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

archives for 04/2012

Apr 2012
Peach flowers

Peach ovaryThe peach flowers are mostly done.  A few are still pretty and pink like the one shown above, but most are starting to "undress", with dried up petals slipping off of fuzzy young fruits.

If you can see the ovaries left behind when the petals drop away, you know the tree has decided to mature the fruit.  Even if you can't quite make out of the ovary, it's a good sign if you notice "dead" flowers clinging to your fruit tree twigs after the petals are gone.  Of course, late freezes, self-thinning, and all kinds of other things could result in a fruitless year even if you see ovaries at this stage, but we can always dream.

Nanking cherry ovaryOur plum tree did drop all of its flowers, as I suspected it might since this was its first bloom year, but the nanking cherry bushes seem to be keeping theirs.  So do the lower limbs of the pear trees, despite my topworking.

Old pear flowers
Apple flower buds

Still lots of floral excitement left to come in our perennial plantings this spring.  Our Blueberry flower budsVirginia Beauty apple opened up a few flowers this week, and several clusters are still in the bud stage.  Meanwhile, one of our gooseberries is also well laden.


Next up, blueberries!

Sick of cleaning out filthy, traditional waterers?  Our chicken waterers are always POOP-free.
Posted Sun Apr 1 08:31:33 2012 Tags:
tension on a turnbuckle for a garden gate support system

One problem I noticed when using 14 gauge electric fence wire as a diagonal support is the difficulty in backing off the tension if you tightened it too much.

The first alternative I thought about was nylon rope, but I'm guessing the galvanized wire would win that longevity race.

Maybe I'll use nylon rope on the next gate so we can get a side by side comparison.

Posted Sun Apr 1 16:05:54 2012 Tags:

Nibbled pear flowerLast week, I mentioned that our pear flowers were mostly being overlooked by pollinating bees, with all of the buzz centering around the peaches instead.  Since then, the peach flowers began to decline and the pears opened more fully, which did attract a few more bees to the pear blooms.  But beetles were still the primary pear pollinators.

As with most of ecology, the story is complex.  It turns out that nectar has varying sugar concentrations depending on the plant species, with one source listing the following averages:

  • Apple - 46.2%
  • Peach - 28.9%
  • Scarab beetles: HopliaPlum - 25.8%
  • Sour cherry - 23.5%
  • Pear - 9% (with other sources listing 4% to 25%)

Of course, sugar concentrations vary by variety as well, and are also affected by weather.  Low humidity leads to more sugar in nectar while high humidity waters down the kool-aid.

But all else being equal, you can see why a bee might prefer a peach flower to a pear flower (and why lack of pollination is a problem in many pear orchards).  That said, pear flowers produce large quantities of pollen, so honeybees rearing brood might spend time on there.

Paria beetle

Beetles don't seem to mind the lower sugar content of the pear blooms, perhaps because most beetles visit flowers primarily for pollen.  Whatever the reason, I continued to see lots of different kinds of beetles on my pear flowers, along with the holey petals and leaves Beetle pollinationthat are the by-product of these "mess and soil pollinators". users tentatively identified the beetles in my second photo as Hoplia (usually considered a pest since it eats rose blossoms, but seemingly doing pollinating work here) and those in the third as Paria.  I didn't try to ask for an ID on this last beetle because I couldn't zoom far enough in.

As a side note, I was interested to read that fire blight bacteria are hindered by high sugar concentrations in nectar, which is probably why pears are the most frequent victims of the illness.  Perhaps pear varieties resistant to fire blight have sugar concentrations greater than the threshold 20 to 30%?

Our chicken waterer keeps hens happy with POOP-free water.
Posted Mon Apr 2 07:33:31 2012 Tags:

Permaculture chickenThe vote was tied, so I decided to write both Permaculture Chicken and Garden Ecology at the same time, splitting the books up into bite-size segments and churning them out in whatever order suits my fancy.  The topic I was most excited to write about first was incubation...which may be why this ebook kept expanding until it was twice the size of my Weekend Homesteader ebooks.  Who knew there was so much to write about cute chicks?

Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook is now available for 99 cents from Amazon's Kindle store.  If you have Amazon Prime, you can also borrow the book for free.  No matter how you read it, many thanks in advance if you can find the time to write a brief review.  I don't know if you realize it, but it's your reviews and early purchases that have helped my ebooks reach thousands of new eyes.
Incubation cover
As usual, I'm also very glad to email you a free pdf copy if you don't have the spare cash, or just don't want to deal with downloading an app so you can enjoy the ebook on your computer or phone.  Simply email me with your request --- no strings attached.  (I will add you to my very low traffic book emailing list unless you ask me not to.)

Stay tuned at noon all week as I hit the book's highlights as this week's lunchtime series.  But there is way too much in my Incubation Handbook to fit into a few short posts, so I hope you'll give the whole thing a read, if only to enjoy the 90 plus photos and the chapter on pasturing young chicks.

Chicken incubation bookThis post is part of our Chicken Incubation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Apr 2 12:00:53 2012 Tags:
big spool of nylon rope sitting on top of a large stump in a garden

I posted yesterday about the possibility of using nylon rope instead of 14 gauge electric fence wire on our next gate.

Turns out that was a creepy suggestion that should be avoided for this particular application.

The main reason I was considering nylon was because we have a massive spool of it. (Thanks Mom)

A timely comment from Roland was what set me straight. The nylon rope would more than likely stretch over time due to the constant stress of the turnbuckle. The material science term for this influence is known as creep. A word that creeped its way into the music industry not once but three times in recent history thanks to bands like Radiohead, TLC, and Stone Temple Pilots.

Posted Mon Apr 2 16:18:58 2012 Tags:
Shriveled carrots

Egyptian onionsWe're nearly at the end of last fall's carrots.  I thought there were so many, but we've been enjoying eating them with hummus this winter, as well as in the usual cooked dishes.  Good thing spring carrots are already in the ground to replace them.

I saved back the carrots that still look plump for raw eating, but decided all the less-then-perfect carrots at the bottom of the crisper drawer needed to go into a soup.  We bought another pastured lamb recently and asked the butcher not to discard the bones, so we had just what we needed to make high Spring soupquality broth.  That rich liquid, plus the meat picked off the bones, a heaping handful of shriveled carrots, several fresh Egyptian onions, and a bit of thyme blended into a delicious spring soup.

If you're interested in my theory behind in-season soup-making, check out this post, or the longer version in Weekend Homesteader: July.  Soup is one of the easiest things to cook without a recipe!

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to leave town for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Tue Apr 3 07:55:51 2012 Tags:

Newly hatched chickWhile we'd love our favorite hens to stick around forever, chickens have a limited shelf life.  A hen begins to lay when she's about six months old, and she does her best work by the time she's a year and a half old.  Depending on how hard-nosed you are, you might keep your laying hens one year, two years, or three years, but after that, you're feeding large amounts of grain to an animal who has basically become a pet.

If you want to replace those old hens who are no longer laying enough to pay for their feed, you've got several options.  You might be able to find someone local who is selling point-of-lay hens (pullets just beginning to churn out eggs).  More likely, you'll order chicks from a hatchery.  Or, if you're willing to put in a little extra effort, you can incubate your own chicks from homegrown eggs.

Light Sussex chicksRaising new members of your flock at home has several advantages, the first of which is that you can incubate as few or as many eggs as you want.  In contrast, hatchery raised chicks usually require a minimum order of 25 birds to ensure that the youngsters produce enough body heat to survive two or three days in a mail truck.  Backyard chicken keepers will be hard pressed to find room for such a large flock.

Even more important from a permaculture point of view is the ability of the incubating homesteader to tweak the genetics of her flock.  Hatcheries that sell to the general public focus first on breeding birds well suited to surviving in a hatchery setting, often aiming for appearance as the second priority.  If you want to breed a bird that's able to hunt for its own food, you'll be much happier if you can select your best birds and raise their young to become your next generation.

Chicks on pastureAs a final point in favor of incubating your own chicks, you're the one in control of the process from start to finish.  You don't risk diseases from the hatchery or from someone else's farm coming along for the ride.  Your chickens don't have to deal with the trauma of being shut up in a box or cage for an hour or two days as they make their way to your farm.  And you can start chicks at whatever time of the year matches your schedule.  Plus, you get to enjoy the Lifetime Channel version of Chicken TV --- the miracle of new chicks pushing their way out of their shells.

This week's lunchtime series is excerpted from Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook.  I hope you'll splurge 99 cents to read the whole thing!

Chicken incubation bookThis post is part of our Chicken Incubation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Apr 3 12:01:30 2012 Tags:
automatic chicken waterer new label design with full color image

We recently upgraded our chicken waterer labels from black and white to color and the first shipment arrived today.

We're both thrilled with how vibrant the colors turned out.

Feels kind of nice to immortalize a member of our original flock this way.

Posted Tue Apr 3 16:53:02 2012 Tags:

Garter snakeI've been dipping back into Edible Forest Gardens recently because when I first read the two volume set, it was like drinking from a firehose --- a lot of the best information went right past me.  On further perusal, a throwaway line in appendix 5 caught my interest: Garter snakes are "not as beneficial to gardens as believed".

The authors didn't provide any extra information, so I've been turning the phrase over and over in my head ever since.  Jacke and Toensmeier did mention that earthworms make up 80% of a garter snake's diet, so maybe the dislike is due to garter snakes eating beneficial Snake tongueinvertebrates?  If that's the case, though, surely they would have said the same thing about worm snakes.

Since a garter snake model kindly posed for my photo shoot Monday, I thought I'd toss the question out at our readers.  Why do you think garter snakes are "not as beneficial to gardens as believed"?

Our chicken waterer is perfect in tractors since it never spills on uneven terrain.
Posted Wed Apr 4 07:32:36 2012 Tags:

Choosing hatching eggsIf you want a perfect hatch, you need to start with perfect eggs.  Factors that influence an egg's hatchability include whether the egg was fertilized, whether the shell is in good shape, and how the egg was stored.  Below, I've included the section on seasons and parentage from Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook --- be sure to check out the book to learn more about selecting eggs with a good shape and shell quality, how to store eggs before they go in the incubator, and what to expect with mail order eggs.

Time of year deserves consideration as you plan your hatch.  I prefer to incubate chicks in February and March so they're out on pasture during the peak grass-growing season of March through June, then I start another batch in late summer to take advantage of the secondary pasture peak in September through November.  If you're revitalizing your Seasonal changes in hatch ratelaying flock, it's important to have chicks out of the shell by early to mid April to ensure they are old enough to lay before days shorten in the fall.  Otherwise, you'll be feeding non-laying pullets all winter.

However, chicken biology dictates a slightly different hatch pattern.  As you can see in this chart, eggs tend to be most fertile in March through June, with a secondary peak in fertility in September and October.  Don't feel obliged to follow the chart's lead, but do be aware that your results won't be quite as good if you're trying to raise chicks in the dead of winter.

Chickens foraging in oats

A related issue is the health of the eggs' parents.  Older poultry manuals admonish you to keep your breeding stock out on lush pasture, since the high nutrition forage results in eggs that are more likely to hatch.  In my own experience, I've found that breeds of chickens that produce brighter yolked eggs (meaning that the hens ate more bugs and greenery) have higher hatch rates.

