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

archives for 01/2012

Jan 2012
Sun through the trees

Saturday afternoon, I was itching for a walk, so I put on my hiking shoes and followed their lead.  They told me that it was too muddy to go down into the floodplain without my muck boots, and wouldn't it be fun to chase the sun up over the hill?

Trailer and addition

Eventually, the sun angled me around onto the other hill, which overlooks our homestead.  As trashy as it may appear to most folks, this view of our trailer and addition are pure beauty in my eyes --- freedom for a grand total of $3,000.  People keep asking me when we're going to build a house and I look at them like they're nuts.  Why would I want to spend masses of money and/or time building a larger space to keep clean (and use up prime growing area?)  Now, porches, a summer kitchen, a better roof, and perhaps strawbale walls for additional insulation might make the cut...someday when my gardening and writing projects get boring.  (Ha!)

Front garden

I got tired looking at our trailer after a while and zoomed in on the garden.  Here's the shady front garden, half of it mulched with straw and the other half with nearly dead oat cover crops.  Perhaps you don't get the same pure joy I do out of watching things rot?

Mule garden

The mule garden was still in nearly full sun, making the quick hoops shine.  Our whole homestead is encircled by the protective arms of trees --- young but beautiful.  I'm looking forward to watching them grow up.

No New Year's resolutions here.  Just more of the same --- beauty, nourishment, and most of all fun!

Our chicken waterer gives the flock clean water that never fills with POOP.
Posted Sun Jan 1 08:58:29 2012 Tags:
mark 2012
First rooster photograph of 2012

New Year's Day is business as usual for our chickens.
Posted Sun Jan 1 14:06:36 2012 Tags:

Light Sussex ChickensI can't quite make up my mind whether I like our Light Sussex or not.  They're very different chickens from any we've had before.

Although they do roost on the perches sometimes, it took them months to even consider getting up off the ground.  And they still seem to think it's just fine to bed down out in the woods if it's a clear night.

They're friendly as can be --- almost too friendly.  When the other flock, led by the Australorp rooster, came up into the garden, I chased them away with much hollering and Lucy action, and after a repeat performance they didn't come back.  Trying to chase the Sussex out of the garden didn't go nearly as well --- they weren't really afraid of me even when I ran straight at them.

The Sussex do seem to be pretty good foragers, though.  As with our problematic winter-layers, I'm taking a wait and see approach --- this time next year, I should be better able to report on how well Light Sussex, Black Australorps, and Cuckoo Marans match my homesteading criteria.  I'm also interested to see whether hybrids that we raise in the spring will show hybrid vigor --- lots of fun breeding experiments ahead!

Our chicken waterer keeps all of our chickens healthy with copious clean water winter and summer.
Posted Mon Jan 2 08:21:23 2012 Tags:

Barefoot beekeeperThe demise of both of our hives this autumn pushed me to look deeper into sustainable beekeeping.  I've got a couple more books to read before I settle on a new method, but The Barefoot Beekeeper by PJ Chandler was definitely a thought-provoking step in the right direction.  This week's lunchtime series will highlight the most intriguing tips I learned about natural beekeeping (and, specifically, top bar hives.)

Before you rush out and buy the book on Amazon, though, I should warn you that you might not want to pay $21.61 for the paperback version.  As reviewers there rightly mentioned, the book is short and sweet --- so why not download the ebook version from the author's website for $10 instead?  And if you're new to bees, you might want to wait on reading The Barefoot Beekeeper until you've pored over another beginner book and understand the basics of bee biology and behavior.

Those caveats aside, this book is the best natural beekeeping book I've read so far.  It delved much deeper into the issue than Natural Beekeeping and gave me much more food for thought.  If you're an intermediate level beekeeper, I think The Barefoot Beekeeper is a must-read.

Design a permaculture chicken pasture or tractor using the information in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our The Barefoot Beekeeper lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jan 2 12:01:29 2012 Tags:
how to use a treated furring strip as a make shift hand rail for a trail hill

furring strip as a hand rail on a trail hill
We've been taking this short cut to our trailer that saves about 3 minutes, but gets a little slippery on wet days.

I've had the idea for months now to connect two small trees with a treated furring strip to make a do it yourself hand rail, but kept forgetting to pick up the proper hardware.

The total price with both U bolts and the furring strip was around 7 dollars. Not a bad deal for such a huge increase in safety.

Posted Mon Jan 2 15:58:15 2012 Tags:

Snow on oatsI'd love to tell you that converting from cold frames to quick hoops is the reason we're still enjoying fresh lettuce and greens at the beginning of January.

But the truth is that this winter has been strangely warm.  Last year, our farm was under a coat of snow for nearly the entire month of December and the ground froze solid, but in December 2011 there were days when I didn't even need to light the wood stove.

I hear we're in for an arctic blast this week, and the snow is already falling.  I'll let you know whether the vegetables under the quick hoops survive once the leaves thaw out and either liquify or keep growing.

Even though cold weather is more work, I'm happy to see snow on the ground.  (And maybe the ground will freeze solid enough to drive the truck in?)

Our chicken waterer is easy to convert to a heated version that makes winter chores a breeze.
Posted Tue Jan 3 08:08:20 2012 Tags:

Trucking honeybeesWe've all heard that modern beekeeping is in trouble, but The Barefoot Beekeeper opened my eyes to problems that I hadn't considered.  Yes, large-scale beekeepers are mean to their bees, stressing them out by stealing all of their honey and then feeding them nutrient-free corn syrup to get them through the winter.  The bees are often given access to only one type of pollen, which leaves them perpetually malnourished, and they have to put up with pesticides in their foraging grounds and even in their hives.  We truck bees across the nation, letting pests and diseases piggy-back with the traveling bees and spread to other areas.  But there's a lot more to the decline of honeybees than that.

According to PJ Chandler, the honeybee decline began nearly as soon as the Langstroth hive was invented.  For those of you who don't keep bees, Langstroth hives are the wooden boxes you're likely to see in modern apiaries.  These hives are built out of wooden boxes with moveable frames inside, the combination of which allows us to easily look through a whole hive like paging through a book. 

SkepsThe Langstroth hive replaced a much more lethal method, in which bees were kept in skeps that had to be destroyed to harvest honey, so it was lauded as a great invention at the time.  However, Chandler argues that the Langstroth hive harms bees in several ways:

  • Drastic temperature changes --- In a natural hive, bees maintain a temperature of 94 degrees Fahrenheit year round.  When we open a Langstroth hive to page through those frames, the temperature in the hive drops dramatically even on a warm summer day.  Did you know that varroa mites can only reproduce at temperatures below 92 degrees?  Chandler doesn't have data to back this up, but his thesis feels sound --- the temperature spikes in the Langstroth hive make it easier for mites to gain a toehold, and the loss of heat also stresses out the bees who have to work hard to bring the hive back up to optimal levels.
  • Premade foundation --- As I've written previously, the cells in the foundation most beekeepers buy are larger than the natural cell size.  These large cells promote the spread of varroa mites.

ApiaryIn addition, we have to consider other aspects of modern beekeeping, such as the tendency to concentrate our hives in large apiaries.  As I mentioned about my native bee nests, if you house a lot of bees together, pests and diseases are much more apt to spread through the populations.  This makes me wonder if we wouldn't be better off keeping our hives on opposite sides of the property rather than close together.

All of that said, most of us aren't ready to go back to tearing skeps apart and killing colonies just to get at the honey.  Stay tuned for a modern solution that still keeps the bees healthy.

Four fun and easy projects to start you on your path to self-sufficiency --- just 99 cents!

This post is part of our The Barefoot Beekeeper lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jan 3 12:00:58 2012 Tags:
mark Frozen
storage tank freeze problem

The non potable water line froze up last night...the first time this winter.

Like Anna said, "the good news is the drinking water didn't freeze".

It might be this gap that formed where the tank meets the insulation box as the line arcs down into a trench. I think I'll let this problem marinate for a few days while I think of a solution. Maybe it'll be warmer then.

Posted Tue Jan 3 18:16:43 2012 Tags:
Parasitic fly on honeybee

I've read at least half a dozen different possible explanations for colony collapse disorder, but the Apocephalus borealis fly is a new one.  This tiny parasitic fly lays its eggs on honeybees, then the larvae nibble their way into the bees' brains and eat them alive.

Unsurprisingly, bees that fall prey to the Apocephalus borealis flies don't do so well.  The bees get disoriented, abandon their hives, and become stranded near bright lights.

Although lots of other problems have been correlated with hives that succumb to colony collapse disorder, the parasitic fly is unique in that it seems like it might actually cause the symptoms we see.  In addition, the timing seems right --- in the San Francisco Bay area where the scientists work, the fly visits honeybees from October to January and again in late summer, right before the majority of hives come down with colony collapse disorder.

So far, scientists are simply adding Apocephalus borealis to the suite of problems that colony collapse disorder hives seem to share, but I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out to be the primary culprit.

For those of you who didn't take statistics, if two things always happen together, that's a correlation.  For example, Huckleberry likes to sit in my chair whenever I want to sit there.  Just because the events are correlated, though, doesn't prove anything about causation --- sometimes, two correlated events are simply caused by the a third event we didn't think to measure.  In my example, the third event is a warm fire on a cold night --- the warmth attracts both me and Huckleberry like moths to a flame.  Returning to the serious case of colony collapse disorder, just because we often see Nosema apis and Varroa destructor in the sick hives doesn't mean these illnesses cause the disorder.

Our chicken waterer keeps our chickens from being bored while cooped up on a snowy day.
Posted Wed Jan 4 07:49:05 2012 Tags:

Wild bee hive entranceBefore I write about modern beekeeping methods that promote healthier bee populations, let's take a step back and look at the way honeybees live in the wild.  Although some of them will move into the walls of our houses (oops), most feral honeybees prefer to nest in hollow trees.  That means they are quite well insulated from the elements, with thick wooden walls on the sides and an even thicker "roof" above their heads.

 Nest chambers of wild bees are vertically elongated cylinders with a capacity of about 8 to 16 gallons.  To give you a frame of reference, the deep brood box that most Langstroth hives begin with has a capacity of about 11 gallons, and beekeepers generally add on at least one more deep brood box or two shallow supers.  That makes the wild bee hives sound small, but keep in mind that wild bees don't sock away as much honey as we ask our bees to.  Instead, they swarm as soon as conditions in the hive start to get cramped, sending out a daughter colony to make a new hollow her own.

Wild bee hiveWild bee hives are usually at or near the base of a tree and the entrances are generally at the bottom of the hollow.  Entrances vary in size depending on the capacity of the tree, but range from about 4 to 16 inches in diameter.

The bees chew away rough bark at the entrance to make a smooth landing area, then they coat the inside walls with propolis.  Combs are fastened to the top and sides of the chamber, but the bees leave small passageways along the edges to allow them to move around inside easily.  They put honey in the top of the combs, then pollen, and care for their brood below.

Can we develop a hive that allows for human management while keeping as many of these wild bee characteristics as possible?  Tomorrow's post will suggest one possible compromise.

Learn the science behind bread-making in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our The Barefoot Beekeeper lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jan 4 12:00:39 2012 Tags:

Muck boots in action day one Chore version

I decided to upgrade my winter foot wear with some new Muck boots.

These boots fit my feet like no other boot I've ever encountered.

The stretchy material hugs the upper ankle area in just the right spots while at the same time having enough give to allow for a superior freedom of movement.

Posted Wed Jan 4 16:24:42 2012 Tags:
Black and white chickens

Black Australorp roosterRemember two weeks ago when I wrote that I was trying to combine two roosters into one flock?  I'm ready to tentatively call the experiment a success.

The Light Sussex are still at the bottom of the pecking order, but they're now allowed to eat side by side with the grownups, as long as they mind their manners.  As usual, it was the head rooster who made the decision --- once he started guarding the Sussex as well as his previous harem, they were in.

