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

archives for 03/2012

Mar 2012
Remesh quick hoops

Joy wrote in recently to tell me about an alternative quick hoop design she'd seen while touring a nearby farm.  She wrote:

We visited a farmer last week who was doing something interesting with quick hoops.  He makes them so that the can be moved easily and also stand upright, attached to poles with loops when he's working under them.  I hadn't seen anything quite like it before.

Underneath quick hoopNeither had I, so I thought I should share the design.  It looks like the structure of the hoops comes from remesh with metal pipes along the bottom.

I'm a bit afraid of the scratch factor from working with remesh, but I think the design has merit as a jumping off point for further experiments.  If you try it out, I'd be curious to hear what you think of this alternative.  And, as you spread the idea, be sure to credit it back to Steve Whiteman at Trillium Farms who can be reached at

Our chicken waterer prevents day old chicks from drowning and gets them off to a healthy start.

Posted Thu Mar 1 06:46:12 2012 Tags:
Duck pond

Heirloom cattleSepp Holzer raises cattle, bison, yaks, water buffalo, ducks, and chickens on his farm, but his centerpiece animal is clearly the pig.  His swine are nearly self-sufficent, and also help out by eating spoiled fruit in the orchard, increasing plant diversity by creating small patches of bare ground, and regulating the snail population.  Holzer scatters feed on the ground when he wants the soil loosened, and his pigs till that specific patch of earth.  And, of course, they provide meat.

Butchered pigs

Holzer's pigsHolzer's pigs (and other livestock) live in rotational paddocks that encompass his entire farm.  So the pigs move through the vegetable garden when it's fallow, through the orchard to clean up windfalls, and through the green manure areas busy improving the soil.

The pigs are stocked at a density of about one to five pigs per acre, and are allowed to do a moderate amount of damage before moving to the next paddock.  Holzer ensures that perennial tubers like Jerusalem artichokes aren't entirely dug up by swine snouts, and finds that pig action spreads smaller tubers around so that the plants actually expand before the Edible tuberslivestock come through again.  In the vegetable garden, he makes sure to leave lots of crops unharvested at the end of the year, including beets, carrots, turnips, cabbage, and potatoes, so that the pigs have something to eat during the winter.  And after the pigs leave a paddock, Holzer seeds bare ground with green manure crops, tree seeds, or vegetables.

For those of you who want to follow along at home, the trick to making sure that pigs don't create a moonscape is variety choice and plenty of space.  Holzer's favorite breeds are Mangalitza, Swabian-Hall, Duroc, and Turopolje, heritage breeds that may or may not be available in the United States.

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

Posted Thu Mar 1 12:00:38 2012 Tags:
home made dog door from recycled carpet

There's a small piece of 1x1 attached to the bottom edge of the carpet for weight.

We will soon find out if chickens are smart and or strong enough to push through.

Lucy figured it out in 10 minutes once we involved a chunk of Milk Bone.

Posted Thu Mar 1 16:32:55 2012 Tags:

Turnip raabWhen we started eating our Hakurei turnips in November, Daddy admonished me, "Don't eat the turnips, eat the greens all winter long."  So I left them alone to see what would happen.

I was disappointed when my turnips didn't put out many more leaves, but that's to be expected since our Persephone Days were beginning by the time I cut the turnip tops the first time.  Then, this week, I discovered the real treat from overwintering turnips --- "turnip raab" (aka "almost broccoli raab").

Despite the name, broccoli raab is actually most closely related to turnips.  Also known as rapini, the vegetable is grown primarily for the unopened flower buds, which can be cut repeatedly and which taste a bit like broccoli.  I haven't had good luck with broccoli raab in the past --- it seems to bolt quickly and barely give me much of a harvest --- so I stick to real broccoli.

That said, the flower buds on my turnips were delicious, and the plants seem to be following the lead of their relatives by sending out side shoots once I cut the main head.  Turnip flowersWe've been eating bolted mustard buds for a few weeks now, but the turnip buds are clearly a cut above, with thicker stalks that don't go woody as quickly.

The moral of the story is --- if you have overwintering turnips, go out and check on them now for some bonus broccoli raab.  The buds are best before they open, but even young flowers like this are pretty tasty when you saute with some mustard leaves and a bit of balsamic vinegar and peanut oil.  Whatever you do, don't pull out the bolting plants and consider them a loss!

Our chicken waterer keeps the coop dry and the hens healthy.
Posted Fri Mar 2 07:24:46 2012 Tags:

MushroomsSepp Holzer's book has a whole chapter on growing edible mushrooms, which helped me realize that he was probably the one who came up with the ideas of mushroom totems and notching logs for easy inoculation.  He also has the following helpful tips for the permaculture mushroom keeper:

  • Inoculate most logs ASAP, but wait to inoculate stumps until they stop resprouting.  (I'll bet this is why neither of my stumps have produced fruit --- the living tree probably killed off the invading fungi.)
  • Propagate most mushrooms by spawn, but use spores with woodtufts and enoki.  Just place ripe caps on the end of moist, newly cut logs and the fungi will colonize them.  However, spore propagation takes much longer than vegetative propagation, even among the mushroom species that handle the process well.
  • To plug inocolution holes quickly when you're out in the woods, just stick in a twig of the right size and cut off the excess.
  • Mushroom totemWhen inoculating logs with notches, cut more than half the diameter of the log, fill it with spawn, and cover the wound with plastic sheeting or adhesive tape.
  • Rather than sticking mushroom totems in the ground right away, expedite colonization by pushing all of the logs together and covering them with leaves and jute bags.  Once fungi have grown through the logs, you can sink them a third of the way in the ground in the direction that the tree grew for low-work fruiting.
  • Onion bags full of ripe mushrooms can be hung in trees to spread spores throughout your woodland.

Although his mushroom chapter is only twenty pages long, it's one of the best primers I've seen for homesteaders who want to incorporate mushrooms into their ecosystem in the easiest ways possible.

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

Posted Fri Mar 2 12:00:36 2012 Tags:
low budget and easy way to keep new born chicks warm

Our new Eco-Glow chick brooder works great, but it needs some help on cold, wet mornings like today.

The above configuration is full of possible hazards, but not a terrible solution if you can control any possible delinquent cats that might be in the vicinity.

I was going to include a picture of the first new chick, but I guess he's camera shy.

Posted Fri Mar 2 15:28:16 2012 Tags:

Eggs pippingI was totally unprepared for our first hatch of the year, for a couple of reasons.  First, our 2011 chicks never seemed to even consider hopping out of their shells until day 22, which I now figure may be due to our hatching eggs being weakened when they were jostled around by the postal service.

Which is all a long way of saying --- I thought I had all day Friday to get the little indoor brooder ready for chicks so that I could be prepared for a hatch to begin Saturday afternoon.  The tupperware container was outside, wet and dirty, and the leaves I planned to use for bedding were still a bit damp.

Second, by this stage of the winter, I've gotten acclimated to mild cold.  Most of this past week, overnight temperatures only dropped into the forties, and I woke to a trailer around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  It hardly seemed worth lighting a fire since my morning walk with Lucy warmed my blood enough to tide me over until the sun came through the trees and heated the trailer to summer levels.  But chicks are less resilient (and our brooder is only rated down to 50 degrees Fahrenheit with bone dry chicks and bedding).

So our first chick of 2012 hatched into a household scurrying around to prepare his brooder.  I set Mark on cleaning out the brooder while I watched the tiny ball of fuzz push its way out of the shell.

Last year, I got into the habit of moving chicks out of the incubator nearly immediately rather than waiting until they dried off fully since I didn't like newly hatched chicks rolling the unhatched eggs around.  So, half an hour after hatch, I plucked out our hatchee and popped him under the Brinsea Ecoglow Brooder.

Chick under Brinsea brooderPeep, peep, peep.  The peeping got worse and worse until I was tearing out my hair.  I thrust the chick back into the incubator, lit a fire in the woodstove, and turned on a space heater, all at the same time.  (At least the chick didn't end up in the stove.)  Then, half an hour later, I tried Operation Chick Move again.

Peep, peep, peep.  Boy, that chick wasn't a happy camper, and neither was I.  With some trepidation, I set the brood box up on top of the space heater and ran to get Mark's input. 

Peep, peep, PEEP.  The chick was still yelling his head off, so Mark added another space heater to increase the temperature inside

Peep, peep, peep, peeeep.  Finally, peace and quiet!  Lesson learned --- homegrown eggs might pop open on day 20 and early spring chicks need some extra heat beyond the Brinsea brooder during the drying off period.  And here I thought I was such an old hand that there wouldn't be any drama during the hatching period.  Stay tuned to hear the stats on the rest of the hatch.

Our chicken waterer will keep our chicks healthy from day 1, as long as I don't freeze the poor things first.
Posted Sat Mar 3 07:04:22 2012 Tags:
Mug hook chicken coop brooder application

Two bungee cords was what it took to make the new chick coop convertible.

I've been using these mug hooks on several projects lately.

They're self starting and easy to install. I try to keep a package on hand for any emergency chicken projects.

Posted Sat Mar 3 14:45:38 2012 Tags:
Flooded car and roofing tin

We're flooded in and our roofing tin is partially submerged halfway back through the floodplain.  But talking about that isn't nearly as much fun as pondering ebook ideas.

I told you two weeks ago that working hard to make Weekend Homesteader a text worthy of print publication had worn me out...but that I expected to be gungho about writing again by the end of the month.  Sure enough, last week I started dreaming up ebook ideas as I weeded the beds to prepare for planting spring greens.  Here are the top contenders so far:

  • Garden Ecology --- Several books cover the identification of beneficial and pest insects, but I would delve deeper, walking you through identifying large and small critters, fungi, and plants that live in your garden but don't cause enough problems to end up on the list of garden bandits.  With chapters on producers, decomposers, predators, and pollinators, you'd learn about food webs and nutrient cycles and figure out how to manage your garden to keep a healthy ecosystem in place.  Estimated length: 4 ebooks with 30 to 40 pages each.
  • The Permaculture Chicken --- This intermediate guide to chickens starts where most books leave off and helps you turn your flock into a more self-sufficient and integrated part of the homestead.  Learn the pros and cons of housing your chickens in tractors, pastures, or free range; choose chicken varieties good at rustling up their own grub; and manage a small-scale pasture of annuals and perennials that keeps your flock healthy.  A chapter on incubation will make raising your own chicks less traumatic for newbies, while tips on cooking with heirloom chickens will help you make the transition from supermarket chicken breasts to more wholesome fowl.  Finally, I'll give you ideas for using chickens as more than mere producers of eggs and meat --- their pastures can keep out deer, their manure can feed the garden, and the chickens themselves can scratch cover crops into the ground.  Estimated length: 6 ebooks with 30 to 40 pages each.
  • No-till Cover Crops --- This short guide reveals the pros and cons of the three main types of cover crops --- small grains, legumes, and everything else --- and helps you choose varieties that match your gardening style.  Learn the easiest ways to plant and kill cover crops without tilling the soil, then time your planting to fit into fallow periods you didn't even know existed in your garden year.  Estimated length: 1 ebook with 30 to 40 pages.

You did such a good job of choosing a winner last year that I'm going to let you weigh in on this year's project as well.  Which of these ideas sounds like something you'd like to hear me write about at length?  Is there another topic you wish I'd write about instead?  Thanks in advance for your feedback!

Our chicken waterer makes the backyard flock so easy to care for, I can spend my chicken time thinking up crazy schemes to put the birds to use on our farm.
Posted Sun Mar 4 08:04:01 2012 Tags:
Texas Tony crossing the creek the boyscout way

The creek is still too high to cross wearing hip waders.

Not a problem if you're part of the dedicated roofing team working on our barn.

They got the tin moved back and all but one panel installed.

We are both very impressed with their level of hustle!

Posted Sun Mar 4 17:11:52 2012 Tags:
Australorp chick

Chick watererRather than braving the raging creek to carry in the milled grain we bought for our chicks, I've been tantilizing their budding appetites with hard-boiled eggs.  Technically, I could have just waited until the flood waters receded --- after all, chicks can go for three days without food or water after birth.  But they'd already figured out how to drink from their  chicken waterer within hours of landing in the brooder, so I figured they could handle some solids as well.