Black Australorp roosterWhile we're on the topic of parents, feed isn't the only important factor.  Hens and roosters who have just become sexually active or who are more than two years old will produce fewer fertile eggs.  I once tried to hatch eggs from four year old hens and had abysmal results, convincing me that even if these hens are still laying, most of the embryos aren't viable enough to mature.

Of course, you must have a rooster if you want chicks (even though a hen will lay unfertilized eggs when no males are around).  Some chicken keepers report issues with their roosters not mating frequently enough to ensure that all eggs are fertilized, but I've never had that problem.  On the other hand, I keep fewer hens than the recommended dozen per rooster, so my flock's patriarch doesn't have to work too hard to do his job.

Inbreeding is a more tricky issue for the backyard chicken keeper.  You may need to trade roosters with like-minded friends every year, or buy a round of straight run chicks to raise a new rooster annually, ensuring that your hens aren't mating with their brothers or fathers.  Inbreeding tends to lead to lower hatch rates and to a higher proportion of sick chicks out of the eggs that do hatch.

Chicken incubation bookThis post is part of our Chicken Incubation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Apr 4 12:01:28 2012 Tags:
carrier bag for chainsaw being reviewed after 6 months on the job protection

Its been almost a year since I started using the new chainsaw protective carrying bag, and I'm ready to report that it's definitely worth 20 dollars.

The zipper is less than perfect, but not really needed as long as you don't hold your bag in an upside down fashion.

I like the feeling of having all my chainsaw gear in one place, and it's nice to just grab the bag and know you've got most of your safety gear ready to go. Which reminds me that I need to get around to ordering a pair of chainsaw chaps.

Posted Wed Apr 4 15:55:13 2012 Tags:

Young mulberry leavesWe started planting Illinois Everbearing Mulberries in our chicken pastures a couple of years ago as future chicken feed.  Despite a lot of neglect, one of the trees from 2011 looks like it's going to make a few fruits this year.

Lee Reich likes to say that the mulberry genus name Morus refers to the plant's tendency to flower late so it's seldom nipped by frost.  Since my grasp of Latin is nonexistant, I'm going to assume he's right.  But is the beginning of April actually late?  Or is my mulberry tree more closely related to the Greek definition of Morus --- "idiot"?

Our chicken waterer keeps our flock healthy with POOP-free water.
Posted Thu Apr 5 07:37:51 2012 Tags:

Taping a power cordAfter choosing your eggs, it's time to start incubating.  The instructions that came with your machine will help you set the temperature to 99.5 degrees for a forced air model or 102 degrees for a still air model, at which point it's a good idea to let the incubator run empty for a day while you monitor the temperature and humidity and ensure it's working properly.  If there's any chance someone in your houshold will accidentally unplug the incubator in the next three weeks, tape the cord into the electric socket as insurance.  (Yes, I learned this the hard way.)

The main choice you have to make at the beginning of the incubation process is how to arrange the eggs --- vertically like they'd sit in an egg carton or horizontally the way they'd lie in a hen's nest.  Although the latter option sounds more natural, in practice I've had slightly better results with vertical incubation.  As the embryo grows, the highest point in the shell becomes an air pocket which the Filling the incubatorchick will poke its beak into shortly before hatching.  If this air pocket develops at the pointy end of the egg, the chick will find it difficult or impossible to hatch without help.  Setting the eggs vertically with the blunt end up helps ensure that the chick will be situated the right way inside the shell. 

If your incubator only allows you to lay your eggs horizontally, I wouldn't worry too much about it.  That said, some incubationists set their eggs inside an egg carton with the top cut off to allow them to incubate vertically even in a simple incubator.  More complicated incubators, like the Brinsea Octagon 20 I recommend, often have removable dividers that let you choose how to align your eggs.

Spacers in the incubator trayNo matter how you arrange them, you don't want your eggs shifting and hitting each other.  Egg turners that hold individual eggs make this point moot, but I find it helpful to add a piece of crumpled up paper in small gaps between less solidly touching eggs in our Brinsea Octagon 20 incubator.  This ensures that I have room to lay all of the eggs flat on the tray during the hatch, but that the eggs don't roll against each other and risk cracking as the turning cradle rotates the incubator.

The decisions you make during the early incubation period have a strong effect on how many healthy chicks eventually pop out of their shells.  Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook covers deciding whether to candle, tips on turning the eggs, ways to keep the internal humidity at the proper level, and what to do if the power goes out.  Check out the 99 cent ebook and become a real incubation expert!

Chicken incubation bookThis post is part of our Chicken Incubation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Apr 5 12:00:54 2012 Tags:
Chainsaw carrying bag with chainsaw and safety gear which is not an official Stihl product

Dave V commented yesterday on how he was thinking of getting a plastic hard case to carry his chainsaw around in and if I thought there might be some advantages to this over my fabric chainsaw carrying bag.

First off let me be clear that the bag I got is not an official Stihl product although the color combination is a good imitation.

I think the biggest advantage to a hard case is the added protection. If you carry your saw in the back of a truck it might be wise to use a plastic case, but I rarely take ours off the farm.

Posted Thu Apr 5 16:21:48 2012 Tags:
Dogwood winter rain

Broccoli seedlingIf I'd been watching the weather with my usual eagle eye, I wouldn't have set out two-thirds of our broccoli seedlings this week.  But I was too intent on looking at the rain percentages and hoping we wouldn't wash away in recent thunderstorms to notice the forecast lows.  (I only left the wheelbarrow out overnight to get the photo above!)

Which is all a long way of saying that frost is on the forecast for tonight and again for early next week.  So I'll be repeating my quick and dirty frost protection, trying to ensure that cold temperatures won't harm fruit plants that are even further advanced than last time.  Here's hoping we'll see just as little damage.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.
Posted Fri Apr 6 07:28:44 2012 Tags:

Newly hatched chickThe most exciting part of the incubation process can also be the most traumatic if you don't know what you're doing.  This final post in the lunchtime series tells you what to expect during hatch time, but the 99 cent ebook from which the post is drawn covers much more information.  I hope you'll splurge a buck if you want to learn more about preparing for the hatch, helping chicks out of the shell, troubleshooting incubation problems, and getting your youngsters off to a healthy start.

Chick pippingYou'll probably see at least one chick pipping (pecking the initial hole into its shell) on day 19 or 20.  I like to record the date and time each egg pips to give me an indication of whether chicks are having trouble.  I explain how and when to help chicks in another section, but for now, just be aware that it's very normal to see a delay of 8 to 12 hours between pipping and unzipping (when the chick severs the blunt end of the shell and breaks its way free).  But if a chick has pipped but not begun to unzip 24 hours later, it might be in trouble.

Taking a chick out of the incubatorIf you've done a good job with all of the early incubation steps, your chicks will probably pop right out of their shells one after another with no help from you.  Some manuals recommend leaving your chicks in the incubator for an entire day without lifting the lid to allow the youngsters to dry off completely, but I've had much better luck plucking chicks out of the incubator within 45 minutes of hatching and either plopping them into the brooder to finish drying off or placing them in a smaller incubator.

Struggling chickThe trouble with leaving chicks in the incubator after they hatch is that the baby birds will stumble around madly, rolling eggs and (in the worst case scenario) spearing partially hatched chicks with their claws.  In my experience, newly hatched chicks are upset by not having anything soft to snuggle into, so they keep hopping around even though they're exhausted.  Once I pop a newly hatched chick under our brooder, it stops peeping shrilly and soon falls asleep.

Two day old chicksThere are two downsides to removing chicks from the incubator one at a time throughout the hatch process.  Chicks come out of the shell soaked to the skin and can easily catch a chill, especially if you're hatching in cold weather.  Forty-five minutes in the incubator is just long enough that the chick's feathers are (mostly) dry, but is not long enough that they puff up into the protective ball of fuzz most of us think of when we envision a chick.  In warm weather (and even in cold weather if there are at least two or three other chicks in the brooder for the newly hatched youngster to snuggle into), this level of dry off is enough.  However, if your first chick comes out of the shell when your room temperature is below about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, you should either put up with the problems caused by leaving the chick in the main incubator until at least one more chick hatches and dries, or should place the newly hatched chick in a spare incubator for a few hours.  You'll be able to tell if you put a too-wet chick into a too-cold brooder because it will keep chirping frantically rather than quieting down after a minute or two.

Increasing humidity within the incubatorThe other issue with removing chicks from the incubator one by one is that every time you lift the lid, the incubator cools slightly and the humidity levels drop.  You can counteract this problem to some extent with speed --- open the lid with one hand while you snag the chick with the other.  If it's pretty cold in the room, I like to heat up some water until it's steaming and top off the wells when I take off the incubator lid since the hot water will keep the temperature in the incubator high and will also increase the humidity drastically.  Using an evaporating cloth (explained in another section) also helps keep the humidity within the incubator at a high level.

Two new chicksEven though it's not 100% necessary, I open the lid a second time after the new chick is safely ensconced in the brooder, this time to tidy up the interior of the incubator.  I remove large pieces of eggshell so chicks won't cut themselves on the sharp edges and I roll any disturbed eggs over so their pipping holes are facing up.  (Sometimes, a chick will stumble across a neighboring egg and turn that chick face down, which makes it harder for the down-turned chick to hatch.)  Finally, I quickly move eggs around so that ones likely to hatch soonest have a little more open space around their blunt ends.  As with removing the chick, I work quickly to ensure I don't lower the temperature and humidity in the incubator enough that it doesn't rebound a few minutes after I close the lid.

Chicken incubation bookThis post is part of our Chicken Incubation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Apr 6 12:01:24 2012 Tags:
broody hen update

It works good as the new nest area, and it seems that our hens like it, but I think she's lost that broody feeling.

I've been trying to think of methods to stimulate broody behavior. The first one is to record the sound of a broody hen and play it back for one of her sisters while she's comfortably tucked into her nest.

Not sure if it would work, but it would be nice to shift some of the chick rearing workload towards our feathered friends.

Posted Fri Apr 6 15:44:43 2012 Tags:
Clearing woods

Mark's been cutting out stumps off and on all winter to make our yard easier to mow.  I come along behind him and gather up the rotting wood (some of it nearly stump dirt) to add to my hugelkultur donuts around fruit trees in the waterlogged forest garden.

In general, the smaller stumps rot faster, just as you'd expect.  In fact, I've pulled several four inch in diameter stumps out of the ground by myself after wiggling them like loose teeth for a few seconds.  But this week's stumps didn't follow the trend.

Walnut stump

The biggest stump was well rotted despite being nearly three feet in diameter.  When Mark's saw made it all the way through, I could tell that the tree (probably a black walnut) had grown quickly in its then-pasture location, creating growth rings about an inch in diameter.  Perhaps the fast growth contributed to fast decay?

Red cedar stump

In contrast, the littlest stump had barely decomposed at all.  We both knew why as soon as the saw bit into the wood --- the odor of red cedar quickly filled the air.  I wonder how long that red cedar stump will sit in the ground before it disappears?

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Sat Apr 7 08:07:38 2012 Tags:
fixing rust spots on a metal barn roof

The barn roof repair project got wrapped up yesterday!

barn roof before pictureWe couldn't be happier...giddy is a more accurate description of the feeling I get when I walk by and look up at a fully intact roof.

It went so well we decided to hire the same guy to install a gutter on one side. The other side drains downhill towards the creek.

