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

archives for 09/2012

Sep 2012
Mom and Lucy

Mark and I went to the courthouse Thursday to research a property that's one possibility for the Annex.  (One of these days I'll make a real post about the Annex idea, but our dream is still evolving and I don't want to tie it down yet.)  Our title search turned up a disappointing document --- an oil and gas lease from 2003.

Lost mineral rights are one of the main reasons to perform a title search.  As a landowner, you can sell some of your property rights while still living on and farming your land, and those lost rights don't come back when the property is passed on to another owner.  In Appalachia, selling mineral rights is common since many folks are living very close to the financial edge, so a few thousand dollars now and a few hundred every year from now on sounds good even if it means your well might be polluted, your house might cave in, and strangers can tromp across your land at will.

Stick tight flowers

In our case, it's possible the lease has expired --- I'm waiting until the holiday weekend is over to hunt down that data.  According to the contract I read, the gas company needed to either start drilling or start paying the landowner a certain amount within five years, and there's no sign of a well on the property, so we might get lucky and not have to deal with the issue.

But if the mineral rights are no longer attached to the land, Mark and I will be faced with a hard decision.  This property is within easy walking distance (unlike another one we've considered), has lots of road frontage (making it easy to hold public events there), and is south-facing.  There are also several acres currently being managed as hayfields, so it would be relatively painless to install our dream orchard and pasture.  Finally, the property is assessed at $600 per acre, which is right up my skin-flinty alley.  (That's exactly what I paid for our current ugly duckling farm.)

Mom and me

On the con side, the soil is terrible (which I consider more of an interesting puzzle than a real disadvantage) and there's no water.  And then there's the potential deal-breaker --- the lost mineral rights.  So here's my question for thoughtful readers --- would you ever consider buying a piece of land without the mineral rights?  If so, how would the lost rights impact your financial decision?

(As a side note, the photos have nothing to do with this post, as you probably guessed.  Mark and I celebrated Labor Day on Friday by inviting Mom over and we had a lovely time watching a Barred Owl, picking stick tight flowers, and hanging out on the porch.)

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional, filthy waterers.
Posted Sat Sep 1 08:44:14 2012 Tags:
sign of the times

Back in the early 2000's a person could dump their trash around here during normal working hours, and if they were so inclined take home a discarded lawn mower, give it a little TLC, and feel good about recycling the old fashioned way.

It's different now. Scavenging is not only discouraged, but it's treated as criminal behavior. I'm not sure what the fine or jail time might be, but each station now has an attendant to keep an eye out for scavengers.

I'm guessing the cost of those attendants is what forced the reduced hours of operation. A major drag when you drive all the way there and realize they closed at noon, which is the main reason I took this picture. It helps that our new helper has a permit to use multiple county locations, but still requires some basic knowledge of these odd times.

Posted Sat Sep 1 14:49:20 2012 Tags:

Roast figsLast week, I wrote that our first homegrown fig was good, but not sensational.  Roasting the next four figs instead of eating them raw definitely popped them up into the delectable category, though, which started me thinking (again) about fig propagation.

In our climate, a fig "tree" is never going to be much more than a bush.  Any branches I don't protect over the winter die back, so the best case scenario is that our fig will expand upwards from three foot tall trunks each spring.  Since figs set fruit a few at a time over a long season, that means our little fig bush will be giving us four figs here and six figs there for a month or two, which is clearly not going to be enough now that Mark and I have tasted these homegrown fruits in their full glory.

Fig cuttingThe good news is that figs have turned out to be the most disease- and insect-resistant fruits (tied with strawberries and brambles) in our garden, so installing more won't require much effort after the initial planting.  In fact, I'd read that figs are relatively easy to propagate from cuttings, so I half-heartedly tried a few hardwood cuttings this spring.  (If I'd known what the roasted fruits tasted like, I would have put in a bit more effort.)  While pruning, I snipped off a few young branches and inserted them into a pot, covering the top with a bag to hold in moisture.  The cuttings leafed out, but I think I removed the bag too soon because the greenery ended up dying back and the figs petering out.

I'm curious to hear from those of you who have successfully propagated figs.  Did you use hardwood or softwood cuttings?  In the garden or in pots?  During what time of year?  There's a plenitude of information about fig propagation on the internet, but as usual, I'm looking for the lowest tech solution possible, even if the success rate is only 20% --- we've got plenty of scionwood to play with, but limited time during the growing season.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy and the chicken-keeper happy with POOP-free water.
Posted Sun Sep 2 07:22:59 2012 Tags:
fighting blight with copper pennies updated information a week later

I think the penny only stayed in place for a few days, the picture on the right is from today compared to the left one which is from last Sunday with the penny installed for fighting tomato blight.

The plant still has some blight, but the fruit looks healthy.

Maybe a modified paper clip would be strong enough to hold it in place?

Posted Sun Sep 2 13:29:39 2012 Tags:
Homestead from above

Mark and I don't celebrate our anniversaries, but I always try to take an hour to bond with the farm on our move-in date.  This week marks the beginning of the seventh year we've spent here, and the changes are more visible than ever before.

Wild lettuce seeds

Although Bradley's hard work dragging our infrastructure out of the trailer trash category is the most obvious change photographically, what I find more significant is that our tranquility levels are at an all-time high.  I'm tempted to explain that mood away by saying we're mostly caught up with seasonal farm chores, but the truth is we're at about the same place we were in previous years.  The difference is one of attitude.

Trailer with porches

Previously, glancing at a blighted tomato plant would send me into a tailspin, but this year I'm starting to realize that we can manage the blight and still harvest fruits well into the fall.  True, constant mulching has lowered the weeding pressure, but I think part of my contentment with the 2012 garden comes from realizing that a certain level of weeds won't take over and can simply be ignored.

Hearts a burstin'

Meanwhile, we're looking forward to another winter like the last one, when we focus on creative pursuits instead of struggling to catch up on all the tasks we didn't complete over the previous year.  While there are always projects on the back burner, the most pressing improvements are already in place, and Mark and I are both learning to quash our greed for expansion in favor of time for tranquility.

Front garden

Which is all a long way of saying that I'm able to look at last year's anniversary post and laugh at who I was then.  (The pictures are worth a gander, though, since they sum up the changes in our farm over the years quite succinctly.)  Thank you, farm, for helping me grow along with my vegetables!

Our chicken waterer lets us slip away for the weekend from time to time without worrying that our flock will get thirsty.
Posted Mon Sep 3 07:18:55 2012 Tags:

Humanure HandbookThe Humanure Handbook is another book that epitomizes self-publishing.  There are some flaws here and there --- rants that will turn 80% of the audience off and scattered trains of thought --- but the positives far outweigh the negatives.  Instead of producing a book watered down for the masses, Joseph Jenkins has distilled his passion for composting toilets into 250 pages of essential reading for the serious humanure advocate.  (Plus, there are fun cartoons.)


Due to our book club Wednesdays and popular meat rabbit Tuesdays, my humanure lunchtime series is going to be scattered across the next two weeks.  That gives you plenty of time to pick up a copy and read along...especially since you can download a digital version entirely free.  Stay tuned to learn why we don't compost our humanure yet and what kind of system we'd like to use if and when we do.

The Weekend Homesteader helps you choose fun and easy projects to begin your journey toward self-sufficiency.

This post is part of our The Humanure Handbook lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Sep 3 12:01:06 2012 Tags:
building a proper roof for our trailer

We've been having problems with our roof leaking ever since someone gave us this trailer about 6 years ago.

I can't count how many times I "fixed" a leak with roofing tar only to have it come back in a few years.

The new trailer roof project will not only take care of that problem but will cut back on wood burned and split with the extra insulation we plan to install. Trailersteading

Edited to add:

Learn more about insulating and improving the efficiency of a mobile home in
Trailersteading.  Now available on Amazon.

Posted Mon Sep 3 15:32:08 2012 Tags:
Pupating beetle

Somehow in the rush of early June, I seem to have forgotten to post about the world's largest grub, found by Bradley in the horse manure as he shoveled the biomass into buckets to be transported to our worm bin.  While I do exaggerate slightly, the grub Bradley found was significantly larger than a June bug larva, and we took the time to toss it in a flower pot in hopes of learning what the plump youngster would turn into.

Beetle cocoonSaturday, I decided to find out whether there was any life left in my fig cuttings, so I dumped out the contents of that pot.  And broke open a fist-sized ball of dirt that housed a pupating beetle!  The insect was even larger than it had appeared on last viewing, so I carefully fit its pupal chamber back together and refilled the pot, hoping the tween will manage to make it to adulthood despite my poking and prodding.

Mark's original idea after seeing the size of the grub was to raise the species for chicken feed, but I suspect the experiment wouldn't really work out.  Stag beetles usually spend several years in the larval stage, which would make propagating them a slow affair, despite the amount of nutrition each beetle would provide for our flock.

All utilitarian reasons aside, we're itching to see the adult version of this hefty critter.  I suspect the stag beetle it turns into will be awe-inspiring.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock hydrated with clean water while they wait for tasty grubs.
Posted Tue Sep 4 07:52:42 2012 Tags:

Rabbit hutch Before we could actually bring any rabbits home, we had to build a hutch. I've had some ideas in my head for how to construct one, but, as things usually go, we ended up building the hutch based on the materials we had at hand.

Dawn had found two shed doors on the side of the road...and that ended up determining the dimensions of the hutch we built. We used the shed doors as the roof, and we'll later cover these with some tin for longevity.

The hutch is approximately 6 feet by 7 feet, and it's quartered into four separate spaces of roughly 3 feet by 3.5 feet. The hardware cloth I purchased was 2 feet tall, so that ended up being the vertical dimension of the living area.

Dawn had also found some scrap 2x4s and plywood that we were able to press into service for the hutch. The plywood became doors, and 2x4s became the frame. I purchased a few more 2x4s and two 2x6s at the local supply house. The end product ended up being a quite robust hutch that stands about 6 feet tall, with a footprint of about 6x7.

Sorry about the quality of the photo, it was about 9:30 at night when we finished the hutch. We used a 2x6 across the lower support so that it will hold up a bit better over time. The uprights are 2x4s, the roof is 1/2 inch plywood, and the hardware cloth is 1/2 inch in order to allow the pellets to drop through.

One of the major goals of raising rabbits here will be to use the manure in the garden. We have very poor soil, so anything we can add to it will greatly benefit my plants.

All in all, I think the hutch cost us under $100 in material. Considering we should be able to get many litters of rabbits out of it, the structure will eventually pay for itself, I hope.

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

Posted Tue Sep 4 12:00:35 2012 Tags:
biggest sweet potato ever?

Big, big, really big sweet potatoes this year, bigger than those big ones from 2010.

In part due to having almost zero deer damage this year.

We actually might have a few extra that will need to find a home.

Posted Tue Sep 4 16:48:57 2012 Tags:

Curing vegetablesWhen I posted last week about the first copies of my book arriving, I was too excited to give you any details.  Now that I've calmed down a bit, I should start with the semi-bad news --- you're going to have to wait longer than I'd originally thought to see The Weekend Homesteader in bookstores (and in your mailbox).  My publisher decided to push the release date back to November 13 to give them time to get some buzz going, and to take advantage of holiday sales.

