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

archives for 05/2011

May 2011

Maggots in compostMark and I have had to make the hard decision to call our worm bin project a failure.  Many of the problems have or could be fixed --- the bad smell resulting from Lucy breaking into the compost bin repeatedly and uncovering the scraps (solved), the trashy look and nastiness when Lucy broke into the food bags before they went into the bin (solved), the rat that made a home in the worm bin (solved), the flies that laid their eggs in the compost bin at the advent of hot weather (solvable), the "eww" factor when opening bags of old food scraps (solvable.)  The insurmountable problem is time.

Garden cartOver the last two months, I estimate that Mark and I have put in about twenty hours picking up food scraps and doing worm bin maintenance (not counting the startup time.)  In exchange, we've netted 1,226 pounds of food scraps, which I suspect might break down into about a cubic yard of compost.  To put that in perspective, it takes Mark about two hours to shovel two cubic yards of amazing horse manure (basically worm castings) into the truck, or about three hours to drive to town to pick up a similarly sized load of compost.  Comparing our worm bin project to these alternative methods of getting compost, I'm afraid the juice just isn't worth the squeeze.

Compost wormsWhen we embarked on the project, we had figured we'd feed some of the scraps to our chickens, discovering just in time that we were going to be breaking the law.  If that had been possible, I suspect the food scrap project would have been a success.  The food scraps would have been more valuable, replacing expensive storebought chicken feed and the chickens would have dealt with rats, Lucy, and flies.  Alternatively, for folks who drive to school every day to pick up their kids, the food scraps would have been fresh with less of a gross factor.

Although we're calling it quits on collecting the school's food scraps, we aren't giving up on worms.  Now that the bin is rat-proof and the worm population is expanding, I plan to give less-composted horse manure to the worms to turn into castings.  I suspect there will be no shortage of food for our livestock.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Sun May 1 07:54:33 2011 Tags:
cardboard and gardening

Old cardboard boxes have found a place in our forest gardening plans as a cheap source of mulch.

We save all our household cardboard and then get a decent amount from our chicken waterer business, but it wasn't enough for Anna, and back in the winter she started wondering where we could get more.

I went around to several local retail stores and found out there is a new policy where stores pack up their discarded boxes and ship it all back to the original warehouse. That put a crimp in our cardboard mulching plans until Kenneth, the super nice maintenance man at the local school where we tried our worm experiment asked if we could use any "pasteboard", which is what some folks call cardboard around this area.

They had a truckload and I started getting more each time I went to pick up the food scraps for the worm bin. I'm not sure what other places do with their waste cardboard, but it might be a good source of mulch if you have a school in your neighborhood.

Posted Sun May 1 17:15:09 2011 Tags:
Annual ryegrass

I'm a big fan of autumn cover crops (especially oats and oilseed radishes), but I'm starting to feel like cover crops in the spring are more worry than benefit.  The trouble is that most of the fall crops that didn't winter-kill (annual ryegrass and barley) and the cover crops I'm trialing this spring (oats and field peas) don't mow-kill very well.  As the main spring planting date approaches, I've ended up having to resort to more time-consuming measures to get these cover crops out of the way without tilling.
Smothering ryegrass
At the end of March, I cut the barley and ryegrass as close to the ground as possible and topped the beds off with an inch of manure and then a heavy coating of mulch.  This method was 95% effective for the barley and about 75% effective for the ryegrass, although in both cases the beds developed a ring of living cover crops (easy to mow repeatedly and turn into part of the aisles.)  I was left hand-weeding the plants that were still poking up out of the middle of beds, a process that is quite easy with barley but nearly impossible with ryegrass.  I suspect I may have to resort to a kill mulch to get rid of the ryegrass, which won't be a big deal since I've planned late potatoes to go in those beds and they'll enjoy the extra organic matter.  Still, it's a bit nerve-wracking to see greenery where I need to plant shortly, especially since two months of flooding means we still can't drive the truck off the farm to pick up more compost and mulch.

Pulling up oatsOur spring oats and field peas bounced right back when I tried to mow-kill them, but since I'd put the beds' compost down when planting, I didn't have enough allotted to smother these spring beds the way I did the overwintering fall cover crops.  Instead, I've been ripping up the oats and peas and laying them sideways and upside down across the bed --- pretty easy since oats come out of the ground without much effort.  The beds that I dealt with during a hot, dry spell now have a straw-like mulch of dead oats on top, but I might have to reweed the beds I dealt with during a rainy period.

Luckily, all of the extra mulching we did this fall means the other garden beds are in prime condition and I have time to mess around with experimental cover crops.  Once again, Mark was right --- it was worth every penny we spent on mulch last year!

Posted Mon May 2 07:43:14 2011 Tags:
the best procedure in replacing a rear wheel on a push behind mower Craftsman

The walk behind mulching mower still has a rear wheel wobble due to a parts mix up at the warehouse.

It only took about 10 minutes to talk to a real person at Sears parts direct and I'm happy to report the process of reporting the mistake was quick and painless thanks to a very competent operator by the name of Fernando.

They said it would cost more to ship the wrong wheel back to them and I should just keep it. Not sure what I'll use it for, but this policy went a long way in helping me to feel like a satisfied customer that will now patiently wait till Thursday before they can ship out a proper rear wheel. In the meantime I'll just roll with the wobble.

Posted Mon May 2 16:42:36 2011 Tags:
Anna Hive split

Hive splitOn April 21, our hive had four full frames of brood, and I figured it might take them about a week to reach the six frames I needed for an even split.  When the week was up, though, the weather turned windy and rainy, so I didn't get back into the hive until eleven days which point there were a whopping eight frames of brood!

I brushed dead bees out of one of the hives that perished over the winter and filled the brood box up with two frames of pollen, five frames of brood (two of which were halfway honey), and three frames of honey.  I didn't bother brushing any bees into this new brood box because there were scads of workers along for the ride already, especially once I took a whole super of honey (full of more bees) off the top of our healthy hive to add to its daughter hive.

The workers who were out foraging when I messed up their home will all go back to the old hive, and any foragers who I carried to the new hive during the split will probably drift back there as well.  That's no big deal, though, because I included extra honey in the young hive to make up for the lack of foragers.  I also made sure that there's plenty of capped brood in the young hive that will hatch into new foragers within a couple of weeks, so they'll be socking away honey before long.

Young locust leavesWhen doing an even hive split, you don't have to find the queen, so I don't know whether she's still hanging out in the old hive or has moved in with the newcomers in the young hive.  Wherever she's at, that hive will soon be back to normal, gathering nectar and pollen from the big producers that are about to bloom (black locust and tulip-tree).  Meanwhile, the queenless hive will be set back about three weeks as the bees figure out they're queenless (a day or two), earmark a few of the eggs as royalty (one to three days), feed the new princesses royal jelly during their 5 day larval stage, and wait out their eight day pupal stage.  Queenless hives usually hedge their bets by making more than one queen cell, but the queen who emerges from her capping first will systematically kill her competitors.  She soon goes on a mating flight and then starts laying, bringing the hive back into production.

That's assuming all goes well.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed that within a month, we'll have two fully active hives instead of one.

Our chicken waterer takes the mess out of backyard chicken-keeping.
Posted Tue May 3 07:04:08 2011 Tags:
Fellowes PS-60 paper shredder works as a great mulch making machine

One of the lessons learned from the worm bin experiment is the awesome mulch making power of a good sized strip cut paper shredder.

The Fellowes PS-60 strip cut paper shredder has proven itself over the last 4 months to be one heck of an addition to our permaculture infrastructure.

It might qualify as an entertainment device judging by how much fun Anna seems to have generating these piles of mulch. Come to think of it I've never had a chance to give it a spin due to that chore always ending up on her to do list instead of mine.

Posted Tue May 3 17:23:33 2011 Tags:

Incubator digital displayI'm trying hard not to get my hopes up too high about incubation batch #2, but the stars seem to be aligned this time around.  The temperature control on our new Brinsea Octagon 20 Advance incubator makes our previous incubator look like a toy.  Despite external temperatures near freezing over the weekend and trailer temperatures around 50, the incubator temperature didn't change by more than 0.1 degree!  For the sake of comparison, the Brinsea Mini Advance internal temperature dropped down 5.6 degrees when the trailer temperature plummeted to 40 one night last time around, and the Mini incubator always seemed to be running a bit low even on normal nights.

Weighing eggs to determine weight lossMeanwhile, I've gotten scientific about humidity control in the incubator and am right on track to make the eggs lose 13% of their weight over the incubation period.  (Every time I think about this, I feel like I've enrolled my eggs in a weight loss program --- weight watchers, maybe?)  I'm learning to keep the night-time humidity in the low 40s and the day-time humidity in the upper 40s, and am weighing the tray of eggs every other day to monitor progress.

I'm hoping for 7 living chicks from this batch of 24 eggs, but, secretly, I'm expecting double digits as long as nothing drastic happens in the next two weeks.  Now, if only I could listen to ancient words of wisdom and not count my chickens before they hatch.

Our chicken waterer has kept the first batch of chicks occupied and healthy.
Posted Wed May 4 07:29:10 2011 Tags:

Everett's house
This piece of land won't put you right next door, but you'll be just over 2 hours away.  Everett and Missy have decided to move closer to town and are putting their 15 acre farm (with house, barn, and several outbuildings) on the market for $195,000.  Visit their blog to see contact information and scads of pictures of the stuff most of you are probably interested in --- they've fixed the place up so that it's beautiful and energy efficient.

Apple trees in bloomWhat they don't tell you is that the farm is ready to grow all of your own food.  There's an ancient vineyard and two mature (and delicious) apple trees leftover from previous owners.  Everett and Missy have the chicken coop in perfect repair, right beside a large pasture ready for your goats, cows, or sheep.  There's also a new no-till garden patch already planted --- how's that for immediate gratification?

