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

archives for 02/2012

Feb 2012

Winter weedingI hope that when I reported that the Persephone Days were over, you didn't rush out to plant your spring vegetables.  Once daylength is longer than ten hours, surviving crops like kale will start growing again, but that doesn't mean the ground is warm enough for seeds to sprout

Lettuce, onions, and spinach can all handle soil temperatures as low as 35 while most other spring crops like the earth to have warmed to at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit.  I tested the soil temperature in the sunniest part of our garden last week, and the ground underneath our quick hoops was just barely 35 degrees, while unprotected soil was hovering right around freezing.

Most of the plants under my quick hoops are starting to grow again, but the tatsoi totally perished in the winter cold.  That means I had a spot just waiting to plant spring lettuce!  Rip out a few weeds, toss down a bucket of composted manure, then sprinkle on lettuce seeds, and the first garden bed of 2012 is seeded for March harvests.

Our chicken waterer takes the mess out of backyard chicken care.
Posted Wed Feb 1 08:03:30 2012 Tags:

Choosing livestockMany of us get so excited when we learn about multi-species grazing and about rotational pastures that we want to create a vibrant ecosystem overnight.  But Greg Judy cautions us to slow down.

If you already manage a pasture, he recommends not increasing your stocking rate or expanding into multiple species for at least two years.  It will take you that long to improve the quality of your soil so that it can handle more feet.

Meanwhile, Greg recommends that you figure out what your centerpiece animal is and learn the intricacies of its care before bringing new animals in.  Yes, adding more species can make the patsuring system work more efficiently, but so will focusing on what's most important rather than scattering your attention in five different directions.

Meat animals make much better starter livestock than dairy animals do.  Making milk requires a lot of energy, and it's tough (although possible) to keep dairy animals healthy on pasture alone.  In addition, a quality milk cow is worth a lot more than a meat cow, so there's less financial risk as you muddle your way up the learning curve.

Finally, Greg recommends that you pay as close attention to yourself as you do to the pasture.  If you work a full time job and plan to pasture livestock in your spare time, don't start with a complex dairy cow rotation where you need to move animals seven times a day.  On the other hand, if you're unemployed and are willing to put in the time, you can feed many more animals on the same acreage if you're willing to rotate often so that high quality food is always available.  Maybe in a few years, you'll be able to run half a dozen different kinds of livestock on that same pasture.

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

Posted Wed Feb 1 12:01:26 2012 Tags:
heating oil extractor with soldering iron

I've been experimenting with alternative heating methods for the new Rajkumar oil expeller.

The soldering iron pictured above failed miserably.

It did a good job of heating the metal, but those things were never designed to be left on for more than a minute, which is why it has a push button trigger instead of a toggle switch. I knew this, but thought it could handle just a few minutes more. That's when the plastic case around the heating element melted. Now I need to find a new soldering iron.

The next round of experiments will involve an electric pipe heater.

Posted Wed Feb 1 16:40:09 2012 Tags:
Bark kill mulch

I saw Mark peeling the bark off the walnut logs we were stacking into the woodshed and realized that he was right --- barkless logs will probably dry faster.  Even dry bark doesn't make good firewood, so I decided to snag the biomass for my garden.

My first impulse is to see how the bark fares as the kill layer of a kill mulch.  I never have enough corrugated cardboard to go around --- maybe a couple of thicknesses of bark will do just as well?

Our chicken waterer gives chickens something to do, so there's less feather pecking.
Posted Thu Feb 2 07:43:12 2012 Tags:

Heal gullyWell planned pasturing systems can heal the earth --- and can take advantage of natural systems to keep the livestock healthier.  Greg Judy puts up tree swallow boxes since one adult can eat 8,000 flies per day, leading to happy cows.  Meanwhile, he pays close attention to the critters in and on the soil, watching dung beetles roll manure down tunnels into the earth and counting 462 worms in a single cow pat.  He considers spiders to a prime indicator of pasture health since these predators need to eat lots of insects to stay alive, and insects thrive in rich, organic matter-filled soil.

Other parts of Greg's pasturing ecology seem less intuitive.  He believes that careful mob grazing can heal gullies and riparian areas.  He mob grazes steep sided gullies three or four times per year, knocking the banks down so that vegetation can gain a foothold.  While I'm not sure his system would work in very wet climates (his waterways tend to dry up in the summer), Greg's system has created vegetated waterways that capture his neighbor's eroding topsoil (and precious water) each time it rains.  "It doesn't matter how much rain you get," said Greg.  "It matters how much you keep."

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

Posted Thu Feb 2 12:00:34 2012 Tags:
picking up a load of metal for the barn

Our 14 foot long metal roofing panels came in today.

The guy we hired said he won't have much trouble walking the material across the creek and back to the barn.

Yes...he actually has seen the creek and driveway first-hand when he came out to give us the estimate. I'm guessing he has plans to make some sort of stretcher so a guy on each end can lift maybe 4 or 5 at a time?

Posted Thu Feb 2 16:14:28 2012 Tags:
Young forest garden island

I started my most successful forest garden island very simply.  I planted the tree in a raised bed, then dumped weeds around the bed's edges for three years.  The mounds of weeds rotted down to expand the original raised bed, creating rich dirt that extended beyond the tree's canopy.  I highly recommend this method since it requires you to maintain your focus on the centerpiece tree, giving it a few years to get established before the tree has to compete with anyone else.

The photo above shows the three year old peach tree in August 2009.  At this point, my well established peach was ready to handle understory plants, so I transplanted comfrey and bee balm into the partial shade beneath the peach's canopy, and fennel, echinacea, rhubarb, and Egyptian onions in the sun.

Peach forest garden island

Mushroom in forest gardenMay of the next year, the forest garden island was in full swing.  In less successful forest garden islands, I had planted comfrey under younger peach trees in poor soil, and the comfrey stole nitrogen from the tree.  But this more established peach had no problem shading the comfrey enough that the understory plant behaved.

You'll notice that fennel, echinacea, and rhubarb have disappeared --- these plants didn't like being transplanted in the summer heat.  However, the Egyptian onions were thrilled with their new home and thrived even during my summer neglect.

That spring, I seeded poppies amid the Egyptian onions, which added a lot of beauty, but won't be repeated.  I love puttering in my forest garden islands in the winter, but in the Peachsummer I'm too busy in the vegetable garden to give them any care.  Since annuals tend to require bare ground, which has to be weeded, they're out of the running as forest garden plants.

This second year of the forest garden island was when our peach started producing --- over half a bushel that summer.  Meanwhile the ecology of the island seemed to come into its own, attracting birds, insects, and wild mushrooms.

Comfrey in forest garden

Last year was the third year of forest garden experimentation.  The peach had achieved its mature size and was starting to shade out the comfrey and bee balm closest to the trunk.  That allowed me to add another type of understory plant --- shade lovers.  I transplanted ramps right around the tree's trunk and daffodils helter skelter throughout the island.  Both of these plants are early spring ephemerals, which are active in the spring before the tree canopy shades them out, then die back when summer arrives.

Forest garden in winter

Where will the island go from here?  I'm experimenting with more shade-loving species this spring --- goldenseal and ginseng.  Meanwhile, if I get around to it, I plan to transplant some flowering perennials into the sunny zone --- probably bee balm, echinacea, and fennel, since I have them around in excess.

A wild elderberry sprang up at the edge of the forest garden island a few years ago, and I left it alone since it seemed to be far enough away that it doesn't compete with the peach.  Daffodils in the forest gardenPollinators seem to love the flowers, and the birds enjoy the fruits.  (I know elderberries are edible for humans too, but I'm not enough in love with the taste that I feel the need to fight off the birds, who really love the taste.)

The island has stopped expanding since the peach has achieved its final size, and I can feel the ecosystem starting to reach a steady state.  Annual maintenance is now about the same as it would be for any other fruit tree, but I suspect the tree is healthier for the diverse ecosystem under and around its canopy.  Plus, we get to enjoy a bit of beauty right outside the kitchen window.  This is one of our most successful permaculture experiments, and I highly recommend you try it out around your own fruit trees.

Our chicken waterer keeps the backyard flock healthy with POOP-free water.
Posted Fri Feb 3 08:01:12 2012 Tags:

Prairie soilIf you've read my lunchtime series on Voisin grazing as well as this one on mob grazing, you might be wondering which method is better.  I suspect the answer depends on what kind of animal you're trying to feed, and on how healthy your pasture is to start with.

Mob grazing has two major benefits --- it heals the soil quickly, and it also allows you to keep ruminants on pasture all winter without feeding hay.  On the other hand, Voisin grazing's tender grasses and copious clover make this method more appropriate to non-ruminants (like pigs and chickens), and to dairy animals that require high quality feed.

Can you mix and match the two systems to suit your own needs?  I'm not positive, but I suspect you could treat different paddocks in different ways, stockpiling winter forage in one while grazing another one close and often to promote the growth of clovers.

I'd be very curious to hear from those of you who have tried either system.  What did you like about it?  What problems did you run into?

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

Posted Fri Feb 3 12:00:35 2012 Tags:
Anna driving the golf cart on the 2 lane road near our home

We got the golf cart home without any trouble from the local sheriff.

Our mechanic found the problem. It was a worn bearing. I was highly impressed with the way he was able to replace it with a bearing that normally fits in a car. You can't get Club Car parts online, only from a local dealer.

I think he talked us into upgrading the back springs, which will help with the heavy loads we tend to haul.

Posted Fri Feb 3 15:44:52 2012 Tags:

Stump dirt Based on last year's onion experiments, I've decided to start my storage onions inside this winter.  The other option that worked well was to grow the onions under quick hoops in soil doctored with biochar, but I only have one bucket of the precious amendment and am not sure I want to "waste" it on onions.  (My quick hoops are all full of overwintering greens anyway.)

So I headed out to the old apple tree for some stump dirt to use as potting soil.  I put the stump dirt directly into my seed starting flats, wet it down, then lightly compressed the organic matter with my fingers.  After sprinkling seeds on top, I added a thin layer of composted horse manure ---  sometimes I use stump dirt alone as potting soil, but the apple tree's rotted center didn't seem quite as dark and rich as the organic matter I mine out of the beech tree further away.

Assuming they come up and grow, I'll transplant tiny onion sets at the beginning of March.  Although it seems rough to throw them into unprotected ground so early, last year's transplants did find even without a quick hoop.  Maybe 2012 will be the year we finally delete the last storebought vegetable from our diet?

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Sat Feb 4 08:54:19 2012 Tags:

how to make coconut flour with a juicer and dehydratorI was trying to find some information on cold pressing coconuts when I stumbled upon Youtube user rawfoods and his unique approach.

1. Shred up the coconut.

2. Bake chunks in a dehydrator at 118 degrees for 12 to 24 hours depending on humidity.

3. Slowly feed the dried coconut pieces into a juicer where the fiber will get extracted from the oil, which is very creamy and can be used as butter if you have the proper coconut.

4. You may need to feed the fiber back through to get additional oil out. This guy uses an Omega 8006 juicer.

5. Feed extracted fiber into a grain mill to make coconut flour.

More on this later when we actually juice up some dried coconuts.

Posted Sat Feb 4 16:40:31 2012 Tags:

Downy woodpecker eating praying mantis egg caseThis photo is less than stellar, but the behavior is too interesting not to share.

