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

archives for 02/2011

Feb 2011

A honeybee carrying a dead beeWhen I last checked our two remaining honeybee hives, one seemed to be doing fine, but the other had a cluster as small as the cluster of our now-dead hive when I checked them before their demise.  Every morning thereafter, I put an ear up to the small hive, and couldn't hear a sound, but warm days this past weekend did tempt a few bees out to fly around.  I have a hard time imagining that such a tiny hive could bulk back up and survive, but the frigid temperatures of December and January seem to have broken, so maybe the cluster will be large enough to make it.

Why this hive has such low numbers is a mystery to me.  They didn't seem to have gone through a starvation cycle like our dead hive --- there was honey within easy reach of the cluster each time I checked.  They show none of the classic signs of varroa mite overinfestation either --- after watching one valiant worker struggle to haul out dead bee after dead bee, I swept out about twenty carcasses and saw no mites or deformed wings.  But the colony's population is so low that something is clearly wrong.

Reading Ross Conrad's Natural Beekeeping has helped me realize that your second winter with a hive is when trouble is likely to begin.  When you receive a package of bees, they generally arrive relatively disease-free, and it takes a while for pests and diseases to make their way to the hive.  If I'd known Dead honeybeesbetter, I would have been sure to split my hives last year, which would have helped break the cycle of problems and set each hive back closer to their package, disease-free state.  The good news is that any hive or hives that survive this second winter are keepers, and I should be able to split it or them and go into later years with a better adapted apiary.  Still, it's painful to watch and wait and hope that this tiny colony won't bite the dust. 

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps your flock hydrated even when you have to leave town for the weekend.
Posted Tue Feb 1 07:51:02 2011 Tags:

Honeybee on an asterRoss Conrad's theory of natural beekeeping can be summed up as focusing on a strong, healthy colony rather than on maximum honey output.  That means leaving 60 to 80 pounds of honey on the hive to get them through his Vermont winters and feeding only in emergencies.  If he does have to feed, he tries to feed honey, then falls back on white sugar.

Conrad also believes that natural beekeepers should aim for genetic diversity and try to build up hives adapted to our local area.  We should let our bees requeen rather than killing our queen every year or two and ordering a new one.  If you do have to buy a queen, he recommends finding her locally rather than shipping in bees from across the country which are adapted to very different climates.

Bees can fly in an area up to 17 miles in diameterFinally, he points out that you need to consider an area up to 17 miles in diameter when keeping your bees happy and healthy.  In regular conditions, studies have shown that about 10% of worker bees fly up to 5.5 miles in search of distant nectar and pollen sources, and that they may fly as much as 8.5 miles when feed is scarce.  So the organic paradise we offer our bees may be offset by the coal-fired power plant eight miles away and by the pesticides and herbicides used on the large strawberry and tomato farm a similar distance in the other direction.  As beekeepers, our work is cut out for us keeping our far-ranging livestock healthy.

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps your flock happy and healthy with unlimited clean water.

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

Posted Tue Feb 1 12:00:40 2011 Tags:
Chopper 1 repair update

The repair job I did on the Chopper 1 axe gave out on me today.

It only took a few minutes to rework the spring and attach it to the splitting finger, but the short interval between repairs tells me that I should try to find a smaller replacement spring closer to the size of the original one which is still doing its job on the other finger with no signs of slowing down.

Posted Tue Feb 1 16:43:58 2011 Tags:
Honeybee on saw blade

Fungi in a honeybee's pollen basketBy Tuesday, the honeybees had just about mined all the easy fungal spores out of the sawdust pile.  Or so I assume since only a handful of bees were visiting the patch at any given time.

Until, that is, Mark cut our firewood to length and was suddenly bombarded with honeybees.  One or more of those logs must have been far more full of fungi than the previous logs were because the bees gathered so many spores I could see objects in the bees' pollen baskets.  (The spores are the brown clump halfway down the hind leg of the bee in this photo.)

I still have no proof that these are actually fungal spores being gathered so avidly by our honeybees, but it sure doesn't look like sawdust in that pollen basket.

Go away for the weekend without worrying with our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Wed Feb 2 07:44:38 2011 Tags:

Dead bee with tongue sticking outDid you know that around 38% of U.S. bee hives die each year, a number that has more than tripled in the last decade?  Most of those deaths aren't from colony collapse disorder, though, and many can be prevented.

One of the most valuable parts of Natural Beekeeping is information on conducting a hive autopsy.  I've excerpted the four most interesting/likely causes of bee death below, but you'll want to check the book if you've got conditions that don't fit those listed here.

  • Colony Collapse Disorder is implicated if there are few or no adult bees on the combs or bottom boards --- the bees have just disappeared.  There should be capped brood and honey present, and the latter will usually be untouched be robber bees.
  • Varroa mites have killed your hive if you see lots of bees with deformed wings and short abdomens and lots of varroa mites on the dead bees, brood, and bottom board.  Also look for tiny holes in brood cappings.
  • Starvation signs include bees with their heads tucked into comb in search of absent honey and a lack of honey within two inches of the remains of the cluster.
  • Pesticide or chemical poisoning results in dead bees in front of the hive with their tongues sticking out.

Knowing the cause of death will help you decide whether you can reuse the equipment (yes, unless your bees died of one of the contagious diseases not mentioned here) and how you can prevent the same fate befalling your other hives.  So dry your tears and poke through the rubble to become a better beekeeper.

A homestead business can pay the bills while giving you time to farm.

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

Posted Wed Feb 2 12:00:02 2011 Tags:
do it yourself chimney sweep how to image collage

One of the many advantages to living in a mobile home is easy access to the roof.

Total time for this chimeny sweep operation was under 5 minutes.

Posted Wed Feb 2 16:27:43 2011 Tags:
Dead raspberry cane with peeling bark

Cutting off the top of an everbearing raspberry caneWe like to prune our everbearing raspberries so that they produce both a summer and a fall crop, which is a bit trickier than the conventional method of mowing the plants all the way down in the winter and getting one big fall crop.  If you're looking for a double harvest, you still prune in the winter, but have to be a bit more specific about what you cut off.

The first step is to remove all of the dead canes.  These are the canes that fruited last spring, and they're pretty easy to pick out since they've turned brown and their bark is peeling, like the cane in the Living raspberry cane is green in cross sectionfirst photo.

Next, you want to cut the tops off the canes that fruited in the fall.  Most people admonish you to cut off the top third, but the truth is that you're cutting off the dead part.  After snipping off a few tops, you'll start getting an eye for guessing the point at which the plump, live cane turns into the more shriveled, dead cane.  To check your work, look down at the cut end --- you should see a thin ring of green, showing that you've cut all the way down to the living tissue.

Before and after thinning raspberry canes

Ripe red raspberryIf you wanted, you could stop pruning here, but thinning out some of the living canes will give you bigger, healthier berries in the spring.  The rule of thumb is to leave four or five of the thickest canes per linear foot of row.  The photo above is a before and after shot of this last step in pruning our raspberry patch.

Now throw down some compost and a thick layer of mulch and wait for the sweet, juicy berries in June!

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Thu Feb 3 07:51:29 2011 Tags:

Varroa miteRoss Conrad spends 50 pages talking about the varroa mite, which he considers to be the current bane of the organic beekeeper.  Although I'm not interested in trying out his "soft chemical" controls (which are on a toxicity level similar to Bt), I'm intrigued by some of the other solutions he presents.  Conrad recommends using many or all of the options below in concert, and warns that ignoring mites will kill your hive within one to two years without some mite-reduction actions.

1. Breed for resistant bees.  Natural beekeepers seem to be unanimous in their admonition to stop buying out of town bees and to instead learn to breed bees that are well-suited to your local conditions.  Bees resistant to varroa mites may be more hygenic, brushing or biting mites off other bees' backs, and they may also be more prone to swarm.  Short of scientifically measuring these traits, if you reproduce the genetics of the hives that survive the winter in your apiary, you're automatically selecting for bees that will do better in your area.  (More on how to breed bees in a later post.)  Of course, this is a long term measure and won't help your bees survive this year.

Bee with deformed wing from varroa mites2. Monitor for mites to know when to take drastic action.  Although Conrad mentions several mite-counting techniques, he takes a simpler approach and keeps his eye out for signs of high mite levels when he checks the hive.  Noticing mites on drone brood pulled apart during your hive check, or wandering around in the hive, is a sign that mite populations may be increasing and you need to keep an eye on the hive.  If you begin to see deformed wings on worker bees --- caused by a virus carried by varroa mites --- then mite levels are too high and you must take emergency measures.

3. Split off nucleus colonies.  The simple action of propagating your hive seems to put a damper on mite reproduction since splitting causes a pause in brood production within the hive.  Varroa mites reproduce by laying eggs on bee brood, so if the bees aren't producing brood, the mites can die out.

Screened bottom board4. Use screened bottom boards.  By using a screened bottom board instead of a solid bottom board, when mites fall off a bee's back, they tend to fall through the holes onto the ground and die rather than jumping aboard the next bee who passes by.  Screened bottom boards reduce your mite levels by 10 to 20%, and Conrad notes that even in his northern location, leaving screened bottom boards open all winter doesn't cause increased winterkill.

5. Encourage mites to fall.  Various techniques can be used in conjunction with screened bottom boards to cause even more mite casualties by tricking mites into loosening their hold on a bee.  Plugging up all the holes in a hive and then filling the hive with the smoke of tobacco, black walnut, cedar, grapefruit leaves, or creosote bush for 30 to 60 seconds before airing the hive out causes major mite falls (although tobacco and creosote smoke may also harm the bees.)  Alternatively, you can sprinkle confectioner's sugar over your bees, which tempts the bees to groom mites off (but don't use confectioner's sugar during cold weather since it contains an inert ingredient that your bees will need to void from their systems.)  Both of these techniques should be used when no honey is present in the hive to prevent contamination, and most should be repeated two or three times over the course of a few weeks to catch mites on bees who were out foraging or were in capped brood cells during the first treatment.

