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

archives for 03/2011

Mar 2011
Egyptian onions and plantain in early spring

The perennials are waking up much earlier than usual this year.  New plantain leaves are pushing their way up through the muck where we wear the "lawn" down to bare soil in front of the door every winter, and the Egyptian onions have been sending up scads of new leaves for a couple of weeks now.  I even saw a speedwell flower Sunday, but wasn't quick enough to capture its smiling face before a deluge washed everything away.

Pear and kiwi budsAs heartening as these signs of spring are, though, I feel compelled to ask the weather to slow down!  You see, the same warmth that wakes up the onions is also tempting my fruit trees and vines to burst open their flowers far too soon.  I can already see green in the swollen pear and kiwi buds, which means those buds are at high risk of being frostbitten when the inevitable cold swings of March return.  Luckily, my peaches (the only fruit trees old enough to bear fruit this year) still have tightly coiled buds, and I'm sending them soporific thoughts.  Please, don't open until April!

Our chicken waterer gets  your spring chickens off to a healthy start from day 1.
Posted Tue Mar 1 08:00:32 2011 Tags:

Black soldier fly chickensAs I've explained previously, black soldier flies are primarily grown to provide high quality animal feed, although they can also be considered a way to get rid of food scraps.  The larvae are voracious feeders that can consume huge amounts of high nitrogen waste without any input of high carbon components.  Since you don't have to add bedding, the bins can be much smaller than a worm bin while consuming the same amount of food waste.  Even better, the larvae self-harvest, crawling right into a collection bucket so that you can feed them to your chickens, lizards, fish, or other critters. 

If you add 100 pounds of food waste to your black soldier fly bin, you should end up with 20 pounds of prepupae (large larvae, ready to change into adults.)  A nutritional analysis of dried black soldier fly prepupae consists of:

  • 42.1% crude protein
  • 34.8% ether extract (lipids)
  • 7.0% crude fiber
  • 7.9% moisture
  • 1.4% nitrogen free extract (NFE)
  • 14.6% ash
  • 5.0% calcium
  • 1.5% phosphorus

Black soldier fly larvaeTake a look at your bag of chicken laying pellets, and you'll probably notice some similarities.  If you fed your chickens a quarter of their daily rations in the form of black soldier flies, you could take care of most of their protein and calcium needs, then round out their diet with cheap components like greens and grains.  In addition to saving money, folks growing black soldier flies for their chickens report that the feed makes their hens' eggs brilliantly orange, a sign of high nutrition.

Larvae are the primary output of the black soldier fly bin, but you do get a bit of compost --- about 5 pounds for every 100 pounds of food waste you put in the bin.  This small amount of compost can be good for city-dwellers who don't have room to use up a lot of compost anyway and who would be thrilled not to have to clean out their food composter for months at a time.  On the other hand, if you're primarily composting your food scraps to add fertility to the garden, black soldier flies probably aren't the way to go.

The other disadvantage of black soldier flies compared to worm bins or compost piles is that black soldier fly bins are relatively high maintenance.  Since you don't add high carbon bedding to absorb odors, you have to pay attention and only add as much food to your bin as your larvae will eat in a day.  However, if you're running a diversified homestead and have a bunch of chickens, that bit of time is probably worth it for the high quality feed you get in exchange.  I think that compost piles, worm bins, and black soldier fly bins will all find a niche on our farm.

Our homemade chicken waterer is a great way to round out your chickens' diet with fresh, clean water.

This post is part of our Black Soldier Fly lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Mar 1 12:00:37 2011 Tags:
box elder tree across creek flowing hard

The storm that took down our big pine tree still has us flooded in.

I recently discovered this semi-convenient tree crossing, which is in a smaller creek that connects to our creek about a half mile down.

It's a handy detour that may or may not be there after the next visit from a storm.

Posted Tue Mar 1 16:12:17 2011 Tags:

Peas sprouting in a pot
I put our pot of peas on top of the fridge, figuring that was the warmest spot inside during this shoulder season when we're only running the wood stove now and then.  Just over a week later, the pea sprouts are up and growing fast!  I figure we'll be able to snip off tendrils to munch on starting next week.

Lettuce seedlings in a quick hoopMeanwhile, out in the quick hoop, the lettuce bed has greened right up.  I anticipate our first spring salad by the middle of March.

(See that grass in the background?  That's the barley cover crop that didn't winter kill.  I'm going to have to figure out how to make it bite the dust before I plant the March bed of lettuce.)

Onion seedlingsRounding out my March baby photos, the onions I started indoors are so tall I'm starting to wonder if they need to be repotted.  This is the trouble with starting seeds inside --- they look so cute and low-work when you drop 72 seeds in a flat, but what do you do a few weeks later when they need more elbow room?  I detest the endless round of potting up (and the neighboring task of finding room for all of those larger and larger pots), so I may choose to transplant these guys into the onion quick hoop I plan to build next week.  For those of you who start your onions indoors from seed, how soon do you put your onions out in a cold frame or straight in the garden?

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Wed Mar 2 07:28:54 2011 Tags:

Biopod PlusI've dragged my feet about starting black soldier flies because the bins are relatively complicated, but after a bit of internet research, building our own is starting to feel feasible.  It sounds like a successful black soldier fly bin will have good drainage at the bottom, air holes at the top to let in adults wanting to lay their eggs, and a ramp for the larvae to crawl up and out into the collection bucket.

Raising black soldier flies is a relatively new endeavor, and there only seems to be one company producing pre-made bins.  The original bin was called a Biopod, but now there are two different types of commercial bins available --- the Biopod Plus (which replaced the original Biopod) and the larger Protapod.

If you were going to buy one of these bins new, you'd be shelling out $180 for the Biopod Plus, which composts 5 pounds of food waste per day, or $350 for the Protapod, which composts 20 Protapodpounds of food waste per day.  Both bins are way too expensive for us, but they do serve as templates for the do-it-yourselfer.  The ramp seems to be the complicated part of the system, since it needs to start at the bottom of the bin and lead up to the top at no more than a 40 degree angle.  Most homemade bins I've seen have mimicked the original Biopod (and Protapod), trying to make a ramp lining the inside of a circular bin, but various websites report that it's tough to attach the ramp to the inside of the bin since it's wet in there and the larvae work hard to tear everything apart.  Instead, the rectangular bin of the Protapod Plus with the simpler ramp seems like a system that could be replicated on the home scale with much more ease.

Black Soldier Fly Blog's DIY five gallon bucket bin has been tried by several folks and is reported to do quite well, although you have to manually raise and lower the ramp.  The site is a great place to start your research into black soldier flies, but the bin is too small for most people, handling only about a pound of food scraps per day.

DIY black soldier fly bin made out of a 5 gallon bucketMy favorite DIY bin so far has been the one pictured below, which uses the same idea as the Biopod Plus to make a simple, mid-scale bin out of a tupperware container and some PVC pipe.  The PVC method makes it seem like you could scale this version up indefinitely.  You can see a similar bin with more step by step instructions here.  Some experts worry that the larvae won't be able to find the ramps in this sytem, but others report that they get very good crawl-off.

When designing your bin, keep in mind that surface area determines how much food waste your bin will compost per day.  Every square foot of Simple, DIY black soldier fly binsurface area will allow you to put in about 3 pounds of food waste, so for the 18 pounds of food waste currently going begging from our food scrap program every day, we would need 6 square feet of bin.  It seems remarkable that such a small bin could handle so much waste, but black soldier flies are insatiable.

That said, black soldier flies aren't out flying in cold weather and their larvae can't work when temperatures are too cool, so this might not be the short-term solution for our extra food scraps after all.  Stay tuned for more on the black soldier fly life cycle and how to winterize bins in later posts.

Learn to create a niche business that pays all of your bills in just a few hours per week.

This post is part of our Black Soldier Fly lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Mar 2 12:00:41 2011 Tags:
5 gallon step ladder bucket tool

This looks dangerous, but feels safer than using a step ladder on uneven ground.

Posted Wed Mar 2 15:53:02 2011 Tags:

HoneybeesI took advantage of a warm, sunny afternoon to dip into the hives.  As I suspected, the second weak hive was dead.  I hadn't been entirely sure because our strong hive found both empty hives so quickly that there were always bees coming in and out, carrying honey home to their own colony.  The robbing is a good sign, since most people report that bees won't steal honey from a colony collapse disorder hive --- more data to support my hypothesis that my dead hives were due to excessive and sudden cold snaps combined with (perhaps) too high varroa mite numbers.

Honeybee with full pollen basketInside the living hive, parts of two frames were already full of brood in all stages of development (maybe a third of a frame of brood total.)  Since this hive is our only hope at the moment, I lavished them with honey and pollen, moving a full brood box from the other hives on top of their half-full brood box so that the colony will have plenty to eat.  Not that they need it --- they're already carting home wild pollen.  But I figure I might as well save them the trouble of flying over to the neighboring hive to steal the abandoned honey.

Bee broodNow it's just a waiting game.  How soon will the hive be so full of brood that I can split it in half?  I saw the first dandelion flower this week, which is a cue that spring has advanced far enough to install new package bees, and I hope our bees also consider that brilliant yellow orb a sign that they should have a baby boom.

I'm tempted to say that the farm feels empty with just one hive of bees, but the truth is that those workers are ubiquitous.  In the last week, I've seen them out at the worm bin, inside at the forsythia I'm forcing on the kitchen table (left the window cracked on a warm day --- oops!), and buzzing around me as I worked in the garden.  Our honeybees are never out of sight, out of mind.

Clean water is essential for healthy chicks.  Our chicken waterer keeps your water poop-free.
Posted Thu Mar 3 08:16:55 2011 Tags:

Black soldier flies are probably the least domesticated of the invertebrates we work with on our farm.  Unlike managing a worm bin, when managing black soldier flies you have to be aware that your insects spend part of their life cycle outside the bin, so you need to find a way to attract these wild critters to lay their eggs in your rotting food scraps.  This task has two parts --- producing just the right scent and then providing optimal egg-laying habitat.

Black soldier fly adults don't eat, but they know that their offspring are going to be hungry, so the females are drawn to the odor of rotting food.  If you live out in the boondocks like we do, you can probably just throw some food scraps in your bin at the right time of year and wait for the noxious smell to attract momma flies.  But if you're putting your black soldier fly bin outside your back door and live in an urban setting, you might want to try out one of the attractants shown to bring in black soldier flies without also attracting complaining neighbors.  Dried corn soaked in water so that it ferments is supposed to be a good attractant, as is sour milk.  If you have a friend who's already running a black soldier fly bin, you can ask for some of his compost tea and paint the liquid on the inside of the lid  of your own bin --- black soldier flies are attracted to the scent of other black soldier flies.

Black soldier fly eggs in cardboardUnlike house flies, black soldier flies won't lay their eggs directly into the rotting food, so you also have to give the mother fly a spot to lay her eggs.  In a pinch, she'll lay her eggs on the inside walls of the bin, but it's better to make her a cardboard egg-laying station.  Just cut small strips of corrugated cardboard and attach them to the inside of the lid of the bin so that lots of crevases are exposed.  Momma fly will lay her eggs inside the cardboard corrugations, and when they hatch, the larvae will drop down into the rotting food below.

Using these tips, you should get black soldier flies coming to your long as you're trying at the right time of year.  Adults fly only during warm weather, with April being the earliest you're likely to see any and with the majority coming out later in the summer.  So if you build your bin now, you'll want to wait to bait it until you're getting ready to plant your summer garden.  Or you can jump the gun and buy some larvae, but be aware that the larvae won't turn into adults until warm weather, so their population won't expand in your bin the way worms would.  I'm not sure it's worth it to buy black soldier fly larvae unless you live in an area where they aren't found in the wild and are hoping to jumpstart a wild population.

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This post is part of our Black Soldier Fly lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Mar 3 12:00:40 2011 Tags:
chicken coop construction progress

The used pallets are working out nicely as construction material for the new chicken coop.

Posted Thu Mar 3 16:43:51 2011 Tags:
How to tell a redworm from a random earthworm

When I put the second round of food scraps in the worm bin this week, I was surprised to find some worms under fresh bedding that I'd laid out on the far side of the bin to drain.  This area is six feet away from where we'd introduced the worms and had no food to attract them, making me wonder what worms were doing there.

Redworms on food scrapsMy first thought was that the worms might actually be run-of-the-mill earthworms since I'd had the cardboard bedding sitting out on the ground before soaking it and adding it to the worm bin, and I'd noticed at least a dozen worms taking advantage of the moist hiding place.  However, a close look at the foraging worms in the bin versus a typical earthworm from outside the bin showed that the foraging worms were redworms --- notice the almost orangey cast to the redworms versus a purplish cast to the random earthworm, and the obvious yellowish lines around the redworms.

Poking around inside the bin, I also discovered that the worms had found all of the food scraps, although they seemed to be congregated in some areas at much higher concentrations than in others.  I guess worms travel further than I give them credit for.  So, the question is --- how do worms decide where they want to go?  Do they just move randomly until they hit something good to eat, or can they smell food from a distance?  Do they give off any chemicals to attract their buddies when they find a good stash of vittles?  Anyone know a good source of information on redworm biology, behavior, and ecology?

Keep your chickens happy and healthy with our poop-free chicken waterer.
Posted Fri Mar 4 07:00:38 2011 Tags:

Black soldier fly bin winter temperaturesAlthough it's tough to get a black soldier fly bin started during cold weather, some folks theorize that you can keep summer-started bins operating all winter.  Since the larvae produce a lot of heat as they consume your food waste, a piece of styrofoam placed on top of the compostables may keep the larvae above the 70 degrees Fahrenheit they need in order to stay active.