Here's the good news --- some of you may not have to wait.  My publicist is willing to send out some advance copies of the book for bloggers to review and/or give away.  I'm not sure how many books that offer encompasses, but I figure it can't hurt to send him information about any of my readers who are interested in reviewing The Weekend Homesteader on their blog.  Just email me the URL of your blog and any relevant statistics that will make you stand out from the pack, and I'll pass the information on to my publisher ASAP.  Thanks for your interest!

Our POOP-free chicken waterer keeps your chickens nearly as spoiled as our cat.
Posted Wed Sep 5 07:24:55 2012 Tags:

Independent AmericanThe second chunk of Radical Homemakers continued the historical journey begun in the first two chapters, but I'd like to cut to the chase and instead discuss Hayes' conclusions.  She wrote that three "homewreckers" are responsible for many of the ills in modern American society: "the compulsion to overwork, the reckless pursuit of affluence, and the credo of individualism."

In my opinion, overworking and trying to get rich are closely related topics, and I've discussed them both in some depth before.  For example, Hayes agrees with others that income does not necessarily equate to happiness, and adds that despite the price tag attached to renewable energy, poor people in general tread more lightly on the earth.  If you haven't read about and thought this issue to death previously, I definitely recommend you look through Hayes' data to see if it speaks to you.

Although I agree with her about the problematic American work ethic, the most thought-provoking part of Hayes' argument came at the very end.  The dream household for a modern American, asserts Hayes, is large enough to allow each family member to hide away with a television in his or her own room, spending little time interacting with the rest of the family or community.  She relates that only seven percent of American families spend more than half an hour at family dinners and that the average American couple has only twelve minutes a day to converse.  As a nation, we are not only pursuing money, but also independent privacy at the expense of a society centered around skill-learning and social-capital-earning.

Mark and I are above average when it comes to building the health of our two-person household, but we still struggle with creating an interdependent community (one of our big goals for the next decade).  I'd be curious to hear which of these homewreckers you find most troublesome in your own life, and --- zooming back out to the larger picture --- I hope you'll chime in on whether you agree with Hayes' setup of the problem.  There were a lot Weekend Homesteaderof other things to think about in these two chapters as well, so feel free to bring up points I've skipped here.

We'll be discussing "Meet the Radical Homemakers" and chapter five next Wednesday, which will start to bring us back out of the land of theory.  (If you get sick of pure philosophy the way I often do, this might be a good place for you to start the book.)  Newcomers are always welcome to join the club!

The Weekend Homesteader is now in print!  (Your copy probably still won't arrive for a couple of months though.)

Posted Wed Sep 5 12:00:40 2012 Tags:
making the new front box bigger to fit in more buckets of manure

We've been hauling in enough horse manure to fill all 3 new worm bins along with the salvaged stock tank.

A little bit of hindsight is showing me that a slight increase in surface area might allow us to add on 2 more buckets up front while snugging them all better for a more secure ride.

Funny how so much horse manure can make you feel extra wealthy.

Posted Wed Sep 5 15:43:59 2012 Tags:
Dead squirrel

Bradley knows that Mark and I are interested in trying out more kinds of wild game, so he kindly brought a squirrel to work with him Wednesday morning.  He had shot it the night before, so the body had gone stiff overnight in the fridge and took five minutes to skin --- a long time compared to the one minute Bradley estimates it usually takes him.

Skin squirrel

After Bradley illustrated the proper skinning and cleaning technique, we chopped the carcass up into thirds as suggested and boiled the meat to provide our lunch.  Unfortunately, neither Mark nor I were thrilled by the taste.  I could have spiced it up relatively easily, but wanted to get an idea of what squirrel really tasted like, so left it plain.

Gut squirrel

Squirrel carcassI'm not sure our analysis of the flavor was really fair, though.  When I was able to pretend I wasn't eating squirrel, I thought it tasted a bit like chicken, but for some reason the idea of eating a squirrel didn't sit well with me.  I don't think Mark was able to divorce the idea of "squirrel" from what was on his plate at all.

In a pinch, I'm now confident that I could skin and gut a squirrel, and I suspect that hidden in a pot of vegetable soup, neither of us would have any complaints about squirrel meat.  But for now, we're going to stick to cultivated meat and venison, with the idea of rabbit still floating around for later.

(As a side note, Lucy was far more interested in the squirrel hide, head, and entrails than she usually is in offal.  Sounds like she, at least, has no problem wrapping her head around eating squirrel.)

Our chicken waterer lets you leave town for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Thu Sep 6 07:55:28 2012 Tags:

Outhouse pollutionBefore we dive into composting humanure, it's worth understanding what happens to your crap if you are plugged into a conventional system.  Your waste is commonly known as sewage, but in the industry, it's generally referred to as wastewater (or possibly blackwater if you're making a distinction between the output of your toilet and sink).  Wastewater disposal methods range from the simple to the complex, and Jenkins does a good job of pointing out the pros and cons of each system.

The cheapest way to dispose of human waste is the pit latrine, which is basically our system at the moment.  The worst problem with a pit latrine is its tendency to leak pollutants into the groundwater, which is why an outhouse should always be more than fifty feet away from any well or stream.  Assuming you work around that issue, other problems include disease-transmission, annoying flies, and smell, all of which can be avoided by keeping the humanure covered with a high carbon material after each use.

If your outhouse isn't grandfathered in like ours, you'll be forced to install a septic system in most parts of the United States.  Septic system owners use a conventional toilet inside the house, then the wastewater flows to a septic tank for solids to settle out.  The liquid continues on to a leach field, which is simply a series of buried pipes that let water drain out into the subsoil.

The biggest disadvantage of septic systems, in my opinion, is cost, since even the cheapest onces will set you back at least $2,000.  In addition, you have to Septic systempump the solids out of the septic tank at intervals, and that material ends up being sent to a wastewater treatment plant, which has its own problems.  Finally, Jenkins notes that concentrations of more than 40 septic systems per square mile lead to subsurface contamination, which means that if you and your neighbors have lots smaller than about 16 acres, septic systems are a bad choice.  (I suspect this same issue would come into play with pit latrines/outhouses.)

In the city, wastewater is pumped to a central treatment facility, which can use any of several methods to treat the human waste.  I won't go into wastewater treatment plants much here since I doubt any of you are thinking of installing one in your backyard, but Jenkins explains in great depth why the facilities are problematic.  In addition to the puzzle of disposing of organic matter laced with toxins (due to treatment) and the chlorinated effluent harming receiving streams, we waste energy by treating water and then using it to flush our toilets.

The Humanure Handbook
asks us to step back and change our view of humanure.  If we consider our effluent to be a valuable form of organic matter rather than something to dispose of, we can create systems that recycle humanure into apples.  Yes, humanure composting systems require a little more time, but they also use less money and create less pollution, so they fit the homesteading ethic to a T.

The Weekend Homesteader covers easier projects like rain barrels that can still lower your ecological footprint.

This post is part of our The Humanure Handbook lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Sep 6 12:01:06 2012 Tags:
mark Lightstone
metal roofing tin lightstone color

It took us a little over 2 hours to shuttle the new roofing tin from our parking area back to the trailer.

The color we chose is called Lightstone, and the manufacturer claims it should last at least 40 years at a cost of $1.87 per foot.

Be sure to check back with us in 40 years for a detailed report on the exact condition of the metal and how well it holds up over the next 4 decades.

Posted Thu Sep 6 16:49:10 2012 Tags:
Radish cover crop

This week is our last chance to plant oilseed radishes, so I made a lot of hard-nosed decisions.  For example, I ripped out all of the older beds of beans and just kept one to enjoy until the frost --- I'd rather miss out on some subpar beans than lose a whole season of cover-cropping.  Similarly, the oilseed calendar is the main reason I harvested my sweet potatoes this week, since I wanted to be able to put cover crops in the tubers' place.

Radishes under blighted tomatoes

Meanwhile, I slipped oilseed radishes into gaps where fall crops didn't come up, and I even pulled back the mulch and tossed down seeds around sweet corn that will be done bearing this week and around tomatoes that look too blighted to last much longer.  Since my new method of cleaning up after large crops involves cutting the spent plants at ground level and leaving the roots in place, removing the finished vegetables won't disrupt the radish seedlings.  And I figure the oilseed radishes won't get big enough to compete before the corn and tomatoes are done.

Oilseed radish

Since Mark talked me into splurging on 25 pounds of oilseed radish seeds, I'm trying out some crazy experiments too.  I seeded an entire chicken pasture in oilseed radishes and planted some radishes around the base of a young apple tree.  I'm not too thrilled with the pasture planting --- I think the shade set the cover crop back -- but the apple has sparse enough leaves that I think it might coexist quite well with the radishes.

Sprouting oilseed radishes

Unlike buckwheat seeds (which get eaten up by cardinals in short order if I don't sprinkle a light coating of straw over top after planting), radish seeds don't seem to be enjoyed by wildlife. So I simply scatter the radish seeds on the soil surface by eye, often ending up seeding thicker than I really should (like in the photo above).  I figure it's worth a bit more seed to keep effort to a minimum.

Young oilseed radish

All told, I used 12 pounds of oilseed radish seeds this year, which cost about $43.  If I figure I planted about 5 pounds of that in 27 beds in the garden (with the rest going into the pasture), that comes to 66 cents per bed, compared to maybe 83 cents per bed if I overwintered the garden by mulching it with straw.  Of course, it would be considerably cheaper to use oats as our winter cover crop, but we wanted to give oilseed radishes a more serious try this year to see if they're worth the extra money.

In case you haven't been following along for the last couple of years, here are some relevant posts about oilseed radishes:

Hopefully that'll inspire you to try out some cover crops in your garden, if not this year, then next.

Our chicken waterer is the permaculture solution, making backyard chicken care easy and healthy for you and your birds.
Posted Fri Sep 7 07:40:33 2012 Tags:

Humanure pathogensNext week, I'll continue our humanure lunchtime series by delving into several different types of composting systems.  However, before you get too excited, I want to take a step back and consider the biggest issue with humanure composting.

No, I'm not talking about disease.  Joseph Jenkins does an admirable job of explaining how a well-managed humanure recycling system is perfectly safe.  (Check out The Humanure Handbook if you don't believe me.)  I'm more concerned with an issue that's already problematic on our farm --- a paucity of high carbon materials.

Deep beddingWe've been experimenting with deep bedding in our chicken coop for the last couple of years, which is a bit like a humanure composting system for chickens.  Theoretically, the idea has merit, and it does work pretty well in practice, but I'm always scrambling in search of quality bedding.

In a pinch, I can use straw, but I don't like buying carbon for my chickens to poop on, and the optimal bedding is higher in carbon and smaller in size so chickens can scratch through and mix the bedding regularly.  When we run out of autumn leaves, either raked from the woods or collected by my kind mother during city trash pickup days, manure piles up, smells turn foul, and flies start to plague our porch dinners.  The conclusion is: we don't have enough high carbon materials for essential uses right now without diverting some to a humanure composting system.

Jenkins recommends hunting down 20 cubic feet of sawmill sawdust per hundred pounds of human body weight in the household per year, which (rounding up to include guests and to give us a bit of wiggle room) would equate to 80 cubic feet (600 gallons) for us.  That's 120 five gallon buckets or 7 of our 95 gallon wheelie bins full --- a pretty hefty helping of sawdust for which we've yet to find a source.  In addition, he recommends having about ten bales of straw or hay on hand for covering the outdoor pile.  (I'll explain more about the uses of the two types of high carbon material in a later post.)