Drone comb6. Trap mites.  Since varroa mites like drone brood much better than worker brood, you can kill a lot of mites by putting a sheet of drone foundation in your hive, waiting for it to be drawn out and filled with capped brood, then freezing the frame for 26 to 30 hours to kill drones and mites.  You should repeat this technique throughout the year, moving the drone frame throughout the hive, but it does seem a little hard on all of those dead drones (who you need if you're going to breed your own new queens.)  Alternatively, Conrad builds mite traps that look like a deep frame, but with boards on each side covered in slits too small for a bee to fit through.  In the bottom of this little box, he puts a piece of sticky paper covered with methyl palmitate bait to attract and then catch the mites.  The sticky paper needs to be changed once in the middle of summer and the whole trap is removed in August.

7. Use heat to kill the mites.  A temperature of 116.6 degrees Fahrenheit will kill varroa mites, but not bees, so some beekeepers build special heating chambers into which they pour their bees once a year to delete the mites.  This sounds pretty tricky, but Conrad also mentions that painting your hive boxes a dark color might do the job for you --- at temperatures above 97, brood within the hive will die, but it might be worth it to let the hive get too hot a few times a year to keep mite levels manageable.

Thyme8. Use essential oils of thyme and mint.  A variety of chemical companies have started making "organic" mite controls out of thymol and L-menthol dissolved in a grease patty, but Conrad admits that these chemicals cause a temporary lull in egg-laying by the queen, which doesn't sound very healthy for the hive.  I wonder if you could plant a bed of thyme and mint around your hive and get mites to drop off workers as they pass over the anti-mite planting?

9. Make your foundation cells smaller.  I've discussed the benefits of foundationless frames previously.  Suffice it to say that if you get your bees to build cells a more natural size, mites don't fit in as well and mite populations plummet.

We're already using options 2 and 4 (and 7 accidentally when we had our hive meltdown last summer), and this year I plan to split our hives to start working on options 1 and 3.  I'm curious to see whether throwing a few black walnut leaves in the smoker when I check on the hive in the summer might act as a milder version of option 5, and I hope to remember to plant mint around the hives this year.  What organic techniques do you use to keep your hives' varroa mite levels within bounds?

Make a comfortable living from home while marketing your invention.

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

Posted Thu Feb 3 12:00:22 2011 Tags:
super large pile of horse manure in front of undisclosed barn

alarm clock close up at 6:36 in the amToday was the first day of 2011 where I had to dig out the digital alarm clock, and I'm happy to report it only got used once in 2010.

Recently I got introduced to a friend of a friend who has a friend with a very large pile of horse manure that was looking for a home.

He said we could have it all...and we're inclined to take him up on the offer while the getting is so darn good.

Posted Thu Feb 3 17:21:28 2011 Tags:

Handful of dirtI have a confession to make.  When it was 55 degrees on Tuesday and Mark had gone to town to do our weekly chicken waterer mailing, I snuck out and weeded a row of berries.  It wasn't on the list --- I was supposed to be pruning --- but the ground had thawed, and three years of organic mulches had turned the soil into black, moist humus.  The weeds almost seemed to jump out of the ground into my hands, and my fingers ended up just as black as the soil.

The chickens were overjoyed, and so was I.  Only later, did I find out that my bout of winter weeding was akin to self-medication.  A few years ago, scientists discovered that a bacterium in the soil --- Mycobacterium vaccae --- works like an antidepressant by tricking our brains into making more serotonin.  Maybe this would explain why the garden-obsessed among us go a little crazy at this time of year.

Feeling blue?  Go play in the dirt!

Posted Fri Feb 4 07:53:31 2011 Tags:

Double deepNow that you've slogged through two days of bee doom and gloom, it's time for a new hope --- splitting your hive in two!  I've been daunted by the notion of hive splitting in the past, since the techniques for optimal efficiency are complicated and often require special equipment.  But there are also quick and dirty techniques that work quite well using standard hive boxes if you only want to create one new hive from each of your hives rather than turning one hive into as many colonies as possible.

The simplest way to split a hive is to begin with double deeps and wait until both deep boxes are full of brood, honey, and pollen.  You should have a mixture of fresh eggs, uncapped brood, and capped brood in each box --- if not, swap some around so the two boxes are evenly filled with brood.  Then set up a bottom board in a new location and carry one of the deep brood boxes over to place on it.  Shake some extra nurse bees into the box, put on the inner and outer cover, add an entrance reducer, and you're done.

bee eggOne of the split hives will have the queen in it --- this is the mother colony --- while the other will realize they are queenless and will quickly turn one of the eggs into a queen.  Within a few days, you should be able to tell the difference in the hives.  Treat the mother colony the way you would any other hive, but leave the nucleus (aka "nuc" --- the hive with no queen) alone for 30 days to let them raise a queen and give her time to start laying.

Inevitably, most of the foraging bees will drift back to the hive in the old location, which is why you put some extra bees in the hive you carted to a new spot.  This is also why you want to make sure both hives have at least a few frames of pollen and honey to get them started while they regroup and get back on track.

As long as you carry out your split early in the year --- I figure April or May in our area --- you shouldn't have to give either hive supplemental feed.  You won't get as much honey that year as you would have without performing the split, but you will probably be able to harvest at least a bit of honey from the mother hive (and maybe from the nuc as well.)  I've decided to try this out with both of our hives, if they seem strong enough, and hope that we'll end 2011 with four hives instead of two.

Escape the rat race with a homestead business.

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

Posted Fri Feb 4 12:00:21 2011 Tags:
Kobalt wheel barrow real world test

The new Kobalt never-flat wheelbarrow can handle what seems like twice the volume as our old ramshackled pneumatic version, which had a habit of wobbling back and forth when she had a large load.

Now that I've had a chance to use it with multiple loads I think I could guess that the new never-flat technology increases rolling resistance around 10 percent compared to an air filled tire.

Posted Fri Feb 4 16:24:11 2011 Tags:
Composting food scraps with wood chips

We got our first delivery of food scraps from the local school!  As Mark suspected, once the bulky milk cartons were separated out, the scraps were much smaller than anticipated.  Since we're working the kinks out of our system, small is good...for now.

Weighing food scrapsAlthough we're excited to get started, we have to get an idea of how much food we'll get each week before we build the worm bin.  We had originally planned to give the initial round of food scraps to the chickens after weighing them, but learned just in time that health department policy says no food scraps from public facilities can be given to livestock.

That put us in a bit of a bind, since the only outside area that Lucy knows is off-limits is the chicken pasture (which is where we usually build our compost piles.)  Luckily, Mark's friend had found a stock tank with a hole in it at the dump a few months ago and my mom had given us a few pieces of scrap plywood.  Add on some cinderblocks and we had a dog-proof container with a handy drainage hole at the bottom. 

We laid down a layer of wood chips, dumped the food scraps on top, and topped them off with another layer of wood chips.  So far, we don't have enough data to make a real estimate, but if we continue to get the same amount of food, we'll only need a small worm bin --- roughly three feet by four feet by one foot.  I wonder if this will be big enough to get all of the benefits of mid-scale worm bins?  Would we be better off building a slightly larger bin?  Plenty to ponder before we make decisions.

Our POOP-free chicken waterer turns farm chores into a breeze.
Posted Sat Feb 5 08:10:58 2011 Tags:
mark Post Up

Post-up ideaIt occurred to me while pulling this fence post up that there should be some sort of device you could hook up to the bottom and pump with your foot which would utilize some jacking leverage to power it out.

The name Post-Up comes to mind...but the more I thought about it the more I started thinking that it's most likely easier to just wiggle it back and forth and pull, pull, and pull till it's free.

Posted Sat Feb 5 17:31:15 2011 Tags:

Quick hoopMark and I put together a quick hoop on Monday and I was about to tell you about it...when it blew away.  So we adapted the design to give the structure a lower profile, which incidentally resulted in some extra fabric on the edges to roll around lengths of rebar.  The rebar is just flexible enough to follow the contour of the soil when weighted down with bricks, but is still straight enough to keep the edge of the row cover from blowing up and letting the wind rip under the quick hoop.

Our farm is tucked down into a hollow between two hills, so a gentle breeze is usually something to be remarked upon, but this week has been full of roaring winds.  I figure that's a good thing --- most of you probably have much more wind than we do, and it would be a shame to tell you how to build a structure that would promptly blow apart in your garden.  Which is all a long way of saying --- I promise you more information on quick hoop construction once we're sure the structure will stand the test of time.

Our homemade chicken waterer is tried and true.  Over 3,000 chicken-keepers worldwide have found the benefits of POOP-free water and healthier hens.
Posted Sun Feb 6 08:57:31 2011 Tags:
T-post puller image montage comparison

U post comparisonU post
Shannon for pointing out the above T-post puller which can be found for a bit under a hundred dollars.

The design is clever, but I don't think it would work with our lower grade fence posts.

These lighter posts are more like a U shape. They fit in well with our applications at less than half the price of the sturdier T-post.

Posted Sun Feb 6 17:09:00 2011 Tags:
Planting lettuce under a quick hoop

Two days after reinstalling our quick hoop, the soil temperature underneath the protective fabric was already four degrees warmer than soil temperature on a neighboring bed!  Granted, I had raked back the mulch on the neighboring bed just like I did on my quick hoop bed, but hadn't applied juicy, warm manure, so it's possible the manure application is part of the reason for my fast soil heating.

Truthfully, though, I don't care if it's the quick hoop or the manure that kicked my soil temperature up to 36.  I'm just thrilled that it's finally warm enough to plant my first lettuce bed.  Fresh lettuce in four weeks if all goes well!

"I want to let you know that I have had chickens for a long time... Your water misers are a new addition for me to the coop and I am so incredibly thankful for them," wrote one happy customer of our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Mon Feb 7 07:45:33 2011 Tags:

Jug of urineI know that it hasn't been that long since you choked your way through a lunchtime series on urine, but Liquid Gold got me so fired up that I started a slew of experiments.  I apologize in advance to those of you with weak stomachs, but I'm going to subject you to another week of urine ramblings.

First up --- how to collect that pee.  Since we don't have an indoor bathroom, Mark had been peeing into a milk jug for months before I got obsessed with using urine as fertilizer --- it was just simpler (and warmer) than going outside.  So I didn't have a hard time talking him into giving up his liquid gold for my experiments, though I did ask if he might like a fancy, homemade urinal.  Mark rolled his eyes and told me the gallon jug worked just fine.