While winterizing a black soldier fly bin sounded intriguing at first, the more I researched it, the more I felt that I should probably just plan on using the larvae during the summer months.  An exhaustive search of the internet turns up lots of folks who theorize about winterizing their black soldier fly bins, but no one north of Florida who actually kept their larvae active year-round.  The problem is that if your larvae stay active, they'll crawl out of the bin and pupate pretty quickly, which leaves your bin empty of larvae since the adults won't be laying fresh eggs in the winter.

On the other hand, if you have the freezer space, you can toss extra summer pupae into your larder for winter chicken treats.  And since cold weather seems to put the insects into a semi-hibernatory state, I wonder if you could store a bucket of live pupae in a root cellar.  Have you tried any methods of extending your black soldier fly season into the winter months?

Make $40,000 per year in 13 hours per week.  Our $2 ebook shows how.

This post is part of our Black Soldier Fly lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Mar 4 12:00:39 2011 Tags:
mark Coop roost
coop roost details

I made this coop taller inside so I could have room to add extra roosting areas.

Something tells me that our rooster would feel more in charge if he had a spot slightly above the primary area where he can watch over his flock.

Posted Fri Mar 4 17:00:50 2011 Tags:

Blanching dandelion leavesWhen I pruned and mulched the berries a few weeks ago, I left the dandelions that had grown up in the row but threw a bunch of leaves on top of them.  My goal was to get sweet, blanched dandelion leaves with no work, and my experiment succeeded quite well.  Too bad there were only a couple of plants there to work with....  I had to round out my scavenging with plain old dandelions out of the yard to come up with enough greens to slip into our early spring, all-from-the-garden omelet.

Although you probably think I'm nuts, I hunted high and low for named-variety dandelion seeds and ended up settling for chicory (aka Italian Dandelion).  Since they're perennials, both chicory and dandelions will feed you greens long before any unprotected annual is regularly putting out leaves, and this is the time of year when I'm willing to put up with a bit of bitterness to get fresh food.  Eric Toensmeier's Perennial Vegetables noted that some Bowl of dandelion greenschicory varieties are perennials while others are annuals, and I couldn't find any specifically labelled "perennial" during my seed hunt, so I eventually settled upon Catalogna Special and Red Rib from Johnny's.  I'm trying out both varieties, along with lovage, in the forest garden and will hope that at least some of them become a self-maintaining perennial addition to our garden.

Our chicken waterer gets your chicks off to a great start from day 1.
Posted Sat Mar 5 07:00:22 2011 Tags:
geodesic dome chicken coop diy how to

Anthony Liekens has created a masterpiece with this geodesic dome chicken coop.

He's done a great job documenting how a person can take 30 isosceles triangles, 9 equilateral triangles, a box of screws and some plumbers strapping and make such an awesome home for his chicken.

I think I would have added some sort of roosting bar inside. although I'm sure the elegant geometry of the dome makes his hen feel safe and special.

Posted Sat Mar 5 17:00:32 2011 Tags:

Holes in the compost binMy compost bin was dog-proof, just as I hoped.  Unfortunately, it wasn't squirrel-proof.

We usually walk past the compost/worms/parking area at least twice a day while walking Lucy, and that tends to keep critters away, but when we got flooded in, the wildlife got bold.  As soon as I was able to cross the creek, I peered in the compost bin and saw two big holes where some kind of wild animal (I'm guessing squirrels) had squeezed through the lattice and had a feast.
Chicken wire reinforcement
Although it doesn't matter too much if a few squirrels nibble on the food scraps, I want to keep my compost, so I added a layer of chicken wire around the outside of the bin.  I'm not sure if even that will be enough to keep out a determined critter.  I guess we'll just have to wait and see if someone else breaks in to eat.

Sick of messy chicken chores?  Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.

Posted Sun Mar 6 07:00:33 2011 Tags:
mushroom morel

Anna and I went to a couple of incredible lectures on mycoremeditaion and mycoforestry this weekend by Tradd Cotter at the Asheville growers school.

Mr Cotter gave a riveting talk on the importance of mushrooms in our ecosystem and how we can use low tech methods to give your fungi a helping hand. He sells bulk spawn, plugs, kits, extracts and supplies at his website Mushroom, which has become our new source for everything fungus related.

MushroomMountain guy Tradd's full classroom 2011
Not only did the seats fill up on Sunday's talk, but the floor filled up and I even saw a few people standing in the hallway listening. Clearly his passion for mushrooms is contagious and with any luck it will spread just like the mycelium from which this magical fruit is born from.

Posted Sun Mar 6 20:14:19 2011 Tags:

Oyster mushroom bagWe had an astounding three day weekend in Asheville, meeting great friends (hi, Everett and Missy!), exploring established forest gardens (thank you, Alice and Dudley!), and learning about mushrooms, mushrooms, mushrooms (and a few other things) at the Organic Grower's School.  I'll regale you with our gleanings over the next few days, once my brain makes sense of all of that new information.

As we drove home, we looked down over the hill...and saw our creek spreading out across the whole valley.  I've never been able to see our creek from that road before, so I knew we were in for a hard walk home.  We followed Mark's path across the fallen tree (me crawling to protect the electronics I wasn't willing to leave in the car), then walked up the floodplain as dusk fell.

Two thirds of the way home, we discovered the flaw in our plan --- the alligator swamp was flooded just like the creek, and we either had to climb up and around the slippery hillside or push our way through the cold water.  The former option is the slower, drier way, but we opted to strip from the waist down and just plug on through.  That water was cold on our bare legs, but soon we were home to a fire in the wood stove and a couple of lap cats.  Quite a difference between our farm and the big city, but I have to admit that I like it better here...even during frigid floods.

With our chicken waterer in the coop, we didn't have to worry about finding a farm-sitter while we were away.
Posted Mon Mar 7 08:23:14 2011 Tags:

Grapes in the forest gardenFive years ago, Alice and Dudley started putting in edible perennials in their large backyard, at the same time that their neighbor Robert did the same.  Walking through their gardens was a bit like reading through those catalogs I drool over, full of fruits I'd heard of but had never seen in the flesh, like goumi, jujube, and more.  Other unusual plants were familiar from my own garden, where they haven't had time to achieve their full potential.  Since most of Alice, Dudley, and Robert's perennials were old enough to fruit, I was Guomi budscurious to see which ones had been exciting (or disappointing) surprises in a climate much like my own.

First for the big disappointment.  Both Alice and Robert told me that their gojiberries never fruited.  In our climate, the variety they planted (and which I have in my own garden, a gift from Alice) blooms so late that the fruits never have time to form.  Meanwhile, the thorny shrub takes over the garden.  Robert has plans to root out his gojiberries this year, and after hearing their experiences, I think I'm not going to give mine the extra grace year I'd promised it and will follow suit.  There's no room in a working garden for an underachiever.

Alice was also somewhat disappointed in her bush cherries, noting that the fruits were small and seedy, so they were tough to pit for cooking.  Robert mentioned that his jujube hadn't produced fruit in five years.  And Alice's jostaberry hasn't fruited in that time Fig and hardy kiwi along south-facing side of houseframe either, although she mentions that the problem could be shade.  Other non-fruiters included Rosa rugosa, Japanese walnut (although nuts take longer and this plant still has hope), hardy kiwi, plum yew, and paw-paw.

 Meanwhile, I picked the gardeners' brains about their top perennials --- ones that produce delicious fruit with little work.  Traditional fruits were at the top of each list --- ever-bearing red-raspberries and thornless blackberries for Alice and a peach and Asian pear for Robert.  But so were some less usual fruits --- both agreed that their Asian persimmon (Eureka) and goumi were tops for flavor and ease.  It sounds like I might need to add some of both in our own garden.

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This post is part of our Real Forest Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Mar 7 12:00:11 2011 Tags:

Gigantic prehistoric dinosaur like morelYou can find a morel in every state except Florida and Arizona, you just need to know where to look and how.

1. Carry a meat/soil thermometer with you at all times to test for when the season begins. Check the soil temperature in the morning shade. When you find a spot around 50 it's time to begin hunting, 58 is when it's all over and your only hope is to go to higher elevations.

2. If you hunt in an old orchard be aware that morels can absorb heavy metals which often linger for decades in the soil from the spraying of a wide variety of toxins. You can get a heavy metal testing kit, but I think it would be easier and safer to go looking in another spot.

3. Go check out Tradd Cotter's concise page on morel hunting. He's got a lot more tips like which trees to look out for and what other mushrooms and plants are making their appearance at around the same temperature.

Yes...the mushroom in the picture is real and not a photoshop trick, proof that this guy knows a thing or two about what it takes to find them and he's working on new techniques to cultivate them at home.

Posted Mon Mar 7 16:47:20 2011 Tags:

Oyster mushroomI'd been watching a wild oyster mushroom budding out of a fallen snag in the floodplain for a couple of weeks, but something ate it before I thought it was big enough to pick.  So I was thrilled to find an oyster mushroom growing on a stump on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Asheville during the Organic Grower's School.  I broke the oyster loose and put it in my coat pocket, where I surprised myself throughout the day by putting my hand in the pocket and touching a damp, slimy object.

Easy way to propagate oyster mushrooms at home

Bowl of oyster mushroomsHome at last, the mushroom was a bit battered and dirty from its long ride, but I figured it was in good enough shape to start up my cardboard propagation again.  After soaking cardboard, separating the corrugated center from the flat outer layers and layering the mushroom butts between the corrugated cardboard sheets, I wandered outside to think about our cultivated mushrooms.  And there I found yet more oysters ready to eat!  Both Pohu and Blue Dolphin had sent out several fruiting bodies.  I used up our last container of frozen mushrooms two weeks ago and was just wishing for more to go in our lasagna --- good thing our mushroom logs came through.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Tue Mar 8 08:15:11 2011 Tags:
Bowl-turner uses wood shavings as mulch in the garden

Collecting leaves for mulchYesterday, I showcased the trees, shrubs, and vines that did best in two Appalachian forest gardens, but what about the lower layers?  The first thing I was struck by in both Alice and Robert's gardens was their deep mulches.  Finding enough waste materials to mulch with is always a struggle on our farm, but Alice and Robert had both tapped into the copious organic matter being thrown away in cities every day.

Blooming hazel in a forest gardenAlice uses leaves --- a system easy to replicate for any city-dweller --- but Robert's method of finding mulch is even more elegant.  Robert is a bowl-turner who makes wooden bowls in his home studio, so he scavenges fallen trees from the neighborhood.  The trees are cut into pieces to make into bowls, and the curly shavings are spread heavily on the soil of his garden.  Add in some alpaca manure for fertility, and you've got a very healthy, happy forest garden.

Young sorrel leavesAlthough it was too early to see most of the herbs in the forest garden, a few were already poking up through the mulch.  Alice had stinging nettles along the shady edge of her garden and sorrel and horseradish mixed in among the trees and shrubs.  She mentioned that she wished she hadn't planted the horseradish --- the plants are extremely vigorous and nearly impossible to remove if you change your mind.  I'll have to come back in the summer to see the lower level of these two forest gardens in all their glory.

Learn how you can make a healthy living in just a few hours a week with our $2 ebook.

This post is part of our Real Forest Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Mar 8 12:00:36 2011 Tags:
used pallet chicken coop instruction via images

Another afternoon working on the used pallet chicken coop makes flock moving day that much closer.

Posted Tue Mar 8 16:36:58 2011 Tags:

Quick hoopsWhile planting lettuce, onions, and spinach yesterday, I pondered the pros and cons of quick hoops versus cold frames.  I'm not going to have any side by side comparisons this year, but I have started noticing that each system works a bit differently.  Here are the main factors to consider when choosing whether to build a quick hoop or a cold frame:

  • Light penetration --- This is where I suspect that quick hoops win.  Cold frames have wooden walls that shade a relatively large area on the south side of the bed, and in early spring I've noticed that lettuce just won't germinate in that cold spot.  Quick hoops don't create any shady areas, and so far I've seen no cold spots that restrict germination.
  • Heat capture --- I have no data here, but my gut says that the lower profile of cold frames would hold the day's heat closer to the plants.  However, Eliot Coleman's experiments suggest that light penetration is more important than heat capture when growing cold weather crops, so quick hoops' lower ability to capture heat might not matter.
  • Snow on quick hoopWater penetration --- Here quick hoops lose.  The flat top of cold frames lets water pool on the row cover fabric just long enough to drip down through and water your bed, but water mostly runs off the quick hoop.  I was surprised to see dry spots inside our quick hoops this week despite about eight inches of rain in as many days.
  • Snow load --- The same structural features that make water slide off quick hoops makes snow slide off as well, so I suspect quick hoops would stand up much better under heavy snow conditions than cold frames do.
  • Wind --- The higher profile of quick hoops catches wind much more than our cold frames do.  We haven't had any more major trouble since I added the rebar to the sides, but we also don't live in a very windy climate.  If you live in a treeless area, you might be better off with cold frames.
  • WeedingEase of opening --- This is a toss-up, but I think that cold frames win.  It takes me about five minutes to carefully unroll the rebar and take the row cover fabric off the quick hoops, although if I just want to peek in I can simply untie one end and stick my head under the fabric.  My cold frames are usually much easier to get into.  That said, I suspect that we can come up with a more accessible quick hoop as we play around with the design.
  • Cost --- If you have old lumber lying around like we do, cold frames are a big winner since they only cost as much as the fabric and screws.  On the other hand, if you're buying the materials new, I estimate that our quick hoop costs 29 cents per square foot (if you use the cheap PVC rather than the hot/cold version) versus 64 cents per square foot for a cold frame (if you use untreated 2X10s).
  • Row cover tearLongevity of fabric --- After the initial construction, the only regular cost for either system is replacing tattered row cover fabric.  I've noticed that the tautness of the quick hoop fabric makes it very easy to punch your fingers through, and the rebar tries to snag and tear holes as well.  However, our animals don't think quick hoops look like a fun thing to jump on, which is the fastest way to lose row cover fabric, so we might actually get a bit more longevity out of our quick hoop fabric than out of our cold frames.
  • Modularity --- Our raised beds aren't all the same width or length, so I've found it difficult to move cold frames from bed to bed.  With my rotten, salvaged lumber, cold frames also tend to fall apart when I move them.  Quick hoops are much more modular since you can just drive in your rebar stakes at the edges of the bed and cover irregularly shaped beds, using the same raw materials in different years to protect beds with somewhat different dimensions.
  • Assembling a quick hoopSpeed of contstruction --- Once we knew what we were doing, it took about two hours of my time and half an hour of Mark's time to make a 23 foot long quick hoop.  Cold frames require two people for more of the process, but probably take about the same number of man-hours.
  • Ease of storage --- Quick hoops win big here.  During the summer when I don't need our cold frames, they're leaning up against a fence or wall, which creates a weedy spot that's hard to mow around.  Quick hoops disassemble into a few long poles and a bit of fabric, so they'll be easier to fit into storage.
  • Aesthetics --- Our cold frames are pretty enough, but there's just something striking about the domed quick hoops that tempts me out into the garden.
  • Cluster of earthwormsWorm collection --- I don't know if this is a positive or a negative, but our quick hoop seems to collect earthworms in the rolled up fabric on the edges.  I pulled this handful of worms out as I opened up the quick hoop Tuesday, and the chickens were very appreciative.

