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

archives for 08/2012

Aug 2012
Burrowing crawdads

Crawdad burrow diagramCrawdads (known to most of the world as crayfish) show up in the garden if the spot is already troubled.  Only our back garden, with its high groundwater and low topsoil, shows signs of crawdads, but there the crustaceans can cause a bit of trouble.  They aren't actively eating my plants, but they do send up new chimneys to excavate their underground burrows from time to time, and the piles of mud tend to squash seedlings.

I'm far from an expert at crayfish, but I once had a scientist identify our brilliantly blue crayfish as Upland Burrowing Crayfish (Cambarus dubius).  This species is one of the few that spends nearly all of its time underground (rather than living in a creek or pond), although the crawdads do come out at night to eat decaying organic matter and insects.

Crawdad chimneyThe point of the burrow isn't just protection from predators --- the caverns dip down into the groundwater so that these crawdads can keep their gills wet enough to breath even during droughts.  This particular species builds pretty big burrows, sometimes extending three feet into the earth and with up to five entrances, and several crawdads can live in each one.  No wonder they kick up so much mud into my garden.

I've been trying to find the positive side of crawdads in the garden ever since I moved into their habitat.  My first thought was that the crustaceans should be good for chickens to eat, but our hens ran away from the crawdads we caught for them.  (Bradley suggested that his cats won't eat the burrowing crawdads but do like the ones in the creek, so I might try again with creek dwellers later.)

I've now decided to think of burrowing crawdads as dynamic accumulators who are helping build the problematic back garden soil.  After all, they aerate the ground with their burrows and haul organic matter down to improve the earth at lower levels.  I'll keep telling myself that every time the burrows slaughter a vegetable seedling and maybe I won't get so angry.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional filthy waterers.
Posted Wed Aug 1 07:10:32 2012 Tags:
Kristin Kimball maple sugaring"A farm is a manipulative creature.  There is no such thing as finished.  Work comes in a stream and has no end.  There are only the things that must be done now and the things that can be done later.  The threat the farm has got on you, the one that keeps you running from can until can't is this: do it now, or some living thing will wilt or suffer or die.  It's blackmail really."

In The Dirty Life, Kristin explains how she and her husband-to-be spent their first year "building a wildly complex farm all at once."  Mark (hers, not mine) had the vision of creating a CSA that provided a full diet, from meat and dairy to grains and vegetables...and he wanted it up and running by August.  Since the duo only moved onto the farm that winter and planned to work the ground using draft horses, they faced extremely long, back-breaking days to make their dream a reality.

Winter farmOne of the hardest lessons I've learned on our homestead is the issue of pacing.  You can see throughout The Dirty Life how biting off nearly more than they could chew stressed Kristin and Mark almost to the breaking point, and the quote at the top of this post explains why it's so hard to scale back your vision once you've started.

Eventually, Mark and Kristin settled on a "no-farming-on-Sundays rule", but they could have saved a lot of heartbreak if they'd been less ambitious from the get-go.  Kristin wrote about an early winter blizzard-turned-planning-day:

"We spent the day in a fit of joyful enthusiasm, mapping out the next year of work....  We filled in the days and weeks with our ambitions, which even then we must have known were too big to be contained in the boundaries of a single year.  The first week in February was reserved to FIGURE OUT GREENHOUSE---BUILD IT!  In the second week of that month, we would aim to BUILD DISTRUBUTION AREA and also, somehow, cut and split the next year's FIREWOOD.  The day in October when we planned to get married Mark had written WEDDING, and below that, on the same day's square, 50 CHICKS ARRIVE....  The following week he had written HONEYMOON and also, neatly, EXTRACT HONEY FROM THE HIVE."

Of course, the obvious take-home message is "don't marry a Swarthmore graduate" --- I suspect Kristin's Mark and I have more in common than our overambitious plans, and we do make tough spouses.  But if teaming up with a Swattie wasn't in the cards anyway (or if it's too late to back out now), I think even folks homesteading on a small urban lot should think twice about how much time they really have when planning the year's garden and selecting starter livestock.  My new rule of thumb is to figure everything will really take at least twice as long as I think it will, which pads our schedule against inevitable emergencies and lowers my stress levels considerably.

For those of you who have been homesteading a while, did you bite off more than you could chew during year one?  And, for everyone, what strategies have you used to lower your ambitions down to realistic levels?

Those of you new the book club might want to check out last week's post about part one of The Dirty Life.  We'll be discussing part three next Wednesday, and my copy of the book is now up for grabs --- whoever emails me first gets it.  (Congratulations, Irma!  You're the winner.)

Meanwhile, I wanted to give you a heads-up so you could hunt down the next book club read in a timely manner. 
"Radical Homemakers is about men and women across the U.S. who focus on home and hearth as a political and ecological act, and who have centered Weekend Homesteadertheir lives around family and community for personal fulfillment and cultural change. It explores what domesticity looks like in an era that has benefited from feminism, where domination and oppression are cast aside and where the choice to stay home is no longer equated with mind-numbing drudgery, economic insecurity, or relentless servitude."  We'll start discussing on August 29, which should give you plenty of time to hunt down the book on interlibrary loan.

My paperback includes three chapters not found in the original ebooks, all of which focus on less hands-on lessons like pacing.

Posted Wed Aug 1 12:01:20 2012 Tags:
testing out the Sensor Plug

I tried giving the Sensor Plug a sharp blow to the the side of the case by slamming it into a table top like Zimmy suggested in a comment last week.

That brute force cure worked at bringing life back to this product. Now the Sensor Plug will eventually turn whatever is plugged in off, and then turn it back on when movement is detected. I'm just not sure yet what the interval length is.

Not sure if that proves it must have a mechanical relay or maybe the adjustment potentiometer was damaged and the jolt brought it back to a proper state of providing variable resistance.

Posted Wed Aug 1 16:22:43 2012 Tags:

Preserving Food Without Freezing or CanningPreserving Food Without Freezing or Canning is a fascinating and thought-provoking book that has an entirely different feel from most modern homesteading books.  The project started when a French gardening magazine asked its readers to share old-fashioned fruit and vegetable preservation recipes, so the resulting compilation feels a bit like an oral history turned into a cookbook.

When you find a copy, I recommend that you start by flipping to the appendix, which in many ways is the most valuable part of the book.  I've spent years slowly figuring out which preservation technique works best for each fruit and vegetable, and the authors of this book have created a quick tabular view of that information.  For example, they show that onions are best stored whole on the shelf, but that you can also preserve them by drying, lactic fermenting, or adding vinegar.

Lacto-fermented Swiss chardIn general, the authors recommend drying fruits and lactic fermenting most vegetables --- I definitely agree with the former and might have to get over my anti-pickle sentiment enough to try the latter.  In fact, after reading through the entire lactic fermentation section, I settled on Swiss chard ribs as a good starter recipe since the authors of the recipe note "Swiss chard ribs are not acidic.  Our children dread lacto-fermented green beans, but they love the milder taste of Swiss chard."  I'll let you know if Mark and I feel the same way once our first lactic fermentation experiment is ready at the end of August.

Our chicken waterer lets you leave town for the weekend without worrying about your flock.

Posted Thu Aug 2 07:51:16 2012 Tags:
most likely a copperhead snake due to not being in water

Today we had what we're pretty sure was a copperhead snake living underneath a piece of cardboard near Lucy's house which is also near the garden.

We briefly debated the option of killing it. Neither of us liked the idea of destroying something so beautiful, so we decided to carefully coax him into a 5 gallon bucket with a tempting piece of cardboard to hide under.

Once we had the lid on tight we walked him to a place pretty far away across the creek and tipped the bucket over.

Posted Thu Aug 2 16:06:31 2012 Tags:

Summer gardenAs soon as the calendar flipped over to July, I could feel the slow descent into winter begin.  I was already planting fall crops, and the scorching heat in June made our normal summer temperatures in July feel relatively cool.

August seems even more like the beginning of fall.  I spent all morning Thursday setting out broccoli and Brussels sprouts seedlings (a little late for both, but I hope they'll make it, perhaps with a little frost protection).  This week also marked the first round of oilseed radishes, planted in beds that will now be fallow until spring, along with the last seeding of a summer crop (one more bed of crookneck squash.)

Despite seeing winter on the horizon, our summer crops are coming in with a vengeance.  I sent Ripening butternutMark to town Tuesday with two big bags of squash and cucumbers --- "and don't come home until they're all gone!"  (He foisted the vegetables off on appreciative librarians.)  I'm saving seeds and freezing winter soup as fast as I can too, of course.

Even the winter keepers are starting to ripen.  The earliest-planted butternut squash are turning brown, and the leaves are beginning to lose their vibrant summer form.

It's hard to believe that we only have five frost-free months to grow all of these tender vegetables, but somehow it all gets done (and they all get eaten).  Good thing we budget time to simply enjoy the bounty!

Our chicken waterer lets you go out of town for a weekend or a week without worrying about your flock.
Posted Thu Aug 2 17:05:06 2012 Tags:
Discovery Expedition vented fedora

I've been using this new Discovery Expedition vented fedora hat for a few months now.

The extra shade it provides compared to a regular hat makes it worth every penny of its 30 dollar price, but the real advantage in my opinion is the all around screen material on top. Combine 360 degrees of venting with the small space the fedora shape creates between the top of your head and the top of the hat and you've got some serious cooling of your noggin.

I'm guessing the additional surface area of the brim has over twice the sweat absorbing power as a conventional baseball hat. It's made in Sri Lanka and comes with a neck strap that I deleted.

Posted Fri Aug 3 16:21:39 2012 Tags:
Amish Paste tomato

This year, I decided to try out two tomato varieties I'd never grown before.  To my surprise, I ended up with four new kinds of tomatoes in my garden, three of which were duds.