Posted Sat Apr 7 15:54:57 2012 Tags:

Spring garlicAs I wrote last year, April is weeding month on our farm.  My graph below shows how many beds need to be planted between February and October --- April is clearly the calm before the storm, a chance to clean up early-planted beds (or overwinterers, like this garlic) and get a head start on the May rush.

Garden beds planted

Even though I started weeding in earnest around the end of March, I already feel a bit behind.  The crazy spring heat made everything grow much faster than normal, so the early spring beds all need to be weeded and mulched ASAP.

Thinning poppiesI don't thin much, but there is a little of that on the April agenda too.  I managed to overseed the breadseed poppies (despite cutting back my seeding rates from last year) and Swiss chard always needs to be played with since more than one plant germinates from each "seed".

On the plus side, my strawberries and garlic are in much better shape than they were last spring --- a heavy fall mulch did its job.  After a fiddly hour of weeding around tiny seedlings, I like to give myself a break by ripping out the few chickweed and dead nettle plants that came up in a garlic bed.  So satisfying to weed a whole bed in under a minute!  Maybe that's what all of my weeding jobs will be like in a decade when my soil is rich, my mulch deep, and the weed seeds few.

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock so easy, we have time to grow every vegetable we eat.
Posted Sun Apr 8 08:02:16 2012 Tags:
Stihl stump clearing

Our new Stihl MS 211 chainsaw is about to turn a year old.

The smaller size really comes in handy for stump removal, and the newer engine has about half as much exhaust fumes to breath in.

Stihl MS 211 chainsaw review updateI've had a few instances where I felt like it was underpowered, but that was more the fault of a dull chain, and I had a small learning curve with the starting procedure. It took me a while to figure out when you push the choke all the way down it sometimes springs back up if you're not paying attention.

Posted Sun Apr 8 15:38:47 2012 Tags:

Homestead planAre you struggling with a thorny garden problem and can't figure out why your cucumbers keep dying or what that pesky weed is in your pasture?  Maybe you're more interested in breaking free of your job and need some tips to turn your microbusiness idea into a reality.  Or perhaps you've just moved to your dream homestead and are trying to decide where to put the chicken coop and which of those sticks in the yard are fruit trees and bushes.

We're here to help!  One lucky reader will win a free consultation to smooth their path to homesteading independence.  Two hours of email answers from me and Mark can save you weeks (maybe even years) of trial and error, and we promise you'll get your money's worth.  Use it up all at once, or have Walden Effect as your on-call mentor all summer.

The Weekend HomesteaderWhat do you have to do to enter our giveaway?  The paperback edition of Weekend Homesteader is now available to preorder (yay!), and we need help spreading the word.  This more polished version of the monthly ebooks I've been publishing for the last year contains 368 pages of full color photos and text to guide you on the path to self-sufficiency.  Even if you've read all of the ebooks, I suspect the $11 paperback will be worth a second read since I've added in dozens of sidebars and three all new chapters.  The Weekend Homesteader won't be in print until October, but you can preorder now and be the first on your block to hold a copy of the book in your hands.

To spread the word, choose one or more of the following options, then leave a comment below telling me how many times to enter you in the drawing.  (Each way you spread the word equates to one entry.)

  • Preorder the book on Amazon.
  • Tell your friends via facebook, google plus, your blog, email, twitter, or even plain old face-to-face chatting.
  • Leave a review on any of my ebooks on Amazon.  (You can see them all in one place on my author page, or just search for my name.  Please only leave reviews on books you've read.)
  • A very easy freebie for all of you --- click the "like" button on the Amazon page of my paperback.
  • Some other ingenious way of spreading the word --- you decide!

So, if you preordered two copies of the book, posted on facebook and your blog, and left two reviews, you'd be entered six times!  The more times you enter, of course, the more likely you are to win.  (Just be sure to leave a comment on this post before midnight on April 13 to tell me how many times to put your name in the hat.)  Thanks so much in advance for entering and helping spread the word!

Posted Mon Apr 9 08:10:59 2012 Tags:

Kale flowersMark and I were looking forward to expanding our horizons at the ACRES USA conference this winter, but after attending the pre-conference, we were quickly citied out and fled back to the farm.  The good news is that ACRES has a policy of giving you half your conference fee as a credit at their store if you're unable to attend, which was enough to purchase a "free" audio version of the entire conference to enjoy at our leisure!

I love to read, but have a harder time buckling down to listen to audio, so I didn't crack the first mp3 file until chicken waterer orders started to heat up in March.  Since then, I've been listening to one or two lectures per week as I build do it yourself kits, skipping over the less interesting topics but finding lots of intriguing information in others.

Kale going to seedThis week's lunchtime series is a summary of the first four of those interesting lectures --- biodynamics, cover crops, plant secondary metabolites, and brix.  I found some lectures a bit kooky, just as Roland suspected, but there was at least a bit of tantalizing information in each.  Stay tuned for those tidbits at noon all week, and then for more summaries throughout the spring and summer.

(As a side note, these photos are totally irrelevant to the lunchtime series.  I'm enjoying how beautiful the kale is as it starts to go to seed.)

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

Posted Mon Apr 9 12:00:50 2012 Tags:
non medicated chicken feed

I've asked at least 3 separate feed store clerks if I could get my chicken feed non-medicated. Without exception each of them gave me a look as if I was asking them to break a law of physics.

I stopped asking and just took what they had to offer, and then some friends of ours who have a pastured livestock operation invited us to join their bulk chicken feed purchase.

A place called Sunrise Farm sells non-medicated feed for just a little more than the feed store prices. Anna's got the details of the high quality chicken feed ingredients over on our Avian Aqua Miser blog.

Posted Mon Apr 9 17:05:43 2012 Tags:
Planting asparagus

Tomato alleyRemember last year's tomato alley?  We lined most of these juicy morsels up against the fence between the mule garden and the chicken pasture since that's the sunniest spot in our vegetable garden.  This year, we're rotating the tomatoes into the forest garden and renaming that long row "asparagus alley".

We currently have about thirty asparagus plants that are just starting to be old enough to pick heavily, but the beds produce late because I sited them in the part of the garden that's shaded by the hill all winter, keeping the soil cold.  On the one hand, planting the asparagus on the shady side of the garden makes sense since the perennials can handle less than full sun in the summer.  But on the other hand, it means we didn't get our first real flush of large spears until Friday --- pretty late considering how warm our spring has been.

Saving asparagus seedsI had planned to expand the planting anyway because thirty asparagus plants isn't really enough for two people hungry from a long winter with only leafy greens as our fresh produce option.  One of our "all-male" asparagus plants turned out to be a female, so I collected its fruits last fall, fermented out the seeds, and dried them for spring planting.

Planting asparagus from seed might be a bit slower than buying roots, but it's vastly cheaper (free if you save your own seeds).  And many folks believe that you lose a year when setting out roots due to transplant shock, resulting in full production at the same time from seeds or transplants.

Weekend HomesteaderI'm looking forward to even earlier (and more abundant) asparagus in four or five years.  I think the ferny fronds will look nice along the chicken pasture fence too, and will give our flock a bit of summer shade.  Maybe the chickens will even munch on passing asparagus beetles?

Pick up your copy of Weekend Homesteader today for tips on saving seeds (including which seeds need to be fermented) and planning your space wisely.
Posted Tue Apr 10 07:41:29 2012 Tags:

Karl DallefeldKarl Dallefeld spoke at the ACRES USA conference about "capturing maximum value from diversity of plant species on your farm", mostly in relation to mixtures of cover crops.  Dallefeld has experimented extensively with cover crops on his eastern Iowa farm, and much of his talk consisted of a who's who of top cover crops for various applications.  His recommendations by category include:

  • Scavenging nitrogen - rye, sorghum-sudangrass, radish, rapeseed, ryegrass
  • Nitrogen fixation - legumes (especially clovers)
  • Quick spring cover - buckwheat, sorghum-sudangrass, berseem clover, medic
  • Late planted winter cover - annual ryegrass, rye, oats, radish, rape, turnips
  • Erosion control - barley, rye, sorghum-sudangrass, cowpeas
  • Building soil - rye, sorghum-sudangrass, sweetclover, woollypod and hairy vetch
  • Loosening compacted soil - radish
  • Suppressing nematodes - brassicas (only if tilled in)
  • Dealing with high pH - mustard, berseem clover, ryegrass, vetch
  • Fighting weeds - rye, oats, buckwheat, radish, berseem clover, chickling and other vetches, cowpeas, subclover
  • Quick, temporary pastures - annual ryegrass, oats, wheat, sorghum-sudangrass, berseem clover, crimson clover, white clover, red clover

Cover crop mixtureYou'll notice that most categories include several options, and Dallefeld prefers to mix lots of species together when planting cover crops.  His goal is to include at least one legume, one grass, and one non-legume forb (aka everything else) in each mixture, on the assumption that a more diverse cover crop assortment will do its job better.  For example, he might plant mustard, berseem clover, ryegrass, and a vetch all at once, figuring that the clover and vetch will add nitrogen to the soil, the mustard will feed pollinators and reduce the number of nematodes, and the ryegrass will build organic matter.

I was particularly struck by Dallefeld's explanation of when to kill cover crops depending on your goals.  He explains that young, succulent plants (like buckwheat at the bloom stage) provide quick nutrients while lignified (aka mature and woody) cover crops tie up nutrients at first, but end up building humus in the long run.  That's why we use buckwheat in the summer in short windows between vegetables and save oats for over-wintering, since the latter have time to rot down a bit before we plant into them the next year.

Tilling cover crops inDallefeld's experiences are with cover crops in their mainstream, large-scale application.  Generally, he sows cover crops into newly tilled fields and then tills them back into the ground before planting a vegetable, so you should be careful about using his favorite varieties in a no-till garden.  Still, we can all take his wisdom to heart --- more diversity in the garden is nearly always better.  Maybe I need to continue expanding my selection of cover crops beyond the tried and true.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with POOP-free water.

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

Posted Tue Apr 10 12:14:14 2012 Tags:
Rubbermaid medium size plastic resin shed

We put together a storage shed this afternoon.

It's one of those plastic resin Rubermaid kits.

Total cost was around 360 dollars. Anna worked 3 hours and I came along at the end and helped for an hour. It comes with a nice 37 page instruction book and it all fit in a box the size of a coffin.

We talked about maybe building something out of wood, but our recent high grade chicken feed purchase put us in a spot where we needed storage fast, and this was the quick and easy route.

Posted Tue Apr 10 18:57:14 2012 Tags:
Natural tunnel

Let's all wish Joey a happy birthday today!  You may not have the same fond memories I do of walking on the train tracks on the way home from school, a book under your nose and your big brother on the rail in front of you.  But we all owe Joey a huge thank you for making the technical side of this blog possible.  Most recently, he coded a plugin to allow you to sign up for email notifications of responses to your comments --- have you noticed?

Spring wildflowers

Grasses on a cliffWe celebrated Joey's birthday a couple of days early with a picnic at Natural Tunnel State Park.  The wildflowers are currently in full bloom on the trail above the tunnel, and if you live in the area, this is a walk not to be missed.

Pigeons in the wild

Three turkey vultures treated us to a shadow light show that's impossible to describe, but was breath-taking in person.  I also spent far too long peering through the zoom lens of my camera (since I forgot my binoculars) to figure out what those strange birds were roosting on the cliffs.  Yup, those are aptly named Rock Doves...aka the kind of pigeons you see in city parks.  Boy was I embarassed when I realized I hadn't recognized pigeons (but intrigued to see them in a semi-natural habitat).


