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

archives for 01/2013

Jan 2013
Frost-damaged broccoli

I stopped picking broccoli side shoots two or three weeks ago.  The plants are still putting out a few little heads, but they get so damaged by heavy frosts that they're not worth eating.

Brussels sprouts

Luckily, Brussels sprouts seem undaunted by weather in the teens.  This is our first year growing these tasty morsels, and we've found them to be easy and delicious.  There's room for improvement in my methodology, though.

Winter sproutsAs our  new, experimental vegetable, Brussels sprouts got last dibs on prime garden real estate after the broccoli and the cabbage.  That means only four seedlings were transplanted into the garden on July 27, with the rest waiting another week.  The later-planted Brussels sprouts also went into the front garden, which is far too shady for much production in cold weather since it's nestled up against a north-facing hill.  Small surprise we've only been enjoying the rewards from those early and sunny plants (although the late and cold plants are still doing fine and may churn out sprouts in the spring).

This year, I'm going to start the Brussels sprouts a week earlier and get them all into the garden by the middle of July (if I can find room).  I'm also going to put Brussels sprouts near the top of our list of important winter crops, after kale, lettuce, and broccoli, but before Asian greens, cabbages, and mustard.  Finally, at Mark's request, I'll also be growing lots and lots more.  Maybe next winter, Brussels sprouts will change from a special treat to a regular occurence on our plates.

The Avian Aqua Miser is the POOP-free solution for pampered backyard birds.
Posted Tue Jan 1 08:03:13 2013 Tags:
18 volt reciprocating saw DeWalt DW938

close up of DeWalt DW 938 18 volt reciprocating saw blade lock down clampMarco and Dirk brought up a good point on yesterday's post in the comment section about proper blade choice.

The blade in question was a multi-purpose wood and metal, and yes it would have done better with a pruning blade.

A portable reciprocating saw like the DW 938 would be handy for cutting PVC pipe in hard to reach places like under a sink.

I do like the easy unlocking mechanism for switching out blades. Our Skil reciprocating saw requires a small wrench to loosen and tighten blades, which is a real pain when that wrench is nowhere to be found.

Posted Tue Jan 1 15:28:40 2013 Tags:
Sycamore firewood

Remember that locust tree I'd been saving as firewood insurance?  It wasn't what I thought it was.

Dead sycamoreBlack locust is considered to be top-notch firewood because you get 112% as much heat out of a same-sized log compared to red or white oaks.   In contrast, the most common trees Mark and I cut out of our woods give only 75% (box-elder) to 83% (black walnut) as much heat as oak, which means more work for less reward.  Effort aside, oak and locust fires are preferred because they keep going longer into the night and put off more heat in the process.

Unfortunately, I'm reanalyzing that standing dead tree and figuring it might be sycamore, which clocks in at only 80% as good as oak.  I'm not sure why I didn't take the multiple trunks into account before, which is a growth habit common in sycamores but rare in black locusts.  I guess I thought the way the logs were so darn tough to split meant they were locust, but it turns out sycamore has a spiral grain that makes splitting a bear.

Hard-to-split woodThe easiest way to guess how many BTUs you'll get out of a log of mystery firewood is to wait until it's totally dry and pick it up.  The lighter the wood, the less heat you're going to enjoy when the wood burns.  Bone-dry box-elder is nearly as light as balsa wood, and our mystery tree isn't much heavier.  Meanwhile, both box-elder and our mystery wood work great as kindling, which is another sign of low BTU --- harder woods are tougher to light, unless they're resinous.

The fact I've been burning light wood all winter would explain why we've been going through it so quickly.  Luckily, the shed's still mostly full, and Mark discovered sycamore isn't terribly hard to split if you wait until it's 20 degrees outside.  If we ever run out of fallen, dead, or in-the-way trees and start managing a woodlot, though, sycamore isn't going to be involved.

Our chicken waterer is the low-effort solution to keeping your flocks' water clean and available.
Posted Wed Jan 2 08:22:30 2013 Tags:

Farm estate taxesThe most interesting part of this week's selection in Folks, This Ain't Normal was Salatin's chapter on inheritance taxes.  I'm surprised he didn't add property taxes to the list of money-related regulations that make it tough for family farmers to keep the land in agriculture, so I'm going to pretend he did and discuss both issues today.

Salatin tells us that his farm, bought by his parents in 1961 for $49,000, is now worth $1.5 million.  Although a quick search of the internet suggests there might be exemptions that would keep him from paying that tax, Salatin posits that if he wants to keep farming the land after his parents die, he needs to be prepared to pay $525,000 in inheritance taxes.  He does mention that there are workarounds to inheritance taxes if you get the ball rolling early enough, but it is worth considering the worst-case scenario, which often forces the offspring of deceased farmers to sell the land to developers.