I can't help wondering whether we couldn't get chicks off to an even better start by feeding them real food for the first few weeks, while their appetites are small enough that the fancy foods won't break the bank (or wear us out foraging).  I've seen a mother hen pecking apart worms for her day old offspring, which makes me think animal products are the way to go.

What's your favorite homemade chick starter feed?  Have you ever raised chicks on non-storebought feed?

Posted Mon Mar 5 07:51:01 2012 Tags:

Pear cleft graftThis week's lunchtime series is a little unusual.  I usually either titillate you with a topic I feel (semi-) expert on, or highlight the most interesting facts from a book.  But topworking my pears was so educational (and photo rich) last week that I decided to bring you along and let you walk through the process with me.

I have to admit, though, that I'm far from an expert at grafting.  I've taken a couple of workshops and read a few websites and chapters on the topic, but I'm still very much learning.  I'm also experimenting with ways to graft without buying the tools and supplies most grafters think they need since I figure if I went out to find the official tools for every project I wanted to try on the homestead, we wouldn't have room for them even in our huge barn.

Which is all a long way of saying that I hope those of you with more experience will chime in this week and point me in a different direction if you think I'm going astray.  And, as for the rest of you with even less experience than me, take this series with a grain of salt --- this is the way I did it, not necessarily the way you should.

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

Posted Mon Mar 5 12:01:09 2012 Tags:
small sections of styrofoam

Need some foam, but don't know how to get an 8 foot by 4 foot sheet in your car?

You could cut the sheet into sections in the parking lot, or get one of these panel kits for about 6 dollars.

Posted Mon Mar 5 16:37:24 2012 Tags:

Marans hybrid chickWe've had a strangely elongated hatch this time around, which I think is due to cold weather exacerbating differences in temperature within the incubator.  But it's hard to complain when the final count is 18 living chicks, two yolkers (which were either infertile or died very young), and one fully formed but dead in the shell chick.  (It's possible even that last guy might have hatched, but I thought for sure he was dead when he hadn't pipped by the end of day 23!)

Most of the chicks have australorp fathers and mothers, but two have sussex and seven have marans mothers.  You know how humans take one look at the squashed up Homemade chick feederface of a newborn baby and immediately say it looks like the father (seldom the mother)?  Well, I thought the same of our little hybrids at first.  But soon I noticed that some appeared blacker than others, making me think those are the maransXaustralorp chicks.  I wonder if I'll see signs of hybrid vigor when the time comes to weigh then eat them?

(As you can tell, the creek went down enough that I could bring in the chick feed.  Our youngsters thought the milled grain was almost as interesting as hard-boiled egg yolks, but they spilled it pretty badly until I made a homemade feeder.  More on that eventually if it works.)

Our chicken waterer keeps the brooder clean so our flock can steer clear of childhood diseases.
Posted Tue Mar 6 07:44:54 2012 Tags:
Pear scionwood

My first step after deciding to topwork my two pear trees was to find scionwood.  I wanted to try specific varieties, so I ordered some from Burnt Ridge Nursery, but you can also get scionwood from a neighbor's tree if you know you like the taste and habits of their fruit varieties.  The best scionwood is about the thickness of a pencil, is from last year's growth, doesn't contain flower buds, and does contain two or three leaf buds.  Longer scionwood is fine, and gives you some wiggle room in case you make the first cut wrong --- you can always shorten it to three buds later.

Irregular scionwood cut

Although you should wait to prepare your official scionwood until it's ready to go into place (Thursday's post), raw beginners like me should practice first so we become relatively adept at our cuts before working on the limited scionwood.  Grafting cuts should always be as straight as possible, which means you should try to make them with a single cut rather than "whittling" --- fixing incorrect cuts by making two or three more cuts.  The photo above shows some of my early practice strokes --- you can see the curves that result from whittling.

Cutting practice scionwoodLuckily for me, I had plenty of wood to practice on.  I planned to cut the whole top off my two small pear trees and insert new scionwood in a cleft graft, so nearly all of the twigs on the tree were fair game.

I actually practiced on a little walnut tree I needed to cut out of the yard first, but soon discovered that different trees' twigs behave very differently.  If you're going to graft a pear tree, practice on some pear twigs; if you're going to graft an apple, practice on an apple.

Diagram of scionwood partsWedge shape for cleft graftSo, what did I want my cuts to look like?  The easiest grafting cut is for a whip graft, where you attach two twigs of the same diameter together.  That kind of graft simply requires a long straight cut so that the scionwood comes to a point, as is shown in the drawing to the left.

For my cleft graft, I needed to make a slightly more complex cut.  I wanted to turn the base of the scionwood into a wedge by making two angled cuts.  To complicate matters further, the wedge needed to be pie-shaped in cross-section, with the side containing the lowest bud larger than the other side of the twig.  This sounds complex, but wasn't really that hard to cut, once I wrapped my head around the goal.

Cut off end of twig

Time to start cutting!  Grafting teachers always warn you to make sure the buds point up, which seems ludicrously obvious to me, but maybe folks not as tuned into plants need to be told that?  Once you turn your scionwood right side up, decide which spot will be the bottom of your cut.  I learned the hard way that you won't get a nice, straight cut if you try to go through a node (where the buds are), so I cut my scionwood off just above a bud.

It's best if you also choose a spot where the internode (length of wood between two buds) is Cutting scionwood for cleft graftrelatively long since your angled cut should be at least an inch long, preferably 1.5 to 2 inches.  Longer cuts give your scionwood a better chance of merging with the growing tissue of the tree it's being grafted onto.

Now find a good sharp knife (I used our chicken butchering knife, recently sharpened) and make your first test cut.  Remember, you don't want to whittle, so you should create the wedge shape at the bottom of your piece of scionwood in two quick cuts.  Once you try it a time or two, you'll see why I told you to practice on a twig you didn't care about.

Cleft graft scionwoodAfter making Mark stand around in the sun and watch me whittle for about fifteen minutes, I started to feel like my cuts were going more smoothly.   Time to move on to the next step --- preparing the tree to be grafted onto.  Stay tuned for tomorrow's post to learn tips in that department.

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

Posted Tue Mar 6 12:01:11 2012 Tags:
chick coop improvement

more chick coop activities
We added 2 layers of foam to the floor of the chick coop in an effort to retain more heat from the Eco-Glow brooder.

The plan is to use the above Rubbermaid tub as a mini-enclosure for the brooder while inside the chick coop.

Stay tuned to see if these preparations will be enough to keep the new round of chicks warm and happy.

Posted Tue Mar 6 16:27:04 2012 Tags:

Plum budsCan you tell the flower buds from the leaf buds on your fruit trees?  The distinction is important if you prune in the winter, but it's also handy to be able to guess whether your young trees are going to bear fruit this year or not.

In general, flower buds are fat and round while leaf buds are more pointy and less significant.  The differences really become obvious at this time of year when the flower buds are swelling up in preparation for opening, in contrast to leaf buds that are still dormant.  (Well, unless you're a plum, as is shown above, which tends to spit out leaves at the same time it blooms.)

Apple budsApple buds are a bit trickier, but share the same general theme.  Most apple varieties bloom on fruiting spurs, which are simply dwarfed twigs sticking out the sides of your branches.  You might find a single flower bud (shown on the right) on a spur, or it might be an entire cluster.  The photo on the left shows an inconspicuous apple leaf bud.

Pears buds are similar to apples while peaches are similar to plums.  Cherries fall somewhere in between.

We got a slow start on our apples, but our oldest tree (a Virginia Beauty planted three years ago) seems to be covered with flower buds this year.  Similarly, our three year old Methley plum is also dotted with plump flower buds.

I'm trying hard not to count my fruit before they ripen, though.  I've learned from experience that late freezes can easily wipe out flower buds, and that young trees often drop their flowers the first year rather than setting fruit.  In addition, since my Virginia Beauty may be the only apple in my orchard who's ready to bloom this year, the precocious tree might not get pollinated.

The plum might have issues as well.  When I bought the tree, it was marked as self-pollinating, but now I'm seeing that Methley plums are Japanese type plums and require pollinators --- I guess I'll see who's right depending on whether we sink our teeth into juicy plum flesh this year or not.  Although it would be a bummer to have to wait another three years to eat homegrown plums, I never mind an excuse to expand our fruit selection.

Our chicken waterer is always POOP-free.
Posted Wed Mar 7 07:28:19 2012 Tags:
Cutting the top off a pear tree for topworking

A previous post about topworking explained that my four year old pears are small enough to graft all in one go.  However, I've also read that it can be tough for a tree of any size to suddenly lose all of its branches, so some orchardists leave a few in place to shade the scionwood a bit so it's not exposed to blazing sun while trying to get established.  As a result, I decided to cut into the main trunk just above the first pair of limbs.

Notching the bark so it won't stripThe other factor to consider when preparing your tree to be grafted onto is ensuring you make a very clean cut.  The success of a graft depends on the cambium, which is the thin layer of living tissue just under the bark.  So, if you cut a tree and it tears half the bark off one side in the process, your grafts are going to be less successful.

I worked around this potential problem by cutting about halfway through the tree, then coming around to the other side and cutting through the bark there.  When I finished my cut, the top fell off the tree without damaging the bark at all.  (By the way, these sharp little saws are awesome for making precise cuts like this.)

Topless pear

Trim irregularities from woodTimber!

The final step in preparing the tree to be grafted onto is to trim any irregularities from the wood.  One of my cuts came out perfect, and the other needed just a tad of whittling with my sharp knife.  Now the tree was ready to accept scionwood and to be turned into a new variety.

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

Posted Wed Mar 7 12:01:05 2012 Tags:
mark Chick ramp

making a ramp for the new chicks

The new chick coop is ramped up and ready for business.

Posted Wed Mar 7 16:10:49 2012 Tags:
Weeding buddy

I've been lucky to have a weeding buddy come over every week or two for the last couple of months.  Those problem perennials that I didn't quite remember to weed in the last year?  They're almost all ship shape!  I suspect that one more round of weeding will bring the last couple of rows in line.  Thanks, Anndrena!

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.
Posted Thu Mar 8 07:04:24 2012 Tags:
Making the grafting cleft

Now that I've cut the top off of my young tree, I can insert the scionwood.  Step one is to slit the trunk of the tree vertically for about two inches --- making the cleft. 
Making a cleft in a trunk with a butcher knife
Orchadists have special tools for cleft grafting, but I figured I could find everything I needed between the kitchen and the toolbox.  The small, sharp knife shown below was too miniscule to do the job, but a big, dull butcher knife combined with a hammer was just right.

This knife is too small for making a cleft graft

I hammered the big knife into the center of the trunk, then pounded on the sides of the knife to insert it a bit deeper.  On my second tree, I didn't make the slit quite so deep, and found it more difficult to insert the scionwood, so be sure to make your slit big enough the first time.

Cleft graft wedge

The next step is to widen the cleft using a wedge.  Again, professionals use a special tool for this procedure, but a screwdriver pounded in easily and worked great.

Insert scionwood in the cleft

Matching cambium layers with a graftCut the scionwood as described previously, then insert two pieces, one on each side of the wedge.  If the cleft isn't quite as open as you'd like, you can rotate the screwdriver slightly to widen the gap.

Scionwood insertion is the trickiest and most important part of the whole process, so take a few minutes to make sure you're doing it right.  The diagram below shows a cross section through a piece of scionwood, illustrating the layers of different kinds of cells that make up a twig.

Diagram of scionwood partsYou can think of the cambium as the stem cells of the plant world --- the cambium cells are still physiologically flexible and can grow together with the cambium of a different tree.  The cambium is relatively easy to see if you have good eyes since it tends to be bright green.  Your goal is to make sure the cambium of your scionwood lines up with the cambium of the tree you're grafting onto.
Slanted scionwood
Your gut reaction will probably be to try to make the scionwood fit flush against the side of the tree being grafted onto, but that's not quite right.  As a tree grows, it not only expands the xylem (the woody part in the center), but also the phloem (which turns into the bark).  So, the cambium is going to Scionwood in a cleft graftbe a little deeper into the older tree being grafted onto than it is on the little twig of scionwood.  That's why most people recommend making sure your scionwood is slightly indented as you look at your graft from the side.

One way to hedge your bets is to insert your scionwood at a slight angle, as is shown in the drawing to above, so that the cambial layers intersect somewhere.  This type of angled scionwood placement won't give you as strong a connection, but is better than nothing if you're not sure you'll get your cambial layers lined up otherwise.