Overall, my gut feeling is that quick hoops are the winner, although I'd love to figure out a way to make them easier to get into.  I'm pondering making long, skinny sandbags out of old dogfood sacks that can be laid along the entire edge of the structure.  Stay tuned for more details!

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Posted Wed Mar 9 07:45:20 2011 Tags:
Raised bed made out of colored bottles

Whenever I tell people about forest gardening, the inevitable reply is "You really expect to grow all of your food with perennials?"  I'm quick to set them right, explaining that we definitely plan to keep growing our delectable tomatoes, broccoli, and other row crops.  Forest gardening and traditional annual gardens work well together --- you can set aside the best land for your vegetable garden and put your forest garden on the sloping hillside that would wash away if you tilled it or down in the swamp where you'd never be able to plow.  You can also plant traditional vegetables amid your forest garden plants in sunny gaps (especially as your perennials are slowly filling out.)  Alice and Dudley mixed and matched annuals and perennials very elegantly in their city backyard.
Homemade greenhouse
Since trees run along the south side of their property, they take advantage of that partial shade to plant their forest garden crops.  Real shade lovers like nettles, currants, and elderberries gradually give way to trees and shrubs that need full sun.  In a gap in the forest garden, Alice had built a beautiful raised bed out of colored bottles and planted it with garlic.

Meanwhile, Dudley had selected the sunniest spot near the north side of the yard for growing tomatoes and lettuce in his homemade greenhouse.  You can read about how he made this 20 foot long greenhouse for about $300 in just a few hours on his website.  You might notice in this photo that the plastic is tearing --- Dudley explained that the greenhouse covering is finally starting to get too brittle to repair after five years and will need a new sheet of plastic.

I hope that Alice and Dudley's garden will inspire some of you to take a look at your own growing space and mix and match your annuals and perennials.

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This post is part of our Real Forest Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Mar 9 12:00:25 2011 Tags:
minimal roof support in the form of furring strips

geodesic 2x4 dome or 1x1I used several furring strips as a roof supporting material on the used pallet chicken coop because it's all we had on hand at the time and I like experimenting with cheap options.

The goal is to eventually arrive at a design that is easy and cheap to replicate while lasting a decent amount of time.

Lately I'm liking this geodesic frame structure which I think is using 1x1's or 2x4's and might even be able to be done with furring strips. Maybe as a future mushroom lab or some sort of fruit tree hoop house or some other yet unknown function.

Posted Wed Mar 9 16:36:25 2011 Tags:

Onion seedlingAs a gardener, I have a hard nose and a green thumb.  In other words, I tell my plants "sink or swim" and --- mostly --- they swim.

Which is all a long way of explaining why I transplanted my onion seedlings into the garden this week even though they really aren't ready for the cold weather that's yet to come.  I hedged my bets by putting half of the seedlings under a quick hoop, then tempted fate by planting the rest of the seedlings out in the open.  I figure that if the baby onions with no protection thrive, I will have figured out the easiest method to get good onions from seed in our climate --- start seeds in a flat and then put them out in the garden when they have two leaves.  I'm willing to risk some seedlings in pursuit of long term laziness.

Of course, all that experimentation isn't what I'm hanging our hopes of a summer onion crop on.  I direct-seeded another 200 seeds under the quick hoop and yet another 200 out in the open.  I figure that by the end of this spring, I'll have tried most of the possible permutations for onion seedling growing and will have chosen a method to use in following years.
Nectarine in the green bud stage
Meanwhile, my nectarine tree thinks I might just get lucky this year with my transplanted onions.  The tree is already in the green bud stage, which means she's counting on no weather colder than 21 degrees so that she can keep 90% of her fruit.  Here's hoping she's right.

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Posted Thu Mar 10 08:33:15 2011 Tags:

SochanZev Friedman, vice president of Living Systems Design, regaled us with an exciting talk about Real Life Forest Gardening at the Organic Grower's School.  He included a list of the top 13 species that he recommends for every forest garden, reproduced below:

Sochan aka Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) is an herb that can grow in shade or sun, damp or dry soil, and will feed you spring greens followed by echinacea-like medicine in the summer.  I'd never heard of sochan and would be very curious to hear from someone who has tried it in their own garden.  I have a hard time believing that sochan would win out over winter kale in a taste test, but Zev asserts that he's changed over entirely to perennial greens.

Wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) is a shade-loving native that's related to the more familiar (but non-native) stinging nettle.  Zev notes that wood nettle is tastier but has fewer medicinal properties than stinging nettle.  I have wood nettle growing all over the woods of my property and I've been meaning to bite the bullet and taste it --- maybe this spring!

Elderberry fruitsAmerican elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is grown for its fruit, and also for the shrub's vigorous habit that allows it to form hedges and retain soil along streams.  We've got wild elderberries and I even let a shrub grow up in our forest garden, but I don't think this plant will become one of our primary food producers --- very few people eat the fruits raw and we're not wine-drinkers or jam-eaters.

Mulberries (Morus alba, M. rubra, and M. nigra) produce edible fruit, fiber, fodder, and wood for bow-making.  I'll eat mulberry fruits, but I tend to relegate them to the bottom of my taste test list.  Nevertheless, I have planted an ever-bearing mulberry since the copious fruits are great for chickens and other animals.

Lamb's quarter (Chenopodium album) is a self-seeding annual green that grows in sunny, disturbed areas.  I suspect this species is of a lot more use to urban gardeners, who can forage lamb's quarter from an abandoned lot.  We try to keep the weeds down in our garden, so don't provide much habitat for it.

Poke shootsPoke (Phytolacca americana) produces edible stalks in the summer.  I've always steered clear of it because I don't believe you get much nutrition after you boil the greens a few times to remove the toxic substances, but Zev likes the flavor (with plenty of butter and salt) and notes that poke stimulates the lymph system just when you need it, at the end of a long winter.

Hybrid chestnut (Castanea sp.) is grown for its nuts and wood.  American chestnuts used to be a huge component of the Appalachian diet, and have now been replaced by Chinese chestnuts.  I've planted a few trees in out of the way spots, but I have to admit that I'm not as keen on this nut as on others --- it's the one nut that is nutritionally more like a grain.  If I was raising pigs, though, I'd be a chestnut-pusher.

White oak (Quercus alba) is grown for the nuts and wood.  I consider oak more of a livestock-food tree than a human-food tree, but (like poke) the nuts are edible after leaching out the toxic parts.

DeerDeer (Odocoileus virginianus) are hunted for their meat and skins.  Zev notes that deer prune plants and distribute nitrogen, but that's where I think he's getting a bit caught up in philosophy and not considering reality (a major downfall of philosophical forest gardeners who don't garden their own land.)  I'd rather get my nitrogen from an animal that doesn't eat up every food plant in its path!

Heritage turkey (Melagris gallopavo) is grown for its meat.  When an audience member (not us, though I was thinking along the same lines) asked Zev why he suggests turkeys instead of chickens, he replied that turkeys are more capable of dealing with predators.  I could write for hours about why I think chickens are better suited to the homestead and forest garden --- ability to eat food scraps, taste, small size, copious eggs, etc. --- but I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

Ducks (various species) are grown for eggs and meat (and to remove slugs from the garden.)  I've read on several blogs, though, that ducks are very difficult to pluck and that they lay few eggs compared to chickens.  I'm sticking to my working chicken flock.

Oyster mushroomsOyster mushrooms (Pleurotus sp.) is (finally!) a recommendation I can get behind whole-heartedly.  We've found that these are the easiest mushrooms to grow in our climate, can be propagated at home, and are among the tastiest.  Zev notes that in addition to eating the mushrooms, you can also use them for myco-remediation.  (More on that next week.)

Appalachian reishi (Ganoderma tsugae) is a medicinal (and somewhat culinary) mushroom that is Zev's response to the hemlock woolly adelgid that is currently wiping out one of Appalachia's keystone species.  If we can't prevent the death of our mighty hemlocks, Zev notes that we can at least grow some food on the fallen giants.

After reading through Zev's list, I can tell that he rates his plants quite differently than I do.  I tend to choose food species first by taste, second by ease of growing, and only factor in multiple uses at the end.  Zev, on the other hand, clearly chooses first by multiple use, second by ease of growth, and only considers taste at the very end.  (Either that or his taste buds are just very different from mine.)  Nevertheless, I think we can all learn a lesson just by looking at his top 13 forest gardening species --- what other list includes animals and fungi along with plants?  We should each work to create a diversified group of species that together provide greens, nuts, fruits, mushrooms, and meat.  What species would be on your list?

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This post is part of our Real Forest Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Mar 10 12:00:24 2011 Tags:

diy milking stanchion tipsToday was one of those wet and rainy days where puttering on a project indoors makes more sense then trying to battle the forces of spring.

While working on fixing one of the deer deterrents I tried out a new podcast called Stumbling Homestead by a guy named Darcy. I skipped back to episode 9 where he talks about keeping a family cow and was reminded about how Anna and I recently decided to let go of the cow owning dream due to our lack of pasture.

I like Darcy's podcasting style and the way he presents all the trial and error steps along with a running list of how much he paid to get started in the home milking business. Some really invaluable information if you've ever thought about getting a cow or just like to hear these types of homesteading escapades.

What most impressed me was his ability to recognize what was wrong about his first generation milking stanchion and how he simplified it to the one in the picture here. The two before and after pictures along with his explanations really break it down in a way that was informative while at the same time entertaining.

Posted Thu Mar 10 17:06:59 2011 Tags:
Multiflora rose new leaves

This is how I feel about spring.  It's beautiful and tender and colorful...and it has big thorns and is an invasive species.

People who don't live on a farm think that farmers are itching for spring right now...and we are.  But there's also the flip side of the coin.  All summer while the garden is dictating our every move, we're making a list of the big picture projects we're saving for winter.  And then all winter we're trying to work our way through that list.

Baby rampsMarch is when reality sets in and we realize that the other twenty things we didn't get done just aren't happening until next winter.  It's a bit devastating to me to realize that the big picture projects left over from our 2010 to-do list (yes, we're still working on those) are going to be 2012 projects.  Heck, if the new age pseudo-mayans are right, maybe my rainy day moan --- "We'll never install my bathtub" --- will really come true.

On the other hand, is it possible to look at this baby ramp plant pushing up through the soil under our kitchen peach and not smile?  I can hardly believe that two of the ramps I grubbed up with my fingers in a rush last spring far too late in the season for transplanting actually survived.  And there are leaves coming out on the elderberries, gooseberries, and gojiberries too.  Our poppies have sprouted and I can nearly taste the first spring lettuce.

The truth is that we each make choices about what to do with our time.  On the one hand, it is a little nuts that we still take bird baths all winter four and a half years after moving to the farm.  But if you ask me whether I'd rather have installed the bathtub or cloned oyster mushrooms and planted spinach, swiss chard, and onions this week, I'll tell you that there's no contest --- fresh food beats hot baths any day.  The average American's choices are hidden beneath a veil of normalcy, but they're constantly making choices too, opting to spend forty hours per week away from their loved ones so that they can take a long hot bath (if they can find the time.)  Our choices are more overt, but the truth is that I'd rather be planting perennials that will turn into a patch of edible leaves in a few years than working on our living conditions.  Bathtubs don't multiply exponentially over time, but ramps do.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.
Posted Fri Mar 11 07:34:19 2011 Tags:
used pallet chicken coop

I think it's starting to look more like a chicken coop.
Posted Fri Mar 11 16:47:46 2011 Tags:

Weedy and mulched garlic
Last fall when I planted our potato onion and garlic bulbs, I left gaps in the straw mulch so that the new shoots would be able to push up through.  If I'd been smart, I would have come along a month later once the leaves showed and added straw snug up against my onion and garlic plants.  I didn't.  Instead, once the snow melted, I was chagrined to see big weed islands surrounding each plant.

At first, I figured I'd have to hand weed each bed, but I put that off for about a month since the ground has been way too cold to make weeding pleasant.  Eventually, it occurred to me Daffodils and strawthat I might be able to get away with just adding another layer of straw over the problem plants and let lack of sun do my weeding job for me.  Some of these weeds are very sneaky, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the chickweed slips up through the straw and continues to grow, but I figure it's worth a shot at preventing all of that cold weather weeding.

A side benefit of mulching my Alliums was moving our over-wintered straw off the secondary daffodil patch.  We have more daffodils than we can shake a stick at, and I certainly wouldn't have spent energy moving the bales just to save a few dozen of our thousands of bulbs.  But with the first flowers already opening up, I know we'll enjoy seeing a sea of yellow flowers next week.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Sat Mar 12 09:47:22 2011 Tags:
new deer deterrent set up 2011

I tried ordering the type of motor found in a rotisserie unit and instead of getting ones that ran on 120 volts I somehow mistakenly asked for 12 volts AC. I burned the first 2 out by applying 120 volts without knowing any better. They only turned for a few seconds and then smoked and sizzled.

