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

archives for 07/2012

Jul 2012
Watering the garden

HuckleberryThis has been a deer-filled week, but not a single nibble in the garden...yet.  First, it became abundantly clear that the last week of June was when fawns were being born in 2012.  Bradley saw a deer in labor down by the creek early in the week, and when I walked that way the next day, I found hoofprints the size of a thumbprint in the little bit of mud that has survived the drought.

Thursday, we were all working outside when a bleat like the cry of a goat made us drop our tools in puzzlement.  We don't have neighbors with goats, but the more avid hunter in our midst (that's Bradley, in case you haven't guessed) knew immediately that the sound was the call of a frightened fawn.  Sure enough, two does were down past the barn and a fawn was fleeing in the opposite direction, startled by Lucy.  The mother deer started to come at Lucy with her hooves, but our smart dog had too much sense to engage and just raced around in excitement.

Cats at playI'm pretty sure that fawn eventually made it back to its mother after Lucy lost interest, but Friday Lucy showed up with a fawn hindquarter between her jaws.  From reading too many mystery novels, I knew to look at the size of the maggots on the flesh, which told me that the fawn had probably died before the barn bleater was sighted.  Again, our hunting advisor had the best analysis of the situation --- the fawn had probably been caught in the machine when our neighbor hayed his field a few days before.

All of this was minor compared to the excitement Saturday morning.  I rolled out of bed and settled into my usual spot on the couch with a view of the entire front garden and blueberry patch...and a deer!  The first invader of the garden in 2012!

On closer inspection, it turned out that the doe had injured herself jumping over the fence in the night.  She was limping around our inner perimeter looking for a way out, but was unable to jump the fence with her broken or sprained leg.

Cat biting throatI spent too long thinking through my options, so disaster struck.  First, it ran through my head that if the deer had gotten into the garden once, she'd be back.  Plus, how long would she last in the wild with an injured leg?  Might as well put her out of her misery (and eat her).

On the other hand, what if she had a fawn like all of the other does I'd seen recently?  Did I want the poor baby to starve?  (Well, maybe I did --- after all, we're badly overpopulated with deer in our region.)  And, of course, it's not hunting season, so shooting the deer in my garden would be illegal.  Finally, we're in for record heat this weekend, so processing would have to be fast.

Before I could make up my mind, Lucy made up hers.  The deer had seen me and gotten alarmed, battering herself against the fence behind our water tank, and our usually even-tempered dog ran up there and actually went straight for the deer's throat!  It was like a scene out of Call of the Wild, and I was terrified the deer would slice Lucy open with her hooves.  (I don't have any relevant photos, so Huckleberry is recreating the Battle of the Deer for your viewing pleasure, using his brother as a prop.)

Cats in chairs

To protect our beloved dog, I would have shot the deer in a heartbeat, but I'm simply not a good enough marksman to fire into a tangle of dog and deer and think I'd only hit the latter.  Plus, there was our precious water tank inches away from the melee.  While I hollered ("Lucy!  No!"), the deer burst through the fence and got away.

Ferocious catThe moral of the story is: I need to work on my target practicing and decision making.  Or rather, I need to think through issues like this before they show up in my garden at 6 am on a Saturday.  Am I willing to shoot a deer in the garden out of hunting season?  What if she probably has a fawn?  For the hunters among you, what would you do?

(Huckleberry says he'd take the deer down and gnaw on its bones!)

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional, filthy waterers.
Posted Sun Jul 1 07:23:43 2012 Tags:
woodshed expansion

roofing finished for a woodshed projectThe woodshed expansion project got wrapped up this week.

It kind of hurts to think of a winter fire on a day like today, but it's a warm feeling knowing we've got a solid, long term solution to keeping our firewood dry.

I'd guess once we get it full it might last 2 or 3 winters depending on the temperature.

Posted Sun Jul 1 16:38:50 2012 Tags:

Green tomatoesAre you looking for the world's tastiest tomato?  (Who isn't?)  If so, a new study suggests you should choose the uglier varieties that don't turn evenly red.

If your full-grown but green tomatoes look like the ones pictured in this post, you're in luck.  The darker green top means that portion of the tomato is full of chloroplasts, busy spinning straw into, I mean, sunlight into sugars.

Supermarket tomatoes, in contrast, have been bred to ditch the dark green top.  Agrobusinesses have found that consumers are more prone to select a tomato that's a solid red color rather than having a tinge of green around the stem.

Unfortunately, the same gene that makes the tomatoes turn red uniformly means they don't get that extra flavor boost.  So, pretty tomatoes = insipid flavor.  Of course, there are other factors that lead supermarket tomatoes to "taste like crap" (in the words of one of our readers), but it's interesting to find out that variety selection does matter.

(Yes, we have eaten two remarkably early tommy-toe tomatoes.  No, there's still no hint of color on our larger plants.)

Our chicken waterer takes the time and mess out of daily chicken chores.
Posted Mon Jul 2 08:44:39 2012 Tags:

The Dirty LifeI figured we all deserved a break from hard-to-parse books during the dog days of summer.  So our second selection will be a light and fun memoir. 

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love follows a back-to-the-land couple who eventually developed perhaps the most interesting CSA currently in existence.  Here's a description of Essex farm (from the author's website):

Essex Farm offers a year-round, full diet, free choice membership. We produce grass-fed beef, pastured pork, chicken, eggs, fifty different kinds of vegetables, milk, grains and flour, fruit, herbs, maple syrup, and soap. Members come to the farm on Fridays, from 3pm to 7pm, and take what they need for the week, in any quantity or combination they choose. We sometimes limit scarce items, like maple syrup or the year’s first tomatoes, but most food is available on an all-you-can-eat basis

We currently farm 600 acres and feed 222 members. We are powered by fifteen solar panels, nine draft horses, ten full-time farmers, and three tractors. We do not use synthetic fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide. Our animals eat feed we’ve grown ourselves or local hay and local, certified organic grain.

The all-you-can-eat membership price for 2012 is $3300 per year for the first adult in a household, and $2900 for the second adult, with a $400 discount for each additional adult. Children over 3 are $100 per year of age (e.g., a five-year-old is $500 for the year, a seven-year-old is $700, etc.).

It's an intriguing model, and my understanding is that Kristin Kimball writes about the Weekend Homesteaderpath to building their farm in an easy-to-read and entertaining manner.  So, head to your library or book store and pick up a copy!  We'll begin discussions on July 25 (with more information about how much of the book we'll discuss in the first chunk once I have a copy in my hands).  I hope that even those of you who've been driven away by Thoreau's excessively long sentences will return to the fold!

My paperback is currently at the printer, so those of you who have preordered will have a copy before too long!  Thanks to everyone who has bought it sight unseen.

Posted Mon Jul 2 12:01:03 2012 Tags:
Fouled spark plug of a medium sized generator

We had a power outage last night. It started around midnight and lasted till about 9 am.

The last time we used our back up generator was over 2 years ago, and I forgot to run all the fuel out of it when we were finished which created a situation where the engine would begin to start and then quit.
Champion generator review
It just so happens we were asking our helper Bradley about this problem last week and his advice was to drain the fuel and replace the spark plug which most likely got fouled up due to my neglect.

I almost got up in the middle of the night to see if I could extract the old plug and maybe swap it with one from the lawn mower due to the high temperature, but felt like it would go better in the light of day. Funny how the power came back on just as I got the old plug removed this morning. With any luck we'll remember to pick up a fresh spark plug tomorrow so we can be ready if the power goes out again.

Posted Mon Jul 2 15:45:25 2012 Tags:

Analog max/min thermometerI adore keeping track of the weather, but I've been on strike for the last two years.  You see, the little digital max/min thermometers I'd been buying kept keeling over after six months or a year, and I'm just not keen on throwaway products. 

I think I've finally found the solution --- an analog thermometer that still records maximum and minimum temperatures, for the same price as those disposable digitals.  Unless I drop it or hit it with a brick, I can't think what might go wrong.

The Sper Scientific thermometer is so simple it's ingenious.  The column of mercury is bent into a U-shape so that you can read the temperature both on the right and on the left.  Each side of the column also has a colored, magnetized something-or-other inside the tube, so when the temperature increases (on the max side) or decreases (on the min side), the mercury pushes the colored marker in front of it.  The marker doesn't retreat to follow the mercury when the latter shrinks back down, so you're left with a reminder of what the maximum or minimum temperature was.  Then you use a little magnet (attached to a string so you don't lose it) to pull the markers back down onto the top of the mercury column, resetting the maximum and minimum recordings.

Reset thermometer with magnetReading the thermometer does take a bit of getting used to.  First, if you're accustomed to Fahrenheit, you have to remember to read the small numbers.  And you also have to realize that the numbers on the minimum (left) side go from low numbers at the top to high numbers at the bottom rather than vice versa.  Finally, the markers only delineate two degree intervals, so you won't get the same precision you see in a digital thermometer.

But I don't mind a slight learning curve if I've finally found a thermometer that will go the distance.  We got our new thermometer up and running just in time to record last week's crazy temperatures --- a low of 42 one night, followed soon thereafter by three days that hit 102.  Maybe it would have been less painful if I didn't know how hot it was?

Our chicken waterer kept the flock well hydrated during the heat spell.
Posted Tue Jul 3 06:31:30 2012 Tags:

Chicken watererI never heard back from four of our Egyptian onion winners.  So this is the last call for Barb, Monica, JT, and Stan --- please drop me an email with your mailing address ASAP if you'd like your onions!

Since I suspect some or all of those winners may have wandered away and won't check back, I'm also selecting four runnersup.  Kerry, Sharon, Brian, and Carmen --- if I get your email before I hear from the original winners, I'll send the box of onions to your garden instead.

Finally, if you're still itching to win something, our 2012 chicken photo contest is up and running.  We're giving away $300 worth of waterers this year as a thank you to all of our customers.  Stay tuned to our chicken blog to see some of the best entries as they come pouring in.

Posted Tue Jul 3 12:00:21 2012 Tags:
how to replace front wheel bearing in a Club Car golf cart

We got a really nice summer shower this afternoon at exactly the half way point when our helper Bradley was replacing the other front wheel bearing on the golf cart.

He didn't want to leave with it half way done, which is why he's doing a turtle impersonation in the picture above.

Posted Tue Jul 3 16:41:05 2012 Tags:
Garlic harvest

Dried garlicI think we've finally got our garlic planting amount figured out.  We used 20 pounds of garlic in 2010, so when our 2011 crop came in over quota, I gave the excess away.  Sure enough, when the time came to clean and bag this year's garlic, we were down to the last handful of the previous year's bulbs in the kitchen --- perfect!