One last note on scionwood placement (which you really should have considered when making your cuts) --- most sources recommend that the first bud on your scionwood sits just above the top of the tree being grafted onto.  If you had extra scionwood length, now is a good time to cut each one down to two or three buds.  Stay tuned for tomorrow's post, in which I'll explain how to seal the cut surfaces.

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

Posted Thu Mar 8 12:01:06 2012 Tags:
adapting electric fence plastic holders

Lucy is still making holes in the chicken pasture fence.


When I tested the electric fence line we installed today it seemed a little weak. I first thought we might be reaching the limit of distance, but the instructions say it should go up to 1500 feet.

I'm thinking I may have not tightened down the wing nut enough where the two wires attach. Either that or maybe the unit is suffering some sort of power decline?

Posted Thu Mar 8 16:36:08 2012 Tags:

Regrowing bunchgrassEven though chickens get most of their nutrition from insects and seeds, tender young plants provide lots of vitamins and minerals (and a surprising amount of protein).  That's why I was thrilled to notice grasses beginning to grow in several spots around the farm in the last week.

One of our newest pastures is under the trees where "normal" grasses seldom grow.  However, a few clumps of bunchgrasses are evident.  The chickens ate them down to nubbins, but this clump has already started to regrow in the last week since the chickens were turned out of the pasture.  Does anyone have a clue what kind of grass this might be?

I'm relatively sure that the tender-leaved grasses that pop up in closely mown parts of our yard and in the treeless pastures are bluegrass.  Bluegrass feels delightful to bare feet, and Bluegrass sproutsalso stays tender enough for chickens to enjoy even in the summer, so I'm pleased it sprouts anywhere we open up the canopy and mow regularly.

New bluegrass leaves started to push up through the dead brown litter in the garden aisles a week or so ago, but regrowth started sooner in more protected areas.  For example, this patch of green is underneath where we usually park the truck --- I assume that big old hunk of metal mitigated some of winter's cold and let the grass grow faster.

But the most vigorous early spring grasses aren't in our cultivated areas at all.  I looked out across the floodplain on Monday and noticed a huge patch of green in what we fondly term "the alligator swamp" --- a waterlogged oxbow off our creek. 

Grasses in damp area

Wet-loving grassI don't know if these water-loving grasses are a species that always gets a jumpstart on spring, or whether the thermal mass of the water is responsible for the vibrant greenery.  But maybe that explains why the chickens have been hanging out in the damp area on the far side of the barn rather than following the sun in the early morning the way they did a few months ago.

Learning the patterns of grass growth is essential to proper pasturing.  For example, I'm planning all of my broilers to hit the ground running just as the grass is reaching its peak.  However, I've still got a long way to go before I thoroughly understand our sod, and grass  species ID is clearly near the top of the to-learn list.  Has anyone tried out various grass field guides and settled on one that helps from a pasturing point of view?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock well hydrated while they hunt down the first spring growth.
Posted Fri Mar 9 07:32:25 2012 Tags:
Sealing graft with wax

The final step in any grafting project is to seal all cut surfaces so they don't dry out before they're able to heal.  Professionals buy grafting tar or parafilm, but I wanted to try some materials I already had on hand.

The trick with using beeswax or some other homegrown compound to seal your grafting cuts is that hot wax can damage the cambium of the tree.  I opted to dab on mostly melted beeswax, figuring it wouldn't hurt the tree as long as it didn't burn my finger when I dripped a bit of melted wax on my skin.  This is the most experimental part of my project, though, since no one else seems to use straight beeswax to seal their wounds.

Bag to seal graftOne recipe for making your own sealing wax includes 1 part raw linseed oil, 2 parts beeswax, and 4 parts powdered rosin.  Someone else kneaded mineral oil into hobby clay to make a sealing compound.  I suspect both of these compounds would be flexible enough that you could paint them on cold, which would delete the potential heat problem.

No matter which compound you use, you want to cover the tips of each piece of scionwood, then liberally dab wax or tar on the top and sides of the cleft tree trunk.  Do your best to be more careful than I was and not cover up any of the precious buds on the scionwood --- I had to pick a bit of wax off with my fingernails.

Some sources suggest tying a plastic bag over the top of the grafted area when you're done for an added layer of protection.  It sounds like you can use carpenter's glue to seal the graft as long as you top it off with aluminum foil and then a plastic bag.  However, plastic bags require more work since you'll need to keep them out of direct sunlight so they don't heat up, and then you have to take the bag off once the scionwood starts to grow.  I'm thinking of deleting the plastic bags, actually --- what do you think?

Despite taking five long posts to tell you about this, I performed a cleft graft on two pear trees in less than an hour, counting all of my practice cutting time.  So don't be scared away from the process.  I'll report back this summer as our scionwood (hopefully) starts to grow.

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

Posted Fri Mar 9 12:01:05 2012 Tags:
fixing the connection on a K9 electric fence application

So I went out and tightened down the wing nut where the two wires meet and at first I didn't notice any change....just a low level prickly feeling when you touched it....and then a few minutes later while I was taking a few pictures it must have had time to charge up or something because ZOWWIE!!!!....the darn thing jolted me so hard I dropped the camera, which softly landed in a bed of straw mulch.

Posted Fri Mar 9 16:58:16 2012 Tags:

My mom sent me an email that tickled my fancy a week or two ago:

I may get that thermometer today, mostly because I want to compare soil temperature with the growth of my "indicator" dandelions.  I actually welcome back dandelions as if they are relatives returning!  I have a special one just under the rock I step on to go down into the backyard.  It always comes back--I want it there, to light way down in dusky times.  I cherish the dandelions as my first fresh Spring greens--before asparagus, and wilder--bitterer--than wintered over kale and other greens like Swiss Chard.

A host of golden daffodilsShe got interested in the idea of dandelions as an indicator of the progression of spring, and stumbled across a Rodale pamphlet with a chapter on "Using phenology to make planting decisions".  The text suggested paying attention to honeysuckle and lilacs "because of their wide adaptability to different geographical areas, and their reliability in making consistent responses to varying weather conditons". 

By noticing when the indicator plants' leaves and flowers emerge, you can get an idea about when to plant certain crops.  For example, the Rodale pamphlet recommended planting cool season crops (like peas) when lilac shows its first leaves and waiting to plant warm season crops (like tomatoes) until the lilacs are in bloom.  Of course, oak leaves are another classic indicator plant.

I loved Mom's idea of testing indicator plants against soil temperature.  What's your most dependable indicator plant?  Have you noticed whether it responds to day length, air temperature, or soil temperature?

Our chicken waterer keeps chicks healthy from day 1 with clean water (and a fun toy.)
Posted Sat Mar 10 08:03:40 2012 Tags:
new way of connecting wires?

After more study I'm starting to think tightening the wing nut was only part of the problem I was having with the electric fence being weak.
washer placement
What I missed until looking at yesterdays picture was the washer placement. It seems clear now that more surface area touching the opposite wire means more charge.

Another mistake may have been wrapping too many strands, which I think created gaps in the connection. My new method is a simple bend that wraps around the bolt without making a complete loop.

Posted Sat Mar 10 16:01:05 2012 Tags:

Dog damage
I've tried to explain no-till gardening to our dog, but I just don't thinks she gets it.  Last week, she tore up a dozen beds in the mule garden, even breaking into the quick hoops to continue her vole hunt.  She wreaked havoc on our young onion beds, broke the flats containing the extra transplants, but at least left me enough living seedlings to replace her casualties.

Cooking on the wood stovePeople always say that the hardest folks to convert are your own family, so I guess it's no surprise Lucy won't practice what I preach.  At least I found the uprooted turnips while most of them were still edible enough to toss into a pot of lentil stew.

Uprooted turnips

And, heck, now I know that I don't need a pig if I ever want colonizer livestock.  I can just turn Lucy into the paddock with a few rodents and watch the dirt fly.

Our chicken waterer gives the flock something to peck at, rather than each other.
Posted Sun Mar 11 08:32:19 2012 Tags:
first round of chicks in 2012 go outside in the mini coop

The first round of chicks have out grown their blue Rubbermaid tub and graduated to the new mini coop.

Sometimes I wonder if a fake mother hen would make new born chicks feel more secure in the first few weeks when life is so dangerous and big.

Posted Sun Mar 11 16:10:26 2012 Tags:

EndophyteMost pasture farmers know that endophytes are hard on animals, causing problems ranging from pregnancy issues to staggers.  Other ailments include slow growth, hoof gangrene, and a hard time handling hot weather.  But what are endophytes?

If you're a ryegrass or fescue plant, endophytes are the coolest thing since sliced bread.  These symbiotic fungi --- Neotyphodium coenophialum in fescue and Neotyphodium lolii in ryegrass --- spend their whole lives inside a single grass plant, eating sugars the plant hands over willingly.  In exchange, the endophytes produce alkaloids that deter insects and keep grazers like deer, sheep, cattle, and horses from gorging too much on the grass.

When scientists discovered the dangers posed by endophytes, they got to work breeding endophyte-free grasses.  However, they soon learned that plants share their sugars with endophytes for a reason --- without the endophytes, fescue and ryegrass tend to die out Endophytes help plantsquickly.  (The paired photos show an ailing stand of endophyte-free fescue on the left and a thriving stand of endophyte-infected fescue on the right.)  Now scientists have changed their tactics and are trying to breed endophytes that produce the alkaloids that keep bugs at bay (peramine) without making ergovaline (which is the most problematic alkaloid for livestock).  If you haven't planted a special (read: expensive) strain, though, chances are your ryegrass and fescue are infested with the common endophyte varieties.

Luckily, you can work around endophytes in many situations, giving your grasses the boost they need to thrive without hurting your livestock's health.  The trick is to understand the life cycle of an endophyte-infected grass.

Endophyte life cycleThe red lines in this diagram show the general location of endophytes within a plant.  (No, you can't actually see anything with your naked eye.)  The fungus comes along for the ride when a seed drops off the parent plant, spreads up into the lower portion of the leaves, and then heads up the flower stalk to infect new seeds.

As a pasture maintainer, this life cycle tells you how to ensure your livestock don't munch on too much of the problematic fungus.  If you don't overgraze your pastures and do graze often enough that the grasses don't want to go to seed, your livestock probably won't get enough endophyte into their systems to cause problems.  No wonder endophyte-related illnesses tend to show up in summer or fall, when our cool season grasses are declining and we're forced to graze them down to nubbins.

My final endophyte-related question was --- do endophytes harm chickens?  A quick search of the internet doesn't turn up much definitive information.  Chickens fed on a diet of endophyte-infected fescue seeds did worse than those fed on a diet of endophyte-free fescue seeds, but other sources suggest that, in the wild, chickens don't eat enough grass to get sick.  Fescue is generally too tough for chickens to digest, but I did plant some annual ryegrass in one of our pastures since these tender leaves are supposed to be much more palatable to non-ruminants.  I'll make sure to treat the ryegrass carefully and will let you know if I see any problems.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock well hydrated with POOP-free water.
Posted Mon Mar 12 08:15:21 2012 Tags:

All Flesh is GrassGene Logsdon's All Flesh is Grass doesn't quite bring rotational grazing to the backyard, but the author's focus on people with 2 to 100 acres who are growing meat for personal consumption makes his ideas accessible to the average homesteader.  Don't get me wrong --- the intense information in Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence and in Greg Judy's mob grazing workshop were invaluable as I continue to plan our pasturing setup, but it's also helpful to hear from someone farming on a much smaller scale.

What does Logsdon's pasture setup look like?  His 32 acre farm in northern Ohio has about 15 acres devoted to pasture, on which he raises cows, sheep, and chickens for his family.  The farm is divided into seven paddocks, each of which is about two acres in size, and he lets livestock spend about three weeks in each area before rotating them to the next paddock in line.  (Yes, it is suboptimal to keep your livestock in a paddock for more than six days, but sometimes the homesteader doesn't need to reach peak efficiency if he wants to keep his sanity.)