Mark called me over to the window a few days ago to tell me that a bird was eating my praying mantis egg cases.  Sure enough, this little Downy Woodpecker was pecking away at the spongy blobs coating my peach tree twigs.

Generally, I like praying mantises (even though the ones I have are invasive species).  But my rule of thumb is that even if an animal is eating a beneficial insect, that's a good sign because it means I've created a quality ecosystem that can support top level predators.

I wonder how many of my other egg cases have been mined out?  And I also wonder if the mantis eggs have hatched into tiny mantises, spurring this attack.  I guess only the woodpeckers know for sure.

Our chicken waterer makes care of your backyard flock a breeze.
Posted Sun Feb 5 08:03:39 2012 Tags:

2012 update on 2009 lug nut washer fix
Back in December of 2009 I posted about having some trouble with one of the golf cart lug nuts.

The hardware store didn't have counter sunk nuts, so I got some regular nuts and added a set of washers.

Turns out it was a mistake to take this short cut. Our mechanic fixed the problem with proper lug nuts on our last visit and kindly advised me to not do such a thing again.

It's hard to be sure, but the lug nut situation may have contributed to the bearing going bad.

Posted Sun Feb 5 15:14:18 2012 Tags:
Average January temperatures, Tri-cities, TN

The first crocuses opened on February 3 this year, and the Wood Frogs hit full chorus on February 5.  Meanwhile, the human chorus of "this is a crazy winter" just gets louder and louder.

Yellow crocusesHowever, take a look at the graph at the top of this page, showing average February temperatures at our closest major weather station for the last 64 years.  (We're actually a zone colder than them, but the trends are mostly the same here.)  Isn't it interesting to see that January 2012 is only the 13th warmest year during that time period?

This post is in no way related to global climate change, in case you're curious.  No single data point (and no comparison to the past 64 years) proves anything in that respect.  My thesis is --- our weather is always erratic, so enjoy the crocuses when they come!  I transplanted some of our little beauties into our forest garden island so I can watch them out the kitchen window.  I suspect no one else gets so much mileage from a few little bulbs.

Our chicken waterer allows you to leave home for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Mon Feb 6 08:07:03 2012 Tags:

The Practical BeekeeperThe Practical Beekeeper: Beekeeping Naturally by Michael Bush is the epitome of a self-published book.  (Yes, I do include my 99 cent ebooks in this category.)  The text is chock full of very good information that you can't find anywhere else, but is definitely a bit rough around the edges.

First of all, the author is up front about the fact that the majority of the information can be found for free on his website.  I've spent years dipping into his informative website and was quite willing to pay a bit of money to have that information distilled into a more linear format.

Unfortunately, I felt like he didn't distill all that much.  There's no index, and the book is divided into beginner, intermediate, and advanced sections, each of which covers most of the same topics in different degrees of depth.  So, to find out what Bush thinks about strains of bees, I had to read the entire table of contents and then flip through three different sections of the book.  I even noticed a few paragraphs that were included, verbatim, in multiple sections.

Meanwhile, the book is hardcover and large print, which means it's hefty and sells for the scary price of $49.  In retrospect, I might have been better off with the ebook ($29 on his website) since the photos are black and white and only moderate quality (meaning they wouldn't lose anything by being viewed in eink.)

Whichever format you choose, though, I highly recommend The Practical Beekeeper to any intermediate beekeeper who's struggling to navigate the maze of creating a chemical-free apiary.  The book appears daunting, but is actually an easy read and will definitely open your eyes to concepts you'd never considered.

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

Posted Mon Feb 6 11:00:31 2012 Tags:
chicken coop wall made from scrap cardboard

It's been almost a year since I used some scrap cardboard to block the wind in the used pallet chicken coop.

There's no direct sun, and the roof keeps it dry.

I'd say it's holding up pretty good. I can notice some slight fading, but it seems to have years left in it as an effective barrier.

Posted Mon Feb 6 16:12:13 2012 Tags:

Expanding a tree's raised bed moundMy kitchen forest garden island gets all the love while the peach tree just one year younger is out of sight and out of mind.  No wonder my favorite peach's younger sister has a canopy spread barely half the width of my darling kitchen peach.

I decided to begin to remedy matters by expanding the little sister's raised bed.  I wheelbarrowed some partially decomposed weeds from the compost pile in the chicken pasture to line one of the bed's edges, then added another wheelbarrow load of deep bedding, lightly sprinkled atop the soil all around.

Newspaper kill mulchMeanwhile, I ripped up the mushroom rafts (which I wasn't very pleased with) and rearranged the aging logs in a big square around the peach.  A friend and I weeded the areas that were mulched last year, then I laid down a newspaper kill mulch atop the parts of the square that were lawn.  (I would have preferred corrugated cardboard to newspaper, but you have to use what you've got.  Mom kindly saved all of these newspapers to be firestarters, and I never ended up burning them since I had too much junk mail.)

Mulched tree bed

Finally, I topped it all off with leaves and promised little sister peach to pay more attention to her needs.  With fruit trees, you don't really see the full results of your actions until two seasons later, so I'll be waiting for baskets of peaches in the summer of 2013.

Are you starting baby chicks?  Our chicken waterer keeps them from drowning during the toddler stage.
Posted Tue Feb 7 07:45:35 2012 Tags:

Queen beePJ Chandler argued that the Langstroth hive is the root of many of the problems currently facing beekeepers.  Michael Bush agrees that honeybees are in trouble, but instead traces the ills to:

  • Raising sickly bees.  Bush argues that the modern methods of pouring chemicals into the hive to keep pests at bay ends up selecting for resistant super-pests...and for wimpy bees that wouldn't be able to survive without chemicals.  In addition, since most honeybees now come from only a few beekeeping companies, we've restricted the gene pool so much that we're raising only a few inbred strains of bees, none or few of which have the ability to live in a chemical-free hive.  These bees have also been bred to use less propolis, which might make it easier for the beekeeper to pry the hive apart, but also makes allows viruses to thrive among the bees.
  • Foundationless frameUsing foundation that makes bees sick.  I've written before that using foundation in your hive makes your bees create larger celled comb than they naturally would, which helps out varroa mites.  But did you know that the foundation you put in your hive is processed beeswax from someone else's hive...who almost certainly treated with lots of chemicals?  The wax is impregnated with pesticides, which causes drones raised on that foundation to be less fertile and queens who mate with those drones to fail nine times faster than a healthy queen would.
  • Upsetting the natural ecology of the hive.  A healthy hive isn't just a couple of thousand bees; it also includes beneficial fungi, bacteria, yeasts, mites, and insects.  It's helpful to think of a bee hive as a bit like our stomachs --- the beneficial critters help "digest" (ferment) pollen while keeping the hive from getting sick by crowding out pathogens.  Using chemicals in the hive is like taking antibiotics every day --- you kill the good microorganisms along with the bad, so the system doesn't work as well.  In addition, feeding sugar water (pH 6.0) instead of leaving bees enough honey (pH 3.2 to 4.5) creates an enironment that helps the pathogens thrive.

Michael Bush's solutions --- while they can be hard to implement --- are very simple.  He says we have to stop using chemicals in our hives, even if that means many of our colonies die and only the strong remain.  Deleting foundation allows bees to build clean wax at a natural cell size.  And we must make sure that our bees always have enough honey rather than stealing too much and then feeding sugar water.  More on the specifics of his beekeeping method in tomorrow's post.

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

Posted Tue Feb 7 12:00:36 2012 Tags:

Stihl MS211 chainsaw bar instruction

I forget where I read about running a chainsaw with the bar upside down.

The logic is that the bar will wear more evenly if you flip it every so often.

My system is to make the swap each time I install a new or machine sharpened chain.

Posted Tue Feb 7 16:03:40 2012 Tags:
Crocuses in leaf mulch

One of the best things about leaves as mulch is that they're totally free.  If you live in town and pay attention, you can probably snag bags of leaves off the curb on trash day during the fall.  But if you're a rural dweller like me, you'll want to head into the woods to find your mulch.

Leaves gather in dipsOne of the primary purposes of mulch in the garden is to prevent weeds from growing, so it's essential that you rake leaves from weed-free areas.  Mature forests (or yard trees over manicured lawns) are your best bet --- our younger forest areas are home to the invasive Japanese stilt grass, which I don't want to introduce into my garden.

Look for dips in the landscape and areas without a lot of understory growth for easiest leaf harvests.  The old logging road shown here tends to accumulate leaves drifting down the hill, making it easy for me to scoop them up.

If you're able to drive right to your leaf-gathering location, you'll probably choose to use a Duffel bags full of leavesleaf rake and some sort of bin to gather leaves.  But if you're walking off the beaten path, I've found it easiest to simply scoop leaves with my hands into large duffel bags, compacting the leaves frequently so you get the most leaves per trip.  To save your back, gather leaves during dry weather.  (Wet leaves are heavy.)

Tiny salamander

The partially decomposed duff beneath this year's leaves might be worth harvesting too, as long as you don't mind creating a slight erosion potential in the spot where you stole the leaves.  Duff is heavier than undecomposed leaves, which means it's less likely to blow away in the garden, and it is often full of beneficial mycorrhizae which will boost the growth of your garden plants.  However, if you delve into the duff, try to pay attention and don't harm the critters living there --- I moved this tiny salamander to the side with a handful of humus and covered him back over so he wouldn't dry out.

More in a later post about the best ways to use leaf mulch in the garden.  Meanwhile, what tips would you add about leaf harvest?

Our chicken waterer makes backyard chicken care quick, easy, and clean.
Posted Wed Feb 8 08:22:13 2012 Tags:

Uniform box sizeSo what does Michael Bush's apiary look like?  In some ways it's quite traditional --- he mostly uses Langstroth hives and equipment from mainstream beekeeping companies.  However, he has made a few changes:

  • His boxes are all 8 frame mediums.  Since the frames are all the same size, he can move honey and brood around if necessary and can allow an unlimited brood nest.  In addition, the smaller boxes are about half the weight of a 10 frame deep, which makes his life much easier.  The only downside is cost --- getting started requires nearly twice as much capital with Bush's method.
  • He uses foundationless frames.  As I've said over and over, foundationless frames help reduce varroa mite problems.  In addition, you don't have the cost of buying foundation, the time drain of installing it, and the problematic chemicals that get carried into your hive from someone else's.  Although we had a collapse after extracting honey from deep foundationless frames, you won't have problems if you stick to mediums or if you cut and crush.
  • Top hive entranceHe uses top entrances only.  Bush has plugged up his bottom entrances so that his bees go in and out entrances in the top of the hive.  Top entrances means he doesn't need to worry about mowing around hives or about snow covering the entrance in the winter.  Mice are much less prone to sneak in a top entrance, and he sees fewer problems from skunks and other pests too.  Finally, top entrances provide good ventilation and, when combined with a layer of styrofoam on top of the hive, lead to little winter condensation.
  • He doesn't treat hives.  Except in rare cases, Bush doesn't add any chemicals to the hive.  Even "organic" treatments like thymol aren't generally on his agenda since these chemicals will kill beneficial microorganisms in the hive.
  • He breeds locally adapted queens.  Rather than buying new queens, Bush raises his own.  But even with these queens on hand, he doesn't requeen a hive unless absolutely necessary --- for example, if the hive is failing while others are thriving, or if the bees turn mean.  Generally, his queens live to be about three years old and then are naturally replaced by supersedure.
  • Frame of honeyHe feeds only honey (usually.)  In general, Bush tries to ensure that his bees have enough of their own honey to make it through the winter.  If he has to feed, he usually feeds honey, but will sometimes feed dry sugar in a pinch.
  • He doesn't scrape anything out of the hive.  Bush believes that the burr comb that is sometimes built between boxes is good because it lets you check for mites on drone pupae as you pull it apart, and the intact burr comb gives bees a ladder to climb from box to box.  He doesn't cut out swarm cells, instead doing his best to prevent swarms naturally, then splitting hives to raise new queens if he misses the boat and swarm cells do materialize.  He also doesn't scrape off propolis, since he believes this processed bee sap kills pathogenic bacteria and viruses in the hive.

