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

archives for 09/2011

Sep 2011
Miniature cheviot sheep

Mark and I have agreed to table the issue of weed-eating livestock until spring or when we have another half acre fenced in (whichever comes last), so I've been contenting myself with research.  I contacted a few breeders of Miniature Cheviot Sheep to figure out a ballpark estimate of how much it would cost us to get started with a ram and ewe (around $500), and in the process "met" Terri Brown, who turns out to keep both Miniature Cheviot Sheep and Nigerian Dwarf Goats.  She kindly agreed to let me post her experiences (and some of her beautiful photos) on the blog to share with you all.

Nigerian dwarf show goatTerri's 4H clubs runs petting zoos as fundraisers and she also uses her livestock for milk, show, and pets, so her farm contains quite a menagerie.  I'll let her tell you the story in her own words:

When we bought our property in 1987 we had two very hairy Bernese Mt. Dogs and wanted to keep sheep & ducks.  After we cleared we realized we needed serious goat help.  That led to the Nigerians, and we didn't have enough grass for sheep until now (maybe we still don't but I WANT them <G>).  The ducks went away and now we have Silkie chickens, which are better for pet zoos.  The pet zoos we do are mostly in Fauquier County although we have ventured out to Washington, DC, and Alexandria for birthday parties.

Miniature sheepI explained our situation to Terri and asked her whether she thought we'd be better off with miniature sheep or dwarf goats, and she replied:

The sheep are complementary to our Nigerian Dwarf goats in cleaning up the field, as the sheep prefer the grass that the goats ignore as they clean up the vines on the fenceline.

We got our Nigerian Dwarfs in 1993 and have never regretted it.  They have doggy personalities and become part of the family.  Nigerians are perfect for attacking wild Nigerian dwarf doebrush... honeysuckle, brambles, poison ivy (don't pet them afterwards!), and unwanted saplings.  They don't prefer grass and low forbes, however, so you end up mowing that.  We got the lambs last year for our pet zoos but find they are wonderful mowers.

The Nigerians are polyestrous and produce kids & milk in any season.  The sheep only breed in the fall, and if you miss it, oh well maybe next year?  They only have singles or twins, unlike our goats who have triplets, quads and more!  So the herd grows slowly, especially when three quarters of the flock are rams (at least in MY flock....)

My hubby, Mark, and I both agree Miniature Cheviot Sheep are a delight!  Their uncomplicated way of thinking is a respite in our busy lives.  They hang out together in a simple, fluffy white, peaceful group, rarely putting on a show like the goats do.  The mini sheep are a blast at the county fair, getting a lot of attention in addition to winning a bunch of cash because they have their own division. Each species has its charm, and they do complement each other.

If we had more pasture, it sounds like Terri's system of using both sheep and goats would be a good one.  Here's what she has to say about dual-caprine pasture weed control:

Undocked tailThey can be run together but I prefer to rotate them through.  I don't like having more than four to six individuals per pen because of competition for food and my attention, and mixing the two species is more complicated.  They have different ways of getting my attention, so it becomes a total mob scene when they are together.  Plus, although they can get along sharing food, they each do better with their own special mixtures of grain & minerals.

Never keep rams & bucks together; the bucks rear up and the rams bust their gut or bash them low from behind.  I don't think wethers practice that behavior, but I don't have any yet so we'll see.

Terri concluded:

Polydome goat shelterMiniature animals of all types are the rage nowdays.  Smaller families want a little taste of farmy life, and they find poultry and small sheep & goats fit into their lives.  They want a small animal with less expensive shelter & fence & transport requirements, and something that is more like a pet.  The Nigerian Dwarfs and Mini Cheviots win on both counts. 

Being registered helps, too, which guarantees the buyer that their babies will also be small, and gives you credibility as a reputable breeder (which you honor by helping the buyer get started right and by not selling sick babies).

Thanks so much for all of that great information, Terri!  If anyone's interested in hiring a petting zoo for their DC area birthday party or buying registered Nigerian Dwarf Goats or Miniature Cheviot Sheep, drop by Terri's website at

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Thu Sep 1 07:00:22 2011 Tags:
Basket of tomatoes

Cooking tomatoesWhen hot water bath canning, it's important to pay attention to everything that goes in the jar.  Sweeteners like honey and sugar can be added with impunity, but including basil and onions in a tomato sauce will raise the pH so much that you'd have to pressure can.  To stay on the safe side, look for proven recipes or simply can pure fruits or tomatoes.

While I'm on the topic of acidity, I should mention that the acidity levels of tomatoes may sometimes be too low for hot water bath canning unless you add a bit of bottled (not fresh) lemon juice or citric acid.  The magic cutoff point is 4.6 --- tomatoes with a pH at or above this pH are not safe to hot water bath can on their own.  Proven tomatoes that definitely need lemon juice added include:

Ace, Ace 55VF, Beefmaster Hybrid, Big Early Hybrid, Big Girl, Big Set, Burpee VF Hybrid, Cal Ace, Delicious, Fireball, Garden State, Royal Chico.

Hot water bath canning tomatoesDepending on who you talk to, San Marzano tomatoes may or may not be safe. 

Varieties that definitely have a pH low enough to allow you to hot water bath can them without adding any lemon juice or citric acid include:

Abraham Lincoln, Amana Orange, Anna Banana, Antique Roman,  Aunt Ruby's German Green, Beefsteak Extra Large, Big Rainbow, Bisignano #2, Black, Black from Tula, Black Krim, Burpees Delicious, Caspian Pink, Cherokee Purple, Climbing Trip L Crop, Costoluto Fiorentino, Costoluto Genovese, Currant Tuscan Bombolino, Ernie's Plump, Evergreen, Giant Syrian, Goliath, Grappoli D'Inverno, Hillbilly, Howard German, Italian Giant Beefsteak, Italian Heirloom, Italian Plum Canning, Ingegnoli Gigante Liscio, Joe's Plum, Jubilee, Kellog's Breakfast, Kootenai, Large Polish Paste, Laurano, Le Case Di Apulia, Lilians Yellow Heirloom, Long Keeper, Lycoperscon Cheesemanii, Marglobe, Moskvitch, Mortgage Lifter, Mr. Stripey, Napoli, Nebraska Wedding, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Opalka, Oregon Spring, Oscar, Pantano Romanesco, Persimmon, Pink Brandywine, Platillo, Polish Giant, Pomadoro Grosso, Prairie Fire, Rutgers, Principe Borghese, Red Brandywine, Riesentraube, Rio de Fuego, Rio Grande, Roman Candle, San Marzano (listed by some as being above), Santiam, Saucy, Silvery Fir Tree, Siletz, Soldacki, Stupice, Super Italian Plum, Super Sioux, Striped Stuffer, Tondino Di Manduria, Tyboroski, Yellow Brandywine, Yellow Pear, Yellow Perfection, Watermelon Beefsteak, Zebra, Zogola

Adding lemon juice to canned tomatoesHowever, to make the decision even more complex, a high acid tomato variety may produce low acid tomatoes if the fruits are overripe, bruised, cracked, affected by blossom end rot, or nibbled by insects.  In addition, tomatoes ripened off the vine, in the fall when days are shorter, in the shade, or on dead vines can all have a pH too high to allow hot water bath canning without added lemon juice.  To play it safe, you might as well add the lemon juice recommended in most modern recipes (2 tablespoons per quart of crushed tomatoes.)

To read more, check out Weekend Homesteader: September on Amazon (or email and ask for your free pdf copy.)  Thank you to everyone who has already given the ebook a try, and I would be eternally grateful to anyone who takes the time to leave a review!

Posted Thu Sep 1 12:00:24 2011 Tags:
using plastic latic material to protect delicate strawberry plants

This new method of protecting our delicate strawberry plants with a dome of plastic fence material is working quite well during these recent deer attacks.

Posted Thu Sep 1 16:01:06 2011 Tags:

Oat mulchSo you want to mulch your garden to keep weeds at bay all winter, but storebought mulch is out of your price range.  What can you do?

Oats used as a cover crop are the cheap and easy way to grow your own winter mulch.  Prices went up 35% since last year, but a 48 pound bag of oat seeds still cost only $16 at our local feed store.  I sow my oat cover crop very heavily since I want to make sure weeds are shaded out, but the oats are still far more economical than a bale of straw.  My 48 pound bag of oat seeds produces the same amount of aboveground biomass as approximately 12 bales of straw ($48), not to mention the nitrogen the roots capture and keep in circulation and the extra organic matter produced underground.

An oat cover crop instead of a heavy winter mulch of straw has another benefit --- labor savings.  We didn't have to haul straw onto and off of the truck, onto the wheelbarrow, Planting oatsand then spread it in the garden.  Instead, I just raked back what was left of the summer mulch, scattered oat seeds on the ground, and lightly sprinkled a bit of the leftover straw back in place to help the seeds stay moist until they germinate.  After an hour and a half of light gardening, over 10% of our growing area is off my agenda until spring.

Before you go out and buy your own 48 pound bag of oats, you should be aware that oats dependably winter-kill only in zone 6 and colder (although parts of zone 7 may see the same results, depending on the severity of your winter.)  No matter where you live, you need to plant the oats early enough that they are well established before cold weather hits, which means you'll have to come up with some other mulch in garden gaps that come open later than a month before your first frost date.

Weevils in oatsYou may also have to deal with weevils in your grain --- little insects that hollow out the seeds and prevent them from growing.  I eked out my 50 pound bag for a solid year, but I noticed that the last beds I planted in early August didn't come up fully, and a little investigation turned up lots of insects in the seeds.  For best results, only buy as much oat seed Learn more about cover crops in my 99 cent ebook!as you'll use this year --- most feed stores will sell you less than a full bag if you ask nicely.  On the other hand, if you put on your thinking cap, you might find uses for the full 50 pounds.  I used over half of my bag in one morning of profligate sowing --- the bare chicken pasture should be green again shortly!

Our chicken waterer is the dependable and easy way to keep clean water in your coop at all times.
Posted Fri Sep 2 07:00:52 2011 Tags:
truck stuck in the mud

It's been really dry lately, but I still managed to get the truck stuck yesterday.

We did a bit of research prompted by a suggestion from Roland about the differential unit.

I called a local dealer, who could tell from the VIN number that our particular model does not have a "locker" mechanism, which locks up when your tires start to spin so that each wheel turns equally, and then unlocks for regular driving so that normal turning can still be done.

The parts alone were going to be around 1000 dollars with an estimate of 300 for the labor. My current plan is to track down a used differential unit that has the "locker" feature and have our local mechanic swap them out.

We've also decided to get an electric winch in the hopes that it might be able to pull us out of spots like this in the future.

Posted Fri Sep 2 19:06:19 2011 Tags:
Perennials vs. annuals

Despite how much time I spend posting and commenting on our blog, I rarely explore the internet.  I check the weather, read RSS feeds of over 100 blogs, ask questions of google, visit extension service websites to see what the accepted wisdom is on agricultural issues, and use google image search to identify this and that.  But I don't surf.  I don't watch videos, I don't spend time on facebook, I don't follow people's links.

Fruit mapAnd yet...I just spent the better part of an hour poring over the Lexicon of Sustainability website:

For the past three years Douglas Gayeton and Laura Howard-Gayeton have crisscrossed the USA to learn this new language of sustainability from its foremost practitioners in food and farming.  Alice Waters on edible schoolyards.  Wes Jackson on reinventing wheat farming.  Joel Salatin on embracing the value of saner farming practices.  Vandana Shiva on the global imperative of protecting seeds.  Paul Stamets on how mushrooms can save the world.  Will Allen on Food Security.  Temple Grandin on the humane slaughter of animals.  Farmer John on the revolutionary idea of community-supported agriculture.

The images are stunning --- a mish-mash of photography and words that illustrate many of the agricultural concepts we embrace.  The website is beautiful too, but not very easy to use if you really want to pore over the images.  Instead, you'll need to right click on each image and save it to your desktop so that you can zoom in and really read what the artists/authors have to say.  I've cropped a couple of the images down so that you can read them here, but if you want a time sink, I highly recommend you go check out the rest of the site.

Our chicken waterer keeps our pastured flock healthy with POOP-free water.
Posted Sat Sep 3 07:37:46 2011 Tags:
junior high for new chicks

Instead of putting the new batch of chicks out in the big bird pasture we decided to convert an old chicken tractor into a poultry junior high.

The indoor brood coop was getting too small, but we didn't quite feel like they were ready for the real world due to losing some chicks back in the spring to a mystery predator.

We've got them located behind the trailer for ample shade and maximum protection. Even a casual observer can notice an increase in the spring of their step with the addition of this new environment complete with untold numbers of insects and worms.

Posted Sat Sep 3 15:26:08 2011 Tags:
Anna Wet chicks

Chicks eating weeds
Our tractored chicks were having the time of their lives...until the thunderstorm hit.  Our chicken tractors have covered sections which kept our adult chickens quite happy through all four seasons, but chicks are another matter entirely.  Without real feathers, the little bit of rain that splashed under the covering was quickly chilling our baby flock, so they started piling on top of each other in distress.

I decided it was high time to step in and bring them back inside, so I scooped up damp chicks as fast as I could catch them.  "One, two, three," I counted as I plopped each one down in a tupperware container for transport.  "...Eleven, twelve, thirteen."

Thirteen?!  There were supposed to be fourteen chicks in this tractor!

Better thirteen living chicks than fourteen dead ones, I thought, rushing the youngsters inside to warm up in their brooder.  But what had happened to number fourteen?

Back I went into the pouring rain, first calling for the chick, then sitting quietly in hopes that I'd hear his anguished chirping.  Silence.  Did he get out of the tractor and snapped up by one of our cats in those three brief hours of pastured life?

Wet chicksI poked my hand in the tractor and noticed that the chick pileup had occurred right where two pieces of carpet came together.  Mark had simply overlapped the fabric by a few inches during construction since the overlap was plenty to keep adult chickens inside, but I was able to slide my hand right through the gap.  Maybe one chick had fallen out and was wandering in this downpour looking for shelter.

I got down on my hands and knees and looked in all directions.  And there, under the trailer, stood one damp little chick, too scared to cry.  Mark and I captured him in short order and brought him inside to join his siblings.  Soon fourteen chicks were fluffed back up, none the worse for wear.