Mark did make one slight modification to his milk jug --- he printed "DO NOT DRINK!" in large letters around the rim of the container.  During cold spells, we often imbibe water out of cleaned out milk jugs (filled during warm spells), so the warning label is a good precaution.  In households with more regular running water, you wouldn't even need that.

Fund your journey back to the land with a niche invention.

This post is part of our Urine in the Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Feb 7 12:00:42 2011 Tags:
Kobalt never flat wheelbarrow in action

The new Kobalt wheelbarrow has enough volume to handle 6 cubic feet, but when it comes to heavy gravel on muddy terrain my new limit is somewhere between 4 and 5 depending on how much elbow grease I can muster.

Posted Mon Feb 7 16:21:18 2011 Tags:
Using up the manure pile

Spreading manure on the gardenThe truck, wheelbarrow, and shovel got a real workout yesterday, with me and Mark using them in shifts.  First, I unloaded the rest of the manure on top of half a truckload of imperfect chicken compost so that Mark could drive out to get gravel while the ground was still frozen.  All morning, I spread manure in the mule garden, focussing on the beds that we'll be planting in February and March.  Mark got home just as I was finishing up and took the wheelbarrow out to work on the driveway.  I estimate we each moved about the same volume of material, which means he probably worked about three times as hard as I did.

In the past, I've been extremely frugal with compost and manure, but now that we have a better supply (and a truck to haul it with), I'm adding a solid inch to each garden bed, the amount recommended by soil builders.  Being so profligate with manure, though, means that even Mark's huge compost pile may not be enough.  I figure I need about six more truckloads (14.4 cubic yards) to treat the whole garden, orchard, and berry patch right.  It feels like a very ambitious plan, but I suspect that after a year or two of heavy manuring, we'll be able to keep fewer beds in production and cycle some through low-work cover crops.  My new goal --- the same amount of high quality food with less work.

Our homemade chicken waterer is the perfect way to keep a broody hen hydrated right on the nest.
Posted Tue Feb 8 08:43:06 2011 Tags:
Dwarf Meyer lemon tree

Meyer lemon flowerThe first place I wanted to use urine was to fertilize my nitrogen-hungry dwarf potted citrus trees.  Our movie star neighbor has the most amazing dwarf Meyer lemon tree anyone has ever seen, and he attributes part of his success to regular doses of miracle grow.  I'm leery of chemical fertilizers and wondered if urine would work as well.

For my first attempt, I ignored instructions and poured straight urine around the roots of my citrus trees, washing the pee in with plenty of water.  I thought the mix-in-the-pot technique should work, but the plants complained, so my next trial consisted of mixing urine and water in a bucket at a proportion of roughly one part urine for six parts water, then using that mixture on the plants.  This time, the plants were pleased.

In fact, our dwarf Meyer lemon was so pleased it popped out in literally hundreds of blooms!  Now, from my vague understanding of the bloom-decision-process in fruit trees, I think the number of Young lemon fruitsflowers must have been decided before I started pouring urine around her roots (although I'm not positive about that.)  The real test will be how many of those flowers she sets into fruit since my experience has been that our Meyer lemon drops a large percentage of the young fruits soon after blooming.  I have high hopes that giving her plenty of nitrogen during that critical fruit-setting period might help us keep a higher percentage of fruits this year and get a bumper crop of lemons next winter.  As the old saying goes, "If you've got urine, make lemonaide."

Fund your journey back to the land with a homestead business.

This post is part of our Urine in the Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Feb 8 12:00:40 2011 Tags:
gloves that have been ruined find a new life

I've found that using a dedicated pair of gloves for sticky roofing chores makes the clean up process quick and easy.

Posted Tue Feb 8 16:03:48 2011 Tags:

A rooster and henWe kept our homegrown rooster because I want to try to raise our own chicks this year, but I have to admit that until recently I still muttered "freeloader" under my breath whenever I saw him.  He started to prove his worth when we integrated three flocks --- the rooster's mitigating instinct means that even the lowest chicken on the totem pole gets to eat at the table and doesn't get picked on too much.  But while shoveling manure, I discovered that the rooster was even more useful than I thought.

Two grubsI soon turned up a big fat grub and headed over to the chicken pasture to give the girls a treat.  The only chicken outside, though, was the rooster, so I decided it was time for a real test.  When I bring out the scraps in the morning, the rooster is quite a gentleman, picking out the best pieces and clucking over them until one of his harem takes the treat, but I figured he'd just eat up the grub when left to his own devices.  I lobbed the beetle larva under his nose, and the rooster immediately started clucking like crazy.  He picked up that grub, dropped it back down to the ground, and clucked some more.  Within seconds, a hen came to see what the fuss was about, and the grub went down her gullet faster than I could pull out the camera.

As much as I hate to say I was wrong, I have to admit that our rooster is far from a freeloader.  He's definitely going to remain an integral part of the flock.

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps all of our chickens happy and healthy.
Posted Wed Feb 9 08:42:15 2011 Tags:

Composting cardboard with urineFertilizing our house plants with urine seems to be working great, but once Mark started bottling his pee, I realized that we had too much of a good thing.  What to do with the extra?

Urine is so high in nitrogen that one of its best uses is mixing with high carbon compounds to create a C:N ratio more suited to decomposition.  Although I use large cardboard boxes for kill mulches as soon as we get them (sometimes emptying out components early to get to those important boxes), small cardboard boxes tend to pile up, waiting for a use.  Time to see if we can compost them with pee!

Following the lead of someone mentioned in Liquid Gold, I filled a plastic bin with cardboard, making sure that the cut ends all faced up.  By laying the cardboard vertically in the box rather than horizontally, I made it much more likely that urine will soak down into each layer and get to work rather than puddling in the top few layers.  I didn't want the cardboard to get waterlogged, so I figured I could either put holes in the bottom of the bin and put it outside, or leave the bin intact and move it out of the weather, and I chose the latter.  The final step was to pour a gallon of urine over the cardboard.  I'll try to remember to check on the bin at intervals and pour on more pee if the cardboard seems dry, but otherwise I'll just leave the decomposition chamber to do its thing and report on the experiment in six months to a year.

Make a comfortable living in just a few hours per week using the tips in our $2 ebook.

This post is part of our Urine in the Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Feb 9 12:00:30 2011 Tags:

pick up truck full of palletsThe first chicken pasture coop worked out fine during the summer months, but our hillside blocks all the winter sun and makes the chickens a bit grumpier than they should be.

A second coop with more pasture is now planned for a more sunny location.

I'm pretty sure I can use the above load of pallets for most of the building materials, just not sure exactly which way it will all go together yet.

Posted Wed Feb 9 18:58:22 2011 Tags:

Golf cartWhen Mark's not home, I often do stupid things.  The trouble is that I'm not very patient and I don't like to admit that anything's beyond my abilities --- in other words, waiting for Mark to get home and help me with a task is often too tough.  That's how I ended up with bags of food scraps floating down the creek and me jumping into the freezing water after them.

It all started when the ground froze good and solid and Mark headed to the big city to pick up a truckload of pallets.  I'd been aching for a day like this to Woodshedhaul in the rest of our firewood since the woodshed was nearly empty and we had a full cord sitting out at the parking area, so I jumped in the golf cart and started hauling.  On the third trip, though, something was clearly wrong --- an area around the back wheels started squealing like crazy and the cart began to lose power at intervals.  Yikes!  I stabled our intrepid golf cart and moved onto the next thing on my agenda --- heading into town to mail chicken waterers and pick up the week's food scraps.  Based on the small amount of scraps we'd gotten last week, I figured I could easily wheel the scraps home with our fancy new wheelbarrow.

Muddy wheelbarrow wheelAt the school, I discovered that the kids have started learning the system better, which means that food scraps end up in our bin instead of in the trash.  As a result, we got nearly twice as much food scrap volume as last time --- exciting!  At this point, if I was smart, I would have noticed that the driveway was starting to thaw out and would have chosen to split the scraps into two loads, or might have vetoed the wheelbarrow expedition entirely and waited until Mark came back and the driveway froze again to drive the compostables home.  But, being who I am, I instead loaded the wheelbarrow to the brim and went merrily on my way.

Cafeteria wasteIt's downhill for the first quarter of the journey, and that was easy, but then I came to the ford.  I hadn't thought this expedition through, so I was just wearing my work boots, which means I had to hop on blocks on the side of the ford to get across the creek.  Did you know that wheelbarrows don't hop on blocks?  The overloaded wheelbarrow and I did some weird contortions, trying to get across the creek together without my feet getting wet, and then she tiiiiiiiiipppppped.....

I didn't fall in the creek --- that's about the only thing I did right.  I just let the wheelbarrow tip over and snagged the one bag still within reach, wheeling the empty wheelbarrow to the top of the ford.  But I had to get even wetter to capture the other bags as they floated merrily away down the creek (not polluting the water, luckily --- they were sealed.)  A few minutes later, I had a very cold, wet foot, but the food scraps were rescued and back in the wheelbarrow.

Browns in a compost binI thought I was home free, but the top inch of driveway had turned into mud that coated the overloaded wheelbarrow's wheel and made it nearly impossible to push.  Just as I gave up, Lucy got engrossed in digging a rodent out of the woods, which is good since I otherwise couldn't have left the food scraps unattended around her.  I hurried home, begged the golf cart to give me one more trip, and drove down to rescue my wheelbarrow and food scraps.  We made it home at last and I weighed and covered up the food scraps in their temporary compost bin before heading inside to dry my shoe.  I know I'll regret this episode later when the boot is still damp inside, but for now, I'm just happy that I got the job done, even if I put in five times as much energy as I needed to.

Mark's motto is "Work smart, not hard."  My motto, apparently, is "Jump in the creek when it's below freezing outside!  It's fun!"

Our chicken waterer keeps water clean for days on end.
Posted Thu Feb 10 08:30:07 2011 Tags:

Adding urine to biocharI've discussed the benefits of biochar before, but as I did more research, I realized that gardening with biochar isn't as simple as taking charcoal and throwing it in your soil.  Instead, you need to prepare the charcoal a bit to get best results.  The first step in preparation is soaking the charcoal --- charcoal is naturally hydrophobic, so you have to overcome that barrier to water.  The second step is to add some kind of high nitrogen input to the charcoal to give the first microorganisms something to eat.  You can do both preparation steps at once using urine. 