The only trouble with the merger occurred last week when the Light Sussex cockerel led his ladies up over the hill into the garden...and the Australorps and Marans started following behind!  Luckily, I saw the first white heads peek up over the hill as I was cooking supper and ran out to scare them out of their wits.  There have been no repeat performances.

Our POOP-free chicken waterer keeps the flock well hydrated.
Posted Thu Jan 5 07:51:27 2012 Tags:

Top bar hive diagram
PJ Chandler's solution to the ills of modern beekeeping is the top bar hive.  The hive is simply a long box with sides that slant inwards and a lid that fits over top.  Removable frames are placed in the box a bit like the frames in a Langstroth hive, but top bar frames are just what they sound like --- simply a top bar.  The bees create their own wax just like they do in foundationless frames, which allows them to build at a more natural cell size.

Top bar hiveOne of the major selling points of the top bar hive is that you can manage the hive in a very unobtrusive fashion.  The frames entirely enclose the space at the top of the bees' nest area, so taking off the lid doesn't lower the temperature inside much, nor does it bother the bees.  The bee colony is enclosed on the sides by two follower boards to keep them from sprawling into the entire hive before they're ready, and inspections can be as simple as sliding one follower board away from the bees and peeking inside.

Honey is usually harvested one frame at a time, by cutting the entire comb off the wooden frame.  Although bees then have to redraw the wax on that frame, cutting off the comb probably helps sanitize the hive, slowing the buildup of diseases and pests.  In general, you should probably expect a bit less honey from a top bar hive than from a Langstroth hive, but if that means your bees are healthier, I'd say the trade is worth it.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post in which I'll discuss more of the pros and cons of top bar hives, or check out our friend Everett's description of his top bar hive.

Interpret your soil test with ease using the tips in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our The Barefoot Beekeeper lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jan 5 12:01:00 2012 Tags:

wraping a chicken waterer with reflectix

do it yourself heated chicken waterer froze up the other night.

It did fine earlier in the month when it got down to 16 degrees, but it would seem like somewhere around 10 is the "too cold" point.

Instead of increasing the length of the electric pipe heater we decided to wrap it with Reflectix.

Maybe we'll get lucky and have to wait till next winter to fully test out this new generation of diy heated chicken waterers.

Posted Thu Jan 5 16:23:09 2012 Tags:

Improved Dwarf Siberian kaleWe're currently trying out three varieties of kale that are supposed to be particularly cold hardy --- Winterbor (from Johnny's and Territorial), Improved Dwarf Siberian (from Territorial), and Red Russian (from Sweet Garden Organics.)  I planted three beds (each with all varieties) between August 6 and August 26, then covered them with quick hoops once cold weather came along.

The first test was how well the seeds germinated in summer heat.  Red Russian barely came up in two of the beds while Winterbor and Improved Dwarf Siberian each didn't feel like growing in one bed.  Given such a range of data points, I'm going to say they're all potential trouble and might need a bit of help if you're planting your fall garden during hot weather (as you should be.)

Despite its name, Improved Dwarf Siberian was the largest kale variety, growing a thick stem and long leaves that sprawled out over the bed.  Red Russian turned out to be the diminutive cousin, keeping its growing tip near the ground and politely adding a new leaf to its topknot now and then.

Winterbor kaleWinterbor looked a lot like Dwarf Siberian at first, but once the weather got cold, Winterbor started growing very ruffled leaves on short stems.  My gut feeling is that Winterbor is still growing (perhaps because the condensed leaves are better able to handle cold?) while the other two varieties are biding their time until spring.  I don't have any real data to back that up, though --- I only peek under the quick hoops now and then.

Red Russian kaleIf I lived in the city, I'd plant all three of these kale varieties in my flower garden for winter color.  Red Russian might be the prettiest, but the beautiful white veins on the Siberian and the ruffled Winterbor leaves are both quite striking.

All three varieties of kale taste so good right now that when I go out and snip leaves for dinner, I eat a bunch before I get back inside.  I've had to cut way back on the balsamic vinegar I saute them in --- the leaves are already so sweet that the sugary vinegar almost turns them into dessert.  If I had to choose the least tasty variety, it would probably be Red Russian, but not by much.

Winter hardiness
Only time will tell which variety lasts longest into the winter.  This factor will probably be the most important in determining what we grow next year.

For those of you who aren't kale fans, I'll post a roundup of our other winter greens in another post.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock happy and healthy year round.
Posted Fri Jan 6 08:15:51 2012 Tags:

Warre hiveLess well known than the top bar hive is another alternative beekeeping box --- the Warre hive, sometimes called a "vertical top bar hive."  I have to admit that I haven't read Abbe Warre's Beekeeping for All yet (although you can download it for free by following the link.)  The information below is drawn from The Barefoot Beekeeper, and is clearly biased toward the author's method.

Although Warre used smaller boxes, his technique is very similar to the modified Langstroth method I've used in the past (although less intrusive.)  Warre stacked small boxes (12 inches square and a bit over 8 inches deep) just like in a Langstroth hive, with the major difference being that his frames were merely top bars with wax strips.  When the first box was full of bees and honey, Warre slipped an empty box underneath (similar to my swarm prevention in years past, but without the extra checkerboarding.)

Warre hive diagramWhere Warre's method differs most from mine is that he didn't believe in delving into the hive at intervals to page through the frames.  In fact, he actually fixed his frames in place with nails and didn't mess with the bees at all.  When they had moved down into the lower box, he would slip another empty box underneath and then take away the top box, harvesting all of the honey out of it at once.

Warre's hive also differs from Langstroth hives by containing a special, insulated roof.  Chandler argues that one of the problems with the Langstroth hive is that the thin walls and roof cause condensation within the hive in the winter, which makes the bees sick.  Both the Warre hive and the top bar hive deal with this problem by using thicker wood and adding a sawdust layer to the inner lid.

PJ Chandler presented a chart of pros and cons of the Warre hive versus his top bar hive, which you have to take with a grain of salt since he clearly prefers the latter.  Some disadvantages he saw to the Warre method were:

  • You have to store some boxes when not in use.  The top bar hive is all one piece, so you block off empty areas but don't have to find space in the barn to store anything.
  • More physical strength is required for the Warre hive.  Each time you add a new box underneath, you have to hoist up the heavy box of bees and honey.

On the other hand, the Warre hive did win in one respect:

  • Very low maintence.  The top bar hive requires much more regular maintenance, with the beekeeper often checking in and adding another frame twice a week during heavy nectar flows.  On the other hand, when you do work with the Warre hive, you need to allot more time and physical strength to the project.

I have to admit that I think I'd drive myself nuts not being allowed to look into the hive using Warre's method.  On the other hand, there's always the potential of creating viewing windows in the sides of the boxes, and if the Warre method was better for the bees, I'd be tempted to try it.

Has anyone had experience with Warre and/or top bar hives?  Do you know of other reasons to choose one over the other?

Don't be stuck in the dark if the power goes off --- learn about emergency lighting systems in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our The Barefoot Beekeeper lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Jan 6 12:01:03 2012 Tags:
How good are John Deere work gloves?

I've tested out a wide variety of work gloves over the last 8 years, but none of them have come close to the quality these new John Deere gloves exude.
work gloves
At 20 dollars they're a bit over twice what I usually like to pay, but I can already tell it's going to be worth it in just the way the green stretchy material hugs the back of my hand.

The leather is thicker than most work gloves without being too thick. Some gloves are plenty thick, but next to impossible to grip anything with full confidence.

Posted Fri Jan 6 16:00:43 2012 Tags:

The Small-Scale Poultry FlockIf Attracting Native Pollinators is the prettiest homesteading-related book of 2011, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock is the most thought-provoking.  You can read my gushing review on our chicken blog, along with my summary of Ussery's most interesting points:

Breeding small flocks of chickens --- Homestead-scale tips on growing better birds.

Choosing mother hens --- Breeds and traits that make good broody hens.

Chicken feed: Beyond the basics --- Chicken food groups, mangels, and more.

Keeping chickens happy in the winter
--- Ussery has a variety of tips for dealing with this tough time of year.

Eating the whole chicken --- Parts of the bird you never knew were a delicacy.  (Mountain oysters, anyone?)

Diversifying your poultry flock --- Did you know you can train geese to weed your garden?

I would have made the book a lunchtime series over here, but as you can see, I couldn't summarize it in five posts.  In fact, there are dozens of fascinating tidbits in his book that I didn't manage to fit into a post --- go read it!

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock so easy, you'll almost forget they exist.
Posted Sat Jan 7 08:05:44 2012 Tags:
Bays Mountain winter hike 2012

Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium is a 3500 acre nature preserve in Northeast Tennessee.

We hiked all the way up to the fire tower today, and the view was well worth it.

Posted Sat Jan 7 16:42:30 2012 Tags:
Bays Mountain Lake

Boots and concreteI'm obsessed with my book project.  I wake up with sidebars in mind and try to go to sleep with editing decisions still rolling around in my head.

The choice to put the farm on hold and bulldoze my way through finishing the book has been a good one for the manuscript, which is suddenly starting to look like something I won't cringe to see in Tractor Supply.  (I might even go so far as to say I'm proud of it.)  Unfortunately, just a few weeks of sedentism is enough to remind me that my body craves motion.

Photographing observation hive

Egg displaySo I begged Mark to take me to Bays Mountain, where I could wear myself out walking up to the fire tower.  I had forgotten the tower was so high (60 feet) and scarily open, and that the platform at the top was so tiny.  We didn't stay aloft long, but did try out the homemade parachute some kid had left behind.

After an engrossing planetarium presentation, I realized I hadn't thought about the book all day.  Success!  If editing takes much longer, we'll have to go back for another round of nature meditation.

Bridge over the river
Our chicken waterer is the no-spill solution for chicken tractors.
Posted Sun Jan 8 08:08:17 2012 Tags:

how high should a chopping block be?

Increasing the height of our firewood chopping block by several inches really helped the process.

I guess the optimal height might vary depending on how tall one is and what size logs are being cut, but for me the sweet spot is easier to hit with the chopping block as high as the middle spot between the ground and your knee.

Posted Sun Jan 8 16:11:31 2012 Tags:
Quick hoop in winter

Frostbitten tatsoiI promised you a peek under the quick hoops, but it took a few days for the snow to thaw enough that the edges of the fabric weren't frozen down.  Winter lows have so far dropped to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and we've had a few days where even the highs remained below freezing --- a pretty good test.

(You might want to read about the winter greens I'm growing first.  Also, sorry about the smudge on the camera lens.)

The bad news is that our two varieties of Asian greens are pretty much kaput.  They were vigorous and productive in the fall, but I probably should have harvested them harder and planned to completely eat Frostbitten lettucethem up before cold weather hit.  Instead, I left a lot behind, hoping they'd be strong enough to keep going into the winter, and most of those stored leaves turned to inedible mush.  Live and learn!

On the other hand, our Black-seeded Simpson lettuce fared much better than I expected.  Although several leaves did get nipped, the majority of the plants look healthy and ready to eat.

I didn't expect much from our mustard since two varieties (Tendergreen and Broadleaf) had started to bolt in the sunny December weather.  I was wrong!  The Mustard flowermustard looked nearly untouched by the cold weather and Giant mustard (the one variety that didn't bolt) has plenty of leaves to get us through another couple of weeks until growth starts back up.

Of course, the kale is still just as delicious looking as it was last week, and our Hakurei turnips might actually be putting out new leaves (although small and slowly.)

But here's a surprise --- Fordhook Giant Swiss chard, out in the open with no quick hoop covering, is still alive and doing pretty well!  I didn't think the Swiss chard even deserved protection because the colorful stalked varieties I've grown previously have wimped out over the winter.  But Swiss chard in winterreports that Fordhook Giant is a much more winter hardy variety seem to be founded in fact.  I guess we'll stick to the "ugly" variety and turn Swiss chard into a winter standby!