One pastured poultry producer ran a side by side comparison of coops with pastures versus chicken tractors and found that chickens were healthier in the former.  I see his point now --- I wouldn't want to put chicks out in tractors permanently until they were at least a month old.  I guess we'll either be shoring up that coop or keeping the youngsters inside for a little longer.

Our chicken waterer has kept our chicks healthy despite highs in the 90s.
Posted Sun Sep 4 07:54:51 2011 Tags:

how to make a steam powered lawn mower
diy steam power with a 2 stroke engine
Have you ever wondered if it was possible to convert a lawn mower to run on steam power?

I'm not sure how safe it is, but I love the ingenuity of this project by Youtube user dsquad.

Green Power Science air powered engine
GreenPowerScience has a neat video on how to take an old weed eater engine and convert it to run on
compressed air with the addition of a well placed reed switch. This seems like a safer alternative to steam power. It might be possible to build a contraption that powers a small generator if one could somehow harvest compressed air.

Posted Sun Sep 4 16:06:59 2011 Tags:
Trailer homestead
I love that you are almost always smiling in your pictures. You make life look so idealistic.

-- Kathleen

To be honest, farm life has been less than idyllic lately.  First there's been the crazy hot summer with temperatures five to ten degrees above average, which means we can only work outside for limited periods.  Then there's the fall garden, only about 20% of which survived cat scratching, dog rolling, deer nibbling, and (worst of all) intense heat.  Finally, there's the relentless march of the deer, eating up our hard work.  We try to keep this blog positive, but in my personal life, I've had two meltdowns in the last few weeks, and poor Mark has had to do a lot of wife propping.

Mark tells me that my problem is lack of perspective --- that never having worked a relentless 9 to 5 job in a field I hate, I can't tell how good even our worst days are.  He says that even when I wake him up early to herd chickens out of the garden after Lucy breaks into the pasture at 6 am looking for food scraps...even when the day involves the minisledge breaking in half and barely missing his nose...even when the heat is so intense his brain turns off but he has to keep on going...he's still happier than he was working at the spring factory.

One year on the farm

"Okay," he says, clambering down into my emotional pit of despair, "I'll come down here so I can talk to you.  But this isn't what our life really looks like!  Do you remember how we started five years ago with nothing?  Do you remember how bad the deer were the first few years?  We're making progress, and soon we might look back on this time the way we talk about hauling water in the red bucket."

Second year on the farm

"Look out in the garden!" he continues, and I take his hand as he helps me up out of the mud at the bottom of my emotional pit.  "See all that mulch, those beautiful beds of buckwheat, the paucity of weeds?  Last year at this time, the weeds were winning the battle and you were just barely starting to understand cover crops.  Our farm is becoming more fertile every day!"

Fifth year on the farm

By now, without realizing it, I've followed my husband up far enough that a metaphorical breeze cools my face.  "All of these problems are the price we pay for freedom," Mark says.  "Yes, it tears at your soul when the deer eat the garden, because that garden is like an appendage of our bodies.  But we're spending our hours building our own world.  Despite minor setbacks, the farm is improving every minute, every week, every year, and it's all ours."

Squash vines

Perspective can be hard to find on a late summer farm when you have to run as fast as you can just to stay where you are.  But when I sit outside with a book to enjoy the cool evening and a woodcock flutters down nearly at my feet from his mating flight...dragonflies skim the garden like fighter pilots...and a lightning bug lands in my hand, I remember why we're here.  I take the last step out of my emotional pit to join Mark on his tree-shaded hilltop and we revel in the farm.

Our chicken waterer makes chicken chores so easy, I'm tempted to bite off more than I can chew elsewhere.
Posted Mon Sep 5 07:24:59 2011 Tags:
deer dance caught on camera with trail camera

These pictures were taken early this morning.

It's clear she got spooked by one mechanical deer deterrent and then another in the opposite direction.

Photographic proof that a mechanical contraption can be quite effective at making these deer feel like they crashed the wrong party.

Posted Mon Sep 5 15:03:46 2011 Tags:
Anna Barn roof
Old barn

I decided this spring that it was time to either figure out how to replace the barn roof or to tear the whole thing down.  Honestly, I covet that flat, sunny growing space, but Mark has pretty much convinced me that it would cost as much to dismantle such a huge structure as to fix it up so that we can use it (and I do need more room to cure sweet potatoes), so we started saving our pennies.  Rather than going on vacation, this year we're going to be buying tin and hiring someone (or multiple someones) to clamber up to the top of the huge pole barn and get it back in shape.

Leaking roofWe've been trying to find a dependable local guy who doesn't mind walking half a mile through the muck to the job site --- no luck so far.  The barn was built to dry tobacco, which means it's absurdly high, and I really don't want to climb up there (or to see Mark in such a precarious position.)  Do you have any ideas for how to find someone crazy enough to work in our weird environment other than to keep trying out every handyman we meet in town?  How much do you think someone would charge to do that kind of job?  How many days do you think it would take?  I know there are specialized roofing companies, but I suspect they're going to balk at the working conditions.

Meanwhile, I want to go ahead and order the roofing metal so that we can drive it in the next time the ground is dry enough.  Sometime in the last decade, the previous owners of the property stuck new tin on top of the central section of the barn, and that area (nearly) doesn't leak, so I think we can just replace the two rows of tin below the good section.  Of course, roofing tin needs to overlap, so you should really start at the bottom of the roof and work your way up rather than at the top and work your way down.  Do you think it'll be feasible to pry up the bottom of the top tin to slide new tin underneath?

Triangulating roof

I'm also just a tad bit confused about how large the roofing panels are.  A hasty measuring session in the pouring rain shows that the barn is roughly 45 feet long by 36 feet wide, and the roof extends a bit further in each direction.  Each row of tin has 26 panels in it, so I suspect the tin is the same 24 inches wide that the tin off the old house was, but how long are the pieces?  Short of climbing up in the rafters and measuring the barn height, I figured I might be able to get away with some photographic math.  If the horizontal distance from the center of the barn to the edge of the roof overhang is right around 19 feet, it looks like the height from that line to the peak is roughly 8 feet, which would make the tin on one side of the barn about 21 feet long.  These measurements would make sense if the original builders used three sections of 8 foot tin, overlapping each one a bit to prevent leaks.

Tobacco barnAssuming my math isn't wrong, I'm thinking we need 104 pieces of eight foot by 2 foot "corrugated ribbed steel roof panels," aka "5V tin."  Presumably we need a bunch of roofing nails or screws too, and I'm tempted to go ahead and have gutters installed on each side to take advantage of that amazing rainwater catchment opportunity --- we could be capturing 48,000 gallons of water every year if we had the facilities.  I think channeling that water somewhere other than the forest garden would prevent the current gully erosion and waterlogged conditions, and free water is nothing to sneeze at.

We're still very much in the planning stages, and I'd love to get some expert advice before we spend such a huge lump of money.  Any amateur or professional builders out there who can check my math or tell me where I'm barking up the wrong tree?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock well watered with minimal work.
Posted Tue Sep 6 07:33:21 2011 Tags:

shoring up the chicken coop
Turkin chicken is cute and handsome

The ground got a good soaking last night, which prompted us to clear the weeds from one of the chicken pastures so we can spread out some seeds and take advantage of this recent wet cycle.

We then shored up chicken coop number one by closing off some of the holes. Once we get it secured the plan is to move the new automatic chicken coop door opener over to this coop which will make that vulnerable sleeping time a little bit safer.

Maybe an alternative to an automatic chicken coop door opener is a simple dog door with a locking solenoid? A timer could control when it's time to lock up at night, and maybe an electromagnet could be used to crack the door open in the morning to encourage the flock that it's time to push through. I guess the question is can a chicken learn to open a pet door all by themselves?

Posted Tue Sep 6 17:18:13 2011 Tags:
Clear vines

I begged for drought to slow the spread of blight on our tomatoes, and the weather complied...for a while.  You can only hold back our rain so long, though, before the Chorus frogweather gods rebel and drop six inches of water on you in one fell swoop.  The creek rose, the jewelweed revived, and the parched earth in the chicken pastures gave a sigh of relief.  Time to change our plans and renovate the forest pasture now instead of later.

The forest pasture was chock full of life, but it was all out of reach of our chickens.  Despite being birds, chickens don't really fly, and once the weeds get more than a couple of feet tall, the flock might as well be foraging in a desert.  The ninja blade, the chainsaw, and brute strength served to whack down the weeds, root out the logs, and move all of the biomass to the edges of the pasture.

Green caterpillar orange horns

Hickory horned devilIn the process, we were treated to some magnificent finds, like the chorus frog  pictured earlier and the hickory horned devil shown here.  I'll bet you've never seen a caterpillar this big and scary --- I hadn't.  This guy will turn into a regal moth --- the heaviest moth north of Mexico --- and despite its spines, the caterpillar won't sting.

Caterpillar legs
Vines on tree

Chicken pecking groundWe planted an everbearing mulberry in this pasture in the spring, but I haven't even been able to see the tree for months due to the smothering action of Japanese honeysuckle, hog-peanuts, and virgin's bower.  Imagine my surprise to discover that the mulberry was vine-wrapped but thriving, having doubled in height already.  Maybe our chickens will be treated to summer fruits sooner rather than later.

I'll be planting annuals for winter forage (probably rye, oats, Austrian winter peas, and oilseed radish) while the ground's still damp, but first I wanted to give our chickens an opportunity to scratch the earth up a bit first.  Good thing we have such a large flock momentarily --- 19 near adult chickens, 8 of whom will go in the freezer this week.

Chickens renovating pasture

Turning them onto such a bare pasture makes it much easier to see the behavioral differences between our various types of chickens.  The Golden Comets were the first to find the new pasture (a process that involves going into the coop and then out a newly opened pophole), eventually followed by just about everyone else.  The White Cochin and one Cuckoo Marans just couldn't figure it out --- they stood forlornly on the other side of the dividing fence, watching their buddies eat the insects knocked loose during our clearing spree.

Chicken in woods

The Black Australorps wandered around pecking for insects, but the Golden Comets thought it was a better idea to stay in one place and scratch up bugs.  I got down close and was surprised to see that every swipe of this old hen's foot turned up something edible --- little earthworms, centipedes, and snails.  The number of invertebrates she consumed in such a short time was amazing.

Australorps and turken

For more on the larger picture of chicken pasturing (and my evolving plans for our pastures), be sure to subscribe to our chicken blog.  As you probably figured out, this post is really just about pretty pictures.

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to pasture our flock --- a bucket waterer in each pasture only has to be filled once a month.
Posted Wed Sep 7 07:53:48 2011 Tags:

crossing the creek after 1 day flood

The creek was too high to get out yesterday, but it's no problem today with my new Pro Line hip waders.

It just barely qualifies as a flood.

This particular model of hip waders came with a pad of felt like material glued to the bottom of the heel. The increase in traction comes in handy when walking through fast flowing waters.

Posted Wed Sep 7 16:48:56 2011 Tags:
Chickens clear ground

A bit over a day after turning our flock into the pasture we're renovating, they've already made quite an impact.  The photo above is the pasture's compost pile, so it wasn't very weedy to begin with, but I can see bare ground in several other locations as well.

Chickens amid weed stubble

I figure the annual weeds (most notably ragweed) will be wiped out by our weedwhacking, followed by a heavy round of chicken scratching, and then planting a winter crop.  The perennials will have to be cut several more times next year before they'll give up the ghost, though.

My friend Megan not only sells amazing pastured meat, she is also an experienced keeper of dairy goats, sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, and just about any other type of farm livestock you can think of.  I picked her brains about our idea of adding miniature goats or sheep to our menagerie for weed control in the chicken pasture, and she had some great local advice.  She hasn't worked with miniature animals, but reports that full-size sheep really aren't going to cut it on our rough pastures, and that goats will be hard workers but absolutely refuse to eat wingstem.  Drat!  Wingstem is one of our most common perennial weeds.

Chicken scratching

Megan seconded one of our reader's suggestions of running goats on new ground using four cattle panels to make a relatively easy to move but heavy duty goat "tractor."  Her goats love Japanese honeysuckle and will eat it down to the ground, but of course the vines will regrow.  She actually thinks we should get a pig and let it root out all of the perennials at once then turn it into bacon, but I'm a bit scared of that idea.  I'm okay with slow and steady progress, and our hens are definitely making headway.

Our chicken waterer never spills on the uneven terrain of tractors or pastures.
Posted Thu Sep 8 07:21:25 2011 Tags:
first day in coop for newest generation of super cute chicks

I was surprised at how dark chicken coop number one got after I sealed up most of the cracks.

A scrap piece of plexiglass made a nice window to let a little light shine in.

This will be our last generation of chicks for 2011.

Posted Thu Sep 8 17:07:40 2011 Tags:

SaladWhen I realized that soil temperature was the limiting factor keeping spring crops from sprouting early, I felt like I'd discovered the scientific way to time my spring plantings.  I probably should have realized that there was a flip side to the soil temperature coin --- many fall crops have trouble germinating in hot summer soil.

Optimum temp. (degrees F)
Maximum temp. (degrees F)
Beans, Snap
Swiss chard

This summer has been considerably warmer than average, but I assumed that as long as I kept my fall plantings well watered, they would grow.  Not so.  I managed to sprout a single spinach seedling out of three beds, only a third of my peas came up, and I wasn't able to germinate Asian greens and lettuce until I planted new areas at the shady end of the mule garden.

Soil temperatureI finally thought to pull out my soil thermometer one morning at the end of August, at which time I discovered that the earth's temperature two inches down ranged from 65 degrees Fahrenheit in the more shaded front garden to 68 degrees Fahrenheit in the sunny mule garden.  Checking back at 6 PM when the sun had pounded down all day, the mule garden soil temperature had risen to 81 degrees.  Yes, mulched spots were considerably cooler --- clocking in at the low to mid seventies --- but my fall plantings have all gone into bare soil since the seedlings are too small to push aside mulch.  A few weeks earlier when I was vainly planting spinach seeds, I suspect the daytime soil highs easily exceeded the 85 degree Fahrenheit absolute upper limit for spinach germination.

