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

archives for 12/2011

Dec 2011
Stir fry ingredients

I'm monitoring my quick hoops carefully this fall to see their limitations.  So far, lettuce with no protection has turned into a slimy mess and tokyo bekana that's not under cover Chickens eating tokyo bekanahas been moderately nipped.  (Not so much that the chickens don't think it's a treat, though.)

Meanwhile, under the hoops, lettuce and all types of leafy greens are still going strong.  The Persephone Days are here, so my winter crops aren't actively growing, but I planted so many that I'll still have plenty to harvest for weeks yet as long as the quick hoops mitigate the cold.

Broccoli, however, is a goner even under the row cover fabric.  I picked the last head yesterday and had to cut off about half the florets due to freeze damage.  My guess is that broccoli needs more protection than a quick hoop when the outside temperatures get down into the twenties.  Still, it's hard to complain when I can make a whole stir fry (minus the spices and rice) straight out of the garden on the last day of November.

Our chicken waterer gives the flock something to play with during long winter days when snow is on the ground and they're cooped up inside.
Posted Thu Dec 1 08:08:29 2011 Tags:
insulated box from ground to trailer

It got well below freezing last night without affecting either water line.

That's big news for us and might indicate an end to breaking a hole in the top layer of ice on the storage tank when we need water on cold days.

The insulated box that goes from the ground to the trailer has a small door so we can access the water hose spigot when needed.

Posted Thu Dec 1 16:28:22 2011 Tags:

Wild oyster mushroomsI'm sometimes surprised by how bountiful the uncultivated portions of our farm are.  Thursday morning, I startled thirty wild turkeys who were hunting for bugs in our woods.  Then, while helping Mark split firewood, I looked up and saw this box-elder chock full of wild oyster mushrooms.  Taken together, the turkeys and mushrooms would have made a bountiful meal...if I'd had a gun with me on my walk and if the mushrooms weren't fifteen feet up in the air.

Luckily, we can recreate that bounty in a more easily harvestable fashion.  I thawed a homegrown chicken out of the freezer and plucked yet another flush of shiitakes off our mushrom raft.  Permaculture gives us the best of both worlds --- high quality meat fed partially from wild insects plus micronutrient-rich mushrooms grown on woods-harvested logs, all right at my fingertips.

Our chicken waterer makes care of the flock nearly as easy as hunting a wild turkey.
Posted Fri Dec 2 08:06:49 2011 Tags:

Weekend Homesteader: DecemberOnce you've chosen your emergency winter wardrobe, I recommend you spend the  majority of the cash you've set aside for this project on a good sleeping bag.  If you snuggle down inside a sleeping bag rated at 0 degrees Fahrenheit in all of the clothes mentioned above (minus the boots), you'll be warm as toast no matter what happens.

When choosing sleeping bags for power outages, you don't need to buy the expensive, light-weight versions meant for backpacking.  And as long as you keep your bag dry, the insulating material doesn't matter.  Instead, make your choice based on two characteristics --- temperature rating and style.

Sleeping bag temperature ratings should be taken with a grain of salt since a 0 degree bag probably won't make you very happy in a tent on a windy mountaintop at 0 Fahrenheit.  That said, lower ratings do mean warmer bags, so go as low as your wallet will allow.

There are two main types of sleeping bag styles --- mummy bags and rectangular bags.  Mummy bags are the warmest for one person sleeping alone since they follow the contour of your body when zipped up (and usually even include a hood to keep your head warm.)  But don't buy a mummy bag if you can't sleep in a confined situation ---- a zipped up rectangular bag will be warmer than an unzipped mummy bag.  In addition, make sure you choose a bag that's big enough if you're especially tall or wide.

Weekend Homesteader paperback If you regularly sleep with someone, you might want to choose a right and left handed pair of sleeping bags.  These bags can be used separately or can be zipped together to make a family-sized warm spot.

Don't just toss your sleeping bags into the closet while waiting for a power outage.  Rectangular bags can often be unzipped so they lie all the way flat and work as an extra comforter on your bed, allowing you to turn down the heat at night.  I enjoy slipping my mummy bag inside the sheets to give me something to snuggle into when I first get into my cold bed at night --- a sleeping bag heats up much faster than a traditional bed.

I hope you enjoy this excerpt from Weekend Homesteader: December.  The 99 cent ebook walks you through the basics of planting your first fruit trees, staying warm without electricity, understanding the uses of essential tools, and turning trash into treasures.  If you're interested in other aspects of basic emergency preparedness, Weekend Homesteader: November gives tips on storing drinking water and the upcoming Weekend Homesteader: January will cover backup lighting options.

This post is part of our Emergency Warmth lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Dec 2 10:48:42 2011 Tags:

Cooking outsideOne of the best things you can do to stay warm is to move around.  This will also raise your spirits during an extended power outage.  I've found that if I get up the courage to jump out of my toasty sleeping bag and into the cold air long enough to get fully dressed and give the dog a walk first thing in the morning, my blood has started pumping enough to keep me warm for an hour or more.  Of course, if you have a wood stove, splitting wood is a time-proven method of warming you twice.

If you're a little less hard-core, warm foods and drinks will also wake your body and  improve your mood.  It's easy to heat a pot of water on top of a wood stove to make tea or cocoa, and then you can make a pot of soup for lunch.  You can even pull coals out of the stove to cook on top of, as I did during a ten day power outage in 2009 when we had only an exterior wood furnace to keep us warm.  A propane camp stove will do the job even better.  No matter how you heat up your food and drinks, be very careful since synthetic fabrics are extremely flammable.

Finally, know the symptoms of hypothermia and keep an eye on young children or elderly family members who might not be self-aware enough to realize they're too cold.  Early symptoms include constant shivering; pale or blue lips, ears, fingers, and toes; clumsiness; slurred speech; stumbling; trouble thinking; and poor decision-making.  You should be very concerned if you or someone in your family experiences blue and puffy skin; inability to walk; incoherent behavior; stupor; a weak pulse; and slow, shallow breathing.  Don't risk it if you're experiencing even mild hypothermia --- find a way to get warm and dry immediately.

Beyond the basics

Huckleberry enjoys the fireAfter dealing with one too many winter power outages, we saved our pennies to buy and install an efficient wood stove.  I estimate the stove will pay for itself in lower heating costs within three or four years, we cook soup and beans on the stove even when the power's on, and the cats and I love basking in the radiant heat and watching the flames flicker inside.  You can read more about our choices by following these links:

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Weekend Homesteader: December.  The 99 cent ebook walks you through the basics of planting your first fruit trees, staying warm without electricity, understanding the uses of essential tools, and turning trash into treasures.  If you're interested in other aspects of basic emergency preparedness, Weekend Homesteader: November gives tips on storing drinking water and the upcoming Weekend Homesteader: January will cover backup lighting options.

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

Posted Fri Dec 2 12:00:58 2011 Tags:
high temp caulk after drying

It finally dried up enough yesterday for me to put a new coat of high temperature caulking on the first Jotul woodstove chimney.

I checked it today and it seems like a solid seal.

The real test will be the next time it rains.

Posted Fri Dec 2 16:26:39 2011 Tags:

The journalists who fell in the alligator swamp a year and a half ago recently posted a video of our farm on youtube.  It makes me a cringe a bit, partly because they got Mark's last name wrong, partly because of all the messy bits I didn't clean up (I didn't think they were coming in the house...), but mostly because it's just painful to listen to myself talk.  What I do find interesting, though, is to see how much the garden has changed in just a few months.  I keep meaning to post a video tour of the farm and not getting around to it, so maybe this will suffice for now.

Edited to add: Mark's name is now right --- thanks, Mimi!

Our chicken waterer was the purpose of the visit --- who can resist clean water?
Posted Sat Dec 3 08:41:57 2011 Tags:
how to manage your local raccoon population in regards to poultry

Racoons are cute, but they're also one of the top predators to worry about if you have chickens. has a system where he traps and cooks them. His suggestion for those who are not enthusiastic about raccoon stew is to trap the biggest one and take him to the vet to be fixed. Once he realizes your coop is secure he'll stop trying and keep other racoons out of his territory. Otherwise you end up with a fresh new crop of racoons each year who will want to have a try at your delicious chickens.

We've never had a problem with racoons thanks to Lucy's vigilante patrols.

Image credit goes to

Posted Sat Dec 3 14:14:06 2011 Tags:

Bulk grainsOur first foray into buying in bulk was only approximately 50% successful.  We saved a bundle on bulk cocoa and had no trouble using it up in good time, but the flours were more problematic.  Whole wheat flour (and other processed whole grains, like brown rice) are only good for six months, or considerably less if you live in a hot, humid climate like ours.  If you save 10% on the flour but have to give 25% of it to the chickens, that's a net loss.

I'm currently considering going a bit higher tech, buying wheat in its unprocessed form and a grain grinder.  (We do have a hand grinder, but I know that I wouldn't grind much wheat if it was my only option.  It's terrible on my wrists.)  The good thing about this option is that you end up with much higher quality flour since grains start to degrade as soon as they're ground.  In addition, untouched hard grains (like wheat and corn) can easily last a decade, and I'm pretty sure we could manage to go through 45 pounds in that time period.  (Soft grains, such as barley and oats will last at least six years.)

I suspect that many of you have already tried this out, and I'd love to hear your experiences.  Here are my primary questions, but feel free to ramble on about other things that are moderately relevant:

  • What kind of grain grinder do you use?  The Nutrimill and Whispermill have very good ratings, but both are micronizers, which means they basically explode the grain rather than grind it.  That has implications for bread-baking, and would also mean that all of our flour would be whole grain.  I want to be able to sift out the bran --- I know that whole wheat is better for you, but we've cut back our grain usage so drastically that it's more of a dessert, and I follow the French guidelines of eating the tastiest food in extreme moderation.  Which is a long way of saying that I'm considering the more expensive mills that grind grains on stones, such as the Komo Fidibus.  What do you think?
  • Where do you get your bulk grains?  Once you add on shipping, all of the online options are exorbitant.  I was shocked to see that Sam's Club sells wheat in plastic bucket for about 45 cents per pound, which is the best price I've seen short of the feed store.  Speaking of the feed store --- I know that Dolly Freed in Possum Living got her family's grain from the feed store, but I'm just not sure.  I'd like to know whether I'm getting hard wheat or soft wheat, and if I do end up buying one of the micronizers, I've read that a single stone can tear up your machine.  Ideas?
  • Where and how do you store your grains?

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Sun Dec 4 08:41:13 2011 Tags:
Chickens in the woods

Chicken keeping doesn't get much easier than free range chickens with an automatic heated chicken waterer.  Toss four cups of food to the seven hens and a rooster in the morning, collect four eggs that night.  The flock does all the work.

Posted Sun Dec 4 17:55:45 2011 Tags:

Sifting biochar out of wood ashesSome of my experiments fade away while others stand the test of time and become part of our daily routine.  Biochar falls into the latter category.

We haven't gotten around to making large amounts of biochar, but it's simple to sift charcoal out of the ashes from our wood stove whenever the ash bucket fills up (once or twice a month.)  Come spring, I'll soak the charcoal in urine to give it a dose of nitrogen, then add it to my soil.

This past growing season, I discovered that biochar gave early spring onion seedlings a leg up, probably due to absorbing sunlight and heating the soil.  The real benefits of biochar, though, will show up later when microorganisms move into their "condos."

For more information on biochar, check out some of my previous posts.  First, videos from the experts:

Next, my research and experiments with bringing biochar to the backyard:

I'm always looking for the permaculture low hanging fruit, and I'd put my biochar system on that list.  If you heat with wood, don't toss those hunks of charcoal!  Put them to work in your garden.

