be figuring out how to crush the biochar into powder.  We could use the chunks as they are, but my understanding is that we get more surface area and more microbial action if we crush the biochar into much smaller pieces.  While we put our thinking caps on, I'll be storing our charcoal in a metal container so that it can't burn through the bottom and start a fire.

Our homemade chicken waterer kits work all of the kinks out of the process so that your chickens can be drinking clean water in half an hour.
Posted Thu Dec 9 08:02:57 2010 Tags:

ice water 2010Going up our little hill to fetch 3 pails of water takes about 5 minutes once you break a hole in the top layer of ice in the tank.

While I'm doing this I often compare it to the early days of getting water from the creek where the main problem was finding a deep enough spot so the bucket would mostly fill up.

I estimate this tank method is 4 to 5 times faster and easier.

Posted Thu Dec 9 15:54:14 2010 Tags:

IciclesWe've been operating under deep freeze conditions all week.  Friday night, the snow started falling, and by the end of the weekend we had about four inches.  Then the temperatures dropped way down, with days below freezing and nights in the teens and single digits.  For the sake of comparison, December's average high is 48 and our average low is 26 --- waking up to ice in my water bottle inside the trailer is highly unusual, but that's what Thursday morning was like.

Even though our water line is buried to within four feet of the house, we didn't finish it up because of a kink in the plan.  Usually, a frozen water line isn't a big deal --- you fill up a few pots with wash water and a few jugs with drinking water, and the line thaws out in the afternoon a day or two later.  Not this week.  Instead, it stayed so cold that the snow sat on the ground and the line stayed frozen solid until Mark busted some ice out of the thousand gallon tank to carry wash water to the house.
Mustard greens in the snow
The positive part of this deep freeze is that it's been a real test of our other winter projects.  Mark's homemade heated chicken waterer was still operating on a 9 degree Fahrenheit morning, which is just about as cold as it ever gets around here.  And when the snow finally melted enough that I could pull back the row covers in the mule garden, I was able to pick fresh, beautiful mustard greens for our lunch.

Treat your chickens to fresh, clean water this holiday season with our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Fri Dec 10 08:38:52 2010 Tags:
frozen pet porch fix of 2010

The enclosed pet porch suffered a set back this week when water leaked in and formed a solid sheet of ice on the floor.

I decided to use some Reflectix to block the water path, which should also help to hold in some heat if one or both of the cats decide they want to sleep there.

They've both figured out how to use it and seem to like the new freedom.

Posted Fri Dec 10 16:13:46 2010 Tags:

Map of our 2010 adventureLast year's honeymoon cruise to the Yucatan exceeded my wildest expectations, so we decided we had to give it another shot, but a little later in the year once the garden was sound asleep.  This evening, we'll be taking the train south, then jumping aboard a cruise ship to drift through the Gulf of Mexico, explore Mayan ruins, and experience a Mayan steam lodge.  So, for all of those people who would usually call me on my birthday, please send me an email instead --- I'll be away from the phone and having a blast!

One of our readers --- Shannon --- kindly offered to mind the homestead while we're sunning ourselves in Mexico, and once I learned the sheer quantity of firepower he possesses, we couldn't turn him down.  Mark felt better about me announcing to the world that we'd be away from home once he saw Shannon's arsenal.  Don't have a heart attack, Mom, he's a nice guy despite the guns!  Single female readers, Shannon is available and a very hearty woodchopper --- very good farm-husband material.

ShannonThe real point of this post (there's a point?) is to let you know that our internet access will be spotty over the next week and a half, so your comments might languish for a while in moderation.  We've saved up a bunch of fun posts to tide you over until we return to the homestead, but my crontab syntax needs a bit of work, and there's a chance my auto-posts just won't go through --- I apologize in advance if you have to go a day without the Walden Effect.  Please do keep commenting as usual --- I love coming home to tidbits of information from our loyal readers.  Have a great solstice!

If you're lonely without us, check out some of our other blogs --- our chicken blog, ecology and archaeology blog, deer deterrent blog, microbusiness blog, and physics of consciousness blog.
Posted Sat Dec 11 11:40:18 2010 Tags:
Killing and scalding a chicken

Plucked chickenWe finally got around to killing one of our hens who hadn't laid an egg since the spring.  After a couple of months by herself with top notch food, I determined that she had developed a defective shell gland that wouldn't heal and that she needed to be culled from the flock.  You might be interested in reading my post over on our chicken blog about my philosophy on when to cull chickens from your flock.

Separating the chicken neck from the windpipe and cropI'm ashamed to say that I procrastinated all fall and never put the hen's demise on our list until the end of November.  Those five minutes a day I spent giving her individualized attention and the cup of food per day she ate while laying no eggs really adds up, and I hope that I've learned my lesson not to procrastinate in the future.  After all, it took less than an hour of concerted attention to dispatch, pluck, and gut her.

Disemboweling a chickenUsually, I would turn an old hen into potstickers or another sausage-type dish, but I was a bit worried about the condition of this hen's meat.  As soon as we slit her throat, fecal matter came bubbling up from her crop, and it was impossible to keep the manure off the meat.  I assume there was some kind of physical blockage inside her, which contributed to her egg-laying problem, but I just didn't feel good about eating the questionable meat.  So we cut her into quarters as a winter treat for Lucy, who wants all dog owners to know that uncooked poultry bones are a perfectly safe (and very nutritious) addition to the canine diet.

Having an extra homemade chicken waterer on hand makes it almost too easy to forget about a hen in solitary confinement.
Posted Sun Dec 12 06:00:36 2010 Tags:

most stylish chicken coop so far

I'm not sure how practical this chicken coop is, but it sure impresses me with its sleek design and egg like curves.

It's called the Nogg, and it has wheels hidden underneath and is made from cedar.

The website doesn't list the price, which I assume is because it costs a small fortune.

Posted Mon Dec 13 06:00:32 2010 Tags:

Winter harvest handbookIn 1968, Eliot Coleman (quite literally) bought Helen and Scott Nearings' back 40 acres and started farming.  His farm is on the coast of Maine --- zone 5 --- where many people think growing conditions are tough for even producing a summer crop.  But Coleman didn't want to think so small.  Instead, he dreamed of developing a low tech and economical way to harvest fresh vegetables year round.  The Winter Harvest Handbook is a beautifully illustrated and clearly written guide that sums up forty years of gardening experience and tells precisely how to harvest salad greens and a few other crops all winter long.

Coleman started his journey by looking into the past.  150 years ago, Parisian farmers (maraichers) grew all of the city's vegetables and even exported some to England using just 6% of the city's land area as growing space.  Their highly intensive gardens depended on copious amounts of horse manure from the city stables --- sometimes as much as 400 tons per acre.  (For the sake of comparison, Lee Reich's mulch campaign, which I thought was beyond my ability to achieve, used only about 90 tons of organic matter per acre, Nineteenth century French farm with a field of clochesassuming a conversion rate of about 1350 pounds per cubic yard.)  This French manure was used fresh as the heat source in hotbeds for winter growing, with panes of glass over the top and then a mat of straw for additional night-time insulation as needed.  They also used thousands of glass cloches (bottomless jars) to protect individual plants.

The French intensive gardening system was clearly successful, but it was also hugely labor-intensive.  The hotbeds and cloches could overheat on sunny days, so farmers would spend hours walking down the rows and manually propping them open in the morning, then closing each one back up as the sun fell at night.  Modern winter-growers have replaced all of this labor with high tech thermostats and self-opening vents and fans, but Coleman wanted to find a system somewhere in the middle.  This week's lunchtime series details his method that combines the simplicity of the French system with enough modern conveniences to let you grow winter greens without quite so much back-breaking labor.

