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

archives for 06/2011

Jun 2011

Worker broodOur easy hive split was a buzzing success!  Both the mother and the daughter hive have had workers flying in and out extremely busily all month, but that doesn't really mean anything.  If my hive split had failed (meaning the queenless hive didn't manage to requeen), workers would still go out and harvest nectar and pollen until they eventually got picked off by predators and weren't refreshed by new bees.  Instead, I had to wait (very impatiently) for a full month and then delve into each brood box to see what was going on down there.

In order to understand the story, you have to know that each type of bee in the hive develops along a slightly different timeline:

Egg (days)
Larva (days)
Pupa (days)
Total days

Queens rush through their childhood and chew out of their capping within 16 days, but workers take three full weeks to mature.  I checked on the bees exactly 28 days after the split and this is what I saw:
  • East hive --- Small larvae (probably no more than two or three days in the larval stage) and eggs.  (No photo because the bees got pissy.)
  • Middle hive --- Lots of capped brood, larvae, and eggs.  (One frame shown above.)
Blue hiveClearly, during my hive split, I transferred the queen to the middle hive, and she just kept plugging away at her duties (laying eggs), which resulted in the current state with brood of all ages.  In contrast, the east hive had lost their queen, so they didn't do any child-rearing until less than a week ago.  That lines up very well with the amount of time it would take for a queen to hatch (16 days), mate (another few days, potentially more because of the constant rain), and then lay the eggs that turned into the largest larvae present (about 6 days old) --- 22 days plus whatever time her mating flight took.

There's still a very slight chance that the new queen could have mated badly and is laying drones --- I'll know for sure next week when I see capped brood.  And an even slighter chance that the eggs are being laid by workers --- unlikely since the brood pattern is so even and the eggs are in the bottom of the cells rather than on the sides.  But I'm pretty confident the hive split was a success.

Since I was down so deep in the hives, I went ahead and checkerboarded both brood boxes so that the excess honey wouldn't tenpt the bees to swarm.  The bees were not pleased with this intrusion, and I had to don my gloves after one stung my hand.  After I know for sure that the east hive has a happy queen, I'll leave the brood box alone and focus on honey for the rest of the summer....

Our chicken waterer makes flock care nearly as fast as beekeeping.

Posted Wed Jun 1 07:01:47 2011 Tags:

There's something rather glorious about a simple outdoor shower. Mark built one, here's my take.

Not as perfect as a waterfall, but more convenient. I put it together in lego mode, just snapping bits together until it seemed right. The water barrel collects the flow when the shower is not in use and also serves as ballast. I have replaced the duct taped shower head with a garden watering wand since taking the picture, as well as adding things like a soap dish.

My shower is fed down from a small spring house, using 150-some feet of hose, that drops at least 12 feet. That provides enough pressure for a good shower. Earlier this spring, there was enough water flowing to leave the hose running all the time. Now that the spring has slowed to a trickle, I turn the shower off when not in use, so it can build up a head of water in the spring house, and be ready for a nice long shower next time.

I've also found that from 10 am on, the hose heats the water enough so it's a hot shower for a few minutes, then a warm shower, before it becomes a cold springfed shower. That's perfect, it's just how I like my showers! By using a black hose this would probably even work in colder parts of the year, as a simple solar shower.

Not that the alternative isn't nice too..

Joey is an occasional guest poster and resident at the Walden Effect. yurtsmall.jpg

Posted Wed Jun 1 16:29:02 2011 Tags:

Cucumber tendrilThe weather has been unusually hot this week, with highs in the 90s and record highs for our area at the closest weather station.  Monday afternoon, the temperature inside our trailer got up over 100, setting off the high alarm on the incubator --- now I've taken to training a fan on brood 3 during the hottest period in the late afternoon.

The adult hens are spending their time resting in the shade, but the tweens have been out and about...and so have the chicks!  When we moved the fluffballs from the house to the second coop on Sunday, I leaned a piece of plywood against their pophole, figuring they weren't ready to explore yet, but the youngsters knocked that down by Monday afternoon.  I figured they knew what they wanted, so I instead used the plywood as a little ramp, and soon our youngest flock was exploring the ragweed forest.

Chicks on pasture

Sugar snap peaOther than trying to keep ourselves cool, though, this unusually hot weather has been a boon.  After two solid months of adding items to our "must be hauled onto the farm ASAP!" list, the driveway finally dried up enough to allow passage.  Sticking to the most important first, Mark treated me to two truckloads of manure and a load of straw.  Meanwhile, we were able to drive in supplies that had been building up in the parking area, including masses of cardboard for kill mulches, bags of lawn clippings for garden mulch, Broccoliand some lumber.  Weeding has been taking up more and more of my time as last fall's mulch melted into the soil, so I'm even more grateful than usual for my big piles of biomass.

On the whole, the garden has also been happy to see the sun.  Sure, a few strawberries got cooked on the vine and a cabbage leaf showed signs of sunscald, but I can almost see the rest of the garden growing.  We finally hooked up the rest of the sprinklers and are now watering in earnest to keep that momentum going.  Homegrown produce currently on the menu includes strawberries (far more than we can eat), greens, lettuce, parsley, broccoli, snow peas, and sugar snap peas.

Our chicken waterer ensures that none of our chickens succumb to heat exhaustion during hot spells.
Posted Thu Jun 2 06:34:30 2011 Tags:
5 gallon bucket automatic chicken waterer diy

I decided my previous 5 gallon automatic waterer bucket holder needed to be simplified.

2 shelf brackets, a piece of scrap lumber, and some rope with a bungee cord tied on the end seems to do the job quite nicely.

Posted Thu Jun 2 16:27:07 2011 Tags:

Homemade pizzaI've posted twice about how to cook an old chicken, but in the two and a half years since then, my recipes have gained sophistication.  When it came time to cook our mean rooster, I earmarked most of his flesh for pizza sausage (aka Italian sausage.)  I used to think that making my own sausage sounded scary, but lately I've decided that it's actually one of the easiest ways of dressing up tough meat.  If you plan to use the sausage in pizza, spaghetti sauce, or gravy, there's not even any need to mess with casings or to worry about fat to protein content.  You can't really go wrong.

For this ultra simple recipe, you need:

  • 0.75 pounds of tough chicken meat (or any other kind of tough or not so tough meat.  I've used venison, lamb, and beef hamburger, all with good results.)
  • Sausage recipe1 tbsp of whole fennel seeds
  • 0.5 tsp pepper
  • 0.75 tsp salt.  (As you can see, we actually made the recipe with a full teaspoon, but it felt a bit on the salty side.)
  • 3 big cloves of garlic (or several smaller cloves)

If it's not already ground, cut the meat off the bone and put it in the food processor.  Whir the meat up until it looks a lot like ground meat, and if you're really using an old chicken, pick out the connective tissue.  (This will look like white, shiny lines of dental floss.  The connective tissue won't hurt you, but is awfully tough and will be hard to chew.  We give it to Lucy.)

Crushing fennel seeds

Fennel seedsNext, crush the fennel seeds.  If you own a mortar and pestle, I'm sure this is a breeze, but it's not that tough even without one.  I pour out the seeds onto a large cookie sheet or a clean counter and roll over them repeatedly with the rolling pin.  You'll need to keep pushing the uncrushed seeds into the center of the pile with your hand until they're all crushed, so this might take two or three minutes.  Some folks put the seeds in a ziploc bag before crushing to make the process even simpler, but then you have to throw the bag away.

Sausage ingredientsPour the crushed fennel seeds into the ground meat along with the pepper, salt, and pressed garlic cloves, mix well, and refrigerate for at least four hours.  This time is necessary to allow the flavors to work their way into the meat.

When you're ready to use your sausage, fry it up in a skillet on medium to high heat, stirring often and crushing the clusters with a fork so the sausage doesn't clump up.  You might find a few more threads of connective tissue that you missed --- pick them out.  Then spread the pre-cooked meat onto a homemade pizza and bake.

Sausage pizzaWe stewed up the bones (and residual flesh) into a simple chicken soup and then used the rest of the flesh in the recipe above.  The sausage is a bit too much for two pizzas, so I have enough left over to add into some homegrown omelets.  All told, I figure our old rooster served as the main course for a full fourteen people-meals.  That's not bad!

Our chicken waterer kept our rooster healthy so that his flesh was delicious and nutritious.
Posted Fri Jun 3 07:37:55 2011 Tags:
leaf compost truck load 2011

We're trying a new product from the city of Bristol.

It's made from decomposed leaves and it looks and feels like a quality product.

We paid a little over 50 dollars for just under 2 tons, which might end up being cheaper than bales of straw depending on how it socializes with the garden.

Posted Fri Jun 3 16:24:15 2011 Tags:
Cabbage mulched with straw

Wide rows
"Are you going to be mad if I'm profligate with the straw?" I asked Mark tentatively on Thursday afternoon.  He looked at me as if I was a bit slow --- after all, he's the one who pushes me to buy mulch when I say it's too expensive --- and replied: "No, if anything, you'll get bonus kisses."

I didn't ask about the manure and cardboard because I didn't want to give him a chance to say "No, those require a lot more work!"  Instead, once he and the big white truck had headed into the city Friday morning, I went to town (figuratively.)  Why not hill up Hilled potatoespotatoes with composted manure then mulch them with straw?  Those back garden beds need some serious soil remediation anyway because the topsoil is so thin there.  Big weeds threatening to overcome some tomato plants that haven't been weeded in two months?  No problem --- lay down a quick kill mulch of damp cardboard and then top it all off with straw.  When quitting time came at 4 pm, I had to tear myself away from my biomass piles.

When we had less cash on hand, I frowned upon storebought mulch.  But now that we can afford it, I figure this is the kind of time-saver I can get behind buying (at least until I come Early summer gardenup with a homegrown alternative.)  Not only does mulch cut down on weeding, the biomass also breaks down into organic matter that's like money in the bank --- mulched beds are full of worms, and every year the soil gets fluffier and darker.  Since I can't foresee any reason we'd ever move off the farm, building our soil is a long term investment in our future, making gardening easier every year while the food grown there becomes tastier and better for us.  As usual, Mark was right.  (Don't let it go to your head, honey.  And I plan to collect on that bonus.)

"Awesome product and my chicks took to it, right away," wrote one happy customer about our chicken waterer.
Posted Sat Jun 4 08:02:13 2011 Tags:

I've finally found a motor that is sustainable and will last longer than the previous incarnations of this type of mechanical deer deterrent.

The above video demonstrates the range of noise signatures that can be achieved with some adjusting of the primary stopping point.

We've only had one minor deer incursion this year, and we're still not sure if it was due to our recent power failure or a particularly brave and determined deer. The system is working quite well as you can see a very healthy and un-nibbled garden in the background of the video.

Posted Sat Jun 4 18:19:14 2011 Tags:

New government food pyramidThe USDA rolled out a new visualization of their dietary recommendations last week.  After the previous diagram (which was so painfully difficult to get information from that I gave up on it), I was thrilled to see that the USDA now uses the same method I do when planning dinner --- divide the plate up into quadrants and show how much space you should devote to each food group.  (This plan is much easier to follow at home if you plate everybody's food rather than putting bowls on the table buffet style.)