It took me about 20 minutes to remember a transformer from an old cordless phone was still in the barn and its output was in the low AC range. 9 volts AC to be exact, a full 3 volts under what I needed.

The lower voltage makes the motor go slower, which is a good thing. Now the time in between clangs is closer to a minute as opposed to 30 seconds. I also adjusted the location to intersect with the two main deer paths near our blueberries.

I've got a feeling this new configuration will last longer due to its reduced speed and low voltage.

Posted Sat Mar 12 19:06:37 2011 Tags:

Young inky capIf you've got cute, little mushrooms popping out of your straw mulch, chances are you've grown inky caps.  The aptly named inky cap mushrooms dissolve into a mass of black goo as they mature.

Inky cap goo

Inky cap mushroomsScientists think that the life history of these mushrooms is a way of spreading their spores more efficiently, and recent evidence suggests that various unrelated mushrooms have come up with the same trick through convergent evolution.  Older books lump them all into one "genus" --- Coprinus --- and I'm not enough of a mushroom expert to tell you which of the newly split off genera my species is actually a member of.

I'm also disappointed to discover that there doesn't seem to be much information out there about how inky caps fit into the garden ecosystem.  The fungi are decomposers, working hard to break your straw down into compost, so I guess that makes them beneficial (unless you were hoping not to have to refresh the mulch this summer.)  But I can't find any information on whether inky cap inoculated straw is beneficial or harmful to garden plants in any other way.  Any ideas?

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Posted Sun Mar 13 08:49:52 2011 Tags:

Pollarding and coppicingI've been intrigued by coppicing ever since I visited the ancient New Forest in England and saw huge trees that had been providing wood to the locals for hundreds of years.  The idea is simple --- certain trees resprout when they're cut, so you can cut off the shoots every five, ten, or twenty years and have a renewable source of wood without disturbing the forest.  Since I'd only read about coppicing in Europe, I was excited to hear Zev Friedman's information on which species can be coppiced in our neck of the woods.

The eight species that Zev considers worth coppicing in the southern Appalachians are black locust, mulberry, willow, basswood, tulip-tree, hazelnut, black cherry, and chestnut.  These trees not only resprout copiously, the bushy habit you get after coppicing has a benefit to the forest gardener.  For example, mulberries bear fruits on first year wood, so the fruiting area tends to move further and further out on the tree.  By coppicing, you keep the mulberries within reach, and can even coppice part of the tree each year so that you have young wood ready to bear fruit annually.

Hazel coppiceOn the backyard scale, you're probably only going to have a few trees to coppice, but on the homestead scale you might set up an entire woodlot in what's known as "coppice with standards."  Standards are full-sized trees that are left alone and only cut every 75 to 150 years for timber, providing shade and livestock feed in the interim.  Oaks are a good choice for standards in our area (or perhaps walnuts or sycamores in damper areas?), and Zev recommends keeping 20 standards per acre.

Scattered amid the standards are the smaller trees that are coppiced much more regularly.  These coppiced trees are generally spaced 6 to 10 feet across on diagonal and provide firewood, fiber (mulberries), tender young leaves (basswood), mushroom logs (tulip-trees for oysters and oaks for shiitakes), and fruits or nuts.  We might try coppicing our mulberry tree and hazelnut bushes in a couple of years to see what kind of growth form results.

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This post is part of our Real Forest Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Sun Mar 13 10:04:09 2011 Tags:
First hike of spring 2011

A perfect day for the first spring hike of 2011.
Posted Sun Mar 13 16:20:17 2011 Tags:
Reflection of trees in sunglasses

Our hillsides are shaded and cool and still flower-free, but I had a feeling that our recent warm spell had tempted out the early spring ephemerals at the sunnier Sugar Hill.

Hepatica pollination by beetles

The hepatica was in full bloom, and two beetles were checking out one flower's stamens.  I guess I know who's out pollinating at this time of year.

Sprouting buckeye

On the drive to town, we saw two weeping willows starting to leaf out, and Sugar Hill's buckeyes were also unfurling their leaves.  I'd never seen a sprouting buckeye before --- beautiful, isn't it?  Since buckeye leaves are easily nipped by heavy frosts, I guess that's one more vote for an early spring.

Sporing moss

No photos, but I also saw the year's first Spring Azure butterflies.  These weren't the first butterflies of the year, though --- Mourning Cloaks, Commas, and Question Marks were already out flying in last week's warmth.

If you live in our area or further south, now's a great time to head out and see spring in action!

Need to go out of town for the weekend?  Our chicken waterer keeps your flock hydrated without a petsitter.
Posted Mon Mar 14 08:28:41 2011 Tags:

As Mark mentioned last week, our favorite part of the Organic Growers School was the two talks we attended led by Tradd Cotter of Mushroom Mountain.  Even though Tradd runs a big operation, supplying spawn both retail and wholesale and testing out fascinating fungal partnerships in the lab, he really understands what the little guy is looking for --- simple, low tech techniques we can use to grow mushrooms in our backyard.

For example, while most people will tell you to carefully drill holes, pound in your plug spawn, and paint over the holes with beeswax, Tradd says that you'll get nearly as good results in much less time by cutting two inch deep gashes in logs with your chainsaw, pushing in (cheaper) grain or sawdust spawn with your hands, and then waxing over the holes.  Everyone else tells you to inoculate your logs in late winter, but Tradd says if you've got freshly cut wood, go ahead and throw spawn in it --- you won't get quite as good survival rates, but why waste the wood?

This week's lunchtime series pulls together the most relevant information from Tradd's talks, but I highly recommend that you visit his website to download more in-depth mushroom cultivation handouts, to watch his tight and entertaining mushroom videos, to buy spawn specialized for the southeast, or to sign up for his mushroom cultivation workshops (a bargain even at the $150 price.)  I know I sound like a paid advertiser here, but the truth is that Mark and I both fell in love with Tradd's passion, knowledge, and independence, and have decided he's our new fungal guru.

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This post is part of our Low Tech Mushroom Cultivation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Mar 14 13:00:34 2011 Tags:
daffodils lots of them

Daffodils: Toxic as a salad green, but sure pretty to look at.
Posted Mon Mar 14 15:54:37 2011 Tags:
Pea tendrils

We had another nibble of spring last week --- pea tendrils from the pot of peas we started indoors.  The tendrils taste just like snowpeas, and are a sure antidote to the frozen winter diet.

If you need some immediate gratification, pea tendrils are the way to go, requiring just over two weeks from (indoor) planting to first taste.  Our little pot made just enough pea tendrils for a garnish for two, but one week later, the peas are nearly ready to be cut again!

New pea sprouts

Our chicken waterer gets your spring chickens off to a great start.
Posted Tue Mar 15 08:07:44 2011 Tags:

Oyster mushroomsWhen we got started with mushroom logs, we read that you need to soak your logs to tempt them to fruit.  For the last two years, I've soaked our logs in batches of three or four, sometimes getting a flush of mushrooms and sometimes not.  Tradd's talk helped me see why I was often doing more harm than good by soaking my logs, and how I can keep our mushroom logs hydrated using easier alternatives.

So what's wrong with soaking mushroom logs?  Like animals, fungi need to breath, so when you dunk your logs in the water, they have to hold their breath.  Usually, the fungi in your logs will have no trouble holding their breath for about a day (although during hot weather when the dissolved oxygen levels of the water are lower, they might have trouble), but if you forget and leave your logs soaking for two days, you'll probably Bury mushroom logskill your fungi.  The main benefit of soaking mushroom logs over some of the techniques I'll outline below is that you determine when you want your logs to fruit, but if your memory is as bad as mine, you probably shouldn't risk it.

Tradd has developed several methods for keeping your logs moist by allowing them to soak up water out of the ground.  One option is to dig a trench on the north side of a building (or under a tree's canopy), turn your logs upright, and bury about a third of the length in the ground.  If your house has gutters, you can channel the water to soak your mushrooms.  I've rearranged our best logs in this manner and will see how they do this summer.

Mushroom raft

Another option is to create rafts by burying your logs horizontally in the ground.  If you create a raft using logs that have all been inoculated with the same strain of fungus, the mycelium will run through the mulch and soil and turn your logs into one huge fungal body.  This large body will be more resilient and will be able to send up mushrooms anywhere along the raft using the energy stored within all the logs.  I used a modified version of this technique (with a layer of cardboard to kill grass and adding composted manure to feed the nearby tree) to turn the logs that I drowned and the ones that are contaminated with turkey tails into mushroom-rafts/hugelkultur-mounds/lasagna-beds in the forest garden.

Mushroom totemA last option is to create totems, which are a bit like the upright logs I mentioned earlier but are even easier to inoculate.  Cut your logs into shorter segments and stack them, layering sawdust spawn between the layers.  With no drilling or waxing, you'll still end up with the equivalent of a mushroom log, and the mycelium will join the small rounds together just like they join the logs in a raft together.

Before you get too excited about these alternative methods of mushroom hydration, I have to throw in a few words of caution.  Burying your logs partly or all the way into the soil increases your risk of contamination by wild fungi (although oyster mushrooms can probably hold their own) and also makes your logs rot a bit faster.  You also won't be able to plan your harvest dates as carefully, although in my experience, if mushroom logs aren't in the mood to fruit, just soaking them isn't going to jumpstart the process.  But if you're looking for a low-work method of growing mushrooms in your backyard, these techniques are a great way to start.

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This post is part of our Low Tech Mushroom Cultivation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Mar 15 12:00:49 2011 Tags:

Killertarian: Someone who only eats meat that they've killed or meat killed by someone else less than 2 degrees separated.

I think this is the new direction Anna and I are going in, I'm just not so sure about the term killertarian.

Posted Tue Mar 15 18:54:11 2011 Tags:

Lamb chopsIf you don't want to grow your own but do have a freezer, the best way to get pastured meat is to find a farmer you can trust and buy a whole, half, or quarter animal.  The farmer will take "your" animal to the slaughterhouse, then the meat comes back to you in packages much like you'd find in the store, with the weight and cut marked on the label.

We recently purchased a whole lamb (thanks, Megan and Erek!) and wound up with about 30 pounds of meat.  Since I'm new to cooking with lamb, I opted to have the front legs turned into hamburger meat for easy meals, but asked for the bones back to make into soup and to feed to Lucy.  I thought you'd like to see a breakdown of the cuts of meat in case you're equally new to buying meat on the hoof.


I figure the (unweighed) extra bones, heart, and huge liver amount to perhaps another 10 pounds that wasn't included in Megan's calculations when she told me that the lamb would cost roughly $9 per pound.  The total cost for the whole shebang was $275, which included the processing fee.

It would have terrified me years ago to consider buying meat for $9 per pound, but the more I read about pastured meat, the more I figure it's worth it just for the health benefits.  Add in the ethics of eating pastured animals instead of factory-farmed animals, the taste benefits of delicious meat, and the feel-good effect from supporting a young homesteading couple like us, and Mark and I figure the meat is actually a bargain.  Plus, lambs are ready in the spring when our freezer is emptying out --- perfect!

I've uploaded the world's simplest youtube video so you can hear what our dinner sounds like.  Megan and Erek don't have a website, but if you live anywhere close to northeast Tennessee, you should consider buying a pastured lamb, turkey, or chicken from Cave Ridge Farm ---, 423- 367-9660.  I've known Megan nearly since birth, and I personally vouch for their operation.

Those of you who have bought a chicken waterer from us have benefited from Megan and Erek's wisdom already in the included video about how to butcher a chicken.

Posted Wed Mar 16 08:43:10 2011 Tags:

In addition to suggesting ways to make our mushroom log operation lower tech, Tradd also had hints to create morel and king stropharia beds that actually work.  I've dabbled in both of these species, but have barely gotten any fruit, so my next attempt will use the much more specific techniques advocated by Mushroom Mountain.  (I stole the images here from their website, where you can go for more information and to buy spawn.)

How to build a morel bed

Morels are one of the toughest mushroom species to grow, but Tradd has a lot of luck when he locates his beds in a damp, shady area near one of the trees morels associate with (tulip-trees, ash, cottonwood, etc.)  Make a 4 foot by 4 foot by 8 inch bed by layering wet newspapers; a mixture of soaked hardwood sawdust, wheat bran, and shredded leaves topped with one cup of pelletized lime; another layer of wet newspaper; a mixture of peat moss, sand, and lime with a pH of 7.5 to 8.0; 4 cups of spawn; then one to two inches of leaves or wheat straw.  Water the bed to keep it moist for two months, then water once a month until winter hits.  If you've followed these instructions to the letter, you should collect your homegrown morels in the spring.

King stropharia bed

King Stropharia mushroomI'm a bit daunted by the complexity of the morel bed, but I think that we can tweak our king stropharia methodology and actually get a crop from this species.  The trick here seems to be using layers of cardboard to seal the moisture into the bed.  In a shady spot, put down a layer of wet cardboard, then sprinkle on a bit of King Stropharia spawn.  Add three inches of hardwood chips or compost and mix in more spawn.  Lay down a sheet of wet cardboard or newspaper, punching or tearing holes so that water will be able to pass through to the chips below, then sprinkle on spawn and add three more inches of wood chips/spawn mixture.  Finally, mulch with straw or leaves.  The tricky part is remembering to water --- every day for a week, every other day for the next three weeks, then once a month if you don't get rain.

I have to admit that just writing out these directions makes me lean toward focusing most of our efforts on low-work oyster mushrooms.  But it's never good to put all of your eggs in one basket (and I like a challenge), so I might try at least another king stropharia bed this year, if not a morel bed.

