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

archives for 10/2012

Oct 2012

Grow Fruit NaturallyGrow Fruit Naturally by Lee Reich is a good starter book for those interested in growing organic fruit, and will definitely be a handy reference to keep on my bookshelf for the next few years.  It's actually quite similar to the same author's The Pruning Book, both in pros and cons.

On the positive side, Growing Fruit Naturally is linear and hits all of the salient points concisely.  On the negative side, despite the title, the book really covers only mainstream organic methods, not the cutting edge permaculture techniques of nurturing full-ecosystem health that you'll find in The Holistic Orchard.

In the end, I recommend the book for beginners, and for intermediate fruit-growers like myself who still need a reminder every year before they prune their grapes.  On the other hand, if you've been orcharding for a decade, you might want to give this book a pass.

The Weekend Homesteader covers care of the easiest fruits, along with other beginner tasks to guide you toward low-stress self-sufficiency.
Posted Mon Oct 1 08:07:10 2012 Tags:

Weigh figsOnce a week, all through September, I've dreamed about figs.  Black ones, brown ones, plump and enticing, and always just out of reach.

The source of my obsession: our Chicago Hardy fig has been ripening up about a fig a day.  I wait until we have three to five, then cut them in half and roast them the easiest way possible --- in the toaster oven under the highest heat until the juices puddle on the tray and hit hard ball candy stage.

I've read that a mature fig tree will bear thirty pounds of fruit per year, but I find that hard to believe.  At twenty figs to a pound, we'd have to multiply our yields by 15 to become average.  Even though older trees bear more, here at the cold hardiness limit of the fig range, I can't expect my tree to grow to true fig size.

While I yearn for figs in my sleep, Mark gets practical.  Having cleared the gully of brambles this summer, he envisions that prime planting ground turning into a fig paradise.  One day, he brings Celeste home to begin Figlandia.

Fig trees

Meanwhile, I've started a kill mulch at the shady end of the front garden to create a perennial propagation bed.  Brian has offered to trade scionwood with me, so I'll be trying to root hardwood cuttings this winter and soon we'll be trying some more varieties.

This post is your warning --- you'll probably be hearing far more than you'd want about figs for the next little while (especially this week at lunchtime).  I can't help it.  Figs appear to be the fruits of my dreams.

Our chicken waterer makes care of the flock so easy, we have time to play with figs.

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

Posted Mon Oct 1 12:00:15 2012 Tags:
a crowd of cute chicks looking adorable

It seems like our chicks get more aggressive with their foraging right after it rains.

Maybe bugs are easier to find or they feel extra hungry after waiting for the rain to stop. Either way adds up to some quality entertainment on a rainy Monday.

Posted Mon Oct 1 16:28:51 2012 Tags:
Hunt and peck

A cold, rainy day enticed me to break through one of my mental blocks and go visit with our fans on facebook. 

Cocky and humbleWinning chicken

I'd been meaning to run a no-holds-barred chicken photo contest, and this seemed like the way to do it.  A cool app makes it possible for anyone to upload images and vote on the results --- you just have to become a fan of Avian Aqua Miser first.

The photo deadline is next Monday and voting ends a week from Friday.  The winner gets a free chicken waterer.  (More details on the contest page.)

Even if you don't have chickens, you'll probably enjoy perusing the entries and voting on your favorite.  And if you need another rainy day activity, I've set Weekend Homesteader: January (which includes an introduction to chickens, along with bread baking, soil testing, and emergency lighting) free on Amazon today.  Happy October!

Posted Tue Oct 2 08:36:35 2012 Tags:
Shannon Feeding rabbits

Rabbit pastureThere seem to be a couple of different lines of thought on how to best feed pets and livestock.   For many years I have not followed what seems to be the popular wisdom and have had good results as far as I can tell.  The competing schools of thought seem to be:

  • Measure/meter the amount of food and dispense it at regular feeding times
  • Keep food available at all times, and let the animal feed when hungry

We have been following the second school of thought with the rabbits, and as far as we can tell, it's working just fine.  I have 4 and 10 year old Labradors who have been on that method all their life and they haven't had any problems with overeating or weight.  My opinion (and it's just an opinion based on my own observations) is that if ample food is always available, the animals get used to that and then don't try to gorge themselves when food is made available.  I generally make an entire 50 lb sack available to my labs in a plastic bin.  When it gets low, I buy another sack.

Dawn found that the other school of thought is discussed a bit in the literature she read.  They also suggested feeding at evening time.  The idea behind this seems to be that most wild rabbits feed nocturnally, perhaps mostly due to predation.  I'm not sure how relevant a wild rabbit's behavior is to a completely domesticated rabbit, but that seems to be the conventional wisdom from some sources.

Dawn recently started measuring how much feed our rabbits are consuming.  As we were getting started, we didn't keep track very well.  We just filled the feeders and let them go.  Our results for the first measured week with feeders constantly full (by volume, we'll get some weights later):

  • Doe:  11 cups of feed consumption per week
  • Bucks:  8 cups of feed consumption per week

The doe does seem to be packing on more weight than the bucks, but the does seem to be heavier for most breeds according to the reference material we've looked at.  Our purchased buck is just reaching maturity, while our donated buck and doe have several weeks head start and have been mature for a couple of weeks now.  We don't have numbers on how much feed the rabbits consume while young and growing, but plan to get that once we have a litter.  As we go along, we'll start keeping better track of how much feed they consume from "birth to oven". 

Along with our initial experience with our first buck using his food dish as a litter box, Dawn has observed that it helps to keep the feeder suspended off the cage bottom.  If it is kept raised a few inches from the cage floor, it helps prevent them from soiling the feed.  I'm not sure why rabbits seem to defecate in their food source, but they seem to do it quite readily.  At first I thought maybe they were just depositing cecal pellets there, but it doesn't seem to be so.  Dawn has also suggested that keeping the feeder on the inner walls of the cage keeps rain and dew from dampening the food, thereby preventing waste.

As for supplementing store bought feed, we have been feeding them some purchased timothy hay as it is recemmended for proper nutrition in most of the references we have found (and my local vet made just this one recommendation when asked).  We have also been feeding them regular doses of fresh grass from the yard (mostly bahia grass) which they really seem to enjoy.  When allowed to graze in the yard, they seem to really go for the clover.  They also absolutely love eating fresh oak leaves.  I'm not sure it's too healthy for them (I haven't seen it come up on any toxic plant lists) but they will instantly devour any fresh oak leaves or twigs we give them.

We plan to experiment with different amounts of grass and forage as feed and try to keep track of how much it reduces their dependence on traditional rabbit pellets.  We also would like to try a portable "rabbit tractor" where they can forage within a pen.  I'm not sure how well this will work out, but it is something we intend to try.  It will be interesting trying to build a rabbit proof portable pen that can be wheeled around to the most tasty forage in the yard.

Along with regular feeding, it's also important to provide sticks, twigs, etc. for them to chew on.  It's important for proper dental maintenance, but it also gives the rabbit something to play with; they can be surprisingly playful and inquisitive.  They seem to eat greener twigs pretty quickly, but dried twigs and branches are better for them to maintain their teeth.  Just be careful not to provide a branch that could be toxic.  Walnut and a few fruit tree branches can be toxic, along with others.

All in all, we've just been having fun learning as we go and completely understand that we are amateurs at this so far.  As time goes on, we'll get a better feel for what works and what doesn't.  We're looking forward to learning all about breeding them since we believe our doe has reached maturity.  Most of all, this has been an enjoyable learning experience that we hope will provide some meat for the table and perhaps a measure of self sufficiency.

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 Oct 2 12:00:56 2012 Tags:
making a kill mulch from old card board and bails of straw

It was a perfect day to install a cardboard and straw kill mulch in the gully.
Posted Tue Oct 2 16:14:31 2012 Tags:

The Best Apples to Buy and GrowThe Best Apples to Buy and Grow is one of those small, beautifully illustrated books that clearly can't find room within its pages to tell the reader everything.  But, in this case at least, it does a great job providing depth in its niche --- helping readers choose from among the 1,513 apple varieties currently available commercially in the U.S.

Half of the book introduces the top variety choices of four apple experts, summarized by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  By picking the brains of well-known pomologists from around the U.S. (Virginia, New York, Arkansas, and Oregon), the book's "60 Great Apples" are likely to steer most readers toward locally adapted varieties.  (I'll make a later post with the types of apples that piqued my fancy from this and the other orchard books I've been perusing lately.)

Heirloom apples

The other half of the book consists of basic information you could find in many other sources, but some tidbits did stand out.  Several apple varieties tend to lose points among modern growers for a tendency toward biennial bearing (having a huge crop one year then taking the second year off), but the authors point out that this can be a good pest resistance strategy.  The grafting section also included some simple good advice --- cut scionwood in January or February, graft in February or March, and set out the new trees after the last freeze.  (I'll be marking my calendar for this winter's experiments.)

All told, The Best Apples to Buy and Grow is a fun read, and I highly recommend hunting it down in your local library.  I'll be returning my copy to its original owner, though --- a few pages of notes summed up all of the useful information I'll need to remember.

Our chicken waterer takes the guesswork out of a backyard flock by providing copious clean water.
Posted Wed Oct 3 08:03:15 2012 Tags:

The first chapter of Phillips' The Holistic Orchard introduces the author's philosophy of creating a healthy ecosystem holistically rather than fighting to mask the symptoms with allopathic treatments (such as using organic, but still harmful, sprays).  His goal, he writes is "not so much to destroy problems as to create health."

So, how do you start an orchard so healthy it can be maintained with simple mulching and foliar sprays of fish oil?  First, you need to realize that fruit trees and berry bushes thrive in a forest edge habitat, where the soil is dominated by fungi over bacteria at a ratio of roughly 10:1.

Crimson cloverTo get there, Phillips first tills, then plants a cover crop of red or crimson clover.  These two species have an affinity for mycorrhizal fungi, which will stand the trees in good stead a year later when they finally grace the soil.

Phillips' cover crops go into the ground in the fall, and they grow for a solid year before being scythed and allowed to rot on the soil surface over the second winter.  Organic matter added to the earth from the top down is a great way to promote beneficial soil fungi, so you definitely don't want to till the clovers in.

Since clover is perennial, you'll either need to fork out the roots come spring number two, or lay down a kill mulch (cardboard topped by wood chips) the autumn before.  Either way, Phillips recommends preparing a circle of vegetatation-free soil about four to six feet in diameter for each future fruit tree.

Once the trees are in place, mulch is key.  Phillips swears by ramial wood chips, which come from deciduous twigs and branches less than 2.5 inches in diameter, meaning that the C:N ratio is quite low (30:1).  For those of us who can't be as discerning, I think it's nearly as good to just let any kind of deciduous wood chips rot for a couple of years before using. 

Haphazard mulchHaphazard mulching is handy to keeping the diversity of soil life high, so Phillips lays down heavy mulches on only one side of the tree each year, using spoiled hay and straw in spots around producing trees for even more diversity.  Right up against the trunk, a three to four inch deep layer of pea stone extending a foot or so out from the tree in all directions keeps the young trees dry.

I'm ashamed to say that I've never been able to think a year or two in advance to fully prepare the soil for perennials using cover crops, but this first chapter of The Holistic Orchard has inspired me to try prepping areas I want to house perennials in 2014.  I think I'll tweak Phillips' technique a bit, though, since I'm working on a backyard scale rather than running a commercial orchard --- kill mulches always trump tilling in my book.  But since I'm starting in the fall, that means I won't be able to plant until the spring, so I'll probably run back to back buckwheat cover crops, then either put in my perennials in fall of 2013 or plant clover then to give the soil another year of fertility building.

Weekend HomesteaderI'm curious to hear from others.  How have you prepped the soil for fruit trees, and did your technique bear fruit?  Are you a believer in simply replacing chemical sprays with organic alternatives that do the same thing, or do you try to garden holistically?

We'll be discussing chapter two next Wednesday, and I have to admit I've read ahead and find that section equally inspiring.  I hope you'll join the book club and read along!

My publicist tells me that preorder sales are quite good, so he's sent off my paperback to a slew of potential reviewers.  Maybe I'll get lucky and it'll be reviewed in The New York Times.  (I'm not holding my breath.)
Posted Wed Oct 3 12:01:18 2012 Tags:
how to make a do it yourself deluxe chicken carrier

Anna heard about an upcoming animal swap and we realized our chicken carrier cage is nowhere to be found.

It only took a few minutes to cut an opening in this metal foot locker.

We don't have any livestock to trade, but we have high hopes of bringing home one or two laying hens so we can get more eggs this winter.

Posted Wed Oct 3 15:47:31 2012 Tags:
Heirloom apples

One of the reasons I'm excited to experiment with a high density apple planting is because it will allow me to try out more varieties.  When grafted onto standard or semistandard Rusty Coat applerootstocks, apples require a lot of space, and I only have room for four in our forest garden.  Being able to test several more varieties to see how they handle our microclimate and disease pressure will be very valuable (and tasty).