Of course, our garlic continues to adapt to our climate, so despite cutting back the number of beds planted last fall (to twelve), I still ended up with 29.5 pounds of garlic.  About half of that amount has sprouted and won't last too long, but since I use a lot of our annual garlic supply during the summer months (in soups, Hollywood sun-dried tomatoes, pizza sauces, etc.), I suspect the sprouted garlic will get eaten up before it goes bad.

Bagged garlic

Even though I really should cut back our planting this fall to take into account the extra productivity from our acclimatized bulbs, I think I'm going to stick to the same number of garden beds as last year.  It's nice to have a bit extra to give away, and Huckleberry seems to have developed a taste for the crop....

Our chicken waterer keeps the coop dry and the hens happy.
Posted Wed Jul 4 06:19:12 2012 Tags:
Walden pond survey

"While men believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless," wrote Thoreau.  Then he spent the remainder of chapter 16 telling how he surveyed the bottom of Walden pond.

Not only did Thoreau determine that the body of water did indeed have a bottom (and no "vast holes 'into which a load of hay might be driven'"), the chapter also walked us through an excellent example of the scientific method.  Thoreau started by using keen observation to develop a hypothesis:

"Having noticed that the number indicating the greatest depth was apparently in the center of the map, I laid a rule on the map lengthwise, and then breadthwise, and found, to my surprise, that the line of greatest length intersected the line of greatest breadth exactly at the point of greatest depth...."

Step two of the scientific method was using this observation to come up with a hypothesis --- in this case, that the deepest spot in any pond can be pinpointed using the method above.  Next, Thoreau set up an experiment to test his hypothesis.  He used a map to estimate where he thought the deepest point in another pond should lie, then surveyed that pond and found his estimate close to the mark.

Of course, Thoreau would have needed to survey quite a few more ponds to thoroughly test his hypothesis.  But it's handy to be reminded that deductive reasoning is a very important skill to have, especially if you're a homesteader trying to partner with the natural world.  Why are the bean beetles so much worse than they've been in previous years?  Is your neighbors' advice spot on or is it an old wives' tale?  If I were building a curriculum for homesteaders to be, deductive reasoning would be presented in week one.

Weekend HomesteaderIf you're new to the book club, you might want to check out the thought-provoking comments on chapter 1, chapter 2, chapters 3 and 4, chapters 5 and 6, chapters 7 and 8, chapters 9 and 10, chapters 11 and 12, and chapters 13 and 14.  We'll be discussing the last two chapters of Walden next week, and will then be taking a week off before diving into The Dirty Life.  Don't forget to start hunting down a copy of the next book (which is a much lighter read, I promise) ASAP.

The Weekend Homesteader is full of fun and easy projects that let you fit self-sufficiency into your limited free time.
Posted Wed Jul 4 12:01:06 2012 Tags:
48 volt golf cart tank

Our recent golf cart modifications helped to make tank moving day a smooth and enjoyable process.

Thanks to the new barn roof we plan to begin capturing rain water with most of the tanks.

Posted Wed Jul 4 15:01:45 2012 Tags:

Golf cart modificationYou'd think that a golf cart pickup bed built by committee would be terrible, but you'd be wrong.

When the time came to replace the decaying, two year old structure, we turned the project over to Bradley...with caveats.  Usually, we let him do whatever he wants (with results better than either of us could have imagined), but Mark and I had spent a lot of time with the old pickup bed and we each wanted some changes made.

Mark asked for the bed to be light and durable --- he didn't want the weight of the bed to reduce how much we could haul, and he did want the structure to last more than two years.  Meanwhile, I wanted the golf cart pickup bed to be larger and to have higher sides.  A tall order, but Bradley came through with flying colors.

Circular saw

The first step was to take apart what remained of the old bed.  We love using screws because they make it easy to change your mind about a project without buying new Corroded screwmaterials, but these screws had been banged around so much, they weren't removable with the drill.  Enter Bradley's favorite tool --- the circular saw.  (Yes, we went out and bought him a second copy to live on our farm so he didn't have to lug his through the alligator swamp repeatedly.)

Mark's method of attaching the previous bed to the frame of the golf cart passed muster, so Bradley left it as is and simply built on top.  He framed up the base of the bed with treated two by fours similar to the way you'd frame the floor of a house --- this method will ensure the bed is very durable, while also allowing it to extend further beyond the body of the golf cart.

Golf cart bed supports

Slatted wallsA sheet of plywood on top formed the floor of the bed, then Bradley went to work on the walls.  He modeled these after the slatted sides on fancy versions of a kid's red wagon, which allowed him to extend the walls higher without adding much additional weight.  Since we haul biomass in five gallon buckets, there's no problem with manure or wood chips slipping out the sides, but Bradley did add a slat right against the bed of the golf cart so nothing small will roll out.

Scrap wood as a spacerFor even spacing, Bradley used a scrap piece of two by four to support the slats while screwing them in place.  (I could have helped, but I was busy with the camera, and Mark was in town mailing chicken waterers.)

Gratuitous cat photo

Bradley went home and Strider checked out the work in progress.  "Perfect!" he told me.  "I can watch the dog house but Lucy can't get me!"

The next day, Bradley came back and didn't get annoyed when we said, "We love what Canopy supportyou've done, but...."  The canopy for the golf cart has weird spurs sticking back into the pickup bed area, which were originally used to attach straps to hold golf club bags in place.  But these spurs were likely to get in the way of our serious hauling.

"Not a problem," replied Bradley.  He took back off the bed and sides (ah, the glory of screws!), removed the canopy supports, and replaced them with two by fours.  Then he put it all back together and added the tailgate, made on the same principle as the sides but with some two by twos for additional structural support.

Speaking of structural support, the photo below shows the diagonal braces Bradley added underneath the bed to allow him to cantilever the floor out beyond the golf cart frame.  (In case you're confused about the jack --- Bradley was upgrading the springs, which Mark will Golf cart pickup bedpost about later.  I just stole the photo for this post.)

Meanwhile, Bradley and Mark teamed up on a smaller front box to add yet more hauling capacity, and Mark ensured the longevity of the untreated plywood by giving both boxes a coat of paint.

Mark and I are blown away by the increased capacity of our new and improved golf cart bed.  With the walls removed, we easily hauled in all six tanks, and then I zipped back out for two heavy loads of firewood.

I felt like I was able to haul three or four times as much wood as previously and I probably could have stacked it even higher.  The trick now will be holding ourselves back so we don't strain the motor.

Posted Thu Jul 5 07:16:17 2012 Tags:
Wild grapes

Smashing grapesWild grapes grow along the roadsides in Capay Valley, California.  Here's my favorite way of using them: squishing them into juice.

1. Wash and put the grapes into a large ziplock bag. Seal the bag, removing as much air as possible.

2. Squeeze the grapes with your feet or fingers. Pop all the grapes. This is a very pleasant sensual experience!

Strain grape juice3. Pour the grapes pulp into a strainer and press with the back of a spoon, catching the juice into a bowl.

4. Do not heat the juice! Heating it removes much of the delicious flavor. You can strain it further, but I don't.

5. Refrigerate or freeze the juice. If you allow the juice to stand at room temperature for a day or so before refrigerating it, you will get some natural carbonation from the yeast on the grape skins. I like this.

I get rave reviews from friends about the freshness of this juice and I serve it at my B&B, Cache Creek Inn.

Visual protractorIn addition to running Cache Creek Inn, Camilla Barry and her husband invented the visual protractor shown here, which they describe as "the world's easiest protractor --- anyone can use it!"

If you'd like to share a guest post with our readers, check out our submission policy.  We love learning about what other homesteaders are doing across the country and around the world!

Posted Thu Jul 5 12:01:05 2012 Tags:
building a new porch

We got the new east porch started last week. Our helper Bradley got about half way done with the roof today before it got too hot.

It might be hard to see in the picture above, but the side he's not working on is secured with a rope so it can pivot. This allows him to get the other end screwed in without needing an extra hand.

We've learned several building tips like this just by observing his style and technique. It's a nice bonus on top of the high quality craftsmanship we get to appreciate after he goes home.

Posted Thu Jul 5 15:20:56 2012 Tags:
Filling the woodshed

After a bit of debate, we decided to use pallets as the floor of our new woodshed.  The Firewood floorwoodshed (and half of our core homestead) is in an area with very high groundwater, so you really can't just stack wood directly on the ground.  (Well, you can, but then the firewood is not only unburnable, but is also impossible to pry loose from the frozen muck.)

In our previous incarnation, Mark cut sassafras saplings and lay them on the ground to stack on top of, but those quickly sunk into the mud from the weight of the firewood.  My pallets may too --- we'll just have to wait and see.

Stacking firewoodThe other innovation (in addition to size) for wood shed 2.0 is adding some two by fours to partially close in the walls.  Our efficient wood stoves have very small fire boxes, and short firewood has a bad tendency to fall back on top of me when I stack it over my head.  Now I can layer the wood so that it leans against the back of the shed, which will give the stack better stability.

I'm still plugging away at hauling in the firewood that's been sitting out in the parking area for months, some of which was bought and some of which was cut from a big tree that fell on the driveway.  Since the parking area wood is wetter, those logs are going in the back of the shed, then I'll stack the leftover firewood that was in the old shed in front for early winter burning.  We've also got a few box-elders and red maples that Bradley cut away from the back side of the barn and left to lie until the sap dries up a bit --- those will be added to one side of the shed once I rustle up a few more pallets.

As you can see, we've still got a ways to go before our winter's wood will be under roof, but it's great to make progress (and to think of cold weather on a sweltering summer day).

Our chicken waterer prevents heat exhaustion in your flock with copious clean water.
Posted Fri Jul 6 07:00:56 2012 Tags:
new porch roof update

Our helper Bradley brought along someone to help him today and they both finished up the new tin roof.

This wall gets direct morning sun. According to the inside gauge the temperature is already 5 degrees cooler than yesterday at the same time of day.

Posted Fri Jul 6 17:10:35 2012 Tags:

New persimmon seedlingsMy experiments with persimmons are slow, but I'm making forward progress.  Two years ago, I planted some seeds using a method I've explained in depth in a previous post.  The soil was poor (despite potentially having the right mychorrizae in it) and the winter's freeze and thaw pushed many of the seeds to the surface, where they died.  I ended up with only one seedling, and it sat there for most of last year, then didn't leaf back out after I transplanted it into the pasture this winter.

Last year, I gathered a lot more seeds and tweaked my technique.   Rather than letting the seeds naturally stratify outside, I wrapped them in damp rags and then sealed them inside a ziploc bag, with the result that several sets of persimmon seeds spent the winter molding in our fridge.  When I pulled the bags out in late May, the contents were disgusting, but the seeds were in much better shape than my previous batch.