Farm houseThe farm is located in a slightly ritzier part of southwest Virginia than we're in, which means more like-minded neighbors (but probably steeper taxes.)  They're also a bit higher in elevation than us, so figure on better apples and worse peaches.

If you've got a bit of a nest egg and are looking to move back to the land without starting from square one, this farm might be just right for you.

Posted Wed May 4 11:56:24 2011 Tags:
carpet bug collection method outdoors for chicken feeding

The scrap pieces of carpet from taking apart one of the chicken tractors are making a good hotel for worms to visit during the night.

Posted Wed May 4 16:22:54 2011 Tags:
Garden seedlings

Tomato setDue to this year's warm spring, we planted a lot of summer crops very early.  Just as the tender seedlings began to poke through the soil, dogwood winter came along to nip their toes.  Good thing I save old, holey row cover fabric to make emergency blankets for early birds.

Our tomatoes, melons, and cucumbers didn't need any extra love, already snug in their quick hoops.  These hefty tomato seedlings are itching to be transplanted to their new homes (or at least to be weeded.)  First thing next week the lows will be in the 50s and I suspect the last chance of frost will have long as there's no blackberry winter.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock happy spring, summer, fall, and winter.
Posted Thu May 5 07:36:03 2011 Tags:
Close up of a fence post with barn in background and me working on barb wire deconstruction

5 years ago we put up a barbed wire fence on a limited budget.

One of the corners we cut was using several walnut posts because we ran out of cedar and spent most of the budget on 2 rolls of barbed wire and a new chain for the chainsaw.

Fast forward to today when I spent the afternoon taking part of that fence out and you can see why walnut is a poor choice to use as a fence post. It's still a solid piece of wood above ground, but each one I tried to remove ended up breaking off at the base. If I had to guess I'd say a walnut post can be expected to fail somewhere between 3 and 5 years, maybe more in a dryer climate.

Posted Thu May 5 16:54:35 2011 Tags:

Worm testWe have a couple of hundred garden beds that have each been treated differently over the years, so it's a bit daunting to consider running soil tests on them all.  Luckily, there are quick and dirty, at-home tests you can do to get an idea of the state of your soil.  My favorite is the worm test, which gives you an idea of overall soil health (with a strong focus on organic matter.)

To do a worm test the right way, wait until the soil is at least 55 degrees Fahrenheit and is damp but not sopping wet.  Then dig out one cubic foot of soil --- make a square on top of the ground one foot on each side and dig down one foot deep.  Put the dirt in your wheelbarrow or on a piece of cardboard and root through it, counting worms as you go.  If you find at least ten worms, your soil passes the test, and more worms means better soil.  For really scientific results, repeat the worm test in several parts of your garden that have all been treated the same way and average your results.

Handful of wormsAlternatively, there's my method of doing a worm test.  As you play in the dirt, planting potatoes or ripping up weeds, keep an eye on how many worms you see.  This spring, I noticed that the amazing horse manure compost Mark got for me is a worm magnet --- one small handful of compost-treated soil can hold as many as six hefty worms!  On the other hand, the imperfect chicken manure compost that I used last year to create new, no-till beds for our tomatoes is nearly worm-free.  (The tomatoes didn't seem to mind.)

If your soil is low on worms, there could be several problems.  In the case of my imperfect compost, I suspect that high salts are responsible for turning the area into a worm-free zone, and worms will also die if your soil is consistently too wet, too dry, too acidic, or too alkaline.  On the other hand, worms adore mostly decomposed organic matter (aka compost) and the damp soil underneath mulch (and no-till gardens in general.)  Since worms do so much good in your soil, it's worth thinking of ways to keep them happy.

Learn more about no-till gardening in Weekend Homesteader, just 99 cents on Amazon.
Posted Fri May 6 08:18:25 2011 Tags:
green frog close up late spring 2011

This handsome frog has taken up residence in our 5 gallon bucket solar shower drainage area.

I've noticed him for weeks now, but each time I walk by he jumps back into his safe spot under the old pallet.

Today was the first time I got a good look at his features. Anna looked him up and confirmed he's a green frog. It feels like a good omen to have a frog as a neighbor and it gives me a smile everytime I walk by and hear him belly dive back to his mini pond.

Posted Fri May 6 17:15:11 2011 Tags:
Black australorp chick

"We're not babies anymore, you know," the chicks complained Friday.  "Don't you think it's about time you let us leave our room?"

Chick perched on trellis

"Okay, okay," I conceded, peeling back the wall of cardboard I'd used to separate the chicks from the rest of the coop.  Within seconds, intrepid youngsters had figured out how to jump through the holes in the trellis gate and were exploring their new domain.  Chaos ensued as the chicks took dust baths, scratched up worms, snagged gnats in mid-air, and even poked their beaks out the pophole into the pasture.  (The wide world was a bit too scary, though, so they scampered back inside.)

Golden comet

"What's all this ruckus about?" asked the young golden comet.

Chick and hen

A flurry of wings and cheeps later, every chick had darted back behind the gate.  "Nothing to see here, I guess," said the hen, turning to go back outside. 

"But, wait!  What's that little fuzzball?"

Hen at gate

"Hello?  Hello?  Is somebody over there?"


"Maybe we're not old enough to play with the big kids yet after all," the chicks declared, settling down for a rest.

"You know best," I answered, rolling my eyes.  "Just remember, the brooder belongs to a new batch of chicks in a week and a half."

Three week old chicks

Nobody answered.  I guess two and a half week old chicks still need naptime.

Our chicken waterer keeps our chicks happy and healthy.
Posted Sat May 7 07:18:58 2011 Tags:
The madness of miniblinds in Paris from the spring of 2011

It was crazy of us to wait 5 years to install miniblinds on these kitchen windows.
Posted Sat May 7 18:05:03 2011 Tags:

Spoonful of chiliI never really understood the purpose of chili since I don't like spicy food or cooked green peppers (and used to detest hamburger meat when I only ate the cheap stuff.)  But as we've been increasing the protein content of our diets and decreasing the carbohydrates, I discovered that there are chilis that push my cooked tomato buttons without being full of empty carbohydrates.  Plus, if you make it yourself, you can keep the spiciness mild, leave out the green peppers, and use pastured meat.  This recipe serves 5.

  • 1 pound of dried great northern beans
  • 6 cups of homemade chicken stock.  (Boil a chicken carcass in water for a few hours and pour off the liquid to get stock.)
  • 1 pound of ground lamb
  • 2 onions
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme (or half as much dried oregano.  Our thyme is always ready to eat and tends to taste better than our oregano, so I use it for everything.)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 0.25 tsp pepper
  • 4 cups of homemade spaghetti sauce (or about 8 cups of stewed tomatoes, 1 onion, three cloves of garlic, and some basil)

Soak the beans overnight, then pour off the water.  Add the chicken stock to the beans and simmer until the beans are soft (about two or three hours.)

ChiliStrain the beans through a collander, tossing the liquid in a big pot along with one cup of the beans.  Freeze the rest of the beans for later meals.  (Clearly, you could have just started with fewer beans, but I've found that I'm far more likely to add beans to a recipe if I have them cooked up.  Also, the bits of bean left in the stock thicken the chili without requiring you to add cornstarch.)

Meanwhile, sautee the lamb in a skillet until it's about halfway cooked (adding stock as necessary to keep the meat from sticking to the pan.)  Cut up the onions and garlic and add them to the meat, continuing to cook over medium heat until the onions are soft.  Add in the chili powder, thyme, salt, and pepper and sautee just a bit more, then pour everything from the skillet into your pot of stock.

Throw in the spaghetti sauce or tomatoes.  (I only used spaghetti sauce because our freeezer is nearly bare of tomato products.  As I mentioned above, you could instead use Chili nutritionabout eight cups of stewed tomatoes and add a bit more garlic and onion to the previous step.  I'm not sure if we could taste the basil.)  Cook over low heat for about an hour until the flavors meld together, or for two hours if you started with stewed tomatoes and need them to lose some liquid.

The USDA's nutritional guidelines gives this chili a B+, probably because they don't like all of the fat and cholesterol in the chicken stock and lamb.  However, we're believers in the nutritional goodness of fats from pastured animals, so I'd give it an A.  Of course, the meal needs some greens on the side to round it off, and cheddar on top of the chili makes it a treat.

Sick of messing with poopy water every day?  Our chicken waterer is the answer.
Posted Sun May 8 08:54:19 2011 Tags:
Zareba K9 electric fence unit field report one year later

It's been almost a year since we installed the Zereba K9 pet, lawn, and garden electric fence controller and we couldn't be happier with the results.

First off I should say that it only took Lucy about 10 minutes to learn when we first got chickens that all poultry on the farm belonged to us and she was to never even try to eat a chicken.

Lucy ready for a walkFood scraps in the new pasture was another issue. She kept being a bad girl, and I tried to plead with her and build a better fence, but she was better at breaking in.

And then one day I saw the Zereba K9 electric solution at a local hardware store and dared to dream that this could send the clear message that I was unable to articulate.

It only took her one shock to realize any food scraps near the chickens were out of bounds. We moved the flock to another pasture but did not need to install the K9 this time as Lucy had clearly learned to keep a respectable distance.

Posted Sun May 8 14:58:24 2011 Tags:

Thinning peachesThinning is like editing.  The process is time-consuming and mentally difficult, but if you bite the bullet and do the hard work, the fruits of your labor are twice as good.