On the other hand, I've learned the hard way that it's not even worth trying apple varieties on our homestead if they aren't resistant to cedar apple rust.  Your neck of the woods may have its own apple Achilles heel, but the following varieties went onto my short list due to their disease resistance for my area:

Cedar apple rust
Fire blight

Dessert, cooking, or drying; precocious; broad disease resistance
Arkansas Black
Resistant (or susceptible)
Late fall
Storage apple;  best cooked; blooms avoids frost

August to September
Disease tolerant in humid climates
Ashmead's Kernel

Dessert; stores until March; relatively disease tolerant
Very resistant

September to October
Good for dessert, cooking, or cider; stores well; needs pollinator; biennial
Belle de Boskoop
Dessert or cooking; needs pollinator
Black Limbertwig
Dessert, cider, and cooking
Bramley Seedling
October to November
Cooking or cider; blooms avoid frost; needs pollinator; stores well
Chestnut Crabapple

Small but sweet; disease resistant
Duchess of Oldenburg
Somewhat resistant
Somewhat resistant

Precocious; best for cooking
More resistant
More resistant
More resistant
Good for dessert or cider; keeps 3 to 5 months
More resistant
More resistant
Most resistant
September to October
Dessert; stores up to 6 months; blooms avoid frost
Most resistant
More resistant
Somewhat resistant
Somewhat resistant

Stores until January; all-purpose
Grime's Golden
September to October
All-purpose; stores until January; best flavor in Mid-Atlantic
Hardy Cumberland


Good in southern Appalachians; stores well
Hudson's Golden Gem
Tastes like Bosc pears; good for dessert, cooking, or cider

Dessert, cooking, and cider; poor keeper
Dessert; good keeper; slow to bear
Kidd's Orange Red

September to October
Good flavor of Cox's Orange Pippin, but less temperamental; precocious
King David
Moderately susceptible or resistant
October to November
Dessert, cooking, or cider; stores well; tolerant of abuse; blooms miss frosts; precocious
Most resistant
Somewhat resistant
Somewhat resistant
September to October
Dessert and cooking; doesn't store well; precocious
Moderately susceptible
June to July
Better keeper than Yellow Transparent but not quite as tasty; cooking; needs pollinator
Mammoth Black Twig
Resistant or susceptible
Dessert, cooking, drying, or cider; stores until April; blooms miss frosts
Myers Royal Limbertwig

Dessert or cider
Nova Easygro
Most resistant
Somewhat resistant

Most resistant
More resistant
Somewhat resistant
Somewhat resistant

Pixie Crunch
Most resistant
Somewhat resistant
Somewhat resistant
Stores for 2 months
Stores 2 to 3 months; easy to grow
Somewhat resistant or somewhat susceptible
More resistant
Somewhat resistant or susceptible
July to August
Dessert or cooking
Ralls Genet
Blooms miss frosts
More resistant
More resistant
July to August
Stores up to two months
Red Limbertwig

All-purpose; good keeper
Tastes like Asian pear
Dessert, cooking, or cider
Summer Rambo
Somewhat resistant
Somewhat resistant
Somewhat resistant
Somewhat resistant
July to August
Dessert or cooking; dependable; needs pollinator
Most resistant
More resistant
Somewhat resistant
Somewhat resistant
Stores up to 6 months
Sweet Sixteen
Somewhat resistant
September to October
Not as tasty in hot summer areas; blooms avoid frosts; biennial if not thinned; dessert and cooking
William's Pride
More resistant
More resistant
July to August
Dessert or cooking; keeps 1 month; best in northern gardens
Stores up to 6 months; needs pollinator; dessert or cooking
Somewhat resistant
Good keeper; cider
Yellow Transparent
June to July
Earliest apple; dessert or cooking; doesn't store; bears young; susceptible to late frosts

The data for my table came from The Holistic Orchard, Grow Fruit Naturally, The Best Apples to Buy and Grow, and our favorite local apple nursery's website.  The astute reader will notice that heirloom varieties (like Yellow Transparent, an old Russian apple) are mixed together with modern inventions (like Sweet Sixteen, barely older than I am).  The heirloom varieties developed the hard way, standing out amid seedling apples that perished Baldwin applewhen not cared for, while the more recent apples have been bred with scientific knowlege of disease-resistant genes.  In the end, it doesn't really matter where the resistance comes from, and I decided to try some out of each category.

Of course, I also wanted to spread my harvest out throughout the year, so I ended up choosing Yellow Transparent and Pristine as early apples, Zestar (not resistant, but we wanted to try it anyway), Summer Rambo, and Sweet Sixteen for early fall, and Enterprise, Empire, Grimes Golden, and Mammoth Black Twig as late apples/keepers.  In a few years, I'll probably learn that some of those apples thrive in our climate while others are losers.  Then it'll be time to cut out the bad trees and go back to the drawing board to experiment with some other disease-resistant apples.

An automatic chicken waterer allows you to leave town for several days without worrying about your flock.

Posted Thu Oct 4 08:01:40 2012 Tags:
Chicago hardy fig

When we started thinking about expanding our fig planting, I decided to do some research on figs that can grow here in zone 6 (and even for those of you in zone 5).  I'll write a later post about frost protection; for now, I want to talk about selecting varieties that can handle the cold best.

Before you start thinking about frost hardy figs, though, you need to understand that young figs of any variety are more sensitive to cold winters than larger figs are.  Depending on who you talk to, figs less than two to five years old are likely to die back to the ground regardless of your efforts.  In addition, wet feet over the winter make a fig more likely to Fruiting figperish.  So, don't lose heart if you've planted a supposedly hardy variety and it spends its first few years dying back and producing little fruit --- the tree might grow out of it, especially if you provide better soil drainage.

Okay, so which figs are likely to achieve hardiness?  As I searched the internet, I discovered that fig aficionados talk about varieties you're unlikely to find in most nurseries.  In fact, you might have to join one of the fig forums and beg for cuttings if you want to try these heirlooms.

The good news is that fig lovers have also put a lot of effort into testing the cold hardiness of their varieties, in one case setting out over a hundred types of figs and letting the plants deal with a cold winter to see which few survived.  Sal (Gene strain), Marseilles vs Black, Blue Celeste, and Hardy Chicago were the winners in that experiment, which had a winter low of 0 F.  Another fig grower reports that Hardy Hartford is his most cold hardy variety, surviving -4 Fahrenheit with no winter protection.  During a winter that only got down to 10 F, the following varieties were added to the cold hardy list:

  • Florea
  • Gino
  • English Brown Turkey (aka Eastern Brown Turkey)
  • Sweet Georg
  • Adriana
  • Tiny Celeste
  • UCD Celeste
  • 143-36
  • Paradiso White (Gene Hosey strain)
  • Archipel
  • Lindhurst Wht
  • Jurupa

Yet other sources add the following figs to the cold hardy list:

  • Brooklyn White
  • Violetta
  • Hanc Mathies English Brown Turkey
  • LaRadek's English Brown Turkey
  • Sal's EL
  • Dark Portuguese
  • Paradiso
  • Alma
  • LSU Gold

Celeste fig

Another factor to consider in addition to sheer cold hardiness is the fruiting nature of the variety in question.  Figs produce two crops: the breba crop early in the season on last year's wood, and the main crop later on new growth.  We chose Chicago Hardy (aka Hardy Chicago) because it will produce a large main crop even if it freezes to the ground during the winter, but I'm starting to realize that a main crop that ripens in September is never going to produce as much fruit as a fig that can give us an especially early breba crop as well.  Some sources say that Celeste (aka Malta, Celestial, Conant, Sugar Fig, and Tennessee Mountain Fig) can produce a heavy crop as early as June, as long as prune sparingly and use frost protection.  Stay tuned for tomorrow's post about protecting figs over cold winters.

Don't want to baby figs?  The Weekend Homesteader walks you through growing some of the easiest fruits --- strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries.

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

Posted Thu Oct 4 12:01:20 2012 Tags:
fig infused apple yummy close up

roasted figs
There's a problem with eating roasted figs.

Some of the precious juice drips down onto the toaster oven tray and gets caramelized.

Apple slices underneath can be a delicious soaking platform while making the clean up 10 times easier.

Posted Thu Oct 4 15:45:16 2012 Tags:
Foggy hayfield

I've been making a lot of posts about what's in my head rather than what's on the farm because my outside chores for October consist of weeding and mulching the vegetable garden to prepare it for winter.  A blow by blow would be pretty boring.

Napping in the sun

But I didn't want you to think I spent all week napping in the sun.  Huckleberry does that for us.

Fallen walnut leaves

In addition to giving me lots of meditation time to dream up new ideas, I enjoy autumn hours spent weeding because they let me watch the fall colors change from day to day on the trees...

Fall colors

...and on my plate.

I had a great shot of my clothesline fall colors too, but I decided it was just too risque for public consumption --- my underwear took up about 500 square pixels.  You'll just have to imagine the blue-gray trailer, the peach leaves beginning to drop, my rainbow-striped towel fluttering on the line, and a stray walnut leaf spinning through the air.

Fall garden

I think this is shaping up to be my favorite autumn ever.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy so they can enjoy crisp fall days.
Posted Fri Oct 5 07:50:34 2012 Tags:

Fig microclimateThe best way to push your hardiness boundaries is to provide tender perennials like figs with a warm and dry microclimate.  One grower I know planted his fig right under the dryer exhaust vent, with very good results, and others recommend locating your fig on the southern side of a house.  Stone patios can grab the heat from the winter sun and radiate it back out at night, and presumably locating a fig near a large body of water would serve the same purpose.

If you dry your clothes on the line and don't have a patio, you can still get figs through zone 6 winters with a little extra effort.  One option consists of cutting the roots on one side of the tree with a shovel to allow you to bend the whole tree down flush with the earth.  You can either dig a trench and bury the branches underground, or simply top them with bales of straw.

Overwintering figThe alternative we've used involves autumn leaves insulating the aboveground growth of the fig.  My method worked okay, but the leaves got beaten down by rain and snow, and any branches that ended up exposed died back.  This winter, I'll probably take the advice of more experienced fig growers and tie the limbs together, pack in leaves, then wrap the leafy insulation with a tarp or other waterproof layer.

A final option, especially handy for those in the extreme north, is to treat your fig as a potted plant.  The fig can spend the summer outdoors, then once it drops its leaves (usually after a light frost), you take the plant inside to a cool basement or root cellar.  Alternatively, if you've got a warm, sunny window that's not already full of dwarf citrus, you can keep a potted fig growing all winter by bringing it in before cold weather hits.

I'd be curious to hear from those of you north of zone 7 who have had good luck growing figs.  Which varieties did you choose and how do you get them through the winter?  What kind of yields have you seen?

The Weekend Homesteader presents one fun and easy project for each weekend of the year to guide you gently onto the path of self-sufficiency.

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

Posted Fri Oct 5 12:01:25 2012 Tags:
extracting grape vine due to low performance

We finally decided to give up on these grapes today.

The fruit was okay, but without spraying the yields are very low.

Spraying would be smelly, expensive, and leak into the surrounding soil, an option we never considered because we love our dirt. We instead ordered a Mars Seedless that's been growing nicely for about a year now and should be disease resistant enough for this area.

Posted Fri Oct 5 16:19:10 2012 Tags:
Empty honeycomb

When I peeked up under the hive this week, I was hoping to see the third box full of capped honey.  Instead, it looked like the bees hadn't drawn any extra comb, and the comb that existed was pretty much empty.

Bee feederWith the wingstem nectar flow over, the bees are reduced to scrounging through the asters and everbearing raspberry flowers, so I decided to try again and see if they would take sugar water now.

"I don't mind if I do," said the bees, gulping down a pint in seven hours.

What I'm not sure about is how much honey is in the hive at the moment.  I estimated the bees had packed away 26 pounds (one hive body full) when I did a thorough inspection in early September, and the third hive body looks exactly the same now as it did then.

If the hive only has 26 pounds of honey in it, I'd need to pour 10 quarts of sugar water down the bees' gullets before weather gets too cold for them to dehydrate the nectar into sugar --- a tall order.

On the other hand, it's quite possible that the bees have simply been moving honey into the upper boxes as they slow down brood production, in which case I don't need to feed as much.  Since I can't tell the difference without opening the hive, I'll just keep feeding as long as the bees keep eating.

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to leave town for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Sat Oct 6 07:49:35 2012 Tags:
Tractor Supply animal swap Oct 2012

The Tractor Supply animal swap had an impressive selection of livestock.

We ended up trading an Avian Aqua Miser plus 25 dollars for the above trio of Rhode Island Red hens.

Two full sized turkeys were going for 50 dollars and someone had 3 dollar hens.