Humanure compostingJenkins does offer sawdust alternatives, including peat moss, leaf mould, rice hulls, or grass clippings (although I'm not so sure grass clippings would work well --- they're pretty high in nitrogen).  However, all of those sources would either have to be bought or would require considerable effort to gather, making their use equally problematic.

Mark isn't a fan of humanure composting, so he was very relieved when I told him I couldn't even consider a system until we stock up on enough high carbon bedding for the chickens plus a year's supply for a humanure system.  Looks like we'll be scouring the countryside in search of a sawmill....

If humanure composting seems too intense, you'll enjoy easier projects outlined in The Weekend Homesteader.

This post is part of our The Humanure Handbook lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Sep 7 12:01:11 2012 Tags:
new chicks looking out on a vast ocean of green

We've got a new batch of fresh chicks. The last one of 2012.

They seem to have made themselves at home and look at the new observation window with curiosity.

Maybe being curious at such a young age will make them better at foraging for bugs?

Posted Fri Sep 7 16:11:15 2012 Tags:
Cutting celery

Celery is one of the herbs/vegetables I used to eat a lot, but found too nitpicky to grow in my garden.  Luckily, I discovered that parsley fills in very well as a substitute in soups and salads during the spring, fall, and winter, although in the middle of summer, the herb becomes too woody and strong to be pleasant raw.

This year, I decided to try a new celery substitute for those hot summer months --- Par-cel cutting celery, an heirloom herb dating back to eighteenth century Netherlands.  Cutting celery looks a lot like parsley, with small stems and lots of leaves, but tastes more like celery.  I found the ribs and leaves very pleasant in tuna salad this year, but would warn you that if you don't like the slightly bitter taste of celery leaves, you won't like cutting celery --- there are a lot more leaves than stalks.

The other downside of cutting celery is that it didn't seem to want to germinate when direct-seeded at the frost-free date in my garden.  Out of my small trial packet of 200 seeds, I only ended up with two plants.  If you want to try it out, I suspect that cutting celery might be better started in flats so you can keep the moisture levels just right for speedy germination.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative for the health-conscious chicken-keeper.
Posted Sat Sep 8 08:15:42 2012 Tags:

new 13 amp Skil circular saw with carry bag/purseWe replaced the old 12 amp Skil saw with the next step up this week.

The main lesson I learned is to keep an eye on the sharpness of the blade and to put a fresh one on before it's too late.

It came with a nice tote bag that could double as a purse for the ladies out there with an industrial twist to their fashion sense. Perfect for date night when you want to sneak a six pack of beer into the theatre.

Posted Sat Sep 8 14:52:50 2012 Tags:

Ten Acres EnoughTen Acres Enough was originally published in 1864, but the farming memoir stands the test of time extremely well.  I picked up the Norton Creek Press edition, which includes Robert Plamondon's occasional footnotes and careful calculations of what the original dollar amounts would come to in today's terms.  If you don't mind foregoing those small conveniences, though, you can read the book online for free.

Those of you who were struck by the careful use of organic matter in Farmers of Forty Centuries will be intrigued by Edmund Morris's fascination with manure.  His first year on the farm, he spent $248 on manure ($5,700 in today's dollars), and when he had more money on hand, he was happy to part with $358 ($8,228 today) for manure during his third year.  He chose to keep his livestock completely confined and cut clover from his field to feed them as a way of maximizing his homegrown manure production, and he also collected tree leaves from the wild to add to the compost pile.  All told, perhaps a third of Ten Acres Enough is devoted to discussions of organic matter.

Horse cultivatorThe larger theme, though, is how to make a simple but dependable living on a ten acre farm.  I doubt that an American farmer could follow Morris's lead today due to competition with factory farms, but some of his points are just as valid now as they were a century and a half ago.  Morris believed strongly that debt is the downfall of many a businessman (since he struggled against the problem for the first many years of his life).  He was also keen on focusing on a quality product (unique if possible) marketed to a wealthy urban clientele.

In the introduction, Robert Plamondon describes this classic text as follows:  "Ten years after Henry David Thoreau learned how to be a poor farmer, Edmund Morris learned how to be a good one."  I totally agree.  If you're interested in a glimpse into American small farm life in the 1850s, this quick and fun read is the book for you.

Treat your hard-working hens to a POOP-free chicken waterer.
Posted Sun Sep 9 08:41:39 2012 Tags:
visual close up of dull circular saw blade next to brand new sharp carbide tip never before used

The main symptom of a dull circular saw blade is the motor bogging down making cuts harder to push through.

Above is a side by side comparison of our old 12 amp Skil saw blade and a brand new carbide tipped blade.

Maybe a circular saw from the future will have a feature where it scans each tooth and shuts down or beeps when the dullness is too much for the motor to handle.

Posted Sun Sep 9 14:19:13 2012 Tags:
Meetup group

One of our goals in creating the Walden Effect Annex is to build our community, either by bringing in likeminded folks from outside the area or by tempting intriguing locals to come out of the woodwork.  While the Annex remains a work in progress, Mark and I made a start on the second goal this weekend by creating a Meetup group --- the Extreme SW Virginia Permaculture Guild.

The Extreme SW Virginia Permaculture Guild brings together farmers, gardeners, homesteaders, and dreamers in the extreme southwest tip of Virginia (and surrounding areas). Join us as we swap seeds, visit farms, taste tomatoes, build community permaculture projects, and share ideas about living sustainably.

Do you want to learn more about forest gardening, homegrown edible mushrooms, top bar hives, or vegetable varieties that do well without chemicals? Do you want to talk to someone who's heard of Paul Stamets, Joel Salatin, or Bill Mollison (and maybe bring one of these experts to speak in our region)? Perhaps you'd like to meet up with folks interested in creating a cowshare or intentional community? If so, this group is for you, no matter how little or much experience you've had with permaculture in the past.

We're currently planning a seed swap full of heirloom tomatoes, locally adapted garlic, old-timey beans, and much more, with date and location to be announced on the meetup group soon.  Everyone who lives within driving distance of Dungannon, Virginia, is welcome to join --- just follow the link and click the "Join us!" button in the upper right hand corner of your screen.  I'm looking forward to meeting you soon.

Our POOP-free chicken waterer is sponsoring the first year of Meetup fees, so membership is free.

Posted Mon Sep 10 07:27:19 2012 Tags:

Clivus multrum toiletBefore The Humanure Handbook hit the stage, most of the systems in practice were cool composting toilets.  In contrast to Jenkins' thermophilic composting system (which I'll discuss in Thursday's post), these cool composting systems relied on time to kill off any pathogens in the humanure.

In general, leaving a pile of humanure to compost for two years is a sufficient safety margin even if the pile doesn't heat up at all, although roundworm eggs can survive for up to ten years under these conditions.  If you apply composted humanure under the mulch around ornamentals or fruit trees, though, this issue may not matter.

The Clivus Multrum is probably the best known of the cool composting systems, and most of the other designs work similarly.  Jenkins recommends designing a cool composting toilet with at least two chambers so you can close off one after filling and let the humanure age for a couple of years before removing the compost.  When starting a new chamber, fill it about Two vault composting toilethalfway with an absorbent, high carbon material, then keep more of the sawdust on hand to drop down the hole after each use.  A chimney-pipe-type ventilation system will pull any smells up above nose-level, and leachate can be collected in a five gallon bucket of sawdust that is tossed back down the hole at intervals.

Despite the problem with using humanure compost from this type of toilet on food crops, it does have a major advantage --- simplicity.  Unlike Jenkins' system, there's little regular maintenance required beyond finding sawdust, and the compost is high quality after the extended aging period.

I'd be curious to hear from anyone who's using a cool composting system like this.  What design did you use (or what brand did you buy)?  How has it worked out for you?  Do you have additional pros and cons to add to this description?

The Weekend Homesteader provides one fun and easy project for each weekend of the year.

This post is part of our The Humanure Handbook lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Sep 10 12:01:12 2012 Tags:
putting a roof on a mobile home or trailer single wide

The framing should be finished up tomorrow on the mobile home roof project.

Insulation and metal after that will make the winter warm and drip free.

Posted Mon Sep 10 15:17:08 2012 Tags:

Opening the Warre hiveWhen I delved into the Warre hive for the first time last week, I learned why I sometimes see Warre beekeepers with a wire tool a bit like a cheese-slicer.  The boxes aren't as keen on coming apart as Lanstroths are, so I accidentally ripped part of a few combs in half when they stuck to the top bars of the hive body below.  I guess I'll have to rig some kind of wax-slicer for the next time I open the hive...a year from now.

In the meantime, we'll be pouring sugar water down the bees' gullets to make sure they double their winter stores in the next month.  Except for only having only one box full of Warre hive boxhoney, the hive looked quite healthy, with a lot of new workers about to hatch out and get to work collecting ragweed pollen and goldenrod nectar.

I also noticed that my ant problem had been taken care of with a biological control --- a skink moved into the quilt.  I love how the neglect method solves so many farm pest problems.

We bought all of Bradley's father's honey this summer since we want our bees to keep everything they produce during their first year.  I'm debating splitting the hive next year and spending another year without homegrown honey, or trying to find a local nuc next spring to increase our apiary while allowing this first hive to feed us.  Even though the decision seems far in the future, we learned the hard way that tracking down local bees should be started early, so we'll probably choose between our options soon.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional filthy waterers.
Posted Tue Sep 11 07:50:55 2012 Tags:

Rabbit watererWhen keeping any animal, one of the necessities is, of course, providing food and water. This post will cover how I am providing water for my rabbits.

The result of my efforts is a bit of an experiment involving some creativity in providing a constant source of water for my rabbits, while not requiring that I tend to their water needs manually every day. We have more problems here with heat of the summer than freezing in the winter, so freezing isn't much of a concern. Heat issues are very much a concern though, so water is important.

We started with the traditional rabbit water bottles until we could build the system that we wanted. We also used one rabbit as a test subject to see if we could get him to drink from one of Mark and Anna's chicken water nipples. He took to this method of drinking pretty well, so we then decided to expand on the test. All three of the rabbits we have at present will now be drinking from this watering system.'s expandable.

I started out with a handful of supplies and some tools seen below:

DIY rabbit waterer

Tapping nippleI used a toilet tank fill valve assembly to autofill a bucket with water. I used part of an old broken fill valve assembly to make the outlet in the bottom of the bucket. From there, I used PVC pipe to go into the rabbit hutch.

The chicken waterers seem to be 1/8 male tapered pipe threads, so I used a drill bit and tap to thread some PVC end caps. The waterer nipples are then screwed into these, and it seems to work pretty well. I drilled and tapped the end caps at a bit of an angle to make it easier for the rabbits to drink from them. I'd say it's about a 20 degree angle...and they seem to still seal OK.

Rabbit nipple watererThe bucket is suspended above the hutch to give head pressure, and a benefit during dry times is that we have a drip line that comes off the bucket to water some nearby plants. This also keeps the water in the bucket a bit fresher for the rabbits. There's a Y adapter and shut off so we can drain the bucket and/or shut off the drip line.

So far, the rabbits seem to take to it pretty well. And it makes keeping them well watered almost no effort at all.

Dawn managed to catch this footage of one of our rabbits drinking a few days after the new system was installed.

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

Posted Tue Sep 11 12:01:04 2012 Tags:
mark Sliding
metal roofing doing it yourself by lifting

It was a great day for sliding metal up a ladder.

A bit more sliding and we'll have a complete roof sometime tomorrow.