I'm also pleased to see fruits and vegetables taking up a full half of the plate.  I try to make fruits and vegetables fill more like two thirds or three quarters of our plates once you factor in dessert (strawberries and a bit of chocolate on the side for the lunch pictured here), but I can see how the government might Lunchbe scared to increase the proportions so drastically from their 1980s era recommendation of 34% of your servings being fruits and vegetables.  Granted, since serving sizes varied for each type of food in the old pyramid, the USDA might have meant us to fill half of our plates with fruits and vegetables all along, but I don't think that's the gist folks got from the old diagram.

However, I have several gripes with even this improved government recommendation:

  • Why "grains" instead of "carbs"?  I know that it would take a bit more education to help people understand what a carbohydrate-rich food is, but I think the MyPlate chart is going to confuse a lot of people who might throw potatoes and winter squash into the vegetable category.  (I'll bet the corn industry has a lot more lobbying power than the potato industry.)  And these confused eaters will just pretend their dessert didn't happen since they won't know where to fit it on the plate, when they should really be counting it into the carb category in most cases.
  • Where are the fats and oils?  Most people aren't going to categorize nuts, homemade chicken broth, and olive oil as "protein", so where will they put these fatty foods on their virtual plate?  The government website says an almond fits in their protein group, but the percent of total calories made up by protein in an almond is only 15%, while fat provides a whopping 70% of the nut's energy.
  • Why is dairy so special?  The more I delve into nutrition, the more I think that it's a bit odd to make dairy its own category.  (Or perhaps the milk industry is just so powerful that they can tell Americans to drink our milk with every meal regardless?)  In fact, it makes me wonder if this isn't the government's "fat" category, but even that is confusing since many people drink skim milk or eat low-fat yogurt.  (No, dairy is not the only way to get calcium --- a cup of cooked greens will provide a quarter to a half of your daily allowance, depending on variety, and most vegetables have an appreciable amount of calcium.)

Pie chart of food categoriesAlthough it's easy to argue that government nutritional guidelines mean nothing, I know that I learned the old food pyramd in school and strove to incorporate the recommendations into my life.  I think that many people, like me, blindly follow the advice given by authority figures, so it's important for those authority figures to get it right.

If I was in charge of the USDA, I think my food plate would look more like the hastily thrown together pie chart shown here.  What would your ideal plate look like?

Our 99 cent ebook helps you feel your way toward proper nutrition.
Posted Sun Jun 5 07:51:15 2011 Tags:
ratchet strap tailgate fix low tech

I made another adjustment to the tailgate latch mechanism, but it still has a tendency to fly open if I hit a hard bump in the road.

A medium sized ratchet strap proved to be an easy and effective way of keeping it shut for my trip home with the mulch.

Posted Sun Jun 5 15:42:38 2011 Tags:

Rooted cuttingsOne of the joys of working with plants is how easy they are to propagate, even without waiting for the plants to go to seed.  I've posted previously about propagating grapes from hardwood cuttings, but during the summer, the techniques are a little different.  Now the cuttings are known as "softwood cuttings" because they consist of this year's new, flexible growth along with the leaves, and the technique is subtly different too.

Choose an easy plant to propagate.  I've got a windowsill of softwood cuttings in action right now, but some are highly experimental.  The sweet potato slips I began in a bed of gravel are one of the easiest types of softwood cuttings --- they root in just a few days.  Similarly, I snipped off some suckers from my tomatoes when I was pruning last week because I want a few more plants, and I expect to see roots on all the new tomato plants shortly.  I've had 17% rooting success with softwood cuttings of rosemary and 50% success with hardy kiwis (although the latter died when I didn't baby them enough in the garden.)  Currently, I'm also trying out thyme (which is supposed to be relatively easy) and trifoliate orange (the dwarfing rootstock for Meyer lemons.)  I recommend starting with any vigorous perennial you're in love with, as long as the original plant didn't come grafted onto a different rootstock (a sure sign that softwood cuttings will be difficult.)

Tomato cuttingsTake a cutting with four or five nodes.  Both softwood and hardwood cuttings need at least four nodes per cutting (five is better) since these are the points that can grow leaves and roots.  Nodes are easily visible on dormant grapevines as bumpy spots, and on softwood cuttings as the location where leaves are attached to the stem.  Since you can't expect every cutting to root, you might as well increase your chances of success by taking several.

Keep the plants moist.  Softwood cuttings are much more sensitive than hardwood cuttings are to lack of moisture.  After all, the plants have leaves actively releasing water into the atmosphere, so they need new water to take the lost liquid's place.  The best way to keep softwood cuttings moist is to install misters that wet the plants (either from above or below) every minute or two, but in the homesteading world, you can often get away with just putting your cuttings in a glass of water.  Make sure that at least two of the nodes are below the water level at all times, and change the water if it starts to get gunky.  An alternative is to fill a pot with moist potting soil, stick the cuttings into the dirt two nodes deep, and then attach a transparent plastic bag over the top of the pot.  (I've had less luck with the second method because it's tougher to harden off the plants to low moisture conditions after they root.)

Willow natural rooting hormoneRooting hormone increases your chances.  You can buy rooting hormone in the store, but I like to just snip a few twigs off the creek willow (Black Willow, Salix nigra, but any willow will work) and stick them in the glass with my cuttings.  Willows release a natural rooting hormone as they grow their own roots, which will speed your more important cuttings along.

Harden off your new plants.  Once your cuttings grow roots, you'll be tempted to toss them into the garden.  That's fine with the very vigorous rooters like tomatoes and sweet potatoes, but I've learned the hard way that more tender perennials need some time expanding their root network before being set out in the hot sun.  (As a rule of thumb, figure that if you had less than 90% success with rooting your cuttings, they need a hardening off period.)  Transplant your rooted cuttings into pots and put them in a sunny windowsill (but not in a hot greenhouse), watering them regularly.  Once the plant's roots fill the pot, your cutting is ready to go into the ground.

If you haven't already jumped on the softwood cutting bandwagon, I strongly encourage you to give it a try.  The only downside is finding a spot in the garden for all those vigorous plants you materialized out of thin air.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Mon Jun 6 07:15:17 2011 Tags:

How to dry foodsHow to Dry Foods by Deanna DeLong is part cookbook and part explanation of the whys and hows behind drying food.  The author has spent over twenty years practicing, writing, and teaching about food dehydration, so she's able to answer all of the questions I've been storing up as I start to consider drying more of our winter stores.  More on those answers in later posts, but first, I feel obliged to tell you the few flaws in the book:

  • There are ads for a single brand of dehydrator scattered throughout.  I actually wouldn't have minded seeing her reviews of several different brands, but this felt more like product placement.
  • She's a big fan of using sulfur to treat your fruit before dehydrating it and barely touches on alternative methods of pretreating.  Some folks recommend Making & Using Dried Foods by Phyllis Hobson as a more well-rounded alternative in that department, although I haven't read it yet.

That said, I'm a big fan of charts that sum up lots of information in a small space, and DeLong's charts are probably worth the entire price of the book.  I actually bought an e-copy to have on hand as I experiment with drying this summer, and I tend to only buy a few books per year, so, yes, I recommend it.

Weekend Homesteader walks you through fun and easy projects to get started on the path to self-sufficiency.

This post is part of our How to Dry Foods lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jun 6 12:00:45 2011 Tags:
metal is better than plastic

metal vs plastic 2011 comparison
The pressure on our creek pumping irrigation system turns out to be too high for the threads on these plastic connectors. It kept popping off until I wrapped a generous layer of plumber's tape around the threads. That fix lasted a full year before it started popping off again.

Fast forward to the end of this story where a metal connector seems to have no problem handling the high pressure.

The full metal solution was only 2 dollars compared to 49 cents on the plastic version. One new discovery I made during this trip to the store is that Lowe's will now give a military discount to all active duty, retired, and veterans all year long. 10 percent is nothing to sneeze at. The only proof they need is some sort of government issued card.

Posted Mon Jun 6 17:05:31 2011 Tags:

Lettuce in a greenhouseI used to dream of owning a greenhouse.  In my imagination, I would be raising tropical fruits like pineapples, mangos, and avocados and eating fresh vegetables all winter.  I also remember the pure joy I got from walking into the biology greenhouse when I was in college and inhaling the warm greenness while snow coated the walk outside.  At first, I figured I'd build a greenhouse as soon as I could afford it, but now I'm not so sure, because...

  • Ladybug on a lemon leafGreenhouses breed pests.  I love our dwarf citrus, but I've noticed that once a year, the inside trees come down with whitefly infestations.  Luckily, I can just move the trees into the garden in the spring and let natural predators deal with the problem, but I've heard about hobbyists who completely gave up on their greenhouses as a result of pest infestations.  If you follow natural gardening techniques, there are tons of critters, both in the soil and in the air, working to make your garden a success, but you have to fill all of those environmental niches yourself if you cut your plants off inside a greenhouse.  In the end, you usually have to spray noxious chemicals or lose the growing space for good.
  • Potted plants are a lot of work.  While we're on the topic of "nature does it better", I should admit that I consider potted plants a pain in the butt.  You've probably noticed that I start fewer plants inside than nearly any serious gardener, and there's a reason for that --- I'd rather not mess with reinventing the wheel when I can get nature to do chores for me.  It is possible to plan greenhouses so they're open to the earth underneath, but then you  tend to get a buildup of buildup of salts and other problems in the soil.
  • Greenhouses have to be heated.  No matter how much you plan your greenhouse with passive solar techniques in mind, you're going to have to add supplemental heat in the winter if you're growing anything truly tender.  Electric heat is expensive (and getting more so), and I don't think I'm willing to commit to stoking a wood stove in a greenhouse in the middle of the night.  That means I'd be limited to growing spring and fall crops like broccoli and lettuce, which can be raised nearly as efficiently in a quick hoop.
  • Quick hoopsQuick hoops are simpler.  When I learned that I could grow tomato sets just as well in a quick hoop as under grow lights inside, I was overjoyed.  The more I use cold frames and similar methods of protecting plants outdoors to give them an early jump on the growing season, the more I think these techniques are my style.  Nature takes care of watering and I can easily move the quick hoops to new patches of ground every season, so pests and diseases don't build up in the soil.
  • I love seasons.  I dream of the summer garden all winter, but I also love spending at least a couple of months with no garden chores.  Greenhouses promise out of season bounty, but the truth is that I wouldn't want to lose the building anticipation as I wait for the first strawberry or tomato.

Read more about sunrooms in this 99 cent ebook!Which is not to say that I might not succumb to the greenhouse bug someday, but I hope I can stand firm!

Our chicken waterer never spills in chicken tractors or pastures.
Posted Tue Jun 7 07:18:48 2011 Tags:

Strawberry leatherAs our regular readers have probably discovered, I'm a big fan of freezing.  About 95% of our vegetables for the year come from the garden, and the ones that aren't fresh plucked or stored on the shelf mostly go in the freezer.  Yes, freezers use electricity, but they also preserve the flavor and nutrients in vegetables better than any other method of storing food, and I put taste first.  So why am I interested in drying?

Although vegetables taste better frozen, I've started to realize that most fruits taste better dried.  In addition, nutritional values of dried foods tend to be on a par with frozen foods since the produce loses only some of its vitamin A and C in the process, but maintains all other nutrients.  Drying has other advantages too, providing backup food that doesn't depend on electricity and that takes up only a very small amount of space.