Michael Bush's goal is two-pronged --- he wants to raise bees that don't need chemicals to stay alive, and he wants his apiary to be as little work as possible.  Those sound like laudable permaculture ambitions to me.

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

Posted Wed Feb 8 12:00:29 2012 Tags:
Food grade bucket honey strainer

Our neighbor's bees have been busy stealing honey from our two hive boxes, so we decided it's time to build a 5 gallon bucket honey strainer.

The food grade buckets are more expensive, but worth it for a project like this.

Stay tuned for a full report on how this method works for straining out the wax.

Posted Wed Feb 8 15:12:44 2012 Tags:
Dead oilseed radish

When I first read about oilseed radishes, the only negative report claimed that the cover crop stinks to high heaven when rotting in the spring.  I haven't noticed any odor at all from my decaying oilseed radishes, but their dead bodies do catch the eye with their striking poses.

Rotting oilseed radishes

Worm in radishOnce they rot just a bit more than is shown in the two photos above, the radishes also catch the attention of the local worms.  I broke one radish in half and was surprised to see this earthworm tunneling through the decaying center.

Worm action is probably the reason these huge roots disappear into the soil so quickly.  I'll be able to plant into these beds without raking much of anything to the side in just a few weeks, and the soil will be improved by up to a quarter of a pound of dry organic matter per square foot --- not a bad yield for tossing down a couple of cents' worth of seeds last fall.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicken tractors since it never spills on uneven ground.
Posted Thu Feb 9 08:13:20 2012 Tags:

Bee swarmIn nature, a healthy, mature hive tries to swarm at least once every year.  As soon as the first flowers open, the bees scurry to gather nectar and pollen, which tempts the queen to lay a lot of eggs and to hatch out plenty more workers.  At a certain point, the hive is getting crowded, and the bees start filling up the brood nest (where eggs are usually laid) with honey and pollen.  These two conditions --- lots of bees in a small space and a brood nest full of food --- change something in the hive mentality, and they decide it's time to make some new queens.

Once queen larvae are developing in the hive, the old queen knows it's time to move on.  She gathers up about 60% of her workers and flies away to another nest site, leaving the rest of the workers behind to care for the developing queens.  Eventually, the new queens hatch, and one usually kills off the others before settling in as a new matriarch of the old hive.

From the perspective of a bee, swarming is an effective method of reproduction.  In addition, the gap in brood rearing between when the old queen leaves and when the new queen starts to lay tends to break many disease cycles in the old hive.  However, beekeepers generally want to prevent swarming since a hive that swarms rarely produces much honey.

Queen cupSwarm prevention begins with keeping the brood nest from becoming congested during the first nectar flow.  Michael Bush adds supers as necessary so the bees have plenty of room to dehydrate nectar.  However, supering alone is not enough, so he also opens up the brood chamber by putting one empty frame after every two frames of brood.  A different beekeeper, Walt Wright, uses a less invasive method called checkerboarding, which consists of alternating frames of capped honey with drawn (but empty) frames in the box above the brood nest.

If you didn't get around to managing the hive and you see queen cups already built, you'll have to move on to the second phase of swarm prevention.  No, don't cut out those queen cups --- once the bees have decided to swarm, they'll just build them again.  Instead, take each frame with a queen cup on it and start a "nuc" --- a small, new hive --- with an extra frame of honey to tide the bees over.  More tomorrow on how to handle nucs, but for now just understand that each of these little hives can be raised into a new hive to expand your apiary.  As long as you open up the brood Catching a swarmnest at the same time you create the nucs, the bees should think they've already swarmed and will get back to work making honey for your larder.

The flip side of the swarming coin is that the behavior creates an opportunity for beekeepers to get started with no outlay of cash.  This spring, I may follow Bush's advice and ask police and rescue dispatchers and the local extension agent to contact me when they hear about swarms.  More on how to catch a swarm when I've put some of my readings into practice.

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

Posted Thu Feb 9 12:00:42 2012 Tags:
Drilling holes to make a diy 5 gallon bucket honey strainer

Drilling holes in a bucket from the outside presented a problem.

Plastic hanging chads.

Sanding them off while reaching into the 5 gallon bucket honey strainer is awkward. I wished I had tried to drill the holes from the inside now, it may have made the clean up process easier.

Posted Thu Feb 9 16:39:41 2012 Tags:

Asian longhorned beetleMy friend Heather has been giving me great editing feedback on my book, and she brought up an interesting point in response to my chapter about scavenging biomass.  Heather asked:

Is it appropriate to move biomass from one area to another?  Doesn't that move pests around?

When we go camping on the eastern shore there are all these signs about not bringing in firewood from certain counties because the wood might carry in different bugs.

I'm sure it's OK because you do it, but why is it OK?  Are there things that people shouldn't do in terms of moving around biomass so they don't spread / introduce pests?

Despite Heather's belief that I can do no wrong, she's got an excellent point, and one I hadn't even considered in the context of the garden.  Many states prohibit you from moving firewood far (often limiting transport to 50 miles or less) since invasive diseases and insects can come along for the ride and infect areas that used to be safe from their depradations.  I can see how moving tree leaves from place to place might present a lower but still real risk.

Emerald ash borerIn general, I've read that you shouldn't worry much if you're moving biomass ten miles or less since an insect might fly that far on its own on a gusty day.  And, of course, processed biomass like cardboard or coffee grounds are unlikely to host pests.

I'm also careful, when gathering leaves, to steer clear of areas with invasive herbaceous species, since I don't want seeds of garlic mustard or Japanese stilt grass to germinate in my garden.  This problem is probably less thorny, though, since even the most lackadaisical gardener is likely to notice invasive plants before they can make their way into adjacent woodland.

What would you add to those warnings?

Our chicken waterer provides clean water for day old chicks, broody hens, and your main flock.

Posted Fri Feb 10 07:57:01 2012 Tags:

One of the main thrusts of Michael Bush's book is --- backyard beekeepers of every experience level need to be breeding homegrown bees.  With diseases and pests wiping out colonies left and right, we can't risk narrowing the gene pool by letting a few big companies breed all of our queens, and we shouldn't even use our single favorite queen as the mother of every new hive in our apiary.  Meanwhile, we should try to include the survivor genetics of feral bees, letting our queens mate with wild drones and allowing queens of captured swarms to maintain control of their colonies.

Queen rearingBut the reproduction of bee hives is quite complex, as my swarming post probably made clear.  Do we need fancy equipment and a PhD to raise our own queens?  Although Michael Bush does go into some production methods that felt beyond me, he also mentioned very simple breeding techniques for those of us who aren't obsessed with maximum productivity.

Remember how I split my hive this past spring?  Splitting by the box (one full box of brood in each daughter hive) is indeed the easiest way to double your number of hives with very little work.  If you put ten deep frames or sixteen medium frames of brood and honey in each daughter hive, both hives will take off so quickly that you might be able to split the hives again before the year is out.  Those of you with several hives can take a single frame of brood and a frame of honey from each of your strong hives and create a new hive in this manner without setting the parent hives back much at all.

Successfully split hiveSmaller splits are handy for raising queens --- a useful technique for the more advanced apiarist who wants to replace ornery or failing queens with daughter queens from a stronger and nicer hive.  For these splits, Bush recommends having some nucs on hand.  Nucs are smaller boxes --- often just big enough to hold two, three, four, or five frames --- that keep the workload down for small colonies of bees.  You might put one frame of brood and one frame of honey in a two frame nuc, then add the tiny colony to a queenless hive once the nuc has raised a queen.  Alternatively, you could put three frames of brood and two frames of honey in a five frame nuc, then transfer the new colony to a normal sized brood box to create a new hive once the queen is laying.

When's the best time to split?  Beekeepers have a saying that you can either produce lots of new hives, or make lots of honey, but not both.  If you split hives before the main nectar flow, the bees can use all those blooms to create a strong colony that will make it through the winter with no help from you...but you probably won't be able to harvest any honey.  On the other hand, if you let the parent hive collect lots of honey during the main nectar flow, then split them, you might end up having to feed the daughter hives to make sure they have enough winter stores.  As with any other part of beekeeping, you have to decide how much to focus on the health of the bees, and how much to focus on your own stomach.

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

Posted Fri Feb 10 12:00:42 2012 Tags:
how to sharpen a Chopper 1 axe with a grinder

Our friendly, neighborhood hardware store sharpens dull tools free of charge.

I've never asked the people at Home Depot or Lowes for this kind of extra service, but something tells me their store policy would frown on any activity that produced such a high volume of sparks.

Buying a grinder would cost somewhere between 50 and 200 dollars, but beware of the steep learning curve. If you don't do it right you could ruin a good axe or sword.

Posted Fri Feb 10 15:41:17 2012 Tags:

Chicken hatching out of an eggLast year, I stumbled through learning to incubate eggs to produce homegrown chicks, so this year I'm ready to put my newfound knowledge into practice.  And to experiment some more, of course.

One thing we learned is to go ahead and start chicks at the right time of year rather than waiting and hoping that a broody hen will decide to sit on some eggs.  I have high hopes that our Cuckoo Marans will feel motherly...eventually...but since the pasture will be at its peak in April, May, and June, I want to have our first chicks struggling out of their shells at the beginning of March.

Incubator spacer

I put 21 eggs in the incubator, which is as many as will fit laying down on their sides for hatch.  Since that left a bit of room when the eggs sit upright for the first 19 days, I added newspaper spacers in the center of the incubator, where hatch rates have historically been lower.

Mark your calendars for fluffy cuteness around March 3!

Our chicken waterer will keep the chicks healthy from day 1.
Posted Sat Feb 11 08:22:28 2012 Tags:
Bays Mountain winter hike 2012 part 2

These pictures look cold, but it was just barely below freezing during our second Bays Mountain winter hike of 2012.
Posted Sat Feb 11 17:27:01 2012 Tags:
Bays Mountain Lake in the snow

Black VultureA month ago, I wrote, "If editing takes much longer, we'll have to go back [to Bays Mountain] for another round of nature meditation."

Editing did take much longer.  In fact, I've still got two thirds of my fourth (and final) polishing round to go before I can give the manuscript to my publisher.

(Yes, I know it is a little overly obsessive to go through four drafts before I even give the manuscript to the official editor.  There's something about the permanency of a print book that makes me leery of letting the least tiny problem slide.  On the plus side, the final product should be something I'm actively proud of.)