All told, our greens and lettuce beds have given us at least sixty meals so far --- pretty good for the minimal effort of tossing down seeds, weeding and mulching once, then erecting quick hoops.  I thought I'd planted too many beds, but there's really no such thing as too much fresh food in the winter.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock busy on cold days when they're all cooped up.
Posted Mon Jan 9 08:43:59 2012 Tags:
fixing the tank box with some Reflectix

old image of tank box with gap that may have caused a freexing situation
I took the cover off the tank box and stuffed in some Reflectix to fill in the gap.

Will be crossing my fingers the next time it gets really cold.

Posted Mon Jan 9 16:28:19 2012 Tags:

Beetle burrows Remember how I wrote that many of our native bees nest in old beetle burrows in dead trees, stumps, and branches?  I'd never noticed these holes before, but now that I've read about them, I see them everywhere.

The stumps we lazily left strewn throughout the yard and garden are clearly one of the sources of our huge native bee population.  This is a representative sample of just a few inches of one of our stumps.

Come to think of it, a couple of years ago, I saw a strange-looking wasp visit this stump for an unknown reason --- I guess I know what she was doing now!

Since our stumps are slowly being ripped out of the ground and turned into hugelkultur mounds, I guess it's a good thing I'm making the bees replacement homes.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with clean water.
Posted Tue Jan 10 08:07:37 2012 Tags:
mark 43
making no wheat brownies on my 43rd birthday

As of today I'm 43 years old.

Anna made me some awesome birthday brownies, while at the same time indulging my recent experiment with deleting wheat. How did she do it? Coconut flour. More on that later.

Best birthday brownies ever.

Posted Tue Jan 10 16:02:11 2012 Tags:

Coconut flour browniesMany folks turn to coconut flour when they decide to ditch wheat.  Compared to white flour, coconut flour has about the same amount of protein, but replaces nearly a third of the carbohydrates with good fats.  Coconut flour makes decadent desserts, too, if you like the taste of coconut and don't mind a bit of denseness in the final product.

Of course, if you live in the boondocks like we do, you're not going to find coconut flour in the grocery store.  You might find whole coconuts, though, in which case you can try to make your own.  Here's the method we used to make our coconut flour (and why you shouldn't follow our lead):

I drained out the coconut milk, pried out the flesh, whirred the latter up in the food processor, then baked the meat at around 350 degrees until it was dry.  Mark's mom had sent us a Magic Mill III, and without instructions, I made the mistake of passing my coconut meat through.  The good news is, the mill made fine, fluffy flour.  The bad news is that there was so much oil in the meat that it left a residue on the mill --- I'm hoping that'll clear out the next time we use it, but I can't recommend using an impact mill on unexpelled coconut meat.

To make coconut flour the right way, you'll need to first send the flesh through an oil expeller.  I've hit a bit of a wall with our expeller, but Mark thinks he can convert it to heating with electricity so that smoke doesn't ruin the product.  If he gets that going, I think we could make real coconut flour by first expelling the oil, then sending the coconut cake through the Magic Mill.

No matter how you get it, here's a delicious recipe for coconut flour brownies:

  • Dark chocolate brownie0.5 cups cocoa
  • 0.5 cups coconut flour
  • 0.5 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 0.5 teaspoons salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 tablespoons butter (or 8 tablespoons if you get the oil out of your flour or use storebought coconut flour)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • a small handful of dark chocolate chips

Mix the first seven ingredients together, sprinkle the chocolate chips on top, and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until a knife comes out clean.  Serves 4 (or 8 if you have self restraint.)

Have you experimented with coconut flour?  I'd be very curious to hear about your technique if you've made the flour at home.

Our chicken waterer gives the flock something to come home for after a day foraging in the woods.
Posted Wed Jan 11 08:35:57 2012 Tags:
how to make no wheat brownies that are delicious

I'd like to express a big thank you for all the warm birthday greetings.

Not much left of the delicious no-wheat brownies.
Posted Wed Jan 11 16:00:31 2012 Tags:
Chickens beside mushroom totems

Look at this --- mushrooms in the middle of January!  Not only is the totem that fruited in November pushing out new mushrooms, so is the totem that I inoculated with wild oyster mushroom spawn.

The oyster mushrooms in our yard aren't currently fruiting, which makes me wonder if the woods might be a slightly more sheltered microclimate.  I've read that even leafless limbs hold in a bit of warmth on cold winter nights, a bit like quick hoops do.  Of course, this area is also one of the sunniest parts of our farm, so that might be the real reason mushrooms are able to grow there in the dead of winter.

As a side note, the chickens are only interested because they thought they were going to get breakfast.  Otherwise, they leave oyster mushrooms alone, meaning that those of you with limited space can "stack" chickens and mushrooms to your heart's content.  Two harvests from one space --- gotta love permaculture.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy and happy winter and summer.
Posted Thu Jan 12 08:22:07 2012 Tags:
visual indicator of creek being over my knees

The first flood of 2012 put the creek level just above my knees.

Yet another day when my Pro Line hip waders are worth their weight in gold.
Posted Thu Jan 12 16:48:52 2012 Tags:
Homemade candles

Frank Hoyt TaylorIf you keep bees, you end up with lots of wax.  Folks who like comb honey or who manage top bar hives will have much more, but even those of you who use an extractor will collect a lot of cappings.

Our movie star neighbor solved the excess beeswax problem by making 110 candles.  (He hasn't quite figure out how to solve the excess candles problem....)

The first step was to clean the beeswax.  He melts his wax in an olive oil can partially full of water atop a pot of boiling water, then uses a seive to dip out any gunk that floats to the surface.  (This waxy debris makes great firestarters, our neighbor points out.)  After the wax is mostly clean, pour it into a five gallon bucket to cool, then pour off the water once the wax has solidified.  You should be able to pop the solid wax right out of your bucket, but then will need to scrape more gunk off the bottom until you're left with beautiful, clean wax.

Knock the wax into chunks with a hammer and melt it again in a fresh olive oil can, still atop a pot of boiling water.  If you don't want to mess your kitchen up, lay down some newspapers, and also set up a broom or other pole between two chairs.  Cut wick material (about $2 for more than you'll ever use) into lengths twice as long as you want your finished candles to be.  Then start dipping.
Dipped candles
If your wax is the perfect temperature, it will coat the wick thickly but won't drip off excessively.  A little cooler is generally better than a little hotter since cooler wax stays on much better --- you'll know if you've gone too cold because the wax will be a bit chunky.

Our neighbor found it useful to keep three cans of wax melting at all times, pouring melted wax into the foremost can so that it was always full enough to dip a candle.

After dunking the wick the first time, wait until the wax is partly cool, then stretch the candle out with your fingers so that the candle straightens.  You may need to repeat this procedure after the second dipping as well, but after that, you can just dip, cool, and dip again.

You'll notice in the pictures that our neighbor makes two candles out of each wick.  This method makes it easy for him to drape the candles over his rod and let them cool between dippings.  Later, he'll cut the wick and end up with a pair of candles.

Homemade tea lightsOur neighbor dipped each candle about 25 to 30 times, which means it took him six to seven hours (and about two gallons of clean wax) to make 80 candles plus 30 tea lights.  The tea lights were to use up excess wax at the end of the project and are made from a small piece of wick inside a cleaned out applesauce container.

Previous batches of handmade candles have gone to the Harvest Table Restaurant, where they were priced at $5 per pair.  However, our neighbor notes that they didn't sell nearly as well as honey (which went like hotcakes.)  On the other hand, the yellow, honey-scented candles hanging on his wall always attract the attention of guests, so he's had no problem giving them away to loving homes.

Our chicken waterer never spills, even when pulling tractors across uneven ground.
Posted Fri Jan 13 08:17:49 2012 Tags:

February coverCold winter days give us an incentive to catch up on our reading, so I've launched the February ebook a bit early.  Topics include:

  • Easy berries
  • Backyard chickens
  • Buying in bulk
  • Informal apprenticeships

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.

Don't forget that Weekend Homesteader: January is still available, with the first half of the backyard chickens primer and with information on backup lighting, soil testing, and bread baking.  Thanks for reading!

Posted Fri Jan 13 11:18:25 2012 Tags:
small fire

Our 2nd Jotul wood stove can sometimes heat my small room to the point where I need to open a window. I've been experimenting with different ways of controlling the size of the fire with mixed results.

The first lesson learned is to not worry about letting the fire go out. The super draft on the Jotul makes it really easy to start. I usually stop feeding it if my inside temperature goes above 68.

Another trick I like to use is putting a log in the corner so one of its sides is up against a wall. I think it burns slower when less surface area is exposed.

Posted Fri Jan 13 15:49:36 2012 Tags:
Winter greens

I don't want you to think that life under the quick hoops is entirely worry-free.  The winter protection does make one garden problem much worse --- bugs.

Insect on row cover fabricSome people use row cover fabric to keep insects out.  For example, you can cover up your eggplants in the summer and prevent flea beetle damage.  Or, if you're running breeding experiments, you can uncover different varieties of the same species on alternate days to allow for wild pollination but not cross-pollination.

Unfortunately, row covers keep out all of the beneficial insects too --- like ladybugs to eat up the aphids that seem to grow like crazy on my winter greens.  I'm not sure what these tiny flies are or what eats them, but I'd like some of those predators inside my quick hoops too.

Learn to keep bugs at bayI've ranted at length about the downside of greenhouses --- most relevantly, the fact that you have to supply most ecosystem functions yourself rather than relying on the earth to do the work for you.  It looks like quick hoops share at least a one of these flaws.

On the upside, I'll be moving the quick hoops in just a couple of months, so these insect infestations will soon be a thing of the past.  I can just hear the hibernating ladybugs planning their entrance strategy.

Our chicken waterer makes care of the flock clean, quick, and easy.
Posted Sat Jan 14 08:27:32 2012 Tags:
image of our water storage tank during the winter of 2012

19 degrees last night was cold enough to freeze the non-potable water line for the 2nd time this season.

I'm not complaining though.

Today was a perfect winter day for being still.

Posted Sat Jan 14 16:40:36 2012 Tags:
Extracting honey in a colander

Comb honeyCan you get honey out of the comb without an extractor.  Well, sure.

Just cut the comb off the frame, put it in a colander atop a bowl, and mash everything up a bit with a potato masher (or spoon.)

Honey will slowly trickle down into the bowl...slow being the operative word if you start out with frozen honey from a dead hive in January.

On the scale of our two person family, the truth is that extracting honey using a bowl and colander is probably the best option --- faster than cleaning the extractor, really.  Yet another reason to set my sights on top bar hives.

Dripping honey

Our chicken waterer simplifies backyard chicken keeping with clean, POOP-free water.
Posted Sun Jan 15 08:28:24 2012 Tags:
Electric heater

This small electric heater is another element in the formula for keeping my Jotul wood stove burning at its lowest temperature.

Knowing it will kick in when the fire dies down lets me sleep a little easier.

It also functions as a main heat source when the outside temperature is above freezing.

Posted Sun Jan 15 16:57:11 2012 Tags:

WoodshedDespite what the calendar says, I consider this the halfway point of winter.

From a heating perspective, January is the coldest month.  That means we should be midway through our wood supply, but we've actually used more than we should have.  It's been a warm, but sedentary, winter, and I've burnt excess wood so I wouldn't irritate my carpal tunnel while pounding away on the keyboard.  We have plenty more out at the parking area if the driveway ever cooperates, but for now we've only got about 40% of the farmside wood left.  Time to be a little more sparing.

Food storage chartFrom a food storage perspective, I'd say we're only a third of the way through winter.  Even though our Persephone Days will soon be over and the winter greens will start growing again, we won't pick anything non-leafy until oyster mushrooms pop up in March, asparagus in April, and then finally strawberries, broccoli, and more in May.  Here, we've done a much better job than with our wood stores, in large part due to the seemingly endless supplies of lettuce and greens from the quick hoops.  Of the 28.75 gallons of winter vegetables we stored away, we've consumed a mere 4.5 gallons.  We'd better pick up the pace!