After rinsing off the seeds, I had to choose a potting soil.  Despite books' admonition to use only forest soil, I decided that potting soil characteristics trumped soil mychorrizae.  So I potted up this year's persimmon seeds in stump dirt.  Less than a month after planting, seedlings started popping up.

Seed-filled scatThe first seeds to germinate were gathered from a scat last November.  I didn't think the seeds were in terribly good shape since they seemed a bit dried out, but as many of our readers suggested, passing through the gut of an animal definitely aids in persimmon germination.  For a week, I thought the scat seeds were the only ones that were going to sprout, but then plants in other pots started unfurling their leaves --- looks like I'll have a lot of persimmons to play with this year!

Since our core homestead is really too small for many (any?) American persimmons, my plan is to repot these seedlings into individualized pots before they get too big.  After a year of growth, they'll be ready to have Asian persimmon scionwood grafted onto them, and the year after that they'll go into our chicken pastures.

Older persimmon seedlings

That is, if our internship property doesn't materialize in the next year.  The spot we'd been salivating over fell through, but we haven't let the dream die.  Maybe we'll have a big forest pasture just waiting for persimmons next spring?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional, filthy waterers.
Posted Sat Jul 7 07:23:46 2012 Tags:
adjusting the dimensions of new golf cart bed

old first version of diy golf cart pick up bed
The new diy golf cart pick up bed increased our rear load capacity from 7 buckets to 9.

We've got a few ideas on squeezing room for more.

1. Haul buckets with sides removed. Maybe a ratchet strap would hold them in place. Extending the sides out just a few inches would allow an additional 3. It might require a post at each end of the back for the ratchet strap to wrap around.

2. Modify the sides so they angle outward and maybe go higher up so another layer of buckets can fit on top of the bottom layer increasing the rear load limit to 24. That might be too much weight when hauling moist manure or gravel, but wood chips should be light enough for that much volume.

Posted Sat Jul 7 13:58:44 2012 Tags:
Barn organization

While I've been playing in the garden and Bradley's been building things, Mark has faced the most difficult job on the farm --- organizing the barn. 

I believe in being honest on our blog, but sometimes you just don't need to see the worst case scenario.  So there are no before photos that go with this post.  Suffice it to say that for five years, only a small portion of the barn was waterproof, and that area had no solid walls Organizing the barnon which to hang shelves and tools.  As a result, everything in the barn was piled in a mass right in front of the doors.

A new roof opened up exciting barn area, but didn't do anything about the jumble of machinery, tools, and so forth that had built up in the aisle.  For the last few weeks, Mark has been dealing with years of neglect, which mostly consists of putting things on shelves and nails.  I'd say he's about halfway done (or maybe even more), with the result that we can walk into the barn again!

Hanging toolsThe long term goal is to have room to stable the golf cart and lawn mower in a nearly clear central aisle, with the sides being split up into work and storage areas.  We may eventually build lofts too, either just for fun, for guest quarters, or for biomass stockpiling (aka hay lofts).  There's certainly plenty of vertical area to take advantage of in this old tobacco-drying barn.

I just thought you should know why Mark's been quiet about his projects lately --- he's been slaving away on an unphotogenic task that no one else wants to tackle.  Thanks, honey, for perservering!

Our chicken waterer keeps the coop dry so you and your hens are happy.
Posted Sun Jul 8 07:31:34 2012 Tags:
DeWalt impact driver review with field notes

The DeWalt impact driver is an awesome innovation in drill technology.

We've been using ours for a few months now. I could tell you how the torque feature lets the drill decide when to add more power or back off by making a loud clicking sound, but the best way to appreciate what a great tool this is would be to look at the reviews on Amazon. 111 five star reviews with only 1 one star review from a guy who had issues with how his driver smelled.

A good example is shelf brackets. I was putting up a new shelf in the barn recently trying to use the old Dewalt regular drill. The wood was hard enough to cause problems. Either it would break off the head or stop gripping and begin to strip the screw. When I finally walked over to get the impact drill the difference was obvious.

Posted Sun Jul 8 16:00:17 2012 Tags:
Cabin in the woods

I was going to write a long post about why Mark and I decided to sink this year's retirement money into farm infrastructure (aka paying Bradley to build us things) rather than putting cash in the bank.  About how it's just another example of the homesteading motto: keep your eyes open for opportunities and then seize the day.  We figure Bradley's obvious skills and expanding confidence will soon put him out of our league, so we're accepting every possible minute he can spare to make our farm more self-sufficient until that inevitable day comes.

Two by four porch supportBut I suspect you don't really care why so much new infrastucture is coming to the farm this summer, and would rather read about how it all happens.  So here are lessons learned from porch 2.0.

With porch 1.0, we had already bought four by fours to support the roof, but Bradley was involved in the supply run this time around and had other ideas.  He explained that using a pair of two by fours for each support post is just as sturdy as using a four by four, and also allows you to attach the post more securely to the floor (as you can see here), all while costing significantly less.  The only downside of this method is that you end up with a support that's 3 inches by 3.5 inches rather than one that's 3.5 inches by 3.5 inches, but that won't be an issue if you're not trying to put heavy things on top.

Homemade steps

Homemade stair risersNext, Bradley asked why we'd buy inexpertly-cut stair risers when he could make a more stable set of steps out of dimensional lumber.  He built the simple stairs above for the uphill side and the enticing steps to the right and below for the downhill side.

In both cases, Bradley cobbled the staircases together out of odds and ends we had leftover from other projects.  You can see that each step is made from multiple boards so that we didn't have to rush to the store for wider planks, and that the stair steps on the downhill side rest on little pieces of lumber attached to the inside of pairs of slanted boards.  This is all treated lumber since the area gets extremely wet in the winter.

Speaking of wet, muddy ground, I'm starting to realize that Mark's right to put porches so high up on our priority list.  It's amazing how much effort (and mental energy) has been drained over the years by slogging through the mud pit that develops over the winter in the area that's now under roof outside the East Wing.  In addition to looking forward to the winter luxury of dry feet, we've enjoyed the summer luxury of cooler living conditions without the need for electricity during this current heat wave.

Porch stairs

But the most important benefit of the porches is harder to quantify and is due to the fact that porches make us spend a lot more leisure time outside.  Stay tuned for the startling discovery that resulted from that outdoors time, coming up in tomorrow's post.

Our chicken waterer keeps hens healthy so they can lay more eggs.
Posted Mon Jul 9 07:29:42 2012 Tags:
mark Oh deer
5 foot high deer fence made from chicken wire

Anna noticed some deer damage over the weekend. The first of the year.

It was a minor incursion, but we know from past experience that each visit gets longer as the offending deer feels more comfortable.

We decided to make today the day we finish fencing in the side where we think he or she entered. 80 more feet of 5 foot high chicken wire closes up this end of the perimeter leaving about another 70 feet towards the east end before we have the entire garden surrounded.

Posted Mon Jul 9 15:54:18 2012 Tags:

Sun angle at 37 degrees latitudeYesterday I wrote that our new porches tempt me and Mark to spend more time relaxing outdoors than we used to.  As a result, we've been paying more attention to the natural world, and, after a couple of weeks, I made a shocking dicovery.  The summer sun rises in a totally different spot than the winter sun does!

Yes, we technically already took advantage of this fact when we planned our south-facing trailer windows to capture winter sun without roasting us in the summer.  And if you'd asked me a year ago, I could have told you that the sun is lower in the sky in the winter than in the summer.

Sun path for 37 north latitude

But I didn't realize that the sun being higher in the summer sky means that it rises over the barn instead of over the hill like it does in the winter!  This tidbit of data makes our budding passive solar heating and cooling systems a bit more complex.

Porch shading houseNotice how our new porch shades the East Wing from the morning sun.  I was a bit concerned that we'd be losing some much-needed winter solar gain, but overlaying the sunpath diagram with a map of our property shows that the sun has moved so far south in the sky by late fall that it barely hits the side of the east wing at all.

By the same reckoning, we could probably block some of the scorching late afternoon sun on the west side of our trailer without impacting winter solar heat gain as well.  I'm still Sunrise and sunset at the winter solsticewrapping my head around the fact that the sun doesn't rise in the east and set in the west, though, so I think I'm going to observe a little longer before I make any drastic decisions for that area.

If you want to play with sun patterns in your own neck of the woods, there are lots of good resources on the web.  This website allows you to calculate the sun angle at your latitude (but you'll have to draw the elevation mockup yourself) and this website has downloadable sunpath diagrams, like the second image in this post.  Finally, this website allows you to plot sunrise and sunset locations overlaying an aerial photo of your property for any day of the year.

Or you can just build a porch and watch the world unfold around you.

Our chicken waterer never spills in uneven terrain, so it's much safer than traditional waterers in chicken tractors.


Edited to add:

Read more about passive solar design in Trailersteading, which is now available for $1.99 on Amazon.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Posted Tue Jul 10 07:02:50 2012 Tags:
Lucy in the rain with Mark in a poncho

We got some much needed rain last night and this morning.

The creek was too high for the golf cart, which meant the poncho express if I wanted to mail chicken waterers today.

I tried telling Lucy to take the morning off, but she was hearing none of it and insisted on blazing the trail to our parking area in the pouring rain.

Posted Tue Jul 10 16:44:59 2012 Tags:
Drying squash

Garden bountyThe mountains of produce started piling up around the first of this month, and momentum is still building.  The photos in this post show just a few of the big harvests that have gone into our bellies and/or freezer during the first week of July.

(No, we didn't eat the bug or the cats.)


Bean saladSince outdoor temperatures were in the high nineties to low hundreds for the last two weeks, the trailer got so hot inside that Mark couldn't stand to spend more than about thirty seconds there.  I could handle a few more minutes, but was very glad to be able to do most of our food processing on the porch.

In addition to cooler temperatures, when you work outside, you get visited by fascinating insects like the wheel bug above.  These predatory insects like to eat caterpillars and Japanese beetles, so I was thrilled to see one carried in on the produce.  (Be careful --- I hear they have a painful bite.)

After figuring out where to process the produce, the next decision was what to do with it.  First step --- eat as much as possible right away!  At this time of year, I try to put a cucurbit on our plate for each lunch and dinner, along with another vegetable or two.  I've also been trying out various vegetable salad mixtures, all of which have been very heavy on the cucumbers to use up that bountiful crop.

Cucumber and cabbageDespite the joy of working on the porch, I've been giving away more food than usual.  Due to the wonders of quick hoops, we only ate about twenty gallons of frozen summer produce between us during the off season, which means I lowered my quotas on everything except vegetable soup.  (It seems like we can eat an unlimited amount of vegetable soup.)  Although summer vegetables sound more interesting than kale and lettuce, when the former is frozen and the latter is fresh, we subsist nearly entirely on the latter.