So what's the solution for getting fall vegetables to germinate in the middle of a hot summer?  Lowering soil temperature is probably the reason that some old gardening books recommend placing mulch or old boards over your fall plantings --- you just have to remember to uncover your seedlings as soon as they sprout.  Another option is to plant fall vegetables in a cool, shady location, but that idea will backfire when winter cold nips those spots early.  Perhaps shady beds could be used as nursery plots for larger fall vegetables, and the seedlings transplanted out into the main garden later?  Or maybe there's a way to rig shade cloths to keep the soil temperature in range?  I'd be interested to hear how those of you who live with this sort of summer weather every year get your fall garden to sprout.

Our chicken waterer kept the flock healthy despite four months with highs in the 90s.

Posted Fri Sep 9 06:57:00 2011 Tags:
Cutting cover crops with the Ninja blade

It's that time of year when oat cover crops flower and need to be retired.

Rake cut oats evenly on bed, apply 5 gallon bucket of manure, cover with straw and repeat.

Posted Fri Sep 9 18:21:25 2011 Tags:

SprinklerMany gardeners don't water their garden at all, or just spot-water with a cup or hose during transplanting or when specific plants wilt.  However, water is one of the most common limiting factors, even in a very wet climate like ours.  Long before your plants droop, they'll slow their growth to conserve moisture, so your yields in an unwatered garden will be much lower.

The importance of regular irrigation was brought home to me this year when I got sick and skipped watering for one hot week right when our earliest bed of Sugar Baby watermelons was bulking up.  Those fruits clocked in around five inches in diameter, compared to the fruits on a later bed of the same variety (well watered throughout their life) that produced ten inch fruits.  The moral of the story is --- your yields may double if you provide a steady supply of water for your crops.

Even sprinkler coverageOf course, watering your garden has many disadvantages.  When you look at the bigger picture, using more than your fair share of rivers can cause them to dry up downstream, and there's nearly always at least some energy required to move water to your crops.  Closer to home, irrigation equipment costs money, and so does either paying for city water or paying the operating costs of your own pumps.  I estimate that we use a phenomenal 11,000 gallons of water every week during the height of summer (exempting wet periods) to keep our vegetables growing, which adds about $125 per year to our annual electric bill.

At the plant level, watering can even do harm.  Overwatering hurts plants, and so does irregular watering.  If your crops are used to getting a regular dose of water every time the soil starts to dry out, they won't have grown the deep roots needed to withstand a drought (or to survive a week when you forget to water), and wet leaves promote fungal diseases (like my tomato blights.)  If you water too much, you can also wash nutrients out of the soil, which can stunt your plants and make your homegrown food less tasty and nutritious.  The trick here is to know your system and water scientifically.

Rain barrelUnless your climate is very arid (in which case it may not be sustainable to live there in the first place), you can work around the other irrigation-related problems as well.  Catching rainwater is something we want to get more serious about --- if you live in a large, modern home and just have a small backyard garden, chances are your roof runoff may be all you need to keep your plants hydrated.  We live in a small, unmodern trailer, but we're pondering adding gutters to the East Wing, the barn, and/or the dreamed-of summer kitchen.

The next step to watering in a sustainable manner is to make the water you do have go further.  Our watering method is the least efficient one out there --- sprinklers --- which we chose for the reasons listed here.  Using sprinklers means that we consume four times as much water as necessary every time we irrigate --- some of that extra water hits the garden aisles, some falls outside the garden perimeter, and some evaporates into the hot summer air.  Drip irrigation is the typical solution to this problem, but it's far from my favorite since turbid water messes up the system in short order, you have to use lots of expensive, plastic hoses and replace them often, and drip irrigation works much better with row crops than with beds.  Pitcher irrigation is a more permanent solution, but one that only works on a very small scale and is labor-intensive.  I'm still pondering a more efficient watering option appropriate to our vegetable garden layout.

Straw mulch around cornMeanwhile, there's always mulch!  Mulching around your plants cools the soil surface and keeps water from evaporating away, so there's more water available for your plants and you don't have to irrigate as often.  Adding organic matter to your soil with cover crops and compost will also make watering less essential every year since this black gold acts like a sponge, grabbing excess water during heavy rains and then releasing it to plant roots on demand.

What watering system do you use in your garden?  Why did you choose it and what do you love and hate about it?  I'm especially curious to hear from large-scale, no-till gardeners, of course, but everyone should feel free to chime in!

Our chicken waterer is the most water-efficient way to hydrate your flock since your chickens only consume as much as they'll drink, never fouling or spilling extra water.
Posted Sat Sep 10 08:31:57 2011 Tags:
2011 row of handsome tomatos

wire mesh hanging bowl of tomatos waiting to be ripeOur tomato plants are on a downward decline, but I think they still look great.

Anna says we're getting close to meeting our goal of enough soups and sauces to get us through till next year.

The plan is to dry most of the excess and make enough ketchup to last the rest of this year and most of 2012.

Posted Sat Sep 10 15:26:42 2011 Tags:
Chicks in wheat stubble

Clover pastureOur Light Sussex chicks are voracious.  They're currently in our tiniest pasture, but I thought for sure it would last them multiple weeks since the chicks aren't even fully feathered.  Instead, it looks like they'll need fresh forage in less than a week.

My original plan had been to let Mark finish up the pasture running up the hill behind the coop, but I really don't want to turn the chicks in there until they're at least four or five weeks old --- that pasture lacks tender, chick-friendly food and has too much predator pressure.  The other pasture attached to our chicks' coop was overgrazed by the Cuckoo Marans and has been seeded with pasture plants that need some time to get established.  What will our Sussex chicks eat in the meantime?

Chick pasture map

Potential pastureMy eyes turn to the semi-frequently mowed berry and fruit tree areas that bracket our vegetable gardens.  There's lots of chick-friendly forage available on the ground and the chicks aren't big enough to do too much damage (especially since the mulch in these areas has rotted into the ground and needs to be refreshed.)  I've been wishing I could run chickens in there to deal with some insect problems, and we're sick of mowing.  The problem is fencing and housing.

Light Sussex chicksWe could use chicken tractors, but I think our chicks need a tighter coop for at least a few more weeks, and they're already too big to fit all fourteen in a yard-size tractor.  Instead, I'm pondering several options:

  • Temporary fencing using the existing coop.  I figure it would take me and Mark less than an hour to toss up some fencing around the berries adjacent to the chicks' current pasture.  We have extra pea trellis material on hand to use if the deer come calling and can rustle up enough of the lightweight fence posts that we use for trellis posts and tomato stakes.  After the chicks eat up the groundcover between the berry bushes, we could move the fencing to make an avenue across the driveway and then surround parts of the forest garden.  By the time the chicks eat all that, surely they'll be big enough to run up on the hill.
  • Pastured chickPermanent fencing and one or more new coops.  On the other hand, this time of year is a lull in our pasture productivity, and we'll often want to have extra pasture areas.  So maybe it would be a good idea to fence these areas in permanently?  The problem there is that we'd have to build gates (time consuming) and perhaps add one or more coops (even more time consuming) since we wouldn't want permanent fencing crossing our driveway.  Plus, the area where the driveway ends in front of the trailer is already pretty tight, and I'm not sure permanent fencing along both sides of the driveway would be a good idea.  On the other hand, putting in the time to build permanent fences now would save time in later years, and I suspect deer would be afraid to walk up the driveway if it had fences on both sides.
  • Chick in cloverPortable coop with temporary fencing.  Another option would be to combine a portable coop with temporary fencing, which would allow us to run the chicks all the way over to the berry and tree area on the west side of the back garden.  The major bonus with pasturing this area is that we could finally deal with some of the insects that hit our peach trees while grazing more land that we're sick of mowing.  The downside is that a portable coop big enough for fourteen chickens would be heavy (and harder to build than permanent coops.)  Mark had an idea of making a portable coop with two handles so it could be carried since dragging definitely wouldn't be good enough in the tight spaces of our yard.  It almost seems simpler to just build an extra coop over there if I want our chickens to graze that area.

Ripening butternutAny other ideas?  Additional pros and cons for the ideas above?  At this instant, I'm leaning toward temporary fencing around the berries to give us some breathing space which we'd use to build permanent fencing around the forest garden.  Our butternuts need another week or so to finish ripening anyway before we can take them off their dying vines.  But I'm always looking for better ideas.

Our chicken waterer kept the chicks busy even when stuck in a too-small brooder.
Posted Sun Sep 11 07:41:45 2011 Tags:
A new method of soaking mushroom logs

We were thrilled yesterday to notice the first shiitake mushrooms popping up.

These logs are mounted in the ground like a fence post, which will hopefully allow each one to take up as much water as it needs compared to our old method of dipping each log in a small kiddie pool.
toad on log
At least two of the logs are still pumping out fruit, which makes me wonder if I need to sink the other three logs a few inches deeper. It might be that those logs are finished up. One amateur mistake we made in the beginning was soaking some of them too long, which may have drowned the mycelium in the logs that are now dormant. I think it depends on the condition of the log, but now if we were still soaking we would be on the safe side and limit the time to 12 hours.

Posted Sun Sep 11 15:18:36 2011 Tags:

Storey's Guide to Raising SheepI've been researching sheep, both by talking with shepherds and by reading Storey's Guide to Raising Sheep, and I'm pretty sure these fluffy livestock are not in our near future.  On the plus side, sheep are very efficient converters of plants into meat and if you raise them on plenty of good pasture and let them lamb in late spring, they need little or no supplemental feed or even housing.  But the trick is that sheep really need either high quality pasture (think: beautiful green lawnlike expanses with lots of clover and other forbs mixed in) or lots of space.  Sheep just aren't going to be happy with small, rough pastures like you find on a young homestead --- they can handle small or rough, but not both.

That said, established homesteads and farms can often benefit from sheep.  These critters are very good at:

  • Sheep in vineyardGrazing large expanses of high and dry, subprime pasture that can't be used for anything else without eroding away.
  • Keeping weeds down in established orchards, vineyards, and Christmas tree plantations.  Just make sure you have other pastures to turn the flock into when young growth is present on the plants you care about and use miniature sheep if the trees are short.
  • Maintaining well-sodded existing pastures.  If you move onto a farm with lots of pastures that are quickly going to weeds, sheep could be a good answer to your mowing problem.
  • Mixing in with larger grazers to eat the forbs that cows and horses don't prefer.

If you're trying to run a flock of sheep with as few inputs as possible on poorer pasture, you should stick to good foraging breeds.  The ones listed in Storey's Guide to Raising Sheep are Barbados Blackbelly, Black Welsh Mountain, Border Cheviot (and, presumably, the related Miniature Cheviot), California Red, Canadian Arcott, Debouillet, Gulf Coast Native, Hog Island, Icelandic, Karakul, Katahdin (aka Hair Sheep), Navajo-Churro, Panama, Polypay, Rambouillet, Romanov, Romney, Santa Cruz, Scottish Blackface, Shetland, Soay, St. Croix, Targhee, Tunis, and Wiltshire Horn.  That said, even this book's sheep-loving authors recommend that you get a goat if your pastures are overgrown with brush.  They explain that excellent foraging sheep breeds will eat the leaves on the trees, but won't go after the twigs.

Sheep in rough pastureI think that if our homestead was ever established enough that we felt it had sheep-friendly pastures, we'd follow our neighbors' lead and get full size Hair Sheep.  The more I read about sheep, the more sheering sounds like a hassle, especially since sheep are reputed to be skittish --- I can just imagine trying to sheer our half-tame cat, Strider, and am not relishing the image.  Hair Sheep don't need to be sheered since they naturally shed their hair, and they are also excellent foragers, are docile and hardy, and lamb easily.  Plus, since lots of people in our county raise them, we would be able to keep just a couple of ewes and rent a ram when needed.

The other point against becoming a shepherd even if we had excellent pastures and steered clear of sheering is that I'm not sure they mesh with our land and lifestyle.  As one of our readers mentioned, sheep are extremely prone to internal parasites, and most of these parasites thrive in low, wet areas --- sounds like our farm.  Another big problem with sheep is that they often need help lambing if you don't want to risk the mother and/or lamb dying a premature death.  That means shepherds spend a lot of wakeful nights out with the sheep, and Mark can attest to the fact that I'm not a pleasant person if I don't get my nine hours of sleep every night.  Maybe we'll just stick to buying lamb from Megan?

Our chicken waterer keeps our smaller livestock happy and healthy, giving me far too much time to dream big.
Posted Mon Sep 12 07:34:37 2011 Tags:

As soon as we feel the first signs of fall, my academic inclinations start tickling my brain and I want to research this, that, and the other.  Sharing my findings with you all on our blog firms up my understanding of what I read (and also files it away in an easily searchable format), but I sometimes wonder how you all like these infodumps.  Time for a short survey!

My research posts often jumpstart experiments, but they are also untried information.  Do you mind the lack of personal info in the posts?

I skip over your research posts (8%)

I love your research posts (77%)

Whatever (13%)

Total votes: 45

Sometimes I write about my research in five short posts --- a lunchtime series --- while other times I mash it all together into one long post.  Which do you prefer?

Lunchtime series are fun because they don't overwhelm me with information all at once (56%)

One long post is better because I don't have to wait to find out more tomorrow (13%)

Whatever (29%)

Total votes: 44

Lately, some of my research has been channeled into our Weekend Homesteader series.  Even though I offer a free pdf copy to any Walden Effect reader who emails me, I know that might feel like too much trouble.  What do you think?

I wish you'd put all of your research on the blog (59%)

I enjoy the more thought out format of the ebook (13%)

Whatever (27%)

Total votes: 37

Most of my chicken related research gets fed into my chicken blog and then I try to remember to sum up the most important points over here at least once a year.  Do you mind missing that information your daily Walden Effect read?

I don't have chickens, so I'm glad you don't talk as much about them here (13%)

I subscribe to both blogs and enjoy the separation (23%)

I wish you'd post your chicken research here (47%)

Whatever (15%)

Total votes: 38

Thanks for taking the time to answer the poll or comment below!

Posted Mon Sep 12 12:00:35 2011 Tags:
new experimental temporary chick pasture set up

It only took Anna and me about 20 minutes to set up 100 feet of the experimental, temporary chick fencing this morning.