I filled a four gallon bucket with biochar and poured a gallon of urine over top.  The charcoal chunks snapped, crackled, and popped just like rice cereal as they soaked up the liquid, and only a scant half cup was left in the bottom of the bucket a few hours later.  I'll apply the mixture to the garden soon and hope that microorganisms get to work on the fertilized biochar in time to see results in this year's garden.  (Much more on biochar to come in next week's lunchtime series.)

Escape the rat race with a homestead business that requires only a few hours per week.

This post is part of our Urine in the Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Feb 10 12:00:31 2011 Tags:
mark Grease

Grease is the word that has groove and feeling

I recently discovered that white lithium grease is a much more appropriate lubricant to use than WD-40 when it comes to items that are open to the elements.

It provides a thick coat that stays in place and won't freeze.

The technical name for it is Cerflon, which uses a carbon-flourine bond to form a ceramic reinforced fluoropolymer.

Posted Thu Feb 10 20:49:34 2011 Tags:

Onion seedsIn the past, I've direct-seeded onions at the beginning of March.  The first year, we had a great harvest.  The second year, I put the onions in the worst part of the garden and the clayey, waterlogged soil resulted in puny onions.  And last year was even worse --- I didn't even get any of the onion seeds to sprout!  Clearly, I need to do something different this year.

Year two's mistake is easy to remedy --- I'll be planting my onions in the deeper soil of the mule garden from now on.  And I suspect that part of my problem last year was shoddy seeds, so we've changed our loyalties to a seed company with a better reputation (Johnny's).  Still, I want to try giving our precious Alliums a bit of extra protection in the 2011 garden.

Sprouting onion seedThe first method I'm using is more work (from me) and more energy (from the electric grid), but I want to hedge my bets and make sure I get at least some onions this year.  So I've started a flat of onions inside and might start one or two more.  The problem with starting seeds indoors is that I'm committing to running grow lights for a couple of months, and I also have to give the seedlings extra TLC at the transplanting stage, but it does make me happy to play in the soil in early February.

Meanwhile, I'll be starting some onion seeds directly in the ground under quick hoops within the next few weeks.  Onion seeds are supposed to need the same soil temperature for germination as lettuce, so I could probably plant them under quick hoops right now, but I want to tweak our design a bit before I build another quick hoop structure.

Potato onionsOf course, we're growing several beds of potato onions too, but I'm still not sold on the idea that these perennial onions will make big bulbs.  We'll just have to wait and see which method gives us the best onions in 2011.

"I did want to let you know that after several months of using our chicken nipples (I used the 5 gallon buckets method), I am still in love!  They have been a HUGE time and mess saver," wrote another happy customer of our homemade chicken waterer.
Posted Fri Feb 11 08:10:02 2011 Tags:

Homemade female urinalOnce I started collecting my own urine (with the quick and dirty contraption shown here), I suddenly had a lot more to play with.  In fact, I ran out of projects dying for an immediate dose of nitrogen and ended up wandering around the garden with a jug of liquid gold in my hand.

Winter compost pile

Aha!  The fall compost pile was sitting there doing nothing, mostly because I'd made it completely out of late summer weeds, which have a higher C:N ratio than spring weeds and decompose very slowly on their own.  Time to see if a regular dose of urine will speed up the composting process.

That's all of our urine experiments for now, but I'm sure I'll come up with more as the pee starts piling up again.  Have you gotten inspired and started to use your urine in your garden?  What's your favorite method?

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This post is part of our Urine in the Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Feb 11 12:00:31 2011 Tags:
vent on top of stove facts

Our new stove seemed to have a problem with leaking smoke and heat out of the top right burner in the back. After a few minutes of research we found out this is normal and all stoves have this vent hole to prevent explosions, but our old one never seemed to leak any smoke.

It only took about 10 minutes to take the old grid thing out and make room for it in the new vent hole, which seems to have stopped the leaking smoke problem.

Posted Fri Feb 11 17:32:38 2011 Tags:
Anna February
February on the farm

When small talk runs toward the weather, just about everyone tells me that they're heartily sick of winter.  The truth is that it's been an abnormally cold and snowy winter for our region, but I can't get behind that sentiment.  Yes, my green thumb is aching for spring, but at the same time, there is so much joy to be found in a snow-covered quick hoop in February, in crocus leaves sticking up through the frozen soil, and in forsythia forced to bloom early on a windowsill.  (Thanks for the cutting, Mom!)

There's the sheer rapture of baking my chilly toes in front of a wood stove on a frigid day.  The way my long johns hug me after I dash out of my cold bedroom to find them.  And the way the late sunrise gives me permission to sleep in.

Although we don't talk about it much here, Mark's patented system of positive thought is 25% of the Walden Effect.  So cheer yourself up and find the sunny side of February.  What's your favorite part of this last full month of winter?

Start your chicks off right with a chicken waterer that never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Sat Feb 12 07:11:20 2011 Tags:
Butternut storage with semi-cute cat

We've lost about a dozen butternut squashes this year due to freezing.

The problem was a decision on how high to set the space heater when we went on vacation.

I remember Anna saying "Should we put it on level 2?"....."Nahhhh...level 1 should be fine", was my reply.

Posted Sat Feb 12 16:08:35 2011 Tags:

Depletion and AbundanceI read a lot of blogs, but only a handful captivate me enough that I talk about them with Mark around the dinner table.  Sharon Astyk's blog is so thought-provoking that we discuss "blogger Sharon" at least once a week.  Since Sharon is also an author, it seemed like a no-brainer to check one of her books out of the library.

Depletion and Abundance fleshed out the thesis I've been picking up in bits and pieces on Sharon's blog --- peak oil and climate change are going to change the face of our world, and we need to be prepared for a lower energy future full of good food and friends (and hard work.)  Then there's the Anyway clause --- even if you don't believe in peak oil and climate change, the actions you would take to prepare for those eventualities are just the right thing to do anyway.

Unfortunately, since I'd been reading her blog for months, I was a bit disappointed to be getting the same information again in book form.  I kept hoping we'd make our way out of the big picture and that Sharon would write more about the minutae --- for example, I was aching to hear about how her family cut their energy usage to 10% of the national average over the course of a  year.  (Perhaps that tale is in one of her other books?)

People who enjoy philosophizing will probably take to Depletion and Abundance better than I did.  I tend to look for solid answers when I read a book (or at least for a record of what worked and didn't work in the author's own experience.)  Instead, Sharon's book is full of thought-provoking questions about home and community, but not enough hard data to really suck me in.  Still, I'd recommend that you pick up Sharon Astyk's book, or at least add her blogs to your reading list for exactly the minutae I missed in her book --- milk goats, homeschooling, canning, and much more.  Sharon writes one blog about "food, farm, and family" and another on Science Blogs about the more technical side of peak oil and climate change.

Our chicken waterer keeps your flock hydrated on hot summer days and cold winter nights.
Posted Sun Feb 13 07:51:28 2011 Tags:
Hoop house quick with agribon fabric

When we first started the hoop house project there was an experiment to use pieces of hose material cut lengthwise to secure the Agribon fabric to the PVC frame.

It didn't work.

The hose pieces fit nicely around the PVC pipe, but the pressure was just too much for it to keep the fabric attached. We ended up making the hoop shorter so that we could have some extra fabric on the bottom to roll up and weigh down with 10 foot long sections of rebar and bricks.

Posted Sun Feb 13 20:17:42 2011 Tags:
Anna Road food

PicnickingWhat do you do for food on the road?  We used to pack sandwiches a lot, but have been reducing our grain intake drastically lately, which leaves me in a bit of a bind.  Instead, we've ended up visiting restaurants with lots of vegetables on the menu, but we've become such snobs that anyone's vegetables except our own leave us feeling a bit empty (and I hate to pay for restaurant food very often.)

On the way back from visiting Mark's folks in Ohio this past weekend, Mark's step-mom hooked us up with this fancy container that makes picnicking with real food much easier.  You fill the container up with hot water and let the warmth soak in for a few minutes, then dry the container out and put in your hot food.  Three hours later when we finished exploring an Indian mound, the vittles were still toasty and ready for our picnic.

What are your favorite traveling recipes and methods?

Our chicken waterer makes leaving the farm for four days worry-free, even in the dead of winter.
Posted Mon Feb 14 08:06:50 2011 Tags:

The biochar debateI've been intrigued by terra preta ever since I first heard about it, and am equally intrigued by its modern grandchild, biochar.  Last year, Mark and I attended a workshop on biochar and came away with a lot of information about how biochar is used in large scale agriculture.  I resolved to put biochar to use in our 2011 garden, then got bogged down in the details of how to tweak the technology to fit the backyard scale.  Did I need to build a special piece of equipment to make the biochar?  Did I need to grind the biochar?  To charge or activate it?  Is biochar compatible with no-till or does it have to be worked into the soil?  And what exactly happens when you put biochar in the soil? 

In this week's lunchtime series, I do my best to answer those questions.  I delved into several books and websites in the research process, but the ones I think you'd enjoy the most are:

Bruges, James.  2009.  The Biochar Debate.  Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont. 

I had high hopes that The Biochar Debate would have all of the answers, but I should have read the subtitle "Charcoal's Potential to Reverse Climate Change and Build Soil Fertility."  Most of the book rehashes information you are probably well aware of about climate change and the evils of modern, mainstream agriculture, but the tidbits on biochar are very easy to read.

Biochar for environmental managementLehmann, Johannes, and Stephen Joseph.  2009.  Biochar for Environmental Management.  Earthscan Publications, Ltd., London.

This book summarizes all of the current data about the production and use of biochar.  As long as you don't mind wading through four hundred pages of scientific language, you can find a lot of answers here.  The downside of the book is that it focuses on the large scale, so some of the information isn't really suitable to the backyard.

Gardening with Biochar FAQ.

This website probably isn't useful if you're just figuring out what biochar is, but once you start getting your hands dirty, you'll suddenly find the information very informative.  If you'd rather get a simplified, pictorial view of how to apply biochar to your garden, visit his Flicker page.