You can dry food with only a bare minimum of equipment, but the author of How to Dry Foods makes it clear that you'll end up with more nutritious, flavorful food if you buy a dehydrator.  That said, once you've bought the basic equipment, even electric dehydrating costs very little cash compared to the price of buying canning jar lids every year, boiling your hot water bath canner for an hour, or running another freezer.

Food safety is the last point in favor of drying over canning.  Although dried food can go bad, there's no hidden killer like botulism --- you'll be able to smell or see mold growing on your food and can just toss it.

Sun-dried tomatoesAs long as you choose the foods that taste best dried (more on that in a later post), the only real disadvantage with drying is preparation time.  There's a lot of work involved in slicing up foods to an even thickness and laying them carefully on the tray, and if you don't buy a top of the line dehydrator, you'll end up spending yet more time turning trays around to dry the food evenly and removing pieces that dried faster.  That said, I'm a huge fan of fruit leathers, which take only barely more time to prepare than applesauce.  If you like the taste of fresh fruit, it's worth trying out drying.

This month's 99 cent ebook tells how to make a worm bin, survey your site, understand nutrition, and calculate your real hourly wage.

This post is part of our How to Dry Foods lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jun 7 12:00:42 2011 Tags:
cleaning a metal sprinkler when it gets clogged

Sometimes these garden sprinklers need to have their head examined.
Posted Tue Jun 7 18:54:32 2011 Tags:
Hardneck and softneck garlic

Mountain of broccoliDue to a very cold winter and soil that warmed extra-slow this spring, the garden is running about a week behind last year.  That means our garlic isn't quite ready to dig yet, but we still have four pounds left from last year, so I'm not terribly concerned.

I harvested broccoli a week late too.  We'd been eating broccoli nearly every day since last Tuesday, but the majority of the heads were suddenly in need of picking early this week.  Since I decided to ditch the shelling peas this spring and plant broccoli in their place, I ended up with so many heads that they barely fit in my basket.  2.75 gallons of broccoli now in the freezer!

New potatoes and carrots

This week also heralded the beginning of the year's roots.  I pulled some new potatoes from early beds planted just for that purpose and also thinned out part of a carrot bed, saving the fingerling carrots to go in chicken soup.  I plant my carrots thick on purpose since the seeds sometimes don't germinate evenly, and since I like being able to harvest Baby cucumberlittle carrots early without using up my main crop.  The carrots left behind will now have room to grow big and sweet.

Despite the slow spring crops, it looks like our summer vegetables might be ahead of schedule thanks to judicious quick hoop use.  I think this cucumber is going to be ready within the week!

Our chicken waterer keeps your flock happy even on scorching summer days.
Posted Wed Jun 8 07:22:02 2011 Tags:

Car dehydratorI've been having a lot of fun drying strawberry leather in an old car (22 cups of strawberry leather preserved for winter feasts!), but there are clear downsides to the method.  Deanna DeLong summarized the pros and cons of several different methods of drying as follows.

Oven drying.  You can simply put your food on cookie sheets (or on cheese-cloth-covered oven racks), turn the oven on very low, crack the door, and dry food that way.  But oven drying takes two to three times as long as dehydrator drying (which means fewer nutrients and less flavor survives the process) and you use a lot more electricity.  You need to move the food around often since the air flow isn't very regular, and you often end up with areas that overheat and turn brittle.  I think that oven drying's primary use is as a backup to solar drying --- if you have food nearly dry and suddenly the weather turns rainy, you can finish it off in the oven.

Sun-dryingSun-drying.  The simplest dehydration method is to put your food on cookie sheets or screens in a sunny spot, covering them with netting to keep off bugs.  Although easy, sun-drying is really only appropriate for climates with high heat (highs in the 90s or above for extended periods), low humidity, and low air pollution.  If you can get away with it (mostly in the southwest if you live in the U.S.), sun-drying is the cheapest method and the UV light kills some microorganisms in your food.  On the other hand, sun-drying can take ten times as long as dehydrator drying (which means fewer nutrients left at the end), and cloudy or rainy days can ruin your food.  Even in hot climates, sun-drying is only appropriate for fruit, and you need to be prepared to poke at the drying produce two or three times a day.

Drying in a warm room.  A few foods can be successfully dried in a warm room.  These include herbs and nuts in the shell.  Be sure to set up a fan to move moisture-laden air off the drying food.

Solar dehydrator.jpgSolar dehydrator.  A solar dehydrator like the one we dream of building can elevate air temperature by 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit, so you can get away with drying food in more temperate climates, even if you have  high humidity.  You're still at the mercy of the weather and food must be rotated, but solar dehydrators will dry food faster than sun-drying, so the food is more nutritious.

Electric dehydrator.  A good electric dehydrator has a thermostatically controlled heating unit and a fan, so food is dried as fast as possible (meaning maximum flavor and nutrients.)  Top of the line units heat very evenly, too, so they're set-it-and-forget-it, and Electric dehydratormany even come with a timer.  After doing the math on how much it would cost me to buy enough cookie sheets to dry our excess fruit in our very variable climate using the sun, I decided to go ahead and buy an electric dehydrator.  More on the model we chose once it arrives and we give it a test run.

Solar/electric hybrid dehydrator.  You can get the best of both worlds (low energy  usage and fast, nutritious food) by building a solar/electric hybrid.  The solar collector heats the food on sunny days, while the thermostatically controlled heating unit kicks on when it's cloudy and at night.  A fan keeps air flow more uniform.  I dream of turning our electric dehydrator into a hybrid unit, but Mark wants to spend a bit more time learning how a standalone solar dehydator works first.

I think that the path I took --- dabbling in solar dehydrating in an old car and with the oven --- is a good beginning to see if you like the flavor of dried food.  But if you decide to make dehydration one of your main food storage methods, you'll probably want to build a high tech solar dehydrator or buy one of the best consumer grade electric dehydrators (or maybe do a little of both.)

Our 99 cent ebook helps you find time for homesteading.

This post is part of our How to Dry Foods lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jun 8 12:00:46 2011 Tags:
another journalist stops by for an interview

We had a nice journalist stop by today to interview us on some of the finer points of rural access to broadband internet and how it can be used to generate an income.

I made an audio recording of Anna's chicken pasture tour with the intention of seeing if it can be turned into a short Youtube video or something like that.

Posted Wed Jun 8 16:50:17 2011 Tags:

Fruit leatherOur dehydrator came in the mail Tuesday, and I barely had it out of the box before filling it up with food.  I wanted to pull overripe bananas and last fall's applesauce out of the freezer to make room for the produce that's starting to pour in, and also wanted to give the dehydrator a good test run.  So I mixed up four types of experimental fruit leather:

  • Apple: 2 cups of applesauce, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of honey
  • Apple/strawberry: 0.5 cups of strawberry puree, 1 cup of applesauce, 0.75 tablespoons of lemon juice, 1.5 tablespoons of honey
  • "Banana bread": 1.75 cups of mashed banana, 1 teaspoon of lemon zest
  • Banana/strawberry: 0.5 cups of strawberry puree, 1 cup of mashed banana, 1 teaspoon of lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of honey

(All measurements are enough to make one trayful.)

Peel fruit leatherFour and a half hours later, I was peeling the first leather off the nonstick tray inserts.  My primary objective was to make the old fruit disappear into our bellies quickly, and I'm very happy with the experiment in that respect --- Mark happily nibbled on the leather without any prompting.

In terms of flavor, I don't think any of these recipes are nearly as good as pure strawberry or peach leather, but the apple/strawberry came close.  If I only had a few strawberries and plenty of apples, I might be tempted to eke out of my strawberries this way to make them go three times as far.  In general, I've read that apple is a good addition to other types of leather since it helps the consistency and stretches the fruit without adding too much flavor.

The banana and banana/strawberry leathers were the least appealing to both me and Mark.  Banana has such a strong flavor that it overpowered the strawberry, and it lacks the sweet/tart combo we enjoy.  We concluded that even without adding honey, the dried banana was just too sweet.  That said, Mark hasn't turned up his nose at any of the leathers --- I think I may have found a new, healthy snack to have on hand.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Thu Jun 9 06:32:41 2011 Tags:

Dried peppersOnce I decided to spend $300 on an electric dehydrator and fruit leather trays, I figured I'd better get my money's worth by figuring out what else can be dried.  Although many fruits and vegetables (and even meats and fish) can be dehydrated, some dried foods taste much better than others.

In general, Deanna DeLong writes that vegetables often aren't worth drying.  Her list of excellent dried vegetables is very short --- garlic, onions, chili peppers, popcorn, and tomatoes.  Vegetables that she considers good enough to dry include lima beans, carrots, sweet corn, horseradish, mushrooms, parsley, parsnips, green and red peppers, and sweet potatoes (as part of a leather.)  Although DeLong thinks pumpkins and winter squash are not worth drying, I've read bloggers who swear by them, and I know my father's a fan of dried cucumber, so it sounds like there's some room for experimentation there.

Dried fruitFruits, on the other hand, are often excellent dried.  Since I love it so much, tomorrow's post will be entirely about fruit leather, but DeLong's top picks for fruits dried plain include: apples, apricots, cherries, citrus peel, dates, figs, grapes, kiwi, nectarines, peaches, pears, persimmons, pineapples, plums, and strawberries.  In fact, the only fruits she recommends against drying by themselves are avocados, unprocessed berries (because of the seeds), crab apples (too sour?), guava, pomegranates (seeds again), and quince (too sour?).

Finally, if you've got a dehydrator, you might as well put it to use for other things.  During the winter, the dehydrator makes a great place to rise bread (set it to 80 to 85 degrees) or incubate yogurt (110 degrees.)  You can dry flowers at 130 to 150 or recrisp crackers at 160.  Reliquify crystalized honey at 120 degrees for twelve hours, or make dog treats or a slew of craft items.  And, of course, jerky is best made in an electric dehydrator.

For those of you who've been experimenting with drying, what vegetables do you think make the grade?  What's your favorite use for your dehydrator?

Find out how to escape the rat race with our 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our How to Dry Foods lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jun 9 12:00:45 2011 Tags:
putting up the straw 2011

We found a super nice guy on Craigs list that had freshly cut bales of straw for a dollar less than the feed store which included delivery!

He was telling me that when his father was a young man he would camp out in these fields around harvest time working for the local farmers to bring in the crops. According to this guy every field from here to the river was bursting with either corn or tobacco.

The hike would have taken his father a full day or maybe two to get here from Nickelsville, not to mention the elevation that would have slowed them down around the halfway point. Sounds like the kind of coming of age ritual that would make a good movie with the right character development and a juicy conflict to overcome that maybe involves one or more of the farmer's daughters.

Posted Thu Jun 9 16:44:06 2011 Tags:

Straw kill mulchIf you're looking for large quantities of straw for a no-till garden (or to make a strawbale house), it's worth starting to think about straw season.  In the past, we've bought a truckload of straw at the feed store now and then for $5.78 per bale (factoring in tax), mostly because I assumed people didn't really grow grains around here and thus didn't have straw as a "waste" product.  But when we started thinking about trying to buy enough straw in one fell swoop so that we could mulch the garden for a full year even if it sets in to raining again and the driveway becomes impassable, I decided to check craigslist just in case.