Posted Tue Sep 11 15:48:25 2012 Tags:
Week old chicks

I was shocked to wake up Tuesday morning to chilly weather in the mid 40s.  While I'm never really ready to see summer go, we've reached our freezer goals (20 gallons, mostly soup) and have changed over to drying tomatoes for winter treats.

Drying tomatoesThe fall garden is starting to produce, and I've been zipping back through with another round of weeding and mulching before the ground becomes too cold to enjoy sinking my hands into.  Winter weeds have snuck into small spots of bare ground where I pulled the mulch back to plant seedlings, and I want to stay ahead of them.

Now's also a good time to kill mulch "lawn" areas that I want to fill with perennials this winter or vegetables next spring.  Mark's done a great job of reclaiming some brambly patches with persistant mowing this summer, so a simple kill mulch will be enough to turn those areas into arable ground.

Despite planning ahead for fall, winter, and even next spring, I'm far from ready for a frost.  Our average first frost date is October 10, but Bradley predicts freezing weather to come before the end of September.  What do you think?

Our chicken waterer keeps our new chicks perky by keeping out disease-causing manure.
Posted Wed Sep 12 07:07:12 2012 Tags:
Bike to Trader Joe's

In the third selection from Radical Homemakers, Shannon Hayes left the realm of theory and began to explore the similarities she'd noticed among the radical homemakers interviewed.  She explained that radical homemakers had redefined poverty and wealth, finding joy in free time, a strong marriage (if applicable), happy friendships, a cohesive family, and good food rather than striving to achieve the highest earning potential.

The chapter sought to dispel the myth that the following facets of middle class life are unachievable in a single- (or no-) wage-earner household:

  • Transportation
  • Housing
  • Health care
  • Child care
  • Education
  • Retirement

Many of the radical homemakers' methods of achieving these goals on the cheap were inspiring --- focusing on good food, low stress, and community bonds to ensure your health, for example.  Other methods were obvious --- there's no need to pay for child care if at least one parent is at home full time. 

HomeschoolBut I was struck by how middle class all of the assumptions (and participants) were.  Many of the radical homemakers chose to homeschool and not jump through the expensive and time-consuming hoops required to get their kids into the right preschool so they could get into the right private school and then into the right college.  And yet, 27% of those parents had gone to grad or med school and 30% had a bachelor's degree (usually listed as being from a prestigious private school), while only 3% and 6% had chosen the traditionally lower class options of the military or a community college/technical school.  (Actually, I suspect those higher education percentages are underestimates --- anyone whose bio didn't explicitly mention their education went into my "potentially high school" category, but many of those people may simply have not self-identified based on their school.)  Those statistics tell me that the majority of the participants in the study were culturally middle class people who had access to options not available to the average American.

Middle class homesteadingI could pick apart other middle class assumptions (especially in the housing and income levels of the radical homemakers), but I wanted to throw this week's thought question out to my readers before you all roll your eyes and move on.  A couple of you commented on last week's post to say that when you're truly poor, you can't help working long hours to support your family.  With that in mind, I'm beginning to wonder whether Radical Homemakers really represents a template that we can all use to live well on less, or whether the book should be subtitled "how not to go quite as crazy as a middle class American."  We've discussed this topic in relation to Walden previously, but I thought it was worth rehashing with a more modern perspective.  What do you think?

If you're still reading along, we'll finish up the book by discussing chapters six and seven (and the profiles if you feel so inclined) next Wednesday.  Then we'll take a week off before diving into a book that I've been itching to savor for months --- The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips.  I'm not sure how this text will do as a book club selection since it's more factual and less philosophical than the Weekend Homesteaderother ones we've been discussing, but I have a feeling from the sections I've dipped into that Phillips' new book will change the way we all look at fruit trees and bushes, and I know it's one of the few books that will make the cut and stay on my permanent bookshelf.  So put in that interlibrary loan request now and we'll start discussing chapter 1 of The Holistic Orchard on October 3.

If you want to be the first one on your block to see Walden Effect readers' homesteading innovations in print, preorder your copy of The Weekend Homesteader today.

Posted Wed Sep 12 12:01:15 2012 Tags:
new porch roof for mobile home

We decided to upgrade our sad back porch during this mobile home roof project.
Posted Wed Sep 12 16:00:40 2012 Tags:

Zestar applesMark likes apples the way I like peaches --- he figures even a substandard apple is better than nothing.  While I wait for the Winesaps to show up at the fruit stand, he works his way through supermarket apples, trying variety after variety in hopes that one will finally make the cut.

And, to my astonishment, one did.  The Zestar apples Mark brought home from the grocery store last week taste like homegrown, unpasteurized apple cider, but with the crisp crunch Mark craves.  Sweet and sour at the same time, the variety even won me over!

But was it the apple or the tree?  Always the sleuth, I was struck by the Zestar's sticker, Fowler Farmswhich wasn't as slick and professional looking as usual.  It turns out our Zestars came from a family farm in New York state that's been in operation for 150 years.  There, apples are grown using a method that I'd never heard of before --- the super spindle system.

This system (and its relatives, the tall spindle, slender spindle, and vertical axis) uses dwarf trees and crams them so close together they're mere vertical sticks.  In addition to bearing quickly (you can expect 15 to 20 apples the second year), trees planted in the super spindle Super spindlesystem don't shade any part of the tree, so fruits get full sunlight that leads to optimal flavor.

Like any orchard system, super spindle has its downfalls --- in this case, fiddliness.  I haven't had any luck with dwarf fruit trees in the past, which I suspect is because I expected them to live in poor soil areas without irrigation.  When you plant trees two feet apart in the super spindle system, you have to treat your orchard like a high value vegetable garden, giving it constant care.

But those Zestar apples tasted so good, and I have a spot just the right size to try a row of super spindle apple trees.  So I think I'll give it a shot --- stay tuned for more data on the system as it progresses!

Our chicken waterer steals the secrets of industrial chicken-farmers and brings the good parts to the backyard.
Posted Thu Sep 13 07:28:13 2012 Tags:

Loveable looIn contrast to the more widely used cool humanure composting systems, the author of The Humanure Handbook recommends thermophilic composting.  His method is extremely safe since all pathogens die when compost achieves a temperature of 143.6 degrees for an hour, 122 degrees for a day, 114.8 degrees for a week, or 109.4 degrees for a month.  As a result, Jenkins has used homemade humanure compost in his vegetable garden with impunity for decades.

Jenkins' system uses the inside toilet as a mere collection device.  He fills a five gallon bucket partway with sawdust, then adds another layer of sawdust after each use.  Once the bucket is full, he carries it out to his Humanure Hacienda (a two-bin outdoor compost pile), rakes back the covering material in the center of the pile, deposits his load, and covers everything back up with straw, hay, weeds, leaves, or grass clippings.  After rinsing out the bucket, he pours that water on the compost pile as well, and all of his food scraps are similarly deposited.

Humanure haciendaThe Jenkins family of four fills one bin of the Humanure Hacienda each year.  On the summer solstice, Jenkins shuts off the old bin and lays down about eighteen inches of pile-covering materials in the other bin.  By the time the second bin is full, the humanure in the first bin has thoroughly composted and is ready to apply to the garden, leaving the first bin empty and ready to refill.

While Jenkins' system is definitely tried and true, I don't really see the point of carrying humanure around in buckets.  After living for a few years without a toilet in the house, using the bathroom indoors has started to feel unsanitary (and also boring --- no wildlife viewing opportunities), so I'd be more inclined to move the whole humanure system outdoors.  Tomorrow's post will end our lunchtime series with a couple of iterations of Jenkins' design that keep poop-handling to a minimum while retaining the benefits of thermophilic composting.

The Weekend Homesteader walks you through no-till gardening, cooking with homegrown goodies, keeping chickens, and much more in simple weekend segments.

This post is part of our The Humanure Handbook lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Sep 13 12:01:10 2012 Tags:
Malco power tin cutting

Anna and I were both intrigued with Bradley's Malco TSHD Turboshear today.

The cost is around 80 dollars and it hooks up to any powered drill.

It's the easy way to cut metal roofing panels without cramping your hand.

Posted Thu Sep 13 14:56:57 2012 Tags:
Honeybee collecting pollen

Why were my New England asters ignored while my mother's neighborhood bees flocked to her flowers?  I had to look a little closer to solve this two year old puzzle.

Bee on New England asterNotice how both girls  I photographed visiting our New England aster this week have full pollen sacs (the bright yellow lumps on their hind legs)?  All of the bees hunting through our big aster bush were similarly encumbered, which suggests that the plant species is a great source of pollen, but not of nectar.

Since ragweed produces even more pollen, I'm not surprised to find that our bees gave the New England asters a pass until the better pollen source faded.  That's the same reason they're ignoring my sugar water feeder and heading straight for the yellow flowers (wingstem, woodland sunflowers, stick-tights, etc.) in search of nectar.

The upshot is --- if you need late summer pollen, especially in polished city areas, New England asters are a good choice.  But don't bother if you live in a less manicured area with lots of wild pollen sources.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to messy homestead chores.
Posted Fri Sep 14 07:10:29 2012 Tags:

Building the humanure haciendaThis week, I've written about cool composting toilets like the Clivus Multrum (easy to use but not as safe) and Joseph Jenkins' thermophilic composting system (more time-consuming but producing vegetable-garden-safe compost).  Today, I'd like to mention two systems that seem to combine the best of both worlds.

The first system isn't one I've actually seen online, but it seems to be an obvious upgrade to Jenkins' Humanure Hacienda for those of us who don't mind cold butts.  Why not simply make a platform above each composting bin and deposit your waste directly?  Presumably, the slatted bin sides and the addition of straw or hay and food scraps would still prompt the pile to heat up, and there'd be no need to handle poop.

Wheelie bin composting toiletA design that's already been tried out is Milkwood's rollie bin composting toilet.  This Australian farm brings in a lot of students and interns, so the proprietors didn't feel comfortable handling strangers' waste.  Instead, they built a raised outhouse that dropped humanure into a rolling trashcan.  When the first can filled up, it could simply be rolled out of the way to compost in the sun for a year while a new can took its place.

What kind of interesting composting toilet have you come up with?  I'm very curious to hear from anyone who's designed a thermophilic humanure composting system that's not based on Jenkins' design.

The Weekend Homesteader starts your journey with projects that are basic but also useful.

This post is part of our The Humanure Handbook lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Sep 14 12:01:18 2012 Tags:
mobile home roof do it yourself trailer roof

Finished up the mobile home roof project.

The next step is to install some gutters and figure out where to divert the water to.

Posted Fri Sep 14 15:55:00 2012 Tags:

Tall spindle apple treeI enjoyed reading the varied responses to my post introducing high density apple orchard techniques, so I thought you'd like to follow along as I lay out my experiment.  Here are the first few decisions I had to make:

Do I want to use an industrial-type, apple-planting system?  Unless you're willing to commit time every month to playing with your trees, you might be better off trying something else.  Other options for diversifying your backyard orchard exist, such as espaliers and fruit cocktail trees, and if you just want lots of apples with little work, a semi-standard tree is the way to go.  But if your goal is to grow lots of apples in a small space, and you are willing to put in the effort to win those rewards, one of these industrially tested systems may work well for you.