Fund your own homestead adventure with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our Winter Harvest Handbook lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Dec 13 11:00:34 2010 Tags:
We are a bit south of you in NW Georgia. We have a devil of a time growing pumpkins. I've been wondering what kind of luck you have had w/ them. I wonder if our humid climate is just not suitable for them. We do better w/ butternut squash, but pumpkins are lower in carbs which is a factor for us.
--- Rita

Huckleberry and a cushawA few years ago, I decided to figure out which winter squash suited our tastebuds and garden the best, so I tested out Baby Bear, Howden, and Jack-o-lite Pumpkins, Butternut Squash, Royal Acorn Squash, and Cushaw.  They all produced something, but the Cushaw was definitely the most productive in terms of pounds of vegetables per vine while Butternuts were quickly decided to be the taste test winner.

I have a bit of a French mindset when it comes to food --- I believe that we should eat what tastes good, but consider high carb foods to be a treat to be eaten in small quantities now and then.  We'd much rather eat a butternut pie once a week than a pumpkin pie twice a week because the former is just so much tastier!  As a result, we haven't grown pumpkins since our trial year, and have found that butternuts are seldom bothered by pests or diseases.

Ripening pumpkinIf you're bound and determined to grow pumpkins, though, I have a few words of advice from fighting my own battles to grow summer squash here.  The first step is to figure out what's killing your pumpkins.  Is it one of the fungi or bacteria which love moist conditions?  If so, plant your pumpkins far apart in the sunniest spot like we do with our tomatoes so that they dry out quickly after rains.  Or are your pumpkins succumbing to the squash vine borer, which is our personal bane?  Variety selection seems to be your best bet when fighting the vine borer, so try a half dozen types this year and see which one does best.  Good luck!

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Posted Tue Dec 14 06:00:20 2010 Tags:

Row covers inside a greenhouseThe heart of Eliot Coleman's winter gardening is a two-tiered method of protecting the plants from winter cold.  He grows his vegetables under floating row covers inside simple greenhouses (hoop houses), and the combination of the two is the equivalent of moving his garden 1,000 miles south to where it is three climatic zones warmer.  The majority of his growing area --- and the part I will be discussing in this lunchtime series --- is completely unheated, but he does note that for some people who have a cheap source of heat, it might be worthwhile to warm the greenhouses until they stay just above freezing.

I've always been leery of hoop houses and greenhouses because of disease and pest buildup, and Eliot Coleman notes that permanent greenhouses also have the side effect of building up soil nutrients to poisonous levels.  By cutting your growing space off from the outside world, you're promising to keep the ecosystem in balance, which is a tough job when we haven't even identified all of the microorganisms at work in our soil.  Coleman has a solution --- let nature do that hard work for you.  His greenhouses are light enough that his tractor can pull them to a new patch of ground a couple of times a year, allowing nature to heal the wacky greenhouse ecosystem left behind.  His movable greenhouses also have the side benefit of allowing him to grow heat-loving summer crops in the greenhouse until late October, then move the greenhouse onto two-month-old fall crops just as the killing frosts commence --- in essence, he gets fourteen months of greenhouse time per year for each structure.

The row covers Coleman uses inside his greenhouse are the same spun-bonded fabric you can purchase in many seed catalogs and which you'll see in my garden.  (He uses Agribon brand row covers from Johnny's.)  Since the greenhouse blocks wind and heavy weather, you can simply drape your row covers over twelve inch tall wickets made of #9 wire and spaced every four feet along the bed.  Snap a few clothespins on to hold the fabric in place, and you're done with your second tier of protection.  Unlike glass-topped cold frames or cloches, row cover fabric is self-venting and only needs to be removed when warm spring days in March begin to overheat your crops.

Movable greenhouseI was glad to see that Coleman did some research to determine the best kind of row cover since I've been confused by all the choices in the past.  Your first decision is whether to choose polyvinyl alcohol fabric or the simple spun-bonded fabric which is more readily available.  The former has marked advantages of lasting about four times as long, allowing 90% of light to pass through (versus 30 to 85%), and keeping the air underneath about one degree warmer, but with a price tag five times higher, polyvinyl alcohol probably isn't worth it.

Next choice is --- light fabric or heavy fabric?  In the seed catalogs, you'll see the heavy fabrics listed as protecting your plants several degrees colder, but in Coleman's experience, these heavy fabrics block so much of the sun's light that the ground actually ends up colder in the long run.  Instead, he recommends the thinnest row covers, which are rated as protecting your plants only down to 28 degrees Fahrenheit, but which Coleman said provide increasing amounts of protection as the weather gets colder.

I won't go into the specifics of Coleman's greenhouse construction since his scale of greenhouse --- 48 feet by 22 feet --- is beyond the scope of our homestead garden.  If you want to know more, check his book out of the local library, or visit his website (from which I snagged these photos.)  Or stay tuned for tomorrow's post, in which I'll consider ways to apply Coleman's method to the backyard.

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Posted Tue Dec 14 11:00:31 2010 Tags:

Pumpkin on a wringer washerWhen we embarked on the East Wing project, Mark floated the idea of using a bit of the extra space opened up in the trailer to put in a modern washing machine.  At first, the idea seemed okay, but the more I thought about it, the more I clung to my wringer washer.

On summer days, doing laundry in the wringer washer is pure joy.  I sink my hands in the soapy water to pull out a shirt, pass it through the wringer into the rinse water, then back through the wringer into the laundry basket.  Later, I hang up the load in the sunniest spot of the yard, shared by our three bee hives, and the workers come to explore the damp clothing.  Now and then, a guard bee gets pissed off at me working five feet from her door and she buzzes me until I back off a bit, before trying again.

Snowy laundryIn the winter, laundry can be a bit tricky, but the experience is almost more enjoyable.  Once the laundry basket starts to fill up, I scan the ten day weather forecast looking for the most sunny, beautiful day.  Here in zone 6, there's generally at least one beautiful day per month, even in the dead of winter, and looking forward to laundry on that day makes it extra special.  Since we dry our clothes on the line, we need that warm day anyway to suck moisture from the clean clothes, and I suspect that if we got a washing machine, I'd soon be ignoring the weather and buying a drier.  Meanwhile, wringing each piece of clothing by hand reminds me to wear our clothes until they're truly dirty rather than dropping a clean sweather in the laundry basket after one light wearing.  Plus, the wringer washer drains completely by gravity, so it can be left outside all winter rather than taking up heated space in the house.

I know that Mark was trying to save me work by offering a modern washing machine, but right now I feel like I don't want to set foot on that slippery slope.  Maybe I'll change my tune in February....

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Posted Wed Dec 15 06:00:21 2010 Tags:

Quick hoops in Eliot Coleman's gardenEliot Coleman's method of growing winter crops under row covers inside unheated greenhouses clearly works like a charm for the market gardener, but can those of us just growing for ourselves follow suit?  First of all, Coleman writes that true southerners (those in zones 8 and 9) can probably get away with growing winter crops under just row covers, and my father's experience in South Carolina bears that out.  And Coleman also presents a simpler alternative that may provide all the protection we would need here in zone 6 --- quick hoops.

Coleman makes his quick hoops by bending ten foot lengths of 1/2" electrical conduit into half circles, then sinking ten inches of each end into the ground so that the hoop covers an area about six feet wide.  After placing a hoop every five feet along the rows, he covers them with ten foot wide sections of row cover which are weighed down on the edges with sandbags.  Once very cold weather threatens, he adds a sheet of plastic on top (primarily to shed snow?) 

Drawing of quick hoopsIn effect, Coleman's quick hoops are a combination of a floating row cover and a hoop house.  He notes that a quick hoop costs only 5% as much as the same square footage of greenhouse and protects low-growing overwintering crops like onions, spinach, and lettuce so that they can be harvested very early in the spring on his farm in Maine.

I'm tempted by his quick hoop concept much more than by his larger scale greenhouses, but I have a few reservations.  First of all, I'm not thrilled by the recurring cost of buying row cover fabric --- under heavy use, it tends to last only a year or two.  On the other hand, I could cover most of the mule garden with row cover fabric for only $40, which would probably be about equivalent to the cost of cooling that amount of summer produce over the winter in the freezer.  The sticking point would be whether our cats and dog love jumping on the quick hoops and tearing them to pieces as much as they love ruining my cold frames --- if so, buying row cover fabric multiple times a year just wouldn't be worth it.