Got a kindle?  Microbusiness Independence is now available for 99 cents from Amazon.

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

Posted Mon Feb 14 12:00:40 2011 Tags:
Freeze damage close up of alluminum pot

I left this large pot out all winter and somehow the lid blew off and filled up with water.

Big mistake!

I'm not sure why I didn't put it away in the barn back in the was fine like that the last 3 winters, but I guess these cold spells of 2011 were just too much for its made in China construciton.

I'll do a bit of research before we find a replacement. The size was perfect for dunking chickens in on processing day, but maybe aluminum wasn't the best metal for this application.

Posted Mon Feb 14 16:54:38 2011 Tags:

Log in a frozen riverI've always been confused by frost free dates, especially after asking two local extension agents for information and getting two very different answers.  So I was thrilled to stumble upon a tool that gives me actual data from local weather stations while also clearing up the mystery.

Frost free dates are like flood zones.  If you live in a wet region like ours, you'll want to head to the local authorities to find a map showing 10 year and 100 year flood zones.  The idea is that, on average, waters will reach the 10 year flood line once every decade and the 100 year flood line once per century.  Of course, this is a statistical tool, not a forecast, so you might get a 100 year flood three years running, or might not get one for 300 years.  But either way, you won't want to build your house in the 10 year flood zone, and probably shouldn't put it in the 100 year flood zone either.

Box elder seeds in the snowSimilarly, frost free dates are reported based on the percentage likelihood of seeing frost on a certain day in the spring.  Using data from our closest weather station, we have a 10% chance of seeing frost as late as May 16, compared to a 90% chance of seeing frost on April 12.  On average, our last frost falls on April 29.  So, in a way, those extension agents were both right.  One was being careful and giving me the date after which frost will nearly never occur while the other was more of a gambler and figured we could plant on the average last frost date.

Snowy cornfieldThe Dave's Garden tool also tells me the chances of seeing 28 degree frosts (which will nip our peach blossoms) and 24 degree frosts (which will kill unprotected broccoli.)  If I hadn't decided to change over to using soil temperature as my method of choosing planting dates, I can tell this tool would be worth its weight in gold.

(In case you're curious, the photos in this post are from our trip to Ohio, where there's still lots of snow on the ground.  You can see my review of Mound City over on our travel blog.)

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Tue Feb 15 08:05:09 2011 Tags:

Chunks of biocharI've posted previously about the benefits of biochar, but how does biochar actually cause those increases in crop yield?  It's probably easiest for the average gardener to understand that the increase in pH is caused by the ash that inevitably comes along for the ride --- using wood ashes to increase the alkalinity of (or "sweeten") soil is common wisdom among farmers.  And we can visualize the water retention properties too since a closeup look at biochar makes it look like a tiny sponge.

The complexities come in when you start thinking of the chemistry involved.  Since biochar is negatively charged, it naturally attracts anything positively charged in the soil, and that includes important plant nutrients like calcium, nitrates, phosphorus, and silicates.  This chemical attraction is why biochar in your soil prevents nutrient leaching --- the minerals are kept in the root zone rather than washing into the subsoil during heavy rains.

All of these factors help your plants grow, but probably the greatest benefit of biochar is its ability to increase the populations of beneficial microorganisms in the soil.  In fact, one study of Amazonian Dark Earth (aka terra preta) compared to nearby, natural soil showed that the Dark Earth contained a completely different set of microorganisms than the natural soil.

Mycelium and biocharBiochar helps many bacteria and fungi grow because it provides tiny nooks and crannies just big enough for these microorganisms but not large enough for predator microorganisms.  In their protected dens, the bacteria and fungi grow like crazy, especially if you make your biochar at a relatively low temperature so that the insides are coated with energy-rich tars for them to eat.  Scientists have found that arbuscular mycorrhizae (the fungi that attach to your plants' roots and help them get hard-to-find nutrients) are especially aided by biochar in the soil.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria also love biochar, but for a different reason.  The biochar pores tend to create low oxygen conditions where these anaerobic bacteria thrive.  As a result, legumes create more nitrogen-fixing nodules when biochar is in the soil and free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria also multiply.  That means more nitrogen for your plants without any work on your part.

Learn to escape the rat race for just 99 cents!

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

Posted Tue Feb 15 12:00:41 2011 Tags:
Trouble with the garden cart which is really a wagon because it has 4 wheels instead of 2

With the golf cart down and the driveway too muddy for the truck I resorted to the old trusty garden wagon to haul in the latest round of food scraps/worm food.

I didn't make it that far before I realized mud was packing in the wheel well area causing an increase in the rolling resistance to the point of being dragged parts of the way.

My solution for now is to use the wagon as a cage and figure something out tomorrow. Maybe we should build the new worm bin by the parking area to simplify the operation?

Posted Tue Feb 15 18:05:42 2011 Tags:

Frozen foodThis is a perfect time of year to assess the state of your freezer (or pantry) and change your hoarding goals for next year.  Every year, I try to guess how much of each type of produce we should save for the winter, and every year it seems like our tastes change and I wish I'd had more of some things and less of others.  This winter, our joy has been harvest catch-all soup --- when I'm feeling under the weather or am just in need of a quick meal, I thaw out two pint-sized servings, add a fried egg or bit of cheese for extra protein, and the meal is done.  Even though I froze seven gallons of the soup, we could have used more.

Chart of freezer contentsOn the other hand, our pesto column is nearly untouched.  Since we're now exercising a lot more moderation with pasta, I tend to make lasagna instead of pesto pasta or spaghetti with tomato sauce.  I can use up three quarts of vegetables in a single pan of lasagna, mix in two cups of flour (turned into noodles, of course), add a pound of meat and some cheese, and have a well-rounded, one dish dinner.

Greens are also going begging.  We love our greens year-round, but since we were eating them fresh out of the garden well into December, we just didn't put as much dent into the frozen winter supply.

I like to take stock now rather than later because I always make sure all of the food gets eaten before next year's produce piles into the freezer.  By April, I may have forgotten wishing for more soup in February and would just look at my freezer chart and assume that since we ate or gave away everything, the proportions were just about right.

Our homemade chicken waterer keeps our chickens happy and healthy year-round.
Posted Wed Feb 16 08:43:39 2011 Tags:

Handful of biocharWe've been collecting charcoal all winter by screening it out of the ashes in the bottom of the wood stove, waiting until I figured out how to crush it before putting the biochar to use.  Large-scale farmers powder their biochar so that it's easy to apply with their machinery, but on the small scale, crushing biochar is a pain.  In fact, from the multitude of questions about how to crush biochar on forums (and from my own experience), I suspect that the crushing step is holding a lot of gardeners back using biochar in the garden.  Is it really necessary to grind biochar?

The answer is "probably not."  Scientists found that biochar particle sizes ranging from a twelfth of an inch to three quarters of an inch showed the same effects on crops.  In fact, natural processes in the soil probably break those large particles down into small particles quite quickly due to freeze/thaw cycles and to plant roots and fungal hyphae penetrating the charcoal.  Unless you're an industrial-scale farmer who needs powdered biochar so that it can be applied with your existing machinery, grinding charcoal probably only speeds up the process by a couple of months to a year.

I even stumbled across a statement
on a biochar forum that made me think we'd be better off using chunky biochar in our soil:

"Although powder yields the most surface area for nutrient retention, chemical reactions, microbial habitats, and water retention, it also is more likely to become compacted, clay-like, and to cut off oxygen and airflow, which we know is critical for the rhizosphere and plant roots."

Charcoal in soilSince our soil is already high in clay and needs all the airflow it can get, it sounds like we should apply our biochar in chunk form.  Come to think of it, the healthiest part of our current garden is the area where the previous residents tossed their stove ashes, and the chunks of charcoal in the soil there don't seem to be causing any problems.  A few big lumps like this remain after fifty years, but most of the charcoal has broken down to soil-sized particles.

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

Posted Wed Feb 16 12:00:02 2011 Tags:
frozen ground with firewood off loading images and food scrap transportation across a driveway that was muddy and is now frozen

I wasn't expecting the ground to freeze overnight...but the power of ice really came through in providing a small window of opportunity to drive in the food scraps and most of the remaining firewood.

Our hillside that blocks the morning winter sun has some advantages after all.

Posted Wed Feb 16 15:44:52 2011 Tags:

Composting food scrapsEven though I'd like a bit more data before building our worm bin, it's clearly time to move on to the next step --- our compost holding bin is already almost full!  We've decided to make a simple bin like Binet Payne's, but with a false bottom to catch the compost tea.  What we haven't decided yet is how many worms to buy.

You need two pounds of worms per pound of daily food scraps, and if you factor in the no-food weekends, we're currently clocking in around 17 pounds of scraps per day.  But 34 pounds of worms would cost around $850, unless we can find a source of worms in bulk.

Of course, worms will reproduce, and under good conditions Binet Payne estimates that one of her bins stocked with 8 pounds of worms will come up to full production (64 pounds of worms) in 3 months.  Currently, I'm budgeting $100 for worms, figuring we'll have to build some additional compost holding bins to use the extra food scraps for the first few months.  If you know of any bulk sources of compost worms to make my worm dollars go further, I'd appreciate your advice!

Our chicken waterer is the perfect antidote to feather pecking --- the nipple design gives your birds something more constructive to do with their time.

Posted Thu Feb 17 08:26:39 2011 Tags:

Pouring biochar into a bucketTraditional terra preta, on which current biochar research is based, was made by mixing charcoal, bones, pottery shards, human waste, and other trash together in a pit, and recent studies have shown that it's best to mimic this by adding some sort of high nitrogen fertilizer to your charcoal before applying it to the garden.  Applying biochar to the soil without adding nitrogen to it first can sometimes stunt your plants for a short time, a bit like mixing fresh wood chips into the soil, since microorganisms have to use up nitrogen to break down the carbon.  Adding manure, compost, or urine to the biochar counteracts that initial decline in plant growth and may also tempt microorganisms to move into their biochar condos faster.