  • Gold Rush Currant --- For the past few years, Blondkopfchen has been our favorite tommy-toe.  The variety is prolific and tasty, but tends to succumb to fungal diseases before anyone else, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to try out a different type of cherry tomato.  Unfortunately, Gold Rush Currant succumbed even faster and didn't taste good --- we won't be growing it again.
  • Blighted tomatoAmish Paste --- Most of our tomatoes are romas, which we turn into soups, sauces, or dry.  I'm actually very happy with Martino's Roma, but so many people were glowing about Amish Paste that I had to give it a shot.  Amish Paste turns out to be very similar to the Russian Romas we tried in our early years on the farm --- huge, juicier than most roma tomatoes, but extremely blight-prone.  I don't mind spending a bit more time processing my romas if they don't keel over in our damp climate, so I ripped out the Amish Paste tomatoes this week before they could spread their fungi to the rest of the planting.
  • Japanese Black Trifele --- Usually, we just eat Stupice as an early and prolific slicing tomato.  But during our early years, we grew a variety that was supposedly Cherokee, and it was the tastiest tomato imaginable (although blight-prone).  Since I was given the variety by a friend, I wasn't terribly surprised when images on the internet didn't match the tomato I was growing, and extensive searching showed that my tasty tomato was probably Japanese Black Trifele instead.  I bought some seeds of this new/old variety, and the fruits do indeed look like the tomatoes I grew in 2007.  However, they taste watery and lack the flavor burst of whatever we grew then, so Japanese Black Trifele will join the other duds on this year's tomato trial list.  (Unlike the previous two varieties, though, I'll keep this one in the 2012 garden and will just cook with the so-so fruits.)
  • Small red indeterminate romaUnknown small, indeterminate roma --- My final new variety for this year is who-knows-what!  Since volunteer tomatoes come up all over my garden from compost (some of which is our ex-neighbors'), I can't be sure that this seedling wasn't from a storebought tomato our friends ate last year.  However, the sport came up in the row with the Martino's Romas, which makes me think that it might be either a seed of another variety accidentally slipped into the packet, or a rare instance of a naturally produced hybrid tomato.  No matter where it came from, I like the unidentified variety so far.  It fruits just as prolifically as Martino's Roma (although with smaller tomatoes), and is indeterminate, which means it might end up giving us more tomatoes in the long run.  The little red roma does seem to be a bit more blight-prone (as you can tell by how high up I've cut leaves on the stem), but once the rains slacked off, the plant began to hold its own, unlike the first two varieties profiled in this post.  I'm saving seeds and will try this variety out in more numbers next year.

In case you're curious what that leaves us with, our regular tomato varieties are Martino's Roma, Yellow Roma, Stupice, and some tommy-toe --- maybe we'll go back to Blondkopfchen for next year?  It's fun to try out new varieties, but I'm glad I put most of my eggs in the old-standby basket.

Our chicken waterer is the dependable solution to filthy and easy-to-spill traditional waterers.

Posted Sat Aug 4 08:45:56 2012 Tags:
Amanita caesarea

Relocating that copperhead snake reminded me how that hillside seems more prone to wild mushroom growth.

We spotted this Amanita parcivolvata on our way back, also known as a False Caesar's Mushroom.

It's unclear if these are okay to eat. I won't be risking a taste test unless we get more conclusive data.

Posted Sat Aug 4 16:12:49 2012 Tags:

Date carved in treeThe carving on this boundary tree (which I'm pretty sure isn't really 200 years old) reminded me of a story our mechanic's brother related this summer.  He told us that he remembered when a preacher lived in the old house that used to stand in our core homestead area, and that folks walked in from all directions to be married here.  I found the tale interesting because I'd wanted to get hitched at home, but knew that very few of our friends and family would feel up to the short trek (about a quarter of a mile through moderately rough terrain) from the parking area to our trailer.

Meanwhile, I've been pondering how far is too far to hoof it because we want the Walden Effect Annex to be within walking or biking distance.  We're currently looking at a tract four miles away, up over a ridge and down the other side.  I suspect that a hundred years ago, this property would definitely count as being within walking distance, but I'm not sure if I consider it such.  (The steep hill would make it a bear to bike, but I guess you could coast down the other side.)

Carved beechOf course, if you went as the crow flies, the property is really only about a mile and a half away, and if you followed the old roads (which are now private property), it's more like two and a half miles.  When I visited England in 2000, I was impressed by the network of foot paths that made it easy to get from village to village, remnants of a time when everyone walked or rode a horse.  The same sort of paths still exist in our neck of the woods, but are no longer public property, presumably since they weren't worth maintaining to car standards.

So what do you consider walking distance?  Presumably it depends on how hilly your terrain is, and whether the roads are even safe to walk along.  (We could hike to our nearest town, but it would be along a country highway with no room to walk outside the car lanes, so we don't risk it.)  I'm especially interested in hearing from the quarter of our readers who reside outside the US --- is a seven mile walk par for the course in India?  Do you Brits really use your foot paths?  How about the large contingent of you in the Phillipines?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional, filthy chicken waterers.
Posted Sun Aug 5 09:30:58 2012 Tags:
fallen tree with wild oyster mushrooms

Exploring a bit further past the Amanita parcivolvata yielded a large crop of fresh wild oyster mushrooms.

I'd like to report they were yummy, but I think we found them a day or two late for gourmet results.

Too bad there's not a gizmo that can detect when a log is in mushroom mode and transmit some sort of FM signal back to base camp.

Posted Sun Aug 5 14:57:39 2012 Tags:

Brussels sprout transplantNow that we have a porch, starting fall seedlings "inside" is much less fiddly than previously.  I set the flats of broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts on the edge of the porch where they'd get plenty of light, so I didn't have to worry about legginess and hardening off to the scorching summer sun.  And since the flats were right next door to the hose and the floor is water resistant, I could just sprinkle them lightly whenever I thought about it.

Having transplants makes it even easier to fill gaps in the summer garden with fall crops.  After using up the spots that had been home to problematic tomatoes with broccoli and cabbage, I had enough seedlings leftover to devote half a dozen more beds to fall crucifers.  I'm hoping for bountiful late fall harvests to tide us over on fresh produce further into the cold season.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with copious, clean water.
Posted Mon Aug 6 07:46:09 2012 Tags:
how to sharpen cutters with a file

These loppers stopped cutting all the way through.

Closer inspection reveals the edge to have bent over due to the hundreds of cuts we've made with it over the last 7 years or so.

A few minutes of filing was all it took to put a sharper edge on both cutting surfaces.

Posted Mon Aug 6 15:59:22 2012 Tags:

Warre hive quiltEven though you're not supposed to poke around in the Warre hive more than once a year, you are allowed to take off the lid and quilt and observe the layer of burlap that covers up the bees' living quarters.  You're not exposing the colony to the outdoors, so there's no need for protective equipment or a smoker as long as you stand behind the hive (always a good idea) rather than in the bees' flight path.  Saturday as I was lazing around the yard, I decided to pop the hood and take a look.

Moldy quilt strawThe first thing I noticed was that the straw in my quilt box was starting to mold.  The purpose of the biomass in the quilt is to capture moisture coming out of the hive while insulating the interior from climate extremes, so mold isn't a very unusual occurrence there.  However, discoloration generally means its time to refresh the bedding, so I'll do that this week.

I carefully pried up the quilt to take a look at the next layer down, and there I saw more of a problem --- ants everywhere!  A quick search of the internet suggests that ants can be common in Ants in Warre hiveWarre hives, and I see why.  The quilt creates a safe, mostly dry habitat that bees can't get into to clean, but into which ants can often squeeze.  Presumably, the ants also pop down through the burlap between the quilt and the hive and help themselves to the honey stores.

Some beekeepers make a wooden stand for their hive and place the feet in containers of water or oil to keep the ants from climbing up.  I may have to resort to that, although I did see a skink in the quilt box that might have been busy eating up the problematic ants.  I'm curious to hear if anyone else has found ants in their Warre hive quilt --- what did you do about it?

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock so easy you can branch out into bees.
Posted Tue Aug 7 07:36:40 2012 Tags:
how to make cheap shelf board from a sheet of particle board OSB

Cut once down the middle and then on each side at the 12 inch mark for some cheap and flimsy 8 foot long shelf boards.

How cheap? A bit over a dollar for each 8 foot section.

It only took Anna and me a few minutes to rip each board.

Posted Tue Aug 7 15:55:22 2012 Tags:
No-till garden
"I want your professional opinion, because I feel like you are, on how you planned your garden. I know you have no-till with grass in between the spaces. Would you ever put a barrier in so the dirt was raised? Do you like having grass in between, do you own a rototiller? (I like no-till but it seems like years before mulching will turn my clay into workable soil.) Maybe I need to go back through your archives for more help. Do you get rid of rocks?"

--- Kathleen

New raised bed
I don't really think I'm a professional, Kathleen, but I'll answer your question as best I can.  We do own a rototiller, although it hasn't been fired up in years.  Before I knew about no-till gardens, we started garden patches by tilling up the ground and shovelling the topsoil from the aisles onto the beds.  (Now we start new beds by simply laying down a kill mulch, which still raises the soil, but not by as much.)

If you use the tilling method of starting a new raised bed, I recommend against putting anything along the edge to hold the soil in place.  Yes, without sides, a raised bed will turn from a rectangle to a hump over time, but it's a Planting without tillingpain to try to rip out perennial weeds that have gotten their roots under logs or boards between your raised bed and the aisle.  We've gone both edged and edgeless, and I've ended up pulling out all of the edging (except in our sloped blueberry patch, where I figure the mini terraces that result are worth the effort of weeding around logs).

I've compared the pros and cons of grassy and mulched aisles previously.  Each method has a place, but in our situation, grass seems to be less work and money than mulch.  If you have a free source of mulch, though, and live beside a road, you might be better off with wood chips in the aisles.

Rocks are something I can't speak as knowledgeably about because we just don't have any.  I seem to remember that Mark found a rock last year, and he was so excited, he called me over to look.  But my educated guess is that rocks aren't really a problem in a no-till garden.  When tilling and digging, stones mess up your tools, but if you're not doing either, you'd think rocks would simply add micronutrients to the soil and increase drainage.

Basket of produce

The last unanswered part of your question is about whether you can go straight to no-till in problematic soil.  For experimental purposes, I'm glad that parts of our garden Mulched vegetable gardenhave terribly heavy, waterlogged clay soil while other parts have light, loamy soil (although, of course, as a gardener, I wouldn't mind if my garden were entirely the latter).  Since I've worked with both soil types, I can tell you definitively that tilling isn't going to help your clay and might actively harm it, while no-till methods will improve the ground slowly but surely.  What clay really needs is lots of organic matter to fluff it up, and the fastest way to get there is by growing cover crops whenever possible.  I highly recommend oilseed radishes as a fall cover crop (you can plant them right now in most parts of the U.S.) since they can handle awful soil and will show appreciable results in the first year.

I hope that helps get you off on the right foot!  In case you haven't read it, I'll plug Weekend Homesteader: May, which includes a section on garden planning as well as one on kill mulching.  Some of the tips there on bed and path layout might also be handy for you, even though you didn't specifically ask about them.  Good luck!

Our chicken waterer never spills in coops or tractors.
Posted Wed Aug 8 06:31:24 2012 Tags:
Kristin and Mark Kimball"As the farm began to take form, Mark and I argued fiercely over everything.  We discovered that we had different desires, different visions for the farm.  We were both way too stubborn.  We lost whole precious daylight hours fighting over how to build a pig fence or whether the horses should spend the night inside or out....

The most obvious theme threaded through The Dirty Life is the effect that a farm has on a relationship.  I don't know whether it's harder to dive in together as Mark and Kristin did and bump your way through the early relationship years at the same time you're learning to grow things, or whether it's worse to move to a farm when you're already in an established relationship, only to learn the hard way that your dreams don't match up with your spouse's as well as you'd thought.  Either way, I think the unnamed farmer who "said that organic farms most commonly failed not from bankruptcy but from burnout or divorce" was right on track.