I'd say it was 10 times more fun than if we would've gone to the County Fair.

Posted Sat Oct 6 15:49:29 2012 Tags:
Shiitake raft

Old mushroomI have to admit that I've been a bit lackadaisical about managing our edible mushrooms for the last couple of years.

Converting over to rafts and totems means that we don't get mushrooms in the summer.  Our logs just bear in the spring and fall when cool, damp weather creates natural fruiting conditions for oysters and shiitakes.

I don't actually mind taking an item off our summer list, though.  We have plenty to eat during the hot months, and so much to do that soaking mushroom logs feels like a chore.

Missed shiitake

The main downside of my new methodology is that I tend to miss about half the mushrooms when they do appear.  If you soak a mushroom log, you know it's going to fruit (or not) within a week, so you can schedule the Mushroom totemday to check back.  However, rafts and totems fruit when they feel like it, and there's really only a window of one day when the mushrooms are at their peak, so it's easy to miss.

That's how I came to overlook the first fruiting of our magnolia stump.  It's along a seldom-visited edge of our core homestead, and I didn't see the oysters until they'd shriveled up and gone by.

The mushroom totems along the driveway, though, caught my eye on Friday when they bore their second flush of fruit, and that reminded me to check the totems behind the trailer yesterday.  Quite a haul!  We stir-fried Friday's mushrooms, but I'm open to suggestions for how we'll eat up the weekend's bounty.  What are your favorite oyster mushroom recipes?

Our chicken waterer provides clean water for healthy hens.
Posted Sun Oct 7 07:54:16 2012 Tags:
using gravity to drain water hose collection

Weather people are predicting near frost temperatures tonight.

Hoses are drained. Green peppers picked.

We're mostly ready and looking forward to another peaceful winter.
Posted Sun Oct 7 14:17:52 2012 Tags:
Last summer harvest

It's likely to frost at some point this week, so I went ahead and picked everything sensitive.  Green peppers are a giveaway item, while yellow and red peppers will sit in the fridge and go in the next couple of weeks' salads.  I cooked up a huge basket of sweet corn and socked away a gallon of decobbed kernels in the freezer.  And the tomatoes I roasted with carrots, onions, and garlic, then whizzed up in the food processor to create a cream of tomato and basil soup.

What's left?  Lots of lettuce and leafy greens, all of which can be eaten at our leisure.  Potatoes and carrots need to be dug this week, and I'll probably freeze some broccoli since the heads are expanding faster than we can eat them.  Soon after that, the first cabbage will be ready, right about the time we'll likely eat the last of our sugar snap peas.  These fall crops can all handle temperatures down into the low twenties, so I'm hopeful we'll be eating them for weeks to come.

What are you eating out of your garden at the moment?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution for spoiled hens.
Posted Mon Oct 8 06:54:09 2012 Tags:
Asian bamboo chicken carrier kapoo

A sharp knife and some bamboo is all it takes to make the above chicken carrier.

The picture is from

He took this a few years ago in Northern Thailand where they take a rooster and tie him to a tree in the forest and then try to encourage crowing. This attracts wild chickens which make a tasty meal.

Posted Mon Oct 8 16:13:46 2012 Tags:
Cold, rainy October

I'm officially a heating wimp this year.  I like to play fire chicken, seeing how long in the fall I can go without any source of heat.  The idea is that my body acclimates to the cold, so if I can bear with chilly weather in October, the same temperatures will feel warm in January.

Burning scrap lumberBut a cold, rainy day that never broke 50 broke me.  Monday was a very unusual day since we had to wake up in the dark, pounding rain to get to the big city for our dental checkups at 9 am.  (No cavities for either of us!)  Honestly, I think I needed the mental boost of the fire even more than the warmth when we straggled home that afternoon.

I did get the fire started with a couple of pieces of boxelder and half of a walnut round, but then I just burned scrap lumber.  Do you burn odds and ends of two by fours that are too small to use otherwise even though they're pine?

Our chicken waterer is easy to convert to a heated waterer for easy, cold weather hydration in the coop.
Posted Tue Oct 9 07:48:17 2012 Tags:
Anna Lucy and Mark with trailer and barn in background along with golf cart Club Car

We decided to start Staycation 2012 this afternoon.

The above picture is for Anna's upcoming Mother Earth News magazine article for the February/March issue.

No...Huckleberry didn't take this picture, it was a timer on a bale of straw thing.

Posted Tue Oct 9 13:52:15 2012 Tags:
Chicks in swamp

Our greywater swamp became a much more pressing problem last week as the grasses and clovers began to go dormant.  In the summer, actively growing vegetation pushes an astonishing amount of water from the soil up into the air via transpiration, but once the weather cools and plants slow down, the ground is on a trend toward increasing wetness.  While our chicks love hunting for bugs in the greywater effluent, we stopped going out the back door because it was just too swampy.  I guess it's time to put greywater management on the list!

After some brainstorming, Mark and I agreed that a constructed wetland was the way to go.  But what would it look like?  I thought you might enjoy seeing what goes through  my head when I'm thinking about a design like this:

Constructed wetland design

In case you can't read my scrawl, the big questions pertained to lining.  Should we line the wetland at all, and if so with what?

As we know from experience, our clay soil will create a boggy spot where the greywater comes out even without a liner.  Assuming you're not cleaning up something really toxic (in which case, a liner is recommended to keep the toxins from leaching into the groundwater), the only real reason to line a constructed wetland is to keep the soil from drying up during the summer.  However, a liner does have benefits --- it allows real wetland plants to take hold over a large area, and can even be used to create a pool of clean water at the end of the wetland for irrigation or frog habitat.

If we do decide to line the wetland, there are three options:

  • Purchase a pond liner.  If we went for the high quality version, that would be pricey --- $266.
  • Compact clay soil.  Mainstream folks tend to rent mechanized compacters to mash wet clay around under pressure and create a nearly impenetrable liner.
  • Gley the pond.  You can read my post about gleying here.  (Using pigs to seal a pond is a method of gleying.)

Of course you know which option appeals to me, but our little wetland is nowhere near big enough to make it worthwhile to raise pigs just to seal it, and the area is at the same time too big to haul in enough manure to gley without animals.  I'm wondering how much stomping around in boots would be required to compact the soil, and whether chickens can be used to gley ponds.  Ideas?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional, filthy waterers.
Posted Wed Oct 10 08:34:13 2012 Tags:

Hugelkultur terraceThe second chapter of The Holistic Orchard was all about planning an innovative orchard that suits your site.  I wish I'd read this before I drowned some trees in our soggy soil, then reinvented the wheel to create raised planting beds incorporating hugelkultur just like Phillips suggests.  His notes on sun and wind are probably just what some other beginning orchardist needs as well.

A method Phillips calls "biological terracing" looks like it would be just right for our steep and dry powerline cut pasture.  Soil is shoveled downhill to create a terrace with a bowl Biological terracingbehind it, and the bowl is filled with wood chips to soak up moisture.  I've pondered terracing our powerline hillside (or at least building small cepas for trees), but have gotten bogged down in deciding what will hold the steep downhill side of the terrace from being scratched apart by chickens.  Phillips' suggestion of planting comfrey to hold the slope sounds like it might withstand moderate abuse.  (The two photos I've included are other ideas for terracing --- click each to see the source.)

Next, Phillips introduces forest gardening, dynamic accumulators, and nectary plants that attract beneficial insects.  I won't write more about that here since I've posted about each topic in depth in the past.  I was a bit disappointed that the author seemed to be regurgitating a lot of forest gardening information from the literature rather than telling us which techniques actually work in his orchard, but that's my pet peeve about permaculture books in general.

Weekend HomesteaderDid any techniques pop out at you from this week's reading?  Or do you have a site-specific problem Phillips didn't cover that you're wondering how to work around?

We'll read chapter three for next Wednesday.  I know it's a lot of pages, but the first and last parts cover information you probably already know if you've delved into orcharding at all, so feel free to skip or skim that and just focus on the "soil fertility" and "tree doings" sections on pages 59 through 82.  I hope you'll keep reading along (and that newcomers will feel free to join the club!  We'll probably focus on this book all through October and November, so you've got plenty of time to hunt down a copy.)

The Weekend Homesteader is full of projects that make a difference, but don't break the bank.
Posted Wed Oct 10 12:01:35 2012 Tags:
side by side comparison of Ariat and Georgia Boot

This post is to document the beginning date of my new Georgia Boot phase.

The above Ariat shoes only lasted 9 months before one started to leak.

I think the breaking point is where the toe bends. I know I put those boots through some hard conditions, but in my opinion they should've lasted longer for being in the 100 dollar category.

Posted Wed Oct 10 16:51:25 2012 Tags:
Homestead trailer

It's a good thing my father's alive, because otherwise he'd be rolling over in his grave.  The first Christmas after we pulled a trailer onto our farm, he gave me and Mark matching "Redneck Trailer Service" hats.  Later, he begged me, "Just don't built onto your trailer!"  And now...I'm writing a book about it.

My next ebook is a response to the tiny house and build your own house movements, combined with the voluntary simplicity movement.  The Simple Trailer Life (or maybe The Trailer Homestead --- what do you think?) will suggest an even cheaper and more
environmentally friendly method of lowering housing costs --- living in a used mobile home.

Inside a mobile home

And I need your help!  First of all, any title suggestions would be much appreciated.  Second, I'm looking for some homesteaders whom I could quote about why they wouldn't dream of living in a trailer.  I've got several great case studies of happy trailer-dwellers already, but if you have a good story, I wouldn't mind hearing from you about that too.  (The photo above is from Holy Scrap Hot Springs, one of our featured trailer-dwelling couples, and you'll be hearing more from one of our long-time readers as well.)  If you're interested in participating, just email for more information.

This ebook is flowing out of my fingertips like water, so hopefully I'll be able to let you read it by the end of the year.  Stay tuned!

Our chicken waterer kit takes the guesswork out of making a POOP-free waterer that fits your flock perfectly.


Edited to add:

Trailersteading is now available for $1.99 on Amazon.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Posted Thu Oct 11 07:13:30 2012 Tags:
podcast speaking of fungal amendments and nutrient dense food

Soil expert Dan Kittredge from the Bionutrient Food Association was on the always fresh C-Realm podcast yesterday.

Mr Kittredge has some interesting things to say on nutrionally dense food crops and the conditions and interactions that can improve soil health and vitality.

I liked his metaphor explaining how soil acts as an external digestive system for plants not unlike our stomachs. I learned about fungal inoculants and after a little research we've decided to try out a product sold by Paul Stamets that should increase mycelium networks in our raised beds which will in turn help to promote beneficial bacteria growth and aeration.

Posted Thu Oct 11 16:54:51 2012 Tags:
Pink shelf fungus

I thought for sure it was going to frost Wednesday night, but my max/min thermometer noted a low of 33 degrees.  This is a bit like what happens if the groundhog sees its shadow, but in reverse.  There's no chance of frost now for at least another week and a half, so we get bonus days of summer.

That means I gambled wrong on cutting all those green peppers and baby squashes off the plants.  On the other hand, even the red raspberry plants Mom and I picked within an inch of their lives Wednesday still ripened yet more delectable berries Thursday, and I'm hoping sunnier days may tempt a few more figs to ripen up.  Each one of our farm years so far has had a frost right around our average frost date of October 10, so it will be interesting to see what else changes with an elongated fall.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative for the chicken-keeper who cares about her flock's health.
Posted Fri Oct 12 08:35:09 2012 Tags:
Sporic Meiosis illustrated in diagram

Turns out I got a little ahead of myself with yesterday's experiment.

Spring will be a better time to experiment with a fungal inoculant. Spores might survive over the winter, but they'll have a better chance of thriving with higher soil temperatures.

Image credit goes to Wikipedia.

Posted Fri Oct 12 14:07:50 2012 Tags:

American GrownAmerican Grown is a beautifully illustrated book that's worth checking out of the library.  Michelle Obama chronicles her experiences gardening for the first time, then expands out from the White House lawn to write about her campaign to combat childhood obesity.  She also profiles community and school gardens across the United States, and White House chefs include some gourmet recipes at the end of the book.

The positive side of American Grown is that it's very enthusiastic and inspirational, but the flip side of the coin is that there's very little dirt in evidence.  I wonder how many folks who start growing vegetables because of this book will be shocked when they don't have a huge staff to keep their garden impeccable and when the kale comes into the kitchen with insect-nibbled holes in its leaves.  I would have felt much more comfortable recommending this book to a gardening audience if there weren't quite so many gloved hands and if a single picture had shown the author as anything less than impeccably coiffed.

My second complaint is that the book presented very few details.  On the other hand, I'm actually a bit glad Michelle Obama only gave us select tidbits since she's clearly a raw beginner and factual errors are relatively common.  For example, the author thinks it's good she can fence out foxes who might otherwise eat her garden, and her picture illustrating the point that "the pawpaw is one of the few fruits native to the United States" is actually a papaya.  Luckily, since I'm not a historian and didn't know if she got anything wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the section detailing the history of the White House gardens.