Most of Logsdon's pastures are a permanent mixture of bluegrass, ryegrass, white clover, and tall fescue.  However, he also rotates a few paddocks through annuals (and short-lived perennials) like red clover, wheat, corn, alfalfa, timothy, and ladino clover.  Using all of these pasture plants, Logsdon is able to start his animals on pasture in late March and keep them there until they finish eating the stockpiled grass in January or February.  Since he plans calving and lambing around the pasture year, selling or eating meat animals in December, he has relatively few livestock to feed during the nonpasture month(s).

This week's lunchtime series will walk you through Logsdon's operation in more depth.  I highly recommend his book for the firsthand information on plant polycultures, but have to warn you that if you have little patience for pseudoinformation, you should skip over the anecdotes that make up the chapters on individual types of animals.  I got bogged down in the sheep chapter for about three months before plodding on through to the intriguing tidbits in the second half of the book.

This post is part of our All Flesh is Grass lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Mar 12 12:06:34 2012 Tags:
best automatic feeder for new born chicks

Chicks will stand in their food dish if given the opportunity.

We've experienced this year after year, but always had bigger problems to solve and payed the price by just adding more feed when they scratched their way to the bottom of the dish.

This new automatic chick feeder seems to be big enough for our flock, and so far none of them have figured out how to climb inside.

Posted Mon Mar 12 16:20:41 2012 Tags:

Weekend Homesteader paperbackI figured that since Weekend Homesteader is all grown up and ready to go into print, she deserved her own page.  Those of you who want to hear the blow by blow, be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed.

Meanwhile, I probably won't be blogging over here about Weekend Homesteader until I have books in my hand.  But I couldn't help sharing the cover.

What do you think?  I'm conflicted, but I figure the publisher knows much more about covers than I do, so I agreed to let it go to press as is.

Posted Tue Mar 13 07:47:12 2012 Tags:

Woven wire fenceOne of my favorite parts of All Flesh is Grass is Logsdon's fencing advice.  Every other book and blog I've read about rotational grazing sings the praises of temporary electric fences, but Logsdon and I both aren't fans of electric fences.

Logsdon started out his operation with woven wire fences, mostly because he found a lot of free materials.  He uses heavy wooden posts that are nearly eight feet long, driven two and a half to three feet in the ground and separated by fifteen feet along the fenceline.  As an old-fashioned farmer, he likes posts he can cut himself --- red cedar, black locust, catalpa, osage-orange --- but  he will also split old electric poles or railroad ties into thinner sections to use as fenceposts.  His corner posts are eight inch in diameter treated lumber, nine feet long, sunk four feet into the ground, and braced.  After pulling the woven wire taut between these fence posts (and, yes, I was exhausted before I even got to that part of the description), Logsdon adds a strand of electric fence over top of the woven wire as a final line of defense.

All of that said, Logsdon is now changing over to livestock panels.  These four foot tall and sixteen feet long fence sections can be used on uneven terrain, don't collapse if a tree limb falls on them, are modular and easy to replace piecemeal, and are rated to last twice as long as woven wire fences (for twice the price, of course).  Installation is easy --- just set a post every eight feet, with panels overlapping two inches at the each end.  After a year of closing up the holes Lucy made in our chicken wire fences (and watching Mark swear as he tried to stretch the fences up hills), I'm wishing we'd gone the livestock panel route as well.  Maybe for our next fences!

Cedar fencelineWhile we're on the topic of fencing, I should add that one benefit of permanent fences is that you can plant trees long the fenceline, adding another layer of productivity to the pasture while making animals less likely to break through.  Logsdon has tried many different types of trees and sings the praises of apples and peaches (both grown from seed), pears, thornless honey locusts, and chinquapin oaks for providing extra food for livestock.  Red cedars make a good windbreak and don't taste good to livestock, so you don't have to fence the animals away from the young trees as carefully, plus you can use them to make fence posts.

On the other hand, Logsdon has tried some trees he wouldn't plant in a pasture again.  Weeping willows and black walnuts love to drop limbs all over the fenceline, black locust leaves are toxic to animals, and cherries not only have poisonous leaves, they also don't make very tasty fruits if grown from seed.  In addition, even if you plant the best-behaved Rosa rugosatrees, you'll need to spend a day every year cutting out grapevines, poison ivy, and tree seedlings growing along your fencerow, but you'd spend the same time weed-eating if you didn't have trees.

I've always liked the idea of turning fencelines into productive zones, but with our small pastures, trees are out of the question.  However, when I bought the scionwood for our pear tree, I threw in a couple of shrubs that are supposed to make good, thorny hedges while providing edibles for chickens --- Rosa rugosa and Siberian pea shrub.  Meanwhile, the timber bamboo (Phyllostachys vivax) that I planted last year seems to be holding its ground.  Maybe in another five years or so, our fences will be lost in a sea of edible and beautiful greenery.

This post is part of our All Flesh is Grass lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Mar 13 12:01:23 2012 Tags:
muddy Bogg boots collage with quick hoop take down

Quick hoop protection no longer needed?

We're crossing our fingers, but at the same time we'll keep the hoops up and the Agribon material handy just in case.

Posted Tue Mar 13 16:45:22 2012 Tags:
Early spring in the garden

I let spring creep up on us without telling you.  The elderberry leaves have been poking out of their buds for weeks now (although not getting terribly far), and I noticed the first Egyptian onion leavespeas slipping up through the soil last week.  Meanwhile, the Egyptian onions are growing so fast my frequent cuttings become invisible by the next day.

We also started eating the first spring lettuce, but it wasn't quite as much of an event as usual since we've been enjoying homegrown salads all winter.  It is fun to switch our salad greens from primarily kale to lettuce, though, since that frees up the greens for sauteing.

I saw blooming spring beauties and spicebushes (not pictured) while walking Lucy Tuesday, but the real event was ground dry enough (in spots) to wander around barefoot.  With beautiful weather dominating the 10 day forecast, I can't help but wonder if the floodplain might not become passable in a week or two.

Our chicken waterer keeps the chicks busy in their brooder while maintaining dry, sanitary bedding.
Posted Wed Mar 14 08:14:50 2012 Tags:

Pasture productivityThe rest of this week's lunchtime series is an overview of forage plants that match the three pasture seasons --- spring/fall (this post), summer, and winter.  You should keep in mind that specifics like this are very location specific, so if you live in the Deep South or in another area where warm season (rather than cool season) grasses dominate, you should take everything I write with several grains of salt.  The closer you live to Gene Logsdon's home base in northern Ohio, the more likely his suggestions are to fit your pasture like a glove.

In Logsdon's (and our) location, spring is when pasture plants are at their peak, with a lesser peak ocurring in the fall.  You'll plan your meat animals to match these peaks and (if your operation is big enough) will also use the extra growth to make hay (or stockpiled grass) for the winter.  So what do you plant in those spring/fall paddocks?

Bluegrass and white cloverLogsdon makes a good case for not planting at all.  His experience (and mine) has been that if you open up the tree canopy and mow close to the ground regularly, bluegrass will eventually dominate your pastures.  You might or might not need to plant the white clover that works so well to round out the pasture polyculture.

A less permanent alternative is to plant ryegrass in the place of the bluegrass that springs up naturally.  Ryegrass is a bit taller than bluegrass, so it may shade out your white clover (unless you seed specially formulated clover varieties that can handle the more aggressive grass), and even the perennial ryegrass versions need to be reseeded at intervals.  On the other hand, ryegrass might make up for the extra effort since it produces more dry matter per acre than bluegrass does and establishes quickly.  Both bluegrass and ryegrass are among the most palatable grasses in most livestocks' estimation, but ryegrass is often infected with an endophyte.

Optimal grazing windowRyegrass and bluegrass are managed about the same.  As I learned the hard way last year, you need to graze or mow them hard and repeatedly in the spring and early summer so they don't go to seed, since fruit production makes the grasses less palatable and slows their growth considerably.  You can graze the pasture down to one inch, then let the grass regrow to four to six inches before turning your animals back in.  This happens pretty quickly in the spring, and is one of the advantages of short grasses.

Drought, more than heat, is what prevents bluegrass and ryegrass from barreling on through the summer, so Logsdon suggests that it might be worth your while to irrigate your pastures to keep them productive.  I noticed that the paddocks directly downhill from my oft-watered vegetable garden did much better last summer than grasses in other areas.

Although bluegrass and ryegrass aren't really winter grasses, you can let them grow in the fall to stockpile forage for the winter.  Logsdon notes that the dense root structure of the bluegrass/clover sod prevents major damage when smaller livestock are turned into the pasture in wet weather, and he finds that the disturbed soil in hoofprints actually helps clover gain more of a foothold.  Stay tuned for later posts detailing summer and winter alternatives to the bluegrass/clover pasture.

This post is part of our All Flesh is Grass lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Mar 14 12:01:18 2012 Tags:
Appalachian lore

I'm starting a new Appalachian myth.

A garden gate built on Pi day will be magically impervious to deer.

Posted Wed Mar 14 16:19:45 2012 Tags:

Cardboard boxIn a perfect world, I'd mulch my vegetable garden with straw and my woody perennials with well composted wood chips (or maybe leaves).  If I needed to lay down a kill mulch, I'd use corrugated cardboard as the kill layer.  (Weekend Homesteader: July gives the science behind these choices, but the short version is --- it just makes the plants happy.)

But we don't live in a perfect world.  Even though I'd been carrying in cardboard from the parking area for a week, I managed to use up every lick of the delicious kill mulch Mulching with junk mailmaterial in one busy Tuesday.  Plus, I'd already mulched with the leaves my mother snagged on her city curb and didn't want to spend all afternoon raking more out of the woods.  (The piles of wood chips at our parking area are mellowing very nicely, but no way am I carrying that heavy organic matter in by hand.)

So, having run out of my favorite mulches, I used...whatever.  Wednesday found me laying down kill mulches alongside the black raspberries with junk mail and then topping it all off with straw.  Yes, I've had mixed results with paper in the past, but I figure woody Straw mulchperennials can handle the high carbon material better than a vegetable garden could, and I also carefully pulled out all the slick pages (although I left some colored newsprint in).  I figure the high nitrogen straw will help counteract the high carbon kill mulch (and will add nitrogen to the soil this summer as the straw rots, making up for the fact that I skimped a bit on manure --- we're running out of that too).

On the plus side, many gardeners believe that it's a good idea to change your mulch and compost source every year so your garden never gets overloaded (or deficient) in one nutrient.  So maybe I should be telling you I thought all this through and decided a year under straw would make the soil in our berry patch more well-rounded?  Naw --- that's too much like bright yellow boots.

Our chicken waterer supplies lots of cardboard to the farm as we unpack the water reservoirs for our pre-made units.
Posted Thu Mar 15 08:04:07 2012 Tags:

AlfalfaBluegrass or ryegrass with white clover makes a great spring and fall pasture, but where do you put your hungry critters during the summer slump?  Gene Logsdon offers a slew of possibilities, ranging from semi-perennial legumes to warm season grasses and even weeds.

In his own pasture setup, Logsdon focuses on alfalfa, red clover, and ladino clovers to fill in the summer lull, planting these short-lived perennial legumes in rotation with winter crops like grains.  When choosing one of these legumes, keep in mind that alfalfa is the most drought tolerant and produces more biomass than any other legume if it's happy, but that it hates clay and can't be planted Ladino cloverin the same spot for several years after the stand dies out.  Red clover outperforms alfalfa on heavy soils and in cold, moist climates, finding favor in the Corn Belt, the Northeast, and the mid-South.  Ladino clover is the most palatable of these tall legumes and can handle heavy, wet soil, but produces less hay per acre, won't survive drought, and requires reseeding most often.

All three legumes are managed about the same.  In the Deep South, red and ladino clovers are grown as annuals, but elsewhere the legumes are perennials that should be surface seeded in winter, then given several months to get established.  You can begin to cut or Timothygraze once the plants begin to bloom, then continue to cut or graze at the same stage until September, at which point the plants must be allowed to put on some mass so they will survive the winter. 

Timothy can be mixed with the legumes (especially red clover), but if you combine the plants, it's best to gauge grazing or cutting time by the legume since timothy grows more slowly.  Orchardgrass is sometimes mixed with alfalfa in the lower Corn Belt and mid-South, but the grass becomes unpalatable quickly in the spring if you're not careful.  Finally, smooth bromegrass is often combined with alfalfa in the North since the grass and legume have similar drought resistance.

