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

archives for 05/2012

May 2012

Swarm of beesThe bad news is --- the package of bees we put in the top bar hive Friday absconded Monday.  They only ate half as much sugar water as the other hive, which should have tipped me off that something was wrong, but I didn't realize there was a problem until I saw that the hive was empty and all of the bees were clinging to the trunk of a nearby tree.

We tried to brush the mass of bees (technically not a swarm, but they act like one) into a bucket to be rehived, but I suspect the queen took flight because all of the bees flew right back out and disappeared.  So, we're down to one hive and I'm trying to figure out why our bees flew the coop.

Searching around the internet, I ran across these possible causes for absconding:

  • Frequent disturbance.  I thought that since opening the observation window didn't mess with the hive, I could look as often as I wanted.  But now I'm wondering whether the light coming in during my frequent viewings didn't bother the bees and make them think their colony was unsafe.  Similarly, I left the screened bottom completely open for ventilation, but that made it pretty bright inside the hive --- perhaps I should have closed the bottom and minimized my viewings for the first couple of weeks?
  • Top bar hive.  When I read The Barefoot Beekeeper, I remember the author recommending against packages as a way of starting top bar hives.  But packages are the most prevalant way of getting new bees in the U.S., so I ignored the author's advice.  My internet searches, however, turned up lots of top bar hive beekeepers with absconding package bees.  Something about the hive seems to make package bees discontented, although there are workarounds to keep your bees in place.  Some keepers wire a few frames of wax to top bars, while others spread wax and/or propolis along the inside walls.  Others just hunt down a nuc.
  • Overheating.  Mark's gut feeling is that the hive got too hot in the scorching sun.  It's in the same location where our Langstroths once lived and is a paler color, so I didn't think that would be a problem, but we're going to put a thermometer inside the hive to test his hypothesis.  Since poo-pooing his hypothesis, I read internet reports that overheating will cause a colony to abscond, so he may be on the right track.
  • Africanized honey bees.  Our packages came from Texas, and the proprietors of the apiary admit that their bees may have partial Africanized genetics.  I didn't think it would be a problem since the beekeeping company has bred the meanness out of their bees, but I did read a report that Africanized honey bees are far more likely to abscond than European honey bees.
  • Flight path obstructions.  I turned the top bar hive to face away from the center of our homestead so they wouldn't be buzzing into us as we worked in the garden.  A chicken wire fence sits just a couple of feet away from their entrance, which I wouldn't think would be a problem, but I have read that bees prefer hives without flight path obstructions.

Other common causes of absconding that aren't relevant to my disappearing package include: lack of food, lack of space, and presence of parasites or diseases.  Bad odors can also drive bees away, and I did feel like straw in my kill mulch under the hive was giving off a strong smell, so that's a slight possibility.

If we can't find a nuc to refill our top bar hive and have to wait for a new package next year, I'll do things a bit differently.  In addition to leaving the bees strictly alone, I'll reduce the opening more, perhaps even making a queen includer to fit over the entrance for the first week, forcing the matriarch to stay put.

And three hours after losing our colony, I realized what I really should have done --- called in our beekeeping mentor for hands-on help.  I was afraid that if I delayed, the swarm would fly to a less accessible location, so I muddled through trying to catch it myself and failed.  But I'll bet my mentor would have made short work of rehiving those bees.  Twenty-twenty hind-sight!

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Tue May 1 07:09:14 2012 Tags:
Bee suit

Yesterday, you learned what a package of bees is, so today I'm going to walk you through installing a package into a hive.  Evening is the best time to hive a package since the coming night makes bees more likely to stay in their new home.  If your bees arrive early, put them in a room-temperature, quiet place to await the hour before sunset.  (A closet, garage, or spare room works fine.)

Bees on beekeeperMeanwhile, you should be gathering your supplies.  All you really need to hive a package is a hive tool and a nail or piece of wire to puncture the candy in the queen cage, but you might find some other equipment handy.

Bees in a package are very gentle, but they're also confused and will land all over your head, hands, and arms.  I recommend wearing a veil at the least, and you might feel more comfortable in a full bee suit.  If you're able to allow bees to settle on your bare skin without batting at them, this is one procedure that works much better without gloves, but go ahead and wear hand protection if you're going to be nervous without.

Other tools you might use include:

  • Scissors (in case your queen cage is attached to a fabric strap)
  • Spray bottle of sugar water (in case the bees freak you out and you need to sedate them)
  • Screw and screwdriver or staple gun (in case you need to attach the queen cage to a top bar)
  • Bee brush (to move addled bees out of the way when closing the hive back up)
Take apart packages

Pry off lidWith your tools assembled, take another few minutes to prepare your hive.  Each type of hive is prepped differently, and I'll cover the specifics for Warre hives and top bar hives in later posts.  If you're installing a package into a Langstroth hive, I recommend doing a little additional research to find out those details.  At its most basic, hive preparation consists of making a space into which you can pour bees.

Now you can start to pry your package apart.  If you ordered more than one package and they were mailed as a single unit, use your hive tool to separate the packages.  Next, pry off the cardboard or plywood cover on top of one package, as is shown above.

Parts of a packageUnderneath the cardboard or plywood lid, you'll see the top of the can of syrup.  There will also be a strap --- either fabric or thin metal --- that attaches to the queen cage.  It's very important that you don't knock the queen cage off this strap and that you don't let the queen cage fall into the package of bees.  Both mistakes can be remedied, but beginners will do better to prevent them.

Cut queen cage loose

Remove syrup and replace lidIf the strap is metal, you should be able to pry it loose from its staple, but I had to cut my fabric strap.  I was careful to leave enough strap that I could hold onto the remainder while pulling out the can of syrup.

You'll notice that you really need three hands for this procedure, but you'll find a way to make do with two.  Using the hive tool, pry at the top of the can of syrup until you can get a grip on it.  Then hold onto the queen strap with one hand while pulling out the can of syrup with the other. 

Set the can of syrup aside while pulling out the queen cage and placing the cardboard or plywood lid back on the package so bees don't stream out.  (Yes, some bees will escape during this procedure --- don't worry about it.)

Queen cage

Queen beeWhat you should be focusing on now is the queen cage.  If the weather is chilly, brush off attendant bees and stick the queen cage in your pocket until you're ready to deal with her.  If it's warm, just set her aside while you get the tools for the next part of the procedure.  But don't lose her!

You'll notice that the queen cage has corks on two ends, one of which leads directly into the queen's living area (right side of the above photo) and the other of which goes into the candy plug (left side of the above photo).  Beginners should leave the cork on the living area side alone and instead focus on removing the cork that leads into the candy.

Remove cork from queen cage

You can take out the cork with anything you want.  Pros often use the corner of their hive tool, but I found it much easier to spear the cork with a piece of wire and pull it loose.

Pierce candy in queen cage

Melted candyUnderneath the cork is a plug of candy.  You want to make a hole in the candy large enough for the queen's scent to waft through, but not so large that the queen herself can crawl out.  The queen should have to chew for a day or two before she can escape.

To get this effect, pierce the candy with a nail or wire.  Be careful that you don't skewer the queen!

The candy in one of my queen cages had partially melted (see the photo on the right).  It's not the end of the world if your hole doesn't really work --- you can let the queen out in a few days if she hasn't escaped on her own.

Where you put the queen depends on what kind of hive you're using.  Do a little research on your own or read my posts about top bar and Warre hive installation (coming soon for those reading this post as I write it, or linked at the bottom if you're reading this post later).  I'm assuming you've installed the queen before you move on to the next step below.

Thump package on ground to knock bees to bottom

Now for the fun (read: scary) part --- pouring the bees into the hive!  Bees in a package tend to cluster near the top, and you want them loose and pourable.  If you're scared of your bees, spray them with sugar water now (but that's not really necessary --- I didn't).  Next, tap the box of bees solidly on the ground to knock them loose, take off the lid, then quickly upend the box over top of the open hive.

Shaking bees out of a package

Pouring worker bees out of a package takes a bit of skill.  You'll end up tilting the box from side to side so bees drop out the entrance hole, and you'll probably stop several times to tap the box again and knock bees loose.  This is when bees will fly all around and scare you, but remember that hiveless bees are gentle and very unlikely to sting.

Inside a new bee hiveLater posts will tell you how to close your hive and make sure your package install was a success, but I've got a bit more advice for the installation phase.  First, don't worry about all those bees buzzing around in the air.  As soon as the workers in the hive get their feet under them, some will go to the entrance and start fanning air full of queen pheremone out to attract stragglers.  (You can see one bee fanning in the photo here, taken through the observation window in our Easy Hive.)

Leftover bees in package

Bees on groundThe bees stuck in the package are more problematic.  If you're a better thumper and shaker than I am, you might get them all out the first time, but I find that it's easier to wait until ten or fifteen minutes after the hive has been closed up and everyone has settled down, then to come back and check on the package.  Chances are, you'll see bees clustering in the upper corners, as in the photo above. 

Weekend HomesteaderA couple of thumps and shakes are all it takes to knock most of the remaining bees out onto the ground, which will make it easier for the bees to find their way to the hive.  Place the package in front of the hive, hole-side-up, and nearly every bee will be in the hive come morning.

Weekend Homesteader is full of fun and easy projects to help guide you onto the path to self-sufficiency.

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

Posted Tue May 1 12:00:59 2012 Tags:
100 dollar deck

We've been putting off building a porch for the back of our trailer since we moved in, which meant we could only use that door with extreme caution.

Last fall we managed to buy enough lumber for an 8x16 deck, but getting started proved to be a challenge due to other pressing projects.

Today we got half way there with the help of a carpenter named Bradley. We were so happy with his work we decided to hire him to also do a roof for the porch. He's charging 100 dollars for the 5 hours of labor required for the deck, and he doesn't mind the long walk across the creek!

Posted Tue May 1 17:32:48 2012 Tags:
Catching a cicada

Looks like we're in for a round of periodic cicadas this year!  I was sorry to miss them in 2011, but it looks like the 17-year Brood 1 does live in our area, despite usually being restricted to upland parts of the Blue Ridge (about 80 miles east of us).  The red-eyed cicadas started popping up all over the farm Monday, and I snagged each new arrival to feed our chickens.  Maybe we'll eat the next ones ourselves?

(No, the cicada didn't do that to my thumbnail.  I've now learned not to roll my eyes when Mark tells me bungee cords are dangerous.  The bruise doesn't hurt any more, but it was sore for two days and did restrict my weeding for a whole week!)

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chickens from day one through old age.
Posted Wed May 2 07:07:23 2012 Tags:
Install packageintopbarhive.jpg

If you want to install a package of bees into a top bar hive, I recommend that you start by reading my general instructions for bee package installation.  This followup posts gives the specifics for top bar hives --- how many bars you use, where the bees go, feeding, etc. --- but assumes you understand the basics of hiving a package.

Prepare top bar hive for package

If you're installing a package of bees into a brand new top bar hive (like our Easy Hive), you should start by placing ten to twelve top bars between two follower boards in the center of the hive.  Those of you who are using a golden mean top bar hive might give the bees only eight to ten top bars for their initial living area since the golden mean hive is more capacious.

