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

archives for 07/2011

Jul 2011

Invicta goosberriesAlthough some varieties of gooseberries change color, others look just the same when they're ripe as they did a month previously when they were hard and sour.  So, how do you know when to pick them?

Your best bet is to nibble on a berry every week or two between June and August, waiting until the fruits start to taste sweet.  A ripe berry will also give a little when you squeeze it, but will not burst open (unless you've waited too long and it's overripe.)

Once you figure out when your variety ripens up, you can mark that date on your calendar and know henceforth to look for your Invicta gooseberries on June 30 (in our specific example.)  Enjoy!

Our chicken waterer gives the chickens something to do other than picking on each other.
Posted Fri Jul 1 08:24:04 2011 Tags:

Seeds for seed ballsSo now that I've told you the hows and whys, I can finally share my own seed ball experiments.  My goal was to plant the summer and fall crops in the do-nothing grain area at the same time that I refreshed the clover population.  For our winter grain, I opted to switch over to rye, and my new summer grains include field corn, oilseed sunflowers, amaranth, and pearl millet.

I wanted to keep each type of summer grain separate, so I made four different mixtures --- sunflower/rye/clover, amaranth/rye/clover, millet/rye/clover, and field-corn/cowpeas/rye/clover.  You'll notice that the corn mixture is a little different since I added cowpeas to give this heavy feeder an extra dose of nitrogen.

Scattering seed ball mixtureI also wanted to know whether seed balls are really any better than the lower work method of just mixing up the ingredients and scattering the dirt/seed mixture amid the wheat stubble.  So, all told, I had eight experimental treatments --- corn/rye/clover balls, corn/rye/clover mixed into loose earth, etc.

Real conclusions will have to wait a few weeks, but I already have a few observations.  First, I haven't seen any wild birds chowing down on my seeds, which is a bit surprising since lots of seeds are visible on the outside of the seed balls and in the loose earth mixtures.  Even more exciting, the seeds are already sprouting!  Field corn may be a bit of a problem in a seed ball since the kernels are so large that they tend to fall out of the earth mixture and sit on the wheat stubble, but clover and pearl millet leaves are poking up through the dirt.  I have high hopes that the other seeds will soon follow suit.

Our 99 cent Weekend Homesteader series gives you tips to get started with homesteading the easy way.

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

Posted Fri Jul 1 12:00:29 2011 Tags:
chicken drinking and watermelon soaking up the 2011 sun

We've still got more Egyptian Onion bulbs.

The new way to win is easy. Just help spread the word about one of our new E-books.

Make a blog post, mention it on a forum, create a review(Thanks Jayne), or think of a fresh and new way to promote it. Just drop Anna an email with the details and you will soon know the awesome power of these perennials.

Posted Fri Jul 1 17:01:01 2011 Tags:

Dolly FreedIf you're looking for a homesteading beach read, look no further than Possum Living by "Dolly Freed."  The chatty, informative, and learned book was written by an 18 year old who dropped out of seventh grade to live the "possum" life with her alcoholic father (before getting her GED, putting herself through college, and going to work for NASA.)  The duo practiced urban homesteading long before it was cool, raising chickens and meat rabbits in their basement, trapping pigeons, and rescuing wilted produce from behind grocery stores.  They lived on $1,400 per year in 1978, using the library and the garden to keep body and soul together.

There are plenty of gems of information in Possum Living that you won't find in more smooth, modern homesteading books.  For example, the author recommends that you eat seed potatoes and wheat from the feed store to save cash on staple foods, walks you through moonshining on the cheap, and reminds you that gleaning the food left behind in fields after the monster tractors do their harvesting is a tradition that dates back to biblical times.  (Well, without the monster tractors.)

The facts are fun, but the reason I call Possum Living a beach read is because it's really the heart-warming tale of a girl and her father living the good life.  Yes, there are plenty of passages that made me roll my eyes and imagine the book I might have written at 18 before adulthood had given me a critical lens through which to view the words of my smart, opinionated father.  But how often do you read a book by a teenager who is so thoroughly enamored of her daddy?  To best appreciate the bittersweet elements, flip to the back of the new edition to see what the author has to say 30 years later.  And don't miss the embedded video, part one of three.

Our own ebook gives the nitty gritty of how we escaped the rat race and started to live.
Posted Sat Jul 2 08:31:02 2011 Tags:
sprinkler adjustment details

If I had to sum up our summer season with one sound it would be the mechanical clatter and spray that pulsate from these sprinklers on a hot day like today.

Posted Sat Jul 2 16:24:23 2011 Tags:

Monster squashThe joke goes that July is the only month when you have to lock your car in [insert the name of your rural county here] or you'll return to find it full of zucchini.  Previously, I've rolled my eyes and held out my hand when told that tale of garden bounty, but for the first time in 2012, succession planting and variety selection have allowed us to defeat the squash vine borer and we're drowning under an ever expanding pile of summer squash.

We've done our best to eat the bounty (and have at least one great new recipe to share), have dried masses of the squash for the winter, but the inevitable finally happened --- monster squash!  In my gourmet opinion, a monster squash is any summer squash where the seeds have become more than a thin line within the flesh.  There are so many tender, young squash competing for my attention that I figure a monster squash isn't worth my culinary time.

Of course, the permaculture side of me isn't willing to let even a monster squash go to waste, and once I started thinking up purposes for our one monster squash, I wished I had a few dozen more.  Here are my top ideas:

Saving summer squash seeds
  • Save the seeds.  Summer squash are on the easy seed-saving list.  Just let your monster squash keep growing for an extra week or two until the seeds inside are well developed, cut the squash open and carefully pull the seeds out, choose the fattest seeds that didn't get injured, then let them dry before putting the seeds away for next year.  The only trouble you'll get into is if you're growing a hybrid or if more than one variety of Cucurbita pepo is blooming in your garden at the same time.
  • Chickens eating squashFeed the chickens, pig, goats, etc.  Monster vegetables are good to pass off on your barnyard animals, especially if the flock doesn't have access to much vegetation.  If you're feeding monster cucurbits to chickens, be sure to cut the vegetable in half or into smaller sections and drop it cut-side-up in the pasture.
  • Feed the worms.  If you only have a small, under-the-sink worm bin, you'll have to be careful not to overload it.  But outside bins can handle lots and lots of monster squash.  For fastest results, cut the squash into chunks or throw it in the blender before feeding.
  • Compost it.  The last resort with any kind of organic matter, of course, is to toss it in the compost pile.  You might end up with some volunteer squash next year if your pile doesn't get hot enough, but won't have any other problems.

I saved the seeds from my monster crookneck squash and then gave the remains to the old girls, who asked for more.  What do you do with monster squash?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock well hydrated after a hard day of scrounging for wild food.
Posted Sun Jul 3 08:36:57 2011 Tags:
snow storm in July of 2011 weird

Looking at this picture helps me to imagine cooler temperatures.
Posted Sun Jul 3 16:45:41 2011 Tags:

Roots growing out of a seed ball
A week and a half after "planting", many of my seed balls have germinated.  In fact, the seedlings have already punched their roots down out of the seed ball and into the ground below --- essential if they're going to make it.

I'm excited to see the seedlings growing so fast, but there are some clear problems with the method.  I tossed the seed balls out during a rainy spell and many of the seeds germinated only to wither up when hot, dry weather deleted the moisture from their exposed earth.  I can see how smaller seed balls would have nestled down into the ground and been less prone to dessication.

Germinating cowpeas

Seed ball vs. seeds in dirtSome of the seeds did much better than others.  The clover sprouted very well, but the seedlings were also some of the first to wither when seed balls dried out, while the grass-like rye and millet seemed to be the best sprouters and survivors.  Cowpeas also did surprisingly well (since the seeds are large and prone to fall out of the ball), but I only found two field corn seedlings and one sunflower seedling.  The jury's still out on the slower-germinating amaranth.

Finally, I was interested to compare seed balls to the same mixture that hadn't been formed into balls and had merely been scattered on the ground as-is.  It's tough to tell with the seedlings so young, but both methods seem to be about equally effective, making me lean toward the lower work, non-ball method for future experiments.  I'll keep you posted as my experimental seedlings grow.

Our chicken waterer takes all of the trial and error out of chicken care.
Posted Mon Jul 4 07:02:17 2011 Tags:
How to adjust a GMC pick up truck tailgate

The 4 ton hand winch did a good job at squeezing the truck bed frame a few centimeters in an attempt to make the tailgate latch stay closed.