Kimball with horsesOn the other hand, if you can figure out how to work together without killing each other, striving with your partner toward a "clear joint purpose" can bring your partnership to another level.  One of my few complaints with The Dirty Life is that Kristin only gave us a few brief views into a happier future, like this one:

"If I could only have glimpsed the future, this is what I would have seen: Late spring, sunny afternoon, me seven months pregnant with our daughter, driving the team [of  horses] for Mark while he plowed, not because we needed two people for the job by then but for the sheer pleasure of it, the knowing horses doing their work and the plow moving smoothly through soil and we two humans enjoying it like other couples enjoy a waltz together.  But that was far in the future, with a lot of trying in between."

This week's discussion question is: if you've ever combined a romantic relationship with a joint endeavor, how did you survive?  Personally, I chalk all of our relationship successes up to my husband, who always knows that it's better to work an issue out than to get farm work done, no matter how pressing the latter seems.  Like the Kimballs, we often divide up chores and we each have specialties that the other doesn't micromanage very much, but we also try to plan bigger picture projects together.  How about you?

Weekend HomesteaderThose of you new the book club might want to check out previous discussions that covered learning that real food is imperfect and pacing yourself in the early years.  We'll be discussing the rest of the book (three parts, but they're all short) next Wednesday, so I hope you'll keep reading.  And don't forget to hunt down Radical Homemakers, which we'll start discussing on August 29.

The Weekend Homesteader provides tips for becoming more self-sufficient one weekend at a time.

Posted Wed Aug 8 12:01:24 2012 Tags:
golf cart leaf spring modification details and repair instructions

We had some trouble with the leaf spring upgrade on the golf cart.

It's possible we got a set that was designed for a different model Club Car even though we ordered them through a proper dealer. The problem was the springs would shift, which would decrease the clearance and cause a rubbing sound.

Our local mechanic was able to fix it by adding a large U-bolt to each side.

Posted Wed Aug 8 15:18:02 2012 Tags:
Butternut hill

Forest gardenThe butternuts have taken to the forest garden like ducks to water.  The first photo shows the north side of the brush pile and the second shows the south side --- the butternuts have gone all the way up one side and down the other!

Butternut squash

If the plants weren't already starting to ripen their fruits and die back for fall, I might worry about our naughy butternuts taking over the world.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative for the modern chicken coop.
Posted Thu Aug 9 07:47:47 2012 Tags:
does ragweed grow back stronger the next year?

We get a lot of ragweed invading our perimeter.

It's a good thing neither of us is allergic, but it doesn't take long before it grows high enough to shade parts of the garden.

Wikipedia recommends pulling up ragweed in the late spring when the roots are not as strong, something we might try next year. Mowing is not good enough because if just a half inch sticks out above the ground it will grow back even stronger within 2 weeks of non freezing conditions.

Posted Thu Aug 9 16:35:07 2012 Tags:
Saving tomato seeds

I've touched on saving tomato seeds before, but realized I'd never made a real post on the topic.  Since I like to save tomato seeds as early as possible in the year to make it less likely Squeeze out tomato seedsthat fungi will hitchhike into next year's garden via seed packets, I thought now would be a good time to remind you all to get out there and save some seeds!

I wrote in great depth about hybridization issues in Weekend Homesteader: September, so I won't repeat that information here.  The short version is: tomato-leaf tomatoes very seldom cross-pollinate, but currant tomatoes and potato-leaf tomatoes do cross-pollinate with plants within the same group.  So, if your garden contains ten varieties of tomato-leaf tomatoes, one potato-leaf tomato, and one currant tomato, you can save seeds from all of them without getting unintentional hybrids.

Fermenting tomato seeds

Inbreeding depression (a fancy name for the effect you see if you marry your brother) is much less of a problem in tomatoes than in other plants, but I do try to pluck at least two fruits from different plants in each variety to keep genetic diversity as high as possible.  Then I head back to the kitchen to squeeze the guts out of each tomato, setting the flesh aside to be turned into soup or sauce.

Rinse tomato seedsTomatoes and cucumbers are relatively unique because the seeds are enclosed in gelatinous sacs that need to be fermented away before the seed can sprout.  The process is a bit smelly, but is otherwise very easy.  Just add about an inch or two of water to each small container of tomato seeds, then set it aside for a week or so.  Soon, you'll see mold forming on top of or in the liquid, and the whole thing will start to stink.  (Mark was thrilled that I was able to ferment my tomato seeds on the porch this year rather than on top of the fridge.)  That's your sign that your tomato seeds are ready to process and dry.

Drying tomato seeds

The simplest way to separate seeds from moldy water is to add some more water, stir with a spoon, let the tomato seeds settle back to the bottom of the container, then pour off the foul liquid.  I fill the container back up with water two or three times to rinse off the seeds, then they're ready to dry.  If processed correctly, the seeds will look pale and fuzzy within twenty-four hours, at which point you can put them in packets for next year's garden.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for day old chicks, broilers, and laying hens.
Posted Fri Aug 10 07:27:37 2012 Tags:
close up of a root mass within hours of tipping over

A mild storm last night took down one of our large walnut trees.

Nice of it to fall away from the driveway instead of over it.

Anna did a quick root mass autopsy which revealed a rotted out tap root. I'm guessing this will provide enough firewood to keep us warm for a couple of months or more.

Posted Fri Aug 10 16:43:54 2012 Tags:

Soil mapI've been writing recently about some of the steps you should take to learn about a property you're interested in before buying it --- a title search, figuring out where the boundaries are, and seeing if the listed acreage is accurate.  Assuming you're planning to use the property for homesteading purposes, it's also essential to get an idea of your soil type.

In the United States, the NRCS has laboriously mapped every little pocket of earth, so you can learn a lot by simply looking at maps.  The modern way to do this is to go to the Web Soil Survey and find your property using their interactive mapping tool, but that website doesn't seem to be playing nice with my computer and I have an ancient copy of my county's soil survey, so I decided to go old school.  (You can probably get a free copy of your region's soil survey at the closest NRCS office, and some of you can download a scanned version online.)

Soil boundaries on mapMy county soil survey is an ancient book with four maps stuck in a pocket inside the back cover.  The hardest part is locating your property on the soil survey maps since they only include roads, houses from whenever the map was produced (1951 in my case), and large rivers and streams.  I did this the easy way by photographing the relevant section of the map and then scaling it in the Gimp until the shape of the nearby river fit with the same river curve on my aerial photo.  Since I had the boundaries as a separate layer in my map file, I could soon see which soil types were found on the property and how they related to the one cleared field (the irregularly shaped blob in the northwest corner of the image above).

There's a key on the side of the soil map that helps decipher the odd codes on the soil survey.  We live in a karst region, so there are lots of sinkholes (the ovals with pointy teeth), and people have farmed our hilly land too hard so there are gullys (red Gs).  The other letters on the map refer to the soil type: Hsn for the pink zone that includes most of the current field, Ws for the paler area south of that, and so forth.

In our soil survey, there's a separate fold out sheet of paper that turns the soil codes into real words, then you can look up that soil type in the book to learn much more about it.  Here's what I discovered about the cultivated areas on the property shown above:

Soil type

Slope range

Internal drainage

Parent material

Productivity and class

Acres per animal unit


Hagerstown silt loam; Rolling phase



Residual material from weathered limestone

High; First



Rolling stony land (limestone material)


Medium to slow

Medium to moderately high; Fourth



Hagerstown stony silt loam; Steep phase



Residual material from weathered limestone

Medium; Fourth



Westmoreland silt loam



Residual material from weathered limestone and shale mixed

Medium; Fourth


Of course, all of this mapping should be taken with a grain of salt --- or rather, a shovel and a day on the ground.  For all I know, the prime topsoil in the Hagerstown silt loam has all eroded away, but if it hasn't, that area is clearly the best spot for vegetable gardening, while the poorer soil on the east and south ends of the field could use some soil-improving grazing.  Taking a look at the real state of the ground is a good thing to add to the list for a site visit!

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution that keeps chickens healthy and your hands clean.
Posted Sat Aug 11 06:11:28 2012 Tags:

close up of carton of organic eggs brown varietyIt's that time of year when we start saving eggs for another incubator run.

I picked up some fancy organic store bought eggs yesterday thinking they might make a decent breakfast substitute.

When we first started out with chickens I remember not being able to tell the difference between our eggs and store bought.

There might be a lot of things to explain the change, but I suspect our early chicken tractor experiments didn't give the birds enough pasture and now they spend all day foraging for worms and bugs.

These eggs still make a good meal, but now I think I appreciate our pasture fed flock even more thanks to this commercial taste comparison.

Posted Sat Aug 11 14:00:32 2012 Tags:
Stir fry"Sooooooo, I've read all of your posts on the potato onions, and let's say you've won me over.  It looks like I'm getting these this year.  Have you finally cooked one?  How does it taste?  Oniony?  Garlicy?"
--- C Scott Henningsen C

I appreciated the reminder since I'd meant to taste a potato onion, then got caught up in the summer gardening and preservation marathon and forgot all about it.  Before committing several beds to growing out all of this year's onions, it was definitely worth cutting a few open to see how they taste.

I'll give you the bad news first --- many of the big potato onions were starting to rot inside only two months after harvest!  Although curing and storage could be the issue, I treated the potato onions the same way I did my garlic and haven't seen any rot issues there, so I'm afraid big potato onions just might not be good keepers.

Potato onion cross section

Rotting potato onionI discovered the root of the problem when I cut the bulbs open.  The big potato onions were really multiple smaller bulbs mashed together rather than one solid circle, and the rot did seem to concentrate between the small bulbs.  (This is also the reason why planting a big potato onion results in several smaller onions the next year, while if you plant a small onion, you get one big onion back.)

I washed and cut off the troubled spots and cooked the onions up in a lightly seasoned stir fry so I could really sample the flavor.  (No, I don't eat bulb onions raw.)  Here's the good news --- they were oniony and delicious!  If anything, I think the potato onions were a little Cooked potato onionsweeter than the ones I generally grow from seed.  We definitely won't have a hard time cooking with potato onions.

I'm curious to hear from readers who have grown potato onions.  Do you have to eat the big bulbs right away to keep them from rotting?  Do you cure and store them differently from other onions and garlic?  I definitely want to keep growing potato onions for flavor and ease of cultivation, but don't mind tweaking my system a bit if necessary.

Our chicken waterer also works well for guineas, quail, and other poultry.
Posted Sun Aug 12 08:23:11 2012 Tags:

stepper motor being used for chicken coop door opener and counter
I've sometimes wondered if there was an easy way to automatically count your chickens at the end of each day.

A little bit of searching today turned up an exciting project that is working on using an ordinary webcam to identify and count chickens in a coop.

Most of the time chickens stay in a flock and when one goes in they all follow, but not always. This system would be a nice addition to an automatic coop door opener if the software could actually deliver on such a lofty technical goal. 

Posted Sun Aug 12 16:05:21 2012 Tags:

Sprouting beansMark and I both enjoy the flavor of bean sprouts, so of course we wanted to produce our own.  First I experimented with urd beans, which grew beautifully and turned out to be semi-self-shelling, but were iffy to eat --- the duds went rock hard and tended to get mixed in with the sprouts, damaging teeth.