Alternatively, if your entrance is at the end of the hive, you can use a single follower board an appropriate number of top bars from the end.  Either way, you might as well install the rest of the top bars on the other side(s) of the follower board(s), even though the bees won't be using them right now.

Now that you've put all of the top bars in, it's time to take some out.  I removed two top bars in the center of the bees' new living area, but wished I'd taken out three or four to make it easy to pour bees in.

Feeding bees inside hiveNext, consider how you want to feed your bees.  A new package will have to be fed for some variable amount of time to get them off to a good start.  (I hope that more experienced beekeepers will leave a comment telling me how long they feed new packages of bees since I've seen very conflicting advice on the internet.)  You can read my post about cooking up sugar syrup here, but you still have to make a decision on how to get that sugar to the bees.

Most people seem to make baggie feeders by filling a ziplock bag with sugar water, then pricking tiny holes in one side and placing the baggie in the bottom of the top bar hive.  I don't like disposables, and I have these entrance feeders leftover from our Langstroth hive days, so I started out by putting an entrance feeder in the living area of the top bar hive.  I suspect I'll want to make a hole in the bottom of one of the follower boards Attach queen cage to top barsoon so that bees won't build comb around the feeder (and so I can refill it without disturbing the girls).

Next, open up the entrance holes leading into the new living area, and get ready to install your package of bees!  The queen cage goes between two of top bars in the living area.  You can usually just bend a metal strip over and not worry about attachment, but my fabric strip needed a screw to hold it in place.

If you have an observation window, don't make the mistake I did.  Face the open side of the queen cage toward the window so you can watch her escape.

Once you install the queen cage, push the top bars on either side back into place, leaving a hole into which you can pour bees.

Pour bees into top bar hive

In this photo, you can see why I recommend taking out more than two top bars to prepare for the worker bees.  I ended up dumping more bees than I wished onto the top bars rather than into the hive cavity.  This wasn't a big deal (and would have been even less of a big deal if I'd had my bee brush handy), but the operation will go more smoothly with a larger opening.

Replace top bars

Now you can replace the top bars you removed to pour in the worker bees.  I ended up gently blowing bees out of the way since I didn't have a brush on hand.  A few bees ended up stuck on top, but I suspect they'll escape through cracks in the cover.

Put lid on top bar hive

Weekend HomesteaderPut the lid on and you're done!  Well, until you check on the bees and take out the queen cage in a few days, which I'll explain in detail Friday.

This is my first package install into a top bar hive, so I hope those of you who are more experienced with the hive will weigh in.  Are there any steps you'd change in my description?  Any additional tips?

Don't know where to start with your homesteading adventure?  The Weekend Homesteader will guide you on your way.

Edited to add: After writing this post, our bees absconded (flew away) from our top bar hive.  I don't think my installation method had anything to do with it (see the linked post for ideas on what the culprit was), but I can't be sure.

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

Posted Wed May 2 12:00:20 2012 Tags:
Club Car lumber hauling and balancing

I learned two golf cart lessons this morning.

1. You can haul more lumber when the load is better balanced.

2. Entrance and exits are easier when you use the front door.

Now we have enough materials for the rest of the porch project and a roof to go over it.

Posted Wed May 2 16:01:44 2012 Tags:

Cross-wise rafters on a porchBradley says he's only going to charge us $175 for all of his hard work building an 8 by 16 covered porch.  We're trying to talk him up to $200....

Meanwhile, Mark and I have been dropping by and watching him work as we take breaks from our own regular tasks.  If it wasn't planting month, I'd be tempted to have us both "help" him for the whole project, because I can tell Bradley has a lot of experience to impart despite his youth.  Here are a few pointers I've picked up already:

Building with all new materials goes fast if you know what you're doing.  It looks like it's going to take Bradley only about nine hours to build the entire porch with no help.  I estimate that Mark and I, working together, would have taken twice that long (which means four times the man-hours).  With scavenged materials, we'd probably multiply our time by two again, but we would have saved a lot of cash --- we spent $660 on materials for this project.
Rafter support
To save on supplies with a metal roof, make your rafters run cross-wise.  The first two photos in this post show how Bradley made the roof rafters run the opposite direction from what you'd expect, which saved quite a bit of wood and was still plenty sturdy enough for him to walk on.

Use scabs and brackets to turn a two person job into a one person job.  Mark kept asking Bradley if he needed help with daunting tasks like setting the four by four posts upright, but Bradley had it Scab and bracketcovered.  He used wooden scabs and brackets to hold the posts erect until he'd built a box on top to provide structural integrity.

Floor joists

Plan ahead so you don't need to double up.  Although he envisioned the 8'x16' porch as two 8'x8' squares attached to each other, Bradley got by with one joist where the squares join by building directly onto the side of the central four by four legs.  (See above.)

We'll share more shots of the porch when it's done!

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.
Posted Thu May 3 07:10:23 2012 Tags:

Queen cage in Warre hiveIf you understand the basics of bee package installation, putting a package into a Warre hive is absurdly simple.  You'll want to start with two boxes, with top bars in place in the bottom box and absent in the top box.  Set aside the cover and quilt for now and get your package ready.

After prepping your queen cage, simply lay it flat on the top bars of the bottom box.  You don't want to set the queen cage on the bottom of the entire hive because she'll need bees to cluster around her for warmth during the first couple of nights before she chews her way free, and the bees will prefer to hang out above the ground.

Now pour the worker bees into the empty top box.  This procedure becomes much more complex if you made your Warre hive in the traditional manner, with fixed frames.  In that case, you either have to pour bees into an inverted top box and flip it into place, or run the bees up a Replace top bars in Warre hivewhite sheet or towel into the box.  Luckily, Mark installed pins in my Warre hive so I can move the frames as needed.  I'll still keep my  hands off as much as possible to maintain the integrity of the hive.

With the queen and workers in place, you can replace the bars in the upper box.  This would be a good time to have a bee brush on hand, but it also works to just lower top bars slowly enough that bees can escape out from under them.

Inner cover in Warre hive

Blowing is another method of getting bees out of your way as you place the burlap inner cover, then the quilt box on top of the hive.

Quilt and roof of Warre hive

Entrance feederWe filled our quilt box with straw, but you can use any insulative material.  (It's best to do that before the bees are buzzing around your head.)  The roof slides right down over top of the quilt, sealing the insulative material in with an inner mouse board, but allowing air to flow under the eaves.

The entrance feeder for my Langstroth hive fit into the mouth of the Warre hive once I put a cinderblock underneath to support it.  This narrows the entrance quite a bit, so I'll probably find another place for the feeder once the bees are really up and running, but it'll be good enough for now.

Weekend HomesteaderStay tuned for tomorrow's post, which covers removing the queen cage and making sure the first combs are being built straight.

Meanwhile, don't forget to preorder a copy of my paperback, chock full of projects to make your homesteading adventure a success.

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

Posted Thu May 3 12:00:59 2012 Tags:
Warre hive top bar holding pin how to make diy

Warre hive vertical top bars need a pin to keep them secure.

I didn't have any nails that size, so we made our own pins by cutting small sections of 14 gauge galvanized wire and hammering them into pilot holes.

Pay extra attention to the space between the bars. It might help to mark all the holes before you actually drill.

Posted Thu May 3 15:53:59 2012 Tags:
Digging out fescue

The saying that you spend 90% of your time carrying out 10% of the tasks in an average job is true in the garden too.  Taking a few minutes to root out inefficiencies really pays off, even though it seems hard to budget the hours when putting in your spring garden.

This year, we've been focusing on making it easier to mow the garden aisles.  Clumps of tall fescue, like the one I'm digging out in the top photos, bog down the mower and take several extra seconds (and quite a bit of brute force) to trim down.  It doesn't sound like much, but once you've hit ten clumps of fescue, the time (and hassle) adds up.  We're slowly but surely rooting out these problem grasses, leaving the more well-behaved bluegrass and white clover to take their place.

Diversified vegetable garden

Front garden mapMeanwhile, I'm also slowly fixing the crazy quilt of a front garden, parts of which I hand-dug during our first couple of years on the farm.  At the time, I'd never worked in a garden with permanent beds, so I assumed lots of cross aisles would make my job easier.  The truth is, I almost never walk down those cross aisles, and it's very tough to maneuver the mower around to cut the grass in them.  (It would be a bit easier if my aisles were wider like in the mule garden.)

Kill mulch

So I'm spending a few extra minutes to lay down a kill mulch and turn the cross-aisles into part of long, linear beds.  This year, I'll just let the grass die back under the cardboard, then this fall I'll plant an oat cover crop to start building the soil up in these new garden spots.  I Weekend Homesteaderfigure by next year, I'll be able to plant vegetables, increasing my growing area while also making the garden easier to maintain.

The only slight disadvantage of my bed merger is that now I'm going to have to add decimals to my numbering scheme.  It already has negative numbers --- how geeky can you get?

Weekend Homesteader: May contains a whole chapter on tricks for planning an ergonomic garden.  The chapter has been expanded and moved to April in my new paperback.

Posted Fri May 4 07:00:57 2012 Tags:

Removing the queen cage from a Warre hiveAfter installing a package of bees into your new hive, you can sit back and relax...for a couple of days.  Most beekeepers recommend that you reopen the hive after two to three days to make sure the queen has escaped from her cage, removing the cork from the non-candy end and letting her run out if not.  I've usually had to help the queen escape, so you probably will too --- just work over the hive and be extra careful that the queen doesn't fly away or fall into the grass.  After she's been released, take the queen cage away with you rather than leaving it in the hive (where bees will build funny comb Release queenoff it) or around the hive (where the queen pheremones still on the cage could make your workers think she's leaving the hive).

As one of our readers wrote, the other important followup task is to feed, feed, feed.  Even if you're trying to keep bees as naturally as possible, a new package is the one instance where you really do need to feed your bees since they require that sustenance to draw out comb and nurture babies.  I asked readers for advice on what to feed our bees, and the best answer I got was that it's safest to simply feed a new package sugar water --- only give Crooked frame of waxhoney to bees from the same colony that made that honey (which you clearly can't do with a package).  As for how long to feed, it sounds like the colony will need 6 to 8 weeks to get new workers flying around and searching for nectar, so you may want to continue to feed your bees for that long.  Other people stop feeding as soon as the bees start to producing capped frames of honey.

Finally, if you're using foundationless frames (nearly always in a top bar or Warre hive and sometimes also in a Langstroth hive), it's important to make sure those first combs are built straight.  Bees line up future combs of wax parallel to the first one they build, so if that one is crooked, your whole hive will be full of crooked comb.  Beekeepers will either cut out a bad piece of wax or correct its orientation to get the bees off to a good start.
Weekend Homesteader
Now you're ready for the really hard part --- leaving your bees alone!  We'll see how long I can go before the urge to look into my Warre hive becomes unbearable.

Don't miss my paperback, full of 48 fun and easy projects to help you embark on your homesteading journey without becoming overwhelmed.