It helped a little, but not enough to feel like it won't pop open during a hard bump.

We've got a GMC dealer close by that might know what's wrong, but I've been afraid to ask them due to the fear of sticker shock.

Posted Mon Jul 4 15:34:56 2011 Tags:

Eggs in the grassEgg production went way down about a month ago, but I wrote it off as our ancient hens hitting "menopause."  I should have searched harder for the answer --- 24 eggs hiding in the deep grass of the pasture!

Usually, our chickens are very good about laying in the nest box since we keep it comfy with clean straw or leaves and seed the pot with golf balls.  But a lot of factors have made the spot less conducive to laying lately.  First, the broody hen took over the box, then the tweens got bigger and bigger until the huge coop Mark built me started to feel cramped.  I guess that with two strikes against the coop, the straw-like, dense grass matted down in parts of the pasture looked more like a nest.

Egg production rebounded about a week ago, so I'm hoping the naughty hens have decided to behave.  These old eggs would probably be fine, but since we're not desperate, we'll use them to give Lucy a treat for the next few weeks.

Our chicken waterer keeps the work load low despite having 33 chickens in four different flocks.
Posted Tue Jul 5 08:22:19 2011 Tags:
How to install an automatic coop door opener

I've researched several automatic chicken coop door openers and one thing they have in common is the part where you need to build your own door.

Maybe you don't have the time, tools, or skill to build a door, but still need to protect your chickens?

Jeremy at automatic chicken coop has a product that is ready to go right out of the box and was kind enough to send us one to review here.

This thing is made from high quality wood and the slider piece is coated with linseed oil for protection. It uses a proven drapery motor to lift and lower the door, which is nicely enclosed towards the top. The cost is just over 200 hundred dollars and I would call it a good deal when you consider how much time you save compared to hunting down the supplies and building it yourself. It's also nice not to go through a trial and error process working out kinks and risking more predator attacks.

Stay tuned for my field notes on its operation and how easy it was to install.

Posted Tue Jul 5 16:22:30 2011 Tags:

Basil squash recipe'Tis the season to eat summer squash at least once a day.  Unfortunately, since the tomatoes haven't come in yet, we've gotten bored with sauteed or steamed squash and can't branch out into my usual favorites --- squash in lasagna and in harvest catch-all soup.  At the same time, our basil bed needs to be nibbled on, but since we're no longer using pesto pasta as a standby meal, I have little incentive to pick the delicious herb.  Luckily, I discovered a recipe in Possum Living that solved both my problems.

Squash and basilI tweaked Dolly Freed's recipe a bit and actually ended up with two different recipes, quite different but both delicious.  Since we can't decide which one we like best, I'll share both.  First, cut up three or four medium crookneck squash (or summer squash variety of your choice) into moderately thin slices.  Saute the squash in two tablespoons of butter until all of the squash is soft and some is a bit brown, adding salt and pepper as you cook.

Sauted squashFor recipe 1, add three cloves of minced garlic, stir briefly, then turn off the heat.  Top the squash off with parmesan cheese and fresh basil.  This recipe tastes a bit like pesto pasta --- the garlic is very evident.

For recipe 2, turn off the heat as soon as the squash is done and mix in a bit of powdered milk and plenty of fresh basil.  Stirring should make the powdered milk rehydrate slightly in the butter coating, but the milk will still be chunky.  This recipe tastes nothing like mac and cheese in a box but seems to give me that same comfort food feeling, probably because of the sweetness of the powdered milk combined with the butter.

Pasta with various sauces used to be one of our quick and easy meals, but since we've been lowering the grain content of our diets, I've discovered that what I'm yearning for when I crave pasta is really the intense flavors of the toppings.  Summer squash seems to be a good venue for pasta toppings, has a higher percentage of protein than pasta does, and a cup of squash provides 18% of your daily allotment of vitamin C.  Of course, like most vegetables, squash also has a lot fewer calories than pasta, so you wouldn't want to consider either of these recipes to be a main course or you'll end up hungry.

Our chicken waterer is always available to give our flock a sip of clean, cool water.
Posted Wed Jul 6 07:53:02 2011 Tags:
automatic chicken coop door opener and closer with hen

Installation of the automatic chicken coop door can be done with just a few wood screws. Jeremy includes some metal brackets that helped fine tune the door to our latest chicken coop made from pallets.

The new automatic chicken coop door came with a timer which makes it easy to set when the flock can go out. I first thought I might try to get one of those dusk to dawn sensor switches, but the coop gets shaded by a hillside that delays the full morning sun by a few hours depending on the time of year.

I would suspect the moment when the chickens can first start to see in the dawn light would be a good time to hunt insects that are trying to get home after a full night of crawling around. This might be a good reason to open the door a little on the early side. That way they can decide when there's enough light out to jump off the roost and start foraging. I guess that means there's a chance that a racoon working the morning shift might happen upon the door open, but I think it might be worth the risk if it means the flock gets more protein rich bugs in their diet.

Posted Wed Jul 6 15:56:44 2011 Tags:

Map of our farmUnless you have opposable thumbs, it's a long, long way from Mark's new automatic chicken coop door (labeled pophole) to our trailer.  We can cut through the pastures, but a chicken has a choice of two exhausting options.  They can turn left outside the pophole and skirt the pasture fence for quite a ways, then bushwhack through briars and climb up the steep incline to the plateau that houses our homestead.  Or they can turn right outside the pophole and follow the gentler slope of the driveway, traveling perhaps a tenth of a mile around the barn and into our farm proper.

Chicken in grassWhen our australorps started slipping under the gate and exploring the floodplain a couple of months ago, I was a bit concerned that they would make one of these treks and find our delicious garden fruits and enticing mulch.  But I soon set my fears to rest --- even when I walked Lucy through our free ranging flock, the chickens stopped following me at the end of the pasture fence and headed back to the woods closer to the coop to look for easier pickings.

Catch chickenI'd been considering opening a pophole directly into the floodplain so that the old girls could join these youngsters on their free range jaunts, but I was a bit concerned that an unfenced door into a chicken coop at the furthest limits of Lucy's usual patrols would be too much for predators to resist.  Jeremy's automatic chicken door seemed like the answer --- I could let the chickens out to eat all that good food in the floodplain without worrying about predators.  So as soon as Mark had the door in place, I opened it up and called our chickens to explore.

Less than an hour later, our ornery old hens were eating raspberries in our front yard.  The good news is that the australorps didn't follow, so there's still a chance that my plan to let the chickens free range in the floodplain will work once we delete the old girls from the flock.  But, for now, the pophole is shut and everyone is relegated to the pasture.  I wonder if those few raspberries were worth such an arduous journey?

Holding a hen

Our chicken waterer quenched the hens' thirst with clean water when they got home.
Posted Thu Jul 7 07:51:06 2011 Tags:
automatic chicken coop door opener/closer

Here's what the new automatic chicken coop door looks like from the inside.

While I was taking these pictures all three of the older hens walked over to investigate.

It may have been my imagination, but it seemed like they wanted me to open the door, which got me to wondering if they had enough long term memory to recall yesterday's journey to our juicy raspberries?

Posted Thu Jul 7 15:59:10 2011 Tags:
Anna Almost

The garden is full of almosts this week....

Sweet corn

Almost sweet corn.


Almost onions.

Black Australorp pullets

Almost crowing.  (Almost dinner.)

Tomato and okra

Almost tomatoes.  Almost okra.

Crookneck squash

Almost mountains.  Almost too many.

Four leaf clover

Almost impossible to spend a day in the garden without realizing how lucky we are.

Our chicken waterer never spills on uneven ground.
Posted Fri Jul 8 06:49:24 2011 Tags:
Chicken ark conversion

Last year I struggled a bit when it was time to catch a chicken for processing. The coop was 10 feet long and about 5 feet wide, which gave them plenty of room to scurry away from me.

This year we decided to convert one of our old chicken tractors into a holding coop in an attempt to make it easier on me and the chickens.

The white barrier wall is made from a couple of chicken feed sacks turned inside out. It's a very sturdy material that's easy to work with at a price that's hard to beat.

Posted Fri Jul 8 16:04:07 2011 Tags:

Chickens in the weedsMark had gone into town to mail chicken waterers on Friday morning, and I was happily mulching the garden when what did I see coming around the corner but....eleven chickens!  Those old hens must have talked up sun-warmed raspberries until our Golden Comet cockerel decided to lead as many of his siblings as he could around the bend and up into the garden.