The soft, plastic green material was a dream to handle compared to the hard, metal chicken wire.

I've got a feeling this new temporary chicken fencing method is going to become part of our future pasturing poultry routine.

Posted Mon Sep 12 15:55:00 2011 Tags:
Weedy greens

The fall garden could use some weeding, but this week is the last call for planting oats as a cover crop in our climate, so the weeds will have to wait.

Oat cover crop

I find it hard to believe that I will have used up the whole 48 pound bag of oat seeds by the end of the week.  The bag has already seeded 26 garden beds, one of our larger chicken pastures, and will be used to plant another heaping handful of beds in the next few days.  I guess weevils won't be a problem this year!  I'm already drooling over all of the homegrown organic matter and next year's lower weeding pressure.

Our chicken waterer is the solution to POOPy chicken water.
Posted Tue Sep 13 07:00:33 2011 Tags:

Even without setting foot in the garden, you can save money by taking better care of those half full seed packets you bought in the spring.  Nearly all vegetable seeds will last at least two years, and many are viable for much longer.  The chart to the right shows the storage life of many types of vegetable seeds under optimal conditions.

The trick to giving your seeds as much longevity as possible is to keep water, heat, and light at bay.

Seed-saving box

An air-tight box with cardboard dividers will keep your seeds safe and organized, especially if you throw in a few packets of desiccant to soak up excess moisture.  To maximize shelf life, store your box in the freezer, garage, basement, or in another cool, dark place.

Once you optimize your seed storage tactics, you might be able to save yet more money by buying the larger, value packs of many seed varieties, counting on the seeds lasting for two or three growing seasons.

Excerpted from the Seed Saving chapter of Weekend Homesteader: September.

Posted Tue Sep 13 12:00:45 2011 Tags:
building a roost for cute baby chicks

Still not sure how old it is when baby chicks start roosting instead of crowding together in a corner, but this new baby sized roost should do the job when they're ready for it.

Posted Tue Sep 13 17:04:29 2011 Tags:

Mushroom stumpWe abruptly shifted into fall mode a week or two ago.  Cool, wet weather slows down the vegetable garden considerably, but sends mushrooms popping out of logs and stumps.  Time to check on all of our experiments!

Our oldest mushroom experiment is a magnolia stump that we inoculated with homegrown oyster mushroom spawn eleven months ago.  (We inoculated a box-elder stump with more homegrown spawn this past spring.)  I've read a lot about using mushrooms to break down stumps, but I think we're going to have do some more experimenting since I haven't seen any signs of life and think I should have by now.  The trouble is that we cut down a fresh tree to make the stump so that it wouldn't already be colonized with "weed" fungi, but the tree vigorously sent up new shoots!  Living trees are able to fight off invading fungi, so it's possible that we need to find a way to kill stumps before inoculating them with spawn.  Alternatively, it might just take longer for mushrooms to pop out of a stump compared to a log --- after all, the mycelium has to colonize all of the roots as well as the aboveground portion of the tree before it will make mushrooms.  We'll wait and see.

Shiitake mushroomsI'm pretty happy with our mushroom totems since we harvested a big bowl full of shiitakes Monday.  True, we didn't have any mushrooms all summer since the totem method lets our fungi send out fruiting bodies more seasonally when weather conditions are right.  But the truth is that I've spent a lot of effort in the past soaking mushroom logs and getting no results during the heat of summer, and we certainly don't lack for fresh garden produce while the mushroom totems take the summer off.  I suspect mushroom totems will last longer than the forced fruiting method of soaked logs too.

We're still waiting for results on other experiments, like the new King Stropharia bed we started this spring and the mushroom rafts that are overgrown with weeds and need to be weedwhacked before we can see if they're fruiting.  I'll report back when we know more, but right now we're just enjoying our flush of shiitakes.

Our chicken waterer takes the guesswork out of clean water.
Posted Wed Sep 14 07:52:02 2011 Tags:
Anna Fan mail
Fan mail

A huge thank you to John, who sent me my first piece of author fan mail (along with a $5 bill.)  I love emails and comments, but I have to admit that knowing someone went to the trouble of printing out a note and putting it in an envelope made my day.

Amazon book salesI don't want you to think that there are strings attached with the pdf copies I email for free to our readers, though.  I appreciate every reader of our ebooks, whether they splurge to plop down 99 cents on Amazon or just ask for a free copy.  I never would have imagined that seven months into my Amazon adventure, I'd be selling nearly a thousand copies a month --- that's all due to you telling your friends and leaving glowing reviews on Amazon.  So thank you to all of our other readers too!  It's your enthusiasm that keeps us writing.

Posted Wed Sep 14 12:00:38 2011 Tags:
K9 electric fence charger and dog training tool

We've been having trouble with Lucy breaking her way through the chicken wire to get to an egg or food scraps thrown down for the flock.

I thought the Zareba K9 electric fence controller fixed this problem for good last year when I surrounded the first chicken pasture with electric wire and watched her learn a shocking lesson on why it's important to stay away from our poultry fence.
K9 unit
This year I only strung up about 12 feet of wire within two small stakes for pasture #4 because I had a pretty strong feeling she might try to re-enter through a recent hole she chewed and we only half fixed. It only took a few minutes for her bad side to take over and try another unauthorized entry.


She didn't jump quite as high as the first time, but it's obvious she got the message.

Posted Wed Sep 14 16:31:24 2011 Tags:
Chickens in tractor

Tuesday was a bittersweet day --- we killed the two hens surviving from our initial flock of Golden Comets, purchased as adults in 2007.  The photo above shows some of those then-young ladies in an early chicken tractor that July.

Hens in tractorWe started with twenty hens, which was a crazy number --- we had moved to the farm not long before and soon the few local people we knew didn't even want free eggs anymore.  Two hens died of heat exhaustion when their old fashioned waterer spilled (the impetus for Mark's chicken waterer invention), and we gave twelve away to my father to slim down the flock even more.

Slowly, four more chickens bit the dust.  One was a casualty of us thinking we could keep a rooster in a chicken tractor --- he overmated our hens mercilessly and one girl was too injured to survive.  Another died last winter when her old bones could no longer take the cold.  And to be honest I can't remember what happened to the other two.

Chicken pecking orderI've written before about why you can't expect to raise chickens for eggs and not get your hands bloody, but I guess I just didn't feel like my words applied to these old girls.  They were our wiliest hens, the first to come running when I called them to a new pasture (and the first to find a hole in the fence.)  When people came to interview us about our chicken waterer, all I had to do was tap the chicken nipples and our old Golden Comets would obediently trot over and drink, whether they were thirsty or not.

But they were also laying very few eggs any more, at least after spring ended.  Last winter, we started having to buy eggs from the store to round out our diet, and the old hens never really picked up steam even when warm weather returned.

You just can't expect a four and a half year old hen to repay your expenses of feeding her over a hundred pounds of feed (at least $30) per year.  And you also have to figure in the wear and tear on the pasture (worst in winter) and the fact that your old hens are Carrying dead chickenprobably head of the flock and get to eat the best food, leaving your better layers malnourished while their elders get fat.  So we bit the bullet and turned them into dinner this week, along with a one-year-younger Golden Comet who was also past her prime.

I'd gotten used to slaughtering three month old broilers --- we've already processed 21 this year, and after the first few, I started enjoying chicken killing day as a break from the hard work of the garden.  But those broilers were raised from birth with dinner in mind and they hadn't really grown into their personalities yet.  The Golden Comets felt different.  Even though we hadn't named them, they almost felt like pets.

And yet, I can almost feel the pasture breathe a sigh of relief.  Three fewer chickens to scratch up the turf!  And this year's pullets and cockerel seem thrilled to have moved up a notch on the totem pole --- access to scraps!  It isn't always easy to do the right thing, but I'm glad we didn't let our farm turn into a rest home for chickens.

Posted Thu Sep 15 07:47:36 2011 Tags:
old first generation of chicken ark when we didn't know any better

This old picture of our very first chicken tractor makes me cringe today.

Even though it's twice the square footage per bird that Joel Salatin and other sources on the internet use, it feels too crowded and I would only put 2 full sized birds in it today.
chicken handsome
See that white plastic I used for a covering? It was filtering enough light to make the chickens stop laying eggs. It took us weeks to figure that out.

The nest boxes really needed an easy access hatch and that ancient, old fashioned, gravity waterer was exasperating.

Posted Thu Sep 15 15:40:55 2011 Tags:

I like to do a full-scale analysis of the honey situation in each hive at this time of year so that I know whether the bees need help preparing for winter.  That means delving down into the brood box to count frames of capped honey, which sends spirals of confused foragers circling above my head.  The video really doesn't do the situation justice --- when you're in the middle of it, it feels a bit like standing in the middle of five lanes of speeding traffic.

In the past, I've been terrified of this cloud of buzzing bees when they reach their population peak in late summer.  I usually ended up jerking around and getting stung, but last year Mark talked me into getting a bee jacket.  I was surprised how a little bit of protection increased my confidence enough that I was able to realize the bees were just confused by losing access to the hive, not angry.  Sure enough, with calm movements, nobody even stung my protective clothing.

So how were the honey stores?  Lower than I would like, partly because when you split hives you set them back, and partly because of weird weather --- too much rain kept the bees cooped up during certain periods, then too much dry made later nectar flows sparse.  The mother hive currently has 30 pounds of capped honey and the daughter hive has 12 pounds, less than they had a month ago and far short of our goal of 50 to 60 pounds.  That said, there's a lot of nectar dehydrating that I didn't count, so hopefully at my next inspection, the mother hive (at least) will be in the clear.  I may have to feed the daughter sugar water to fill up her larder.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock happy and healthy in tractors, pastures, and coops.
Posted Fri Sep 16 06:23:40 2011 Tags:
new Deer Zapper electric 2.0

Last night our problem deer came in and nibbled on this buggy swiss chard.

Version 2.0 of the electric deer zapper takes a lesson from the first generation and stays clear of possible leaf contact.

Posted Fri Sep 16 15:55:14 2011 Tags:
Milking a goat

Interested goatI learned to milk a goat Friday --- a huge thank you to Megan and Erek, who took time out of their hectic harvest-time schedule to give us personalized attention!  Thank you to the duo of Saanen does, too, who waited an extra hour with full udders so that Mark and I didn't have to get up quite so far before dawn.  (And thank you to Mark, who continues to humor my goat obsession, hoping I'll grow out of it.)

Milking a goat is harder than it looks, but I can tell that the knack is quite learnable.  Megan milked at the speed of light, and I managed to get some good squirts after a while.  Those goats were far more patient than I deserve, due to a cup of sweet feed...and a head lock that kept them from taking their noses out of the feed bowl.

One doe had slightly smaller teats than the other, which made her much harder to milk for the novice.  Erek (Megan's husband) said that he wouldn't dream of trying to milk a miniature goat since the problem would be exacerbated by the goat's diminutive size --- probably the reason many miniature dairy goat owners use automatic milkers that you can buy for a bit less than $200 apiece.

Megan estimates that it takes her fifteen minutes to milk two full-size goats once a day (turning in the kids after the morning milking so that they drink up the other half of the daily milk.)  That starts to answer one of my questions --- whether keeping goats would take significantly more time than just weedwhacking our chicken pastures a few times a year.  (More number-crunching to come before I can really answer that, though.)

Saanen goatMegan clued me in that the dream of feeding a dairy goat little or nothing even if you only milk during the peak pasture season is just that...a dream.  If I'm remembering right, I believe that Megan said the rule of thumb is a pound of grain per doe plus another pound per gallon of milk produced.  Otherwise, your poor goat will milk off all of her fat and get skinny.

Next, Megan let me taste some of the milk, which was a two-tiered test --- taste and ease on my stomach.  The taste test wasn't entirely fair because Megan had left the milk out to come to room temperature so she could make cheese, but I still thought it was quite tasty --- the slight aftertaste wasn't enough to turn me off.  That answers another question --- whether the fancy dairy goat keepers who recommend you keep your goats off pasture so that the browse doesn't impact the flavor of the milk are right.  They probably are if you have a highly advanced palate, but we'll eat old chickens and we'll also drink milk from a browsing goat.

Family milkingOver the last couple of years, I stopped being able to drink grocery store cow's milk because it began to make me queasy.  I assumed I'd developed lactose intolerance, but a bit more research turned up the factoid that what most people of European descent call "lactose intolerance" is probably a problem digesting certain proteins in the milk.  Actual lactose intolerance is more common among other ethnic groups.  The distinction is important because if you can't digest lactose, there's no reason to try goat milk, but if you're having trouble with the proteins in cow milk, you might not have a problem with the different proteins in goat milk.  Sure enough, Megan's milk sat lightly on my stomach.

I had lots of fun, but we made absolutely no decisions.  Still lots more research to come before we decide if goats are right for the farm.

Our chicken waterer kept our flock happy while we were away visiting our friends' farm.
Posted Sat Sep 17 08:52:36 2011 Tags:
goat milking 2011

We've been debating the possibility of getting goats.

My main resistance boils down to time. Anna brought up the good point this morning that some of that time will be when the garden reaches a speed of 110 Miles per hour.

Megan made the whole process look easy and fun. Her goat was trained to climb up on a small milking station and poke her head through a hole where a bowl of sweet feed waited.

Posted Sat Sep 17 14:51:49 2011 Tags:
Box turtle fence

I discovered the one problem with our temporary chicken pasture fencing --- it hinders box turtle migration.  I suspect this turtle was heading over to eat the everbearing raspberries that I missed and let fall to the ground.  He seemed less than pleased that his path was blocked --- hopefully he'll discover the unfenced berry patch in the back yard.

Praying mantis butterfly wings

Meanwhile, a praying mantis was hunting at the salt lick out front.  Previously, we'd seen butterfly wings in spots where we poured excess urine and I hypothesized that one of this year's bumper crop of mantises was enjoying the easy pickings.  I was right!  As I watched, the mantis eased her way forward, starting four inches from an unsuspecting skipper and ending up a mere inch distant.  Then she pounced --- butterfly dinner!