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicken tractors since it never spills on uneven ground.
Posted Mon Jan 16 07:49:31 2012 Tags:

Picking strawberriesIn the long run, an orchard provides the most fruit per hour of maintenance, but berries fill in the gap while you're waiting for your apple trees to produce.  Luckily, easy berry plants like strawberries and raspberries will start producing in a year or less.  Better yet, they're so easy to propagate that you'll soon have filled up every nook and cranny of your yard with edibles and will be begging neighbors to take extra plants off your hands.

Choosing your berries
The primary purpose of this week's exercise is to be harvesting your own fruit in a year or less.  As a result, I'm going to focus on the quickest bearing berries --- blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries.  Each of these plants require only minimal to moderate care, with their differences detailed in the chart below.

USDA hardiness zones
Spacing (feet)
Best in southern climates and for people with lots of space
Raspberry, red
Best in northern climates; can fit into smaller spaces than other brambles
Raspberry, black
6.0-6.8 2-3
A good southern berry for those with less space, but not as productive as other brambles
You can tuck a few strawberry plants into even the smallest garden, but they take more care than the brambles

If you're feeling patient, you might want to select additional small fruits from the second chart below.  Although you may get a grape or blueberry the first or second year, these "advanced" species all require four or five years to reach their full potential.  I consider a blueberry patch a long term investment --- on par with planting a fruit tree --- while strawberries and raspberries can be snuck into the yard of a rental property.

USDA hardiness zones
Spacing (feet)
Blueberry, highbush
Best in northern climates; must have acidic soil; needs more than one variety for pollination
Blueberry, rabbiteye
7-9 4.5-5.5
Best in southern climates; must have acidic soil; needs more than one variety for pollination
Best in northern climates; some states don't allow you to plant certain varieties because of the white pine blister rust
Best in northern climates but can be planted a bit further south than currants; if you live in the south, try to find a cool microclimate
Bunch grapes hate hot, humid summers, so consider muscadines in the deep south
Kiwis come in male and female varieties --- be sure to plant at least one male for every eight females; only hardy kiwis can survive below zone 7

Weekend Homesteader paperbackFor the rest of this lunchtime series, I'll be focusing on care of the simplest berry varieties.  If you decide to plant any of the more "advanced" small fruits from the second chart, you'll need to do a bit of extra research on pruning and trellising.  But don't let that discourage you --- all of these small fruits are well within the reach of the backyard homesteader.

This week's lunchtime series is exerpted from Weekend Homesteader: February, which is available for 99 cents from Amazon's kindle store.  The ebook also includes a primer on choosing and caring for a backyard flock of chickens, information on buying in bulk, and tips for creating your own apprenticeship.  If you enjoy the book, please consider leaving me a review.

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

Posted Mon Jan 16 12:01:04 2012 Tags:
mark Dog damage
Damage to a raised bed in the garden

Our dog Lucy works overtime to keep predators away from the perimeter.

Sometimes she gets a little too aggressive when it comes to small critters and runs them all the way into the ground.

We briefly considered building some sort of barrier around each bed, but the damage is rare and usually easy to fix.

Posted Mon Jan 16 16:07:19 2012 Tags:
Garlic with the tops cut off

You wouldn't know it for the huge amount of garlic I grow every year, but I used to hate garlic.  What won me over to the anti-vampire side of the cooking fence was roasted garlic.  When you cook whole cloves without breaking them apart, the result is sweet and mildly garlicky, without the bite of minced garlic.

In recent years, I've learned to love the bite, but I'm working on a roasted garlic hummus recipe, so I figured I'd learn to roast garlic the right way.  It's surprisingly easy.  Clean a dozen or so heads of garlic (assuming your skins are still a bit dirty from the garden, like Roast garlicmine), then chop off the tops so that the tips of most cloves are barely exposed.  Drizzle a bit of olive oil on the exposed skin and bake in a 350 degree oven for about an hour.  Once you can handle the heads again, squeeze out the roasted cloves.

You'll have much better luck roasting softneck garlic than hardneck for the simple reason that it's tough to cut the top off the latter.  And why waste those easy to skin, huge cloves on this recipe when trouble heads with two dozen tiny cloves are so easy to roast?  You can squeeze the guts out of a head of garlic in seconds, no matter how many cloves are present.

Use your roasted garlic in any recipe that calls for regular garlic, but add a lot more of it.  (About a head of roasted garlic will replace a clove of raw garlic.)  Enjoy!

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Tue Jan 17 08:08:45 2012 Tags:
Strawberries and peas

Be forewarned --- once you taste a homegrown strawberry, you'll never be able to eat another berry from the grocery store.  Even ripe fruits plucked fresh from a you-pick operation don't hold a candle to the explosion of flavor inside a strawberry grown in the humus-rich, no-till garden.  Luckily, strawberries are pretty simple to grow in your backyard, so you'll be able to feed your new addiction.

Your first step when planting strawberries is variety selection.  Although everbearing strawberries look good on paper, I find June bearers to be less work with higher returns, so I recommend the beginning homesteader start there.  Even if you stick with June bearers, you can count on a full month of strawberries if you plant early, midseason, and late varieties (and be aware that "June bearers" actually fruit in April and May in the south and middle of the country --- the name simply refers to the single annual crop.)  Your extension service is the best source for recommendations of varieties that do well in your area.

Strawberries can be planted in the early spring or in the fall.  I tend to plant in the fall when expanding my own strawberry patch but in the spring when buying in fresh plants --- that way, I don't lose my expensive new stock to drought.

Planting strawberries You'll get the most value for your money if you buy bare-rooted strawberries in sets of 25 from an online nursery.  The strawberries will come with few or no leaves and will look quite dead, but when planted with the roots spread out just below the soil surface and the growing crown peeking up slightly above the ground, new leaves will soon appear.

There are several different methods of growing strawberries, and your initial plant spacing will depend on which technique you plan to follow.  I put in a bit more work to get tastier fruits, spacing my plants 12 inches apart and removing all of the runners --- this is called the hill system.  If you're more of a laissez faire gardener, you might prefer the matted row system, in which plants are spaced much further apart and allowed to fill up the gaps with runners.  The benefit of the matted row system is that it's less work in year one and you don't have to buy as many plants; the downside is that you'll spend more time next year picking lots of small fruits that often aren't quite as tasty as the fewer big fruits you get from the hill system.

Weekend Homesteader paperback No matter which spacing method you choose, be aware that strawberries can handle a little bit more shade then most vegetables but will give you the sweetest fruits in full sun.  Strawberries can also become quickly overwhelmed by weeds, so mulch them carefully and repeatedly and hand weed as necessary.  If you're planting into weedy ground, you might choose to lay down a kill mulch (see Weekend Homesteader: May) and plant your strawberries into small holes cut in the cardboard.

This week's lunchtime series is exerpted from Weekend Homesteader: February, which is available for 99 cents from Amazon's kindle store.  The ebook also includes a primer on choosing and caring for a backyard flock of chickens, information on buying in bulk, and tips for creating your own apprenticeship.  If you enjoy the book, please consider leaving me a review.

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

Posted Tue Jan 17 12:01:07 2012 Tags:
Lucy next to a fallen walnut tree

One question that's been on the back of our minds lately is if we have enough fire wood to get us through the rest of the cold season.

This walnut tree we cut down not far from the trailer a couple of years ago seemed to be calling out to me today saying "'re forgetting about me!"

I guess it's a case of not seeing the tree for the forest. I've walked past it almost everyday without giving it a second thought.

Posted Tue Jan 17 16:01:47 2012 Tags:

Pouring honeyThere are two small difficulties with extracting your honey by hand.  The first occurred to me as I left the honey dripping into a bowl overnight --- in the summer, that bowl would attract ants like crazy.  (Of course, in the summer, it probably wouldn't take all night for the honey to settle out of the wax.)

The other slight problem is that you get a few wax particles in your honey.  There are several ways to deal with this --- you can strain the honey through a finer sieve or cloth, or you can wait until the wax floats to the top of the jar and just skim it off.  Or you can do what I do and just savor the honey, wax and all --- the tiny specks aren't really noticeable.

Our chicken waterer keeps your coop sanitary and your chickens healthy.
Posted Wed Jan 18 08:15:48 2012 Tags:

Care of your first year plants
Strawberry flowerYour new plants will try to bloom their first spring.  For best results, carefully pick every flower off the plants so they'll put their energy into growing healthy roots and leaves instead.  Yes, that means you won't get to taste your first berry until next year --- it will be worth the wait.  Using my growing system, this first year is the only time you'll have to pick off flower buds since you'll plant new strawberries in the fall from here on out.  (Fall planted berries have generally established themselves enough that you can let them fruit their first spring.)

After trying to bloom, the strawberry plants will send out lots of runners.  Those of you following the hill system will want to snip back runners during your usual weeding sessions.  You don't need any fancy equipment as long as you catch the runners when they're young and tender --- just pinch them off between your thumb and forefinger.

Strawberry plants often keep green leaves through most or all of the winter, but you'll want to put some mulch over top of the plants once the rest of your garden has died back.  Freezing and thawing can otherwise push your berries' shallow roots up out of the ground and kill the plants.  Be sure to rake the mulch back from the tender new leaves in early spring and topdress the bed with a healthy coating of compost, topped off with the old mulch plus a new layer of straw.

Flowering and fruiting
Frost-nipped strawberry flowerAfter patiently waiting 12 months, you're ready for your strawberry harvest.  This time, leave all of the blooms and keep an eye on the weather.  Late spring freezes can damage strawberry flowers, so I toss row cover fabric over top of the plants if lows are expected to drop below 30 degrees once flower buds have opened.  You'll know your flowers were damaged if the centers change from yellow to black.  All is not lost, though --- strawberry flowers tend to open a few at a time over the course of a week or two, so losing the earliest flowers will just allow the plant to put more energy into later fruits.

Chocolate strawberry shortcakeWhile watering is important throughout the growing season, the time between fruiting and harvest is a critical period.  Strawberries need an inch of water per week, and if the weather isn't cooperating, you have to irrigate.  Otherwise, just watch and wait, picking your strawberries when they are bright red on the outside and at least slightly red clear through.  You'll need to set aside time to harvest strawberries at least every other day, but daily harvesting is better.  Berries are sweetest in the afternoon and are least tasty if picked right after a rain (or watering session.)

If you ever get sick of grazing on fresh strawberries, Weekend Homesteader: August tells how to make peach leather, a recipe that can be easily tweaked to produce the most delicious strawberry leather you've ever tasted.  Or check out recipes for strawberry freezer jam and chocolate strawberry shortcake.

Renovating and expanding the strawberries
A newly transplanted strawberry After gorging on strawberries in May or June, it's time to start plucking runners again.  This year, you don't need to be quite as careful about removing every single runner because you'll want to expand your patch.  By the middle of summer, missed runners will have rooted and turned into new strawberry plants.  When the weather forecast promises three or more rainy days in a row, head out into the garden with your trowel and carefully dig up all of these baby strawberry plants, then start a second patch in a new garden bed.  This is another time when irrigation is critical since summer-planted strawberries can easily wither up and die before they get their feet under them.

If you use my method of expanding the patch in the late summer, you can skip this step, but otherwise you'll need to renovate your bed in the fall.  Many sources recommend mowing off the strawberry leaves, but I find that step unnecessary.  Instead, I simply rip out plants that have gotten too close together, leaving at least one foot of mulched soil between each plant.

Strawberry bed ready for renovation
Strawberry bed after renovation

Weekend Homesteader paperbackI've found that flavor and vigor begin to diminish after a strawberry patch has fruited once, twice, or three times.  (How many seasons you can eke out of the plants depends on the quality of your soil.)  I generally eat two years' worth of strawberries from a bed, then rip the plants out and rotate the bed back into the general vegetable garden.  As long as I transplanted runners the previous year, I'll have a fresh bed ready to produce more berries the following spring.