Luckily for me, Black Australorps are very different foragers than Golden Comets.  While the Golden Comets head straight for color and then scratch up the mulch, the Australorps Alert chickenswere more interested in picking bugs off the undersides of leaves in the tall weeds of the forest garden.  That's the good news.

The bad news is that Black Australorps aren't as easy to capture as Golden Comets either.  Our Golden Comets are some of the easiest chickens you've ever wrangled --- if they don't crouch down at your feet and let you pick them up, they'll follow the sound of feed rattling in a cup and come right back to the coop.  On the other hand, Black Australorps are such good foragers that grain in a cup doesn't sound nearly as good as that grasshopper you startled, and I couldn't even wrap my mind around Chickens running into the woodstrying to catch eleven chickens all by my lonesome. 

What I could do, though, was herd those pesky rascals back to their pasture and lock them in.  There's a trick to herding a flock of chickens --- you want them alert enough to flock together rather than spreading out to forage, but not so scared that they scatter in every direction.  If you keep your eye on the roosters and head those leaders off when they try to walk the wrong way, then everyone else will follow.  A big hat in your extended hand turns you into two people --- one pushing the main flock forward and another reminding that cockerel who's about to bolt that he doesn't really want to veer off to the right.  Finally, keep your dog behind or beside the flock ---  no way those chickens are going to run straight into the teeth of a canine.

Blocking up a holeOnce Lucy and I thought the problem through, we made short work of herding the chickens back around the barn and into the floodplain.  Then I blocked up that hole under the gate that I'd intentionally left open to let our flock free range.  Sorry guys --- I know your pastures are overgrazed, but you're grounded.  There'll be a lot more elbow room next week, I promise.

Posted Sat Jul 9 08:04:37 2011 Tags:
hungry for tomatos

You know you're hungry for fresh, home grown tomatos when you check the ripening process multiple times a day.

Posted Sat Jul 9 15:52:22 2011 Tags:

Coleman familyIf Possum Living is the fun, beach read, Melissa Coleman's This Life is In Your Hands is a hard-hitting expose and cautionary tale.  The author writes about the joys and woes of being the child of passionate organic farmers and homesteaders (Eliot Coleman and his wife) living next door to the Nearings.

Most people will probably pick up the book the same way they would slow to gawk at a wreck along the highway, but the death of Melissa's sister (perhaps from parental neglect) Coleman with kidswas not the only tragedy found between its pages.  Instead, a deeper and more universal affliction seems to have befallen most of the idealists who went back to the land in the sixties and seventies, and those of us following in their footsteps would do well to take heed.

Eliot Coleman had hyperthyroidism combined with a passion for uncovering the secrets of organic gardening --- the first gave him the energy to work long hours and the second made the farm seem more important Coleman in gardenthan his family.  In contrast, his wife was prone to depression and would check out of daily life by fasting or standing on her head --- the only ways she knew to combat a mental fatigue that her physically present but emotionally absent husband did nothing to correct.  The end result (yes, I'm going to ruin it for you) was neglected children and, eventually, divorce.

As Melissa Coleman wrote near the end of her book:

"By the 1980s oil glut, jobs and opportunities would become so plentiful in the cities that few could resist the pull to return. Many families, like us, would succumb to divorce or separation, and as Helen [Nearing] had long ago predicted, those who stayed put were generally the homesteaders without children."

Melissa ColemanThe sad truth is that homesteads are like a lover or child --- enticing, beguiling, but also oh so needy of your time and thoughts.  If you can't mitigate your relationship to the land in some way, you're bound to end up breaking the human ties you also depend on.

While reading This Life is In Your Hands, I could completely envision what my homesteading journey would have been like without Mark's painstaking efforts to help me mix some realism with my idealism.  I would have been hauling five gallon buckets of water from the creek to irrigate the garden by hand like my mother did, eschewing the idea of paying a neighbor for firewood, and generally working my fingers to the bone.  In the end, exhaustion resulting from my passion for homesteading and permaculture would probably have driven me off the farm like so many other back-to-the-landers, leading to an overall harsher environmental footprint than the one I currently make when I allow us to drift away from the homesteading ideal from time to time.  All I can say is --- I'm eternally grateful that the romantic lottery netted me Mark instead of Eliot Coleman!

Our chicken waterer keeps chicken chores to a minimum so we have more time to enjoy our flock.

Posted Sun Jul 10 07:07:53 2011 Tags:

truck being pulled out with tow strap

I parked a little too close to a horse manure pile last week and got the truck stuck.

A new group of weeds had grown up around the base of the pile hiding some of the richer material and I forgot to bring a shovel.

This picture is Anna pulling me out with the tow strap.

I've lost count on how many times we've used that tow strap since it entered our tool bag.

Posted Sun Jul 10 16:36:58 2011 Tags:

Asparagus berriesWhich is better, conventional asparagus or all-male hybrids?

First of all, you have to understand the difference.  Most plants have both male and female flowers, but each asparagus plant is either entirely male or entirely female, just like a person or a chicken.  The female plants are easy to see in late summer since they produce berries that turn bright orange as they ripen.

If you grow conventional asparagus, about half of your plants will be females and half will be male.  The female plants have to spend a lot of energy making fruits every year, so they tend to have fewer and smaller spears --- extension service websites say that females produce as little as a third of the food that male plants do.  That's why nurseries have developed all-male hybrids --- strains in which nearly all of the plants will be male.

The problem with all-male hybrids is the same as the problem with hybrid seeds of other garden vegetables --- you're no longer self-sufficient.  I decided I wanted to expand my Asparagus seedlingasparagus planting this year, so I just dug up nine tiny plants that had self-seeded below our conventional asparagus plants and set the seedlings out in their new home.  If I wanted to get a friend started with asparagus, it would also be as simple as mailing him or her an envelope full of seeds.

Whether the lower yield of conventional asparagus is worth the ability to easily propagate your own plants will probably depend on your space constraints.  If I had less elbow room but wanted to stay self-sufficient, I might plant a conventional variety, then rip out nearly all of the female plants once I could identify them.  I would keep one female to seed new asparagus plants, still enjoying the high yields of the mostly male planting.  As it is, though, I'm too lazy to be that high tech, and am just enjoying the complex mix of all-male and conventional plants that my garden acquired over the years.

Our chicken waterer solves a common backyard problem --- nasty, poopy water.
Posted Mon Jul 11 06:48:27 2011 Tags:
Mexican Sour Gherkin in the garden

sour gherkin

This is a great year for Mexican Sour Gherkins!

A bite sized, cucumber like snack that tastes great alone or in a salad.

I would choose these over popcorn if they offered them at theatre concession stands.

Posted Mon Jul 11 15:26:15 2011 Tags:

Bagged chickensWe slaughtered our two biggest cockerels on Monday to get a feel for whether we should plan to kill all the birds from flock 1 this week or wait a little longer.  My goal is to get a two pound dressed carcass, and our birds are still a little shy of the mark at 1.86 pounds apiece, so most of our flock will get a short reprieve.

Although the cockerels were light weight, I was thrilled to see that their feed to meat conversion ratio was 4.5 : 1 --- vastly lower than what we got last year with dark cornish and also lower than published figures for any broiler breeds other than cornish cross.  Stay tuned to our chicken blog this week for more serious number crunching.

Chicken stewIn addition to saving money on feed, these permaculture pastured chickens will give us higher quality meat.  I know it sounds unscientific, but I'm starting to get a gut feeling for the gestalt of a healthy chicken (probably based on cleanliness of the carcass and uniformity of the internal organs.)  As I pored over these birds' entrails, I was so pleased with their quality that I cooked some chicken neck and liver stew for supper.  Sounds a bit crazy, but tasted pretty good.

Our chicken waterer kept our flock well hydrated during hard days of hunting for bugs.
Posted Tue Jul 12 11:39:57 2011 Tags:

Mexican Sour Gherkins on a table in the morning lightWhere did you get your Mexican Sour Gherkin seeds from?


We got ours from Bakers Creek Heirloom seeds the first year, but Anna discovered an easy way to harvest Mexican Sour Gherkin seeds, and that's what we do now.