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This post is part of our Low Tech Mushroom Cultivation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Mar 16 12:00:53 2011 Tags:
used pallet coop chicken coop diy

The thin pallet slats are easy to work with, but require a pilot hole when attaching to another surface.

Posted Wed Mar 16 16:22:33 2011 Tags:
Soaking peas

The planting calendar looks totally different now that I have a soil thermometer.  This week, I had planned to plant the rest of the peas, a bed of garbanzo beans, and a quick hoop of broccoli and cabbage to make my own sets.  Then I was going to wait two weeks and plant carrots and parsley.

Pea sprouting out of the groundBut my seed germination temperature chart notes that all of these vegetables require the same soil temperature --- 40 degrees Fahrenheit.  The mule garden soil is currently 41 to 43 degrees, with lots of sunny weather in the forecast, so the ground is only going to get warmer.  After learning all of that, I couldn't figure out why I would wait to plant my carrots and parsley.

In fact, I probably could have put all of these guys in the ground three weeks ago.  Although the soil chilled down a bit afterwards, it was just barely warm enough to plant a bed of peas on February 20, and the sprouts from the pre-soaked seeds are already two inches out of the ground.  If I'd trusted my soil thermometer and taken full advantage of this early spring, could I have been eating carrots in the middle of April without even growing them in a quick hoop?  Maybe next year I'll be braver and give it a shot.

Our chicken waterer makes backyard chicken keeping easy and mess-free.
Posted Thu Mar 17 08:11:31 2011 Tags:

ShiitakesIf you're like I was when I got started in mushrooms, you don't even know where to start.  Which species is easiest, tastiest, and best for backyard cultivation?  There's no one right answer, but I'll give you a rundown on the top seven species I've got my eye on or have tried.

Shiitakes are the best known of the mushroom species that can be grown in logs.  We got our start with shiitakes, and while I wouldn't discourage you from shiitakes if you adore them, I've since changed my tune and fallen in love with oyster mushrooms.  After a bit of experience with both and then some researching the topic, I've concluded that people like shiitakes simply because they've heard of them, and that they've heard of them because shiitakes have a longer shelf life than other wood-eating mushrooms.  I hesitate to say it, but maybe shiitakes are the red delicious of the mushroom log world?

Wild oyster mushroomsOyster mushrooms are our new favorite.  We bought some spawn two years ago on a whim, hoping to extend our mushroom season into the spring and fall, and we quickly fell in love with the taste, which we consider equal to or even better than shiitakes.  A nutritional analysis shows that oyster mushrooms have two or three times as much protein as shiitakes and a slightly more balanced set of amino acids, while containing the same amount of vitamins and minerals.  When it comes to cultivation, the species is an even clearer winner --- oyster mushrooms can be grown on "weed trees" rather than on hardwoods and the vigorous spawn will even colonize straw, coffee grounds, and other waste products.  You often see fruiting the first fall after you inoculate oyster mushroom logs while you have to wait until the following year to eat your first shiitake.  And oysters are easy to clone with low tech, home techniques.  Plus, they're native, so you can spread them through your woods with impunity.  Are you sold yet?

Hen of the woodsMaitake would be a good choice if you live in a higher and drier location than we do, where your woods is full of oaks.  Around here, the maitake is known as hen of the woods, but in Japan it is called the dancing mushroom, presumably because you dance with joy when you find a twenty pound hunk of edible fungus.  I haven't tried to grow maitakes, but I have been warned that they're a bit chancier to grow than oysters or shiitakes.

Elm Oyster is not a true oyster mushroom with white mycelium; instead it has brown mycelium.  This distinction is important since brown rot fungi tend to work better when grown in straw as a companion to vegetable plants.  This mushroom would be a good choice to add to your vegetable garden, although I haven't tried it yet, so can't vouch for its ease of cultivation.

King Stropharia is a good choice for mycoremediation (more on that tomorrow.)  I'm not sold on King Stropharia yet since our first experiment with it was only minimally successful, but if you've got a lot of free wood chips and a problem area where coliform bacteria from your cows, pigs, or chickens is running into a stream, you should definitely look into King Stropharia.
Yellow oyster mushroom
And now for some tougher to grow mushrooms with tempting tastes:

Lion's Mane is on our list of must-try mushrooms because it is reputed to taste like crabmeat or lobster.  The mushroom will grow on oak and maple.

Yellow Oyster sounds a bit like a hothouse mushroom (literally and figuratively), but with a taste described as resembling roasted almonds, I think we might have to give it a shot. This tropical oyster mushroom won't grow outside, though, so we'd have to provide it with a warm, moist environment.

As a final note, you might be wondering why I didn't talk about the best-known mushrooms --- portabellas and white button mushrooms (which are actually the same species.)  Although you can buy kits that will produce a few flushes of these mushrooms (we tried it with so-so results), button mushrooms have to grow on an aged and pasteurized mixture of horse manure, chicken manure, and straw.  Most backyard hobbiests will have a hard time coming up with the right substrate, so you won't be able to keep your spawn going once the kit peters out.

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This post is part of our Low Tech Mushroom Cultivation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Mar 17 12:00:52 2011 Tags:
gate for new chicken pasture area

Since the deer deterrents have been working we decided to transfer the original garden gate from its old location to the new chicken pasture.

Looks like flock moving day will be sometime tomorrow.

Posted Thu Mar 17 16:24:02 2011 Tags:
Compost bin

I really think that my most recent incarnation of the compost bin would have kept out critters if our dog and the local tree rats hadn't teamed up on me.  Lucy rolled the rock off the bottom of the chicken wire and pushed the mesh up out of the way, then a squirrel jumped in through the medium-sized holes left behind and shoveled food down to where Lucy could stick her nose in and lick it up.

Version 3.0 is reinforced with some heavy-duty plastic gutter guard, wired in place on both the top and bottom.  As long as the desparate duo don't enlist a bear, I'm hopeful that our compost will stay in the bin.  Maybe.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Fri Mar 18 08:04:41 2011 Tags:

Oyster mushroom on jeansPreviously, I've written about how we can grow mushrooms to eat, but mushrooms are good for a lot of other purposes.  For example, King Stropharia seems to attract worms, so the spent substrate is great fodder for the worm bin.  Other fungi in the soil team up with plant roots and help them suck up water and hard-to-find nutrients.  And now that we've started terrorizing our landscape with toxic waste, scientists have discovered that fungi are even capable of cleaning up our messes --- mycoremediation.

Mushrooms are voracious, and Tradd Cotter has found species that can chow down on E. coli and Salmonella, suck up lead, mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals, and break down chemicals into non-toxic compounds.  The trick to using mushrooms to deal with these contaminants is to find the right species for your problem.  For example, morels and puffballs are great at absorbing heavy metals, but they won't touch coliform bacteria with a ten foot pole.  Luckily, King Stropharia and turkey tails fill that niche.  Oyster mushrooms can break down 80% of DDT in 28 days and the aptly named "Train Wrecker" fungus can eat through railroad ties impregnated with CCA.

MycoboomSo, how do you get your mushrooms to clean up your mess?  Mushrooms don't grow directly in soil or water, so you have to find a way to mix your substrate into the contaminated area.  The most common method is to inoculate wood chips or straw with your mycoremediators and put that substrate on top of the problem soil or where the contaminated water has to flow through it.  If you want to go high tech, Tradd showed us pictures of floating mushroom islands that are let loose in lakes to clean up sullied water.  At the other extreme, you can just put the raw substrate on top of contaminated soil and eventually the right fungus will show up and get to work.  (This image is a Mycoboom that Paul Stamets developed to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf.  Too bad the powers that be wouldn't let him use it.)

However you match your fungus up with the contaminant, you have to think a little differently to grow mycoremediators compared to growing edible mushrooms in your backyard.  In most cases, fungi deal with contaminants by secreting enzymes that work like an inside-out stomach, digesting the world around them so that the fungi can suck up the nutrients they're looking for.  Your fungus won't be breaking down DDT while it's putting its energy into producing mushrooms, so you want to keep your mycoremediators actively growing rather than changing over to fruiting mode.  That means you want to keep adding more substrate so that the fungus doesn't hit a wall and figure it's time to fruit and sent its kids off to explore a larger environment.

Mushroom eats oilI came to Tradd's talk on mycoremediation for one reason --- to find out if and how I could use fungi to eat up the glossy paper that has no other use on our farm.  He recommended trying oyster mushrooms on the paper, but couldn't answer my question about whether the resulting fruits would be safe to eat.  In general, you can eat the mushrooms that grow as part of the mycoremediation process, but not if your fungi have been chowing down on heavy metals since fungi break down most contaminants into non-toxic byproducts but just act like dynamic accumulators with heavy metals.  As best I can tell, glossy paper might contain clay (tough on your compost pile but probably fine for mushrooms), calcium carbonate (no problem), petroleum-based inks (no problem, says the fungus), and chromium, lead, and cadmium.  The last three are heavy metals, so, unfortunately, it sounds like our glossy paper will continue to go begging on the homestead.  Back to the drawing board!

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This post is part of our Low Tech Mushroom Cultivation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Mar 18 12:00:56 2011 Tags:
day we moved the flock in 2011 early spring

Flock moving day was a smooth operation thanks to Anna's method of leading the way with a delicious rattle of laying pellets hitting the wall of a plastic cup.


Posted Fri Mar 18 17:34:43 2011 Tags:

Old Golden Comet hensDespite refusing to name the chickens in our flock, I can tell them all apart and I enjoy watching their varied personalities.  On flock moving day, I opened the gate and rattled some laying pellets and our two ancient hens came running fast as you please.  I think these two old birds would follow me anywhere --- they've had four years on our farm to learn that my shovel turns up worms, my bucket is full of compost, my wheelbarrow overflows with chickweed, and my hands are sprinklers of grubs.  Sure, the old hens had to stop now and then to nibble on a luscious sprout along the way, but they didn't veer off from my path.

Chickens exploring their new coopThe young golden comet is nearly as keen as the old girls, so she followed on their heels, but the rooster was a bit dubious.  He was raised by our white cochin, whose sole purpose in the flock is mothering chicks, so he's a bit leery of human contact.  Still, when three quarters of his harem fled the old pasture, the rooster decided he'd better follow along.  He was less attuned to the rattle of grain than to the locations of his flock and danger, so I had to ask Mark to back off as he filmed from the rear --- Mark's proximity was getting the rooster too excited and I was afraid the whole flock would turn into a pillar of salt (or maybe a herd of cats) if they looked back.

Chasing a cochin out the gate

Within five minutes, three hens and a rooster had walked calmly into their new pasture, but the white cochin was nowhere to be seen.  I closed the pasture gate and headed back Letting the cochin rejoin the flockto see where she'd gotten sidetracked, and was surprised to find her still in the original pasture!  She was remarkably unwilling to run free, and I had to get behind her and chase her out the gate.  Even then, the cochin kept trying to double back and our least pastured hen was finally ignominously carried to her new home.  While her flockmates were scratching through leaves and chowing down on chickweed, the white hen wandered aimlessly through the pasture, showing the clear difference genetics can make in a hen's foraging ability.

Chickens on pasture

Stay tuned for more on the flock's introduction to their new pasture and on our chicken plans for 2011.

Our flock was excited to see their chicken waterer waiting for them in the new pasture.

Chickens drinking from an automatic waterer
Posted Sat Mar 19 07:25:28 2011 Tags:
coop roosting options detail

I'm thinking the best way to see if any of these roosting options are to the flock's liking is to install some sort of web camera to monitor perching activity.

Posted Sat Mar 19 18:18:40 2011 Tags:
Maggie and me in front of daffodils

Feeding chickensI was interviewed for my first ever appearance on a podcast last week.  Boy was I nervous.  Luckily, Darcy from Stumbling Homestead eased me in gently and helped me out when I got stuck.  Thanks for being such a great host, Darcy!

If you want the real dirt on the interview, here it is: I was so scared, I had to go outside and weed while I talked.  I hope you can't hear the plants being ripped out of the ground.  (At least I wasn't ripping hair out of my head.)

My interview is up on Stumbling Homestead now.  I hope you'll give me the benefit of the doubt when you listen --- I'm a far better writer than I am a speaker.

As a side note, the photos here are from my great visit with my sister over the weekend.  I don't think our hens have ever eaten out of someone's hand before.  Thanks for sitting me down and making me listen to my own podcast, Maggie!  I guess I didn't sound as awful as I thought I did.

Our chicken waterer gives the flock something to do between hand-feedings.
Posted Sun Mar 20 08:54:04 2011 Tags:
how the new roosting configuration is working out

I went out to check on how the flock was roosting on their first night in the used pallet chicken coop and found two of the hens hunkering down on a medium sized rock by the gate.

They're easy to pick up when it's dark out, and I'm pretty sure they slept easier inside the new coop once I moved them onto a roost.

We decided to lock them in for the first night, which will hopefully send a clear message that roosting time is to be spent inside the coop.

Posted Sun Mar 20 16:18:48 2011 Tags:
Large worm bin

One month after starting our worm bin project, three quarters of the bin floor was covered with food scraps.  I figured it was time to push the decomposing scraps and bedding toward one end of the bin so that I would have room to put in the next batch of food.  This also gave me a great opportunity to see what was and wasn't working in the main decomposition zone.

Worms decomposing food scrapsThe good news is that there are worms everywhere.  Our redworms seem to be reproducing very quickly since every bit of the bedding is colonized with a healthy population of worms.  The easy to decompose waste --- spinach leaves, for example --- had already been converted into worm castings, but a few areas where great globs of mashed potatoes hadn't mixed into the bedding were moldy and not appropriate for worm action yet.  I'll have to remember to layer the food waste a little less thickly and include more bedding with similarly gloppy waste in the future.