This week's lunchtime series is exerpted from Weekend Homesteader: February, which is available for 99 cents from Amazon's kindle store.  The ebook also includes a primer on choosing and caring for a backyard flock of chickens, information on buying in bulk, and tips for creating your own apprenticeship.  If you enjoy the book, please consider leaving me a review.

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

Posted Wed Jan 18 12:01:25 2012 Tags:
visitor to the farm

We had a lost dog show up in our barn this morning...again.

The last time this happened was with a nice pit bull back before we had a phone. We posted a picture in the post office with our not so easy to find address. A guy showed up a few days later looking for his Dixie. She was a cutie.

I'm guessing this dog is someone's hunting helper. He had a collar with what I assume is his owner's name and phone number, but the number was disconnected.

Lucy seems to be taking it in stride. We sometimes worry about her social skills around other dogs. She works hard at keeping a small pack of wild dogs that roam our woods from getting too close, but clearly this guy is different. If I didn't know any better I'd think Lucy might be a little sweet on him.

Posted Wed Jan 18 16:11:15 2012 Tags:
Collar and index

Despite playing hookie part of the day yesterday to nurse the stray dog back to health, I still managed to finish the second draft of Weekend Homesteader.  A red letter day!

Stray dogThere's still plenty of work to be done before I can wash my hands of the project.  But I sent the draft off to two dutiful readers.  While they babysit...ahem, edit...the manuscript, I can take a few days "off" to reenter the real world.

I don't want to get too excited about the farm since I'll be back in book mode for at least another week once I get the editorial suggestions.  But maybe we can play with firewood?  Weed a few fruit trees?  I can't wait!

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy even when I go into book mode and forget about them for days on end.
Posted Thu Jan 19 08:25:09 2012 Tags:

Black raspberriesThere are only two potentially complicated parts of growing blackberries and raspberries --- variety selection and pruning.  Otherwise, care is simply a matter of annual fertilizing, mulching, and (most important) eating all those fruits.

Choosing your brambles
As I mentioned previously, blackberries and black raspberries do better in the south while red raspberries like areas with cooler summers.  Over large parts of the United States, you can easily grow all three types of brambles, but your life will be a bit easier if you begin your experiment with ones that are well suited to your climate.

Once you decide which type of brambles you want to grow, your next step is to settle on which additional characteristics you're looking for.  Thornless blackberries are easier to work with, but I've noticed they don't seem to be as cold hardy as the thorny varieties, so northerners should bear with thorns.  Among raspberries, you'll need to decide whether you're interested in a spring or everbearing variety --- unlike with strawberries, I have had very good luck with everbearing raspberries and recommend them highly.

Bramble plants tend to be more expensive than strawberries, often costing several dollars apiece, but you don't need to start with many.  In my garden, one everbearing raspberry plant became a clump large enough to provide lots of fruit that fall, and by the next spring I was able to transplant yet more new raspberries to fill up a whole row.  The third spring, I gave away gobs of raspberry starts, and by the fourth year after planting all of my friends stopped answering the phone when raspberry-planting season came around.  So --- choose your variety wisely, but don't be concerned about starting small.

Planting and training brambles
Blackberries and raspberries have a tendency to try to take over the world, so plan ahead when selecting their location.  I find it helpful to plant brambles in mulched rows about eighteen inches wide, then mow anything that tries to grow beyond the mulch boundary.  Unlike most other garden plants, brambles can handle tough clay soil and even some degree of waterlogging, so feel free to put them in that spot where nothing else will grow.

Row of blackberriesIf you're turning lawn or weeds into a berry patch, lay down a thick kill mulch and plant your brambles into holes in the cardboard.  The best time to plant is in early spring, which means you'll probably be putting in dormant, bare-rooted stock.  The young brambles will have a dead-looking cane poking up out of the roots --- the cane is indeed dead, but the plant will send up a new cane once warm weather rolls around.  Mulch the patch well, preferably with something a bit more carbon-rich than you used for your strawberries.  (See Weekend Homesteader: July for more information on types of mulch, or just use well-rotted wood chips.)

Train berries with twist ties Brambles don't need an extremely sturdy trellis, but it is helpful to find a way to tie the plants so they don't bend down over the path.  I use light-weight metal fence posts about five feet apart with two strands of thin wire running between them.  Twist ties are a simple way of attaching canes to the wire temporarily --- you'll need to be able to unhook them when you prune out dead canes next winter.

This week's lunchtime series is exerpted from Weekend Homesteader: February, which is available for 99 cents from Amazon's kindle store.  The ebook also includes a primer on choosing and caring for a backyard flock of chickens, information on buying in bulk, and tips for creating your own apprenticeship.  If you enjoy the book, please consider leaving me a review.

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

Posted Thu Jan 19 12:10:30 2012 Tags:
cutting up a fallen walnut tree for fire wood

It only took us about 40 minutes to cut up half of that walnut tree.

We stacked the small stuff in the trailer so it might dry out a little faster.

I think it's still good and hard due to the amount of struggle in the chainsaw.

Another year or two and it might be too rotten.

Posted Thu Jan 19 15:26:31 2012 Tags:
Box-elder log with mushrooms

We've never cut down a tree on our property specifically for firewood, but we do end up cutting down a lot of trees as we make mushroom logs and clear land for cultivated crops.  In a perfect world, we'd saw the excess into stove-lengths immediately and haul it up to the wood shed, but in the real world, something more pressing is usually on the agenda.

Worms in woodSlowly but surely, we're learning how long we can ignore the downed trees before they're no longer firewood and have become fodder for the hugelkultur mounds.  Type of wood is the first factor --- softwoods like our ubiquitous box-elder may start to rot within a few months of being cut while hardwoods last much longer.

Three years ago, Mark cut down a bunch of trees to clear ground for a blueberry patch.  The photo at the top of this post shows what the box-elder logs look like --- once your "firewood" is sprouting mushrooms, there's no point in throwing it in the stove.  (Worms in the bark aren't a good sign, but aren't a deal breaker either.)  On the other hand, a walnut tree with approximately the same dimensions, cut at the same time, shows no signs of rot three years later.

Moving firewood

The second factor is whether the cut trees are lying on the ground.  In our damp climate, the earth never really gets dry, so a log that touches the soil for its whole length never gets dry either.  The box-elder logs Mark's handling in the photo above were already starting to rot even though they'd been cut from a living tree just nine months ago.

Leaning logsWe got smart with the box-elder we cut recently, leaning log sections up against the fallen trunk --- those should stay relatively rot-free until the driveway is passable by truck.  Similarly, the limbs of the walnut we cut yesterday are much drier than the main trunk since they were raised off the ground.

Of course, this whole discussion assumes you put off care of your firewood until later.  If you cut fresh wood right away and store it in a dry, airy wood shed, the wood will last indefinitely.  In fact, like wine and hard cheese, firewood under cover only gets better with age.

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock easy and clean.
Posted Fri Jan 20 08:11:13 2012 Tags:

A rooted tip of a blackberry caneBramble growth
Unless you planted ever-bearing raspberries, you'll spend your first year watching your berries grow and learning to prune them.  That gives you a chance to get a handle on the unique aspects of bramble biology so that you'll understand which canes to cut and which to leave in place.

The first factor to consider is how each type of bramble spreads vegetatively.  Blackberries and black raspberries grow long, arching canes that bend down and then root at the tip.  If you cut the tip loose and dig it up, you can transplant that youngster into a new part of the garden and expand your patch.  Red raspberries, on the other hand, send out horizontal roots just beneath the soil surface, then new plants pop up along those roots.  If you want to prevent your berry patch from turning into an impenetrable thicket, you'll need to understand which type of reproductive strategy your berries favor and prune accordingly.

The next thing you'll notice is that most blackberries and raspberries fruit only on second year wood.  The first shoots that come up are known as primocanes and will only be vegetative, making leaves but no blossoms.  Next year, those primocanes have matured into floricanes and will flower and make berries; at the same time, the canes are sending up new primocanes to prepare for the third year's berries.  After fruiting, floricanes die and must be removed if you don't want your berry patch to turn into a thicket.  But don't remove the primocanes or you won't get any fruits next year!

Bramble pruning
Now that you understand how brambles grow, pruning them should seem less complex. 

Summer tip pruning
The first type of pruning you'll need to do is summer tip pruning and is only necessary on blackberries and black raspberries.  Once your plants get about three or four feet tall, simply walk by and pinch off the top of each cane. 

Tip pruned raspberries, a few weeks later
Tip pruning prevents the plants from forming long arching canes, so the brambles instead put their energy into branching out into a bush that will have more room for flowers and fruits next year. 

The bushy plant that results from tip-pruning

The three photos above show a black raspberry being tip pruned --- first the top is pinched off, then side shoots form, then the next year the bushy plant is loaded with

Living canes have a layer of green inside


The second type of pruning is winter pruning.  In early spring, go into your patch and cut out any dead canes --- you'll be able to tell which ones are dead because they'll be brown on the outside, often with peeling bark.  If in doubt, cut the top off the cane and take a peek inside.  Living canes will have a ring of green just under the bark.  They'll also tend to have plumper buds.

Pruning blackberries

After taking out all of the dead canes, winter pruning is different for each type of bramble.  If you didn't summer prune carefully or often enough, blackberries and black raspberries will have reached out beyond the edges of the row.  Prune each plant until the side branches are one to two feet long.  While you're at it, use your twist ties to attach these new canes to the trellis wires.

Pruning red raspberries

You'll recall that red raspberries grow differently, sending up new shoots from their roots rather than making long, trailing canes.  As a result, you only need to prune them once a year, in the winter.  First, cut out any dead canes, then thin until canes are about six inches apart.

Ever-bearing raspberries are a bit different because they have two fruiting periods each year --- one in the spring and one in the fall.  If you only want a fall harvest, pruning is absurdly simple --- just mow down the whole row of raspberries in the winter.  However, if you want to enjoy raspberries both in the spring and in the fall, you'll need to follow the advice above for normal red raspberries and also cut the tops off the canes that fruited the previous summer.  Most people admonish you to remove the top third of these canes, but the truth is that you're cutting off the dead part.  After snipping off a few tops, you'll start getting an eye for the point at which the plump, live cane turns into the more Blackberry flowershriveled, dead cane.

Annual care
Except for the complexities of pruning, your bramble patch will mostly take care of itself.  Each spring, you'll want to topdress your plants with compost then smother any potential weeds with mulch.  The brambles will flower and then fruit, generally bearing between late June and August.

Young raspberries

BlackberriesBramble fruits tend to be more resilient than strawberries, so you can probably get away with picking the berries only twice a week.  Red raspberries, though, have a tendency to mold in hot, humid climates, so harvest more often.

A well-tended patch of blackberries or raspberries can last a very long time.  Keep pruning and mulching and you'll be eating from your plants a decade or more after planting.  Now that's a good return on your investment!

This week's lunchtime series is exerpted from Weekend Homesteader: February, which is available for 99 cents from Amazon's kindle store.  The ebook also includes a primer on choosing and caring for a backyard flock of chickens, information on buying in bulk, and tips for creating your own apprenticeship.  If you enjoy the book, please consider leaving me a review.

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

Posted Fri Jan 20 12:00:45 2012 Tags:
new eggs from the new chickens

Finally got around to checking on our 50 gallon nest barrel.

At some point earlier this week our chickens decided it's time to start laying again.

Not a day too soon as we both are getting tired of hum drum store bought eggs.

Posted Fri Jan 20 17:56:30 2012 Tags:

Hunting dogThe stray hunting dog bounced right back after about six cups of dog food and a long nap.  By his second day on the farm, he was pacing the woods, following scent trails.

We called every vet and Hale in a 30 mile radius, the pound, and a hunter one vet recommended.  No luck on finding the stray's previous owner, so we looked for a new one.