My conclusion is that this book would be fun to flip through on a cold winter day along with the seed catalogs, but it's not very nutritionally dense. 

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I voted for her husband and probably will again.  On the other hand, I really detest the window-dressing role of First Ladies, so I'm actually more negative than positive toward this book politically.)

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative for finicky suburban hens.
Posted Sat Oct 13 08:28:34 2012 Tags:
update to last years cinder block drive way experiment

It's been a year since I tried to repair the driveway ruts with cinder blocks.

The blocks are still in place, but they didn't receive any truck traffic.

We've been using the golf cart to haul stuff which doesn't seem to push the bricks any deeper, but we've also been trying to avoid using it during really wet times.

Posted Sat Oct 13 13:49:53 2012 Tags:
Stacking chickens and raspberries

Ever-bearing red raspberriesI've written about succession planting previously, which involves keeping the garden active by growing more than one crop per year in the same spot.  But I realized I'd never written here about a related permaculture principle which is one of my favorites --- stacking.

When permies use the term "stacking", they are growing more than one crop in the same space at the same time.  For example, silvopastures can allow you to raise timber (or nuts and fruits) right on top of livestock while forest gardens may stack shade-tolerant herbs and leafy greens under fruit trees.

The best way to keep competition down when stacking is to involve multiple kingdoms.  For example, mushroom rafts under a peach tree don't compete at all --- if anything, the fungi slowly break down the wood into high quality humus that the peach will enjoy while the peach maintains a damp, shady environment for the mushrooms.  Even though they're in the same kingdom, putting my bee hive in the chicken pasture this year has been a win-win.

Six week old chickensMy favorite stacking success has been letting our chicks free range throughout the raspberries (and back garden) during their first month or two of life.  The only slight downside is that the chicks scratch the mulch to pieces, but they find lots of invertebrates (and clean up any dropped berries) in the process, all while laying down a thin coating of fertilizer.  The chicks feel safe because they're nestled amid thorny branches, and that patch of raspberries seems to bear berries twice as large and juicy as those on the other end of the homestead.

What's your favorite example of stacking on your own farm?

Our chicken waterer gives our miniature flock a refreshing drink of clean water whenever they take a break from scavenging.
Posted Sun Oct 14 08:52:54 2012 Tags:
creek stepping stone update one year later

The cinder block stepping stones have held up nicely over the last year.

It turned out to be a huge improvement allowing us to step over the deep section 90 percent of the time.

A more stable solution would involve a large drainage pipe to let the bulk of the creek flow through. We heard of a neighbor trying such a trick only to have it wash out after the first big storm.

Posted Sun Oct 14 13:40:49 2012 Tags:
Asparagus alley

Half a year after planting, asparagus alley already has a major success and a major failure under its belt.
Male asparagus flower
What worked?  The seeds I saved from the one female in my "all-male" asparagus planting do seem to be producing nearly all male plants.  Only about half the asparagus seedlings got big enough to bloom this year, but every flower I picked apart is full of stamens with no pistils.

On the downside, I think locating a row of asparagus against the pasture fence wasn't the best idea.  Yes, the plants will probably provide some much-needed summer shade for our chickens, and the chickens will likely eat up any asparagus beetles that come to call.  But it's hard to weed the side of the bed against the fence, so grasses seem to be taking over.

I've dug out roots and kill-mulched once already this year and think I might have to do something more drastic, like put some kind of root barrier between the asparagus and the fence.  Ideas?

Our chicken waterer provides POOP-free water to keep our hens healthy.
Posted Mon Oct 15 07:46:12 2012 Tags:

The Grafter's HandbookI've been looking for a book on grafting for years, and for years I thought one didn't exist.  Most books about tree fruits have a short chapter on the topic, but I really wanted something I could sink my teeth into.  Finally, I've found it!

The Grafter's Handbook is by R.J. Garner, who worked as a scientist at the East Malling Research Station for twenty years.  In case "Malling" sounds vaguely familiar, it should --- the research station gave its name to many of the apple rootstocks developed there.  Garner's book is a treasure trove of hands-on experience, all summed up in easy-to-read and scientifically-designed chapters.  Garner even hand-drew over a hundred excellent diagrams to illustrate his points (and included a few more dozen photos to prove his grafting techniques aren't a pipe dream).

The only downside of The Grafter's Handbook is that it was published in England and is now out of print, which makes it rather hard to find.  I lucked out and bought a gently used copy on Amazon for $10, but if you can hold your horses, there's a revised edition coming out next year, updated by British gardener Steve Bradley.  (When I started this review, I was actually going to say that the only thing that would make this book better is if it was lightly updated to include modern tools, so now I almost wish I'd known about the revised edition before I bought and read this one.)

Grafting book

This week (and next), I'll be regaling you with highlights from The Grafter's Handbook at lunchtime.  I hope it will inspire you to try your had at grafting this winter just like it did me.

The Weekend Homesteader has been reviewed by Booklist, so hopefully it will come soon to a library near you.

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

Posted Mon Oct 15 12:01:30 2012 Tags:
mulching the kiwi plants with aged wood chips

We put a healthy layer of aged wood chips on the Hardy Kiwis today.

All three plants produced plenty of new vines this year but no fruit.

The wood chips should increase their ground protection, which might be enough to give them a boost in the Spring growth spurt of 2013.

Posted Mon Oct 15 15:20:39 2012 Tags:
Harvesting carrots

Last week, I mentioned carrots on my soon-to-harvest list, and a couple of you rightly pointed out that you don't have to harvest carrots before the frost.  In fact, carrots get sweeter if you wait to dig them until cold weather has moved in, and some people even leave their carrots in the ground over the winter.  However, there are some reasons you might choose to harvest your carrots early.

Carrots in the garden

If you get a heavy layer of snow that stays put all winter long, you're in the perfect spot for overwintering carrots.  Counterintuitively, the snow protects the ground so it doesn't freeze and the garden row acts just like a good root cellar.  Those of us who garden further south, though, experience ground freezes and thaws throughout the winter months, and each freeze-thaw cycle pushes the carrots a bit further out of the ground.  The tops quickly freeze and then rot, so you can't count on carrots overwintering in our area.

Basket of carrots

You can get around this issue by mulching the carrots heavily in the fall.  However, if your ground doesn't freeze, varmints are very likely to move into that soft, warm bed and nibble on your roots all winter long.  Which brings me to one of the reasons I'm harvesting my carrots early this year: a vole found the tasty carrots in one bed and started gnawing off the bottoms, so I decided to get those roots before they're all eaten up.

No-till garden

The other reason I'm harvesting now has to do with maturity of the carrots.  In order to overwinter carrots in the garden, you need to plant them at just the right time so they're fully mature just as the ground gets too cold for them to grow any further.  This is very tricky since you never know if autumn will be cold and dark or warm and sunny, so I tend to just plant early (at the beginning of July) to ensure I get in a good crop.

Overmature carrots

The downside of early planting, though, is that good weather may mean your carrots head past mature and into overmature before cold weather halts the plants' growth.  You can't really count on the days to harvest listed on the seed packet to get this maturity data since Rinsing carrotsshorter days slow carrots down, but if you pull out small carrots throughout their time in the ground to eat and thin the bed, you'll clearly see when the roots stop bulking up and start heading over the hill by splitting or rotting.

And that's why I harvested a third of our carrots Monday.  We got 23 pounds from two beds (and I've probably already harvested another 10 or 20 pounds from those beds over the last couple of months), which filled up my crisper drawer.  Yikes!  Now I have to figure out where to store the other three beds of carrots.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional filthy waterers.
Posted Tue Oct 16 08:05:32 2012 Tags:

Rabbit manureOne benefit to keeping rabbits is the wonderful and rich manure they produce.  While rabbits may not produce manure in quantities that some other livestock will produce, the manure is all produced in a localized area, assuming they are kept in pens/hutches.  This makes it trivially easy to gather and use.  We plan to improve upon our collection area soon so that there will be a plastic or sheet metal catchment that will direct the manure into a basin or barrel.  We have a few ideas on how to accomplish this and it will be an interesting project we can report on later.

Many different sources claim that rabbit manure does not need to be aged.  I have heard this common wisdom for many years, but am only just now ready to start putting it to the test.  The gardening here has been slowing down due to the oppressive heat of mid-late summer, and most recently due to lack of time.  However, Dawn and I will soon be transplanting some citrus trees (Satsumas, Mandarin Orange, Kumquats, Kaffir Lime) once fall is here in full force and we will be using much of the accumulated manure to enrich the soil around the newly transplanted trees.  By the time spring rolls around we also plan to really put the manure to the test when the vegetable garden will be at full throttle again.

Rabbit manure is claimed to have an excellent nutrient content.  I'm no manure expert, but I've seen several sources which list it at an average N2.4 P1.4 K0.6.  We'll have to research which types of plants that ratio is best for but I'd guess it's suitable for most.

Fencing in rabbit manureWe learned early on that we needed to build a fence around the bottom of the cage to keep the dogs out.  They were enjoying digging in and sometimes snacking on the manure.  The barrier also keeps them from nipping and sniffing at the fuzzy bunny feet at the bottom of the cage.  When the rabbits first showed up here the dogs were intensely curious and would stand on hind legs to sniff at the new creatures invading their territory.  Dawn built a handy removable frame which allows easy access to the underside of the cage while still keeping the dogs out.  It may not be obvious from the photo, but the front of the cage pulls out in mere seconds to allow full and easy access making it easy to shovel the manure.

Lately, things have been quite busy here and we haven't been able to keep up with things as much as would be ideal.  Therefore, the manure has been accumulating and there is some grub or maggot that has started invading our precious store of manure on the ground.  It's time for us to get busy with the shovel and make use of the brown gold!  Also in that vein, we started contributing our rabbit posts weekly but quickly had to fall back to every other week.  Things have been quite busy for the last couple of months on the verge of overwhelming due to unfortunate termite discoveries, mechanical breakdowns, and a number of other things including a needed trip out of town all piling up at once.  I certainly have more admiration of the commitment it takes for folks to keep up with a regular blog schedule despite the busy pace that life sometimes presents (I'm looking at Anna and Mark here... ;-) ).

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 Oct 16 12:00:17 2012 Tags:
cute chicks eating oil seed radish leaf

Our new flock of chicks like to nibble on the leaf of an oilseed radish plant.

The last group didn't seem interested.

I'm guessing it's more of a palette cleanser than a full blown snack.

Posted Tue Oct 16 15:52:40 2012 Tags:
Anna First ice
Fall ice

Even though we haven't had a frost yet, weird microclimate effects resulted in homegrown ice Tuesday morning.  I'd let a little rainwater accumulate in the wheelbarrow, and the metal dissipated heat in such a way that a low of 34 resulted in a skim of ice.  Strange, huh?

Morning sun

Meanwhile, the sun has drifted low enough in the sky that we don't see light in our core homestead until mid-morning.  Although the north-facing exposure of our plateau makes me envious of our neighbor's sun, it does provide some dramatic lighting.

Do you think we'll make it to Halloween without a frost?

Our automatic chicken waterer makes it easy to leave town for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Wed Oct 17 08:11:13 2012 Tags:

Orchard compostThose of you who read chapter three of The Holistic Orchard with me this week will probably feel like you were drinking from a fire hose.  The section took me days to digest and I suspect I'll be trying out Phillips' techniques for the next several years.  Feel free to comment about other parts of the chapter (of which there were many), but I want to focus my post on soil health this week.

It's very handy to read this chapter with soil test results in hand.  I didn't actually test my orchard soil last winter, but I have test results from the back garden, which started with the same type of soil, even if it has been treated slightly differently over the years.  Here are the relevant portions of the test results:

pH 7.3
% OM 15
P (ppm) 556
K (ppm) 615
Ca (ppm) 6801
Mg (ppm) 926
CEC 56
% Sat. K 3.7
% Sat. Mg 17.6
% Sat. Ca 78.8

Phillips follows an Albrecht-like ratio approach to soil health, focusing on the relative (rather than absolute) amounts of nutrients.  When I got my results back for the garden, all of the cations were listed as "very high", so I figured I was fine.  But Phillips notes that if there's too much magnesium (Mg) in relation to the calcium (Ca) in the soil (for example), plants will accidentally take up magnesium while looking for calcium and may end up deficient in the latter.  In addition, he points out that calcium tends to spread soil apart, which can be handy for drainage and aeration in clay soil, while magnesium pulls soil particles together (useful in sand, but not elsewhere).