Similarly, I've read on others' blogs of their astoundingly high property taxes, often several thousand dollars per year, which make true on-farm self-sufficiency impossible.  For those of you looking for land, I think it's worth keeping property taxes low by looking for an ugly duckling property (as I explain in Trailersteading) and by avoiding thinking of your dwelling as an investment that should be increasing in value.  But you clearly don't have those choices if you're lucky enough to inherit a family farm.

Estate taxSalatin is a libertarian, so he'd say the solution to these problems is deleting taxes, but I think the issue is deeper and has to do with ever-rising land prices.  For example, in Salatin's previous chapter, extensive quotes by Benjamin Franklin about the differences between the young United States and Europe included this gem:

"Land being cheap in that country...insomuch that the propriety of a hundred acres of fertile soil full of wood may be obtained near the frontiers in many places, for eight or ten guineas, hearty young laboring men, who understand the husbandry of corn and cattle...may easily establish themselves there."

Franklin goes on to explain that the early United States didn't have big manufacturing businesses because of "labor being generally too dear there, and hands difficult to be kept together, every one desiring to be a master, and the cheapness of land inclining many to leave trades for agriculture."  In other words, cheap land made people want to farm rather than working for a boss, and I suspect the same would be true today.  If Salatin wants lots of small family farmers back on the land, it seems the obvious issue to pursue is lowering land prices.

What makes land prices rise?  I'm inclined to say the larger the population and the higher our standard of living, the more expensive the land, but I'm neither an economist nor a historian.  What do you think about inheritance and property taxes (plus zoning and the other issues brought forth in this week's reading)?  Is there a way to make it feasible for interested young people to find land to farm and for children to take over their parents' estates with ease?

We'll finish up Folks, This Ain't Normal next Wednesday.  Meanwhile, you can read other Salatin-based musings in part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 of the book club discussion.  Thanks for reading along!

Posted Wed Jan 2 12:01:35 2013 Tags:
starplate connector chicken coop idea?

starplate connector close up
We've been talking about projects for 2013, and chicken coop upgrade made it to the list.

I'm liking the simplicity of this StarPlate building method. If every other triangle flipped up it would make deep bedding replenishment a breeze.

The StarPlate people claim a 15 percent reduction in building material compared to a regular stick structure.

Posted Wed Jan 2 15:46:00 2013 Tags:
Breaking ground for the greywater wetland

With the first phase of the powerline terrace complete, I decided to move on to our next experimental project --- a greywater wetland.  When I started planning this project in October, I was considering installing a liner to turn the wetland into a pond, but various readers' experiences talked me into keeping it simple.  Chances are, the ground will gley itself after a while and will hold enough water to keep wetland plants happy.  The less long-term maintenance the wetland requires, the better, and unlined, earth-filled wetlands seem to be winners there.

Digging a spot for a wetland

Wetland planI was feeling more loosey-goosey than usual, so I just dug and dug and dug with no real plan for the finished product.  Will I install a bricked-in outlet at the top to keep water from eroding the soil there?  Probably.  Will I use logs to divide the flow into a sinuous pattern and dig deeper areas to make multiple pools?  Maybe.  Will I try to make the final slope more than the current 0.5%?  Not sure.

Other things I'm pondering include building a little deck over the upper end to turn into a laundry station so wash water can dump straight down into the wetland (and so Mark doesn't have to mow around the wringer washer).  I definitely want to mash down the walls into a gentle slope so they will be easy to mow over.  We'll see what decisions the day brings.

Our chicken waterer keeps coops dry and hens happy.
Posted Thu Jan 3 08:04:09 2013 Tags:
how to drain bad fuel out of a generator

Today was the day I stopped procrastinating on fixing the generator.

I was stuck on how to get the bad gas out when Anna had the great idea of elevating the entire unit with a bucket underneath. The gas drains out of the fuel cut-off valve after unhooking the black rubber hose.

Hopefully some fresh fuel and a new spark plug will bring it back to life, but I think I'll add half a can of Seafoam to clean out any of the old fuel residue.

Posted Thu Jan 3 16:31:47 2013 Tags:
Smooth walls

I did a little reading and pondering overnight and decided to change the shape of my greywater wetland a bit.  It was approximately three feet wide and twelve feet long at the end of the day Wednesday, but Create an Oasis With Greywater recommends a width twice the length.  The upper end of the wetland is hemmed in, but I opened it out a few feet down to perhaps five feet wide, then stomped on the walls until they became a more gentle (hopefully mowable) slope.

Making a straight line

Current drainage from sinksThe next step was to consider how the water is going to get to the wetland.  We currently have two 3" pipes running straight down from our kitchen sink.  Even though it will cost more to run both of them all the way to the wetland, keeping our fast drainage seemed worth the hassle.  We'll be using unflexible PVC pipes that won't curve, so I pulled out some string to make straight lines between the current sink outlet and the inlet of the wetland.