Since mung beans are the variety you see in most stores, I figured they might be a better option.  Finding the seeds was tough...until I realized that I could simply buy some beans for sprouting and germinate them in the soil instead of in the kitchen.

Mung bean flowersI'm glad I changed varieties because our mung beans have been even more productive than the urd beans were.  (It's not really a fair comparison, though, since the urd beans got nibbled by deer and the mung beans didn't.)

The one flaw in mung beans at the growth stage is that they tend to sprawl out across the aisles, suggesting that a small trellis might come in handy for next year's planting.  Otherwise, mung beans are one of our easiest crops since they don't seem to have any pests and just keep plugging right along while the cucumbers wilt, the tomatoes blight, and the green beans get eaten by beetles.  (Don't worry, we're getting good harvests of other vegetables despite these problems --- it's just restful to look over at the mung beans after struggling with certain other crops.)

Mung bean plant

I do have a couple of tidbits to help those of you who want to try growing mung beans.  First is during the harvest phase --- try to pick ripe (black) pods once a week if you live in a damp climate so none of the beans mold.

After picking, I just spread the beans out on a tray for a couple of days to dry the dew off, then shell them.  Mung beans will self-shell like urd beans, but the miniature explosions make me feel like I live at a shooting range, Handful of mung beansand the beans tend to get strewn around in all directions, so I generally end up taking the beans out of the pods by hand.  (Yes, I can shell beans while I read.)

The other tricky part about growing sprouting beans is eating them.  Luckily, mung beans don't seem to produce the rock-like non-sprouters that urd beans do (or maybe I've just gotten better at sorting them out during the harvest stage).  But you need room temperature conditions to get the beans to sprout before they mold.  I kept trying to sprout beans in the winter, because that's when we crave fresh produce, but the truth is that in our non-climate-controlled trailer, the warmer seasons are a better time for sprouting.

We've been enjoying eating up last year's mung beans, but this year's harvest is even bigger --- two cups so far with more on the vine.  Looks like I need to get creative about cooking with sprouts.

Our chicken waterer deletes a messy daily chore.
Posted Mon Aug 13 07:42:30 2012 Tags:

Create an Oasis with GreywaterCreate an Oasis with Greywater seems to be the primary text available on the subject, so if you want to deal with wastewater in an alternative manner, you'll need to get your hands on a copy.  The book is self-published, but the only negative I can come up with is that the interior layout isn't very enticing --- too little white space on the page.  However, I think that Art Ludwig chose the design intentionally so he could fit 300 pages worth of information into a 144 page book, thus cutting down fewer trees and selling the book for a more reasonable price.

That small caveat aside, Create an Oasis with Greywater is a masterpiece.  The fifth edition is completely polished, easy to read, and full of useful information for everyone from the ramshackle DIYer (that's me) to folks living in mansions who want to hire someone to create a high tech lawn irrigation system connected to their washing machine outflow hose.

Greywater systemIn case you've never run across the term before, "greywater" is all of the waste water coming from your house except from the toilet.  The water flowing down the drain of your kitchen sink is definitely not potable, but is generally pretty low in harmful bacteria and can be easily and safely treated with low tech options that irrigate your plants at the same time.  In addition to helping your plants, channeling your greywater to a separate location from your blackwater means you use less energy to treat the latter, which is good for the environment.

To make the best use of greywater, you'll need to be careful with what you put down the drain (something you should be doing anyway), and to understand your specific site conditions and climate.  The rest of this week's lunchtime series will cover a few of the greywater treatment methods that appealed most to me, but I highly recommend finding this book for yourself if you want to delve deeper into greywater systems.

Weekend Homesteader covers the other side of sustainable water use, explaining how to capture rain in a barrel and use it on your garden.

This post is part of our Create an Oasis with Greywater lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Aug 13 12:01:32 2012 Tags:
chainsaw chaps in action

I tried out the new chainsaw chaps today while we cut up some firewood.

They sort of feel like wearing wet jeans with all the extra weight, and they hold in heat, but the increase in safety feels worth the decrease in comfort.

Posted Mon Aug 13 15:31:33 2012 Tags:

Roma tomatoesAugust is the month of the tomato on our homestead.  Unless we have a very dry summer (unusual for us), I spend almost a fifth of my August garden time battling the blight.  I've (mostly) learned not to get my blood pressure up as the dead leaves progress up the stem, and to simply make the best of the fruits our plants do ripen.  Inevitably, the blight wins, but not before we've filled our larder with enough rich, red pulp to feed us until next year.

Cooking ketchup

Meanwhile, half my time in the kitchen revolves around the tomato too.  This year, we've been pushing soups as hard as we can, since that seems to be our favorite kind of preserved bounty during the cold months (and does triple duty, putting away green beans and corn as well as tomatoes).  This weekend's haul, though, was so extreme that I first pulled out the prettiest romas to slice in half and dry, made a few gallons of soup, and then ended up with Drying tomatoesa bowlful of leftover tomatoes to turn into ketchup.

Of course, the garden is also churning out lots of other produce --- watermelons, cucumbers, summer squash, basil, parsley, cutting celery (a new experiment for us this year), mung beans, sweet corn, green beans, okra, Swiss chard, fall raspberries, and probably a few other things I've forgotten.  But tomatoes draw my attention the way I've been told exposed breasts attract the male eye --- it's hard to look at anything else when the plump, round orbs are on display.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock hydrated...when they're not gorging on tomato tops.
Posted Tue Aug 14 07:34:43 2012 Tags:

Drain out Back greywater systemThe simplest type of greywater system is what Art Ludwig calls the drain out back.  In other words, you take the pipe from your sink or bathtub and run it to an out-of-the-way location to leach directly into the soil.

We only have running water in one location in the house (the kitchen sink), and our original treatment system soon devolved into a drain out back when I didn't have enough wood chips on hand to replace the mulch.  As long as your outlet isn't close to a stream or to a direct route into the groundwater (such as a sinkhole), this low tech solution really isn't so bad.  Yes, the ground gets a bit swampy there, but the soil microorganisms make short work of nutrients and germs in the water, and by the time the liquid seeps down into the groundwater, it's pure.  In most states, new systems of this type are probably illegal, but even the regulators don't really care as long as your system is grandfathered in and doesn't bother your neighbors.

Greywater shower gardenAn alternative extremely low tech solution is what Art Ludwig calls "landscape direct".  We use this technique by setting our wringer washer in the middle of the yard and simply dumping the used wash water into the ground.  A more elegant incarnation is the bathing garden illustrated in Create an Oasis with Greywater, which consists of a raised, cobbled mound on which you shower, underlain by sand to expedite drainage, and surrounded by plants to soak up the water.

The main problem with low tech systems like these is loss of efficiency.  If you live in a very dry climate, every drop of water is precious, so it's worth spending a bit more effort to ensure your greywater ends up feeding plants.  Stay tuned for the rest of the lunchtime series (picking back up Thursday after our regular book club discussion) for slightly higher tech, and more efficient, greywater options.

Weekend Homesteader walks you through fun and easy projects to get you started on the path to self-sufficiency.

This post is part of our Create an Oasis with Greywater lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Aug 14 12:01:33 2012 Tags:
ripping out wineberry plants due to low performance

We decided to dig up our wineberry patch today.

The berries are beyond delicious, but if they decided to bloom we typically only got enough to fill a small bowl.

It was a tough decision, but deleting it gives us a new spot to try something different. The goal is to find varieties that can handle our climate without being temperamental.

Posted Tue Aug 14 14:49:36 2012 Tags:

Late summer gardenOther than "tomato, tomato, tomato!", the primary topic on my to-do list this month is fall cover crops.  I've learned that although I can seed oilseed radishes anytime between August 1 and September 7, every week that passes lowers the the amount of biomass produced appreciably.  That's why I wander through the garden with an eagle eye throughout the early and middle parts of August, looking for things to be pulled out.

For example, giving away excess cucumbers was a lot of fun in July.  But by August, it seems to make more sense to rip out still-producing cucumber plants and scatter radish seeds in their place.  Sweet corn gets cut to the ground as soon as I pluck the least ear, and next week I'll be pulling out dead butternut squash and watermelon vines.  (I may remove some living summer squash plants too --- we've dried our winter quota and can't eat all of the fruits being produced.)

Oilseed radish seedsI like planting fall cover crops because they produce organic matter at an off-time for the garden.  We've got a few more beds of kale and lettuce to plant along with a lot of garlic, but other than that, any beds that come open from here on out are going to be sitting around twiddling their thumbs until spring.  I'd far rather put a cover crop there and capture winter sunlight than let that solar radiation go to waste.

But how much good do cover crops do?  The amount of organic matter produced by a cover crop will depend on a lot of factors, such as your soil conditions and planting time, but I dug up these figures for optimal dry matter production per acre for my three favorites:

  • Oilseed radish --- 7,000 pounds per acre
  • Buckwheat --- 6,000 pounds per acre
  • Fall-planted oats --- 4,000 pounds per acre

To put that in perspective, adding half an inch of compost to your garden per year requires about 68,000 pounds.  Roughly half of that is water, so the bare-minimum level of top-dressing in an organic garden provides 34,000 pounds of dry compost per acre.  Cover crops don't approach that figure, but providing a fifth of your annual organic matter with no shoveling is nothing to sneeze at.

The big question is --- how much of the organic matter added actually turns into humus and stays in your soil, and how much is quickly degraded?  As you may or may not realize, the soil food web is constantly working on breaking down organic matter, which is a good thing since the output feeds your plants.  But those microorganisms do work counter to my goal of building soil structure.

Oilseed radish seedlingsIn fact, if you don't add anything to your soil (especially if you till), your soil's organic matter content will decline each year.  An interesting study showed that organic matter levels of soil increased from 5.2% to 5.5% when 30 tons of dairy manure were applied per acre for eleven years, stayed steady at an application rate of 20 tons per acre, and dropped to 4.8% at 10 tons of manure per acre. 

Meanwhile, in the cover crop world, experts suggest that woodier debris is more likely to turn into humus (a stable form of organic matter) than succulent plant matter is.  That's why I wait to kill buckwheat until it's in full bloom, and why tough-stalked oats may actually produce more long-term organic matter than oilseed radishes do.  Perhaps pulling mature oilseed radishes and composting them would be a better way of capturing their full potential than letting them rot in the ground?  I may try that eventually, but for now, I'm quite happy with the ever-darkening soil in the beds that I commit to winter cover crops.

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.
Posted Wed Aug 15 07:00:58 2012 Tags:

Horse mowingWhen we first meet Mark Kimball in The Dirty Life, he forces Kristin to live in a fully wired house without turning on the electricity (to her chagrin).  A year later, they have a freezer and fridge.  Similarly, they plan their farm to be cultivated with horse power, but do have a backup tractor that sees some use.