Weekend HomesteaderJoey went on to embrace his Hobbit side while we zipped on down the road to pick up chicken feed.  More photos of cute livestock soon!

Don't forget to preorder your copy of Weekend Homesteader for tips on fitting a self-sufficient life into your busy schedule.

Posted Wed Apr 11 08:16:41 2012 Tags:

Biodynamic farmOne of the things I'd hoped to get out of the ACRES USA conference was an opportunity to answer questions like --- is biodynamics kooky or is it a valid method of increasing the biological stability of a farming ecosystem?  After listening to Gena Nonini's "Biodynamic journey" presentation, I'm leaning toward the answer --- biodynamics is both.

Nonini grew up on a conventional (aka chemical) farm in California, so her journey in the biodynamic direction wasn't well received by her family and neighbors.  She leased 90 acres of wine grapes from her parents in 1991, and soon realized that chemical farming was terrible for her health, and wasn't going to allow her to make a living either. 

Preparation 500Nonini's response was to slowly but surely start focusing on organic inputs and on diversifying her operation.  She followed the biodynamic principle of creating "preparation 500" --- filling a cow horn with cow manure and burying it in the ground to age for a few months before applying the compost to her soil.  She also added citrus trees and vegetables to the farm, figuring the biodiversity would help prevent pests organically and would also ease the financial strain if one crop failed.

In her lecture, Nonini argued that the health of biodynamic farms can't be explained by "substances", but instead by "forces".  (Yes, she even talked about communing with the gnomes.)  This is where she lost me, and why I've considered biodynamics kooky in the past.  I'm quite willing to believe that preparation 500 might be very valuable to soil --- maybe the horn acts a bit like biochar and increases microorganism populations dramatically in the enclosed manure.  But creating a spiritually-based agriculture system seems like a copout to me.  I always want to know how things operate so I can decide when to use them and how to make them work even better.

Biodynamic almondsBiodynamic agriculture has developed a large following as the term "organic" continues to be taken over by large agriculture companies that care more about the bottom line than about the health of the farm ecosystem.  However, I'm afraid I'll stick to the term "permaculture" for now if Nonini is a typical example of the biodynamic movement.  I've got another biodynamic talk to listen to, though, so maybe I'll change my tune in the next ACRES lunchtime series.

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to leave town for the weekend without worrying about your flock.

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

Posted Wed Apr 11 12:00:16 2012 Tags:
2012 frost protection equalization

Mother Nature is threatening to equalize our unseasonably warm Spring with some below freezing temperatures tonight.

We covered vulnerable crops with Agribon material and weighed it down with old chimney bricks.


Posted Wed Apr 11 15:49:56 2012 Tags:

Cold chicksWe reveled in spring.  We watched the flowers with joy, started crops way too early, and basked in the warm sunshine.

And now it's time for our comeuppance.  As you can see from this webcam shot, the chicks weren't pleased when Friday morning temperatures were in the mid to high 20s.  I wasn't either --- the weather forecast had promised me a low of 36 and I'd only half-heartedly covered a few strawberry beds.

I don't even want to start telling you everything that got nipped last weekend, because I suspect more kicked the bucket last night.  We went ahead and covered the rest of the strawberries Wednesday, along with broccoli, cabbage, Swiss chard, and carrot seedlings.  Baby oak leavesIn some cases, this equates to closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, but I figured we were better off safe than sorry.

I'm more concerned about a fruitless summer than spring setbacks, though.  The kiwi leaves turned black after Friday's freeze and some of our new grape leaves were slightly nipped.  Only time will tell whether last night's (and tonight's) cold hit the tree fruits.

And then there are the wild trees.  No, it doesn't make any difference to our livelihood, but I remember how depressing it was to walk around in the woods all summer six years ago when a late frost nipped back the young buckeye leaves.  Here's hoping the woodland microclimate will prevent at least that!

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Thu Apr 12 07:46:49 2012 Tags:

Jerry BrunettiJerry Brunetti's lecture was titled "Achieving the holy grail of crop health: Plant secondary metabolites".  That probably sounds a bit yawn-worthy if you're not a plant geek, but it turns out his talk was my favorite from the conference so far.  (In the interest of full disclosure, though --- I am a plant geek.)

So, what are plant secondary metabolites, and why should we care about them?  The term refers to every chemical that makes up a plant except for the big three --- carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.  The scent of a flower, the spiciness of a pepper, and the color of an apple are all plant secondary metabolites.  So are the chemicals released by caterpillar-nibbled trees to warn the next tree down the lane to build anti-caterpillar chemicals proactively, as well as the attractants emitted by plant roots to tempt soil microorganisms to stop by.

The chemicals that give plants intriguing tastes are all plant secondary metabolites, and so are compounds like lycopene and salicylic acid, which help prevent prostate cancer and heart attacks, respectively.  Brunetti explains that there are tens of thousands of plant secondary compounds produced for reasons that include attracting pollinators and seed dispersers, defending the plant from ultraviolet light and herbivores, and communicating with plants, insects, and soil microorganisms.

Plant secondary metabolitesThe fact that so many of the compounds impact our health (positively or negatively) is merely a side effect from the plants' point of view.  Plants create secondary metabolites because the chemicals make their lives easier --- since a tree can't run away from problems or travel to find true love, it has to repel the one and attract the other.  (Sounds like my life on the farm....)

But production of these chemicals comes at a cost.  Plants constantly have to weigh the pros and cons of using their limited energy to make carbohydrates, fats, and proteins --- allowing them to grow and reproduce --- or to make secondary metabolites of various sorts.  In the wild, plants usually create a bit of both, focusing on secondary metabolites more when they're subtly stressed, but not so injured that they're wilting away.

In an agricultural setting, the stakes are different.  Farmers try to protect our crops from all problems, which means the plants have little reason to produce secondary metabolites and can simply grow big and tall.  While that means more pounds of vegetables on our plates, the lower concentrations of secondary metabolites make the food less tasty and nutritious.  Maybe that's why vineyard keepers believe the best wine comes from grapes that had to struggle a little?

Strawberry micronutrient deficiencyIn addition to lacking the incentive to make secondary metabolites, some cultivated plants also lack the ability.  Micronutrients like boron, copper, aluminum, manganese, and zinc are all essential for the production of secondary metabolites but chemical farmers figure crops can get by without micronutrients as long as they're well dosed up with some 10-10-10.  I guess that's why I was able to taste a micronutrient deficiency in my strawberries --- the lack of minerals relates directly to the secondary metabolites that we Weekend Homesteaderperceive as flavor.

 So how do you grow the most delicious and nutritious fruits and vegetables possible?  Simply feed the soil well-rounded organic amendments like compost and mulch, and don't wipe out every last disease and pest.  You'll get lower yields, but what you do grow will be richer in flavor and nutrition.

Learn to grow healthy plants from the ground up in Weekend Homesteader.

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

Posted Thu Apr 12 12:00:48 2012 Tags:
new automatic chick feeder installation tip

Our new chicks have outgrown their small automatic feeder.

The new one cost around 15 dollars.

A large shelf bracket with a mug hook is all it took to rig it so it can be suspended off the ground.

We had a small debate on the issue of making a lid for it. It didn't come with one, but now that I'm looking at this picture I'm thinking I might need to think about one if they figure out how to roost on the bracket.

Posted Thu Apr 12 16:56:46 2012 Tags:

Lettuce mixDo you want to grow a variety of gourmet salad greens?  Seed mixtures are available, but they're generally quite expensive, and can also be problematic in the garden.  I've also found that the lettuce varieties that come in seed mixtures aren't as tasty as the ones I've hand-picked to suit our palates and garden.

On the other hand, who doesn't enjoy a diverse array of colors, shapes, and flavors on their plate?  Here are my tips for making your salad bowl gourmet the Walden Effect way:

  • Plant non-lettuce salad greens in a separate bed.  Many seed mixtures include non-lettuces like arugula, spinach, and Asian greens for an extra flavor burst.  However, these salad greens tend to grow differently than lettuce, maturing at a different rate, so they do better in their own garden bed.  It's easy to snip a few leaves of arugula to add to your salad bowl while you're in the garden collecting dinner, and separating out the non-lettuces also allows you to add more or less of the spicy plants depending on your guests and meal plan.
  • SaladMix lettuces by hand.  When I was ordering seeds this spring, the cheapest salad seed mixture at Johnny's was $14.65 per quarter pound.  In contrast, my favorite green leaf lettuce (Black-seeded Simpson) was $7.45 per quarter pound and the equally delectable Red Saladbowl was $9.30 per quarter pound.  I bought the red and green leaf lettuce seeds separately, mixed them as I tossed the seeds in the bed, and saved 43%.  (I could also have given each lettuce its own bed, but different varieties of lettuce play well together, so there was no real reason to segregate them.  However, some unusual lettuces like escarole might do better alone.)

No matter where the seeds come from, leaf lettuce is the very first crop I'd recommend beginning gardeners plant, as long as they hurry up and do so before summer heat kicks in.  Plant your lettuce today and you can be eating it within a month, and that dollar's worth of seed could feed you up to 60 meals!  Now that's low cost gourmet food.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.
Posted Fri Apr 13 08:28:29 2012 Tags:
Brix chart

Watermelon brix"Brix" is one of those terms tossed around by folks in alternative agriculture circles that I considered a little kooky in the past.  The idea is simple --- you use a meter to determine the percent by weight sugar in a plant, which gives you a rough estimate of the nutritional quality of the food since more nutritious crops are usually also sweeter.

Even though I agree with the theory behind brix, I used to roll my eyes at the implementation.  I can taste the difference in brix between my homegrown vegetables and the ones in the grocery store, so why buy a $100 meter?

Glen Rabenberg's talk on "Improving crop quality using readily available tools" helped me realize that my understanding of brix in the garden is overly simplistic.  He doesn't just check the brix of crops being harvested; he monitors plants at various stages of their life span to prevent disease and insect problems. 

Glen RabenbergRabenberg asserts that at increasing levels of brix, farms become healthier in a holistic fashion.  Disease fungi and thrive at a brix below 7, but when the leaves of a plant reach a brix of around 10 to 11, Rabenberg sees drought resistance in the crops and fewer weeds nearby.  At 13 to 14, he begins to see resistance to pest insects.  Having recently seen in a scientific source that the fire blight bacteria are deterred by high levels of sugar in pear nectar, I'm willing to believe that there's some truth to Rabenberg's ideas.

So, how do you raise the brix of your food?  As with plant secondary metabolites, the key is balanced soil.  Rabenberg believes that most soil problems can be remedied by focusing on five minerals --- calcium, phosphorus, and (to a lesser extent) potassium, magnesium, and sulfur.  If Rabenberg sees low brix, he performs a soil test and usually adds calcium and/or phosphorus on the theory that a more nourished plant will produce more sugar and be more resistant to problems.  In his experience, potassium is actually often too high, leading to weed problems --- if that's the case, you need to round out your fertilizing campaign to prevent a buildup of the important, but easy to overdo, nutrient.

Weekend HomesteaderI know I've said "asserts" and "believes" a lot of times in this post --- it's not because I don't think Rabenberg is on the right track.  However, I want to read up more on the topic before I take his word as gospel, and suggest you do too.  Still, perhaps Rabenberg is right and I need to start collecting data on the brix levels of our crops (and on the electrical conductivity of our soil, a topic which will have to be its own post at a later date).  Perhaps if I noticed when tomato plants were most at risk, I could head blights off at the pass?