Harvesting breadseed poppies

I did plant less of certain crops in 2012 and used less manure to fertilize, but the garden seems bound and determined to churn out just as much food as last year despite having a smaller area planted.  As the person we see the most, poor Bradley has been burdened with the excess.  Maybe that huge bag of summer squash and cucumbers we pawned off on him Friday is the reason he had other plans and couldn't come back to work on Monday?

Our chicken waterer lets you go away for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Wed Jul 11 07:29:02 2012 Tags:
Frozen Walden Pond"I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.  Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.  It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.  I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pondside; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct."

Thoreau with snowballThoreau ends Walden by admonishing us to live our lives fully, not to fall into ruts or societal traps.  He tells us to explore our inner world, to live fully in the moment, and to "love your life, poor as it is."

"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them."

How's that for an upbeat ending to a quotable but laborious book?

I'd love to hear from everyone who read part or all of Walden, now that the first book club read is at its end.  What were your overall thoughts?  Did you think Thoreau was a long-winded poser, or a mystic visionary?  Did the book inspire you; if so, to do what?

Weekend HomesteaderPersonally, I'm ready to move on from Thoreau and crack open The Dirty Life, which we'll begin discussing on July 25.  For my college buddies: the husband in The Dirty Life's team is a graduate of our alma mater, if that's an inducement to join the next discussion.

As we wait for everyone's copies of the next book to arrive on interlibrary loan, feel free to read back over my posts (and reader comments) on Walden's chapter 1, chapter 2, chapters 3 and 4, chapters 5 and 6, chapters 7 and 8, chapters 9 and 10, chapters 11 and 12, chapters 13 and 14, and chapters 15 and 16.  Several of us are subscribed to the comments and will see contributions you post there, even if they're out of sync.

My new paperback is available for preorder now and will ship this fall.

Posted Wed Jul 11 12:00:54 2012 Tags:
Gray Treefrog on the sink

This ultra cute Gray Treefrog showed up today for a visit.

I looked around the sink area and found a gap I forgot about when we brought our gray water line into the trailer after burying it last year.

Is there a connection between Gray Treefrogs and gray water? I don't think so.

Posted Wed Jul 11 15:26:39 2012 Tags:
First homegrown vegetablesGood afternoon, sweet Anna!

I've recently been mulling over the costs of homesteading (or whatever else people choose to call it) and thought it would be wise to ask you what you think.

Purchasing land and home aside, what are the the bank account costs of establishing a garden that can feed two people with the methods that you use?  Even if you buy the land outright and the home is free, or also bought outright, there are still repairs that will have to be made over time, is there a way to guess a general amount per year for that?  How much to maintain soil, gardening equipment?  Seed preservation, food storage, and livestock if one keeps the smaller, more cost-effective animals?

You guys have been making great strides on the farm improvements by utilizing your helpful assistant lately, what do those sorts of costs look like?  Obviously much of what you can explain are only guesses or your own costs, but what are some good methods for keeping track of costs once we begin on our own journey on the land?

Tent in the woodsI suppose what I'm asking is: how much does it cost to maintain and how much does it cost to improve over time?  I think that some of us who are hoping to go back to the land would like to know how much to plan for.  We need to know, generally of course, how to determine the money we would need to tuck away, invest, or what level of income to maintain so that our lives can function while we find our balance, then how much it will take to cruise right along.

Most people --- okay, maybe just me --- don't have any idea how to plan for food.  I don't know how much salad I eat, if I'll need potatoes, if I can really stomach that much zucchini, etc.  And worse, I'm worried that even if I calculate enough, that what I grow won't make it.  Every year is an experiment, surely, but how can you figure in the cost of having to go to the store anyway because of crop failure, etc?

Is this all just too BIG a question?  Is it simply too much to answer?  I don't know who else I can ask.

Thank you so much for all you do,

Ramshackle barn doorI've been receiving a lot of thought-provoking reader questions like this via email lately, but there are always so many other things to post about that I never seem to get around to answering them.  There's no time like the present to start, though, and I thought Brandy's question might be something that other readers would like to chime in on.  (Plus, with a salutation like that, how could I not make this the first reader question post of the summer?)

While I think we should all talk about money more, this is a tough question to answer because everyone will spend a different amount of cash on their homestead.  Mark and I believe strongly in paying as we go, which means that in the early years on the homestead, we spent next to nothing on the garden and improvements.  Our combined annual income was $12,000 at the time, so we simply couldn't afford any excess.

Bobcat rentalThat said, I had been saving ever since high school, so I had enough of a nest egg to pay some hefty startup fees.  It cost $1,266 for our electric hookup and we paid another $2,000 to move our free trailer onto the land.  Mark and I were just barely dating at the time, so I paid off his debts in exchange for labor before we pooled our incomes and started going steady.  As a result, we went into the endeavor debt-free, except for a no-interest, pay-when-you-feel-like-it loan from a very good friend to buy the land.

During our first two years on the farm, I budgeted $100 for seeds each year, and if I could drum up the cash, spent another $50 or so on perennials, but we didn't add any other storebought inputs.  Many of our first perennials were gifts from friends --- our family's heirloom Egyptian onions have now spread across the U.S., and a friend's gift of two varieties of strawberry plants have fed us bushels of berries while also allowing me to give away starts to my family and friends.  We started our grapes by taking hardwood cuttings from a friend's orchard, and our huge ever-bearing raspberry patch started as a single plant that came as a freebie with our order of fruit trees.  The theme here is that if you understand how to propagate plants and save seeds (and are patient), you can get the plant side of your farm going with very little cash.

Weedy homesteadOur first chickens were a partnership with a neighbor who wanted fresh eggs but didn't want to put the time into building chicken tractors and taking care of the livestock.  He paid for the birds and we only had to buy chicken feed, giving him some eggs in the early years.  That said, chicken feed isn't cheap, so poultry care made up a large proportion of our early farm costs ($262 in 2008, before we gave away some of the 20 birds we started with).

Meanwhile, we turned the trailer from a windowless, throwaway item into a living space using free building materials my mother found on the curb on trash day and that we picked up at a giveaway of a service organization that builds houses.  We did splurge a hundred dollars or so to get new double-glazed windows, which had been custom-made but not picked up, so were vastly reduced in price.  Tools were the Income over timeexpensive part, but my father found a lot of hand tools for me at an auction and Mark's mother gifted us with many power tools.  (The December volume of Weekend Homesteader covers the tools that I consider the bare essentials for homesteading.)

While this sounds like hard-scrabble living (and it was in certain ways), we also had the freedom to invest our time in breaking free of the rat race and figuring out where our passions lay.  Since we weren't saddled with debt, we were able to tighten our belts and start our microbusiness, finally rising above the poverty line.  More recently, income from my writing has added to the coffers, which means we suddenly have plenty of extra cash to throw at homesteading projects.

Pile of rip-rapAs our income has increased, we've put more and more money into the farm.  We spent nearly $900 on each of our efficient wood stoves (getting some of that back in taxes), which lowered our heating bill and finally allowed me to stop wearing a winter coat inside.  The East Wing cost us another $1,100, and more recently we spent $4,000 on the barn roof and have paid Bradley around $3,000 this summer for lots of projects (only some of which you've seen on the blog) along with perhaps that much again for his building supplies.

Lately, we've been investing lots of cash in straw and cover crop seeds --- Mark talked me into splurging $80 this summer on 20 pounds of oilseed radishes to really boost the farm's fertility and we've also spent $650 in the last year on straw.  And, as you've probably noticed, we've been devoting more cash to perennials that are experimental, half of which fail to thrive in our climate, but others of which have found a niche on our farm.

Land expensesI keep track whenever money goes in or out of our pockets using the free program GnuCash.  It reports that we've spent just shy of $40,000 on the farm since 2003, which you should take with a grain of salt --- I'm not as careful to make sure that everything is categorized correctly in our non-business accounting.  But you can get an idea for annual costs, ranging from that expensive startup year, through the years when we were barely getting by, and finally to our push in the last year to invest in our homestead.

So, the take-home message is --- assuming you don't go into debt to get started, your annual costs could be as low as $2,000 to $3,000 per year to run a two person homestead.  However, that assumes you're willing to do without and pinch pennies (much easier if you start with nothing and slowly build up your infrastructure than if you move from a fancy place in the city and are shocked to live without running water for the first few years).

Utility poleThe one ongoing expense you can't get away from is property taxes, which is why I highly recommend buying cheap land and living below your means.  We purchased subpar swamp and hillside in a poverty-stricken region of Appalachia for $600 per acre, and even though property taxes have risen considerably in the last eight years, we only paid $321 in county taxes in 2011.

I hope that helps you get a handle on the financial side of homesteading.  I didn't cover all of your questions in depth since it's hard to put a cash price on the value of the produce we grow (although I did mean to add that I think any reasonably interested person can grow all of their own vegetables as long as they diversify enough that if one crop fails, they can eat something else).  Maybe others will chime in with their answers to Brandy's question?

(By the way, all of these photos are from when Mark and I were courting, before we moved to the farm.  And, as a postscript to the many people who have emailed questions I haven't yet answered --- don't worry, you're still on my list!)

Our chicken waterer has received rave reviews from chicken keepers around the world.
Posted Thu Jul 12 06:56:59 2012 Tags:
Stihl FS90-R brush blade update field notes summary review

I've been having second thoughts on the tri-bladed metal brush knife also known as the "Ninja Blade".

It cuts heavy grass and light scrub, but every now and then I would hit a small tree or the ground of a hillside that would stop it cold.

The FS90-R recovers nicely, but can only handle a limited number of cold stops like that before the flywheel shaft key sheers.
Stihl FS90-R in action with male model
About an hour of research on a weedeater forum revealed some bad news. Turns out you can't just replace the flywheel shaft key. The key is built into the flywheel, which would cost 65 dollars if you could order one, which you cannot unless you're an official Stihl dealer.

Ours is still under warranty, but it's been in the shop for a month, and when I called them last week I got the impression from the guy I talked to that their technician is either slow or buried or both.

Posted Thu Jul 12 16:24:45 2012 Tags:

Brussels sprout seedlingEven though winter feels very far away, the dog days are the right time to start your fall garden.  Last year, I had a lot of trouble getting seeds to germinate in the hot, dry weather, so this year I opted to start broccoli, cabbage, and (a new experiment this year) brussels sprouts inside.

Sure enough, it was so hot that I couldn't even get the first set of seeds to germinate inside the trailer.  So I moved the flats to the porch and refilled them with stump dirt from my favorite tree (the output of which I save for special occasions).  The result was cute little seedlings popping up within a few days.