Picnic beetleI was also pleased to see that the worm bin was already turning into a healthy ecosystem.  When I got started with worms, I assumed that worms did all of the decomposing in the bin, but the truth is that you'll find insects of all sizes working alongside your livestock.  Many of the wild critters are good news, starting the decomposition process so that worms can do their job faster --- I suspect that this picnic beetle (probably attracted to a high density of pickles) falls into that category.  On the other hand, the few house flies I saw in the bin are warning lights, telling me that I need to top off the food with a bit more bedding.

Total food waste liberated from the landfill to date has been 699 pounds.  We've put about a fifth of that in the bin so far, with the amount increasing each week as our worm population grows.

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Posted Mon Mar 21 07:39:09 2011 Tags:

Chicken in front of a barnWhen we got started with chicken-keeping, we were what I'd call chicken enthusiasts --- we loved the eggs, thought the idea of getting chicken manure for the garden was cool, and didn't consider whether we'd break even with the endeavor.  We spread our laying hens out in a few chicken tractors and enjoyed the healthy eggs, but I eventually realized that our style of chicken keeping would require us to buy chicks every couple years and chicken feed every couple of weeks.  We also weren't really making use of all that copious chicken manure either.  Was there a way to tweak our system so that we were raising our own chicks and feeding them some or all of their food from on-farm ingredients while making sure more of the manure went to the garden?

Hens on pastureOur first experiment with becoming sustainable chicken-keepers was starting a chicken pasture system last year.  The most successful part was using deep bedding in the coop to capture half of the day's manure --- I've got a pile of chicken manure mixed with leaves composting right now and waiting to go on the fall garden.  Our pasture also cut feed costs quite a bit during late summer with our laying flock, but our broilers were far too lazy and the pasture too small for them to get much feed from the pasture.

This year, I've got another ambitious pastured poultry experiment planned out.  This one is even more complicated than last year, but I hope it will bring us closer to chicken independence!  Stay tuned for all of the facts and figures in this week's lunchtime series.

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to experiment with pastures without worrying about dirty or empty waterers.

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

Posted Mon Mar 21 12:00:50 2011 Tags:
Linksys wireless G internet video camera

It's been over a year now since I got the Linksys compact wireless-G internet camera, and each time I try to set it up I'm reminded how huge the gap is between my computer knowledge and what's needed to make this work.

When it does work it should function as its own server, transmitting images to the internet somehow, or we have the option of running a long ethernet cable back to a computer.

I would be willing to send 2 t-shirts to anyone out there who can point me in the right direction on getting this thing going as a full time chicken cam transmitting exciting poultry action 24 hours a day.

used pallet chicken coop new roost image at night
Posted Mon Mar 21 16:36:43 2011 Tags:

Raking mulchI spent a lot of time last year combatting the asparagus beetles in hopes that our asparagus would keep their leaves all summer and give us a crop this spring.  After months of hand-picking the asparagus beetles and squishing their eggs, predatory stink bugs came along to help out in August, and I felt like we kept the beetle population under control.  Still, when I read that the beetles overwinter in mulch and other garden debris and can be deleted by burning, I decided to give it a shot.

Decided is the operative word here --- I put "burn asparagus beds" on my list in January and here it is near the end of March with nothing done.  I'm such a wimp when it comes to fire that I didn't know where to start, and when I did finally try to light the mulch, it was too damp to burn.  I didn't really want to burn up my precious organic matter anyway.  Didn't I carefully spread that straw around my garden for a reason?

Chickens on deep beddingWith the chickens moving to new digs, I opted to try a more permaculture solution.  I raked up all of the dead asparagus tops and mulch and carted the whole shebang to the new chicken coop to form the first layer of their deep bedding.  Our chickens are constantly scratching for bugs, and once they've eated up the bad beetles and fertilized the straw, I can always spread the value-added product back on the garden.  I hope the mulch transport will help keep asparagus beetle populations lower this year.

Our chickens stay healthy on pasture and unlimited clean water from their chicken waterer.
Posted Tue Mar 22 08:17:04 2011 Tags:

Foraging chickensIf you want your chickens to get the majority of their food from pasture, they need to be alert, intelligent foragers willing to scratch for their supper instead of waiting by the food trough.  A century ago, the common backyard chicken probably fit the bill, but nowadays, chickens are primarily bred for show qualities or to be efficient converters of corn and soybeans to eggs and meat.  After extensive searching through the literature, I decided that if I wanted the best pastured chicken breed, I'd have to develop it myself.

Over the last four years, we've raised four breeds of chickens and they've all had widely divergent foraging abilities.  Last fall, we slimmed down the flock considerably, deleting every bird who wasn't a lean, mean foraging machine (and a good egg-layer to boot), and we're now down to three Golden Comets, a hybrid rooster (Golden Comet/Rhode Island Red), and a White Cochin who was spared the chopping block solely because of her maternal abilities.  My goal this year is to get our cochin to hatch some homegrown eggs to see what sort of hybrids we come up with.  We'll eat the cockerels and keep several of the pullets to renovate our aging laying flock.  I also hope to find at least one more hen who hasn't had broodiness bred out of her so that we won't be putting all of our chick-starting eggs in one basket (or is that nest box?)

Hybrid roosterBefore the Cornish Cross came on the scene in the middle of the twentieth century, a flock like the one I outline above was the norm.  However, we quickly became spoiled by the fast growth and big breasts of these hybrid chickens, and no one is willing to go back to eating light-weight cockerels, even if they do have a much higher potential for getting more of their nutrition from scavenged food.  For all I know, Mark and I (both raised on supermarket chickens) will be just as squeamish and will return to mainstream broilers, but I hope we can work around chickens with more leg meat than breast meat and slower growth.  I'll be sure to keep you updated on growth rates, feed costs, and taste tests as this year's experiment progresses.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.

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

Posted Tue Mar 22 12:00:38 2011 Tags:
new chick gear for 2011

We've decided to give up on our Cochin hen going broody and ordered some new chick gear.

The above mini advance incubator only holds 7 eggs at a time, which feels like it might be just enough if we plan on doing multiple sets throughout the year.

cold chicks on a wet nightUsing the Eco-Glow chick brooder might pay for itself pretty quick compared to the old heat lamp system. They claim it's one 10th the cost at only 18 watts. Last year I made an error in judgement when choosing the proper distance for a heat lamp and almost burned the brooder down. This new type of heat delivery feels 10 times safer, and I like the idea of the chicks getting the full day night cycle. That light being on all the time caused me to wonder if it was adding stress where we didn't need it.

Posted Tue Mar 22 19:34:06 2011 Tags:
Young oat plants

A month after planting, our spring oats cover crop is pushing up through its manure and straw topdressing.  The plants only have a month to grow before they are slated to be mowed down to turn into a mulch for our spring garden --- I hope they mow-kill as well as they winter-killed this past year.

Annual ryegrassUnfortunately, I'm stuck dealing with three fall cover crops that didn't winterkill --- barley, annual ryegrass, and crimson clover.  As you can see from my foot in this photo, the ryegrass is shooting up fast, and the barley is nearly as tall.  I hand-weeded barley out of some beds I needed for early spring planting, but am hoping that I can kill off the rest of the beds faster by mowing close to the ground and then topping them off with an inch of horse manure.  If the cover crops don't get the message, I might end up throwing down a layer of cardboard as a kill mulch.  I certainly won't be replanting these three cover crops in our no-till garden --- live and learn!

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Posted Wed Mar 23 07:50:03 2011 Tags:
Anna Broody hen

White CochinSince we want to propagate the genes of birds who have proven themselves on our farm, we have to find a way to incubate our own eggs.  Our experiments with cheap incubators in the past has been one long failure, primarily due to our lack of climate-controlled living conditions.  Luckily, nature has a simpler answer --- the broody hen.

Although most productive chicken varieties have had maternal qualities bred out of them, some old-fashioned breeds have a strong biological clock.  Once spring comes around, broody hens like nothing more than to sit on eggs, barely hopping off the nest for a sip of water and a peck of food once a day.  Our White Cochin is a perfect example, and last week I noticed that she was starting to lose her breast feathers, a sure sign that broodiness is about to kick in.  This week, we plan to give her a quiet, dark spot in the back of the coop where she can sit on her flockmates' eggs and raise up a new set of Walden Effect chickens.

White feather in the grassIn the long run, it probably costs more to feed a broody chicken all year than to run an electric incubator, but after watching our cochin teach her foster son to forage last year and leaving all of the warmth worries to her, I was sold on the natural route.  Using a broody hen also keeps our chicken-raising on a more manageable scale --- an average hen can sit on ten to twelve eggs, so we won't be stuck slaughtering 25 meat birds at once the way we would if we ordered chicks from a hatchery.  Instead, I hope to tempt our cochin to raise three batches of chicks this year, which will pay her keep until she's called upon to do her duty again next spring.

Edited to add: I wrote this over the weekend, but since then have started to lose faith in our particular broody hen, although not in the broody hen concept.  I thought our hen was pulling out breast feathers, but it looks like she's instead molting...for the second time in six months!  I stuck her in a brood coop, and she started hyperventilating at being separated from the flock --- clearly, she wasn't in brood mode.  So, we're going to hatch our first set the high-tech way (I hope!), and still hope that our broody hen will shape up eventually.

Our chicken waterer is so clean and dry, it can go right in the brood nest with our hen.

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

Posted Wed Mar 23 12:00:48 2011 Tags:
aqua miser production headquarters

It's a good time of year to upgrade to a new automatic chicken waterer.

Hand fabricated in the United with free shipping.
Posted Wed Mar 23 16:43:45 2011 Tags:
Pear buds in full white stage

Peach bud at red calyx stageHave you ever heard the term "nipped in the bud"?  That's precisely what we hope won't happen to our baby peaches, pears, and nectarines tonight, when the low is forecast to be in the 20s.  This is the one case where we're lucky that we live on the shady side of the hill, since our fruit tree flowers (mostly) haven't opened up yet, unlike the trees on our movie star neighbor's farm, which are in full bloom.

As a fruit tree bud comes to life, it is less resistant to cold weather with every passing day, and scientists have come up with charts of critical temperatures, telling us when we should kiss those summer peaches goodbye.




½ inch







10% kill
90% kill



















10% kill
90% kill

















10% kill
90% kill

















10% kill
90% kill



















10% kill
90% kill



















10% kill
90% kill









Nectarine flowerYou can probably guess what stage your fruit trees are at just based on the descriptions, but I've included some photos here to help you decipher the differences.  Our peach trees are in the red calyx stage (10% kill at 23 degrees and 90% kill at 9 degrees), our pears are in the first white to full white stage (10% kill at 25 to 26, 90% kill at 19 to 22), and our nectarine has buds ranging from red calyx to full bloom (10% kill at 23 to 27, 90% kill at 9 to 24 degrees.)

As you can see, you often find an array of bud stages on a single tree, which is good for us because it means that a late frost is less likely to kill off all of our fruit.  Even though the currently open nectarine buds and Nectarine bud in first pink stagenearly open pear buds are probably going to die tonight, the less precocious buds on each tree might pull through, and I'm not overly concerned about our peach buds.

All of that said, I'm not sure I expect pears this year.  Although my sample size is very small, I've found that each of my fruit trees has produced flowers but no fruit the first year it blooms.  Perhaps the trees aren't quite ready to pour that much energy into making fruits but are willing to make flowers in hopes that their pollen might pass on the tree's genes using someone else's energy budget?  I'd be curious to hear if you've seen a similar strategy in your own young fruit trees.  If my hypothesis is correct, we should see peaches from the tree that fruited last year and also from the tree that only bloomed last year, nectarines from the tree that bloomed last year, but no pears.  Assuming we don't get any excessively cold weather in the next few weeks, that is....

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Posted Thu Mar 24 08:08:55 2011 Tags:

Chicken eating cloverTo get the most food-value out of your pasture, you not only need to raise chicken breeds that forage aggressively, you also have to plan your pasture size and rotation well.  I looked everywhere last year to figure out how big a pasture needs to be to provide a large component of a chicken's dietary needs, and drew a complete blank.  Finally, this winter, I stumbled across the figure of 10 square feet of pasture per bird per week (with frequent rotations) in Raising Poultry on Pasture: Ten Years of Success.  Granted, the type of operation outlined in the book uses pasture more as a source of vitamins and minerals than as the flock's primary food, but I thought their area estimate would give me an idea of the bare minimum amount of land needed to graze our birds.

I've talked Mark into building me five new pastures this year to join our current two pastures from last year.  Our old pastures are small and shady in the winter, so I plan to mostly use them to grow some grains and legumes to supplement the chickens' winter feed, though I will graze the chickens there for a short time in the fall.  Three of the new pastures will be in the sunniest part of the yard for winter and spring grazing, while two more will be on the hillside above the original pastures for summer shade.  I estimate that the total square footage from all seven pastures will be about 4250 square feet (a tenth of an acre), which (I hope) will be enough to keep our chickens healthy all year.

Chicken pastureOptimal rotation frequency is another big question mark.  Last year, I kept the chickens in their pastures way too long, mostly because I wanted them to scratch the ground bare so I could use those paddocks to plant grain in.  For most of our pastures this year, though, I want to keep the pastures vegetated at all times for optimal chicken health.  When rotationally grazing with ruminants (like cows and sheep), the goal is to make your livestock eat everything to the ground in a short period of time (mob grazing), then move the animals to another section of the pasture for a while to let the plants grow back.  This will give you lots of tender growth rather than leaving you with a pasture denuded of the good stuff and with lots of plants your livestock don't want to eat, which is what you get if you leave your livestock in a pasture continuously.

Mob grazing works great for cows, but I'm not sure yet whether it's the best plan with chickens.  Although chickens do nibble on leaf matter from time to time, a healthy chicken is mostly eating invertebrates, fruits, and seeds, so I should really be managing our pasture to promote creepy crawlies, not grass.  Tomorrow, I'll write about what I'm planting in the pastures to keep the chickens fed, but for now I'll just say that I don't really have a clue yet whether I should be rotating the chickens quickly, thus keeping the browse low and tender, or infrequently, thus attracting more grasshoppers.  I'll just have to keep an eye on the flock and pasture conditions and make it up as I go along.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.