Dig trench

When Mark buried the waterline, the project was painful because we wanted to get the lines deep enough they wouldn't freeze.  In contrast, my greywater lines are only being buried for convenience, so we won't trip over them and can easily mow over the area.  Freezing won't be a problem because the water will run straight out into the wetland, so my trench is only barely deep enough to get the pipes underground.

Plumbing diagram

Here's Mark's shopping list for today.  We decided to make a T below the sink and let the roof runoff come in there rather than running at third line for that water.  Heavy rains will hopefully flush out any gunk that may try to build up in the lines between the sinks and the wetland.

I actually worked some more on the inlet area of the wetland yesterday too, but this post is already long enough, so I'll regale you with those details tomorrow.  Stay tuned!

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional filthy waterers.
Posted Fri Jan 4 08:10:59 2013 Tags:
using a squeeze wrench to replace a distributor cap on a Toyota 1994 Carolla

I think it's been over 10 years since I first bought the Squeeze Wrench at a Flea Market and today it finally got a chance to prove itself.

The Toyota Corolla seems to have a misfire, and my first thought was to replace the distributor cap and rotor.

Adding a small extension to the Squeeze Wrench made for a near perfect distributor cap removal tool and flipping it around lets you tighten in the same cramped position.

Posted Fri Jan 4 16:17:25 2013 Tags:
Gathering bricks

The inlet of a greywater wetland can be trouble if you don't plan carefully.  This is where the most tasty (from a dog's point of view) gunk is going to land, so you want to close it in to prevent nibbling.  Water will also be gushing out of the pipes with quite a bit of force here, so it's handy to make a solid bottom in this area to prevent erosion.

There are lots of designs for greywater inlets, but I wanted to work with what I have on hand --- bricks from the old chimney.  I loaded up a wheelbarrow full of the best ones and brought them down to my budding wetland.

Wetland inlet

The pipes aren't in place yet, but they'll be bringing water in from the top-left side of the picture above.  I simply laid bricks loosely on the ground and put a few on the downhill side to further break up the flow.

Old fire brick

I'd been saving these fire bricks since they hold their shape much better in freezing, wet conditions than the bricks that made up the bulk of the chimney.  I assume "Davis Savage," which is stamped on each fire brick, refers to some long-ago local brick manufacturer.  I only had enough fire bricks to coat the bottom of the inlet, but that'll probably be the spot that stays wet longest and will need to be strongest.

Rocket wetland inlet

Some river rocks laid loosely on top may or may not be enough to keep Lucy out.  We'll have to wait and see.  I can hardly wait until these bricks moss over and the greywater trickles down them like a tiny waterfall.

(Can you tell building the greywater wetland is the most fun I've had all year?)

Our chicken waterer is the perfect gift for a backyard chicken-keeper.
Posted Sat Jan 5 08:22:01 2013 Tags:
repairing a pair of leaky hip waders with silicone

The Pro Line Hip Waders are leaking at a crease in the material.

I tried a coat of silicone on and around the cracks, thinking maybe when it dries it might end up being a more flexible patch.

Another thought I have concerns proper boot storage. Maybe the crease would have been less severe if I was in the habit of storing the hip waders on some sort of upside down manikin?

Posted Sat Jan 5 17:15:59 2013 Tags:

Rocket stove bathtubEvery year, I plan to install a bathtub, but I never do because I can't decide what I want it to be like.  Do I want to bathe inside by the fire, with the tub converting into a padded bench for lounging?  Or do I want the tub outside so I can enjoy the sun on my back on summer days?  Probably we need both options, but this cast-iron rocket-stove bathtub sounds like it might be a fun compromise.

I emailed the designer for tips since he included no more information than what you can see in the photo.  He replied to tell me that that the stove is built with cob, and that that it draws quite well even with the long horizontal chimney section.  "Make sure to have pads under you when you are in the tub or you will burn yourself," he added.

I'm not sure the thin metal tub that came with our trailer would work with this system, though, or whether it would melt right through.  Perhaps a layer of bricks between the stove and the chimney pipe would both decrease the chance of burning a bare bottom and also keep the tub from melting.  What do you think?

Our chicken waterer is the easy way to keep clean water in your chicken coop.
Posted Sun Jan 6 07:59:43 2013 Tags:

compression fitting close upWe finally got the drinking water problem resolved by replacing a clogged UV filter hose. The delay was due to finding the right brass fittings.

These compression sleeve parts cost a total of 25 cents at the hardware store.

I think the guy was giving me a cost break and maybe a reward for repeated visits, but it's still nice to buy something so useful with pocket change.

Posted Sun Jan 6 15:00:31 2013 Tags:
Lichen on wood

I love old barns.  I hardly remember the house I lived in from birth through third grade, but the barn is still vivid, as are all of the other barns I've explored over the years.

Appalachian log barn

Mark and I enjoyed the opportunity to visit Sarah's farm Saturday.  We had lots of fun hiking and hanging out, but most of my photos are of the barn.