Choosing your own level of appropriate technology is an important but difficult task for most homesteaders.  Do you carry the water from the creek or pay the startup costs and electricity bill to irrigate your crops?  Do you try each time-saving device you read about in Mother Earth News, or do you remember that energy is used and waste produced for every item you buy?

On our own homestead, Mark's a gadget guy and I'm a skinflint, so we often have to negotiate compromises.  I'm curious to hear from other homesteaders --- how do you decide what consists of appropriate technology?  When you were reading The Dirty Life, did you end up dreaming of a farm with draft horses, or did the runaway horse episode cure you of that romantic notion in a heartbeat?

Weekend HomesteaderThose of you new the book club might want to check out previous discussions that covered learning that real food is imperfect, pacing yourself in the early years, and working together without killing each other.  Since we've come to the end of The Dirty Life, now would also be a good time to comment with anything that really jumped out at you from the book that I haven't mentioned here.  We'll take a week off, then will jump into Radical Homemakers on August 29.

The Weekend Homesteader provides tips for becoming more self-sufficient one weekend at a time.

Posted Wed Aug 15 12:00:39 2012 Tags:
Chicago hearty fig close up with barn in background

Our Chicago Hardy Fig will be 2 years old this November.

Anna predicted it would be 2012 when we would first see some fruit and it looks like there should be a respectable amount depending on how soon our first major frost happens.

Neither of us have tasted fresh figs and we have been looking forward to fig harvest day since we saw the first buds.

Posted Wed Aug 15 16:15:13 2012 Tags:

Native bee nestsLast winter, I played around with making nest sites to attract native pollinators.  I figured there wasn't really much need since we have plenty of habitat just a stone's throw away in the woods, but I was curious to see if anyone would move in anyhow.  Sure enough, several native bees took advantage of the in-garden accomodations!

But first, I should tell you what didn't work.  The insects ignored my large and small nest blocks, which I figure is probably my own fault.  The books recommend drilling the holes with a very sharp bit, and I didn't have one Improperly made bee neston hand, so the interiors of the potential nest chambers were full of burrs of wood.  Meanwhile, I put all three of my experimental nest blocks in exposed locations, meaning that rain could potentially drip in, which probably also made the cavities less enticing.

On the other hand, my stem bundles saw a lot of activity.  You can tell if a native bee has moved into a nest because you'll notice dried mud plugging the end of the cavity, perhaps with a round hole in the mud if the inhabitants have already grown up and flown away.  The photo below illustrates the difference between used, unused, and still occupied stems, all in the same bundle.

Bee stem bundle

Since only about a third of my stem bundles were used, I got a good idea of which sites the insects preferred.  Exposure to the elements kept bees away from all except one stem in the peach tree hotel, but many more of the ones under the awning of the wood stove roof showed signs of use.  Bamboo seemed to be preferable to drilled-out elderberry twigs, probably again because my drill bit wasn't sharp enough to provide an interior as smooth as the natural bamboo walls.  It's also possible that the bees liked the more solid ends created by the bamboo stem joints compared to the twigs that I blocked off with mud.

I'd be curious to hear from readers who have experimented with building nest habitat for native pollinators.  What worked and didn't work for you?

We'll have new chicks in a couple of weeks and will start them on our chicken waterer from day 1 to prevent coccidiosis and drowning.
Posted Thu Aug 16 06:54:09 2012 Tags:
Greywater mulch basin

Art Ludwig's favorite method of using greywater in the landscape is called the mulch basin.  Installation can be nearly as simple as creating a drain out back, with the addition of digging a donut around your tree, piling the soil on the outside to form a moat, and filling the depression with wood chips (and your grewater outlet).  The soiled water goes directly to a thirsty plant, who also benefits from the nitrogen content of kitchen scraps and other debris.

New mulch basinAlthough the mulch basin is much more efficient than the drain out back, you also have to go to more short and long term effort to make the greywater system work properly.  Create an Oasis with Greywater walks you through building branched systems to channel water to multiple trees and ensure no single plant gets swamped, but even if you plan watering amounts accurately, you still need to make sure the plant being watered can handle daily infusions of dishwater.

Of the greywater tolerant plants Ludwig lists, very few live in our climate and none of those are active in the winter.  That means you need to have an alternative greywater system in place during the dormant season, which I'll talk about in tomorrow's post.  Meanwhile, if you'd like to make a mulch basin to put your greywater to use in the summer, potentially useful temperate-climate plants include blackberries, elderberries, currants, bamboo, and (to a lesser extent---be careful of waterlogging) peach, plum, apple, pear, and quince.  Those of you who live in California (like Ludwig does) will want to start with bananas and branch out into mangos, avocados, citrus, pineapple guava, and figs.

Mulch basinThe final issue with the mulch basin is that it requires annual maintenance.  Ludwig recommends redigging your moat walls every year or two, which sounds like effort that might not quite happen on our farm.  (I'm not so sure it would hurt to just let the tree get its bonus water close to the trunk for its entire life, though.)  On the other hand, I've been hitting more than missing with my hugelkultur tree mound expansions, so maybe expanding a mulch basin would happen too.

I'm curious to hear from anyone who's tried a mulch basin, but especially from those who live in an area with winter.  What would you add to the pros and cons I've listed above?

Ease your way into self-sufficiency one weekend at a time with Weekend Homesteader.

This post is part of our Create an Oasis with Greywater lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Aug 16 12:01:07 2012 Tags:
12 amp skil saw update

The new 12 amp circular saw is just under 3 months old and is already acting like it wants to retire. The problem is an issue of needing to tighten the blade every few cuts. It's possible it may have been over tightened which might damage the bearings.

To be fair I think we under estimated our usage and should have chosen the next level up.

I think it might be the right saw for someone who doesn't cut treated lumber, but I now know we need the next size up.

Posted Thu Aug 16 16:36:01 2012 Tags:

Biochar in the soilSeveral readers have asked what sort of on-the-ground results we see from our biochar experiments.  Over the last couple of years, I've applied the winter's charcoal (separated from the ashes and activated with urine) to half of various garden beds, keeping notes on the location.  The idea is that I should be able to compare the biochar half to the control half and get some pretty good anecdotal evidence of the changes biochar makes in the soil.

The trouble is that both halves of the beds look the same.  And it occurred to me, as I went out to monitor each one, that biochar's ability to expand the soil microorganism population could carry over into the untreated half of the bed.  Soil fungi can send their hyphae quite a distance through the earth, so maybe the control half of the bed gets similar benefits to the biochar half?

If that hypothesis was correct, I should be comparing the growth of plants in the biochar beds to plants in neighboring beds.  The trouble is that our garden is extremely diverse, and no two beds get the same treatment.  Depending on what's planted there, a bed might get one, two, or three top-dressings of manure per year, or --- if I have some on hand --- the soil may instead benefit from worm compost.  It might get kill mulched with cardboard if it gets too weedy, or might just keep a gentle coat of straw.  I might grow three rounds Brussels sprout seedlingof buckwheat between spring and fall vegetables, might plant oats or oilseed radishes after summer cucumbers die back, or might plant no cover crops at all.  And, of course, the actual vegetable grown in each bed can affect the soil, with greedy corn depleting many nutrients but kind beans giving some nitrogen back.  This is the reason I'd hoped to do a within-bed trial --- comparing the effects of biochar between beds is nearly impossible.

So, my conclusion is no conclusion.  Biochar either doesn't help, or it does.  (It definitely doesn't seem to hurt.)  Since we have nothing else pressing to do with the waste from our wood stove, I'll keep adding biochar to our soil and maintaining notes on the locations, and maybe I'll see long term effects that aren't visible after a mere year and a half.

How about you?  Do you have solid evidence of the effects of biochar in your garden?  If so, how did you process and apply the charcoal and what was its original source?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to tradional filthy waterers.
Posted Fri Aug 17 07:01:41 2012 Tags:

Constructed wetland diagramAlthough greywater will probably continue to flow to a mulch basin in the winter, you risk drowning dormant trees.  Instead, the system that looks most efficient for greywater treatment during temperate winters is a constructed wetland.

In general, it's much more sanitary to filter greywater through soil than to allow the water to pool on the surface, so most constructed wetlands for treating greywater are more like bogs than like ponds --- in other words, there's no standing water.  Greywater enters the system through a drain at the top, then percolates down through gravel and sand until clean water flows out the bottom (possibly into a pond).

Large constructed wetlandIn cold climates, Create an Oasis with Greywater recommends planning about 1.5 to 3 square feet of wetland per gallon of greywater produced each day.  For best results, the width should be about half the length, ensuring that water has to travel a good distance before treatment is complete.  Since I estimate we use about 20 gallons of water per day at the kitchen sink, we'd need a roughly six foot by ten foot wetland to delete our swampy drain out back.

Constructed wetlands get around the issue of waterlogged soil by using aquatic plants that are well suited to the environment.  Ludwig doesn't suggest any particular species (noting that selections are region specific), but I suspect cattails, horsetails, sedges, water plantain, and sweet flags would do well in our region since they live in nearby swampy ground.  Perhaps we could even cut the leaves once a year to create mulch or deep bedding for the chickens?

Tub wetlandsFixing our greywater system isn't a top priority, but I suspect it'll make the list sometime in the next year or two since our new porch brings traffic to an area that used to be hidden by weeds.  I'm going to hang onto Create an Oasis with Greywater to refer back to once we hit the planning stage for that project, and meanwhile I highly recommend the book for anyone who wants to build a sustainable greywater treatment system.  Be sure to leave a comment if you've created a greywater system different from the ones described in this week's lunchtime series --- I'm always interested to see other DIY options.

Start a no-till garden, try out chickens, and learn to cook with seasonal produce in Weekend Homesteader.

This post is part of our Create an Oasis with Greywater lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Aug 17 12:01:03 2012 Tags:
tomato horn worm close up with parasitic wasp

Learn to keep bugs at bay Tomato hornworms can do some serious damage if left unchecked.

The Braconid wasp can do even more damage to the hornworm by attaching white egg sacs to its body.

Maybe the work we did this last winter to attract native pollinators helped to increase our parasitic wasp population?

Posted Fri Aug 17 16:01:00 2012 Tags:
1935 map

My post about walking distance got me thinking about changes in our area over time.  I wanted to go back and look at some old USGS maps, and was surprised to learn that you can now download all of the maps from your region as pdf files for free!  (The last time I played with topo maps, about six years ago, you either had to buy a paper copy from the USGS or snag screenshots from various websites that were trying to sell paper maps.)

For our area, the maps available were from 1935 (first map) and 1957 (second map), and I also took a screenshot of google maps' current satellite photo (third map) for a more up-to-date view.  Then I layered them all together in the Gimp.  I cropped a bit of the 1935 map off and made the top map slightly transparent in the first image in this post so you can see what I'm talking about when I refer to layering.

1957 map

The property I'm taking a look at here is the same potential Walden Effect annex I mapped the soil for.  I was interested to see that, except for the ridge (south end of map), the propery was entirely devoid of trees between 1935 and 1957.