The other question is --- are quick hoops enough to protect a winter harvest here in chilly zone 6?  Coleman didn't seem to think so, but he also advocated using the lowest tech solution first to try it out before moving up to more expensive solutions, so I think he would approve of us trying quick hoops on our farm.

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This post is part of our Winter Harvest Handbook lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Dec 15 11:00:26 2010 Tags:
shoe goo review

The work load here on Wetknee farm has proven to be rough on work boots.

I thought an expensive pair of Timberlands would last longer. Turns out they started to fail within the same time frame as cheaper boots which prompted me to keep going with Ozark Trail, which usually sells for 30 dollars but can sometimes be found for 20.

The weak point is always where my toes bend. This time I tried to extend the life of the above pair with a product called Shoe Goo. I made sure they were nice and dry and applied a liberal amount within the gaps and gave it the full 48 hours of set up time.

My feet got wet the first day just by stepping in puddles while chopping wood.

I think this product would work well if you needed to re-attach the sole to the shoe as pictured on the package. It might even form a decent protective coating to seal up some shoes, but I don't think it's up to the task of bringing back footwear that is so far gone they get your socks wet everytime you cross the creek.

Posted Thu Dec 16 06:00:24 2010 Tags:

Location of Persephone days on a map of U.S. with latitudeAfter years of experimentation, Eliot Coleman concluded that most plants stop growing when the day length drops below 10 hours.  After this time, even if you protect your vegetables from the cold, they are merely existing in a semi-hibernatory state.

Coleman coined the term "Persephone Days" to refer to this deep winter period of short days, which occurs from November 5 to February 5 on his farm in Maine, from December 1 to January 10 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and from about November 22 to January 19 here in southwest Virginia.  Those of you who are lucky enough to live south of the 32nd parallel have no Persephone Days and can keep your crops active all winter if you play your cards right.

The trick to a long winter harvest is to plant your crops at just the right stage of the late summer and fall so that they are just shy of maturity when the Persephone Days begin.  Young plants are much hardier than older ones, so planting dates are even more important in the fall than in the spring --- planting too early is just as bad as too late.  You'll also need to pay close attention to succession planting so that you'll have a continuous harvest throughout the winter rather than a mass of lettuce one week and then no more for the rest of the year.  In effect, you're not extending the growing season, just the harvest season.

Winter planting dates based on day length

I mocked up the chart above based on information in The Winter Harvest Handbook, but converted it over to the type of planting calendar I find so helpful.  Rather than placing the last or first frost date at 0 the way I do with my spring planting and fall planting calendars, I've placed the onset of the Persephone Days there, but the chart is otherwise read in the same manner.  For example, Eliot Coleman's Persephone Days begin November 5, so he plants his first arugula nine weeks before, around September 3.  Since my Persephone Days begin on November 22, I should plant my first arugula on September 20.

Persephone DaysYou'll also notice that Coleman lists outdoors and greenhouse planting times for many of his crops.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the greenhouse crops don't really need to be covered for a couple of months in many cases, so his "greenhouse-planted" carrots seeded fourteen weeks before his Persephone Days are actually planted in the open, then have a greenhouse moved over top of them in late October.

A word of warning --- all of Coleman's data is for the far northeast, so I expect I'll need to play around with these planting dates by as much as a week or two to find the optimal planting times for my climate.  If you've already developed a planting calendar for winter harvest in the southeastern or mid-Atlantic states, I'd be curious to hear your specifics.

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Posted Thu Dec 16 11:00:30 2010 Tags:

Mustard greensI'd heard tidbits of Eliot Coleman's wisdom secondhand, which is what tempted me to plant extra mustard greens and leave them be through the fall in hopes of a winter harvest.  I planted several beds on August 20, then planted more on September 9.  Both sets of greens grew beautifully, but the August-planted mustard greens reached and passed peak maturity before our Persephone Days began, and soon the oldest greens were absolutely loaded with aphids.

I subscribe to the belief that insect infestations are a sign that I'm doing something wrong, especially when it comes to aphids.  The question is, which of the three factors that separate the aphid-covered greens from the healthy greens is the cause of the infestation?

  • Early planting --- Eliot Coleman advises that crops for winter harvest should just be reaching maturity as the Persephone Days begin, and the buggy mustard was overmature.  Mustard in the later-planted beds is aphid-free and vibrant.
  • Protected microclimate --- I used row cover fabric over the buggy plants earlier than I used it over the non-buggy plants.  I wonder if the fabric helped the aphids survive freezing temperatures.
  • Aphids on mustard greensPoor soil and shade --- Even though all of the aphid-coated mustard was planted early, one early-planted bed skipped the aphid infestation.  The buggy beds are at the west end of the mule garden where they get more shade and where the soil is much thinner --- the plants were probably already struggling a bit before the aphids moved in.  The happy but elderly mustard is in the better soil of the east end of the mule garden and receives the most winter sun.

Since I don't know which factor is the primary cause of my aphid infestation, I'll try to correct all three for next year.  Meanwhile, I've discovered that you don't even notice the aphids once the greens are cooked --- extra protein.

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Posted Fri Dec 17 06:00:35 2010 Tags:

ClaytoniaEliot Coleman experimented with dozens of types of cool season vegetables to discover the ones that work best for winter harvest.  His overall winner --- and the crop to which he devotes half of his greenhouse space during the cold season --- is spinach.  I've played with spinach a bit and ended up mainly deleting it from our cycle since I felt it wasn't as cold hardy as kale, the leaves were slow to pick compared to other greens, and its germination can be quite spotty.  However, spinach has the benefit of being willing to put out new leaves all winter, while even the most cold hardy crucifers like kale just sit dormant during the darkest months.  Clearly, spinach is worth another try.

Coleman's other top winter crops are listed below:

  • MacheMache is a hardy salad green that grows all winter like spinach.  Unlike spinach, though, you have to succession plant mache since you harvest the entire plant rather than snipping off leaves.
  • Leeks are a year-round crop for Coleman.  I consider leeks too nitpicky for our garden when we can get the same results with less work using Egyptian onions, but The Winter Harvest Handbook reminded me that growing Egyptian onions inside a quick hoop would probably turn this nearly evergreen crop into a true all-winter producer.
  • Claytonia is another very cold-hardy salad green.
  • Asian greens --- specifically mizuna, mibuna, tatsoi, pak choi, and tokyo bekana --- are among Coleman's favorites, again due to their hardiness.
  • Lettuce is listed as less hardy than many of the other crops, making me think that we could extend our winter salad season by a month or two just by swapping crops.  Although lettuce has no problem growing with only eight hours of sunlight per day, cool soil temperatures slow it down considerably.
  • MizunaKale can be used as both a salad green (for which he prefers Dwarf Scotch Curled Kale) or as a cooking green (for which he prefers Tuscan Kale.)
  • Carrots are part of his fresh-from-the-garden harvest from October through February.  Although they can keep longer, he's noticed (as have I) that once the top growth begins in the spring, the flavor declines markedly.  Coleman plants Napoli for winter harvest, then another crop of Nelson carrots in late December for an early spring crop.
  • Turnips are a favorite of his customers, so he grows them even though they only last until Christmas in his greenhouse.  Hakurei is his favorite variety for sweet roots and tasty greens.

As you can see, the majority of the winter harvest is salad and cooking greens, but anything fresh from the garden tastes better than the most carefully frozen summer bounty by February.  I've read blogs of homesteaders who nearly delete their stockpile of summer goodies, instead relying on the bounty of the winter garden to feed them during the cold months.  Although I'm not ready to give up my freezer of corn, beans, squash, and tomatoes, I hope that next year's cold season will bring more fresh food from the garden to our plates.