Hanging beaver tree

Suspended beaver logMeanwhile, Bays Mountain gave me a very interesting thought problem to take my mind off the book. 

See the dangling tree on the right side of the photo above?  Clearly a beaver had gnawed it off its feet, but the stump is nowhere to be found.  We could see down to the bottom of the little pond, and there's no pointy stump beneath its waters, nor is there one anywhere within a ten foot radius.

Any ideas on how a beaver-gnawed log came to be suspended in the air?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock occupied even when it's too snowy to leave the coop.
Posted Sun Feb 12 07:50:16 2012 Tags:

Icicle on a golf cart
You know you're pushing the golf cart's limits when icicles grow on the underside between trips.

With lows around 10 last night, the hauling opportunity seemed too good to pass up.

A frozen driveway allowed us to bring in a week's worth of firewood, 15 bags of leaves for mulch, some chicken waterer supplies, and a month's worth of chicken feed.

Maybe tomorrow the driveway will stay frozen long enough that we can haul some straw?

Posted Sun Feb 12 18:02:44 2012 Tags:

Muddy golf cartI read a lot of blogs and books that talk about water management.  The problem is, they're all tailored toward arid climates, where you need to work hard to capture any rain that falls and store it in your soil for later dearths.

Our water management issues are very different.  The badly eroded soil of the forest garden becomes so waterlogged that algae grows in puddles even during the winter.  Our gutterless trailer pours so much water off the sides that the soil is sodden, and simple foot traffic is enough to turn the ground into a morass.

Meanwhile, our two creeks are clearly eroding more than they should.  The big creek was straightened by some foolish farmer a few decades ago, and even though I know channeling it back into its original meander would slow the flow, I'm afraid to undertake such a huge project.

Headcut erosionThe smaller creek has dug itself so deep that that the lower portion has vegetationless banks four feet tall.  As I was gathering leaves in the woods, I noticed that the tree that had been holding back the advance of the headcut was losing the battle.

I suspect all of these problems are really opportunities if considered from a permaculture standpoint.  I've been raising up the forest garden with hugelkultur mounds, and the rotting wood releases enough water a bit at a time that I was able to grow tomatoes there without irrigating last summer.  Gutters on the East Wing would clear up the worst path morass, channeling the water into one of our IBC tanks to allow us to experiment with aquaponics.  Maybe the small creek could be mended with a Zuni bowl and some homemade meanders.  And one of these days I'd like to create a little pond.

Zuni bowlBut I don't want to dive into any water management project without a bit more information.  Do you have any books you would recommend for permaculture style water management in wet landscapes?  I'm looking for an inspiring print source that shows how to work with water on a small scale with no heavy machinery.  (You can recommend websites too, but I'm unlikely to read them deeply --- I have a mental block against getting in depth information off the internet.)

Our chicken waterer is perfect in the brood coop since it keeps the bedding dry as your mother hen incubates her eggs.
Posted Mon Feb 13 07:46:43 2012 Tags:

Making a quick hoopI'm pushing to finish editing the paper version of Weekend Homesteader, so there's no lunchtime series this week.  However, I don't want you to go into withdrawal, so I'm giving away Weekend Homesteader: October today and tomorrow over on Amazon.  Just follow the link and you'll be able to download it completely free.

Despite the fact that the four exercises in Weekend Homesteader: October are geared toward the fall, they're actually quite timely in February.  I walk you through making quick hoops, which are perfect for preheating late winter soil so you can plant sooner.  And I also write about free biomass, storage vegetables, and living simply.
Weeding quick hoops
As always, if you don't want to mess with Kindle format, you can email me and I'll reply with a free pdf copy.  And please do tell any friends who might be interested!  I gave away 8,875 free copies of Weekend Homesteader: August a few weeks ago and would love to beat that record.

Posted Mon Feb 13 12:03:14 2012 Tags:
loading up 6 bales of straw in the golf cart

We figured out today that stacking straw in a vertical fashion on the golf cart allows us to haul six bales compared to horizontal stacking that only gave us four.

Posted Mon Feb 13 16:10:28 2012 Tags:

Drying coconut meat
Juicing dried coconutWe made some progress with our second coconut flour experiment, but we haven't figured it all the way out yet.  Mark had watched a youtube video that showed how to extract coconut butter by drying the meat and passing it through a juicer, so we started our experiment by whirring the coconut meat up in the food processor, then letting it dry out in the food dehydrator for about eight hours.

I suspect we made a mistake when we turned off the dehydrator before supper and didn't get to the juicing stage until a couple of hours later.  In retrospect, I think the dehydrating step wasn't meant to dry out the coconut so much as warm it so the oils would flow better.  Perhaps that's why the juicer was only able to extract a moderate amount of oil from the coconut meat.

Juiced coconut

Grinding coconut flour
I didn't think the de-juiced coconut meat was fine enough to bake with, so I passed the fragments through the MagicMill on its most coarse setting.  Unfortunately, there were still enough oils left in the meat that the coconut flour gunked up the machine, just like last time.  Clearly, we need to figure out the extracting step better before we put the remains through the mill.

Homemade coconut butter

I can tell we're making progress, though.  Look --- coconut butter separated from something vaguely resembling coconut flour!

Our chicken waterer is perfect for broody hens since it won't spill and dirty the nest.
Posted Tue Feb 14 07:34:21 2012 Tags:
valentines day straw bale surprise

Anna and I came to a Valentine's Day agreement when we started dating.

That first year I asked "Which would you prefer, a heart shaped box of chocolate, a dozen roses, or a nice dinner somewhere semi-fancy?"

She thought about it a bit and said "A heart shaped box implies chocolate should only be for special occasions, and I need chocolate almost every day. I cringe at cut flowers and prefer to enjoy them in the ground, and dinner out on a holiday sounds too crowded for my comfort level."

I was more than relieved to hear such a practical answer. We decided to start skipping the holiday and agreed that every day felt like Valentine's Day when you live in paradise with someone you love.

We managed to haul in another golf cart load of straw this morning before the ground thawed out. Turns out you can squeeze on 7 bales if you ratchet strap one to the back like in the photo above.

Posted Tue Feb 14 15:25:50 2012 Tags:

Wrecked berriesMark is the type of considerate husband who doesn't post details on the internet when his wife wrecks the golf cart.  So I have to tell you myself.

Remember how icicles were forming on the underside of the golf cart as we hauled in supplies Sunday?  They also started affecting the "gas" pedal.  I didn't realize that was the case until I went to turn the golf cart around and reversed right through my berry patch, shrieking in terror the whole way. 

It turns out that when the "gas" pedal sticks in the on position, slamming your foot on the brakes does absolutely nothing.  Yes, I did manage to halfway tear down one of our Pedal mechanismchicken pasture gates at the same time.  Mark considers it an unusual day when I don't break something and ask him to fix it --- this wasn't an unusual day.

For future reference, if you drive your golf cart through a creek repeatedly when the temperature is in the teens, a big lump of ice will form around the "gas" pedal mechanism.  This makes the pedal stick in the on position, but you can work around it by getting in the habit of pushing the pedal, then slipping your foot underneath and pulling the pedal back to "off."  If you get really good, you can also push the "gas" pedal very lightly and have it freeze halfway down, setting the golf cart on cruise control at a moderate pace.

Farm use golf cartI drove like that for three trips on Sunday and one on Monday, but then my fun came to an abrupt end.  After unloading the golf cart, I headed inside to get a drink of water, and when I came back out, pressing the "gas" pedal did nothing.  I thought I'd really broken the golf cart that time, and I could see Mark's dreams of an ATV coming to fruition.  Luckily, when the afternoon sun melted the lump of ice around the pedal mechanism, the golf cart sprang back to life and she was able to haul one more load of straw Tuesday morning before the floodplain thawed so much as to become impassable.  I love our alternative farm truck!

(As a final note, will someone please tell me what the "gas" pedal is called in an electric vehicle?")

Our chicken waterer is the solution to filthy water and damp chicken coops.
Posted Wed Feb 15 08:14:38 2012 Tags:
best material choice for making a temporary fence

I'm ready to pronounce this plastic, temporary fence experiment a success.

The put up and take down procedure is easy and quick.

99 cent pasture ebookWe've been using this type of material for a few years now. I remember first getting it during the 2008 election. There's no sign of U.V. damage yet. I'd guess it might be another 10 years before we start seeing signs of drying and cracking. I'll let you know in 2022 if it's still the cat's meow of the temporary fence world.

One downside to this material is the chewability factor. It takes Lucy about a minute to bite her way through if she really wants to, and thinks nobody is looking. She's usually a good dog, but has a serious bad girl streak to her when it comes to kitchen scraps meant for the flock.

Posted Wed Feb 15 16:22:20 2012 Tags:
Onion seedlings

Despite the relative mildness of this winter, the soil temperature (and thus the spring garden) is actually a smidge behind last year's conditions.  I suspect that last winter's heavy coat of snow insulated the soil surface, and that this year's clouds worked in the opposite direction to make the soil colder than it normally would have been.

No matter what the cause, I only planted my first unprotected garden seeds yesterday --- breadseed poppies.  I would normally have planted some early peas too, but the earth hasn't warmed to 40 degrees yet, so there's no reason to let my seeds rot in the ground.

Despite the cold spell this past weekend, lettuce is up and running under the quick hoops --- I hope to be able to pick some in two or three weeks.  Meanwhile, the onions I seeded inside came up thickly.  About the same time I'm picking the first spring lettuce, I'll be teasing the seedlings apart and setting them out in their final garden home.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to filthy, traditional waterers.
Posted Thu Feb 16 07:38:19 2012 Tags:
comparing a golf cart to an all terrain vehicle (ATV)

Why did we choose an electric golf cart over a gas powered ATV?

We had an old Isuzu 4 wheel drive truck that may have been in the saddest shape any truck has ever been in. It was only 400 dollars, and we were short on cash at the time and thought we could nurse it back to being a decent farm truck. The problem was our location. Being new in town made it difficult to coax a mechanic to make a house call, which is what was needed when the truck broke down in the middle of the driveway.

The country was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina and fuel prices were reaching record levels. It felt like we had to get ready for a future where gas would cost as much or more than what folks in Europe were paying. Maybe I was reading too much information on Peak Oil speculation. I'm not sure what to believe when it comes to that subject amymore, and in retrospect the decision may have been partially based on a fear of running out of petrol.

I realize if gas prices go through the roof then electric rates would more than likely follow, but the plan was to do what several people on the internet were doing which was to use solar cells to charge the golf cart.

Lucy enjoys a nap on the golf cartAnother deciding factor was Anna's comfort level. I was pretty sure the golf cart would be less intimidating than driving a truck through troubled waters mixed with a bit of dirt.

It may have been more practical to choose an ATV, but sometimes the path less traveled yields the greatest rewards.

Posted Thu Feb 16 15:26:11 2012 Tags:

Weekend HomesteaderThe manuscript of Weekend Homesteader is officially done.  (Well, until my editor sends me revisions to look at.)  Depending on my technical prowess, the files will either be winding their way to New York via the internet today, or taking the slower mail approach on a CD.