Solid black squares on a topo map represent houses, dotted lines are small roads or trails, and outlined squares are generally barns or other large, non-residential structures.  With that information in mind, you can see that someone was living on the property during both 1935 and 1957, probably grazing animals or possibly growing corn and tobacco on most of the acreage.

Current map

Between 1957 and the present, the majority of folks stopped farming in our region and started getting jobs in town.  Although it's sad that people were no longer living off the land, the earth rejoiced by sprouting up trees everywhere.  Only a few acres on the northwest side of the property remained clear of trees by the time of the 2011 aerial photo.

Tree canopy over time

I merged all three of these maps together to create the version above, which gives a rough estimate of canopy cover over time.  The lightest color is areas that are currently forested, the bright green represents 1957 trees, and the dark green is 1935 trees.  (I didn't bother with the area on the other side of the river, and you'll notice some irregularities between 1935 and 1957 forest borders that are probably a sampling error due to the low resolution on the earlier map.)

Why does it matter which areas had trees in the past?  It's handy to know that the woodland is at least 77 years old on the ridgetop, because that kind of forest will be chock full of plants and animals found in few other places and is best left alone.  On the other hand, twenty-plus years of farming on the rest of the property may mean the topsoil has been eroded away, and definitely means I'll feel less guilty about clearing spots for sustainable agricultural purposes.  And, of course, it's just plain fun to guess what the land was like decades in the past.

Have you discovered even better sources of historical maps or aerial photos online?  Since it's the weekend, I can probably sink my teeth into some more....

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy when I get sidetracked into map-land all day.
Posted Sat Aug 18 07:06:57 2012 Tags:
Sweet potato flower experiment potential

We had one of our sweet potato beds to flower on us this week.

The first one since 2009. Back then we had plans of saving the seeds to see if the new version was any better, but we eventually decided the variety we have is delicious enough.

If the seeds do mature we could mail them to an interested reader who might have the time, extra space, and inclination for an experiment in sweetness? The only thing we'd ask in return is some sort of status report so we could share the results.

Posted Sat Aug 18 16:00:50 2012 Tags:

Worms Eat My GarbageUsually, my non-fiction reading consists of whatever captures my fancy (and is available), but this summer, I've been focusing on books I'd been meaning to read for a while.  That focus has resulted in me mining a lot of "beginner" books in search of possible gaps in my knowledge.  I always find at least one or two tidbits in these basic texts, but some stand up better to being read by an intermediate audience, and I'm sad to say that Worms Eat My Garbage isn't one of the latter.

I suspect that when Mary Appelhof put out the first edition of this book in 1982, it contained earth-shattering information, but now vermicompost is old hat for many.  I've dabbled in worm bins for a few years (getting much of my introductory information from the internet and from Worm Cafe), and I found little to provoke thought in Appelhof's book.  I was also a bit turned off by the writing style --- it's very basic since the author comes from an education background and clearly wants teachers to be able to use it with school kids.  On the other hand, if you're just getting started with worms, this book probably is the one to read to learn all of the nuts and bolts that we figured out the hard way.

Despite being a bit disappointed in Worms Eat My Garbage, I did learn a few things:

  • Worm castingsVermicompost is different from worm castings.  The latter are produced if you let your worms keep plugging away at the same materials until they die out as a result of living in their own waste, while the former contains lots of bits of compost that haven't gone through a worm's gut.  The information I presented in a previous post about not using pure worm castings on plants (probably because of concentrated salts) doesn't apply to vermicompost, only to castings.
  • Measuring manure temperatureWater manure two days before adding worms.  I learned this the hard way very recently when we filled a bin with relatively fresh horse manure, soaked the bedding, added worms, and watched them die.  Appelhof notes that two days is sufficient time for the manure to heat and cool down, making it safe to add worms.
  • You use different techniques to raise worms or produce compostWhen I accidentally left our worms eating the same food for a long time, I was using the lowest maintence technique of Happy compost wormsfilling a bin and letting it sit for at least six months, which produces pure castings at the expense of your worm population.  At the other extreme, folks breeding worms to sell tend to move their stock to fresh bedding every two or three months, leaving behind unfinished compost.  Most people will prefer to use a middle of the road technique where they let worms work compost for about four months before moving the worms to a new bin (or pushing old bedding to one side and filling the other half with fresh bedding).  This third method strikes a balance between producing compost and keeping your worms happy, and is the one I want to work toward.

My final analysis?  As a beginner book, Worms Eat My Garbage is worth a read, but there's still space out there for an in-depth text geared toward a popular audience.  Maybe you'll be the one to write it?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to filthy open water dishes.
Posted Sun Aug 19 07:00:52 2012 Tags:

Mark and I spent a long weekend in California at my brother's wedding.  I took a lot more photos of the forest garden than of the people, but I did manage to snag these shots of family old and new.  (And stole the one below from Myriam Joire since I didn't really have any of the happy couple.)


Thank you, Jay and Timnah, for planning the most beautiful and fun wedding I've been to!  I really appreciated you letting me be a best man instead of a bridesmaid and for picking out a costume I actually liked.  The ceremony was evocative, the view was delectable, the food was top notch, and the strangers were worth flying across the country to meet.

And, for our readers who care nothing about a family wedding, stay tuned to hear all about the father of the bride's forty year old forest garden in a later post.

Our chicken waterer kept the flock well hydrated while we were on the other side of the continent.
Posted Mon Aug 20 08:17:09 2012 Tags:
mark Ironing
ironing a shirt for Jay's wedding

I'm thinking this might be the last time I'll be using an iron until someone else I know decides to get married.

Posted Mon Aug 20 16:16:01 2012 Tags:
Forest garden fountain


The food at my brother's wedding was superb, but I'm afraid I didn't eat much.

You see, I'd filled up on apples, trying to sample every currently-ripe variety in the father of the bride's forest garden.

Ira in his forest garden

Forest garden entranceIra Steinman has been forest gardening in the San Francisco Bay area for forty years, and the result is a masterpiece that will inspire those of us nurturing our first little trees.  I'm afraid I was only able to grab him out of the crowd for a few quick questions, but in many ways the garden spoke for itself.  Come along and we'll walk through together!

Ripe apple

Grape arbor

Ira had clearly put a lot of thought into structural elements --- I could tell because I barely noticed anything except plants until after I got home and started flipping through the photos.  Instead of jumping out at you, paths, arbors, and steps drew you down into the garden and enticed you to explore.

Dwarf trees don't block the view

BuddhaThe property boasts a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay (or perhaps more technically the San Rafael Bay, but it's all connected).  Not wanting to block the view, Ira planted dwarf apples in the upper part of the garden, then graduated into what I'm guessing are semi-dwarfs further down the hill.

The garden location that permaculturalists would call zone 1, right outside the house, was a more formal area with benches, a lawn for gatherings (and marrying off their kids), and huge buddhas brought home from Asia to inspire conversation.  Just as tree size increased as you ventured further from the house, so did the garden become less formal and more wild.

Forest garden steps

Kiwi vineI liked the fact that Ira stuck to brick pathways throughout, even in the less formal areas.  Despite being located in zone 8 in a microclimate that hasn't seen a killing frost for 22 years, the Bay area garden still has to contend with cool summer temperatures that can make ripening summer fruits a challenge.  I suspect that capturing heat with these stone pathways helps the summer garden, even though Ira reports his citrus still tend to be on the sour side.  (Most citrus fruit need summer heat to pack away sugars, which is why dwarf Meyer lemons are likely to give those of us growing citrus indoors better results than most other choices will.)

Asian persimmons

Pear on the treeSo what's growing in this stunning forest garden?  The apples are what captured my eye and what seemed to be doing the best, perhaps because Ira had chosen most of them from a nearby heirloom apple nurseriest who knew just what would thrive north of San Francisco.  But there were also lots of Asian persimmons, pears, and figs sporting unripe but luscious-looking fruit.

Fallen apples

Algerian mandarinIra's garden was also dotted with ripening citrus orbs.  I couldn't identify them all, but Ira pointed out an Algerian mandarin as he passed by doing his hostly duties, and a friend of the family shared a pomelo, which was a bit like a grapefruit.

The sheer quantity of fruit being produced by this 1.5 acre garden was astonishing.  I could tell from the apples littering the ground that the bounty was more than Ira could handle, and I fed lots of guests hand-plucked fruit without seeming to make a dent in the wares on display.  In fact, my stepmother stuck a few fruits in her purse to snack on later, and I suspect she wasn't the only one.

Take home fruit

Roman artichokeOne of the things I liked the most about Ira's forest garden is that the trees were clearly king.  I think that many of us who read the forest gardening literature come into our gardens thinking that we can fill all five levels with delicious edible trees, shrubs, and herbs that won't compete at all.  But Ira didn't read any of those books (perhaps because they didn't exist when he got started), so he focused on trees in most of his garden, separating herbs like this Roman artichoke out into sunny clearings.  Knowing your priority in each part of a garden helps you mix and match secondary plantings without lowering yields from the plants you care about the most.

Despite focusing on the trees, Ira's landscape still felt like a forest garden, not like an orchard.  Trees were planted close enough together than they produced a nearly closed canopy, and grapes, kiwis, ornamentals, and shrubbier plants like figs were interspersed.  (Guests who had been to the garden before it was manicured for the Bee hivewedding also told me that our ability to stroll down the paths is a new affair --- I suspect the garden had more of a jungle feel previously.)

I left the garden with more questions than answers.  What did the early stages of the garden look like?  Did Ira have to amend the soil heavily?  Does he water his trees with drip irrigation?  How long did it take before the forest garden began overflowing with bounty?  Did he face special challenges due to his location?  Are there species and varieties he particularly recommends for the Bay area?

The specifics aside, though, the garden itself told me everything I needed to know.  Forty years later, a forest garden does look like a forest while being as productive as a garden.  The idea has merit --- let's plant some more trees!

Our chicken waterer kept the flock hydrated, but not out of trouble.  They got in the garden and scratched up all the mulch!
Posted Tue Aug 21 07:29:45 2012 Tags:

Roast rabbit I've been considering raising rabbits for quite some time as an inexpensive source of meat for consumption. I had pet rabbits when I was a toddler and teen, but haven't really had much experience with them since then. Rabbits can be a good source of protein, and they are generally easy to raise. I've eaten rabbit in the past (both wild and domestic), so I know I like the taste of the meat.

Many homesteaders choose to raise chickens as a protein source; however, personally, I don't eat many eggs. I've wondered if I have an egg allergy of some kind. I've noticed for a number of years that when I consume eggs, I often don't feel well afterwards. A couple of years ago I was discussing this with my mother, and she claims to have the same symptoms. I haven't researched it, but I wonder if there is a genetic trait that causes intolerance to a protein in eggs?

So, if one doesn't plan on consuming eggs on a regular basis, this makes raising chickens a lot less appealing. The alternatives to chickens and other fowl on a small homestead that I can think of are goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, and perhaps a handful of more exotic livestock. Rabbits seem to me to be easiest to raise of this list, and perhaps require the least amount of preparation and planning.