Last year, I thinned our peaches hesitantly, leery of removing so many baby fruits, but my work paid off in spades.  In fact, as I picked our huge, delicious peaches that summer, I only wished I'd thinned a little harder since the peaches that had been left close together were of much lower quality.  And despite what you might think, the big fruits had every bit as much flavor as you'll find in the tiny peaches on abandoned trees that never get thinned.  (I also feel obliged to add my father's experience --- he didn't thin his peaches last year and one tree bore so heavily that branches broke all the way off!)

Culled peachSo this year, I thinned hard, removing about seven peaches for each one I left behind.  In addition to making sure the fruits were separated by several inches along the branch, I tried to select for large, unblemished fruits in sunnier spots.  I could tell that the oriental fruit moth had already laid its eggs, so I did my best to remove the infested fruits.  (No, I never did get around to implementing any control strategies for this pest, so I'm sure I'll be scooping out wormy centers this summer.)  The tree will probably drop a few more of fruits in a week or two, but last year I had no problem with pruning pre-drop, and even this "hard" thinning job isn't as extreme as most peach experts suggest.

Pinching watersprout

Meanwhile, I went ahead and snapped the tops off watersprouts popping up in the center of the tree.  Peach trees pruned to the open center system will keep putting up watersprouts every year, and if you leave them alone, you'll be wasting a lot of your tree's energy that could go into building useful branches instead of toward branches that are just going to be lopped off.  Meanwhile, the watersprouts shade the fruits, negating the purpose of the open center system (opening up as much of the fruit zone as possible to the sun.)  I'll try to remember to come back and do another round of summer pruning later and to remove any twigs that wilt (signs of further oriental fruit moth damage.)  But, mostly, I'll just sit back and watch the fuzzy fruits swell outside the kitchen window.

Our chicken waterer gives chickens something to do during long, boring afternoons in the coop.
Posted Mon May 9 07:57:03 2011 Tags:
Craftsman walk behind rear wheel replacement procedure how to

The same wrong wheel
for the lawn mower showed up today in the mail.

I dove a bit deeper within the schematic and discovered what they were calling a "rear wheel" was actually the front wheel and a bit down the list we see that the rear wheel is just called "wheel".

What impressed me was how fast and efficient the lady at Sears parts direct was in first listening to my explanation of the schematic error and then fixing the problem. She even went the extra step of giving us 10% off for our trouble plus free shipping.

The latest call took only 15 minutes, which combined with the first call equals a bit over half an hour. That's too much time for a simple parts order, but these things happen sometimes. Perhaps I'm the fist person ever to need the rear wheel replaced on this particular model of push behind mower? Getting to keep the 2 smaller front wheels is a small consolation, but maybe they'll come in handy for something in the future.

Posted Mon May 9 16:57:23 2011 Tags:

Tomato transplantsTomato planting day is one of my favorite annual events, but it's also fraught with a lot of second guessing.  Last year, I had very good luck spacing my tomatoes further apart (which meant setting out fewer of them --- 21 instead of 37) and pruning them heavily, so this year I'll be continuing that trend.  I slipped 22 of the heftiest transplants I've ever grown into the ground on Monday, watering them in well to make up for the scorching heat.

Early blight on a tomato leafEvery year, I grow fewer slicers and tommy-toes and more romas.  In 2010, I was down to 8 non-romas, and this year I only put in 5, which feels like very few until I remind myself that they only need to keep us in fresh tomatoes over the summer.  I had planned to put in 6 non-romas, but our delicious Japanese Black Trifele seems to have carried blight spores in its seeds, so I quickly culled all of the affected plants.  That gave me space to upgrade to 17 romas in hopes of socking away even more sauce, dried tomatoes, and ketchup for the winter. 

I put most of our tomatoes in one long, new bed running along the south side of the chicken pasture.  This is the very sunniest spot in the garden, and I figure I can use the fence (with some extra posts) to train the tomatoes upright and keep them drier than ever Kill mulchbefore.  In our very wet climate, dry is what tomatoes crave, and we love them enough to give them prime real estate in the garden.  I had actually hoped to make the bed a little longer, but two solid months of wet, wet, wet has reduced me to scraping away at the last remnants of horse manure compost, so the new tomato bed ended rather abruptly when the manure gave out.  If nature smiles on us and we're able to drive the truck out this week, I'll add another ten feet of tomato bed and throw in some more roma seeds to increase our planting --- maybe this winter we'll have enough dried tomatoes that they don't have to be a once a month treat?

To learn more about the whys and hows of kill mulches, check out our 99 cent ebook (Weekend Homesteader: May.)
Posted Tue May 10 07:22:51 2011 Tags:
sprinkler in action on a hot spring day in 2011

One of my favorite spring/summer sounds is the swoosh swooshing of our 220 volt creek pump pushing water all the way up to our thirsty garden.

Posted Tue May 10 16:58:13 2011 Tags:

Sweet potato slipAlthough I seem to save my obsessing for the tomatoes, I didn't want you to think that's all we put in the garden this week.  Our first round of sweet potato slips were ready to set out early, thanks to the gravel starting flat that tempted shoots to grow roots before I even snipped them from the parent tuber.  And I started peppers inside this year to give us a bit of a head start on the growing season.

Most of our summer crops grow from seed, though.  I put in a second planting of sweet corn, green beans, summer squash, and watermelons since the late April seedlings are already up and thriving, and I would have put in another set of cucumbers if I hadn't run out of seeds.  (More are on the way.)  Peanuts will go in later this week, as will the first round of butternuts.

Then, in two weeks, it'll be time to plant many of these crops all over again.  Succession planting keeps our summer harvest steady for crops like sweet corn that ripen up all at once Pepper seedlingand for troublesome cucurbits (squash, cucumbers) and beans that tend to peter out from pests or disease after a few weeks of bearing.  Midsummer planting is also appropriate for winter squashes that will sit on the shelf through the cold season --- the later the squashes ripen up, the more likely they are to still be good come spring.  So June is the time to plant most of my butternuts as well as the naked seed pumpkins we're trying out this year.

And then, just one month from now, it'll be time to start putting in the fall garden!  I'm glad I keep all of this information in a spreadsheet because I'd never get the planting dates right otherwise.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock happy while my attention is on the garden.
Posted Wed May 11 06:56:57 2011 Tags:
Sprinkler screen close up modification how to instructions

The pump in our creek sucks up tiny particles that eventually clog up the stainless steel filter on our reciprocating lawn sprinklers.

We started experimenting with deleting the filters last year. The initial concern was that the sprinkler head might get gunked up and stop working. That hasn't happened yet, even with the junkier plastic version.

I have a feeling this modification wouldn't work on a system with lower pressure, but it might be worth a try. The replacement cost for these things is less than 10 dollars, but the feeling of security one gets knowing you can water the garden during a dry spell is priceless.

Posted Wed May 11 16:17:03 2011 Tags:
Alpine strawberry

Forest gardening books sing the praises of alpine strawberries, promising stunning flavor in a shade-tolerant plant that bears all summer, but my experience hasn't been as positive.  I started some alpine strawberries from seed last year and transplanted them into a slightly shady raised bed below my ailing dwarf cherry.  The strawberries produced that same summer, but the fruits were a bit mealy and lacked the complex flavor that I'm used to in my homegrown strawberries.

Alpine and June strawberriesI figured the dull flavor could be an artifact of the time of year, so left the alpine strawberries in place, planning a side by side comparison this spring.  But when our first strawberries ripened up, Mark and I both decided that the alpines didn't hold a candle to our favorite Honeoyes.

The alpines did win very slightly on one point, though --- earliness.  We ate our first alpine strawberries on May 7 and didn't get our first June-bearing strawberriers until May 9.  Those two early fruits aren't going to be enough to turn alpine strawberries into a core crop on our farm, though.

That said, I wonder if the problem with our alpine strawberries could stem from my method of starting them from seed.  Nearly all fruits are cloned rather than grown from seed since the genetic diversity in a batch of seeds will result in a bunch of duds and only a few winning plants.  Granted, books tell me that it's fine to start alpine strawberries from seed, but I'm not so sure.  Has anyone eaten really award-winning alpine strawberries?  Do you know what variety they were and how they were started?

Our chicken waterer has proven its mettle as a labor-saver on the farm.
Posted Thu May 12 07:58:33 2011 Tags:
installing a window air conditioner into a wall permenantly

One problem I've always seen with these window air conditioners was the limited choices a house or trailer might have when looking for an appropriate installation spot.

I've had several of these through the years and I often found myself standing in front of it so I could receive the full effect of the chilled air thinking it sure would be nice to have this artificial cool breeze blowing on me over there in that chair.

It took Anna and me a little over 2 hours to make the above custom fit. Now I can sit within inches of the Arctic winter blast.

Posted Thu May 12 16:40:21 2011 Tags:

Tokyo bekanaGreens aren't very sexy, so I don't talk about them much.  But if you considered the vegetable side of our diet, I'll bet cooked greens would make up a quarter of the pie, so I figured it was worth trying out a few new varieties this year.  (As a side note, what I call "greens" are often referred to in the literature as potherbs.  I'm talking about vegetables we grow to eat as cooked leaves.)

Before I launch into what I thought of the newcomers to the garden, I should probably tell you what our old standbys are.  The summer garden is Swiss chard all the way --- this is the only green that doesn't bolt and the plant's mild flavor doesn't need the sweetening effects of frost.  Most of the other greens are in the crucifer family with broccoli and Kyona mizunacabbages, but swiss chard is just about alone (except for spinach, beets, and amaranth), so garden rotations are a bit easier with swiss chard in the mix.  To top it all off, this summer green isn't bothered by cabbage worms or flea beetles, although last year we did get an infestation of striped blister beetles.