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

Posted Fri May 4 12:01:08 2012 Tags:
Wireless deer fence field testing day 1

The folks at wireless deer asked us if we would give their battery operated deer deterrent a try and we said sure.

It runs on 2 AA batteries and comes with a pack of scented sections of rubber hose that fits on top of the blue center piece.

I pointed the trail camera towards the area, and maybe if were lucky we might catch some of the electric excitement. Their website mentions how they'll pay for video footage of the wireless deer fence in action. You get 3 stakes, plus the attractant for 60 dollars and that includes shipping. It comes with a 2 year unconditional guarantee. We just put them in today, so stay tuned for a full report on how we think it works at keeping those garden nibblers away from our vegetables.

Posted Fri May 4 16:03:28 2012 Tags:

Dining on the porchThis has been a strange year since we've had cash to pay experts to make some capital improvements on the farm.

The barn roof repair job was definitely worth every penny, but it's only the beginning of a long project of barn reorganization.

The porch, on the other hand, is pure luxury.

Dining out in the open air on a hot summer afternoon feels just as luxurious as sitting in front of the wood stove does in the winter.

Both the wood stove and the porch cut back on our electric bill, but they're really all about enjoying life.  You can tell an improvement is decadent when Huckleberry moves right in.

Our chicken waterer never spills in tractors, ensuring your birds don't die on hot summer days.
Posted Sat May 5 07:00:50 2012 Tags:
Wooden tables from old green house found on Craigs list

Some friends of ours found a free green house on Craigs list and asked us if we wanted the wooden plant tables.

"Heck yeah!" was my response.

We've already got a short list of possible project ideas, with aquaponics near the top. Thank you Frankie, Jim, and Dudley for the delivery and helping with unloading.

Posted Sat May 5 16:05:56 2012 Tags:

Sauteed cicadasI easily gathered eight cicadas while going about my morning chores on Thursday, and I popped them all into the freezer so they would perish quickly and then be ready for a lunch taste test.  You can eat cicadas raw, but I needed all the help I could get to overcome the "I'm eating a bug" factor, so I sauteed them in a bit of vegetable oil, salt, and pepper for about ten minutes until the exoskeletons were pretty crunchy.  Then I served the wildcrafted treat up, four cicadas per plate.

I couldn't talk Mark into eating a single one --- he said he might try a cicada another time if I removed the wings.  Adding the insects to a stir fry (and not telling the recipients) New adult cicadamight be another good way of tricking non-believers into taste-testing cicadas.  And, to be honest, I had to look in the other direction while popping the bits of invertebrate flesh into my mouth, a bit like what I do when I get a shot.  (If I can't see it, the scary thing isn't there and I can focus on my real senses.)

So, what do cicadas taste like?  Actually, when I could ignore the fact that I was eating an insect, they were delicious.  Keep in mind that I taste-tested what's known in culinary circles as "soft-shelled cicadas" --- youngsters who have just popped out of their nymphal skins and haven't yet hardened up their exoskeletons.

I didn't detect the almond or pistachio flavor reported on the internet.  Instead, the texture (and flavor, actually) was like the flesh from the one lobster tail I've tasted, but without that faint hint of fishiness, and with a little crunch when my teeth hit the wings.  (I really liked the cicadas wings-on and don't recommend removing the appendages.)  Since there are several species of periodic cicadas, I wouldn't be at all surprised if each one tastes a little different.

Cooked cicadasOn a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give these sauteed cicadas a 9.  In addition to tasting good, the insects also really agreed with me --- as I started writing this post, my mouth watered and I snuck one of the cicadas I'm saving into my mouth for a snack.  On the other hand, it probably would have taken all day to gather enough cicadas to serve as the protein source for a whole meal, so I'll just keep snagging the delicacies as I pass them by.

Which is all a long way of saying --- I recommend them!  If you've got cicadas crawling up out of the ground, now's a perfect time to see if you like them as much as I do.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock well hydrated on hot summer days.

Learn to keep bugs at bay

Posted Sun May 6 07:01:02 2012 Tags:

head lamp for chickens at night

The easy way to catch a chicken is to wait till it gets dark and pick them up off their roost.

We each got spelunking head lamps back when our power went out for 2 weeks, and quickly discovered how awesome a head mounted light source can be.

My advice is to pay a little extra for the higher end model that allows you to adjust the angle where the light shines.

Posted Sun May 6 16:00:55 2012 Tags:

Thoreau cartoonI thoroughly enjoyed everyone's thoughts on chapter 1 of Walden, even though I didn't comment much, so I hope you all had time to read chapter 2 --- "Where I lived, and what I lived for".  I'm going to write about two themes that caught my eye in this chapter, but, as usual, feel free to comment on whatever you found the most interesting instead.

Buying land
What struck me first is how similar the beginnings of my and Thoreau's journeys were...and how different the endings.  "At a certain season of our life, we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house," Thoreau wrote, and went on to tell about all of the properties he toured, one of which he came within a hair's breadth of buying.

I also went through a land-yearning stage in which I drew maps of how I'd turn real and hypothetical properties into vibrant homesteads, and I ended up happily married to our plot of land.  On the other hand, Thoreau decided that the wiser course is to love and leave the land.  "As long as possible live free and uncommitted," he advises us.  "It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or to the county jail."  Similarly, in the first chapter, he wrote about "young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of."

This reminds me of Mike's comment on my previous Walden post in which he reminds us that no one can be free of the economy, even if you buy a plot of land outright, grow your own food, and need nothing else.  Thoreau was thinking more of the upkeep of a farm than he was about property taxes and a mortgage, but both points have merit.  So, my first discussion question is --- do you think voluntary simplicity can be achieved if you own land?

The news
Current events cartoonThe second thing that struck me in this chapter was more of a side note than a theme.  Mark and I have come to belief this over the last few years, but have had a hard time articulating the premise, so I'll let Thoreau do it for me:

"And I am sure that I have never read any memorable news in a newspaper.  If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, --- we never need read of another.  One is enough.  If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?  To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea."

I've had several people tell me that that it's somehow ethically imperative to stay up to date on the world's news, but I've come to consider it all a distraction.  Yes, I do my homework and figure out the issues when the time comes to vote, but I don't see any point in being emotionally involved in the day to day running of the world if I can't do anything about it.  Which brings me to my second discussion question --- do you consider all news gossip, or do you think we're morally obligated to stay up to date on current events?

Chapters 3 and 4
Unless I hear that it's a hardship for anyone, let's plan to talk about "Reading" and "Sounds" next Monday.  Now I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say about chapter 2!
Weekend Homesteader
(As a side note, I might not be able to pull your comments out of moderation until this evening, so don't despair if they don't show up as quickly as usual.  I promise I'm not weeding out comments I don't like --- everyone except clear spam always makes it through moderation.)

My new paperback includes fun and easy projects for every weekend of the year to help guide you onto the path to self-sufficiency.

Posted Mon May 7 07:01:06 2012 Tags:

using a tree as a fence post for a chicken pasture
Our chicken pasture/moat perimeter is coming close to completion.

Sometimes I like to recruit a tree to function as a fence post, like this small walnut.

It saves time and money, but it also looks more natural, which in my opinion increases the already high level of beauty around here.

Posted Mon May 7 16:01:06 2012 Tags:
Berea graduation

We left our beloved porch Sunday and Monday to see my favorite little sister graduate from Berea College.  Congratulations, Maggie!

Three mothers

Cap and gownI call the photo above "Three Mothers".  We were waiting for the first appearance of our graduate....

Here she comes!

The photo below depicts Mom's first sighting.

Here she comes!

Walking across the stage....

Her rooters below.


Then cookies and punch in the quadrangle.


My favorite grand-nephew seemed more interested in the brownies than in the dry-roasted cicadas I brought just for him.  What are kids coming to these days?


We're so proud of you, Maggie!

Our chicken waterer kept all three flocks well hydrated without any worries while we were gone.
Posted Tue May 8 07:18:00 2012 Tags:
Pastured poultry

Young australorp chickens

Cornish Cross broilers are usually eaten at 8 weeks.  We give our heirlooms an extra month since they grow slower, but the deadline is still fast approaching.

We killed the rooster last week and have four of last year's broilers left in the freezer.  Looks like we'll be eating a lot of chicken dinners in May.

Posted Tue May 8 16:55:43 2012 Tags:

John Little is a regular reader who lives in Japan and shared the following fascinating data about differences between colony collapse disorder there and in the U.S.  I'll let him tell you the story in his own words.

Japanese beekeepersOn a different subject, bees and CCD [colony collapse disorder], I recently came across some local (Japanese) information which seems, on the face of it, to confirm the neonicotenoid connection.  At an apple growers meeting a couple of weeks back, one of the members brought along a pre-release version of a documentary on DVD called "A message from the bees".

Basically, there were two critical points which differentiate the experience of
CCD here in Japan from what is generally being seen in Europe and the U.S.  The first is
that beekeepers here are seeing different symptoms.  Instead of empty hives, they're finding piles of dead and incapacitated bees on the bottom boards and in front of the hives.  In the majority of cases, the deaths have been correlated to local spraying of neonicotenoid-based insecticides 60 days before.

The second piece of interesting information is that the spray dosage levels in Japan are
much, much higher than in most of the rest of the world.  For the common insecticides used by fruit growers, the allowable levels (in ppm) are 20 to 300 (yes, three hundred!) times those mandated in Europe or the U.S., leading researchers here to the conclusion that they have identified a "smoking gun".
Japanese bee cartoon
As one old beekeeper from the coast of Nagasaki-ken (in southern Japan) put it, "The centre of Tokyo is now the safest place to raise bees.  The air there is cleaner than any part of the Japanese countryside".

Scary information (especially for those of us who are involved in agriculture).  And the "message" from the bees?  "You're not just killing us (bees), you're killing
yourselves, too".

Our chicken waterer prevents the nasty chore of cleaning out poop-filled containers every morning.
Posted Wed May 9 07:01:04 2012 Tags:
barn structure repair close up

We decided to consult our new porch builder for some advice on shoring up the water damage in the barn.

He's had some experience with barns like this and made short work of securing the above 4x4 with a couple well placed 2x6 scabs.

Posted Wed May 9 15:22:32 2012 Tags:

Bee nucsPhillip Meeks, an extension agent in southeast Kentucky who works with a number of beekeepers, emailed me to share his experiences with packages of bees.  He wrote:

For several years, myself and many of my beekeepers have been having worse and worse luck with bee packages.  The most recent was two years ago with two packages we installed as a demonstration.  Within a week, both hives were empty, and both left the queen behind.

Because of this, I've begun to steer my own beekeepers away from the packaged swarms, trying to persuade them towards nucs instead.  They're a bit more costly, but I've had great luck with the last one I bought, as have many of my beekeepers.

I don't know WHY the performance of packages has gone downhill, but it seems to be a consistent issue. 

Anyway, just wanted to toss in my two cents -- not that it's any help to you now.  I hope you can at least take it as encouragement that [your absconded package] probably isn't beekeeper error!

I'd be curious to hear from those of you who have had packages abscond.  Has the experience only begun in the last few years, or did you see the behavior previously?