Truckload of strawIt turns out that I lucked into the spring straw season --- three farmers within an hour and a half drive were selling rye and barley straw for anywhere from $2 to $4 per bale.  We chose the most expensive straw because it came from just down the road and the farmer was willing to deliver all 80 bales for free.  (Plus, he's the only one who called us back.)  Yes, the farmer had to unload his trailer at the end of the driveway and we had to ferry the bales the rest of the way home in four overflowing truckloads, but the delivery probably saved Mark about six hours of work and $142.

To be honest, I have to admit that the locally baled straw wasn't as tight and regular as the industrial strawbales --- not appropriate for building with.  But since we're just going to turn it into mulch in our garden, we're thrilled.  We're already thinking ahead for the next straw season, which our new farmer contact tells us comes in October.  Meanwhile, I just thought I'd alert those of you with gardens in need of mulch --- now's the time to buy straw while it's cheap!

Our chicken waterer saves you time --- no more spraying down poop-filled waterers.
Posted Fri Jun 10 07:29:27 2011 Tags:

I'm sorry for anyone who tried to load up Walden Effect in the last day or so and had trouble!  I've been trying to change my domain registrar to the more ethical Gandi, and clearly did it wrong.  Now I know better than to mess with domain transfers and then go to bed early.

Thanks to everyone who emailed me to make sure I knew about the problem.  I hope the rest of you didn't go into too serious withdrawal.  All should be well as soon as you can read this.

Posted Fri Jun 10 08:32:03 2011 Tags:

Strawberry leatherIf you are new to drying and like the flavor of dried fruit, I highly recommend starting with leather.  Fruit leather tends to be faster, easier, and tastier than whole dried fruit because:

  • The fruit is pureed, so you can mix in lemon juice and not worry about dipping fruits in sulfur or ascorbic acid to stop enzymes from degrading your dried food.
  • I've found that it's much faster to take off the stems and skins, remove seeds or pits, and toss the fruit in the processor than to carefully slice pieces of equal thickness and lay them on the tray.
  • There's no need to worry about checking (a process of piercing the skin of whole fruits like blueberries and strawberries so that moisture can escape.)
  • You can run pureed berries through a foley mill and dry even very seedy fruits like raspberries.
  • Once you jiggle the tray, the puree spreads out evenly, so you don't have to pick off pieces that dry faster and seldom have to flip anything over.
  • The thin layer of fruit puree dries faster than slices of fruit.
  • Fruit leather is even tastier than fruit dried whole.  This is especially true since you can add a little bit of sweetening without going through the elaborate glacĂ© process.

Tomato leatherI've walked you through making peach leather and strawberry leather, so I won't give step by step instructions here.  Instead, here are some ideas for making fruit leather even more exciting:

  • Mix and match fruits.  Adding applesauce to other fruits helps make low pectin fruit leathers rollable, but you can also think about mixing fruits from a flavor point of view.  You can even add small chunks of other kinds of fruit to the puree.
  • Add seasoning.  I've been adding a bit of lemon and honey to my fruit leathers, and that really helps turn them into the kind of snack Mark will drag off to his lair.  I also want to experiment with adding a bit of lemon zest (1 tsp per quart of puree), and perhaps making a "butternut pie" leather with pie spices.  When adding seasonings to fruit leather, though, you should be aware that a little goes a long way since the puree will dry down to a much more condensed package.
  • Add garnishes.  My breakfast is usually fruit and nuts, so I'm excited to try adding some seeds or chopped nuts to my leather for instant meals.
  • Make fun shapes.  If you've got kids in your household, DeLong suggests making fruit leather shapes by pouring puree into open-topped cookie cutters.  You can remove the cutter and use it over and over as long as the puree is thick enough.
  • Try vegetable leather.  DeLong has recipes for several sweet-potato-based leathers in her book, but I'm envisioning a sun-dried tomato, garlic, and basil leather.

Aren't you just itching to try out some new fruit leather ideas?  I know I am!

Want to homestead but don't know where to start?  Our 99 cent ebook helps you get your feet wet without getting overwhelmed.

This post is part of our How to Dry Foods lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Jun 10 12:00:47 2011 Tags:
increasing traction in a muddy driveway with 25 gallons of gravel

It seems like we've reached a pause in the rainy part of the season.

One lesson I learned this year is that 25 gallons of gravel can come in handy when you need a small increase in traction to get things moving again.

Posted Fri Jun 10 15:51:22 2011 Tags:

Summer pruningDo you remember how our heroes left the path against Gandalf's advice and ended up lost in Mirkwood?  (I'm writing about The Hobbit, of course.)  Finally, they decided that Bilbo would have to climb a tree in hopes of finding a landmark to steer toward, and our less than intrepid hobbit summoned his courage and clambered up through the scratchy limbs until "he poked his head above the roof of leaves" and "saw all round him a sea of green, ruffled here and there by the breeze."

Well, that's how I felt on Friday morning when I started summer pruning our largest peach tree.  Luckily for me, the tree is short enough that the job required no climbing, but the leaves were so dense that I had to creep underneath and then pop my head up in little openings.  I could almost imagine that I was parched and starving, perched atop a tree in the canopy of Mirkwood --- maybe that's why I was so hungry for lunch.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy during hot summer days.
Posted Sat Jun 11 07:47:34 2011 Tags:
Sophie Van Zee's high school graduation party 2011

We spent the day celebrating my cousin Sophie's graduation from high school.
Posted Sat Jun 11 20:36:37 2011 Tags:
Bee smoker

Brood and honeyI was glad to see capped worker brood in our new hive since that means our hive split was definitely a success.  I only lifted out the one frame from their lower brood box to confirm the queen's activity since the bees had been less than pleased to be poked at last time.  But, even so, I could tell that they've been working hard because the upper brood box was heavy with dehydrating nectar.

The mother hive was also doing well, despite losing so many of her workers to the daughter a month ago.  The bees had plenty of uncapped honey and had already covered over two big frames of Honey cappingshoney in the upper brood box and a few small frames of honey in the super.  I stole enough to extract a quart and a half since I used up the last of my honey in our final round of strawberry leather.

The only downside of a hive split is that we won't get very much honey from either hive this year.  Maybe I can talk my movie star neighbor into giving us some of his surplus in exchange for our "acting" on his audition tapes?

Our chicken waterer is a perfect fit for tractors since it never spills on uneven terrain.
Posted Sun Jun 12 06:34:14 2011 Tags:
another new chick to join the ever expanding flock

Our flock is now one bird bigger.
Posted Sun Jun 12 15:48:31 2011 Tags:

Grilling prosHave you ever been around when a real pro is grilling, making his charcoal from scratch on site?  It's quite an experience.


Meet Keyen.  He learned to barbecue from his father, and his stepson Anthony is currently following in his footsteps.  The duo seemed cool as cucumbers despite being engaged in cooking up pork and chickens for a horde of people in ninety plus degree heat.

Making charcoal

Spraying apple juiceThey started out by making charcoal out of split firewood.  The burning logs on top were heating the coals below, which Keyen shoveled out to fill the bottom of his grill.  He admonished me not to watch the temperature dial on the front of the grill, but to instead keep an eye on the steam billowing out the vents and to listen to the sizzle to make sure the meat hadn't caught fire.

Although no one was able to finagle the secret recipe, Keyen started out with some sort of spice rub, marinated the meat throughout by spraying on apple juice, and finished with his special sauce.  Here's where I tell you that I don't like barbecue...but this meat was amazing.  The whole chickens had been split in half down their backs so that they held in the juices, and I've never tasted such succulent chicken.  But the pork loin was even more delicious.

Chickens in a coolerAfter an hour and a half, the chickens were ready to go into the cooler.  Since it's well insulated, the cooler holds in the heat and lets the birds keep cooking a little bit as they wait to be put on the table.  Keyen's trick for telling when his meat is ready to take off the grill is to twist a leg --- if the bone pulls right out, the chicken is done.

Just as I was about to succumb to the heat and leave the grilling theater, Keyen told me about his career as a cowboy and how he lassoed an unruly guest at his wedding.  And he wasn't even pulling my leg.

Our chicken waterer is the perfect way to raise the healthiest and tastiest broilers on pasture.
Posted Mon Jun 13 07:12:53 2011 Tags:

I think that if my family had a crest, it would have an Egyptian onion smack dab in the middle.  So I thought you'd enjoy this video that my mother and sister cooked up between them walking you through the anatomy of the Egyptian onion while also telling how the Egyptian onion entered our lives. 

What got left on the cutting room floor was the tale of how, when my grandmother enthusiastically carried these "round trip onions" all the way home to Massachusetts from Virginia, her sister smiled and nodded.  You see, my aunt Ruth (who wrote for Organic Gardening) had been growing Egyptian onions in her garden next door all along.

Perhaps Egyptian onions are just prone to being overlooked.  My own father only started cooking with them last year when I treated him to a start from my garden's excess.  Now, he's turned into an Egyptian onion pusher too.  Meanwhile, Mark's mother also got some bulblets from me a couple of years ago and is doing her best to populate the entire state of Ohio.  What's not to love about Egyptian onions?

Our 99 cent ebook has quick, fun projects to get you started on your homesteading path.
Posted Mon Jun 13 12:00:33 2011 Tags:
A product called "File Crate" works well for a broody ben nest box

Our Cochin hen just decided to go broody on us yesterday, which is perfect timing as the latest incubation generation comes online.

The plan is to sneak the new chicks in with Ms. Broody tonight and hopefully she'll wake up with her biological clock still ticking and ready to shift into mother hen mode.

I used a plastic milk carton looking thing called a "File Crate" for the new and improved nest box complete with chick friendly access ramp.

Posted Mon Jun 13 14:48:57 2011 Tags:

Two chicks"It seems like you spend so much time worrying over the incubator, you would have been better off ordering chicks through the mail," my father said after I wrote about my chick-hatching rollercoaster.

In the short term, he was right.  Raising our own chicks isn't worth all the sleepless nights and emotional highs and lows.  On the other hand, by hatch three, the only reason I woke up in the night is because four chicks were hatching very loudly three feet away from my pillow at 2 am.

I like to peruse our blog archives and am always amused to read about how tough various tasks were the first few times we did them.  Killing chickens and extracting honey were initially traumatic, but now an evening of chicken-plucking is restful, and I didn't think twice about snagging a couple of quarts of honey from the hive last week.  Ditto with waiting for chicks to poke their way out of the shell or even deciding that a troubled chick needs to be helped or euthanized.  In the end, self-sufficiency and "job" satisfaction are worth being sent for a loop the first few times I try a new skill.

Our chicken waterer keeps the chicks' bedding dry and the flock healthy.
Posted Tue Jun 14 07:09:52 2011 Tags:
How to make a fly trap

Duncan sent me this plan for a nearly free, homemade fly trap that he made out of a plastic soda bottle.  The top of the bottle turns into a slippery funnel down which the insects slide into the trap zone.  Although a few might find their way back out the small opening, it looks like in practice most insects aren't that smart.

Learn to keep bugs at bay Duncan's goal was to keep down flies that sprang up around his chickens, but I can envision using the same setup as a homemade Japanese beetle trap and others on the internet use it to catch stinkbugs.  Since chickens are at the top of my mind, I'm tempted to make a trap like this with a solar LED light at the bottom to snag nocturnal insects to feed the chickens.  (The only thing holding me back is the lack of plastic soda bottles in our trailer at the moment!)