Here are the highlights of the finished product:

  • Days before the actual deadline: 13
  • Days after my virtual deadline: 17
  • Sleepless nights due to excitement: 5
  • Meltdowns due to terror: 2
  • Suggested word count from my editor: 60,000 to 150,000
  • Final word count: 105,745
  • Number of times I read each of those words: 4
  • How many times too may was that: 1
  • Maximum number of images my editor said I could have: 200
  • Number of images I'm sending her: 229
  • Most boring part: editing the index the second time
  • Most exciting part: adding lots of cool sidebars while imagining proto-Annas propagating their own mushroom spawn on cardboard or using urine to fertilize the garden
  • How bored my blog readers are with hearing me natter on about it: I don't know --- you tell me.

Phew!  If you asked me today if I wanted to write another book, I'd say no.  But I suspect by next month I'll already be dreaming about the other ten projects in my idea notebook.

If you're just tuning in, you can download the second drafts of the first ten months on Amazon.  Weekend Homesteader: March is coming out next week, and there will be no Weekend Homesteader: April since the last few projects are intangibles I scattered through other months in the print book.  The print book will be a full color paperback due out in the fall.

Thanks for bearing with me!

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy on pasture, in tractors, or in coops.
Posted Fri Feb 17 08:00:48 2012 Tags:
Star bit stripping

We decided today was the day to stop ignoring the tangled mess of bent metal that was once our workshop.

The job called for a hex key bit, but the closest thing I could find today was a star bit that seemed to do the job until I stripped out the teeth of the bit.

Taking the main legs apart along with a few sections of the roof was all it took to make it more manageable. The metal pieces have a nice powder coating to them, which might come in handy for a yet unknown future project.

Posted Fri Feb 17 17:15:00 2012 Tags:
Cardboard kill mulch

Gardening with cardboardMy favorite material for blocking sunlight and weeds at the bottom of a kill mulch is cardboard, so I was thrilled when a friend told me he was getting rid of a lot of cardboard boxes.  I've been carrying in about ten from the parking area each morning when I walk Lucy, but I used up a whole weeks' worth in about half an hour Friday.  That sent me hunting for other kill mulch bases.

Egg cartons seem to have a lot of potential in a certain niche.  If you open them out, the bottom half of one carton overlaps the top half of another carton quite well, although the Egg carton kill mulchseam between rows is less secure.  I wouldn't want to use egg cartons as a kill mulch if there were really ornery weeds underneath since the plants would certainly find that gap.

That said, I have a feeling that the cups of the egg carton might capture and hold water, helping it infiltrate the soil rather than running off.  My gut says that fungi will also like the extra air space left behind when I top the egg cartons off with mulch.  As with my bark kill mulch, I'll be waiting to see how the experimental weed blocker works as the growing season progresses.

Our chicken waterer never spills on uneven ground beneath chicken tractors.
Posted Sat Feb 18 07:30:19 2012 Tags:
how to carry multiple pieces of tin with 2 people

A piece of heavy nylon rope tied in just the right configuration is how our roofers carried the 14 foot sections of tin for the barn roof today.

Posted Sat Feb 18 17:33:05 2012 Tags:

Pounding in trellis postSoon after posting that our soil was too cold for peas, I stuck the thermometer in the ground again and got a reading of 39 degrees.  Yes, that's still one degree shy of their minimum germination temperature, but the ten day forecast (with the exception of today) promises highs in the fifties to sixties and lows above freezing, so I figured I could risk it.

I've posted before about how I make my pea trellises.  These light-weight fence posts combined with the green plastic trellis material are easy to put up and take down and look quite elegant in the garden.  I do most of the work myself, but always need to ask Mark to pound in the fence posts.

I've only had two problems with my pea plantings in recent years.  I've learned not to plant peas in the waterlogged soil of the back garden since they tend to get root rot.  And this year I'm also working harder to keep all of the soil except for the row where the peas will come up completely mulched.  Last year, weeds grew amid the pea plants before I pulled the mulch back into place, and when I tried to rip the weeds out, I removed a few pea vines as well.  Luckily, the partially decomposed straw that mulched the beds over the winter is in just the right state to sit politely in the middle of the bed without blowing around and covering up emerging seedlings.

Making a pea trellis

As a final note, if you're a raw beginner, you might want to check out my posts about soaking peas, giving extra soaked peas to the chickens, why we no longer grow shelling peas, and growing peas for tendrils.  I'm looking forward to sugar snap peas in May!

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.
Posted Sun Feb 19 07:43:54 2012 Tags:
small chicken coop

Yesterday we helped Joey build this mini chicken coop.

It went together pretty fast. That's an old plastic cargo carrier for the roof.

I think the scrap cabinet panels give it a nice touch of class.

Posted Sun Feb 19 15:38:07 2012 Tags:

Roof demolitionI'll admit that I've wondered whether hiring someone to replace the barn roof was a shortcut we shouldn't take, but after watching the crew of three work from dawn to dusk Saturday, I'm ready to admit that hiring pros made sense.

Within half an hour of reaching the farm, they'd torn about half the tin off the south side of the barn and were getting ready to haul in the first round of roofing panels.  I'm pretty sure this half hour of labor would have taken me and Mark all day if we'd done it ourselves.

The boss --- Tony --- is not only a pro, he also has a gentle way of talking to both his crew and the barn owners that set us all at ease.  If you're local and need a major job done, let me know and I'll give you Tony's phone number --- we highly recommend him.

Roofing harnessWe also really appreciated the roofers' safety conscious attitude.  Mark explained to Tony right off the bat that we don't have homeowners' insurance.  (We don't have anything valuable enough to insure.)  As I brought Tony a check for the first quarter of his fee, I overheard him reminding the crew about safety and telling them to wear their harnesses at all times.

We felt so confident in their abilities that we left after a few hours to spend the day building my brother's chicken coop.  When we came home, it looked like no one had even sustained a scratch.  Then Tony called down from the roof to ask me to check inside Lucy's mouth.  "I think she might have something stuck there," he explained. 

Putting on new tinSure enough, Lucy's relentless chewing had lodged a stick across the bridge of her mouth where she couldn't paw it out, and Tony had been able to spare enough attention from the roof to notice.  He'd actually tried to pry it out too, but Lucy didn't trust him quite enough to let him do the deed.  Mark and I teamed up on her and made short work of the offending stick.  What other roofer adds "dog baby-sitter" to their job title?


Barn roof in disrepair

And after:

New tin roof

They've still got about two days of work ahead of them to hit the more problematic back side of the barn and the corner of this side.  Meanwhile, we need to decide whether we want to spend another $400 to $500 to get them to put gutters on the barn while they're at it.

Nothing else will happen until at least next weekend, though, because it set in to rain Sunday.  The first thing I did after I woke up was to go out into the barn and look up.  On the south side, under the new tin, I was amazed to hear one of my favorite noises --- rain drops on a tin roof --- and to be completely dry. 

I'm already starting to ponder how to take advantage of all this new space.  Chick brooder?  Straw storage?  Work room?  Picnic zone?  Right now, I'm having so much fun dreaming, I don't even want to put pen to paper and draw potential diagrams.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for broody hens since she doesn't even have to leave the nest to drink.
Posted Mon Feb 20 07:19:20 2012 Tags:

Weekend Homesteader: MarchEmbark on a spring homesteading adventure with this final volume of Weekend Homesteader.  You'll plant a garden of cool season crops to feed you as early as April, and will also inoculate logs with edible mushrooms for years' worth of feasts.  Meanwhile, find out how to enhance the long term health of your homestead by building a compost pile and attracting native pollinators.

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: February is still available, full of information about easy berries, backyard chickens, buying in bulk, and informal apprenticeships.  Thanks for reading!

Posted Mon Feb 20 10:00:28 2012 Tags:
Spring garden

Weekend Homesteader paperbackThose of you who have worked your way through the Weekend Homesteader projects since May will notice that you've come nearly full circle.  You planted a simple summer garden and learned how season extension can make the fall garden produce deep into the winter months.  Now it's time to begin round two, starting the garden year a bit sooner so that you can taste homegrown produce as early as April.

Before diving into this week's project, you may want to refresh your memory by perusing Weekend Homesteader: May (the basics of no-till gardening), Weekend Homesteader: October (simple season extension), and Weekend Homesteader: November (garden rotation).  But don't get bogged down if you're just tuning into the series.  Your spring garden could be as simple as a lettuce bed, thrown together in a few minutes and enjoyed just as thoroughly.

This week's lunchtime series is excerpted from Weekend Homesteader: March.  I saved some of my favorite projects for last, so I hope you'll splurge 99 cents to read about growing edible mushrooms, composting, and attracting native pollinators.  And, of course, the ebook has the full spring planting chapter in case you just can't wait to read each installment at noon this week.

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

Posted Mon Feb 20 12:01:13 2012 Tags:
effect of moderate snow load on quick hoop

Our quick hoops took some small damage last night when a moderate snow load started weighing down the fabric and pulling up one of the stakes.

It might be necessary to decrease the gap between supports so it can handle the snow.

Posted Mon Feb 20 16:32:32 2012 Tags:
Peach tree in winter

I plan to write an ebook about 5 to 10 years.  So far, I feel like I've gotten the hang of training and pruning young peaches to the open center system, and this year I'm experimenting with maintenance pruning a mature peach.

That's right, after five years of selecting scaffolds and weighing down limbs to get optimal branching angles, our kitchen peach is fully grown.  I didn't train her at all this year, just pruned out crossing branches, snipped the tops off watersprouts, and cut back a few branches that had overgrown the path.

Training a young peach

Pruning a young peachOur younger peaches needed more TLC.  The one above should have gotten a bit more love over the summer since the watersprouts coming up from the rootstock made the main trunk lean.  Except for removing the watersprouts, I barely did any cutting, focusing on training my scaffold branches instead.  Remember --- the more you can train instead of prune, the fewer watersprouts you'll have next year and the faster your tree will achieve maturity.

I'll be pruning and training our apples, pears, and plums tomorrow.  Meanwhile, I need to decide what to do with all of the pruned off peach branches.  Official sources tell you to burn them to cut back on diseases and pests, but I'm itching to use the organic matter.  What do you do with your pruned off branches?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to filthy traditional waterers.
Posted Tue Feb 21 07:42:40 2012 Tags:

Weeding quick hoopsThe main difference between planting in early spring as opposed to after the frost-free date is soil temperature --- cold ground makes seeds rot before they sprout.  Luckily, there are several methods of heating up the soil, ranging from the simple to the complex.

Rake back the mulch.  I'm assuming you're working with a no-till garden, mulched heavily for the winter to keep weeds from taking over.  (If not, you're going to have trouble planting early in the spring since your ground will probably be too wet to till, sometimes until June.)  While mulch is extremely handy during most of the year, the coating of organic matter acts like a layer of insulation in early spring, preventing the lengthening days from warming the ground.  The solution is simple --- rake back the mulch.  I usually pull my spring mulch to the sides of the beds a week or two before planting each one.  That way, weeds don't have time to grow, but the soil gets a chance to warm up.  Once the seedlings are a few inches tall, you can push the same mulch back up around their ankles, preventing competitive weeds from outgrowing your vegetables.

