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

archives for 10/2011

Oct 2011

Wash beddingThe last of the bedding is clean and dry.

Our lunchtime entertainment is migrating warblers stopping for a snack in the peach tree.

Lightning bugs in the air have been replaced by glow worms on the ground.

We ate the last watermelons and sweet corn this week and are enjoying the last bed of bush beans.

My planting calendar has only one item left.

Temperatures are finally cooling down to the normal range and there's a chance of frost tonight.

Farewell, summer!

Our homemade chicken waterer kits now come with instructions for building your own heated chicken waterer.
Posted Sat Oct 1 07:00:56 2011 Tags:
how to prepare for a frost

The first frost scramble was in full swing yesterday as we were busy bringing in some of the last few bits of harvest that will need to finish growing up inside.

Putting a quick hoop over a few of the late tomato plants is a new experiment for us. Stay tuned to see if it works in squeezing out yet another basket of yumminess.

It was a good summer for our dwarf Meyer lemon tree. Bringing her in is starting to feel like a substantial end of summer ritual for us.

Posted Sat Oct 1 14:49:15 2011 Tags:

Acres ConferenceMark and I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Organic Grower's School in Asheville this spring, but we hadn't planned to seek out any similar experiences.  When a flyer for the Acres USA Conference showed up in our mailbox, I was all set to shred it for mulch, but Mark noticed that the conference was being held just an hour away from his Mom's house (and she is overdue for a visit.)

I was still dubious until I noticed that Harvey Ussery would be presenting.  Even though Harvey Ussery isn't very well known, I consider him the best homesteading author writing today.  I've just about given up on magazines, but every now and then I'll open Mother Earth News or Backyard Poultry Magazine and flip through the table of contents.  My eye zips past repeats of the same old information and then invariably lands on one article worth reading.  Every single time this has happened for the last two years, the author of the article has been Harvey Ussery.

Radionics"That's nice," said Mark politely when I enthused about the possibility of hearing Harvey Ussery speak.  "Wait, what does that say?"  I'd turned the page to the preconferences, and Mark was suddenly riveted.  "Radionics?!  That's the first time I've ever seen a course about radionics at a mainstream conference!"  Suddenly interested, Mark reminded me that the accountant we visited this spring chastised us for not writing as much as we should off on our taxes --- this conference would definitely count as a tax deduction.

So who else will be attending?  For those of you with more mainstream tastes, the conference has Joel Salatin, Francis Thicke, and Gray Graham as keynote speakers and a huge array of lecturers and workshop leaders.  They'll be showing the films Farmageddon, American Meat, and Queen of the Sun, and attendees will get a chance to pick the brains of "world-class teachers/consultants/farmers" at consulting halls.  Maybe we'll see you there?

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Sun Oct 2 07:15:11 2011 Tags:
Praying for a snack

There were two hitchhikers on our Meyer lemon tree we brought in on Friday.

They seemed cute together on Saturday and made me feel all warm inside.

Now there's just one. I'll let her out tomorrow after she's had a chance to digest the weekend.

Posted Sun Oct 2 17:23:31 2011 Tags:

SilvopastureResearchers in Beaver, West Virginia, have been exploring forest pastures (aka silvopastures) for over a decade.  Since I've been playing around with reinventing the wheel for the last couple of years, I was intrigued to see solid data from a location just two and a half hours from our farm.


Traditionally, large-scale experimenters planted trees in existing pastures to create silvopastures, but Charles Feldhake, Jim Neel, and the other researchers at the Appalachian Farming Systems Research Center tried a different tack.  They thinned out 70 year old forest dominated by white oak until the combined diameter at breast height of the remaining trees was about 50 to 65 feet per acre.  For those of you who don't spend your time wrapping tape measurers around tree trunks, that would require removing up to 75% of the trees --- you can get an idea of the final tree cover from the photos included in this post.

Sheep in silvopastureThe next step was pasture establishment.  After soil testing, the scientists spread the appropriate amount of lime (to raise the pH) and chemical fertilizer on the soil surface, along with seeds for orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass, and white clover.  Then they turned in the sheep.

Although I wrote last week that sheep are maintainer livestock, Feldhake and company used their woolly grazers as colonizers, noting that the sheep not only ate up the undergrowth but also mashed the seeds and soil amendments into the top layer of soil.  Once pasture seeds started to sprout, the sheep were removed to let the grass and clover establish themselves, but they were later turned back in to rotationally graze the new pastures.

Here are some comparisons between the silvopastures and neighboring non-treed pastures:

  • Measuring canopy coverSilvopastures produce half as much forage.  So you'll need to devote twice the area to graze the same number of sheep if you add trees.  That disadvantage is offset by the possibility of using the trees either as timber or to produce fruit or nuts for humans and/or livestock.  (For example, if you were grazing pigs under white oaks, the acorns might make up for the slower growth of the pasture grasses.)  Plus, forested land is more environmentally friendly in our area than open pastures.
  • Silvopastures have a different seasonal cycle.  Under the oak trees in the Beaver study area, spring regrowth was three weeks slower than in open pasture.  The scientists hypothesized that rot-resistant oak leaves shaded and stunted the pasture plants in the fall and that tree species with fewer tannins in their leaves wouldn't show the same spring pasture retardation.  Feldhake noted that the presence of a tree canopy seems to have a temperature mitigating effect, so fall frosts come later under the trees --- perhaps a forest pasture can extend the grazing season later into the winter?
  • The pasture plants growing in the shade of trees are nutritionally different than the same plants living in the open.  On the plus side, shaded plants tend to have more protein, but that goes hand in hand with excess nitrates that can potentially harm or kill ruminants.

Appalachian silvopastureSo what are the take-home messages for those of us interested in creating forest pasture of our own?

Several other studies have suggested that a savannah-like environment, with scattered trees over a grassy sward, is the most biologically productive combination of trees and undergrowth.  In other words --- space those trees out rather than letting them shade the whole forest floor!

Since you're losing about half of your sunlight to the tree canopy, it becomes very important for the trees to have a purpose in a silvopasture system.  For chickens, that means planting mulberries, persimmons, and other fruit trees rather than letting the flock graze under whatever happens to be present.  For pigs, you might focus on chestnuts, oaks, and honey-locusts too.  Time to practice what I preach and replace those box-elders with fruit trees!

Our chicken waterer is the perfect addition to a pasture, attracting your flock to the far edges for more thorough grazing.
Posted Mon Oct 3 07:24:33 2011 Tags:
Bestseller ebook

Saturday morning, I was stunned to see that Weekend Homesteader: September was ranked as #833 in Amazon's kindle store.  I never thought I'd break #1,000 and I know I owe the ebook's success to our loyal readers.

I wish I could give a package of my favorite seeds to each of you, but unfortunately there's only enough for one.  Congratulations, April, for being our seed winner!  Drop an email to with your mailing address and I'll put your seeds in the mail tomorrow.  And thank you to everyone else for helping my ebooks see the light of day!

Posted Mon Oct 3 07:35:17 2011 Tags:
Me and Mark in a newspaper article

This is the first year that we've wholeheartedly experimented with chickens, and I learned a huge well as figuring out how much more we have to learn.  We began the year with four old hens and a rooster, ate the rooster when he started attacking me, progressed through four sets of chicks of varying breeds, and will go into winter with an entirely new flock of ten hens and one or two roosters.

In the process, I've started to wrap my mind about the best ways to incubate, brood, and pasture chickens.  I've consumed chicken-related books and websites, kept lots of notes on how the chickens acted on the ground, and generally pondered chickens at great length.  Be sure to check back at lunchtime for the next two weeks to read about my experiments!

Our chicken waterer is an experiment that works --- clean water for your flock the easy way.

This post is part of our 2011 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Oct 3 12:00:48 2011 Tags:
Super Winch wiring harness kit for portable applications

We've decided against making a portable Super Winch extension cord and instead went with an auxiliary wiring harness that was custom made for portable winch applications like this.

The positive strand is 25 feet long so it will reach the battery from the bumper. The negative side is only 4 feet and will need to attach to the frame near the rear. Both strands are 2 gauge with a heavy duty quck connector crimped at the end.

I started the job of routing the positive wire underneath the truck when I wimped out due to the ground being cold and wet. Maybe it'll be warmer tomorrow?

Posted Mon Oct 3 16:52:49 2011 Tags:
Frost on oat leaves

Frost on squash flowerThe first frost of fall 2011 was gentle (albeit early --- October 3.)  It barely nipped the basil and summer squash and I suspect even our uncovered tomatoes might keep right on ripening.

The sudden cold was a shock to our systems, though.  I cleaned out the wood stove nook and lit our first little fire.  I just burnt five or six sticks of leftover kindling, but the wood was enough to take the chill off until the sun came in our south-facing window, and to remind me how much I love our efficient wood stove!

Frosted squash leavesThe frost is our cue to get ready for our first little "staycation" of the year, slated to begin October 11.  We realized after last winter's trip that the vacation had been too long and that we started missing home pretty fast, so we're opting to take two half weeks off at home this winter instead.  I've always loved the idea of a staycation, but didn't trust myself not to work right through them.  Let's see if Mark can keep me honest so that I get the same deep relaxation during a staycation as during a cruise.

Learn about cheap and easy frost protection in my 99 cent ebook.
Posted Tue Oct 4 07:45:47 2011 Tags:
Chickens on pasture

Chicken pasture fencingIf you're starting from scratch with pasturing chickens the way we were this year, you'll probably be asking a slew of questions.  Your first decision will be between chicken tractors and day range --- we chose the latter so I'll focus on rotational pastures in this post.  Here are some of the questions I wish I'd known the answers to twelve months ago.

What kind of fencing should I use?
Your second decision is between permanent and temporary pastures.  The former are harder to build in the short run and are more expensive per square foot, but are easier to use in the long run.  If you're raising 50 or fewer chickens in your backyard, I'd recommend permanent fences.

For happy chickens who don't live in a predator hotspot, a roll of five foot chicken wire strung between t-posts about 15 feet apart with a few old boards or logs tacking down the Rotational chicken pasturesbottom will be sufficient.  Here's my theory on what you should do if your chickens try to escape.  A well-trained dog is our solution to predation.

If you'd prefer temporary fencing, the traditional choice is electrified netting.  I wrote about why electrified netting is often a poor choice for the backyard and what I use instead here.

What does a permanent, rotational grazing system look like for chickens?
A chicken coop sits at the center, surrounded by several small pastures (often called paddocks.)  The chickens spend the night in the coop (and go inside whenever they want to lay an egg), then exit through a small pophole into the pasture of your choice.  When you want to move the chickens to a new pasture, it's as simple as closing the old Popholepophole while the chickens are all sound asleep and then opening a pophole into the next pasture.

One of my favorite parts of this system is how easy it is to move chickens to a new patch of ground.  I've seen several temporary fencing or chicken tractoring systems where people get lazy and let the chickens sit on the same patch of ground far too long because it's just a pain in the butt to move them.  You won't have that problem here.

How much space do I need to devote to chicken pastures?
Mainstream pastured poultry producers will tell you that broilers need 10 square feet of pasture per bird per week (or a total of 40 square feet for the four weeks the birds typically live on pasture.)  You should consider that the bare minimum required for breeds that don't forage much, with the chickens housed in tractors that are moved daily so that the flock can't scratch the ground bare.

In my permanent, rotational pastures with keen foragers, I see pasture degradation when I have fewer than 270 square feet per bird during the summer.  I suspect I'd need at least twice that much space to keep the ground from turning into mud in the winter. 

Australorp pulletKeep in mind that the amount of space your chickens need will depend on a variety of factors, including climate, season, chicken breed and age, and pasture quality.  If in doubt, give your chickens as much space as you can --- the more they can roam, the more they will supplement storebought feed with insects caught on the wing.  You can tell that your flock doesn't have enough space when bare spots turn up amid the grass, you can see poop on the ground, and the pasture starts to smell and fill with flies.

How many pastures do I need?
What you're really asking here is --- how long should I leave my chickens in one paddock and how long should I let that paddock sit fallow before I move chickens back into it?  The answer will depend on whether you're just raising broilers when pasture plants are growing fast or are keeping laying hens year round.  Your type and quality of pasture plants will also affect the answer.

Once again, it's helpful to look at the bare minimum, which is four pastures for summer use or six pastures for year round use.  If you size each pasture so that your flock eats the tender growth in about a week, you'll be able to rotate the chickens through three other pastures Chicken waterer attracts chickens to end of pasturebefore turning them back into the first one in a four pasture system.  Three weeks off is sufficient for plants to rebound as long as they weren't overgrazed, the pasture got enough rain, and it's not too cold or hot for growth.  Click here to read more about pasture rotation.

What's the best shape for a pasture?
The perfect chicken pasture is square, but you'll often have to work around obstructions and use a wiggly or rectangular shape.  If you can help it, don't make your pasture more than twice as long as it is wide or chickens will tend to hang out near the coop and not explore the far reaches.  A sharp bend in the pasture will have the same effect.  You can counteract this behavior to some extend by locating a compost pile or chicken waterer at the far end of the pasture.

Chickens in the snowDoes the pasture location matter?
Yes.  In the winter, chickens will do best if their pasture is in the sunniest possible location, beyond the shade of hills, buildings, or evergreen trees.  In the summer, the reverse is true --- chickens like some sunny spots but will enjoy hanging out in shaded corners and under bushes.  You can either build separate pastures for winter and summer or can create the best of both worlds by using deciduous trees to shade certain parts of your summer pasture while letting in the winter sun.

What's the best type of pasture?
Chickens enjoy succulent, young growth, which means that tall plants like ragweed are the worst choice for your pasture.  The best types of groundcover for year-round growth tend to be perennial grasses and legumes like bluegrass, clover, etc.  You may want to plant paddocks of annual grains and legumes to extend the pasture season into the cold weather.  Trees and shrubs can be useful additions if they produce fruits that chickens enjoy, but there's a tradeoff since the perennials will also shade out the undergrowth even when the trees aren't bearing.

Is one time of the year best for raising broilers?
Chicken in grassOnce you get a feel for the peak production times for your individual pasture, you'll know when it can handle an influx of extra birds.  In regions like ours where pastures are dominated by cool season grasses, those peak periods occur in mid spring to mid summer and again in early fall.  Putting one set of broilers on pasture in May and pasturing another in September would use our pastures to best effect.

Should I include other animals in my pastures?
Joel Salatin's model uses grazing animals like cows, sheep, or goats to keep the tall weeds down Chicken moatand the chicken-friendly plants growing as fast as possible.  Miniature livestock are an option for the backyard, but an alternative is to simply mow your pasture a few times a year.