Which kind of high density system should I choose?  There are perhaps a dozen different systems that let you cram lots of apples into a small space, and each one is managed a little differently.  The systems that put the trees closest together (such as the super spindle) cost more per acre to begin with since you have to buy a lot more trees and trellising, but many industry analysts suggest super spindle orchards also bring in the most profit by the eighth year because apple yields are higher.  Those of us growing trees in the backyard are probably less concerned about economics and more concerned with cramming as many varieties as possible into a small space without committing to an excessive amount of maintenance.  I eventually settled on the tall spindle system as best for most backyard growers since it combines nearly as high yields as the super spindle with less fidgety maintenance.  (I'll make a post on maintenance later --- this one's just about designing the planting.)

Apple rootstocks

What kind of rootstock should I choose?  Experts suggest G.41, (aka Geneva 41), G.11, G.935, M.9 (aka Malling 9), M.9T337, or Bud.9 (aka Budagovsky 9).  These are all extremely dwarfing rootstocks, so if you're planting a less vigorous apple variety, the next step up (like M.26) might be better.  Keep in mind that choosing one of these ultra-dwarfing rootstocks means it's going to be mandatory for you to keep your trees completely weeded, mulched, and watered at all times, so if you're going to be neglectful, you might want to follow one of our readers' suggestion and plant a semi-standard tree, then use pruning and training to keep the apple's size down.  I'm going to include a few semi-standard trees in my planting to allow me to compare and contrast with the dwarfs, but I chose Bud.9 for most of my rootstocks.

How close together should I plant the trees?  Depending on which expert you talk to (and which high density system you're using), trees should be spaced two to nine feet apart, in rows that are ten to fourteen feet separate.  This calculator is a great way to get an Staked dwarf applesidea of proper spacing based on your specific conditions --- I think that three feet is going to be about the right distance between trees in each row in my garden.  Meanwhile, the recommended between-row spacing should be taken with a grain of salt if you're squishing these dwarf apples into your home garden since the distance is really meant to prevent shading of the next row over.  So I felt quite comfortable leaving a mere four foot aisle between my new tall spindle apple bed and a bed used for perennial propagation since new cuttings prefer moderate shade.

How do I prepare for my trees?  I laid down a kill mulch of cardboard covered by well-rotted wood chips to prepare for late fall planting of my dwarf apple trees.  The mulched row will be about three feet wide, then we'll mow the grassy aisles just like in our vegetable garden.  The one big difference between starting a high-density apple row and a vegetable row is that I'm going to have to erect some kind of support for the dwarf trees before they arrive --- either a ten foot tall stake for each one or a trellis --- and will lay out an irrigation system now so watering doesn't get away from me in the spring.

Well-feathered apple treeHow many trees should I plant?  Experts suggest you may get 15 to 20 apples per tree the second year, 50 to 60 the third year, 100 apples the fourth year, and a bushel the fifth year if you start with well-feathered trees.  ("Well-feathered" refers to whether the tree has small branches --- experts on high-density apple plantings recommend selecting a tree at least 5/8 inch in diameter and 5 feet tall with 10 to 15 feathers less than a foot long, all above 30 inches off the ground.)  So take a look at how many apples your family consumes, how well the varieties you've selected keep, and how ripening times are scattered across the year when deciding how many trees to order.  (Don't forget to factor in other fruits ripening up on your homestead too!)

The only other tidbit I considered when planning my experimental tall spindle orchard was comparisons to normal apple trees.  I'm curious to discover whether the ultra-dwarfing rootstocks will be able to find enough micronutrients to keep apple flavor at its peak, so I'm including a couple of varieties in my planting that I already have growing as semi-standard trees in the forest garden.  Once they're all bearing, we'll conduct some side-by-side taste tests.

But that's a long experiment in the future.  Stay tuned for another post about training and pruning, an essential component of a high density apple planting, coming up soon.

Our chicken waterer keeps chickens, ducks, quail, and more around the world healthy with clean water.
Posted Sat Sep 15 08:43:23 2012 Tags:
mark Kill mulch
using cardboard to build walls on the golf cart hauling area

We took it easy on Friday with some fun chores.

What could be more fun than aged wood chips and cardboard?
Posted Sat Sep 15 15:48:04 2012 Tags:
Warre hive entrance

Package of beesGetting ready for cold weather is a two-part project with our bees.  The first step is to make sure they have enough honey, but equally important is ensuring the bees are healthy enough to make it through the winter.  That means counting varroa mites to see if these blood-suckers will weaken our colony unduly.

I wasn't terribly concerned about varroa mites this year for a variety of reasons.  Most importantly, we started with a package this spring, which (like a hive split) naturally causes a break in varroa mite reproduction and lowers populations of this pest drastically.  We also paid extra to get bees from a source that doesn't treat chemically, meaning that the colonies which can't handle mites have been bred out.

Sticky board

So I wasn't surprised to find only 22 varroa mites on my stickyboard after a three day test.  There were so few mites on the board that I counted every one rather than measuring out sample regions!

If your mite counts don't turn up as stellar as ours, you should first estimate how many mites you had fall per thousand bees in the hive --- it's not as big a deal to see a lot of mites if you have a lot of bees.  Next step is to use these organic varroa mite solutions --- we've used options 1, 2, 3, 4, and 9 so far.

Now I just need to sit back and watch the bees sock away honey, then leave them alone until spring.

Good food comes from healthy animals and a POOP-free chicken waterer is the first step in ensuring the health of your backyard flock.
Posted Sun Sep 16 08:06:53 2012 Tags:
new chick running with our cat?

When we first started putting our new chicks outside we put up a small fence to keep them from wandering too far.

Turns out a few really brave chicks would find a way through the fence and get upset when they realized getting back in is not as easy or fun as escaping.

We took away the fence and noticed they didn't go more than a few feet from the brooder. It feels like they're getting lessons in foraging for food sooner than our previous attempts at hatching chicks but that's hard to prove.

Our cats Huckleberry and Strider deserve a medal for figuring out the chicks are connected to us and are not available for a quick snack.

Posted Sun Sep 16 14:51:35 2012 Tags:
Beetle larva on raspberry

Soldier beetle larvaYou can always tell where the most luscious fruits are in my garden because these velvety black, beetle larva soon show up to drink the juices.  The scientific community claims that soldier beetle larvae suck the liquids out of other insects' eggs and young, but the fuzzy baby beetles clearly like sugar water too.

In my early days on the farm, I'd be tempted to dub these guys "bad bugs".  But the truth is that battling insects is a thankless project --- it's much more fun to tweak ecosystems into balance so no one is really bad.

Insect on fig

In fact, soldier beetles are on most gardeners' list of good bugs since they'll chow down on cucumber beetles, caterpillars, grasshopper eggs, aphids, and other troublesome denizens of the garden.  And the beetle larvae really don't hit my raspberries unless I forget to pick for a day or so, at which point the fruits are winey anyway.  Plus, soldier beetle larvae are a very clear indicator of exactly when to pick a ripe fig!

Yep, after a week or two off, the next round of figs are starting to plump up and droop down.  Good thing too since I've been literally dreaming about roast figs --- they're that good.

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

Learn to keep bugs at bay

Posted Mon Sep 17 07:28:32 2012 Tags:
putting a deck down while it's raining

Today turned out to be a race to see how much we could get done before an advancing storm reached us.

The rain started just as we finished hauling in the new deck lumber.

It was a good test for the new roof that seemed to pass with flying colors while allowing us to work under its dry protection.

Posted Mon Sep 17 15:26:14 2012 Tags:
Summer squash seeds

Breaking open summer squashOur first meetup get-together (a seed swap) is coming up on Saturday, which reminded me to process a lot of seeds that have been sitting around on the porch for the last week or month (or longer).  It took the minisledge to bust open the summer squash, but the output looks much better than last year's seeds (which dried down into slivers clearly too immature to sprout).

Cut butternut

Meanwhile, I chose four of the best-shaped butternuts for seed-saving --- fruits with a thick abdomen are preferred to those with big butts.  Then I shelled the rest of the mung beans and packed away the watermelon, green bean, and Swiss chard seeds (all of which had been drying much longer than they needed to).

Even if only the hand-invited few who have already RSVPed show up for the seed swap, it will have been worth it to get those seeds off the porch and into the seed box.  Next up in easily-put-off fall chores --- harvesting the rest of the butternuts and moving sweet potatoes off the drying racks.  I wonder what kind of event would tempt me to do that?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to clean up filthy, damp coops.
Posted Tue Sep 18 07:51:32 2012 Tags:

Homemade rabbit feederIn addition to providing water for one's rabbits, providing a reliable source of food is of course a necessity.

We started with one rabbit in the beginning and just used a dish to provide food for the first couple of weeks.  Since the rabbit was pretty young when we got him, this worked OK until we could come up with a better solution.  However, I wouldn't recommend it for long term feeding.  When food is in a dish for a rabbit, there tends to be a lot of waste due to spillage and spoiling.  For whatever reason our young buck decided that his food dish would also make a suitable litter box.  This was obviously not a sustainable situation.

Most feed stores provide ready made rabbit feeders for anywhere from $5 on up.  Most have a screen lined bottom which is supposedly there to allow some of the dust from the feed to fall through.  Dawn has read in some library books that this helps prevent respiratory issues with rabbits.  I'll believe the experts' advice for now, but I've found that the screened bottom can also contribute to spoilage of food due to allowing moisture in from the bottom.  We just dealt with Hurricane Isaac here and the one rabbit that has a store bought feeder had much of his food spoiled from moisture being blown up through the screen.  Our other two rabbits have feeders that I've made out of materials I had around the house.

Dismantling a trialerWhen Dawn brought home two new rabbits donated to our experiment by our new neighbors, I quickly needed to come up with some feeders for them.  I already had some ideas on building feeders inspired by Richard Proenneke and his mastery of making complex items out of used fuel cans in the Alaskan wild.  Richard (Dick) Proenneke retired to the Alaskan wilderness in the 1970s when he was in his 50s and has been an inspiration of mine.  He built a cabin with simple hand tools and very few materials which were not natural and native to the area.  (He lamented in his journal that he used some plastic sheeting under the moss roof of his cabin.)  He built any number of useful items from the spent fuel cans that were ubiquitous in the Alaskan wilderness as a result of their use by the bush pilots.  If you've seen the Coleman fuel cans in Walmart (and in the first picture in this post), these are very similar to but a bit smaller than what he used to make pots, pans, ovens, storage containers and many other items. 

I usually have a few cans around due to using a Coleman stove at my uncle's cabin in Mississippi.  I started out with a well cleaned fuel can for the first of two homemade feeders.  With a sturdy knife, I cut across the wide part of the can about 4 inches up from the bottom, and then down to the bottom from the corners.  A couple of pieces of scrap tin and a rivet gun, and I had what you see in the picture above.  On the inside is a piece of tin that is not visible which directs the food to the trough, but also more importantly doesn't allow feed to collect in the corners and spoil or rot.  I'll have to see if I can get a decent picture of what I am referring to, but it works pretty well to keep the feed from spoiling.

Working with reused metal sidingTo replace the bowl we had been feeding our first buck with, I used some other tin since I didn't have an empty fuel can handy.  We had recently been scrapping out an old camper that was given to me.  (See the second photo in this post.)  We will be using the frame to build a loft here for storage, but we also ended up with a hefty supply of metal siding and roof material.

I started out with a flat sheet of metal siding from the camper.  I then started making cuts with an old dull wood chisel and a hammer with plywood underneath.  You can see it start to take shape in the photo, under the watchful eye of my labrador named Anna.  This material made for a very sturdy feeder once the rivets were in place.