Our chicken waterer does away with a time-consuming daily chore.
Posted Sun Sep 18 08:26:18 2011 Tags:
Praying Mantis being the prey to a cute baby chick on Sunday
Sometimes praying might be the only option left if half your body has already been eaten by something 10 times your weight.
Posted Sun Sep 18 14:57:06 2011 Tags:

Curing peanutsPeanuts are one of our easiest crops...until the time comes to eat them.  As long as I choose a sunny, loamy spot for the plants, they grow like crazy and outcompete weeds even if I forget to mulch them.  Digging them is easy, and I'm testing out a new method of curing peanuts on a line under the porch roof which seems to be equally speedy.

The trouble is that my fingers get sore from peanut shell fibers after about ten minutes of shelling.  I'm extremely ashamed to admit that I made one batch of homemade peanut butter last fall, and then let the other half of our harvest sit on a shelf while we bought peanut butter from the store.  There has to be an easier way to get those doggone peanuts out of their shells!

"In Africa it takes 5 people all day to shell 100 lbs. of sun dried peanuts," writes the Fully Belly Project, who send hand-cranked peanut sheller kits Universal nut shellerto Africa.  But no one seems interested in making similar peanut shellers for homesteaders in the U.S.  Instead, the best I could find on the internet is a little hand-held nutcracker, or the option of taking your peanuts to an industrial-scale shelling facility.

Although I love peanut butter, I wouldn't mind turning our peanuts into salted, roasted peanuts since Mark enjoys salty snacks and would probably crack them a few at a time as he ate them.  It looks like if I mixed a cup of salt into a gallon of water, soaked the peanuts for six to eight hours, poured off the water and let the nuts drain for 24 hours, and then roasted them for ten or fifteen minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, I might come up with a snack Mark would enjoy.

Any other ideas for eating our peanuts that don't rub my fingers raw?  Or has anyone had experience with making homemade, salted peanuts?  I'm all ears!

Our chicken waterer keeps your flock's drinking water POOP-free.
Posted Mon Sep 19 07:43:53 2011 Tags:
Multi-species pasture

When you start reading up on sustainable pasturing, Joel Salatin's name pops up quickly and often.  In case you haven't heard of him, Salatin's 550 acre farm feeds various animals in succession on small patches of ground, using the behavior of each species to improve the conditions for the next animals in line.  The result is pastures that become more productive every year...oh, and lots of high quality meat to eat and sell.

Diversified pastureOur pastured lamb suppliers follow Salatin's lead, so I thoroughly enjoyed getting to tour their farm and see the livestock in action.  On perhaps six acres of good pasture (along with some more weedy areas being reclaimed), Megan and Erek currently have four pigs, two big tractors of Cornish Cross chickens (going in the freezer next week), a flock of Christmas and Thanksgiving turkeys, seventeen lambs and their parents, a calf, two milk goats, and three kids.  (That's goat kids --- they've got a human kid of their own, but he's not for meat.  The other younguns in the pictures are friends.)

Megan told me that it takes the two of them only half an hour to attend to this huge menagerie on an average day.  (Of course, there are lots of non-average periods when they spend sunup to sundown slaughtering chickens or two full days chasing cows out of the woods.)  Stay tuned for the rest of this week's lunchtime series to learn about the nuts and bolts of their Salatinesque operation.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for tractors since it never spills on uneven terrain.

99 cent pasture ebookThis post is part of our Salatin-style Pasturing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Sep 19 12:00:44 2011 Tags:
The super wonder bar is awesome!

Stanley Super Wonder Bar close up
I've worked with the
Stanley Wonder Bar before and went to pick one up last week at the hardware store for an upcoming demolition project.

They had a good selection of what I call wrecking bars, but when I saw the ergonomic curve of this new Stanley Super Wonder Bar I knew the decision process was over.

The "Super" improved curve will cost you an extra 4 dollars over the regular Wonder Bar, but after only 2 short sessions with it I'm prepared to proclaim it worthy of that special adjective usually reserved for comic book heros.

Posted Mon Sep 19 15:50:03 2011 Tags:
Varroa mites on a stickyboard

Homemade sticky boardsBeekeepers more interested in the health of their bees than in honey production split hives as a matter of course each year to lower varroa mite numbers.  I did a sticky board test last week at the same time I'd done one the year before, and the differences were striking.  Here's what the count looked like on September 13, 2010, in our three hives:

  • East: 90 mites = 30 per day
  • Middle: 540 mites = 180 per day
  • West: 40 mites = 13 per day

I'm pretty sure that scattered honey stores were the cause of the demise of two of my hives last winter, but it's still striking to see who fell when --- Middle hive was dead in January while West hive died in March.  Perhaps the high mite numbers in the Middle hive were implicated in that hive's death after all?

Huckleberry "helps"East hive was my sole living hive this spring, which I then split, moving the old queen to create a new Middle hive.  Although East hive was the parent location, it's the daughter hive since the bees left behind had to raise a new queen --- that means they're the hive that started nearly from scratch this year.  September 18, 2011's three day sticky board count revealed:

  • East: 131 mites = 44 per day
  • Middle: 36 mites = 12 per day

Interestingly, it seems like more mites hung out in the daughter hive than in the moved mother hive.  Of course, the best news of all is that both hives are well within normal bounds, so I don't need to worry about varroa mites unduly weakening either this winter.  Since most beekeepers around here use chemicals as a matter of course to keep varroa mites within bounds, it's great to see that something as simple as a hive split can have such a good effect.

Our chicken waterer is the easy way to keep your backyard flock healthy with POOP-free water.
Posted Tue Sep 20 07:36:05 2011 Tags:
Pigs turn new ground into pasture

Although Megan didn't explain it this way, I divide her livestock up into two categories --- the colonizers and the maintainers.  Today, I'll discuss the colonizers, which are animals she and her husband turn into areas that have become overgrown with troublesome weeds or turn into woodland that's destined to be pasture.

Joel Salatin uses pigs extensively as colonizers, and Megan's four pigs certainly had a huge impact on their pasture in very little time.  Unless you put a ring in a pig's nose (did you know that's why pigs sometimes wear rings?), the pig's favorite method of feeding is to snuffle through the dirt and find tasty tubers and roots to eat.  You can think of pigs as plows, with all of the pros and cons that comparison entails.  Both plows and pigs will reduce weed pressure immensely and let you start at ground zero --- whether you want to start there is up to you.

Effects of pigs on pasture

Of course, you don't have to let your pigs graze all the way down to bare earth, and I don't think Megan and Erek actually intended that to happen.  At this time of year, there are so many parts of a farm where you just have to throw up your hands and say "The animals have food and water.  Everything else can wait until next year!"  I suspect moving the pigs to a new pasture was a bit like our vastly overgrown blueberry patch --- just too much to handle at this instant.  I'll talk more about rotating animals later, but I should mention here that Joel Salatin uses 30 to 50 pigs in eight paddocks per acre to kill off the perennial weeds while maintaining a ground cover of pasture plants.  Each pig paddock is only grazed three times per year, and the pigs are never allowed on pasture in the winter since they'll churn the ground up to mud.

Milk goatGoats are a less destructive (but slower) colonizer species.  They function more like repeated bushhogging, eating the aboveground portions of tall weeds, vines, and small trees constantly until the unwanted plants give up the ghost.  Salatin doesn't use goats in his system because he didn't have a market for their meat and milk, but to my halfway educated eye, goats seem friendlier to the earth.  On the other hand, goats need better fences than pigs and are more appropriate to smaller operations where you can put more time into each animal.

In either case, goats or pigs are used in a paddock for only a short time, then are moved on to the next trouble spot.  Megan walked me through last year's pig paddock, which now looks like a nice grassy pasture with just a few small patches of poison ivy.  The whole thing had been chock full of the troublesome vine before her pigs went to work, so Megan gives her pigs high marks for dealing with poison ivy.

Once the colonizers have done their work, the pasture is ready to be used by the maintainers --- the subject of tomorrow's post.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.

This post is part of our Salatin-style Pasturing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Sep 20 12:00:44 2011 Tags:
man with mulch on his mind and shovel

Anna's Hardy Kiwi pruning seems to be paying off with what looks like twice the growth compared to last year.

Posted Tue Sep 20 16:55:10 2011 Tags:

Cook an old chickenI've posted before about ways to cook an old chicken:

Stew it for eight hours.

Cut the raw meat off the bones and grind it for use in potstickers, sausage, etc.

Both of those methods work (especially the second one), but I recently discovered that neither is the traditional way to turn that hen who no longer lays well into dinner.  It turns out that old chickens were actually preferred by many cooks until recently since chickens over a year old have more flavor.  These chickens were sold as "fowl" or "stewing chickens" and were used to create chicken soup, chicken stock, chicken salad, and chicken pot pies.

Both of the methods I've used to cook old chickens in the past break apart the tough, stringy fibers that inevitably form if you cook a fowl in boiling water, but you can prevent these fibers from forming in the first place by using moist heat that never raises the temperature of the chicken above 180 degrees Fahrenheit.  I tried out two methods, my favorite of which was to put two cups of water in the bottom of a Dutch oven (or other covered roaster) and bake at 325 degrees Fahrenheit.  Alternatively, you can get the same effect by cooking your chicken in a covered pot on the stove as long as you make sure the water never boils, but I thought it was more difficult to keep the liquid at a simmer in that situation.  Crock pots are reputed to raise the temperature too high.

Chicken and vegetable soupEither way, you'll want to cook your fowl about an hour per pound, removing the white meat as soon as it's done and then stewing the rest of the chicken a bit longer.  Cooked in this manner, the meat will only be a tiny bit tougher than meat from a grocery store chicken --- chance are, no one will notice if you don't tell them.

I consider chicken stock to be the most efficient use of a chicken, especially at this time of year when I'm turning my garden into soup for the winter as fast as I can.  To make the stock, I removed the breast after two hours, then added more water and simmered the carcass for a few more hours until it was easy to peel all of the meat from the bones.  Then I tossed the stock and meat back in the pot with all of the fixings for harvest catch-all soup.  One old chicken made a gallon and a half of condensed chicken and vegetable soup, enough for two dozen winter meals.  Now that's a good use of an old chicken!

Farmstead Feast

Our chicken waterer kept our old hens healthy until it was time for them to go in the pot.
Posted Wed Sep 21 07:16:50 2011 Tags:
Pastured lamb

Yesterday, I talked about colonizer livestock (pigs and goats) that can be used to turn troubled areas into pasture.  Today, I'll discuss what you do with those new pastures to make them more diverse, fertile, and nutritious every year.

Maintainer livestock live on good pasture, where they have two jobs.  First, they need to keep the pasture cropped relatively short so that it'll keep producing succulent new growth that is easy to munch up (and that won't turn into those less nutritious weeds that only colonizers enjoy.)  Second, maintainers add nutrients to the soil with their excrement, fertilizing the pasture as they graze.

Joel Salatin's system uses cows and chickens as his maintainer species, and in general a grass-eating ruminant paired with some sort of poultry is a good combination.  Megan and Erek focus primarily on hair sheep and chickens, both being raised for meat.  Megan notes that the chickens, especially, increase the fertility of the pasture dramatically, while the tearing action of the grazing sheep seems to stimulate plant growth.

Salatin style chicken tractor

Salatin claims nearly unbelievable savings on feed by raising his chickens on pasture.  He notes that his laying hens are able to eat just corn instead of balanced rations while on summer pasture, getting their protein from the land (a savings of 42% in cost per pound of feed.)  Meanwhile, these hens are only eating 0.07 pounds of feed per hen per day compared to 0.3 pounds that some of his neighbors feed and 0.25 pounds that we feed.  His broiler savings are pretty serious too, with feed costs 30% less than they would have been off pasture.  And, of course, the meat and eggs from the chickens and cows are high quality, pastured products.

Although the cost savings are a bit debatable (others have trouble replicating Salatin's results there), the pasture quality changes are dramatic.  Grazing two or more maintainer species that have slightly different food preferences keeps the pasture extremely diverse and healthy.  Farmers who follow Salatin's lead say that they're growing pasture, not animals --- this is additive farming, the furthest thing you'll find from extractive, modern methods.

Our chicken waterer makes tractoring easy, cutting watering time drastically.

This post is part of our Salatin-style Pasturing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Sep 21 12:00:39 2011 Tags:
Felco pocket saw for pruning and cutting

We got this Sierra Saw on the left as a gift to commemorate Anna's first deer kill(Thanks Jayne).

It didn't get used for sawing any deer bones, but turned out to be one heck of a hand saw.

The blade has a tooth pattern that cuts while pushing and pulling, which makes the cutting go fast. I started using it as a machete to clear away brush and may have pushed its cheap plastic handle a little too far because it eventually broke requiring some electrical tape surgery.

Our choice for a replacement was the Felco 600 pruning saw. Expect to pay a little over 3 times what the Sierra costs, but you'll feel like you got your money's worth the minute you hold the Felco. It cuts a little better than the Sierra with a handle that's easier to grip.

Posted Wed Sep 21 16:28:53 2011 Tags:

Seed garlicGarlic is one of our best crops.  We invested $45 in locally-adapted garlic in 2008, and since then we've grown all of the garlic we eat and plant.  I estimate we've already produced about 60 pounds of garlic in the first three years, and we'll probably dig up another 20 pounds next summer.  Not a bad return on our investment, especially since we can keep planting the offspring of our garlic as long as we live.

The biggest factors involved in getting a stellar garlic harvest are:

Biggest garlic clovesMy list makes it sound complex, but I'd actually say that garlic is one of the easiest plants we grow.  If you don't live too far south, I highly recommend adding this delicious (and beautiful) crop to your garden.  Now's the time to plant!

Our chicken waterer makes chicken care as easy and fun as growing your own garlic.
Posted Thu Sep 22 07:48:17 2011 Tags:

Electric sheep fencingThe heart of the multi-annual pasturing setup is pasture rotation.  By "mob-stocking" lots of animals in a small space, the livestock are forced to eat everything rather than just nibbling on their favorite plants.  Then you move the animals to a new paddock quickly, before they can eradicate those favorite plants.  Your animals are healthier because they eat better food and don't pick up diseases from their own waste, and the pasture is more productive and diverse because the least tasty plants don't take over.