Posted Tue Jul 12 17:36:05 2011 Tags:

Deer damageWe had a 22 hour power outage Monday and Tuesday, and we lost:

A few sweet potato leaves to marauding deer.  (More proof that Mark's deer deterrents really long as they're running.)

Twenty hard to find Light Sussex eggs when the battery pack didn't last long enough to keep the incubator up to temperature.

Sleep.  I fretted over the eggs far too much, waking up multiple times in the night, but Battery packMark was worse off since he can't sleep without the white noise of a fan and didn't want to wake me up by coming in to get a flashlight to read himself to sleep.

Every time the power goes out, I think I've learned my lesson and I'll have backups on hand next time.  And every time, the ease of flicking that switch lulls me into a false sense of security after a few weeks.

That said, we are slowly improving by tweaking our life so that normal habits can go on if the grid shuts down for a few days.  Even though we need electricity to pump water out of Sitting in the shadeour well and treat it with UV light, I keep at least a few of jugs of drinking water under the sink in case of emergencies.  I always leave my solar flashlight charging on the windowsill since I use it if we come home after dark or if I want to go out at night to check on the chickens, so the flashlight is also ready for power outages.  And after our extended winter power outage, we deleted the exterior wood furnace and replaced it with fan-less wood stoves, so we will now stay warm no matter what. 

On the other hand, we've still got a ways to go, especially in the Mark comfort department.  Luckily, it was a mild enough day that hosing down with creek water and sitting in the shade kept him cool, but I'm not sure how he would have handled a power outage if the highs had been in the mid nineties instead of the mid eighties.  Let's see if I can remember to ponder this problem now that the wide world of electricity is once again at my finger tips.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.

Posted Wed Jul 13 07:29:23 2011 Tags:
chicken ark converted to isolation chamber

The new isolation coop worked well at housing chickens the night before processing and making the catching part easy and trouble free.

Some folks use a killing cone to hold their poultry upside down before the final cut, but we've found that a 5 gallon bucket with a hole cut in the bottom works just as well.

Posted Wed Jul 13 15:28:55 2011 Tags:
Bee on squash blossom

Those of you who overthink everything (like me) probaby plant nectaries for your bees.  Yet, despite what I read, our bees seem to prefer the flowers that aren't listed in books.

Pollinator on oreganoWild pollinators are supposed to love members of the aster family, but our Echinacea is mostly bare.  On the other hand, the squash patch is humming so loudly I was almost afraid to stick my hand in there to pluck dinner. 

No one mentions it, but our asparagus is a hotbed of tiny pollinators in the spring and early summer.  And when I was down in South Carolina, I discovered the holy grail of the local wild pollinator contingent --- oregano.

Which unconventional nectary plants do you see abuzz with life right now?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock well hydrated, happy, and healthy.
Posted Thu Jul 14 06:22:33 2011 Tags:
walk behind mulching mower rear wheel problem part 2

The other rear wheel fell off the walk behind mower today.

Luckily I still had the washers that are needed to fix this problem.

I had a feeling this would happen when I replaced the first rear wheel earlier this year with a new and improved version that came with its own metal bearing. I guess all those extra vibrations went directly to the weak wheel?

Posted Thu Jul 14 16:13:33 2011 Tags:

Dinner before bakingIt takes a lot to tempt me to turn on the oven in the summer, but trying out a new breed of chicken made the cut.  Roasting a chicken is not only easy, it keeps the flavor of the bird very evident, and I wanted to be able to compare and contrast the taste of our black australorps with last year's dark cornish.

Since I was heating up the house anyway, I figured I should fill that blistering cavern all the way up.  Roast roots went under the chicken to bake in the drippings, a modified early summer ratatouille slid onto the bottom rack, and a butternut pie fit into the space left behind.  All told, the only off farm products involved in the main course were salt, pepper, butter, and olive oil (although the pie had more storebought components.)  And now I won't have to do anything except briefly heat up the leftovers for the next two or three meals.  Maybe that hour and fifteen minutes of oven time was actually energy efficient?

Baked dinnerBy the way, the roast australorp got the Mark seal of approval.  My taster said he couldn't tell the difference between this year's and last year's birds, which is high praise since cornish are supposed to be one of the best tasting chickens around.  I thought the australorp might have been just a hint less tender than the similarly aged dark cornish, but that's what you get when your broilers run around and eat bugs.  The broth I'm cooking up from the bones has brilliant yelllow fat on top, a sign of omega 3s and good nutrition, so we know the chicken is good for us.

Our chicken waterer kept our broilers well hydrated and happy.
Posted Fri Jul 15 07:32:51 2011 Tags:

White lithium grease
After two years of heavy use in all weather, one of our sprinklers started sticking.

The sprinkler didn't have any obvious method of disassembly, so Anna tried to use a zoom spout oiler to lubricate the trouble zone.

Unfortunately, oil quickly washes off when faced with high pressure water.  The sprinkler kept sticking.

Liquid Wrench White Lithium Grease came to the rescue.  Unlike more conventional greases, Liquid Wrench comes in a spray can for easy access to hard to reach places.

I let the grease dry on the sprinkler for an hour, then turned her on.  No more sticking.

Posted Fri Jul 15 20:14:34 2011 Tags:
Asian green seed pod

Brassica seedsAlthough neither of the Asian greens I tried this spring held together once the heat hit, Mark and I both loved the taste of tokyo bekana and want to try it in the fall garden.  I wasn't about to spend another $3 for a tiny package that barely seeds one bed, though, so I decided to let the spring crop go to seed and collect the bounty.

Asian greens definitely fit into the easy seed-saving category since the pods dry on the plant and hang around for weeks until you remember them.  Snip off the brown seed heads when they are brittle, then thresh them any way you feel like it.  Since Mom recently gave me this great pestle, it didn't take me long to pound the seed pods into submission.

Threshing mustard seeds

Winnow seedsShake your container gently and the heavier seeds will settle to the bottom, allowing you to lift most of the chaff off with your fingers.  Then blow into your box to finish the winnowing process --- the light pieces of pod will float away while the heavy seeds will stay put.  I didn't winnow all that carefully since I'm just going to be putting the seeds and debris back into the ground, but you could also pass the seeds through a screen (like a flour sifter) if you wanted them to be cleaner.

Brassica rapa seedsThe one potential sticking point when saving seeds from brassicas is that many will cross-pollinate.  However, Asian greens share their species (Brassica rapa) only with turnips and with rape (the plants that are used to produce canola oil).  As long as you don't have any other Asian green varieties, turnips, or rape plants in bloom at the same time as your select variety, you can save the seeds with impunity.

Our chicken waterer can save you hours of dirty labor per week.
Posted Sat Jul 16 07:32:01 2011 Tags:
Briggs and Stratton rewind starter details

The pull rope on the mower stopped doing its job about 10 minutes after I fixed the rear wheel problem.

Most rewind starters have 2 white plastic fingers that extend out and grab when the rope is being pulled and retract when the rope is released and its spring sucks it back in.

These plastic fingers and the groove designed to hold them are worn, causing the fingers not to extend, and now when you pull on the rope nothing happens.

You can get the whole mechanism for just under 40 dollars from Briggs and Stratton, which is what I ordered. I was able to use sand paper to smooth out the rough parts of the plastic to get it going for now, but I suspect it won't last long due to the deformed groove.

Posted Sat Jul 16 15:59:14 2011 Tags:

Harvest basketI don't want to make you think I don't like art --- in fact, I majored in studio art (and biology) in college.  And any good vegetable garden becomes a work of beauty, full of enticing textures and colors.  Still, I think that many beginning homesteaders fall into the trap of thinking about beauty first and utility second when planning their garden.

My first year on the farm, I chose the prettiest vegetables I could find in the seed catalog.  Bright Lights swiss chard with red, yellow, and orange stalks, purple and ruffled cabbages, three colors of summer squash --- I had it all.  Over time, though, I've discovered that purple carrots don't produce as high a yield as those ordinary-looking orange carrots, striped zucchinis can't handle the vine borer the way yellow crookneck can, and ruffled cabbages don't taste as good as plain Jane cabbage heads.  I've slowly started choosing varieties based first on flavor, then on productivity (which includes bug and disease resistance), third on seed-saving ability, and only finally on appearance.

Our harvest basket still looks beautiful, but now we have more, tastier food to eat and put in the freezer.  Mark's hypothesis is that folks who choose seeds based on garden porn don't end up taking the time to harvest and eat the produce, but I give art gardeners a bit more benefit of the doubt.  I think that, like me, they'll grow out of it. 