Can I use chicken pastures to keep deer out of the garden?
Chicken moats are a permaculture concept that utilize linear chicken pastures on the perimeter of a garden to deter deer.  Even though the deer can jump over a five foot fence, they don't like to be confined and will hesitate to jump two in succession.  Our deer moats have worked very well...too bad they don't completely encircle our tender garden plants.

I'm sure I'll have another long list of mistakes to shun next year, but that's the fun of pasturing!

99 cent pasture ebookThis post is part of our 2011 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Oct 4 12:00:59 2011 Tags:
Super Winch portable wiring harness installation

Thanks for all the helpful wiring comments. We especially liked the old water hose idea. That extra layer of protection feels solid and secure.

Posted Tue Oct 4 16:51:22 2011 Tags:
Kieffer pear

I've been waiting with baited breath for our fruit trees to mature enough to bear, and it seems like every one has had a surprise in store for me.  This year it was the Kieffer Pear that set two fruits a year earlier than expected.

I watched those beautiful green pears swell all summer, and at last saw that their lenticels had turned brown, meaning that the fruit was fully developed.  As with all storage pears, you have to pick the fruits and then let them ripen for a few more weeks inside, so again I waited.  Finally, the day of the taste test came.  I sliced the pear into quarters and Mark and I each took a nibble...and just about spit it out.  Unfortunately, the pear I'd been waiting on for the last four years has gritty fruit with very little taste --- a pear that's best canned, reports the internet.

Brown lenticelsLooking up the pear's sister tree --- Orient --- turned up the fact that these two varieties are often planted for their extreme disease resistance, but that their fruit is extremely unexceptional.  I bought the duo because they were cheap and I wanted a pear tree, but now I wish I'd waited a year until I could save the cash for a tree that was both disease resistant and flavorful.  We put in an order for Starking Delicious Pear (reported to be "Bartlett-quality" and "virtually blight-free"), so hopefully in another four years, we'll be tasting a more flavorful fruit.

Meanwhile, I plan to graft some tastier varieties onto our existing pear trees.  More on that project in a later post.

Learn how to keep storage vegetables on the shelf until next summer in our 99 cent ebook.
Posted Wed Oct 5 07:35:26 2011 Tags:

Chicken eating chickweedWhat do chickens eat on pasture?  Invertebrates are their favorites, but I'm still working out methods of attracting tasty insects and worms for the flock to consume.  (Keeping a compost pile in each pasture is a good start.)  Meanwhile, I did some research and then kept notes on the plants our chickens enjoyed.

Traditional chicken pastures tend to be either unimproved pastures (ie whatever survives repeated close grazing), or mixtures of legumes (white clover and subclovers), grasses (orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, and annual ryegrass), and weeds.  Some Chickens eating grassfarmers plant annuals like oats or rye in certain plots for winter forage.

Our pastures are currently a mix of native woodland and whatever popped up when we mowed other reclaimed woods for a few years.  That gave me a chance to watch our chickens explore quite a range of habitats, and I discovered that they showed seasonal preferences for plant foods.

Chickens on spring pasture

Ground cherry fruitsIn the winter and early spring, most plants are dormant, but our flock still found some tasty wild food.  Ground cherry fruits hung on the plants until February and were thoroughly enjoyed, even though the chickens had to find a way through the papery husks.  Chickweed leaves, of course, were a huge hit --- whenever we turned chickens into fresh pasture in early spring, they ran straight to the chickweed before eating anything else.  The chickens were willing to eat tender young grass leaves, but only after all of the tastier Rooster eating cloverplants were gone.

As spring advanced, our chickens started chowing down on clover and fleabane leaves.  Although I'd read that most people plant white clover in their chicken pastures, red clover seemed to be preferred by our flock.  Our rooster fell in love with violet flowers, but no one else seemed interested. 

Chickweed was past its prime in mid April (at least according to our snobbish chickens), so they turned to small-flowered crowfoot seedsChicken with crowfootChickweed was still their second favorite food, though, and they also enjoyed other tender young plants for the rest of the spring period.

Come late May, the pastures were changing --- the "weeds" were starting to get too woody for chicken digestion and the grasses were going to seed.  Now the flock enjoyed a smorgasbord of grass seed heads, sedge seed heads, cranesbill seeds, clover leaves, and violet leaves

And then we hit the summer lull.  Drier weather slowed down the tender new growth chickens crave, big weeds shaded the ground, and suddenly grass leaves were a favorite because they were the only non-lignified plants within reach.  Our one patch of warm season grass was especially hard hit since it kept producing throughout the summer.  In contrast to our traditional pastures, the forested pasture became a virtual desert from a chicken's point of view.

In late August, Mark fenced in a new forest pasture.  In this previously fallow land, there was still fresh growth on the forest floor, and our flock enjoyed Japanese stiltgrass leaves and various seed heads...for two days.  Then they asked to go back to the perennial grasses.

Chicks on pasture

As a side note, I should mention the foods preferred by our chicks, since they were quite different than those consumed by adult chickens.  Chicks have tiny beaks, so they can't eat Chicks eat tick trefoil flowersanything large and they can't break anything tough up into bits small enough to eat (without a hen's help.)  Our spring batch ate everything in sight since the greenery was all so succulent, but our fall chicks had more trouble finding tasty food they could actually eat.  Tick trefoil flowers and sourgrass flowers and young seed pods fit the bill even at the beginning of September, and then the chicks branched out into eating sourgrass leaves and clover leaves as they got a bit older. 

Finally, I should mention that I tried out planting various annuals in the pastures throughout the year.  In the long run, I've decided that planting annuals only makes sense to give the chickens fresh food during the summer and winter lulls --- otherwise, leaving the planted ground chicken-free for a few weeks or months as the cultivated crops get established just slows down rotation speeds and does the pastures Learn more about cover crops in my 99 cent ebook!more harm than good.  And it turns out that our flock only really enjoyed one cultivated plant I tried --- butternut squash.  The vines were able to survive moderate chicken scratching, and the fruits were happily hollowed out by our hungry chickens.

I went into the year thinking that I'd see what our chickens' favorite foods were and then plant pastures in just those plants.  However, as the year progressed, I started to realize that I need to think of the pasture as an ecosystem rather than as a collection of plants.  Next year, I'll be experimenting with traditional pasture plants along with perennials that provide off-season feasts.

Our chicken waterer served as a way to draw chickens to the far end of pastures, helping even out their grazing.

This post is part of our 2011 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Oct 5 12:00:58 2011 Tags:
corrosion prevention with protective grease

A generous coating of dielectric grease should help to prevent corrosion on this Super Winch ground connection.

What I'm not sure about is how to prevent dirt and mud from getting into the grease.

Maybe a plastic barrier held on with a few layers of duct tape?

Posted Wed Oct 5 15:55:54 2011 Tags:

Grafting onto pear treeAlthough the flavor of our Kieffer pear was disappointing, I didn't want to waste four years of vigorous and disease free growth.  The solution?  Graft some new varieties onto the tree so I get tasty pears.

Step one is choosing varieties.  Yup --- I meant to use that plural.  As long as you stay within the same species (meaning, grafting pears onto pears), you can graft as many varieties onto a tree as you have branches to graft to.  After four years of growth, I've got plenty of limbs to be converted to tastier fruits.

The factors most important to me in pear tree variety selection are taste ("dessert quality" is the word to look for), disease resistance (focusing on fire blight), and time of bearing.  Checking with your local extension service is a good way to find varieties that work well in your neck of the woods.  Here are the varieties I selected (all of which are fire blight resistant):

  • Dabney - very early bearer, developed in Knoxville (so probably does well here), and listed as having very good dessert quality
  • Tyson - very early bearer, flavor listed as "second only to Seckel"
  • Harrow Delight - moderately early bearer, flavor noted to be as good as Bartlett but different
  • Seckel --- early midseason, fruits are very small, but many sources list Seckel as having the best flavor of all pears
  • Honeysweet --- midseason, flavor similar to Seckel but lacking the bit of grit in the center
  • Hoskins --- late bearer and fruits will keep until Christmas, good for dessert
  • Luscious --- late bearer, flavor like Bartlett

Step two is finding scionwood.  Scionwood is basically a twig cut off of another tree that I will graft onto my existing pear tree.  As long as the graft takes, all further growth on that limb will be the variety of the scionwood, not of the tree being grafted onto.

NCGRThe holy grail of pear tree scionwood is the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, Oregon.  (There are two other branches of this government funded program that specialize in other types of fruit.)  It's a bit tough to tell from their website, but I'm 95% sure that they will send two cuttings of any variety selected to just about anyone for free --- I've put in my order and will know more about the process in the winter when the scionwood (hopefully) arrives.  Requests for pear scionwood have to be made by December 1 to be shipped this winter.

The Clean Plant Center of the Northwest (part of Washington State University) has a slightly less staggering but still pretty good selection of scionwood available as well.  They charge $5 per "budstick", each of which generally has ten or more buds on it.  For simple grafts, you need two buds apiece, and you can also graft a bud at a time, so a single budstick goes a long way. 

In the commercial sphere, several nurseries offer small selections of pear scionwood, but Nick Botner is the best source if you want something even moderately unusual.  Unfortunately, Mr. Botner has no internet presence (beyond folks mentioning his amazing selection), so you have to mail your order to 4015 Eagle Valley Road, Yoncalla, OR 97499 or call him at (503) 849-2781.  I've uploaded his 2009 variety list for your perusal, but you should be aware that internet rumors say he put his farm on the market this past summer, so Mr. Botner may no longer be selling scionwood.

Step three is grafting.  But I have to wait until early spring for that step, so I'll stop here.

Learn which sources of free mulch and compost are best for your garden in our 99 cent ebook.
Posted Thu Oct 6 07:49:18 2011 Tags:

Homegrown chickensUnless you raise your own meat birds (often called "broilers"), you have probably only eaten one kind of chicken in your life --- Cornish Cross.  This hybrid is a wonder of modern breeding since it can reach a carcass size of nearly nine pounds in just eight weeks.  The Cornish Cross also has a lower feed conversion rate than any other variety of chicken, which means you give the birds less grain for every pound of weight they put on --- a boon for your wallet and for the environment.

Homesteaders groan about the Cornish Cross because of the multitude of health problems that come along with their rapid weight gain, but what prevented me from raising these efficient birds is their proprietary genetics.  Not only is the Cornish Cross a hybrid, the parent lines are owned by corporations, so the only possible way to get Cornish Cross chickens is to buy the chicks from a hatchery.  I want our flock to be as self-sufficient as possible, and that means raising our own chicks, so Cornish Cross are off the table, as are other hybrid broiler varieties like Freedom Rangers.

Butchering chickenOn the other hand, there are two problems with raising heirloom chickens for meat, and both are so serious that you probably won't find heirlooom broilers for sale even at the farmer's market.  The first problem is aesthetics.  Since we all grew up with big, plump-breasted chickens on our plates, we think that heirloom chickens look odd, with their big thighs sticking out and their skinny breasts.  I crunched some numbers from one of our batches of Black Australorps and discovered that they gave me twice as much dark meat as light meat, which would be a problem if I was afraid of animal fats.  Luckily, I believe that fat from pastured animals is good for me, so I cherish both light and dark meat from our homegrown birds.

The second problem with heirloom chickens is the real sticking point --- feed conversion rate.  The chicken industry claims that factory-farmed Cornish Cross chickens have a feed to meat conversion rate of 2:1 meaning that you feed the chickens two pounds of feed and get back one pound of meat (and bones.)  Third party studies of pastured Cornish Cross chickens report a rate of 3.5:1 at the best, so this is what I'm aiming for.  And I fell far, far short --- more on that tomorrow.

Our chicken waterer keeps broilers at peak health with unlimited clean water.

This post is part of our 2011 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Oct 6 12:00:40 2011 Tags:
Super Winch surge protector installation and digging out a spot that was bottomed out

I wrapped the plastic bag our license plate came in around the Super Winch negative ground connection and then secured it with a couple strands of galvanized wire. I realize now that dielectric grease may not have been the best choice for corrosion prevention, but it should keep the air out, and if I can remember I'll peel the plastic back a few years from now and check up on the corrosion status.

The positive end requires a surge protector, which was easy to install.

Digging out a small trench where the truck had bottomed out was the hard part. It was pretty well packed in and I didn't want to take a chance of over straining the Super Winch motor on its first day at work.

Posted Thu Oct 6 15:33:58 2011 Tags:

Homemade sticky boardsIf you want to monitor the varroa mite levels in your bee hives, it's a good idea to take counts at multiple times rather than using one snapshot to assess the long term health of your hive.  So I repeated my three day stickyboard counts this week.  To refresh your  memories, the mother hive dropped 44 varroa mites per day in mid September while the daughter hive dropped 12 per day.

My new count showed nearly the same mite fall for the mother hive --- 41 mites per day --- but it seemed like the varroa mite population in the daughter have had undergone a population explosion.  This time, the daughter hive dropped 200 total mites, or 67 per day!

An increasing varroa mite population in the autumn is bad news, but I decided to get a bit more scientific before I started to worry.  Mite fall is a problematic way to monitor varroa mites since a large population of bees will naturally drop many more mites than a small population of bees.  The way to deal with this error is to estimate how many bees are currently in your hive and calculate mite fall per thousand bees per day.

Estimating bees per frameNo, I didn't sit in front of the hive and count heads all day long.  Instead, I looked through both hives, counting how many frames (or portions of frames) were covered with bees.  A deep frame completely covered with bees on both sides holds roughly 2,000 workers, so I was able to come up with population estimates for both hives.

Remember how I started feeding the daughter hive a few weeks ago since I was concerned that she was going into winter with too few honey stores?  One of the troubles with fall feeding is that it can prompt the queen to lay lots of eggs at a time of year when the hive doesn't need that many workers.  The mother hive --- not fed, so changing her population based on the natural ebb of the seasons --- had roughly 9,500 bees in the hive.  On the other hand, the daughter hive had bulked up drastically and now housed 18,250 bees!

Brood from fall feedingThe good news is that when you divide the mite fall figures by the population of each hive, it turns out that the daughter hive is in fine shape.  The mother had roughly 4.3 varroa mites fall per thousand bees per day during my test while the daughter had 3.7 mites per thousand bees per day.  Given all of the wiggle room in my measurements, I'd say mite populations in each hive are roughly equal on a per bee basis.