Inside log barn

I think this must be the local style for livestock barns because Sarah's log barn is nearly identical to the one on my aunt-in-law's farm one county over.  I was very jealous of the old manure still remaining in the stalls on Sarah's property.

Corn crib

Sarah's corn crib looks more modern, with its wire hardware cloth inside, but it still has a very nice sense of style.  While researching my root cellar book, I learned that corn cribs and root cellars both are probably designs stolen from the Native Americans, then given a European twist.  So perhaps structures like this have dotted the Appalachian landscape for thousands of years.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution for modern chicken-keepers.
Posted Mon Jan 7 07:43:34 2013 Tags:
Golf cart in the snow

The golf cart is having more and more trouble keeping a charge.

Coming up the hill by the barn was too much for it a few weeks ago. We had to run an extension cord and give it a boost before the golf cart could make it home.

We think the batteries are six or seven years old. Perhaps it's time for a new set?

Posted Mon Jan 7 16:00:59 2013 Tags:
In the Year of the Tiger

Mom found this beautiful book being discarded from her local library.  I can't imagine why they'd get rid of such a fascinating text --- maybe because In the Year of the Tiger didn't fit into the children's section since it's really a photojournalistic study for adults?  I know I probably wouldn't have gotten much out if it in fourth grade.

Winnowing rice

There's no real plot, just amazing images from a Chinese village in the 1980s with explanations of what's going on.  This page says: "Another old man, determined to be of uses, salvages every last grain from his son's new rice cutting as he sieves the dregs through a fine-mesh straw basket."

Herding ducks

After this great shot of ducks being herded home, the author explains that chickens are very common in China but their meat is considered a delicacy despite the animals' ubiquity.  Most of the chickens are layers primarily kept for their eggs.

Making peanut oil

The section on making peanut oil in a hollowed out log, and then selling the cakes of leftover peanut fiber for animal feed, was rivetting.

Pedal-powered threshing machine

Here's a pedal-powered threshing machine.  One person can stand there and pump the pedal while feeding in the grain.  The same family had a separate machine for winnowing the rice from the chaff that was very simple --- just a place where you feed the chaffy grain into a chamber and a fan pushes the chaff into one chute while the rice falls down another chute.

Overall, the book is like Farmers of Forty Centuries, but more recent and with a lot more photos.  I read In the Year of the Tiger slowly over the course of a couple of weeks and ended up feeling like I'd enjoyed a Chinese farm-tour.  If you ever stumble across a copy, I highly recommend giving it a read. 

The Avian Aqua Miser keeps thousands of chickens healthy and happy world-wide.
Posted Tue Jan 8 07:57:27 2013 Tags:
Newborn rabbits

When we last made a rabbit post, we were anxiously awaiting a litter of rabbits while mother rabbit was preparing a nest in her nesting box.  Sometime the night of the post, our doe delivered her first litter.  The litter was 11 kits, one of which we lost the first morning.  She delivered on a night that was pretty cold and we surmised that the kit had wandered away from the huddled litter and died of exposure.  We had wrapped the hutch in plastic and provided a incandescent lamp as a heat source, but it wasn't enough.  We later swapped out the lamp for a space heater... probably throwing our cost per pound of rabbit equation off due to electricity consumption.  We had planned the timing of the litter based on Easter though, so we had anticipated the possible issues with the cold.

Since that first night we lost another kit at about 4 days old, we think because it was accidentally suffocated.  It was away from the group and under the hay, and we think the doe inadvertantly rested on it while tending to the rest of the young.

Week old bunnies

Turns out our speculation in the last post about the "bird's nest" depression in the hay was correct.  She had the litter exactly where we thought she might.  The kits were also a bit larger than we had expected at about 4-5 inches long at birth.  I think we both expected them to be about half that size.  They have also grown phenomenally fast!  At less than a week, they had beginnings of fur.  At about 10 days, their eyes began opening.  At two weeks, they had a full coat of fur.  At less than one month old, they are several times the size they were at delivery and are weaning themselves by eating hay and rabbit food.  They have also started learning how to drink from the chicken waterer nipple, which is quite a feat when one considers that they can barely reach it!  Next time around, I think the nursery hutch will have a lower nipple for the young.

Rabbit nipple

Rabbit drinkerDawn also discovered it's quite difficult to count the number of kits in the litter since when they hear activity in the nest box they start jumping around like crazy.  They won't stop moving enough to be counted since they think that activity means nursing time and they start actively search out a mother and a teat.

I'm concerned about the fact that these things are so cute that it's going to be tough when it comes time to butcher.  I guess time will tell how well we are able to deal with that process.  For now, we're just learning about what it takes to have a litter of rabbits to care for, especially in the cold.

Baby bunnies

Dawn also discovered rather disconcertingly that once they were out of the nesting box that they could easily fall out of the hutch.  After a nerve wracking chase of one little fella around the yard, she added a "rabbit retaining wall" to the door of the hutch to help retain the frisky kits.  Mom can be seen with three of the kits along with the retaining wall in the photo above.