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This post is part of our Winter Harvest Handbook lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Dec 17 11:00:29 2010 Tags:
Congratulations on your success and longevity! My questions: Obviously you love your land and home, but knowing what you know now, if you couldn't have the same property, what would you look for instead? Would you spend the same amount of money, get a smaller or larger property, move to another area, etc? Also, in hindsight what are the longer term things you wish you had started early on and what were the things that could have waited? Do you wish now that you had put up garden fences?
--- Lisa

Ford across the creekThis was such a thought-provoking question that Mark and I discussed it over the dinner table that night.  It turns out that there is almost nothing we would change about our property if we had to do it over again, but I have to admit that I didn't realize all of the positive points of this property when I bought it.  As we see it now, here are the major advantages of our land:

  • Cheap land in an area with cheap land prices.  Most people like to think of their home as an investment, but I would have to be in extremely dire straights to sell our beloved farm.  Instead of looking for a property that will increase in value, I recommend that folks consider looking for land that they can buy without going into debt and which will maintain a low value so that their property taxes will stay within reasonable bounds.  We pay just over $25 per month on property taxes but know people who pay twenty times that much.  Do you really want to keep working a mainstream job just to pay property taxes?
  • Rural, non-swanky neighborhood.  Although Appalachia has lots of problems, it Hayfieldalso has a slew of benefits.  Around here, building codes are really only an issue in cities, and even the mayor of a nearby town told Mark that he wouldn't apply for a building permit for a project like our East Wing.  When I think of all of the hoops we could have had to jump through to run our seat-of-the-pants operation, I feel very lucky that the long arm of the law doesn't reach our farm.  Our half mile driveway, passable only by golf carts and four-wheel-drive vehicles, helps us maintain that independence.
  • Plentiful water.  I chose our farm in part because of the huge creek that runs along a boundary and the smaller creek that flows into it, but I didn't realize until we moved here how useful that water really is.  Our climate is naturally wet, and many people farm without irrigating, but it's nice to have unlimited water at our beck and call.  We also pump that water up into a storage tank to gravity feed to the house for unlimited wash water, which means we can just drink out of our well and not worry about running low on potable water.
  • Farm grown up in weedsStarting with nothing.  Although at first it seems like it would have been easier to step into an operational farm, in retrospect I'm very glad we started with nothing except a briar patch.  If our farm  had come with a pasture, I suspect we would have immediately bought sheep and a milk cow, and then we would have had our hands full with serious livestock and bushhogging weeds while we were still wet behind the ears.  Having to start new garden areas from scratch with hand tools also helped me rein in my boundless garden dreams to more manageable proportions.  Each year, we add a bit more infrastructure as we can afford the time and money, and the slow growth gives us time to really learn all of the skills we need (and to enjoy the journey.)
  • A lot of the other factors mentioned in Everett's post about why he chose his property.  I won't repeat them all here, but they're very good points that folks looking for land should consider.

All of that said, there are some things I wish we had that didn't come with our property.  Our homestead is on the north side of a hill, so the sun doesn't peep up over the trees on winter mornings until around 11 am --- a southern exposure would have been nice.  Two-thirds of our growing area is nearly pure clay and half of that is waterlogged, so it will take a lot of love before it becomes fully productive (but I have to admit that building soil is a delight for me, so I almost consider this to be in the "start with nothing" positive category.)  I would love to own the entire watershed, but the truth is that our 58 acres nearly always feels big enough to let me spread my wings without worrying about the neighbors, and I wouldn't want to be paying a big mortgage or working a city job just to own another hundred acres.
Deer deterrent in the snow
Since I've already written far too  much, I'll point you to a previous lunchtime series to answer your question about what longer term things I wished we'd started earlier.  The only thing I would add to that list is getting up my courage to quit my outside job sooner.  Mark and I are quite adept at living simply, and I suspect that if my job hadn't been draining our vitality, we could have become financially independent sooner, giving us yet more time to sink into our farm.

And, to answer your last question --- I wish we'd gotten our deer deterrents working sooner rather than fencing at all!  For all of the time and money we put into building fences around the garden that the deer made their way through anyway, we could have made dozens of deer deterrents and had a garden as beautiful as the one I've enjoyed this fall.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Sat Dec 18 06:00:19 2010 Tags:
Cenote on Cozumel

Brown Jay

Our ship docked yesterday morning, and we both decided that this year's adventure was even more amazing than last year's.  Despite that, we're aching to be back home to pet the cats and dog, relax in front of the fire, and eat homegrown produce.

Exploring Mayan ruins at Coba

Mayan steam lodge on Cozumel
There's so much to digest that I'll be posting about it for weeks, primarily over on Clinch Trails but I've also got a bunch of pictures of thatched roofs that I want to share on Walden Effect.  For  now, though, here are a few of the top photos from our trip to tide you over until we're back in the world of unlimited internet.

Carnival Elation at dock

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Posted Sun Dec 19 06:48:48 2010 Tags:
You may have already posted on this but is there a list somewhere from easiest to most difficult (or maybe a scale of degree of difficulty) in terms of being completely self-sufficient? For example, growing veggies (varies between easy and medium), growing fruit tress (medium), producing your own oil from seeds (medium), producing all your own energy (difficult).
--- J

Difficulty level of self-sufficiency tasksI've put off answering this question for a long time since it's far more tricky than it at first appears.  In general, I think there are three axes of homesteading difficulty --- skills you have to learn, time spent either mastering the concept or on daily upkeep, and money spent on the project.  For me, growing my own vegetables can't be termed difficult because I have an affinity to plants, but it is certainly time consuming.  I actually think that fruit trees are easier than vegetables, but since you sometimes have to wait as much as a decade for them to bear fruit, the learning curve takes longer and the time itself might put them in the "difficult" category (even though annual time spent on upkeep of the orchard would drop them back down to "easy.")  Producing all of your own energy isn't hard if you buy a pre-made system, but the financial cost is certainly steep.  If I added up an estimated difficulty on each of the three axes, I might come up with the list below, starting with "easy" tasks and running up to "hard" ones:

  1. Water
  2. Fruit
  3. Heat
  4. Grains
  5. Vegetables
  6. Oil
  7. Meat
  8. Electricity
  9. Milk

Strider on my lapBut then I got even more bogged down with the concept of self-sufficiency.  To be truly self-sufficent, I'd have to add hundreds of items to the list above, and I don't know that I necessarily want to spend weeks making a pair of shoes just so that I can say I'm entirely self-sufficient.  Lately, I've been feeling like our true goal is not self-sufficiency but happiness --- by living simply enough and meeting many of our own needs, we can eat food that makes us feel good and have time left over to pour into our friends, family, and hobbies.  Perhaps the most difficult task on the homesteader's list is finding the balance between doing it all yourself and enjoying the journey --- finding balance.

Our homemade chicken waterer certainly makes one part of the homesteading spectrum easier, saving some homesteaders hours per week.
Posted Mon Dec 20 06:00:29 2010 Tags:

It was a bit of a shock to go from this:

Mark eating watermelon this:

Dog footprints in the ice just a few days.  Hello, winter!

Snow on the gardenThe last leg of our journey was exhausting --- a fitful Saturday night in the loud New Orleans, then another fitful night sleeping on the train, then driving the last three and a half hours home in the frigid dark.  We were barely conscious when we pulled into the driveway Monday morning, looking forward to a ride in the golf cart back to the trailer.  But the wheels/axles/brakes/something were frozen up from driving through the creek on our way out, so we ended up having to brave the waters on foot (which was a bit chilly when I switched to sandals since my work boots were too short for the high water.)

We slipped and slid our way home across frozen snow and ice, seeing firsthand the effects of the ice storm we'd heard about.  After being pampered for ten days, the farm seemed a bit cold and difficult...for about five minutes until I took advantage of the pile of dry, split wood that the firewood fairies had left behind in our living room.  (Thanks, Shannon!)  One very spoiled cat and one ecstatic dog greeted us immediately, and our skittish Strider showed up half an hour later, looking remarkably well fed for a cat who our caretaker had never even seen.