He'll be heading home with an experienced hunter this morning, who explained to us that dogs like this are Treeing Walker Coonhounds (or, as he said, "Walkers").  Wikipedia adds, "Treeing Walker Coonhounds are extremely fast, agile, and tireless in the pursuit of Walker doggame. They are extremely vocal with a distinctive bay that allows their owners to easily identify their dogs from great distances."  All very true.

I don't know about Mark, but I considered keeping our Walker at first.  However, he wreaked havoc on our tranquility by his presence alone (despite being very well behaved) and we're very glad to see him go to a new home.  Huckleberry and Strider went on strike Friday and didn't come to breakfast until 10 am, and I just couldn't stand another day facing that picket line.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Sat Jan 21 08:13:20 2012 Tags:
carrying corn dog across creek

Yeah...I was highly motivated to meet the dog's potential new owner today.

A nice couple showed up with a little boy who promptly announced the dog's new name is now officially Corndog! He said his other dog is called Cookie Monster.

The guy said he hunts with other people in the area and if he figures out who the mysterious David Hale is, he would contact him at that point and get his dog back to him.

We are very relieved to be back to a one dog/two cat farm.

Posted Sat Jan 21 10:42:34 2012 Tags:
Training a young apple espalier

Espaliered appleI'm always interested to see people trying out espaliered fruit trees, even though I've never quite been intrigued enough to experiment myself.  So I was thrilled to notice espaliered apples at Bristol's Urban Homestead when Mark and I swung by last week.

The photo at the top of this post is clearly a young apple tree who is just entering the training program, but the tree to the left might be ready to graduate.  I wonder if it's bearing yet?  Next time, I'll have to call ahead and see if the owners can tell me more about their espalier experiments.

Our chicken waterer keeps your coop so clean, your neighbors can't complain.
Posted Sun Jan 22 08:50:50 2012 Tags:
cheap easy living solution for chickens?

One way to protect your chickens is to elevate the coop on a pole so that racoons can't climb up and help themselves to a snack. used an old truck camper and a satellite pole to keep their flock safe. The idea is that predators would have problems climbing the pole while the chickens could fly up when they needed some coop time.

Some chickens have trouble with flight, so this might not work for all breeds, but I think it's an outside the box solution that is worth considering if you have these items laying around and a group of chickens who know how to flap their wings enough to get home. It might also be good for folks with back trouble who don't want to bend down to pick up eggs.

Posted Sun Jan 22 16:18:09 2012 Tags:

Bee WeaverWhen we got started with beekeeping in 2009, learning the basics of conventional beekeeping was all I could handle.  So I did what my neighbors did and bought random package bees, figuring they were all about the same.

Then we started losing hives and I realized that what I was aiming for --- natural, chemical-free beekeeping --- isn't really possible with run-of-the-mill honeybees.  We're starting from ground zero again, which gives me the opportunity to use a better bee.

Survivor bees are one intriguing option.  BeeWeaver has been raising honeybees entirely without chemicals for ten years.  They actually started weaning their bees off the drugs years before, but couldn't quit cold turkey or they would have gone bankrupt.  The price tag is steep --- $130 plus shipping for a package --- but the real reason I haven't clicked the "buy" button yet is because the company is located in Texas.  I'm just not sure whether southern bees would do well in our climate.

VSH bees are the U.S. government's solution to chemical-free varroa mite control.  The Baton Rouge Bee Lab discovered a strain of honeybee in which the workers industriously remove any brood infected with varroa mites.  The Lab has sold VSH Chemical free beesqueens to commercial apiaries --- see this map for locations of facilities selling VSH (and other types of resistant bees.)  I'm intrigued by this option (especially since there are local sources), but I'm not sure whether being resistant to varroa mites is enough.  Will these VSH bees die of colony collapse disorder or any of the dozen other bee plagues?

Russian bees came from an earlier government program that imported mite-resistant bees from Russia.  The main problem with Russian bees appears when they hybridize with other bees and the offspring turn mean.  I'm not sure whether I'm willing to focus my efforts entirely on Russian bees, and I don't think it's a good idea to have a Russian hive and a different type of honeybee in the same area.

Feral bees would be the very best option since honeybees that have survived without beekeepers for generations are likely to continue to do so in our apiaries.  However, it's tough to find feral bees at the moment, and when you do find them, you can't be sure they're not a first year swarm from some neighbor's chemical-treated hive.

I'd be very curious to hear anyone's thoughts on these bee options.  At the moment, I'm tempted to order one package of survivor bees from BeeWeaver and one package of VSH bees from somewhere more local.  Thoughts?

Our chicken waterer solves the problem of filthy backyard coops.
Posted Mon Jan 23 08:29:03 2012 Tags:

Greg JudyA couple of months ago, I attended an all day workshop about mob grazing led by Greg Judy.  He was a riveting, entertaining, and down to earth speaker, but the information he covered was even better than the presenting style.

Greg and his wife started farming in the late 1980s on poor "grazing land" in Missouri.  "All I knew was: cows eat grass," Greg explained.  Initially, he ran his cattle using conventional methods --- letting them eat the same pasture continuously --- but eventually he switched over to management intensive grazing.

Under the management intensive system, Greg focused on keeping seed heads from forming on his grass.  The mandatory fast spring rotations to prevent the grass from going to seed seemed to work at first, but the pasture suffered in July.  During the summer slump, grass didn't grow at all, and he had to feed hay or sell animals.

Ian Mitchell-InnesEnter Ian Mitchell-Innes, a South African farmer practicing mob grazing.  Over the last decade, Ian had increased the fertility of his farm so much that he was able to quadruple his stocking rate, and Greg became his willing pupil.  Greg learned to let grass grow taller in the spring, then noticed that the unstressed plants no longer obsessed over reproducing, instead growing more green leaves and longer roots.  Three years later, Greg was able to quit his job and become a full time rancher.

Today, he pastures his animals on twelve farms, focusing on grazing livestock and building topsoil.  "We like to think of ourselves as microbe farmers," Greg explained, going on to note that they are marketers of solar energy --- the only free resource on the farm.  Greg adds no lime or chemical fertilizers to his soil, has no machinery, and uses minimal labor.

This week (and next), I'll cover Greg's system in depth, but for now, I'll leave you with some outside the box ways he suggests making your farm pay for itself.  He highly recommends leasing for young farmers who don't have the cash to buy the land outright, noting that he has free lifetime leases on several plots of hunting land, having proven to the owners that they'll harvest more deer due to his management.  And although he makes a lot of his livelihood from the beef he raises, Greg notes that the parasite resistant sheep he sells as breeding stock are the highest profit item on his farm.  Finally, he tosses out other ideas that are compatible with the ranching lifestyle --- attracting ecotourists interested in birding or wildlife watching, adding nature trails, or leasing out the pasture to hunters.  His message is clear --- if you get creative and nurture the land, you can make a living on the farm.

Escape the winter doldrums with my 99 cent ebook.

99 cent pasture ebookThis post is part of our Mob Grazing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jan 23 12:01:19 2012 Tags:
Stihl chainsaw notes

We cut up another 2 wagon loads worth of that walnut tree today.

The Stihl MS-211 continues to impress me. One thing I've noticed is the exhaust is a lot less smelly, which is a nice change when you've got your nose within a few feet of the action. It also feels like the improved engine goes a bit further on a tank of fuel.

It's easier to start than the older 039, but not super easy, especially when you forget to clean out the air filter.

Posted Mon Jan 23 16:35:18 2012 Tags:

Purple kale We're making drastic changes in our garden for next year.  A winter with delicious fresh food from the quick hoops and larder has made us neglect our frozen food.  In fact, if I had as much fresh kale, lettuce, cabbage, and carrots as I wanted, I suspect the only vegetables we'd actually take from the freezer would be vegetable soups and sun-dried tomatoes.

So we're changing our summer gardening strategies to:

  • Start onions inside this winter so we'll (hopefully) finally be eating homegrown onions all year.  (This is the one vegetable we still buy for part of the year.)
  • Start some broccoli and cabbage inside for earlier harvest than we can get when starting them in the quick hoops.  (We'll still start most of them with the low work quick hoop method.)
  • Double the tomatoes.  I might also try starting a few inside, although this is chancy since I don't keep the trailer warm in the spring --- quick hoops will still be our primary starting method.
  • Halve green beans and summer squash (since we'll mostly be eating them fresh rather than freezing them.)
  • Halve sweet potatoes, white potatoes, and winter squash since we've cut back on carbs and don't eat as many.
  • Double the parsley to plan ahead for winter harvests.

ParsleyMeanwhile, we'll be boosting fall production as we:

  • Double fall carrots and winter greens.
  • Start fall broccoli and cabbage inside or in the shade in the summer so we have more for the winter.
  • Experiment with beets and spinach a bit more, starting the seeds in the fridge to aid summer germination.
  • Experiment with Brussels sprouts.

If you're curious, here are the number of beds I plan for each crop.  Keep in mind this includes spring, summer, and fall plantings, so the five bean beds will be spaced throughout the summer for a succession of bush beans, and the spring lettuce beds will be long gone by the time I plant fall beds.

Basil 1
Beans 5
Beets 1
Broccoli 16
Brussels sprouts 2
cover crop
Cabbage 6
Carrots 8
Corn 17
Cucumbers 6
Garlic 12
Kale 14
Lettuce 15
Mung beans 2
Mustard 4
Oats cover crop
Okra 2
Onions 7
Onions, potato 1
Parsley 3
Pea, sugar snap 8
Peanut 1
Peppers 2
Poppies 2
Potatoes 4
Pumpkin, naked-seed 1
Radish, oilseed cover crop
Rye forest pasture
Spinach 2
Squash, butternut 4
Squash, summer 7
Strawberries 9
Sweet potatoes 4
Swiss chard 1
Tatsoi 1
Tokyo bekana 4
Tomatoes 25
Watermelons 4

It's a bit scary to change gears so drastically, but I strive to make our garden plan follow our stomachs.  And our winter stomachs say fresh kale trumps frozen green beans!

Our chicken waterer keeps our flock's diet well-rounded with clean, POOP-free water.
Posted Tue Jan 24 08:17:16 2012 Tags:

Grazing tall grassSo how does mob grazing differ from management intensive grazing?  The biggest differences are how long you let the plants grow back after being grazed (the recovery period) and the intentional trampling of some grass.

When he was following the management intensive system, Greg Judy used to rotate his animals so quickly that they nibbled on the same plots of land eight times per year, but now he's cut back to five annual rotations.  Rather than striving to keep the grass short, he lets the plants grow up to what he calls the boot stage, in which each plant has three to four leaves and is developing a seed head (although the head is not yet visible.)  He notes that waiting to graze until the boot stage helps the pasture grow 40% more biomass compared to faster rotations.

In order to achieve these long recovery periods without cutting back the number of animals on his farm, Greg combines his herds together and manages all twelve of his farms as one unit.  Even though that means he sometimes has to drive cattle a couple of miles down the road to a new farm, the system pays off by giving his pastures more time to recover between grazing episodes.

TramplingThe second factor that differentiates mob grazing from management intensive grazing is trampling.  Every time Greg turns his cows into a new plot of land, he aims for them to eat only 60% of the grass.  Another 30% is trampled into the ground, with the final 10% left standing to provide a wind break and preserve moisture and wildlife habitat.

Again, Greg's method of ensuring that a lot of the grass gets trampled involves bunching animals up --- a high stocking density (lots of cows in the same small paddock) inevitably mash down a lot of grass.  Waiting to turn the cows onto pasture until plants are mature also helps since the older grass will break rather than springing back once trampled.

Trampled grass in a pasture may seem wasteful, but is actually similar to adding compost and mulch to your garden.  Dead grass left behind on the soil surface feeds microorganisms (which in turn feed the pasture plants), and the organic matter added to the soil holds moisture and maintains a healthy soil food web.  "For every grass blade you trample," Greg Judy says, "You'll get two back."

Learn the basics of backyard chicken care in my 99 cent ebook.