Sorghum-sudangrassAt the other end of the country, you might consider planting a paddock or two to warm season grasses for the summer months.  Quackgrass, crabgrass, and foxtail are weeds that spring up all by themselves in cultivated ground, while bermudagrass (also a weed by many folks' estimation) will take over in the Deep South.  Sorghum-sudangrass hybrid is often planted for high production pastures in midsummer, but the leaves are toxic when less than a foot tall, which gives the plant limited utility for grazers like chickens who like tender forage.  Although a legume instead of a grass, lespedeza is a possibility in the South, but can be a problem weed that becomes unpalatable if not managed carefully.

Corn isn't exactly a pasture plant, but Logsdon suggests a method to work the grain into your pasture rotation without harvesting any of the ears yourself.  You can turn lambs into the pasture to eat the lower leaves and weeds when the corn is above their heads, then replace them with hogs who harvest the grain when the plants are mature.  Finally, sheep and cows munch on the fodder (and dropped ears of corn) over the winter.

PlantainIn his chapter on weeds, Logsdon tosses out the idea of a temporary ley for summer pasture.  Newman Turner's Fertility Pastures and Cover Crops recommends planting the following combination for midsummer:

  • Alfalfa (6 pounds per acre)
  • Chicory (6 pounds per acre)
  • Timothy (6 pounds per acre)
  • White clover (3 pounds per acre)
  • Burnet (3 pounds per acre)
  • Late-flowering red clover (2 pounds per acre)
  • Meadow fescue (4 pounds per acre)
  • Perennial ryegrass (12 pounds per acre)
  • American sweet clover (2 pounds per acre)
  • Sheep's parsley (2 pounds per acre)
  • Carraway (1 pound per acre)
  • Narrow-leaved plantain (1 pound per acre)
  • Broad-leaved plantain (1 pound per acre)

Although Logsdon laughs at the idea of finding seeds for notorious weeds like plantain, the permaculturist might keep an eye on weedy spots for midsummer forage.

This post is part of our All Flesh is Grass lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Mar 15 12:01:16 2012 Tags:
Easy, low budget, DIY wire holder

Our first roll of electric wire lasted years, and all that time I was unrolling it wrong.

I started out thinking a 2x4 frame with a handle would work as a holder for today's brand new roll. I was low on scrap wood, but got inspired when I saw an empty bucket in the garden.

It can also be used to carry wire cutters and the mini-sledge hammer.

Posted Thu Mar 15 15:55:31 2012 Tags:
Bud burst

The first Nanking cherry and plum flowers opened on March 14, and the rest of our fruit trees aren't far behind.  Here's my best guess about when our orchard was in a similar stage of bud break in previous years:

  • March 23, 2009.  (A late freeze wiped out all the blooms and we didn't get any fruit.)
  • April 3, 2010.  (Great harvest of peaches!)
  • March 22, 2011.  (Would have been a great harvest of peaches if not for brown rot.  We got two pears too.)

Australorp chicksSo, it looks like we're running about a week or two early --- not as bad as I'd feared.  In fact, now might be a good time for the fruit trees to go ahead and bloom since the ten day forecast looks like summer.  We'll just have to hope for no more freezes below the post-bloom critical temperature of 28 for the rest of the season.

The other photos in this post are totally unrelated.  But I have a hard time not throwing in gratuitous spring images.  Enjoy!

Mating toads

Our chicken waterer keeps our chicks healthy with POOP-free water.
Posted Fri Mar 16 08:02:19 2012 Tags:

FescueWinter is the trickiest time to keep animals fed, but Logsdon offers enough suggestions to fuel years of experimentation.  First, there are the basics --- stockpile grasses for ruminants so they can eat in the fields, spreading their manure as they go.  But if you want fresh winter food for your animals to harvest on the hoof, there are other options as well.

Although fescue is not one of the most palatable grasses, Logsdon (and his buddy Bob Evans, of restaurant fame) consider this grass the key to year-round grazing since it will grow a bit even in the winter.  This photo shows a clump of fescue in my garden, amid our usual bluegrass --- you can tell that the fescue got a jump start on spring and is already too tough for a chicken to nibble on.  To manage a fescue pasture, Logsdon suggests keeping it short and tender with frequent cutting in the spring, and being careful of the endophytes that can make certain animals sick.  He lets fescue and bluegrass grow together, mowing closer if he wants to encourage the bluegrass and higher if he wants the fescue to spread.

Chicken in winter oatsWinter grains can provide lots of winter forage as long as you don't mind cultivating the ground and replanting every  year.  Logsdon mentions a recent study in Ohio where oats were planted in August and then strip grazed by cattle from November through March (with a few weeks break in February when ice was too thick for the cows to break through).  Tender young oat leaves contain 20% protein, and our chickens were willing to nibble on them once other greenery died back last winter.  Other winter grains have varying levels of palatability and winter hardiness, but you might try wheat, barley, and rye as well.

Roots like turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, mangels, and sugar beets fill the niche of corn (providing lots of carbohydrates), but are generally more expensive to grow.  The positive side of roots is that you can sometimes plan them so that the animals harvest the roots right out of the field.  Turnips and rutabagas are best for winter harvesting since the roots stick out of the ground some, while hogs will harvest sweet potatoes earlier in the year.

However, roots do have their problems as winter forage for livestock.  They're all very watery, so animals have to eat a lot to get the same amount of energy they'd get from grains --- it takes four bushels of sweet potatoes to equal the nutritional value of one bushel of corn, and other roots are even worse.  Roots also tend to cause diarrhea in some animals if fed fresh in the field, and all but mangels and sugar beets change the flavor of milk.  Bob Chicken eating mustardEvans feeds his livestock 75% turnips and 25% stockpiled grass to work around some of the issues with roots.

The final option for non-grain winter feed is leafy greens.  Crucifers like kale, rape, kohlrabi, and cabbage are all eaten happily by sheep, while chickens love Swiss chard.  Our chickens seemed to prefer the mustard greens we sowed along with oats in our experimental winter pasture over the grain.  And although Austrian winter peas have a big following, our flock turned up their noses at the overwintering legumes.

Are there winter pasture options you use that I didn't mention here?  I hope you'll leave a comment and share your wisdom.

This post is part of our All Flesh is Grass lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Mar 16 12:01:17 2012 Tags:
Rubbermaid chick hover to hold heat in

The experimental mini-enclosure for our new chick coop is retired for now.

We were planning on using it to capture some heat from the Eco-Glow brooder in case the night time temperature dropped below 50.

Turns out the big, green, plastic tub was too scary for our chick's first day. Just a few went under it, and they only stayed for a brief moment before scooting back to the bunched up flock in the corner. Maybe a small night light would make it look more cozy? Now that they're older it's not as big of an issue and the weather forecast calls for warm nights in the near future.

Posted Fri Mar 16 16:42:59 2012 Tags:

Grafting waxI decided to take the plastic bags off my pear grafts since it's been getting so hot I was afraid the scionwood would cook.  The beeswax has done a remarkably good job of staying put...except for on top of one of the four pieces of scionwood.  I thought I might have just missed that spot when initially dabbing on the wax, but photographic evidence is to the contrary.

There's quite a difference in vibrancy between the scionwood that lost its cap and the one that retained its cap.  The former looks a bit shriveled up and the bud appears to have tried to open and failed, while the wax-capped twig looks plumper and content to wait until the rest of the tree starts leafing out.

Hopefully one piece of scionwood will be enough to change the variety on that pear.  I don't expect to see any growth for a month or two since grafted scionwood often waits to wake up until after the rootstock has already put out leaves.  Stay tuned for further updates.

Our chicken waterer keeps chickens healthy with POOP-free water.
Posted Sat Mar 17 08:14:31 2012 Tags:
How to make a fake flower from junk material

Items needed to build your own customized daffodils.

1. 3/32 drill bit

2. 14 gauge galvanized wire

3. yellow electric fence insulators

4. warped sense of aesthetics

Posted Sat Mar 17 16:43:51 2012 Tags:
Outdoor chick brooder

Peering chicksThey don't call them chickens for nothing.

24 hours after I fenced off an outdoor playpen for the chicks, they were still huddled around the doorway, drawing straws to decide who should go first.

I cut off their fresh greens deliveries, but sprinkled some clover on top of the ramp to tempt the chicks closer.  I had expected an Australorp to lead the way, so I was surprised to find that a Marans/Australorp hybrid was the bravest.

Marans/Australorp hybridOnce she hopped down onto the ground a couple of times, of course, everyone else had to follow suit.  And they started grazing like cows!

I don't think of chickens as being able to digest excessive amounts of greenery, but our Australorps continue to prove me wrong.  I think that tender spring growth, especially, is quite digestible even if you only have a single stomach. 

Chicks on pasture

Looks like I'll need to expand that playpen tomorrow or the next day.  Maybe by then, the chicks will be big enough that I can use our usual temporary fencing material and give them more room to play.

Our chicken waterer continues to keep the brooder clean and dry and the chicks healthy.
Posted Sun Mar 18 08:39:39 2012 Tags:
How to fix a broken truck tailgate

Our mechanic was able to track down a used tailgate at a local junk yard for only 100 bucks. 25 for delivery and another 25 for hammer adjustments and lubrication.

Anna thinks it looks like just another tailgate, but for me it seems like an improvement. I know the color doesn't match, but that shade of red has some sort of emotional charge I can't seem to put my finger on. Maybe it's connected with that scene in the original Matrix movie where a woman walks by in a red dress during Neo's first self aware simulation?

There's hardly a scratch on it, which implies it grew up with a silver spoon in its mouth and lived a life of privilege not unlike our cat Huckleberry.

Posted Sun Mar 18 14:59:42 2012 Tags:

Storing cardboardI hardly know where to start telling you the story of the cardboard motherlode.  Mark was the one who found it, even though we were both in the same room.  My husband has developed quite a knack for ferreting out biomass going to waste, so when our friends told us that they were bringing a lot of cardboard boxes to the recycling center, Mark's ears perked right up.

The story is a bittersweet one of composting old dreams, and made me feel very lucky that we'd started our microbusiness and writing ventures in the era of the internet.  The owner of the unwanted boxes is a writer who had gone the semi-traditional self-publishing route decades ago.  He ordered thousands of copies of his books, enough to make it worthwhile to get them printed, then a big truckload of cardboard boxes to use when mailing the texts to customers.

Rotting cardboardAt that time, it wasn't really possible to follow my microbusiness admonition to keep your startup costs below $1,000 and not to fill your barn with inventory, nor could our friend easily sell his books to a worldwide market at no cost (except a per-book fee) on Amazon.  I suspect he also didn't really need the cash, and liked writing more than he liked marketing his works --- having to go get a job in Kingsport if our microbusinesses fail is a strong incentive to keep our noses to the grindstone.

So the books sat in our friend's office and the boxes moldered in his barn until Mark heard about their planned journey to the recycler.  The books were already gone, but three huge bales of cardboard boxes were free for the taking.  They'd been sitting on the ground for years and some had lost as much as half their mass into the soil, but most were perfect kill mulch material.

Stored biomassSome of the partially degraded boxes had mycelium growing on them, which just supports my hypothesis that corrugated cardboard is like candy for soil microorganisms.  I've been wondering lately whether Steve Solomon is right to say that the glue is what makes cardboard so enticing, or whether the answer is much simpler.  Could the corrugations give just the right amount of air space to keep the cardboard moist but still well aerated, creating the perfect environment for fungal growth?

We've stockpiled the cardboard with the straw at our parking area and I carry in a big duffel bag full each time I walk Lucy.  I'd like to say the cardboard will feed my garden forever, but I figure it might last...two weeks?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional, filthy waterers.
Posted Mon Mar 19 08:13:36 2012 Tags:

The Bee-friendly BeekeeperAs regular readers know, I've been pondering alternative beekeeping methods all winter.  Both of our hives (semi-traditional Langstroth) died last fall, so we're buying two packages of chemical-free bees to start over this spring.  One package will go into a top bar hive courtesy of Everett, but I haven't quite decided whether the other colony will go back into our Langstroth hives (managed in Michael Bush's style) or whether they'll go into a Warre hive.