If I'd only known that our weather was going to have a mood swing, I could have direct-seeded.  Recently, I've learned that summer weather (at least in our neck of the woods) tends to get stuck in feedback loops, which explains why some summers are distressingly cool and wet while others are just as distressingly hot and dry.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a several degree difference in temperature (as measured by my bare feet) between the lush clover growing where our sink graywater spills out and the parched clover just fifteen feet away.  My feet were picking up on the same factor that influences our summer weather --- dry soil makes the air hotter while wet soil makes the air cooler.  Maybe that's why once the rains finally came, they kept on coming all week long?

Muddy gardenerI don't mind a few more days of rain if it means the fall garden will get off to a good start.  Carrot seedlings (planted at the beginning of July) are already up and I can just feel the snap pea seeds I set out Thursday plumping up in the wet earth.  Once those sprout, I've put in an order for more hot, dry weather to keep the tomatoes and cucurbits happy.

In the meantime, the photo above shows what I look like when I squelch in from the garden.  Can you tell I'm soaked from mid-thigh down and filthy from head to toe?  Pure bliss....

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock well hydrated during scorching summer days.
Posted Fri Jul 13 07:27:27 2012 Tags:
Switching from Muck boots to "going to town" shoes

This is me switching from boots to "going to town" shoes.

Its been raining for over a week, but today was the first day it felt wet enough to pull out the Mucks.

Posted Fri Jul 13 16:30:38 2012 Tags:

Cutting weedsMany people believe that if you break a mirror you get seven years of bad luck.  The only mirror I own is at the entrance to the chicken coop (a reused closet door), so I can't speak to the truth of the mirror legend.  But I can tell you that if you let weeds go to seed in your garden, you're in for seven years of extra work.

Even though we reclaimed the forest garden from the weeds last summer, we'll be putting in extra effort for the next few years to ensure that the offspring of those weeds don't regain a foothold.  I've got three weapons in my anti-weed arsenal at the moment --- kill mulches, tomatoes, and butternuts.

Kill mulch

Kill mulches are the obvious solution.  I rip out as many of the weeds as I can, then top what's left off with a heavy layer of cardboard and then wood chips (around the trees) or straw (around the vegetables).  I've found that in areas with vigorous vines, like Japanese honeysuckle, it may take multiple kill mulches a few months apart to really wipe out the invaders.

Forest garden

Next, I plant tomatoes next-door to the trouble zones.  Mark and I love tomatoes more than any other plant in the summer garden, and they're a bit of a struggle in our humid climate.  So I commit to pruning off diseased leaves and new suckers every week, then tying the tomatoes up to their stakes.  The result is that I pay attention to that part of the garden on a regular basis, and no weed goes to seed without me noticing.

Living mulch

The final solution in my anti-weed campaign this year is butternut squash.  Although we love butternuts, I consider them plant-it-and-forget-it crops.  But as long as the weed pressure is relatively low, they do a pretty good job of acting as a living mulch, shading the ground so seeds don't germinate.

So far, I'm very pleased with the results --- for the first time since we moved to the property, the forest garden is starting to look like a productive and happy place.  Maybe it won't take a full seven years to outrun our bad luck after all.

Our chicken waterer is fill-it-and-forget-it.  In fact, I have to put on my planner to check on our bucket waterers twice a month since they're so low maintenance.
Posted Sat Jul 14 07:33:02 2012 Tags:
Lucy on the porch with footwear

When I first started homesteading I was using one pair of decent work boots as an all season solution.

It wasn't working all that well in our Rainforest like climate. My last all purpose boot was an expensive pair of Timberlands, which only lasted 10 months before they got worn to the point of no repair.

My new strategy is to split the work into three chunks.

1. Dry to moist- Ariat hiking boots
2. Soaked in the ground wet- Muck Chore boots
3. Flooded over the calf- Pro Line hip waders

None of these options are steel toed. Something I was forced to wear in the Navy where dropping something heavy was an everyday possibility. I guess if I was doing more industrial farming or working with a tractor I might consider going back to wearing a steel toe.

Posted Sat Jul 14 16:58:37 2012 Tags:
Honeybee pollinating corn

Soon after nadiring the Warre hive the second time, I saw a huge mass of bees in the air above their home.  This was during the sweltering weather we faced at the end of June, and I thought for a few minutes that the hive might be overheating and the bees absconding.  However, it turned out that all the fuss was merely a huge brood of new workers taking their bearings before getting to work.

Sweatbee on corn tasselDespite all of the extra hands to make light work, two weeks later, the colony still hasn't moved down into the fourth box.  I suspect the slowdown is mostly due to a week of rain --- bees don't do well flying between raindrops, so they're stuck at home eating through their winter stores.

When the clouds cleared Saturday, I saw bees all over, but was surprised to notice that the busiest spot seemed to be our patch of blooming sweet corn.  Corn is supposed to be wind-pollinated, but from the bumblebees, sweatbees, and honeybees buzzing around the flowers, I have to conclude that insects do a bit of work there as well.

Hopefully we'll get enough of a break from the rain that the bees can visit the buckwheat and clover, too, and fill up on nectar to help them drawn out the foundationless frames.  They've still got a lot of work to do so that I don't have to embark on fall feeding to top up their winter honey.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution that keeps backyard coops clean and smell-free.
Posted Sun Jul 15 08:02:50 2012 Tags:
new sensor plug experiment with oscillating fan deer deterrent

I was tinkering around with a new type of deer deterrent today.

The motion detector Sensor Plug in the bottom right hand corner should turn the oscillating fan on if a deer tries to come in through our main entrance. The movement from the flagging tape and the noise from the banging golf balls should make a deer run back into the woods.

There's an adjustment on how long the fan will go before resetting, and a red light on the front indicates when there's movement. Stay tuned to see how this contraption stands up through my series of tests.

Posted Sun Jul 15 15:12:02 2012 Tags:
Worms composting manure

Although the title of this post may seem like an odd question to ask, it makes sense once you start thinking about worm bins.  After all, your goal when adding biomass to a compost bin is similar to your efforts when making a compost pile, and a well-made compost pile quickly heats up from microbial action.  So, can worms stand hot composting?

Manure in worm binThe reason I started researching this question is because the manure we used to fill our second worm bin was fresher than I thought and soon heated up.  I didn't think to stick in the compost thermometer until this weekend, but suspect the manure got hotter than the 90 degrees at which compost worms perish.

In heartening news, I tossed similarly fresh manure on top of the worms in the first worm bin a week earlier, and I just noticed that those worms have moved to the surface and started to work.  I suspect the worms were able to hide at the extremities of the bin, where temperatures were lower, then slither back into the center once the first burst of heat subsided.

Compost thermometerI hope that the soaked newspaper I added to the second bin gave those worms a similar escape hatch.  (Adding carbon slows down a compost pile, which lowers the heat.)  Only time will tell whether we have to seed the second bin again, but I know that after this, I'll be careful to let manure cool down before adding compost worms.

Our chicken waterer is the worry-free solution for providing water to chickens on pasture.
Posted Mon Jul 16 06:59:51 2012 Tags:
Using a reciprocating saw to delete an unwanted barn door

Our barn has these stable doors that don't close all the way due to warping.

Instead of trimming a few spots to make them close properly we chose the other option. Deletion.

The original builders used large nails to secure each door hinge to a support beam. It would have been nice to salvage the old rusty hinges, but cutting them out with a reciprocating saw seemed like the smarter choice.

Posted Mon Jul 16 15:57:00 2012 Tags:
Weighing onions

Split onionI usually wait to harvest my storage onions until the tops have died back on all of the bulbs, but this year it seemed more prudent to take in half early, then plan on a second harvest to round up the stragglers who are still green.

Wet weather just before harvest is bad for root crops, and the forecast says we're in for another week of rain.  Already, a few of the onions had started to rot and several others had split their outer layers, which means they won't keep quite as long.

I can't complain, though, since we've now got 46 pounds of onions on our curing racks, with at least that many yet to come out of the ground.

Curing onions

My extended onion harvest means the racks will be full for the rest of July and probably part of August, then I'll press them into service again in late September for sweet potatoes, followed closely by winter squash.  After the porch and straw door, I think our vegetable curing tower may be the infrastructure improvement that has seen the most use this year.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative for spoiled backyard hens.
Posted Tue Jul 17 07:04:42 2012 Tags:
watermelon protection

It's that time of year when watermelon and butternut squash plants explode with growth and reach past their raised bed areas.

A cardboard buffer might sacrifice part of our "lawn", but hopefully will provide some additional protection for these yummy treats.

Posted Tue Jul 17 16:20:41 2012 Tags:

Wheelbarrow of garden produceWhen you have to push the day's harvest home in the wheelbarrow, you know the homestead is exceeding expectations.

Now, what to do with all that bounty?  With the exception of the extra cucumbers (which even Bradley and the chickens have stopped accepting), the rest of the bounty is bound for harvest catch-all soup.

Of course, we can't make a big pot of the soup right now because other important ingredients aren't quite ready.  For example, we'll be slaughtering our second round of broilers next week, who will provide the stock.  Our green beans are ready, but the sweet corn isn't quite fleshed out, and the roma tomatoes are just now starting to change color.

Three month old chickensWhile we're waiting for the tomatoes to ripen up, cabbages and carrots would keep well sitting in a cool root cellar.  Too bad I never put it on the list to dig the refrigerator root cellar back out of the dirt.... 

Instead, I'll be cramming storage vegetables into every nook and cranny of our small fridge.  Half the carrots filled up the crisper drawer, which is all I usually devote to storage vegetables, and I cleaned off the bottom shelf for the cabbages.  Now, what about those other 15 pounds of roots?

Carrot harvest

Our POOP-free chicken waterer keeps hens healthy, which means more eggs.
Posted Wed Jul 18 07:19:14 2012 Tags:
Dirty Life couple"This book is the story of two love affairs that interrupted the trajectory of my life: one with farming --- that dirty, concupiscent art --- and the other with a complicated and exasperating farmer I found in State College, Pennsylvania."

This is my opportunity to admit that I read chick lit from time to time, but find 99% of it so unsatisfying I swear off ever trying another book in the genre.  The trouble isn't even that the women are totally outside my frame of reference, talking about name brand handbags the way I glow about cucurbits and pollinators.  The real issue is that these novels are supposed to be love stories that trump my own, but the authors' idea of wish fulfillment doesn't hold a candle to my real life.  I always compare the storied love interest to my own husband and find the fictional heroes sadly lacking.

My Mark still trumps the Mark in The Dirty Life, but at least I can see the latter's appeal.  When visiting our heroine in New York, he chafes at her city life, but finally finds a facet he enjoys:

"He liked taking taxis, because more often than not the driver would be from an agricultural village in some timeless quarter of the world, and Mark could engage him in a lively discussion of halal slaughter methods or the nuances of donkey harness or a particular village's strategies for controlling rat damage in stored grain.  One Greek driver pulled over and turned off the meter to describe in detail the way they skinned sheep in his village, by cutting a slit in the skin of one leg and blowing it up like a balloon.  A few weeks later, Mark tried it, and it worked.  What I learned from these experiences was that there were more cultural differences between Mark and me than there were between Mark and a random selection of taxi drivers from the developing world."