Our chicken waterer is the grownup solution to chicken water.
Posted Sun Jul 17 07:54:50 2011 Tags:
Kobalt driver with Stanley socket set metric variety

One of the best things about the Briggs and Stratton engine attached to our Craftsman mulching mower is a superior design.

It only took a Philips screwdriver, and two metric sockets to access the starter rewind unit. The fuel tank pivots back out of the way without needing to be disconnected or drained, which is a lot less messy than the mower I grew up with.

Posted Sun Jul 17 16:12:02 2011 Tags:

Potato fruitAs I weeded the potato beds, I stumbled across these little green fruits nestled amid the foliage.  No one seems to know why potato blooms wither most years then develop into fruits every once in a while, but I can attest that this is the first time in five years of growing potatoes that I saw any fruits.  I planted my potatoes very late this year so that they'd store better, which might have had something to do with it.  Extension service websites also report that some varieties (like the Yukon Golds I'm growing) fruit more often than others.

Potato fruits are poisonous, but if you let them ripen, you can save the seeds the same way you save tomato seeds.  The goal isn't really to get more potatoes --- cloning the tubers is by far the most efficient method of growing potatoes.  Instead, starting potatoes from seed is a way of playing the garden lottery, producing lots of new varieties that might just possibly be better than their parents. 

Green potato fruitsExtensive searching of the internet turns up only a few people who have actually committed the time and space to grow potatoes from seed, and from what they report, the project sounds like a lengthy undertaking.  If I saved these seeds in 2011, I'd plant them in early 2012 and end up with tiny tubers no more than an inch in diameter.  Save those tubers and use them as seed potatoes in 2013, and I'd finally grow potatoes large enough to taste and test.  Although the garden geek in me is itching to give it a try, I don't think we care enough about potatoes to allot that much space and energy to the experiment.

Mark did all of the experimenting for you, producing a chicken waterer that is always poop-free.
Posted Mon Jul 18 06:55:53 2011 Tags:
Arduino controlled coop door closer opener has an informative post on his new solar powered Arduino controlled automatic chicken coop door opener.

He's got a 4 minute video that helps to show what steps are needed to make something like this work. I'm guessing it might cost over 150 dollars due to the solar cell and back up battery. A bit complicated and somewhat expensive, but a good choice for those out there who need this type of application and don't want to run electrical power out to the flock.
Automatic chicken door
Edited to add:

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

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

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

Posted Mon Jul 18 16:39:45 2011 Tags:
deer damage

We suffered our 2nd deer attack last night since last week's power outage.

I'm thinking this time of year calls for additional measures like moving the deterrent location a couple times per week and making the sound louder.

We talked about dumping some soapy water near the entrance area, but we both know that will only last so long.

I think this level of damage allows us to hunt the offending deer in question out of season and a venison sandwich sounds like a yummy solution to me.

Posted Mon Jul 18 17:06:50 2011 Tags:

Tomato alleyTomatoes can be some of the easiest vegetables to grow, but only if you have a long, hot (but not too hot), dry (but not too dry) growing season.  We struggle with tomatoes in non-drought years because our seemingly endless rains breed fungi that take out our crops.  I've posted about preventing tomato blights in bits and pieces before, but I thought I'd pull all of our anti-blight measures together into one post to make it easier for you to follow along.

Plant your tomatoes in the sunniest spot.  This year, we made an extra bed running the length of the chicken pasture just for our tomatoes.  The fence line runs from east to west on the most northern side of the yard, so this location gets the least shade from the hillside and the plants are least likely to shade each other.  The only slight problem with this setup is that grasses on the pasture side of the fence poke through the chicken wire, but they don't seem to bother the tomatoes and I yank them out when I weed.

Space the tomatoes far apart.  The distance you choose to provide between your tomato plants will depend on your pruning method, but the goal is to make sure there's open air between them.  We prune to three main stalks and tie the plants to a stake, so we only need about three feet between plants.  If you've got space, more room is always better.

Stake your tomatoes.  You may be starting to notice that all of these techniques have a common theme --- keeping the leaves of the tomatoes dry.  It's a big no-no to let your tomatoes sprawl across the ground since they'll take much longer to dry off after a rain or even a heavy dew.  Cages are okay, but hinder air circulation.  We tie up our tomatoes once a week to keep them climbing their stake.

Early blightPrune relentlessly.  Blight spores splash up from the ground onto tomato leaves, where the fungi grow and reproduce, producing more spores than can spread through your whole patch.  As soon as the tomatoes are about eight inches tall, I cut off any leaves touching the ground, a process that I repeat weekly since the higher leaves will start to bend down as they grow older.  Meanwhile, I snip off any signs of incipient fungal damage --- early blight showed up at the beginning of July, but with constant leaf removal, seems to be in check.  Finally, I remove all suckers, leaving only three main stems.  When pruning, clean your clippers with an alcohol-soaked rag between each plant and after you cut any dicey-looking foliage.  It's okay to let healthy leaves and stems fall to the ground, but take diseased leaves as far away as possible or burn them.  If a plant seems to be nearly all diseased, rip the whole thing out ASAP rather than hoping you can baby it back to life.

Choose resistant varieties.  We've tried out dozens of tomato varieties, but now focus on ones that are a bit more resistant than normal to early blight, late blight, and septoria leaf spot (our three main problems.)  None of these tomatoes are entirely immune, though, so we can't ignore them and hope for the best.

Water from below and/or in the early morning.  If you have to get the leaves of your tomatoes wet, make sure you do it first thing in the morning on a sunny day so that the plants will dry off as soon as possible.  I've located our sprinklers so that they don't hit the main tomato area, but we haven't got our drip irrigation installed yet.  The plants seem to be doing fine without the extra water so far.

Martino's RomaRace the blight.  Of our three main fungal diseases, late blight is the real doozy, and it tends to hit late in the season just as the name suggests.  For fresh eating, it would be great to have ripe tomatoes all summer, but if you put away a lot of sauces, it wouldn't hurt to try out some determinate tomatoes.  This year, over half of our total tomato planting is devoted to Martino's Roma, which will drown you in tomatoes for a month or two and then peter out.  Another facet of racing the blight is to make sure your plants are always growing as fast as possible by providing lots of manure and not starting the seedlings too early (allowing them to be stunted.)

And now, two blight prevention tactics that we've tried which have failed miserably:

Ripening romaDespite lots of rain, we seem to be in great tomato shape this year.  We ate 2011's first tomato (a Stupice) on July 12 and have enjoyed a tomato every other day since.  The main crop is about to come in, at which point I'll be preserving as fast as possible and quickly forgetting that a sun-ripened tomato is a rare treat.

Our chicken waterer is always poop-free.
Posted Tue Jul 19 07:06:50 2011 Tags:
pumping water out of creek for garden

The pump that we use to irrigate the garden stopped working last week.

Anna found out through some internet research that laying it nearly flat in the creek may have allowed the lubrication for the internal bearings to shift over to one side, leaving the other side vulnerable to excess friction.

Most applications have it working in a deep hole where it stands straight up. What you need is at least a 15 degree angle to keep everything happy inside. I think I got close to this by digging a hole in the creek bed so the bottom of the pump can be at least 7 inches lower than the top.

The other improvement is a large piece of PVC pipe that I cut down the middle and secured the pump to. This should help to keep the working end out of the mud and hopefully decrease the amount of sediment that gets sucked up.

Posted Tue Jul 19 16:57:39 2011 Tags:

Carrot seedlingBroadcasting seeds is one of my favorite ways of planting most vegetables (with the exceptions of big vegetables like squash, corn, beans, etc.)  The method is most appropriate for gardens with permanent beds in which you want your vegetables to spread out and cover all of the available space.  To broadcast plant, I simply fill the palm of one hand with as many seeds as I want to put on the bed, separate my fingers, and jiggle my arm until the seeds bounce to the ground.  Once you get the hang of it, you can broadcast seed a bed in less than a minute and end up with well-spaced seedlings.

Garden rakeThe one difficulty with broadcast seeding is that the seeds sit on the soil surface, which means trouble germinating during hot, dry summer days.  (In the spring, I rarely have issues with germination even though I don't cover my seeds.)  But if you rake the top half inch of soil to the sides of the bed, broadcast seed, then carefully pull that excess soil back on top, you can have the best of both worlds --- quick seeding and efficient germination.  I tried out this method a few weeks ago with the first of our fall carrots and was so pleased with the results that I think it will be my new broadcast-seeding standby.