When I explained the differences between Warre and top bar hives before, I said that the book to read on Warre hives is Abbe Warre's Beekeeping for All.  However, I ended up instead picking up a copy of David Heaf's The Bee-friendly Beekeeper.  This modern book sums up the experiments and innovations that have accumulated since the Warre hive hit the English-speaking world in 2006.  It has lots of pretty pictures to make the text more understandable and is definitely worth hunting down (even though it's expensive in the U.S. since the book is British).  The author is a bit preachy about sustainability of materials and the book is short (referring you back to Beekeeping for All for more information), but I like the way Heaf has clearly delved into the scientific literature to find real facts about natural beekeeping.

Stay tuned for information about the Warre hive all week in my lunchtime series.  Meanwhile, maybe you can help me decide whether it's crazy to try out two new beekeeping methods at once, or whether it's an unparalleled opportunity for a side by side comparison of horiztontal and vertical top bar hives.

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

Posted Mon Mar 19 13:04:38 2012 Tags:
webcam to be pointed at cute new born chicks in the near future

It's been a full year since I first posted about the chicken cam project and I'm happy to report we've made some progress.

We're still working out some of the technical details. Turns out the wireless feature is a bit spotty, which we plan to fix with a long ethernet cable.

The webcam box will have a 5 gallon bucket lid for a roof so that it can extend out past the plexiglass.

Posted Mon Mar 19 15:48:40 2012 Tags:
Peach flowers

If you have the opportunity to plant a peach tree right outside your kitchen window, I highly recommend it.  For the last few days, I've been torn between watching chicken TV and pollinator TV as we eat our meals, but I think I might prefer the pollinators.

Moth and butterfly

I can identify butterflies, moths, greater bee flies, honeybees, and bumblebees from a distance, but the rest of the pollinators are too small for me to easily distinguish unless I snap a photo to peruse inside.  If you've got a lot of tiny native bees you're itching to identify, I recommend flipping through Attracting Native Pollinators, or asking for help at

Or you can just watch the tiny pollinators buzz around your blooms and guess how many different species are present.  They work just as hard even if we don't know who they are.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicken tractors since it never spills on uneven ground.
Posted Tue Mar 20 07:58:55 2012 Tags:
Anna Warre hive

Warre hive diagramThe Warre hive (sometimes called the "vertical top bar hive") is named after a French abbot who developed a simple hive that could easily be constructed by the common Joe.  On the surface, the hive looks a lot like the Langstroth hives that are so common in the U.S., but the boxes are smaller, the wood is thicker, and there's an insulated "quilt' and roof area.  In addition, beekeepers usually use top bars instead of framed foundation.

Even though the Warre hive resembles the Langstroth hive, it is managed in a completely different manner.  Warre beekeepers believe that protection of the natural heat and scent within the hive is of utmost importance, and that every type of manipulation by the beekeeper requires the bees to work harder to maintain the Nestduftwarmebindung.  So beekeepers refrain from rearranging combs (for example, to open up the brood box) since that moves scents around, and they strive not to take the top off the hive more than once a year.

Despite what that last sentence sounds like, Warre beekeepers don't ignore their bees all year and then expect to harvest lots of honey.  They understand that the larger a hive is, the harder the bees have to work to keep out wax moths and diseases, so they add extra boxes at intervals throughout the spring and summer just like a Langstroth beekeeper would.  The difference is that they put the boxes on the bottom --- nadiring --- which is achieved by hefting the whole hive upward using a pulley-based hive lift.  The bees barely notice the intrusion, and the Nestduftwarmebindung stays in place within the hive.

Inside a Warre hiveThroughout the year, Warre beekeepers also spend a lot of time observing the hive to ensure that all's well within.  They listen to the hive, watch and smell at the entrance, and even put their hand on the quilt that covers the top box to estimate its warmth.  Many beekeepers weigh their hives to check on honey stores, and some Warre boxes have observation windows (fitted within insulated shutters when not in use) to allow non-intrusive viewing.

In the fall, the beekeeper opens up the hive more fully for the first time.  In the past months, the bees have filled up box after box, naturally moving their brood area into new boxes below and replacing brood above with honey.  The beekeeper is able to remove whole boxes of honey off the top to crush and strain, which is the most intrusion the hive ever sees.

Here's the catch --- Warre hives don't produce as much honey as Langstroth hives.  In The Bee-friendly Beekeeper, David Heaf notes that you should expect only half as much honey from a Warre hive as from a Langstroth hive, and Heaf insinuates that forcing bees to make so much honey is one of the factors that leads to decline of modern apiaries.

Hive lift, nadiring a Warre hiveOn the other hand, Heaf also argues that Warre hives don't need as much honey to get them through the winter due to the better thermal performance of the hive.  He leaves only 26 pounds of honey for his hives in the UK and says that, in general, Warre hives need about 67% as much honey to overwinter as Dadant hives do.  (Dadant hives are related to Langstroth hives, but have fallen out of favor.)

I'm very torn about the idea of adding a Warre hive to our homestead, but not because of the lower honey yields.  On the one hand, the Nestduftwarmebindung principle makes intuitive sense to me, especially once I read that a hive can sometimes take three days to regain its temperature after being opened and that cool temperatures in the hive can encourage pests and diseases.  On the other hand, I'm a nervous nellie, and can't quite imagine not going through the brood nest at intervals to make sure everything's okay.  I'm also envisioning setting up a hive lift wrong and ending up with bees spilled all over the ground, and losing lots of swarms to the world since you can't manage reproduction very well in the Warre hive.  (More on that in a later post.)

On the third hand, it's new, different, and intriguing.  How could I resist?

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

Posted Tue Mar 20 12:01:15 2012 Tags:
John Deere work glove field review with photo

john deereAfter a few months of medium to heavy activity the new John Deere work gloves barely seem to be showing much wear. Normally I'd get a hole in one of the fingers by now.

Of course the real test will be to see how they hold up at the 6 and 9 month interval.

Posted Tue Mar 20 15:49:17 2012 Tags:
Blackberries leafing out

It's awfully easy to let even thornless blackberries turn into an impenetrable jungle.  Just forget to tip prune them one summer, then you're unable to mow the tall weeds that pop up under their arching canes.  By fall, the row looks like a wild briar patch.

The first step in renovating a patch like this (or any other kind of overgrown bramble) is to prune out the worst canes.  I snip off all of the rooted canes in the aisle and then cut the plants back to a main stem with branches six to twelve inches long.  Meanwhile, I pull or cut out dead canes from previous years.  I'm not really pruning yet, just opening up the patch so I can get in there.

Mulching blackberriesNext, I dig out any tall weeds that rooted within the row.  Ragweed isn't a perennial, but once plants like wingstem get a foothold in your bed, even a kill mulch will have a hard time holding them back.  I might accidentally dig up a berry or two in the process, but that's not a problem --- there are plenty of brambles left.

Now that I can see what I'm doing, it's pretty simple to prune the blackberries using techniques I've explained previously.  After a good pruning and weeding job, I lay down a kill mulch along side of the berries to prevent the bad weeds I might have missed from encroaching into the planted zone.  Then I top it all off with mulch and mark a remulching and summer pruning job on my June calendar to ensure the problem doesn't reoccur.

Luckily, brambles are awfully forgiving of even the worst care.  Even though this patch looked like a jungle last summer, it will probably produce pretty well for me this year (and even better next year if I manage to keep the weeds down).  Our blueberries are more daunted by weeds, and I can see a big difference between the plants I managed to remulch last summer and the ones that got away from me.  Maybe next spring, I'll be so on top of the perennials, everyone will be in good shape.

Our chicken waterer is always POOP-free.
Posted Wed Mar 21 07:31:13 2012 Tags:

Pretty Warre hiveHeat retention is such an integral topic to Warre beekeeping that I thought it deserved its own post.  The entire hive is designed around the idea of making the inside easy for the bees to keep warm while preventing too much heat loss (or gain in extremely hot areas) from the outside.

The extra boxes at the top of the Warre hive are meant to prevent condensation inside the hive while still keeping the interior warm.  The part I'm the least clear on is the vent under the eaves of the roof --- it doesn't connect to the rest of the hive, and I think its purpose is to move hot air away from the top of the hive when the sun is pounding down in the summer.

Warre quiltBelow the roof comes the "quilt" layer, which is actually a wooden box with burlap attached to the bottom so it can hold straw, wood shavings, or leaves.  The organic matter acts as insulation and also soaks up moisture, preventing the problem of condensed cold water dripping on the bees in the winter.  The beekeeper changes out the insulation layer every year, or more often if it feels damp.

Cloth inner cover of a Warre hiveNext down comes another piece of cloth that takes the place of the inner cover of the Langstroth hive.  The cloth is somewhat permeable to moisture-laden air, so it allows damp to move upward into the quilt where it won't bother the bees.  The cloth can also be pried back partially to peek inside the colony, a process that doesn't tend to jar the hive as much as removing a wooden inner cover would.

The Warre hive body itself is considerably smaller than boxes in Langstroth hive, again for the purpose of heat retention.  The winter cluster fills more of a Warre box than a Langstroth box, which makes it easier for the bees to stay warm.  Meanwhile, their honey stores are above the cluster rather than to either side of them, so the bees can travel up to eat (which is easier than sideways, around frames).

Speaking of frames, even the top bar setup is part of the heat retention design.  Warre believed that frames make it harder for bees to heat the hive because air flows up the gap Warre hive in winterbetween the frame and the walls.  Without frames, the bees build their comb all the way to the sides of the boxes, creating a more solid barrier to air movement.

David Heaf's final observation on the topic is that mesh floors are problematic because they increase consumption of honey by 20% in the winter without (he believes) cutting down on varroa numbers.  Although some beekeepers put a solid drawer under the mesh in the winter, that just makes a spot for debris and microorganisms to accumulate where bees can't reach and sanitize the hive.

The reason I'm spending a whole post on talking about the heat-retentive design of the Warre hive is because I think it would be possible to take a hybrid approach without embracing the entirety of the Warre method.  If you were afraid of nadiring and really wanted to be able to check on your bees at intervals, you still might get better results by changing over to a Warre hive structure without using the entire set of management techniques.  Or you might simply add a Warre-type roof, quilt, and cloth assemblage to the top of a Langstroth hive and see what happens.  I figure our eventual beekeeping system will probably be a mish-mash of bits and pieces we like from many different beekeepers' philosophies, so it's worth understanding how and why certain methods work.

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

Posted Wed Mar 21 12:01:25 2012 Tags:
encouraging broody behavior in a hen

This is the latest attempt at encouraging one of our hens to get in a broody mood.

We've been saving fertilized eggs, and with any luck one of them will start sitting full time in a few days.

The plan will be to block her in once she shows an interest. We also want to keep other hens from disturbing that broody feeling.

Posted Wed Mar 21 15:42:05 2012 Tags:

Blooming topworked pear

All of the websites say you have nothing to lose by topworking your fruit trees, but that's not quite true.  You do lose something very important --- time.

Our young pear trees bloomed enough to produce a couple of fruits last year, and judging by the limbs I left behind this spring, the trees would have been loaded this fall if I hadn't lopped off the tops.  But I figure, better delicious pears in two years than pears I consider insipid now.

Long-horned beetle

Of course, I got sucked into photographing pollinators while I was out looking at the fruit trees, and I was interested to see that the peaches and pears have very different insects buzzing around their flowers.  The pear trees had attacted a few small bees and a wasp, but the most common pollinator was the soldier beetles (or maybe long-horned beetles or both?) shown below and to the left.

Soldier beetle on pear flower

Blooming fruit treesIn stark contrast, I spent two minutes walking around our biggest peach tree and saw honeybees, bumblebees, wasps, butterflies, several types of smaller wild bees, a greater bee fly...but no beetles.  I wonder if the pollinator preference is due to the type of tree, or is just a byproduct of the bigger mass of peach flowers drawing in more aerial pollinators.  (That's an elm tree blooming in the far background, by the way.)

Fruit tree ecosytem

Three more gratuitous spring photos, counterclockwise from top --- a hungry spider, the most common bee out yesterday, and coming attractions (apple buds).

Our chicken waterer keeps the coop bedding dry and your chickens hydrated with clean water.
Posted Thu Mar 22 07:32:48 2012 Tags:

Queen bee breedingOver the last three years, I've gotten good at swarm prevention, and even splitting hives to reproduce them without buying new bees.  However, David Heaf makes a good argument for such manipulations being bad for bees and posits that our honeybees would be healthier if we stayed closer to their natural reproductive system.