Our chicken waterer makes the backyard flock easy enough to be low-hanging fruit too.
Posted Mon Dec 5 07:28:17 2011 Tags:

Trifoliate orange is the most cold hardy citrus.What do you do if you want to grow as much of your own food as possible but you love oranges?  If you live in the Deep South, of course, you can plant oranges, lemons, and grapefruits in your yard and laugh at us northerners.  Even in zone 8, citrus grafted onto particularly cold hardy rootstocks (usually trifoliate orange) can survive outdoors with a little care.  Here in zone 6, though, our only outdoors choice is to plant trifoliate orange with nothing grafted onto it, and the fruits just aren't worth it.

Luckily, there is another way to grow your own citrus even in cold climates --- dwarf trees in pots that live inside over the winter.  Dwarf citrus trees stay just small enough that you can manhandle them inside for the winter, then you enjoy their color, scent, and fruits in a sunny window until spring.  The trees are naturally somewhat cold hardy, so you don't end up losing  your plants when you leave the door open for an hour on a winter day the way we did with our dwarf bananas.

The rest of this week's lunchtime series will explain the biology and care of dwarf citrus trees.  Be careful, though --- once you read about them, you'll want your own.  And it's hard to stop with just one.

Learn the basics of planting more cold hardy fruit trees in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our Dwarf Citrus lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Dec 5 12:00:54 2011 Tags:
how to secure multiple bales of straw and or hay atop a small hatchback car

The downside to ratchet strapping bales of straw to a car roof is the access issue.

Securing the straps with the door frame holds both doors closed and requires climbing in and out through the window.

Posted Mon Dec 5 17:00:36 2011 Tags:

Chickens eat tomatoesLast year, I was so excited to have homegrown tomatoes left at Thanksgiving.  This year, I gave the last of the house-ripened tomatoes to the chickens.

The truth is that even the best heirloom tomatoes taste an awful lot like storebought if they're picked green in October before the first frost and ripened inside.  It may sound crazy, but we'd rather eat delicious lettuce, leafy greens, and carrots at this time of year than a less than perfect tomato.

In fact, we're hardly even eating out of the freezer yet.  Even summer soup, frozen at its peak of perfection, doesn't hold a candle to the sweetness of November kale.  Maybe I'll replace my dream of a Thanksgiving tomato with a New Year's salad?

Our chicken waterer gives the flock something to peck other than each other during boring winter days.
Posted Tue Dec 6 06:00:46 2011 Tags:
So what, exactly, is a dwarf citrus?  How big is the tree?  Does it produce tiny fruits?  Can you grow one from seed?
--- Various readers

Dwarf meyer lemon treeNearly all dwarf trees get their size from the rootstock.  For citrus trees, that's usually a flying dragon trifoliate orange, which stunts the resulting tree down to around 10 to 12 feet tall.

You can use the bonsai effect --- a small pot and occasional pruning --- to miniaturize your tree further, down to about 4 to 5 feet.  Generally, if you want your dwarf tree to grow larger, you'll pot it up into a 25% larger container annually.  If you're happy with the size of your dwarf tree, wait until the tree has finished ripening up all of its fruits, then tip it out of the pot, cut off about an inch or two around the outside of the rootball, add some fresh soil to the pot, and put your tree back in.  At the same time, cut back about a third of the tree's branches so the top growth roughly matches the root growth.

Meyer lemon in the handThe scionwood (what you graft onto the rootstock) decides what kind of fruit you get.  That's why you get huge lemons from a dwarf Meyer lemon tree that's only two feet tall --- it's the variety, not the size of the tree, that determines fruit size.  Since some citrus varieties do better grafted on dwarfing rootstock than others, there's not the same range of fruit types available as dwarfs, but you can often find dwarf lemons, limes, oranges, tangerines, and grapefruits.  In some cases, the fruits are the same size as the ones you'd find in the grocery store, in come cases they're larger, and in some cases they're smaller --- it all depends on the variety.

Which brings me to the final question I often get about dwarf citrus --- can you grow one from seed?  You can probably answer that question yourself from the data I've already given you.  Remember, the rootstock determines how big the tree is and the scionwood is responsible for the fruits.  So, if I plant a seed from my dwarf Meyer lemon tree, the offspring is only going to get its DNA from the scionwood and will turn into a full-size Meyer lemon tree.

Find out how to keep your family warm during a winter power outage in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our Dwarf Citrus lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Dec 6 12:00:51 2011 Tags:
ratchet driver with socket attached

It took a few years of tightening and loosening these hose clamps with a flat head screwdriver before I realized a socket attached to a ratchet driver is the easy way to get the job done.

The flat head, sometimes called slotted, often gets distracted and wants to slip off at the worst possible moment.

Posted Tue Dec 6 17:00:33 2011 Tags:
Autumn olive fruit leather

Remember how I wrote about sampling some Autumn Olive fruits a couple of months ago?  I liked the flavor initially, but not the aftertaste.  So I wasn't too keen on trying my movie star neighbor's Autumn Olive fruit leather.  Boy was I wrong!  The beautiful leather was sweet, tart, and delicious, with no strange aftertaste at all.

My neighbor's recipe is almost too simple to post about.  He just sent the fruits through a foley mill to remove the seeds and mash them up, then dried them in his dehydrator.  No added lemon juice or sweetener of any sort.  I'm only guessing, but I suspect the aftertaste I American Harvest dehydratordidn't like was in the seeds, which is why the leather was pure ambrosia.

As a side note, our neighbor loves his American Harvest dehydrator.  It's round like those cheap ones that do nothing, but has heating elements at the top and a fan to force air through the trays.  If you don't want to spring for the top of the line Excalibur dehydrator we chose, this might be a good second best.

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to go out of town without worrying about your flock.
Posted Wed Dec 7 06:00:49 2011 Tags:

Tending young dwarf citrusIf you kill your spiderplants, you probably won't want to buy a dwarf citrus tree.  Potted citrus plants are going to produce quite a bit of food for you, so they require a proportionate amount of care.

In a perfect world, your citrus tree would like to have full sun.  Most growers move their plants outside into a sunny spot for the summer, but in the winter you'll need either a south-facing window or a grow light to keep your tree happy.  Although I've read that Meyer lemons want 8 to 14 hours of direct sun per day, our tree fruits quite well for us even though it probably only gets about 6 hours of real sun in the dead of winter.  But don't think you're going to be able to grow a dwarf citrus tree in a shady living room --- allot sixteen square feet in your sunniest window.

Pots and soil
Pot for a young dwarf citrusI like to start young dwarf citrus trees in pots like the one shown here.  The wide, bowl-shape is perfect since dwarf citrus produce very shallow roots and just ignore the soil in the bottom of deeper pots.  Once the tree needs more space, I'll pot it up into a 10 gallon pot, which is about as big as Mark and I like to go.  You'll get a beautiful tree and scads of fruits if you pot your tree up yet again into a 15 gallon pot, but it's dicey maneuvering such a huge plant inside for the winter.

If you're going to buy soil, there are special citrus blends available.  I like to make my own potting soil from a mixture of stump dirt, worm castings, and composted horse manure.  No matter what you do, don't dig up dirt out of your yard, put it in a pot, and expect your citrus tree to thrive.  In such a confined space, you need light, fluffy soil with a great cation exchange capacity, which generally means lots of organic matter (or vermiculite.)

Feeding and watering
Meyer lemon in larger potOnce your dwarf citrus trees get old enough to fruit (often in the first or second year), they are hungry eaters.  My neighbor gets awesome results with storebought chemical liquid citrus fertilizer.  I don't like to buy things, so I get nearly as good results by feeding my tree with watered down urine, compost tea, or worm tea (depending on what I have on hand at the time.)  For best results, feed your tree once a week in lieu of watering it.

Speaking of watering, citrus trees are like most house plants --- they hate getting too much water.  For best results, water your tree whenever the soil feels dry an inch or two below the surface.  (Just stick your finger into the dirt.)  Only water enough that you'll need to give the tree another drink in a week or less.

Another frequent mistake is to let your plant sit in a saucer of water so that the bottom third of the soil in the pot is saturated with water and unusable by the tree.  One way to get around this is to drill a few holes in the side of your pot an inch or so from the bottom.  Now your saucer will overflow if you water too much (oops), but you won't fill the plant's growing area up with water.

Indoors and outdoors
Meyer lemon on patioDwarf citrus trees fall prey to the usual banes of houseplants --- scale, aphids, whiteflies, etc.  You can go to great lengths to delete these pest insects, but I prefer a simpler approach.  As soon as the last frost has passed in the spring, I move my houseplants outside and let my garden's army of beneficial insects eat all the bad bugs up.

Growing your dwarf citrus trees indoors in the winter and outdoors in the summer has other benefits as well as insect control.  The extra sunlight gives your trees lots of energy to put out fruits, and rains naturally cleanse the leaves.  (Since citrus trees are evergreens, their leaves can become dusty if raised solely indoors.)

Don't move your citrus plants outside prematurely, though.  They can tolerate temperatures just above freezing for short periods, but prefer 55 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lemon on the treeHow (or whether) you prune your Meyer lemon depends on the size you wish it to attain.  In addition to the tips here, you'll want to prune away branches that cross or shade other ones, just like you would with a fruit tree outdoors.  You can also decide whether to prune your Meyer lemon into an erect tree shape or to let it grow as more of a bush with lots of branches that arch up and then droop down with the weight of their fruits.  If you choose the latter route, most auhorities suggest training to the three strongest trunks.

The only reason your tree would definitely need pruning is if it sprouts below the graft union.  Even if you can't pick out the scar on the tree's trunk where the scionwood was grafted onto the rootstock, you'll know the rootstock has sprouted if you see three-part leaves instead of simple leaves on your tree.  Prune back all of the rootstock sprouts and keep an eye on the tree since they  may come back.

Want easier fruit?  My 99 cent ebook shows how to plant the easiest fruit trees outdoors.

This post is part of our Dwarf Citrus lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Dec 7 12:00:37 2011 Tags:
man walk down muddy driveway with Ford Festiva in background on a semi cloudy day

2011 was a very wet year for our driveway.

One of the lessons learned was to be flexible. Being able to drop everything and shift into hauling mode when the ground dried up helped us to bring in several truck loads of organic inputs in spite of the rain.

We usually get a few windows of opportunity when the driveway freezes, but shoveling horse manure on days like that is a bit beyond my skill level.

Posted Wed Dec 7 17:00:41 2011 Tags:
Asian persimmons

Yes, I admit it --- one of my incentives for making the homesteading internship property a reality is to find a place to plant all of the persimmon seeds I've been accumulating this fall.  They seem to be jumping out of the woodwork, and I'm itching to put them all in the ground.

Coyote scatFirst came an intriguing package from down south.  Pulling out the ziploc baggies, I thought perhaps someone had sent me an early batch of Christmas candy.  But, not, it was one bag of very smelly coyote scat and another of whole persimmons.  I'll be excited to see which does better --- the seeds that went through the animal, or those that came straight out of the fruit.

Next, Mom brought me a batch of local persimmons.  Both of these first sets of seeds are from trees that fruit early in the year, which would make great pasture plants to fatten up fall broilers.

Fox scatOn the internship property itself, I got sidetracked from inventorying all of the land's features when I found this great fox scat on a log.  The scat had dried up and fallen apart, so I'm not sure whether the persimmon seeds I picked out will sprout --- time will tell.  (Most of the seeds in the photo are Red Cedar seeds, just in case you're wondering.)

Then came the piece de resistance --- my brother brought two ripe Asian persimmons to Thanksgiving.  The fruits yielded only one seed apiece, but I'm excited to give them a try for a handful of reasons.  First, Joey reports that the fruits are the non-astringent type of persimmon even when unripe, and I didn't think that type survived this far north.  Second, I've read that Asian persimmons grafted onto American rootstocks (like the ones I planted this fall) sometimes die suddenly, so I'm excited to try an ungrafted Asian persimmon.  And, finally, these are a later-ripening variety, perfect for stretching winter pasture.