Our chicken waterer prevents heat exhaustion in the summer flock.
Posted Thu May 10 07:01:03 2012 Tags:
poison ivy damage to the structure of a barn

Turns out some of the structural damage to our barn was due to poison ivy vines.

The vines were exposed to falling water, which got conducted to various spots for what I'm guessing is decades.

It wasn't a problem for our new hired hand. He's been immune to the effects of poison ivy since he was a kid.

Posted Thu May 10 16:16:22 2012 Tags:
Tomato seeds

I like to save seeds from my own tomatoes, but last year I got the idea that perhaps saving seeds is one of the reasons blight always shows up in my plantings.  I think it's more likely that tomato blights simply thrive during our warm, humid summers, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to experiment by buying tomato seeds for 2012.

Now I wish I hadn't.  I'm struggling to fill my tomato beds with romas this year, despite planting two flats and a quick hoop full.  Before I complain about the seeds, though, I have to be fair and say that part of the problem was my own fault.

I put tomato seeds in the quick hoops too early since it was so warm in March, and they came up just before a serious cold spell.  The quick hoops weren't enough to repel frost when the outside temperature dropped into the teens, so the tomato seedlings got nipped.  I replanted the garden beds in early April, but by then it had gotten so hot that the soil was bone dry.  In retrospect, I should have waited to plant my tomato seeds in the quick hoops until April 1 no matter what the weather was doing, and I should have taken the covers off on a warm day to let the sprinklers hydrate the ground and get the tomatoes up and growing.

Tomato setGood thing I decided to hedge my bets by starting some seedlings inside, right?  Unfortunately, this is where problematic seeds came into play.  I figured stock from Seed Savers Exchange would be as good or better than any seeds I could save on my own, but now I'm not so sure.  The seeds in one packet looked dusty gray when they arrived, almost as if the seeds were covered in mold, and I had a lot of germination issues that got worse with each planting (suggesting that the seeds were already near the end of their energy reserves when they reached our farm).  My second flat showed only 25% healthy seedlings, and many of the plants came up headless, with cotyledons seemingly pinched off by a hard seed coat.  (This is very different from damping off, which would have showed up as the stem withering at the base.)

Steve Solomon wrote that most seeds sold to home gardeners are of poor quality, but that we blame ourselves for seeds that don't sprout.  I can see his point --- I can't be confident this year's tomato dilemma is due to bad seeds and not to some issue on my end.  Regardless, I won't be planting as many tomatoes as I'd hoped (although still more than last year), and there will be more slicers and tommy-toes than usual since they sprouted better than the romas.

That said, it's hard to complain when the first few survivors are already nearly at the bloom stage.  And maybe at least the blight situation will be better this year?

Edited to add: See this followup post which probably exonerates Seed Savers Exchange.

Our chicken waterer keeps chicks healthy from day 1.
Posted Fri May 11 07:12:24 2012 Tags:
solar cell tower and drying rack

The plan is to mount our solar cell panels on the top and build drying racks for curing garlic and sweet potatoes towards the middle area.

Posted Fri May 11 17:21:40 2012 Tags:

Austrian scythe"Scythes are cool!" our readers admonish us every time we talk about our weedeater.  I used to be in love with the idea of scything once upon a time...and then I was given a scythe.

At the time, I didn't know much about the tool, so I wasn't wise enough to turn down the bulky American scythe and to save my pennies for a quality Austrian scythe instead.  I also trusted my father when he told me that one size scythe fits all.  That may be true if you're a normal-sized man, but as a short woman, I spent all of my energy just trying to keep the scythe blade from digging into the earth.  I gave up on the tool in disgust.

But then I stumbled across Harvey Ussery's scything page, and was tempted once more.  Ussery explained that Austrian scythes cut with blades curved in three dimensions, so they glide over the surface of the ground.  In contrast to the traditional American scythe blade --- which is stamped out by a drop-forge press and has to be heavy to keep from breaking --- Austrian blades are hand-forged by a blacksmith, so they are sharp, light, and dent rather than shatter if you hit a rock.  In fact, The Scythe Book explains that "over half the [Austrian scythe] blades which begin the twenty-six stages of manufacture are rejected along the way", which is why the blades are of such high quality (and cost so much).

Then there's the handle, known as a "snath" in scything circles.  Austrian snaths are typically very light, and both types of snath can be fitted to your unique body.  If you're an absolutely raw beginner like me, you can order a scythe from The Scythe Supply that's suited exactly to your proportions since you give them your height, your handedness, the number of inches from ground to hip, and your cubit (the distance from your elbow to your out-stretched middle finger).  The company will be sure the handles go in the right places so you're not straining anything as you mow.

Grass scythe bladeWhile you're making your decision, you'll also need to choose a kind and length of blade.  Your main choices are between bush/brush blades, which are short and thick so they won't break when you whack at young saplings, and grass blades, which are lighter and won't wear you out when you're cutting softer plants.  (A ditch blade is a bit of a hybrid, halfway between the graceful grass blade and the hefty bush blade.)  Grass blades can be long or short, with longer blades being handy for harvesting vast fields of wheat and shorter blades being more useful when mowing small lawns with lots of edges.  I think the raw beginner could do worse than picking a middle of the road grass blade --- I chose the 24 inch grass blade pictured here.

With all of that in mind, I begged Mark to let me splurge on a hunk of wood and metal, and he did.  I'm here to tell you that the difference between an American scythe that doesn't fit an an Austrian scythe that does fit is like night and day.  But this post is already too long, so you'll have to wait to hear more about what scything feels like and how to maintain a quality scythe blade in later posts.  If you want to learn more now, I highly recommend this video my mom tracked down, which somehow manages to be inspiring and hilarious all in a two minute time frame.

Our chicken waterer makes care of your flock so easy, you can go out of town for the weekend...or pick up scything in your spare time!
Posted Sat May 12 07:39:07 2012 Tags:
jousting with a golf cart can be fun and profitable

Golf cart jousting is a modern twist on a 15th century popular past time that replaces the horse with a golf cart and the traditional lance with a couple of 4x4's bungee strapped together.

Posted Sat May 12 14:20:00 2012 Tags:

RyeOnce you start playing with cover crops, bare soil jumps right out at you and begs to be planted.  Last fall, we tore a bit more of the old house down, exposing a big patch of earth in which all plant life had been shaded out.  It was too late to plant anything else, so I just scattered a bunch of rye seeds on the ground and proceeded to ignore it.

The rye sprouted and turned into a lawn-like coating before winter hit.  Then, this spring, the grain shot up and started to bloom.

If I was ready to use that plot of earth, I'd cut the rye now and let the straw fall as mulch.  But there are still huge floor joists to be moved before the footprint of the old house can be turned into garden, and we have no time for projects like that at this time of year.

So I'm allowing the rye go to seed to give me some more time before I need to make a decision about that bit of earth.  Truly a do-nothing grain patch, I haven't tilled, fertilized, or done anything else to the rye.  We'll probably feed any grain we get to the chickens, but what I'm really salivating over is the hefty stalks for mulch.

Our chicken waterer helps prevent diseases like coccidiosis by ensuring that your flock's drinking water is always clean and pure.
Posted Sun May 13 07:57:11 2012 Tags:
close up of fresh trout from Stoney Creek 2012

Recently we gave a neighbor a bag of extra lettuce and he turned around the next day and gave us a bag of fresh trout.

Anna is not a lover of seafood like myself, but she didn't hesitate to clean up these three trout for dinner the other day so I could have a treat.

It was delicious. Makes me wonder if raising trout in an aquaponic setting might be possible for us.

Posted Sun May 13 13:08:10 2012 Tags:

Jar full of cicadasA few weeks ago, Everett asked us what we do during our weekends of non-work.  I always look a little shame-faced when people inquire about our leisure hours because the cultural norm is to fill that time with activities outside the home --- hiking, going to a movie, or whatever.

In contrast, a blissful day off in Anna-land starts with gathering a big jar of cicadas for the tweens, then morphs into a quiet morning reading on the porch while listening to a catbird singing from the walnut or watching the three week old chicks learning to forage in the lawn.  I'll probably spend a little extra time making something fancy for lunch, then will gravitate from non-fiction to novel-reading in the afternoon.  If I'm feeling crazy, I might have my mother over for tea.  I'm simply a boring person.

Which is all a long way of saying that chapter 4 of Walden really spoke to me.  Thoreau wrote:

"I did not read books the first summer, I hoed beans....  There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands....  I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel."

Chicks in the grassI think that one of the major benefits of living in paradise is that you don't feel the need to spend much money on expensive leisure pursuits.  As Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin wrote in Your Money or Your Life, the goal of voluntary simplicity is to turn your life into a vacation so you don't need to take a vacation way from home.  It has taken several years for Mark to bring me around to this way of life, but I'm now eternally grateful that he invented weekends.

That said, Walden's chapter 3 went right over my head, and also made me wonder if my rants against TV sounded like Walden's rants against easy reading.  In this day and age, most people think they're feeding their minds if they crack open a bit of chick lit or flick on the History Channel, let alone "read Homer or Aeschylus in the Greek".

Weekend HomesteaderSo, what did you think of this week's installment of Walden?  Unless I hear some "no!"s, I'll plan on us all reading chapters 5 and 6 (Solitude and Visitors) for next Monday.  If you're new to the book club, you might want to check out the thought-provoking comments on chapter 1 and chapter 2 as well.  I appreciate you all giving me the impetus to spend some time thinking about this classic!

Want more reading material?  You can peruse my revised rant against television in The Weekend Homesteader.

Posted Mon May 14 07:26:25 2012 Tags:
over sized gear bag trinity

We started out with one of these bags leftover from Anna's year abroad with a Watson fellowship.

Now we've got 6 of the same oversized bags.

They mainly get used to carry out boxed up chicken waterers, but have several other uses including leaf gathering.

Posted Mon May 14 16:09:35 2012 Tags:
Grape flower buds

Ripening strawberriesI was going to title this post "Fruitless" and talk about how Blackberry Winter wiped out all of the tiny fruits on the peaches, apples, pears, cherries, gooseberries, and plums.  The tale wasn't going to be all doom and gloom since blueberries, raspberries, grapes, strawberries, and blackberries either missed the frost or bloomed over a long enough time frame that we should enjoy quite a lot of fruit this summer.  And yet, even that isn't the full picture.

The truth is that I tend to go in the opposite direction of most folks, telling you about all of our failures but only focussing on the biggest successes.  There are simply so many garden achievements every year, you'd be bored stiff if I regaled you with the first snap peas (Sunday), the first real meal of non-frost-nipped strawberries (last week), and so on ad infinitum.

Front gardent

Squash seedlingsIt occured to me that you can't walk around our garden --- prettier this year than ever before --- and see it for yourselves.  So here it is in all of its mid May glory!

The photo above was taken in our front garden, the oldest vegetable patch on our farm, where the soil is the best, the sun the worst, and the aisles in need of streamlining.  I set out most of our garlic there last fall, along with a bed of Egyptian onions, some chives, and our experimental potato Potato sproutsonions, so the area feels like one big mass of Amaryllidaceae.