For more tantilizing inventions, read about Duncan's wheel lift for a chicken tractor and his heated PVC pipe chicken waterer on our chicken blog.  You can also see his beautiful, homemade musical instruments on his website.

Posted Tue Jun 14 12:00:27 2011 Tags:
wacking weeds with a Stihl FS-90

When I notice a landscaping crew working a job site most of the time the weed eater guy is using a Stihl.

It was this observation along with my neighbor's recent round of research that led me to choose the Stihl FS-90R weed eater.

Stay tuned for a full report after I've had a chance to see how well it cuts the mustard.

Posted Tue Jun 14 19:48:18 2011 Tags:

Day old chicksChicks are very cute on day 1, but by day 2, I'm heartily wishing they were all grown up and able to take care of themselves.  That's why we decided to take the risk of slipping our newest eleven under the broody hen.  We knew there was a chance some or all of the chicks would die if the mother hen rejected them, but we've been losing nearly a quarter of our motherless birds to predators/power outages in the first month anyway, so she can probably do the job better.  Mostly, though, the chance of foisting off motherhood on someone else was irresistable.

Chicken in milk crateThe best time to introduce chicks to a broody hen is in the evening, after she's been sitting tight on the nest for at least a couple of days.  You're banking on the fact that chickens can't count, either time or eggs.  If she wakes up in the morning with eleven youngsters peeping amid her feathers, she'll just assume they hatched out of the one egg she's been sitting on for a mere three days.  Of course, the chicks need to be young enough for this to be at least vaguely believable, so don't try to toss those two week olds under your broody hen.

Our hen was setting in a plastic egg crate we'd tossed in the coop as a nest box and never modified, and when we tried to move her to Mark's more chick-friendly brood box on Monday night, she threw a fit and I let her return to her old nest box.  As a result, we had to make the box switch at the same time we introduced the chicks on Tuesday night, and the broody hen was not pleased.  After taking a nice chunk out of Mark's gloves as he lifted Two nest boxesher onto the cluster of chicks in the new brood box, she proceeded to peck at the chicks peeking out from beneath her feathers until they squeaked in pain.  Still, it was nearly dark, and soon she couldn't see to peck, so we crossed our fingers and went to bed.

I figured the test would come at dawn, so I slipped outside as soon as it grew light and padded to the chicken coop.  Ms. Broody was awake, and so were the chicks, with several pecking at the surrounding straw while keeping their Transferring hen onto chicksbodies warm underneath the white feather blanket.  I was glad to finally hear motherly clucking coming from the broody hen and being answered by soft chick twitters, but had our hen really accepted the youngsters?

One of the chicks fell out from under the mother hen as she turned to look at me (squawking warningly.)  The lost chick toddled down the ramp in the wrong direction and quickly got cold.  "Help!  Where are you?" he cheeped from the floor of the coop.  "Junior, I'm this way," the mother hen purred, and he scampered back up the ramp, pecked at his mother's beak, and nestled down into her feathers.  I guess the adoption was a success.

For those of you keen to try this at home, you'll probably sleep better if you follow the rules a little better than I did.  Move the box of chicks out to the brood coop a couple of hours before introduction and their peeping will make the mother hen think her eggs are hatching.  Then slip the chicks under the hen's feathers one by one, trying not to disturb her.  That said, internet lore to the contrary, our quick and dirty swap seems to have worked just as well.

Our chicken waterer was well received, with chicks pecking away at the nipple within a day of hatching.
Posted Wed Jun 15 07:18:17 2011 Tags:
Broody hen taking care of incubated chicks

It's working!

Our mother hen decided to spend most of the first day showing the chicks where and how to drink.

Posted Wed Jun 15 15:38:13 2011 Tags:

Yellow crookneck squashBad bugs are a fact of life on the organic farm.  My favorite method of insect control is avoidance, which is our new technique for combatting the squash vine borer this year.  We love summer squash, but the yellow zucchini varieties we'd been growing were magnets for the borer.  After reading that vine borers tend to skip yellow crookneck plantings, we decided to give this new variety a shot, and sure enough, I saw the vine borers pass through the garden but only found one damaged stem and none of the squash plants wilted.  The only downside is that I'd planned for our summer squash to die young like it does every other year, so I succession planted --- we may soon be swimming in summer squash.

Cabbage worm damageYou can avoid insects with timing as well as with variety selection.  Most years, I manage to get the broccoli in the ground early enough that I've got all of the heads processed by the time the cabbage whites start fluttering through the garden to lay their eggs, so I barely have to deal with cabbage worms.  This year, the spring ground was so cold that my broccoli and cabbage ran a week late, and we ended up with lots of damage.  I've resolved that if the soil temperature is too low to plant my spring crucifers on time next year, I'll start them indoors so that I can avoid those pesky caterpillars.

If I can't avoid them, my  next line of defense is hand-picking.  Just fill a cup with water and flick or drop the insects in --- they'll be too busy staying afloat to fly away.  If you're picking chicken-approved insects (everything except asparagus beetles and stinkbugs in our garden), pour the contents of the bug cup into the pasture and your insects will quickly be converted into eggs.  If your chickens won't eat them, you can always just put a lid on the picking container and let the bad bugs drown.

Asparagus flowerThe new trick I've discovered this year about hand-picking is to hit the insects hard as soon as they appear.  In 2010, I dutifully squashed asparagus beetles once a week, but there always seemed to be more to pluck.  This year, when the first beetles arrived, I picked them immediately and kept checking on the plants at least once a day until I no longer saw adults.  Then I squashed the few larvae that got past my first round of control three times a week until they were also gone.  By the time the asparagus ferns were fully leafed out and impossible to check for bugs, the asparagus beetle had been eradicated!  Even though it felt like I was spending more time picking bugs than in previous years, I was able to stop after just a few weeks, so my total bug-picking hours for the year were actually fewer.

In the end, most of my insect control methods come down to timing, which is why I'm careful to mark emergence dates on my calendar and cruise past problem plants daily when insects are due to arrive.  In a temperate climate, winter does a remarkably good job of knocking insect populations back; Learn to keep bugs at baymy  job is just to follow along in the footsteps of cold weather and make sure the insects stay down.  Yet another reason I'm glad I don't live in the tropics.

Our chicken waterer solves another homesteading problem --- poop-filled waterers.
Posted Thu Jun 16 07:42:14 2011 Tags:
Stihl Polycut up close field report 2011

I've been using this Polycut attachment on the new Stihl FS-90R weed eater to cut through some tough weeds that seemed too thick for the original string.

I like it a lot.

The sound is less high pitched and it feels like a substantial increase in cutting power. Expect to pay around 22 dollars. Not sure what the replacement fingers cost, but I think it was comparable to the price of string.

Posted Thu Jun 16 16:47:19 2011 Tags:
Chicken eating rotten strawberry

Last year, I keep track of how much I fed our dark cornish broilers compared to how much their dressed carcasses weighed and decided that it made the most sense to slaughter the birds at 12 weeks.  Our tweens are just eight weeks old, so they've got another month of grace (at least.)

Black chickensSo far, our australorps (and their golden comet leader) seem to be winning by a landslide over the dark cornish when it comes to subsisting on found food.  At three months old, the dark cornish broilers had eaten 14 pounds of storebought food apiece while our current tweens have only eaten 3.25 pounds of food apiece.  I expect them to eat that much again over the next month, but even that will put the current flock at less than half the storebought feed costs of last year's broilers.

Which doesn't necessarily mean the black australorps will be a better deal.  Since I'm currently raising light-weight egg-laying breeds rather than heavy meat chickens, we could still end up with a feed to meat ratio worse than that of our dark cornish.  We also may need to grow our current flock for an extra month to get them big enough to make it worth our while to slaughter them, which might make the meat tougher.

Even though I'm reserving judgment on whether my current meat chicken scheme makes sense, I'm thoroughly pleased with our young flock.  They go out foraging in the rain, keep working through the heat of the afternoon, and are generally a pleasure to look at.  Thanks for the tip on trying black australorps, Darren!

Cockerel on branch

Our chicken waterer keeps the young flock going even in the hottest weather.
Posted Fri Jun 17 08:28:43 2011 Tags:
new nest box update for broody hen and chicks

The new chick friendly nest box is not good enough for our broody hen.

She's been hunkering down between the water and food dish and sleeping on the floor.

I suspect the new nest box will come in handy if we can coax her into sitting on some eggs next year, but for now it would seem like she feels safer on the ground where she can hide her family behind the blue plastic tub we sometimes use as a brood house.

Posted Fri Jun 17 16:26:25 2011 Tags:
Garlic harvest

Overmature garlic head
Last week, I dreamed about Dracula.  At the time, I thought it meant I was supposed to read that classic text, but in retrospect, I think the dream was my subconscious telling me to go ahead and harvest our garlic crop.

When I did finally pull them out of the ground on Friday, a few of the garlic heads had started to split apart, but most will be good keepers.  Our crop is about the same size as last year's...which is to say HUGE!  I guess my family will be getting their Christmas presents in July this year.

Curing garlicIf you're looking for some facts, check out these past posts:

When should I harvest garlic?

How do you cure garlic?

How do you store garlic?

How much does it cost to grow your own garlic?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock happy and healthy in coops, tractors, or pastures.
Posted Sat Jun 18 07:57:38 2011 Tags:
working on the grape vine

This might be the year we have a decent harvest of grapes.
Posted Sat Jun 18 15:34:27 2011 Tags:

Straw mulch around cornWhich is better for the vegetable garden, straw or composted leaf mulch?  I'll have to wait a few more months before I can tell how each mulch impacts the biology of the soil, but I'm already getting a feel for how our two mulches are working.

When it comes to ease of application, each type of mulch has its pros and cons.  Straw is extremely easy to lay down around large plants, but is difficult to work between tender young onions.  I also tend to wait to apply straw until seedlings are three or four inches tall since the straw stalks can move around and overshadow youngsters.  In contrast, the composted leaf mulch takes more time and effort to shovel into the wheelbarrow and back out, but is much easier to use around seedlings since it stays where you put it and the soft particles can rain down around young plants without hurting them.

Leaf compost mulch around onionsPrice per bed seems to be nearly identical for straw mulch and leaf compost mulch --- $1.40 per bed or around 8 cents per square foot.  The trouble with making this comparison, though, is that I can't tell how long each mulch will last before I need to reapply.  My gut says that the leaf compost might last longer, but only time will tell.

Of course, the real deciding point will probably be how the vegetables perform surrounded by each type of mulch.  The amount of organic matter added to the soil (measured using a worm test) will also be key.  Maybe by this time next year, I will have decided on a favorite type of storebought mulch (and put some thought into how to grow it myself.)

Our chicken waterer never spills in coops or tractors.
Posted Sun Jun 19 08:17:21 2011 Tags:
Turken chick up close and cute

What do you get when you mate a chicken with a turkey?

You can get a turkey/chicken hybrid, but for some reason they only produce male eggs.

We recently got a turken mixed in with our austalorp eggs, which is not a fancy hybrid, just a breed of chicken that has a neck like a turkey.

I wonder what effect a misfit like this has on the other young chicks in the mother hen mini flock? My guess would be that a little diversity would help and each breed could teach the other some foraging tricks the other might not be aware of.