Our chicken waterer keeps our flock from going thirsty on hot summer days.
Posted Wed Jul 20 07:19:51 2011 Tags:
automatic chicken waterers going to town

I figured out the other day that one of my new favorite activities is making automatic chicken waterers with Anna.

Posted Wed Jul 20 16:23:18 2011 Tags:
Curing onions

Like many storage vegetables, onions need a curing period after harvest so that they'll dry thoroughly and won't rot on the shelf.  In the past, I've laid the bulbs out on screens, but this year I wanted to give the traditional method --- braiding --- a try.

Some of our onions are further along than others since I tried out several planting methods this spring. First thing in the morning, I plucked out any that had completely or nearly dried up leaves and turned them on their side to do a little pre-drying.  The rest of the crop will come out next week.

Harvest onions

By afternoon, the bulbs were dry to the touch (although some of the leaves were still wet.)  Time to braid!

Many websites will tell you to braid around a string, and I can see the point --- you won't end up with this:

Braided onions drying

However, as long as you're careful, you can braid your onions with just the leaves.  Start with three onions and braid them for a couple of loops for a firm bottom, then start adding a new onion each time you loop one of your three lines of leaves to the center.  Once you get good at it, you'll realize that some onions have long, strong stalks while others have short, weak stalks.  You can slip the weaker-stalked onions in when your current line looks bulky enough to last another round.

Braiding onions

At the end, I tied a bit of baling twine around the braided tops to give me an easy hanging point.

As a side note, you'll find it much easier to braid your onions if you take them inside and work on a flat surface.  Braiding in the grass means you tend to literally braid in the grass.

Braided onions

That said, braiding was simple and fun.  And the project required significantly less time than it would have taken me to find a sheltered spot and set up my drying screens.

I'll leave my onions in braids for a few weeks until they're bone dry, then will cut the heads off and store them in mesh bags on a kitchen shelf.  I suspect we'll run out of onions long before they go bad --- our total harvest will probably clock in around 35 or 40 pounds, which should last us about three or four months.  Now that I've figured out the best method (more on that in a later post), we'll be growing many more onions next year!

Our chicken waterer keeps your flock hydrated on hot summer days.
Posted Thu Jul 21 07:06:15 2011 Tags:
220 volt pump used to get water out of local creek

Anna did the bulk of the research for our new creek pump which led us to the local Home Depot.

pump being secured to a large piece of PVC pipe cut down the middleThey had a good selection of small to medium pumps, but no 220 volt well pumps. I went to the front desk where the guy was grumpy and shuffled me to the Home and Bath department instead of letting me ask the simple question "Can you order me a pump so I can come in next week to pick it up?" There was only one person working at Home and Bath and she was taking care of a customer.  She was nice and said she would be with me soon. She was having some computer trouble and called Mr Grumpy front desk back to help her.  The guy actually sneered at me when he made eye contact. I'm sure that could be a misinterpretation on my part and my body language was sending a message that I was getting tired of waiting by the way I was standing there with my arms crossed, and maybe some frustration was building when my wait went past the 20 minute point?
man handling a pump into a creek
45 minutes after I entered the store the lady was finally ready to walk over to the pumps to see if she could help me. She confirmed that the pump was not in stock or not in the back room and her solution was for me to order it on the internet. I'm guessing the shipping on something this heavy is around 50 bucks or more and then you would have to turn around and pay that again if there was a need to send it back. She offered to write down the model number so I could take it with me. That's when I lost my cool and calmly told her with a slight tinge of attitude "No thanks, I'll just go to Lowe's down the street".

Lowe's had a variety of 220 volt well pumps to choose from. Our old one was a half horse power. I decided to go up a notch to a 3/4 horsepower, which cost around 340 dollars when you factor in the connector parts.

Posted Thu Jul 21 17:01:00 2011 Tags:

Broccoli seedlingMy new method of broadcast seeding is perfect for small autumn vegetables, but what about the big plants like cabbage and broccoli?  I usually start three seeds per spot to make sure enough come up, then thin, but this year I was running low on seeds and only planted one per hole.  The result was extremely spotty germination and not nearly enough fall crucifers.

Although it was a bit late by the time I noticed the problem (the beginning of July), I went ahead and moved on to plan B --- start broccoli and cabbage in flats where I know I can get them to come up, then transplant into the garden just as they get their first true leaves.  It turned out that my broccoli seeds had low germination even there, so I ordered another batch and tried again.  This last round of seeds will have to be protected by quick hoops if I want them to head up, unless we get a late killing frost the way we do some years.

Summer broccoliI seem to gamble with broccoli a lot, and sometimes it pays off.  I got spooked by our constant rain in the middle of May and planted a bed of broccoli as a consolation prize if the blight took our tomatoes.  So far, our tomatoes are in good shape, but so are my summer broccoli!  I guess we'll have some fall broccoli no matter what happens with my late seedlings.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Fri Jul 22 07:15:53 2011 Tags:
ancient homesteading puzzle

It looks like there was once a hand made dam here in the creek next to our new pump.

strange rock in the creek is a mysteryI'm guessing that the water was channeled towards the hole that seems to have been cut out with a hammer and chisel.

Maybe a pipe was connected at the bottom to carry the water to some sort of mini grain mill or rudimentary electrical generator?

It must have taken the previous homesteaders hours upon hours of hard, back breaking labor to carry these rocks from I'm guessing the nearby river which is an 8 minute drive away. That kind of project must have surely yielded some sort of mechanical advantage to make it worthwhile.

Posted Fri Jul 22 16:18:13 2011 Tags:
Butterfy on echinacea

One month after the solstice, I can feel the long, slow descent into winter beginning.  We're racing the shortening days now.

Hoverfly Even though it seems strange to be thinking of winter in July, we're in the middle of planting the fall garden.  I'm also putting in cover crops (more on those in a later post) to add organic matter to beds that will remain fallow until garlic planting time or until the spring.  It's already too late to direct seed anything except bush beans, lettuce, greens, and garlic unless we plan to protect the crops from frost.

Meanwhile, I'm preserving the harvest as fast as I can.  I've got 8.75 gallons of vegetables and a gallon of fruit in the freezer, along with 0.8 gallons of dried vegetables and 1.3 gallons of dried fruit.  Although it feels like a lot of food, I hope to freeze at least 30 gallons of vegetables (exluding tomato sauces) this year, so we've got a long way to go.

Even though I start itching for the garden in January and February, I have to admit that I'm looking forward to the fall now.  I'm ready to tackle some of those long-term projects we can't even think about during the summer months (and I wouldn't mind sleeping past 6 AM either.)  Still, I can't find much to complain about when the first pizza of the year is on the horizon.

Our chicken waterer saves work in summer and winter.
Posted Sat Jul 23 07:00:36 2011 Tags:
Mother hen roosting with baby chicks

Last night the baby chicks passed a corner in their youth when our mother hen decided they were ready for night time roosting.

Posted Sat Jul 23 16:03:50 2011 Tags:
Buggy beans

Mexican bean beetle

Although our buggy beans are oddly beautiful, I can't say I'm glad the Mexican bean beetle discovered our bush beans last year and stuck around to nibble their way through another season.

So far, I've just been squashing all stages of the pest insect as I pick beans twice a week.  Despite the scary looking spines, the larva won't hurt your bare fingers, although they will leave a brilliant yellow pigment behind.

But when it started taking two or three times as long to pick beans due to bug squishing, I decided to pull up the worst beds and just seed another planting.  Our favorite variety produces a light crop for the first picking, a huge crop for the second picking, a big crop for the third picking, then slowly (or quickly if the beetles eat the leaves) lessens in intensity from there.  We have just enough time before the first frost to make it through those first two pickings, so I'm cutting my losses and removing this reservoir of pests from the garden.

You can tell a pest insect is trouble when the chickens ignore bug-laden plants and go straight for the overripe cucumbers....

Chickens eating cucumberLearn to keep bugs at bay

Our chickens' favorite spots in the pasture are by the compost pile and chicken waterer.  What's not to love about unlimited clean water?
Posted Sun Jul 24 07:00:56 2011 Tags:
big mystery rock in creek near possible dam

Big thanks to amateur archeologist Adrianne for the suggestion of flipping over the mystery creek artifact to see what's on the other side.