Add dark organic matter.  You've probably noticed how wearing a black shirt in the sun heats your body up quickly.  You can put the same science to work in the garden by topdressing your beds with a layer of dark-colored organic matter.  Good compost, well-rotted manure, or even biochar can work.  For more extreme soil preheating, you can lay down a dark sheet of plastic on the soil, but be aware that this technique can kill soil microorganisms.

Weekend Homesteader paperbackErect a quick hoopThe quick hoops you built in October are easy to move to a fresh plot of land to create mini-greenhouses on top of your spring beds.  Putting up a quick hoop a week or two before planting can warm the soil by several degrees.

You probably noticed that each of these techniques shares two factors --- sun and time.  Your soil will naturally warm up as spring advances; you're just trying to expedite the process so you can jumpstart the garden year.  To eat from your garden as soon as possible, combine all three methods and plant seeds as much as three months before your frost-free date.

This week's lunchtime series is excerpted from Weekend Homesteader: March.  I saved some of my favorite projects for last, so I hope you'll splurge 99 cents to read about growing edible mushrooms, composting, and attracting native pollinators.  And, of course, the ebook has the full spring planting chapter in case you just can't wait to read each installment at noon this week.

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

Posted Tue Feb 21 12:00:56 2012 Tags:
wild plum tree end of the line

This wild plum tree was here before we moved in.

Year after year we kept checking for yummy plums and found none.

2012 is the year we decided to give up and make room for something new.

Posted Tue Feb 21 16:49:28 2012 Tags:
Kill mulch

Tomatoes in a forest gardenIn an effort to prevent myself from ignoring the forest garden again this year and letting it turn into a weed jungle, I'm making a lot of changes.

The first step is to incentivize working in the forest garden during the growing season.  To that end (and because our tomatoes did so well there last year), I'm making lots of new beds to plant tomatoes and butternut squash into.  You can see part of this year's tomato alley at the top of the page.

New raised bed

I built the new beds by simply wheelbarrowing partially rotted compost out of the chicken pasture and topping it off with straw.  There are very few perennial weeds in the areas I chose because the waterlogged soil is so terrible nothing can survive unless I raise the plants' roots up out of the wet.  I figure that making these extremely simple kill mulches now will ensure that most weeds have died by May, but I can always come back through and add cardboard beneath the straw if anything starts to poke up through.  (As you can see, I did add cardboard in select areas where perennial weeds were evident.)

Types of mulchSince they're in the forest garden, the new beds serve double duty.  This year, they'll be part of the vegetable garden, but each one is attached to a tree mound, and as the tree grows, more and more of the bed's growing area will be mulched with leaves instead of straw and given over to tree roots.  A modified version of this expanding tree mound technique has served me well in the forest garden island.

Keyhole bedsMy original plan involved building keyhole beds surrounding the fruit trees, but I've ditched that goal as I learned more about my own gardening style.  Yes, keyhole beds seem to make a lot of sense as a way of expanding a circular tree mound, but they're tough to maintain if you have to mow the aisles.  Instead, I'm making all of my new beds linear and leaving plenty of room for the mower to fit in between.  I'll probably fill in aisles as the trees overshadow them, ending up with solid raised beds in the seldom-trampled areas under trees.

In case this post makes the forest garden project sound well thought out, let me hasten to add that I was really just playing around in the sun Friday, making it up as I went along.  By the end of the summer, I'll know if my seat-of-my-pants changes made sense or not.

Our chicken waterer gives chickens to peck at during long, boring winters so they don't peck at each other.
Posted Wed Feb 22 08:09:21 2012 Tags:

Basket of carrots

Even under quick hoops, you won't want to plant frost-sensitive vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers anytime soon.  However, there is still a wide selection of crops to choose from for your spring garden.  I've highlighted the easiest ones in the chart below.

Start from:
Beet seeds can sometimes be difficult to germinate.  As with other root crops, beets need loose, loamy soil.
The more advanced gardener can start her own seedlings either inside or in a quick hoop.  Otherwise, buy sets from the local feed store when night temperatures have risen into the high 20s to low 30s Fahrenheit.
Brussels sprouts
Transplants The more advanced gardener can start her own seedlings either inside or in a quick hoop.  Otherwise, buy sets from the local feed store when night temperatures have risen into the high 20s to low 30s Fahrenheit.
Transplants The more advanced gardener can start her own seedlings either inside or in a quick hoop.  Otherwise, buy sets from the local feed store when night temperatures have risen into the high 20s to low 30s Fahrenheit.
Well-drained, loamy soil is mandatory.  Carrots are slow-growers, so weed carefully to give the seedlings breathing room.
Transplants The more advanced gardener can start her own seedlings either inside or in a quick hoop.  Otherwise, buy sets from the local feed store when night temperatures have risen into the high 20s to low 30s Fahrenheit.
Spring greens are some of the easiest vegetables to grow.  In addition to collards, spinach, and Swiss chard, consider trying some Asian greens for variety.
Leeks take a long time to grow, so I generally prefer the perennial Egyptian onions instead.  As with other root crops, leeks need loose, loamy soil.
Leaf lettuce is my earliest harvest of the year because I always plant it under quick hoops.  You can cut leaves within a month of planting, but be sure to seed a second bed as soon as you start eating the first --- lettuce becomes bitter within a few weeks of first harvest.
Seeds, sets, or transplants.
Getting your onions to germinate out in the cold can be a bit tricky, so you may choose to start them inside or under quick hoops to ensure they have time to grow before summer heat stunts them.  Select a variety appropriate for your day length (short day in the south and long day in the north.)  Many gardeners simplify planting by buying sets (tiny bulbs) from the local feed store, but onions grown from sets usually don't store well.
Parsley is grown very similarly to carrots, but you pick the leaves a few at a time for the next year rather than digging up the root.
Soak your seeds overnight before planting to ensure they sprout quickly.  Erect a trellis for them to grow on.
Cut up pieces of potato, each with two eyes
Hill up your potatoes by adding soil or dirt extending a few inches up the growing stem once the plant is about eight inches tall.  This prevents the new tubers from being exposed to sunlight and turning green.  If you're planting early into cold soil, consider cutting your seed potatoes a few weeks in advance and laying them out in a bright spot so they'll presprout.
Some gardeners plant radish seeds in their carrot rows.  The radishes come up quickly and mature before they compete with the slower-growing carrots.
I find that spinach plants usually bolt in the spring, so I generally focus on other varieties of leafy greens.
Swiss chard
Swiss chard seeds can sometimes be difficult to germinate, but otherwise Swiss chard is perhaps the easiest green to grow and will keep producing all summer.
Like other root crops, turnips prefer loamy, well-drained soil.
Weekend Homesteader paperbackThe raw beginner should start out with collards, lettuce, peas, potatoes, radishes, and Swiss chard.  Second year gardeners might add broccoli, carrots, and parsley.  But ignore my advice if you love beets and hate lettuce --- plant what you like to eat!

This week's lunchtime series is excerpted from Weekend Homesteader: March.  I saved some of my favorite projects for last, so I hope you'll splurge 99 cents to read about growing edible mushrooms, composting, and attracting native pollinators.  And, of course, the ebook has the full spring planting chapter in case you just can't wait to read each installment at noon this week.

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

Posted Wed Feb 22 12:00:52 2012 Tags:
using recycled carpet to make a chicken coop/ark/tractor

I finally got around to taking apart another one of our chicken tractors that we stopped using in favor of small pastures we can rotate the flock through.

The old carpet we used for the roof and walls is still holding strong after 6 years of exposure to the elements.

Makes me wonder if salvaged carpet could work for other projects like this?

Posted Wed Feb 22 16:12:35 2012 Tags:

Measuring cell sizeLetting bees build their comb with a natural cell size is one of the tenets of Michael Bush's organic beekeeping method.  I thought I was following his lead, but I think I skipped a step and didn't actually manage to downgrade my bees to natural cells.  Maybe that's part of why my hives kept dying.

Here's the technical information:

  • Most foundation that beekeepers put in their hives has cells 5.4 mm in diameter.
  • Michael Bush (and others) believe that bees naturally build cells ranging in size from 4.6 mm to 5.1 mm for worker brood.

Putting package bees in a hive with foundationless frames is a good start, but your bees won't build naturally sized cells right away.  Instead, you need to go through a process called regression where you allow the bees to draw out the comb and raise bees in it, then cut that wax out and make the bees draw it again.  Workers that have been raised on modern foundation will generally build 5.1 mm brood cells the first time they're exposed to foundationless frames, then the smaller bees that hatch out of that frame will draw 4.9 mm comb.

For easy regression, keep feeding empty frames into the center of the brood nest and your bees will eventually turn the outer frames into honey storage.  Then you can just cut out that larger celled wax as you harvest honey.  (I wonder if it's a coincidence that this is how top bar hives are often managed?)  Making the brood chamber top bars 1.25 inches wide instead of 1.5 inches wide will also prompt the bees to build smaller cells.

Measuring foundationI was such a newbie when we got our first package of bees that I didn't realize I needed to regress them.  As I've been cutting out honey from our dead hives, I decided to measure the cell size in the brood nest to see what my bees were actually doing.  To measure cell size, lay the centimeter side of your ruler down on the comb so that 0 lines up with the edge of one cell, then count ten cells.  The number of centimeters that encompass those ten cells equals the size of one cell in millimeters.

The photo at the top of this post shows some old brood comb that probably dates back to the original package workers.  It looks to me like my bees drew 5.2 mm foundation (once I factor in the way the camera angle offsets the ruler slightly).

The second photo shows younger comb that probably got drawn after the meltdown of 2010.  It actually looks to me like this comb is a hair bigger, with cell size of 5.3 mm.  Perhaps that's because the bees were rebuilding during a nectar flow and were making comb for honey (which is traditionally bigger than comb for worker brood).

The moral of the story is --- don't just assume because you're using foundationless frames that your bees are building at a natural cell size.  Bring your ruler out to the hive and do some quick measurements to see where you're at, then regress until you achieve 4.9 mm cells.

Our chicken waterer keeps hens healthy so they lay more eggs.
Posted Thu Feb 23 08:05:14 2012 Tags:

Soil thermometer Every winter is a little different, so I use a soil thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature of the soil and plant accordingly.  The thermometer pictured here is actually a meat thermometer, bought for less than $10, but it works just as well as the more expensive soil thermometers you'll find in gardening stores.

To check the soil temperature, get up early before the sun has hit the ground and insert the thermometer into the ground.  Wait a few minutes, then take a reading.  If you have garden areas that are more sunny than others, you'll want to test the soil temperature at several places–I usually find that our soil is two to five degrees colder in the shade of our hillside compared to in the sunnier parts of the garden.

The table below lists the germination temperatures for common spring crops.

Minimum temp. (degrees F)
Optimum temp. (degrees F)
Brussels sprouts
Swiss chard

In most cases, you can get away with planting once the soil has reached the minimum germination temperature, but don't plant your seeds if a cold spell is going to set in within a couple of days.  You should also be aware that some vegetables will give you spotty germination until the ground was warmed up closer to the optimum temperature --- you might want to double your seeding rate to ensure a good stand if planting near the minimum.  Once a seed has sprouted, it's less sensitive to cold soil, so expediting germination by soaking your seeds overnight before planting can also help.