Effects of calcium on clay soilThe optimal Ca:Mg ratio (compared using the percent of base saturation figures, not the absolute ppm figures) is 5:1 for sandy soil and 7:1 for clay.  As you can see, my ratio is 4.5:1, meaning that some of my drainage issues might be improved by boosting calcium.  However, since my pH is already too high, I don't want to just add lime, so I'll need to look into gypsum, which increases calcium content in soil without sweetening the ground.

Similarly, you want to consider the ratio of phosphorus (P) to potassium (K).  Phillips recommends P:K values of 2:1 to produce the most nutrient-dense fruits, although 1:1 is okay in young orchards.  My P:K value of 0.9:1 is typical and signifies a need to boost phosphorus levels without increasing the soil's supply of poassium.  I'm going to have to do some research into phosphate amendments to see which ones won't raise our pH, but Phillips lists black rock phosphate, colloidal phosphate, Tennessee brown phosphate, bonemeal, and bone char as possibilities.

If your head's awhirl with numbers, here are some non-numeric soil factors to consider.  As I've mentioned previously, the goal in orchard soils is to boost fungi at the expense of bacteria, which Phillips explains results in more nitrogen being available in the form of ammonia.  Bacterially-dominated soils tend to have nitrogen in the form of nitrates, which Fungi in wood chipsresults in happy-looking trees and big fruits, but low nutrient density and flavor, along with more susceptability to disease.  Phillips recommends keeping your soil fungally-dominated by making special compost for the orchard out of deciduous wood chips slow-composted with animal manures.

When should you apply that compost?  I've always thought that early spring was the best time, but Phillips gets more scientific.  He explains that the white feeder roots that suck up nutrients are even more ephemeral than leaves --- they generally only live 14 to 60 days before dying back.  Trees produce multiple flushes of feeder roots throughout the year, generally during periods when growth on top of the tree has slowed, and if you time your compost applications to match root growth periods, you'll get more nutrients to the tree.  Trees focus on blooms in early spring, roots in mid spring, leaves in early summer, and roots in late summer and fall.  Cutting herbaceous plants under the tree canopy (like grass or comfrey) during peak root growth can help feed your tree at just the right time, and so can spreading compost in autumn when half of the leaves have fallen.  Meanwhile, a heavy mulch in the fall can keep the roots growing later into the winter, and can also muffle spring warmth so trees bloom up to ten days later and miss fruit-killing freezes.

If you can handle another eye-opening chapter, we'll read chapter 4 "Orchard dynamics" for next Wednesday.  Those new to the club might want to check out previous chapters on beginning a holistic orchard and techniques for designing a holistic orchard.  And, as always, I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this fascinating subject.

The Weekend Homesteader is full of projects that make a difference, but don't break the bank.
Posted Wed Oct 17 12:01:38 2012 Tags:

strange dog that showed up yesterdayThis German short haired pointer showed up yesterday lost and hungry.

It took a few phone calls to track down a local hunter we thought might be looking.

He graciously agreed to take the dog who might belong to his friend, and if not he said he'd find him a home.

Posted Wed Oct 17 16:46:46 2012 Tags:

Gathering autumn leavesI'm starting to get more sophisticated about my biomass uses.  While autumn leaves make a good mulch for perennials, they tend to blow around, so when I have my druthers, I've been using seedless weeds and composted wood chips there.

Meanwhile, I'd like to channel the autumn leaves into the chicken coops, where they make the best possible addition to the deep bedding.  The leaves are high enough in carbon that they counteract quite a lot of manure, and they're also fluffy enough that chickens can scratch through easily, mixing the coop-floor compost heap.

The snag I'm hitting in my grand plan is storage.  While I can rake leaves out of the woods at any time of the year, right now is when they're easy pickings.  Before they've been run over and rained on too many times, it's child's play to rake the leaves off the bare parts of the driveway, then scoop them into the golf cart.  In half an hour, I can come home with three heaping wheelbarrowsful.

Chickens on deep bedding

But where to put them?  For deep bedding, it's best to store leaves somewhere dry, and they're so fluffy that they take up a lot of space.  I'm starting out the easy way by filling both coops to the brim --- I may have to fork through the leaves if the tops get matted down, but otherwise I'll have happy chickens for at least a month or two with little work.  I'd like to store enough to last me all year, though, since deep bedding starts to smell and breed flies in the summer if not refreshed frequently, and I'm slow to add more bedding if all I have on hand is subpar materials.  I'm pondering closing in a little corncrib-like room in the barn and stuffing it full of leaves, but I feel like there's a simpler solution out there.  Ideas?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy while they're scratching through their bedding in search of worms.
Posted Thu Oct 18 08:30:34 2012 Tags:

The Grafter's Handbook began its explanation of grafting by noting what grafting won't do.  Although we often think of grafting as a way of getting more fruit trees, the techniques outlined in Garner's book won't actually create more plants; instead, grafting changes rootstocks (what you graft onto) from one variety to another, often impacting the tree's size, disease-resistance, and other features in the process.  Another factor to consider is that grafting is easier with dicots (most of the plants you're familiar with) and conifers than with monocots (like grasses and garlic), and you shouldn't expect two different species to survive if grafted together (although they sometimes will if the species are related).

With those caveats aside, grafting has much more potential than most of us have probably imagined.  A skilled grafter can:

  • Make hundreds of baby trees of the same variety using whip-and-tongue or bud grafts.
  • Change the variety of an older tree or create a fruit cocktail tree using topworking and frameworking.
  • Save sick trees by bridging gaps in the bark, buttressing up weak limbs, or adding on more extensive roots.
  • Study how various parts of a plant work.
Bridge grafting

As you might expect from this extensive list of grafting results, there are scores of methods to choose from, and Garner walks you through most of them.  Luckily for the beginner, most of these techniques have niche purposes, such as changing the variety of rubber trees or connecting tomato tops to potato roots, so only a handful of the grafting methods are really necessary for the backyard plant propagator to learn.  Later posts in this lunchtime series will present the most common grafting techniques that a homesteader might use, as well as information on how to grow your own rootstocks, collect scionwood, and more.

The Weekend Homesteader starts at the beginning, teaching you to grow the easiest fruit trees and bushes.

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

Posted Thu Oct 18 12:01:38 2012 Tags:

Ben Gay back pain relief remedyI pulled a muscle in my lower back on Monday while shoveling mulch and have had to take it easy these past few days.

One thing that's helped is a tube of Bengay menthol pain relieving gel. I was dubious at first, but pleasantly surprised when I felt an immediate decrease in pain.

The menthol smell really does "vanish" by at least 50 percent.

Posted Thu Oct 18 15:13:08 2012 Tags:
Anna 100 bricks
Hauling bricks

100 bricks....

Fill bricks the worst driveway swamp.

Muddy tire

Do you think that'll keep us above the mud for 100 trips?

Our chicken waterer is the innovative way to bring clean water to your backyard flock.
Posted Fri Oct 19 07:31:07 2012 Tags:

Rootstock diagramWhen I summed up the purposes of grafting, I warned you that grafting won't create more plants, just change a rootstock from one variety to another.  So where do all those rootstocks come from?

If you want to grow your own fruit tree rootstocks, you have two choices --- seeds or cuttings.  Seedling rootstocks are easy to grow --- just collect pits from the fruit you eat and plant the seeds --- and seedlings have the benefit that they're usually vigorous and healthy.  With some types of fruits, like peaches, a seedling roostock can be a good choice, but most homesteaders with a small backyard won't want to grow their apple rootstocks from seed since a standard apple tree can take over their entire growing space.  Instead, nurseries count on carefully selected and vegetatively propagated rootstock varieties to change the size of their trees and to confer resistance to disease.

Softwood cuttingVegetatively propagated rootstocks are much more uniform than those grown from seed, although you have to make an investment of space and time to grow your own.  You can either root cuttings (softwood or hardwood) or use layering (a method of making one plant produce lots of shoots, which root and can be severed to create new plants).  Garner notes that cuttings can usually be rooted for apples, pears, plums, and cherries, although my own experience has shown that softwood cuttings need a lot of babying and might not be worthwhile if you don't have the right equipment. 


Stooling is a type of layering that seems very easy for the beginner.  You simply plant a purchased rootstock, let it grow for a year, cut the tree to the ground, then mound up dirt around the shoots to create new rootstocks that can be removed later.  The downside of stooling is that it takes two years before you get your first harvest, but the stool can produce for twenty or more years after that.  If we like the rootstock we use for our high density apple experiment, I think it would be worth starting a stool so that I could create our own dwarf apples in the future.

EtiolationSome more complex types of layering are used for various reasons.  Etiolation (in which the shoots arising from the rootstock are pegged down in a trench) is used for shy rooters, like apples, pears, quince, plum, cherries, peaches, walnuts, and mulberries.  Etiolation is more work than stooling, so should be considered only if you can't get your stock to root otherwise.  Similarly, air layering (in which a shoot is injured and then surrounded with moist material to root above the soil line) is a very sure technique, but doesn't produce as many offspring.  At the other extreme, tip layering is an easy way to get blackberries, some raspberries, currants, and gooseberries to root.

No matter how you start our rootstocks, you need to grow the young plants until they're well rooted before grafting onto them.  Budding is often done the first summer, but dormant grafting such as whip-and-tongue grafts have to wait another year.  So, if you planted a rootstock from the nursery now, you could cut it to the ground to start a stool in fall 2013, mound up earth around the new shoots in 2014, cut loose your rootstocks that winter, and graft onto them in early spring of 2016.

Apple rootstock nursery

In case that seems daunting, I should tell you that you can often order rootstocks of named varieties from various nurseries.  In addition, you should check with your local extension office since many run grafting workshops in the spring which provide all of the rootstocks, scionwood, and paraphernalia, allowing you to come home with several newly grafted trees for a very small fee.  A final option is to skip the rootstock entirely and graft a new branch onto an existing fruit tree in your yard.

I'd be very curious to hear from anyone who has grown his or her own rootstock.  Which method did you use?  Do you recommend it to others?

The Weekend Homesteader walks you through fun and easy projects that fit into your free time.

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

Posted Fri Oct 19 12:01:46 2012 Tags:
how to clean a golf cart battery?

This small wire brush is prefect for cleaning gunked up battery acid.

We had a problem earlier in the week that I'm pretty sure was due to an intermittent connection at this point which seemed to correct itself the next day when it got warmer.

At least that's my best guess.

Posted Fri Oct 19 16:17:29 2012 Tags:

Sidewalk cafeI consider our blog to be like our front porch, which means it feels rude not to respond to comments folks leave on our posts.  After all, if you slogged through the mud to get here, the least I can do is to tell you how much I appreciate your feedback.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid I'm going to have to change my worldview slightly.  While I love the new ideas bouncing around as a result of our increased traffic, lately I've been spending more time answering comments than writing my daily post.  I'm afraid it's starting to feel more like a mob of strangers shouting questions while trampling my asparagus than like a neighbor dropping by.

So I'm going to preserve my sanity by metaphorically moving the comments section to a sidewalk cafe just across a white picket fence from my front porch.  I'll enjoy listening to the community discussions drifting in my open window, but probably will only drop by occasionally to put in my two cents' worth.

Talking across fenceThat means I probably won't be responding to intriguing ideas folks toss out, although they will definitely be percolating through my mind and perhaps coming forth in the garden and in later blog posts.  Questions that are easily answered by typing your keywords in the search box on the sidebar will also get skipped, which will hopefully leave me time to respond to questions that aren't answered in previous posts.

I hope my new policy of answering fewer comments won't keep you from sharing your views, and I apologize in advance if you feel slighted by my lack of response.  It's not that we're getting too big for our britches; it's that the Walden Effect is out-growing our farm and turning into a community all its own.  Hopefully the new feature in which later comments get emailed to previous commenters will allow you all to churn up a vigorous discussion even if I'm hiding behind my metaphorical white picket fence.

Our chicken waterer keeps the hens talking up a storm as they lay plenty of eggs.
Posted Sat Oct 20 08:35:18 2012 Tags:
Stamen Winsap apples on a table

It's been hard to find a good Stayman Winesap apple this year.

The one on the right is the type we've been seeing most. The missing red color indicates a lack of ripening. We found the one on the left today and it tastes more mature, but it's the only source so far.

A fruit stand guy told me yesterday that all the rain we got back in the summer caused the trees to produce too many leaves which blocked part of the sun and prevented full ripening.

Posted Sat Oct 20 17:33:46 2012 Tags:

Get your pitchfork onIn the interest of full disclosure, the author emailed me a review copy of Get Your Pitchfork On!  That's always a dicey situation since it's hard to write a bad review while the author is right there chewing on her fingernails, but in this case, I would have given the book five stars even if I'd bought it myself. 

Get Your Pitchfork On! is the antidote to The Bucolic Plague --- just as engagingly written, but with more down to earth information that a normal homesteader can relate to.  Kristy Athens and her husband were happily growing vegetables and fruit in the city, but they wanted more, so they snapped up a 7 acre farm beside the Columbia River Gorge.  Kirsty's book tells their story, interspersed with lots of fascinating information that will prepare city-dwellers for the country life.