The obvious right angle element makes me rule out any natural erosion as a possible solution.

Posted Sun Jul 24 19:00:43 2011 Tags:

Excalibur food dryerI've alluded to the fact that we bought a food dehydrator because our climate has too much rain, clouds, and humidity to allow us to sun-dry very often.  I've been waiting to tell you about what we got because it was a large purchase (by our standards) and I wanted to give the dryer a few serious test runs before writing a review.

What we chose and why
We bought the 9 Tray Excalibur dryer with timer (model number #3926T) for $237.03 (with shipping included) and splurged on 9 reusable fruit leather sheets.

Strawberry leatherI was pointed to the Excalibur by my father, who's been using his for years with great success.  The ten year warranty that came free as part of my special offer made me feel confident about the decision, as did extensive perusal of reviews on Amazon.  In fact, from my research, the Excalibur seems to be the only serious homesteader-scale dehydrator worth its salt.  We've used the small, cheap, round dehydrators, and they nearly turned me off drying completely.

What I like about our food dryer
Drying squashThe most important selling point for the Excalibur is that it works.  The heating unit and fan are in the back, so air is blown nearly evenly across all trays, which means you're not constantly moving your fruits or vegetables around to get even drying.  I felt like the top and bottom trays might dry very slightly slower than the middle trays, but only barely.

The 9 tray model is just the right size for a serious gardener.  If you only want to dry a few tomatoes here and there, a smaller dehydrator will work for you, but when I start drying, I tend to have a basket of produce fresh out of the garden that needs to be dealt with now.

Food dryer timerThe timer was definitely worth the extra cash.  Rather than having to start food in the morning and remember to monitor the dehydrator at intervals throughout the day, I can just check the state of the produce around bedtime, eyeball how many hours more it needs, and turn the timer dial.

Excalibur factoryFinally, I was fascinated to read that Excalibur is a family run business that started as a mom and pop operation and was bought out by the daughter.  The family made the same choice we did with our chicken waterer, to sell only directly through their website (and a few other websites), which makes it easier to notice when your customers are unhappy with certain features and to constantly improve your design.  I suspect that's part of the reason the quality is so high.

What I don't like about my purchase

Fruit leather sheetI'm thrilled with the dehydrator itself, but the fruit leather sheets seem flimsy for the price.  You're not supposed to submerge them when washing, but I couldn't quite figure out how else to get specks of fruit leather off since they don't wipe down easily, so maybe it's my fault that they're already looking a bit crumpled after only three washings?

But that doesn't explain why Excalibur couldn't have come up with a solid tray to fit on each rack that would hold juicy proto-leathers so that they don't drop through onto the squash on the next rack down.  The sideless sheets also mean I can't use my jiggling trick to quickly smooth fruit puree to one level, which means I had to spread it with a spoon and had slightly uneven drying.  If I was making my purchase today, I'd be tempted to try to find a better fruit leather option.

My only other minor complaint is the intro to drying booklet that comes for free with the dehydrator.  The text doesn't mention blanching at all, which I've read (and my experiments prove) results in much tastier dried vegetables.  Remember, this is a free publication and do some more reading on your own.

About the dehydator itself, though, I have no complaints.  If you decide to get serious about drying and don't live in a near desert climate, this model is the way to go.

Posted Mon Jul 25 07:40:36 2011 Tags:
right fuel for the right weed eater

A few years back I got some advice from multiple sources strongly urging me not to use ethanol enhanced fuel on our chainsaw or weedeater.

Today I was reading the new weedeater manual and the section on fuel removed any doubts for me as to if the ethanol issue is a myth or not.

"Gasoline with an ethanol content of more than 10% can cause running problems and major damage in engines with a manually adjustable carburetor and should not be used in such engines."

I should probably read instruction manuals more often.

Posted Mon Jul 25 15:23:28 2011 Tags:
Pea trellis

What do you do if your pets are scratching up your newly sprouted seedlings?  Here are the best options I've come up with:

  • Put up a trellis.  If you're going to need one anyway (such as for your fall peas), go ahead and erect your trellis as soon as you put the crops in the ground.  A determined cat might still play in the bare soil, but you'll at least keep the dogs out.
  • Gathering sticksLeave most of the mulch in place.  If you're planting large crops like peas or transplanting seedlings like broccoli, you can just rake back mulch from small patches of earth.  It's the bare soil that your pets find so attractive, so mulch will prevent damage.
  • Stack small sticks on the bed.  Just a few well-branched sticks will keep both cats and dogs at bay.  Layer the branches in overlapping patterns so that the whole bed is very lightly covered, but not using so many that you block light to the soil.  Once your crops are big enough that they would get tangled in the wood, your pets will no longer be interested, so you can move the sticks away (or use them as kindling.)
Sticks deter pets

These tips assume that your pets are actually interested in the beds in question.  If they're instead running through your plantings on their way to somewhere else, you need to learn about nodes and natural pathways.  (See the June volume of Weekend Homesteader for more information.)

Another way of keeping your pets on the aisles and out of your crops is to figure out why they're messing up your beds.  (No, the answer probably isn't to raise your blood pressure.)  I'm pretty sure our cats dug up the carrots and broccoli because they thought the loose soil made a good litter box.  Maybe the permaculture solution would be to build them a sand pit so they could scratch with impunity?

Our chicken waterer solves the poopy water problem --- no more filthy messes for your hens or for you!
Posted Tue Jul 26 07:00:46 2011 Tags:

Weekend Homesteader: August August's Weekend Homesteader focuses on what the month is best known for --- the sun.  You'll take advantage of solar energy directly by drying tomatoes or peaches in your car and clothes on the line, then will collect the sun's energy indirectly when you start a fall garden and find local produce in abundance.

For those of you who are new to the Weekend Homesteader, this monthly ebook series walks you through fun and easy projects that introduce growing your own food, cooking the bounty, preparing for emergency power outages, and achieving financial independence.

I hope you'll consider splurging 99 cents to buy a copy of my newest ebook from Amazon's Kindle store.  Your purchases (and extremely helpful reviews!) kept last month's ebook in the top three percent of all Amazon ebooks, which has helped it see the light of day beyond readers of this blog.  Weekend Homesteader: July has found its way onto 123 kindles already, which encourages me to keep writing.

Weekend Homesteader paperback As usual, I'm also very glad to email you a free pdf copy to read 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 with your request --- no strings attached.

Posted Tue Jul 26 12:21:56 2011 Tags:
tea kettle as mechanical deer deterrent 2011 growing season

I think we've got the deer attack of 2011 under control with the addition of a new and louder mechanical deer deterrent.

A good sized stainless steel tea kettle makes a solid thud when the golf ball swings down and makes contact with its underside.

The total number of mechanical deterrents protecting the garden is now at 4 with some serious talk about bumping it up to 5.

Posted Tue Jul 26 16:32:24 2011 Tags:
Drawing comb on a foundationless frame

Bee spaceBoth of our hives are well on their way to putting away honey stores for the winter.  I didn't delve into the lower brood box because strong summer hives hate that (and there's no need at this time of year), but I counted 34 pounds of capped honey (and a lot more dehydrating nectar) in the mother hive and 21 pounds in the daughter hive.  That's pretty good for a post-split year, especially since I harvested about 5 pounds from the mother hive at the end of May.  Plus, if the upper brood boxes are any indication, there could be that much again in the lower brood boxes.

Here in the mountains of Virginia, you want to leave your bees 50 to 60 pounds of honey to make it through the winter.  That's 7 to 9 fully capped deep frames or 11 to 13 of the smaller frames in the supers.  (It's best for that honey to be in the brood box, though, so deep frames are definitely preferred.)

With our double deep system, I suspect that any honey in the supers should be fair game for our larder, so I'm excited to see the mother hive drawing out new frames and filling up their attic.  I'm not quite confident enough with this assertion, though, to risk stealing too much --- I think I'll just wait and take any excess in the spring.

Our chicken waterer makes care of your backyard flock nearly as easy as beekeeping.
Posted Wed Jul 27 07:08:38 2011 Tags:
golf cart battery terminal repair how to

I took our golf cart battery with the broken terminal to a Club Car repair person thinking I might be able to exchange it for a used battery.

The guy told me he was fresh out of used batteries and didn't recommend putting a new battery into a bank of older batteries for a few technical reasons.

You can get a self tapping repair terminal at most auto parts stores for around 3 dollars. Be careful not to drill the pilot hole too deep.