Snow melting off cloverMark's homemade heated chicken waterer, version 2.0, was still liquid --- Shannon reported that the nipple did freeze when temperatures dropped down to around 0 Fahrenheit, but soon thawed.  On the human water front, I was very glad that I'd taken the time to fill up a couple of dozen milk jugs with drinking water during the thaw before we left since the ground is very cold and I don't expect to be running any water this week.

Frost-damaged banana plantOnly two casualties in our absence, one of which was expected and a bit of a relief.  We've had a very old hen who seemed to get sick during every cold spell this winter.  In early December, the rooster kicked her out of the flock and Mark made her a little spot out behind the coop.  Just before we left home, the elderly hen stopped accepting any food and water, and I knew the end was near.  Thinking of the comments several of you have made on my old post about fasting to death, I am starting to see how deciding when to die might make sense for humans as well as an aged and ailing hen.  Shannon reported that our oldest hen died a couple of days after we left, and was buried with respect behind the hen house.

The other casualty was almost as expected --- during the coldest night, the space heater we left on in the East Wing didn't keep temperatures high enough, and both of our Dwarf Cavendish Bananas were nipped back.  I'd actually been thinking for a while that these trees were just a bit too tropical for Pollinated Meyer lemon ovaryour highly fluctuating winter temperatures, so I'll nurse the rootstocks back to life, if possible, and pass them on to folks who have thermostatically controlled heat.  Our citrus, on the other hand, had no problem dealing with a minor freeze and didn't even seem to lose their baby fruits.

Is it crazy that I'm thrilled to be home to frozen waterlines and wood heat after a cruise in the Caribbean?  Travel is great as an eye- and mind-opener, but in the long run I prefer ice-covered outhouse seats and pure peace and quiet.

Need to leave home for a week in the winter?  Our homemade chicken waterer kit can be turned into a heated water good far below freezing.
Posted Tue Dec 21 08:13:52 2010 Tags:
Lucy using pile of straw bales to keep warm during cold snap of 2010

Lucy made herself a nice and warm spot on top of the latest batch of straw bales we bought in October.

It's a good thing they got stacked in such a neat fashion. (Thanks, Errol.)

Posted Tue Dec 21 19:10:51 2010 Tags:
Row cover in the snow

I was very curious to see how the garden had dealt with abnormally low temperatures while we were gone.  Row covers actually didn't seem to have made much difference, probably because we had a heavy snow cover before the cold spell that helped insulate the plants.  Broccoli pretty much kicked the bucket whether it was under the row cover or not while greens were happily growing in both places.

By Tuesday afternoon, the snow had melted enough that I could roll back the row cover fabric and check on the lettuce as well.  These salad greens seemed to be midway between broccoli and cooking greens in their tolerance to the cold, with lots of frost-damaged leaves where the lettuce had touched the cold fabric but also enough fresh leaves that I could pick and choose a nice salad for supper.  (I added in some young kale for variety and topped it off with a winter version of our sweet corn, bean, and tomato salad.)

Frost tolerance of Bibb and Black-seeded Simpson

We grew two different varieties of lettuce this fall --- Bibb on the left and Black-seeded Simpson on the right.  Black-seeded Simpson is usually my favorite since it stays sweet for a long time and is well adapted to our local climate, but the mayor of our closest town, who also runs the local hardware store, gave us some Bibb seeds to try out and I decided to give them a shot.  I won't be trying Bibb again.  As you can see in the paired photos, Bibb seemed much less tolerant of freezing snow cover than Black-seeded Simpson, and I also find the leaves a bit coarser and not as sweet.

Of course, for next year I know that I should try some of the even more cold-hardy winter greens like spinach and mache.  And I can definitely see the merits of quick hoops now --- I suspect the lettuce leaves wouldn't have been nipped at all if the heavy snow hadn't pushed the fabric down on top of them.  For this winter, though, I just count us very luck to be eating sweet, fresh leaves on the Winter Solstice. 

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Wed Dec 22 09:49:04 2010 Tags:
stringed instrument wall hanger/holder

Install a few of those rubber coated storage hooks at an upward angle where they can bite into a good piece of wood and you got yourself a do it yourself stringed instrument wall hanger.

Posted Wed Dec 22 17:12:20 2010 Tags:

Heating water on the wood stoveAlthough the primary reason for upgrading to Jotul wood stove was to use less firewood, we were also spooked by ten days without power at this time last year and wanted to be prepared for future outages.  So when I was shopping for small wood stoves, one of the features I looked for was a stove that concentrated its heat in a burner on the stove surface.

Of course, having a backup cooking surface does no good if you don't know how to use it, so I've been experimenting to see what's easy and tough to cook on the wood stove.  Boiling water for tea or to do dishes is easy, especially in the early morning or late evening when I burn a hot fire to heat up the trailer fast.  Beans, stock, and soups do very well on the wood stove too, simmering on the late morning and early afternoon heat when I often let the stove slowly burn its way out.  I've found that I cook a lot more beans and soup lately since I've got the wood stove right there putting off heat.

With the low-hanging fruit figured out, next I plan to try slightly more complicated cooking.  Dutch ovens are made for this application and I'm looking forward to giving mine a shot on top of the wood stove, while Mark has dreams of building me a little stovetop oven to cook muffins in.  I'm not sure if the surface gets hot enough for sauteing, but I'll give that a shot too.  For those of you who cook on a wood stove but not a wood cook stove, do you have any tips?

Farmstead Feast

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps the flock happy even in the dead of winter.
Posted Thu Dec 23 08:46:16 2010 Tags:

Lucy looking at the sky with man working on frozen pipe
The blue tape like product you see in the picture here is designed to heat up when the temperature drops below freezing and then turn off when it warms.

Even though the instructions stated to not use it on plastic pipe I decided to give it a try on our gray water pipe to see what might happen.

I don't think it gets hot enough to melt the pipe material, but it did seem to help decrease the amount of time it takes to thaw back to normal.

Posted Thu Dec 23 16:23:31 2010 Tags:

Potatoes sprouting in storageWhile you're planning your Christmas dinner, this is a good time to take a stroll through your storage fruits and vegetables and see how they're doing.  I'm sure you've heard that a rotten apple can spoil the barrel --- time to catch those rotten apples before they have a chance.

We tried out two different methods of storing our white potatoes this year --- under my bed and in the fridge.  Neither is optimal, but with just a few vegetables prefering root cellar conditions, we didn't think it was worth adding to our busy fall by fixing the refrigerator root cellar.  Over the last month or so, I noticed that the under-the-bed potatoes were starting to sprout, while those in the fridge were still hard as rocks, but my most recent foray into under-the-bed tubers shows dark spots popping up in their flesh.  I suspect that last week's serious cold spell froze the tubers touching the floor, cutting their shelf life down and putting them into the "eat now" category.  Still, keeping potatoes for 5 months with no special storage facilities isn't bad at all.

Next up, I'll be checking over the sweet potatoes, garlic, and butternuts.  I've noticed that a few of the butternuts have rotten spots --- probably time to roast them up and freeze the flesh for later eating now that there's a bit of space opened up in the freezer.  A little bit of management every month tends to keep us eating fresh food all winter, and I get a kick out of checking over our produce and seeing how much bounty remains after the solstice.

Give your chickens the gift of clean water with our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Fri Dec 24 07:57:23 2010 Tags:
chopper 1 notes 2010

I noticed the other day one of the springs must have fallen out of the Chopper 1 axe.

It seems to continue to split with no problems.

This time I've decided to find a more local option for spring replacement if I can remember to put it on the list for the next hardware store trip.

Posted Fri Dec 24 17:10:36 2010 Tags:

Vozelgang Stove Pipe FanOur original plan for getting heat out of the wood stove alcove included one of those nifty stove pipe fans, which are designed to turn on when the stove pipe heats up, blowing the hot air into the room.  You can find a couple of different kinds on the internet, where they go by names ranging from "Magic Heat Reclaimer" to the more simple "Stove Pipe Heat Reclaimer" and cost anywhere from $100 to nearly $200.