Although I don't agree with everything the author says (when do I ever?), I wanted to recommend this book to several folks I know who have recently moved from the city to the country.  It's a bit like an immersion course to ensure you speak the right language when in a foreign land.  For example:

Country dogs ride in the backs of pick-up trucks. A friend told me that she was leaving the grocery store one day, and as she was about to get into her pickup a young man (clearly a tourist) ran up to her and scolded her for endangering her dog, which was wagging its tail in the bed of the pickup. She managed to remain civil, but was irate.

“Who does he think he is?!” she sputtered to me on the phone.

Don’t let this be you. I know it’s not “safe” to have one’s dog in the back of a pickup. That isn’t the issue. You don’t have to transport your dog that way, but don’t tell other people what to do.

If you're considering buying land in the country and want to learn to fit in, this book should definitely find a place on your permanent bookshelf.  And it's worth checking out of the library even if you're an armchair homesteader or already have your perfect piece of paradise.  Since it was put out by a small press, Get Your Pitchfork On! isn't very well known, but it deserves better recognition --- go tell your friends!

Our chicken waterer is the clean solution to fowled water.

Posted Sun Oct 21 08:06:21 2012 Tags:
Winesap apple sauce

Those less than average Winesaps made for some nice apple sauce.
Posted Sun Oct 21 16:06:31 2012 Tags:
Empty comb

The bees have drunk a bit more than a gallon of sugar water in the last couple of weeks.  By my estimate, that should have filled about a third of a Warre hive box up with honey, but the view from below is exactly the same as it was when I started my force-feeding campaign.

Chances are the bees are simply filling in the upper boxes, which is why I don't see any capped honey below.  I wish I could be sure, which brings me to a physics/math question for my geekier readers.

Some people weigh a hive by tipping up one side and putting a bathroom scale underneath, then tipping up the opposite side and repeating.  I believe they usually just add those two figures to come up with a total weight for the hive.  But I'm not sure that makes sense, and I feel like the angle would also be important.  If you don't know if the honey is evenly distributed throughout the hive, can you gauge the weight of a hive piecemeal?

Our chicken waterer is a POOP-free treat for hard-working hens.
Posted Mon Oct 22 07:45:55 2012 Tags:

Storing scionwoodAfter figuring out your rootstock, you'll still need to hunt down some scionwood before starting to graft.  Scionwood (sometimes simply called "scion") consists of small twigs of the variety you want your final fruit tree to become.  By grafting a piece of Arkansas Black scionwood onto a rootstock, for example, all aboveground growth of the tree will produce Arkansas Black apples.

How and when you collect your scionwood depends on the type of graft you plan to perform.  Budding is done in the summer, so you want to clip off scionwood during the growing season and graft right away.  The scionwood is often called a "budstick" in this case, and the number of buds on it is not relevant since you'll be using one at a time.

Most of us (especially if we live in more northern states and are grafting apples and pears) will be grafting during the winter, in which case we collect scionwood during the dormant season and store it in a cellar, underground, or in the fridge until late winter.  Michael Phillips recommends gathering dormant scionwood in January or February, wrapping it in moist newspaper and then in a ziplock bag, and storing the cuttings in the fridge.  No matter how you store it, you should be careful not to let your scionwood, freeze, dehydrate, or mildew.

Scionwood for dormant grafting should be carefully selected.  The best scionwood comes from the previous season's growth (meaning the twigs aren't quite a year old) and doesn't contain any flower buds.  The tip of the previous year's growth isn't as good, so if you have the choice, you'll want to cut your scionwood from the lower two-thirds of the young branch.  Select a piece about 12 to 18 inches long to give you wiggle room if you can, but if scionwood is in short supply you can get away with shorter pieces as long as each one contains three or four buds.  The twigs you select should be about the thickness of a pencil, roughly a quarter to half an inch in diameter.

Apple scionwood

But how do you find a tree to cut scionwood from?  If you're lucky, you'll have a helpful neighbor with a tasty variety you want to try out in your own yard.  (I hope to get some Seckel pear scionwood that way from my movie star neighbor.)  Alternatively, you can buy scionwood from online nurseries, or check out this site to swap scionwood with fellow enthusiasts.  Finally, I'd be glad to swap scionwood with any of you if you have varieties I'm looking for and want one of my cuttings in exchange.

I can give:
I'm looking for:
  • Pears --- Keiffer, Oriental (which isn't actually an Asian pear)
  • Peaches --- Redhaven, Cresthaven
  • Apples --- Early Transparent, Virginia Beauty, Winesap (old-fashoned), Liberty
  • Mulberry --- Illinois Everbearing
  • Fig --- Chicago Hardy
  • Pears resistant to fireblight (especially Seckel, Dabney, Tyson, Harrow Delight, Honeysweet, Hoskins, and Luscious)
  • Figs --- Sal (Gene strain), Marselles vs Black, Blue Celeste

Drop me an email if you're interested, or leave a comment below to swap with other readers.

Take the easy path to self-sufficiency guided by my new paperback.

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

Posted Mon Oct 22 12:00:26 2012 Tags:
asparagus beetle management system working

asparagus beetle close up nice and cute
Our new way of dealing with Asparagus Beetles is to cut down the asparagus plants in the Fall and use them as deep bedding in one of the chicken coops. The chickens get to snack on the larvae when they wake up in the Spring.

We only found one Asparagus Beetle last year and zero for 2012.

Maybe 2013 will be our first year of serious asparagus?

Posted Mon Oct 22 16:16:52 2012 Tags:
Rye cover crop

Another year, another experimental cover crop.  This time around, I'm trying rye (different from the ryegrass I tested out this spring) in hopes that it'll fill an empty niche in our system.  Starting at our frost free date in the spring (May 15), I use buckwheat to fill garden gaps, then transfer over to oats and oilseed radish in midsummer.  In past years, I've simply kill mulched beds that come open in the fall, but this seems like a waste of growing time (and expensive straw), especially when balmy spring days make me itch to fill those beds with cover crops.

Hours of daylightRye didn't make it onto my radar previously because the cereal is usually killed by tilling in, and I'm stubbornly steering clear of cover crops that won't die easily.  However, I recently read that rye is readily mow-killed if you wait until the flowers have fully opened, an event that happens when day length reaches 14 hours (May 14 here, according to this handy calculator and last year's rye experiment).  My new scythe will make cutting what amounts to ultra-tall grass easy.

Granted, you need to wait three to four weeks after killing rye before spreading small vegetable seeds because of rye's allelopathic properties, and even larger seeds and transplants can suffer from lack of nitrogen if you plant too soon after killing the cover crop and without adding extra compost.  However, I often don't plant some beds in the front garden until late May to mid June since I like to succession-plant summer crops, so I'm confident I can work around rye's issues.

Rye seedsPotential problems with killing the cover crop aside, rye is beloved by many farmers and is probably the most-used cover crop in the U.S.  Rye is supposed to produce up to 10,000 pounds of dry matter per acre while outcompeting weeds and growing in colder weather than any other cereal.  I was very happy with the amount of growth of my first rye experiment last year, so I'm looking forward to seeing how this cover crop does in the garden.

Our chicken waterer keeps messes at bay in the coop.
Posted Tue Oct 23 07:56:13 2012 Tags:

Grafting suppliesMy topworking this past spring failed miserably.  I think part of that was user error and environmental factors beyond my control, but another big part of the problem was lack of proper tools.  So I decided to weigh the odds in my favor this winter by buying proper equipment and supplies.

The most essential tool for grafting is a quality knife.  It should be edged on one side and flat on the other, and should be of high enough quality metal that you can sharpen it on a stone.  If you get into more complicated types of grafting, you may also want to get a budding knife (curved on the tip), surgical knives (for herbaceous plants), and cleaving tools, mallets, and wedges for topworking, but most of us can skip those.  However, you will probably want to have normal pruning tools and a lower quality knife on hand so you don't ruin your grafting knife by cutting bindings or preparing branches.

The next item you'll need is some kind of sealant (along with a brush --- half an inch wide by three quarters of an inch long).  In The Grafter's Handbook, Garner mentions all kinds of old fashioned recipes made out of some subset of clay, fresh horse manure, hay, hair, wax, resin, and more, but I suspect it's worth spending a few dollars to take advantage of modern technology.  Phillips recommends Trowbridge's grafting wax (although it needs heat to liquify), Doc Farwell's latex grafting compound, or Treekote.

Grafting tapeFinally, you will want some kind of binding material.  During Garner's era, grafters tied the scionwood to the rootstock with raffia, pieces cut from inner tubes, rubber bands, plastic strips, sheets of rubber covered in tinfoil (for herbaceous plants), or cotton twine dipped in wax.  They sealed larger areas with cotton sheets dipped in grafting wax or beeswax, counting on the weak cloth to tear as the tree grew.  Phillips recommends electrical tape or parafilm (both of which have to be removed in one or two months, as did many of Garner's materials), or rubber grafting strips (which grow with the twig).

I went ahead and bought a Victorinox Florist's Grafting Knife, which has a cheap plastic casing but good reviews for the low price.  But I haven't decided what to do about sealant and binding material, so I'd be very curious to hear from other grafters out there.  What do you use?

The Weekend Homesteader presents fun and easy homesteading projects that won't break the bank.

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

Posted Tue Oct 23 12:00:55 2012 Tags:

Close up of dielectric grease tube on bank of golf cart battery

We decided to replace the battery cable I was wire brushing last week

My new system will include a generous dab of Permatex dielectric grease to prevent future rust and corrosion.

Posted Tue Oct 23 15:58:13 2012 Tags:
Oilseed radishes

The oilseed radishes I slipped into gaps in the forest garden in early September have formed a sea of yellow-green, but it's time to give that area a little more TLC.

Kill mulch

Mark pulled out the dead tomato vines, put away stakes, and laid down kill mulches to expand each tree's mulched area to the dripline.

Fall forest garden

Meanwhile, I ripped out weeds and pushed back mulch to open up bare ground beyond the trees' likely root zone.  Tossing down rye seeds there will result in homegrown mulch in the spring.

Forking strawAll summer, I'd dumped wheelbarrows full of weeds at the edges of the forest garden beds, then fertilized the high carbon biomass with urine.  I could have done this right in place around the trees, but I didn't want excess nitrogen to send the woody plants off in vegetative sprints, and I also wanted an easy place for wheelbarrow dumping.  A final reason to keep my weed piles outside the tree zone is that sometimes weeds reroot in our wet climate, and mounding up the pulled out plants smothers the ones underneath so they all perish.

The result of my summer weed piles was a lot of partially decomposed biomass ready to fertilize and mulch my fruit trees.  I forked the brown matter around the base of each fruit tree to give them a boost just as their roots hit peak fall growth.

Moving mulch

While I was at it, I broke apart a stump that had been slowly decaying beside one of my apple trees.  Other forest garden beds are full of the fluffiest, darkest soil imaginable from my hugelkultur donuts, and this bed could use a woody boost too.  I laid the stump pieces rotted-side-down close to the tree so the organic matter will work its way into the soil faster.

One beautiful fall afternoon and half the forest garden is in shape.  I hope the extra care will help our baby trees grow faster and bear sooner.

Our chicken waterer automates half of your chicken chores so your flock never goes thirsty.
Posted Wed Oct 24 06:47:30 2012 Tags:

Phillips' applesThe fourth chapter of The Holistic Orchard was mostly about what can go wrong in the orchard and how to prevent bugs and diseases from ruining your crop.  I'm going to skip over the insect information since it was pretty mainstream, and instead give you a rundown on Phillips' more unique recommendations for managing fungal disease.

Once the fungus has a real foothold on your tree, holistic prevention techniques have failed and you're stuck either throwing up your hands and calling the year a loss (like I did with our peach brown rot two years ago), or using harmful chemicals.  But it's also possible to plan ahead and block pathogenic fungi from successfully overwintering and/or infecting the tree in the first place.  Techniques we can all get behind include boosting the health of the tree with proper nutrition so its immune system is able to fight off that initial infection, and helping leaves decompose as quickly as possible in the fall so the fungi can't survive until spring.

Spraying apple treesPhillips' sprays are a little more controversial.  He blasts his trees with storebought beneficial microbe mixes and compost tea (to colonize leaf surfaces and prevent pathogenic fungi from getting a foothold), molasses (to feed the good fungi and bacteria), whey (to fight bad fungi), herbal teas (to boost leaf silicon and calcium levels), liquid fish and seaweed (for micronutrients), and neem oil (to smother insects and feed good microorganisms).

The last item on the list --- neem oil --- is the one Phillips swears by the most, and the one that I think is closest to an allopathic medicine.  (In other words, I think it's a bit harsh on the ecosystem to be used preventatively.)  Like other oils used to kill and deter pests, neem oil is likely to harm untargeted insects, and can even damage the tree itself if sprayed on too thickly at the wrong time of year.  I'd put neem oil at about the same level as Bt --- if you're comfortable with using one, you probably won't mind using the other.