The bad news is that the daughter hive has way too many workers in it!  She has put away the 22 pounds of sugar I gave her and now has 48 pounds of capped honey, but I'm a little concerned that the massive population of workers will eat right through it before winter comes.  Hopefully once the unnatural "nectar flow" disappears, the hive will kick out those extra workers ASAP.

My 99 cent ebook helps you start on the path to self-sufficiency without getting overwhelmed.
Posted Fri Oct 7 07:43:44 2011 Tags:

Homegrown chickenAs I  mentioned yesterday, the feed conversion rate of 3.5:1 for pastured Cornish Cross is extremely tough to beat.  We've tried four different experiments with raising heirloom chickens as broilers and yet my very best feed to meat conversion rate was 5:1.  The figure means that my chickens required 5 pounds of storebought feed for every pound of meat I got back, half again as much as what Cornish Cross would have consumed.

My best results came from Black Australorps who ran in the woods in the spring (thus getting nearly maximum forage) and then were slaughtered at 12 weeks.  At the far opposite extreme, Dark Cornish chickens raised on overgrazed summer pasture and killed at 16 weeks had an abyssmal feed conversion rate of 8.8:1.

Here are some mistakes you should avoid if you want to feed your broilers as little as possible.

  • Feed to meat of chickens of different agesSlaughtering the chickens at a more advanced age.  At 12 weeks, light-weight breeds result in carcasses of two pounds or smaller, so it seemed to make sense to kill some a month later.  Unfortunately, the growth rate of chickens peaks around 6 to 10 weeks, so you have to feed your flock more and more for that extra growth.  To feed the least, slaughter your chickens young.
  • Raising chickens during the summer lull.  In our area, the succulent plants that chickens prefer are a spring and fall attraction, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the Cuckoo Marans we raised on summer pasture had a feed conversion rate of 5.2:1 even when killed at 12 weeks.
  • Black australorps on pastureKeeping broilers in with laying hens.  My third batch --- Black Australorps part two --- had a truly awful feed conversion rate of 7.6:1 at 12 weeks.  The problem here is that I mixed the broilers in with our laying flock, assuming that the hen we tricked into adopting them would make sure the chicks had first dibs on the food.  This worked at first, but during the last month (when broilers consume the majority of their lifetime feed), the mother hen cut her offspring loose, and they were stuck at the bottom of the pecking order.  I had to throw in more and more food just to make sure they had enough to eat.  In future, broilers will always get their own coop and pastures.

Chicks pecking for maggotsEven if I don't repeat any of these mistakes, it's going to be tough to cut the amount of feed we give to our broilers enough to achieve the awesome feed conversion rates of Cornish Cross.  That said, I have high hopes that the Light Sussex we're currently experimenting with might do better than our best batch of Black Australorps.  I hatched the Sussex chicks so late that I figured they wouldn't harm the garden if allowed to free range, and they've been gorging on wild food ever since.  Meanwhile, I'm gauging their feed needs by the state of their crops, which allows me to feed them much less than the books tell me to.  I'll report their feed conversion rate on our chicken blog around Thanksgiving, so stay tuned!

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.

This post is part of our 2011 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Oct 7 12:01:03 2011 Tags:
Super Winch in action up close and personal

rut repair with cinder blocks

We could really feel the power of the new Super Winch as it slowly pulled the truck out of the mud and onto solid ground.

A couple more hours of rut repair should have the driveway ready for a trip to the quarry.

Posted Fri Oct 7 16:43:39 2011 Tags:
One acre farm (John Seymour)
"For myself, if I had an acre of good, well-drained land, I think I would keep a cow and a goat, a few pigs, and maybe a dozen hens....  Now the acre would only just support the cow and do nothing else, so I would, quite shamelessly, buy in most of my food for the cow from outside....  It will be argued that it is ridiculous to say you are self-supporting when you have to buy in all this food...."

--- John Seymour, The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It

Despite the fact that our property is 58 acres, I'd say our homestead is closer to one acre in size since that's how large of an area we've carved out of the wilderness.  So I was struck by John Seymour's description of a one acre homestead, and specifically by his conclusion that it does make sense to keep a lot of livestock even if you have to buy hay and grain for them.  He argues that a cow produces high quality dairy for your family and for all of the other livestock while also making huge quantities of manure to improve the fertility of the land.

We're not going to be getting a dairy cow anytime soon.  There's not only the milking, fencing, housing, and so forth to consider, but also the roughly $1,400 worth of grain, hay, and bedding that would go into her with only a half acre to graze on.  (And the question of how to deal with 1,500 gallons of milk per year....)  However, Seymour's point is well taken, that perhaps I shouldn't beat myself up so much about buying all those bags of chicken feed --- after all, we do get quite a lot of benefit from the manure we capture in the coop.  And maybe I shouldn't veto other potential livestock just because they would also require storebought inputs of feed.

Looking at the problem of farm fertility through Seymour's eyes, livestock are to compost as cover crops are to mulch --- they're a way to grow your own.  I was amazed this year to see how much easier it is to plant fallow fall beds in winter oats rather than hauling in and then lugging around big bales of straw to mulch the bare ground.  But is there a type of livestock that would require little enough time and feed input to make it worthwhile in comparison to Mark's trips to the manure motherlode?

New Zealand WhiteMaybe rabbits?  One pair of New Zealand Whites will produce about 8 litters per year, with 40 surviving rabbits that dress to around 3.3 pounds apiece.  That's 132 pounds of meat and 2 cubic yards of manure for the price of 750 pounds of feed ($255) and perhaps $20 worth of straw for bedding.  Plus they're a whole lot less work than the goats I've been drooling over.  Maybe I should set my sights a little lower?

My 99 cent ebook provides a fun and easy project for every weekend of the year so that you work toward self-sufficiency without getting overwhelmed.
Posted Sat Oct 8 08:38:14 2011 Tags:
tying a winch wire to a tree

another image of tree helping with winching
It's possible to wrap the Super Winch cable around a tree and hook it onto itself. The instructions clearly say to not do this.

I'm guessing it's because the cable could get damaged.

We had a heavy chain for wrapping around trees, but it somehow got lost it in the weeds a few years ago. Now we use a cable with hooks on each end or a heavy duty nylon tow strap depending on the situation.

Posted Sat Oct 8 18:18:22 2011 Tags:
Garlic and thyme chicken leg

When you start cooking with heritage chickens, you'll soon need to figure out what to do with all that extra leg meat.  (You might have a similar dilemma if you're buying from the store on a budget since legs are often much cheaper per pound than breasts.)  This simple recipe is surprisingly delicious and takes just a few minutes of hands-on labor to prepare.

Cutting off chicken thigh

SeasoningsIf you're starting with a whole chicken, first cut off the legs.  You'll be surprised how easy this is --- just slice through the skin that connects each leg to the breast, bend the leg sideways until the bone snaps out of its socket, and then cut through the bit of meat holding the thigh to the rest of the chicken carcass.

Meanwhile, snip some thyme leaves out of your garden --- about a tablespoonful is the goal if you're cooking two chicken legs.  Mix the diced thyme, two tablespoons of lemon juice, and some salt and Cook chicken legspepper in a bowl.

Heat a bit of olive oil over medium-high heat (being careful not to burn it), then put your chicken legs in the pan, skin side down.  Brush about half of your lemon juice and thyme mixture over top of the legs and cook for around five minutes until the skin is brown.

Now turn down the heat to medium-low and flip the legs over.  Brush on the rest of the lemon juice, leaving some thyme behind in the bowl, cover the pan, and let cook for 20 or 30 minutes (just enough time to write a blog post and Scrape drippingsmake a salad.)  You can tell the legs are getting done when the meat starts to pull away from the end of the bone (or you can use a meat thermometer.)

Remove the legs from the pan once they're fully cooked and add 1 clove of minced garlic, the remainder of the thyme, and three tablespoons of water to the pan.  Cook over medium high heat, scraping the drippings out of the pan and into the water.  After a minute or two, the garlic should be cooked and the water should be evaporated enough to turn the drippings into a thick sauce to spoon over the legs.

Seasoned chicken leg

Despite having no special spices (or MSG), these legs taste very Chinese to us.  Delicious and easy!

Learn to build a quick hoop that will extend your fall garden until Christmas in our 99 cent ebook.
Posted Sun Oct 9 07:55:32 2011 Tags:
DIY low budget automatic chicken plucker instructions and plans

This automatic chicken plucker is a clever and low budget alternative to the more expensive 800 dollar whiz bang option.

Kate over at living the frugal has a nice post on her experience building one for under 20 dollars.

I'm not sure if it's much of a time saver, but I love the ingenuity and spirit of this poultry project. It would be nice to see a side by side comparison of someone trained on this method next to someone plucking by hand.

Posted Sun Oct 9 14:51:19 2011 Tags:

Sampling soilSoil tests are very helpful for any kind of serious gardener since they give you solid, numerical data about your soil.  You can think of them as a report card, showing you positive (or negative) changes over the years and also pointing out areas that you need to work on.  There's plenty of information out there (like this site) to tell you how to take the actual soil test, and I recommend this in-depth pdf document to learn more about how your test results relate to individual crops.  But the real question is --- which laboratory should you send your soil sample to?

I always recommend starting by checking with your state extension service since most offer free or cheap soil tests.  However, extension service laboratories often skimp on testing micronutrients and heavy metals, so it's worth spending a bit more cash at least once during the life of your garden to get an idea of the bigger picture.

Composite soil sampleATTRA provides an extensive list of soil testing laboratories, but you could spend hours checking out each one's services!  (I know because I just did.)  When it comes to a wide selection of services for a low price, there seem to be four main contenders.

The cheapest option is A&L Eastern Laboratories, which offers a basic soil test for only $8.50 if you skip the interpretation.  (Since most interpretation is geared toward large-scale farmers applying chemical fertilizers, you'll need to figure out what the numbers mean on your own anyway.)  This test will cover organic matter, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium, pH, buffer index, cation exchange capacity, and percent base saturation.  For an extra $4, you can add on sulfur, zinc, manganese, copper, and boron.  For $15, you can test your soil for molybdenum, which is primarily of interest for those of us trying to increase clover in our pastures.
Take soil sample
AgriEnergy Resources offers pretty much the same tests for quite a bit more cash.  Their basic package is $14.20 and throws in sodium (which you probably don't need) while their higher end package includes the extras from the last lab with the addition of iron for a total of $25.  A separate test for cobalt, molybdenum, and selenium is $46.  Cobalt, like molybdenum, is of interest to clover growers, while selenium is a micronutrient important in our immune system but seldom deficient.

Maine Soil Testing Service is a little more expensive than the cheapest commercial labs --- $15 for their basic test --- but includes nearly all of the extras in the same package.  However, they leave out buffer index and percent base saturation while adding lead.  Finally, testing for nitrogen is $7 extra.  (Although nitrogen is very basic to the fertility of soil, I can see why they leave it out --- you're going to add nitrogen in the form of compost every year regardless and values can shift a lot from day to day depending on microbial activity.  If you're not adding chemical fertilizers or farming on a large scale, I'm not so sure you need to have that information in your test results.)

Mix soil samplesFinally, UMass Amherst has perhaps the best deal of all, especially for urban dwellers worried about heavy metals.  Their base package ($10) has everything previously mentioned except sodium, sulfur, organic matter, and nitrogen (and molybdenum, cobalt, and selenium which aren't available anywhere without paying quite a bit extra.)  Meanwhile, they add in four more metals --- cadmium, nickel, aluminum, and chromium.  I'd pay $15 for the basic tests plus organic matter, though, because I think organic matter is important enough to keep track of long term.  Nitrogen is its own test, available for $15, which I would skip, and I can do without sodium and sulfur.

You'll  hear the results of my soil tests in a week or two, so stay tuned for more than you ever wanted to know about interpreting soil test results.  Why not dig up your own soil sample and play along?

Did you know you can store many vegetables on your kitchen shelf all winter?  Learn more in my 99 cent ebook.
Posted Mon Oct 10 07:53:54 2011 Tags:

Newly hatched chickIncubating my own chicks this year allowed me to experiment with smaller batches than I could get from a hatchery while also trying out rare varieties of non-nursery stock.  There was a steep learning curve, though, and I soon learned that incubating is more complex than setting the temperature and number of days in the incubator and then forgetting the chicks until they hatched.  Here are some of the questions I asked as I went from a beginner to an intermediate incubator.

Brinsea Octagon 20 IncubatorWhat kind of incubator should I use?  We've tried three different incubators, and the only one that worked well for us was the Brinsea Octagon 20 Advance.  At $300, the Octagon 20 isn't an incubator to buy on a whim, but the lack of climate control in our trailer made the cheap Little Giant Still Air Incubator that we bought at the local feed store totally worthless.  The Brinsea Mini Advance Incubator worked a little better (we got one surviving chick out of seven eggs), but that incubator's utility is really in allowing you to see a hatch up close and personal.  It's agonizing to watch chicks who had an improper incubation period try to struggle out of their shells and fail, so if you're going to incubate, you should probably do it right.

Is every egg created equal?  No, and you'll have a much better hatch rate if you put only the best eggs in your incubator.  Eggs to discard include those with even a tiny bit of poop Light Sussex chickson the shell, porous eggs that seem to be speckled when you hold them up to the light, and eggs from hens more than two years old.  Of course, cracked eggs or eggs that have been stored improperly shouldn't be included.  In addition, more eggs tend to be fertile in the spring and fall than in the summer and winter.

How many chicks should I expect?  If you're doing everything just right, you should expect 75% to 80% of homegrown eggs to hatch.  Mail ordered hatching eggs will have been bumped around in the post office, so 50% is considered a good hatch rate there.  You can tell whether a low hatch rate is caused by your mistakes or by bad eggs if you count how many eggs were infertile.  If you're a raw beginner, put a lot more eggs than you need in the incubator --- I ended up with only one living chick my first time around and had to scurry to find it friends.  (A lone chick is an unhappy chick.)  By my fourth hatch, though, I got a 58% hatch rate from mail order eggs and felt very accomplished.

Weighing eggsWhat's dry incubation and should I do it?  Mainstream hatching literature tells you to add water to the wells in order to keep your incubator at 40% to 50% humidity for the first 19 days.  However, many experienced hatchers report that running the incubator dry gives them better hatch rates.  Whether dry incubation works for you will probably depend on your climate.  The best way to decide whether humidity in your incubator is in the right range is to weigh your eggs every few days and make sure they lose 13% of their weight by day 18.

Chicken hatchingHow and when should I prepare for the hatch?  No matter whether you practice conventional or dry incubation, you want to increase the humidity in the incubator to 65% or more on day 19 so that the chicks will slide right out of their shells.  This is also the time for you to turn off the egg turner and remove any dividers so that the eggs lay flat on their sides.  If the well of the incubator is chick-accessible, but sure to shield it so that no chicks can fall in and drown.