The empty beds are filling up fast with summer crops, many of which have already popped up.  Once we put in our second planting of things like green beans, corn, and squash this week, the front garden will be pretty much full.

Garlic garden

The back garden (shown below) is nearly all coated with annual ryegrass in an attempt to repair the waterlogged, topsoil-less ground.  Mark's been doing a great job of mowing the Chicago hardy figgarden beds each time he cuts the aisles, which maximizes the grass's growth and means lots more organic matter works its way into the soil.  That one bare bed is coated with tiny basil seedlings, and you'll notice I snuck strawberries into the back garden despite this being its fallow year.

Meanwhile, the chick brooder is hidden behind our second oldest peach tree.  Even though we won't be enjoying luscious peaches this year, at least the tree provides some much-needed shade.

And, at the bottom of the back garden, our Chicago hardy fig only died partway back this past winter.  I pruned the bush to three stems, cut off the dead tops, and am hoping to taste figs for the first time this fall!

Annual ryegrass

Moving on, I forgot to take a picture from afar of the forest garden, home to this year's tomatoes, but the photo below pretty much sums it up.

Tomato flower buds

Young cabbageAnd then there's the mule garden, from whence most of our meals are coming at the moment.  I've been putting all of my energy into getting the front garden ready for summer crops lately, so the mule garden is looking a little ragged around the edges, but not so much that the crops are suffering.  This week, I'll be starting my next pass through, taking down the last quick hoops, weeding the seedlings who were too small to work around a month ago, and adding more mulch.

Mule garden

I'm already thinking ahead to fall since this sunny garden is the best spot for overwintering greens.  Soon, I'll plan where all the late summer and autumn crops will go, and will probably set aside a lot of the mule garden beds to be planted in wave after wave of buckwheat.  That will prevent me from sneaking summer crops into areas slated for the fall garden, and will build organic matter at the same time.


Another alternative is to let some of the spring crops go to seed.  Every year, I add one or two more vegetables to my list of easy to save seeds, and the new experiments this year are kale and Swiss chard (the latter of which is shown below on the left.)

Pea and swiss chard

I hope you enjoyed your garden tour!  If you were here in person, you would be snacking on a sugar snap pea and a juicy strawberry by now, but hopefully you'll get the gist photographically.  2012 is far from fruitless!

Our chicken waterer keeps all three flocks happy with a minimum of effort on our parts.
Posted Tue May 15 07:14:34 2012 Tags:
Do it yourself solar panel tower and crop drying tower combination

The new DIY solar panel tower now has 6 drying racks and a roof.

Garlic will be the first test curing, but that's still weeks away.
Posted Tue May 15 16:02:53 2012 Tags:

Tomato seeds processed in two different waysI didn't contact Seed Savers Exchange about my potentially bad tomato seeds because I wasn't 100% sure the problem was their fault.  But one of their employee's --- Tom Wahlberg --- stumbled across my post and emailed me in concern.  He told me that, "like we state on each packet, we really do mean Satisfaction Guaranteed, and have credited your account for these two packets."

While the refund was appreciated, I was more intrigued to hear about how Seed Savers Exchange grows, processes, and tests seeds.  Wahlberg explained:

We had both of these varieties grown on contract, one Conventional (Amish Paste) and one Organic (Martino's Roma).  The Organic tomatoes will have been processed via fermentation technique, and will tend to retain more of the fruit's organic matter than the Conventional.

Hundreds of tomatoesDepending on the length of time of fermentation it is possible the Organic would have a higher level of fungal activity, but also would retain more of the normal fuzzy exterior which could also be what you are seeing.  The Conventional by contrast will have been processed via acid extraction, which is not a seed treatment, but rather a method commercial growers use to break down the gelatinous membrane around the seed without the delay inherent with the fermentation process.  That would also explain the difference in the shade between the two varieties.

As for germination, we utilize Midwest Seed Services for independent analysis, and the most recent results are as follows:

Date of test
Amish Paste --- Conventional
Amish Paste --- Conventional
Martino's Roma --- Organic
96% OG259-381

Tomato transplantsWahlberg  went on to tell me that Seed Savers Exchange has started hundreds of Amish Paste plants in the greenhouse this year (some of which you can see in this and the previous photo).  "In light of your observations, we will also start a flat of the Martino's for evaluation."

He finished by telling me:

I'll let you know what we find out with the Martino's flat we are planting.  Sometimes there definitely is a problem with seed quality, but we hope through our own safeguards (field inspections, trial plots, testing, etc) to have that be our problem, not the customer's.

I thought I should set the record straight, and will let you know what Wahlberg finds out about the Martino's Roma seeds.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.

Posted Wed May 16 07:18:04 2012 Tags:
1994 GMC Sierra truck on a roll back truck at the dealer

So I was on my way to get some horse manure this morning when the truck all of a sudden stopped and wouldn't start back up.

The local dealer was just a short hike down the road...Gulp.

It was only 50 dollars to have them go back and fetch our truck with the above bigger truck. They won't look at it till tomorrow.

Dealerships have always made me nervous. I think I might rather walk down a dangerous dark alley, but sometimes they're the best mechanical choice. I'll spare you the wallet munching stories that have helped me to form this opinion. So far today's experience is working out to change my mind at least a bit. This dealer is in for us, but most people would consider it a country dealership, which feels like an advantage. Maybe that's why the people working there seem so much friendlier than the last dealer I was at?

Posted Wed May 16 15:53:54 2012 Tags:

Staking up garden plantsEven though staking up plants seems absurdly simple, we've gone through a lot of trial and error before finding techniques that work for us.  But first --- why tie up plants at all?

We stake plants in our vegetable garden for their own good and to make our lives easier.  Staking tomatoes (combined with pruning) keeps the leaves drier, which holds off blight in hot, humid climates like ours.  After you stop picking your asparagus, the tall fronds can easily become top heavy and snap off during windy or wet weather, and I've found the same is true of plants like kale when you let them fruit in order to collect the seeds.  Then there's the fact that it's annoying to have to lift up those tall plants sprawling across the aisle every time you want to push a wheelbarrow or mower through.

Pounding in a fence postWe've tried lots of different materials and methods for staking plants, and my favorite by far uses light-weight metal fence posts.  (These are often called "U-posts" because they're shaped like a U in cross-section.)  Heavy T-posts are too hard to pound in (and to take back out when you need to move your stakes), while free materials like branches and bamboo have a tendency to rot and break at just the wrong moment.  Although fence posts are expensive when bought in large quantities, they also last a very long time if you're nice to them --- we expect ours to keep going for a decade or two.

If your soil's soft, you can push your posts in by jumping on the pegs at the bottom (imagine the fence post is a pogo stick).  Alternatively (especially in hard soil), you can pound the posts in with a mini sledge hammer.  I usually ask Mark to pound in the posts Pea trellisvery solidly if they're going to be in place all summer, but I just push them in the easy way for more temporary applications.

I've written before about how to make a pea trellis --- we still make our trellises exactly the same way three years later because the method works so well.  (Well, we did invest in some taller U-posts so we don't have to add the stick extensions, and we often put the posts a bit closer together now.)  We use the same kind of trellis for cucumbers, and would use it for green beans too if we didn't grow bush varieties.

Tying up kaleFor asparagus or other plants that grow in a big mass, I generally put a post at each corner of the bed and tie a piece of wire, plastic baling twine, or rope all the way around the plants.  For my flowering kale, I cut corners a bit and just used two posts per bed --- I figure I can get away with this method since the kale will be done blooming and will be ready to harvest in a few weeks.

The only other thing we stake up regularly is tomatoes.  For my tall, indeterminate varieties, I slip an eight foot piece of rebar into the groove in the U-post, making sure the rebar extends at least a foot into the ground for stability.  Then I simply tie the tomato to Tall tomatothe post (and then rebar) whenever the top of the plant starts wanting to bend down.  A tomato vine in late summer can be very heavy, so be sure to use heavy-duty ties --- like wire or plastic baling twine --- rather than organic baling twine, or you'll have a tomato collapse.

My final word of advice is --- stake early!  If you wait until your plants are starting to bend down into the aisle, you'll risk breaking them off and will take twice as long erecting stakes.  Nowadays, I simply put the the trellises and stakes in place before planting a single seed or set.

As if the beauty and maneuverability of a well-staked garden isn't enough, I've discovered that our fence posts have yet another advantage.  Bluebirds and phoebes love to perch on top of the posts, eating insects while depositing droppings right where I need the extra fertility.  Thanks, guys!

Our chicken waterer is the permaculture solution to filthy traditional waterers.
Posted Thu May 17 07:40:52 2012 Tags:
horse manure in 5 gallon buckets on a trailer

Our new hired helper went a few extra miles today by bringing his utility trailer along for some emergency manure hauling.

"It won't be a problem" was his reply when we asked him.

I'm thinking it went a bit smoother loading buckets onto a trailer compared to the higher up truck bed which is still at the dealer.

Posted Thu May 17 16:28:15 2012 Tags:

Volunteer tomatoesSometimes I feel like all I have to do is tell the farm that I need something, and it provides.  There's really nothing mystical about it --- you just have to focus on what you want and then keep an open mind so you notice the solution when it looks you in the face.

You'll recall that I posted earlier this week about being low on roma tomato transplants.  While weeding asparagus alley Thursday, what did I find but a big patch of healthy volunteer romas!

There are always lots of volunteer tomatoes in our garden, but it's usually tough to tell which variety they are until they fruit.  Since we fertilize our garden with horse manure to which kitchen scraps from someone else's household are added, volunteer tomatoes could be just about anything.  One year, I babied a volunteer tomato, only to find out that it was some kind of grocery store variety that won't get past the pink, hard stage before the fruits rot off.  So I swore off keeping volunteer tomatoes --- it's just too much of a gamble in our setting.

Transplanting tomatoesHowever, Thursday's volunteers were all growing from one spot which just happened to be where the yellow romas lived last year.  I'm 85% sure a fruit fell there and rotted in the midst of the summer garden frenzy, which would explain why there are so many tomato plants popping up out of the same spot but none on either side.  So I thanked the farm, then transplanted those yellow romas into my empty tomato beds.  I can taste those extra sun-dried tomatoes already!

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with POOP-free water.
Posted Fri May 18 06:41:06 2012 Tags:
building bridges in a swamp with decking boards 2012

green house table movingThose green house tables were 10 feet long. We used 4 of the top sections along with some decking boards to make this new swamp bridge.

It's a huge improvement over the previous cinder block system.

Posted Fri May 18 16:49:33 2012 Tags:
Stream monitoring

Even though the gargoyle was guarding the river, our stream monitoring session still turned up results in the Gray Zone.  That means our site on the Clinch River is neither good nor bad, probably due to upstream straight pipes and cows.  Splashing around in the water on a hot afternoon, on the other hand, was 100% good.

(Photo credits for the top and bottom right photos go to our movie star neighbor.)