Posted Sun Jun 19 16:33:50 2011 Tags:

Planting strawberryIt feels almost ungrateful to rip strawberry plants out of the ground mere days after they gave me gallons of fruits, but that's what I was doing last week.  We pull out the oldest plants (a third to half of our beds) at this time of year and put in new beds of rooted runners.  Some of these summer-planted strawberries succumb to the heat, but the ones that make it are hefty enough to bear a good (but not great) crop of fruits the next year.  These are the tastiest berries that I reserve for eating fresh, while the more copious fruits from the two year old Watering transplantsplants are used to make strawberry shortcake, strawberry freezer jam, or strawberry leather.

I've just about gotten used to ripping out happy strawberry plants, but the strawberry demolition this year was even more serious.  I opted to remove all of our latest bearing variety (Jewel) and replace them with a new variety that I hope will taste better (All-Star.)  The mail order strawberries came in a very dormant state, so I hope they're able to deal with the summer garden.

Any angst I felt about pulling out such stalwart garden friends was relieved by the sheer joy the chickens took from picking through the plants in search of rotten berries.  At least someone enjoys those not-so-great Jewel strawberries!

Our chicken waterer simplifies backyard chicken care.
Posted Mon Jun 20 07:09:10 2011 Tags:

Homemade hatchetFor a long time I was in search of knives that fit my hands, my use, and my budget.  Frankly there wasn't much out there that didn't cost an arm and a leg, so I looked into how to make my own knives.

I found a great video from Purgatory Ironworks on youtube that walks you through how to make a Brake Drum Forge.  By simply taking an old brake drum & some metal piping you can create a working forge.  I called around the local auto repair shops and was offered 3 drums in just 5 minutes, but selected the largest for ease of work.  After installing the simple black pipes to the bottom and attaching a hairdryer for air supply I was off and running.  On other youtube videos that Trent at Purgatory does, he also shows you how to make your own charcoal, a great thing for a beginning blacksmith to know how to do.

Homemade forge

Homemade charcoalSo once I got my forge built and my charcoal made, the next step was to make an anvil.  I visited our local scrapyard and bought not only a 24" piece of railroad track, but a 1" thick 6x15" piece of plate steel and a 2" square tubing piece to weld onto it.  By welding the plate steel and the tubing on the track, I was able to get a smooth flat surface with a hole to be used for driving holes through red hot metal.

Rusty railroad spikesWith my charcoal going, I simply turn my hair dryer on, get the fire and coals nice and hot, and put my metal in to begin.  The metals I usually use are old hand files that are now dull and have little value to most people, so they can be obtained pretty cheap from a flea market or garage sale.  I also use alot of old railroad steel found near local tracks by my parents.  Most of the time it's railroad spikes but every so often there are other random pieces of steel.  The railroad spikes are then divided into 2 piles, the regular spikes and the high carbon spikes (you can tell by the HC on the head of the spike).  The high carbons are used on tracks in places of stress or curves.

From the forge, the metal is extremely hot and usually an orange to red color.  I then take my tongs and put the piece on the anvil, then using my 3# Cross Peen or my 2# ball peen hammers, I start to shape, draw out, and work the metal to my desired product.  It does take many heatings and repeated sessions on the anvil, but in the end the product is then Homemade knivesquenched in used motor oil to cool it.  I then clean all of the oil off the item, polish it to the smoothness I want for that item (higher polish for knife blades, less for tomahawks, tools, and other items) and temper it in an oven for around an hour.

Once the metal is out of the oven, it's usually set in a handle, I make a leather sheath, and it's done.  The only thing I'm actually paying for now everytime I use my forge is the little electricity to run the dryer/blower, and if you're worried about that you can use a hand bellows just like in the 1800s.  I've made knives, tomahawks and hatchets, chisels, mountain man flint strikers, and other items out of the scrap steel found along the tracks or out of used files.  The next goal is to forge weld some cables into billets to make knives, and maybe even a sword out of.

Editor's Note: I asked David how much his startup costs were and he estimates it cost him $20 to make the forge, $13 for tools he didn't already have, and $38 to build the anvil; everything else was supplies he already had on hand.  I suspect the setup would have paid for itself nearly immediately if he charged the friends who have put in orders for specific items like a lightweight hatchet/tomahawk with a hammer head, Japanese style blades, and filet knives for processing game.

Posted Mon Jun 20 12:00:36 2011 Tags:

predator proofing a chick housing area otherwise known as a coopWe've lost a few chicks this year to an unknown predator.

Last year we kept them inside till they got big enough to go out in the world. They didn't have any problems with predators, but their foraging skills seemed to be lacking enthusiasm.

This year we decided to get the chicks outside sooner. I'm not sure if it was the new breed, the mother hen, or getting on real ground sooner, but they're already better foragers than last year's flock.

I've considered building an automatic chicken coop door closer, but there are so many other things on the growing season to-do list that we've decided to absorb the loss as a price of doing business in a more natural fashion.

Posted Mon Jun 20 15:11:26 2011 Tags:

Green wheat headHow do you know when your wheat is ripe?  First, let's start with the technical answer.

If you grew winter wheat, in late spring the heads will bulk up and turn beautiful, then the plant will start to turn brown.  At that point, squeeze a seed between your thumb and forefinger to test it once or twice a week.  At first, the wheat seeds will exude a milky substance just like sweet corn does when it's ripe, but then the punctured seeds will stop oozing (although they will still dent under your thumbnail.)

You can start harvesting as soon as the wheat seeds pass the milk stage, although the grains will need to dry up and harden a bit before they're ready to eat.  It's best to go ahead and harvest on the early side since if you wait too long, the heads will "shatter", meaning that the grains will fall onto the ground.

Chickens in ripe wheatNow for the fun way to tell if your wheat is ready to harvest --- that overlooked part of your garden will suddenly become a magnet for animal life.  First, it was just a cardinal who took to perching on the gate of the wheat-filled chicken pasture, but then our second round of chicks decided it was worth leaving the ragweed forest to see what all the fuss was about.  When I found six chickens knocking down the wheat stalks, I knew it was time to pull the grain out of there.

As for how to harvest the wheat --- we're still crossing that bridge.  Stay tuned for a later post.

Our chicken waterer kept our thirsty chicks happy after a long, hard day of stealing my grain.
Posted Tue Jun 21 07:26:10 2011 Tags:

Weekend HomesteaderDid you ever wonder if the same mulch is appropriate for your peach tree and your tomato plants?  Have you been itching to create your own recipes?  The July edition of Weekend Homesteader covers these topics and more as it walks you through:

  • Cooking up a pot of soup
  • Budgeting your life
  • Mulching the garden
  • Freezing produce

As usual, Weekend Homesteader: July is available for just 99 cents in Amazon's Kindle store.  And if you don't have the spare cash, or just don't want to deal with downloading an app so you can read the ebook on your computer or phone, just email me and I'll send you a free pdf copy.

Weekend Homesteader paperback For those of you who'd like to help me out, reviews seem to be the most important way (beyond buying the ebook) to move it up in the rankings so that random strangers give an unknown author a shot.  If you get a chance, please take a minute to review the July edition after you read it, and I'm always looking for reviews of past ebooks, especially Weekend Homesteader: June.  Thanks for taking the time to make Weekend Homesteader a success!

Posted Tue Jun 21 12:00:32 2011 Tags:
2011 wheat harvest with weed eater

The new Polycut attachment for the weed eater did a quick job of cutting down this year's wheat crop.

What worked well for us was me cutting a small section and stepping back while Anna gathered up the wheat.

Teamwork on a job like this helps to get it done quicker, and in my opinion adds a little bit of fun to the mix.

Posted Tue Jun 21 16:28:52 2011 Tags:

Drying wheatThe majority of our wheat maxed out around knee-high and the heads were far smaller than they should have been.  I suspect that the main problem was planting too thickly because the wheat along the edge of the path where most of the plants got trampled and died was over twice as tall as average and had seed heads three times as long.  But I also should have left the chickens in that pasture longer after they ate up last summer's buckwheat so that they could fertilize the field a little more.  Live and learn.

Since so many of the stalks were puny, I knew shocks wouldn't have enough structural integrity to dry the wheat.  Instead, I tied clumps with baling twine (leftover from straw bales) and hung them up with the garlic under our "porch."  I might try to thresh a bit of the wheat when it's thoroughly dried, but at the moment I'm thinking that it will make a good treat for the chickens as is.  If I threw a handful of wheat on the stalk into the coop, the chickens could pick through to get the grain, then scratch the straw around to refresh their deep bedding.

Our chickens relish the fresh water from their chicken waterer on hot summer days.
Posted Wed Jun 22 08:06:36 2011 Tags:

Egyptian onions
Egyptian onions have had another bumper year of top-bulb production, but that's no surprise because every year seems to be a bumper year if you're an Egyptian onion.  Last year, I sold the onions, but this year I've decided to give them away to our loyal blog readers.  This post is the first in a line of giveaways --- I'll keep giving until they're all gone --- so don't feel bad if you don't win.

What will I get?
Egyptian onion top bulbsOne lucky winner will get a small, flat rate box full of Egyptian onion top bulbs.  That's multiple hundred bulbs, which is plenty to keep a good sized family in green onions for ten months of the year.  You might even have some to give to your neighbors!

How do I enter?
To enter our Egyptian onion giveaway, you'll need to have bought at least one of our ebooks from Amazon in 2011, or have emailed me for a free copy.  You'll be entered once for every book you buy (or email for), and since this is a retroactive giveaway, if you bought each of our ebooks as it came out, you could already be entered six times.

Weekend Homesteader: JulyAmazon won't tell me who bought my ebooks, so you'll need to leave a comment on this post letting me know how many times I should put your name in the pot.  Yes, this is on the honor system --- I figure none of you are going to lie about how many ebooks you bought.  Just be sure to make your comment before the deadline --- June 28 at midnight.

Don't forget to check back next Wednesday to see if you won, and then drop me an email with your mailing address so I'll know where to send your onions.  If I don't hear from the first winner by Friday morning, I'll move on to someone else.

Good luck, and thanks for helping our ebooks see the light of day!

Posted Wed Jun 22 13:14:03 2011 Tags:
5 foot role of chicken wire being unwrapped

These 5 foot high rolls of chicken wire are my new favorite form of poultry corralling.

Our local independently owned hardware store special ordered them for us. The highest chicken wire I was able to find at Lowe's was only 3 feet long and cost almost as much as the bigger roll.

If you look closely you can see 2 separate strands of slightly thinner wire holding the roll together.  What I've found works best is to cut that thinner wire somewhere around the middle and start pulling. Do this again for the other thin wire and you're ready to start fencing in your flock.

Posted Wed Jun 22 15:29:51 2011 Tags:
Succession planting beans

Succession planting will take you a tiny bit more time (and more mental energy) than throwing in your garden all at once, but it's worth the extra effort.  Here are the top reasons to succession plant.

As I've mentioned before, you can beat bugs and diseases by planning your crops so that you've got a new bed ready to take over when the first bed succumbs

Succession planting corn

With determinate plants like sweet corn that bear all at once, succession planting is even more mandatory.  Wouldn't you rather eat corn on the cob throughout the summer instead of having to deal with one big glut on the fourth of July?

Mulched raised beds

Succession planting naturally breaks up garden work into bite-size chunks.  Nearly every week between the beginning of February and the middle of October, I plant something.  If I had to do all that work at once, I'd probably cut back my garden's size by three quarters.