However, after some online research and then looking at the real fan in the store, we decided against the stove pipe fan.  The model sold at Tractor Supply says right on the box that it's not suitable for use with an efficient stove, and various reviews on the internet note that the fan reduces the stove's draft and causes excessive creosote buildup in the pipe.  In addition --- and here we admit to being a bit lazy --- the fan doesn't wrap around an existing pipe the way we thought it would.  Instead, you have to take apart your chimney, cut the stove pipe sections to size, and then install the fan as one of the pipe sections.  Since we went to a lot of trouble to get our stove pipe straight and beautiful with no cutting, we're not willing to take it back apart to install a fan that looks like it would make our stove work improperly.

Magic heat reclaimerThere do seem to be a few applications where the stove pipe heat reclaimers make sense, so I thought I'd post in case some of you were considering a similar purchase.  If you're burning coal, you might be okay --- the higher heat fires and lack of creosote in the smoke delete some of the potential pitfalls of the stove pipe fan.  Also, if you're running a really inefficient stove, you're probably sending a lot of heat up the chimney pipe and might want to try to reclaim it even if the fan messes with other parts of your stove.  For our own application, though, Mark's on the prowl for a small, metal-bladed fan that he can mount on the front ceiling of the alcove to do the same job for less cash and no impact on our princess's job performance.

Our homemade chicken waterer gives your flock the clean water it needs.
Posted Sat Dec 25 09:40:09 2010 Tags:
cat in a chair by a fire with beautiful woman holding cat

Happy Winter Holiday from Lucy, Huckleberry. Strider, Anna and Mark.
Posted Sat Dec 25 14:07:59 2010 Tags:
Anna Obselidia
Driving down a snowy road.

Our movie star neighborMark and I were treated to the Virginia premier of Obselidia on Christmas night, complete with door to door service by one of the stars.  Okay, so our movie star neighbor actually picked us up at the mailbox only because we were afraid we wouldn't be able to get our car out of the driveway with all of the snow....

The movie hit close to home, and I almost felt like I should be taking notes for the blog at times.  As Mark likes to say, Obselidia had a lot of heart, and it definitely would have been one of my favorite movies of the year even if our friend hadn't starred in it.  If you'd like to see a romantic comedy where intellectuals are real, well-rounded people rather than superficial cliches, Obselidia is your best bet.  Plus, honeybees are characters!

Obselidia showed at Sundance and various other film festivals, but you can't see it anywhere at the moment.  Our neighbor begged a copy off the producer, mostly because all of his friends (like me) kept bugging him about how we could see the movie.  For those of you without that inside track, you might try adding the film to your netflix queue and hoping it will come out on dvd soon.

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps your flock happy and healthy.
Posted Sun Dec 26 08:44:28 2010 Tags:
full day exposure of Winter Solstice

"Is it that you might offend many in the masses by simply saying Merry Christmas?...gag".

Thanks for the question, Dennis.

No....anybody who knows me learns real quick that I don't really care much about offending the masses, but there is a statement between the lines that I think you might be reading the wrong way.

In my opinion Christmas feels more like a war between Jesus and Santa these days, and by saying Winter Holiday instead of Merry Christmas I'm making a statement that I prefer my Solstice celebration to be more about observing the journey of the sun...not The Son, or Santa, or whoever else is trying to hi-jack what I feel is the true reason for the season.

This year Anna and I made more of an effort to slow down during the days before and after the Solstice and it felt good. I figure the more synchronized we get with the cycles of nature the better our chances are of experiencing maximum joy on a daily basis.

defintion of pagan is...

simple image of yin and yang
Yes.....this means I'm a Pagan, which originally meant someone who lives in the country. In 1913 Daniel Webster brought religious church dogma to the English language when he added to the definition of Pagan- "One who worships false gods". This is exactly the kind of distraction I'm talking about. Is Jesus or Santa true or false? I say neither....they both act as a diversion and both happen to be of the male gender who are trying desperately to take one's attention away from Mother Nature who I think most people agree has a distinct feeling of being female. Is this really a conflict between Yin and Yang forces?

I don't know.....all I'm sure of is that I want less Santa and Jesus and more Mother Nature and if it takes saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas to communicate that then I'm prepared to keep it up till the cows come home....wait...we don't have any I guess that means till I stop hearing cashiers ask me if I'm "Ready for Christmas yet?".

Image credit goes to Danilo Pivato for the amazing full day exposure of a Solstice sun moving across the sky in 2005 near Fiumicino, Italy.

Posted Sun Dec 26 14:29:27 2010 Tags:
Blocking off the attic with bubble wrap panels

Warm air being heated in a sleeve around the wood stove chimneyOur movie star neighbor's home is three stories tall, and the wood stove is in the main living space on the second floor.  He made bubble-wrap partitions (see the top photo) to close hot air out of the seldom-used third floor while letting light shine down into the living room.  But his bathroom is downstairs, so he is stuck with the difficult question --- how do you make hot air go down?

A couple of years ago, he installed a heat pump, but his experience matches my research --- heat pumps are only marginally effective in cold weather in our region.  Still, the heat pump turned out to be the solution.  Our neighbor built a sleeve around the chimney pipe of his wood stove and tapped it into the return air duct for the heat pump.  Then, when he wants to heat the downstairs, he simply turns on the fan for the heat pump.  The fan sucks hot air from above the stove, through the sleeve where it is heated even more, then down to the lower floors.  Voila --- hot air running downhill!

Ducts pull hot air from around the stove and pipe it downstairs

Looking for another ingenious invention to make your  homesteading life simpler?  Our homemade chicken waterer can save you hours of time per week.
Posted Mon Dec 27 08:16:07 2010 Tags:

Footsteps in the snow2010 has been a year of experimentation.  We've tried out new crops, new ways of raising our chickens, nearly a dozen mulches, alternative methods of caring for our honeybees, and much more.  Some experiments were failures, some were successes, and some were jumping off points for further experimentation.

Although we've tried to remember to faithfully report on the conclusions of each experiment, it's tough to know when an experiment is really over when you're working with complicated permaculture systems.  And I have to admit to the failing that afflicts many scientists --- I'm less prone to publish negative results.  So for the next two weeks, our lunchtime series will regale you with the highlights (and lowlights) of the year's experimentation.  I hope that seeing the experiments summed up in one place will help you choose which ones will work well in your own homestead or garden.

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This post is part of our 2010 experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Dec 27 11:48:51 2010 Tags:
chopper 1 spring repair instructions

The local hardware store had a spring that was close to the original Chopper 1 spring for 30 cents.

A short stub of 12 gauge wire seems to be enough to anchor the spring once I glued it in place with a product called Liquid Welder.

I'll let it dry overnight and then give it a test drive to see if this repair can hold up under heavy chopping.

Posted Mon Dec 27 16:20:14 2010 Tags:
Papa Bear stove

Cedar kindling"It's amazing how much time we spend just dealing with the cold at this time of year."  Our movie star neighbor hit the nail on the head, which is why our pre-film entertainment revolved around the wood stove.  We wanted to know all about it --- what kind it was (Fisher Papa Bear), what he thought of it (good, but not as efficient as his neighbors' fancy new stoves), and if he'd done anything special with it (lots!)

Homemade baffle in a wood stoveThe first thing our neighbor did when he got his stove was to add a plate to the top of the fire box, which acts like a baffle and increases the efficiency.  More recently, he tapped into the house's ductwork to pull hot air downstairs.

Outside, I was enthralled by his woodshed, with latticework walls to let air flow through and dry the wood.  He likes to split cedar logs into thin sticks of kindling to start his stove, and he saves the beautiful, knotty pieces for decoration.  Back inside, I'm always drawn to the well polished river rocks he keeps on top of the stove to warm your hands.

Reading homesteading blogs at this time of year, you'll probably notice that we go on and on about wood heat, and I don't think it's just because we spend so much time feeding the fire.  There is a surprising amount of art to be found in the winter heat regimen, and our neighbor's setup epitomizes that utilitarian beauty.