That sounds great, but how do you make the animals graze one small area and then move them to a fresh spot quickly and easily?  Chicken tractors are Joel Salatin's method of mob-stocking broilers, but he relies on electric fences for most other livestock.  Each type of animal requires a specific type of electric fencing --- two strands close to the ground are plenty for the tender-nosed pig, but Megan relies on electrified netting to keep her lambs in bounds.

Electric pig fencingElectric fencing has the benefit that it's easy to rearrange --- Erek takes about eight minutes to move the lambs to a new paddock each day --- so you can graze the whole pasture evenly without getting weedy plants growing up along permanent fencelines.  On the other hand, electric fence has some major disadvantages too.  Megan admits that the netting is nearly impossible to deal with in the woods since it tangles up quickly, and, of course, you have to keep weeds from growing high enough to touch the wires or they'll drain the electricity out of the fence.  And startup costs are steep (although startup labor is low.)

I have a feeling that electric fencing is one of the aspects of Salatin-style pasturing that carries over least well to the small homestead.  But more on that topic tomorrow!

Our chicken waterer keeps chicks healthy --- no more need for medicated feed to counteract wet litter!

This post is part of our Salatin-style Pasturing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Sep 22 12:00:43 2011 Tags:
making a simple porch structure from old shipping pallets

making use of free pallets to make a simple porchOne area we've cut corners on when we first moved to our homestead was comfort.

We talked about building some sort of porch near the door, but both of us had 20 other things that seemed more important.

In my opinion the joy felt from starting the Fall/Winter season with a freezer full of garden fresh produce outweighs the comfort of having a few less mud puddles to walk through.

These old pallets took just minutes to be converted to what I call a mini pallet porch, which has already made me feel more comfortable.

Posted Thu Sep 22 15:56:56 2011 Tags:
Make a loop in the rope

I only use one knot other than a half hitch on a regular basis. 

Make a knot with the loop by passing through itself

(Yes, I did almost fail kindergarten because I couldn't learn to tie my shoes correctly.  I figured out the normal method while bored one day in high school calculus, but I still make two rabbit ears and then tie them into a knot when my shoe laces need securing.)

Pull the knot tight

I learned this knot from my father, who used it to tighten a canoe down on top of a car during our paddling forays.

Wind the free end of the rope around the stake, then pass the free end through your loop.

It's a bit complex, consisting of first making a solid loop, passing the free end of the rope under the bumper of the car (or other solid object), slipping the end through the loop, pulling tight, and then securing the line with another knot.

Pull on the free end until the rope is taut, then pinch to hold the tension in place.

The photographs here show the steps in more depth.

Make a loop with the free end of your rope and pass it around the rope leading to the stake.

The knot is great for securing a line tightly in such a way that you can untie the knot quickly and easily.

Pull the loop up to where you have the line pinched to tighten the final knot.

My question for you is --- what is this knot called?

Pull on the free end to release the knot

I use it to secure the ends of my quick hoops, which will be profiled in the October volume of Weekend Homesteader, and I'd like to use the knot's real name.  Any ideas?

Posted Fri Sep 23 07:37:18 2011 Tags:
Friendly pig

Joel Salatin's system (and the many permutations you find on farms like Megan and Erek's) is a beautiful permaculture invention.  However, I think that microfarmers should take a long hard look at each aspect before deciding to copy it whole cloth on their acre or smaller homestead.  Here are some issues you might consider:

  • Goat headAre you trying to make a living selling animal products?  There is a large and growing market for pastured meat and eggs, but the truth is that you probably will make around minimum wage at such an endeavor if you do it yourself on a small scale.  Megan has a job off the farm and Erek is considering one as well.  I always recommend that homesteaders find a simpler way to make a living that gives them time to focus on the things they enjoy without the pressure of monetization.  If you really want to make a living at permaculture-style farming, your best bet is to scale up and hire interns.
  • Which aspect of the system is most important to you?  On a smaller scale, it's worth focusing in on what you want the most.  If you try to cram a laying flock, a herd of sheep, and a pig into your 4,000 square foot backyard, you're probably going to ruin your soil structure and end up with unhappy animals all around.  Think about the acreage requirements of each animal and decide which one or ones you're really in love with, then plan those livestock at the heart of your system.  The homesteader might need to think small --- fewer individuals of fewer types of animals perhaps of miniature breeds.
  • Corn stalksCan you take advantage of off-pasture inputs?  When you're running two hundred pigs, your family's food scraps won't make a difference, but those scraps might make a moderate dent in the diet of one porker.  Whenever I cut down corn stalks, I smell the sweet juices and wish I had an herbivore to feed them to.  And there's always the possibility of growing or capturing earthworms, meal worms, Japanese beetles, black soldier fly larvae and so forth for your chickens.
  • Can you use the permaculture concept of stacking to create more space?  Salatin's system uses stacking to some extent by grazing animals with different dietary habits one after another on the same patch of earth, but the homesteader can go further.  Why not put your compost pile in your chicken pasture so that your flock can scratch through it for worms?  How about letting your animals graze in your orchard during certain times of the year (appropriate only with some livestock and tree sizes)?  You can turn animals into a typical summer garden after the crops are done and let the livestock eat bugs and discarded vegetables (unless, of course, you have perennials and fall crops mixed in.)  And if you live in suburbia, there's always that pasture known as "lawn."
  • Where are you starting?  Joel Salatin's system assumes your farm has a lot of grassy pasture ready to go with some problem spots.  If your whole farm is a problem spot (like ours), perhaps you should focus on colonizing livestock.  On the other hand, if you've inherited a well-maintained pasture, maybe you only need maintainers.
  • Start with the infrastructure.  No matter what you do, think fencing, housing, and watering before you bring home your dream animals.

However you tweak the Salatin system to match your unique situation, the results speak for themselves.  Ten years ago, when I walked across the hayfield that later became Megan and Erek's pasture, it was one large expanse of fescue --- the roughest, least nutritious grass that grows in our region.  Today, their pasture is a lush and diverse mixture of foxtail, orchardgrass, clovers, and other species.  The proof is in the pudding --- if you can work the kinks out of a multi-species, rotational grazing system, your pastures will become healthier every year.

Our chicken waterer makes daily chores faster and cleaner.

This post is part of our Salatin-style Pasturing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Sep 23 12:00:50 2011 Tags:
tree girdle close up

How to girdle a tree with a chainsawWe decided to cut down a few trees in a chicken pasture this week and realized there was no way to fall them without hurting the new fence.

Cutting away the bark in a complete circle should stop new growth next year.

I can't help but feeling as if we swept some dirt under a rug that will require more attention in the future.

Not sure how long it takes for a Box Elder to dry up and fall in a situation like this, but I'd say we bought ourselves 5 to 10 years.

Posted Fri Sep 23 17:32:25 2011 Tags:

Chocolate pieThis pie is not even the littlest bit good for you, but it is so full of chocolate that even the chocoholic will feel little need to hunt down an extra dose until the next meal.  Plus, it's just delicious....

0.5 cups flour
0.5 cups cocoa
0.25 cups sugar
7 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons water

Add flour, cocoa, sugar, and butter to the food processor and blend until butter is well-distributed.  Add the water and blend again to mix.  Pat into the bottom of a 9 inch cake pan and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until the crust is just barely done.

2.25 cups milk (separated)
5 egg yolks
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 tablespoons cocoa
4 teaspoons cornstarch
1 cup dark chocolate chips
3 tablespoons butter

Bring two cups of the milk to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat (being careful not to burn.)  Meanwhile, whisk the other quarter cup of milk together with the egg yolks, brown sugar, and vanilla.  Mix in the cocoa and cornstarch and then pour your cocoa mixture into the hot milk, whisking constantly.  Slowly bring it all to a boil, stirring constantly --- at this point, your filling should become relatively thick (although it will thicken more later as it cools.)  Turn off the heat and stir in the chocolate chips and butter, mixing until they melt into the filling.  Pour the filling into your baked pie crust.

5 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 tablespoons sugar

Raw goat milkBeat eggs until they form stiff peaks, then gently mix in vanilla and sugar.  Spoon meringue on top of the pie's filling, making sure that it touches the edges of the pan all the way around.  (If your meringue doesn't touch the pan edges, it will shrink and won't cover the whole pie surface.)  Bake in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for about ten minutes until the top is brown.

Chill for at least eight hours before serving.  Serves 16 if you have tiny appetites or 8 if you like chocolate.

I made this with some of Megan's goat milk, and it was phenomenal.  I suspect that lower quality milk from the store won't result in quite as delicious of a pie, but it's hard to say.

Our chicken waterer cuts daily care time in half.
Posted Sat Sep 24 08:18:59 2011 Tags:
Solar powered motorized automatic chicken coop door opener and closer free plans

Christian Wolpert's automatic chicken coop door opener and closer is the second one I've seen so far that is completely off the grid and designed to work on a battery that gets charged with a solar panel.

It uses an MSP430 microcontroller as the brain along with a customized Linux source code that Christian is kindly offering as a free download.
automatic chicken coop door diy home made plans
I know building and programming your own microcontroller can sound advanced, but Christian describes a clever short cut where he makes use of a tutorial as his starting point. This trick reduces most of the number crunching work to a process of adjusting specific interrupt routines to fit your automatic coop opening needs.

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 Sat Sep 24 15:45:13 2011 Tags:

October coverA lot of you said you wished I put all of my writing here rather than hiding some away in ebooks, so this month is a compromise.  I'll be featuring one of the four projects from Weekend Homesteader: October as this week's lunchtime series, then to read the rest you'll need to snag a copy of the book.

This month's volume of Weekend Homesteader introduces two different ways to eat fresh produce deep into the cold months --- plucking winter squash and sweet potatoes right off the shelf and harvesting leafy greens from under quick hoops. Meanwhile, you'll take advantage of free mulch and compost going to waste in your neighborhood and will find out whether life at the poverty line is something to be scared of.

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

Weekend Homesteader paperback I hope you'll consider splurging 99 cents to buy a copy of my newest ebook from Amazon's Kindle store.  And many thanks in advance if you can find the time to write a brief review.

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.  Thanks for reading!

Posted Sat Sep 24 19:42:35 2011 Tags:

Farm planningEvery young homesteader I talk to has the same problem --- we put too much on our lists.  Day to day upkeep of a budding farm takes so much time that it's tough to fit in the long term projects you dream about.  No surprise that we still haven't finished all of the projects on 2009's goal sheet, let alone on 2010's.  (And that's after making no list for 2011 in hopes of getting caught up!)

This fall, we're trying out a new method of deciding which goals go on the year's list.  First, I'm starting the list when we have the entire cold season ahead of us, rather than in January when the garden will be breathing down our throats again in just a couple of months.  Next, we're deciding how many projects go on the list by time to complete rather than by number.

Mark and I brainstormed all of the activities we were interested in, and then I assigned a person-day figure to each.  (One person-day is how much work Mark or I can get done in one of our three hour work mornings or afternoons.)  Finally, Mark and I each numbered the projects from our most favorite to our least favorite.

Since I estimate we have about 80 people-days to devote to long term projects over the winter, the first 40 people-day activities on each of our lists hit the goal sheet.  Knowing that anything not on the main list isn't going to happen for at least a year made us each go back and change our answers slightly, but then we came up with the priorities below:

  1. Stepping stones across the creek.  (We decided that this will be our main footworthy creek crossing option, at least for now.)
  2. Finish bringing the winter waterline into the trailer.  (It's buried to only five feet away!)
  3. Tear out the footbridge.  (The structure has rotted to the point that it's definitely hazardous if anyone is dumb enough to try to walk on it.)
  4. Blueberry kill mulch.  (Weeds in the blueberry patch got out of control.)
  5. Driveway repair.  (We're thinking of sinking cinderblocks into the most problematic spot, a bit like the way we made the ford.)
  6. Loft
  7. Two more chicken pastures and another coop.  (If we raise as many broilers next year, this should help keep the pastures from getting over-grazed.)
  8. Floor and workbench under the front porch.  (The ground outside the door is a muddy mess in the winter, and a workbench would be awfully helpful for cutting firewood to size.)
  9. Deer fence along the southern border.  (This is our main problem spot at the moment for incursions.)
  10. Shelving in Anna's room for towels and sheets.  (They're currently stacked from floor to ceiling.)
  11. Herb beds for the bees.  (We'd like to put a kill mulch around each hive so that the weeds don't grow up into the flight path.  While we're at it, I want to plant thyme to cut down on varroa mites.)
  12. Stump removalStump removal around the yard.  (This will expedite summer mowing.)
  13. Bathtub/bench in the front room.  (A winter bath right beside the wood stove sounds nice.  I figure if we make a hinged plywood top for the bathtub, it can double as a bench when guests come over.)
  14. Reclaim the gully.  (This mass of weeds is one of Mark's least favorite parts of the yard.)
  15. Diversify plantings in the chicken pastures.  (I'm thinking of a few more persimmons, maybe another pear, and a goumi.)
  16. Woodshed expansion.  (Our current shed is just about chock full, and it would be nice to have room to keep a bit more firewood under cover.)
  17. Root cellar.  (We've been itching to excavate the fridge root cellar for a while.  I figure if we build a roof over the area the fridge is in, the dirt won't slump again.)
  18. Loft divider.  (Now that the East Wing is mostly done, Mark wants to close off his sleeping quarters so he can get true darkness.)
  19. Goat path steps.  (We have a shortcut to our house that bypasses one of the loops of the Goat pathdriveway, but it's steep and slippery and could use some work.

It's a long list this year, but you'll notice that most of the projects are relatively small.  I was itching to put a summer kitchen on the list and to prepare for goats, but the truth is that I'd rather have time for a dozen small tasks than to put off my bathtub yet another year while embarking on one big project.  Maybe next year at this time, we will have actually finished all of our long term projects on time for the first year ever!

Our chicken waterer makes morning chores simpler by preventing poop-filled waterers.
Posted Sun Sep 25 07:57:31 2011 Tags:
box turtle looking for a mate?

At first I thought the box turtle Anna photographed last week was looking through the fence towards an empty shell I recently found and placed on a nearby stump.

Box turtle mating season is over and they hibernate from October to April.

Joe Heinen has some interesting and graphic photos of the box turtle mating process for those who are curious and need to know details.

Posted Sun Sep 25 14:35:58 2011 Tags:

Oat cover cropI'm intrigued by the primary use of cover crops to enrich the soil without tilling. I'm also interested in incorporating a no till system.