All sharp edges on both the fuel can and scrap tin feeders are rolled over to prevent injury to the rabbits.  Also, the feeders hold quite a bit more feed than the store bought feeders, which helps reduce the daily upkeep we have to do with the rabbits. 

Metal rabbit feederWhile I could have easily purchased several feeders from Tractor Supply for a total of about $20-25, there is a bit of pride that comes from recycling some old scrap material into a new life as a feeder.  Also, it allowed me to spend the hour or so I would have spent driving to the store around the house being creative and working with my hands.  I am still a "spare time" homesteader due to a full time career, but I strongly feel that what makes a successful homestead is the ingenuity, creativity, and drive of the folks that give it a go.  People like Richard Proenneke (and of course friends like Anna and Mark) continue to be an inspiration of mine.  We haven't yet made a break from the rat race, but simple things like building a rabbit feeder give us a taste of the self sufficient life.

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

Posted Tue Sep 18 12:01:17 2012 Tags:
metal roof panel acoustics

How does it sound when it rains on the roof you insulated? Is it still noisy enough?


The sound is muffled by about 75 percent, but it's still very enjoyable.

Thankfully the crazy high temperatures were about over by the time we put the insulation in. That means I'll have to wait till next year to see if the sitting on the porch temperature drops enough to make it feel like it was worth the effort.

Posted Tue Sep 18 15:17:02 2012 Tags:

Storing water in soilStoring water in garden soil sounds too good to be true.  Is it?

The idea is that you can channel excess water (such as the output of your gutters or the overflow from your rain barrel) into the garden.  This Mother Earth News article provides an example of a very simple-to-implement system (shown to the right) and this information on Steve Solomon's website provides more technical details on the soil side.  You can recharge the soil during winter rains, then your plants will be subirrigated during summer droughts.

But does soil water storage work?  I've run across lots of people mentioning the concept, but no one who shows a multi-year system in action.  Here are my reservations:

I decided to crunch some numbers and see if my qualms had any basis in reality.  Solomon's information suggests that two to three inches of rainfall can be stored in the top foot of your soil (with the exact amount depending on your soil type --- clay holds more, sand holds less).  Since some plants can access moisture ten feet deep, we'll work with a value of 25 inches of plant-available water stored in the soil, which equates to 15.6 gallons of water per square foot of surface area.

Water in soilBut here's the trouble: we receive an average of 49 inches of rain per year, which means normal precipitation would fill the soil bank up twice without adding any extra water from our gutters.  Yes, there's a lot of transpiration and evaporation happening during the growing season, but I'm pretty sure that there's not much (if any) room left for water in the soil at the end of a normal winter in our area.

In drier parts of the world, filling up your garden soil bank by diverting excess flow from your roof probably makes more sense.  But I think we'd need to get creative if we wanted to put any more water into our soil during the winter.  Perhaps filling the aisles in our terraced back garden with wood chips would do the trick (but I never have enough wood chips to "waste" them on a nonessential use like that).

Back to the drawing board....

Our automatic chicken waterer keeps chores to the minimum so you can spend your time enjoying your backyard flock.
Posted Wed Sep 19 07:50:53 2012 Tags:

Social capitalThe last section of Radical Homemakers is about the fundamental skills necessary to survive as a radical homemaker.  Hayes' list includes:

  • nurturing relationships with friends, family, and community
  • entering the non-cash economy
  • learning to learn on your own
  • setting realistic expectations and limits
  • redefining pleasure
  • rediscovering the taste of good food
  • losing your fear

I was intrigued to find that her fundamental skillset matches up nearly perfectly with the non-technical projects I scattered through The Weekend Homesteader (all guidance we learned the hard way during our first few years on the farm).  So my first thought question for this week is: What kinds of lessons of this sort have you learned, or, conversely, what do you feel is the biggest stumbling block you face in reaching a happy homesteading lifestyle?

Meanwhile, Hayes explained that most of the radical homesteaders she interviewed seemed to be somewhere along a three-part learning curve.  First came an eye-opening stage when they renounced the mainstream consumer society.  Next, they became Shannon Hayesengrossed in recliaiming homemaking skills --- learning to garden, cook, and so forth.  Then, finally, they reached a rebuilding stage where they began to reach outside their homestead to embrace their creativity and engage with their communities.  Mark and I have definitely followed this path, and we're stepping between stages two and three at the moment.  Where are you along the learning curve?

I've enjoyed hearing your thought-provoking responses to this book club selection!  For those of you new to the club, you can read the previous posts here:

We'll be taking a week off, and then we'll dive into the first chapter of The Holistic Orchard on September 3.  If you're interested in trees and/or permaculture, I highly recommend you join the club this time around since my understanding of the orchard ecosystem has been altered just by perusing the book's first few pages.  The Holistic Orchard is more scientific and less philosophical than the books we've been reading lately,  while still being quite easy to read (and there are lots of pretty pictures!), so it should give us a good palate-cleansing break from a summer of deep thought.

Posted Wed Sep 19 12:01:20 2012 Tags:
crossing a creek with modified back pack

The 50 pound feed backpack got its second work out of the year today when I used it to haul in part of a frozen lamb.

Posted Wed Sep 19 16:40:30 2012 Tags:
Reusing wood

What do you do when your husband is off the farm and you have an extremely handy helper at your beck and call?  Ask him to build you a composting toilet, of course.

Compostint toilet baseThe first decision was location.  We've shifted our outhouse around the yard several times since we moved here, so we know which areas are good, bad, and terrible for humanure.  In case you're curious, terrible is the forest garden where the groundwater is so high your feces float right back out of the hole during heavy rains....

The best location is perhaps two hundred feet from the trailer, just behind the worm bins.  Our original outhouse hole went there, and it never caused any problems at all.  Drainage was great, the distance was far enough from our core area that we didn't notice smells, and the view was top notch.  Mark and I decided to repeat that location when the time came to build our composting toilet. 

(See, now you can tell I was using a bit of poetic license when I made it sound like I snuck the composting toilet in while Mark was away.  I traded Mark an as-yet-undecided later project/favor for allowing me to barrel ahead with my humanure project, so we're on the same page.  But isn't it more fun to pretend I'm naughty?)

Building humanure hacienda

Since the flood waters had only come down to knee height, Bradley had to work with what we had on hand.  Luckily, there were lots of heavy oak boards leftover from the greenhouse tables, and I figured they'd stand up to rot pretty well.  We also had some treated four by fours, which I let Bradley use once he explained that he could plan it so that they wouldn't be touching my future compost at all.

Bradley and I teamed up to design the new structure, the base of which is similar to Jenkins' Humanure Hacienda.  The compartments in our composting toilet are only three feet by three feet instead of four feet by four feet since that's how long my boards were, but we're a family of two instead of a family of four, so the smaller size should be about right.  The other main change we made was to have all three of the open sides facing downhill, since that side will be much easier to access with the golf cart or wheelbarrow when hauling in sawdust and hauling out compost.

Composting toilet

This is the nearly completed lower story.  We'll use the bathroom over one side for a year, then switch to using the opposite side while the first round mellows.  The central compartment will be a storage spot for sawdust (which we think we've found a source for), and will also soak up any effluent trying to move between the two composting bins.  Liquids that want to seep out the back will get soaked up by a stack of strawbales, which will be used as a wall to enclose the downhill side of the compost bin currently in use.

Outhouse hole

The next step will be adding an outhouse on top, since we don't want to carry poop around in five gallon buckets (and since we really enjoy the view from an outhouse).  I had one piece of scrap plywood, and Bradley framed it up for the floor on the first bin, but we'll have to find some more materials before we do the rest.  And there's a roof yet to come today.  Stay tuned!

Our chicken waterer keeps chicken manure out of their drinking water.  Just like building a humanure composting system, right?
Posted Thu Sep 20 07:35:55 2012 Tags:
planning a seed swap this Saturday afternoon

When? This Saturday at 1pm.

Where? Hanging Rock picnic area just outside Dungannon Virginia.

Posted Thu Sep 20 15:14:21 2012 Tags:
Discussing the composting toilet

Composting toilet back doorWhen Mark got home, he had some great suggestions for making the first phase of our composting toilet system more ergonomic.

His biggest concern was that my straw bales on the downhill side would drift out of place (or get torn apart when Lucy heard a mouse inside), resulting in a landslide of humanure.

That sounded pretty terrible, so I was glad Mark also had a suggested solution --- screwing some two by fours on as a temporary retaining wall between the compost and the straw bales.  By using screws, it'll be easy to remove the wall in two years once the bin has filled and mellowed and is ready to hit the garden.

While he was at it, Bradley added a shorter wall for the sawdust storage compartment to make sure we don't lose too much of our precious carbon, while still making it easy to scoop out bucketsful to bring upstairs.

Sawdust trap door

Trap door "And about that sawdust storage compartment," Mark added.  "How exactly are we going to get sawdust into it if there's a floor over top?"

Bradley had an ingenious solution there, turning the central floor into a trap door by setting decking boards on a ledge of other boards.  The floor feels very solid when you walk on it, but the boards are easy to move to the side so we can pour sawdust directly into the central bin.

Lip uphill

StepsMark's last concern was that rain might cause runoff to roll down the hill during heavy storms and wash under the compost bins, causing lots of seepage.  A lip on the uphill side of the compartments should serve to channel the water away.

Toilet box

Meanwhile, Bradley was busy putting the second story on top of the composting bins.  He built a beautiful set of steps without risers (just like the second set he made for Mark's porch) and constructed a very sturdy box for us to sit on.  (We'll close in the sides with plywood once we rustle some up.)

Open air outhouseTo keep the open air effect that Mark and I both enjoy, Bradley chose to make a low privacy wall in the front and a slightly higher wall in the back.  The composting toilet faces away from our core homestead, so there's next to no chance someone will accidentally walk around to the front while doing other tasks.

Mark had the great idea to pin a brown tarp up around the walls rather than using plywood since the tarp will likely last longer.  We don't have the tarp yet --- that's on the shopping list.

What you also can't see (because it doesn't yet exist) is the roof.  Bradley's going to make that free-standing and large enough to keep the straw bales in the back dry.  We've got enough scrap tin lying around that we should be able to build the roof without any extra purchased supplies.

Second story

Here's the second story so far.  We hope to finish it next week around the same time the driveway dries up enough to allow us to haul in sawdust and straw.  I think I'm going to have to put "anticipating using your open air composting toilet for the first time" onto my list of characteristics that brand the permaculture redneck.

Our automatic chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with unlimited clean water.
Posted Fri Sep 21 08:03:46 2012 Tags:
making a coop light to increase day light time

We might try to start extending the chicken's daylight hours a few weeks earlier next year.

Starting today their morning will begin around 3 am, which should get us close to the 14 hour point needed to keep them laying on a more regular schedule.

Posted Fri Sep 21 16:14:19 2012 Tags:
Berries and figs

This year, I've been learning the dangers of no-till gardening --- you may accidentally produce enough to feed a small army.

Late summer harvest

Of our three varieties of garlic, two produced significantly more weight per bed in 2012 compared to 2011.  Music stayed the same, but I got 42% more garlic from the Silverwhite Silverskin and a whopping 88% more from the Italian Softneck.