I wrapped each seed in a damp rag inside a ziploc bag and stored them all in the fridge.  Hopefully that will work to stratify the seeds and they'll sprout well in the spring.  Thank you so much to each of my persimmon seed gatherers!

Our chicken waterer kits come with tips for heating your waterer for even easier cold weather care.
Posted Thu Dec 8 06:00:33 2011 Tags:

Meyer lemon flowerNow for the fun part --- blooming!  I suspect that some people get dwarf Meyer lemons for the beauty and fragrance of the blooms alone, not even caring about the fruits.  Other dwarf citrus plants have similar, but less showy, flowers, and the information below applies to all of the common species.

Meyer lemons can bloom throughout the year, but they tend to bloom the most in the winter, as do most other dwarf citrus trees.  That presents a problem since there are no bees flying around your living room to pollinate the flowers.  I've found that some flowers will self-pollinate (especially if you shake the tree a bit), but you'll get more fruits if you take a few minutes to hand-pollinate each new batch of blooms.

Tiny orange fruitThe flowers are ready to be pollinated when the pistil (green part in the middle of the flower) is shiny and the petals are lush and white.  Simply take a small paintbrush (or your fingertip) and gently tap the stamens of one flower to gather pollen, then tap the pistil of another flower to fertilize that fruit.  You'll have to repeat this procedure a few times over the course of the bloom since flowers open in stages, and some have already lost their petals (too late to pollinate) by the time the last ones have opened.

Another option --- but one I can't recommend --- is to open your window during a sunny winter day and let your honeybees in.  We did this last year because our worker bees could smell the flowers' aroma through the screen and wanted in for such a luscious winter treat.  The bees pollinated our tree beautifully, but couldn't figure out how to get back outside, and several perished.

Meyer lemonsNo matter how you pollinate the flowers, you'll know you've been successful if the flowers drop their petals but maintain the green ovary in the center.  The tree will naturally thin itself, dropping perhaps 75% of its flowers within a few days of full bloom.  Citrus trees generally go through a second round of thinning a few weeks later when the fruits are pea- to marble-sized.  After this second thinning, you may choose to thin a bit further so that there's no more than one fruit in each cluster.

Then you wait, and wait, and wait.  Our dwarf Meyer lemon generally takes about eight months to ripen its fruits, which gives us lemons in November or December.  You can tell the fruits are ripe by color (Meyer lemons should actually turn slightly orange) and by the lift test --- gently lift a fruit upwards, and if the fruit is ripe it will snap off the branch without any force on your part.  Give one fruit a taste and then pick the others if that one was juicy and sweet.

I won't bother to tell you what to do with the fruits.  They go far too fast because they're so delicious.  That's when you have to be careful not to buy five more dwarf citrus trees, requiring you to kick your kids out to take over their sunny room.

Learn the easiest ways to furnish your homestead with free tools and supplies in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our Dwarf Citrus lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Dec 8 12:00:50 2011 Tags:

trickle charger for boosting batteries over nightWe found this battery charger at a thrift store for 5 dollars back when we first started collecting tools.

It usually takes all night for a full charge compared to just a few minutes with the unreliable 5 in 1 portable power packs.

Makes me wonder if it's easier on the battery to do the slow trickle charge?

Posted Thu Dec 8 17:00:36 2011 Tags:
Oat cover crop

How easy can it be to build your soil?  This patch of oats proves that two minutes of planting in August can produce quite a bit of biomass.

Forest garden in summerYou may recall that our forest garden had grown up in a truly distressing fashion this summer.  After Mark whacked all of the weeds down with his weed eater, there was a lot of soil that had been shaded bare by the huge wingstem and other weeds.  I tossed handfuls of oats on the ground and ignored them, figuring they'd either come up or get eaten by birds.

I forgot to tell Mark about my experiment, so he mowed through some of the cover crops, but the patches he missed grew up quite nicely.  They kept down any late summer weeds and will probably provide semi-bare patches with a light coating of mulch come spring.  The soil won't be weed-free and rich enough to plant vegetables directly into but will probably be bare enough to plant a summer round of cover crops in the same quick and dirty fashion.  Those two minutes of gardening really paid off!

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Fri Dec 9 06:01:33 2011 Tags:

Dwarf lemonBy far, the most common dwarf citrus variety is the dwarf Meyer lemon.  This variety was grown in containers in China before being "discovered" by Frank Nicholas Meyer and brought to the United States, and it is probably the best-suited variety for indoors cultivation.  Meyer lemons can handle lower temperatures during fruit ripening, which is a factor that makes some dwarf citrus drop fruits during indoor winters.  We and our friends have had great luck with Meyer lemons and only spotty luck with other varieties, so if you want a sure bet, go for a dwarf Meyer lemon.

Variegated Pink lemon is another citrus well-suited to indoor growth.  Like Meyer Calamondin orangelemons, Variegated Pink lemons handle indoor conditions well, but the tree is slightly larger, making it hard to fit in your living room.

Trovita and Calamondin oranges are the easiest oranges to raise indoors according to some websites.  The Calmondin isn't actually a true orange, but a cross between a kumquat and a tangerine, so don't expect big fruits.  We've only tried Washington Navel orange, which has set its first fruits this year.  I'll keep you posted about whether the Washington Navel keeps those tiny fruits and turns into our second successful dwarf citrus variety.

Limes are interesting because you can grow them either for leaves or for fruits (or both.)  Kaffir lime is the variety most often grown for leaves used to season food.  We're Dwarf key limecurrently growing a Dwarf Key lime --- no fruits yet, and it's about the same age as the Washington Navel orange, but it's going to get another year of grace before we give up on it.

Grapefruit often need high heat to ripen fruit, so it's a bit tricky to grow them indoors.  Oro Blanco grapefruit is reputed to be delicious and also tolerant of indoor conditions.

Which dwarf citrus varieties have you tried and loved or hated?

Learn about the must have tools for every homestead in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our Dwarf Citrus lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Dec 9 12:00:38 2011 Tags:
thermostat pod details for an electric pipe heater

Our pipe heating cable has a thermostat pod encased in clear plastic.

The pilot light will come on when the temperature reaches 38 degrees or you can push down on the switch to activate it for testing purposes.

It's important to position the pod so that the switch doesn't get pushed in by any type of pressure, otherwise the unit will not shut off when it warms up.

Posted Fri Dec 9 17:14:10 2011 Tags:

My first chair, salvaged out of the creek in March 2004.I thought you all might be amused to see my ten year plan, written right after purchasing the property in October 2003.  Many of my goals were later mitigated by Mark's realism, but it's still fun to see how far we've gotten.


1. To have repaid the totality of the cost of the land.  (Need to hurry up and pay off the other $5,000 I owe my friend.  I seem to have forgotten about that debt in the excitement of living on the land.)

October 2005: Mark joins the team2. To be relatively self-sufficient, growing the majority of the food I eat. To live simply, cut off as much as possible from the consumer economy.  (We do grow nearly all of our vegetables and an increasing amount of our fruit and meat.  I know we don't live as simply as I had planned when I wrote my list in 2003, but I think we've reached a good compromise.)

3. To have a small cash crop, probably ginseng, possibly art or writing, to pay for cash expenses.  (Well, the ginseng got stolen by hunters and the art and writing don't really pay the bills, but the chicken waterers do.)

4. To make no more money than I need to pay for immediate needs and to put a small amount away for retirement.  (I guess this would be a failure --- we're making more money than I planned to.  On the other hand, we're doing our best to give a lot of the excess back to the local community with projects like our internship.)

December 2005: Building the ford5. To have half of my time free to draw and write and take care of the woods.  (This would be a total win.  If the week is divided into 14 work periods, we take four of those off and I write for three of them.)

6. Once my immediate needs are met, to give surplus food to family and neighbors.  (Yes, we're giving away some surplus, although we could do more.)


March 2006: My familiy clearing what would become the mule garden7. Buildings - A house for me to live in. Barn roof replaced so that barn can be used for tools, food storage, and animals. A loft in the barn built for guest housing in summer. A root cellar. A composting toilet. A greenhouse to grow food in winter. Electricity to run a computer and lights. A phone line. A mail box.  (We're partway there.  The trailer made the house easy and we've saved the cash for the barn roof, even though we're still talking to potential roofers.  Joey's yurt has taken the place of a loft in the barn and I decided that quick hoops are better than a greenhouse for my uses.  We've got the composting toilet (or a semblence thereof), electricity, a phone line, and a mail box.  All we're really lacking is a root cellar.)

June 2006: Hauling in the electric pole8. Garden - an acre of garden and orchard. The garden will begin by growing vegetables, and will work up to supplying all berry fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans used by me and my animals with enough to store for the winter and for guests. The orchard will provide tree fruit.  (We've got about two acres of garden and orchard which feed us well, although we're still in the early stages of growing food for our animals and haven't really got our grains figured out.)

September 2006: Hauling in our trailer with a bulldozer9. Animals - Chickens, probably about three, to feed me eggs and to live primarily on scraps from me with some grains grown for them. A goat (possibly 2) to provide me dairy products. To set up arrangements with neighbors to give away/sell the kids and mate my nanny once a year.  (We've got a lot more chickens than that and don't have the goats.  On the other hand, we have figured out meat animals a lot better than I thought we would have, so it evens out.)

May 2007: Our first garden10. To heat the house and cook with deadwood from the property.  (We've got the wood stove, but we do buy firewood.  This is one goal I'm happy with letting slide --- buying firewood puts money into a local entrepreneur's pocket and gives me time to write and Mark time to invent.)

11. To provide a means of entry to the property for those who require a road or other un-walking method.  (So-so.  If it's dry enough, we've got the truck, and we also have the golf cart if we can figure out what that noise is....)
August 2007: Huckleberry watches our first chickens
It's also interesting to see what I completely left out.  Husband?  Naw, not on my ten year plan.  Community?  What's that?  I guess I know what will be on my next ten year plan --- making our sustainable homestead reach beyond the boundaries of our property.

Our chicken waterer provides clean waterer so your chickens can lay more eggs.
Posted Sat Dec 10 06:00:49 2011 Tags:
Lucy sitting on the golf cart looking pretty

Replacing the brake pads didn't make that rubbing sound go away.

It might be a bearing or the motor. We've stopped using it for now.

At least it provides a nice dry spot for Lucy to take a nap on.

Posted Sat Dec 10 16:12:01 2011 Tags:

The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It Ben emailed to ask if I could recommend some books about "starting up...going from the "normal" way of life...and ESCAPING and getting into a permaculture lifestyle."  Here are my top picks:

There are a lot of good homesteading overview books, but my favorite is John Seymour's The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It.  (Well, also my Weekend Homesteader series, of course.)  This type of book will grab your attention about a lot of different projects, but you'll need to look in other directions once you choose a certain area you're interested in.

Teaming With Microbes In my opinion, vegetable gardening is at the heart of homesteading, so you might start your more in depth reading there.  Lee Reich's Weedless Gardening and Steve Solomon's Gardening When it Counts are two of the best books for helping you start in a permaculture fashion.  A lot of beginners prefer Mel Bartholemew's Square Foot Gardening, but I find the technique expensive and not as focused on soil health.  Speaking of which, Teaming With Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels is a beautiful and easy to read primer on what's going on in your dirt.

The Small-Scale Poultry Flock Chickens should also be considered low-hanging fruit in the homesteading world.  By far the best book on incorporating chickens into a permaculture homestead is Harvey Ussery's The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.  I'm still in the middle of that book since it came out not long ago, so no lunchtime series on it yet.  (Speaking of which, most of the links in this post point you toward my summaries of the top points in each book, although a few just send you to Amazon if I haven't written a post about that book yet.)