How often should I open the incubator?  You'll read that you can only open the incubator once or twice a day during the hatch period or the humidity will plummet, but I found simple ways to keep the humidity high while poking around inside as much as I liked.  Despite conventional wisdom, I've had best results moving chicks to the brooder an hour or less after they hatched so that they don't injure other chicks busy struggling out of their shells.

Should I help chicks hatch?  It's okay to help chicks hatch as long as you understand what constitutes an abnormal hatch.  A chick pipping at the narrow end of the egg should always be helped because healthy chicks will either die while trying to struggle out of this improper position or will injure themselves.  You might choose to help chicks that have pipped but not started to unzip for an abnormal length of time (generally 24 hours, or until the membrane starts to turn brown and dry), but in this case you're more likely to be aiding a weak chick which that might have to be culled.

How and when should I cull a chick?  After helping a chick, I generally put it in a spare incubator for a few hours to regain its strengh, then move it to the brooder to join the other chicks.  If they attack the chick, chances are it's too weak and would die on its own.  In that case, I put the chick in an airtight container with some baking soda and vinegar and it dies relatively painlessly within seconds.

Broody hen with chicksIs there an easier way to hatch chicks?  A broody hen can do all of the work for you, but only certain varieties will go broody.  We added Cuckoo Marans to our flock this year in hopes that we'll be able to raise chicks the easy way in 2012.

The only additional tip I would give anyone wanting to become a journeyman hatcher is --- keep lots of notes!  I had several hypotheses on why certain eggs didn't hatch, but only got real answers when I numbered each egg and kept notes on everything about them.  That way I was able to tell that temperatures in my incubator were slightly uneven.  If the broody hens don't come through for me next year, I should have even higher hatch rates in the incubator.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.

This post is part of our 2011 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Oct 10 12:00:53 2011 Tags:
repairing worn down driveway ruts with cinder blocks and sweat

The driveway troubled spot is now one of the more solid points thanks to several well placed cinder blocks and some heavy tamping.

Anna says there's a 70% chance of rain tomorrow.

That means there could be a race between when the rain starts and how fast I can go pick up a load of gravel, unload it into the other troubled areas, and haul in a few supplies.

Posted Mon Oct 10 16:09:33 2011 Tags:
View from inside the peach tree

Mark and I have been tossing around the idea of interns.  On the one hand, I think we know enough that a homesteader wannabe could learn a lot from us, we certainly have plenty of extra work, and it would be great to have more like-minded people around.  On the other hand, we're dyed in the wool introverts and the idea of having even a low-maintenance, fascinating person on the property seven days of the week gives me shivers.

There might be the possibility of housing the intern somewhere else and/or sharing them with another farming group so that we don't overwhelm our people-sensors --- we probably won't even give the idea a shot if we can't find someone to fill that gap.  That said, I wonder if the idea even holds water.  Time for a poll!

Trailer homestead

(Those of you reading this on Facebook or via an RSS feed will probably have to come directly to our website to participate.)

Our current idea is to give the intern a place to stay and plenty of hands-on mentoring in exchange for 20 hours of work per week.  (They'd have to buy and cook their own food, but might have a place to grow a garden.)  The work would involve learning, but would probably also involve a lot of repetition, because that's what farms are like.  If you were a potential intern, would that sound good?

That sounds perfect. (89%)

Too many hours working. (7%)

Too few hours working. (3%)

Total votes: 28

We actually have two different potential internship ideas: the living homestead and the microbusiness.  Mark could really, really use an inventor's apprentice, while I could really, really use someone good at weeding and mulching.  Do you think the same person would be likely to be interested in both or are the farmer wannabes different from the people who want to be financially independent?

A joint microbusiness/homesteading internship would work. (52%)

Split them apart and have both. (47%)

Split them apart and just have microbusiness. (0%)

Split them apart and just have homestead. (0%)

Total votes: 23

How many interns do you think we should have at one time?  On the one hand, starting with one intern sounds much less scary.  On the other hand, maybe interns are like chickens and goats --- more self-sufficient in flocks?

1 (40%)

2 (59%)

3 or more (0%)

Total votes: 22

I dream that an intern would take some training, but then would make work happen faster.  On the other hand, my nightmares involve interns who take more time to teach than they give us back in labor and who are so needy that I never get any alone time.  I'm especially interested to hear from those of you who have managed interns.  Which reality is most true?

Interns are usually more trouble than they're worth. (7%)

Interns really pull their weight. (7%)

It's a mixed bag. (85%)

Total votes: 14

We're trying to decide on the best time of year for an internship.  Presumably,  most potential interns would be young, so the summer when they're out of school might be a good season.  But I'm not convinced that any of our readers other than Jalen are under 25.  What do you think is a good time period for the internship?

Summer (86%)

Fall (0%)

Winter (0%)

Spring (13%)

Total votes: 15

How about length?  We'd really like to try the idea on a short term basis, maybe a month at the most, but we learned our lesson by soliciting WWOOFers --- the people who are interested in short-term internships are also the people who call at the last minute and cancel.  How long is the optimal internship period to attract serious candidates?

1 month (20%)

2 months (20%)

3 months or more (60%)

Total votes: 20

Are you or someone you know interested in being a Walden Effect intern?

No (35%)

I am (47%)

I know someone who might be (17%)

Total votes: 17

Do you think we're crazy to even consider this?

Yes (13%)

No (54%)

You're crazy in general (31%)

Total votes: 22

As usual, feel free to add in your more in-depth response in the comments.

Posted Tue Oct 11 08:10:36 2011 Tags:

Contact chick brooderRaising chicks from day one to adulthood seems to be far less fraught with peril than getting them out of their eggs, but my track record still improved over time.  As long as you can keep your chicks disease free (which our chicken waterer pretty much does for you), there are only two big causes of chick mortality --- temperature and predators.

Until they're fully feathered, chicks need an external source of heat to keep them alive.  The mother hen would serve this function in the wild, but if you're raising chicks on your own, you'll need to resort to a powered heat source.  I was thrilled when I discovered Brinsea's EcoGlow Chick Brooder, which mimics a mother hen by letting the chicks snuggle up under a warm object rather than warming their entire space.  I felt like the contact brooder raised happier chicks than the traditional brood light, although I was a nervous chick mother and hated not being able to see the chicks for the first day as they slept off their hatch exertions.

Hand warmer for chicks

But what if the power goes out?  I learned the hard way that even an hour without heat can kill your weakest chicks, but we also came up with a stopgap solution for brooding during short power outages.  Putting an activated hand warmer in the bttom of a small box and closing the lid partway kept our chicks from anxious peeping until the electricity came back on.  (Our readers also suggested some other good alternatives here.)

Mother hen with chicksI lost a quarter of my first two batches of chicks to rats.  My mother hen did a better job, but still lost one of her offspring.  Only on hatch four did I figure out that it's not rocket science to keep predators away from my chicks.  Just:

  • Keep your chicks inside the house a little longer, if possible.
  • Once you move the chicks outside, seal gaps in the coop so rats have a harder time getting in.
  • Shut the chicks in the coop each night until they're six weeks old and too big for rats to attack.
  • Keep chicken feed in a sealed container outside the coop.

I lost 25% of hatch one to rats, 33% of hatch two to a power outage and then to rats, and 18% of hatch three to introducing the chicks to the mother hen incorrectly and then to rats.  But our final batch of 14 chicks have all survived their 6 week birthday and will probably make it until we pull the plug and put them in the freezer in November.  That's more like it!

This post is part of our 2011 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Oct 11 12:00:59 2011 Tags:
ending a long dry spell of 2011

The rain showed up early this morning which prompted us to take our first Staycation day of 2011 instead of fighting the weather.

At least the truck is now free and ready to go.

Hard to say how much of a wait it might be till the next dry spell.

Posted Tue Oct 11 17:03:25 2011 Tags:

Shelling peanutsA few weeks ago, I wrote that shelling peanuts is hard on the fingers and extremely time consuming on a large scale.  You all came back with some great tips for easier ways to shell peanuts, and I invited Mom over to help me try out some of the top contenders.

We decided to experiment with the simplest method first --- putting the peanuts in a cloth bag and rolling over it with a rolling pin.  This technique did a good job of cracking the shells (deleting the painful fingers problem), but we still had to pick the peanuts out since they didn't come all the way loose.  I figured the rolling pin method would be a good way to shell peanuts if you're eating as you shell and aren't trying to process enough for later.

When we got sick of hand-picking, I hauled our wimpy chipper-shredder out of the barn and gave it a try.  Daddy had suggested lowering the rpms to process peanuts, but since we converted the machine to electric (and since Mark was at a friend's house), I just turned it on as-is.

First we fed in all of last year's peanuts, collecting the debris on a cloth underneath.  The nut and shell mixture was daunting when we started to pick through it, but then I realized that I could pour whole handfuls into a pot of water to separate the shells and whole peanuts (which float) from the shelled nuts (which sink.)  Sending the floaters through the mill again cracked out any nuts that had been missed the first time around, then I repeated the float trick to pull out the rest of the nuts.

For a first attempt, the chipper-shredder did good work, but I'll definitely tweak my technique before trying again.  First, I really should have taken the peanuts off the stems before feeding them into the shredder --- the bits of stem in the second batch clogged up the works and I had to clean the shredder out by hand.  Second, I should have washed all of the dirt off the nutshells before shredding --- it turned out that the most laborious part of the process was picking out the few bits of soil that sank to the bottom with the nuts and didn't rinse off with a few changes of water.

Peanut pieces

You should be aware that the chipper-shredder will cut up your nuts to some extent --- I got mostly halves, with some smaller pieces and a few whole nuts.  This wasn't a problem since I just roasted all of the nuts with a little salt to create instant breakfast, but if you need whole peanuts, you'll be happier slowing down the chipper-shredder or finding some other way to shell your peanuts.

We've still got about a third of this year's crop left, which I plan to use for experiments with roasting salted peanuts in the shell and boiling peanuts.  More on that once I finish eating up my current batch.

By the way, nuts that fell into the grass didn't go to waste.  Lucy ate up as many as she could find and then our chicks went to work.  We'll be eating those peanuts one way or another.

Our chicken waterer keeps our flock healthy with POOP-free water.
Posted Wed Oct 12 08:29:33 2011 Tags:

Deep litterOur pasture experiments required us to build chicken coops for the first time, which meant dealing with chicken manure.  There are four ways to handle the endless amounts of manure that build up in a chicken coop:

  • Ignore it.  This works best with a dirt floor, but still ends up being an unsightly and foul-smelling mess.
  • Put bedding on the floor of the coop and change it regularly.  If you really do clean out the coop regularly, this method can work, but most people end up putting the task off until you're pretty much using method 1.
  • Make a raised mesh floor so that the manure falls through onto the ground below.  This method sounds pretty cool, but in practice the manure tends to block up the holes, so you either have to clean the floor or go back to ignoring it.  And then there's the manure on the ground to deal with.
  • Deep bedding.  Also known as deep litter, this method involves adding fresh bedding on top of the soiled bedding regularly.  In essence, you're building a mini compost pile on the floor of your chicken coop, so you don't end up with bad odors.  After about a year (or whenever the bedding gets so high that you're bumping your head on the ceiling), you shovel out the lower layers and use them on your garden.

Deep litter health benefitsI'd read that deep bedding is good for your chickens' health, but I have to admit that my early experience with deep bedding was less positive.  This past winter two of our old hens came down with a lingering case of diarrhea --- the first time we've had sick chickens on the farm.  The problem could have just been caused by their advanced age, but it might also have been due to the flock being cooped up with their own waste all winter.  On the other hand, the helpful microorganisms that counteract pathogens accumulate in deep litter as it ages, so hopefully we'll see disease resistance on our more mature deep bedding this winter.

Deep bedding temperatureOn the bright side, the deep litter definitely did its job of making my life easier.  As long as I remembered to add more leaves or straw frequently as our broilers grew up, the coops stayed clean and odor-free.  And during the winter when the outside soil  temperature was a chilly 27 degrees Fahrenheit, the composting litter on the floor of the chicken coop nearly reached 60 degrees.  Surely that free warmth was appreciated!

Cleaning out deep litterTo get best results, you're supposed to always keep your deep bedding at least six inches deep.  As anyone who's worked with compost knows, rotting vegetation gets smaller and smaller, so deep litter doesn't get thick as fast as you'd think.  I stole some deep bedding prematurely this past spring because I needed some rich mulch for a fruit tree, but I haven't harvested any of the compost I hope is on the bottom layer of our two coops currently.  Maybe by spring, I'll have black gold to pitchfork into my wheelbarrow.

Our chicken waterer is perfect on deep litter since it keeps the bedding dry.

This post is part of our 2011 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Oct 12 12:01:02 2011 Tags:
Staycation day 2 "Fall Appreciation"

It rained enough last night to postpone any future hauling by at least 4 or 5 days.

Our solution to that was to make today the sequel to our Staycation Tuesday.

Posted Wed Oct 12 14:38:11 2011 Tags:

GoumiWhen I wrote about eating Autumn Olive fruits, I started to tell you that rather than planting the invasive (though useful) shrubs, you should install their kissing cousin Goumi in your garden.  Goumi made it onto my must-have list this spring when two Asheville forest gardeners both listed the fruit in their top four alongside more well known perennials like pears and blackberries.

In addition to producing delicious berries, both Autumn Olives and Goumis are among the few non-legumes that are nitrogen-fixers, so the bushes can grow in very poor soil.  And I had read that Goumis aren't invasive.

However, a more extensive search of the internet puts that last assertion in doubt.  Yes, the USDA doesn't list Goumi as invasive at the moment, but the species has been seen growing in the wild in twelve states Goumi bonsaiand is listed as a potential invasive by Alabama and Tennessee.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if Goumi spreads far enough to be a federally listed invasive species in a few years.

Despite the enticing nature of Goumi bushes, I think I'm going to resist the urge to plant them in my garden.  I guess that if I was really itching to try the fruit without putting my woods at risk, I could always make a Goumi bonsai like this one....

Our 99 cent ebook highlights two simple ways to eat fresh produce deep into the cold months.
Posted Thu Oct 13 08:27:40 2011 Tags:

Super WInch stowage in the front passenger seat with bungee cord tie downI first thought the tiny back seat area would be a good place to stow the Super Winch, but decided against it when I imagined what a back breaker it might be to lift it out and over the front seat.

We settled on letting it ride shot gun.