Heading broccoli

But that's nothing.  Last year's sweet potatoes averaged 9.8 pounds per bed, giving us a total haul of 78.5 pounds of sweet tubers.  That was way too much for us to eat, so I cut our planting in half this year...and came up with a 83.5 pound harvest!  Yes, that's an increase of 114% per bed over last year.  (Guess what all of my local friends are getting for autumnal equinox presents?)

Rodent-gnawed sweet potato

Granted, there have been some downsides.  Perhaps a tenth of the sweet potatoes had been gnawed on by soil-dwelling critters despite Lucy's best efforts to dig the garden apart in search of voles.  But given such high productivity, I don't mind cutting out a few teeth marks.

Snail on basket

And, to be entirely fair, I think this year's increase in sweet potato production is also due to two other factors.  First, we only had one tiny deer incursion this summer, and sweet potatoes always suffer the worst when deer come to call.  Equally important is the fact that I gave the sweet potatoes part of the loamy front garden --- the two beds I planted on the dividing line between loam and clay produced much less than the other two beds did.

Army of butternut squash

We don't weigh most of our produce, so I can't tell you whether we saw increased production among our corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, greens, and the multitude of other vegetables we grow.  But we sure had plenty to eat and preserve this year.

Sweet corn

And I attribute a large part of that success to the health of our soil.  Doesn't that make you want to at least try no-till on a few beds next year?

(By the way, all of the photos in this post are from this week's healthy haul of late summer crops.)

Our chicken waterer is the innovative solution to keep manure out of drinking water.
Posted Sat Sep 22 08:19:14 2012 Tags:
swaping seeds on a Saturday in the Hanging Rock Park area

It was a perfect day for meeting in a park and swapping seeds.

There was some talk of maybe doing another one in the Spring.
Posted Sat Sep 22 16:04:22 2012 Tags:

Water StorageArt Ludwig's Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds shares many of the same positive features of his Create an Oasis with Greywater.  I enjoyed the author's less-than-mainstream perspective, and especially the chart on page 7 listing the recommended cleanliness levels of water used for various household tasks.  I suspect Ludwig would enjoy our dual water system, where only drinking and cooking water is treated to a quality sufficient for human consumption, with all of our wash water coming straight from the creek.

My favorite part of the book was the second chapter, which provided a quick overview of situations in which you might choose to use water direct from the source or to store it in aquifers, soil, ponds, open tanks and swimming pools.  Unfortunately, Ludwig only provided brief overviews of these systems, devoting the vast majority of the book to water tanks.

In the end, my main complaint with the book is that it really should have been named Water Tanks instead of Water Storage.  Still, I appreciate the author's willingness to focus on what he knows rather than putting in a lot of secondhand information that may or may not pan out.  If you want to build, buy, or install a water tank optimally, you can't go wrong with this book.  But if you're interested in another system, I'd recommend you simply check Water Storage out of the library.

Our chicken waterer keeps hens happy, chicks cheerful, and rooster rowdy.
Posted Sun Sep 23 08:08:26 2012 Tags:
Celeste fig in front of new porch

I found a healthy looking fig tree at the store on Friday.

It's a Celeste, which has been known to do well in our zone.

When it matures we should have a nice side by side comparison with the Chicago hardy fig next to it.

Posted Sun Sep 23 17:14:08 2012 Tags:

Baby Brussels sproutsI've never grown Brussels sprouts before, but thought I'd give it a try this year.  I put them out a bit late, but some are already starting to form little sprouts in the leaf axils, so hopefully we'll get at least a few before the killing frosts come.

Various websites suggest that you might or might not want to remove the lower leaves once the first sprouts begin to form.  Others mention topping the plant so it will put its energy into bulking up existing sprouts rather than forming tiny new heads that will be wiped out by killing frosts.

Has anyone out there grown Brussels sprouts?  Did you cut off leaves and/or tops, or leave the plant alone?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional filthy waterers.
Posted Mon Sep 24 07:50:53 2012 Tags:
Sedum flowers

The perennials still aren't as perfect as I'd like them to be, but the summer of 2012 marked the first year that I was able to spend time thinking about trees and berry bushes when the leaves were present.  As a result, I got to try out a few new techniques, which I'll be regaling you with during this week's lunchtime series.

Frog on leaves

But first, new readers might want to read some old posts that introduce you to forest gardening in general and to our forest garden in specific:

I hope that whets your appetite to tune in during your lunch break this week.  And I invite anyone who has a forest garden of any age to provide a link to the relevant parts of your blog in the comments section --- I'd love to "tour" some more forest gardens from the comfort of my own home.

If you'd like to start your garden adventures from the beginning, my paperback walks you through easy methods of growing a permaculture garden.

This post is part of our 2012 Forest Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Sep 24 12:01:23 2012 Tags:
hauling more lumber on a golf cart compared to an ATV or 4 wheeler

ATV particle board
A few months ago the golf cart was broke and Bradley brought his ATV to haul in some particle board.

It was a good chance to compare hauling capacity between the two.

My rough estimate says the golf cart can haul a little more than twice what you can load up on a medium sized ATV.

Posted Mon Sep 24 14:39:11 2012 Tags:
Newly drawn comb

I gave up on feeding our bees when I realized the only insects coming to the feeder were yellow jackets.  As one our readers pointed out, Wingstem is "one of the underrated honey plants of North America", and since we have plenty of those yellow flowers around, our bees find sugar water pretty unappealing at the moment.

Top bars

That does leave me in a bit of a bind --- I can't do anything at all to ensure our colony fills their third box so they'll be ready for winter.  Luckily, they don't seem to need my help.  When I took some photos through the screened bottom of our Warre hive this past weekend, I could see that the bees had drawn out all except three frames of the third box.

I'm the kind of person who likes to work ahead and be done early, so it seems a bit crazy that the bees are cramming half of the year's labor into a few short weeks right before the the days become too cool for flying.  But you can't mandate the work habits of the bees.

Our chicken waterer makes chores fast and easy so you can spend your time enjoying the birds' antics.
Posted Tue Sep 25 07:38:38 2012 Tags:
Haphazard mulch

What's the best way to manage the ground beneath your fruit trees?  If you ask ten people, you may get ten different answers, but the most widespread choice (at least in the backyard, if you can find enough mulch) is to smother out weeds using a well-rotted wood chip mulch so the tree roots don't have to compete with anyone else.  The forest gardening alternative is to use dynamic accumulators that bring up micronutrients from deep in the Using garden weeds as mulchsoil and make the minerals accessible to your trees (although this option can be problematic if your soil is less than stellar).  Over the last few years, I've stumbled across a third option that might work even better --- haphazard mulching.

A few years ago, I started dumping wheelbarrows full of garden weeds around a certain apple tree throughout the summer.  The reason behind my actions was pure laziness, but at least it killed three birds with one stone.  I'd accidentally let some perennial weeds pop up around the tree's roots, and the summer was too busy to take the time to root them out and mulch the tree properly, so I figured dropping some biomass on top would at least slow the competitors down (which it did).  Meanwhile, I was thinking ahead to the winter when I'd need to expand the tree's raised bed (an effort to keep the roots above high groundwater), and I figured garden weeds deposited around the edges of the tree's bed would slowly rot down and expand the planting mound.  My final reason was even simpler --- the tree was at the junction of two vegetable gardens, so this was an easy spot to drop off weeds rather than running them all the way to various compost piles.

Autumn forest garden

To my surprise, this apple tree took off and grew faster than any of my other apples.  Now, you have to take this data point with a grain of salt because no two apples in my garden are quite alike.  They're all different varieties, and each one is in a different microhabitat.  It's just as possible that this apple did well because it was located where the groundwater drains into the gully, so it was subirrigated during summer droughts.  But no matter why the apple was doing well, the haphazard mulching didn't seem to hurt.

Stump in gardenSo this year I tried the method around several more fruit trees.  I also used haphazard mulching to drown out weeds coming up through the brush pile (my equally lazy approach to hugelkultur around another apple tree), and around the stump that is adjacent to a third apple.

The haphazard mulch allows some weeds to keep growing, but slows them down so they don't seem to be competing with my trees.  It doesn't look as manicured as a well-managed wood chip mulch, but I'm more interested in results than in beauty.

At the moment, I consider haphazard mulching more of a hypothesis than a proven technique, but I'd be very curious to hear from anyone else who's given it a try.  And from others who've come up with equally easy solutions to managing the ground under their fruit trees.  What do you do?

Learn the basics of choosing and planting a fruit tree in The Weekend Homesteader.

This post is part of our 2012 Forest Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Sep 25 12:01:20 2012 Tags:
wheel barrow full of delicious butternut squash

What's so great about butternut squash?

1. It grows and grows with little attention.

2. Predator bugs are afraid...very afraid to come near them.

3. If picked and cured right they store nicely on an indoor shelf.

4. They make the most delicious pie.

Anna harvested our second round of butternut squash recently which makes this year's yield our biggest ever.

Posted Tue Sep 25 15:26:05 2012 Tags:
Weeding the fall garden

Although Mark and I sometimes butt heads, I'm actually glad he's strong-minded and has his own opinions.  Yes, even when he's a non-believer about things like composting toilets

Composting toilet constructionIf he was as gungho as me, I'd probably play fast and loose with the carbon sources in the composting toilet.  But since Mark's only about 50% on board, I'm putting in some extra effort to make sure there will be no flies, leaks, or smells.  That way, he won't be able to say "I told you so", and our readers might inspired to follow our lead and slip a composting toilet past their similarly unsure spouses.

Since I have them on hand, I used spent sweet corn stalks and garden weeds to form a nest inside the first compost chamber.  I cut the corn stalks in half so they fit flat on the ground, covering the earth completely, then I set more corn stalks upright around the inside edges.

Lazy man's load

Next came the fluffier garden weeds.  I used a very heaping wheelbarrowful to loosely fill the chamber about halfway full, then stacked weeds along the inside walls (within the corn palisade).

Packing bedding into composting toilet

The idea is that urine and feces will get caught by this carbon net and won't be able to creep out the holes in the walls (which are necessary for aeration) or to seep out the bottom.  Although it seems like a bad idea to fill the bin halfway up before even starting to use it, the bedding material will mat down as it begins to rot, so it won't really use up as much space as you might think.  Hopefully, it will still take a solid year to fill the first chamber.

Garden weeds

We're waiting on sawdust before we put the composting toilet to the test.  We'll have a five gallon bucket of sawdust beside the seat to make it easy to drop a scoop down the hole after each use, keeping the top of the pile just as well sealed off with high carbon material as the bottom and sides are.  More on that later in the week, hopefully.

Composting toilet yoga

(Doesn't this look like it's a yoga pose?  Maybe Compost Pile Warrior?)

Our chicken waterer helps make disbelieving spouses into believers by keeping chicken chores easy and clean and the coop dry.
Posted Wed Sep 26 07:54:06 2012 Tags:

The Holistic OrchardToday, I'll take a brief break from our forest gardening lunchtime series to plug our upcoming book club.  We'll start discussing the first chapter of The Holistic Orchard during our regular Wednesday lunch post next week, so I thought I'd try to drum up interest by singing the praises of the author and book.

Michael Phillips is one of the few gardening authors I've read who combines decades of hands-on experience with a thorough understanding of ecology and permaculture from the scientific and popular literature.  His first book, The Apple Grower, is so good that I'm starting to feel the need to re-read it --- I felt like many parts of the book went over my head on the first perusal and would help me now that I've moved from being a beginner to an intermediate fruit-grower.  For comparison's sake, the only other gardening authors I've wanted to reread lately are Paul Stamets and Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier.