Work horsesWhich is all a long way of saying --- if you're a romantically-inclined homesteader, you'll love The Dirty Life.

But what if you want something more solid?  Don't worry, there are thought-provoking themes threaded through the humor and nail-biting plot.  For example, take Kristin's analysis of Mark's theory on economics:

"[Mark would] like to imagine a farm where no money traded hands, only goodwill and favors.  He had a theory that you had to start out by giving stuff away --- preferably big stuff, worth, he figured, about a thousand dollars.  At first, he said, people are discomfited by such a big gift.  They try to make it up to you, by giving you something big in return.  And then you give them something else, and they give you something else, and pretty soon nobody is keeping score.  There is simply a flow of things from the place of excess to the place of need.  It's personal, and it's satisfying, and everyone feels good about it.  This guy is completely nuts, I thought.  But what if he's right?"

Weekend HomesteaderHopefully you've hunted down your copy of The Dirty Life and are trying to decide if it's worth cracking open.  This post is your incentive to go for it!  We'll be discussing the prologue and part one next Wednesday, but I suspect that, like me, you will have gulped down the whole book without being able to take a break.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

While you're hunting down books, don't forget to check out my paperback, with fun and easy projects to make self-sufficiency less daunting.

Posted Wed Jul 18 12:00:46 2012 Tags:
looking at tax maps and deed books

We spent a fun afternoon today looking at tax maps and deed books.

There are a few properties in the area that might work as an organic orchard annex and we wanted to do some detective work on how big they are and what the county thinks the value is.

Posted Wed Jul 18 16:38:48 2012 Tags:
Tract survey

Tax mapAs Mark mentioned, we spent Wednesday afternoon at the county courthouse, finding information about nearby properties.  I learned how to do this when I was buying our own farm, since a title search is essential to make sure you know what you're getting into.  You can either pay a lawyer to look for liens (debts), sold mineral rights, pesky right-of-ways, etc. attached to your potential property, or you can buckle down and do the research yourself.  Even after you own a piece of property, these skills come in handy since you can use the same technique to figure out who your neighbors are, or to find the assessed value and size of any property in the county.

Hanging map fileIf your county has entered the digital age, you might not have to jump through all of these hoops, but here's what we did.  In case you're curious, the photos are in order (except for the first one), but don't match the written steps they're beside --- a little artistic license.

Step 1: Orient yourself.  If you're looking up information on a property in a rural area, it can be handy to pinpoint the location by flipping back and forth between google maps' aerial photo and plain map features.  Once you zoom in far enough (at least in our region), google maps shows the parcel boundaries on the non-photographic map.  Do this at home before you head to the courthouse, and print out an annotated map to refresh your memory.  (While you're at it, pack your bag with a notebook, pen, camera, and money for copies if you want to make any.  Except for using the copying machine, this project is cost-free.)

Property tax assessmentStep 2: Find your tax map number.  At the courthouse, your first stop will be the tax assessor's office, where you'll probably find a big map of the county on the wall.  The lines mark off the boundaries of smaller maps, which (in our courthouse at least) are filed in a hanging cabinet.  Pull out the proper map and orient yourself using your prior research.  (In our county, only roads and creeks are shown on these maps, so it can be tough to find a property if you haven't done some homework.)  The tax map number is the number of the map you used followed by the number of the parcel --- for example: 47-90 for the property labeled 90 on the map labeled 47.

Deed booksStep 3: Find the assessment information for your property.  Filing cabinets beside the maps are divided up by map number, so you can just flip through until you find the sheet that corresponds to the property you're interested in.  In our county, this sheet of paper gives all kinds of fascinating information, including the name and address of the owner(s), the acreage, the assessed value of the property, and information on improvements.  You should also write down the deed information, which will be another two number series (this time a deed book number followed by a page number).

Property deedStep 4: Find the most recent deed for the property.  In our courthouse, you have to go downstairs to the records department to look at deeds.  (The folks who work throughout the courthouse are often very friendly and will help you out if you get confused or lost.)  The deed books are in numerical order, so pull out the correct one and flip to the page listed on the tax assessment.  In the deed book, you'll learn when the current owners bought the property, from whom, and for how much.  In some cases, there will be a description (or map) of the boundaries; in others, you will be referred to the previous sale of the property for that information.  The information in the deed trumps the boundaries delineated on the tax map, so if your property is a completely different shape in the two places (like ours is), the deed is more likely to be correct.

Old deed bookStep 5: Read back through the deeds for the last hundred years or so.  A complete title search is only necessary if you're interested in buying a piece of land, or if you're a history buff.  It's pretty easy to follow the land backwards --- each deed will refer to a previous deed book and page --- but can get trickly if land has been split apart or lumped together.  I didn't go into depth with any of the properties we were looking at this week since we're just putting out feelers, but when I bought our farm, I went all the way back and even read the deeds of neighboring properties to get more information about our right-of-way.

Extra credit: While you're there, you might want to flip through the earliest deed books your courthouse has available.  Ours date back to the late 1800s, and the earliest ones are handwritten!

Our chicken waterer keeps backyard chickens healthy with POOP-free water.
Posted Thu Jul 19 06:57:57 2012 Tags:
Skil drill press return spring repair

The return spring broke on our new Skil drill press.

Its been almost a year since we got it, and today was the first problem in all that time.

I tried making what was left of the spring work by attempting to bend back the new bitter end so it could slide into the slot on the shaft, but the metal only bent a small amount.

A quick call into Skil headquarters put me in touch with a nice tech by the name of Sandy. He offered to send us out a new return spring for free. I'm guesing the spring comes wound in the above metal holder, otherwise it's going to be a bear to wind by hand.

Posted Thu Jul 19 16:06:21 2012 Tags:
Cutting up carrots

Part of Brandy's question that I didn't entirely answer alluded to her concern that she'd have to budget for buying vegetables at the grocery store if the crops in her hypothetical homestead failed.  The trick to feeding yourself off your own farm only (in one food group or in all of them) is to diversify and grow more of each type of food than you think you can eat.  That way, if your eggplant gets decimated by flea beetles, you'll still be wallowing in cucumbers and tomatoes.

Another facet, though, is to learn to eat produce that isn't as pretty as the stuff in the grocery store.  For example, I made a mistake and left the spring carrots in the ground a month too long.  In past years, this hasn't been much of a problem, but 100 plus degree heat followed by weeks of rain meant that a third of the harvest had bits of rot here and there.

Dried carrots

The average American would toss those subprime carrots in the compost pile (or the trash can), but I instead cut them up, blanched them, and spread the root rounds on our food dehydrator trays.  It's simple to do a spot test of problematic veggies --- cut off the part that's obviously bad and then taste what's left.  If your tongue says "yum!", the produce is good to eat or preserve, as long as you do it right away.

Of course, if our farm was more diversified, we could have given carrots to horses, cows, goats, or pigs.  Or, if I'd wanted to cook them up, we could have fed them to our chickens.  But my goal is generally to keep people food for people as much as possible since we're still working the kinks out of our own food production system.  Hopefully these dried carrots will come in handy for winter soups when the rest of the harvest is long gone.  Plus, eight pounds turned into two cups, which definitely helped with the storage issue!

Our chicken waterer never spills in coops or tractors.
Posted Fri Jul 20 07:16:31 2012 Tags:
making electricity from fire

I saw this interesting gadget the other day and have been wondering how it works and if it could be scaled up for use with a wood stove.

It uses something called thermoelectric technology to convert heat from the fire into electricity which powers a small fan to make the fire more efficient. Extra energy gets used to charge small gadgets.

Posted Fri Jul 20 14:19:06 2012 Tags:

Freezing seedsIf you have room in your freezer, you can store all of your seeds there to extend their longevity, but I froze my kale seeds for a different reason.  While harvesting, I saw lots of insects wriggling around, and I've noticed in general that bigger seeds (especially corn and beans) are prone to insect damage if you take them directly from the garden to a seed storage box.  Even though the insects I noticed at first glance in my kale harvest were benign, I decided to head off the problem in my big stash of seeds.

Freezing seeds is extremely simple, but you can do it wrong.  The potential problem is getting your seeds wet, either by putting them in the freezer in a paper package, or by defrosting them incorrectly.  As you can see in this post's second photo, cold seeds coming out of the freezer pull moisture out of the air, but that isn't an issue as long as you wait to open plastic containers until they're thoroughly thawed.  Condensation(The air inside the container should be low in moisture, so you won't see condensation on the inside as long as it stays sealed.)

For basic seed-saving tips to make your homestead more self-sufficient (and cheaper) without much work, check out the September volume of Weekend Homesteader.  We don't save all of our own seeds, but enjoy saving the easiest ones like tomatoes and beans.

Posted Sat Jul 21 07:49:06 2012 Tags:

Gold Rush Currant tommy toe tomatoe reviewWe tried a new heirloom variety of tomato this year called Gold Rush Currant.

It was one of the first plants to show color, and provided the first taste of the year.

They tasted like store bought tomatoes. No flavor whatsoever and was the first to show signs of a septoria leaf spot infection.

We discussed our options and decided Gold Rush Currant had to go. Normally we'd just cut it out at ground level and leave the stem and roots to rot back in the ground, but the septoria leaf spots pushed us to be cautious and pull the whole thing up. We're not sure if that particular fungus can live in the soil, but we figured why take the chance of spreading it to plants that actually bring something to the table worth eating.

Posted Sat Jul 21 14:28:46 2012 Tags:

Mountain of cucumbersCucumbers are very good for me.

You see, our favorite neighborhood intentional community was having a fortieth anniversary party Saturday.  Even though I like all of the members individually, parties just aren't my thing, and I wasn't planning on going.

But I had all these cucumbers....

Bradley finally accepted another bagful Wednesday.  But even with me and Mark eating their fruits every day, the plants had accumulated another couple of dozen cucumbers by Saturday and we don't plan to see Bradley again until at least Monday.

The easiest solution seemed to be to simply cut those cucumbers up and bring them to the potluck.  I couldn't fit all of them in the biggest bowl we own, so I also snuck a bagful of whole cucumbers in and left them on the potluck table when we went home.  Hopefully it'll be like a boxful of cute kittens --- they'll all find new homes.

So, the upshot is, our copious cucumbers dragged me to that party, which is why I think they're good for my health.  Oh, and eating them's good too.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock hydrated whether you're gone for an afternoon or all week.
Posted Sun Jul 22 07:52:32 2012 Tags:
Farm Show magazine teaser/deer deterrent review

Farm Show magazine interviewed me recently over the phone about our mechanical deer deterrent contraption.
Farm Show magazine front cover close up
They sent a free copy so I could check out the article. It's my first exposure to this publication and I was impressed with the quality, but what really floated my boat was their lack of advertising. Zero.