Most trips in the truck are just me with no passengers, but there's still plenty of room to sit and stretch out if someone rides along.

Makes me wish they included a T-shirt with the package that said something like "Super Winch is my Co-Pilot".

Posted Thu Oct 13 15:33:26 2011 Tags:

Heated chicken watererWe outsourced our final chicken-related experiment to our readers.  Frozen water is one of the difficulties of raising livestock in the winter, so we solicited suggestions for turning our do it yourself chicken waterer kits into a homemade heated waterer. 

The suggestions were inspiring and diverse.  Heating elements ranged from heat lamps, aquarium heaters, and heat tape to stock tank heaters and gutter deicers.  But we loved the heated waterer shown here the best.  For $26, Lu Ann and Christian Shank created a chicken waterer that sandwiched heat tape between two buckets --- a very repeatable and elegant design.  You can read their description of the project here, and we now feature it along with some other heated waterer options on the instructions file that comes with our DIY kits.  Thanks for solving such a thorny problem, Lu Ann and Christian!

This post is part of our 2011 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Oct 13 20:06:42 2011 Tags:
Seed ball results

I tried out some seed balls in one of our pastures in June --- you can read more about my specific experiment here.  Early results were promising, but most of the seedlings that sprouted right away later dried up during our hot summer.  The only plants that survived were:Corn and sunflowers

  • Field corn --- The seed ball did seem to help field corn sprout better than the seeds simply scattered amid a similar amount of dirt on the surface of the soil.  However, a heavy feeder like corn doesn't get enough nutrition from the seed ball to thrive, so I ended up with a few wimpy corn plants that didn't produce anything.
  • Sunflowers --- I had a few come up, but the sunflowers failed to thrive.  They bloomed but didn't produce seeds.
  • Cowpeas --- This is the only crop that thrived in my experiment.  That said, the cowpeas did just as well when scattered on the soil surface as when mixed into seed balls.  Too bad the chickens weren't interested.

The conditions in my pasture were probably similar to or slightly better than those you'd find in a city lot (higher fertility and less shade), so I'd say that my suspicions were correct --- seed balls aren't very helpful for planting edible crops.  Whether they are better than simply scattering seeds for lower maintenance crops is yet to be decided.

Take advantage of our experiments to find out easy and fun projects that really work in Weekend Homesteader.
Posted Fri Oct 14 07:50:08 2011 Tags:

Black Australorp pulletAfter a year of chicken research, I feel like I'm ending with more questions that I started out with.  Here are some of the experiments I want to explore over the next year.

Pasture optimization.  How often do we need to cut back heavy weeds to keep the succulent new growth coming in?  Does it make sense to add another type of animal to do this brush-clearing, or would we be better off renovating our pastures by hand?  Which traditional pasture plants will our chickens enjoy the most?  Can I figure out the perfect ratio of tree cover to give our chickens a more diversified food source without shading the understory too much?  How much more pasture area do we need so that I don't feel like our ground gets overgrazed during the summer and winter lulls?  Does it work to plant annuals for those seasons of low pasture productivity?

Chicken breed selection.  We're trying out three new breeds --- Cuckoo Marans, Black Australorps, and Light Sussex.  I'd love to narrow that down to one or two, but want to find birds that will go broody, lay well, forage avidly, and have a low feed conversion rate.  Assuming I decide on a good breed or breeds next year, in 2013 it will be time to learn about poultry genetics and how many birds I need to keep a flock going without undue inbreeding.  It's also worth considering whether a hybrid of two of our breeds would exhibit extra vigor and bulk up faster for broilers.

Chick under lemonBroiler timing.  Raising four small sets of broilers made sense on paper, but given what I now know about pasture productivity, it seems like I might make better use of our pasture by lumping them together into two batches.  Right now, I'm thinking that I'll start eggs incubating in March to hatch in April and go out on pasture in late April to early May, then have a fall batch that starts incubating in July to go out on pasture in early September.  That will probably mean learning how to make a broody hen set on my schedule rather than hers.  Or it may mean more work with our incubator.

It looks like I've got a fun year of trial and error ahead of me.  Stay tuned to our chicken blog for details!

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to have more than one flock in multiple pastures.

This post is part of our 2011 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Oct 14 12:01:03 2011 Tags:
how to get oil out of a well

Our Rigid well pump came apart yesterday and somehow leaked a small amount of an unknown lubricant which floated to the surface.
submersible pump close up Rigid
We tried soaking some of it up with a towel tied to a rope, but what worked best was the half gallon plastic pitcher we build Avian Aqua Misers with.

I think the failure was due to suspending this type of pump instead of letting it rest on the bottom. I was trying to avoid as much sediment as possible, but now can see how the constant pressure of gravity was pulling at the case and working against the original designer's intention.

Posted Fri Oct 14 16:28:20 2011 Tags:
Smoked pork loin

When my mother-in-law (Rose) told me she'd started smoking, I knew right away what she meant.  I begged her to take some photos of her home-smoked meat experiments, and her partner Jayne complied.  I'll let Jayne tell you about it in her own words.

Brinkmann Smoke N Grill

Rose did an overhaul on an old Brinkmann Smoke N Grill that Mac and Nancy had long, long ago tossed aside after deciding it wasn't for them.  After some elbow grease and a new paint job, Rose attacked all the other failings, not limited to, but, including:

Grill leg extendersProblem: Legs on the Smoker were so short you had to practically stand on your head to keep the fire going with the charcoal and wood chips.

Solution: Rose purchased 4 Tiki light stakes that slipped right onto the legs and elevated the whole smoker 8 inches

Smoked Pork Loin
Serves 4-8


  • How to smoke meat1 or 2 pork tenderloins (1.5-2 pounds each)
  • Dry rub with, garlic powder, salt & pepper, rosemary and thyme or your favorite spice mixture
  • Adequate wood (hickory for a stronger flavor, pecan, cherry or apple for something milder) chunks, or 2 cups of wood chips (in foil packet, if chips) & your charcoal.


  • Dry rub pork loin
Meat smoker
  • Smoke approximately 3 hours at 225, replacing charcoal (and adding new wood chips) once, or as needed, to maintain temperature.
Smoked meat temperature
  • When the meat reaches 150-160 degrees, take off smoker and wrap in foil for 5-10 minutes.
Smoked pork
  • Slice thinly and serve with favorite sauce on the side or with a chutney.
Thinly slice pork

It doesn't get any easier than smoking your favorite cut of meat and certainly the taste is well worth the effort.

Posted Sat Oct 15 07:49:11 2011 Tags:
chicken with curled toe update

Our curled toe chicken seems to walk and scratch just as well as the rest of her flock.

She seems a little smaller than some of the other hens, but we think that would be more connected to her early struggle as a chick.

It's tough not to start calling her "Curly". I've done it a few times and caught myself. Knowing a bird by her first name seems a little too close to the "friend zone" for my comfort level and it would no doubt complicate things on retirement day.

Posted Sat Oct 15 15:49:56 2011 Tags:
Anna Near miss
Chickens in the garden

I was relaxing on the futon with two snuggly cats and a good book when the hawk swooped down out of nowhere.  "Aaaah!" I shrieked and our more skittish cat fled the house just as fast as our tweens scattered in terror.

Chicken running awayI couldn't tell at first whether anyone had been taken.  The tweens had gone to ground under the trailer or in the weeds and wouldn't come out no matter how much grain I rattled.

Slowly, they crept forth.  Eight chickens, nine chickens, twelve chickens.  Finally, all fourteen tweens were accounted for --- thank goodness!

I've been reading that even in optimal pastured situations, less than a quarter of the chickens are willing to brave the great outdoors at any given time.  I can just imagine farmers prodding Cornish Cross out the door of the coop --- "When I was your age, chickens played outside!  No TV-watching, couch potatoes on my farm!"

Repeated studies have shown that adding trees or bushes to a pasture entices more chickens outside.  Now I know why.  Could our forest pastures be the reason we've never had a hawk attack until now?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy so they can sprint for cover.
Posted Sun Oct 16 08:46:00 2011 Tags:

Golf cart battery cable repair update notesLast year I posted on how we repaired a battery cable on the golf cart with a 2 dollar copper connector and saved a little money.

I don't think I got the connector crimped good enough and it may have contributed to the battery terminal melting.

The pre-made cables are just a few dollars more than the replacement connector, but at the time it seemed like a good short cut that would save a trip to the store.

I'd say our crimping tool wasn't made for those large connectors. If I had it to do over again I might have used a table vice to squeeze the connector better, but any future cable problems will wait till we can get the proper pre-made cable.

Posted Sun Oct 16 17:04:45 2011 Tags:
Baby fig

Chicago hardy figOur Chicago Hardy Fig grew beautifully in its first year and would have given us some ripe fruits if our growing season had been just a month or two longer.

My winter-protection of autumn leaves enclosed in some of that green plastic trellis material I love so much worked great, but I unwrapped the tree prematurely in the spring.  The tender buds were nipped by a late frost and the fig had to regrow from the ground, which is probably why it got such a late start on fruiting.

The jury's still out until I taste a homegrown fig here in zone 6, but I have high hopes that the tiny tree will come through for us next year!

Our chicken waterer turns the modern chicken coop into a clean, healthy environment.
Posted Mon Oct 17 07:44:28 2011 Tags:
Groundhog in treeBarking up the right tree

Last year at this time, I got my urban homesteading correspondent (aka Mom) to write up a lunchtime series walking you through her garden.  This year, I simply stole her camera, which was full of stunning photos, like this series showing her dog chasing the resident groundhog up a tree.  (Clearly, the lesson to be learned here is --- keep your camera out of my hands or face the consequences.)  I hope you enjoy the urban homesteading tips that will show up here at lunchtime for the rest of the week!

Want more reading matter sooner?  My 99 cent ebook presents fun and easy projects to turn your home into a homestead.

This post is part of our Tips from the Urban Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Oct 17 12:00:57 2011 Tags:
Do it yourself low budget sledge hammer holder

    A rubber coated storage hook feels like it was born to hold a sledge hammer.

Posted Mon Oct 17 14:15:25 2011 Tags:
Mushroom raft

Dirty shiitakesThe good news is that our mushroom rafts started producing like crazy once we got a few rains and temperatures dropped to more autumnal levels.  I was surprised to discover mushrooms even on the logs that didn't fruit last year --- being close to the earth seems to rejuvenate mushroom logs with even a hint of life left in them.

The bad news is that the mushrooms we harvested were pretty filthy.  Mushrooms are one of the few foods that you really can't wash since they'll soak up the wash water and go soggy.  I wiped the shiitakes harvested from our rafts vigorously with a damp cloth, but there was still quite a bit of debris left on the caps.  Good thing we're not very picky eaters.

Our mushroom totems had a bit of the same problem since mushrooms tend to pop out in the dampest portion of the log, which is also the region closest to the ground, but careful Mushroom totemplucking seemed to minimize the dirt.  Now that weather is a bit cooler, the oyster mushroom totems have started fruiting all up and down their length, resulting in a much cleaner product.

Baby mushrooms

I'm still weighing the pros and cons of mushroom rafts and totems vs. the more intensive log-soaking methods we'd used previously.  I don't think I'll repeat our mushroom rafts, but the totems have a lot of selling points if you can put them in a damp, shady location.

Our chicken waterer takes the guesswork out of clean, clear water.
Posted Tue Oct 18 07:39:09 2011 Tags:

Goose poopLooking for fertility for your small urban garden?  Search no further than your local golf course or park.

Canada Geese love these "lawns" and they camp out on the grass spreading their manure.  Park managers will nearly always be more than thrilled if you scoop some up (just like bagging your dog's poop during an urban walk) and bring it home to mix with a high carbon material like leaves.

Goose manure is about 77% water and has a fertilizing value of about 2-4-2 when dried.  That means a lot of high quality phosphate, which is hard to find in plant-based compost.  Of course, goose poop is a bit too strong to apply directly to your plants, but you can either add it to your compost pile for a dose of nitrogen or mix with mulch for a spring boost around perennials.  Another alternative would be to water down the goose poop to make a manure tea for feeding house plants, especially greedy eaters like dwarf citrus.

While you're fertilizing your garden, you'll even be helping the local watershed.  Phosphates from concentrated masses of goose poop can cause algae blooms in nearby waters and end up killing fish and other life.  Scooping poop can keep the water clean and your garden green.

My newest 99 cent ebook lists a host of other free and cheap sources of compost and mulch.

This post is part of our Tips from the Urban Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Oct 18 12:01:01 2011 Tags:
making creek steping stones with cinder blocks

Anchoring down these cinder blocks has our creek crossing feeling twice as stable as before.

It's a project we've been putting off for years.

I still doubt if we get any trick or treaters this year brave enough to hike across the creek, through the woods, and back to our trailer for a piece of candy.

Posted Tue Oct 18 17:38:44 2011 Tags:

TatsoiI think of October as "putting the garden to bed month."  It's a bit of a misnomer because my garden never sleeps.  Even though the summer crops are nearly done, the mule garden is vibrant with half a dozen varieties of leafy greens, lettuce, and the few broccoli and cabbage plants that germinated in the summer heat.  There are carrots bulking up, garlic and potato onions already poking out of the ground, and beds and beds of oat and radish cover crops.  Strawberry leaves will stay green all year if I can protect them from the deer and parsley and Egyptian onions will feed us fresh herbs through the winter.

Diverse gardenSo I guess I should call it "weeding and mulching month."  The goal is to get every weed out of the garden before it goes to seed and then to cover any patches of bare ground with mulch.  I never quite achieve that dream before cold weather makes weeding an act of cold finger stoicism, so near the end I tend to cut corners and just toss mulch on top of small weeds without rooting them out.

In the spring, I can tell the difference.  Beds in which I took the time to dig out dandelion roots rather than just snapping off the leaves are much less work for the rest of the year.  On the other hand, if I toss a heavy coat of straw down on top of tiny chickweed and dead nettle seedlings, I always regret it since the weeds manage to make their way up through the mulch and have to be removed...along with half the straw.

Our two month old chicks are helping speed the process along, picking out any chickweed and sourgrass that come up in my garden beds.  (They've also been eating a Chickens weed gardenfew of the last tomatoes, but are otherwise well-behaved on threat of losing their garden privileges.)  The abnormally warm fall weather is also a bonus.  But I've still got nearly two-thirds of the garden to manicure, so I'm not making any bets on this being the one year I treat the whole garden properly.