Neem oilI'd be curious to hear how you felt about this spray-based approach to tree health.  There was a lot of other fascinating information in this chapter too, like how to mix fruit trees with grass without starving the tree roots, so feel free to leave your comments on those tidbits as well.

Next Wednesday, we'll be moving into the second half of the book, which profiles each type of fruit tree in a mouth-watering but still educational way.  Chapter five covers apples and pears, and since I've written about disease-resistant apple varieties (and a lot of other apple-related information) lately, I'll be focusing in on the pears.  I hope you'll read along and chime in with your own pear experiences.

Finally, those new to the club might want to check out previous posts on beginning a holistic orchard, techniques for designing a holistic orchard, and orchard soil health.  Even though these summaries are long and intense, I'm only barely skimming the highlights of this fascinating book, so I highly recommend you hunt down a copy and join the club.

The Weekend Homesteader starts with basics so you don't become overwhelmed during your first forays into self-sufficiency.
Posted Wed Oct 24 12:00:55 2012 Tags:
tomato rebar puncture

That lower back pain is slowly decreasing with each day.

I think I've finally learned my lesson on how important it can be to stretch and warm up before doing any heavy shoveling.

Posted Wed Oct 24 16:14:32 2012 Tags:

Fall figsOur fig tree has changed a lot in the last month.  We missed a couple of frosts by a hair, and the tree could clearly tell that its growing time was limited.  So it began ripening up figs right and left, holding back some water and turning the skins more purple in the process.

I actually prefer the taste of these late fall figs --- they're less watery, so the flavors are already concentrated even before I cut them in half and roast them in the toaster oven.  But I had to tweak my roasting technique.  Waiting until I hear juices sizzle in the pan will now result in burnt figs, so I instead roast until the tops begin to look dry.

Yes, we're still obsessed.  No, I still can't imagine ever having enough homegrown figs.  Our weekly quarts of fall raspberries are nearly as good, though.

Our chicken waterer is the mess-free solution to backyard chicken-keeping.

Posted Thu Oct 25 08:01:45 2012 Tags:

Whip and tongue graftWhen it comes right down to it, you really only need to know two methods to graft most young fruit trees.  The whip and tongue graft is the simplest, appropriate for young apple and pear trees grafted onto rootstock the same pencil-thickness as the scionwood.  Budding is used if you have very little scionwood to go arond or if you need to graft a cherry, plum, apricot, or peach, none of which are reputed to respond well to whip and tongue grafting.  Budding is also less sensitive to the scionwood and rootstock having different diameters.

A whip and tongue graft joins the scionwood to the top of the rootstock using a slanting cut to increase surface area and a notch (the tongue) to help the two pieces stay in place as you tie them.  Select a point about four to eight inches above the ground on the rootstock, where the diameters of the two pieces of wood match, then make a cut six times the diameter of the wood (says Garner), or roughly an inch and a half long (says Phillips).  You'll want to practice until you can make a cut with no bulges or raggedness, then focus on lining up the tips and the cambium all around so that there's an 80% visual match.  Add the tongue (a 1/8 inch cut into each piece of wood), then trim the scion to two buds before slipping the joints together. 

Graft sproutingAfter making the cuts for a whip and tongue graft, you'll want to wrap the new tree with some kind of binding material to hold the junction firmly in place.  Start at the bottom and leave space between loops as you circle up to ensure you haven't gotten the pieces out of alignment, then cover everything up by taping back down over the junction.  Add some sealant on the tip and over the tape and then plant your new tree out in a garden bed for the first year.  In early June, the buds on the scionwood should have sprouted and the longest should be at least two to four inches long; that's your cue to pinch the tips of all but the best shoot and to remove any rootstock growth.

These instructions assume you're followed the American trend of bench grafting (which simply means you dug up rootstocks and took them inside to graft), in which case you probably joined your rootstock and scionwood between December and March.  If grafting onto a rootstock in the field, you'll want to wait until the week before the first green shows on the buds so that winter's cold won't damage the new union.

In contrast, bud grafting is generally completed in the summer, between June and early August.  There are many types of bud grafts, but shield budding is most common.  First, prepare the rootstock by making a T-shaped series of slits in its bark, then slide in a carefully Buddingprepared bud shield.  The bud comes from the leaf axil of the current season's growth and consists of the bud and the leaf stem.  After slipping the piece of scionwood under the rootstock's bark (with the bud itself sticking out), you tie the two together and seal the wound, but don't cut off the top of the rootstock yet.  Instead, you let the bud heal into the young tree, sometimes waiting until the next year to tempt the scionwood to grow.  Once it's time to force the bud, slowly remove leafy shoots of the rootsock a few at a time, or bend down the top of the stock so the scion bud is the highest one on a curved stem.  After the bud begins to grow well, you can cut off the top of the rootstock so the scionwood takes its place.

I've used whip and tongue grafting before and found it relatively simple, but haven't tried budding yet.  How about you?  Are there other grafting techniques you recommend for the beginner?

My full color paperback will be shipping soon to folks who preordered.

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

Posted Thu Oct 25 12:00:58 2012 Tags:
moving chicks from brooder to a final pasture

Chick moving day is starting to feel like a nice Autumn tradition.

We moved them two at a time to a nearby pasture today.
Posted Thu Oct 25 16:45:57 2012 Tags:
Apple leaves

Like most amateur fruit-growers, I've had a tendency to ignore the rootstock when selecting new trees.  Reading The Holistic Orchard and The Grafter's Handbook, though, helped me realize that rootstocks are responsible for a lot more than the size of the tree, so I dropped an email to my favorite orchard (the source of a lot of my apples) to see what rootstock I currently have in my garden.

MM111 is one of the older apple rootstocks, and it's still around for a reason --- it's clearly a workhorse.  The roots do just what they should, anchoring the apple trees firmly and helping them survive in poorly drained, heavy clay soil (like mine).  While some other fruit trees have perished in our garden, my apples on MM111 keep plugging along.

MM111 appleOn the negative side, trees grafted onto MM111 seem to be inclined toward burr knotting, and (as with all dwarfing rootstocks) the trees don't live quite as long as seedlings --- 40 years instead of 75, in this case.  If you're concerned about the disadvantages of MM111 (or of any other rootstock), you can plant the tree deep enough to bury the graft union and the scionwood will root, creating what's essentially a seedling tree (which may have its own disadvantages).

Of course, size does matter, not only because you might not fit a full-size apple tree into your homestead, but also because smaller trees bear much faster (4 to 6 years in this case compared to 8 to 12 years for a seedling tree).  MM111 produces a tree that's 70% to 85% the size of a seedling (aka standard) apple tree, with the lower figure referring to less vigorous, spur apples and the larger size referring to more vigorous varieties.  (This site gives information on the vigor of many common apple varieties.)  That means your tree is likely to get 14 to 20 feet tall (depending, again, on vigor of the scionwood variety), and trees should be spaced that distance apart.

Yellow Transparent is listed as very vigorous, but my other varieties are supposed to have medium vigor, so I think I've actually given my apple trees more room than they need (25 feet between each one).  That's good news since it gives me space in between for extra forest garden experimentation --- more on that in a later post.

Our chicken waterer keeps hens happy and chicken-keepers clean.
Posted Fri Oct 26 08:16:02 2012 Tags:

TopworkingIn addition to the simple grafts used to make new sapling fruit trees, it's worth learning about techniques you can use to change the variety of more mature trees --- topworking and frameworking.  These related techniques can both be used to completely alter the variety of a mature tree, or to add on a limb of a new variety when creating a fruit cocktail tree.

So what's the difference between topworking and frameworking?  Topworking is more drastic, removing more of the current tree (so it takes longer to recover), but also costing less time and money.  Frameworking keeps the main branches and adds on new fruiting laterals, using scions with six to eight buds and joining the two with stub grafting, side grafting, or inverted L rind grafting.  In contrast, topworking cuts limbs back further and generally uses cleft grafts, oblique cleft grafts (which Garner considers better than the former), rind grafts (if you can wait until April when the bark slips), or strap grafts (a very good graft if you are skilled enough to handle the complexity).

Frameworking treeI won't go into each kind of grafting technique here --- I recommend you check out The Grafter's Handbook or peruse some extension service websites if you want to give any of them a try.  But I'll be writing about this more next spring when I try again to change the varieties of my pear trees (this time probably using the more appropriate frameworking).

I hope you haven't gotten bored with all this talk of grafting, and that it's inspired you to consider making some changes in your own orchard.  We've got several experiments on the horizon in addition to our pear frameworking, including adding a pollinator branch to our plum tree, trying out more apple varieties by grafting a few limbs onto our existing trees, and grafting Asian persimmon tops onto our American persimmon seedlings.  Do you have any grafting experiments in the pipeline?

The Weekend Homesteader is full of fun and easy projects to help bring the beginning homesteader up to speed.

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

Posted Fri Oct 26 12:01:03 2012 Tags:

oil seed radish with barn in backgroundOilseed radishs have been an extremely effective cover crop for us this year.

We normally leave them in the ground to rot and feed the soil, but today we got to talking about other uses.

"Do you think the chickens might eat one?" I asked Anna.

"Sounds like a fun experiment," she said with a touch of excitement.

We sliced it up and boiled half. The young chickens took a few sample bites from the boiled radish, but didn't seem to touch the raw slices. Maybe we need to boil it longer or try feeding some to the older hens?

Posted Fri Oct 26 15:54:06 2012 Tags:
Moving mulch

I get a lot of questions from folks asking when to take apart a kill mulch and how to plant into it.  In general, I like to lay down kill mulches that will rot in place and never be messed with again, but now and then I make more temporary kill mulches.

Mulching to a tree's dripline

As an example of a temporary kill mulch, I laid down sheets of cardboard covered by straw to kill the last of the ryegrass about six weeks ago, and now I want to plant rye there to keep growing biomass over the winter.  So I simply scooped up the straw and moved it to another part of the vegetable garden, then peeled back the partially rotted cardboard, which I piled up to make a more permanent kill mulch expanding a peach bed.  The grass underneath was all dead but only partially decomposed, so I raked it to the edge of the bed to keep rotting before scattering rye seeds on top of the damp soil.

Temporary kill mulch

If you don't have a reason to direct-seed into a young kill mulch, though, you'll get more biomass into the soil by leaving the cardboard in place.  During a damp, warm summer, cardboard completely disappears in a few months, and a cold, wet winter will do the same job, if more slowly.  (Counterintuitively, newspaper rots less quickly, but even it will dissipate in a few summer months.)  Then you can simply rake the straw to the edge of the bed for later if you're going to be scattering seeds, or open up a small hole for transplanting tomatoes or garlic bulbs.  Instant no-till garden!

Our chicken waterer never spills in coops or tractors.
Posted Sat Oct 27 08:44:14 2012 Tags:
Copper Creek Ranch tour 2012

We had fun this afternoon taking a tour of the Copper Creek Ranch just outside of Gate City.

They breed rare heritage livestock.

Give them a hollar if you need a Chocolate Turkey to add to your flock.

Posted Sat Oct 27 18:33:27 2012 Tags:

Old forest garden planA little less than four years ago, I read Edible Forest Gardens and got all fired up.  You can read my ambitious plan from that winter.  Now here's what didn't work:

Current forest gardenFour years later, the area is really more of an orchard than a forest garden, but a couple of years of adding high value vegetables beyond the trees' root zone has won the troubled area from the weeds, and I feel ready to start expanding back out into more diversified plantings.  Now I realize that my goals with non-fruit plantings should be much simpler, focused around building quality soil as quickly as possible so the trees will have something other than waterlogged clay to expand their roots into as they grow.

Soil-building zonesMy new plan is to keep the soil directly under the current trees' branches completely mulched, at least until the trees are large enough to handle competition.  Meanwhile, a ring of annual cover crops (buckwheat in the summer, oats, oilseed radishes, or rye in the winter) will be building soil in the zone where tree roots will soon be growing.  I'll concentrate perennial mulch producers (like comfrey) beyond the eventual spread of the tree.

Stay tuned for more specifics on the mulch producers I'm thinking of branching out into in a later post.  Meanwhile, I'd love to hear from others who have started young forest gardens.  Which parts of your book learning worked and didn't work for you?

Our chicken waterer provides clean water for hard-working hens.
Posted Sun Oct 28 08:48:51 2012 Tags:
fall broccoli update to the expansion plans from 2010

We might be finally growing enough broccoli to satisfy our demand.

Our 2010 broccoli expansion efforts worked so well we repeated it for 2011 and 2012 with impressive results.

Now it's hard to imagine a Fall without fresh, yummy broccoli.