One strong advantage to raising rabbits is the fertile manure one ends up with in a concentrated area. This can be used to significantly enrich poor soil, of which we have 3 acres worth. Our soil here is quite poor, so anywhere we garden has to be enriched. This sometimes means a pickup load of garden soil from the local nursery, but we hope to do this less in the future as we start to bring in horse and rabbit manure. We'll cover rabbit manure much more in a future post.

And so begins our adventure into rabbit husbandry. We hope you'll enjoy reading about our experiences as we tread off into unknown territory with meat rabbits.

Shannon and Dawn will be sharing their experiences with raising meat rabbits on Tuesday afternoons. Shannon and Dawn homestead on three acres in Louisiana when time off from life and working as a sys admin permits.

Posted Tue Aug 21 12:41:06 2012 Tags:
chicken coop repair cures jet lag

A little chicken coop repair seems to have cured my lingering feelings of jet lag from our trip out west.

Posted Tue Aug 21 16:31:40 2012 Tags:
Squash blossom

I'm always astonished by how much the farm can change in just a few days. 

Mature crookneck squash

The year of the cucurbit is suddenly at an end, with the butternuts nearly mature, the cucumbers blighted, and the summer squash I'd let go to seed turned orange and warty.

Pecked tomato

The chickens broke out of their pasture while we were gone (with some help from Lucy, whose boredom prompted her to gnaw a hole in their fence).  They didn't do much irrepairable damage, but did scratch half of our mulch into the aisles and pecked holes in lots of tomatoes.  Good thing I don't mind eating after chickens, once I cut out the damaged portion and boil the rest into soup for a good long time.

Old cabbage

Speaking of soup, despite the turn of seasons, we're still cooking up winter dinners like mad.  I cut into the last spring cabbage after peeling back four outer leaves gone thin and mildewed.  The inside was still crisp and delicious, and I wish I'd grown more.  Good thing the fall cabbages are already getting some size on them.

I can feel the pendulum begin to swing over to the fall garden.  We ate our first lettuce in months and the winter cooking greens now have true leaves.  Fall carrots have filled out enough to shade most of their beds, and oilseed radishes are coating fallow garden spots.  In the woods, dog-day cicadas are dropping to the ground while katydids take their place.  Here's hoping we'll enjoy this early fall for a long time rather than seeing a premature killing frost.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.
Posted Wed Aug 22 08:28:23 2012 Tags:

Radical homemakersAfter dipping into the first few pages of Radical Homemakers, I can tell that the exact reason I had originally avoided this book is the same reason I'll get a lot out of reading it.  The term "homemaker" brings up all kinds of negative images for me, not least of which is the dependent housewife devoting her life to making her more important spouse happy.  But Shannon Hayes' book begs the question --- isn't a homesteader just a rebranded homemaker, and can't you make a home without turning in your feminist credentials?

As part of our book club, we'll be discussing the preface, introduction, and chapters one and two on Wednesday, August 29.  Since we've been out of town, I haven't read ahead, but the first few pages definitely sucked me in, so you needn't be concerned this is another Walden.  I'll look forward to hearing what you think next week!

If you'd rather read how-to than why-to, check out my paperback, due out in the next few weeks.
Posted Wed Aug 22 12:00:59 2012 Tags:
cutting up a downed walnut tree with a chainsaw

We cut up almost half of the small branches on the downed walnut tree.

Usually I wouldn't cut on a branch above my head, but this tree fell in a way that crushed a weaker box elder and is now balanced on its stump.

Cutting a little bit on each side should help it stay balanced and safe.

Posted Wed Aug 22 15:23:07 2012 Tags:
Pile of bricks

I've been trying to decide on a good use for the bricks from the old chimney ever since we winched the structure down in May 2008.

Winching down a chimneyOver the years, I've used a few bricks in the garden to weigh down the sides of quick hoops and emergency row covers.  But these chimney bricks are handmade and too crumbly to be included in anything structural.

I'd tossed around the idea of making a brick path in front of the trailer to delete the mud pit that develops there each winter.  But laying bricks sounded like a lot of work when I could just put on boots.

Tossing bricks in the mud

The perfect use for our bricks presented itself when a spot in the driveway started bogging down the golf cart.  Usually, we'd go get a load of rip-rap from the quarry, but we don't have a truck at the moment.  Could a golf cart load of bricks serve the same purpose?

Yes they can!  Now that pile of bricks looks like an opportunity, not a weed-heap.

Our chicken waterer provides clean water all day, so you can spend your time eating fresh eggs and watching the flock's antics rather than messing with manure.
Posted Thu Aug 23 07:34:32 2012 Tags:
taking out the trash with a golf cart

Our new friend Marvin helped us haul out some garbage while bringing in 3 truck loads of horse manure today.


Posted Thu Aug 23 15:21:37 2012 Tags:

Harvesting butternutsI've been meaning to bring the onions in from the curing racks, but I've been cooking them up into soup so fast that it hardly seems worth it.  Blighted tomatoes aren't quite as sweet as tip-top homegrown should be, so I double the onions in our harvest soups to raise us up to the sugar levels we prefer.  As a result, we've used up nearly half of the year's onions just a month after harvesting.

Vegetable curing racksMeanwhile, the first butternuts are ready to come off the ground and get some airflow before being packed away for the winter.  So squash have taken the place of onions on two of our six shelves, and more will be moving to the drying racks next week.

Which is all a long way of saying --- there's been no vacancy on the garlic curing racks ever since they were built.  They continue to be one of the best farm innovations of this year.

Mark's all-time favorite farm innovation is his chicken waterer, which provides POOP-free water for thousands of backyard flocks around the world.
Posted Fri Aug 24 08:15:37 2012 Tags:
using a live trap with close up of possum

We've been curious about meat rabbits lately and I've been seeing several run around doing their thing and thought maybe we could get lucky and trap one.

Anna did some research and we decided to go with a live trap that stays open at both ends. Rumor has it that rabbits will be more likely to go into a trap if they can see out the other end.

No rabbits yet, but we caught a possum today. The poor little guy was spooked pretty bad, so we tied Lucy up for a brief moment and walked him out to the woods and set him free.

Posted Fri Aug 24 14:51:25 2012 Tags:

The Bucolic PlagueThe Bucolic Plague is a well-written, gripping book...and I hated it.  The Beekman Boys' reality is like a twisted version of Mark's and my lives, too similar for me to suspend disbelief and ignore their life choices, but too different for me to identify with.  The book read like a cautionary tale, making me very glad that we bought the cheapest bit of land I could find and never tried to scale up our business faster than it could comfortably grow on its own.

Although they professed to be embracing a simple life, Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell bought a million-dollar piece of property three hours outside New York City and continued working their jobs in the Big Apple Monday through Friday.  Each weekend, they'd hop on a train and make the long commute to their mortgaged mansion, which they hoped to turn into a Martha-Stewart-inspired homestead.  (By the way, in case you think I'm exaggerating, the neighbors and author do call their home a mansion and Brent worked for Martha Stewart at the time.)

Meanwhile, Brent and Josh launched a goat-milk-soap business in the least micro fashion imaginable.  Rather than doing all of the work themselves, they outsourced the goat-milking and the soap-making, spending their time on marketing and order fulfillment (some of which they later hired employees to do as well).  With the help of a plug on Martha's show, they were soon rolling in business...but the duo continued to work full time because they were spending so much cash on employees and scaling up that they weren't actually making a profit.

Beekman goatsThe Beekman Boys' blogging (as reported in the book) seemed to be similarly grandiose and inauthentic.  Josh wrote about spending an afternoon picking apples from their trees, but rather than enjoying the pursuit, he struggled to find a bowlful of unblemished fruits to be photographed for the website.  He and his partner worked so hard adding "sparkle" to the virtual version of their homestead that they seemed unable to embrace the reality of that life, and their relationship suffered accordingly.

The bottom line is --- The Bucolic Plague represents a Hollywood version of homesteading.  The author does a good job of honestly portraying at least some of the pitfalls, but I was disappointed that he never realized the root of his problems lay in buying into the same consumer culture that homesteaders strive to break free of.  Unless you're thinking of buying a million-dollar "homestead" and need a wake-up call, I don't think I can recommend The Bucolic Plague to anyone.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional chicken waterers.
Posted Sat Aug 25 08:32:40 2012 Tags:
gallons and gallons of horse manure

This is the maximum amount of buckets we can fit in a truck or trailer.

I was thinking the other day on the possibility of using square buckets to take advantage of that space in between.

Square buckets can cost as much as 3 times or more what a round one goes for, and they'd have to be mail ordered, which would add even more to the price tag. The increase in loading capacity might be worth it to some, but I would want to see how well they stacked on to each other when empty before taking such a plunge.

Posted Sat Aug 25 16:22:30 2012 Tags:
Caged cat

BenMark and I split the household chores down the middle.  I cook, he does the dishes.  I harvest and weed, he splits wood and mows.

Unfortunately, neither of us is a big fan of cleaning.  So things tend to pile up until we get a special visit from someone like my favorite cousin-in-law.

Ben's visit tempted me to to wash up the futon cover and catch up on laundry.  Is it still spring cleaning if it's nearly fall?

Our chicken waterer keeps the coop clean and dry and provides POOP-free water for your flock.
Posted Sun Aug 26 08:05:18 2012 Tags:
using a copper penny circa 2008 to fight blight with antimicrobial effect of copper

According to wikipedia there are molecular mechanisms within copper that can control a wide range of molds, algae, fungi, and microbes.

We've been cutting off new tomato flowers to divert energy to fruit and I thought it might be a good time to try an old wives tale I heard down at the hardware store a few years ago.

If it slows down the blight even a little it'll be worth the effort.

Posted Sun Aug 26 13:36:59 2012 Tags:
Fall raspberries and peas

Even as the summer crops dwindle, the fall garden is beginning to pour forth its bounty.  Ever-bearing raspberries picked back up in mid August after taking a few weeks off, and I just noticed that the snap peas are starting to bloom.

Ripening pepper

Early fall is my favorite time of year for salads.  We don't baby peppers the way we do tomatoes, so we only have ripe, red fruits for a couple of months between mid-August and the frost.  During that time, salads consist of lettuce, baby kale and tatsoi, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, sprouting beans, snap peas, and probably more ingredients I'm not remembering at the moment.  Such a treat to pour so many colorful vegetables onto our plates!

Fall greens

Another highlight of the garden this week is the beds of Dwarf Siberian and Red Russian kale.  I knew the seeds I'd saved this spring were viable because patches of baby kale started popping up around the parent plants in July, but I wasn't entirely sure that the two varieties wouldn't hybridize.  I planted them separately and am thrilled to see that the two leaf shapes are quite distinct --- no gene-hopping there.  (By the way, the photo on the right is tatsoi, not kale.)