In a way, I'm chomping at the bit to start working on our long term, winter projects.  On the other hand, I know I would give just about anything to enjoy a sunny day of warm-fingered weeding in February, so I'm enjoying the garden while I can.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy so they can spend their time ranging through the garden in search of food.
Posted Wed Oct 19 07:43:35 2011 Tags:
Goldfinch on primrose

GoldfinchOn our farm, it doesn't take any work at all to attract wildlife, but city gardens are very different.  Without acres of woodland and hayfields to make them feel at home, you need to leave some weedy patches to give wild animals hiding places and food.

Mom is a master of the art of blending in well enough with the neighborhood aesthetic while still attracting birds, butterflies, and more to her small urban lot.  She likes to let wild goldenrod and asters bloom here and there to feed all kinds of beneficial pollinators and will often allow flowers to go to seed rather than deadheading.  I think the goldfinch who showed up on these evening primrose pods is even prettier than the flowers that once graced the plants.

Other ideas for attracting wildlife to an urban yard include:

  • Squirrel at bird feederWater --- a bird bath or small pond will be a gathering spot for everything from insects to birds.  Just make sure you keep mosquitoes at bay by either adding fish to the water or allowing it to dry up regularly.
  • Cover --- Bushes or clumps of tall grasses (like pampas grass) make animals feel safer.  To attract a wider range of animals, add brush and rock piles (but only if you're willing to work around snakes.)

Of course, there's always some wildlife you might prefer not to attract --- like this squirrel that eats up all the bird feed --- but, overall, your garden will be more resilient if it's more diverse.  So leave some weedy edges and give the earth room to breath!

My 99 cent ebook 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.

This post is part of our Tips from the Urban Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Oct 19 12:01:02 2011 Tags:

tips for using cinder blocks as stepping stones for a creek crossing

It started raining during our cinder block stepping stone project today.

Looks like the creek is now up a good 2 or 3 inches.

I would have preferred the cement I mixed yesterday to have another day of drying, but it seems to be holding up pretty well.

Posted Wed Oct 19 16:44:39 2011 Tags:

DehydratorHas our dehydrator paid for itself?  Probably not yet, but we've only had it around four months.

I've made about 6 cups of dried mushrooms, 12 cups of dried summer squash, and 11 cups of dried tomatoes.  That doesn't sound like much, until you figure that dried foods take up perhaps a quarter of the space of fresh foods, so the dehydrator has processed around 7 gallons of vegetables already!

During peak tomato drying season, I realized that I could slide in some fruit leather for Mark after the dryer had been running for a couple of hours and kill two birds with one stone.  Tomato halves are a bit too tall to allow me to put a tray on each shelf of the dehydrator, but they soon shrink down to more moderate dimensions.  Then I can add four trays of applesauce to perk up my hard-working husband.

Black-staining polyporeWe also learned that the delicious (but extremely chewy) black-staining polypore mushroom can be easily broken into tiny pieces after dehydrating.  The result is small enough chunks that you don't spend all afternoon chewing, especially if you simmer the dried and powdered polypore for a few hours in a pot of vegetable soup.

Of course, the real reason we got the dehydrator was to preserve homegrown fruit.  Strawberry season had just ended when we took the plunge, and if we'd had the tool previously, I wouldn't have given away a couple of gallons of berries and lost perhaps another half gallon to improper conditions during one of my rounds of drying in a sunny car.  (We still ended up putting away 23 cups of strawberry leather using the car method, so it's hard to complain.)  And then our peach tree failed us, so we didn't have any summer fruit to dry.  If our strawberries and peaches bear well next year, then the dehydator will pay for itself.

Our chicken waterer saves you hours of cleaning filthy waterers.
Posted Thu Oct 20 08:16:22 2011 Tags:
Frost protection supports

Fall weather is so variable that if you dodge the first frost, you can sometimes enjoy summer garden bounty all the way until Thanksgiving or later.  In my most recent 99 cent ebook, I explain how to make quick hoops for under $50, but in many cases, something quicker and cheaper is called for.  That's why I loved Mom's frost protection method, shown here.

Blanket over garden

The idea is to drape a blanket over your plants without crushing them.  She set up some five gallon buckets and boards to make a frame over her summer squash, tomato cages did the job on the other end of the garden bed, and the porch railing made a support elsewhere.  Add a blanket and get instant protection from light frosts.

Garden frost protection

Green tomatoOf course, with a system like this, you'll need to wait to put the blanket in place until dusk and then take it off the next morning since light won't pass through.  I think Mom didn't mind the extra work, though, to keep enjoying tasty squash and tomatoes.

Yellow squash

Thanks for the photos and idea, Mom!

This post is part of our Tips from the Urban Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Oct 20 12:01:05 2011 Tags:
Experimenting with Rockite in a stepping stone project

Once upon a time I worked for an industrial fence company, and sometimes we had to set a fence post in sub-freezing conditions. The trick to making this work is to mix in just the right amount of Rockite with the Ready-Mix concrete. The Rockite helped to speed the process along, preventing the mixture from freezing.

I decided to apply this technique to the creek stepping stones where I filled in the holes of each cinder block with 1 part Rockite to 8 parts Ready-Mix. A few of the holes had a fence post driven through them to act as an anchor.

It seems like it worked, but I won't know for sure until I see how well they stand up to the constant pressure of our creek.

Posted Thu Oct 20 15:58:59 2011 Tags:

Potted persimmonThe good news is that I now have one beautiful little American persimmon growing in our chicken pasture.  The bad news is that I started with 40 seeds last fall.  What happened?

The seeds came from a variety of sources (thanks, Lisa, Frankie, and Mom!) and I think I should have been more careful about how the seeds were handled.  The one seed that sprouted came to me inside a freshly picked persimmon, while many of the unsprouted seeds arrived flesh-free.  Persimmon seeds can die easily if they don't stay moist, so I think it's quite possible that some of the seeds I planted weren't even viable when I put them in the ground.  In future, I'll be sure to only plant seeds that have been inside a fruit, in the gut of an animal, or inside a damp baggie.

Since I had so many persimmon fruits from Frankie, I put about a dozen seeds in some Persimmon seedlingwater to ferment off the flesh the way you do with tomatoes or cucumbers.  I was hoping that the fermenting process would make the seeds more likely to sprout, but none of that batch made it.  Fermenting persimmon seeds doesn't seem to be helpful.

Finally, I think the biggest problem was my planting method.  Persimmons hate being transplanted and are supposed to be very dependent on native forest mycelium, so I dug up some soil out of the nearby woods, put it in pots, and planted the seeds inside.  Over the winter, these pots were sitting outside to stratify the seeds, and the frost heaved the soil until many of the seeds ended up sitting on the surface and drying out.  Since persimmon seeds don't sprout until far into the summer, I forgot about the pots and the seeds had another chance to dehydrate.  If that combination of mismanagement didn't kill all of the seeds, it surely must have knocked back the soil fungi, so my low germination percentage is no big surprise.

Tree protectionThis year, I plan to remove persimmon seeds from the fruit, wrap them in a damp cloth inside a ziploc bag, and let them stratify in the more controlled refrigerator environment.  Only in the spring will I take them out and put them in pots (in a more noticeable location!)  Alternatively, if I didn't think I'd lose track of them, I could just plant several seeds in each place where I want persimmons to grow, then thin back to one plant per patch next summer.

All of these should'ves aside, I think the one persimmon seedling I set out this week will do quite well.  Of course, I have to wait 4 to 8 years until I know whether it's a useless boy or a useful girl....

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Fri Oct 21 07:51:37 2011 Tags:
Drying clothes on the line

ClotheslineBefore Errol made my first T-structure clothesline, at the Farm (like yours), I had strung heavy wire going up the ditch behind the house, some of it tied to branches, I guess, that hung over the electric fence on the other side of the ditch.  When I had heavy things, like Errol's jeans, or maybe big towels or even quilts or blankets, the line would sag --- as it does in your first photo.

I had already learned, from Mrs. Vespa and Onie, to
use tall props, which is one reason I still keep my eye out for fairly straight branches over 8' long!  My props were sometimes 10' long, and the best had a fork at the end, for the line to rest in. These were essential, for raising up the heavy load (the worst part of hanging out is if any drops in the mud!!)  Clothes dry so much faster if higher off the ground!  (Which is why I drape the socks and underwear on the high bars of my reel.) 

When Errol made the T-frame, I went down to Onie and said, "He is trying to domesticate me!" I loved my rambling line!!

In winter, especially, it is easier to dry sheets if you do NOT hang over the line (for they can freeze to the line)!  And if you fold the wet sheet in half, then in Carrying laundryquarters, it is easier to unfold and hang, out in the cold.  One of the ways I was taught to hang out was to organize the clothes before going out, as one takes them out of the washing machine (or, in your case, as you rinse and wring) --- so you have a pile of underwear that you already know where you will hang, and have the better clothes sort of shaken out and folded conveniently ready to hang.

You really need to be particular, on damp days, or if you have alot to hang out and hope to be re-using your line the same day!  Not bothering to make sure the clothes are completely right-side out, even, for example if you wash them wrong-side out; and not shaking them out so they don't clump, but are flat.  Those two rules, plus the awareness of drying high, if possible, and not draping over the line, in the winter, unless you plan to turn the article for the underside to be dried.  These are my life-tested rules!

Learn the basics of hanging your clothes out to dry in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our Tips from the Urban Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Oct 21 12:01:10 2011 Tags:
how to make solid stepping stones in the middle of a creek on a low budget

The final phase of our creek stepping stone project is now complete.

It was just under 50 dollars when you total up all the supplies.

I would say the labor was 80 percent hard work mixed in with 20 percent of playing in the creek.

Posted Fri Oct 21 17:12:04 2011 Tags:
Stovetop distilling

CondensationThe November volume of Weekend Homesteader is going to have a section about stocking up on drinking water for short term emergencies.  As I wrote, I started thinking about how people could deal with unsafe water if their stores ran low and they had to pull water out of a creek or lake.  One government website suggested distilling as the safest solution, and provided a relatively painless method of distilling small amounts of drinking water for home use.

Distilled waterFind a pot with a domed lid that ends in a knob handle.  Fill the pot partway full of water, place a mug in the middle, then put the lid on upside down.  When you bring the water to a boil, condensation gathers on the bottom of the lid, then drips down the handle and into the mug.  I tested the method on our electric stove, but the same theory would work on the wood stove if the power was out.

What do you think --- would you try distilling water in an emergency situation if the only liquid available seemed too gunky to simply boil or add bleach to?  I had fun experimenting, but have to admit that the mug and lid jiggled around like crazy and I only ended up with a couple of tablespoons of water in the five minutes I allotted to the project.  I'd be curious to hear what your long term backup water plans entail (assuming you don't already drink out of a spring or well.)

Our chicken waterer provides pure, clean water for your flock.
Posted Sat Oct 22 08:53:07 2011 Tags:
Rooster in the bush

We've been letting our new flock free range in the forest behind their pasture lately and last night was the first night they didn't come home to roost.

Free ranging gives them more variety while letting the pastures recover, but now I'm going to be inclined to herd them towards their coop when it starts to get dark.

Posted Sat Oct 22 18:26:53 2011 Tags:

Pressure cannerHere's the right way to start oyster mushrooms from scratch:

  • Make a "clean room" into which spores of other mushrooms can't invade.
  • Mix up some agar and make sterile petri dishes.
  • Add a tiny section of oyster mushroom to each dish.
  • Once the spawn runs across the petri dish, make sure nothing else is growing on the dish.  If you haven't created a clean culture, throw it away and start again.
  • Fill clean canning jars about halfway with roughly equal quantities of grain and water.  (0.45 pounds of wheat or rye and 0.9 cups of water is about right.)
  • Put sterilized filters on top of each jar so that air can come and go but fungi spores can't.
  • Let the grain soak overnight, then cook the jars at 15 PSI in a pressure canner for an hour.
  • Sterilizing grainMove the pressure canner to the clean room before opening.
  • Let the grain cool.
  • Cut the petri dish (with spawn) into sections and add some to each jar.  You can get away with adding 3% spawn by weight, but if you've got it, 10% to 20% is much better.
  • Shake the jars to mix the spawn into the cooked grain.
  • Incubate at 75 degrees Fahrenheit for two or three weeks until the oyster mushroom spawn has fully colonize the grain.

Stem butts in grainMaybe it's just me, but that procedure sounds pretty intense and far beyond the average backyard mushroom-grower's reach --- and I didn't even mention the part where you use the grain spawn to inoculate the fruiting medium!  Extreme measures are needed to keep one strain of mushroom pure for a big mushroom company, but what if you just want to expand your existing mushroom log collection slightly?

Last year, I experimented with growing oyster mushroom spawn on cardboard.  The jury's still out on whether that worked --- the trouble with mushroom experiments is that you often have to wait years before you find out if you were successful.  So I decided to experiment with a medium-tech way of growing oyster mushroom spawn in case the low-tech cardboard method doesn't pan out.

The vigor of oyster mushrooms (and the fact that I'm not planning on expanding my spawn more than once) allows me to ignore some of the sterility precautions.  Rather than jumping through all of the hoops outlined above, I simply soaked some leftover wheat Mushroom spawn areaovernight in open quart jars.  Next, I cooked the jars in the pressure canner at 15 PSI for an hour.  Once the grain had cooled, I spooned some into a couple of ziploc bags, leaving the jars halfway full.  Then I mixed in a bunch of oyster mushroom stem butts I'd collected off our bountifully fruiting mushroom totems this week.  I left the tops of the bags and jars open, but draped a damp cloth over them in hopes of keeping the contents moist.

I'm sure plenty of "weed fungi" got into the grain in my completely unsterile work area, but I suspect the oysters will outcompete those weeds pretty quickly.  As long as the spawn that appears is white, doesn't look greasy, and smells right, I'll assume my technique worked.  Then I'll be faced with an even bigger dilemma --- what to do with two gallons of oyster mushroom spawn when it's too late in the year for outside inoculation!

Our chicken waterer gives your flock something to peck at during long winter days so they don't peck at each other.
Posted Sun Oct 23 08:41:21 2011 Tags:
How to extend daylight hours for laying hens in a coop

We installed a light in the main chicken coop to extend daylight hours which in turn should stimulate egg production.

A timer turns it on around 5pm and off at 10.

It took about a week to start seeing an increase from one egg per day to an average of three.

Posted Sun Oct 23 15:32:48 2011 Tags:
Lemon scionwood vs. rootstock

Trifoliate orange cuttingsThis summer, our movie star neighbor proudly displayed dozens of dwarf lemons he had bought for a song.  The trouble was, every single one had sprouted from the rootstock, and the bushy growth of trifoliate orange was overshadowing the lemon scionwood.  I was itching to prune, so my neighbor kindly handed me the clippers and let me play.