In terms of general permaculture information, a lot of people love Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden.  For some reason, I didn't get into the book when I flipped through it, but I Permaculture: A Designer's Manualsuspect that's because I'd already read a lot of more advanced permaculture books and knew the basics.  As I look at the table of contents on Amazon, I think I should give it another shot, and I would recommend you check it out.  Another introductory permaculture book is Bill Mollison's Permaculture: A Designer's Manual.

Edible mushrooms are easy and fun and are one of the hidden sides of the permaculture garden.  I recommend reading Paul Stamets' Mycelium Running for inspiration, but starting with something simple like oyster mushrooms in logs.  (I don't have a more basic edible mushroom book to recommend, but there are lots of resources on the internet.)

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle There are also a range of inspirational, memoir-type books you might be interested in.  The most well known is The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing.  Possum Living by Dolly Freed is a fun book written by an 18 year old about "how to live well without a job and with (almost) no money."  More recently, Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle covers one family's experience eating locally and in season.

If you're interested in the traditional cultures that spawned many modern permaculture techniques, you might want to check out Farmers of Forty Centuries by FH King.

And, finally, I have to plug our own book, Microbusiness Independence, which helps you fund your homesteading adventure.

So, what am I missing?  What are the best introductory books for off-grid living, sustainable building, aquaculture and other homesteading topics I'm not as up to date on?  I hope you'll comment with your own beginners' reading list.

Our chicken waterer makes the backyard flock fun, clean, and easy.
Posted Sun Dec 11 06:00:51 2011 Tags:
clever take on the automatic coop door closer design challenge has details on a new automatic chicken coop door closer.

It's quite an advanced version of the alarm clock coop closer and in my opinion deserves some attention for those thinking of making their own similar contraption.

Posted Sun Dec 11 16:31:01 2011 Tags:

Hyatt ColumbusWe try to report our failures here as well as our successes.  So I feel obliged to admit that we only managed to attend a quarter of the Acres USA conference.

We drove up to Ohio Monday so Mark could attend the first part of his pre-conference course Tuesday.  The pre-conference classes were amazing, but by the time they ended on Wednesday night, Mark and I knew we couldn't survive another day getting up before dark, coming home after dark, and staying inside a huge conference center for the time in between.

Yes, there were a dozen Amish people at the pre-conference.  No, they didn't seem to be as badly affected by the concrete jungle as we were.

I was dying to see Harvey Ussery (oh, and Joel Salatin), both of whom spoke Friday.  I was itching to listen to in-depth lectures on plant secondary metabolites, cover crops, and more.  I wanted to peruse the bookstore and trade show, and to hear more about Fertrell's Nutri-Balancer (which pastured poultry keepers seem to swear by.)

But we couldn't do it.

ACRES USA conferenceI like to pretend that the reason we stay home so much is because the farm needs us, but the truth is we need the farm much more.  I don't think we relaxed until we stepped out of the car on the edge of the hay field, waded through the flood waters, and fired up the wood stove.

Note to self: Two days of conference is about our max.  No way can we combine a conference with a family visit --- preferably, we'd plan it so that half of each conference day was silent contemplation time.  Live and learn....

Note to readers: All is not lost!  Once I digest the experience a bit more, I'll have a really awesome lunchtime series on Mob Grazing for you.  And I think I can get a partial refund and use it to get MP3s of most of the conference.  Stay tuned.

Our automatic chicken waterer kept the flock happy while we were away.
Posted Mon Dec 12 07:50:09 2011 Tags:
fixing a broken plastic nub off a refrigerator door

We had one of the plastic nubs to break off from our small Whirlpool refrigerator.

I didn't think super glue or epoxy would be strong enough, so I found a dull drill bit that was the right diameter and installed it far enough in so it sticks out like the old nub did.
Lucy and our new Whirlpool refrigerator
The middle section of the door is no doubt filled with some kind of styrofoam, which is why I drilled a smaller pilot hole first to help get the bit positioned as straight as possible.

It works fine and feels like a long lasting solution.

Posted Mon Dec 12 15:21:43 2011 Tags:
No till garden in June

Garden peasMark's step-mom, Jayne, decided to convert her garden to no-till.  Previously, she had used her mulching mower to shred tree leaves and grass clippings from her lawn, then applied the organic matter to the vegetable garden as a generous coating of mulch.  However, she also tilled the soil every spring and fall.

Row cover

In fall 2010, Jayne stopped tilling, but kept adding mulch.  Come spring, she simply pulled the mulch back from directly over top of her seeds (or seedlings), then scooped the mulch back into place around the plants once they were up and running.  Despite using the same amount of mulch as in previous years, Jayne reported that this year's garden had far fewer weeds than earlier gardens had.

Winter salad greensIn addition to deleting weeds, Jayne's heavy mulching campaign seems to have created a warmer microclimate that has allowed her garden plants to thrive deep into the winter.  She lives in zone 5, at the edge of a huge cornfield which lets the Midwestern wind whip through her garden --- this is a much colder spot than my zone 6, windless garden.  And yet, Jayne had unprotected arugula and other salad greens thriving on December 8.  (In contrast, the salad greens I didn't place under quick hoops are already two thirds dead.)
Cabbage under row cover
Under her row cover fabric, Jayne's broccoli and cabbage were thriving.  We looked under the covers when outside temperatures were in the low 20s, and there did seem to be some frost on the stems of the broccoli, but the heads looked fine.  Could the heavy organic matter be helping these broccoli hang on?

Are you inspired to change over to no-till next year?  A good place to start is with my Weedless Gardening lunchtime series.

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to go out of town without worrying about the flock.
Posted Tue Dec 13 08:08:21 2011 Tags:
current status on the barn roof problem

We finally found someone to fix the barn roof that has experience and helpers.

It's going to take 52 pieces of 14 foot long 26 gauge tin to get the job done.

Our new guy thinks it will take him and a co-worker 3 or 4 full days. We agreed on 1800 dollars, and he offered to have him and his guys carry back the tin through our flood plain if we can't figure out a mechanized way of doing it. I asked him how much he needed up front and I was relieved when he said 25 percent the first day. I once paid a guy to build a cinder block fence in Las Cruces, New Mexico and learned the hard way that motivation levels can vary when it comes to finishing a job.

Posted Tue Dec 13 17:02:50 2011 Tags:

Colony collapse disorderOur two bee hives have been awfully quiet for the last few weeks.  No one out flying on warm sunny days.  No perceptible buzz when I leaned down to press my ear against the hive body.  But I didn't think anything could be wrong.  In November, the hives were well-stocked with honey and low enough on varroa mites that I didn't need to worry.  We haven't had any terribly cold spells yet.  I just figured I wasn't paying enough attention.

Unfortunately, my gut was right and my head was wrong.  I opened up the hives and found them...empty.  Chock full of honey, but no bees live or dead.

I usually poo-poo backyard beekeepers who swear their bees died of Colony Collapse Disorder.  I believed (and still do) that we tend to jump to that conclusion without checking the data.  Our two hives that died last winter, for example, showed clear signs of starvation --- bees dead on the comb with their heads stuck in empty cells.  It's easy to just write off anything as "Colony Collapse Disorder --- not my fault", but the truth is that a dead hive often is the beekeeper's fault.

Lighting a smokerWhich is not to say that Colony Collapse Disorder never comes to the backyard.  If your bees are simply gone and the honey is untouched (even by robber bees), you might be the unfortunate recipient of this difficult to diagnose disorder.  This week, I did start to see a few robber bees visiting my empty hives, but I suspect the honey-rich hives had been untouched for a few weeks before that.  All of the data points toward Colony Collapse Disorder being the culprit in this case.

I'm going to extract the honey and then put on my thinking cap.  When we started with bees, we got free Langstroth equipment, but I'd like to research whether top bar hives or Warre hives are more likely to keep our bees healthy.  We also bought package bees from afar, and I'd like to see if we can find a local person breeding bees well adapted to our area.  Alternatively, perhaps we should look into strains other than Italian if we have to buy in more bees from far-flung sources.  But whatever we change, we will be bringing bees back to the farm, and hopefully our next experiment with bees will do better than our last.

Our chicken waterer makes the backyard flock nearly as low maintenance as a bee hive.
Posted Wed Dec 14 07:58:24 2011 Tags:
how to make a small chicken coop enclosure out of a 50 gallon plastic barrel

We've been trying to merge our two chicken flocks into one happy group.

It's not going as planned.

The Light susex breed is still warming up to our Black Australorp rooster and his girls. I think he's been chasing them out of the coop. They've been huddling in a corner of the pasture the past couple of nights so I decided to build them the above chicken coop anex.

You can find used 50 gallon plastic barrels at some feed stores for under 10 dollars. It only took a few minutes to cut out the entrance with a jig saw.

Posted Wed Dec 14 15:26:12 2011 Tags:
December seasonal produce

When I went out to pick these potsticker fixings, the cabbage head was frozen clear through, but it thawed out and made a pretty tasty dinner.  This last cabbage plus parsley and Egyptian onions are the only edibles currently growing uncovered in the garden, but we've still got plenty of greens and lettuce under the quick hoops.

We've also been eating a bit out of the freezer this month --- two gallons down.  Very similar to our larder situation last year, and plenty more in the garden, freezer, and kitchen shelf so that we can keep eating our own produce until spring.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock hydrated so they can rustle up in season produce out of the woods.
Posted Thu Dec 15 08:04:21 2011 Tags:
wheel upgrade for yellow wagon

upgrade options for a yellow wagon wheelOne of our favorite readers shared with us recently how she upgraded the pneumatic wheels on her yellow wagon to solid wheels from Harbor Freight. (Thanks Jayne)

It's an advanced upgrade that required four metal sleeves to make them fit.

If we didn't have so much mud to deal with I might do a similar operation on our TC1840H garden wagon.

Posted Thu Dec 15 16:19:46 2011 Tags:

Harvest TableSteve Hopp started the Harvest Table Restaurant in Meadowview, Virginia, based on the concepts outlined in his wife's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  The restaurant "work[s] with seasonal produce and meats from local and regional sources, offering the best of each season." 

In theory, the idea is very sound, but in practice, this article from July 2011 reports that the restaurant has yet to turn a profit.  The problem is pretty simple and is one of the first Chicken carbonarathings I noticed during our recent visit --- price.  Mark and I took our movie star neighbor out on Saturday night and were a bit shocked that dinner for three (all of us drinking water, but we did get two desserts and two starter soups) came to $70, plus tip.  In an area where the average annual income is barely above the poverty line, a $28 meal is a hard sell.  (Yes, we always tip more than 15%.  Mark has done his time as a waiter and knows servers deserve it.)

General storeOur trip to the Harvest Table was a thought-provoking lesson in practicing what we preach.  I've long said that if we bought our food from ethical sources --- pastured meat and in-season produce raised by small farmers --- we'd be paying twice as much for groceries.  Realistically, that means eating out half as often and cutting back on the pricey items (or growing them ourselves.)

Unfortunately, that also means leaving the poor out of the equation.  I suspect that very few locals eat at the Harvest Table and that the restaurant instead gets most of its business from Harvest Table menutourists passing through on the nearby I-81.  I'm not sure what the solution is to that thorny problem (except that gourmet food is one of the items we can all grow with a little time and space.)

For those of you who live far away (or can't afford the high prices), the Harvest Table could provide a simpler lesson.  Keep an eye on their specials on facebook for ideas about cooking totally in-season meals of your own.  Or drop by the restaurant to check out their selection of permaculture books and local crafts.