Our favorite fall and winter green is kale.  After a frost, kale becomes so sweet that we eat it like candy, and the plant is also our most cold hardy green, sometimes managing to overwinter without protection in zone 6.  That said, I usually hedge my bets in the fall by also planting mustard.  The flavor of mustard isn't anything to write home about, but the plants love our weather and grow like crazy when nothing else will.  And mustard is a local staple, so you can get the seeds cheap at the feed store.

Everyone seemed to be singing the praises of Asian greens last year, though, so I thought I'd better jump on the bandwagon.  On the recommendation of one of Elliot Coleman's books, I planted tokyo bekana and kyona mizuna in early March hoping that these would turn into good additions to our summer garden.  The kyona mizuna is a bit of a wash --- the leaves are thick and not very tasty, in my opinion, and the flea beetles love them.  On the other hand, Mark and I both adore the flavor of the tokyo bekana (although the flea beetles do too.)  But I'm a bit disappointed to see that both of these Asian greens are already starting to bolt (especially the kyona mizuna) --- I guess they won't be summer greens after all.

ChicoryMeanwhile, I sprinkled chicory (aka Italian Dandelion) seeds on expansions of various tree mounds in the forest garden.  The goal was to come up with a cultivated perennnial green that likes partial shade and will give us tasty dinners early in spring when annuals aren't growing.  I couldn't find any chicory specifically labelled as a perennial so this experiment may fail in the long run, but in the short run I'm thrilled with the results.  The Catalogna Special Italian Dandelion I planted in early March was big enough for frequent small cuttings starting at about six weeks old and I've found that adding 10% chicory to a pot of other greens adds complexity to the dish's flavor.  (In earlier spring, the leaves should be less bitter and edible on their own.)

Coming up next in 2011's great greens trial are a variety of amaranth grown for summer greens and tatsoi (another Asian green) in the fall.  I also plan to experiment with several new varieties of kale to see if I can find one that's even tastier (inconceivable!) and more winter hardy.  I'd be curious to hear which greens are your standbys and why.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Fri May 13 07:52:46 2011 Tags:
rear wheel replacement procedure on a Craftsman walk behind mower

The final chapter in my little lawn mower saga is a happy one.

A new and improved rear wheel showed up in the mail. What makes this one special is the addition of 2 all metal bearings.

Makes me wonder if the original designers planned it this way by making the original wheel without any bearings so they could squeeze another 30 bucks out of the customer when the plastic gives out from a few years of service?

Posted Fri May 13 17:08:04 2011 Tags:

Pot of greensAfter letting the plants take up space in our garden for four years, I've finally found a use for chives.  Let me back up, though, and tell you about our new favorite greens "recipe."  I put "recipe" in quotes because something this simple doesn't really seem like cooking, but the taste is surprisingly complex:

  • About three quarts of loosely packed leafy greens
  • About a pint of chicory leaves
  • About half a cup of Egyptian onion leaves
  • A healthy dash of balsamic vinegar
  • A slightly less healthy dash of peanut oil

Cooked greensTurn the heat on high and stir until the leaves are just barely cooked (a few scant minutes.)  The greens cook down to make just enough to serve two.  Not elegant but definitely delicious!

Now, back to those chives.  Egyptian onions make an appearance on our plates daily for much of the year, but at the beginning of May, the plants begin to put up their fruiting stalks.  At that point, the onion leaves turn thicker and lose a lot of their prime flavor, so I needed to find a replacement for my most-used herb.  That's when I remembered that normal people cook with chives the way I cook with Egyptian onions, and Sweat bee on chivessure enough, chives made a pretty good substitute in the recipe above.  Chive leaves seem to lose their flavor less when they're in bloom, even though I think the leaves don't taste as good as Egyptian onion leaves during the rest of the year.

In case you're wondering why I weeded and mulched chives for so long without eating them, the answer is --- pollinators!  Our halictid bees, especially, adore the flowers of chives, and I've seen several other pollinators visiting from time to time.  And, yes, they're pretty.

Our chicken waterer eliminates the messy task of cleaning out poop-filled waterers.
Posted Sat May 14 07:01:11 2011 Tags:
radioactive mushroom or fungus

When I was a kid I saw an episode of Gilligan's island where some radioactive seeds washed ashore and they grew extra large vegetables as a result. The carrots provided super enhanced vision and the spinach gave the Skipper super strong muscles.

Parts of this concept might not be as crazy as it sounds. In 1999 a robot was sent into the Chernobyl reactor to map the building and found a black fungus that was somehow thriving in the toxic environment. Some speculation suggests that the fungi have an unknown mechanism that can use the energy radiated for growth.

Image credit goes to via a post from the Boing Boing blog and the blue mushroom image is thanks to

Posted Sat May 14 15:32:17 2011 Tags:

Two incubatorsI'm nervously gearing up for hatch #2.  The Brinsea Octagon 20 Advance Incubator seems to have done its job perfectly, never letting the interior temperature vary by more than 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit, and I got the eggs to lose just the right amount of weight.  I'm expecting a very high hatch long as I don't mess up these last two days.

Having unplugged the egg turner and raised the humidity up for hatch, the only remaining problem I foresee is the chicks killing each other.  You may recall that one of our chicks accidentally speared another in the gut during the last hatch, and I'm concerned that the cramped conditions inside our current incubator might create a repeat of that disaster.  I moved five eggs to the Brinsea Mini Advance incubator Saturday afternoon so that I had space to lay all of the eggs down flat in the bigger incubator, but even that could be a two-edged sword --- the littler incubator might let the temperature vary more for the last two days, but hopefully the mostly developed chicks can deal with a bit of variation.
Eggs in incubator
What I'm trying to decide now is whether to move yet more eggs out of the big incubator and into our faulty Little Giant incubator once they begin to pip.  I'm far from confident about my ability to control the temperature in there, but the extra space might be worth sub-optimal temperature for the last day, and during my trial on Saturday afternoon, temperatures stayed pretty steady in the styrofoam incubator.  Alternatively, I could wait until chicks hatch and then carefully transfer them to the Little Giant for the dry-down period, or I could just leave that incubator out of the mix entirely.  I'd love some advice from the hatchers among you.  Does more space trump better temperature control?  Would you put some eggs in the Little Giant or leave them all in the Brinsea workhorse?  (Am I crazy to think we might get 21 live chicks out of our 24 eggs?)

Our chicken waterer is ready to go in the brooder to keep the chicks hydrated from day 1.
Posted Sun May 15 08:08:23 2011 Tags:
water hose control valve close up

This hose splitter with control valves is metal with a plastic coating. It cost a couple bucks more than the all metal or all plastic, but it's money well spent if you need to leave this stuff outside all season long.

Maybe I should build a cover for it to provide some shade and reduce the UV exposure to help it last even longer?

Posted Sun May 15 16:27:16 2011 Tags:

Butternut on compost pileThis butternut seedling is growing on the compost pile...along with a few dozen of his brothers and cousins.  Whenever I walk by, I can't help but think about the anthropological hypothesis that agriculture may have begun when seeds like this sprouted out of early man's midden heaps.

If you pay attention, you'll notice that some vegetables can put up with compost piles while others can't.  At first, compost life sounds like living on easy street, but the conditions are actually a bit rough.  Sure, there's plenty of extra fertility, but my volunteer butternuts have had to put up with undiluted urine baths a couple of times a week, with lots of high carbon materials to grow around, and with shifting soil as the compost pile settles.  Despite these potential problems, volunteer tomatoes and squashes seem to prefer the compost heap to the garden.

When you create a kill mulch and plant into it right away rather than letting the no-till garden mellow for a season before planting, you're growing in soil a lot like your compost pile.  That's why I save crops that make good compost pile volunteers for our new no-till beds each summer, and give less hearty garden crops the older beds.  Now I just have to decide whether to let thirty butternut plants sprawl out across the forest pasture or to turn the compost pile and crush these volunteers.

For more information on the whys and hows of no-till gardening, check out our 99 cent ebook.
Posted Mon May 16 07:14:10 2011 Tags:
new chick in town 3.0 homegrown version 2nd of 2011

Our third homegrown chick showed up today a bit earlier than predicted.

Not sure when we'll get accustomed to all this eggcitement during the hatching phase.

In my opinion it's 10 times more entertaining than any television I can remember.

Posted Mon May 16 16:32:01 2011 Tags:

Egg pippingI still don't know how successful this hatch will be, but fifteen hours into day 21, there are now two fully fluffed chicks in the brooder, one wet chick flopping its way out of the shell, and five more pipping.  I've got a lot of thoughts on the process so far:

  • All of this activity has taken place in one half of the incubator, making me wonder if temperatures aren't exactly the same throughout.  Perhaps next time I should flip the orientation of the egg tray each time I weigh it
  • Or maybe hatch time varies by breed?  All of the fully hatched chicks are my mail-ordered cuckoo maran eggs, and so are a couple of the pippers.
Incubator humidity
  • Humidity isn't so hard to deal with during hatch as people make it seem.  Adding a wet washcloth to the bottom of the incubator under the wells and pouring in a bit of baby bottle temperature water whenever I mess around inside lets me keep humidity in the incubator quite high with the vent partly open, and the humidity rebounds in minutes when I have to open the lid.
  • I was overreacting about space in the incubator.  All of the chicks who have hatched so far have been brimming with life, not soft and easily damaged like the ones that died in the incubator last time.  Since the chicks hatch over quite a long time period, I can take out dried off chicks and empty shells at intervals, leaving more space for each newly hatched bird.

Hatched chickThat said, I still had nightmares and woke up three times during night 20, coming in with a flashlight to check on the eggs.  In an effort to ease my mind and get a full night's sleep for night 21, I downloaded three free ebooks about incubation, the most useful of which has been Incubation: Natural and Artificial by J.H. Sutcliffe.  Yes, this book is over a century old, but I was looking for tried and true information.  I learned that my gut feeling that I should turn any pipped eggs upright if their hole is pointing to the floor instead of the ceiling is right on track and that you can tell if an unpipped egg is alive on day 21 by using the witch test (you know, put it in some warm water and see if it floats.)  I'll save that last tidbit of information for an emergency.