Soon, the little lemon trees were revealed, and the ground was littered with dozens of Rooting softwood cuttingstrifoliate orange branches.  The opportunity to root this dwarf citrus species and use it to create more dwarf lemons was too tempting to resist, even though Mark reminded me that neither we nor our movie star neighbor have room for any more dwarf citrus plants.

There's the right way to root semi-difficult species like trifoliate orange, and then there's the homesteading way.  I tend to go for the quick and dirty methods that require no storebought supplies, even though these techiques give fewer successful results.  If I've only spent half an hour of my time and absolutely no money, who cares if only 10% of my cuttings make it?  With that in mind, I simply snipped the trifoliate orange cuttings down to four inch lengths and plopped them in glasses of water along with a few willow cuttings collected on the walk home.

Rooted cuttings

Next, I forgot about them.  The glasses of water dried up repeatedly, but I tended to remember to add fresh liquid before the cuttings really gave up the ghost.  Months later, I was shocked to see that three of my trifoliate oranges had grown hefty roots!  I potted them up in some composted manure and will graft on Meyer lemon twigs in a month or two, once our parent tree has ripened its lemons all the way and starts putting out new growth. 

And then I'll give the baby lemon trees away because Mark was right --- we really don't have room for any more potted plants.  But it sure is fun to make something out of nothing!

Our chicken waterer turns chicken chores into a joy by deleting the daily struggle with filthy water.
Posted Mon Oct 24 07:58:25 2011 Tags:

Greener pastures on your side of the fenceWhen I started experimenting with chicken pastures, I figured that since chickens weren't ruminants and don't graze the same way as cows and sheep, I didn't need to read up on pasture management.  As a result, I managed to make every beginner mistake possible. 

Reading Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence: Better Farming With Voisin Management Intensive Grazing by Bill Murphy spurred numerous epiphanies.  I realized that even if I was just providing prime pasture to grow grasshoppers that in turn would feed my chickens, I needed to use all the tricks possible to get the greatest amount of high quality forage out of my limited pasture area.  The nearly complete lack of growth in my pastures in July and August was preventable, and my chickens could have eaten more if the grass hadn't been allowed to go to seed and turn woody.

In fact, using Bill Murphy's guidelines of creating a pasture that contains 30 to 50% legumes, I might have been able to cut most of the expensive protein supplements out of our chickens' summer feed and simply provided free choice minerals and corn.  On a properly managed, intensively grazed pasture, protein content of the forage averages 22%, which is enough for all grazing animals.  Sure, our chickens couldn't break down the structural carbohydrates in the grasses, but corn (for energy) is much cheaper than soybeans (for protein.)

Management intensive grazingIf you're grazing ruminants, Bill Murphy's book is even more of a must-read.  He uses careful rotation to create a self-maintaining pasture that gets its nitrogen from animal manure and legumes.  Some of the benefits of his system include:

  • Costs as low as 1/6 that of feeding animals in confinement.
  • Higher yields of more nutritious forage than in continuous grazing situations.
  • Organic matter constantly being added to the soil and more soil bacteria and fungi than in any other type of agricultural land.
  • Lack of erosion since pasture is never allowed to degrade and create bare spots.
  • Three or four times as many earthworms as is in tilled soil.  In fact, if you keep legumes populous in your pasture, the weight of the earthworms under the surface may reach twice the weight of the livestock grazing on top!

This week's lunchtime series will cover the highlights of American management intensive grazing, but I highly recommend that you pick up Bill Murphy's book if you have any pasture at all.  This is one of the few books that will have a permanent place on my bookshelf as I peruse the data-rich graphs and tables over and over.

(By the way, the grazing photos in this series are from Throwback at Trapper Creek, whose beautiful and knowledgeable blog turned me onto the notion of high tech grazing.  As usual, click on the image to see the source website.)

Our chicken waterer quenches our chickens' thirst after a long day hunting bugs.

This post is part of our Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Oct 24 12:24:23 2011 Tags:
A talk concerning the birds and the bees

A bad melon is a bummer for us humans, but a big bonus for our birds and bees.

Posted Mon Oct 24 16:12:39 2011 Tags:
Chickens in garden

My garden soil feels very different this year than it has in the past.  I've never seen so many worms, especially the huge nightcrawlers that love a steady supply of mulch.  And I've never had soil so rich, dark, and alive.  After four years of maintaining soil, I feel like in 2011 I finally built soil.

I made three big changes in the garden over the last year.  I kept a constant straw mulch whenever possible, I doubled my application rate of horse manure compost to a full inch before every crop, and I slipped in cover crops whenever possible.

The plants responded with astonishing bounty, with one notable exception.  We had a terrible time with Mexican bean beetles this year, which I suspect is due to the high application rate of compost.  I've read that if you feed beans too much, the nitrogen in their leaves is in a slightly different form that's tastier to bean beetles than if they'd made the Green beansproteins by fixing nitrogen out of the air.  I tested this hypothesis by planting my last bed of beans with no compost at all, and that was the one bed where the bean beetles barely made any headway --- the insects were present, but were darker in color and seemed to be growing much more slowly.  The beans, on the other hand, grew vigorously and churned out dozens of dinners.  The experiment was far from definitive because the lower bean beetle vigor could have just been due to the decline of the gardening year, but I think I'll cut back on the compost going to my beans next year.  For the rest of the garden, though, I wouldn't change a thing.

Find time for self-sufficiency with my 99 cent ebook.
Posted Tue Oct 25 08:16:17 2011 Tags:
Mob stocking

At its best, management intensive grazing mimics the ecology of a native prairie.  Quick bursts of heavy grazing result in pastures that are extremely diverse, often hosting up to 30 plant species.  Trees and shrubs don't have a chance to get a foothold the way they do in pastures that are continuously grazing with low numbers of animals, and the grasses and legumes produce a lot more leaves than they do when you're grazing continuously with lots of animals.  From an animal's point of view, the result is much higher quality forage and a lot more of it.

Optimal grazing window

The image above shows how putting animals on your pasture only during the optimal grazing window produces the maximum amount of forage of the highest nutritional value.  The far left side of the graph shows what happens if grass is grazed nearly down to the ground --- at first, the plant grows very slowly because it has to use up stored energy in its roots to create new leaves.  As the leaf area becomes large enough to grab energy straight from the sun, the plant grows faster and faster.  But then the plant decides to flower, so it slows down leafy growth in order to push some energy toward blooming.  After a certain point, the plant isn't making any extra leaves at all because it has gone to seed.

Pasture bouquetTo get the most from your pasture, you must keep your plants between the two stages marked with red lines in the diagram.  You never graze the pasture so low that the grasses have to pull too much energy from their roots and you never let them get so tall that they start to bloom.  For poultry, sheep, goats, and pigs, you should let the grass grow until it's 3 to 4 inches tall, then graze it down to 1 to 2 inches tall before repeating the cycle.

Bill Murphy has experimented with various methods of renovating poor pastures, and has discovered that well-timed bouts of grazing of the sort outlined above are just as effective as costly campaigns of killing the existing sod and seeding new pastures, overseeding with clover, or alternating pastures with row crops.  Keeping the nitrogen content of the soil down and the grass grazed low enough favors clovers, and they seem to spring up on their own to fill in more and more of the pasture sward every year.  That means richer and richer forage for your grazing animals to eat.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.

This post is part of our Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Oct 25 12:01:05 2011 Tags:
making a driveway road out of cinder block 6 inchs at a time

Day 2 of our new driveway repair project went smoother than day 1.

I think I'm getting the hang of it.

Posted Tue Oct 25 16:39:56 2011 Tags:

Organic gardening statsOne of the rallying points of conventional agriculture is that organic farming can't feed the world.  They argue that we have to use chemicals and genetically modified crops if we want to feed folks who can't afford expensive organic produce.

The Rodale Institute begs to differ, and they carried out thirty years of side by side trials of conventional versus organic corn and soybean crops to prove their point.  According to Rodale's recent report, yields were similar for both organic and conventional crops, but organic crops had the benefits shown in the graph --- more profit for the farmer combined with less energy input and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Organic corn is more drought tolerant
The result I found most intriguing is the Rodale Institute's claim that corn yields were higher in the organic field during drought years than in the conventional field, even though the farmers had planted GMO "drought tolerant" seeds for the latter.

Rodale's website mentioned that they had also run tests on the difference between organic crops fed by manure and organic crops fed by legumes, as well as comparing both organic and conventional no-till techniques to tilled soil.  I was intrigued to see the results of these trials, so I dug deeper, looking for numbers.  And was surprised to find no data except for a few pretty graphs on the whole website.

The lack of data felt a bit fishy to me, even though Rodale listed 46 peer-reviewed articles about their trials.  The Rodale Institute is one of the oldest supporters of organic farming, and I have to wonder if they chose not to go public with their data because there were some bad results they didn't want to share with the public.  Are there negative aspects of their organic trials that they simply chose to sweep under the rug?  I hope not, but a more fact-filled website would go a long way toward setting my mind at ease.

Weekend Homesteader presents easy and fun projects to guide you on the path to self-sufficiency.
Posted Wed Oct 26 07:57:34 2011 Tags:

Pasture recoveryOne of the tricky parts of rotational grazing is figuring out how long to let your livestock stay in a paddock (the occupation period) and how long they need to be somewhere else before they can come back (the recovery period.)  If you get the recovery period wrong, you may end up with only a third as much forage from your pasture, and if you get the occupation period wrong, your pasture will be dominated by unpalatable plants.

The occupation period will depend on how many animals you have in the paddock --- fifty chickens will eat the grass down to 2 inches faster than five chickens will.  In a perfect world, you should graze small enough areas that the occupation period is only a day or two long, but up to six days is okay.  Occupation periods over six days are problematic since your animals will start to be selective about what they eat and will graze new growth, which eventually makes the plants your animals don't like take over the pasture.

Recovery periodThe recovery period depends on the season.  Lush spring pasture may grow fast enough that it's ready to be grazed again in two weeks, but the cool season grasses in most of our pastures slow down as summer sets in.  This graph shows the recovery period for an intensively grazed pasture in West Virginia, with recovery periods ranging from a low of 11 days in June to a high of 44 days in October. 

Bill Murphy stresses the point that you have to learn your own pastures and not depend on his facts and figures.  The best way to determine the proper occupation and recovery period is to keep an eye on pasture growth every day.  When the grass has grown up to three or four inches tall, move your chickens in.  When they've eaten it down to one or two inches, move them out.  That way you won't end up with the pasture problems I'll discuss in tomorrow's post.

Our chicken waterer never spills on uneven pasture.

This post is part of our Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Oct 26 12:01:07 2011 Tags:
First-Up temp tent failure when using for straw protection

We thought this First-Up temp tent would be good enough to protect our straw.

It did great most of the summer, but high winds got the better of it back in late August and we've been ignoring it ever since.

I doubt if I could fix it good enough to be folded back in travelling mode, but it might be possible to make repairs in a way that beefs up the weak points. Maybe it will make it through a medium wind storm if it's tied down and tucked up next to the barn.

Posted Wed Oct 26 16:41:39 2011 Tags:
Fence chickens out of garden

I warned our Light Sussex chicks that the first time they started scratching up my mulch, they were going to be grounded.  Too bad they don't speak English.  At nine weeks old, the birds finally got hefty enough that they were able to work their toes under my straw and confuse my sprouting garlic plants.  Time for the temporary fencing to go back up, this time splitting the forest garden and woods off from the more delicate garden areas.

Lucy under apple tree

Lucy was a bit confused to have her stomping grounds split in half, but I'm sure she'll figure it out.  Walking a quarter of a mile around the pastures and barn to sit in the sun doesn't sound too tough if you're a stout farm dog.

Learn to make quick hoops to protect your fall garden in my 99 cent ebook.
Posted Thu Oct 27 08:03:46 2011 Tags:
Chickens in lush grass

This spring, the grass in our chicken pastures was growing faster than the flock could eat it.  As a result, I left the chickens in each paddock a long time to eat all that lush greenery, and by the time the girls got done with all three paddocks, the earliest grazed paddock had gone to seed.  That depressed our summer growth extraordinarily, resulting in over-grazed pastures all through the summer and fall, despite the fact that (on paper) our pasture sizes seemed more than adequate to handle the chickens living there.

This problem is very common in improperly managed, rotational grazing settings.  Bill Murphy suggests three ways to deal with lush spring grazing:

Set aside the excess spring pasture and cut it for hay.  On a large scale, you can simply keep the livestock out of several paddocks and then go through with the tractor to cut hay (preferably when the grass is no more than 10 to 12 inches tall so that it doesn't shade out legumes and slow regrowth.)  I suspect that on the backyard scale, cutting our small chicken pastures with the ninja blade or a scythe would be relatively painless.

Graze more animals in the spring.  We got a late start with our broilers this year, but if we'd had a bunch of hungry young beaks to fill when the pasture was growing like gang-busters, we could have used up the excess pasture that way.

Mow behind animals.  If you simply let your animals graze the lushest part of the pasture and rotate them at six days despite lots of plant matter being left, you can come in behind the animals and mow.  This is the most wasteful and labor intensive, but with a bagging mower you could be collecting those high nitrogen clippings for the garden.

Stockpiled pastureAssuming we get the spring overflow figured out, what do we do about the summer and fall slowdown?  The solution is to have more paddocks.  With our recovery period estimated to be 44 days in October and the maximum occupation period being 6 days, we'd need 9 paddocks to keep from grazing each area too soon.  Although that sounds tricky, I suspect that we could subdivide our existing pastures into much smaller sections using temporary fencing, perhaps using pathways created by a hoop of remesh to lead the chickens to each area at the proper time.

Of course winter is another matter entirely.  Bill Murphy recommends stockpiling summer growth to feed your livestock in winter, but non-ruminants won't get much out of dried grass.  We'll continue to experiment with annual grains, and will have to get creative if the pastures look bare in midwinter.

Our chicken waterer gives the flock something to do even if they run out of bugs.

This post is part of our Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Oct 27 12:01:10 2011 Tags:
using baseball glove oil on work gloves

The last time I used a special glove oil was a bit over 30 years ago in little league.

It takes just a small squirt to bring a stiff pair of work gloves back to life.

Posted Thu Oct 27 15:22:45 2011 Tags:

Quick hoop tomatoesWhen I set out my tomatoes in May, I wished I'd started a few more romas.  So I took cuttings from our biggest plants, rooted them in some water, and planted five extras on June 10.