Our chicken waterer makes chicken chores fun and clean.
Posted Sat May 19 08:05:14 2012 Tags:

12 amp Skil saw casual and initial quality checkOnce upon a time 4 or 5 years ago a man or woman could buy a 13 amp entry level circular saw for 40 dollars.

Those days are over.

12 amp is now the best you can get at that entry level price.

We got this 40 dollar Skil circular saw last week and it seems to be just as strong as its 13 amp counter part, but it's sort of an unfair comparison seeing how the new saw had a fresh and sharp blade. Time will tell if the downgrade in motor capacity will have a noticeable effect. Our use will be low to medium, so we won't be the best gauge, but I plan to update this review in a year or two because power tools are beautiful and photogenic.

Posted Sat May 19 15:40:30 2012 Tags:

Amish quoteMom came over to inaugurate our new boardwalk (and to coo over the porch and eat chocolate strawberry shortcake).

While she was at it, she brought me a t-shirt response to my statement that "I'm simply a boring person."  The quote, attributed to an Amish farmer, goes:

"A man asked what we do for entertainment. 

"I just said, 'We farm.' 

"He understood what I meant. 

"He was intelligent."

What's your favorite kind of at-home entertainment?

Our chicken waterer lets us leave town for the weekend without worrying about our flock.  Mostly, though, we prefer to stay home.

Posted Sun May 20 07:53:19 2012 Tags:
DIY low budget wooden tower for solar panels Harbor Freight special

A little more research helped to guide us towards a system that will allow the angle of the solar panel tower to change for different times of the year. More complex systems have a new position for each month, but we might settle for a new angle for each season to keep it simple.

What will be more challenging is changing the position during the day. We've considered using a heavy duty swivel so it can turn from the East to West.

Once it's all put together we can either move the swivel by hand at different times of the day or figure out a motorized option.

Posted Sun May 20 14:14:50 2012 Tags:

Thoreau in the woodsBefore I delve into chapters 5 and 6 of Walden, I want to get a head count to see who's still reading.  I don't mind at all having folks who haven't read the book comment, but sometimes I can't quite tell if anyone else is still reading or if we should switch books.  So, please leave a comment if you're still with me!  (And, if you're not, leave a comment to tell me whether you might rejoin the club if we switched over to something lighter.)

"I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society."

This sentence from near the beginning of chapter 6 sums up much of the gist of this pair of chapters.  The themes included being alone without being lonely, and at the same time making human interactions more meaningful.  I was especially struck by the first theme since it's one I've wrestled with throughout my life, and I feel is essential for a homesteader to conquer.

"Men frequently say to me, 'I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.....'" 

Thoreau's woodsI hear these same words all the time, but I seldom come up with as good a reply as Thoreau's:

"What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary?  I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another....  I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time."

I think Thoreau and I have two character traits very much in common --- we're both introverts and neither of us takes friendship lightly.

"Society is commonly too cheap.  We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other....  We live thick and in each other's way, and stumble over one another, and I think that we thus lose some respect for one another."

Although most people don't have the luxury of acres of trees surrounding their homestead as a buffer, I wish everyone could live the way we do.  I feel like it's much easier to be genuine and kind to the people I do come in contact with when they're not breathing down my neck on a regular basis.

"...Fewer [visitors] came to see me on trivial business.  In this respect, my company was winnowed by my mere distance from town."

Again, I couldn't agree more.  We don't get trick-or-treaters, salesmen, or people trying to convert us to their religion due to our moat, and the mud definitely separates the wheat from the chaff.  In fact, our choice to keep employing Bradley after he built our porch was based largely on the fact that he wore quality waterproof boots and had no problem tromping through the mud.

So, what did you think of chapters 5 and 6?  Did different themes speak to you?  Did you find this chapter duo as enjoyable as I did?

Meanwhile, if you're new to the
book club, you might want to check out the Weekend Homesteaderthought-provoking comments on chapter 1, chapter 2, and chapters 3 and 4.  I'll wait to post a "reading assignment" until tomorrow, at which point I should have an idea of whether we're all still getting something out of Walden or would like to move on.

Weekend Homesteader provides 48 fun and easy projects to guide you on the path to self-sufficiency.  Yes, that means I skip Thoreau-style projects like hewing logs for your cabin with an ax.

Posted Mon May 21 06:39:05 2012 Tags:
Club Car golf cart wheel bearing temporary repair diy low budget

The golf cart front wheel bearings started making an awful grinding sound that created a situation where the tire was rubbing against the corner of the steering thingamajig.

We really wanted to haul in some more lumber, so I came up with the above garden hose band aid to protect the tire.

It bought us about 2 miles worth of hauling before the bearing started giving out in a different spot.

Posted Mon May 21 16:44:41 2012 Tags:

Young bee colonyFrom my paucity of apiary posts lately, you would be forgiven for thinking that when my bees absconded, my beekeeping enthusiasm left with them.  However, the truth is that the package we installed in our Warre hive has been bulking up nicely --- I've just been following the rules and leaving the hive closed.

Due to the wonders of modern technology, though, I can refrain from cracking open the hive and can still get an idea of what's going on inside.  Once a week, I snap a shot through the screened bottom board.  The photos are generally subpar in terms of quality, but do let me keep an eye on the bees' progress.

We installed the package on April 27, and the first photo in this post shows what the bees looked like two days later.  They were simply a tight cluster of bodies enclosing the queen, who was still trapped in her cage.
New comb
Eleven days after installation, my non-intrusive inspection showed a little bit of comb being built.  If I'd opened the hive, I would have been able to see whether the queen was laying, and on the off-chance she wasn't, could have ordered a replacement queen.  With a Warre hive, you have to simply hope for the best (and pay attention to the hive's mood, smell, and sound).

Warre hive entranceSixteen days after installation, I could have discovered a lot by opening the hive.  The presence of eggs would tell me the queen was still alive and well, and now I could look at the capped brood to determine whether she had been properly inseminated.  (Lots of drone brood and little worker brood could be a sign of a queen who didn't have sex with enough drones during her mating flight.)  However, when I received an improperly mated queen three years ago, I chose to let the workers supersede her and turn one of the eggs into a queen of their choice, so the truth is I wouldn't have done anything if I'd seen too much drone brood in the two week old hive anyway.  Of course, since I was working with a Warre hive, I didn't even have this decision to make --- I could still see comb in my photos (too blurry to share), and the workers were definitely bringing pollen in, so I chose to assume all was well.

Screened bottom board

Twenty-three days after installation (this past Sunday), I finally saw something within my hive that required work on my part.  The bottom box was starting to look nearly full up!  Inside Warre hiveAssuming the queen is laying well, this is about the time the first new workers should pop out of their cappings, which means the colony could grow even more quickly from here on out.

Since I started the hive with two boxes, I can't tell whether the bees have filled the top box as well, but there's no reason not to hoist the bees up and put another box underneath (known as nadiring).  This process preserves the hive scent and temperature, and is the least intrusive method of increasing a bee colony's living area.  Looks like it's time to build another box this week and take our first real peek inside the hive since we took out the queen cage!

Our chicken waterer makes care of your backyard flock so easy, you have time to take up beekeeping.
Posted Tue May 22 06:57:44 2012 Tags:
Ring-necked snake in the garden

Our first ring-necked snake sighting of 2012 happened today.
Posted Tue May 22 16:46:08 2012 Tags:

Plug and play solarRegular readers will recall that we got excited about a potential plug and play solar setup a couple of years ago.  Unfortunately, as many of our commenters suspected, the battery packs had very little longevity and have already died.

We still want to start small with what we can pay for now rather than buying a full-house-style solar setup on credit.  But we also want to make sure the batteries go the distance this time around, so I've put some time into researching our choices.  Here are the options I've come across:

Deep cycle battery
  • Car batteries are not recommended.  Yes, they are cheap, but car batteries are designed to discharge a lot of energy at once and then recharge slowly, while a solar setup needs just the reverse --- a battery that will recharge quickly and discharge slowly (known as deep cycle).  Experts say you'll get a few months of life out of a car battery hooked up to solar panels, but that's it.
  • RV or marine batteries are the next cheapest, but still aren't recommended by experts.  They're usually easy to find locally and they do last a bit longer than car batteries, but probably will die within a year.  They also have a tendency to explode if not cared for well.
  • Battery life spanGolf cart batteries are considered the minimum acceptable batteries by solar experts.  They are generally 6 volts, so you'll need to buy them in pairs and wire the batteries together to create a 12 volt system.  Golf cart batteries usually last two to four years when connected to solar panels, and one site claims that Deka batteries will last 5 to 10 years and another lists Trojan T-105 batteries with the same cycle life.
  • Gel cel or absorbed glass matt (AGM) batteries make it easier to design your battery box since they don't need to be refilled and don't vent explosive gases, but they cost about 30% more than a similar capacity golf cart battery and don't last any longer.
  • Fork lift batteries --- Only one website mentioned these batteries, but the author glowed over their life expectancy.  Otherwise, they're similar to golf cart batteries, only much more expensive.

We also have a source for used bulldozer batteries, but I have a feeling these are going to be like car batteries, just higher capacity.  What do you think?

I'll go into how many batteries I think we need in a later post, but I hope to hear from our experts (Roland, Zimmy, etc.) to critique this stage of my research.  At the moment, I'm leaning toward golf cart batteries.  Which would you choose and why?

Our chicken waterer makes care of the flock simple, clean, and fun.
Posted Wed May 23 07:22:31 2012 Tags:
mark Barn floor
Making a proper floor in part of the barn

table projectWe put some more of those green house tables to good use on the new barn floor project.

The floor panels will have to wait until the golf cart parts show up so we can shuttle them back the easy way.

I might even have them cut in half to make the hauling a bit easier.

Posted Wed May 23 15:47:50 2012 Tags:

My brother Joey (yes, he who does all the of behind the scenes stuff on this blog) is running a kickstarter program!  He's only asking for $3,000 to make an already awesome piece of free software user friendly.  If you like the idea of Dropbox and clouds but would rather use a freeware version that doesn't lock you into doing things the corporate way, Joey's app is just what you're looking for.

We'll be donating shortly, and I hope you will too.  He has until June 12 to reach his goal, but I'd like to see him funded by the end of the day.

(He's also looking into the recent sporadic downtimes.  Hopefully it'll be fixed soon.)

Posted Wed May 23 20:44:28 2012 Tags:

Strawberry breakfastSometimes, I like to ponder how I would make different decisions if I was truly forced to be self-sufficient.  My scenarios range from the fantastical --- we fall back through a time portal and are hacking our living out of the wilderness --- to the prosaic --- we simply can't afford storebought goodies.

Strawberry week is one indulgence that would definitely go if I had to be truly self-sufficient.  Since strawberries are my favorite fruit, I spend the first week of full harvest gorging to my heart's content.  We have strawberries breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and for dessert, of course), and I don't worry one bit about preserving a berry for later.

Lunch and dinner

If I was counting on our own stores of fruit to get us through the winter, though, strawberry week would go.  Especially in a year like this one where an early bloom combined with a late frost wiped out the first berries, shortening our usual month of strawberries to more like two or three weeks.  Even with unlimited fruit at the grocery store, I wouldn't treat myself to so many berries now if I didn't have the option of storebought winesap apples from the fruit stand to get me through the winter.