Weekend Homesteader paperbackTo plant earlier than cold soil will allow, many gardeners are tempted to start seedlings indoors.  However, unless you have grow lights or a heated greenhouse, I recommend that beginners stick to growing their plants entirely in the earth for the first year.  A quick hoop might be enough to let you plant a couple of weeks earlier than you otherwise could have, then you can transfer the same protection to a new bed in April to jumpstart your summer garden.

This week's lunchtime series is excerpted from Weekend Homesteader: March.  I saved some of my favorite projects for last, so I hope you'll splurge 99 cents to read about growing edible mushrooms, composting, and attracting native pollinators.  And, of course, the ebook has the full spring planting chapter in case you just can't wait to read each installment at noon this week.

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

Posted Thu Feb 23 12:00:56 2012 Tags:
upgrading the brood coop to a more heavy duty version with a plexiglass wall

We felt like our DIY table top brood coop needed an upgrade, and today was a perfect day for it.

The main entrance is a salvaged dryer door. An old piece of plexiglass came together as one of the walls and will allow us to check on the chicks from the kitchen window.

I remembered we had an old plastic cargo carrier in the barn and decided to take a page from Joey's mini chicken coop and make it fit for our new chick roof.

The plan is to use 4 bungee cords to secure the roof so we can easily take it off for easy access.

Posted Thu Feb 23 16:06:15 2012 Tags:
Marshy swales

One of my early projects in the forest garden was to build mounds and swales in an attempt to deal with waterlogged soil.  The mounds did their job well --- they raised plants up high enough out of the water that they survived.  The swales were more problematic.

Dry climate swaleThe permaculture literature discusses swales as used in dry climates.  There, swales capture runoff so the precious liquid doesn't disappear onto the neighbor's property.  A dry climate swale is basically a linear, wet-weather pond that runs along a contour line, filling up during rains, then releasing the water into the surrounding area over the days and weeks that follow.  Bill Mollison and other permaculture practitioners plant moisture-loving trees and shrubs on the downhill side of these swales for free irrigation.

Check damsIn wet climates, a different kind of swale is used to channel runoff across flood-tolerant vegetation, cleaning the water and preventing erosion.  In this case, swales are built perpendicular to a slope to keep water moving, then check-dams are added at intervals to slow the water down and help silt drop out.  Wet climate swales are often located next to roads or parking lots, as is shown in this photo, and they allow runoff to sink into non-waterlogged soil.

You'll notice that both types of swales capture water and let it sink into the ground.  The big difference in function is that dry climate swales can be built in ground that doesn't "perk" since the goal is to make the water stick around as long as possible.  Wet climate swales are built on well-drained soil with the goal of getting that runoff into the groundwater as quickly as possible.

I wish I'd realized the difference between dry climate and wet climate water management when I installed my swales, because I learned the hard way that creating a dry climate swale in our neck of the woods can turn wet ground into a marsh.  Marshes have their place, but a marshy ditch in the middle of a "lawn" becomes a mowing hazard quickly.  Rather than ruin the lawn mower, Mark skipped mowing these spots, with predictable results.

Putting logs in swalesAs part of my campaign to streamline maintenance of the forest garden, I'm starting to build the swales back up to ground level.  I figure rotten logs in the holes will capture and hold water, releasing it to the nearby plants during dry spells.  Once I hunt down enough logs to fill the swales up, I'll mulch over top so that that area won't need to be mowed at all this year.

Of course, even my improved swales hold onto water rather than draining it out of the waterlogged area.  I might eventually turn to ditching to deal with that issue, but for now, I think I can take advantage of the extra water.  I'll just keep building up so that roots don't drown.

Our chicken waterer keeps chicks healthy from day 1 with clean water and dry bedding.
Posted Fri Feb 24 07:56:42 2012 Tags:

Making a furrowPlanting spring crops is extremely easy in a no-till garden.  If you haven't already done so, rake back the mulch and add half an inch to an inch of high quality compost to feed your vegetables.  For best results, you'll want to work the compost into the top inch or two of your soil with a bow rake, but don't disturb the soil profile further down.

Small seeds can be scattered directly on the soil surface in damp spring weather.  Larger seeds (like peas) and seed potatoes should be planted in a trench made by dragging your hoe in a line down the length of the bed.  Add your seeds then fill the trench back in, lightly tamping the soil with the flat part of your hoe to remove air pockets.  Your seed packet will tell you how deep to plant your seeds, but a good rule of thumb is that depth should be proportional to size of the seed --- miniscule seeds can go on the soil surface, medium-sized seeds might sit a quarter of an inch below, while large seeds can be planted an inch or more deep.

Weekend Homesteader paperbackAs long as you pay attention to soil temperature, germination shouldn't be a problem in the spring.  Once your seedlings are up and running, weed carefully then mulch to prevent further weeds from growing.  Now all you have to do is watch and wait for April, May, and June vegetables.

This week's lunchtime series is excerpted from Weekend Homesteader: March.  I saved some of my favorite projects for last, so I hope you'll splurge 99 cents to read about growing edible mushrooms, composting, and attracting native pollinators.  And, of course, the ebook has the full spring planting chapter.

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

Posted Fri Feb 24 12:00:55 2012 Tags:
quick hoop bounce back from snow damage

quick hoop snow damageThe quick hoops are showing very little damage from the snow load earlier in the week.

It will be interesting to see how many seasons we can stretch this Agribon material under these conditions.

Posted Fri Feb 24 15:57:48 2012 Tags:
Foggy trees

I'm the world's worst housekeeper, but I do like to go through my shelves from time to time to root out books I no longer use (and to give me room to slip a few new classics in).  I think of this process as composting old dreams --- after all, why else do I keep Free booksbooks that I haven't opened in a decade unless they represent a dream I never fulfilled (or achieved and moved beyond)?

Many of the books I discarded during the most recent rainy day purge are going to my mother, who's taken up the study of Appalachian ecology and can use the books I now know by heart.  Others, though, are looking for a home.  Are any of you itching to read:

  • The Backyard Beekeeper (a very basic guide that's good for a raw beginner)
  • Day Range Poultry (pretty disappointing from the backyard permaculture perspective, but would be useful if you want to start a pastured poultry operation)
  • Corn Among the Indians of the Upper Missouri (very interesting if you want to learn about Native American agriculture)
  • A History of 17 Years of Excavation and Reconstruction: A Chronicle of 12th Century Human Values and the Built Environment (about research at Sunwatch in Ohio, but interesting for any student of that era of Native American history; semi-scientific, but I think relatively accessible to a layman)
  • The Thru-Hiker's Handbook: Georgia to Maine 2002
  • Appalachian Trail Gudie to Tennessee-North Carolina (Eleventh Edition, with maps)
  • Appalachian Trail Guide: Southwest Virginia (Third Edition, with maps)
  • Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
  • Animals and Plants of Ancient Maya (not as much of a reference as I thought it would be, but interesting if you're into Mayan culture)
  • Handbook of Salamanders (not the best salamander field guide, but with lots of measurements if you want to take ID to the next level)

Book shelfIf you'd like to give any of these books a shot, just email with your mailing address and I'll send them off.  We'll swallow the shipping expenses unless you live outside the U.S.

I'm looking forward to the new seedlings that will root in the fertile soil of this dream compost!

Edited to add: The books have all found good homes. Thanks for adopting a dream!

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Sat Feb 25 08:24:01 2012 Tags:
independent review of Muck boot chore boot

It's been two months since I first started test driving these new Muck boots and I'm happy to report they are by far the best work boot I've ever owned!

Last year I started wearing wool socks to keep my feet from getting too cold, but the Muck boots seem to provide a bit more thermal protection to the point where the wool socks have not been needed.

Posted Sat Feb 25 15:53:16 2012 Tags:

Whip graftingSometimes, I'm amazed how knowing the right word opens research doors that have been slamming in your face.  I've been tossing around the idea of grafting new varieties onto my four year old pear trees, but before I undertook such a major surgery, I wanted to hear from people who had tried the same experiment successfully.  Unfortunately, my internet searches turned up very little information...until I stumbled across the term "topwork".

Topworking is the method that orchardists use to change one tree variety to another.  If your trees (like mine) are pretty small (less than three inches trunk diameter), you can simply take a deep breath and cut the whole top off the tree below the first tier of branches and graft your new variety there.  Otherwise, you'll need to graft six to ten limbs that will be the tree's main scaffolds.  If your tree is more than eight years old, it's probably so big that you should spread your topworking out across two or more years, but otherwise you can do the deed all at once.

How do you perform this high stakes grafting?  I'm most familiar with whip grafts that you use to graft scionwood onto rootstock, but whip grafts are only appropriate if both pieces of tree being grafted are roughly the same diameter.  In topworking, you generally have a pencil-thin piece of scionwood being grafted onto a Cleft graftingmuch larger branch or trunk, so you'll want to choose between budding, cleft grafting, and bark grafting.

Budding is most appropriate for cherries, plums and peaches, while apples and pears respond well to other types of grafts.  The choice between cleft and bark grafts depends upon time of year, with cleft grafting working best just as buds begin to swell while bark grafting comes later in the year when bark begins to slip.  (The photos in this post are from the Missouri Extension Service website, which also gives more in depth information about each kind of graft.)

I've decided to perform one cleft graft on each of my pear trees, lopping off the tree top and then inserting two pieces of scionwood in each.  The double scionwood is a way of hedging my bets --- I'll cut one off next year if both take hold.  Stay tuned for photos once I have scionwood in hand and am ready to take the plunge!

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.
Posted Sun Feb 26 07:56:27 2012 Tags:
Brood coop observation front view

How does one mount a dryer door so that it stays put?

Neil Johnson, Memphis, TN

I started by securing pieces of 2x4 to the bottom, and then drilled holes in the metal above which allowed for a medium sized dry wall screw to bite all the way down.

The sides had a groove that was just big enough to shove a 1x1 into. Same deal with drilling holes in the metal and then using dry wall screws to attach while going through the side plywood and plexiglass.

Posted Sun Feb 26 15:21:08 2012 Tags:

Annual ryegrassI'm convinced that many different cover crops have a place in our garden...I just haven't found them all yet.  Currently, my old standbys are fall-planted oats and oilseed radishes for winter cover, then buckwheat for short fallow periods in the summer garden.  But I've found another niche I want to fill, and I'm hopeful annual ryegrass will slide right in.

My back garden is nearly as eroded and waterlogged as the forest garden, which means that many vegetables do poorly there.  I've raised some of the beds up with trucked in manure and topsoil, but there's never enough organic matter to go around, so most of the beds are still sitting in water.

Since I'm moving my tomatoes to the forest garden's raised beds this year, I have about twenty beds that can sit fallow until this time next year.  That just happens to be how many waterlogged beds there are in the back garden, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to see how much a long term cover crop could build up such a troubled spot.

Annual ryegrass won the lottery for several reasons, but the real selling point of this brilliant green grass is that it can handle floods.  The cover crop bible (Managing Cover Crops Profitably) notes that annual ryegrass produces more biomass than small grains in wet soil, growing as much as 9,000 pounds of organic matter per acre if you mow the ryegrass down to four inches several times through the course of the year.  In addition, ryegrass is a succulent forage that's very tasty for animals, making me hope I can put a temporary fence around the back garden and run some of our broilers there.