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 Jan 8 12:01:00 2013 Tags:

Learn to keep bugs at bay

Do you get ravishing mosquitoes and black flies where you are? --- Heather W

Aren't you afraid of mosquitoes during the summer? --- Rena

We live next door to a swamp, but we don't get bitten much. Bats and dragonflies patrol the skies all summer, keeping the outdoors habitable nearly all the time.

We do have a few insect problems. In 2011, we started being plagued by deer flies whenever we go in the woods during the dog days. Gnats flying into our eyes are another summer problem. They're not bad enough to keep us indoors, though.

Posted Tue Jan 8 16:01:09 2013 Tags:

Listening to the hivePart of Warre hive methodology involves opening the hive as little as possible.  In past years, I've performed a winter hive check on a warm day to check on honey stores, but this year, I'm instead pressing my ear up against the hive every week or two to take a listen.  Or, in this case, getting Mom to do it for me.

When you listen to each side of each box, you can not only determine which box the main cluster is in, but also where the bees are hanging out within the box.  If you're really good, you can also estimate colony size, but I'm not that advanced in my bee-listening skills.

The bottom box of this hive was always nearly empty, so the bees are hanging out in box number two.  Last month, they were toward the back of the box, but now they've moved to the front.

I figure that's a pretty good rate of eating through their stores, since the top box should still be completely full of honey (I hope).  In two months, we should start seeing a few flowers, then everything bursts open at the beginning of April.  I hope our bees can hold on until then!

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock happy with clean water all year long.
Posted Wed Jan 9 08:02:03 2013 Tags:

Food safety inspectorsIf you got annoyed by Salatin's preachy writing style, I recommend skipping to the last two chapters of Folks, This Ain't Normal to see the meat of his argument.  His thesis is simple --- if our government didn't regulate food, we'd have healthier dining choices.

Why would lack of oversight make our food better?  The answer is twofold.  First, the current requirements make it very tough for small, local farmers to break into the marketplace at all.  Someone starting a food-related business may have to buy expensive equipment to create a federally inspected kitchen before they can whip up brownies for sale at the local farmer's market, or they may have to adhere to even more stringent requirements to open up a slaughterhouse and sell cut meat.  Economies of scale mean these issues are no big deal for industrial food-processing operations, but government requirements sink many mom-and-pop businesses.  As Salatin wrote, "What started as a regulation to control industry has instead become the tool industry uses to eliminate innovation in the food marketplace."

USDA food safetyMeanwhile, those happy USDA-approved stickers on our food make the consumer less inclined to seek out the truth behind how their food was raised.  Salatin explains that in many cases, USDA-approval is merely about cosmetic issues, such as the size of your eggs or the absence of tears in skin of a chicken leg, but the consumer instead assumes the seal of approval means the chickens were healthy and the food is good for us.  If the government didn't approve or disapprove of food, we would be responsible for our own choices, which would send many of us out to hunt down the farmer to see what their operation really looks like.  Once again, lack of government oversight would help the little farmer, who is often the one passionate about soil and food quality and is thus growing more nutrient-dense food.  "The way we create popular food literacy is to put people in the driver's seat," Salatin concluded.

While I disagree with many libertarian arguments, the food one has always made sense to me.  I would love to see food become a local, community endeavor, where neighbors would know the confinement chicken operation wasn't worth patronizing and where raw milk could be legally peddled at the farmhouse door.  Sure, some people would get sick from an unmanaged food supply, but maybe fewer than get sick now from regulations that often amount to window-dressing.  What do you think?

This is my last book club post for a while, but you can read previous discussions of Salatin's book in previous posts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.  If you're looking for more reading material, check out some of the books on my winter reading list, or (if you really get bored), you can even read my books.  Happy reading!

Posted Wed Jan 9 12:01:00 2013 Tags:

Orange dog collar

Pantone may think the color of the year is Emerald, but Lucy's fond of her new orange collar.

Most of the hunters we know are careful to get a good look at their "deer", but we didn't want to risk Lucy getting shot.

Despite her new styling wardrobe, Lucy's still a tomboy and is always the first one to the top of the mountain.

Posted Wed Jan 9 16:57:24 2013 Tags:

Molding cuttingsWell, I now know two methods of rooting fig cuttings that definitely don't work for me --- in a ziplock bag on top of a heat pad and in a pot of soil on top of a heat pad.  The fungal growth is pretty impressive, but the cuttings are obviously dead.

Actually, I suspect the problem started even before I began trying to root the cuttings.  I had to cut the young wood before it was 100% dormant because a hard freeze was coming and I needed to wrap up the tree.  Perhaps the branches were too high in sugars (thus the fungal growth) since they weren't fully asleep yet?