If you're in a hurry for great soil, an alternative method of activating the biochar is working it into your compost pile.  A few studies have suggested that biochar helps speed up the composting process (probably by increasing microorganism populations), and when you put the biochar-compost on your garden, the biochar will already be full of hard-working microbes. 

Finally, don't forget to soak your biochar before application.  This isn't technically part of the activation process, but everything will go more smoothly if you fill those pores with water.  And if you do decide to grind your charcoal, pre-soaking it is supposed to make biochar easier to work with both during the grinding and application process.

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

Posted Thu Feb 17 12:00:40 2011 Tags:
multiple worm bins in a basement with close up of worms

Anna said we need worms.....lots of worms.

I said "It sure would be nice to find someone local we could buy from instead of ordering them on the internet". Sure enough someone near Johnson City was selling worms and worm castings on Craigs list. We're not sure how many pounds of worms each bucket holds due to the bedding material included, but I felt like 20 dollars per 5 gallon bucket was a fair price, and I got the added bonus of checking out someone's operation who is years ahead of ours.  His name was Warren, and he told me one of his motivations behind being a worm guy was to get his sons involved in something that included learning how to work and being away from the computer. I had to laugh when he told me his wife recently asked him to stop talking about worms so much to their friends, so now he refers to them as his livestock.

Craigs list continues to be a valuable tool for the urban and rural homesteaders who are looking to save money and network with other folks in the community.

Posted Thu Feb 17 20:40:40 2011 Tags:

Urban homesteadMaybe you've heard the buzz by now --- the Dervaes family (authors of have trademarked the following terms:


I can understand the urge to protect their intellectual property (even though I feel like, in today's digital age, that kind of "mine!" mentality is a bit misguided.)  Just the other day, I noticed another book with "urban homesteading" in the title, and I understand that publishers are getting ready to churn out yet more books on the topic.

On the other hand, the Dervaes family doesn't seem to be going after the big dogs.  Instead, they've sent cease and desist letters to the Santa Monica Public Library for hosting a free event on urban homesteading and have forced Facebook to shut down several groups with "urban homesteading" in the title.  They are, apparently, sending out letters to little guys, too, with the following wording:

"If your use of one of these phrases is not to specifically identify products or services from the Dervaes Institute, then it would be proper to use generic terms to replace the registered trademark you are using. For example, when discussing general homesteading or other people’s projects, they should be referred to using terms such as ‘modern homesteading,’ ‘urban sustainability projects,’ or similar descriptions.

"When using a phrase listed above to refer to the work of the Dervaes Institute, proper trademark usage should include the proper trademark notice [®], use the protected phrase in all capital letters, and note in close proximity that the term is a protected trademark of Dervaes Institute."

The Dervaes family say on their blog that we shouldn't be pissed off about this because all kinds of other terms (like biodynamic and simple living) are trademarked, adding that we should be glad they trademarked the term rather than leaving it to be trademarked by an evil corporation.  However, my gut feeling is that those of us who make our livings from the homesteading movement have a moral obligation to help that movement rather than hindering it.  The Dervaes' actions feel a bit like it might feel if Barbara Kingsolver tried to make people stop using the term "local food".

I'd be curious to hear your take on the matter.  Meanwhile, if you've linked to any of their sites in the past (,,,,, and, I recommend you take down the links to help the Dervaes family understand that giving a little bit to the little guys impacts their bottom line.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Fri Feb 18 08:22:18 2011 Tags:

Applying biocharWe started our first biochar experiment at the beginning of February.  After soaking a bucket of biochar in urine, I applied it in a thin coating across half of one of our garden beds.  (The other half of the bed was left alone as a control.)  Then I added an inch of well-composted horse manure on top of both halves.  I'll be planting lettuce there this spring, and I hope to be able to see a difference between the biochar and control portions of the bed.

When applying biochar, there seems to be only one rule --- make sure the charcoal gets covered up so it doesn't erode or blow away.  Traditional farmers plow biochar into their soil while no-till farmers have been known to powder the charcoal and apply it mixed with liquid manures.  Although biochar seems to give the most benefits at or just below the primary root zone, earthworms and other soil critters have been shown to mix the biochar into the soil pretty quickly, so you don't need to work too hard at incorporation.

Covering the biochar with manureFarmers have even applied biochar to existing perennials (like trees.)  One method is to dig several holes within the tree's root zone, add biochar, then put the native soil back in.  A less intrusive method involves scattering the biochar on the soil surface in the autumn when the charcoal will soon be covered up by falling leaves.  This last method is particularly useful in riparian buffers where you need to catch nutrients leaching away from your field or pasture to prevent pollution of a stream.

I have one more bucket of biochar being activated as I type and suspect I might come up with a third and final bucket before the heating season is over.  I haven't quite decided what to do with my limited bounty, but am already thinking of ways to get more biochar.  I had originally assumed that we would make a biochar-producing stove if our garden experiments look promising, but Mark suggested, instead, hooking up with other wood burners in our area who are unlikely to use their charcoal.  Turning the region's trash into fertility for our garden seems to be the theme of 2011!

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

Posted Fri Feb 18 12:00:38 2011 Tags:
Do it yourself worm bin image collage 2011

The worms are tucked in and starting to make themselves at home in our new 4x8 do it yourself worm bin.

It's got a slight downward slope so that all the liquids drain towards the corner where the bucket is.

Posted Fri Feb 18 17:26:51 2011 Tags:
Carrying water for worms

Soaking worm beddingMark had a stroke of genius when he thought of buying local worms from craigslist.  Not only did we get more worms for our money (I estimate we came away with about nine pounds of worms for $140), but they also probably got stressed very little during their ride down the interstate.  Sealed up tight in their five gallon buckets, the worms stayed damp and dark, and I suspect we won't see the lag time you often have to wait through before mail order worms get to work.

Worm castingsI've been shredding all of our non-glossy paper (and non-corrugated cardboard) waste for about a month now, so the first step was to soak the new bedding.  We decided to put this worm bin out where we park our cars so that we wouldn't have to haul the scraps half a mile down our swampy driveway in wet weather.  We'll still have to haul out the paper and haul in the worm castings, but those bits of organic matter are less perishable, so we can bide our time and wait on the weather.  Unfortunately, we don't have running water out at the parking area, so I carried a bucket up from the creek, already envisioning ways to capture rainwater out there to make this stage in the process easier.

Since our worms came in nearly-finished worm castings, we just dumped the mixture into one end of the worm bin rather than mixing our livestock into fresh bedding.  The worms will have no problem migrating to the new bedding once we Filling a worm bin with beddingadd food waste, and I suspect that leaving them in their native bedding will speed up the acclimation process even more.

With nine pounds of worms already prepared to work, I plan to start out by adding 30 to 60 pounds of food scraps to the bin each week, adding more food waste over time as the populations grow.  The only flaw in the plan is that my sodden paper shrank down to a much smaller volume than I anticipated --- I figure there's only enough there now to cover up perhaps ten pounds of food waste.  We're going to have to hurry up and find another source of waste paper!

Compost worms

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Posted Sat Feb 19 08:54:19 2011 Tags:
do it yourself low budget worm bin

Collecting worm tea

One modification we made to our
worm bin was a false bottom.

The first layer of plywood has several holes drilled in it. The next layer has a 2 inch gap and a slope to guide the worm tea toward the collection bucket.

Posted Sat Feb 19 15:50:39 2011 Tags:
Crocus and snowdrop

I spent most of last week lying on the couch, nursing a cold.  While I was otherwise occupied, spring came.  Crocuses!  Snowdrops!

I thought it was an abnormally cold winter this year, but the truth is that the snowdrop popped up right around the same time it did two years ago and the crocus is three weeks ahead of last year.  Maybe all that snow actually kept the earth warmer than usual?  I think I can get away with planting a bed of early peas!

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Posted Sun Feb 20 09:02:40 2011 Tags:
rotisserie motor set back

It turns out that the new rotisserie motor deer deterrent isn't as hearty as I originally thought.

I think it may have been too much pressure on the motor shaft because the metal that started out lightly rubbing on each other ended up wearing down till the movement was hindered.

The motor is still working, it just wobbles to the point of being non functional. I still like this configuration better than the previous incarnation, and with a bit of tinkering I think I should be able to figure out some way to reduce the friction and prevent any future grinding of metal parts.

Posted Sun Feb 20 16:03:26 2011 Tags:

Soak peas before plantingSaturday, I checked the soil temperature in the mule garden and got a reading of 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so I soaked a handful of snow peas to prepare for Sunday planting.  But when I headed out with peas and thermometer the next day, the soil temperature had dropped to 33.  Oops.  I suspect my Saturday measurement was taken too late in the day to get an idea of the current soil baseline temperature, which is almost certainly still too cold for Starting peas in a pot for tendrilspeas.  Since the peas were soaked, I went ahead and put them in the ground, but I'm not holding my breath about getting a crop from this early planting.

Meanwhile, I had some leftover hydrated peas.  Most years, I give these peas to the chickens as a treat, but this year I decided to drop the seeds into a pot to sprout in a warm spot inside for pea tendrils.  Maybe a dose of pea vines will fill that winter craving I'm beginning to develop for fresh vegetables?

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Posted Mon Feb 21 08:08:33 2011 Tags:

Worm bin designThere's so much I want to tell you about our new worm project that I decided it needed to be a lunchtime series.  I'll start out with the design of our large-scale worm bin.

As you can see from this first photo (upside down during construction), the bin is pretty simple.  Our supply list included:

  • 3 @ 4'X8' sheets of plywood (for lid and two bottoms)
  • 3 @ 2"X3"X8' (for spacer between bottoms)
  • 3 @ 2"X12"X8' (for walls)
  • 3 hinges for the lid
  • 2 clasps to hold the lid shut
  • screws
  • 16 cinderblocks (or some treated 4"X4"s) for legs

Drilling holes in the bottom of the worm binWe cut one of the 2X12s and one of the 2X3s in half (and if we'd been thinking straight, would have cut three inches off the ends of the other pieces of lumber so that we wouldn't have to fill in the gaps where the bin is a little bigger than the plywood.)  Then we screwed the 2X12s together into an eight foot by four foot box and topped it off with a sheet of plywood.