Find out how to test your soil and interpret the results in Weekend Homesteader.

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

Posted Fri Apr 13 12:00:44 2012 Tags:
more buckets equal more manure

Seems like we have a lot of buckets, but I think about 10 more will get us close to being complete on a 5 gallon level.

Posted Fri Apr 13 16:43:43 2012 Tags:
Anna Goat dream
Nanny goat

Mark insinuated last year that my goat dream (or sheep dream) was really a rare instance of my biological clock ticking.  At the time, I protested too much, but in retrospect, I think he was partially right.

I came out of the goat haze slowly around the same time I became pregnant with Weekend Homesteader.  Giving birth to a paperback seems to have circumvented the urge to raise our own grazing animals.

Hair sheep lambs

Which isn't to say that I don't still think that I might like to try a milk goat --- some day.  I get a little flutter in my stomach when I look at photos like these (taken while picking up our chicken feed).  Maybe that's what normal women feel like when they coo over the scent of a newborn human?  (I'm glad to have an immunity to that reaction.)

Saanen goats

Luckily, the milk goat dream has no deadline attached to it.  So I can wait a decade or two until the garden is weed-free and the chicken pastures have turned into complex layers of trees, shrubs, and herbs.  Maybe I'll wait so long, I'll grow right out of it....

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock so easy, Mark isn't threatened.
Posted Sat Apr 14 08:47:50 2012 Tags:
truck loaded with 5 gallon buckets and scrap cardboard

We put off collecting the rest of our neighbor's scrap cardboard all Winter and part of the Spring in hopes of things drying out a bit.

It finally felt dry enough yesterday, which is a good thing because the new owners start moving in next month, and our agreement was to get it out of there before that happens.

We're going to miss trading eggs for manure, but I'm already hunting alternative sources close by.

Posted Sat Apr 14 15:32:53 2012 Tags:
Garden biomass

We nearly never work on the weekends, but a passable driveway means all bets are off.  Despite weeks of dry weather, the extremely wet winter means we can't drive the truck in, yet the golf cart floats over the mud as long as it's not overloaded.  So I spent two delightful hours hauling in biomass.

Pile of straw

All winter, 80 bales of straw have been sitting out at our parking area, waiting for a ride to the core homestead area.  The bales that had been in contact with the ground began to rot, which is actually a plus since partially decomposed straw is a perfect mulch around seedlings, and we have lots of spring seedlings in need of mulch.  I offloaded little piles of straw here and there throughout the garden for use within the next two or three weeks.

Buckets of manure

Tomato seedlingsAs I unloaded biomass, I was thinking ahead to the late April and early May garden.  The tomatoes I started inside on March 16 now have two true leaves, which means I either need to repot them or set them out.  Even though our frost-free date is a solid month in the future, the ten day forecast has no lows below 43, so I'm hardening the tomatoes off for planting around April 23 (if the weather stays warm).

Which is all a long way of telling you that Mark's buckets of horse manure already have designated spots in the garden.  The buckets in the photo above represent future tomato homes in the forest garden, and the rest of the manure is earmarked for broccoli and potatoes.

Straw in the gardenEverything was going swimmingly until my inherent ability to break things finally kicked in.  On golf cart load six, I piled on the bales of straw and went to turn the key to head home...only to discover that the key was gone!  Even though it seems highly improbable, my best guess is that the straw bale I'd heaved into the front seat somehow plucked the key from the dashboard.  (No one else was present, and I went through my pockets on the off chance I'd decided it was a good idea to take the key out of the ignition then forgotten about it.)

I sifted through the loose straw on the floor of the golf cart and even tore that bale apart in search of the key, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack (or, rather, a key in a Loose strawstraw stack) --- no dice.  The good news is that all Club Car golf carts manufactured after 1983 use the same key, so I was able to order two online for $11 (shipping included).  The bad news is, we're going to have to wait until the spare keys show up before we haul in the rest of the straw, the IBC tanks, chicken waterer construction materials, and extra cardboard.

Still, I can't find it in me to be unhappy since I now have enough biomass to get me through until May.  Mark said the other day that some women like men who treat them like dirt and I corrected him gently.  "No, honey, we like men who treat us to dirt --- in other words, who give us lots of biomass!"  I'm one contented woman.

Posted Sun Apr 15 08:34:10 2012 Tags:
new top bar hive installation

Our friends Everett and Missy are getting into building and selling top bar hives, and we've agreed to help them with some field testing.

We considered building one ourselves, but with the Spring garden rush we couldn't seem to find enough spare time.

They're still working out the website details, but if you want to experiment with a top bar hive, can save you a lot of time at a price much lower than the competition.

Posted Sun Apr 15 17:37:56 2012 Tags:

Young australorpsThis is a scattered, book-keeping post, so please take a minute to at least skim the headlines.

Giveaway: Thanks to everyone who helped spread the word last week and entered our consulation giveaway!  Fostermamas was the winner --- please drop me an email and we'll start channeling wisdom your way.

Reading material: There's no lunchtime series this week, but Weekend Homesteader: September is free on Amazon today and tomorrow to make up for it.  The four projects include spicing up your cooking, canning tomatoes for the winter, saving seeds for next Chick feederyear's garden, and building a homesteading team.  As usual, you can email me if you'd rather receive a pdf copy.

Free paperback: My publisher asked me if I knew of anyone who might be interested in reviewing Weekend Homesteader, so I thought I'd ask my favorite readers.  (That's you!)  This is your chance to receive a free copy of my book, quite possibly before anyone else!  If you work-for/run/have-an-in-with a TV or radio show, newspaper, magazine, or website and are interested in reviewing Weekend Homesteader, please drop me an email with your contact info (name, email, phone number, and mailing address) so I can pass it on to my publisher.  I won't promise anything (because I don't entirely know what to expect myself), but I will definitely put you on the list.

Reading club: I thought I'd test the waters to see if any of you are interested in participating in a summer reading club.  I have a huge backlog of books that I always mean to read, but don't, generally because they're lighter or more philosophical than my usual non-fiction fare.  Maybe if we read them together and discussed them on the blog, I'd have an incentive to buckle down!  If you're interested, please leave a comment to let me know which of the following books sounds intriguing (or to suggest your own), and to give me an idea of how many pages you think you'd like to read per week:

Pretty pictures: Are courtesy of our growing flock, who have enjoyed their upgrade to a bucket waterer and larger pasture!

Posted Mon Apr 16 07:41:02 2012 Tags:
automatic chick feeder upgrade update with image of cute chicks in background

The new automatic chick feeder is a huge improvement over the first small plastic chick feeder we tried.

It's easier to load, and Anna feels like there's less waste.

I found a lid to fit on the top, but there's still a problem with chicks roosting on the bracket where the feeder hangs. I'll get around to fixing that one of these days.

Posted Mon Apr 16 16:34:52 2012 Tags:

Baby strawberriesI'm sure you're all itching to hear what came of the forecast hard freeze last week.  When I woke up Thursday morning, the frost was so thick, the leaves of the kitchen peach were bowed down under the weight, but I'm a bit confused about how cold it actually got.

I love to record daily highs and lows, but I've been operating without a good thermometer for a year now.  The problem is that the cheap ones we'd been buying at Wal-mart die in a year or less, and I just couldn't talk myself into purchasing another throwaway product.  (If you can recommend a high Blackened kiwi leavesquality thermometer that records highs and lows, can handle outdoor conditions, and lasts several years, I'll snap it right up!)

Mark had a little interior thermometer, so I set that out on the golf cart for the night since there was no chance of rain.  At 7:30 am, I checked the thermometer, and it read 14 degrees Fahrenheit!  Since the forecast low was 26 and the air didn't fell all that frigid, I just didn't believe it --- surely the reading was a sensor malfunction.  So I pulled out a mercury thermometer and set it on the golf cart as well.  My analog backup also read in the teens (19 this time, probably because the sun was already beginning to warm the yard by the time I read it half an hour later).

Young peachIf we really had a low of 14, everything should have died.  I would have expected the lettuce I left uncovered to be nipped at around 25, and the uncovered onion seedlings to die soon thereafter...but they all looked untouched.  My peaches also seem to have come through virtually unscathed, if these pretty fuzzy ovaries are any indication.

On the other hand, strawberries (even under row covers) were severely nipped, with lots of blackened centers.  Any kiwi leaves that survived the previous frost were completely decimated, as were mulberry and grape leaves.  In the woods, spicebush leaves were moderately damaged and the Japanese stiltgrass seedlings turned brown (yay!), but everything else looked okay.

Strawberry flowersMy best guess is that the cold temperatures were very spotty.  They probably rolled down the holler toward us, sticking to the low points (where the strawberries live) and passing by the peaches (which are on more of a slope).  Maybe cold air pooled just uphill of the trailer, leading to the remarkably low reading on the golf cart outside our front door.

I'm just glad the damage wasn't more extreme.  The strawberries that had grown into little fruits look like they're going to make it, and the plants are already opening up new flowers.  Even the badly nipped kiwi has green buds.  Looks like we survived dogwood winter nearly unscathed.

Our chicken waterer turns a filthy farm task into a breeze.
Posted Tue Apr 17 07:27:52 2012 Tags:
making a backpack for 50 pound feed bags

These old external frame backpacks have a top and bottom compartment. Cutting out the canvas divider makes an area barely big enough to handle a 50 pound bag of chicken feed.

I've only done one trip loaded with feed, but I can already tell it's going to be a huge improvement over the old method of pouring out half the bag so it would fit our smaller back packs.

We found our external frame backpack on Ebay for around 30 dollars.

Posted Tue Apr 17 17:07:22 2012 Tags:
Purple broccoli leaves

Even though the purple and yellow tinges on the leaves of our broccoli seedlings are pretty, any non-green coloration is generally bad news on vegetable leaves.  (That's assuming you didn't select a variety with colored leaves, of course.) 

Neglected broccoli seedlingsIn this case, I know exactly what the problem is --- I left broccoli seedlings in a flat for two weeks longer than I should have because cold weather was nibbling at the garden and I didn't want the babies to freeze.  You often find broccoli seedlings in the same state at big box stores, the result of a manager ordering more seedlings than the store could sell within a reasonable length of time.  If you really don't pay attention to seeding rates, you could see similar symptoms in your garden as a result of overcrowding, especially if combined with under-fertilizing and under-watering.  Finally, mulching with high C:N materials (like office paper) can have the same effect.

Frost-nipped broccoli seedlingThe broccoli seedling to the right had a different problem.  Notice that the older leaves are faded looking, not quite so yellow as the stunted seedling leaves above?  This was one of the broccoli plants I set out before the cold snap and didn't protect with row cover fabric.  The older leaves were burned by the cold, but the vibrant little plant has since put out two new leaves that look a very healthy blue-green.

So, how concerned should you be if you see weirdly colored leaves on your vegetable seedlings?  It all depends on what kind of plant you're looking at.  Broccoli is at the more vigorous end of the spectrum and generally bounces right back from bad treatment, but tomato seedlings have been known to sulk after even moderate stunting.

If you're at the store and notice that all the available seedlings have off-colored leaves, you might go ahead and take your chances with more vigorous types of vegetables.  But I wouldn't buy a tomato seedling that had seen better days --- you might as well just start your own from seed.