All is not lost.  Three little sprouts rooted the easy way, right at the feet of the parent plant, and I have two in my garden and one in Mom's garden waiting for spring.  Since there really is a limit to how much space I have for fig trees, I suspect this propagation method will do the trick.  I'd still like to learn to root cuttings just for geekiness sake, but I'm not too heartbroken over this round of failures.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional, filthy waterers.
Posted Thu Jan 10 08:19:56 2013 Tags:
mark Pie theory
Meyer lemon pie

Anna made me a Meyer lemon pie today for my birthday. The tree had perfect timing ripening up its first fruit of the winter.

Her favorite pie is cranberry-raisin, and cranberries are in season right around her birthday.

It got me thinking. Maybe there's a universal pie theory?

Does your favorite fruit pie match up with what's ripe around your birthday?

Posted Thu Jan 10 14:40:16 2013 Tags:

Chickens in the snowEvery winter, I flip through past planners to make sure I don't forget any seasonal tasks in the coming year.  This year, I decided to spend a little more time now and save time later by summing up the main events in this post.  Maybe it will help you get your homestead year in order too!

January: Winter

  • Order seeds.
  • Taxes.
  • Writing.
  • Fun projects.
  • Mark the year's projects on planner.

Calling toadFebruary: Frog month

  • February 1 - start planting.
  • Prune fruit trees and berries.  Topdress those that didn't get deep bedding mulch this fall.  Add mulch as needed.
  • Rake mulch off asparagus beds at end of month.
  • Cut logs for mushrooms and order spawn if expanding varieties.
  • Grafting.
  • Fix holes in pasture fences in preparation for chickens to be moved out of woods as grass begins to grow.
  • Start saving eggs February 23 to go in incubator March 2.  Test heated brooder and clean outdoor brooder.
  • Start cutting next year's firewood.

Pollinator on peach flowerMarch: Spring flowers

  • Consider running laying flock under fruit trees this month to kill bad bugs.
  • Start serious garden prepping for spring --- weeding and topdressing.  Continue planting from garden spreadsheet.
  • Take quick hoops off fall crops.
  • Check on worm bins.
  • Inoculate mushroom logs.
  • Chicks hatch March 23.  Out on pasture in sunny spot ASAP.
  • Wash incubator.  Start saving eggs March 23 to go in incubator March 30.
  • Consider adding another bee hive.  If so, order or build hive and find bee source.
  • Take out bottom board and entrance reducers on bee hives.  Replace straw in quilt.
  • Continue cutting next year's firewood.

ChickApril: Chick month

  • Prepare May garden beds.
  • Haul in extra manure.
  • Clean up scattered debris in yard and begin mowing.
  • Move first set of chicks to coop.  Check pastures for holes.
  • Install packages of bees if increasing apiary.
  • Chicks hatch April 20.  Out on pasture in shady spot ASAP.
  • Wash winter bedding and extra clothes.
  • Set up irrigation.
  • Train miniature apples.
  • Sweep chimneys.
  • Golf cart battery maintenance.

Chocolate strawberry shortcakeMay: Strawberry month

  • Cut rye once blooming.
  • Split bee hive(s).
  • Major planting push.
  • Mowing.
  • Weed earliest spring crops.
  • Plan summer and fall garden rotation.  Order extra seeds.
  • May 15 (or whenever last frost is obviously over) --- Uncover figs and baby persimmons.  Move citrus outside and topdress.
  • Add new box to hive if necessary.
  • Stake up overwintering kale (for seed) and asparagus.
  • Train miniature apples.
  • Continue winter laundry.
  • Strawberry leather.
  • Begin pruning and training tomatoes.  (Weekly from  now on.)

Mowing the gardenJune: Green month

  • Start picking cabbage worms and Japanese beetles.
  • Harvest excess honey from last year.
  • Strawberry leather.
  • Harvest garlic.
  • Harvest Eyptian onion top bulbs.
  • Start freezing excess produce (broccoli).
  • Contact straw source.
  • Trellis cucumbers.
  • Continue pruning and training tomatoes.
  • Weed rest of spring crops.
  • Mowing.
  • Finish washing winter bedding and clothes.
  • Car inspection.
  • Start harvesting blueberries.
  • Continue planting.
  • Fertilize, mulch, and weed small perennials (strawberries, asparagus, rhubarb, Egyptian onions).
  • Top off mulch around larger perennials and weed (or kill mulch) as necessary.
  • Finish getting this winter's wood under cover.
  • Process chickens third week of June.
  • Train miniature apples.
  • Summer prune perennials.
  • Harvest kale seeds.
  • Add new box to hive if necessary.