Photos this morning aren't very inspired since it's not quite daylight and my photographer (Mark) is still sound asleep.  I'm sure you'll see more cute pictures tonight.

Our newest chicks are still spending all of their time under the brooder, but I expect them to venture out and try their chicken waterer today.
Posted Tue May 17 07:51:33 2011 Tags:
best bat box design

In your agrarian situation, do bats have a place in your plans?


That question brings up a project that's been on the back burner for a while now.

I'm thinking the shady side of our barn would be a good place to mount a few bat boxs and maybe a bed of straw at the bottom to catch any potential guano.

Image credit goes to Lauren Smith and Derek Fagerstrom from their intriguing book titled "More Show Me How".

Posted Tue May 17 15:31:10 2011 Tags:

Cuckoo Marans chicksAll of the books and websites agree that you get your best chicks by the end of day 21, so even though I'll let the rest of the eggs sit in the incubator for another day or two, I want to do my hatching analysis with just the chicks hatched by Tuesday afternoon.  At that time, there were five happy chicks snuggled under the brooder, two aided and ailing chicks in the first aid incubator (more on them tomorrow), one chick just hatched in the big incubator, and two pipped eggs.

Of the six chicks that hatched on their own, five were Cuckoo Marans and only one was a homegrown egg.  Keep in mind that the Cuckoo Marans were jiggled around by the post office and had to wait a whole week from laying before going in the incubator, a combination of factors that often reduces hatch rates.  So why did they do so much better?

Bird in the handNine of the 24 eggs I started with were from our four year old hens because I was hoping to pass on their foraging genes, but I've since read that any hen older than two years is going to produce eggs with limited viability.  Even the eggs from our "young" Golden Comet are a bit suspect since she's three years old.  Of these geriatric eggs, one hatched unaided just at the end of day 21, I helped one out, and one is a late pipper.  For the sake of comparison, our mail order Cuckoo Marans self-hatched 42% of their eggs by the end of day 21, I helped one chick out of the shell, and one more is a late pipper.  Clearly, age of the hen matters.

As a side note, next time I'll be sure to plan my hatch for the weekend.  My ability to focus on work while chicks are struggling out of their shells over my right shoulder is pretty much nill.  Good thing my boss is nice!

Our oldest chick started exploring his domain and found our chicken waterer on Tuesday afternoon.
Posted Wed May 18 06:39:02 2011 Tags:
poultry ramp one month later

Its now been a month since the new poultry ramp went in and both generations of the flock seem to be fine with getting in and out.

Home grown 2.0 is about 2 days older than the rest of the next generation which naturally makes him their leader.

Posted Wed May 18 16:48:58 2011 Tags:

Day old chickIs it worth it to help chicks who are having trouble getting out of the shell?  For that matter, how can you tell if they're having trouble?  If you do help, how?  I'm far from an expert, but after our second hatch, I'm starting to feel like I have a handle on the answers to these thorny questions, so I thought I'd share.

First of all, the course of least resistance is to not help, which is what I did with our first hatch.  If you're okay with some good chicks dying in the incubator, this route makes sense, but you can improve your hatch rate by giving troubled chicks a hand.  That said, I wouldn't recommend helping unless:

  • You have some sort of critical care unit prepared (like a spare incubator, all warmed up.)  Chicks you help out of the shell are likely to be weak and will need some extra time in a warm spot where they won't be picked on.  Otherwise, your more vibrant chicks might peck them to death.
  • You have a way of boosting the humidity in the incubator.  Helping means opening the lid more, which can harm your currently hatching chicks.  I devised an easy method of increasing the incubator humidity so that the chicks barely noticed me lifting the lid.
  • You're willing to cull chicks.  The process of escaping the shell naturally kills chicks that are damaged or are too weak to make it in life.  By helping chicks out of the shell, you're taking responsibility for euthanizing the ones that survive but are too damaged to live in your flock.  One of the three chicks we helped had a problematic leg (not splayed legs, but worse) that meant it would never be able to walk, and we had to put it out of its misery.  We figured out how to cull chicks so that they die in seconds (but I'm putting the information behind a link since I know the image will bother some of you.)

A brown, dry membrane is a sign of a stuck chick. Compare to the healthy, damp membrane below.If you aren't scared into letting nature take its course, let's move on to when to help chicks.  In most cases, an untroubled chick will pip (peck a hole in its shell) and then spend some time thinking about its options.  After anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, the chick starts hitting its beak against the shell in earnest to unzip itself, a process that usually only takes an hour or so once started.  You can tell the chick is having trouble if it gets stuck for several hours in the unzipping stage, either futilely banging its beak against the hole without making further openings in the shell or mostly unzipped but unable to kick free.  A chick is also troubled if it's pipped but hasn't started unzipping after twelve hours, or if the bit of exposed membrane around the pipping hole is starting to turn tan and dry.  Finally, if a chick somehow maneuvers itself so that it's trying to pip at the pointed end of the shell, it won't be able to get out, so you might as well help from the beginning.

If you have a stuck chick, how can you help?  You'll need a basin of warm water (baby bottle temperature), a clean rag, and nimble fingers.  First step is to moisten the membranes since they've probably started to dry out if the chick has been pipped for so long.  Dampen the rag in the warm water and encircle the egg, then squeeze a few drops of water onto the exposed membrane around the pipping hole.  Be careful not to drown the chick, though, since its beak will be right there --- you don't want any water to actually run into the egg, just hydrate the membrane.  Since the chick has already started a hole, it should be pretty simple to gently pick off bits of shell and membrane, opening up a line around the shell just like the chick would have.  If your chick is worth saving, once you get the shell separated into two halves, it will kick its way out, which is important for development of the chick's legs.  The membrane shouldn't bleed --- if it does, the chick isn't really quite ready to hatch, so pop it back in the incubator.  (All of this is done in a warm spot outside the incubator, by the way.  You plucked out the problematic egg and quickly reclosed the lid to keep everyone else toasty and moist.)

Nine chicksI helped three chicks during our most recent hatch, and all three of them would have survived if I hadn't decided to cull the chick with the troubled leg.  I'm about 95% sure all three of these chicks would have died if I hadn't helped, so I figure the time was well spent.  Plus, I didn't have dead chicks stinking up the incubator like I did last time around, so I was able to let it keep running clear to the end of day 22, netting one late hatcher halfway through the last day.  I'll definitely help any ailing chicks next time.

Don't worry about water and food while the chick is recovering in critical care, but as soon as it reaches the brooder, it will be ready for clean water from our chicken waterer.

Incubation HandbookSince writing this post, I've perfected my technique of helping chicks without bothering their siblings.  I've also got a better handle on when it's a good idea to help, and when those chicks will have to be culled.  Learn more about helping chicks out of the shell in my 99 cent ebook.

Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook walks beginners through perfecting the incubating and hatching process so they can enjoy the exhilaration of the hatch without the angst of dead chicks. 92 full color photos bring incubation to life, while charts, diagrams, and tables provide the hard data you need to accomplish a hatch rate of 85% or more.

Posted Thu May 19 06:50:41 2011 Tags:
Kobalt never flat wheelbarrow

kobalt wheel barrow in actionWe've had the new Kobalt never flat wheel barrow in service for a few months now and it still feels like the best wheel barrow money can buy.

What would be great is if someone would come up with a never flat wheel upgrade for the size of wheels on the TC1840H garden wagon.

Posted Thu May 19 16:18:26 2011 Tags:

Strawberry shortcake

I love strawberries, but have always been a bit undecided about strawberry shortcake.  For one thing, there just aren't enough strawberries in the dish.  And where's the chocolate?  With strawberry season in full swing, I tested out a new recipe that won everyone's heart...including my own.

Bowl of strawberries

Start with a
big bowl of strawberries.  A gallon of strawberries will serve about seven or eight strawberry lovers.  Try not to eat too many on the way into the house.

If you must, wash the strawberries, but only if it's been raining and the fruit is really dirty.  Then cut off the stems and slice the berries into slivers.  Sprinkle on a bit of sugar (perhaps 0.25 cups at the most) --- you shouldn't need much, but if you couldn't wait to pick the berries on a sunny afternoon, a bit of sugar will bring out the flavor.  Stir up the berries and set them aside.  You should have just over two quarts of lightly sweetened strawberry slices.

Cutting up strawberries

Now make the brownies...I mean, shortcake.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and butter a 9 by 13 inch pan.  Melt a stick of butter and stir in 1 cup of sugar, 2 eggs, 1.25 cups of cocoa (we used Hershey's Special Dark because it was on sale), 0.25 c. flour, 0.5 teaspoons salt, 0.5 teaspoons baking powder, 1.5 teaspoons vanilla, and about 2 tablespoons of water Eating strawberry shortcakes(enough to make the dough hang togeher.)  Whir up one 3.52 ounce bar of 60% dark chocolate (we used Hershey's Extra Dark) in the food processor to turn it into chips.  Stir the chips into the dough and spread the result into the bottom of the pan --- it won't want to spread and will be a bit thin.  Bake until a butter knife barely comes out clean.

Now, pour a pint of whipping cream in a bowl and turn your mixer on high to whip it.  At the end, sprinkle in a bit of sugar (perhaps 3 or 4 tablespoons) and mix just enough to blend.

Work a walk through the swampFinally, assemble your dessert.  Brownies on the bottom, then strawberries (being sure to pour on some of the juices), and finally whipped cream.  This recipe is too rich to eat every day, but is definitely a great way to celebrate the height of strawberry season.  Heather deemed it worthy of a muddy trek through the alligator swamp...and she doesn't like homemade brownies!