Heaf explains that the queens in commercially purchased hives are problematic for several reasons.  First, there's the issue of low genetic diversity since most hives in the U.S. are the offspring of only 500 breeder queens.  There's a genetic bottleneck on the male side too since traditional beekeepers believe in cutting out drone comb so the excess males won't be a drain on the hive, and since some commercial operations artificially inseminate their breeder queens.

Mating honeybeesSince you probably didn't learn about bee sex in high school, let me back up here.  When a queen bee matures in nature, she flies out of the hive to a drone congregation area, where all of the male bees from the surrounding region are hanging out and drinking beer...ahem, waiting for a queen to appear.  They fly after her and several drones will usually mate with the queen (dying in the process).  The queen stores all of that sperm and uses it over the course of her life to fertilize eggs.  Despite the fact that there are plenty of drones in her hive, the queen never mates again after having her youthful fling.

Multiply mated queens seem to result in healthier hives, perhaps because the workers produced by the queen are more genetically diverse.  (Many of them are half sisters, with different fathers who provided different traits to their offpsring.)  Perhaps that's why Honeybee swarmworkers prefer multiply mated queens and may supersede a queen who wasn't promiscuous enough during her Rumspringa.

Another issue with mainstream beekeeping genetics is a lack of culling.  When a commercial operation raises bees, they keep all of the normal-looking queens to send out to customers, but nature is much more relentless.  When a hive decides to swarm, the workers produce several queens, but only 10% or so are allowed to survive and take over the colony.  Then there's another round of culling in the winter when 80% of new swarms die in the wild.  The result is that only the toughest colonies survive, in stark contrast to our mainstream beekeeping system that props up weak hives with chemicals and feeding.  True, we would lose lots of colonies if we simply deleted the chemicals and culled weak hives, but we'd also slowly breed for bees that are more self-sufficient and less prone to succumb to disease.

Bait hiveWhich is all a long way of explaining why David Heaf believes the potential of Warre hives to swarm is a feature, not a bug.  Letting the bees reproduce naturally via swarming helps increase the genetic diversity of your bees, while also culling weak hives before they start.  You may lose some bees to the surrounding area, but if you build bait hives, you will capture some as well.  Swarming cuts down on your honey harvest for the year, but the theme of Warre beekeeping is healthy bees not maximum honey yields.

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

Posted Thu Mar 22 12:01:20 2012 Tags:
Club Car golf cart crossing a creek

Today was by far our driest day of 2012.

Big chance of rain tonight, so we decided to push the golf cart past its comfort level.

Yeah....we got stuck a few times, but a large stack of straw bales and several 5 gallon buckets of manure made it well worth the effort.

Posted Thu Mar 22 16:15:01 2012 Tags:

Worm binRegular readers may recall our ill-fated school worm bin project from last year.  When we decided that collecting food scraps from our local middle school wasn't worth the effort, I let the worm bin contents mellow for a while and then added some raw horse manure and bedding.  Next, I proceeded to ignore the bin for another seven months.

The extended neglect wasn't as awful as it sounds since worms in an above-ground bin are mostly dormant during the winter.  Last week, I poked around inside and was thrilled to see that the year-old contents --- food scraps, wood chips, shredded newspaper, and torn Worm castingscardboard --- had been completely digested into high quality worm castings.  Yes, there was some junk in there, mostly shredded envelope windows and bits of non-biodegradable trash that the kids threw in with the food scraps.  But the quality of the castings themselves was higher than any I've ever seen.

That said, there wasn't much of it.  Not counting the horse manure (which I left in the bin to keep the worms active until I add more manure), we ended up with 9 buckets of worm castings from 7 initial buckets of worms and castings, plus around 500 pounds of food scraps and about as much bedding.  That means our entire school worm bin project boiled down to 10 gallons of castings!  (It's possible that the initial 35 gallons of worms and castings shrunk a bit too since the biomass wasn't 100% digested when we bought it, so it might be more fair to say we got 20 gallons of castings from the project.)

Buckets of compostAlthough I'm amazed at how much the compostables shrunk, I'm excited to put the compost to work in the garden.  We were lucky enough to be able to drive all 9 buckets in and I plan to put them to work immediately to feed the carrots, cabbage, and parsley I'll be planting next week.  I'm hopeful that, like biochar, worm castings will increase the long term health of the garden soil.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional chicken waterers.

Posted Fri Mar 23 07:34:35 2012 Tags:

Honeybee visiting ragweedThe final eye-opener in The Bee-friendly Beekeeper wasn't specific to Warre hives at all.  Instead, Heaf's information about the optimal environment for apiaries is relevant to any kind of beekeeping.

Most beekeepers, like me, tend to think that as long as bees have plenty of flowers around, they're in good shape for food.  However, Heaf explained that all pollen isn't created equal, and that each species' flowers produce pollen with different amounts and types Bees storing pollenof proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals.  Just like the healthy homesteader wants to eat several types of vegetables rather than relying on carrots alone, the healthy bee needs a diversity of pollen sources to round out its diet.  Scientists have found that bees forced to subsist on only one or a few types of pollen tend to get sick more often, presumably because they're malnourished.  So, don't just plant fields of white clover or buckwheat for your bees --- work to diversify the wild and cultivated landscape to keep your hives healthy.

The other interesting environmental issue relates to cramming bees together into apiaries.  A variety of scientific studies have shown that feral honeybees spread their homes out across the landscape, both so they don't compete with other hives for forage and also so they don't give each other diseases.  In areas like Australia where varroa mites are absent Apiaryand other parasites and diseases are rare, honeybees may live as close together as 197 colonies per square mile (or 3 acres apiece).  However, problematic areas in the U.S. with high varroa mite counts have been found to support only 3 feral colonies per square mile.

The middle ground seems to be providing around 21 to 35 acres per colony of honeybees (a density of 18 to 31 colonies per square mile).  When you're looking at your bee density, you should take your neighbors into consideration, figuring that bees avidly forage within about a mile of their home and do 95% of their hunting within the inner 3.7 miles.  So, if you only own an acre, but know there are no other honeybees within four miles, you can have a lot more hives in your apiary without undue crowding than if you owned 50 acres but were surrounded by beekeepers on every side.  You might also consider spreading your hives out across whatever land you do have rather than keeping them close together in an apiary situation.

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

Posted Fri Mar 23 12:01:25 2012 Tags:
loaded truck in Feed store parking lot

Spent the whole day hunting and gathering in the big city.
Posted Fri Mar 23 16:57:01 2012 Tags:
Spring garden

Spring weedsThe mule garden appears so idyllic...until you look closer and notice that several of the beds have grown up in a mass of chickweed and purple dead nettle.  My greens overwintered well enough under the quick hoops to outcompete most weeds, but the lettuce mostly died and left plenty of warm, bare ground into which invaders could sprout.

If I'd been smart, I would have taken down the hoops once the lettuce died and let the cold slow down the weeds, then ripped the chickweed out and mulched the bare soil.  But I've spent all month working on the perennials, only giving the vegetable garden enough care to get early spring beds planted.  Luckily, there's a way to remediate the weedy ground without tilling --- a kill mulch.

Kill mulchFirst, I ripped off the worst of the above-ground weeds and laid down a thin layer of cardboard.  In my perennial patches, I've been using two thicknesses of corrugated cardboard since I have hefty weeds like wingstem trying to poke up, but one layer of cardboard is plenty as a weed barrier in a mostly-well-maintained vegetable garden.  I tossed some straw on top of the cardboard and proclaimed it done.

Meanwhile, other bare beds that won't be planted until May or June are getting a very experimental seeding of buckwheat.  The cover crop isn't frost hardy, but I've seen some leftover seeds germinating in the garden already, so I thought I'd give it a shot.  I'll let you know if we get a frost-free month to provide optimal biomass accumulation, or whether I threw my fifty cents and five minutes of time down the drain.

Our chicken waterer makes care of your backyard flock easy, clean, and fun.
Posted Sat Mar 24 07:54:34 2012 Tags:
diy electric wire holder project 5 gallon bucket low budget and easy

electric wire holder failure and what went wrong
The Do It Yourself electric wire holder didn't perform so well in the field due to 2 major problems.

1. Top heavy to the point of wanting to tip over.

2. No tension on the spool equals a tangled mess.

Stay tuned for version 2.0, which will make an attempt at solving both issues.

Posted Sat Mar 24 14:36:40 2012 Tags:

Cabbage seedlingI don't usually start many (or even any) seeds inside, for a variety of reasons.  I don't believe in extreme climate control, preferring to enjoy the temperature swings of spring, so tender tomato seedlings on my windowsill are as likely to get stunted as they are to thrive.  Plus, even our south-facing windows don't really provide enough light for young vegetables, and I don't want the energy cost of running supplemental lighting.  Finally, I don't believe in buying potting soil, and there's only so much stump dirt to go around, so it usually goes to my dwarf citrus trees.

Instead, I start broccoli, cabbage, and tomatoes in quick hoops a month or so before their outside planting dates.  The seedlings get off to a slightly slower start than those of our neighbors, but produce very well --- in fact, I think we get more tomatoes off our vines than folks do who buy big starts from the store since our tomatoes are never shocked.  (My seedlings are small when I transplant them, and I generally get all their roots in a big gob of dirt that I move with the young plant.)  My method is very low work since the seedlings are right in the earth and exposed to the sun from day 1, which means they don't need to be waterered, turned, potted up, etc and I don't have problems like spindly growth, damping off, and insects.  I'm willing to eat my first tomatoes a week later than my neighbors do if it means less worrying and a bigger harvest in the end.

Seedling flat outsideBut this year has been a little different.  First, I found a second source of stump dirt which I was itching to use.  And second, our weather has been so balmy that I've been able to put flats outside to spend most of their childhood in the sun, just sprouting the seeds inside and then taking the seedlings back in during really cold spells.  So I have broccoli and cabbage seedlings just about ready to go in the ground weeks before I did last year, and am crazy enough to have started a flat of tomatoes and peppers indoors.  (I may regret the latter since they'll have to be repotted once or twice before our frost-free date.  Unless spring continues to be crazy hot, in which case I'll just put them in the ground really early and see what happens.)

Poppy seedlings and weedsThere is something to be said for starting transplants inside for a no-till garden.  If you don't have to rake back the mulch and expose large expanses of bare ground, there's less weeding work to be done later, which is why Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening method uses nearly all transplants.  For example, I'm going to have to weed this bed of poppies before I mulch it to rip out the clover and other seedlings that popped up from seeds in the compost.

I don't think I'm ever going to follow Bartholomew's lead and transplant things like lettuce, but I'll be curious to compare transplants from my flats vs. quick hoops this summer.  Maybe my garden needs a little of both methods.

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to leave town for a long weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Sun Mar 25 08:27:11 2012 Tags:
using a networked web camera to keep tabs on new born chicks

The new chicken webcam is waiting for the mailman to bring us a 200 foot ethernet cable from Amazon.

With any luck we'll have it in place for the next group of new born chicks which should start making some noise in a couple of weeks.

It snaps an image every minute or two, and most are average scenes of chick life, but the above picture seemed to capture them in some sort of group pose.

Posted Sun Mar 25 14:51:34 2012 Tags:
Spring chickens on pasture

There's not going to be a lunchtime series this week since I've been lazing around enjoying spring.  So I thought I'd plug my chicken blog, where I've been posting the long versions of all of our crazy chicken experiments.  If you're interested in raising chickens on pasture, hatching your own eggs, or just looking at cute chick photos, that site is the place to be.

Meanwhile, I've been slowly but surely tagging old lunchtime series so they're easier to find.  You can now read all of the lunchtime series through March 2009 by clicking on that link.

Finally, there's always the archives.  Joey made it very user friendly a year or so ago, and since then we've had half a dozen emails from folks who have started at the beginning and read all the way through.  Maybe you'd like to join the ranks of the Walden Effect obsessed?

Thanks for reading, and happy spring!

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Mon Mar 26 07:32:52 2012 Tags:
running over a piece of scrap carpet with a lawn mower that also mulches

It just doesn't feel like Spring to me until I push the mower.

A piece of scrap carpet was the only thing that got tangled up during today's mowing session.

That got me to thinking about all the flywheel shaft key problems I was having back in 2009 and 2010, and how we made it all the way through the 2011 season without breaking that darn shaft key.