I've only flipped through The Holistic Orchard and read about ten pages so far, but I can already tell that this second book is going to be as good as, if not better than, Phillips' first.  And it also feels like a dense (but readable) book that could benefit from being bounced around a group.  If you have any interest in growing fruit trees or bushes, I highly recommend you join the club in October and read along --- chances are The Holistic Orchard will open your eyes to a whole permaculture world you didn't even know existed.

The Weekend Homesteader starts with basics, walking you through one fun, easy, but meaningful project for each weekend of the year.
Posted Wed Sep 26 12:00:59 2012 Tags:
land auction image collage

We went to a local land auction today.

It seems like there was a healthy crowd, but in reality there were just 5 or 6 actually bidding.

The only structure was a barn that's ready to be torn down. All three tracts sold within an hour for around 1000 dollars per acre. Rumor has it that all three buyers were people who just wanted the hunting access, which is sometimes ripe with white tailed deer and wild turkeys.

Posted Wed Sep 26 15:40:03 2012 Tags:
Hay field

The auction we visited yesterday was one possibility for the Walden Effect annex.  It's the land that's within easy walking distance and had an oil and gas lease that had expired.

Since the property was a foreclosure, we thought the tracts might sell for much less than they did.  I'd read that 75% of market value is average for foreclosure auctions, which would have put the cheaper tracts just barely into our price range ($15,525 for the cheapest one, which is 35 acres).  In fact, they went for 103% to 167% of market value.

Land auction

But we didn't even put up the 10% to allow us to bid.  After a month spent cogitating on the repurcussions, we decided it just wouldn't be worth it to have the annex if it meant we'd clean out all of our emergency reserves and go slightly into debt.  (Plus, we'd heard through the grapevine that a lot of folks were interested in the land, which made us doubt that the property would sell low.)

Yes, we probably could have buckled down and paid off the loan in a year or two (or three or four at the prices the land actually sold at), but only if we focused a lot more on making money and lot less on building relationships with folks like Bradley (and on our random experiments).  I think Mark and I both felt relieved when we decided to put the annex off for a few more years until we'd saved enough cash to buy another piece of land outright.

Instead, we'll be focusing on building local community with our meetup group.  Time to think of another fun get-together for local permaculture nuts like me.  Mark says a kill mulch party is crazy.  Ideas?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock happy while we're off at auctions.
Posted Thu Sep 27 08:08:39 2012 Tags:

Seasonal garden changesAnother strange technique I began last year, but which seems to work well, is mixing annual vegetables into the forest garden.  My trees are still quite young, so there are plenty of patches of full sun, and the vegetables give me an incentive to drop by the forest garden every week rather than ignoring it until the busy summer vegetable garden passes by.

But I have a feeling the vegetables do more good than simply drawing my attention to the young fruit trees.  This spring, I noticed that the garden beds I'd overwintered under a straw mulch didn't seem quite as vibrant as those which had been home to winter cover crops.  I've read that there are two types of soil microorganisms --- the living food web, which interacts with the roots of plants, and the dead food web, which decomposes organic matter.  I suspect that if you don't have any plants growing in a spot for a while, the living food web might perish and take a while to regrow once you seed new crops.

Butternut in the forest garden

Succession plantingLike my haphazard mulching, mixing vegetables in with fruit trees is very theoretical at the moment, but the technique doesn't seem to be hurting anything.  I started out the summer by filling every gap with tomatoes and butternut squashes, then I added in cabbage and broccoli as the squash began to decline, and I finished up the year by seeding oilseed radishes around the base of tomatoes coming to the end of their lifespan.

I don't really have a way of measuring the results of my actions, but I can't think of any negatives as long as the fruit trees aren't troubled by their short-lived neighbors.  And moving some veggies over to the forest garden gives me more room to build soil in the main vegetable gardens with cover crops.

Have you mixed trees and tomatoes?  As usual, I'm very curious to hear from other forest gardeners who are busy thinking outside the box.

Just starting out?  The Weekend Homesteader provides one fun and easy project for each weekend of the year to set your feet on the path to self-sufficiency.

This post is part of our 2012 Forest Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Sep 27 12:01:21 2012 Tags:
truck load of saw dust being dumped into truck

A lumber mill in Norton charges 15 dollars for a pick-up load of saw dust.

We had to hire someone with a truck, which should come out to around 60 dollars with fuel and labor and rental fee.

It's a heck of a lot of saw dust for 75 bucks.

Posted Thu Sep 27 14:50:22 2012 Tags:

Freezer contentsFreezer moving day is best planned for the spring when stores are low, but sometimes you have to strike while the iron's hot.  Twenty-some gallons of carefully processed garden goodies plus two lambs from our friend had filled our freezer nearly to the brim when Bradley pointed out he couldn't finish the front porch with the freezer in place.  Oops.

Freezer up rampIt took four wheelbarrow-loads to move the freezer's contents around to the back porch, then Bradley manhandled the freezer up onto our yellow wagon nearly by himself.  (Mark was in town, and Bradley seemed to be doing better without me in the way.)  It's amazing how a couple of boards and an understanding of physics make it simple to slide a freezer up onto the back porch.

Trailer porchNow our freezer is right outside the kitchen door, and as an added bonus it's on the north side of the trailer where summer sun won't make the motor work extra hard.  I wonder how much energy savings that bit of shade will gain?

Our chicken waterer was one of the main attractions when my cousin-in-law brought his college buddies to tour the farm Thursday.

Posted Fri Sep 28 07:48:31 2012 Tags:

Cicada twig damage in JuneThis has been a tough year for our fruit trees.  The waves of sound from the periodic cicadas made us feel like we were enjoying a spring by the seashore, and the chickens loved the high protein snacks.  But as the insects' reign came to an end, the female cicadas laid eggs in tender twigs of blueberries, apples, pears, and peaches.  Many young limbs simply perished from the onslaught, and everyone was set back.

Although I didn't think it was lucky at the time, we were fortunate to have a late frost that wiped out many of the trees' fruits.  It's possible that if our trees had been weighed down with peaches and pears, they might have been less able to overcome the cicadas' attacks, so the frost may have done us a favor in the long run.  As it was, I suspect we came out about even --- the trees didn't have to expend energy setting fruits, so they were able to take the time to heal.

Healing cicada damage

Periodic cicadaLuckily, periodic cicadas only come around every 13 or 17 years, and since cicadas prefer young trees, we might be out of the woods by the next emergence date.  Experts also suggest marking your calendar with the possible years you may see periodic cicadas, then delaying winter pruning until the cicadas are gone so you can deal with damage without taking away too much young wood.  (You can look up emergence dates for your area here, but the site didn't have information about our local population this year, so take the information with a grain of salt.)

If you're not quite together enough to plan your cicada management 17 years in advance, you can put netting around twigs less than half an inch in diameter as soon as you hear the periodic cicadas beginning to call.  There are also plenty of chemical solutions, but I'd rather lose twigs every decade or so than wipe out my beneficial insects.

What have you done to deal with damage from periodic cicadas on young fruit trees?

Learn to keep bugs at bayThis post is part of our 2012 Forest Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Sep 28 12:01:35 2012 Tags:
dumping a large container of saw dust into composting toilet

We hauled the sawdust back to our area using the golf cart and 2 large plastic trash cans.

It was a bit more than we needed. After filling up the new composting toilet reservoir we sort of ran out of places to put it and made a big pile on the ground and covered it with a tarp. We also decided to leave 2 of the trash cans full.

I guess we need to dream up some new uses for the extra saw dust.

Posted Fri Sep 28 16:19:08 2012 Tags:
Red wrigglers

Sometimes I hesitate to tell you just how many stupid mistakes I make.  But I figure if even 1% of you are as dumb as I am, I can save millions of lives with this post....

Three pounds of worms

...Worm lives, that is.  Yes, the horse manure I seeded compost worms into earlier this summer was far too hot for the critters to survive.  I ended up needing that manure for the garden a couple of months later, and I looked carefully for wrigglers as I emptied the bin out, but I found not a living soul.

Cool compostSo I did things differently the second time around.  After filling the three new bins up with horse manure and bedding, I left the lids open for a few weeks so the contents would get well saturated with rain.  Wet compost allows microorganisms to work, so the bacteria soon had the contents of each bin steaming.  And then, slowly, the warmth receded until the compost leveled off at ambient temperatures.

Time for another round of worms!  Even though the fault in the first batch was purely management error, I decided to take the advice of one of our readers and try a new source --- Red Worm Composting.  We bought a three pound bag for $70, and the worms showed up fat and happy, ready to colonize the mellowed compost.

I dumped the worms on the surface of the manure, a pound per bin.  Rather than spreading them throughout the large bins, I let each clump stick close together since I know compost worms like colonies. 

Seeding the worm bin

Except for one last bed of lettuce, we've planted all of our crops for 2012, so the worm bins will have all fall, winter, and early spring to work before I ask for castings.  Then I'll add fresh manure to one end of each bin and let the wrigglers migrate over before scraping up the black gold to put on the garden.  Assuming nothing else goes wrong, I'm hopeful that this will be the last set of worms we'll have to buy for a good long time.

Our chicken waterer takes the guesswork out of keeping your backyard flock healthy.
Posted Sat Sep 29 08:43:31 2012 Tags:
leafy green background image

We discovered last year that a simple quick hoop can help most leafy greens survive the winter and the cold seems to add a sweet flavor to the taste.

This year's list is quite yummy.

Mustard --- Tendergreen, Broadleaf, and Giant
Lettuce --- Red Saladbowl and Black-seeded Simpson
Kale --- Red Russian and Improved Dwarf Siberian
Tokyo Bekana
Swiss Chard --- Fordhook Giant

It's my opinion that fresh cut greens from the garden can perk you up on a cold winter day much better than frozen produce no matter how awesome it was when you first picked it.

Posted Sat Sep 29 14:10:17 2012 Tags:
Sink of tomatoes

If you told me in June when I was itching for a real tomato that I'd soon be sick of them, I wouldn't believe you.  But by the end of September, I'm actually glad to see the harvest dwindle from two, to one, then finally down to half a basketful.

September harvest

Instead, I'm enjoying the return of the salad.  Fall is the best time for salads, when the lettuces are back, tender and sweet, and can share the dish with sugar snap peas, bright red Fall greensbell peppers, tomatoes, and the last few cucumbers.

The fall greens are vivid in the mule garden, but I'm mostly saving those to enjoy after the frosts sweeten their foliage.  Instead, the highlight of the weekend is when I pick the first broccoli, looking forward to a full month of one of our favorite vegetables.  Oh, and stumbling across some shiitakes poking up out of mushroom rafts I'd given up on.


There are rodent-gnawed sweet potatoes to be eaten up, butternut squash to turn into pies, and onions and garlic on the shelf.  The white potatoes' tops are finally dying back (although I've been rooting out immature tubers for a while anyway) and the carrot beds are yielding up thinnings that become more and more carrot-like very week.

I'll probably put a few more containers of produce in the freezer, but mostly we're just eating now.  The goal is not to take any food back out of the freezer until at least November, if not December, and the fall garden seems happy to oblige.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy so they keep churning out autumn eggs.
Posted Sun Sep 30 08:09:27 2012 Tags:
Mother Earth News photo collage

The folks at Mother Earth News asked us to be one of their blog contributors.

Once a week we post a summary of what we've been up to with a few links.

Posted Sun Sep 30 16:02:55 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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