The June plants grew great, but they had barely ripened a single tomato by the first frost warning at the beginning of October.  I hated the idea of losing all of those green tomatoes, so I cut the tomatoes off their stakes, spread them across the ground, and topped them off with a quick hoop.  Since I'd made several quick hoops in the spring and wasn't using them yet for the fall garden, it only took half an hour for the whole protection experiment.

I have to admit that I forgot about those tomatoes.  We had two small frosts and then two more serious frosts that nipped back all of the other tomatoes, and I figured the baskets of ripening fruits in the kitchen were the last of the year.

At least, that's what I thought until Mark came in with armloads of red beauties one evening.  He ended up picking about a quarter of a bushel of ripe or nearly ripe tomatoes off my protected plants, and there are still plenty more finishing up outside.  I guess quick hoops win one more battle over cold frames!

For step by step instructions about building quick hoops, check out my 99 cent ebook.

Posted Fri Oct 28 08:09:53 2011 Tags:

November cover Chilly November weather drives even the most hardy homesteaders inside.  But the onset of the cold season doesn't mean the end of fun homesteading projects.  In Weekend Homesteader: November, you'll learn to rotate garden beds to keep diseases at bay, to store drinking water for use during power outages, to put an entire chicken to use in the kitchen, and to bring in cash without going to the office.

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.

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

Weekend Homesteader paperback As usual, I'm also very glad to email you a free pdf copy to read if you don't have the spare cash, or just don't want to deal with downloading an app so you can read the ebook on your computer or phone.  Just email me with your request --- no strings attached.  Thanks for reading!

Posted Fri Oct 28 08:34:13 2011 Tags:

Kentucky bluegrassWhen I started my adventures with chicken pasturing, I tried to micromanage the pasture, adding in plants that I knew chickens liked to eat.  In stark contrast, Joel Salatin believes that the most important characteristic of chicken pastures is a very short sward and that the individual species aren't as important.  The list below introduces a few of the common pasture grasses and legumes that seem to combine both characteristics --- easy digestibility and the ability to survive close grazing or mowing.

Kentucky bluegrass is ideal for intensive rotational grazing because it can handle close grazing and some mismanagement.  The species wants to produce most of its growth in the spring and then slow down in midsummer, but with good management, Bill Murphy attests that you can get much more uniform yields.  Kentucky bluegrass shouldn't be confused with Canada bluegrass, which provides less and lower quality forage for livestock, but which does better in poor soil.

Perennial ryegrass is an ideal pasture grass if you live in zone 5 or warmer and can provide high nitrogen and moist growing conditions.  The leaves contain a lot of Perennial ryegrassnonstructural carbohydrates, which means they're very digestible and might be a good choice for chickens. 

Orchardgrass can handle moderate soil fertility and low moisture, but it tends to get tall and inedible quickly if not grazed carefully.  If you have orchardgrass, you'll need to graze early and often since chickens can't digest tough leaves.

Timothy has a lot of advantages, being very palatable, persistent, easy to establish, and tolerant of poor drainage.  However, the grass can't handle drought and has a low yield.  Timothy is a taller grass than the others mentioned here, but can tolerate close grazing.

White clover is the primary legume in management intensive pastures since it survives close grazing and grows quickly.  When mixing grasses with white clover, you need to graze or mow the grasses closely in the spring so that they don't shade out the legumes.

White cloverRed clover is more deep-rooted and can withstand drought, but is also more upright, so can't deal with close grazing.  Alfalfa is even more deep-rooted, but can't handle frequent grazing, requiring a 25 to 30 day recovery period even in the spring.

Gene Logsdon's All Flesh is Grass is sitting on my shelf waiting to provide my continued pasture education.  A quick flip through the book suggests that it will give additional information on good pasture species, so I'll write more on that topic later this fall.  In the  meantime, I'm inclined to believe that Joel Salatin and Bill Murphy know what they're talking about ---  even young, tender fescue leaves are probably more tasty to chickens than old bluegrass leaves from plants gone to seed.

Our chicken waterer is the other component in a healthy chicken diet, providing clean drinking water.

This post is part of our Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Oct 28 12:01:08 2011 Tags:
Saving money when buying cinder blocks

You can't tell from this picture, but these cinder blocks are rejected seconds from the factory.

I wouldn't want to use them for building a basement wall, but time has proven with our cinder block creek ford that slightly imperfect blocks are fine for driveway applications like this.

The perfect blocks are 80 cents compared to the seconds at 55. A savings that adds up when you do a few truck loads.

Posted Fri Oct 28 16:31:40 2011 Tags:
Potato harvest

We had an odd potato harvest this year.  Although I planted a few pounds at the normal March date, I saved most of my seed potatoes to go in the ground at the beginning of May.  A friend had told me that he waits to plant his potatoes until after the frost free date, which gives him full size tubers late enough in the year that he can dig them in cool weather.  We rarely want potatoes in the summer, so I figured a fall crop of potatoes sounded good and followed his lead.

At first, the experiment seemed to be paying off in spades.  A third or more of our early planted potatoes often rot in the cold soil before they start growing, but my May-planted beds were chock full of potatoes.  The plants grew like crazy...but they wouldn't die.  For those of you who haven't grown potatoes, you want to wait to harvest your main crop until the plants die back, which means they've hardened up the skins of the tubers and given the spuds longevity to last through the winter in your root cellar.  So, potatoes that don't die are a problem --- you can dig new potatoes, but not storage potatoes.

Resprouted potatoWhen our first hard frost came, the last plants started to wither, so I went ahead and dug our potatoes.  My underground adventure confirmed my hypothesis --- the potatoes produced in May and June had sprouted up new plants in July and August and started putting out a second round of tubers in September and October.  This sounds good --- double potatoes --- but is actually problematic.  Some of the older tubers had rotted after giving their strength to the new growth, and I hadn't thought to hill up the second round of potatoes (who hills their potatoes in August?!), so most of them were green on one side.

Here is the yield from the 6 pounds of potatoes I planted late:

  • 10 pounds of wounded potatoes (some injured by the spade, others just troubled)
  • 30 pounds of partly green potatoes
  • 49 pounds of good potatoes

PotatoesNow, to be fair, this is an awesome yield --- 15 times as many pounds of potatoes as I put in the ground!  Even if you just look at the good potatoes, the experiment paid off since one pound of seed potatoes turned into 8 pounds of good potatoes (versus the 6.5 pounds of good potatoes I got in previous years.) 

What I'm not sure about is how long the good potatoes will last.  Several of the biggest ones have hollow heart (which is a disorder characterized by exactly what the name suggests), perhaps because I hilled them up the first time with manure.  And the second round of potatoes might not have enjoyed enough growing time to harden off for storage.  And, of course, there's the problem that I'll have to cut all that green off the problematic potatoes.

So, interesting experiment, but I'm not sure if I'll repeat it.  Has anyone else had experience with planting potatoes late?

Our chicken waterer quenches your flock's thirst with POOP-free water.
Posted Sat Oct 29 08:53:30 2011 Tags:

Breadseed poppy flowersI finally got around to packaging up the seeds I've had drying on a shelf for the last few months, and realized I had enough interesting varieties for a second giveaway!  This month's selection includes:

  • Hungarian Breadseed Poppy --- Perfect for the stealth garden since these poppies are just as pretty as any flowers in your garden.  But then the pods swell to produce plenty of tasty poppyseeds for baking.
  • Clemson Spineless Okra --- Our favorite variety for flavor.  Okra flowers are so huge and showy that I could envision using them in your flower garden as an edible border --- a bit like Rose of Sharon.
  • Mung Beans --- Grow your own sprouting beans!  These are phenomenally easy to grow since bean beetles don't like them and you only have to pick the ripe pods a few times over the course of the summer.  We got about a cup of sprouting beans from one small bed, which will turn into quite a lot of meals.
  • Jersey Knight Asparagus --- One of our readers mentioned that his Jersey Knight "all-male" asparagus included one female plant, which prompted me to go outside and realize that one of my plants was female as well!  From what I've read on the internet, if you plant seeds from these females, you'll get nearly all male plants (with the associated higher yields), so I quickly gathered all the seeds I could.
  • Egyptian onionEgyptian Onions --- Yes, I do still have a heaping handful of top bulbs left, saved just for you!  One of my favorite (and most prolific) perennial vegetables.

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 November 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 Tuesday, November 1, to let me know you've entered, and I'll pick one of you at random on Wednesday morning to win the seed package.  Thanks in advance for helping spread the word about my newest ebook!

Posted Sat Oct 29 12:09:37 2011 Tags:
cube of 6 inch cinder blocks in the back of a truck

Our local cinder block factory is only 8 miles away, which is an important detail I left out of yesterday's post on saving money when buying rejected cinder blocks.

Another big advantage to getting blocks directly from the source is the ability to have them forklifted into the back of your truck. It just takes a few seconds to slide off the tailgate, which allows the forklift guy to push the cube back towards the wheel base.

Posted Sat Oct 29 16:23:51 2011 Tags:
Cuckoo Marans

I hear that normal Americans don't spend their Saturdays stalking chickens in the paw paw patch...

Egg yolks

...reading the future in egg yolks...

Light Sussex pullet

...and letting their chickens peck out the pan.

But who wants to be normal?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy, which keeps me happy.
Posted Sun Oct 30 08:29:16 2011 Tags:
wet bag of ready mix concrete

As long as I can remember Ready-Mix concrete has come in paper bags.

I'm thinking they could use something more sturdy... like the material our cat, dog, and chicken feed bags are made of, but that would mean less waste, which would equal less profits.

Posted Sun Oct 30 15:56:48 2011 Tags:

Swiss chardAlthough leafy greens aren't as sexy as tomatoes, they make up the majority of our fresh diet for about six months of the year, so I figured it was worth trying to find the best varieties for our garden.  Here are the greens we're experimenting with this year.

Swiss Chard: Fordhook Giant --- I've never thought of Swiss chard as being very cold hardy, but I recently read that Fordhook Giant is more tolerant of cold weather than the colored stalk varieties I've grown in previous years.  Unlike the other greens detailed below, which were planted in August or September just for winter eating, this Swiss Chard was planted in the spring and eaten all through the summer.

KaleKale: Winterbor, Improved Dwarf Siberian, and Red Russian --- Kale is our favorite winter green since it tends to last the longest and taste the sweetest, so I'm trying out three varieties reputed to be especially cold hardy.  I have one data point so far --- the Improved Dwarf Siberian barely came up in the earliest planted bed, so perhaps it can't germinate in hot soil.


Tokyo bekanaTatsoi --- Germination seemed to be a bit spotty during the summer heat, but the plants that came up spread out quickly to cover all of the soil.  I really enjoy the almost cabbage-like shape of this Asian green, and the way it doesn't give any space for weeds to grow.

Tokyo bekana
--- The earliest planting (August 2) of this Asian green is starting to bolt, which doesn't bode well, but Mark and I enjoy the taste.

Mustard greens

Hakurei turnipMustard: Giant, Broadleaf, and Tendergreen --- Neither Mark nor I are big fans of spice, so mustard is our least favorite green for flavor.  However, I have to admit that mustard grows better in our fall garden than any other species (although in the past, it has died back much sooner than kale.)  I didn't research mustard as thoroughly as some of the other types of greens, just planting the varieties offered at our local feed store.

Turnip, Hakurei --- This small turnip is meant to be plucked at about the stage you see in the photo, then eaten with the tender tubers chopped up and mixed with the greens.  We haven't tried any yet, but will soon.

We'll decide on the best greens using two different metrics --- cold hardiness and flavor.  The best way to select for extreme cold hardiness is to leave your plants uncovered until temperatures drop down around 25, but we'll be erecting quick hoops this week.  Despite the protection, I think we'll see differences in how long plants grow through the winter and whether they last until spring.

A taste test is called for to decide on the most flavorful greens.  So far, I've just been mixing up pots of a bit of this and that, which is very tasty, but doesn't tell me which varieties fit our palates best.  Now that we've had several frosts to sweeten the greens, I'll pick a day to cook up a little bit of each one and have a greens tasting.  The question is, should I cook them up the way I usually do --- sauteed with a bit of oil and balsamic vinegar --- or just steam them lightly so that the distinctive flavor of each variety is most evident?

Our chicken waterer is easy to convert to a heated waterer that will keep your flock well hydrated through the winter.
Posted Mon Oct 31 08:14:06 2011 Tags:

Tomato blightYou've probably heard the term "garden rotation" before, but what does it mean and why do we do it?

Let's start with the example of early blight, a fungal disease that hits tomatoes in warm, damp weather.  Mainstream tomato growers spray anti-fungal chemicals on their plants to keep early blight at bay, but those of us gardening organically have to come up with another solution.  I won't go into the specifics of combating tomato fungal diseases organically here.  The relevant point is that once your tomatoes come down with early blight, the fungal spores can survive in the soil for years.  So if you plant tomatoes in the same ground next year, they're going to be infected with early blight nearly immediately and you may get no crop at all.

Okay, you say, that's not too tough.  I'll just move my tomatoes every year.  But here's the thing --- tomatoes and potatoes are in the same family, and they tend to share a lot of diseases.

Weekend Homesteader paperbackLate blight is a fungal disease that's much more devastating than early blight, but, luckily for us, late blight can only survive in living plant tissue.  Since tomatoes shrivel up and die at the first sign of frost, you don't need to worry about late blight being carried over from one year to the next...unless you grow potatoes.  Have you ever noticed that it's nearly impossible to harvest every tiny spud out of the soil, and that "volunteer" potatoes tend to pop up in the spot where you grew potatoes last year?  If you had late blight in last year's garden, those volunteer potatoes will spread the disastrous fungus to any tomatoes you plant nearby this year.  So when you choose the spot for your tomatoes this year, you want to make sure neither tomatoes nor potatoes have been grown there recently.

I could tell you dozens of interactions like this that you want to avoid, but garden rotation is really pretty simple.  If you grow a vegetable in a spot that hasn't been home to any plants in the same family for at least three years, then you'll cut down on insects and diseases drastically.  Wouldn't you rather spend an hour planning out your garden than battle sick plants all summer?

This week's lunchtime series includes one of the four projects from Weekend Homesteader: November.  Stay tuned for the rest of the series, or check out the 99 cent ebook for more information on how to store drinking water for use during power outages, to put an entire chicken to use in the kitchen, and to bring in cash without going to the office.

This post is part of our Garden Rotation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Oct 31 12:01:07 2011 Tags:
new shelf or the new Excaliber food dehydrator

It's funny how a new shelf can improve the mood and flow of a room.
Posted Mon Oct 31 16:30:20 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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