99 cent pasture ebookThis post is part of our Chicken Pasture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Mar 24 12:00:49 2011 Tags:
Lucy with luggage

This picture reminds me that I need to fix that battery problem on the golf cart.

hip waders awaiting actionAlthough today the golf cart wouldn't have made it across the creek, I think even a 4 wheeler might have struggled with knee high water levels.

Yup...that meant going across in my boxers with my pants in the back pack. I have to stop once I get across to empty out maybe half a gallon of water from each boot, which has finally prompted me to order a set of hip waders for days like this. A place called Sports Authority will sell you a set for 22 bucks with shipping included.

Posted Thu Mar 24 16:26:34 2011 Tags:
Oyster mushroom growing on mushroom totems

Mushroom raftWith the addition of oyster mushroom to our myciary (yes, I made that word up), fungi have become one of our earliest spring "vegetables."  Our mushroom totems are fruiting heavily, proving the utility of the method at least during our wet spring weather.  Notice the cracked cap shiitake --- a gourmet delicacy.

Meanwhile, a heavy rain turned our mushroom raft into an actual raft, or at least an island.  Perhaps you can see why I swear by raised beds and mounds in our waterlogged soil?  Even though the mushroom logs I used to create this raft are ones that didn't fruit last year, I suspect if there's any life in them they'll produce mushrooms after this dunking.

Young Dryad Saddle mushrooms

Over on the wild side, Dryad Saddles are poking out of one of the stumps in our front garden.  I remember planning to try to eat them if I found a younger specimen, but Mushrooms Demystified has this to say about the species --- "[Polyporus] edible when thoroughly cooked, but is thoroughly mediocre."  With such faint praise, I think I might leave the Dryad Saddles for the wildlife.

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Posted Fri Mar 25 08:41:08 2011 Tags:
Chicken pasture

Doesn't this look idyllic?  Chickens, waist deep in grass.  Surely, they are in bliss.

Chicken eating chickweedNow here's the truth about what our chickens did when we moved them into their new, sunny pasture.  First, they headed straight for the small patch of bare earth with chickweed growing in it and snarfed that tender green down.  Next, they ran over to the edges where leaves had drifted against the fence, providing a damp, protected nook for worms.  Finally, our chickens started scratching through that one bare earth patch looking for more worms.  They didn't eat the grass.

I posted over on our chicken blog about plants grown in traditional chicken pastures.  Most poultry farmers are using their pasture as a source of vitamins and minerals and don't expect their flock to get much nutrition from pasture, so they plant a mixture of forage grasses, grains, legumes, and (occasionally) other broadleaf plants.  We're looking for a pasture that will feed our flock a significant portion of their daily nutrition, so we're going to have to think outside the box.

Young wheatI plant to continue to grow grains and legumes in our original two paddocks, in hopes of storing up some chicken feed for the winter.  I have winter wheat growing in one paddock where I have also interseeded clover, and will be planting the other paddock in oats, clover, and field peas now that the chickens have moved out.  In May, I'll add in amaranth, millet, alfalfa, sunflowers, cowpeas, and corn, and will round out the year with a late crop of wheat and rye.  I suspect I'll be able to graze the chickens in those paddocks once the grains are tall, but I don't think the chickens will get much food value (until I feed them the fruits in the winter, of course.)

The rest of our pastures are going to be wilder, and I suspect my plans for them will change drastically as I continue to observe what our chickens like to eat.  In at least one pasture, I'd like to experiment with letting the grass grow tall to see if the prairie-like environment attracts enough bugs to keep the chickens happy.  Elsewhere, I want to let the chickens scratch bare patches to promote the more weedy plants they enjoy.  In addition to chickweed, tick-trefoil seems to be a favorite of our flock, and I need to put some thought into how to get this weed to take over their pastures.

Ground cherriesOur chickens are big fans of fruit, not only because the hens like the sweet, succulent food themselves, but also because insects are attracted to the sugar.  I've planted an everbearing mulberry and some bush cherries in one pasture, but it will be several years until that experiment pays off.  I'm also working on collecting and starting seeds from persimmons that fruit all the way from early fall to mid winter.  Meanwhile, I'll plant ground cherries in some of our pastures since our chickens were happily eating those fruits in February.

Chicken on compost pileAs much as I like to grow plants, though, I'm starting to realize that chickens are far more attuned to invertebrates.  I'll continue to keep a compost pile in each active chicken pasture since the flock loves to nibble on our food waste and to scratch through the decaying organic matter in search of worms.  Another way to attract invertebrates for the chickens is to keep the pasture at least partially wooded since leaf mulch provides a perfect habitat for worms and other creepy crawlies --- two of our new pastures for 2011 are slated to be in existing woodland.

Rooster scratching through bare earthI'm starting to suspect that the best chicken pasture doesn't look anything like the pastoral scene most of us would envision.  It probably has some green grass and clover, patches of weeds, bits of bare earth, trees, shrubs, and perhaps other factors I've yet to discover.  I'll be posting our weekly observations of chicken pasture year two over on our chicken blog, but will be sure to sum up over here in the fall or winter for those of you who are just interested in the big picture.  I hope some of you will be inspired to give chicken pasturing a try on your own farm and will report your observations as well.

When our hens get tired of scratching for bugs, they head back to the coop for a long, refreshing drink from our chicken waterer.

99 cent pasture ebookThis post is part of our Chicken Pasture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Mar 25 12:00:34 2011 Tags:
chicken pasture fence #4 in 2011

Chicken pasture #4 is about halfway finished today thanks to some dry weather.

Posted Fri Mar 25 16:49:30 2011 Tags:
Soak worm bedding

I'm starting to get worm bin day down to a science.  As soon as I get out to the parking area, I soak the worm bedding.  This week, I was lucky to have shredded newspaper (thanks, Mom!), but sometimes I sit out there and tear cardboard into a bucket of water.  I generally soak however much bedding I have, figuring that I can always leave any extra sitting in the bin for days when it's too cold (or I'm in too much of a hurry) to deal with bedding.  This week, I soaked six buckets full.

Weighing food scraps

Next, I weigh all of the bags of food scraps.  Mark has put the bags under the yellow wagon to keep the food safe from critters while they wait for me.  I write down each weight and line up the bags in a big arc so that I'll know which bag weighs how much.

Then I select the bags that will go in the worm bin.  Since we're still only putting about a quarter of the food in the bin each week, I choose the food the worms like the most.

Compost bin

I load up the yellow wagon and haul the rest of the bags over to the compost bin.  I sigh because Lucy has broken in, making short work of my gutter guard reinforcement.  Then I have to laugh because Lucy and the squirrel both pawed out but discarded the winter greenhouse tomatoes.  At least our maurauding animals have good taste.

I pour bags of food scraps into the compost heap, layering wood chips every three inches or so and being sure to top the last layer of food scraps off with yet more wood chips.  I'm putting things like meat and bread into the compost bin, so it's important to keep the food well covered so I don't attract flies.

Mushroom in the worm bin

Back at the worm bin, I take a minute to peruse the flora and fauna.  The cardboard bedding that had been sitting out on the ground all winter is sprouting!  And look at those cute little pink mushrooms growing out of the bin!

Drain worm bedding

I tear myself away from the worm bin ecology (the hardest part of the operation), and scoop all of the bedding out of the soaking buckets to lay it out across the empty floor of the worm bin.  The bedding is too wet for worms at this stage, but since we included a false bottom and lots of drainage holes in our bin, the water quickly seeps out of the bedding.  I capture the drainage water with extra buckets so that I won't have to go down to the creek for water next time I want to soak bedding.

Food scraps

Now I open up the bags I've set aside to go in the bin.  After pouring the food scraps on top of the bedding, I rake the food out flat so that the scraps are only about two inches deep.  Then I top them off with a hearty helping of extra bedding.  Keeping the food scraps thinner and the bedding deeper is my solution to the minor ailments I saw in the bin last week.

An hour and a half later, I've dealt with 205 pounds of food waste.  52 pounds went in the worm bin and the rest in the compost pile.  A perfect Friday afternoon activity!

Our chicken waterer gives chickens something to do during long, boring days in the coop.
Posted Sat Mar 26 07:49:51 2011 Tags:
mark Stump gate
gate post made from existing stump in 2011 early spring chicken pasture #4

I'm not sure how much longer this old stump will last, but using it to shore up one of the gate posts helped to add some stability to the frame.

It just took a few minutes to trim out a bottom notch with the chainsaw, and a scrap piece attached nicely to function as a brace at the top of the stump.

Posted Sat Mar 26 16:35:52 2011 Tags:

Annual ryegrassI finally got around to cutting down the annual ryegrass and barley cover crops.  I had hoped they would die by themselves over the winter, but instead they survived and have grown nearly a foot in this spring's warm weather.  The biomass is much appreciated, but only if I can turn it into soil organic matter before time to plant vegetables in those beds.

The electric hedge trimmer made short work of the barley but got bogged down in the ryegrass.  I'm sure the lawnmower would have done a better job there, but I'm always leery of internal combustion engines after a long winter, so I just cleaned the hedge trimmer blade every few minutes and plowed my way through.  One of these days, I'll find a scythe that fits me and learn to use it so that I can cut my plants with humanpower.

After cutting, I mulched each bed with an inch of manure and then a healthy dose of straw and last Cutting ryegrassyear's lawn clippings.  Neither annual ryegrass nor barley is supposed to reliably mow-kill, but I'm hoping that the mulch on top of the weakened plants will make these cover crops lose heart.  As long as they don't sprout back up, I'll be happy.

Treat your flock to clean water with our POOP-free chicken waterer.
Posted Sun Mar 27 10:06:57 2011 Tags:
Mini advance incubator with eggs waiting

We got the Brinsea mini advance Eco incubator in the mail yesterday.

The room temperature should be no lower than 63 degrees, which is why we located it right above the space heater. One of the innovative features is an alarm that will beep at you when it's too hot or too cold. The instructions say to let it run a day to see if your chosen spot is cozy enough.

One thing we couldn't figure out last night was why it was beeping every 45 minutes. Turns out each time it rotates the eggs it also gives a gentle beeping sound that was lower than the alarm when the temperature is wrong, but it's still a noise. Not a big deal unless you're trying to sleep in the same room, which is why we changed it to under the sink on a shelf with the space heater directly below.

Posted Sun Mar 27 15:05:33 2011 Tags:

Storing eggs for incubationThe Brinsea Mini Advance Incubator gives you a lot of control over incubation settings, so it takes a few minutes longer to set up than a traditional incubator.  Of course, you have to start with fertilized eggs that have been stored properly --- our hens came through with the seven eggs we needed within the four day window pre-hatch with no trouble.  I penciled the date each egg was laid on the shell and tried to guess who each egg came from based on egg size and color (maybe two from the old girls, three from the young Measure eggsGolden Comet, and two from the White Cochin?)

Next step was to adjust the turning angle, which Brinsea recommends setting between 90 and 120 degrees.  The eggs sit in a plastic cradle with seven holes in the bottom (one for each egg) so that the underside of the egg rests on another surface below.  When the turning motor spins the lower surface, the eggs rotate like wheels, with their turning angle depending on how long the motor runs for.  The instructions Adjust incubator settingsinclude a diagram to let you measure the diameter of your egg and come up with a rough estimate for turning time.  Our extra large hen eggs seemed to be larger than the biggest circle, so I set the turning time to 12 seconds, but after marking an egg and watching it turn, I backed off to 8 seconds.

You can also set the incubation temperature (99.5 for chicken eggs), number of days remaining so that the egg turner will stop two days before hatch, turning interval, and temperatures at which an alarm goes off.  We stuck with the manufacturer's settings for all except the turning angle and the number of days (which, oddly, came pre-set at 40 rather than the 21 day chicken incubation period.)

After preheating the incubator and filling half of the well in the center with water, we plopped our eggs in, making sure the blunt ends faced the center.  Although the eggs tend Brinsea egg incubatorto sit pretty flat at first, they will eventually tilt a bit so that one end points up.  The instructions explain that the big end should point up, and that we might need to turn an egg around if for some reason the little end starts pointing up.

Now we just have to wait and hope that we can keep the temperature in range.  I chose this model because it's one of the few consumer-grade incubators that actually tests the internal temperature and makes subtle adjustments rather than relying on you to keep Putting eggs in an incubatorthe incubator in a room with constant air temperature.  Still, the directions say that you should, optimally, keep the room temperature between 68 and 77 and never let room temperature drop below 63 degrees or let the incubator sit in direct sunlight.  I can promise the latter, but not the former.  In a week, we'll candle the eggs and hope to see signs of life, then rethink our incubation area if need be.  Even if we don't get a hatch, I'm sold on this model --- it's easy to use and the temperature control worked well all day Sunday.  If the eggs die, it will be our own fault.

We'll raise our chicks using our chicken waterer from day 1 for healthiest peeps.
Posted Mon Mar 28 07:34:26 2011 Tags:

Food pyramidDespite my unconventional lifestyle, I tend to be very trusting of authority.  In a dicey situation, I walk toward the policemen rather than away.  I scoff at Mark's conspiracy theories and believe in sound science.  And I lapped up the USDA food pyramid in health class, vowing to eat 6 to 11 servings of carbohydrates per day and to consume fats only in extreme moderation.

At the same time, I believed in what I call the hippy food pyramid.  It looks a lot like the USDA food pyramid, but is a bit stricter and more specific.  Whole grains make up the base of the hippy food pyramid, and soy replaces meat in many instances.  The vegetable and fruit section is a little heftier and red meat is bad, bad, bad.

Politically Incorrect NutritionOver the last year, though, I've been slowly learning nutritional factoids that don't seem to fit my old view of proper nutrition.  As Mark and I incorporated these anti-USDA nutritional guidelines into our lives, we felt perkier, smarter, and thinner.  But I was concerned about making drastic shifts in our diet based on half-understood truths, so I checked out Michael Barbee's Politically Incorrect Nutrition.