Don't your chickens deserve a treat too?  Our chicken waterer gives them POOP-free water.
Posted Fri May 20 06:46:37 2011 Tags:
Pullitt automatic chicken coop door opener and closer

The Pullit is a new automatic chicken coop door opener that has the motor, controller, and timer built into a sleek see-thru tube.

Some people might say 300 dollars is too much to pay for such a device. It is the most expensive chicken coop door opener I've seen yet, but it looks like it might last 3 or 4 times longer than the popular 100 dollar drapery motor version.

It can handle just about any type of door and is manufactured in the U.K. which might make shipping to the States even more expensive.
Automatic chicken door
Edited to add:

After years of research, Mark eventually settled on
this automatic chicken door.

You can see a summary of the best chicken door alternatives and why he chose this version here.

If you're planning on automating your coop, don't forget to pick up one of our chicken waterers.  They never spill or fill with poop, and if done right, can only need filling every few days or weeks!

Posted Fri May 20 16:24:33 2011 Tags:
Holding chicks

Three and a half days after the first chick hatched (and a day and a half after I helped the last chick out of its shell), my obsession level finally diminished enough that I wasn't compelled to check on the chicks every ten minutes.  If you can believe it, chick hatching actually trumped strawberry harvesting for a couple of days there (which is why I had enough strawberries so early in the season to pick a whole bowlful two days in a row and could make chocolate strawberry shortcake.)  Maybe by the next hatch, I won't be so nervous that I'm unable to do anything else while eggs are pipping?

Percent survival over timeMy final hatch rate was 9 living chicks (and one cull) out of 24 eggs.  Certainly not as good as I was hoping when I counted my chickens before they hatched, but drastically better than my first hatch (which netted 1 chick out of 7 eggs.)  In fact, the hatch rate this time around was actually better than it looks since my autopsy on day 23 showed that four of the eggs were infertile, mostly from that old hen who just started laying a month ago.  People generally don't count infertile eggs in their hatch calculations, so our hatch rate was 45% --- 25% for our old hens and 58% for the prime cuckoo marans eggs.

Chick on brooderSince the folks we were fostering half of our australorps for probably don't want them after all, it looks like we might just need one more hatch to reach quota for the year.  We've given up on our hens as gene donors (and are more impressed with the foraging abilities of our black australorps anyway), so we've ordered twenty australorp hatching eggs from Golden Willow Farm.  They're the folks who sent us the cuckoo marans eggs, and I like the fact that their stock have access to real pasture.  I'm aiming for a hatch rate of 65% this time around (13 chicks), which I hope to achieve by sanding off any bits of poop on the eggs.  (Infection is a common cause of egg loss midway through the incubation period, which is the one part of the cycle where we did worse during this hatch than the first time around.  Incidentally, several of the eggs were slightly dirty.)  Wish us luck as we go into round three!

Four chicks at a time were drinking out of our chicken waterer as I typed this post.  No damp bedding in the brooder!
Posted Sat May 21 08:48:19 2011 Tags:
Jumping a battery with a booster box

We've used the 5 in 1 portable power pack to jump 2 vehicles so far.

The first time was on the truck, and I guess that drained most of its energy because the next time I tried to jump something it just wasn't enough even though the onboard meter said it had enough energy.

I think it's too much to ask this power pack to jump multiple batteries on a single charge.

Posted Sat May 21 16:21:29 2011 Tags:

Tomato budDo you remember the blights and other fungal diseases that came with 2009's rainy summer and wiped out the garden (especially the tomatoes)?  I got a bit spooked during a rainy blackberry winter, thinking that we might be in for a repeat of the year without a summer, so I direct-seeded a few beds of lettuce, greens, and broccoli.  Hopefully, hot weather will make this summer lettuce bitter and the broccoli buggy, but if the rain takes the tomatoes, I know I'll need a consolation prize.

Once we finally had a day dry enough to allow me to touch them, I also pruned our tomatoes heavily, even though they're a bit on the small size for pruning.  If the rain continues, I want the bottom leaves to be well above the soil surface so that they dry off quickly and so that fungi can't splash up from the ground.  I also gave up on the driveway drying up enough to bring in some more compost and cardboard during the optimal transplant window, and instead put my four last sets into sunny (and pre-built) hugelkultur mounds in the forest garden.  A few of our tomatoes are already sporting flower buds, so this transplant comes not a moment too soon!

Pea flowersElsewhere in the garden, we're in a bit of a lull (and I actually had Mark buy a few vegetables at the store last week.)  We're still enjoying lettuce, greens, and strawberries, but the peas and broccoli are running a week late due to the cold soil earlier this spring.  Sometime around the beginning of June, I expect the glut to begin --- in addition to all of the above, we should soon have carrots, cabbages, raspberries, new potatoes, and garlic all coming out of the garden in basketloads.  But it's hard to complain when I was able to turn a gallon of strawberries into eleven cups of freezer jam on Saturday.  The freezer is no longer empty!

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with POOP-free water.
Posted Sun May 22 08:12:22 2011 Tags:

anti freeze box construction

more details on building a box to prevent freezing

The new anti-freeze box made it through the 2010/2011 winter season doing its job of keeping the tank water from freezing during the few feet before it goes underground.

Once it settled the entire box shifted about an inch from the tank. A strip of foam pipe insulation works well to fill in a gap like that.

Posted Sun May 22 16:53:54 2011 Tags:
Worm castings

I've been mulling over our school worm bin project ever since I pronounced it a failure, and I think one of the reasons I found it so easy to throw in the towel is because the worms just weren't happy.  The school food that ended up on our farm seemed to be slightly better than what I was served as a student, but it was still overly processed, starchy, and oily, and the worms were lingering rather than multiplying on such substandard fare.  I didn't realize this at the time --- I just had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I opened the worm bin lid after the first month or so.

Worms in fresh manureAfter the school food stopped coming, I tossed ten gallons of moderately fresh horse manure in the bin, then another ten gallons two weeks later.  The worms quickly migrated up into the manure and their population exploded.  The two and a half week old manure is still full of worms, but its appearance has already changed over to nearly pure castings (the photo at the top of the page), in stark contrast to the three month old food scraps in which I can still pick out the shape of the food.  So this is what a healthy worm bin is supposed to look like!

For future reference, I had tried to pick out the most worm-worthy food to put in the bin, but there just wasn't much of it, and this is what I'd been feeding the worms (in rough order of amount):

  • mashed potatoes
  • green beans
  • bread
  • hamburgers
  • french fries
  • corn
  • apples
  • peas
  • carrots
  • salad
  • pickles

Compost wormsYou would have thought that the worms would have at least been pleased with the fruits and vegetables, but the truth is that the only thing they actually seemed to be enjoying was fresh spinach.  The mashed potatoes, especially, caused anaerobic pockets that quickly turned moldy and that the worms fled from.

The moral of the story is that run of the mill food scraps aren't very healthy for worms.  Makes you wonder, though --- if the worms won't eat this food, should our community's children?

Our chicken waterer keeps your flock healthy and happy with clean water.
Posted Mon May 23 06:47:24 2011 Tags:

Weekend HomesteaderThe June edition of Weekend Homesteader is now available in Amazon's kindle store!  This month's projects include:

  • Making a small worm bin (and how to use worm castings and tea in the garden)
  • Surveying your site (to discover natural paths and your yard's potential)
  • Learning about nutrition (and unlearning everything you thought you knew)
  • Calculating your real hourly wage (to find out if your job's driving you into debt)
Book ranking

A huge thank you to everyone who helped the May edition of Weekend Homesteader stay in top 13% of all Amazon ebooks last month!  In fact, at times the ebook was in the top 2%, which really made my day.  I was thrilled to see a second peak in sales this month, presumably from random Amazon folks who stumbled across the book without reading our blog due to your good reviews.  Your actions were clearly very powerful.

Weekend Homesteader paperback I'm hoping you can keep the ball rolling with the June edition of Weekend Homesteader.  Even if you don't want to spend 99 cents to buy the ebook, you can help this ebook rise in the rankings with a few simple actions:

  • Scroll down near the bottom of the Amazon page to where it says "Tag this product."  Click on anything you want, but I'm aiming for "homesteading" and "worm bin", and your vote there would really help.
  • Click the "like" button near the top of the Amazon page even if you don't buy the book.
  • Buy the ebook if you're interested.
  • Leave a review, if at all possible.
  • Leave a comment on the Weekend Homesteader June resource page letting me know what you loved or hated about this second installment.  Were the exercises too easy, too hard, or just right?  Did you have trouble with any part of the ebook?  I'll take what you say into consideration as I write the July volume.
  • Tell your friends!

As a side note, if you're one of our regular readers and are aching to follow along, but don't have a Kindle or the know-how to download their app for your computer or phone, drop me an email and I'll send you a free, unformatted pdf copy to read.  My goal isn't to leave you out, but to try to add more converts to the flock.

Thank you so much for taking the time to make Weekend Homesteader a success!

Posted Mon May 23 12:00:28 2011 Tags:
using a disposable hand warmer to keep chicks warm without power

We lost power this morning and the new chicks started complaining loudly.

One of the portable power packs came in handy to keep the incubator warm, but the other pack didn't have enough juice to run the brooder. Ooops! I should have topped off that charge last week when I tried jumping the car.

Anna had the great idea to use a disposbale hand warmer, and it only took me 10 minutes to dig through a box of stuff to find it. It felt a bit too hot, so we wrapped it in a small piece of cloth. 10 minutes later the peeping shifted from "we're too cold!" to "things are fine here".