Wood shed and rocks to warm your hands
Our homemade chicken waterer keeps your flock happy all year long.
Posted Tue Dec 28 07:28:23 2010 Tags:

Double deep hiveOur honeybee experiments aren't really unique to our farm, but they are outside the mainstream.  They all began nearly two years ago when we got our bees and chose to use foundationless frames to decrease varroa mite potential without chemicals (and to cut costs.)  This year, we added to the experiment by changing over to double deep brood boxes to help the colonies bulk up quicker in the spring and to prevent swarming.  We also used a non-mainstream honey harvest technique of robbing the bees in the late spring rather than in the fall to make sure the hive would have enough food over the winter without feeding sugar water.

The results are a mixed bag, but are primarily positive.  So far, hive checks suggest that our varroa mite levels are under control without resorting to pesticides, although one hive had higher levels than I hoped when I sampled in November.  We didn't see any swarming activity in the spring, so the double deep with checkerboarding definitely worked as swarm prevention.  And the hive that we changed to double deep earliest in the spring stocked up the majority of our year's  honey, so double deeps are also quite effective for getting more honey.  Finally, we made it through the first winter with no mortality, so harvesting in the spring was a good choice.

Comb collapseThe primary problem we had was a comb collapse during hot weather soon after our honey harvest.  I think that the comb collapse was the result of all of my alternative methods merging together in just the wrong way, and could easily be prevented in the future by keeping all of the boxes at 10 frames rather than getting greedy and downgrading to 9.

How do our results stack up compared to those using traditional management (frames with foundation, early fall harvests, chemicals in the hive to kill varroa mites, and then feeding copious sugar water and/or corn syrup to get the bees through the winter?)  In terms of honey harvested, our numbers were low --- the Kentucky extension service Jar of honeysuggests that the average yield per hive should be 50 pounds (about 4 gallons), and we only got 4.5 gallons from all three hives combined.  On the other hand, our costs were also low --- we could have spent about $60 on foundation, $25 on varroa mite medication, and maybe another $75 on feed for the hives.  In addition, we didn't have a single swarm and didn't lose any hives.  Clearly, our method fits the homesteading model of a sustainable harvest even if it doesn't maximize yields.

In year three, we'll be faced with yet more decisions in our natural honeybee setup.  Do we requeen or let the hives replace the queen when they see fit?  Should we try to split a hive to increase our numbers so we'll have more honey for gifts?  Should we cut out any of the old wax and make them rebuild?  If we do decide to split, should we try out top bar hives for the sake of comparison?  We're looking forward to researching these and other questions in the year ahead.

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This post is part of our 2010 experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Dec 28 11:00:39 2010 Tags:
Chopper 1 in action on a log of Box Elder

Yesterday's Chopper 1 spring repair fix held up well during a moderate wood splitting session today.

The unknown factor is how long will it last. I suspect the adhesive I added might help to increase the time before a new one needs to be installed.

I think keeping the Chopper 1 stored inside will extend the time between part replacements and I blame myself for letting it sit outside all summer long, which is most likely what caused the shortened spring life in this case.

Posted Tue Dec 28 16:55:37 2010 Tags:
Snow on pine and box-elder

White-throated Sparrow in the snowIt dawned on me this past weekend that our farm has had snow on it (at least on the shady side) every day of December!  We've had four storms (I think --- they're starting to run together), and the new snow always falls before the old crystals thaw.  Perhaps we were accidentally transported to New England?

I'm looking forward to a return to the South this weekend with Friday and Saturday's highs in the mid 50s.  Maybe I'll be able to get to the greens currently hidden by snow, fill up the thousand gallon tank with wash water for January, and even do some laundry.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Wed Dec 29 08:03:34 2010 Tags:

Hen with one chickWe embarked on three chicken experiments in 2010 --- incubating our own homegrown chicks, raising broilers, and running chickens on a forest pasture.  Clearly, each of our experiments needs a bit more work.

Incubating chicks can be pretty simple, but I managed to do absolutely everything wrong.  In the spring of 2010, our flock was all girls, so we had to hunt down fertilized eggs and try to keep them alive on the long trip back to our farm.  We also thought we were going to use an incubator, then realized at the last minute that our house is not climate-controlled enough to make cheap incubators work.  By the time we tricked our broody hen into doing her job, most of the eggs had died, and we only hatched out one chick --- the rooster who will make 2011's experiments much easier.  I have high hopes that this coming year will see us hatching out a full nest of chicks, just in time since our old layers are producing ever smaller numbers of eggs.

Dark Cornish chickensOur broiler experiment was also problematic.  We opted to raise a heritage breed --- Dark Cornish --- rather than the traditional Cornish Cross, and soon realized that if you're raising them on storebought feed, heritage broilers just don't make fiscal sense.  (They sure are tasty, though!)  We may eventually just give in and raise Cornish Cross broilers like everyone else does, but for our 2011 experiment, I want to veer off in the exact opposite direction.  My goal will be to raise chicks with good foraging genes (the offspring of our best laying hens) on the theory that even though they will gain weight even slower than the Dark Cornish, they will eat much less storebought food in the process.  Since we now have the ability to reproduce our own flock at will, we'll also raise two or three small batches of broilers rather than 25 at once, which will make our farm scraps go further toward feeding the flock (and will make it less stressful to kill them all at once.)  Or at least, that's what I hope will happen if everything goes as planned....

Chicken eating chickweed on pastureOur final chicken experiment of the year is the forest pasture, and it's such a long term project that I can't really say whether it was a success or failure after less than one year.  We started out by putting our broilers on pasture, but they were ill-suited to the habitat and barely browsed.  On the other hand, once we turned our wilely old hens onto the pasture, we could really see the potential --- they quickly became more healthy and were clearly getting quite a bit of their food from the combination of wild forage and kitchen scraps.  (In fact, I didn't feed two of the chickens at all for six weeks in late summer.)  Now that we've trained the chickens to perch in the coop, we're also capturing at least half of their fertility in a deep bedding system, which I figure is as much as made it into the garden with my old method of running the chickens in tractors in the aisles and then cutting the grass to put on the garden.  Finally, chickens scratching and pooping on piles of wood chips and garden debris expedited compost action, turning the chicken pasture into a compost machine.

Chickens on a wheelbarrow of weedsIn a few years, we'll have mulberries and Nanking cherries producing for the chickens, and this year I also plan to add persimmons and bamboo to the pasture, but until the woody crops mature, it's clear that we need a much larger pasture for our birds.  I'm currently envisioning a couple of winter pastures in the sunniest part of the yard (currently unused, but slated for a planting of grapes and almonds) and additional summer pastures made by fencing in the main forest garden and more of the powerline cut.  It's a lot of fencing, but I can feel the permaculture potential of a healthy flock that nearly feeds itself while cutting down insect pests around tree crops, making compost, and depositing their waste into a deep bedding pile.  This is definitely the 2010 experiment that had the most potential and will be top of my mind all through 2011.

Our homemade chicken waterer was enjoyed by our broody hen, our day old chick, our broilers, and our layers.

This post is part of our 2010 experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Dec 29 12:00:33 2010 Tags:
Professional Welder all purpose contact adhesive image

One item I've always tried to keep in the tool box is a tube of cyanoacrylate (SuperGlue).

I usually get to use a tube 2 or 3 times before it clogs up...even the more advanced containers still seem to eventually stop flowing well before the glue is gone.

Welder is a new all purpose contact adhesive I've had great luck with in the past year that's made with a chemical known as Toluene. It's somewhere between SuperGlue and a 2 part epoxy and is easy to work with and even easier to open back up a few months later without the cap being permanently stuck.

Posted Wed Dec 29 16:42:34 2010 Tags:

Wood shed in the snowI got a bit spoiled for the first month of the princess's reign.  We filled up the wood shed at the end of last winter with a lot of scavenged wood off the property and with some cherry that Joey delivered, and the bone dry wood burned beautifully.  The shed was still two thirds full at the beginning of the week, but we hit a snag --- most of the scavenged wood was too punky to burn well.  Instead, it seemed to dissolve in the fire, producing very little heat.