How would you convert a plot of grassy weeds into garden space? I would use a hoe and clear all of the weeds out, cart them away and compost them if I had a heated pile going. Then I would sow the seed of an annual cover crop into the heavy clay soil I have (not sure what cover crop I'd use. Maybe annual rye grass or oats I've read is good) in the spring. I live in the deep south so I don't know if winter killing would be optional. So I'd probably use a scythe or a mower to cut them in place before fall and then leave them on the ground to rot. I would then cover the rye grass with compost and sow fall vegetables in the compost. That would be my ideal way to begin my bed. I'm curious if this would work.

Also how important is it that the cover crops be annuals? I've read of using clover but I know this is a perennial but I'm not sure how it grows. Does it just reseed itself or is it just not winter killed? Also I've read of growing vegetables with clover as a living mulch. What is your opinion of this? I imagine the clover would compete with the crops and there wouldn't be significant growth in the vegetables.
Sheet mulch

--- Jalen

Thanks for the great questions, Jalen!  My favorite way to convert a grassy area into garden without tilling is to use a kill mulch (aka a sheet mulch.)  You can read the long version in the May volume of my ebook series (which I'm emailing you a copy of), but the short version is that you lay down a few sheets of damp corrugated cardboard to kill the grass, with compost above and/or below, then top the whole thing off with mulch.  If you've got time to leave the kill mulch on for a summer before planting, you'll then be able to grow anything you want.  If you're going to plant into your kill mulch immediately, I recommend putting a good layer of compost on top of the cardboard and seeding only shallow-rooted crops your first year.

Buckwheat flowerWhile your method would work (especially if you used a shovel instead of a hoe), it would really amount to tilling and you'd lose a lot of the organic matter right at the soil surface.  Granted, your cover crop would replace some of that.  An annual cover crop that works in the summer is buckwheat, which can easily be killed using a mower, weed eater, or just by yanking the plants out of the ground and laying them on the soil surface once they're in full bloom.  (Buckwheat's not a big fan of clay, though.)  A problem you might run into if you used a grain instead (generally planted in the fall) is that the more woody plant matter would suck nitrogen out of the soil as it decomposed, so you might end up with hungry vegetables unless you added a lot of compost.  I like to rake oat leaves back in the spring, add my compost and plant my seeds, and then bring the oat mulch back up around the young plants as they get big enough to handle the occasional oat straw leaf blown out of place.

To answer your question about annual vs. perennial cover crops --- annuals have a big advantage in no-till systems in that you can often find a way to kill the plants without impacting the soil in any way.  Perennial cover crops are generally tilled into the ground (although you can also lay down a kill mulch over top of them after mowing the cover crops close to the soil.)

Crimson cloverThere are several types of clover, some of which are annuals and some of which are perennials.  The primary annual clover is crimson clover, which is generally planted in the fall in the south, overwinters, and then is killed in late spring or early summer as it begins to bloom.  My father (in South Carolina) has let his crimson clover go all the way to seed, at which point it dies back naturally, then he plants into the mostly bare soil and lets the clover come back from seed in the fall.  He does till his garden every year, though, so I'm not positive this system would work with no-till.  (In my own garden, I find that crimson clover doesn't keep back weeds very well over the winter.  In general, grain cover crops are much better at suppressing weeds and adding organic matter to the soil while legume cover crops are best at providing a quick dose of nitrogen.)

I believe Steve Solomon is the one who wrote about growing white clover between the garden rows as a living mulch.  White clover is a perennial, so it will keep plugging along unless you rip it out by the roots.  Solomon's method involved mowing the clover often enough so that it Nitrogen-fixing nodulesdidn't compete with the vegetables, allowing the high nitrogen clover leaves to mulch and feed the garden, along with the high-nitrogen root nodules that are shed by the clover when it is mowed.  I didn't mean to follow Solomon's lead, but in one of my garden areas, white clover naturally sprang up in the mowed aisles between my beds, so I gave a variation on his method a shot.  In my garden, at least, the living mulch system is problematic since my aisle clover tries to run into the vegetables' space at every opportunity and I spend a lot of time ripping it out.

You mentioned in your email that you are seventeen and that your parents aren't into growing vegetables --- I hope you're able to find space to give some of these ideas a shot.  The best way to learn about gardening is to get your hands dirty and try things out.  You'll soon discover what does and doesn't work (and will have fun in the process.)  Good luck!

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Mon Sep 26 07:42:40 2011 Tags:

Many of you answered my poll to say that you wished I'd put all of my writing here rather than hiding some away in ebooks.  While I'm not going to reprint the entirety of the October issue of Weekend Homesteader on the blog, this week's lunchtime series will highlight one of the month's four projects: Scavenging biomass.

A century ago, many products that we think of as "waste" were cherished as sources of garden fertility.  The invention of chemical fertilizers, though, made most farmers turn to easier to handle (and less smelly) sources of nutrients.  Although this sea change has damaged our environment and degraded the nutritional quality of our food supply, there is a silver lining --- the backyard homesteader has dozens of choices of free biomass to choose from.

The type of biomass you hunt down for this week's project will depend on where you spend your time.  Many of you live out in the country but commute into a city every day to work --- you can scavenge in both places without going out of your way.  If you spend most of your time in one setting or the other, though, it's probably not worthwhile to drive too far outside your usual stomping grounds
for free biomass.  I've separated sources of biomass into those found in your household, in rural areas, and urban areas to help you simplify your scrounging.

Collecting autumn leaves Gathering free sources of biomass can be a bit time consuming and physically strenuous, but the rewards are many.  Since you'll usually want to ask for permission before grabbing biomass out of someone's dumpster, your scavenging will help you meet new people and form connections in your community.  In many cases, you'll be keeping "waste" from ending up the landfill while building the long term fertility of your soil.  Last of all, it's just plain fun to get something so useful for free.

Weekend Homesteader paperbackThis post is part of our Scavening Biomass lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Sep 26 12:00:45 2011 Tags:
Super Winch Do it yourself installation notes on how to mount and hook up

Step 1-Ratchet strap the winch while it's still in the box to a 2x4 stretcher.

Step 2-Team lift it across the creek and back to where the truck is stuck.

Step 3-Mount winch, unmount winch, remount winch, unmount winch.

The mounting plate is designed to slide into a hitch receiver. Our new Super Winch LP8500 lined up with the pre-existing holes on the mounting plate, but it looks like I'll need to grind a little off each handle for it to fit nice and tight.

Posted Mon Sep 26 15:50:44 2011 Tags:

Yellow potato onionAfter planting Loretta Yellow Multiplier Onions from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange for two years, I finally pronounced the experiment a failure.  When your onions are smaller than your garlic cloves (no, not heads), you know something's wrong.  Yes, I've valiantly peeled and chopped two thirds of the potato onions so far, but it took me a full hour to prepare enough onions for one of my big freezer soup afternoons and that was the straw that broke the camel's back.  No more potato onions!, I swore.

But I adore the idea of perennial onions, so I emailed SESE and got back the following note:

We had similar issues with the Loretta onion not sizing up as well as other potato onions so we have stopped offering it. The potato onions we have been offering the last few years has a mixture of sizes but about 1/3 are 2-4" if kept well weeded, mulched, grown in beds with plenty of organic matter and watered as needed.

If you are getting good garlic you should be able to get larger bulbs from [our new] strain than the Loretta. We have a couple of growers in your area who do well with potato onions so I expect it would be worth a try with another strain.

So I ordered some "Yellow Potato Onions" from SESE and put them in the ground along with the garlic.  I'll let you know next summer whether potato onions are back in my good graces.

Big potato onionMeanwhile, Stevene commented to tell me about a breeding experiment conducted by Kelly Winterton.  Some of Winterton's potato onions bloomed and (unlike mine, which flowered but produced nothing), he was able to collect seed.  The next year, he planted out the seeds and saw the usual hodgepodge of traits that you'll find when planting hybrid seed.  But some of the onions both multiplied (like a potato onion) and bulked up to the size shown here.

So the next year, Winterton and a buddy planted the bulbs of the big potato onions --- named Green Mountain Multiplier.  They were planning to sell the results...until the deer struck.  As of September 7, there are 27 Green Mountain Multiplier onions in existence.  So, don't get your hopes up about buying some Green Mountain Multiplier onions just yet.

Perhaps the reason Winterton got viable seed and I didn't is because his potato onions crossed with the Cepa type onions you grow from seed?  It would take multiple years to test my hypothesis out, but I may give it a shot if this year's potato onion variety fails to exceed the size of a garlic clove.

Our chicken waterer keeps coop bedding dry and chicken water clean.
Posted Tue Sep 27 07:40:25 2011 Tags:

Wood chip pileOn a homestead, there's a nearly unlimited need for compost, mulch, and bedding for animals.  But which type of biomass should be used where?  The characteristics below will help determine each material's best use in your garden.

In the July volume of Weekend Homesteader, I explained how a material's carbon to nitrogen ratio (C:N ratio) determines its usefulness as mulch or compost.  The short version is:

Materials (like manure) that are high in nitrogen compost quickly and feed your plants within the first year.  A C:N ratio of 30:1 is found in high quality compost.  It's possible to have too much nitrogen in some biomass to apply it directly to your garden without composting, so materials like chicken manure (C:N of 8:1) are better used to heat up a compost pile.

Materials (like wood chips) that are high in carbon compost slowly and work better as mulch.  A C:N ratio of 60:1 is too low in nitrogen to apply directly to your garden even as a mulch until allowed to compost for a year or more.

Another factor to consider when deciding what to do with scavenged biomass is the presence of seeds.  Seed-free biomass --- like coffee grounds --- can be applied straight to the garden, but if you use seedy grass clippings as mulch, you'll be sorry.  I made the latter mistake a few years ago and ended up with a massive weeding job when the mulch sprouted a lawn around the roots of my sweet corn.

Weekend Homesteader paperback But don't turn up your nose at uncomposted manure or other potentially seedy biomass --- there are several ways to make good use of the materials without creating a weeding problem.  If you've got the time, you can simply compost them.  A well-build compost pile will get so hot inside that it will kill any weed seeds, allowing you to use the result on your garden with impunity.  Another alternative is to lay the seedy materials on the ground as the base of a kill mulch, in which case the seeds will never sprout.  (See the May volume of Weekend Homesteader for more information on kill mulching.)  Finally, if you have chickens, your flock will love picking through weedy biomass on the floor of their coop, mixing in their high nitrogen droppings to create stellar compost.

The final problem you might run into when using free biomass is poisons.  Try to collect your grass clippings from uglier lawns rather than from beautiful green swards treated with herbicides.  You might also want to steer clear of tree leaves grown downwind of industrial facilities.  Colored inks, especially those found on paper heavier than newsprint, may occasionally contain heavy metals.  As long as you compost questionable biomass well, fungi will deal with most of these chemical problems for you --- heavy metals are the only issue that seems to be too much for fungi to handle.

Learn about other fun, cheap, and easy fall projects in Weekend Homesteader: October.

This post is part of our Scavening Biomass lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Sep 27 12:01:00 2011 Tags:
Super Winch mount plate modification do it yourself grinding

The right handle of this special hitch receiver mount needed a bit of grinding for the Super Winch to snug up with it.

More grinding was needed for the part that slides into the receiver.

The next step will be to run a heavy gauge wire from the battery to a connector near the bumper.

Posted Tue Sep 27 18:13:45 2011 Tags:

Autumn olive fruitsOur movie star neighbor has been singing the praises of Autumn Olive fruits for the least few weeks.  He discovered that they are very high in lycopene, so he set out to harvest gallons of the little red berries, then turned some into fruit leather and froze the rest.

I have to admit that as soon as someone says "Autumn Olive," I snarl "Invasive!!" and stop listening to any words of praise.  However, when Mark came home from a visit to our neighbor's farm with a container of berries, I had to sample.

My first taste of the berries made me almost wish I believed in planting invasives in my yard --- delectable!  Autumn Olive fruits are both tart and sweet (comparable to a Winesap apple), with a very unique flavor that reminds me of the sweet, ornamental crabapples we used to scavenge on our walks home from the library as a kid.  Autumn Olive berries do have seeds, but the seeds are about the consistency of a cashew, so it's easy to just chomp the whole thing up.

However, as the first delight faded, I noticed a bit of an odd aftertaste that made me less and less inclined to nibble on later handfuls.  There was also a bit of the mouth-puckery feeling you get from accidentally imbibing a chunk of pecan shell with your nuts, a sure sign of tannins.  In contrast to my usual behavior with fresh fruits, I ended up not feeling inclined to finish the whole bowl.

Lycopene levels of autumn olive fruits

Meanwhile, I wanted to check out Frankie's assertion that Autumn Olive fruits have twice as much lycopene as tomatoes.  I stumbled across this study which compared the lycopene content of watermelon, tomato paste, and Autumn Olive fruits collected at different times.  As you can see from the large spread of values for each category (the black bars) in the chart above, lycopene concentration is highly variable in all three types of fruits.  It looks like picking light-colored Autumn Olive berries late in the fall will give you the most lycopene, and that in some cases lycopene content can be twice as high as (or even higher than) tomato paste's lycopene content.

If you're looking for lycopene, please do harvest as many Autumn Olive berries as possible --- birds spead the seeds far and wide when they eat the fruits, so the more you eat, the fewer invasives will pop up next year.  However, be very leery of extracting the seeds and putting them in your compost pile or of feeding the fruits to chickens (who will poop out the seeds and start an invasive problem in your pasture.)  I can't emphasize strongly enough how I've seen Autumn Olives take over disturbed ground in my area, outcompeting native plants.  Don't plant your way into becoming part of the problem; eat your way toward a solution!

Our chicken waterer solves the problem of POOP-filled water in the coop.
Posted Wed Sep 28 08:01:20 2011 Tags:

BiocharBefore heading out into the neighborhood, it's best to make sure you're fully utilizing all of the sources of biomass that your own household churns out as waste.  If you decide you like any of these products, you can collect them on a larger scale in the typical city, or even talk your rural neighbors into setting aside their waste for you.