The package claims you can get 10 hours of heat from these things. Our power came back in about 2 hours and now we've decided to make a point to have a few of these on hand for any future emergency chick warming.

Posted Mon May 23 16:07:03 2011 Tags:

Comfrey mulchAlthough I'm dubious about the benefits of planting comfrey underneath fruit trees as a living mulch, I've had great luck cutting comfrey from standalone plants to mulch the vegetable garden.  The high nitrogen leaves break down nearly as quickly as grass clippings do, so they act as a combination of top-dressing and weed control (with a bit more emphasis on the former than the latter.)  This shot was taken about a week after adding the leaves to the ground, but it rained for most of the week and the comfrey didn't wilt until last Friday.  The softest parts of the leaves are already starting to disappear into the soil four days after wilting.

I estimate I'd need about 600 comfrey plants, or a square planting 37 feet on each side, to grow all of the mulch for my vegetable garden.  If I had a better way to harvest them than cutting with scissors, I might be tempted to devote the space to these dynamic accumulators.  As it is, my dozen plants are all I can handle.

Our chicken waterer cuts poultry chores in half.
Posted Tue May 24 08:01:02 2011 Tags:
little cute warm chick

We ended up putting all the chicks in a much smaller box to encourage them to all stay on top of the hand warmer.

It might have been smarter to attach the warmer to the roof of the brooder so they could have pushed up against it.

Posted Tue May 24 16:24:12 2011 Tags:

GardenI generally start out the weeding year by working my way regularly through quadrant after quadrant, then cycling back around to the beginning once I'm done.  But the day inevitably comes when I get a bit behind and have to break ranks to weed the beds that really need it first.  Which begs the question --- who needs it the most?

Weedy onions

Small seedlings and slow growers can be quickly overwhelmed by weeds.  Earlier in the season, all of the seedlings were top priorities, but summer crops like beans, corn, and cucurbits aren't in much danger from a few weeds even when they're barely sprouted.  Instead, my biggest concern this week are middle-aged carrots and onions --- both have been in the ground for months now, but their leaves don't cast much shade and the plants don't bulk up fast, so a few weeds can wipe them out quickly.  This bed of onions definitely should have been weeded a week ago.

Weedy corn

Next on the list is those hardy summer seedlings.  Sure, they won't melt away if I let the weeds overwhelm them, but they will get stunted, and I'm always itching for the first beans and tomatoes.  While I'm weeding between the plants, I also go ahead and do any thinning if I've put the seeds too close together.

Cabbage and broccoli

I won't get to it this week, but the beds I'll be aiming to weed next week contain plants currently in their prime like peas, cabbage, and broccoli.  These guys are growing so vigorously that they shade out most of the weeds under their canopy, but it never hurts to keep the competition down.

Weedy garlic

Way, way down on my list are mature and overmature crops that will be pulled out in the next couple of weeks, like garlic, potato onions, bolted spring greens, and so forth.  Since I weed each bed heavily after harvest and then immediately add compost and replant, there's not much point in weeding these beds now unless there are huge weeds bothering my vegetables.  Granted, it would be nice to rip out this chickweed and jewelweed before it goes to seed, but I can only do so much.

Of course, if the floodplain ever dried up and we were able to haul in some mulch, the endless cycle of weeding would be reduced by 80%.  Still, I have to admit that I find the act of ripping weeds out of garden beds deeply satisfying, especially when I have strawberry harvest to look forward to for dessert.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Wed May 25 07:03:03 2011 Tags:

ReviewsThank you, thank you, thank you!  I'm such a pessimist that I figured you all might get sick of the idea after the May edition of Weekend Homesteader, but I was thrilled to be proven wrong.  Due to your continued support, the June edition of Weekend Homesteader popped right up into the top 1% of books in the Kindle store during the first day!

In order to suck in strangers who aren't my loyal followers, though, I need some reviews.  If you've had a chance to look through your new ebook, would you mind heading back over to Amazon and writing what you thought of it?  While you're at it, don't forget that you can also review the May edition of Weekend Homesteader.  Your reviews keep the books vibrant over the course of the month, and I know I couldn't do it without you!

Posted Wed May 25 12:00:20 2011 Tags:

smashing with mechanical means in 2011

do it yourself mechanical smasher worked out well at saving some time and effort building the hanger portion of our Avian Aqua Misers, but the process was a bit cumbersome and dangerous.

mechanical smasher do it yourself

I decided to simplify the hanger design so that a pair of normal pliers could be used to squeeze the hanger into place without as much effort as before.

My latest idea is to use this type of mechanism to automatically crack walnuts. Of course there would need to be some system that fed each nut one at a time, which is the part that has me stumped at the moment, but it's one of those low priority problems that will have to wait a few years due to more pressing projects.

Posted Wed May 25 16:31:49 2011 Tags:
Weedy asparagus

Making a kill mulch

Raking the mulch off the asparagus beds in early spring and giving it to the chickens (combined with twice weekly bug picking early in the season) does seem to have knocked my asparagus beetle problem back.  Unfortunately, I neglected to deal with the bare soil, and by early May, little plantain and ragweed seedlings were popping up all over.  Not only does asparagus not like its roots to be disturbed, I found the idea of pulling each of those weeds very daunting.  What to do?

Asparagus bed

Make a kill mulch, of course!  I dealt with the weeds right around the base of each plant, layered small sheets of cardboard on the ground, and topped the kill layer off with compost and straw.

Three weeks later, the bed is still weed-free and the asparagus is thriving.  Kill mulches really are a great tool for the lazy gardener.  (Check out the May edition of Weekend Homesteader for more tips on kill mulches.)

Posted Thu May 26 07:28:14 2011 Tags:
automatic chicken waterer do it yourself 5 gallon bucket note

I forgot to mention one important detail when putting together a do it yourself automatic 5 gallon bucket chicken waterer.

Drill a small hole in the side towards the top.

If there's no air flow the water will stop dripping due to a suction effect.

Posted Thu May 26 16:31:17 2011 Tags:

Stalking a roosterThis week has been a bit rough for me.  Mark and I had hoped to slip away from the farm for a long weekend in order to watch one of my favorite cousins-in-law graduate from my alma mater, and as the date approached, my dreams grew more and more vivid.  I was reenacting my own graduation, walking through research labs, and doing everything my subconscious told me my alma mater might have wanted me to do with my degree.  None of the dreams ended well.

Meanwhile, in the waking world, we were struggling to get the farm in shape to be left alone for a few days.  Wednesday, it all came to a head when I saw deer damage in the garden for the first time in six months (maybe the result of the power outage?) and one of our homegrown chicks keeled over for no apparent reason (probably a delayed reaction to chilling a couple of days before, also during the power outage.)  We were both running on empty already, and reluctantly decided to just stay home.

Catching a roosterI often find tranquility in the chicken pasture, but for the last month, I've been barred from entry by our rooster.  Once a gentleman, now he had decided that I was a competitor to his wives' affection, and he flogged me violently every time I entered.  I'd been saving the rooster's demise until after our trip, figuring he could guard the harem while we were out of town, but now there was nothing to stop us from putting his head on the block.  Thursday morning, Mark tried to catch the rooster with a blanket --- watching the farce cheered me up immensely, but the rooster remained uncaught.  When heavy rains produced an early dusk, we tried again, this time with Mark plucking my nemesis off the perch.

Holding a roosterRed blood on green grass, a patient Lucy sitting on the sidelines, the two of us thanking this vibrant rooster for his healthy meat as we plucked his feathers, then hosing myself down in another rainstorm as the rooster's bones simmered on the stove.  There amid the blood and smell of hot, damp flesh, I realized I was happy.

Our chicken waterer kept our rooster healthy until his last day.
Posted Fri May 27 05:58:04 2011 Tags:
new alternative mounting method low budget

Sometimes the best spot for an automatic chicken waterer is against the outside wall of a coop or barn.

Instead of making a wooden holder or hanging this one from a hook I thought I'd try this easier mounting method and see how well it works.

Posted Fri May 27 16:26:31 2011 Tags:

Picking strawberriesPeach leather turned out to be our favorite preserved fruit last year.  I say "our", but I'm ashamed to admit that I mostly ate the delicacy for my solitary breakfasts, so Mark didn't get to enjoy the dried fruit.  Once he finally got a taste of the peach leather, it became clear that I'd better make more this summer so that we could share from now on.

The first step in making any kind of fruit leather is to think about supplies and dehydrator space.  Two cups of whole strawberries are going to turn into about a cup and a quarter of fruit puree, which in turn will fill up one medium-sized cookie sheet.  Don't pick more fruit than you have room for, or you'll just have to gorge on the excess for supper.  (Our life is so hard....)
Spoiled fruit leather
Next, check the weather forecast.  If you're relying on sunshine to dehydrate your fruit, you'd better find at least a day and a half of hot, sunny weather.  Don't start your leather on a sunny afternoon if it's slated to rain the next day, or your fruit will go bad.  If the leather turns gray (like this), starts to smell, or gets moldy, you'll have to throw it out.  To be on the safe side, it's best to always start fruit leather first thing in the morning.

With all of those preparations out of the way, it's actually very simple to make strawberry Puree strawberriesleather.  Rinse your fruits if they're truly dirty (or came from someone else's place), then cut off the tops and turn the strawberries into puree in the food processor.  Measure how much puree you have and add 1 tablespoon of honey and 0.5 tablespoons of lemon juice per cup --- the honey sweetens your fruit and also helps the leather stick together while the lemon juice preserves color and kills microorganisms.

Stacked fruit leatherPour about a cup and a quarter of doctored puree into each cookie sheet and tilt the pan until the fruit evenly covers the surface.  This will make a paper-thin leather, which is what's called for with solar dehydrating since the thin layer of fruit will dry in a day or two.  If I was running an electric dehydrator, I might use two or even three cups of puree per tray to make a thick leather like you'll find in the store.