Strawberry leatherAs it is, we've only filled the food dehydrator with the fixings for strawberry leather once so far, and I suspect we may fit in one more batch before the berries start to dwindle.  Homegrown strawberry leather really perks us up in February and March when there's nearly nothing fresh coming in from the garden.  But not so much that I want to eliminate strawberry week....

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with POOP-free water.
Posted Thu May 24 07:28:27 2012 Tags:

LucyI appreciate everyone weighing in with their pros and cons about the Walden book club.  Even though the votes were approximately evenly split, I think we're going to carry on, with a couple of subtle changes.  First, I'll start making my sum-up post at lunchtime so we're not watering down the koolaide.  And, since I'm telling you this so late in the week, I think the deadline for next week will be Wednesday instead of Monday.

I have to admit that the decision to carry on is entirely selfish.  I know I won't finish Walden without you, and I hate to stop reading books in the middle.  Plus, I'm really getting a lot out of hearing analyses from people who disagree with me.

Those of you who gave up in disgust might consider just skipping the beginning and starting with chapters 7 and 8 (The Bean-field and The Village).  I feel like the book is gathering steam as we pass the halfway point, and you don't need to worry you missed anything.

Let the reading begin!

Posted Thu May 24 12:01:22 2012 Tags:
Warre hive nadiring

Nadiring is a fancy bee keeping word for installing a new brood box on the bottom.

The bees were nice about the brief operation. We paused for just a minute while I balanced the box and Anna ducked under for the above hive inspection photo.

We were both suited up in protective gear, but we skipped the smoker and gloves due to the calm nature of these bees.

Posted Thu May 24 16:08:15 2012 Tags:
Foundationless frame

Warre hiveWhen we nadired our Warre hive yesterday, I couldn't resist asking Mark to rest the upper boxes on the corner of the new box so that I could peer up into their living quarters.  I kept my inspection quick, but could still see a bit of capped brood along with lots of very well built comb.  The thin wedges of wood extending down from the top bars in our Warre hive had clearly done a very good job as comb guides.

From the light weight of the two boxes we lifted on top of the new box, I suspect the colony hasn't built much in the top box yet.  I was tempted to place the presumably empty top box on the bottom instead of using a new box during the nadiring procedure, but I'm sticking to the letter of the law with Warre hives --- only take off the lid once a year.  Worse case scenario, the bees are cleaning and sanitizing an attic that they're not using, which isn't such a big deal in the summer.
Capped brood
I've been seeing more worker bees around the garden this week, which is another good sign that our bees are taking off.  Maybe they'll need another box in a week or two?  Meanwhile, I'm still feeding them all the sugar water they can eat.  Those light boxes had little or no honey in them, and I don't want our new package to starve.

Our chicken waterer makes care of the flock so easy, you'll consider branching out into bees.
Posted Thu May 24 16:16:06 2012 Tags:
particle board hauling with a 4 wheeler

4 wheeler hauling 4x8 boardsOur golf cart problem means that the barn floor project might need to wait.

"That won't be a problem" was our new hired helper's response.

He brought along a rear wheel drive ATV and made short work of hauling back the barn floor panels.

Posted Fri May 25 15:05:58 2012 Tags:

Solar panelMost people start sizing their solar setup by figuring out how much energy they use in their home, then choosing enough panels and batteries to provide that much juice.  We're coming at the issue from a completely different direction.

We plan to buy a few solar panels now and then as we can afford them, to hook up the appropriate number of batteries, and to slowly work various parts of our household off the grid.  For example, our first panels might be just enough to power our laptops and a couple of lights, so we'll wire those gadgets directly into the solar setup, sticking to DC if possible.  Since it's a bad idea to hook old and new batteries together, we'll probably keep each little system separate, which will cost a little more but will provide backups.

Which is all a long way of saying that we have two 45 watt solar panel kits (each of which consists of three 15 watt panels) and we're trying to figure out how many batteries we need to support those panels.  My first step is to determine how much energy we're likely to get from the panels on an average day. 

Sun hoursYou can either size your system based on the average peak sun hours (which will give you an over-estimate for the winter and an under-estimate for the summer) or based on the winter peak sun hours (a worst case scenario).  If you wanted to ensure you had enough power even during the shortest days of the year, you'd want to use the winter peak sun hours in your calculations, but I think it makes more sense in our system to use the average peak sun hours, which is roughly 4.2 for our area.

The amount of energy your solar panels will produce per day can be calculated using this simple formula:

Solar panel output = Solar panel rating (watts) X Sun hours

Solar panel output = 90 watts X 4.2 hours

Solar panel output = 378 watt-hours

Most solar systems recommend that you multiply your solar panel output by by 3 (or 4 or 5) when sizing your battery bank so that you'll still have juice after several days of cloudy weather.  Since we're not planning on going off-grid anytime soon, I think I'll stick to the bare minimum figure above, though, and just plan on plugging our appliances back into on-grid power when our batteries get low.

Next, you can calculate how many watts the battery of your choice will hold.  Batteries are generally rated by volts and amp-hours, which allows you to calculate watt-hours as follows.  (This example is a typical golf cart battery: 6 volts and 200 amp-hours.)

Battery watt-hours = Volts X Amp-hours

Battery watt-hours = 6 volts X 200 amp-hours

Battery watt-hours = 1,200

That sounds great, right?  I'd just need one battery for three days!  Wrong.  Deep cycle batteries lose a lot of life if you discharge them below 30 to 40%, so the amount of usable energy in the battery is more like:

Usable watt-hours = 0.6 X Battery watt-hours

Usable watt-hours = 720 watt-hours

Batteries in seriesIt's still looking like one golf cart battery would be enough for nearly two days, but there's one more factor to consider.  Since we want to plug 12 volt DC appliances directly into the system rather than losing efficiency by converting from DC to AC, we need our battery system to be 12 volts, not 6 volts.  That means we need two batteries wired together in series to boost the voltage.

As a side note, we got an advertisement from Harbor Freight as I was researching, and the company wants to sell me a "solar battery" for $75.  Was it a good deal?  The battery is rated at 12 volts and 35 amps, so it would hold 420 watts, or 252 usable watts.  The benefit of the battery is that it is already 12 volts, but I'd still need two of them since the battery isn't even enough to soak up the energy from our solar panels for one day.  If I'm doing my math right, the Harbor Frieght battery would cost 30 cents per usable watt, versus 21 cents for the golf cart battery (using a rough estimate of $150 for the cost of the golf cart battery).  Of course, I'd need to factor in longevity to really get an idea for which set of batteries would be a better deal, and there's no information about Harbor Freight's battery life span on the internet.  Since our nearest golf cart battery supplier is closer than our nearest Harbor Freight, we'll probably settle on the former.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicken tractors since it never spills on uneven ground and is easy to fill without crawling into the tractor.
Posted Sat May 26 07:13:32 2012 Tags:
Barn floor progress one third of the way done

The new barn floor panels went in quick and feel solid.
Posted Sat May 26 16:57:13 2012 Tags:
Spotty germination

If you obeyed the instructions on most seed packets, you'd plant your herbs and vegetables too thick, then come back through and laboriously thin out the seedlings that sprouted too close together.  I don't do that.  Not only are you throwing your money away when you thin out seedlings, you also have to either put them somewhere else or endure the heartbreak of composting a perfectly good plant.

But if you plant your seeds the proper distance apart from the get-go, you often end up with patchy germination.  (Or, in this case, the cat scratches up a third of the bed soon after the seeds sprout and kills them.)  My solution is to transplant a few seedlings from an area where the seeds fell too thickly, using those extras to fill in empty spaces. 

Transplanting parsleyTo be able to transplant seedlings into those gaps, I do seed a bit thicker than necessary, but only a little --- not so much that if everyone comes up, they'll be overcrowded.  I'm also careful to transplant when the seedlings are very young.  The parsley plants shown here are really too old to transplant --- my goal is to be able to scoop up all of the plants' roots and not disrupt their routine at all when I move them into the gap.

That said, there are times that I purposely seed too thickly and thin.  Carrots seem to be a bit problematic to germinate if the soil is hot and dry, so I often spread the seeds pretty thickly on the soil surface.  Once the roots are just barely big enough to eat --- half an inch in diameter or less --- I start harvesting the carrots that are too close to their neighbors, carefully wiggling out dinner without bothering the keeper plants.  That way, I get an extended harvest and ensure that the main crop of carrots isn't overcrowded as the plants mature.

One final factor to consider when you're thinking about thinning is the longevity of the crop.  Since we eat our parsley plants for about eleven months, it's worth making sure they cover the bed well (and something like asparagus that will feed us for years is even more worthy of transplanting).  But if my lettuce bed is a bit patchy, I just ignore it --- I'll be ripping out the bed and starting to eat a new patch of salad greens within a month.

Our chicken waterer is always POOP-free.
Posted Sun May 27 07:39:07 2012 Tags:
Battery powered deer deterrent motor testing stage one

One of the biggest negative comments I got on Youtube concerning our mechanical deer deterrents was how having an extension cord cluttering up the yard was just unacceptable.

The above handsome, battery powered motor is a new discovery. (Thanks Mom!).

It runs on a single D cell battery and comes with a nice plastic support arm that attaches to the shaft of the motor with a stainless steel screw. Stay tuned to see how long the battery holds up under these conditions. There hasn't been any deer damage yet, but it was this time last year when the nibbles started, which is what motivated me to put this together on a Sunday.

Posted Sun May 27 14:09:05 2012 Tags:
Ryegrass roots

Kill mulchThe good news is --- I'm very happy with my annual ryegrass cover crop.  The bad news is --- I really couldn't manage to keep all those beds fallow for more than three months.  I just wanted extra this and that, and decided to steal back about half the fallow space for succession planting in the midsummer garden.

We haven't been managing the ryegrass optimally, but it has held up well under some abuse.  You're supposed to let the grass grow pretty tall (just short of bloom) and then mow the plants down to four inches, but I've been letting Mark treat the ryegrass like part of the lawn.  That means he cuts the ryegrass pretty short at pretty frequent intervals, but it has always bounced back.

As you can see from the photos at the top of this post, the root structure of annual ryegrass is pretty inspiring.  People often use the plant to hold soil in place after construction projects, and I noticed the brilliant yellow-green along our country roads in a few places  last fall once I knew what to look for.  I'm always guessing at the effects of cover crops since I'm too lazy to measure organic matter content in the beds before and after, but I know these copious roots can only help my problematic clay as they decompose.

Since I'll need some of the ryegrass beds in about a month, I waited until after Mark mowed, then laid down a simple kill mulch of cardboard and straw.  I consider kill mulches Under a kill mulcha tool for the lazy gardener since they're so easy, but (unlike most things we do out of laziness), kill mulches really pay off in the health of the soil.  This last photo shows a weed-covered bed I kill mulched instead of weeded a couple of months ago --- the cardboard has degraded enough that I can tear right through it, there's mycelium everywhere, and the worms fled by the dozen as I cleared a path for sunflower seeds.  If my ryegrass beds look half that good at planting time in a month, I'll be thrilled.