99 cent pasture ebookThis post is part of our Mob Grazing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jan 24 12:01:20 2012 Tags:
stihl MS211 chainsaw close up

Have you thought about doing a series on maintaining chainsaws? Sharpening, cleaning, and adjusting? I would be really interested in that!

Eric in Japan

Thanks for the question Eric.

I've been learning as I go, so I'm not sure if I've got enough experience to do a series on the subject, but I might have enough information to form a short trilogy of tips.

Chain adjustment: I learned the hard way to never over tighten the nuts that secure down the chain tension. The old 039 had a problem vibrating loose, which would make me stop every so often and adjust the chain slack. My amateur mistake was to tighten it too much, which stripped out the bolt and required a trip to the shop to fix.

Stay tuned tomorrow for my two cents on sharpening the chain with a file.

Posted Tue Jan 24 16:26:38 2012 Tags:
Chive sprouts

The Persephone Days are over, and this mild winter seems to be turning into spring already.  Chives are sprouting up (and a tiny spider decided he wanted to try his hand at modelling.)

Thyme in winter

Thyme stays green all winter, but I feel like the perennial is starting to push out new leaves --- a good thing since I've been harvesting some every couple of weeks to season our dinners.

Daffodil sprouts

And the daffodil leaves have been pushing up out of the soil for a week or two, promising that spring will be as beautiful as it is bountiful.

If you count your seasons by the cross-quarter days, spring will be here next week, and the birds and I are both feeling it!  Forgive me if I seem a little high on spring....

Our chicken waterer is the best way to get chicks off to a good start with clean water and dry litter.
Posted Wed Jan 25 08:33:41 2012 Tags:

Stockpiled pastureIn addition to long recovery periods and trampling a third of the grass, mob grazing's third unique feature is stockpiling winter forage. 

Greg Judy notes that 80% of the expenses for a typical cattle farm come during the winter when farmers feed hay.  You can either make it yourself (which requires lots of expensive equipment and turns your hayfields into ecological monocultures), or you can buy hay from your neighbor and at least add nutrients to your farm (while spending an arm and a leg).

Or you can simply stockpile your summer grass.  Allowing grass to grow tall and remain standing in the field during late summer means you can keep grazing your cattle right through the winter without buying much (or any) hay.  Cows also tend to be healthier on stockpiled grass than on hay --- probably a lot like we feel healthier eating greens out of our quick hoops all winter rather than subsisting entirely on frozen produce.

Winter pastureAlthough the idea seems best suited to areas with mild winters, Greg Judy notes that he feeds hay only about eight days a year on his Missouri farm, and I've read similar reports from farmers in Ohio and Washington state.  Even when the ground is covered with snow, cows are able to dig up stockpiled grass (and the grass helps the snow melt faster too.)

Tomorrow, I'll write about the nuts and bolts of stockpiling, but I want to back up for a minute and make sure nobody's getting too carried away.  Greg Judy's operation focuses primarily on beef cattle, with some sheep, goats, and pigs.  Ruminants are going to get a lot more winter nutrition from stockpile than monogastric animals (like chickens) will --- don't plan to feed your livestock on stockpiled grass if they couldn't survive the winter eating hay.

Easy garden additions like strawberries and raspberries can provide delicious fruit for your family in a year or less.

99 cent pasture ebookThis post is part of our Mob Grazing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jan 25 12:01:20 2012 Tags:
man sharpen chainsaw chain with file complete with dog in background

close up of file sharpening chain of Stihl chainsawI like to use a round file without the guide piece attached.

There are several different size files you can get, and it's important to have the right diameter.

My method involves pushing the file with pressure from the short side of the angle towards the long end. When pulling back reduce the pressure and repeat until the resistance feels smooth.

It should only take a few strokes to do each tooth. Some people will say to twist a little while you're pushing. Easier said than done. I've found that rotating the file after each tooth helps spread the wear more evenly. Replace the file once the grooves get worn down. I think one will usually last me somewhere around 10 to 15 sharpenings.

Posted Wed Jan 25 17:08:57 2012 Tags:
Log-lined beds

Fungus on logAre logs along the sides of permanent garden beds good, bad, or indifferent?

On the positive side, edging your beds with logs increases the quality of your soil.  Not only do they catch topsoil that might try to erode away, they also serve as breeding grounds for beneficial soil microorganisms, and slowly rot down into top notch humus.

Log-lined beds are pretty too, especially as mosses and mushrooms start to grow in the rotting wood.  And they'll ensure that you don't accidentally walk on or mow the plants you care about.

Log-edged bed

Rolling logYou don't really need to be concerned about the high carbon wood sucking nitrogen out of your soil since the log is all one piece.  (You have even less to worry about if you're edging a bed of woody perennials since they can handle a bit of nitrogen loss and will enjoy the fungi that come along for the ride.)

On the other hand, log-edged beds don't play well with grassy aisles maintained with a lawnmower.  You can't mow right up to the edge of the bed, so weeds tend to grow up amid the logs and take over.  Yes, I am writing Lining a garden bed with logsfrom experience --- our poor blueberry patch got so weedy last year I was afraid to let Mark mow it for fear he'd run over a beloved plant.

I'm trying out a new method of dealing with weeds this year, in hopes we can keep that downside of log-lined beds under control.  First, I laid down a kill mulch along the edge of the bed I planned to line, then I rolled the logs into place and added leaf mulch on both sides.

Of course, the real reason I'm willing to give logs another try is the ninja blade on Mark's new weedeater.  I suspect one pass of the weedeater will make short work of any nefarious honeysuckle and wingstem trying to wiggle up in the unmown space beside the logs.  I'll be sure to let you know if I'm wrong as summer progresses.

Our chicken waterer is the permaculture solution to healthy chickens --- low work and always pristine.
Posted Thu Jan 26 08:17:52 2012 Tags:

Grazing in the snowYesterday, I wrote about the benefits of stockpiling winter forage.  But how do you manage pastures so that you'll have extra grass to tide your animals over through the winter?

Greg Judy tries to stockpile his whole farm every year.  By extending his recovery period and always grazing paddocks in the same order, pastures last grazed in July are ready to be eaten in fall and early winter, while the areas grazed in October and November will have grown back enough to be grazed again in January.

Greg makes two passes over each stockpiled paddock over the course of the winter.  First, he rotates the animals through quickly, ensuring that they only eat the upper third of each plant.  These growing tips are the part of the plant highest in sugars, which means Greg's cows are getting lots of energy right when they need it --- during the coldest part of the winter. 

Starting in February, he rotates the cows through the same paddocks again, this time letting them eat half of what remains.  This second helping of stockpiled grass isn't as high quality as the grass tips, but the cows don't need as much energy since winter is beginning to mellow into spring.

Stockpiled grassCome April, the pastures should have fully recovered, with new grass stalks once again reaching the boot stage.  However, Greg aims to still have a bit of stockpiled, brown grass left in each field even as the new grass is growing up.  (He notes that if your cows have eaten up every last bit and you don't have stockpile left in April, you've got too many animals on the farm.)  The combination of lush spring growth and leftover winter growth keep the cows from coming down with bloat since they tend to consume both types of plant matter at once.

The final factor Greg Judy mentions about winter grazing is soil management.  Many farmers don't allow their animals on pasture at all during the winter because of the tendency of their hooves to churn the ground up into mud ("pugging").  Greg is able to keep his animals on pasture since he's bred for a lighter cow (more on this later) and since he moves his cattle twice a day during wet periods in the winter.  Make sure you pay attention to the soil as well as the grass!

Learn to buy non-perishables in bulk so you can save money while ensuring you have plenty of food during emergencies.

99 cent pasture ebookThis post is part of our Mob Grazing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jan 26 12:01:16 2012 Tags:
close up of multiple size chains for a typical chainsaw these days

Bob reminded me in the comment section yesterday about the angle marks on the cutters of a Stihl chain. It really helped to teach me the proper angle when I first started sharpening.

I went through a phase with the old 039 where I used a generic chain that our local hardware store would cut to whatever size you needed. I think they were maybe 5 dollars cheaper, but at the time I was trying to avoid a trip to the big city. I've since decided to pay a little extra and get the Stihl brand chains after talking to a few old timers about the difference.

Image credit goes to

Posted Thu Jan 26 16:07:35 2012 Tags:
Deep bedding in the garden

Deep beddingSomeday, I'll let the deep bedding in our chicken coops rot all the way down into high quality compost.  But it won't be this year.

As usual, I need more biomass than I have on hand, so I'm mining the chicken coops early.  I figure the half-composted mixture of manure, leaves, and straw will work as both compost and mulch for our blueberries.  (It certainly did a good job underneath our peach tree last year.)

In the coop, I used the pitchfork to pull back the top six inches or so of bedding, then scooped out the partly broken down material underneath.  I caught the faintest hint of Blueberry patch in winterammonia (a sign that I let a pocket of manure get too thick before adding more bedding), but otherwise felt like I was working with good quality leaf mold.

My blueberries are in mulched wide rows, but I don't think their roots have colonized all of the intervening space between plants yet.  So I made circles of deep bedding material around each bush, then filled in the gaps with magnolia leaves my mom had picked up on her city curb.

I wonder if I'll have enough deep bedding to finish the whole blueberry patch?

Our chicken waterer keeps the bedding dry and the chickens happy.
Posted Fri Jan 27 08:22:00 2012 Tags:

Weedy pastureThe reason I'm so interested in mob grazing (even though we're unlikely to have large livestock any time soon) is the potential for renovating poor soil.  Next week, I'll cover a few other ways that mob grazing can improve pastures, but today I want to focus on trampling.

Remember how I mentioned that Greg Judy plans for about a third of the grass to be trampled into the soil during each grazing session?  If you're renovating poor soil, you may need to trample a lot more.

Greg notes that degraded pastures will generally produce very seedy, poor quality grass the first year they are managed by mob grazing.  He recommends using a very low stocking density so that your livestock can subsist on the bit of high quality grass present, then make sure they trample the rest.  Next year, the grass will be more palatable.

The same theory applies if your pasture has grown up in poor quality weeds.  Greg regaled us with the tale of how he tried to manage a field of cockleburs by grazing hard every spring in hopes of eradicating the problem.  The result?  The cockleburs did better and better each year.  However, once he started ignoring the weeds and managing for grass, cockleburs were trampled down into the litter and eventually wiped out.

Mob grazingYou might be tempted to let some paddocks lie fallow if they're very problematic, but Greg recommends against this.  Remember, your livestock are the ones improving the soil, both with their manure and by trampling down weeds and grass to enrich the ground.  If you have to, give your livestock supplementary feed that they can eat on pasture, but keep them on the problematic ground if you want it to improve.  (And, whatever you do, don't mine out the few nutrients you have by haying!)

Finally, plan your paddock's shape based on the quality of your pasture.  Livestock trample more in rectangular paddocks since they have to mill around to find the food, so make your paddocks long and skinny while you're in the soil improvement phase.  Once you've build up organic matter and your pastures are thriving, you can switch over to square paddocks so your livestock can utilize as much grass as possible.

An informal apprenticeship is the perfect way to learn hands-on skills like milking a cow or fermenting grapes into wine.  Learn how to set one up in my 99 cent ebook.

99 cent pasture ebookThis post is part of our Mob Grazing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Jan 27 12:01:19 2012 Tags:
lemon tree re-potting 2012

Today was the day for operation dwarf Meyer lemon re-potting.

I was nervous we'd hurt our precious fruit tree during the procedure.

No branches were harmed. I mainly assisted with the heavy pulling while Anna held the pot and did the actual surgery.

Posted Fri Jan 27 16:29:41 2012 Tags:
Tipping the lemon out of the pot

If you keep potting your dwarf Meyer lemon up into the next size pot each year, it will grow into a beast too heavy to maneuver out the door.  Putting our house plants outside in the summer is the sum-total of my pest management plan, so I chose to instead use some bonsai techniques to keep the dwarf citrus at a manageable size.