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock easy and clean.
Posted Fri Dec 16 08:12:47 2011 Tags:
making plywood fit in a small trunk

Went to the big city today for an eye check up and some plywood.

Figured out that if you have the guy at Lowes cut a sheet of plywood in 2 foot sections it will perfectly fit in the trunk of our Toyota.

Posted Fri Dec 16 15:31:12 2011 Tags:

Weekend Homesteader: January Next month's volume of Weekend Homesteader includes in-depth information on:

  • Backup lighting for power outages
  • Rotational chicken pastures, coops, and tractors
  • Soil testing basics
  • The science of baking bread (and pizza)

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 store.  And 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.  (Plus, I'm trying out a new system on Amazon, so the book will be free there next Monday through Friday.)

Don't forget that Weekend Homesteader: December is still available, full of tips on fruit trees, emergency preparedness, and more.  Thanks for reading!

Posted Fri Dec 16 18:19:12 2011 Tags:
Anna Egg gourds
Cat and egg gourds

Egg gourdsWant to make some fun and easy gifts for the backyard chicken keeper on your list?  It's too late to start the plants this year, but a couple of hills of egg gourds might fit the bill in 2012.

The egg gourd is a type of decorative gourd that looks astonishingly similar to chicken eggs.  Maggie gave me three, which will soon be replacing golf balls as nest eggs in the chicken coop.  If you do a google image search for "gourd eggs", you'll see dozens of crafty alternatives to make use of these non-edible squash.

Thanks, Maggie!

Need a chicken-related present this year?  Give the gift of clean water with a POOP-free chicken waterer.
Posted Sat Dec 17 08:38:40 2011 Tags:
quick hoop late afternoon in middle December sun

I'm still in awe each time I pass by Anna's quick hoop experiments.

The pay off is pretty huge when you consider how many fresh garden salads we continue to have on a daily basis thanks to a mixture of cut pieces of rebar, PVC, and some Agribon material.

I remember this time last year dreaming of fresh leafy greens in a gastronomical sense of the word.

Posted Sat Dec 17 15:40:48 2011 Tags:

Garden costsI've been enjoying the thought-provoking discussion in the comments section of my Harvest Table review.  Specifically, Lisa's question got me thinking about how much time and money we put into our vegetable garden.

The chart to the left shows our garden expenditures for the last four years.  The reason I went so far back in time is because I tend to spend a lot more money on the garden when I have the cash since I think of items like straw, cover crop seeds, and fruit trees as an investment in our farm's future health.  But I don't want anyone to think you have to set aside $1,000 per year to grow your own vegetables.  When we were pinching pennies in 2008 and 2009, we spent less than $200 annually and still managed to grow a lot of food, even if we didn't build our soil and increase our long term capacity with perennials.

Locally grownHow about time?  I estimate we put in about 540 hours over the course of the year working in the garden.  That's where the real "money" comes in, depending on whether we want to give ourselves minimum wage ($3,915) or the amount I make on ebooks (about $25/hour, which would make our garden time worth $13,500.)  To be honest, though, most farmers don't even make minimum wage, so they probably would consider my time worth more like $2,000.  That lowball figure would put our total time and money expenditures at $2,200 to grow all of our own vegetables (and some of our fruit), while a more realistic figure is $14,500.

And what do we get for all that time and money?  The mainstream estimate would be about $1,500 worth of food, which is what the average CSA would cost if it extended all year.  On the other hand, I asked Mark at lunch what dollar figure he'd put on the food I bring in from our garden, and he glowed about the taste for a while before settling on $18,250 (or $50 per day.)

Now, I'm a fan of numbers, so I'd use the following analysis to figure out the value our homegrown food holds for me:

  • Taste.  I've eaten mainstream grocery store produce, farmer's market produce, the contents of CSA baskets, and vegetables grown in peoples' backyards with chemicals and/or compost.  And there's no comparison between our own food and any of those other products.  It's very easy for me to say that our food is ten times as tasty as grocery store produce --- that seems like an underestimate.  If taste is about half of the "cost" of our food, that would put the value of our food in this category at $7,500.
  • Nutrition.  I'm confident in the assumption that our homegrown fruits and vegetables have two to five times as much nutritional quality as grocery store produce.  We eat or preserve our bounty within minutes of its peak ripeness, which means very little loss of vitamins and minerals.  And our food is naturally much higher in micronutrients because we focus on soil health first, which allows fungal communities to hunt down and hold minerals that usually wash out of soil in mainstream agricultural systems.  So, if nutrition is another half of the "cost" of our food, that comes to $2,625.
  • Ecology.  Industrial agriculture systems send their fields into biological debt each year by depleting organic matter, eroding away mineral soil, and killing what little life is left behind.  Mainstream organic market gardens generally end each year with a zero balance --- they manage to hold onto their topsoil (hopefully), provide habitat for a few beneficial insects, and don't leach toxins, but that's about it.  Our garden is the only type of vegetable gardening system I've seen that ends every year in the Salamanderblack.  We fix carbon out of the atmosphere by increasing the soil humus levels and we provide habitat for wild species like salamanders and bees that are generally displaced by mainstream agriculture.  The table below is a geeky estimate of how much our garden ecosystem services are worth per acre (based loosely on this document), which would put our quarter acre vegetable garden value at about $367/yr.  I figure we'd be going at least that far into ecological debt by using mainstream agricultural methods, so the total value in this category is about $734 if we're comparing ourselves to grocery store food producers.

Wild habitat
Genetic resources 22.82 0.2 4.56
Pollination 36.69 1.5 55.04
Water services 43.78 0.9 39.40
Air quality 73.72 0.6 44.23
Carbon sequestering 62.64 2 125.28
Erosion control 88.52 1 88.52
Soil formation 3.80 2 7.60
Nutrient cycling 1027.3 1 1027.30
Habitat 105.09 0.5 52.55
Biodiversity 6.57 0.3 1.97
Healthy ecosystem 7.32 1 7.32
Habitat refugia 76.73 0.2 15.35


In case you don't feel like pulling out your calculator, that all adds up to an estimated value of $10,859 for our annual garden produce (not counting the enjoyment of running my hands through the dirt.)  I guess I'm a cheapskate compared to Mark, but at least we're on the same wavelength.

Percent income spent on food historicallyAs one final way of looking at food value, let's delve into history.  My reasoning here is that the Green Revolution has hidden the true cost of food --- we pay very little at the grocery store, but then spend money (now or later) cleaning up the environmental repercussions of our factory farming system.  In 1900, when we paid for all of our food up front, Americans spent approximately 43% of their annual income on food.  The 2010 U.S. census reports that married couples like me and Mark made an average of $58,036 last year, which would put our real food value at $24,955.  Of course, that figure includes meat, dairy, and grains, none of which are included in the other estimates above, but even if fruits and vegetables only make up half of our dietary cost, the historical analysis suggests that Mark's and my estimates are on track.

Which figure do you think is the most realistic estimate of the value of our food?  Perhaps you have yet another way of looking at food value?

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.

Posted Sun Dec 18 08:00:54 2011 Tags:
field of wheat being harvested by huge machinary

One interview hearing Dr William Davis talking about his new book "Wheat Belly" is all it took to convince me food with wheat in it is not worth the adverse health effects.

The guy makes his point in an easy to understand fashion and comes from years of experience as a cardiologist.

Posted Sun Dec 18 14:30:08 2011 Tags:
Anna Farm boots
The cheapest kindMark's take on shoes: It's worth spending more to protect one of the most important parts of your body.

Anna's take on shoes: I work them so hard, the Wal-mart ones only wear out a few months faster than the expensive ones, so it's better to just get the cheapest kind.

Mark's threat (offer?) to take me shoe-shopping came at a weak time.  We'd bought matching pairs of waterproof work boots at Wal-mart just a month before since this same style lasted nearly two years for Mark last time around.  But my new boots came with a slow leak that Red wing bootsquickly got bigger.  I'd suffered through wet feet for three weeks and was so sick of plastic bags in my shoes that I was ready to grasp at any straw, even if it was fancy, expensive, and stylish.

We were in Ohio visiting Mark's mom at the time, so she and Mark cooked up a plan to take me a real shoe store.  There, Mark shod me in two high priced pairs of shoes --- calf-high Bogs ($95.95) for really wet weather and ankle-high Red Wing work boots ($169.95) for drier periods.  A little research at home suggests that I could have reduced the price by about 15% by buying online (or by 35% if we'd selected an off-brand), but I suspect Mark considers that extra price worth it because it allowed him to strike while the iron was hot.  (Or, rather, while cold, wet feet were on the front of my mind.)

Bogs bootsSo far, I can tell you that both pairs of shoes are quite comfortable.  The Bogs, especially, are much superior to other types of muck boots I've worn since they feel like real shoes (not flippers), they're warm, and they hug my calf so that even when I wade through water too deep for the boots, my feet don't get as wet.

The real question, though, is how fast my expensive boots will wear out.  I've pretty much given up on wearing muck boots because I walk them into the ground so quickly --- six months is a good lifetime for the cheap versions under heavy farm use.  Since my Bogs cost five times as much as the cheapest boots, they'll need to survive until May 2014 to make it worth our while.  Think they'll make it?

Our chicken waterer kept our flock happy and healthy while we were out of town for five days.
Posted Mon Dec 19 07:50:17 2011 Tags:

Homemade hamburger bunsIf you eat bread, you should know how to bake it.  Once you understand the technique, making your own bread turns into a therapeutic ritual that fills your house with a delightful scent while putting preservative-free bread on the table.  You can easily tweak bread recipes to suit your fancy, creating whole grain bread that would cost a bundle in the grocery store, or splitting your dough down the middle to make a loaf for sandwiches along with half a dozen hamburger buns.  The smart home chef doubles the recipe and freezes some for a quick and easy meal in the middle of the week, perhaps pizza or dinner rolls.  And, all of that flexibility aside, everyone knows that nothing you buy in the store can compete with the flavor of fresh baked bread.

This week's lunchtime series walks you through the science and practice of bread-baking.  Don't want to wait for future installments?  The information is excerpted from Weekend Homesteader: January, which is available for free on Amazon from today until December 23!  I hope you'll give the entire book a try (and leave me a review!)

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

Posted Mon Dec 19 12:00:57 2011 Tags:
creek crossing in December of 2011

We had several projects this year that's made life easier, but the one I get reminded of on a daily basis is the cinder block stepping stone upgrade.

The creek is longer to cross now, but less deep and is often just below ankle high. A major treat compared to our previous winter creek crossing adventures.

Posted Mon Dec 19 16:23:52 2011 Tags:
Chickens grazing winter oats

The theory behind our flock merger was pretty simple --- Harvey Ussery wrote that you can sometimes get multiple roosters to play nicely together in one flock if a younger rooster is raised with an older rooster.  The youngster will grow up knowing he's the underdog and won't annoy the head rooster unduly.

Light Sussex pulletsI figured we had a limited time to give this hypothesis a try before our Light Sussex rooster was full grown and ready to take on the world (and I also wanted to get the Sussex out of the shade without putting in all of the effort of building a third chicken coop.)  So we moved our half-grown Light Sussex (three pullets and a cockerel) into the main coop and shut the pasture door so they wouldn't go running home.

At first, the experiment seemed to be headed for failure.  The Australorp rooster chased the younger birds away from the food and the Sussex were too scared to even go in the coop at night.  But every day, the chickens mellowed out a bit more.  Saturday, I felt comfortable enough to open the pasture door and let them all back out into the floodplain, where the two flocks foraged separately but in the same vicinity.  Mark tells me the Sussex are even roosting up on the perches in the coop now.  Maybe a second week will see the chickens actually hanging out together?