The book was eye-opening, full of twenty pages of small print references to back up his nutritional guidelines --- ones that my gut already told me made sense in my own life.  I've excerpted the most game-changing facts in this week's lunchtime series, but this is one book I recommend checking out on your own and taking the time to slog through.  Yes, it is dense, but isn't it worth putting in a bit of study time to take care of your most important possession --- your health?

Our $2 ebook shows you how to break free of the rat race.

This post is part of our Politically Incorrect Nutrition lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Mar 28 12:00:47 2011 Tags:
diy deer deterrent that actually works!

It's that time of year when deer are roaming around looking for those tender new plants that start popping up, which means it's also the time of year to get more serious about deer deterrents.

I moved the number 2 deterrent up the hill a bit and changed the clanging sound to more of a booming sound with a long sheet of flashing material. I'd guess the total price on this contraption to be around 35 dollars.

We've got another deterrent still clanging, but on a slower interval. It's my opinion that mixing things up is what it takes to keep one step ahead of those beautiful and tasty four legged garden wreckers.

Posted Mon Mar 28 17:17:07 2011 Tags:

Hugelkultur kill mulchLast year, I decided that the comfrey I had planted underneath my nectarine was competing with the tree for nutrients and had to go.  I waited until the fall, then laid down a layer of cardboard topped with punky wood, compost, and wood chip mulch.  Surely, I thought, the comfrey will die under such a serious kill mulch.

"Hi there!" the comfrey called last week as it poked its way up between seams in the cardboard.  "Such a nice spring!" added another comfrey plant that had moved an entire Invading comfreylog aside to make way for its new growth. 

Folks who warned me that comfrey is hard to kill were entirely right.
  If you're thinking of some comfrey interplantings, take heed --- once you put comfrey in a location, it's there to stay.

Our chicken waterer is the spill-free alternative for chicken tractors.
Posted Tue Mar 29 07:54:51 2011 Tags:

USDA conflict of interestWhy don't our governmentally approved dietary guidelines line up with proper human nutrition?  A conspiracy theorist would say that industry lobbyists run the tests that get unsafe food additives approved and that their employees go to work for the USDA to make sure that their interests are served.  I think that there's a lot to be learned by following the money trail, but I also think that there's more to the problem.

Part of the issue is that proper human nutrition is a very complex subject.  So many of the simple "facts" that I learned about human nutrition in school don't hold up to the light of sound science.  Don't eat fat or you'll get fat.  Don't eat cholesterol or you'll have high cholesterol.  Unfortunately, our bodies aren't so cut and dried.

Good nutrition is all about balance.  Let's look at osteoporosis, which common wisdom says is caused by not eating enough calcium to keep our bones strong.  In reality, a handful of factors all play into whether that calcium makes it into your bones, and a deficiency of essential fatty acids, zinc, copper, boron, manganese, silicon, vitamin K, magnesium, or potassium can all rob calcium from your bones.  So can eating too much animal protein, pasta, beans, nuts (except almonds), and unsprouted grains since these foods all make your blood acidic.  To counteract acidic blood, your body yanks calcium out of your bones --- hello, osteoporosis.

Animal protein pulls calcium into bloodYou can also get osteoporosis by consuming too much vitamin A without also increasing your dose of vitamin D.  The dairy industry would have you believe that drinking their vitamin A and D fortified milk will keep your bones strong, but the artificial vitamin D in milk isn't used in the right way by your body, so you might actually be doing more harm than good by chugging that white fluid.  I guess the leafy green and broccoli industries didn't have enough cash to outcompete the dairy industry when it came time to tell the American public how to get calcium in our diets.

The upshot is that we need to think a little harder about nutritional guidelines we thought we understood.  We should check to see if there's a conflict of interest involved in the recommendation and we should delve a bit deeper into the science.  Luckily, Michael Barbee did the legwork for us with Politically Incorrect Nutrition.

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This post is part of our Politically Incorrect Nutrition lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Mar 29 12:00:48 2011 Tags:
ramshackled porch repair with binary images depicting work being done

A little home improvement mixed in with some spring cleaning today helped us to feel a lot more organized for the upcoming 2011 growing season.

Posted Tue Mar 29 17:03:49 2011 Tags:
Snowy garden

Alpine strawberry flowerI understand why Zimmy sent us an inch of snow Sunday night --- he was jealous of our green grass and wanted to cover it up.  But a low of 25 on Monday night?  Really?

It's hard to tell what got damaged by the freeze, but I'm willing to guess.  Our alpine strawberries, blooming long before our June strawberries, were definitely nipped --- the centers of their flowers have turned black.  These small plants aren't our main strawberry crop, and the alpine strawberries will put out new flowers, so it's Snow on nectarine flowersno big deal.

I expected the onions I set out prematurely to be injured, but they looked just fine, as do our early peas.  I can only guess about our fruit trees, but based on my critical temperature chart, I'd say this freeze probably just did a little early thinning.  Only the nectarine flowers that were fully opened will be completely killed, and there are flowers yet to unfurl even on that precocious tree.

As long as Zimmy keeps his cold weather in Ohio after this, we should be in good shape.

Our chicken waterer keeps our chickens occupied so they don't pick on the most unpopular hens.
Posted Wed Mar 30 06:31:37 2011 Tags:

Politically Incorrect Nutrition has changed the way we eat by pointing out foods we thought were good for us that are actually harmful.  Like all of nutrition, the science surrounding these recommendations is a bit controversial, but I thought you'd like to see a rundown on the "healthy" foods Michael Barbee says you should be avoiding.

  • Soy milkUnfermented soy --- I used to believe that soy was a great meat substitute, but soy isoflavones are related to estrogen and can cause breast cancer, disrupt our hormonal balance, change our menstrual patterns, and trigger hyopthyroidism.  The use of soy in baby formula leads to zinc deficiencies and early puberty and has also been linked to diabetes and learning disabilities.   In both adults and children, soy protein is hard to digest and causes pancreatic disorders, and the type of vitamin B12 in soy can't be absorbed and actually increases our body's need for that vitamin.  Soy also causes deficiencies in calcium and vitamin D and has been shown to increase LP(a) in blood, which is a marker for heart disease.  In fact, it's simply a myth that healthy Asian diets are high in soy --- the average soy intake in China is only 2 teaspoonsful per day, and that is generally eaten in a fermented form like tempeh, soy sauce, miso, and natto.  If you want vegetable protein, you're better off mixing and matching other high protein vegetables to find a balanced set of amino acids rather than depending on soy.
  • Many vegetable oils --- Remember how butter is bad for you but vegetable oils are better?  Wrong!  Polyunsaturated fats like corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, and soy oils are easily oxidized and contain too few omega-3s.  Trans fats found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are even worse since they cause heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, allergies, asthma, and immune dysfunction.  More on the good fats tomorrow.
  • Omega 3 and omega 6Grocery store dairy and meat --- As I'll explain tomorrow, animal fats from pastured livestock are actually on the good list.  Unfortunately, typical supermarket meats and dairy are generally full of hormones, antibiotics, omega-6s, and are too low in the healthy conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3.  In addition, homogenizing milk makes it easier for our bodies to absorb the bad xanthine oxidase that can cause heart disease.  No wonder when I started listening to my body a year ago, I stopped drinking supermarket milk.
  • Fluoridated water --- Although topical application of fluoride to your teeth can be helpful, if you eat flouride, it acts like a cumulative poison.  Fluoride can cause brittle teeth and bones, tooth decay, thyroid problems, learning problems, joint pain, high cholesterol, depression, fatigue, weight gain, early sexual maturation, and breast cancer.  Fluoride also interacts with aluminum in such a way that our body takes up more of this problematic metal, so it's especially dangerous to drink any liquid out of aluminum cans.  I'm still pondering whether it's safe to use fluoridated toothpaste and would love to hear your thoughts on that.
  • Green and black tea --- We think of green and black teas as providing helpful antioxidants, but the drinks also provide a hefty dose of flouride.  The tea plant is a dynamic accumulator of fluoride, and a single cup of tea usually provides more than the maximum daily dose of fluoride recommended by the EPA.  Poor Mark has decided to live without his sweet tea, and after two weeks of withdrawal, he's starting to fell much healthier.
  • Chocolate muffinsAspartame --- Aspartame is often found in sugar-free foods consumed by folks hoping to lose weight.  Unfortunately, studies have found that people who eat artificial sweeteners tend to gain more weight since they crave carbohydrates.  Although somewhat controversial, many scientists also believe that aspartame can cause fibromyalgia, dizziness, vertigo, headaches, tinnitus, joint pain, depression, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, memory loss, and cancer.  We never were fans of artificial sweeteners, but we do have sweet tooths and have discovered that it's simple to recalibrate your sweet sensors so that your taste buds think that desserts with half the sugar are delicious.  Just double the cocoa content (or other primary flavor) and you can eat smaller helpings of delicious foods and feel sated.  The downside is that we can't eat restaurant desserts anymore since they now taste sickeningly sweet and give me a headache.
  • Vitamin pills --- Do you figure that you can eat whatever you want as long as you take a multivitamin pill every day?  Some studies are suggesting that even water-soluble vitamins can cause problems in your body in excess amounts.  For example, doses of vitamin C above 500 mg/day increase iron and decreases copper in your body.  There is also the question of whether your body can use vitamins in the synthetic form provided by vitamin pills.  To be on the safe side, it's probably best to eat a well-rounded diet and get your vitamins and minerals in your food.
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This post is part of our Politically Incorrect Nutrition lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Mar 30 12:00:16 2011 Tags:

Tool rack
Part of our porch home improvement project was organizing our tools, made simple with a pair of Garden Tool Hangers.  The hard part was picking our most used six tools for the prime spots.  We narrowed it down to two shovels, the spud bar, the hard rake, Anna's new favorite hoe, and the pitchfork.  No more tools on the ground.

Posted Wed Mar 30 19:52:05 2011 Tags:

Peach treeMy forest garden islands continue to be the most successful parts of our orchard.  Since they're working so well, I've been taking every spare hour I can tease away from other tasks this winter to expand each tree's bed.  In the waterlogged part of the yard, I gave each tree a big hugelkultur donut to add to its current mound, and in better-drained areas I instead built mushroom rafts.

This week, I finally reached my happiest tree --- the kitchen peach.  The issue here isn't drainage since I planted the tree just across the soil type boundary in good loam instead of in degraded clay, but Japanese honeysuckle from the wild edges of the yard tends to climb up my training lines and try to choke the peach.  The tree is just a few feet away from a steep dropoff that falls nearly vertically for about twenty feet down to the floodplain, so there's no way I can get rid of all of the honeysuckle.  What I can do is to make a mowed moat around the outside edge of the tree to try to keep the honysuckle at bay.

Forest garden islandIt took a couple of hours to rip all of the honeysuckle loose from my new moat area, but when I did, I discovered a gold mine --- a huge pile of rotten boards that I'd tossed on the edge of the yard when tearing down the old house five years ago.  The wood is now halfway decomposed, and I know our peach tree will love pushing her roots into the stump dirt (if she hasn't already.)  I piled the rest of the boards up under the limbs of the peach and shoveled a small, flat pathway through which I hope we'll be able to push the lawnmower.  Add some manure and a lot of leaves and our peach should be pretty-much self-sufficient until I pluck the juicy fruits in August.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for getting chicks off to a healthy start --- dry bedding from day 1!
Posted Thu Mar 31 07:47:37 2011 Tags:

Yesterday's list of surprisingly bad foods might be a shock to some of you, but there's good news --- delicious foods you thought were forbidden which are actually healthy.  Here's the dirt on...

  • Homegrown eggCholesterol --- Conventional wisdom holds that eating too much cholesterol causes heart attacks.  The truth is that our body needs cholesterol to create sex hormones and to keep our cells, brain, and nervous system healthy.  Lack of cholesterol in the brain leads to depression, agression, and suicide and very low levels of cholesterol is linked to cancer.  We can usually make cholesterol within our body if we don't eat enough, and rising levels of cholesterol in our blood is an indicator a bit like a fever.  Artificially lowering high cholesterol can do more harm than good since our bodies boosted the cholesterol levels for a reason.  Although mainstream doctors will tell you differently, there are also some studies coming out that indicate that folks with low cholesterol levels don't live as long or as healthily as those with higher levels and people who die of heart attacks often have low cholesterol levels.  So eat as many eggs as you want --- they're good for you.  Just don't go for dried eggs since oxidized cholesterol is trouble.
  • LambGood fats --- The fats found in milk, cheese, butter, pastured animal meat, eggs, coconut oil, lard, tallow, sesame oil, and rice bran oil are healthy for our bodies since they provide omega-3s, essential fatty acids like conjugated linoleic acid, and vitamin D in a form our bodies can consume.  Studies have shown that eating the right kinds of fat helps you lose weight, increases insulin sensitivity, and builds muscle.  While eating saturated fat can increase our cholesterol levels, this cholesterol is created in the body and is thus unoxidized, so it is both harmless and helpful.  Do be cautious to limit your sugar while eating saturated fats so that the duo doesn't cause platelets to aggregate.

Doesn't pastured lamb taste better than a soyburger anyway?  Maybe your body was trying to tell you something when you started craving butter.

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This post is part of our Politically Incorrect Nutrition lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Mar 31 12:00:36 2011 Tags:
chicken wire attachment notes and tips

When I first started working with chicken wire my main method of attachment was using a staple gun, which works fine, but sometimes those staples will work loose over a few seasons if there's any pressure on it.

Now I use small drywall screws like in the picture above. It's pretty easy to wrap a few turns of wire around the screw before you completely tighten it down, and if you ever need to change anything it will be a lot easier to take back out compared to staples.

Posted Thu Mar 31 16:22:35 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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