Red raspberry

Technically, succession planting consists of putting in a new bed of the same vegetable at intervals throughout the growing season, but I take a more holistic view of the concept.  We plan our fruit and vegetable plantings so that different crops span as much of the year as possible.  As soon as the strawberries end, the red and black raspberries are bearing, then the blackberries, and so on.  If you're a real pro, you can plan your garden so that you've only got a glut of one type of food that needs to be processed for the winter at a time, but I'm not quite that good.

Hen with chicks on pasture

This year I even "succession planted" our chickens.  Rather than raising one big batch of broilers and then spending all week butchering them, we've started three smaller broods (and might incubate one more set of eggs in July.)  I'm still on the fence about whether this succession of chickens saves work, but it does help our pastures stay green.

If you're sold on succession planting, chances are you've still got an opportunity in 2011 to put the idea into practice.  Here in zone 6, there's a lot more succession planting of summer crops ahead and the fall garden is also going into the ground in stages.  Take a look at our summer planting and fall planting charts to find out what you can plant in your neck of the woods.

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to keep what amounts to four different flocks.  Although i still have to feed them every day, watering is a bimonthly chore.
Posted Thu Jun 23 07:58:05 2011 Tags:
push mower pull rope solution

I had some trouble with the pull rope on our push mower yesterday.

One of the things I like about this mower is how easy it is to take apart. A good socket set along with a philips screwdriver was all that was needed to get to the pull rope mechanism.

The problem was a small twig that had somehow found its way inside preventing the rope from activating the plastic fingers that spring out and catch the flywheel so it can turn as you pull the rope.

Posted Thu Jun 23 16:39:56 2011 Tags:

Cluster of Japanese beetlesWe always have some Japanese beetles, but they usually stay on the cherry tree, raspberries, and grapes.  This year, I have to walk through the whole garden picking bugs because the invasive pests are chowing down on everything from Swiss chard and corn to breadseed poppies.

I can't quite figure out what tipped the balance to create this shift.  Perhaps Mark's been keeping the lawn mowed too well so the larval stage is happier, or maybe ripping out those French grapes deleted my trap crop and spread the insects far and wide?  Another option would be this year's rainy weather since drought can kill Japanese beetles in the grub stage.

Whatever the cause, I've been handpicking like crazy and making no dent.  I fed a full cup of Japanese beetles to the chickens on Thursday and immediately saw more insects that I'd missed.  I'd be curious to hear if you're overrun with more Japanese Nymph wheel bugbeetles than usual this year or if the plague is confined to my garden.

The good news is that our predatory insects might take up the slack before long.  I've seen hundreds of small praying mantises this year, so hopefully some of them will rise to the occasion.  Meanwhile, I started noticing assassin bugs hanging out where the Japanese beetles land and even saw one Japanese beetle husk --- the hard carapace remained but nothing inside.

I think this guy is, more specifically, a nymph Wheel Bug (Arilus cristatus), but all assasin bugs work pretty much alike.  They use those long mouthparts (see the yellow bit curving down below the insect's face?) to stab insects and inject a chemical that liquifies the prey's internal organs.  Then the bugs simply suck their dinner dry.  Take that, you Japanese beetles!

Learn to keep bugs at bay

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock entertained when I'm not tossing in weeds, worms, or beetles.

Posted Fri Jun 24 07:06:59 2011 Tags:

Hardy Kiwi growth report 2011Maybe this will be the year our 3 Hardy Kiwi plants will start blooming?

2011 is the first time they went up high enough to merit a 2nd level to the trelis.

I had some doubts on if they were going to make it the first couple of years, but now I've got a more optimistic view thanks to this recent growth spurt.

Video credit goes to who recommends pruning every 3 weeks in the summer for an amazing bush like effect.

Posted Fri Jun 24 16:51:02 2011 Tags:

Processing potato onionsWe've been experimenting with potato onions for two years now, and I'm ready to pronounce them a failure.  On paper, the perennial onions looked like a great choice since you can easily save sets and don't have to buy seeds (and baby them in the early spring.) 

Harvest potato onions
And this year's harvest looks pretty good when I tell you that I pulled about fourteen pounds of onions out of seven garden beds.  The problem is that we've never been able to get more than a few of our potato onions to exceed an inch in diameter.  Peeling enough potato onions to equal one seed-started onion would take half an hour!

I've tried every trick I could think of to get my potato onions to make bigger bulbs instead of just lots and lots of small bulbs.  I've tried different planting dates, snipped off the flowers when they appeared, and even dreamed that Eric Toensmeier was right and you have to plant small bulbs to get big onions.  No dice.

Even though we're not going to replant any of this year's potato onions, I'm not quite ready to give up on the idea of potato onions.  I've noticed that Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has stopped selling the Loretta Yellow Multiplier Onions we bought from them and are now offering a different variety.  Maybe too many people complained and they came up with a better option?

I'd be curious to hear if any of you have had better luck with potato onions.  Any onions that head up to a decent size?  If so, what variety did you grow?

Our chicken waterer is the dependable way to leave town without worrying about your flock.
Posted Sat Jun 25 06:38:39 2011 Tags:

Skill drill press reviewWe recently upgraded our drill press with the plan of increasing our production of automatic chicken waterers by sending the old drill to a local friend so he can start doing some of the work.

The design is basically the same as the old drill press with the addition of a safety switch that can be turned off easier if you have some sort of difficulty.

It's also got a battery powered laser that shines two intersecting lines where the drill bit is expected to first bite.
targeting laser for a Skil drill press

Posted Sat Jun 25 17:00:22 2011 Tags:

Black raspberry bushLast summer, I took two minutes to pinch off the tops of my black raspberry and blackberry primocanes (the new shoots coming up that year.)  This topping prompted the brambles to bush out, and the black raspberry harvest this year has been phenomenal.

What started as a single plant two years ago is now a bush six feet long, but narrow enough that I can reach inside and get all the berries without a scratch.  While brambles are very resilient and require nearly no care, I Black raspberry fruitknow that I'm much more inclined to pick the fruits daily if I don't have to crawl inside a sprawling briar patch of rooted canes.

There's no decline in yield resulting from the pruning either.  My black raspberry plant has produced half a gallon of berries in the last week and a half, and more are yet to ripen.  In fact, I've already snipped off the tops of this year's primocanes in hopes of a similar large and easy harvest in 2012.

Our chicken waterer is another great way to make your homesteading job easier.
Posted Sun Jun 26 07:00:25 2011 Tags:

flying load of horse manureI was listening to a heated discussion on a podcast the other day and one guy said to his opponent, "that's a load of horse manure!" with the implication that what he was saying was untrue.

It occured to me that whoever started this saying must have been a city slicker of the type that never got his hands dirty and was most likely annoyed at the smell of horse manure.

In my world not much out there is truer than a large load of decomposed, smelly, horse dung. Part of the charm for me is the smell. A sure signal that its still got some organic life left in it.

Posted Sun Jun 26 17:00:09 2011 Tags:
Nitrogen deficiency

After sunlight and water, nitrogen is the most common factor limiting plants' growth.  Can you see how the corn plants on the right have leaves a shade yellower than the ones on the left?  These yellow-green leaves are a sure sign of nitrogen deficiency, in this case due to the spring cover crops eating up the compost and not rotting fast enough to give that nitrogen back to the corn.

Spindly and healthy tomatoes

Or take a look at the tomatoes above.  The two are the same variety, started from seed at the same time, but when I transplanted the tomato on the left into an old hugelkultur mound, I forgot to add any compost.  The plant looks okay color-wise but is spindly (which can also be a sign of too much shade, though not in this case.)  It's a bit tough to tell from the photo, but the healthy tomato is half again as tall and twice as bushy as its nitrogen-starved sibling...and that's after I cut off about half of the plant's bulk in a severe pruning just before taking the picture.
Top dressing corn
Luckily, a nitrogen deficiency is extremely easy to fix.  First, I look at the problem short term and find a way to give the plants a dose of liquid fertilizer.  I opted to water down some urine and pour it into the soil around the troubled plants' roots, but you could also make some compost or manure tea.

The next step is to solve the problem long term by top dressing around the plants with nitrogen-rich compost.  Cover the compost up with a little extra mulch and I'm all done.  No more nitrogen deficiency on our farm!

Our chicken waterer lets you go out of town without worrying about your flock.
Posted Mon Jun 27 07:00:36 2011 Tags:

Sprouting seed ballA seed ball is just what it sounds like --- a globe of earth and seeds.  Masanobu Fukuoka was probably the first person to come up with the idea of seed balls as part of his do-nothing grain experiments, but nowadays you mostly hear about seed balls from guerrilla gardeners who use the tool to introduce floral diversity to urban environments.  Seed balls also go by the name "seed bomb," "earth ball," "nendo dango," and "tsuchi dango."

The purpose of a seed ball is to make it easy to plant seeds without tilling the ground.  If you're gardening in a no-till system, you can often just rake the mulch back and broadcast Mixing seeds for earth ballyour seeds on the soil surface, but sometimes your seedlings will perish if they dry out too fast due to sun exposure.  Other times, birds come along and snack on the seeds --- this happened to me with some of my forest pasture plantings.  If your seeds are enclosed in a ball of earth, they'll be a bit more protected without requiring you to dig up the ground to insert your seed.

Seed balls have other advantages as well.  Guerrilla gardeners like the way you can toss a seed ball surreptitiously into someone else's yard without anyone noticing.  And Masanobu Fukuoka developed seed balls so that he could plant several months' worth of crops at the same time, putting rice, clover, and rye all in the same chunk of earth.

I've always been a bit dubious about seed balls, but last week, I decided to try seed balls for the first time.  This week's lunchtime series covers my experiment with this fun permaculture method.

Don't miss our newest ebook, just 99 cents on Amazon.

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

Posted Mon Jun 27 11:48:05 2011 Tags:

Egyptian onion top bulbsWe ended up with another huge basket of Egyptian onion top bulbs.  (Thanks, Errol!)

You've still got a day to enter our other Egyptian onion giveaway, but we want to thank our most loyal reader even sooner.  So, the first U.S. reader who comments on this post will win a small flat-rate box full of Egyptian onion top bulbs.  Thanks for reading!

(If you win, be sure to email Anna with your mailing address.)

Posted Mon Jun 27 17:41:21 2011 Tags:
Baby watermelon

Mark and I were gone from the farm for 34 hours this past weekend to help my father celebrate his 70th birthday.  When we got home, I couldn't believe how much our garden had grown in that small span of time.  For example, I'm pretty sure our biggest watermelon doubled in size over the weekend.

Garden basket

I picked every moderately sized cucumber just before we left, feeding us cukes for lunch and supper and even cutting up the last few to eat as road food.  I also dried about half a gallon of summer squash (which turned into two cups of brilliant yellow morsels.)  This basket shows what I was faced with when I returned...and I haven't even started picking the beans.

Young chickens

And then there are the chickens.  You wouldn't think that animals would grow enough to notice in just a couple of days, but the birds from hatch 2 suddenly feel like tweens.  Which means the tweens are...dinner?

Our chicken waterer kept all four flocks well hydrated while we were out of town.
Posted Tue Jun 28 08:07:30 2011 Tags:

Urban seed ball resultsLike many other oft-mentioned permaculture methods, I have a gut feeling that seed balls work better on paper than in reality.  In my neck of the woods, at least, weeds grow very fast, and a seed ball tossed into an abandoned lot isn't going to make any headway against the blackberry brambles and goldenrod.  Anything except the very lowest maintenance plants are also going to suffer from lack of nutrients. 