If you're thinking of merging one or more underdogs into an established flock, be sure to set up two separate chicken waterer stations.  That way the picked on birds will still have access to clean water.
Posted Tue Dec 20 08:15:17 2011 Tags:

Weekend Homesteader: JanuaryI'll be honest with you --- your first bread baking effort might not be perfect.  You need to get the hang of rising and kneading if you want perfect, fluffy rolls.  And you have to understand the chemistry behind each ingredient before you can start mixing and matching to create your own recipes.  I'll walk you through making a fluffy, white bread from scratch so you'll understand the basics.

First, find your ingredients:

1 1/3 c. water

2 tbsp. sugar

1 tbsp. yeast

2 tbsp. olive oil

2 tsp. salt

3 c. bread flour

Proofing yeast

I usually skip the next step --- proofing --- but I do recommend you try it once just to understand the yeast organism.  Heat your water to "baby bottle temperature" (just warm enough so that it feels neither hot nor cold when you put a drop on the inside of your wrist), then mix in the sugar and yeast.  Wander away for about ten minutes, then see whether your yeast has woken up and created a foamy mass on top of the water.

Yeast is a fungus with one job --- making your bread rise.  When fed sugar and flour, the yeast excretes ethanol and carbon dioxide.  The ethanol gives a yeasty flavor to the bread while the carbon dioxide puffs the bread up.  Proofing yeast shows whether your yeast is young enough to do its job.  If your water doesn't turn foamy in ten or fifteen minutes, you've either started with too hot or cold water or your yeast is too old to work.

Weekend Homesteader paperbackWhether you give your yeast time to proof or not, the next step is to make your dough.  To the warm water, yeast, and sugar, add the rest of your ingredients, which in the case of this recipe are oil, salt, and bread flour.  You'll want to mix all of the ingredients other than the flour first because the last cup of flour is going to take some heavy stirring to incorporate it into the dough.

Each of the ingredients in this basic recipe has a job.  As you saw in your proofing step, yeast makes the bread rise and sugar feeds the yeast.  Oil makes the bread tender and keeps it from going stale as quickly.  Salt not only enhances flavors the way it does in all cooking, but also slows down the yeast so that the microorganisms don't work too fast.  Finally, bread flour is higher in protein than other flours, so it causes the bread to rise better (for reasons I'll explain later.)

Stay tuned for more on the science and practice of bread-baking at lunchtime for the rest of the week.  Don't want to wait for future installments?  The information is excerpted from Weekend Homesteader: January, which is available for free on Amazon from today until December 23!  I hope you'll give the entire book a try (and leave me a review!)

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

Posted Tue Dec 20 12:00:59 2011 Tags:
new kind of mechanical deer deterrent that works!

There's been no deer damage to the garden since we retired those two young bucks last month. I'm pretty sure it was them that figured out the mechanical deer deterrents were all bark and no bite during a power outage this past summer.

We now run a total of five deterrents 24 hours a day at key locations around the garden's perimeter.

I've got technical details on the new type of motor over at backyard

Posted Tue Dec 20 15:59:21 2011 Tags:
Writing by the fire

Remember my list of ambitious winter goals?  We were barreling right through them when I signed my book contract.  Suddenly, turning my halfway completed, rough draft into a product I'd be proud of felt a lot more important than a bathtub in the house.

You know how authors often write in the acknowledgement section of the book about how their spouse did the dishes, took care of the kids, and walked the dog so that the author would have time to write?  Mark did one better --- he reminded me that the whole point of our homesteading lifestyle is to allow us to seize the day and do what feels right at any given moment.  Then he split a whole bunch of wood and parked me in front of the fire with the cats and a laptop.

So I'm writing myself out until I either finish the book or get thoroughly sick of it and need a break.  Since I feel guilty if Mark is working too hard while I'm playing on the computer, he's gone into tinkering mode too.  Even Huckleberry is doing his best to further the cause --- our spoiled cat accepted sitting in the side car (where my feet are) rather than sleeping on top of the keyboard.  Aren't I lucky to have such an awesome team?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock well hydrated winter and summer.
Posted Wed Dec 21 08:08:12 2011 Tags:

Kneading breadWhen all of the ingredients are in the bowl and the dough is getting hard to stir, clean off a table or countertop, toss down a handful of flour to keep the dough from sticking, and pour the contents of your bowl onto the counter.  Knead the bread by stretching it out, then folding it in half, turning ninety degrees after each stretch and fold.  You may have to add a bit more flour to keep the dough from sticking to your hands and the counter, but try not to add too much --- a slightly sticky dough will produce fluffier bread.

Kneading your bread is kitchen alchemy.  Proteins in the flour combine with water to create gluten, and your kneading lets the gluten form long strands.  Have you ever noticed that well-made bread tears along lines while muffins simply crumble?  That's the difference between a dough in which gluten did and didn't form.

Gluten isn't only important for the texture of the bread --- it helps dough rise as well.  When yeast excretes carbon dioxide, strands of gluten trap that gas within the dough.  Without gluten, your bread would rise a bit, then fall.

The amount of gluten in your bread will depend on two factors.  First is the length of your kneading time.  Bread products that don't need much gluten (like pizza crusts) don't have to be kneaded very long, but if you want fluffy whole wheat bread, you might have to knead for as much as half an hour.

Type of flour is just as important as length of kneading.  If you use a low protein flour like all-purpose wheat flour, there simply won't be enough protein present to create as many gluten fibers.  Flours made from grains other than wheat can be high in protein but lack the specific proteins used to create gluten.  Finally, whole wheat flour has another problem --- the tough bran particles cut through the gluten, fragmenting the fibers even as you knead.  That's why it's often helpful to add some gluten to your recipe if you want fluffy bread made with flours other than wheat bread flour.

Weekend Homesteader paperbackFor a white bread like this one, ten minutes of kneading is sufficient.  It's not mandatory, but you'll find it easier to knead your dough if you stop after the first five minutes and give your dough five or ten minutes to relax before finishing the kneading process.

Relaxing your dough in the middle of the knead allows water to work its way into the flour.  As a result, your dough feels less sticky and you add less excess flour, so your bread's texture comes out perfect.

Stay tuned for more on the science and practice of bread-baking at lunchtime for the rest of the week.  Don't want to wait for future installments?  The information is excerpted from Weekend Homesteader: January, which is available for free on Amazon from today until December 23!  I hope you'll give the entire book a try (and leave me a review!)

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

Posted Wed Dec 21 12:01:05 2011 Tags:

using a box to catch dinnerWe've been thinking animal traps would be a good starting point for the possible homesteading intern project we might be doing in the summer of 2012.

Once the traps are in place it will only take a matter of minutes to check on them.

I'm guessing there may be enough rabbits to feed a small army while the first group begins to carve out a homestead.

Posted Wed Dec 21 15:39:19 2011 Tags:
June garden

Echinacea and summer plantsBy the Winter Solstice, I've often forgotten what the world looked like when it was green.

Round hay bales

Even though this year's warm fall means we've barely experienced winter yet, I thought you might enjoy a reminder of summer in all its glory.

Peas and raspberries

Picking peas with a ladderThese photos are all from 2009, which I like to call "the year without a summer."  Looks pretty summery from a December perspective.
Praying mantis eating a butterfly

Big toad

(Yes, I am a big fan of toads.)

Bee balm flower

Green beans

Happy Solstice!

Honeybee on Virgin's Bower flower

Our DIY chicken waterer kits show you how to make automatic, heated waterers that make your flock as easy to care for in the winter as in the summer.
Posted Thu Dec 22 08:06:32 2011 Tags:

Double in bulkOne you're done kneading your dough, return the dough to the bowl and cover it with a damp dish towel to rise.  In a modern home, you can just let the bread sit on the counter, but if you're a more serious homesteader who heats with wood and doesn't maintain an even temperature inside during the winter, you'll want to find a warm spot for your dough to rise.  Many wood cook stoves have a warming oven just high enough above the fire to keep the dough warm without cooking it.  In a pinch, you can turn your electric or gas oven to "warm" and put your bread inside --- depending on the model, you may also need to crack the door open to keep the dough from getting too hot.  No matter how you do it, your bread should have risen to the point where it has achieved twice its original size ("doubled in bulk") after about an hour.

Rising gives your yeast time to do its job.  As I mentioned before, the dough rises because the yeast excretes carbon dioxide, which gets trapped by the gluten fibers and held in the dough.  If you skip or shorten the rising steps, you'll end up with rock hard bread.

Freezing bread dough After it has risen, punch down your dough, shape it, and let it rise again.  If you want to save some of the dough for later, put it in a plastic bag after the first rise and stick it in the freezer.  Otherwise, shape the dough however you want --- into rolls, buns, or loaves.  You can even form long strands of dough to make braided loaves, or can add cheese or herbs to make spiced buns.

If you're a raw beginner, I recommend keeping it simple and making buns.  It can be difficult to know when your bread is fully baked in a loaf pan, but dough in the shape of a hamburger bun cooks perfectly in very little time.  Simple tear off a hunk of dough about half the size of your fist and flatten it, placing each bun on a greased cookie sheet.  If you want to get fancy, you can sprinkle poppy or sesame seeds on top, then paint on an egg yolk to make the seeds stick and to give the bread a beautiful shine.

Weekend Homesteader paperbackNow it's time to let the dough rise until it doubles in bulk again.  Pay more attention this time to ensure you don't ignore the dough too long and let it over-rise --- after a certain point, the gluten can't hold the carbon dioxide any longer and your buns will flatten out.  But don't try to rush this rise either --- you want your dough to be as high as possible so you get fluffy bread.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, then bake your bread on the top rack until the top and bottom of each bun is very lightly brown, about fifteen minutes.  Don't worry, the living yeast will be killed by heat, so all you're left with is a delightful texture and flavor.

Stay tuned for more on the science and practice of bread-baking at lunchtime for the rest of the week.  Don't want to wait for future installments?  The information is excerpted from Weekend Homesteader: January, which is available for free on Amazon from today until December 23!  I hope you'll give the entire book a try (and leave me a review!)

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

Posted Thu Dec 22 12:01:02 2011 Tags:
desk lamp modification

Drilling 4 holes in the base of this 10 dollar desk lamp was all it took to make it mountable on our ceiling above Anna's writing station.

Posted Thu Dec 22 17:46:51 2011 Tags:
Change boots

Home from the outside world.  First step --- change from going to town shoes to farm boots.  I wonder if all that standing on one leg is the reason Mark's balance is improving?

In the trunk

Next step --- pick out any perishables to be carried in ASAP.  In the winter, even oranges are perishables because they might freeze before morning.  Quite an incentive not to buy too much.

Walking home

Finally --- walk a third of a mile home.  The walk is just as blissful as it looks.  I wouldn't trade our moat for anything.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock happy while we're visiting the outside world.
Posted Fri Dec 23 08:30:30 2011 Tags:

Kneading dough in a mixerIf you find yourself picking up loaves from the store because you just don't have time to make your own bread, you might consider some bread-making shortcuts.  There are kneadless bread recipes that replace fifteen minutes of kneading with a day sitting in the fridge, or you can get a machine to do the work for you.  I've found that bread machines do a pretty good job of kneading but aren't so great at baking.  Instead, my favorite labor-saver is the bread hook on my KitchenAid mixer.  I let the mixer do the kneading and I monitor the rising and baking myself.

Others of you might have the opposite reaction to this week's project ---  you may love bread-making so much that you want to try out whole grain breads or your own pizza dough.  The latter is the easiest next step since the recipe I've included in this week's lunchtime series works perfectly as a pizza dough.  You'll just have to learn how to stretch the dough into a round shape.  Even if you don't want to toss the dough over your head, I recommend doing this step in the air with your hands rather than on the counter with a rolling pin.