Since the wood shed has three rows of wood in it, my original plan had been to empty a third, fill it with wood that had been sitting out in the elements, and cycle through the other old wood so that by the time we got back to the new third the wood was bone dry.  Our efficient wood stove uses so little wood that I figured we'd have perhaps a month or two between putting the wood in the shed and burning it, which would be plenty of time for the winter snow to melt off it and for the Smoke coming out of a snowy chimneywood to dry back up.

The punky wood nixed that plan.  Instead, this week I've been burning wood that's only been in the shed for a week or two, and the result has been slightly cooler fires and actual smoke coming out the chimney.  (Granted, the smoke is all white, which means it's primarily water vapor, but I still don't like it.)  Although there's no remedy in the short run, I went ahead and pulled all of the punky wood out of the shed so that I can replace it with Punky woodgood wood and have dry firewood at least by February.

Live and learn!  Now I have a better eyeball estimate of what kind of wood is too rotten for firewood, and I also have a bunch of punky wood that I already put to use in the garden.  Stay tuned to see how....

Our homemade chicken waterer is perfect in coops, tractors, or pastures.
Posted Thu Dec 30 08:39:38 2010 Tags:

Homemade worm binThe invertebrate side of our farm did very badly in 2010.  First of all, we never got to our project of creating a black soldier fly bin because we just didn't have enough excess food scraps to make it worthwhile.  And, yes, I actually managed to kill our worms.

In 2009, we had a simple, under-the-sink worm bin that worked quite well, but at certain times of the year it was overloaded by the scraps our chickens wouldn't eat.  We could tell because we ended up with a fruit fly infestation, and we figured the clear solution was to build a bigger bin.  A bigger bin would not only allow us to compost additional waste, it would be less sensitive to environmental extremes, so we could keep it outside year round.

Mark turned our heavy hauler into a worm bin, but due to my bad advice, the faucet to drain off the worm tea clogged up and the bottom of the bin became waterlogged.  Since Medium-sized worm binthe bin was in the sun, the top of the bin got too hot, and the poor worms were stuck with the choice of being baked or drowned.  Meanwhile, I had added a lot of horse manure from the neighbor to get the bin going quickly, but before the worms had time to really work on it I ran out of compost and had to take the manure back off to put on the garden.  The result was total eradication of worms from the bin --- drat!

Our potted plants have especially missed the nutrient-rich worm tea, so we definitely plan to remedy our worm situation in 2011.  We may make something as simple as Binet Payne's medium-scale bins, but adding in an ability to drain off the tea for our plants, and we may try out worm towers as well.  This time, I plan to go ahead and buy a paper shredder so that we'll have a more optimal bedding too.  And if we can talk a local school into giving us their scraps, we'll also have enough nutrient-rich waste to experiment with black soldier flies.

Our microbusiness was an experiment that worked --- paying the bills from home in just a few hours per week.  Learn how to recreate our success with our ebook.

This post is part of our 2010 experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Dec 30 12:00:31 2010 Tags:
48 volt Club Car golf cart on a winter day

How cold is too cold for a 48 volt Club Car golf cart?

I would say somewhere below the freezing point. We had some sunshine today that managed to melt one of the back tires loose, but the other is still frozen in place.

If we really needed it I think a bit of leverage from the spud bar with someone else driving would be enough to free it up. Of course an even easier solution is to wait till tomorrow.

Posted Thu Dec 30 16:07:09 2010 Tags:

Laying out punky wood is the first step of hugelkulturWe're trying out the concept of a Day of Autonomy, and the first thing I wanted to do  with this spare time was to poke around the forest garden.  I've noticed over the past year that the health of our fruit trees is directly proportional to the size of their raised beds, so I've been planning to expand all of the beds by at least a foot or two on each side.  But where would I find enough organic matter to pull that off?

Luckily, I had just removed a lot of punky wood from the wood shed, so I decided to use a modified Hugelkultur technique to expand the first bed.  This time around, I laid down cardboard first to prevent weeds from coming up through the wood, which had been a problem in the old beds, then I set out all of my punky wood in a circle around our Early Transparent Apple.  Rather than backfilling with soil, I filled the gaps between logs with high nitrogen chicken compost to expedite the decomposition process.  Finally, I topped it all off with leaves.

A leaf mulch tops the hugelkultur moundI don't expect the rotting wood to be helpful to the fruit tree right away, but I suspect that by the end of the summer the apple's roots will have found the pockets of compost.  And in the long run, the expanded bed should help the tree keep its roots out of the high groundwater, while the copious organic matter that will result from the decomposing wood will hold moisture during the dry summers.  I figure the apple is big enough to deal with Lucy's rodent-digging without much trouble, which was one major downside of Hugelkultur in our garden.

Now I just need to find enough organic matter to repeat the process for another dozen trees.  Why didn't we cut more punky wood?

Our homemade chicken waterer makes life on the farm easier.
Posted Fri Dec 31 08:40:25 2010 Tags:

King Stropharia mushroom in a graywater bedLike many of our other 2010 experiments, our mushroom projects remain a work in progress.  Our goal is to incorporate edible mushrooms into our landscape in a more sustainable way, meaning that I don't want to have to keep buying plug spawn every year and I wouldn't mind if the fungi did more than just create food for us.

The least successful experiment was our King Stropharia graywater bed.  While the wood chips did soak up all of our kitchen wastewater, only one mushroom popped up to form our dinner.  The problem probably wasn't the small amount of bleach in the water since the graywater bed actually produced more mushrooms than the similar beds I innoculated with King Stropharia spawn under various fruit trees.  (Those beds didn't produce any mushrooms at all.)  Instead, I suspect that our climate is a bit too hot and dry for King Stropharia to be a low-work mushroom.  I watered the beds a few times but didn't keep them well moistened all through our hot summer, and I suspect most of the spawn dried out and died.  So, graywater mushroom beds are a good idea, but King Stropharia isn't going to a golden bullet outside the Pacific Northwest.

Cutting up a mushroom log to bring it homeA more successful --- and very simple --- mushroom experiment this year was cutting wild mushroom logs up to bring them home.  There's really not much to say except that if you find wild oyster mushrooms and bring their log home, the log will produce right outside your kitchen window where you're more likely to notice the fruits.  Yum!

Our main mushroom experiment for the past year and half has been trying to figure out a way to propagate our own mushrooms without a laboratory.  Last year, I zeroed in on oyster mushrooms as one of the easiest to propagate, and this year I discovered that the trick is to begin your propagation during the warmest weather possible.  Since oyster Propagating oyster mushroom spawn on cardboardmushrooms fruit the most in the cool weather of the fall, you'll want to cut off stem butts from the earliest fruiters and propagate them between soaked layers of corrugated cardboard (with the non-corrugated top and bottom sheets taken off.)  Before cold weather fully hits you should have enough spawn to stuff in holes in a fresh stump or log and then cover it up with wax just like you would innoculate a stump or log with storebought spawn.  We made it all the way to the innoculation stage with homegrown spawn this fall, so now we just have to wait and see if mushrooms will pop out of our stump next year.

Assuming that our low-budget oyster mushroom propagation worked, there are still some other avenues I want to explore.  I've read intriguing reports of folks not just expanding spawn on cardboard but also making mushrooms go all the way through their fruiting cycle on paper waste.  I'm very curious to see if fungi would eat up that glossy, colored junk mail that doesn't make good firestarter or mulch.

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This post is part of our 2010 experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Dec 31 12:00:33 2010 Tags:
mark Unstuck
CLub Car golf cart getting unstuck

I think the main problem with the golf cart was how solid the wheels froze with the surrounding ground.

Maybe a few more loads of gravel in the summer will remedy the situation.

Posted Fri Dec 31 16:20:44 2010 Tags:

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

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