I can have them send the current issue out to about a dozen friends, so if you think you might like to try a free trial copy then leave a comment and we'll have you email us your information.

Posted Sun Jul 22 15:34:12 2012 Tags:

DeedLast week, I mentioned that the shape of your property on the tax assessor's map could be wrong.  So how do you figure out where the real boundaries are?  The geekily inclined will enjoy pulling out their deed and mapping the property boundaries themselves.

Your deed will probably have a section a bit like the first image in this post which lists a series of directions and distances.  A rectangular property would only have four corners, but most properties in our neck of the woods are oddly shaped and contain ten or twenty points, which complicates matters.  I like to sum up all of the points in a spreadsheet like the one shown below to keep myself on track.

Boundary informationYou'll notice that the first six columns are copied directly from the deed, but where did the other two columns come from?  To calculate decimal degrees, divide the seconds by 360, the minutes by 60, and leave the degrees alone, then add all three numbers together for each point.  I like to use a spreadsheet rather than jotting down the numbers in a notebook since I can set up a formula to do all the math for me.

The last column in my spreadsheet shows how many centimeters I'll measure on my map for each distance, which requires me to choose a scale.  After playing around with my sheet of graph paper, I settled on 1 centimeter for 200 feet --- you might want to set 1 centimeter equal to 100 feet on a larger property or to 50 feet on a smaller property.  You can also measure in inches, but my rulers tend to divide inches up into eighths and centimeters into tenths, which makes it easier to deal with decimals on the centimeber side.  Again, I set up a formula in the spreadsheet and let it do all the math for me.

Compass for boundary mappingAs a side note, older deeds often list distances in poles and links.  A pole (also known as a perch or a rod) is equal to 16.5 feet and a link is equal to 0.66 feet.  Again, setting up your spreadsheet carefully makes it easy to convert from these older measurements to something you're more familiar with.

Now you're ready to map!  You'll need a sheet of paper (graph paper is better, for reasons I'll explain tomorrow), a ruler, and a protractor.  Since I lost my tenth grade protractor somewhere or other and didn't want to remember how to orient the protractor to deal with all the directions anyway, I just printed out the image to the left, cut out a circle of paper containing the protractor, and coated it with clear tape that extended past the edges of the paper.  I used my ruler to make the lines on the protractor extend onto the transparent tape, then cut out a hole in the center of the protractor to allow me to line the tool up properly.  Fifteen minutes later, I had the homemade protractor shown below.

Homemade protractorBefore you start, remember to label north and the scale on your paper.  Since the deed I was working with mentioned that the boundaries listed start at the northwest corner of the property, I set my first dot in a random location in the upper left side of the paper.  I set my protractor on top of the dot (making sure north was lined up correctly), and made a mark at what I estimate to be 63.3 degrees in the northeast quadrant.

Plotting property boundariesNext, line your ruler up so that zero is at the first dot, with the ruler making a straight line through the second dot.  Plot the first distance listed in your spreadsheet.  Now, go back and mark the distance and direction for the rest of the points in turn.  (I recommend plotting your boundaries in pencil and erasing your direction dots as you go along so you don't get confused.)

If you're really good, your final line will end up hitting your first dot, but don't be too concerned if it's a short distance off.  Especially if you're using a homemade protractor like mine, chances are you'll have to fudge a bit at the end to make your property close up.

Property maps

It turns out that this time around, the county got it right --- the map I drew matches up quite well with Google Maps' description of the property boundaries.  I guess I didn't need to make my map after all, but it sure was fun.  Stay tuned for tomorrow's post on estimating acreages using your newly drawn map.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution for happy backyard hens.

Edited to add: Roland created an awesome spreadsheet that makes plotting your property boundaries and estimating the acreage inside extremely easy.  Just download his spreadsheet, replace the letters and numbers in blue with your own, and the spreadsheet does the calculating for you!

Posted Mon Jul 23 06:54:47 2012 Tags:
Heirloom broilers

Our second set of australorp and marans broilers will go in the freezer this week.

After that, we'll be down to eight hens and a rooster until our last set of chicks hatch out at the end of August.

Posted Mon Jul 23 15:51:31 2012 Tags:

Graph paper property boundaryYesterday, I explained how to map your property boundaries from a deed.  I told you to use a sheet of graph paper for your mapping, but didn't mention that the purpose of the graph paper is to make it easy to measure the acreage of your property.

Your first step is to figure out how much land area one square equates to.  My graph paper has four squares per inch and the scale of my map is one centimeter for every 200 feet, which means (using the math shown in the second image) that each square is equal to 127 feet on each side.

The area of the square is 127 feet times 127 feet, or 16,129 square feet.  Since one acre contains 43,560 square feet, one of my graph paper squares bounds 0.37 acres.

Now for the fun part --- counting squares!  First, count how many squares are entirely contained in your property boundary, making a mark Acreage mathinside each one so you don't double count it.  If you want to get a very accurate estimate (and spend all day at this project), you can then estimate the percent of each boundary square that's within your property, but I simply divide partial squares up into three categories --- those approximately 75% contained in the property, those half contained in the property, and those 25% contained in the property.  I count how many squares fit in each of these categories, putting a dot in each square once again as I count it. 

A little math shows that my property consists of approximately 154.25 squares, or 57.1 acres.  The deed listed the property as 57.72 acres, so it looks like my mapping and math were pretty good! 

You can use this same technique to estimate the acreage of parts of your property from a topo map or aerial photo.  For example, do you want to know how big that cleared area is?  Just figure out the scale, trace the boundaries onto a sheet of graph paper, and go to town.  Or you could use Google Planimeter....

Our chicken waterer never spills on even ground, which could leave your flock susceptible to heat exhaustion.
Posted Tue Jul 24 06:56:54 2012 Tags:
drill powered plucker review

We tested a new drill powered plucking device today.

Anna and I retired 5 chickens this morning, and the Power Plucker made that process go faster than our DIY plucking board. Once we got the hang of using the right speed and angle it went even faster. Safety glasses and leather gloves are recommended.

It seems to be built to last and the price is only 30 dollars. Big thanks to Bradley for taking a break from building to be our photographer.

Posted Tue Jul 24 16:55:42 2012 Tags:
Forest garden brush pile

If you're building a homestead from scratch, you'll end up with plenty of brush.  So, what do you do with it?

The tradition in our neck of the woods is to pile it up, let it dry out, and then burn it.  But during our early years on the farm, one of our readers asked me why I'd burn good biomass, and I couldn't think of any good reason.

In the forest garden where every bit of topsoil eroded away before we bought the farm, I've been adding woody debris in the form of hugelkultur mounds to boost organic matter as quickly as possible.  I figured if I let a brush pile rot down over there, I'd get a similar effect.

The trouble with brush piles in the garden is that tall weeds and vines are protected from the lawnmower and tend to take over.  Our previous in-garden brush pile turned into an impenetrable mass of Japanese honeysuckle pretty quickly, and I could tell Mark thought this one would follow suite.

Butternut squash patch

But the area has been mowed for a couple of years now, so the honeysuckle is mostly absent, and the remaining weeds just aren't that ornery.  I spent about half an hour yanking a few of the tallest ones last week, and the pile looks almost presentable now.  It doesn't hurt that the butternuts are quickly taking over the area, and that a New England aster popped up in one corner.

What I really need is some sort of low tech roller to crush the branches down a couple of times a year.  Many of these branches are from the wild plum and are covered with thorns, so I have a hard time talking myself into crushing them with my body.  If I keep piling more compact biomass on top, though, I suspect the pile will naturally turn into high quality garden area in four or five years.

Our chicken waterer makes chicken care quick, easy, and clean.
Posted Wed Jul 25 07:39:18 2012 Tags:

Muddy farmThe first section of The Dirty Life tells how a New York City girl and a farmer fell in love.  Kristin heads down to Pennsylvania to research a story about Mark, but the farmer is too busy to talk with her right then.  After hoeing broccoli with his assistant and helping slaughter a pig, she finally makes Mark sit down for an interview.

"When Mark tells the story of our relationship, this is the moment he counts as the beginning.  Sitting on a log and answering my questions, he says, he began hearing a voice in his head, a persistent and annoying little voice, like a mental mosquito.  'You're going to marry that woman,' the voice was saying.

"He did his best to ignore it.  He wasn't looking for a girlfriend.  He'd recently ended a long-term relationship.  Moreover, it was high summer.  He had a farm to run.  He had to focus.  The last thing he needed was the voice saying he'd been found by a wife.  'You're going to marry this woman,' the voice insisted, ' and if you were brave enough, you'd ask her right now.'"

While the personal parts of the culture clash make for riveting reading, the more thought-provoking side is the contrast between Mark's hippy upbringing and Kristin's urban Republican family.  Kristin brings her boyfriend home to meet the parents for Thanksgiving dinner, and of course Mark provides the food and cooks it too.  Unfortunately, the first impression doesn't go well.

"I'd forgotten how very clean my mother's world is until we walked in with those boxes, which were smudged with field dirt, a few limp leaves clinging to their Dining at Essex farmbottoms.  It appeared we would contaminate any surface we put them on, so Dad directed Mark to the garage, and my mother asked me quietly if I was sure it was safe to eat the turkey, which was wrapped in a drippy white shopping bag, its headless neck sticking out obscenely.  I'd also forgotten that my mother prefers her food highly packaged, associations with its origins as obscured as possible.  When we were kids, she would never buy brown eggs, because they seemed too 'farmy.'"

So here's your discussion question for this week: Have you had to overcome the perceived uncleanliness of real food in yourself or your family?  Was it hard to learn that tomatoes with green tops taste better than uniformly-colored grocery store offerings?  Are you forced into hiding the bug-bitten cabbage leaves from your spouse and to trickery to tempt your family into eating garden produce?  If so, what techniques did you use to get your family to embrace the dirty life?

Weekend HomesteaderUnless I hear that I'm making you read too large (or too small) chunks, we'll discuss part two next Wednesday.  And, as usual, feel free to chime in with your observations about the first section of the book even if they seem off topic.  I'm looking forward to your take on this fun read!

The Weekend Homesteader provides projects for those who want to get their hands dirty...and those who want to become self-sufficient but stay clean.

Posted Wed Jul 25 12:01:18 2012 Tags:
Power Plucker field testing low tech chicken plucker

We processed 5 more chickens today.

The average time saved per bird is 3 to 5 minutes.

Some rough math predicts our total saved time this week at a precious hour thanks to the new Power Plucker.