Saving tomato seedsJuly: Dog days

  • Continue picking cabbage worms and Japanese beetles.
  • Continue freezine excess produce.
  • Continue pruning and training tomatoes.
  • Trellis more cucumbers.
  • Start saving eggs July 13 to go in incubator July 20.
  • Harvest poppy seeds, arugula seeds, and tokyo bekana seeds.
  • Continue planting.
  • Weed and mulch garden.
  • Mowing.
  • Save seeds (tomatoes, etc.)
  • Continue pinching perennials (blackberries, black raspberries, kiwi).
  • Bring in garlic from drying racks.
  • Harvest onions and carrots.
  • Haul trash to dump.
  • Finish mulching larger perennials.
  • Refill worm bins with manure.
  • Process chickens third week of July.
  • Train miniature apples.

Harvesting tomatoesAugust: Tomato month

  • Continue picking Japanese beetles.
  • Continue freezine excess produce.
  • Continue pruning and training tomatoes.
  • Chicks hatch August 10.
  • Harvest mung beans.
  • Bring in onions from drying racks.
  • Mowing.
  • Weeding, planting, mulching.
  • Train miniature apples.
  • Replace straw in Warre hive quilt.
  • Dig up large weeds (ragweed, etc.) before they go to seed, especially in pastures.
  • Start harvesting butternuts.
  • Wash and put away incubator.

Harvesting sweet potatoesSeptember: Soup month

  • Continue freezine excess produce (including lots of soup).  Dry extra tomatoes and make ketchup.
  • Continue pruning and training tomatoes.
  • Tie up berries.
  • Hive check and varroa mite count.  Feed bees if low on winter stores.
  • Harvest mung beans, sweet potatoes, and butternuts.
  • Install light in chicken coop.
  • Mowing.
  • Weeding, planting, mulching.
  • Train miniature apples.
  • Process old hens as young ones start to lay.
  • Put away sweet potatoes and butternuts.
  • Close up screen door for winter.
  • Haul in more sawdust for composting toilet.
  • Put away seeds.

Katydid on fall sassafras leafOctober: First frost

  • Order new perennials for November and December planting.
  • Continue feeding bees, if necessary.
  • Mowing.
  • Weeding, planting, mulching.
  • Train miniature apples.
  • Staycation.
  • Move citrus inside.
  • Harvest potatoes and cabbage.
  • Start putting garden to bed.
  • Rake leaves out of the woods.
  • Cut tops off asparagus.
  • Move chicks to coop and clean out brooder.
  • Change to new side of composting toilet.
  • Kill mulch new garden areas for next year.

Straw deliveryNovember: Fall

  • Contact straw source.
  • Rake leaves out of the woods.
  • Process broilers first week.
  • Dig carrots.
  • Frost protect figs.
  • Finish putting garden to bed.
  • Put up quick hoops.
  • Winterize - put away five gallon buckets, drain hoses, run lawnmower and weedeater dry, put heated waterer in coop, weather-stripping, plug in light in fridge root cellar.
  • Install bottom board and entrance reducers in bee hives.
  • Hunting season --- kill deer.
  • Divide nonwoody perennials.  Harvest echinacea roots.
  • Mulch perennials.
  • Plant new trees and shrubs.
  • Plan garden rotation.

Writing in front of the fire
December: Resting month

  • Finish anything leftover from November.
  • Soil test.
  • Writing.
  • Fun projects.

If you're a type-A list maker like me, you might also like to download this year's planting calendar.  I hope it helps keep you on track!

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to raise three rounds of broilers plus our laying hens, mixed in with honeybees, a vegetable garden, and an orchard.
Posted Fri Jan 11 08:08:01 2013 Tags:
carrying PVC 3 inch pipe in a small car

Managed to squeeze 50 feet of 3 inch PVC pipe in the Toyota today.
Posted Fri Jan 11 16:27:32 2013 Tags:
Soil test results

I got my soil test results back, and I'll be looking at them in much more depth than you probably want to read about next week (and probably the week after) as a lunchtime series.  However, I thought it was interesting to see how different test results can be from two different labs.
Taking a soil sample
I doubt my soil has changed very much over the last year, since I haven't added any major amendments.  And yet, this year's results show just about everything much lower than last year's results showed, except for the trace minerals, which are mostly higher.

(There are a couple of mitigating factors to consider.  I didn't take any samples from the spots where I spread the gypsum.  But I did take the samples a little differently, testing deeper into the soil profile in 2012 because Solomon wanted a six inch test depth for his analyses.)

Mule 2011 Mule 2012 CP3 2011 CP3 2012 Back 2011 Back 2012 Front 2011 Front 2012
pH 7.55 6.9 6 5.9 7.3 7.1 7.4 7.3
% OM 17.7 4.87 8.2 5.48 15 7.82 14.6 8.95
P (ppm) 523 494 21 44.5 556 351.78 410 446.38
K (ppm) 774.5 404 351 306.5 615 298 875 487
Ca (ppm) 7555.5 2889 1643 1038 6801 1800.5 5772 2415
Mg (ppm) 989 441 213 175 926 299.5 743 421.5
CEC 70 20 15.6 9.88 56 12.9 47.1 17.63
% Sat. Ca 79 71 64.8 52.56 78.8 69.78 77.7 68.47
% Sat. Mg 16.95 18 13.8 14.77 17.6 19.35 16.4 19.92
% Sat. K 4.25 5 7.1 7.96 3.7 5.92 6.1 7.08
Al 6 215 14 402 6 220 7 247
B 1.5 0.67 0.5 0.29 1.3 0.56 1.1 0.62
Mn 22.2 41 4.5 30 24.4 43 19 47
Zn 8.05 43.57 12.5 6.64 7.5 17.07 8.5 38.34
Cu 1 3.19 0.9 2.03 1 2.8 1 3.46
Fe 2.15 248 2.2 153 2.1 215 1.7 236
S 126.5 24 33.8 19 109 20 100 19