Healthy broccoli seedlingIn my garden, I'll replace stunted seedlings if I have spare healthy seedlings of the same size or a bit smaller on hand, but otherwise, I let nature take its course.  I do, however, make a note and try to prevent the problem from reocurring next year.

Notice how happy (although in need of weeding) this little broccoli plant is?  This last photo shows one of the seedlings I started directly in the garden rather than nursing along in a flat.  As usual, the in-garden seedling starting technique produced healthier results nearly as quickly as fiddling with indoor plants.  I did see much lower germination rates in the ground since I was too lazy to erect a quick hoop, but the health of the seedlings is unparalleled.  I guess I should put my spring energy into quick hoops, not flats, in the future.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock well-hydrated with POOP-free water.
Posted Wed Apr 18 07:08:53 2012 Tags:
Walden Pond

Walden coverI'm excited that so many of you are interested in a homesteading book club!  Walden won by a landslide, so we'll start with that and then decide on the next book if folks are still interested.

Since Walden is so easily accessible (for free download, free online with copious footnotes, or in book form at your library), I thought I'd just give you the rest of this week to rustle up the book, a week to read the first chapter (about 50 paperback pages), and then start the first round of discussion on April 30.  But please leave a comment if you think that's nuts and I can slow things down.

I haven't read any of the book yet, but I did poke around on the web to come up with some facts and ideas you might want to ponder as you embark on your literary adventure:

Keep in mind I just read a few websites to come up with that background information.  More literary folks should feel free to comment here and set us all straight.  For everyone else, don't forget to hunt down Walden and start reading!

Don't forget to preorder Weekend Homesteader, full of fun and easy projects to guide you gently onto the path to self-sufficiency.
Posted Wed Apr 18 12:00:40 2012 Tags:
using a chest freezer as a make shift work bench

We plan to build a proper work bench in the near future.

Our Energy Star chest freezer is going to breathe a big sigh of relief on that day.
Posted Wed Apr 18 16:23:40 2012 Tags:

Cabbage transplantSome damp days, we rearrange our calendars and focus on indoors work.  But other times, we take advantage of the wet.


Wednesday was one of those happy-to-be-wet days.  I needed to move some Swiss chard, broccoli, and cabbage seedlings around to even out the spacing, and a drippy day promised to minimize the transplant shock.  Not only did I not have to water in the rearranged seedlings, the cloud cover meant they got a day of rest before having to deal with bright sunlight.

Don't try this at home, though, unless you're willing to get soaked and covered in dirt from the waist down.

Our chicken waterer keeps the coop dry and your flock healthy with POOP-free, non-spillable water.
Posted Thu Apr 19 08:48:34 2012 Tags:
man unloading straw bales from Club Car golf cart 2012

It took a little over 5 months, but we finally got all the straw bales hauled back and ready for garden mulching today.

Posted Thu Apr 19 16:24:57 2012 Tags:

Ripening strawberryMom emailed me that she picked the first strawberry out of her garden nearly a week ago.  Even though she lives only an hour and a half away (23 miles as the crow flies), the pavement in her urban location and the lower elevation means she's considerably warmer than we are.

Our strawberries are nowhere near ready --- this photo depicts the one that's furthest along, sporting a tiny hint of color.  The rest need probably two more weeks before they'll even begin to ripen.

Speeding up strawberriesTen miles down the road in the other direction is a huge strawberry farm that serves all of the surrounding grocery stores.  They use row cover fabric and black plastic and their berries tend to ripen up when Mom's do, so I have a feeling Mark could pick me up a whole flat of local fruits at the grocery store today if I asked him nicely.  (Actually, I checked out the farm's website and they had berries starting April 14.)

But do I want to break my strawberry fast on chemical-fertilized red nuggets, or wait for the real deal?

Keep in mind that strawberries are my very favorite fruit (and fruit is my very favorite food group.  Yes, even before chocolate.)  I don't eat berries out of season, so it's been a very long eleven and a half months.  Sure, I've been self-medicating with strawberry leather pretty heavily throughout the winter, but I just don't know if I can wait two more weeks!

Will I, or won't I?

(If you'd like some actual content today, check out my interview on RDG's blog.)

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Fri Apr 20 07:30:40 2012 Tags:
refigerator root cellar update

It's been a little over 2 years now since the refrigerator root cellar got washed out of place by a big storm.
root cellar from a refrigerator

We don't eat as many potatoes as before and our apple trees are still a few years from production, which is our main excuse for not digging it out and building a proper roof to prevent future wash outs.

Root cellar ebook
Posted Fri Apr 20 16:35:16 2012 Tags:

Praying mantis on echinaceaI had to go to the doctor Thursday to flush a huge mass of wax out of my ears, and it got me thinking about my version of healthcare.  Except for preventative checkups, I've only been to the doctor four times in the last twelve years --- three times for ear wax removal, and once for a urinary tract infection.  Mark's got me beat, having only been in once for Lyme disease (assuming you don't count his elective surgery).

Which isn't to say we never get sick, just that we work hard to dose ourselves at home if possible.  If we feel a bit low, I'll treat us to some kind of garlicky meal with freshly sauteed leafy greens on the side (often with the addition of pastured red meat).  Relatively major scrapes heal right up after a few applications of homegrown comfrey poultices, and most viruses flee in the face of my Emergen-C plus homemade chicken soup combo (imbibed separately).  Simply taking a day off to relax will often fix minor complaints.

Goldenseal rootInfections that need antibiotics get dosed with echinacea or goldenseal (both of which we grow).  My doctor sister advised me that the former is better above the belt (ie, for head colds, etc.) and the latter below the belt (for female complaints), and I've been following her advice.  I also freeze enough cranberries each holiday season that I can fix them throughout the year to stave of further urinary tract problems.  It's true that these homegrown medications don't nip illnesses in the bud as quickly as prescription drugs, but they seem to help my body build up a resistance so I don't have to run back to the antibiotics nearly as often.

The trick to eating your way to good health is to make sure that all of these medicinal foods are easily available at all times.  I keep pints of chicken soup (made from stewing hens for extra nutrition) in the freezer for easy access and most of our herbs are right in the front yard.  Being the kind of family who only goes through a bottle of painkiller once every six years helps, as does the internet's amazing ability to diagnose most ills.

What's your favorite home remedy?  Do you run to the doctor, or self-medicate?  What kind of medicinal herbs do you grow?

Our chicken waterer allows you to leave town for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Sat Apr 21 08:19:45 2012 Tags:

automatic chicken coop opener box close up with light option
What makes this automatic chicken coop door opener special is the additional option of having a light come on for 4 hours after the door closes to keep hens laying in the winter.

It's also the one with the most proven track record. Johan and Barbara have had it going since 1998!, which tells me their method of having the door close 45 minutes after dusk is a good benchmark for the rest of us trying to figure out that bedtime interval.

automatic chicken coop door opener made it through the winter with no problems and is still going strong. We got our door from a nice guy named Jeremy at He's got a helpful section to his website that highlights several automatic chicken coop door installations his customers have completed.

Posted Sat Apr 21 15:53:04 2012 Tags:

Chicken forest pastureWhen dealing with the natural world, it's often better to deter than to prevent.  Our experiments with keeping deer and pets out of the garden are one example, but so are our methods of constraining chickens to their pastures.  Unfortunately, when you're only deterring behavior you don't want, sometimes animals slip through the cracks.  At that point you have to decide between the Fort Knox approach and the kid glove approach.

I've been thinking of these two types of animal deterrence because we had dozens of chicken escapes last week.  First, I moved the six week old chicks out of the forest garden and into a pasture full of lush grasses and clovers.  They hated the change.  When the first few chicks started flying over our temporary fencing, I beefed up sagging spots, but I soon realized that it was just plain silly (and nerve-wracking) to keep chickens on grass if they want a more forested environment.  So we transferred them to their grown up coop with its forest pasture, and suddenly everything was serene again.

Picked on henThe problem with our adult chickens is going to take a bit more fixing.  Two weeks ago, I noticed that one of our Australorp hens was perching in the coop all day long, and after spending an afternoon weeding the garden and keeping an eye on the flock, I figured out why --- our rooster was molesting her.  Yes, chicken sex never looks elegant to the human eye, but this was clearly different.  Our usually kind-hearted rooster was chasing this hen down, mounting her, chasing her, mounting her, pecking viciously at her head, and only stopping when she lay nearly dead on the ground.  We removed the pecked-at chicken from the flock and put her in an isolation coop, but after she bounced back and started laying again, we returned her to the main flock.  Not only did the rooster start picking on her again, he also took a dislike to a second Australorp hen, and the two downtrodden biddies started flying over the fence and into other pastures to escape.

Rooster haremThe Fort Knox approach would be to clip the hens' wings or add another strand of fencing, but as you can tell from the chick example, I prefer listening to what the animals are telling me, then trying to fix their problem, not just my own.  Their problem is clearly Mr. Rooster, who may have outlived his welcome on our farm.  He was a perfect gentleman all winter, guarding the girls as they free-ranged in the woods, but something about the confined environment of the pastures (fewer trees? less room for the girls to run away?) flicked a switch and turned him from an asset into a liability.

The obvious solution is to eat the rooster and simply save back one of the current batch of broilers to replace him.  The new cockerel will be just old enough in August that he should Fertilized eggsbe able to fertilize the fall round of hatching eggs, and then he can guard the girls all winter long.  Yes, he'll be related to whichever of our current hens is his mother (and to his sisters if we save a few to expand our laying flock), but I'm willing to deal with a bit of inbreeding to give our downtrodden hens a couple of months off from rooster molestation.

This is all assuming that the eggs currently in our incubator will hatch well despite the power outages they experienced.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed and dreaming of rooster stew.

Having a spare chicken waterer on hand makes it easy to isolate a picked on hen.
Posted Sun Apr 22 08:21:27 2012 Tags:
how to catch a turkey with a 50 gallon drum

We've got a wild flock of turkeys in the woods behind us, and sometimes we can hear them gobble.

Turkey season started in our area this week, and just for the fun of it I researched "How to catch a turkey" for a few minutes.

First off, I'm pretty sure there might be some laws against catching a turkey, which is what stopped me from actually trying it, but if you find yourself in a survival situation the most easy and simple method involves a 50 gallon drum.

Bait the drum with some crushed corn sitting on top with the bottom up. Check on it a couple times a day, and replenish the corn when needed. Do this everyday for 3 or 4 days, and on the 5th day flip the drum around. The turkey won't be able to see the new opening and will flop right in. Not having enough space to spread its wings will keep it there till you next check on the trap.

Posted Sun Apr 22 15:57:22 2012 Tags:

Paint meEven though our Easy Hive came with hand-written instructions straight out of Alice in Wonderland, the first question I researched was not how but whether to paint my new hive.

Should I paint my hive?
The question isn't as crazy as it sounds --- after all, honeybees had been living happily in unpainted trees for generations before we took them under our wing.  It turns out the reason we paint our hives has more to do with the beekeeper than the bees.  Unpainted hives tend to rot sooner, so we add paint to the outside as a waterproofing layer.

In some cases, you may not need to waterproof your hive at all.  In addition to our new top bar hive, we're also trying out a Warre hive this year, and the version we bought is made out of Western Red Cedar.  Cedar and redwood hives are naturally rot resistant, so many beekeepers leave the wood completely untreated.  We'll probably follow suit since the hives were back-ordered and are due to arrive on the same day as our bees.  (Yikes!)