This sheet of plywood will be the bottom of the worm chamber, so we drilled half inch holes every foot along the length and width for drainage and to give the worms a bit of bottom aeration.  Mark also drilled a slightly larger hole in the corner which would become the downhill end when the bin is turned over so that water wouldn't pool there.

Next, we made another box out of the 2X3s and set it on top of the plywood, then added a second sheet of plywood on top of this box.  The result is a tray under the bin to collect the compost tea.  A hole in the downhill corner allows compost tea to drip into a bucket.

Worm bin legsAfter flipping the bin over, we set it up on cinderblocks.  4X4 legs would have been cheaper if we were buying them new, but we always have a lot of seconds cinderblocks lying around, so it was easy to stack four blocks on each corner.  We were working on a bit of a hill, so we didn't have to add any extra blocks to make one end of the bin higher than the other.  The purpose of raising the bin off the ground is twofold --- to allow us to catch the compost tea and to allow for aeration under the bin to keep the bin aerobic.  The downside is that we can't use the earth's temperature to mitigate summer's heat and winter's cold, but with a large bin, worms should be able to keep working all year round anyway.

The last step is to add a lid on top.  A piece of plywood should be enough to keep animals and rain out while keeping the bin moist and dark.  No pictures of this step yet since we ran out of time on Friday and didn't install the hinges yet.

Worm bin drainageTotal cost for the worm bin, using nearly completely new materials, is just under $100.  We figure we'll probably expand into a second bin this summer, and are already thinking of ways to make the second bin better.  Would a bead of liquid nails along the edges of the bottom keep moisture from settling into the joints and rotting out the wood as fast?  (We can't use treated wood since treated wood is reputed to kill worms.)  Could we make a cheaper bin by using multiple 2X6s or 2X4s for the walls, or maybe even plywood?  I'm sure that worm bin 2.0 will be even better, but this one was easy to make and should work fine for now.

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Posted Mon Feb 21 12:00:35 2011 Tags:
pitchfork power

Our latest load of horse manure went a bit smoother once I wised up to the advantages of a pitch fork.

You can lift bigger chunks compared to a shovel and it only took a slight tap against the truck bed to dump any manure trying to make it back to the pile.

Posted Mon Feb 21 16:59:40 2011 Tags:

Pile of manureMark dug deep into the motherlode of horse manure for our most recent two loads.  When I opened the tailgate of the truck, I was awestruck --- I'd never seen such amazing compost.  Most of it was pure black and able to hold so much water that a shovelful was as much as I could handle.  (No pitchforks full of manure for me!)

Mark reported seeing one writhing clump of worms while loading up the truck, but I mostly Sow bug in compostsaw masses of sowbugs (aka roly polies) and a few big red centipedes.  We're both convinced that a high percentage of this amazing compost is probably worm castings, but the layer that Mark dug Monday had finished decomposing to the point that the worms moved out and the sowbugs moved in.  Sowbugs and centipedes in your compost are a sign that compost is cooled down and done, ready to go on the garden.  My mouth waters just looking at it!

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Posted Tue Feb 22 07:54:20 2011 Tags:

Shredded paper for worm beddingWorm composting is a lot like ordinary composting in that it's important to mix together the right ratio of browns (high carbon materials) and greens (high nitrogen materials) for efficient composting without a bad smell.  In the past, greens have been in short supply on our farm, but now that we're getting food scraps from a local school, we're suddenly short of browns.  The browns make up the bedding in the worm bin, covering up the food scraps so that they don't smell and keeping the bin damp and aerated, so we really can't skimp there.  Time to do a bit of research and figure out which waste materials can be used as bedding in a worm bin:

  • Shredded paper seems to be one of the best options, as long as you steer clear of glossy magazines and seed catalogs.  Once separated into small strips in a shredder, paper soaks up water well, and the spaghetti-like strands tend to stay fluffy, allowing lots of air to get to the worms.  We had planned to focus on shredded paper for our worms' browns, but quickly ran through our junk mail and needed much more!
  • Cardboard is another good option, although you have to tear corrugated cardboard by hand.  (The thin cardboard that many foods come in goes through our shredder.)  Several people have reported good luck using cardboard in their worm bins, but it's essential to keep an eye on it and make sure the cardboard doesn't mat down and make the bin anaerobic.
  • Autumn leaves don't require any work to prepare them for use in the bin, but can tend to mat down.  Also, they don't absorb as much water as other bedding materials, so you risk having your worm bin dry out.  It sounds like leaves make a good bedding when mixed with other high carbon materials, but probably aren't the best idea by themselves.
  • Cardboard egg cartons were suggested to me by J and I think they have a lot of potential.  They're easy to rip apart, and I suspect that the complicated shape will make them much less likely to mat down than traditional cardboard.
  • I've read about people using other materials for worm bedding like straw, coconut coir, and peat moss, but those would all have to come from the store for me, so they fail the "waste materials" test.

Egg carton beddingSince I was itching to put the first round of food scraps in our bin, I went ahead and gave all of the free options above a try.  I (mostly) segregated the bedding into zones within the bin, so I should be able to tell which ones work best for us when I come back through in a few weeks to check on the state of decomposition.

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Posted Tue Feb 22 12:00:40 2011 Tags:
do it yourself pallet chicken coop

This long log is one of the first trees we cut down when we were making room for the mule garden.

Winching it over a few feet made it possible to use it as part of the base for the used pallet chicken coop.

Posted Tue Feb 22 16:03:50 2011 Tags:

Triangle hoeI'm still making basic beginner mistakes as I figure out the best ways to work with a no-till system.  Since I don't want to disturb the soil, I've been tossing my soil amendments on top of the ground and counting on rain and worms to bring the nutrients down into the root zone.  But my first lettuce bed proved that this method isn't going to work during a droughty February.  Every few days, I'd peek under my quick hoop and look for sprouts, and nothing ever seemed to happen.  Finally, I realized that the composted manure had dried out on top, so the tiny lettuce seeds I'd sprinkled on the surface weren't going to sprout.  After two bouts of heavy hand-watering, lettuce roots finally appeared.

To prevent this problem in other beds I plan to direct-seed this spring, I'm gently working the manure into the top inch of the soil.  This triangular hoe that Mark's mom gave us over the summer turns out to be perfect for surface incorporation without disturbing the lower soil profiles.

Most of the garden, though, can simply be topdressed, mulched, and then ignored until it's time to plant.  Transplanted broccoli seedlings and potato tubers won't have any trouble growing in a layer of manure over soil, and I suspect our healthy earthworm population will work the manure into the soil before it's time to plant summer crops.

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Posted Wed Feb 23 07:41:02 2011 Tags:

Adding food scraps to the worm binEven though the worm bin needs a bit more work before it's completely critter-proof, I couldn't resist putting in the first round of food scraps Saturday.  Partly, the impetus was impatience on my part, but I was also thinking about worm biology.  Although we think that worms eat our garbage (and there is, in fact, a book with that name), worms really eat the microorganisms that eat our garbage.  Our worms can't do much with food scraps until the waste material has been composting for about a week, so I figured I'd better get that process started.

Covering the food scraps with beddingWe pick up food scraps twice a week, but right now I'm keeping the worms on a once a week feeding schedule.  For our estimated 9 pounds of worms, I figure they can handle 30 to 60 pounds of food scraps per week (plus however much bedding I mix in to keep the bin in good shape.)  Since the weather is still on the cool side and the worms are just getting used to their new home, I added 37 pounds for their first week's diet.  In a couple of weeks, I should be able to poke through this week's compost zone and see whether the worms have done their job, which will give me an idea about whether I should slow down or speed up Worm bintheir food intake.  I have high hopes that within a couple of months, the worm population will have expanded far enough that we can put all of the school's food scraps in without worrying about overloading the bin.

As a side note, you might notice the hamburgers poking out of the top of the mass of food scraps in the first photo.  Most websites will tell you to steer clear of breads, meats, and oils in your worm bin, mostly because they attract scavenging animals and can smell.  However, I suspect that the large size of our worm bin (and its distance from habitation) will mitigate these issues and allow us to mix in all types of waste.  I'll let you know if we have any problems.

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This post is part of our Hands-on Wormkeeping lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Feb 23 12:00:36 2011 Tags:
Rut of Despair 2011

The groove in the mud on the far right here is what I call the "Rut of Despair". It was carved out by a large bull dozer pulling our trailer and if the truck goes down it stuckness will happen.

Our latest strategy of blocking the entrance with huge chunks of gravel is working for now.

Posted Wed Feb 23 17:27:50 2011 Tags:
Worms composting food scraps

The worms have found the food scraps!  I know that worms work a lot harder when they're not constantly being poked and prodded, but I couldn't resist lifting up a few leaves and peeking into the bin Wednesday to see what was going on.  I don't know how the worms found the food so fast, but they were already wending their way through some hamburger buns and vegetable scraps --- success!

Worms eating moldy breadIf you look closely at the second photo, you can see mold growing on the hamburger bun.  Although mold on your food is usually a bad sign, in the worm bin it means that enough microorganisms have colonized the scraps so that your worms can feast.  I wonder how long it will take for the worms to break these scraps down into castings?

Our parking area, a third of a mile from the trailer, used to just be a spot I passed through.  Lately, though, it has turned into one of my favorite places to pause and commune with the worms.  With big piles of wood chips, a compost bin (more on that in a later post), and the worm bin, I might have to rename the spot Biomass Central!

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Posted Thu Feb 24 08:07:48 2011 Tags:

Effects of worm castings on rootsA few months ago, one of our readers asked why you would compost with worms instead of just making a traditional compost pile, and I answered "Um, well, errr, they're cute?"  (Well, actually, I made something up.)  Since then, I've been delving into the literature to see whether vermicompost (aka worm castings) is the same as traditional compost, and have discovered that there's actually a big difference.

When you look at the basic macronutrient levels found in compost and worm castings, it actually looks like compost is the winner.  NPK values of compost will vary considerably depending on the raw materials you use, but each macronutrient will range from 0.5 to 4% of the compost's weight.  On the other hand, NPK values of worm castings can be as low as 0.1 or as high as 2, again depending on what you feed the worms.