Posted Mon Mar 26 16:41:37 2012 Tags:

First asparagusIt was hard to believe in Monday night's frost warning as Mark and I worked outside in t-shirts on a sunny, 60 degree afternoon.  But we live down in a valley, so when the weather forecast predicts a low of 35, I figure it will probably freeze.  Luckily, it's going to warm back up today and then stay above freezing for the rest of the week, so I could get away with quick and dirty frost protection.

The first step in protecting your garden from cold is to take care of the low hanging fruit.  Asparagus spears are frost sensitive, so go pick anything you've got and eat them for dinner.  If you have seedlings in flats hardening off outside, bring them in for the night.

Next, decide which plants are going to have the most trouble.  Cold tolerant plants like lettuce, onions, and leafy greens will probably be okay as long as you don't have a killing frost (below 25), but younger seedlings are more sensitive.  I chose to cover up my baby broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, swiss chard, and arugula seedlings since they are all in the cotyledon or one true leaf stage, but I left my onions (at least two true leaves apiece) and all of the over-wintered greens alone.

Row coverA lot of the seedlings I chose to protect would have been under quick hoops during a normal spring, but it didn't seem worthwhile to erect the structures when there were no frosts on the horizon.  For just a few days, row cover fabric draped over the plants and weighed down with rocks works just fine.  In fact, if you've only got one night of predicted freezes, like we do this week, you can put just about anything on the beds the night before and take them off once the frost melts --- old sheets, blankets, filthy row cover fabric that doesn't let light through anymore, tarps, upturned buckets, etc.

Strawberry flowersFruit plants are also sensitive to spring frosts once they start to bloom.  According to my critical temperature chart, we shouldn't be in danger of losing any of our tree fruits as long as the temperature stays above 28, which is a good thing because I haven't had much luck swaddling peach limbs to protect the flowers in the past.  If I had a small tree I really cared about, I might fill a kiddie pool or a bunch of five gallon buckets up with water, line the containers up around the base of the tree, then throw a tarp over the whole thing.  Or, maybe, leave sprinklers running all night, but that would use a lot of water.

My strawberries are another matter.  The plants in the front garden are shaded by the hillside all winter and haven't started to bloom yet, but beds in the most sunny part of the garden are coated in flowers.  Even though strawberries are sensitive (open blooms will be nipped at 30 degrees), they're small enough to protect easily, so I rustled up some old row cover fabric and weighed it down over the berry plants with bricks.

Hardy kiwi leavesThe plants I'm most concerned about are actually my hardy kiwis.  Despite the name, I've found them to be quite sensitive to frost once they wake up in the spring, and I'm afraid we might lose the current flush of leaves.  Last year, the kiwis were so small that Mark was able to protect each plant under a five gallon bucket, but the vines have run for several feet along the trellis wires since then.  I couldn't quite wrap my head around protecting the tender vines, so I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Tue Mar 27 07:32:40 2012 Tags:
2 gallon bucket electric fence wire holder improvements

It works a lot better now!

Turns out a 2 gallon bucket is just the right size for the new and improved DIY electric fence wire holder.

Ordered a special orchard gizmo that allows the wire to be pulled through one way and clamps down on it when it's pulled in the other direction.

Cut an old license plate to size so that it would fit over the spool and act as a tensioner. What you don't see is a small hole in the bottom so you can reach in and feed the wire through the orchard wire vise.

Posted Tue Mar 27 16:12:39 2012 Tags:

Bolting kaleSaving seed from kale is a lot more complex than I expected.  We grew three varieties this year, of which Winterbor was my least favorite (not as productive and faster to bolt in the spring without producing many leaves first).  But both Improved Dwarf Siberian and Red Russian are keepers, the first for its cold hardiness and high productivity and the second for its color and taste.  What would I have to do to save seeds from both the Siberian and the Russian?

Seed to Seed clued me in to the fact that what we call kale can actually be in two different species.  The most common types of kale (including Winterbor) are in Brassica oleracea along with collards, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage.  On the other hand, some kales commonly called Siberian or Russian are in Brassica napus along with rutabagas and rape.  (That said, some "Siberian" kales might be in B. oleraceae, and the source of my Improved Dwarf Siberian Kale lists it thus on their website.)

To confuse matters even more, Brassica napus might not really be its own species.  Rutabagas appeared seemingly out of nowhere in Europe during the Middle Ages, and some sources suggest that varieties in this "species" arose from different hybridizations beween B. oleracea and B. rapa (the latter of which contains Chinese cabbage, Asian greens, turnips, and broccoli raab).  For example, Siberian kale might have sprung up when a B. oleracea kale crossed with a B. napa Asian mustard, while the rutabaga might be a hybrid between kale or collards and a turnip.  This website provides evidence that Red Russian kales might be the result of a three way hybridization when the already hybrid Siberian kale was crossed with black mustard (B. nigra). 

After doing all that reading, my head was spinning and I still didn't know which kales cross with each other.  I digested for a while (and read some more) and came up with these rules of thumb:

  • Winterbor kaleYou can hand-pollinate and sometimes get crosses between species, but you probably don't need to worry about unintentional cross-pollination between plants in different species.
  • Most kales (B. oleracea) are outbreeding plants that will hybridize with other kales in the same species and with cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collards, and kohlrabi.
  • Siberian kale might be in B. oleraceae, in which case see above.  If not, see below.
  • Russian kale, Hanover Salad, and Winter Rape kale (B. napus) are inbreeding plants, but will cross with other kales of the same type, and with rutabagas, some turnips, and winter rape.

(See this post to understand what I mean when I talk about outbreeding and inbreeding plants.)

As long as I rip out my turnips (which I wasn't going to save the seeds of anyway), it sounds like I can probably save Red Russian kale seeds with no extra effort.  (That's assuming that the seed company is right and Improved Dwarf Siberian is in a different species --- I've emailed them to confirm.)  To save seeds from my Improved Siberian kale, I'll just need to make sure that the few broccoli plants that survived the winter don't go to seed and to eat up the last of our Winterbor kale so it doesn't bloom.  Maybe keeping two varieties of kale in my garden is easy after all.

Our chicken waterer deletes a filthy daily task --- emptying the poop out of traditional waterers.
Posted Wed Mar 28 07:48:50 2012 Tags:
cute chicks on live webcam all day and all night

It's working!...and I'm now prepared to announce the launch of what I consider to be the best live chick cam on the internet.

Sometimes you might just see an empty feeder, but chances are one of them will migrate towards the camera for the next refresh. They're very animated at this stage.

We don't have any way of storing the cuteness unless one of us happen to be watching and then right clicks to save image. If any of you capture a masterpiece this way please email them to us and we'll display some of the more ultra cute ones.

Posted Wed Mar 28 15:41:35 2012 Tags:

Mowing preparationAll winter, the yard fills up with this and that --- cardboard leftover from a kill mulch project, chairs from a family gathering, dismantled pieces of a chicken tractor.  Since we don't have neighbors to complain, I suspect I'd never clean up if mowing season didn't roll around.

Starting last year, we have a new spring tradition.  The first lawn mowing afternoon is a two person job --- I run around picking up bits and pieces while Mark pushes the mower.  Some things just Early spring mowingget stacked up to expedite mowing, but I also fill a bag with trash, move building supplies to the barn, and take down quick hoops that are no longer in use.

I know I failed at my job when I hear the awful sound of the mower bogging down on a forgotten bit of junk.  Luckily, the piece of carpet I missed didn't do much damage.

If my house ever looked so spic and span, I might let strangers inside....

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock quick, clean, and fun.
Posted Thu Mar 29 07:33:58 2012 Tags:
rainbow in the dark during a day in the garden

Dry enough to get the sprinkler irrigation system going today, but still too wet for golf cart hauling.

Posted Thu Mar 29 16:36:20 2012 Tags:
Chick butts

Incubator trayThe bad news is --- we're not going to have another round of cute chicks on Monday.  I made a stupid mistake, plugging the turner that goes with our incubator into a power strip amidst a jumble of unlabeled cords.  Sometime during the incubation process, the turner got unplugged, and I didn't notice until Thursday.

The one flaw with the Brinsea Octagon 20 is that there's no indicator light on the turner.  It rotates about as slowly as clouds move (which means you can't tell at a glance that it's working), and any motor noise is overpowered by the separately plugged in incubator Chick scratching up leavesunit.  So it's awfully easy to unplug your turner and not notice for days or weeks.  (Note to self: tape turner plug in place next time.)

If you don't turn eggs during incubation, the embryos will stick to the shell and die.  Skipping a day or so is probably not a huge problem, but I have a sinking suspicion our turner actually got unplugged more than a week ago.  So I sent Mark out to bury the eggs and we started saving new ones.  (Yes, Mark does all the dirty (ie emotionally difficult) work around here.)

Peach tree chicken pastureThe good news is that the chicks from the last hatch are thriving.  I was actually wishing I could leave them to work up the ground under the peach tree a bit longer since they're finally starting to turn into leaf-scratchers and I want to eliminate as many bad bugs there as possible.  Since our next batch of chicks won't be hatching until the end of April now, I'll get the benefit of larger chick feet under the fruit trees rather than having to move the youngsters from the first hatch to the big coop right away to make room for newbies in the brooder.  I guess every cloud has a silver lining.

Our chicken waterer has kept our chicks healthy with POOP-free (and drown-proof) water.
Posted Fri Mar 30 07:25:55 2012 Tags:
mark Brambling
clearing out brambles the hard way by hand

We've been trying to reclaim this gully that's grown up with brambles and Japanese Honeysuckle for years now, and thanks to the new Stihl FS-90R weed eater we've finally made some serious progress on cutting it all back.

It's a decent amount of space between our mule garden and the back garden.

I guess we'll have to come up with a name for it now so it will feel at home with its neighbors.

Posted Fri Mar 30 16:59:23 2012 Tags:

Lettuce and quick hoopsI know it seems a little nuts to mow and sprinkle in March.  My notes tell me that we started mowing during the second week of April then watered the garden for the first time during the third week of April in 2010, with both spring activities running a week or two later than that in 2011.

But gardeners have to listen to the weather, and our garden is telling me to get a move on and pretend this is mid April.  I'm rushing out the remaining spring crops --- every cool weather vegetable except broccoli is in its final spot in the garden and I'll be putting out the broccoli next week.  In fact, the mule garden is just about full, which is why I felt it was worthwhile to hook up the irrigation system instead of hand watering.

Meanwhile, I'm doing crazy things like starting tomatoes, cucumbers, and watermelons Bolting kaleunder quick hoops --- yes, in March.  The ground is warm enough for the seeds to sprout, and I figure if the heat wave continues, our spring crops won't last as long as usual, so we'll need early summer crops to replace them.  This is quite a gamble, but I'll only lose a few cents' worth of seeds if a late frost is hard enough to get through the row cover fabric.

Strawberry flower

Frost-nipped kiwi leavesLuckily, this week's frost didn't do much damage.  As you can see from the yellow center of this strawberry flower, we might be getting an extra early crop despite the frost.  This strawberry was the lone indicator I left uncovered as a gauge of the air temperature, which I'm guessing only dropped to about 31.  (Strawberry flowers turn black in the center if damaged by the frost, which happens at 30 degrees Fahrenheit.)

As I suspected, the kiwi was the most tender, showing some frost-nipped leaves on the lower cordon.  It seems like the cold air only lingered in the foot closest to the ground, though, since higher leaves are still vibrantly green.  I wonder if training a hardy kiwi to grow taller would give it some frost protection?

Young kiwi leaves

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock happy with POOP-free water and something to peck at.
Posted Sat Mar 31 07:51:24 2012 Tags:
gate building for a farm perimeter to block out invading deer

This new gate is our biggest one yet, which prompted me to think about adding a diagonal brace thanks to comments from our most recent chicken pasture gate last summer.

A small turnbuckle ended up costing about 2 dollars, which can barely be seen in the photo near the center point. A short stretch of 14 gauge electric fence wire connects the end of the turnbuckle to a hole drilled through each corner.

The gap at the bottom should be sufficient to let Lucy through. What we're not sure about is if it's a big enough temptation for our invasive, white tailed friends looking for a big snack.

Posted Sat Mar 31 16:03:21 2012 Tags:

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

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