That said, I think that seed balls can be successful in very select environments.  If you run across an area in the city where all of the topsoil has been bulldozed away and the ground is bare, seed balls of clover will probably be quite helpful.  And if you've harvested one planting in a low-weed garden environment and want to start another without disturbing the soil, you might also have luck with seed balls.

Seed balls are most appropriate for very low maintenance crops, so you'll be best off Red clover seedballchoosing from these options:

  • Wildflower mixtures are a favorite of urban guerrilla gardeners.
  • Weedy dynamic accumulators are useful in degraded urban environments.
  • Grain and clover mixtures are appropriate for do-nothing grain plantings as long as the ground is pretty much weed-free.

For my first experiment, I chose to focus on the third option.  I haven't had very much experience with seed balls yet, though, so I hope those of you who have experimented more will chime in and tell me about your successes and failures.

The July edition of Weekend Homesteader is a 99 cent introduction to the whys and hows of mulch.

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

Posted Tue Jun 28 12:00:28 2011 Tags:
Rain on peach

Today was a good day to let our souls catch up with our bodies after a long but fast trip south. Why wait until you have to take a sick day when you can instead enjoy a day of rest?

Posted Tue Jun 28 15:47:21 2011 Tags:

Dried summer squashSummer squash will freeze, but the vegetable turns mushy and is really only appropriate to hide within tomato sauces and soups afterward.  Since our glut of summer squash is already beginning, I decided to see if they would dry any better.

For most vegetables, including summer squash, you'll end up with much better results if you blanch before drying.  To blanch, place cut up squash in a covered steamer above a pot of boiling water for a couple of minutes, stirring as necessary, until the colors turn bright.  (This is the same way you blanch before freezing.)

If you want to make squash chips, sprinkle some salt on your blanched squash.  I've been told that squash chips make a healthy and delicious snack, which I can believe from nibbling on an unsalted chip, but we opted to dry without salting so that the squash would be appropriate for winter main dishes.

Then dehydrate your squash at 125 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 12 hours.  I wasn't very careful to cut my slices all the same thickness, so I took out about half the squash after 5 hours, another quarter at 6 hours, and the final set at 7 hours.  Your squash is dry if it's crispy in consistency with no damp pockets that give between your fingers.  You'll soon be able to tell whether squash is dry at a brief touch.

Rehydrated squashWe'll store our dried veggies in the freezer while there's space, then move them to the fridge in late summer when iced accommodations get scarce.  I figure one cup of dried squash is equivalent to maybe 4 cups of frozen squash, so even if we kept the squash in the freezer full time, we'd be ahead of the game.

We tested our dried crooknecks in a soup and decided that the flavor was much better dried than frozen, nearly as good as fresh.  A definite success, and our new method of saving summer squash for the cold months.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Wed Jun 29 07:42:41 2011 Tags:

Cutting wheatBefore I tell you how to make a seed ball, I wanted to catch you up on a year and a half of do-nothing grain experiments.  The goal is to create a nearly self-sufficient grain patch using Fukuoka's natural gardening techniques but tweaked to match the southeastern U.S.'s climate. 

Experiment one consisted of leaving the chicken tractor on a patch of ground for a month in late winter 2010, then throwing hull-less oat and red clover seeds onto the bare soil.  Wild birds ate a lot of the oat seeds and the chickens hadn't really killed the perennial grasses and weeds, so I ended up with a very small showing of oats and a healthy patch of red clover (still quite visible in the yard.)

Chickens eating buckwheatFor part two of my do-nothing experimentation, I decided to move my patch to the nearly bare earth of our first, over-grazed chicken pasture.  Mark helped me root out most of the perennials left in place, then I raked buckwheat and red clover seeds into the soil in late June 2010.  The buckwheat came up well, but didn't do as much as I'd hoped because of lack of water.  (The red clover didn't seem to come up at all.)  I turned the chickens into the buckwheat paddock in October, and they ate up the bit of buckwheat that was produced in a mere four days.

Although the yields were disappointing, the good thing about the buckwheat experiment was that the combination of the crop and the chickens' harvest method deleted nearly all weeds from that paddock.  I had no trouble raking wheat seeds into the ground near the end of October, and the grain grew pretty well (although I think it suffered from overseeding and perhaps a small drought.)

Clover in wheat stubbleDespite my growing pains starting the do-nothing system, I can tell that I'm starting to develop the kind of planting Fukuoka was advocating.  When we cut the wheat a couple of weeks ago, I noticed clover sprouting up through the dead stalks, just like Fukuoka predicted.  Those red clover seeds had sat in the ground until they were ready to grow, and are now busy fixing atmospheric nitrogen to fertilize the grain field.

The wheat stubble is tenaciously holding the soil in place too, which brings me at last to the subject of this week's lunchtime series --- seed balls.  I needed a way of getting the next round of grain seeds to sprout without hoeing up the soil, so I decided to give seed balls a try.  Stay tuned for tomorrow's post to see how I went about it.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy in tractors, coops, and pastures.

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

Posted Wed Jun 29 12:00:29 2011 Tags:
Egyptian Onion close up giveaway detail

Thank you to everybody who entered our Egyptian Onion give away contest.

Dave V. is the winner this time.

Just email us an address and we'll put those in the mail this week.

Posted Wed Jun 29 16:28:29 2011 Tags:

Winter-killed oilseed radishThe cover crop experimentation theme during our first year has been killing without tilling.  Traditional farmers use one of two techniques to demolish their cover crops --- they plow the greenery into the soil or they spray it will herbicides.  Since neither of those options is appropriate to my garden, I've had to try out several other methods, including:

  • Winter-kill.  This is my favorite technique for cover crops planted in late summer or fall that will be replaced by vegetables in the spring or summer.  All you have to do to winter-kill is choose cover crops that will reliably die during your winter's coldest days.  We live in zone 6, and the two cover crops that winter-killed well for us were oats and oilseed radishes.  In contrast, crimson clover, barley, and annual ryegrass all did not winter-kill.  If you live further south, you might not have any winter-kill choices, but northerners probably have more cover crops to choose from.
  • Mow-kill.  Supposedly, mow-killing can work if you have time to leave your cover crop in place until it reaches full bloom.  In practice, I found this kill method tough to implement since I wanted to get my spring garden in before the cover crops flowered.  I'd only plan on mow-killing in the future if I had plenty of wiggle room between cover crop maturation time and vegetable planting time.  The one exception to the mow-kill problem is buckwheat, which seemed to mow-kill quite reliably for me last summer.
  • Smother-kill.  You don't read about this technique much in the agricultural literature because it's not really something you'd do on the scale of a whole farm.  However, in your backyard garden, it's not too tough to mow your cover crop down to the ground at any age, top it off with the inch of compost you were going to add to the soil anyway, add a few inches of straw or grass clippings, and wait a couple of weeks until the cover crop dies from lack of sunlight.  You can even plant big seeds like squash directly into the compost immediately, and the cover crops will have decomposed enough to feed the seedlings by the time their roots get down to the lower layer.  Just be sure to smother all the way to the edge of your garden bed or you'll end up with a ring of cover crop around your mulched center.  I've only tried this technique on two cover crop varieties so far, but it worked very well with barley and okay with annual ryegrass.
  • Resprouted oatsWeed-kill.  In a pinch, you can pull up your cover crops one at a time.  Yes, this is the method I used this spring on a couple of dozen beds of oats, and yes, it did take forever since I thought I could lay the oats back down on the soil surface as a mulch and they instead rerooted and had to be weeded again.  In future, if I have to weed-kill, I'll take the cover crops away to the compost pile --- the garden bed loses the biomass, defeating the purpose of a cover crop, but at least I won't have to keep weeding oats out of my sweet potatoes for two months.  Weed-killing should be a last resort, but it will work on any cover crop.

I'd be curious to hear what your own experiences have been with killing cover crops without tilling them into the soil.  Am I missing any of the obvious choices?  Have you tried these techniques on cover crops I haven't mentioned and had successes or failures to report?  I'm still learning and can benefit from anyone's experiences at this point.

Our chicken waterer saves time with chicken chores so that I can experiment in the garden.
Posted Thu Jun 30 07:17:37 2011 Tags:

Digging clayRecipes for seed balls vary, but the idea is to mix clay, compost (sometimes), and seeds to make a globe that has enough structural integrity that it can be tossed onto the ground without crumbling apart.  The compost is optional, but is a good idea if you're going to use your seed ball anywhere other than in rich garden soil.

Most internet sources recommend that you start with storebought, powdered clay, but I couldn't stomach buying something our farm is made of, so I just headed down to the creek Mixing seed ball soilwith a shovel.  The downside of using real clay instead of dried clay is that you'll have to work a bit harder to mix the components, but who doesn't like playing in the mud?

Seed ball mixtures range from 5 parts clay and 1 part compost all the way up to 5 parts clay and 3 parts compost.  I chose a 2:1 clay to compost ratio.  To make just a few seed balls, you can do your mixing by hand in a kitchen bowl, but I chose to whip up my seed ball dough in a wheelbarrow using a shovel, a trake, and my hands.

Adding seeds to a seed ballNext, add your seeds.  I eyeballed this step, but the internet suggests using a third as much volume of seeds as volume of compost.  Mix again until the seeds seem to be well distributed through the soil mixture.

If you're using dried clay, you'll have to add water, but if you're using real clay, the compost/clay mixture will be just the right consistency automatically.  Either way, the goal is be able to roll out balls that hold together, but that don't turn your hands too muddy.

Making seed ballFukuoka pushed his clay mixture through a screen to make seed balls, but I didn't have much luck with quarter inch hardware cloth and instead made balls out of a small handful of material.  The size of your seed ball will depend on your patience level and on what you're planting.  Since I was working with grains, I figured they wouldn't have too much trouble coming up with several grains in a clump (a bit like a Native American corn mound) as long as I spaced the seed balls far enough apart.

Some folks set their seed balls out on cookie sheets to air dry, but I didn't find that step to be necessary.  Then it's finally time for the fun part --- toss your seed balls where you wish!

Escape the rat race with our 99 cent ebook.

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

Posted Thu Jun 30 12:00:31 2011 Tags:

fresh tomato image on the vineA friend of mine asked me the other day "What's the big deal about eating a Supermarket tomato?".

1. The average tomato farmer in Florida spends 2000 dollars per acre in chemicals to kill all the bugs, weeds, and molds.

2.You never know exactly which chemicals are in play because they've got a huge arsenal to choose from which includes endosulfan, azoxystrobin, chlorothalonil, methamidophos, permethrin trans, permethrin cis, fenpropathrin, trifloxystrobin, o-phenylphenol, pieronyl butoxide, acetamprid, pyrimethanil, boscalid, bifenthrin, dicofol p., thiamethoxam, chlorpyrifos, dicloran, flonicamid, pyriproxyfen, omethoate, pyraclostrobin, famoxadone, clothianidin, cypermethrin, clothianidin, cypermethrin, fenhexamid, oxamyl, diazinon, buprofezin, cyazofamid, deltamethrin, acephate, and folpet.

You can read about more industrial facts from segments of Barry Estabrook's new book titled "Tomatoland" at

Posted Thu Jun 30 16:03:44 2011 Tags:

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

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