Smother killing annual ryegrassBefore you get too excited, annual ryegrass has some major pitfalls for the no-till gardener.  Traditional farmers plow ryegrass into the soil just as it starts to bloom, but I'll have to get more creative.  When I tried out annual ryegrass last year, it was very tough to kill, and I decided that if I ever used it again, I would have to commit to laying down a kill mulch to get rid of the vibrant greenery.  The photo here shows a bed of ryegrass approximately 75% killed by mowing the ryegrass close to the earth, adding an inch of manure, and then laying down grass clippings for mulch.

The other potential problem with annual ryegrass is its tendency to self-seed and turn into a weed problem.  I'm going to need to be vigilant and mow the beds whenever seed heads begin to form, which shouldn't be a problem in our small back garden.  Maybe this is my incentive to finally buy a scythe that fits my stature, then learn to use it?

Our chicken waterer is perfect for pastured birds since it never spills on uneven terrain.
Posted Mon Feb 27 08:07:51 2012 Tags:

Sepp Holzer's PermacultureSepp Holzer's Permaculture is a book that I recommend checking out of the library, but probably not buying unless you happen to live in high elevation Europe or have an obsession with heavy machinery.

Sepp Holzer writes about techniques he uses on his 111 acre farm (the Krameterhof), which sits around 5,000 feet above sea level on the southern slope of the Schwarzenberg Mountain in Austria.  Throughout the book, Holzer brags about what he can grow at such a high elevation, but from a U.S. perspective, it's not so unique --- I'm pretty sure he lives in the equivalent of zone 5 (one zone colder than us).

What I enjoyed most about the book is the way Holzer developed his own type of permaculture based on youthful experiments imitating natural cycles.  He started farming in 1962 at the age of 19, and only learned about the permaculture movement in 1995, but he was practicing permaculture long before that.  As a result, Holzer's book is full of permaculture Hugelkulturtechniques you won't find anywhere else --- he's not simply regurgitating Mollison's ideas (or anyone else's).  On the down side, some of the illustrations in the book seem to represent flights of fancy that Holzer hasn't yet put into practice, so be sure to take the non-photographic ramblings with a grain of salt.

The other problem I had with Holzer's book is his obsession with moving lots of earth around.  Yes, his terraces, ponds, hugelkultur mounds (simply called "raised beds" in the book), humus storage ditches (aka dry weather swales), and underground shelters are useful and pretty, but they aren't very appropriate to small scale permaculturalists who don't happen to have an excavator at their beck and call.  That said, it was easy to find four topics in his book applicable to the backyard (or at least the small scale farm), which I'll regale you with this week at lunchtime.

This post is part of our Sepp Holzer's Permaculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Feb 27 12:00:55 2012 Tags:
how to make a composting toilet the easy way

Most humanure systems use a 5 gallon bucket to collect the product, and for the longest time Anna kept trying to talk me into one of these fancy, composting toilets. I kept visualizing a less than happy picture of such a system and wondered if the juice was worth the squeeze when it comes to trading yuckiness for usable organic matter.

Regular readers to the blog will know how serious Anna takes her compost, and I knew she would eventually wear me down if I didn't come up with a better solution. "How about locating the latrine near fruit trees?....once their roots mature enough they can find the organic bounty and turn it into delicious snacks. We can add leaf matter and bio-char to make it more balanced."

It only took her a few minutes to see how a more simple approach would save us time and decrease the yuck factor. It's been a few years since then, and I'm ready to call the experiment a success.

Posted Mon Feb 27 16:10:58 2012 Tags:
Hardening off onions

I think I started far too many onions.  Two flats seeded thickly looks like it would have been enough seedlings to fill fifteen beds, not seven.

Of course, it's good to have extras because my onions are still a bit experimental.  I transplanted them into the garden at this time last year with success, but they seem so tiny that I'm glad to have spares waiting in the wings (or rather, in the quick hoops where I hardened them off last week).

Planting onionsPlus there's the issue of variety.  Here at 36 degrees latitude, we're smack dab on the dividing line between short day and long day onions.  In the past, I've planted Copra, which is a long day variety, but this year I opted to try out Pontiac (another long day onion) and Pumba (a short day onion).  I'll let you know which variety does better come harvest time in June.

If all's well in the onion beds next week, I'll give some of the seedlings away (Mom, Joey?).  And I think I'll also sneak a few into the new beds I made in the forest garden for tomatoes.  Although the tomatoes go in a month before the onions come out, I suspect the two can coexist for a few weeks, and the 280 onions I currently have in the ground don't feel like so many when I consider that they have to last a solid year.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock well hydrated during busy spring days hunting bugs.
Posted Tue Feb 28 07:44:24 2012 Tags:
Holzer's green manure

Green manureThe most inspiring part of Sepp Holzer's Permaculture is the way Holzer takes poor soil that his neighbors think is only good for tree plantations and turns it into a nearly self-sufficient, low work farm that churns out food of all sorts.  Although it's not the most photogenic part of his homestead, green manure is the real root of Holzer's success.

As Holzer brings new areas into production, he seeds a wide variety of plants and then leaves the plot alone for two or three years.  The mixture of plants serves a variety of purposes ecologically, and also builds soil as the green manure plants die back each fall, reseed, and grow again the next spring.  (I'd actually call his plants cover crops, not green manure, since he doesn't till them into the ground, but I'm sticking to the terminology in his book.)

Holzer plants sunflowers and hemp to feed the birds and mixes in a wide variety of flowers for pollinators: cornflowers, yarrow, calendula, golden marguerites, scented mayweed, spreading bellflowers, and comfrey.  Next, he adds soil builders: peas, beans, clover, lupin, Perennial grainscabbages, oilseed rape, turnips, sunflowers, buckwheat, and sweet clover to improve the soil (and hold it in place after his excavator moves the earth around).  The diverse polyculture that results is what Holzer calls green manure.

Later, once the soil is in production in ways I'll explain in later posts, other plants join the mix.  Holzer grows a variety of grains (rye, wild rye, sorghum, millet, and perennial Siberian grain), legumes (a long list of which can be found in his book), and root crops (turnips, radishes, salisify, black salsify, and Jerusalem artichokes) to feed his cattle and pigs over the winter with no work on his part.

The takeaway message for the average homesteader is --- soil building takes time, so start now.  Several of you have recently bought acreages with pasture in various states of disrepair, and many of you won't even be moving onto the land within the next year.  Seeding a diverse array of cover crops is a perfect way to improve your farm during that one afternoon you'll be visiting, giving you a multiple year jumpstart when you're actually on the land.

This post is part of our Sepp Holzer's Permaculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Feb 28 12:00:55 2012 Tags:
pile of used books ready to be shipped out to new homes

A happy stack of used, hand-me-down books from Anna's shelf are now on their way to new homes across the country.

I'd guess they're in route to the new processing station in Johnson City this evening.

Sort of feels like playing match maker in a literary sense of the word.

Posted Tue Feb 28 15:56:34 2012 Tags:
What should I do with old potting soil?

-- Mark (by way of the army of pots outside the front door after his bout of housecleaning)

Old potting soilThose of you who love plants have probably jumped over a similar hurdle.  Maybe you tried to overwinter a tomato plant and it eventually gave up the ghost, or you have a house plant that was potted up into a larger containetr, leaving some soil behind.  Either way, you're left with dirt from which the nutrients are mostly gone, but with plenty of yummy organic matter left.

The best use of old potting soil depends in part on your house plant style, and on what kind of mixture you started with.  In the most typical scenario, you bought potting soil from the big box store and you use chemical fertilizers to feed your plants.  In this case, you might as well reuse the potting soil since you're basically growing your plant hydroponically, using the potting soil as a structural element only.  You might want to mix the old potting soil half and half with high quality compost or new potting soil, though, to add a few nutrients to the earth.

(As a side note, if your plant died from something soil related, you won't want to reuse the troubled dirt as is.  Some gardeners report good results with sterilizing the soil by pouring boiling water over it, or by baking the soil in the oven.  Finally, you could simply add the potting soil to the outdoors garden, where beneficial microorganisms will make short work of the bad guys.)

Adding soil to hugelkulturAt the other extreme, you might make your potting soil out of a mixture of compost, stump dirt, or other organic materials like I do.  In this case, your potting soil is providing the nutrients as well as the structural components, which is why you'll need to topdress your potted plants at least once a year and to cut away part of the roots of long-lived plants to replace some soil lower down.

In this homegrown scenario, depleted potting soil should head out to the garden, where it will act as a soil amendment.  I dumped mine between logs in a hugelkultur bed, but you could also apply the old potting soil to the top of a bed in the vegetable garden or alongside a tree mound that needs to be expanded.  The soil is probably low in nitrogen, but is unlikely to be low enough that it will grab nitrogen out of nearby earth.  Instead, it will help fluff up your garden soil, increase its water retention capacity, and make microorganisms happy.

(By the way, thanks for cleaning up the office, honey!)

Our chicken waterer provides delicious, cool, clean water on hot spring days.
Posted Wed Feb 29 07:52:36 2012 Tags:
Heirloom pears

Green manure under appleAfter two or three years of soil improvement, Sepp Holzer is ready to start his (nearly) do-nothing orchards.  With over a hundred acres of farmland holding around 14,000 individual fruit trees, Holzer clearly can't feed, prune, and manicure every inch of his fruit plantation.  Instead, he goes to the opposite extreme, selecting for extremely hardy plants that can survive when planted into plain soil and never pruned.

In fact, Holzer doesn't even harvest most of his fruits.  He sells many of his heirloom pears to distillery owners who come and harvest the fruits themselves, and most of the rest of the bounty falls to the ground and feeds his livestock over the winter.

Holzer's first step when expanding his orchard is to send pigs through to loosen the soil and trample down the green manure plants.  Next, he spreads pomace that has fermented for about a month across the ground.  (Pomace is the skins and seeds left after making wine, oil, or --- in this case --- cider.)  The apple and pear seeds sprout and either grow or die, with the seedlings best suited to the particular spot they've been placed outcompeting the others.  These seedlings will become vigorous rootstocks, producing trees that grow taller and fruit later than those on commercial rootstock, but also tend to live longer.

Unpruned fruit treeA year or two after spreading the pomace, Holzer comes through to transplant out trees that are too close together --- these are grafted in his nursery and sold as one of his sources of income.  The best seedlings are left in place and have heirloom apple and pear scionwood grafted on.

Holzer doesn't prune at all, not even to remove the watersprouts that pop up from the rootstock (and which he believes protect the main trunk from nibbling wildlife.)  Rather than fertilizing the trees, he simply sends his livestock through the area at intervals, meanwhile allowing the green manure plants to continue to improve the soil around the trees' roots.

While I don't recommend Holzer's do-nothing fruit production for the backyard hobbyist with only a small growing area, his methods work very well for large expanses of pasture.  As you'll see in tomorrow's post, the fruit trees provide so much food for his livestock that he barely has to feed them at all.

This post is part of our Sepp Holzer's Permaculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Feb 29 12:00:55 2012 Tags:
having fun while moving chickens on Leap Year Day 2012

Today was chicken moving day.

Joey reports all 3 hens and 1 rooster are safely in their new home.

It sure is easy when all you have to do is take pictures.
Posted Wed Feb 29 17:10:13 2012 Tags:

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

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