Posted Wed Jul 27 16:24:05 2011 Tags:

Garlic on the compost pileThis year, we're learning that it is possible to grow more food than we can eat.  Garlic is a case in point.  Last year, we grew 25 pounds of it, and despite giving away quite a bit, I had to put around 5 pounds on the compost pile this week.  (I'm leery of giving away subprime produce since I think it often ends up in the trash.  If that's the case, I'd rather the biomass stay on our farm.)

I didn't know we'd have so much extra when I planted this year's garlic, so I put in the same number of beds...and ended up with 8% more.  I guess the folks who say that if you keep planting the biggest heads, your garlic will adapt to your climate and become more productive each year were right.  I've learned my lesson, though --- those extra 7.6 pounds of garlic will be given away right now while they're still plump and beautiful.

Bags of garlicFor next year, I'm cutting back our planting by a third and focusing on the most productive variety --- Music.  I kept data on each type of garlic for the first time during the 2011 harvest and discovered that this hardneck garlic outperforms the softneck variety (Silverwhite Silverskin) that we'd been planting as our main garlic crop by 50% per bed!  I'll still be planting some softnecks since they last more than twelve months, while the hardneck starts to degrade in early spring, but Music is going to be our new fall and winter garlic standby.

Our chicken waterer never spills in coops or tractors.
Posted Thu Jul 28 07:20:51 2011 Tags:
Side mount battery bolt extender product being used as a self tapping terminal repair unit / fixer

What I was calling a self tapping repair terminal is actually referred to as a side mount battery bolt extender-SMU-K#30300.

The bolt is solid brass, which can help reduce noise when powering a fancy radio or MP3 player.

Posted Thu Jul 28 16:05:49 2011 Tags:

Cutting cover cropsI've talked about the C:N ratio here before, and described the concept in great detail in the July edition of Weekend Homesteader, so you'd think I would have realized the ratio has an impact on cover crops.  But it took this in-depth analysis by the North Carolina Extension Service to clue me in.

Previously, I've thought of my cover crops as a way to grow nearly free mulch for the garden, but summer cover crops have a slightly different purpose if you want to plant your fall crops amid the cut cover.  The long term goal is still to add organic matter to your soil, but you want your summer cover crop to melt into the soil quickly rather than tying up soil nitrogen that will be used by subsequent crops.

10:1 is the magical C:N ratio at which you don't have to worry about bacteria stealing nitrogen from the soil to counteract the excessive carbon in your cover crop.  Of course, Cover crop residuenone of the cover crops have a C:N ratio quite that low, so you need to give them a bit of time to mellow into the soil after you kill them and before planting so that the C:N ratio can plummet into the recommended range.  Legumes and buckwheat may just need a week or two to decompose enough to allow you to plant amid the residue while grains/grasses need much more time.  The chart below shows the C:N ratio of some common summer cover crops immediately after cutting:

C:N Nitrogen (lb/ac)
Legumes .. ..
Cowpeas 21 75
Soybean 20 80
.. .. ..
Non-legumes .. ..
Sorghum-sudangrass 53 78
Sudangrass 44 58
Japanese Millet 42 35
Pearl Millet 50 57
German Foxtail Millet 44 43
Buckwheat 34 43

Notice that the total amount of nitrogen produced by the cover crop isn't directly proportionate to the C:N ratio.  A good way of eyeballing the C:N ratio is to think of how succulent your plants are.  If the leaves feel woody, they're high in carbon and will take a long time to break down.  If they feel soft and fleshy, you've got a low C:N ratio that probably won't tie up much soil nitrogen.

Our chicken waterer takes the mess out of backyard chicken care.
Posted Fri Jul 29 08:20:13 2011 Tags:

Threshing wheatI originally meant to save our first experimental wheat harvest for winter bedding/treats for the chickens, but a pair of cardinals found the plants as they hung drying under the eaves.  I quickly changed my plans --- thresh and winnow out the grain so it doesn't all go in wild bird bellies.

Mark's electric-converted chipper/shredder was a perfect threshing machine for the grain, with an old cardboard box slipped underneath to catch the wheat.  I learned that feeding smaller hanks into the shredder works best, and that it is essential to have all of the grain heads lined up.  I'm glad I tried out the threshing just for these pieces of wisdom since I'll save a lot of time with future threshing by tweaking my harvesting technique.

Wheat and chaff

Winnowing wheatPlenty of chaff ended up in the cardboard box with the wheat, so my next step was winnowing.  I raked the biggest pieces of stems together, tossing handfuls lightly into the air so that heavy grains fell out the bottom to remain in the box.  Then I tossed handfuls of what remained higher, this time in front of the fan, which worked quite well to remove most of the small pieces of chaff from the seeds.

Total harvest was just shy of three cups --- a terribly poor showing since I think I planted about that much in the paddock last fall.  However, I figure I only got about 70% of the grain out with my quick and dirty threshing (giving the rest to the chickens with their bedding straw), and the cardinals ate perhaps another 30% of the whole.  And I had a lot of problems growing the wheat, which is the main cause of the small harvest.  I figure that for our first real foray into growing grain, breaking even isn't too bad.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Sat Jul 30 08:42:17 2011 Tags:
using a product called Leak Stopper to fix a leaking trailer roof

This rubberized roof patching material takes advantage of a unique penetrating oil called Penetrex.

You can find it at most stores for around 10 dollars a can.

It's sticky, and messy, and sometimes requires multiple applications. I've got a dedicated pair of gloves and spreading trowel that I wrap up in a bag and store in the roof repair section of our office. It would take way too long to clean all that gunk off the trowel.

Posted Sat Jul 30 16:07:07 2011 Tags:

Cowpea and buckwheat cover cropI've read that cowpeas and buckwheat combined at one part cowpeas to two parts buckwheat make a quick summer cover crop that works well with no-till gardens.  My trials (so far) agree.

Last year, I tried out buckwheat as our summer cover crop, and wasn't all that thrilled, but I think that part of my disappointment was not understanding what I should be expecting.  Like other summer cover crops that fit between the harvest of your spring crops and the planting of your fall crops, buckwheat isn't going to add as much organic matter to your soil as the more woody winter cover crops will.  Instead, buckwheat soaks up nitrogen that might otherwise get leached out of bare ground, keeping the nutrient in circulation for your next crop, and the buckwheat stems and leaves also break down quickly after being killed so that you don't need to let your beds rest long before planting.  Depending on your climate, you can slip buckwheat into a four to six week gap in your garden year, cutting it anywhere from when the flowers first appear until one week after full bloom, and then waiting one to two weeks before planting into the tiny bit of stubble that remains.

Cutting cover crop

Adding cowpeas to the buckwheat cover crop reduces your need to add a layer of compost before seeding your fall garden since you greatly increase the amount of available nitrogen produced.  Like many legumes, cowpeas fix nitrogen out of the air,  and they do that even better when there's very little nitrogen in the soil for them to suck up.  Buckwheat steals soil nitrogen from its neighbors, tricking the cowpeas into fixing more nitrogen than they would if grown by themselves in the same soil.  You cut the duo at the same time you would have cut the buckwheat (which is several weeks earlier than you would normally cut cowpeas) and end up with somewhere between 50% to 100% of your nitrogen needs for the fall garden taken care of.

Pollinator on buckwheatOf course, cover crops have other purposes besides adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil.  They slow down weed growth, prevent erosion, and (in the case of buckwheat) attract masses of beneficial insects.  The only potential downside is if you have trouble killing them, but the weedeater seems to have done a good job of demolishing nearly all of the buckwheat and cowpeas with one pass.  They're so easy to pull up that I won't mind at all hand-weeding the few plants left behind.

Our chicken waterer is always POOP-free.
Posted Sun Jul 31 08:43:09 2011 Tags:
general package of fasteners

It's good to have multiple size screws to choose from when you're experimenting with something like a mechanical deer deterrent or trying to fix a broken chair.

Dollar General has a package for 1.50 that provides what I consider a good collection at a fair value. Sometimes I've seen large hardware stores charging this much for a small bag with 4 or 5 of the bigger ones in this group.

I also discovered this package will provide you with just the right size rounded head screw that is perfect for attaching an electric motor to a piece of appearance board if you ever have the need to build a mechanical deer deterrent, which is still working at protecting our garden from invading deer.

Posted Sun Jul 31 15:25:35 2011 Tags:

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

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