Homemade pizza

Whole grain breads will require a bit more experimentation on your part.  This is my favorite whole wheat bread recipe, which uses added gluten and a long kneading time to create a bread nearly as fluffy as the white version.  What's your favorite recipe?

The information in this lunchtime series was excerpted from Weekend Homesteader: January, which is available for free on Amazon today!  I hope you'll give the entire book a try (and leave me a review!)

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

Posted Fri Dec 23 12:00:40 2011 Tags:
crunching a truckload of leafs

Packing 50 bags of leaf material so they won't bounce out takes a special touch.

Smash....smash...........smash those bags down.

That's how an expert leaf bag smasher does it in a clutch.

Posted Fri Dec 23 14:47:43 2011 Tags:

Barrel compost tumblerBrian Cooper emailed this great photo of his rodent-proof, inexpensive compost tumbler, constructed from a 55 gallon barrel, a metal pipe, and some lumber.  He added a door, 3/8 inch holes for drainage, and some screws inside to break up the compost as it tumbled.

Brian wrote that if he had to do it all over, he would have made the door and ventilation holes larger.  On the other hand, the benefits far outweighed any slight growing pains.  Brian reports quicker, more broken up compost with less work and no pest problems.  He can easily collect compost tea draining out the bottom and can even snag black soldier fly larvae for the chickens!

Thanks for sharing your compost tumbler, Brian!  I plan to include it in Weekend Homesteader: March as well as in the paper book.  It beats my trellis compost bin by a long shot.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock well hydrated while they wait for treats.
Posted Sat Dec 24 08:11:50 2011 Tags:
building a roof from scrap material

Saw this piece of homesteading sculpture on our way home today.

It's how I'd want to live out my old age if I was a retired satellite dish.
Posted Sat Dec 24 17:02:40 2011 Tags:
Holiday picture gazing

Mom and meWe've been making the family Christmas rounds, which means I've been off the farm more this month than in the previous six months combined.

All of our visits have been wonderful, but they make me aware how much we've drifted outside mainstream society in recent years.

Everyone's been very forgiving, but only my mother seems to understand why I think her dog run looks like the beginning of a great rotational chicken pasture system.

Only she can at least pretend to be excited when I find a little collection of stump dirt drifting out of a diseased tree in her backyard.

McDowell Street

And only she would think to give me a whole truckload of biomass for Christmas.  Thanks, Mom!  Merry Christmas, everybody!

Our chicken waterer keeps our flock's water sanitary just like those leaves will refresh the deep bedding and keep the coop floor clean.
Posted Sun Dec 25 08:19:48 2011 Tags:
Compost tumbler

After posting about Brian Cooper's DIY compost tumbler, I started pondering whether compost tumblers might be the easiest low-key way to raise black soldier fly larvae.  When we went to visit some forest gardening buddies this past spring, they had a compost tumbler, which also happened to be chock full of black soldier fly larvae.  I'd be curious to hear whether others of you with compost tumblers also see lots of black soldier fly larvae in your bin.

I'm always looking for the best ways to simplify permaculture systems so they work with as little human input as possible.  I can imagine throwing some food scraps in a tumbler in the pasture with chickens patrolling the ground underneath to catch larvae that drop through the holes.  It would have to be a pretty efficient system, though, to make it more worthwhile than giving the food scraps straight to the flock.

Our chicken waterer tempts the flock to visit the far end of the pasture rather than sitting like couch potatoes in the coop.
Posted Mon Dec 26 08:11:51 2011 Tags:

Attracting Native PollinatorsAttracting Native Pollinators by the Xerces Society is the prettiest homesteading-related book I've read this year.  Stunning images dot nearly every page, zooming in on the tiny bees pollinating an apple tree or diagramming the underground nest site of a bumblebee queen.

Unfortunately, the book's writing isn't quite as stellar as the illustrations.  Attracting Native Pollinators was clearly written by a committee who couldn't quite decide if they were working on a textbook or an inspirational DIY guide.  Now and then, I could sense the authors' passion to protect the bees, wasps, and flies pollinating our wild and cultivated landscapes, but elsewhere they got bogged down in excessive vocabulary.  All the more reason to sum up the most intriguing points in a lunchtime series and save you some slogging.

Despite the annoying features of certain parts of the text, I heartily recommend that you pick up a copy of the book, if only to use as reference guide.  The main genera of pollinator bees plus the most important families of other types of pollinators are covered in a field-guide-like fashion, another section lists the host plants for many common butterflies, and yet a third chapter discusses the best native plants to add to your pollinator garden.  And, of course, the book is the gardener equivalent of porn ---  perfect to set on your coffee table to suck in new converts to ecological gardening.

Thinking of jumping into chickens in 2012?  Weekend Homesteader: January walks you through designing a system that will incorporate your new flock into a permaculture homestead.

This post is part of our Attracting Native Pollinators lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Dec 26 12:00:54 2011 Tags:
how to attract local polinator populations to your area

Can you guess what Anna was thinking when she asked me to mount this charred piece of firewood on an east facing surface today?

Posted Mon Dec 26 15:37:30 2011 Tags:
Drill bits for making bee nests

Log too big for stoveIf you guessed that Mark's mystery object was a native bee nest, you were right!  You'll read more about the theory behind creating nests for native pollinators on Thursday, but I can't wait to post about my experiments.

Version 1.0 uses a piece of firewood that was too gnarly for Mark to split.  I drilled one face with holes sized 1/8, 5/32, 3/16, and 5/16 inches in diameter --- the goal is to use a variety of sizes between 3/32 and 5/8 inches so that we'll attract several different bee species.

Next, I wanted to blacken the surface of the wooden nest block since a dark color is supposed to attract bees.  You can use spray paint, but I didn't have any on hand, so I tried various methods to char the surface.  Sticking the block of firewood in the stove didn't work --- not only Charring bee nestdidn't the log fit, the flames didn't want to burn the side I was focusing on. 

It was much more effective to scoop some of the hot coals out into a galvanized tub and light a bit of junk mail so that the flames licked the face of the log.  Those of you who like gadgets will probably have even better luck using a propane torch.

Blackened wood

The end result was lightly blackened wood surrounding the holes.

Mounting bee nestFinally, I got Mark to mount my bee nest on the east side of one of our porch posts.  In a perfect world, nests get early morning sun to help the bees warm up enough to fly right after dawn, then the burrows are shaded from the full summer heat later in the day.  I also wanted to make sure that my bee nest was somewhere we'll walk by regularly so that I'll notice if it's being used.  Hopefully this spot will do the job.

After reading further, though, I discovered one flaw in my design.  Nest blocks with lots of holes like this one can turn into breeding grounds for bee diseases and pests, so you need to go through a complex management scheme to clean the nests and/or phase them out of production after a year or two.  Stay tuned for versions 2.0 and 3.0, which deal with the pest problem in a simpler manner.

Our chicken waterer makes care of your backyard flock easy by providing clean, POOP-free water.
Posted Tue Dec 27 08:25:28 2011 Tags:

Pollen sacsAlthough Attracting Native Pollinators discusses many other types of pollinators, they recommend that you focus your efforts on making bees happy.  The Xerces Society argues that bees are the most important group of pollinators because:

  • Bees are hairy, which means pollen sticks to their bodies and is carried in large quantities from flower to flower.
  • Bees actively gather pollen.  Most other types of pollinators focus on nectar, which means they might never even come in contact with the flower's pollen.  For example, the long tongue of a butterfly allows the insect to feed without brushing up against the stamens of many flowers.  In contrast, since bees use pollen as a source of protein and other nutrients, the insects often end up coated in the grains.
  • Bees exhibit flower constancy.  Many bees fixate on a single species of flower at a time, visiting up to 100 individual flowers of the same type on a single trip.  In contrast, other pollinators usually hop around, starting on an aster, dropping by some goldenrod, and ending up on a dandelion.  This generalist strategy works well for the insects but means the flowers are wasting lots of pollen that will end up on another type of plant and won't do its job.

Parasitic insects like this Greater bee fly are actually a good sign because they require healthy bee populations.It's worth noting that when I say "bees" this week, I'm not really talking about honeybees.  Although large agricultural operations tend to put all their eggs in one basket and focus on the introduced honeybee, some farmers have found that providing habitat for native bees (more on that in later posts) results in better pollination efficiency than trucking in migratory honeybee hives.  In addition, scientists have discovered that adding honeybees to the mix actually decreases the populations of native pollinators, which results in problems down the line when the honeybee hives collapse or when picky plants have to do without the only pollinator species they're equiped to deal with. 

In general, our gardens and natural ecosystems fare much better when we attract as wide a variety of native pollinator species as possible.  The Xerces society posits that if we focus on helping native bees, we'll also protect the other pollinator groups --- wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, and beetles.  The result is not only pollinated plants but also control of pest insects and the production of nest sites for bees.  Stay tuned for more information on how to  make this diverse pollinator population a reality in your neck of the woods.

Get your garden off to a good start with a soil test, then learn to interpret the results in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our Attracting Native Pollinators lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Dec 27 12:01:00 2011 Tags:
repair update one year later on a Chopper One axe

chopper one close up photo montage
It's been about a year since the last repair to the Chopper 1 axe and it's holding up very well that I plan on doing the same glue job on the other side.

Now when the spring fails it won't let the thingamajig that holds it in place fall out and get lost in the mud.
choper one being used by guy dressed in black
The main advantage the Chopper 1 has over the SuperSplitter is what I call the bounce. When you don't apply enough power the Chopper 1 tends to just bounce off while at the same time splitting the piece a little. The SuperSplitter would often get stuck when I misjudged the power needed and lodge in the log with a stubborn vengeance. Sometimes I would spend more energy getting the SuperSplitter dislodged than actually splitting wood.

Posted Tue Dec 27 16:23:24 2011 Tags:
Cut two by fours

Drilling holes in a small bee nest blockMy firewood nest block will require some upkeep to prevent it from turning into a breeding ground for bee pests and diseases.  An alternative to this type of maintenance is to make lots of small nest blocks with only four to six tunnels apiece and space the blocks of wood 25 or more feet apart around your property.  Smaller nest blocks will naturally decompose faster and will also spread the bees out --- think of them as comfortable small town environments for bees.

To make one of these "small bee towns", cut some scrap 2X4s into eight inch lengths.  Then drill holes in one end using the same criteria I used for my firewood nest block.
Char a block in the wood stove
Smaller wooden blocks are much easier to char by placing them in the wood stove until they catch fire, then running them under water until all sizzling stops.

Bee nest holes

Bee nest on side of house
The last step is to mount the blocks on easy-to-find landmarks that get morning sun.  I put one small town bee nest on the side of the East Wing and another on a post in the mule garden.  Hopefully, spreading the nests out will tempt the bees to visit several parts of the garden rather than sticking to one area.

Bee nest block in garden

Stay tuned for yet more bee suburbs tomorrow!

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Wed Dec 28 08:19:37 2011 Tags:
Farming with pollinators

Native pollinators have three main requirements --- flowers, nesting sites, and overwintering habitat.  We'll cover the other two in later posts, but for now I want to talk about flowers for wild bees.
Wild bee on buckwheat
Attracting Native Pollinators takes a holistic approach to providing forage for wild pollinators.  Rather than listing a few key plants, they recommend that you create open, sunny patches of flowers that bloom throughout the entire growing season.  The best patches are big and round --- at least three feet in diameter of the same flower species --- but linear corridors along fences or roads can also be effective.  When planning pollinator patches, try to think like a tiny bee, remembering that the smallest pollinators may only fly 600 feet or less each day in search of food.  If you have flowerbeds already scattered around your homestead, can you join them together with corridors or stepping stones (small patches of flowers) to make it easier for the bees to move from point A to point B?