Painting a top bar hiveWhat should I paint onto my hive?
Cheaper lumber is usually soft pine, and will rot pretty quickly if not waterproofed in some way, so we chose to protect our top bar hive.  You can use exterior latex paint, raw linseed oil (not boiled or the chemicals will affect your bees), tung oil, or a heated mixture of linseed oil and beeswax.  I wanted to try raw linseed oil since I suspected an oiled hive would outgas moisture better than a painted hive, but none of our local stores carried the item, so we went with paint.

What color should I paint my hive?
The most common question you hear from new beekeepers is --- what color should I paint my hive?  The traditional answer is "white", but the real answer is a bit more complex.  Bees don't particularly care what color their hive is, but pale hives will reflect the sun and keep the colony from overheating in the winter.  On the other hand, if you live in a cold climate, you might want to soak up the sun's rays, in which case you should choose a dark color.

If you're going to have several hives close to each other, it's a good idea to paint each one with a different color and/or pattern to prevent the common problem of bees getting lost and going home to the wrong hive.  In apiaries with rows of identical white hives, beekeepers notice that the colonies on the ends tend to be stronger than those in the middle of the line, due to the tendency of worker bees to "drift" --- the workers think they're going home, but ending up in the next hive over.  This issue is less relevant if you are scattering hives around a complex landscape, and bees are unlikely to drift between different styles of hives.

How do I paint my hive?
Painting bee hiveAssuming you've chosen to use paint to waterproof your hive, your next choice is whether to add a primer underneath, or just to use multiple layers of paint.  If it's going to bother you when you can see a bit of wood grain beneath your paint, go ahead and paint on two layers of primer (drying in between), then three layers of paint.  Most beekeepers skip the primer, though, and simply apply two layers of paint.  (If you're using a waterproofing oil, don't use a primer.)

Painting a Langstroth hiveNo matter which type of waterproofing you choose, you should apply it only to the outside surfaces of the hive, both to keep the chemicals away from the bees and because your livestock will prefer to coat the inside of their hive with disease-resistant propolis instead.  Most beekeepers recommend that you don't paint the top and bottom edges of Langstroth hive bodies since paint on these surfaces tends to stick together when the boxes meet.  The rule of thumb is --- paint where rain falls or splashes, not where bees walk or wood joins.

My last tip is --- try to paint your hive several days before the bees arrive!  Bees don't like chemicals of any kind and that new paint smell isn't going to help them settle in (and stay healthy.)

I've seen some beautiful photos on the internet of uniquely painted bee hives.  If you've gone the extra mile to make your ladies' home stylish, I hope you'll leave a link or photo in the comments!

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock nearly as easy as tending a hive of bees.
Posted Mon Apr 23 07:55:36 2012 Tags:

ThoreauThose of you who are taking the slow and steady approach to reading the first chapter of Walden are finally making your way out of the philosophical part of the chapter and into the nitty gritty --- what a relief!  Meanwhile, the fast readers who are waiting for the rest of us to catch up might be interested in the essay titled "Thoreau" by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

Mom recommended the additional reading material, which is really a heart-felt eulogy and character sketch.  I'm glad she did.  The 21 page essay is easier to read than Walden, and it made me like Thoreau a lot better.  You can read the essay online (or download it) here --- skip ahead to page 207 to find the part I'm talking about.

Here are some teaser quotes:

[Thoreau] was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun....

"I love Henry," said one of his friends, "but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm tree...."

No college ever offered him a diploma, or a professor's chair; no academy made him its corresponding secretary, its discoverer, or even its member. Perhaps these learned bodies  feared the satire of his presence....

There is a flower known to botanists, one of the same  genus with our summer plant called "Life-Everlasting", a Gnaphalium like that, which grows on the most inaccessible cliffs of the Tyrolcsc mountains, where the chamois dare hardly venture, Weekend Homesteader paperbackand which the hunter, tempted by its beauty, and by his love (for it is immensely valued by the Swiss maidens), climbs the cliffs to gather, and is sometimes found dead at the foot, with the flower in his hand. It is called by botanists the Gnaphalium leontopodium, but by the Swiss Edelweiss, which signifies Noble Purity. Thoreau seemed to me living in the hope to gather this plant, which belonged to him of right. The scale on which his studies proceeded was so large as to require longevity, and we were the less prepared for his sudden disappearance.

For those of you who are waiting until the last minute, you've still got a week before we'll start discussing chapter one of Walden.  Don't forget!

Posted Mon Apr 23 12:00:57 2012 Tags:
Top bar hive bottom door modification image

We decided to split our top bar hive bottom door into two sections.

The logic being that two doors will give us more control over the inside temperature.

Posted Mon Apr 23 17:13:45 2012 Tags:
Chitting potatoes

One of the best decisions we made during the early years on the farm was to splurge on $45 worth of seed garlic.  Yes, that sounds like an excessive amount of money for two pounds of garlic, but the high quality bulbs grow like crazy and have provided all the garlic we could eat for the last three years.  Meanwhile, we've given away starter garlic to all and sundry, so I really can't calculate how many pounds of garlic those first two pounds turned into.

Seed potatoesWith that success in mind, I decided to try out four new varieties of potatoes this spring, even though the seed potatoes cost $5 to $7.50 per pound at the Potato Garden (from whence the descriptions below came).  Here are the varieties I chose after reading the descriptions for all 55 types of potatoes offered on their website:

  • Carola - "This yellow from Germany is heralded by potato lovers as one of the best. Produces an abundant basket of tubers under each hill. Oblong to round tubers with smooth yellow skin and flesh that has the texture, moisture and taste of a new potato even after months of storage in the root cellar. Boils, bakes, mashes and hashes that are out of this world as well as makes some of the best scalloped potatoes around. Shows some scab and disease resistance, also excellent storage qualities."
  • Cracked Butterball - "A 2008 German Butterball x Agria cross by Verlin Rockey. This is a great way to get the German Butterball taste in a larger potato. With a unique characteristic of a crackled skin, it is easily washed with a vegetable brush."
  • Desiree - "The most popular “red” potato in Europe. Round to oblong tubers, satin-like pinkish/red skin and gourmet quality creamy-yellow flesh. Prolific yields of excellent all-around cooking potatoes. Very resistant to common diseases. An easy and very reliable gourmet potato to grow."
  • Rose Finn Apple Fingerling - "A rosy colored skin with deep yellow flesh and a waxy, firm texture. A great roasting potato, very popular and fun to grow. Delectable flavor and a fine keeper with vigorous vines. Many chefs are finding that these potatoes cooked and pureed lend themselves well as a soup thickener for sauces and gravies. A fine keeper with vigorous upright vines. Mid-Season variety."

Sprouted potatoAs you can tell, I'm focusing on good keepers because I want to be able to plant the offspring of these potatoes for many years to come.  We don't eat many potatoes any more, so I figure the ones we do eat should be the very best!  Stay tuned for a taste test this fall.

Our chicken waterer keeps your flock healthy with POOP-free water.
Posted Tue Apr 24 07:58:35 2012 Tags:
license plate top bar hive entrance door slide

Most people plug up the entrance holes of a top bar hive with champagne corks, but we were fresh out.

I started to cut a piece of wood to size, but then imagined the warping that will surely happen after exposure to the elements.

We used furring strips to secure the expired license plate and act as a rail for it to slide on.

Posted Tue Apr 24 16:10:51 2012 Tags:
Doesn't the soil in a no-till garden get compacted after a year or two?  What happens to the organic matter if you topdress compost every year rather than mixing it in?
--- Various people

No-till topsoilIf you grew up with conventional gardening methods --- tilling up the soil every year --- you might have a hard time wrapping your head around what happens in a no-till garden over time.  So I thought you would like to see a bed that's been managed using no-till methods for the last five years.

I dug up this bed Tuesday to enable me to plant my potatoes.  We started the bed in spring 2007, before I knew what a kill mulch was, so initial soil preparation consisted of having Mark till up the ground and then me shovel the topsoil from the aisles to form raised beds.  The bed housed strawberries for a few years, then garlic (which necessitated minimal digging for planting and harvest), then corn.  Last fall, I planted the bed in oats --- you can still see some oat roots not quite deteriorated in the hunk of earth above.

Soil horizonsThe first thing to notice is that the soil is divided into horizons, just like natural soil in a forest or meadow.  (This photo shows a shovelful of earth laying on its side, so envision it turned 90 degrees.)  About six inches down, the B layer is mostly clay; above that, the A layer is rich topsoil; and a thin coating of partially decomposed organic matter (the O layer) sits on the top of the ground.  Since I don't disrupt their activity with tilling and chemicals, there are plenty of worms in the earth to move organic matter down into the A layer, which is why that topsoil is so dark, rich, and crumbly. 

Soil conglomeratesNo-till garden soil doesn't have the same cake-crumb consistency you'll see in newly tilled earth, but it also is far from compacted.  (You can tell your soil is compacted if it's hard to shovel.)  When undisturbed, soil microorganisms glue crumbs of earth into larger conglomerates, leaving air pockets in between.  When I break apart a hunk of my no-till soil, it feels a lot like a bunch of wood chips attached to each other by mycelium, tearing easily into irregular chunks.

Keep in mind that my no-till garden consists of permanent garden beds that receive nearly no traffic (except for an occasional dog footprint, but even Lucy is pretty good about staying off them).  The type of no-till farming practices in conventional agriculture circles will likely lead to soil compaction since they run heavy tractors across the earth and kill off the worms with herbicides.  In contrast, no-till management in a backyard garden leads to rich, healthy soil that grows great food.

Our chicken waterer never spills in coops or tractors.
Posted Wed Apr 25 07:52:04 2012 Tags:
weed eating plastic fingers review

The Stihl FS-90R polycut attachment is in my opinion a huge improvement compared to using traditional string.

It's easy to replenish the plastic fingers, but no so forgiving when it comes to getting too close to chicken wire.

I might be switching back to string for the chicken pasture perimeter. The swap can be done in less than a minute once the turning head is locked down by inserting a screwdriver in the hole on top and recognizing that it's threaded on in a reverse fashion.

Posted Wed Apr 25 15:45:20 2012 Tags:
Pile of chicks

Drowsy chickI can't decide whether our most recent cold spell (one semi-serious frost and a few days of chilly weather) counts as blackberry winter or not.  The dewberries (a groundcover version of blackberries) are blooming along the sunny driveway, but the real blackberries back in our homestead area just have buds.  Not that the semantics really matter, but superstition holds that if this is blackberry winter, then it's our last real cold spell of the spring.

Our chicks popped out of the shell right in the middle of the chilly weather Tuesday, but we now know what to do if Chick camwe have to put damp chicks in a cold brooder, so there was no drama.  I moved the webcam inside so you can enjoy watching the youngsters take their first steps, learning to eat and drink.  Don't worry if you notice chicks keeling over, though --- narcolepsy is quite normal for day old chicks.

Chicks take to our chicken waterer with no training, and the POOP-free waterer keeps diseases at bay and bedding dry.
Posted Thu Apr 26 07:15:29 2012 Tags:

how to attach the burlap quilt on a Warre hive boxHow do you attach burlap material to the quilt box of a Warre hive?

Some people use staples, but that felt a little sloppy for this application.

We ended up cutting furring strips and then screwing them to the inner wall.