Kitchen scraps tend to be high in nitrogen and (generally) seed-free, making them good for adding to worm bins or for heating up compost piles.  (Of course, if you have chickens, you should give them first dibs.)  The downside of kitchen scraps is that they tend to smell and can attract vermin, so be sure to cover them with high carbon materials.

Grass clippings can be collected from your lawn using a bagging mower.  You'll only want to remove between a third and a half of the clippings from your lawn to keep the grasses happy (letting the rest of the clippings melt back into the ground) unless you fertilize the soil using a chicken tractor or other sustainable method.  The highest quality clippings grow in the spring, when grass leaves are full of nitrogen and make a great mulch if applied immediately to garden beds.  Spring clippings will also heat up compost piles quickly as long as you mix them in well so that they don't turn slimy.  Later in the year, grass clippings are higher in carbon and tend to be full of seeds, so you'll need to compost summer and fall clippings or put them on the floor of your chicken coop.

Weekend Homesteader paperback Paper is very high in carbon, so it is best mixed into a compost pile with high nitrogen materials.  A quality shredder will make paper much easier to compost or to use as bedding in the worm bin.  In both cases, newsprint works best and you should steer clear of colored inks.  Heavier papers are best utilized to start fires in your wood stove.

Wood ashes from your stove are high in potassium and calcium.  They will raise the pH of your soil or compost pile, so use ashes only if you know that your soil is too acidic.  Any charcoal left behind from  your fires is even more helpful --- follow the link for more information.

Hair and feathers are very high in nitrogen, but both resist absorbing moisture, so they break down slowly.  If you cut your own hair, it's worth saving the results and mixing them with wetter, high carbon materials (like soaked hay) in a compost pile.  Ditto if you kill and pluck your own chickens.

Learn about other fun, cheap, and easy fall projects in Weekend Homesteader: October.

This post is part of our Scavening Biomass lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Sep 28 12:00:44 2011 Tags:
Super Winch extention cable

The plan is to modify one end of a good pair of jumper cables with the above quick connector, and hook the other quick connector to the Super Winch.

A 20 foot set of jumper cables is about 4 feet shy of making it to the battery. What I need to research is the possibility of only having one strand reach all the way to the positive portion of the battery and have a frame contact near the bumper to connect a shorter negative strand clip to. This would allow me to splice enough onto the positive side to reach the battery and have plenty left over to make a short strand for the negative frame connection.

I know a splice looks a little sloppy, but is it still just as functional as a continuous strand?

Posted Wed Sep 28 16:34:21 2011 Tags:
Deep frame

Front bee feederI started feeding sugar water to our daughter hive a week ago because I figured they just weren't going to sock away enough honey before weather cools to the point that the bees won't be able to dehydrate nectar.  My philosophy on feeding bees is well summed up by the quote below, and by the website I snagged it from, but sometimes you've just gotta do what you've just gotta do.

"The best thing is never to feed them, but let them gather their own stores. But if the season is a failure, as it is some years in most places, then you must feed. The best time for that is just as soon as you know they will need feeding for winter; say in August or September. October does very well, however, and even if you haven't fed until December, better feed then than to let the bees starve."

 --- C.C. Miller, A Thousand Answers to Beekeeping Questions, 1917

Bee brood and capped honeySince my goal is to get as much honey into the hive as fast as possible, I've been feeding a roughly 2:1 sugar to water solution made by dissolving 3.5 cups of sugar in just shy of 2 cups of water.  I heat the mixture gently on the stove until the sugar dissolves (being careful not to let the sugar caramelize, which can harm the bees), then pour the syrup into a quart jar with a special top.  Finally, I up-end the jar into a front feeder.

The feeder is a simple but elegant design that allows me to see how much syrup the bees have taken (they tend to use up a quart in 24 hours) and to feed our hive without putting on a bee suit.  Meanwhile, the feeder doesn't stimulate robbing since it opens directly into the hive and isn't accessible to neighboring bees.
Bee feeder
Two weeks ago, the daughter hive had 12.25 pounds of capped honey, and after feeding them around 11 pounds of sugar (plus water), they've gained 15.5 pounds.  Since the unfed mother hive gained 8.5 pounds of honey in that time, I suspect the sugar water turned into about 7 pounds of honey.  (You do tend to get a bit less weight of capped honey than you put in as sugar.)

With 38.5 pounds and 28 pounds, respectively, of capped honey in the mother and daughter hives, we've still got a ways to go if we want to meet the bare minimum 50 Feeder from inside hivepounds required for winter survival in our area.  We're currently having a nice fall nectar flow and there is quite a bit of nectar dehyrating in both hives, but it still might require another week or two of constant feeding to get the daughter hive up to weight.  I'll do another honey count next week and might even start feeding the mother hive if she's still low --- I'm bound and determined to send two healthy hives into the winter.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Thu Sep 29 07:59:34 2011 Tags:

Leaf mulchThe typical city or town is so full of biomass going to waste that you could spend all day harvesting.  In addition to the materials listed in the last section, you'll find:

Coffee grounds are produced in large quantities at coffee shops.  Grounds are seed-free and high in nitrogen (C:N of 12:1) so they can be used straight in the garden or in the worm bin.

Cardboard looks like it should be lower in quality than paper, but the corrugated version is bound together with biodegradable glues that soil microorganisms love.  I can never get enough corrugated cardboard for making kill mulches, but if I had excess I would tear it up and use it as worm bin bedding or in the compost pile.  Corrugated cardboard can also be used to propagate edible mushrooms.  Most stores have cardboard boxes to give away, but furniture stores will have the largest boxes that are best for kill mulches.

Weekend Homesteader paperback Tree leaves are one of my favorite curb-side attractions in the fall.  Their C:N ratio of around 50:1 (and lack of seeds) makes deciduous tree leaves a good source of mulch, especially if you can find a way to shred the leaves so that they don't blow away.  Since trees suck up micronutrients from deep in the earth, their leaves are rich in elements like calcium that your soil may be lacking.  To compost leaves, shred them if possible and then mix with a higher nitrogen material like manure.

Spent hops and mash
are a waste product of microbreweries.  These wet, high nitrogen materials are best added to a compost pile with dry, high carbon materials.

Fish waste can be found at seafood processors and canneries.  Fish waste stinks to high heaven, so you'll want to mix it into the ground or bury it deep in a compost pile immediately, but the fish are high in nitrogen and trace minerals.

Learn about other fun, cheap, and easy fall projects in Weekend Homesteader: October.

This post is part of our Scavening Biomass lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Sep 29 12:00:50 2011 Tags:
sweet potato harvest of 2011

Despite repeated deer attacks our sweet potato crop this year is 63% bulkier than last years haul.

78.5 total pounds which equals 9.8 pounds per bed.

I suspect all that horse manure and straw mulch gets most of the credit for the impressive increase in yield, but I also think Anna's green thumb had a major role to play in this year's production.

Posted Thu Sep 29 15:20:53 2011 Tags:

Favorite varietiesWriting about seed saving in the September volume of Weekend Homesteader tempted me to save a lot more seeds than I usually do.  I ended up with too many for next year's garden, so I thought I'd share some of my favorite varieties with one lucky reader.  All of the seeds included are easy to save, so if you enjoy them, you can keep the variety going in your garden indefinitely.  Here are the vegetables I'll include in my starter pack:

  • Masai Beans --- Prolific, stringless, delicious, French-style bush beans.  We won't plant any other kind of green bean.
  • Martino's Roma Tomato --- Although we plant a few other types of tomatoes for fresh eating, this is our big producer.  It's a semi-determinate plant, so you get masses of tomatoes all at once, which is perfect for preserving.  The fruit dry well and cook into sauces perfectly.  Martino's Roma is somewhat resistant to various blights.
  • Tangerine Pimiento Sweet Pepper --- This pepper is perfect for the lazy gardener who doesn't want to start peppers inside before the frost.  Direct-seeded, my plants still put out plenty of ripe peppers before the frost since the fruits are small and bulk up fast.
  • Mexican Sour Gherkin --- If you live in a warm, humid climate, it's tough to grow cucumbers organically, but Mexican Sour Gherkins resist all of the usual diseases.  They're slower to fruit than cucumbers and the fruits are tiny, so it's a bit like picking berries to harvest them, but Mark thinks they have a superior taste to cucumbers.  Mexican Sour Gherkins would be an especially good choice for the stealth urban homesteader since the vines are beautiful and don't look much like vegetables.
  • Sugar Baby Watermelon --- The small size of these watermelons means that Mark and I can often eat a fruit in one sitting.  Having lots of small watermelons in your garden rather than one or two big ones means you lose less if you pick them at the wrong time (which is the toughest part of growing watermelons.)  And unlike other melons (which succumb to molds and mildews), my Sugar Baby Watermelons shrug off our humid summers.

To be entered in the giveway, just promote one of my ebooks in any way you choose.  I'm most in need of a review for the October volume of Weekend Homesteader, but you can post a link on Facebook or your blog, email your friends, tell your Mom, or do whatever suits your fancy.  No need to buy the ebooks to enter --- just email me and I'll gladly send you a free pdf copy of whichever ebook(s) you choose.

Leave a comment on this post by midnight on Sunday, October 2, to let me know you've entered, and I'll pick one of you at random on Monday morning to win the seed package.  Thanks in advance for helping spread the word about my newest ebook!

Posted Fri Sep 30 08:00:56 2011 Tags:

Bucket of manureIf your neighbors are farmers, you may be in luck.  Animal manure (especially manure from dairy cows and well-loved horses) is some of the highest quality biomass you can add to your garden.  Here's a run-down on the pros and cons of some of the main types of manures:

Horse manure mixed with straw bedding is my favorite kind of manure, especially if you can find a pile out behind someone's barn that has been ignored for a year so that hot-composting has killed the ubiquitous weed seeds.  Compost worms adore mixtures of horse manure and straw, so you can easily increase the size of your worm bin to take advantage of any amount of the stuff.  Or just make a big compost pile for next year's garden.  The C:N ratio of plain horse manure is about 12:1 without bedding, but manure will inevitably be mixed with straw (for a high quality result) or sawdust (for a lower quality result that needs longer composting.)

Cow manure is similar to horse manure but is wetter, so it might gross you out if not mixed with plenty of bedding.  The highest quality cow manure comes from dairy cows.

Rabbit manure has a C:N around 12:1 and is dry, so you can get away with using fresh droppings straight on your garden.  Rabbit manure tends to be seed-free and doesn't smell.  You'll get more nitrogen if you include the urine-soaked bedding.

Chicken manure
has a C:N of 8:1 and is high in phosphorus (which is often in short supply in the typical compost mix.)  Too rich to be applied directly to your plants, chicken manure doesn't add much long term organic matter to the soil, so using the manure is a bit like pouring on chemical fertilizers.  A monotonous diet of only chicken manure compost will tend to build up salts in your soil and result in an oversupply of phosphorus.  Finally, chicken manure stinks if it's not enclosed in bedding.  On the positive side, the high nitrogen content of chicken manure makes it a great addition to a slow-to-heat compost pile made of materials like autumn leaves or wood chips and chicken manure is usually seed-free.  I consider chicken manure a good source of nitrogen and phosphorus in a well-rounded compost pile.

Don't let the mess-factor turn you away from using free sources of manure.  You can bring home small quantities easily using a shovel and five gallon buckets.  Of course, you can haul much more in a pickup truck, loaded by hand with a pitchfork or by a helpful neighbor with a scoop.

Spoiled hay is another type of biomass that can sometimes be found for free in rural areas. 
Hay is cut and dried pasture grasses, often full of seeds, which is meant to be fed to livestock like cows and horses.  (Even though hay looks like straw, the two are very different materials and have different uses on the farm.)  If hay gets damp, it can mildew and is no longer safe to feed to your animals, so farmers will often give away the spoiled hay.  From a gardening point of view, the quality of hay varies widely depending on whether you've found spring hay (high in nitrogen, low in seeds) or summer hay (high in carbon and seeds.)
Weekend Homesteader paperback
Sawdust might be free for the picking at carpentry shops or saw mills.  Meanwhile, if you flag down one of the crews that trim trees off the powerline or along the sides of roads, they may dump a whole truckload of wood chips in your yard.  Both types of wood products have an extremely high C:N, so you'll need to mix them with lots of high nitrogen materials and compost for quite a while before using the result on your garden.  I let piles of plain wood chips rot for a couple of years and then use the mulch around my fruit trees --- beneficial fungi love well-rotted wood chips and the soil around my trees' roots gets fluffier every year.

Rotten fruits and pomace can sometimes be scavenged from orchards and cider mills.  Pomace is the pulp, skins, and seeds left behind after you make apple cider.  Both of these materials are wet and attract painfully-stinging yellowjackets, so they're best mixed deep into a compost pile amid absorbent materials like dry hay or sawdust.  The fruit waste is high in nitrogen and the seeds will add phosphorus to your compost pile.  Alternatively, you could feed both rotten fruits and pomace to your chickens, goats, or other livestock.

Seaweed can often be picked right off the beach if you live by the ocean.  Seaweed is high in nitrogen (19:1) and can be used as a quickly rotting mulch or can be added to a compost pile.  The major bonus of seaweed is the trace minerals and potassium provided.

Learn about other fun, cheap, and easy fall projects in Weekend Homesteader: October.

This post is part of our Scavening Biomass lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Sep 30 12:03:21 2011 Tags:
how to hire help for homesteading chores

Money was tight when we first moved to our homestead. Major projects had to get done in a low budget, Do It Yourself fashion.

Lately we've been able to save a little thanks to our chicken waterer business and decided to hire some help for a few of the bigger upcoming projects.
hiring for homesteading chores the sequel image
Turns out it's not so easy to pay someone else to do your homesteading chores.

We've struggled in the past to find someone that is both capable and interested enough to actually show up. That's why we were so happy when our friend from Dungannon arrived on time and ready to work this morning.

The old house is well on its way to being converted to future garden space thanks to Grant's hard work. We agreed on an hourly rate of 10 dollars but both Anna and I were impressed enough with his hustle to throw in a bonus by paying him 40 dollars for 2.5 hours of good labor, and added a bag of fresh green peppers. I figure this will increase the chances of him coming back and it really was worth it to us due to the difficulty of this particular demolition project.

Posted Fri Sep 30 16:16:55 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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