Our chicken waterer ensures your flock always has clean, clear water.
Posted Mon May 28 06:36:20 2012 Tags:

The Ultimate Guide to PermacultureI've been meaning to read a beginning permaculture book or two, just to make sure I haven't missed any of the fundamentals through my hit or miss learning approach.  But skimming through all of the information in a beginner book in search of a few gems annoys me, so I put the task off.

Last week, though, I learned that one of the perks of signing on with a print publisher is that they'll send you free copies of their books to review even before they're released.  Sign me up!  The Ultimate Guide to Permaculture by Nicole Faires sounded like it might fill that (potential) gap in my permaculture knowlege-base quite well, so I spent all weekend drifting through the text's pretty pictures.

The Ultimate Guide to Permaculture is geared toward beginners, and I think it would do a fine job of opening the eyes of someone who might have heard the word "permaculture" once or twice but who knows little else.  I can't really compare it to the big two in that category (Hemenway's Gaia's Garden and Mollison's Permaculture: A Designer's Manual) since I only skimmed the classics a few years ago, but I suspect Faires' book is written on a more basic level than both, is more enjoyable to read than Mollison's book, and has more of a textbook style than Gaia's Garden.  (What I'm trying to say here is that The Ultimate Guide to Permaculture is written on a sixth grade level, which drives me nuts, but is a style that clearly is preferred by the majority of magazine-reading Americans.)

I also have several bones to pick with the information presented in The Ultimate Guide to Permaculture, but upon further reflection, I decided that my nitpicks are more about permaculture as a movement than about this book in particular.  For example, while it sounds good to say that edges promote biodiversity and that you should make all of your garden beds wavy-edged for that reason, my experience has shown that straight lines are much easier to maintain.  I think that all of the disagreements I have with permaculture ideals like this stem from the lack of hands-on experience of many permaculture philosophers.

Which is all a long way of saying --- I recommend you give this book to your neighbor or mother if they look at you in confusion when you say the word "permaculture".  Nicole Faires goes out of her way to keep the book mainstream, her goal being to launch Permaculture zonespermaculture beyond the "hippies and hipsters" who she thinks often advocate permaculture in a manner that turns off the suburban housewife and traditional farmer.

I'd recommend that my regular readers check this book out of the library.  I got two or three good ideas from the book and thoroughly enjoyed the refresher course on permaculture zones.
Weekend Homesteader
But it's not staying on my bookshelf...which is your gain!  Leave a comment on this post today, and I'll select one lucky winner tomorrow to receive The Ultimate Guide to Permaculture in the mail next week.  Hopefully you'll find it just the right home!

Don't forget to pre-order my paperback, which focuses on easy permaculture projects in the heart of permaculture zone 1.
Posted Mon May 28 12:01:17 2012 Tags:

plucker assistance glovesMy Mom gave us these pet grooming gloves thinking we could try them out as chicken pluckers.

Today was retirement day for 7 chickens we picked out last night and I think the gloves decreased our processing time.

We first used the DIY low tech chicken plucker from last year for the primary pluck, and the gloves did well at getting spots that the board plucker missed.

Posted Mon May 28 15:54:11 2012 Tags:
Garden beds on a slope

Most permaculture texts admonish you to plan beds so that they run perpendicular to the slope, so why did I plant my bramble patch in the opposite orientation?  The real answer is --- because it's one of the first things I put in when we moved here and I didn't know any better.  However, in retrospect, there are reasons to fly in the face of permaculture teachings and site your garden beds parallel to the slope.

Garden beds perpendicular to the slope

But first, why do the books tell you to make your rows run like contour lines on a map, as is shown in our blueberry patch above?  This type of orientation prevents erosion --- gullies can form when heavy rains hit tilled soil with rows running from the top to the bottom of a hill.  Even with a permanently mulched, no-till garden, it can be handy to keep your rows perpendicular to the slope since the raised beds and aisles together act like swales, slowing water and letting more of the precious liquid soak into the root zone of your plants.

Green blueberriesBut what if you live in a really wet climate and don't want all that water swamping your plants' roots?  I'm actually glad that I planted the bramble patch in a counterintuitive fashion since that area has very high groundwater that tends to pool just downhill.  If I'd created swales with my rows of berries, the waterlogged soil might have been too much for my berries to handle.

On the other hand, my blueberry patch is more well-drained (if less well-weeded --- Mark's currently working on that).  We don't irrigate our woody plants, so the blueberries can only drink the rain that falls from above and gets stored in their mulched beds.  With dry, well-drained soil, conventional wisdom  makes sense.

I'd be curious to hear from others who have intentionally planned garden beds perpendicular to a slope.  What did you think of the experiment?

Our chicken waterer is the clean alternative to traditional filthy waterers.
Posted Tue May 29 07:14:17 2012 Tags:
mark Crushed
Taking our beloved truck to the crusher/junk yard

This will be the last picture taken of our beloved truck.

The dealer traced the problem to a bad injector pump. The price for such an operation was so high I can't bring myself to print it here.

We talked about several options. Rebuilt pump, take the old pump to get rebuilt in Bristol, sell truck on Craigs list. In the end we took the easy way out and had it towed to a local crusher.
super winch wire harness
Of course I took the Super Winch wire harness off along with both batteries and the tailgate. I just couldn't stand the thought of that sexy, red tailgate getting crushed like a pancake.

Posted Tue May 29 16:50:08 2012 Tags:
Harvesting garlic scapes

Garlic scapesWhen we first grew hard-necked garlic, I read that the scapes are a spring delicacy.  However, the ones I tried were woody and sharply pungent, so I just composted the scapes I removed in later years.  (If you don't pluck off the scapes, your garlic plants will put energy into growing scapes instead of into bulb production, resulting in a smaller harvest, so don't just ignore them.)

This year, I learned the error of my ways in avoiding such a delicious food.  As I started cutting off scapes Tuesday morning, I got lazy and pulled on one instead of snipping itCutting scapes.  A long, tender scape base came loose from deep inside the plant.  Just like the grass leaf bases you get the same way, this central core of the scape was sweet and gentle on the tongue.  So that's what people were glowing over!

A few taste tests proved that color is a clear indication of the border between sweet and tender (white) and spicy and tough (green) portions of the scape.  On the youngest scapes, I cut off and discarded the green tips starting at the bulbous portion, but on older scapes, I cut where the white began to show a lot of green.  Depending on your palate, you might want to Broccoli and garlic scapesinclude more or less of the green portion in your meal.

Since our garden also served up the first head of spring broccoli on Tuesday, I broiled the broccoli and scape bases together, resulting in a delicious lunch treat.  Next year, I'm going to keep a closer eye on the scapes so I can harvest them all at their peak!

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to filthy, traditional waterers.
Posted Wed May 30 06:40:17 2012 Tags:

WaldenAlthough Thoreau (as usual) layered meaning upon meaning, the theme I found most interesting in chapters 7 and 8 pertained to how Thoreau filled his days when he had no external demands on his attention.  I suspect that many of our readers are working toward exactly that state, and I know from experience that it's not as easy as it looks to be happy when you're in charge of managing your own time.

I've noticed that most people who enjoy this freedom (rather than fleeing from it) settle into a routine, perhaps like the one that Helen and Scott Nearing developed --- four hours of physical labor, four hours of mental labor/artistic expression/fun, and four hours of community work.  The schedule that has worked best for me and Mark is to work from nine to noon on farm chores, from one to four on writing/chicken waterers, and from 4 until whenever on blog posts.  We swap the indoor and outdoor time periods in the winter, and spend an extra half hour before (me) or after (Mark) the work day for chicken care and walking Lucy.

Thoreau had his summer routine as well.  First, he hoed beans (his cash crop) from 5 am until noon.  As he chopped weeds, Thoreau watched birds, dug up salamanders, ignored the advice of neighboring farmers, and listened to festivities in the nearby town.  But, mostly, he revelled in the work itself:

"As I had little aid from horses or cattle, or hired men or boys, or improved implements of husbandry, I was much slower, and became much more intimate with my beans than usual.  But labor of the hands, even when pursued to the verge of drudgery, is perhaps never the worst form of idleness."

Come noon, Thoreau jumped in the pond, then did whatever he liked for the rest of the day.  I was surprised to read that his preferred activity every day or two was walking into town --- maybe he wasn't an introvert after all.

For those of you who already get to plan your own days, what sort of schedule do you choose?  And for the avid readers (especially Sam), what unmentioned part of these chapters jumped out at you?

If you're new to the book club, you might want to check out the Weekend Homesteaderthought-provoking comments on chapter 1, chapter 2, chapters 3 and 4, and chapters 5 and 6.  We'll be discussing chapter 9 (The ponds) and chapter 10 (Baker farm) next Wednesday, and anyone is welcome to join in.  I suspect that you could jump right into the discussion without wading through the difficult early chapters, so please don't let a late start deter you.

The paperback edition of Weekend Homesteader contains three bonus chapters not found in the ebooks, two of which cover the relevant topics of setting homesteading goals and learning to enjoy what you've got.

Posted Wed May 30 12:01:17 2012 Tags:
Club Car golf cart front wheel bearing assembly operation

When you total up all the parts that make up a Club Car golf cart front wheel bearing assembly you'll discover that it's only an extra 17 dollars to just get the whole unit ready to go.

Our shaft required some minor filing before the new unit would slide on.

I went with a synthetic grease just because I've heard it's worth the extra money.

Posted Wed May 30 15:22:39 2012 Tags:

Ultimate Guide to PermacultureJason is the winner of our recent permaculture book giveaway.  If you're reading, Jason, please drop an email to with your US Postal Service mailing address and we'll put the book in the mail to you Friday.  We're glad it found a new home!

(I've got some more books to clear out, so the rest of you shouldn't feel downhearted.  Stay tuned....)

Posted Wed May 30 16:02:12 2012 Tags:

Catching a cicadaThe 17-year cicadas are finally on the down-swing.  They started flying erratically through the yard about a week ago, and soon thereafter I began to see dead cicadas on the ground.

Slowly, the nearly deafening afternoon roar diminished.  The silence started on the hillside to the north of us where the first cicadas began their chorus, then worked its way around to the shadier areas.  There are still some cicadas out and about, but I suspect by this time next week, they'll all be gone.

Yellow chicken brothBut not forgotten.  As you can see from the color of the broth we extracted from our first set of broilers, that insect nutrition is going to continue to work its way through the food chain for months to come.  Maybe trickle down economics makes sense after all?

Our chicken waterer kept our flock refreshed with clean water in between bites of cicada.
Posted Thu May 31 06:41:43 2012 Tags:
using a portable winch to pull out a small car

We finally got the parts Festiva free thanks to our hired helper bringing along the above portable winch.

It's designed to fit over a hitch ball for pulling a boat onto its trailer. It worked like a charm for this application where we secured it to a nearby tree.

I was starting to wonder if we would ever get that car unstuck.

Posted Thu May 31 16:35:31 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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