Posted Wed Jul 25 15:30:28 2012 Tags:
Sunflower cover crop

Cover crop chartFor a couple of years now, Managing Cover Crops Profitably has been my cover crop bible.  But although the publication has great depth, it only covers 19 species, and I'm starting to get a handle on which of those will work on our farm and which won't.  Being who I am, I'm not content to rest on my laurels and stick to buckwheat in the summer and oilseed radishes and oats in the winter --- I want to keep trying new things!

Enter the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory's Cover Crop Chart.  This publication replaces depth with breadth, presenting the highlights of 46 cover crop species both pictorially and in the form of a bulleted list.  That's the source I headed toward when I started hearing about sunflowers used as a cover crop.

Pollinator on sunflowerAs I already know well, sunflowers are great for attracting pollinators (and for feeding chickens), but how do the plants operate as a cover crop?  The Cover Crop Chart mentions that sunflowers pull up nutrients from deep in the soil, perhaps because they're good at teaming up with arbuscular mycorrhizae.  Sunflowers' C:N ratio is listed as 11 to 14 for the leaves, 41 to 46 for the stems, 50 to 68 for the roots, and 14 to 19 for the flowers.  What that data says to me is that sunflowers are good to plant in troubled soil that's going to be taking the whole summer off, or in the chickens' winter yard, scratched bare from last year and needing some high carbon materials (and playthings) to keep your flock happy this winter.

I'd be curious to hear what unusual cover crops our readers have been trying in their gardens.  Be sure to mention your garden conditions and how well the plants grew in your comment so someone else can learn from your experience!

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with minimal care-taking time, summer and winter.
Posted Thu Jul 26 06:53:37 2012 Tags:
Getting a golf cart unstuck from a muddy situation

An added bonus to the golf cart front storage box is the new ability to easily lift up and scoot the front end over a bit.

This comes in handy when you need to get back on the road after getting stuck in the mud while trying to avoid a box turtle.

Posted Thu Jul 26 15:42:33 2012 Tags:

Basket of squashWe may have to rename this the year of the cucurbits.  After giving my brother about forty cucumbers on Monday, we nibbled all week, and still had this basket (cucumbers on the bottom, crookneck squash on the top) to pawn off on Bradley Friday.

Meanwhile, the butternuts are growing like crazy.  I turn their stems inward once a week so they don't take over the aisles, and the last seven days' growth amounted to about three feet.

At this time of year, we spend more time picking and processing produce than anything else garden-related.  I gave away the leftover freezer contents over the last month, and am already filling the freezer back up, adding a few pints of green beans, six cups of corn, and seven pints of vegetable soup this week.  Since we're eating more seasonally even in the winter, quotas are lower and I suspect we'll be giving away a lot more excess produce as the summer progresses.

Our chicken waterer spoils hens with POOP-free water.
Posted Fri Jul 27 07:01:19 2012 Tags:

Sensor plug evaluation

The good news is we haven't had any deer damage lately. The bad news is my motion activated deer deterrent has a fatal flaw.

I tried switching modes, adjusting the sensitivity, and checking the fuse. Nothing could get the Sensor Plug to work right.

The red light indicated movement, but whatever is plugged in to it stays on all the time.

My conclusion is we got a dud, or the product is just junk.

Posted Fri Jul 27 16:13:01 2012 Tags:

Long and short day onion mapWe live right on the line between good growing conditions for long day and short day onions, which I figured might be part of the problem we've had with the crop.  (In case you're curious, intermediate day onions seem to be all sweet varieties, not storage onions).  So this year I tried two new varieties.

Pumba is a short day onion, appropriate for people living in the southern U.S., while Pontiac is a long day onion for northerners.  I got the seeds from the same place Curing onions(Johnny's), started them inside at the same time, and transplanted them into alternating beds so location in the garden would influence each variety's growth similarly.

The onions I pulled out a couple of weeks ago were all Pumba onions --- this variety is supposed to be ready to harvest eight days before Pontiac, so the earliness was no surprise.   Pumba averaged 13.6 pounds per bed, and several of the onions had started to rot before I pulled them up.

Onion not ready to harvestThe leaves on Pontiac were still green in the middle of July, so I let them go a couple more weeks.  These long day onions beat the pants of Pumba in the weight department, coming in at 22.3 pounds per bed when I finally harvested them Friday.  A few Pontiac onions started trying to bloom, though, which might influence their storage potential.

The conclusion?  Despite straddling the dividing line, we're clearly northerners and should grow long day onions.  Total weight of our storage onion crop this year was 92.9 pounds, maybe enough to get us through until next spring?  Only time will tell.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional filthy waterers.
Posted Sat Jul 28 08:38:25 2012 Tags:
Sunflower close up with pollinator activity

Sunflower Saturday.

Let the pollinators do all the work while I take pictures.
Posted Sat Jul 28 21:14:56 2012 Tags:

A Book of BeesIf I were recommending books for beginning beekeepers, I'd put Sue Hubbell's A Book of Bees in the optional-but-highly-recommended section.  The author is a commercial-scale beekeeper in Missouri, and she writes about her average yearly tasks with the weight of experience, having kept three hundred hives at a time for fifteen years.

Of course, the reader has to keep in mind that Hubbell's choices with her bees won't always match those of the backyard beekeeper, who might choose to be more hands-on and to delete chemicals from his repertoire.  But the author explains each of her actions so well, I think that even a new beekeeper could understand why she requeens, lets the bees swarm, and so forth.  And her words about minimizing your intrusions on the hive seem to mirror modern natural beekeeping methods.

Meanwhile, A Book of Bees acts as an antidote to the factual but dry beginner texts like The Backyard Beekeeper.  Hubbell slips in explanations of beekeeper terminology, the bee life cycle, diseases, and much more, so you end up understanding most of the basics without ever having to memorize a glossary of terms.

But the real reason to read this book is the same reason many of you picked up The Dirty Life --- pure fun.  Hubbell lets you into her life, from sipping coffee with her before heading out to the hives, to asking her chickens to pick wax moths off ruined comb.  It's a fast and fun read for beginning, intermediate, or advanced beekeepers, but is more of a library check-out than a purchase.  Read it and return it.  And, yes, Ikwig, this is a bathtub book.

Our chicken waterer is always POOP-free.
Posted Sun Jul 29 07:31:31 2012 Tags:
New return spring for a drill press and how to install it

The new drill press return spring showed up in the mail yesterday.

It took less than a minute to install and choose between the possible return speeds.

Posted Sun Jul 29 16:32:55 2012 Tags:
Herbal infusion

About a month ago, I started some plantain and comfrey leaves steeping in olive oil for salve.  At first, I remembered to swirl the jar now and then to mix the contents, but after a while the activity faded out of my daily routine and the jar simply sat.  Despite my neglect, the active ingredients seeped out of the leaves and into the oil, creating an infusion.

Pour off oil

Sunday, I decided to process my infusion and turn it into a salve.  The first step was to separate the herbal-infused oil from the leaves.  I could have sent the jar contents through a strainer, but was feeling lazy (and not wanting to dirty extra dishes), so I just carefully poured the oil off, using a spoon to push the leaves back into the jar.  I ended up with about three quarters of a cup of dark green oil.

Weigh wax

To turn an infusion into a salve, you simply add a bit of melted beeswax to solidify the concoction and make it stick to your skin when applied rather than running off.  A quick search of the internet suggests that one ounce of beeswax is about right for a cup and an eighth of infusion, so I chopped some wax off my movie star neighbor's gifted block and weighed it.

Melting beeswax

I'd just made a pie, so put the wax in a washed-out peanut butter jar (glass) and placed the container in the oven to take advantage of residual heat while I cooked lunch.  Twenty minutes later, the wax was liquid.

I'd read that you need to preheat your infusion so you won't solidify the wax when you join the two ingredients together, but I'd also read you don't want to get your infusion very hot or you'll denature some of the active chemicals.  I opted to simply let my measuring cup of green oil sit on top of the stove while melting the wax, but that turned out to be not enough preheating --- little bits of wax came out of solution when I poured in the warm oil.  No problem --- I just put the jar back in the warm oven while we ate our first homegrown watermelon of the year, by which point everything was nicely dissolved.

Melted salve

Most folks pour their salve into small glass jars for storage, but what I had on hand was one cup food storage containers, so that's what I used.  The warm salve poured in like a liquid, but set up within half an hour into a soft but solid salve.  At the rate I go through anti-sting ointments, this should last me the rest of my life.

Homemade salve

Rather than cleaning out my wax-melting jar, I simply set it aside with my beeswax for later.  As easy and fun as salve-making turned out to be, I think I might try my hand at a pure comfrey salve this year too.

Our chicken waterer solves a common homesteading problem --- filthy chicken water.
Posted Mon Jul 30 07:36:45 2012 Tags:
A big truck full of potential chicken waterers

Today was a big day filled with our first bulk plastic pitcher delivery.

We had been getting half gallon plastic pitchers at our local Dollar General store, but that medium volume was stressing their system to the point where some weeks they just couldn't fill the order.

It took a little over an hour to unload all 7 pallets and shuttle them down our driveway to the parking area. A nice bonus was meeting a new neighbor who didn't mind waiting to get by. He told us about his flock of chickens and seemed happy when we gave him a free waterer for being such a nice guy about us blocking the road.

Posted Mon Jul 30 16:36:33 2012 Tags:

Golf cart haulingWe ordered the bare minimum number of pitchers from the factory in Massachusetts, but that still turns out to be an awfully big order.  We estimate those seven pallets will keep our chicken waterer business going for two or three years.

Of course, getting the pallets off the tractor trailer was just the first part of the delivery expedition.  Bradley brought his wife, trailer, and stepson, and the stepson brought his truck, so we were able to ferry the pallets of pitchers back to our parking area from the main road.  The only tricky part was keeping Lucy out of harm's way --- it's a good thing Mark wears a belt, since that turned into an emergency leash.

Next step was moving the boxes into our barn.  Bradley's barn floor and Mark's hard work organizing made it possible to drive Stacking boxesthe golf cart through the doors, which sped things up considerably.  Add in the front and rear carrying boxes on the golf cart, the heavy hauler pulled behind, and the passenger seat area, and I could haul about fifty boxes per trip.

(We don't usually use the heavy hauler because it tends to bog down in the mud, but it's dry enough, and the pitchers are light enough, that the trailer made a good addition to this project.)

Despite these time savings, though, we only got about a third of the chicken waterer parts under roof before we called it quits yesterday.  Let's hope the other four pallets make it in before the 50% chance of rain for today saturates the floodplain.

Posted Tue Jul 31 07:21:00 2012 Tags:
using a golf cart to haul plastic pitchers

Finished hauling in the bulk pitcher delivery today.


It only took two trips per pallet with the golf cart and mini-trailer.

Posted Tue Jul 31 17:19:01 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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