Pruning the roots

I waited until I'd harvested all of the fruits, but made sure to time my pruning to come before the lemon tree opened its first blooms.  With Mark's help, I yanked the tree out of its pot and used a bread knife to shave off about a third of its root ball.


Cutting back roots helps miniaturize the tree, and also ensures that the lemon won't get rootbound and strangle itself when roots circle the inside of the pot.  Meanwhile, the technique allows me to replace a third of the potting soil with well composted manure, which will make sure our darling lemon gets plenty of micronutrients to round out its weekly meals of diluted urine.

Pruned lemon tree

To counteract the stress of suddenly cutting off part of the tree's feeding apparatus, I also trimmed away about a third of its branches.  I'd never actually pruned the lemon before, so I focused on shaping it to an open center system, removing twigs that were shaded under other branches.  I tried to leave as many of the branches with tiny bloom buds as possible, but figured the long term shape of the tree trumped the current year's fruit.  (If I was pruning a young tree, I'd try to focus on three main limbs, but I didn't want to make my changes to drastic on this long-unpruned tree.)

My root pruning is relatively major surgery, so I'll keep a close eye on our lemon for the next week or so.  Hopefully it'll bounce right back and start opening those flower buds that dot its branches.

Get ready for spring chickens with a POOP-free chicken waterer.
Posted Sat Jan 28 08:47:48 2012 Tags:
ripping chain basic chart for chainsaw milling

When we first got our 039 Stihl chainsaw we also got a ripping chain with a special adjustable guide that connects to the chainsaw body. The guide helps to make even cuts when you want to make planks from a tree.

I think we cut a total of 15 planks from a pine tree that were each about 2 feet long. They worked good for our foot bridge, but the process was not easy.

We decided making our own planks was a bit too complex for our skill level, but if you've got the time and a remote location that makes delivery a challenge then maybe a chainsaw mill is an option worth considering.

Posted Sat Jan 28 16:08:54 2012 Tags:

Hummus with carrotsThis easy and delicious hummus recipe makes enough to eat now and freeze several cups for later.

  • 1 pound of dried chickpeas, cooked up into about 6.5 cups of cooked chickpeas
  • 6.5 tablespoons of tahini
  • 13 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 6.5 heads of roasted garlic
  • 2 cloves of raw garlic, minced
  • juice of 3 Meyer lemons
  • 1.25 teaspoons salt
  • 0.25 teaspoons of pepper
  • water

ChickpeasMark loves hummus, and I've been wanting to make him some for years.  The trouble is that it's impossible to find most of the ingredients locally.  We found a can of tahini five years ago (and I assumed it was still good --- it was), but our grocery store doesn't carry chickpeas.  When Mark saw some in the big city Sunday, he stocked up and I made a huge pot of hummus.

First, I soaked the chickpeas overnight and then cooked them for a few hours on the wood stove.  Meanwhile, I roasted a lot of garlic and then started passing the rest of the ingredients through the food processor to grind them up.

Meyer lemons(I'm zesting the lemons here simply because I never throw away the rind of a homegrown lemon.  I only used the juice, though.)

Once all of the ingredients are mixed together, add water until the hummus has the right consistency.  (I added some more water after taking the photo at the top of the page.)

Here's the important part --- wait a day before eating!  We tried some of the hummus right away and it was good, but the flavors really blend if you let your hummus sit in the fridge overnight.

We like to eat hummus on carrot sticks, but you'll probably have your preferred serving method.  Since this recipe makes about six cups, feel free to freeze some of it for later.  Enjoy!

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock from getting bored during long winter days.
Posted Sun Jan 29 08:31:26 2012 Tags:

close up of Alaskan small log mill

another Alaskan small log mill close up with Lucy the log in the background

The Alaskan small log mill only takes a few minutes to attach to a chainsaw.

It's been years since we've used it. The main thing I remember is needing someway to clamp the log down so it wouldn't move while I operated the chainsaw. The plan at the time was to either build a small structure or fix up a corner of the barn. We got lucky and found someone giving away an old trailer and decided a recycled home would get us on the land a year or two sooner and a lot cheaper.

There's no doubt it would feel groovy to sit back and look at a structure knowing you built it from a downed tree, but I'm not sure the longevity would compare to store bought and kiln dried wood? I guess it would depend on the tree you start with and the level of craftsmanship.

Posted Sun Jan 29 15:53:29 2012 Tags:

Tiny sinkholeAre you the kind of person who sees a strange hole in the woods and has to poke your hand in?  I am.  That's why when the pathway between the blueberries seemed to have more give than I expected, I stamped...and fell into a hole up to my knee.

I usually think of water as dropping from the sky, slowly percolating through the soil, and ending up in creeks and rivers.  But our neck of the woods is full of caves that allow groundwater to flow more freely.  In fact, our creek goes underneath a ridge and river before popping back up on the other side.  Could my tiny sinkhole be the entrance to a large cavern?

Mark rolled his eyes at my "cave", and rightly so.  Although the hole itself was big enough to stick your head in, it quickly narrowed on either side to allow a mere trickle of water to flow through.  I guess now I know where the water comes from for the wet weather spring that spurts out of the ground near the goat path during really rainy spells.
Underground stream
Too small to tap for geothermal, I wonder what the best use of my hole might be?  I could fill it with wood chips to act as a sponge, soaking up water during wet weather and then releasing it back into the soil during droughts.  Ideas?

Our chicken waterer keeps old hens laying and gives chicks a healthy start.
Posted Mon Jan 30 07:44:26 2012 Tags:

Feeding haySo how do you start a mob grazing operation from scratch?  Say you've got an old potato field that keeps eroding into the creek every year, and you've decided to turn it into pasture to preserve (and build) topsoil.  How do you make that pasture happen, and what do you want it to look like?

Instead of spreading a lot of grass seed, Greg Judy recommends starting with hay.  If you unroll a lot of hay bales into the proto-pasture in the winter and graze your livestock there (even though there's really nothing to graze on), the hay will naturally seed the pasture, and will also add a bit of starter biomass when livestock trample some into the soil.  You'll need to keep feeding your animals for the first year --- this is worth it because you're building your soil every time the livestock pass through.

In the second year, you can finally plant some clover seeds, focusing on fall planting when the baby clover won't be competing much with weeds.  Unlike Voisin grazing (which believes more clover is always better), Greg Judy recommends aiming for only 30% legumes since too much high nitrogen clover is bad for beef cows.

Free choice mineralsMeanwhile, start feeding your animals free choice minerals in the summer, with each type of nutrient in its own compartment.  The livestock will only eat what's deficient in the soil, and since about 70% of the minerals will pass right through them, you'll be correcting soil nutrient imbalances at the same time you're making your livestock healthier.  Greg Judy noticed that, after three years of mob grazing, his animals are now eating only a quarter as much mineral as they used to, and they don't touch any of the minerals at all when grazing on his highest quality soil.

As your pasture grows, don't worry if you start to see plants you're not familiar with.  If your recovery period is long enough, warm season perennials like indian grass, big bluestem, and gama grass will spring up --- these are great for summer grazing as long as you make sure to give them a long rest period.  Meanwhile, don't worry about a few "weeds" --- Greg Judy believes that giant ragweed pumps minerals from deep in the soil, which is why his cows love it.  (They like tree leaves for the same reason.)  A well-managed pasture will become more diverse and more like a native prairie every year.

Embark on fun and easy projects that will make your homestead grow and thrive.

99 cent pasture ebookThis post is part of our Mob Grazing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jan 30 12:07:00 2012 Tags:
mark Big stump
cutting down very large stump

I'm pretty sure this is the biggest stump I've ever cut.
Posted Mon Jan 30 15:58:50 2012 Tags:

Gathering leavesWith the driveway still impassable and the blueberries in need of mulch, I decided to rake some leaves out of the woods.  I'd been eying a spot on the southwest corner of our property for years since beech and oak leaves accumulate there in deep drifts.  I figured the most time-consuming portion of leaf gathering was the gathering part, so I headed to my remembered spot with our two huge chicken waterer mailing bags.

The leaf drifts didn't disappoint.  In fact, I scared a flock of turkeys who had gathered on Turkeysthe hillside for a similar reason (although they were scratching through the leaves for invertebrates rather than snagging the leaves themselves.)  In a matter of minutes, I had stuffed both bags so full they were bulging against the seams.  Then I picked one up...

...Or rather, tried to pick one up.  Who knew that a bag full of compacted leaves would be so heavy?  With a bag on each shoulder, I struggled up to the top of the hill, and then ended up dragging the leaves back down the other side.  (Not good for the bags --- I won't be repeating that part, but no way was I going to leave my organic matter behind.)

Appalachian hillsideThe last third of the way was on level ground with lots of logs to cross, so I had to leave one bag behind and come back for it later.  As I walked through the woods closer to home, I noticed smaller drifts, and resolved that my next leaf gathering expedition would be here --- clearly I was wrong about raking being the most time-consuming part of the project.

But I forgot all the pain and agony as I spilled leaves out onto my blueberry patch.  Each big bag held the equivalent of at least four of the trashbags full of leaves Mom gathered for me on the curb.  Since I've lined each blueberry bed in logs, I have high hopes the leaves will stay put (rather than blowing away), and I'm sure my blueberries will enjoy the the dose of micronutrients.

Posted Tue Jan 31 08:01:59 2012 Tags:

Wellfed cowEven though mob grazing's primary focus is on the soil and plants, you don't want to ignore your livestock.  If you're building up poor soil, it won't be able to support as many animals per acre, so pay attention to the oldest and youngest animals to make sure they're healthy.  Cattle shouldn't have a dent on their left side --- that means they're not getting enough to eat.  Healthy cattle, on the other hand, will have a shiny line down the neck that denotes good gland function (and keeps flies away), and will lose their winter coats quickly.  If your cattle don't look healthy, give them more space (or feed them hay if you must.)

Meanwhile, choose your livestock wisely.  Most modern cattle have been bred for size, but you want to select for the ability to thrive on pasture 365 days a year.  Greg Judy had to go back to older varieties of cattle with short legs, big bellies, and an oily streak down the back.  His full-grown bulls clock in at 1050 to 1100 pounds and his cows at 850 to 900 pounds, in contrast to some breeds that mature at 2000 to 2500 pounds.  He culls relentlessly, removing cattle from his herd if they're getting too thin, so his livestock become hardier every year.

Calf on pastureGreg also shifted management patterns to make year-round grazing feasible.  Rather than weaning calves the way most cattle-farmers do, he selects for cows that are smaller, then he gives them lots of forage so that the mothers are able to stay healthy while raising their calves.  He makes sure his cows give birth around the first of April, when the pastures are just starting to pick up speed, which means peak milk production arrives in May when calves are big enough to handle it.

Finally, Greg doesn't worry about parasites.  One of the major benefits of rotational grazing is that you move the animals quickly enough that cattle aren't eating around their own feces, and by the time they come back through, parasites have perished.  That means Greg doesn't even give his herd dewormer --- if the cows get sick, he figures they have bad genes and he culls them.

Find time for self-sufficiency with my 99 cent ebook.

99 cent pasture ebookThis post is part of our Mob Grazing lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jan 31 12:01:30 2012 Tags:

putting air in the Club Car golf cart tireThe driveway was frozen enough this morning to risk getting the golf cart through the mud.

We recently found out that our local mechanic has the same golf cart and is willing to take a look at ours.

It did great through the frozen mud. The mechanic is just down the road, which meant maybe a fourth of a mile on our local country road and another fourth on the main highway. I was a bit stressed at the prospect of breaking down half way, or getting a ticket, but traffic is pretty light around here, especially at 9:30 in the morning when most folks are already tucked into their job for the day.

A guy at the garage suggested that a Farm Use tag mounted on the back might be enough to reduce the risk of trouble with the police for occasions like this. Not sure if that's good enough for the law, but I'm guessing it would help.

Posted Tue Jan 31 16:57:27 2012 Tags:

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

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