Car dehydratorStack your trays as shown above and you can carry up to five trays at once as you head out to your hot, dry spot.  It's possible to simply dehydrate fruit outside in the sun, but the process will take longer and you'll have to cover the leather with a screen to keep out bugs while letting water escape.  Mark wishes I would let him make me a real solar dehydrator (one of these days!), but in the meantime we're using the parts Festiva to dry out fruit.  Any location where the temperature gets between 100 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit will work; higher temperatures will cook your fruit rather than drying it, reducing nutrients and flavor, while lower temperatures won't dry the fruit before it goes bad.

If you're using a ramshackle dehydrator like ours, you'll want to check on your leather two or three times a day, moving wetter trays into the sunniest spots and removing finished trays.  I discovered by accident that if you leave finished trays in the car overnight, just enough moisture will seep back into the leather that it will peel off the tray with ease.  Of course, real people use Saran wrap underneath the fruit so that they don't have to pry it loose, but since I don't care about appearances, I ditch the disposables.

Strawberry leatherYou can store dried fruit on the shelf for a few weeks, in the fridge for a few months, or just toss it in the freezer like we do.  Since around half a gallon of strawberries turns into about a cup of fruit leather, space in the freezer won't be a problem.  The real trouble will be keeping your fingers out of this natural, vitamin-rich candy until the cold season rolls back around.

Our chicken waterer is the easy solution to poopy water.
Posted Sat May 28 07:40:54 2011 Tags:

robotic chick cute

Somebody once asked me what would be the best piece of technology to put aside and store for a possible future apocalyptic scenario.

If the future ends up being similar to Philip K Dick's vision from "Blade Runner" then perhaps a box of the above robotic chicks would serve as a valuable token to barter for goods and services?
Phillip K Dick poster audio book
In that story the environment was damaged and the entire population was taking part in fostering animals and insects in the safety of their homes so that one day in a more healthy future the world could be re-populated. The size and scarcity of the animal was how people displayed status in that society. A wealthy family may have a horse whereas a more middle class family might only be able to afford a chicken and the less fortunate citizens had to bear the shame of not having anything to take care of. A black market sprang up to provide robotic animals to those who either couldn't afford the real thing or had their real animal kick the bucket. Robotic technology was to the point where they had android servants that would sometimes malfunction and kill their owners.

The above robotic chicks are only 27 dollars now, but I'm sure if that type of future takes hold you could expect to fetch upwards of a thousand dollars or more.

Posted Sat May 28 18:00:57 2011 Tags:
View from inside the peach tree

I posted a few days ago about realizing that now wasn't the time to go out of town for a long weekend, and I know that many of you were thinking "Too bad they can't get away!"  The truth is that we live in paradise and would vastly prefer not to leave the farm about 95% of the time.

BroccoliMy mother(s) sometimes worry that I'm becoming a shut-in, afraid to leave the farm, but the truth is more complicated.  The further we dissolve our lives into deep ecology, the more the outside world becomes a fast, startling place that leaves us drained.  Watching TV, commuting to work every day, sitting beside strangers on the subway --- all of these facets of modern American life dull the senses and make the outside world bearable.  Without distractions to build up mental walls, we're honestly interested in the lives of the lady at the post office, are a bit wounded by angry couple sitting beside us in the restaurant, and soon our heads are whirling with the lives of scores of strangers.  Mark has taken over the shopping because I've discovered that even an afternoon trip to the big city for supplies can require a full evening of quiet time to counteract the ads blaring from billboards and the dose of world news that inescapably finds its way to our ears through the TV at the hardware store.

Lately, we've realized there's very little we want or need from the outside world.  The one exception is visiting our family and friends, but as the farm becomes a more and more restful place, it becomes easier and easier to make those people come to us.  In Five Acres and Independence, Maurice Gains devoted a whole section to tips for fending off hungry city-dwellers who want to visit during the growing season, and my experience has been similar (although more positive.)  "I have three gallons of strawberries that need a home," I say, and two hours later my mother and sister are pounding on my door.  When you live in paradise, not only do you not want to leave, other people are willing to come to you.

Our chicken waterer turns the pasture into a paradise for our flock.
Posted Sun May 29 07:38:11 2011 Tags:
best way to move cute chicks from the home to a outside coop

The latest generation of chicks is now out and about in the big world.
Posted Sun May 29 16:21:02 2011 Tags:

StrawberriesCompared to storebought strawberries, or even to fruits from conventional you-pick operations, any kind of homegrown strawberry is delicious.  However, once I'd been spoiled by gorging on my own berries for two weeks, I started to notice taste differences from bed to bed.  My favorite beds became the source of strawberries for fresh eating, while other beds were relegated freezer jam or strawberry leather.  What's the difference?

I've written previously about how heavy rains can cause micronutrient deficiencies that in turn degrade the taste of strawberries.  Similarly, I mentioned that strawberries picked on hot, sunny afternoons are tastier than those picked in the morning or soon after rains.  These factors aren't influencing the current taste differences, though, since all of our plants have been exposed to the same rainy weather.

Variety is one obvious cause of taste differences.  In addition to our alpine strawberries, we're growing two June-bearing varieties (Honeoye and Jewel) and one ever-bearing variety (Ozark Beauty.)  The fruits are smaller and less prolific on the Ozark Beauty, but these plants are our consistent taste-test winners.  Honeoye is a close runner up, especially early in the season, although the flavor tends to degrade as the plants reach the end of their fruiting season.  Jewel is my least favorite strawberry for flavor, but I've kept growing it Topping strawberriesbecause the fruits start a couple of weeks later than Honeoye (our earliest variety), extending spring strawberry season to a full month.  If anyone has a favorite late, June-bearing strawberry, I'd love to hear what variety you grow!

Another factor that causes a decline in fruit quality is age of the strawberry bed.  Each season after the plants stop producing, I drastically thin the beds and add a heavy top-dressing of composted manure.  Despite all of this TLC, our best-tasting strawberries still come from the beds that I just planted last fall.  These beds don't produce nearly as much fruit since the plants have had less than a year to store up energy, but what they lack in quantity they make up in quality.  I suspect that the best rotation would be allowing strawberry plants to stay in the ground for two years so that I can have heavy yields for drying from the older beds while saving the fruits from the younger beds for our table.

Strawberry jamWhen I did a blind taste test of our strawberry beds and compared my flavor rating to the age of the bed, one four year old bed produced strawberries just as delicious (or maybe more so!) than the newest beds.  This elderly bed is located in the part of the garden that was used by the previous owners as an ash heap, and decades later, big chunks of biochar are still visible in the soil.  Could the biochar be responsible for this aberration in flavor?  I guess I know which crops I'll use with my next biochar experiment!

(As a side note, the photos in this post showcase Mom and Maggie's experiments with their three gallons of Walden Effect strawberries.  Half a gallon were given away, a gallon were topped and put in the freezer, three cups turned into a honey-sweetened jam, and the rest were eaten raw or saved for more experiments.)

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Mon May 30 07:20:59 2011 Tags:
spud bar used as battering ram for tailgate repair

The tailgate on the truck didn't want to stay closed today.

A little spud bar persuasion helped one side to stay clicked in place.

The other side will have to wait for cooler temperatures as I was unable to figure out its mechanical riddle.

Posted Mon May 30 16:12:25 2011 Tags:
Young chickens

As soon as the first 2011 pullets begin to lay, I plan to delete our ancient hens from the flock and start over with a homegrown rooster and six hens.  But which breeds will make up the new flock?

Pullets in the weedsIf you've been reading our chicken blog, you can probably see the writing on the wall --- our addiction to Golden Comets is giving way to more homestead-worthy breeds.  The Black Australorps have proven themselves to be the best possible foragers, and I hope that the Cuckoo Marans will live up to their reputations as good mothers.  I want to hedge my bets on getting a broody hen by keeping two marans, even though they're only so-so layers.  Does that mean four australorps and two marans with an australorp rooster?

Golden Comet chickMaybe, maybe not.  Both homegrown 2.0 and homegrown 3.0 (hybrids of a Golden Comet mother and a Golden Comet X Rhode Island Red father) are less keen foragers than their brood-mates, but are more sociable and prone to risk-taking.  All of our australorps and marans are scared of huge, bumbling humans, but the homegrown chicks are willing to come visit me when I walk into their space.  Since their flockmates often follow the intrepid homegrown youngsters, that makes the whole flock less skittish and more willing to check out new fixtures in their coop and pasture.  I figure this will also translate into the flock being faster to snap up bugs and worms I throw their way once the old girls lose their monopoly on treats.

That said, I'm pretty sure homegrown 2.0 is a cockerel, and I'm not willing to devote half the genetics of future flocks to a Golden Comet hybrid rooster.  If homegrown 3.0 is a girl, though, I'm tempted to keep her.  What do you think?  Is it worth making space for a less keen forager in the flock to keep the other chickens tamer and more inquisitive?

When introduced to their new coop, the scared marans were going to sit in the corner until I left, but homegrown 3.0 ran straight to our chicken waterer, leading the flock to hydration.
Posted Tue May 31 06:03:31 2011 Tags:
straw mulch in a truck with Anna in front

straw mulched garlic
Got another load of straw bales today.

I was a bit leary of the tailgate not staying closed and only purchased 15 bales instead of squeezing in 18 like previous trips.

Mulching the garden with straw
has turned out to be a major time saver for us. I know some folks are worried about weed seeds that sometimes come with a bale of straw, but from our perspective it's worth a few weeds when you can see and feel how much healthier the plants seem to be.

Posted Tue May 31 19:05:19 2011 Tags:

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

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