Despite all of these fun fall crops, though, I'm still knee deep in tomatoes and loving it.  I read about a frost in the Pacific Northwest last week and I'd like the world to know we're not nearly ready.  Anyone know a good anti-frost dance?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to traditional chicken waterers.
Posted Mon Aug 27 08:01:58 2012 Tags:
Replacing the trimmer line on a stihl weed eater FS-90

I've sort of dreaded the day when our Stihl FS-90R trimmer would need to have its spool restrung.

Turns out to be easier than I thought thanks to an informative 3 minute video from Youtube user donyboy73.

Posted Mon Aug 27 15:25:52 2012 Tags:
Unripe fig

Fig changing color

I've been watching our fig tree with an eagle eye for months, hoping to taste a fresh fig.  As the branches elongated, more and more little green figs popped up in the leaf axils, but none showed signs of ripening.

Ripening fig

Nearly ripe fig

Then, seemingly overnight, a fig doubled in size, started to turn brown, and began to wrinkle and droop on its stem.  A fig that is no longer sticking straight up, but is instead hanging down nearly horizontal to the stem is a sure sign of a ripening fig.  But was that first fruit ready to test?

Fig flower scar

Unripe fig endAccording to online experts, there are a few other characteristics to pay attention to if you don't want to pick your first fig too soon.  In addition to color (our Chicago Hardy fig will turn brown, but some varieties stay green when ripe) and orientation of the fruit, a truly ripe fig will show a widening hole at the end opposite the stem.  As peak ripeness approaches, juices will begin to ooze from that hole, and the skin will tear slightly near the stem.

Although our ripest fig is looking plump and delicious, the leaf scar end is still fully closed and there's no sign of dripping nectar or tearing skin.  So I'll keep my eyes peeled and wait another few days for our first ever homegrown fig.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with cool, clean water.
Posted Tue Aug 28 07:58:28 2012 Tags:

New Zealand White rabbit When thinking about keeping meat rabbits, one of the first things that came up is which breed should we start with?

I've had New Zealand Whites and that seems to be a popular breed for meat. This rabbit variety is also noted for the pelts since they are pure white. I'm not sure, but I would guess the fur could be dyed, too, which might make them popular with the buyers of pelts.

We're not really going down this path to sell the pelts, but we also see that as a learning opportunity and a potential offset for expenses, or even as a source of profit. We plan to learn about preserving and/or tanning the skins as we go as a side project.

Back to breeds. Another popular breed seems to be Californians. We're not too familiar with these, but are considering crossing a New Zealand buck with some Californian does. We'll see where we end up.

For now, we've started with New Zealand Whites. We currently have two bucks and one doe. Not exactly an ideal male to female ratio, but we will explain in a later post how we ended up in that situation. There's also more to say about other breeds in a later post.

Shannon and Dawn will be sharing their experiences with raising meat rabbits on Tuesday afternoons. Shannon and Dawn homestead on three acres in Louisiana when time off from life and working as a sys admin permits.

Posted Tue Aug 28 12:01:16 2012 Tags:
trimmer line vs polycut attachment fingers on a weed eater from Stihl

What happened to those polycut attachment fingers you were trying out last year?

Tom Campbell-Houston, Texas

Thanks for the question Tom. I liked the polycut fingers when I first tried them, and I think they still have a place when clearing heavier stuff in the chicken pastures, but for day to day trimming around raised beds and fruit trees the string seems to do a cleaner job of cutting weeds off at the ground level.

Posted Tue Aug 28 16:53:59 2012 Tags:

Honeybee on Virgin's BowerIn our region, the summer is a bit of a lull for bees, with few uncultivated plants in bloom.  If you have fields of white clover or buckwheat, your colony may thrive, but otherwise, the bees are likely to eat through a lot of their spring honey and come into the fall with few stores.

Luckily, asters, goldenrod, ragweed, virgin's bower, and other plants start blooming in late August and help the bees stock back up.  But the beekeeper still needs to be proactive because the window for fall feeding closes rapidly as daytime temperatures plummet, making it too chilly to dehydrate sugar water into honey.  So now's a good time to be thinking about the hive's winter honey, which led me to research how much honey a Warre hive needs to get through the winter.

Beekeepers report that the more insulated design of Warre hives reduces the bees' need for honey when compared to a Langstroth hive, but by how much?  The official word on Warre hive care comes from the method's founder who left 26 pounds of honey (one of his smaller hive bodies full).  However, American beekeepers need to keep in mind that Warre lived in a mild, European climate, meaning that most of us will probably need to ensure our bees have more winter honey.

Warre hive entrance

A search of the internet turned up a few solid data points from American Warre beekeepers.  An apiarist in Portland (zone 8b) leaves a single box of honey per colony, like Warre does, while a zone 5 beekeeper adds a second box.  Both report that they overwinter with one box of brood below the one or two boxes of honey stores.

To play it safe in our zone 6 climate, I'm going to follow the lead of the zone 5 beekeeper and make sure our bees have at least two full boxes of honey going into winter.  What I haven't decided is when to delve into the hive and estimate their honey stores before deciding about whether or not to feed.  Suggestions?

Our chicken waterer makes care of the flock easy and worry-free.
Posted Wed Aug 29 07:38:25 2012 Tags:

Medieval kitchenThe most striking part of the first quarter of Radical Homemakers was Hayes' explanation of how the concept of being a housewife entered our lexicon.  I'm going to skip the prehistoric information since it sounded a bit too good to be true, and move on to the thirteenth century when Europeans coined the term "housewife".

According to Hayes, this period saw the rise of a middle class, distinct from serfs and lords because they owned their own homes and little plots of land.  These medieval homesteaders were named "husband" --- a merging of "house" and "bonded" --- and "housewife".   Although they tended to have gender-specific roles, husband and housewife still worked together toward a common aim of feeding and clothing the family.

Thinking housewifeIt wasn't until the Industrial Revolution when the husband left this partnership for a job outside the home, relegating all of the household tasks to the housewife.  Thus, "housewife" stopped meaning half of a self-sufficient team and took on the modern connotations.

With the end of the medieval partnership came the beginning of what author Betty Friedan termed "housewife's syndrome".  "American girls grew up fantasizing about finding their husbands, buying their dream homes and dream appliances, popping out babies, and living happily ever after," Hayes explained.  But in reality "countless women suffered from depression and nervous breakdowns as they faced the endless meaningless tasks of shopping and driving children hither and yon.  They never had opportunities to fulfill their highest potential, to challenge themselves, to feel as though they were truly contributing to society...."  Friedan's solution (which became the feminist ideal) was for the wife to leave the home and join her husband on the career track.

However, although an independent income and source of achievement helped many women, the household chores still had to be done.  In these two-salary households, Career womanfood-making, cleaning, and childcare were either relegated to menial laborers or were outsourced to corporations who sold the hard-working wives time-saving but expensive gadgets and prepackaged food.  Soon, it became necessary for both husband and wife to work outside the home if they wanted to squeak by financially, all while consuming lower quality food and turning their kids over to childcare facilities.

While there were many other thought-provoking questions raised in the first quarter of Radical Homemakers, I thought we'd start out by discussing the history of the problem as presented by Hayes.  I'm especially interested to hear from folks like Ikwig and Heather who have thought about history more recently than the eleventh grade.  (History isn't my strong suit....)  Do you think Hayes was cherry-picking facts to come up with such a cohesive story, or does your understanding of events match hers?  For the non-historians, were you as surprised as I was to learn that "housewife" was merely the female version of "husband", and to see how recently the current connotations arose?  Does it change your feelings toward homemaking when you consider households Weekend Homesteaderin which both the husband and wife are house-bonded?

We'll be discussing chapters three and four next Wednesday, and there's still plenty of time for newcomers to join the club.  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 hearing your take on this thought-provoking book.

The Weekend Homesteader guides you on the path to self-sufficiency with one fun and easy project for each weekend of the year.

Posted Wed Aug 29 12:01:06 2012 Tags:
holding up plywood panels for ceiling insulation installation

We decided to insulate the new porch roof in an effort to decrease the heat that radiates from the toasty tin.

The plan is to use this as an experiment to see if we want to do a similar thing on the first porch.

One downside is the sound of rain drops on our tin roof being muffled, which is no small thing to delete. Doing this porch first will help us to determine just how much of the natural rain drop melody will be sacrificed for a little thermal efficiency.

Posted Wed Aug 29 16:30:12 2012 Tags:
Box of books

Book cartonThe bibliophiles among you probably know how wonderful it feels to have a box of new reading material show up in your mailbox.  (To be honest, I get the same dragon-sitting-on-my-gems rush when I bring home a dozen library books.)

Well, just imagine how it feels to open a box full of your very own book.  Yes, I did ignore chores and spend the afternoon yesterday flipping through the book I sweated over all winter, and each page looked much better than I remembered.

The Weekend Homesteader

I'll post some relevant facts later, so stay tuned for information on a giveaway of autographed copies, when preordered books are likely to arrive, opportunities for bloggers to get a free review copy, and so forth.

Inside the bookIf you want to glean something for your own life from this post, here's my bit of hard-won wisdom --- excitement fades, so seize the day.  If you're itching to learn to dry tomatoes, make the time to do so while it sounds like fun and before it turns into a chore.

I'm not sure how flipping through the pages of my book could ever seem like a chore, but I'm taking my own advice and curling up with my treasure right now.  And trying to decide whether the close family and friends who will be enjoying the contents of this first box would like their books written in or pristine.  What do you think?

Posted Thu Aug 30 08:51:46 2012 Tags:
clipping wing on a flighty hen

We've been having trouble with one of our hens flying over the 5 foot high pasture fence.

It's the first time we've had to clip a chicken's wing, and we both considered this a last option, but she's had more than one second chance.

Some folks say to just clip one side, which prevents flight due to imbalance but still gives them a few extra inches of feather punch on the other side if they have an encounter with a predator. If she keeps flying over we'll clip the other side.

Posted Thu Aug 30 19:01:05 2012 Tags:
Fresh fig

I might have plucked the first fig too early, but the ants were starting to carve gullies in the skin, so I figured I should beat them to it.  No drops of nectar, though, and the hole at the end didn't look as open as in the photos I've perused online.

Ripe figPerhaps that's why our first fig was tasty, but not the flavor explosion I'd hoped for.  What do you seasoned fig-growers think --- is this fig ripe, or should I have waited a few more days?

This didn't turn out to be our first real fig taste, though, because Mark and I were treated to lightly roasted figs at my brother's wedding.  Wow!

From a search of the internet, roasting a fig sounds as simple as cutting it in half, drizzling on a bit of olive oil, and roasting at 425 for 10 to 12 minutes.  That's a recipe I'll definitely be trying as more of our figs ripen up. 

Our chicken waterer keeps day old chicks and ancient hens well-hydrated so they stay healthy.
Posted Fri Aug 31 08:21:45 2012 Tags:

holding hen while clipping the wing

Little Miss. Independent flew the coop again.

Clipped her other wing today and so far it's working.

Did the same thing to one of her sisters.

Maybe chickens are more susceptible to peer pressure than other livestock?

Posted Fri Aug 31 17:34:23 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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