Posted Sun Oct 28 15:12:38 2012 Tags:
Donkeys"Speak the right language? Fit in? Sounds like bs to me. Of course you don't, like the tourist, go about lecturing people on the "right way" to do things. But if a subject is at hand, you don't hide your point of view for the sake of conforming or being kewel, either."

--- Jackie (in response to my post about Get Your Pitchfork On!)

Should a homesteader try to fit in when moving to a rural area?  My gut reaction is to agree with Jackie, but reality has proven that it's actually worth the effort Displaying turkeyto keep an open mind and resist alienating our neighbors.

On average, the guy down the street from your new homestead is more religious, less liberal politically, and less inclined to treat a dog or a cat like a pet.  Chances are he makes a living running a piece of heavy machinery at a strip mine while his wife may be a nurse at the nearest city's hospital.

On the other hand, he may agree with you that hunting is an all-American pursuit, and can probably give you some pointers to make your first animal-processing endeavor much less fraught.  If you're a home canner, his wife may have a recipe to share for her grandmother's award-winning pickles, and either one can probably tell you more about vegetable varieties that suit your region than any book.

Farm animals

Yes, they probably think nothing of fertilizing with 10-10-10 and drenching their crops with herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides.  But most country people are also willing to let quite a bit of zany originality slide, so while they may roll their eyes at your forest garden, they'll still offer you a stool at the hardware store...once you've put in your four or five years of local shopping to earn the opportunity.

I've noticed that longer-lived back-to-the-land dreams seem to be built around a small enclave of like-minded people, but that these homesteaders also tend to meet their more mainstream neighbors in the middle and find common ground.  And it seems like if you bend a little bit to fit in, you have more of a chance of winning your neighbors over to your point of view as well.  For example, sharing nutrient-dense strawberries fertilized with horse manure is a sure way to get questions about how to grow such flavorful food.

Barbados Blackbelly sheepOver the years we've spent on the farm, I've realized that fitting in isn't all bs --- sometimes it's just opening that door of communication so you don't turn into an expat who only socializes at the American embassy.  After all, we moved to the country because we love country skills.  Why not learn from the experts?

(By the way, the photos are completely unrelated to the post --- I thought Mark didn't share enough visuals from our very photogenic visit to Copper Creek Ranch this Saturday.  But if you want, you can imagine your own subtitles, telling you not to follow blindly like a sheep, but also not to be stubborn as a mule.)

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to a messy chicken coop.
Posted Mon Oct 29 07:59:15 2012 Tags:

Kristy AthensOne thing Mike and I learned quickly on our land was that when you’re building or repairing something, it doesn’t have to look pretty; it just has to work.  We took this philosophy to heart when installing bridges in our woods.

Of our seven acres, approximately one was a woodlot that hadn’t been messed with since the first cut, probably in the 1930s when the house was built.  Our entire property sloped from the highway (our east border) westward, toward the White Salmon River, and this woodlot was at the bottom.  Since our parcel was basically in the middle of a half-mile slope from the top of the 1,000-foot ridge to the east and the river, water moved through at a pretty good clip during the winter rains and spring thaw.

The result: “water events,” a euphemism that we grew to dread.  As I mention in Get Your Pitchfork On: The Real Dirt on Country Living:

“Swales that meandered in winding paths straightened their routes, taking out good soil on the way.  Places in the swale that once had a small dip were gouged out three feet deeper and three feet further back; we put big rocks and logs in to try to slow the erosion.  Trees were weakened and fell. …  We were constantly monitoring the property to try to forestall further damage.  Mother Nature was unmoved by our efforts.”

Our woodlot was on its way to becoming a ravine, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying it in the interim.  Bushwhacking was difficult and hard on the understory, so Mike took on the project of establishing a few trails through the woods.

If you combine the idea of installing paths and the reality of water picking and choosing its courses through the woods, you see the issue: we had to cross swales.  We didn’t want to build actual, arched bridges for a couple of reasons: we wanted to maintain a natural feel in this little forest, and with every “water event” changing the width and course of each swale, we might build a great bridge only to have it fall into the swale the following spring.

So, we decided to work with the materials at hand: boards from the woodpile and downed trees.

Plywood footbridge

These extra boards that were lying around the barn worked for a while …

Half log foot bridge

We repositioned this broken piece of Douglas fir to traverse a particularly boggy spot, stabilizing it on the ends with rocks so it didn’t roll back and forth

Fallen tree

Very considerate of this cedar to fall and help us cross this section!

Sticks in muddy trail

Where the ground was mucky, we laid dozens of 2- to 4-inch-thick sticks across the trail to give us purchase

Kristy Athens’ nonfiction and short fiction have been published in a number of magazines, newspapers and literary journals, most recently Culinate, Jackson Hole Review, High Desert Journal, and Barely South Review.  She is the author of Get Your Pitchfork On!: The Real Dirt on Country Living (Process Media, 2012), which was reviewed on The Walden Effect in October.

Posted Mon Oct 29 12:00:24 2012 Tags:

update to the failed pet door experiment using carpet
We have a small problem where Lucy will sometimes chew a hole through a section of chicken fence so she doesn't have to walk around the long way.

I tried fixing this back in March with a door made from a piece of scrap carpet. Lucy used it a few times but soon forgot it was there and went back to her old waysdiy pet door made from carpet.

The failure here is directly connected to the design. It's plenty big enough, but not being able to see through to the other side is too much to ask of at least our dog. The next version will use a piece of Plexiglass or maybe we'll break down and buy a commercial dog door.

Posted Mon Oct 29 15:54:58 2012 Tags:

Chop 'n drop is a catchy permaculture term for cutting plants and letting them lie on the soil surface around fruit trees as a homegrown, fungus-promoting mulch.  When choosing mulch-producing plants, you want to be sure to select species that can regrow multiple times in a year (among woody plants, look for trees that can be coppiced), and you'll also want to look at the quality of the biomass produced.

Any organic matter is good, but if you want to replace compost with chop 'n drop plants, head for the nitrogen-fixing legumes.  On the other hand, if you want to build soil as fast as possible, look instead for less succulent plants like grains and trees.  Another factor to consider is dynamic accumulation --- if your soil is deficient in a particular nutrient, these plants can often pull lost nutrients up from below the root zone and make it available again.

Finally, don't forget that your chop 'n drop plants will be competing with any useful plants they intermingle roots with.  In poor soil like ours, it's best to keep the mulch producers outside the dripline of fruit trees, which means your chop 'n drop technique will probably look more like chop 'n toss-a-few-feet-to-the-side.  Some plants (like comfrey) are notorious for being impossible to eradicate once they're in place, so if you don't want them to compete with your adult trees, plant them beyond th eventual dripline.

Chop and dropI'm thinking of adding some chop 'n drop shrubs in the gaps between the eventual canopy spread of my fruit trees in the forest garden, with comfrey lining the paths.  Elderberry, mulberry, hazel, and willow are all trees that coppice well (and which I can propagate from existing plants in my garden or surrounding areas).  Pampas grass might be worth a try too --- the plants look like they produce masses of quality organic matter every year, although I'm not sure whether you can cut them in such a way that you don't end up with seeds in your mulch.  Finally, I haven't decided if I want to mess with nitrogen-fixers yet since soil rebuilding is currently my top priority, but if I do branch out, top choices there include Siberian pea shrub and alder.

I'd love to hear which chop 'n drop plants you've used and why they were successful (or problematic) in your garden.  Don't forget to mention your general location in your comment so that folks will know whether your recommendations are likely to suit their garden.

Our chicken waterer keeps permaculture hens hydrated while scavenging for bugs in the forest garden.
Posted Tue Oct 30 07:26:47 2012 Tags:

Book clubSince I don't have a lunchtime series this week, and Shannon is quite literally on vacation (hiking the AT), I thought I'd pick your brains about our book club.  We'll be coming to the end of The Holistic Orchard soon, and I'm curious to hear whether folks want to continue the reading club now that weather is cooling down and inside chores are demanding your attention.  I've thoroughly enjoyed reading along with you, but know that attention may be waning.

If the book club is still up your alley, some books that are itching for attention my shelf include:

  • Folks This Ain't Normal --- Joel Salatin's first mainstream-published book looks like a relatively easy read.
  • The Resilient Gardener --- I've heard great things about this book, but it's dense (like The Holistic Orchard), so I need a bit of a nudge to get into it.
  • Edible Forest Gardens --- I read this two volume set four years ago, and am starting to feel like I need to go back over it with a fine tooth comb.  Alternatively, it might be more interesting to round out my reading with Martin Crawford's Creating a Forest Garden.

Feel free to mention other book club books in the comments section, or chime in with your two cents' worth on my top choices.

My new paperback is hitting bookstores in a couple of weeks, but you can preorder your copy today.
Posted Tue Oct 30 12:01:08 2012 Tags:
apple leather close up and stove top working on a rainy day

The big bad storm didn't quite make it to our little corner in the mountains.

Nearby places got as much as 12 inches of snow while it just drizzled all night here.

It was still wet and cold, which made for a good day to finish cutting up the last of the lackluster Winesaps. The apple sauce is good, but adding a little honey and then drying it with the Excalibur made some very tasty apple leather.

Posted Tue Oct 30 15:48:31 2012 Tags:

Splitting kindlingI figured out what those ends of 2X4s were good for --- kindling!

They split apart into small pieces with a touch of the hatchet, and light like gasoline.

Now I'm wishing I hadn't wasted so many chunks of lumber during my first fire of the year.

It just goes to show that everything has a niche on the homestead, if you only know what it is.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to wet, dirty chicken coops.
Posted Wed Oct 31 08:19:15 2012 Tags:

Bag of pearsThe fifth chapter of The Holistic Orchard is about pome fruits --- apples, pears, and quinces.  Of these, quinces seem to be very prone to fire blight damage, and I've posted about disease-resistant apple varieties previously, so I thought I'd sum up Phillips' (and Lee Reich's) tips on choosing resistant pears.

Although they're both called pears, European pears (Pyrus communis) and Asian pears (Pyrus pyrifolia, Pyrus ussuriensis, plus other crosses) are different beasts.  Asian pears can fruit in year 3 (versus year 8 to 10 for most European pears), but European pears come into their own as prime keeping fruits, some of which can last all winter in your root cellar.  Most relevantly, though, Asian pears are much less resistant to fire blight (the worst disease to affect pears in the U.S.), with the only semi-resistant varieties I've heard about being:

  • Korean Giant (aka Olympic) --- ripens in late October and keeps four months
  • Shinko --- the most blight-resistant Asian pear, ripening in September to October
  • Yoinashi --- an early (August-ripening), somewhat blight-resistant pear

Pear flowerAmong European pears, you have a much greater selection of blight-resistant varieties.  In the table below, I've summed up the ones that look most promising here in zone 6, with a focus on flavor.  As you can see, if you focus on harvest and storage times, you could be eating homegrown pears from August through December (or later).

Ripening time
Atlantic Queen
5 to 8
deals well with adverse conditions
6 to 8
early August
partially self-pollinating
Blake's Pride
4 to 8
bears young; good pollinator; stores 4 months
6 to 8
Harrow Delight
4 to 8
mid August

Harvest Queen


4 to 8
mid September

5 to 9
early September
flavor is reputed to be excellent; althogh leaves and flowers are resistant, trunk is susceptible to fire blight; slow to bear; needs pollinizer; keeps 4 months
4 to 8
mid September
aka Starking Delicious
5 to 8
early August
bears early; keeps 4 months
5 to 9
late September
slow to bear; Anjou-type pear
5 to 8
flavor is reputed to be excellent; semi-dwarf (8 to 10 feet tall); keeps 3 months; can get blight, although somewhat resistant

mid to late September
more acidic than an average pear; stores 4 months
5 to 8
late August
tastes like Seckel
5 to 8
late August
low yields and needs pollinator; stores 4 months

I'd love to hear some firsthand data from our readers.  Which pear varieties have you planted?  Have they lived up to your expectations?

Next Wednesday, we'll be discussing chapter 6, which sums up all of the luscious stone fruit (peaches, apricots, etc.)  If you're new to the book club, you might also want to check out previous posts on beginning a holistic orchard, techniques for designing a holistic orchard, orchard soil health, and managing fungi in the orchard.  And be sure to chime in on yesterday's post about the future of the book club.

The Weekend Homesteader will be shipping shortly!

Posted Wed Oct 31 12:01:02 2012 Tags:
new chopping block gets chopped

I've heard of people using an old tire to hold a log in place while they chop on it, and the demonstration video looks impressive.

It seems to be a nifty trick for the person who chops alone, but Anna and I always chop together, and our system we've developed where I chop with the Chopper 1 axe while she does the setting up and stowing is a very smooth operation.

The start of wood chopping season warms me on multiple levels.

Posted Wed Oct 31 15:09:00 2012 Tags:

Anna Hess's books
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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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