Wasp on oreganoNext, consider the types of plants in your forage areas.  Head out into your garden in the summer and take note of which plants are already drawing in pollinators --- for us, some of the wild bees' favorite attractions are our overgrown oregano bed, our peach trees, and our buckwheat cover crops.  Are there times of the year when very few or no flowers are in bloom?  If so, you'll want to hunt down pollinator-friendly flowers to fill in those gaps.

When choosing plants, consider native plants, or at least cultivated varieties that haven't been bred to be excessively showy --- the most ornamental flowers have usually developed double petals and other fancy features at the expense of the pollen and nectar that bees depend on.  Aim for at least nine plant species in your forage areas --- three each for spring, summer, and fall --- and try to include at least one plant that blooms very early in spring and one that blooms very late in the fall. 

Finally, the Xerces Society recommends that you include at least one native warm-season bunch grass or sedge in wildflower meadows, planning for the grass to cover 30% or less of the ground area.  Native bunch grasses host butterflies, provide nest sites for bumblebees and overwintering sites for other insects, and make the landscape more weed-resistant.

Wildflower meadow for native beesHow do you maintain a pollinator meadow?  Depending on the scale of your project, you may choose grazing, mowing, or fire, but be sure to do so patchily and at low intensity.  For example, if you're going to mow your meadow to keep tree seedlings and weeds at bay, cut the plants at 12 to 16 inches and mow slowly in daylight, using a flushing bar to encourage animals to move out of the way.  Mow or burn no more than a third or a quarter of the area at a time so that animals can escape to nearby untouched areas.  If you graze, do so at low intensity and rotate animals out quickly; if you burn, leave areas fire-free for 5 to 10 years.

Sounds pretty daunting, huh?  I've gotten bogged down in creating pollinator habitat in the past because I simply can't talk myself into managing flowers in the summer when the vegetable garden demands so much of my time.  As a result, I'm pondering a few different options:

  • Focusing on perennial flowers --- Annual flower beds clearly aren't my cup of tea, but my perennial flowers survive neglect as long as they get weeded and mulched once a year.  Clearly I need to think further in that direction.
  • Combining flowers with pastures --- I'm tempted to turn one of our chicken pastures into a pollinator meadow.  The management techniques used to attract pollinators are just the opposite of what I'd do to promote maximum food for chickens, but surely there's a way to meet in the middle?
  • Flowers in the forest garden --- The flowers in my forest gardens tend to fall by the wayside since they're annuals and I ignore them.  But if I grew perennials around each of my fruit trees, I'd have good pollinator habitat close to most of my garden areas.

Do you have low-work pollinator forage areas?  What are your key management techniques to keep them going?

Learn the science behind bread-baking my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our Attracting Native Pollinators lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Dec 28 12:01:06 2011 Tags:
our method of splitting firewood as a team

We had my cousin Ben visiting today and talked him into taking a few pictures of our new system of splitting firewood.

1. Anna selects a log and places it on the chopping stump.

2. Then she steps back so the split log won't hit her.

3. That's when I hit it with the Chopper 1.

4. Load up pieces and push them over to the cutting station.

5. Cut pieces in half with miter saw so they fit in our small stove.

6. Put pieces in 5 gallon bucket to be carried in and stacked by Anna.

Posted Wed Dec 28 16:21:13 2011 Tags:

Chickens in the woodsI hate to say this, but I miss our modern hybrid chickens.  When we went to Ohio a few weeks ago, I did what I used to do with our Golden Comets --- make sure they have an automatic chicken waterer and then toss down enough feed on the ground to last them several days.  Sure, I knew the chickens would gorge during days one and two and then fast a bit, but we'd never had a problem using this method with our Golden Comets in tractors, and our current flock has over two acres of woods to scratch for worms in.

When we came home, the flock looked happy and healthy...but they'd stopped laying.  In fact, even before we left, our six near-adult hens were only averaging about 3.25 eggs per day, or an egg 54% of the time.  Meanwhile, the eggs they did lay were so much smaller than our Golden Comet eggs that I often doubled the eggs in a recipe.

I've heard Mark mutter "freeloaders" under his breath a time or two already --- lack of real eggs will make a man cranky.  On the other hand, I did get the chicks off to a late start last spring, so I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt.  We'll see how well our Black Australorps and Cuckoo Marans lay come spring and put on our thinking caps if they're still not worth their salt.  I really want to keep a chicken that we can reproduce on the farm, but I also want lots of eggs without having to pay for too much feed.  If I have to keep hunting until I find a better breed, I will.

Posted Thu Dec 29 08:16:07 2011 Tags:

Stem bundle bee nestThe second requirement of native bees is nest sites --- spots for the insects to raise their young.  About 70% of American native bees are ground nesters, which dig (or take over) holes in the soil, while the other 30% are tunnel nesters that primarily nest in abandoned beetle burrows in stumps and snags.  Keep your eyes open and protect any nest sites you see, then you can choose whether to make additional habitat for bees to move into.

Ground nesting bees require undisturbed, bare soil, preferably sandy or loamy and always unmulched.  If they had their druthers, most would choose a south-facing slope in full sun (or with afternoon shade) so that they can warm up quickly first thing in the morning.  Constructing ground nesting habitat can be as simple as laying down a kill mulch on a small patch of ground, then raking back the organic matter in the spring to leave bare soil for the bees.

Wood block bee nestTunnel nesting bees are the ones gardeners often build habitat for.  If you have a dead tree somewhere that's not going to crush your house, leave it in place (and maybe drill some extra holes in the trunk) and bees will naturally move in.  You can plant elderberries, raspberries, blackberries, or sumac since some bee species hollow out the pith in the center of these plants' dead branches to create nest tunnels.  Or you can make designated nest boxes out of a block of wood, bundles of weeds or bamboo stems, or adobe blocks --- I'll give specifics in Weekend Homesteader: March (and will probably post about some of my experiments sooner), or you can download this fact sheet from the Xerces Society.

Bumblebee nestFinally, bumblebees require a special set of nesting conditions --- a warm, dry place near or under the ground about the size of a shoe box.  You can build (or buy) nest boxes, but the authors of Attracting Native Pollinators report that only about a quarter of these boxes get lived in.  A simpler approach is to let grass grow up in an out-of-the-way spot; when it falls over in the winter, mice will move in and build nests, then bumblebees will take over in the spring.  Alternatively, you can make piles of brush or stone that create similar cavities.

With the exception of bumblebees, most native bees won't bother you even if you walk close to their nests, so feel free to create habitat right outside your kitchen window.  Isn't a bee nest box more fun to watch than a bird feeder?

Take simple steps on the path to self-sufficiency with my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our Attracting Native Pollinators lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Dec 29 12:01:02 2011 Tags:
low budget chicken enclosure update

I don't think the new chicken enclosure is working out.

It's been about 2 weeks and there's no sign of any chicken lounging.

We changed the location a few different times and still no takers.

Posted Thu Dec 29 16:31:37 2011 Tags:
Stem nest bundle

Bamboo nest bundleAlthough you may be heartily sick of reading about bee nests after my firewood bee nest post and my post about "small bee towns", I was still gungho and wanted to try another technique.  Stem bundles are probably the easiest type of bee nest you can build, and they may be more effective than my wood block nests since the insides of hollow stems are naturally smooth and conducive to bees.

To make a bamboo stem bundle, cut bamboo into sections just below the node so that each piece has one long tube that's naturally blocked off at the bottom.  If you don't have bamboo, you can use hollow-stemed weeds as long as you find a way to plug the far end --- I'm trying a bit of mud and ashes, as you can see in the photo below.

Plug stem endsAs with wooden blocks, you'll need to decide whether you want to combine just a few stems together for a no-maintenance stem bundle or make larger nests that will need some care.  If you choose the latter, you can make a very pretty stem bundle by stuffing cut stems into coffee cans, plastic buckets, or short pieces of PVC pipe.  With just a few stems, though, it's simpler to tie the twigs together with a piece of wire or string.

If you don't have any bamboo or hollow weeds on hand, you can drill out the centers of Drilling a stem for a bee nestpithy twigs to get the same effect.  Elderberry, sumac, and chinaberry twigs are supposed to work well --- I'm trying elderberry.

Drilled twig bundle

I hung one stem bundle on the side of our wood stove addition on the south face of the trailer and another under a limb in the kitchen peach tree.  Now I just need to wait and see which, if any, of my artificial nests catch the fancy of our wild bees this spring and summer.

Our chicken waterer never spills in coops or tractors.
Posted Fri Dec 30 08:01:13 2011 Tags:

Bumblebee mothThe final habitat requirement of native pollinators is a spot to spend the winter.  Most native bees winter in their summer nest tunnels or burrows, but bumblebees need a sheltered spot with plenty of leaf litter in which to hibernate.  Some non-bee pollinators spend the winter in tall grass, bushes, trees, piles of leaves or sticks, or on man-made objects.

In general, the best way to protect pollinators in the winter is to leave them alone.  If you need to manage your pollinator meadows by mowing or burning, try to do so in the late summer or fall while the insects are still active and can get away.  Even if you don't have a designated pollinator area, it's worth leaving some overgrown, weedy spots along the edges of your garden to give these important insects a winter home.

Want to know more about native pollinators?  Here are some extra sources:

  • Attracting Wild Pollinators --- This beautifully illustrated book was the source for this week's lunchtime series.  It delves much further into all of the topics mentioned here.
  • Native pollinators --- This lunchtime series covers four of the most common types of pollinators in our garden --- sweat bees, small carpenter bees, miner bees, and the greater bee fly.
  • Bumblebees --- Learn about buzz pollination, bumblebee identification, and more in this lunchtime series.
Prepare an emergency lighting system so you're not stuck in the dark if the power goes out.  Learn how in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our Attracting Native Pollinators lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Dec 30 12:01:08 2011 Tags:

Cat's out of the bag
We've carried in 50 pound bags of chicken feed before, but it's a struggle during the muddy season and hard on the back.

The new method is to transfer 15 to 20 pounds in a smaller cat food bag so it can fit in a medium sized back pack.

Having both hands free is an advantage when trying to balance on the stepping stones while crossing the creek.

Posted Fri Dec 30 15:55:25 2011 Tags:

PlanimeterHave you ever wondered how large a certain pasture area was so that you'd know how many pounds of clover to seed?  Or perhaps you'd like to estimate how many cubic yards of compost it would take to smother your vegetable garden in a layer one inch thick?

Pacing off the boundaries of these areas can get complicated, especially if they're irregularly shaped or have trees or buildings in the way.  Enter Google Planimeter.

This fun tool layers on top of Google Maps.  You mark the boundaries of your area using as many points as you feel are necessary, and the website spits out the size of the plot in square meters, hectares, square kilometers, square feet, acres, and square miles.

I quickly learned that I'd been estimating our homestead area incorrectly.  Instead of encompassing two acres, our current garden and orchard are more like...0.57 acres.  Add on another quarter acre currently fenced in as pasture, and our entire cultivated land comes to less than an acre.  Who knew you could spend so much time (and grow so much) in so little space?

Of course, the tool doesn't take hills into account, so if you are farming on uneven terrain, it will underestimate areas slightly.  Yet another reason to move to the mountains --- you get more acres of growing area per square mile of earth.  I wonder if we get taxed on real acres or horizontal acres?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with clean, pure water.
Posted Sat Dec 31 08:30:35 2011 Tags:
mark 2011
using a Chopper 1 axe to split wood with someone taking a picture in the background

From my perspective 2011 was a great year filled with fun and excitement.

Anna and I are planning to have a quiet New Year's Eve celebration with Lucy, Strider, and Huckleberry.

I hope everybody reading this has a safe evening and an awesome 2012.

Posted Sat Dec 31 16:13:46 2011 Tags:

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

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