Red wormsDespite the higher NPK values of compost, though, worm castings have a huge positive effect on plant growth.  When up to 20% of the soil consists of worm castings, plants germinate better, grow faster, and produce higher yields.  Why?

The answer is that worm castings are biologically and chemically different from compost or soil.  Worm castings have much higher percentages of humus than either soil or compost, which helps the castings hold more water and stay aerated, while also providing binding sites for micronutrients that would otherwise wash out of soil during heavy rains.  The castings are also chock full of plant growth promoters like cytokinins and auxins, along with increased levels of micronutrients like calcium, magnesium, and sulfur.  Worm castings also host ten to twenty times as much microorganism activity as plain soil.  No wonder a study showed that worm castings produced bigger blueberry plants and higher fruit yields compared to blueberries treated with either cow manure or chemical fertilizers.

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Posted Thu Feb 24 12:00:02 2011 Tags:
5 in 1 power pack with compressor and light with pressure gauge

cute chicken with portable air tank
The 5 in 1 portable power pack has quietly replaced our blue air tank when it comes to inflating small tires.

It took considerable effort to lug that tank to a gas station and it would only hold a full charge for a month or two.

Posted Thu Feb 24 15:39:44 2011 Tags:
Homemade compost bin

Although I would love to be giving every bit of the local school's food waste to the worms, I don't want to overload the bin, so I needed to come up with some kind of critter-proof compost bin to take care of the excess.  I settled on a simple (and free) design using vinyl lattice trellis panels Mark's mom found for us on the side of the road (thanks, Rose Nell!) tied together with the plastic baling twine they now use to bind up strawbales.  I also used a few pieces of rope that Rose Nell got us for free when a rope factory went out of business.

Adding wood chips to the compost pileWhile my bin wouldn't stand up to steady gnawing from Lucy, once I laid down a thick layer of wood chips inside, tossed in the excess scraps, and topped it all off with another layer of wood chips, the bin became so unappealing that our dog didn't even give it a second glance.  Hopefully wild animals will be similarly uninterested.

I suspect the bin will reach capacity about the same time the worms come up to full production.  At that point, I might decide to pass the partly decomposed compost through the worm bin to turn it into value-added worm castings, or I might just let the compost keep decomposing by itself.  Either way, I'm looking forward to our first big mass of homegrown compost being ready to go on the fall garden.

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Posted Fri Feb 25 06:54:54 2011 Tags:

Percent worm castingsWith all of the benefits of worm castings in mind, you might be tempted to grow your plants in worm castings alone (if you could somehow come up with that many castings.)  However, some studies suggest that castings may lower germination rates if they make up more than about a fifth of your garden soil (perhaps because of a buildup of salts.)  In addition, be aware that the heightened levels of microorganisms in castings consist nearly entirely of bacteria, so keep the castings in the vegetable garden rather than feeding them to your fruit trees (who enjoy a higher fungal to bacterial ratio in their soil.)

What about the more realistic problem of not having enough worm castings to go around?  In that case, it sounds like your best bet is to put just a bit of worm castings in each of your garden beds rather than dosing any one bed heavily.  Since even low levels of worm castings can jumpstart your soil food web, I wonder if the best use of this limited resource might not be to activate biochar?

Red wormsHowever you decide to use your precious castings, be sure to put them in the ground when they're fresh.  If you allow your castings to dry out, to be exposed to sunlight, or just to wait around a few months before applying them to your garden, many of the positive benefits of worm castings disappear.  Yet another reason to make your own rather than trusting a big box store to provide castings for your garden!

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Posted Fri Feb 25 12:00:36 2011 Tags:
how to fix an extention cord that has been damaged by who knows what

close up splice jobWe've had good luck just leaving these low grade extension cords out year round...that is until this year when one of the deer deterrents kept tripping a breaker when it rained.

A visual inspection will usually show you where the damaged spot is. I think this one may have been at the wrong end of a shovel or fence post.

Posted Fri Feb 25 15:44:52 2011 Tags:
Field pea seeds

Planting oatsMarch is usually the begining of our big planting push, with 31 beds slated to be seeded along with some perennials in the forest garden and chicken fodder crops in the chicken pasture.  However, the addition of spring cover crops to our rotation led to an even earlier planting heyday this year.  Wednesday, I got out my soil thermometer and decided the ground was warm enough to put in 20 beds of oats, two of which were interplanted with field peas.

These oats will become mulch for summer corn, beans, and squash, and I debated whether to manure the beds now or wait until May when the vegetable seeds go into the ground.  I eventually decided to topdress our inch of composted manure over the oat seeds since compost is a time-release fertilizer and I suspect there will be plenty of nutrition left to feed the summer crops when the time comes.  Rotting oat leaves and roots should put the nutrients sucked up by the cover crop back into Oat seedsthe soil throughout the summer, too, so nothing will be lost.  I even added a thin layer of straw on top of the newly planted beds to keep the manure from drying out.

It may seem like a lot of work to grow mulch, but I was extremely happy with my fall cover crop trials and suspect that my spring planting will repay me as well.  And then there's the other incentive of planting cover crops --- working my way through that 50 pound bag of oat seeds I bought in the fall....

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Posted Sat Feb 26 08:05:37 2011 Tags:
used pallet chicken coop day 2

chicken pasture coopThis part of the chicken coop building process involves looking in the barn at what salvaged materials are available.

One of the things I would change about the first chicken pasture coop was the height clearance. The way I configured the roof had me ducking towards the roosting end.

I figure making this one tall enough for me to walk through will provide even more opportunities to install primary and secondary perching areas in an attempt to reach maximum coop comfort.

Posted Sat Feb 26 15:49:32 2011 Tags:
Pruning a peach to the open center system

Pruning a peach treeI can understand why many dabblers in orcharding don't prune their tree fruits, or prune them very lightly.  Even though I'm starting to build up my confidence after several years of pruning, I'm still a bit daunted when the time comes to take a wheelbarrow load of branches off our biggest peach tree.  She just looks so naked with the watersprouts, crossing branches, and shaded branches removed, like she couldn't possibly put out a bushel of peaches this summer.  And yet, my photographic record from last year shows that she looked just as shorn after being pruned then, and our peach harvest last summer was phenomenal.

Training a pear tree

I'm almost confident enough about my skills to write a lunchtime series about pruning, but not quite.  Maybe next year.  Especially if I can talk my pear limbs into toeing the line and Training a fruit tree twig with a clothespinsuccumbing to my training job this year rather than making 90 degree turns and growing straight up.

You can read my pruning and training philosophy here.  The only real addition that I made this year was to weigh down the tips of small twigs with clothespins --- this is a quick and easy method of training the tenderest branchlets.  Remember --- the more you can get your trees to do what you want by training instead of pruning, the more energy the tree will have to put into growth and fruit.

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Posted Sun Feb 27 09:01:02 2011 Tags:
In the pines circle block

This big old pine tree prevented me from going into town Friday afternoon.

We normally like to take the weekend off, but an early morning appointment on Monday required the driveway to be unblocked today because you never can tell how long this kind of thing takes.

It's the third time we've been blocked from leaving since we've been here, which doesn't feel too bad.

Posted Sun Feb 27 16:25:16 2011 Tags:

American hazel flowersEven though I planted hybrid hazelnuts a couple of years ago, I don't expect to see much from them for a few years.  But we do have hazels --- native American hazels that grow up in shrubby areas and never do much because they become entangled in Japanese Honeysuckle.  I like them anyway since these shrubs usually showcase the first native flowers of the year --- I was stunned to see blooms on the hazel bushes last week, nearly a month American hazel nutahead of last year's schedule.

While I was poking around, looking for the first spring flowers, I saw a leafy mass hanging on one of the bushes.  Was that an actual fruit?!  I pushed my way through the briars and vines and returned with our first homegrown hazel nut.

The shell was tough, explaining the reason we opted to grow the softer-shelled hybrids rather than propagating our native species.  After a few pounds with the hammer, I was able Thick shell and thin meat of an American hazel nutto excavate a small nutmeat that wouldn't win any taste tests (but what would after sitting outside all winter?)  Here's hoping that the one hybrid hazel that didn't get dug up during Lucy's rodent-hunting campaign will be as vigorous as our native species, but twice as tasty.

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Posted Mon Feb 28 07:59:19 2011 Tags:

Black soldier fly larvae and adultsI became intrigued by black soldier flies a year ago, but quickly realized that we didn't have enough food scraps to grow these hungry larvae.  Now that we've tapped into the community's waste, it's time to revisit black soldier flies.  In the rest of this lunchtime series, I'll explain why we think black soldier flies are worth adding to our farm and how we plan to go about it, so today I just want to talk a bit about the flies themselves.

What are black soldier flies?
Hermetia ilucens
is a small, black fly that spends most of its life in the larval stage.  Black soldier fly larvae eat any kind of decaying organic matter, including food scraps, human and livestock waste, and more.

Black soldier fly range mapWhere do they live?
Black soldier flies (Hermetia illucens) are tiny and they don't bother anyone, so until people started harnessing them as composters, we didn't pay much attention to them.  This map, from, is "based on images submitted and identified by contributors. Range and date information may be incomplete, overinclusive, or just plain wrong."  Experts on the internet report that black soldier flies live in zone 7 and warmer, but we have them here in zone 6 and the map suggests they might even dip into zone 5.  You can see adults from April to December in the Deep South, and from about June to September further north.

Why do we care about black soldier flies?
Black soldier flies have the potential to quickly compost all kinds of organic waste, from swine excrement in huge factory farms to food scraps from apartment-dwellers with no room for a compost pile.  As you'll see tomorrow, the larvae are high quality livestock feed.

Escape the rat race and start to live with our $2 ebook.

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Posted Mon Feb 28 12:00:26 2011 Tags:
trio of 5 gallon bucket images with Anna as model

We've been adding new 5 gallon buckets to our infrastructure for the past year and it still seems like we need a few more.

The guy we bought our worms from had an impressive inventory of used buckets. He gets them from a bakery for free and just has to rinse out the icing. I suspect the plastic handle might give out sooner than our store bought buckets, but does longevity matter as much when the replacement cost is zero?

I think I'll give this a try with the bakery inside our grocery store the next time I go shopping.

Posted Mon Feb 28 16:01:53 2011 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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