Posted Thu Apr 26 15:59:11 2012 Tags:
Honeybee on kale flower

Warre hiveIf all goes as planned, our two packages of chemical-free bees should arrive today.  Next time, we're going to plan further ahead so we're not putting the finishing touches on our hives the night before!

We've still got one major decision to make, and I'm hoping experienced beekeepers will weigh in.  New package bees have to be fed, and I've got quite a bit of honey leftover from the hives that died of colony collapse disorder last fall.  But I can't decide if it's safe to feed the honey to our new bees.

As a data point, our neighbor's bees have been robbing those hives ever since our original bees died.  I should have just harvested the honey, but it's tough to get honey out of the comb during cold weather, so I only took a bit at a time.  Alternatively I should have blocked off the hives, but I never thought of it except when I saw the bees robbing, and I didn't want to shut the workers in.

Hovering honeybee80% of my neighbor's bees died over the winter, and without an autopsy, the cause of death is uncertain.  Even if my neighbor's bees died of the same thing as my bees, both apiaries could have come down with the problem independently simply due to living in the same region.  They might have died of different things entirely.  Or my honey might have killed them.

So, my question to you is --- which of the following would you feed new package bees:

  • Sugar water just to play it safe (even though it's less nutritious)
  • Honey from my dead hives (most of which is crystalized due to being extracted during cold weather)
  • Honey-filled comb from my dead hives (which has the benefit of containing pollen, but the disadvantage of being the most likely to carry disease)

While you're at it, if you want to tell me your favorite way of feeding bees in Warre and top bar hives, I'd appreciate it.  Thanks for your wisdom!

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock so easy, you'll soon branch out into other livestock.
Posted Fri Apr 27 07:04:54 2012 Tags:

2 bee packages delivered by UPS guy
Our new bees started off in Texas, and made it as far as Louisville Kentucky at around 1am this morning.

At noon today we got a call from our nice UPS driver saying he was ready to get rid of these bees!

We plan to install them later this evening after dinner.

Posted Fri Apr 27 15:52:48 2012 Tags:
New Swiss chard leaves

Weedy poppiesFour weeks ago, April seemed to stretch out so long and open before me.  An early spring!, I enthused.  More fresh garden produce even earlier --- I could almost taste it.

And now April is pretty much over and I'm just as behind in garden chores as I always am at this time of year.  Yes, despite copious mulch, there's still a need for a lot of spring maintenance.  An unfortunate number of the beds that I direct-seeded this spring, now look like this --- weeds nearly overtaking their contents, itching to be weeded and mulched.

Tomato transplantI figure a solid week of maintenance would catch me right up, but, of course, next week is May.  In case you don't put out a big summer garden, I guess I should explain that May is when we plant a quarter of our crops.  Vegetables slated to go in the ground next week include basil, green beans, sweet corn, cucumbers, mung beans, okra, peppers (transplanted), summer squash, and watermelons.

Since the 10 day forecast looks warm and I started some tomatoes inside early, I'll also be transplanting some of our tomatoes, although I won't put out the last half until after the frost free date.  In fact, I set out two tommy-toes and two slicers Wednesday in hopes of extra-early fruit.

Over-wintered Swiss chard

The good news is that the same warm weather that made the weeds grow so fast has also spurred on my early spring crops.  As you can see in the first photo in this post, this year's Swiss chard is nearly big enough to eat, and we've already taken two cuttings from our tokyo bekana.  That means I can set aside the over-wintered Swiss chard (pictured above) to save for seed and still enjoy fresh greens.

Broccoli and onion

StrawberryWe're floating in a sea of lettuce and arugula and the peas look like they might bloom pretty soon.  Broccoli bounced right back from frost-nipping, and the onions we started from seed are suddenly growing like crazy.

And then there's this strawberry I've had my eye on.  There are only two berries in the whole garden with even a blush of red, and I'm waiting for a sunny afternoon so we can enjoy the most ripe one at its peak.  Do you think Mark would notice if it went missing?  Maybe he was looking forward to this day when he taught me that shared food tastes better.

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to leave home without worrying about your flock.  Unfortunately, I can't help you with the backlogged weeding.
Posted Sat Apr 28 06:46:44 2012 Tags:
Top bar hive observation window close up

Our new bees are safely tucked in and making themselves a home.

The top bar hive has a neat observation window that's allowing us to see a healthy cluster around the queen cage.

Posted Sat Apr 28 13:59:37 2012 Tags:
Bees lingering on package

I'll regale you with all the details (and dozens of photos) of our package installation as this week's lunchtime series, but I can't resist writing about how happy I am to add another 20,000 head of livestock to our farm.  I missed having honeybees in the yard over the winter, and I'll admit that I woke up at dawn on Saturday to check on our new colonies.

Queen cage in new hiveRight after installation, the new bees in the top bar hive were mostly huddled in one corner, with only a few settling onto the queen cage (as you can see in this terrible photo).  An hour later, many more bees had found the queen, and dawn showed nearly every bee in the hive merged together into one mass of insect feet, wings, and backs.

Cluster of honeybees

As the sun came out, so did our bees:

Top bar hive entrance
Entrance feederCinderblock feeder

I opted to feed the top bar bees inside their hive, but an entrance feeder fit into the Warre hive pretty well.  The bees were sucking down the sugar water so fast, I had to send Mark to the store for more Saturday afternoon despite the bees also enjoying leftover canned syrup from their packages.

I'm excited to be trying out two new types of beekeeping this year, and am already loving the observation window in our Easy Hive.  You'll probably be hearing far more about bees than you'd like for the next little while, but at least they're photogenic.  Feel free to just look at the pretty pictures if you get bored.

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock nearly as easy as raising bees.
Posted Sun Apr 29 07:43:38 2012 Tags:
hearty kiwi Actinidia Arguta with frost damage and new leaf

Our Hardy Kiwi looks like it might spring back to life with a little luck and a few more weeks of non-freezing nights.

Posted Sun Apr 29 13:44:13 2012 Tags:

Inside Thoreau's cabinAs I read through the first chapter of Walden ("Economy"), I alternated between noting down quotes that spoke to my own experience...and rolling my eyes at Thoreau's folly.  I'm going to keep the eye-rolling in this post to a minimum because I'd really rather hear what you each thought of the book than hear myself opine at length.  To get the ball rolling, I'll sum up some of the more quotable moments.

Thoreau's two year adventure was an experiment in "voluntary poverty" --- he wanted to know how little time he could spend working and still keep body and soul together.  Or, in his own words: "Instead of studying how to make it worth men's while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them."

Not counting the building of his house, Thoreau's income and expenditures for an eight month period are summed up in the chart below (with the last column containing my own math to help you envision what he spent in today's dollars).

Thoreau's actual income or expense
Adjusted to 2010 dollars

Farming -14.725 -342.062
Food -8.74 -203.030
Clothing -8.4075 -195.306
Oil -2 -46.46
Total -33.8725 -786.858

Farming 23.34 542.188
Day labor 13.34 309.888
Total 36.78 854.399
Net profit:

In addition to the figures above, Thoreau spent $28.125 building a 150 square foot house, which comes to $4.34 per square foot in today's dollars.  (For the sake of comparison, Mark and I built the East Wing for $6.65 per square foot.)

Thoreau believed that we only truly need four things: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel.  He went even further to remind us that we only require the simplest version of each ---  "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes," he warned, then went on to note that "in modern civilized society not more than half the families own a shelter", in large part because modern houses are fancy and expensive.  He rejected the gift of a door mat because "it is best to avoid the beginnings of evil".  And, in the end, Thoreau concluded that it is our obsession with material possessions that requires us to spend "the best part of [our] life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part."

Thoreau's cabinBut at the same time, Thoreau came from a wealthy, educated class, and showed a disdain for certain levels of poverty.  "None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin," Thoreau wrote.  "That is shiftlessness."  He also bought a "shanty" and tore it apart to haul the building supplies to Walden Pond and turn into his own cabin rather than moving into what would have been an even simpler (and cheaper) structure.  I'd go so far as to hypothesize that if Thoreau lived in this modern age, he'd repeat the accusation we've heard multiple times --- that living in a trailer turns us into poor white trash.

So, what do you think?  Does Thoreau's experiment still ring true?  Do you consider a certain level of genteel poverty ethically sound, but another level "shiftlessness"?  Or did something else entirely catch your eye in Walden's first chapter?

As you comment, I hope you'll also take a minute to let me know whether you're still on board for reading the next 50 pages for May 7 --- that would be chapters 2 through 6.  I'm looking forward to hearing what you thought of this classic text!

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Mon Apr 30 07:34:06 2012 Tags:
Package of bees

The first task for most beginning beekeepers is to install a package of bees.  It feels like trial by fire, with bees whirling and buzzing around your head.  But if you know what to expect, hiving a package is actually easy and fun.  This week's lunchtime series walks you through installing a package of bees into a top bar or Warre hive, and this post starts with the very basics --- what is a package?

If you order bees through the mail, they'll almost certainly come in what's called a "package".  A package consists of a screened box full of a bunch of worker bees, a queen bee, and some sugar syrup to keep them all alive until they reach your house.

Two bee packages

Yes, the package ships as is, with bees separated from the outdoors only by the mesh sides of the container.  (If you order more than one package of bees, they may arrive attached together, as is shown in the photo above.)  Postal employees seem much less charmed by packages of bees than they are by boxes of chicks, so it's especially important to call your post office or UPS guy and set up a delivery plan the day before your bees arrive.  You don't want the bees to be set outside on a sunny, windy, or rainy delivery dock while they wait for you to pick them up.

Queen bee in a cage

In the U.S., most packages are 3 pounds, which simply means you get three pounds of worker bees (10,000 to 12,000 bees).  Don't be too concerned if you see up to an inch of dead bees in the bottom of the package --- it's hard for bees to be shipped across the country, so apiaries put in enough workers that your hive will be able to take off despite moderate losses.

In addition to the worker bees, your package also contains a queen, who is housed in a cage like the one shown above.  At large apiaries, queens are raised separately from the worker bees, so the 12,000 bees loose in your package haven't been fully acquainted with the queen by the time they arrive at your homestead.  In other words --- the workers want to kill the queen.  After two or three days, the workers will become used to the queen's scent and will (hopefully) be ready to take her into their midst, but until then, the matriarch stays segregated with some semi-solid sugar candy to nibble on.

Can of sugar syrupHere's the can of syrup, the final component of your package.  Depending on who you buy from, the can may have holes punched in the bottom with a nail or might contain a fabric feeding entrance (as is shown here).  Either way, the idea is that the bees can get a little bit of sugar-water at a time without drowning.

That's all there is to the physical package of bees, but you should also take a minute to understand the psychology of your new friends.  A package Weekend Homesteadermimics a swarm --- bees hunting for a home --- which means they're going to be gentle and only interested in hanging out around their queen.  Stay tuned for tomorrow's post in which I'll show you how to put these new livestock in a hive!

Does raising honeybees sound too daunting?  Learn easy ways to attract native pollinators in Weekend Homesteader.

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

Posted Mon Apr 30 12:01:05 2012 Tags:
do it yourself home made diy chicken feed trough

A simple chicken feed trough can be built with furring strip sections and 10 drywall screws.

This cheaper quality wood demands the use of a pilot hole when drilling near the edge, otherwise you run the risk of cracking it.

Posted Mon Apr 30 16:47:42 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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