Since these two labs used different extraction techniques, it's not terribly surprising their results varied.  But you'd think there'd be one right answer to how much sulfur (and everything else) there is in the soil.  I guess this is why Solomon recommends picking a lab and sticking to it if you want to be able to tell the changes in your soil over time.

Our chicken waterer makes it easy and fun to keep backyard chickens.
Posted Sat Jan 12 08:32:20 2013 Tags:

Sigma fitness monitor in action with Lucy in backgroundThis Sigma fitness monitor was around 20 dollars and took less than 10 minutes to install.

It's a good way of keeping track of elapsed time, average speed and more.

I was thinking the other day it might also help to estimate power generated once I start experimenting with pedal power.

Posted Sat Jan 12 14:58:44 2013 Tags:

Country storeI was interested to see how my mother's experience meshed with those of the people in Back from the Land, so I gave her my copy and quickly got a very negative reaction.  "Maybe by the 70s, the general climate was more disaffection, and just 'dropping out,'" Mom emailed me, adding: "My own personal odyssey was...the aura of 'peace farms' that I'd learned of thru Annie Upshure and the Catholic Worker movement, safe places to try to work for peace."

"Our actual venture was to establish a commune 'in the heart of the people' (as in 'swim like fish in the heart of the people')," Mom explained.  Although she wasn't part of the Vista program, my mother came south with several people who were and she and others considered themselves "to be sort of 'independent Vistas.'  We tried to live close to our neighbors, admittedly only a few of the poorest families, actually ones who were not farmers with their own land, but who were sharecroppers."

Mom grew up in Massachusetts, so her first five years in southwest Virginia were all about "putting down roots....  Because I was politically aware, I could see my life as part of a bigger picture.  And I was helped by [my neighbors] in believing that learning how to live in the Mendota area was viable."  She added her "own twist" by working with others on a Helping Hand Community Center, then by opening up an old country store that served some community center functions.

Carter Family Fold"[Our neighbors] were a real reason we were able to hang on for the ten years we did," Mom added.  "Because we were not in a commune, we were thrown on our own resources."  One of these days, I'll edit a fascinating video interview in which Mom tells us much more about those devices, but that's one of those back burner projects that has yet to see the light of day.

Our chicken waterer is one of the innovations that makes modern homesteading so much easier than our parents' version of the experiences.
Posted Sun Jan 13 07:48:07 2013 Tags:
proper hip wader storage or how to store hip waders safely and correctly

I think we need to build something like this to store our hip wader boots in the future to prevent creasing which leads to leaking.

Image credit goes to the Airforce Elmendorf Outdoor Recreation center where they rent hip waders for 7 dollars per day.

Posted Sun Jan 13 15:24:42 2013 Tags:
Carrying yurt pieces

The yurt came the rest of the way down on Sunday.  (I figured if I used the passive voice, our memory of the event would involve less lugging of waterlogged wood through the trees.)

Bare spot in forest

All that was left behind was a bare circle on the forest floor.  Too bad I'm unlikely to walk by there with anyone who hasn't heard of the yurt --- it would make a fun, crop circle, April Fool's joke.

Curled up salamander

I'm wracking my brain for something useful to do with that bare patch of earth, but I think it will just be an experiment in how fast the forest reclaims ground.  I feel like the spot is too shady and too deer-prone to plant anything edible, but if you've got a bright idea, now's the time to throw it out there!

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with clean water.
Posted Mon Jan 14 08:16:39 2013 Tags:

The Intelligent GardenerThe Intelligent Gardener, by Steve Solomon, is a fascinating and well-written, if potentially controversial, explanation of how to grow more nutrient-dense vegetables by balancing your soil.  If you've heard of William Albrecht and/or Michael Astera, but didn't feel comfortable wading through old classics, Solomon's book is the quick and easy way to access the same data.

Steve Solomon stumbled across the work of Albrecht after coming to similar conclusions on his own.  He and his family lived for nine years in Oregon, where they grew most of their own food on worn-out soil that was deficient in several major nutrients.  As a result, Solomon and his wife began to get sick, with lowered energy levels, loose teeth, and soft fingernails.  A six-month vacation in Fiji created drastic changes in their vitality, due (Solomon believes) to the local produce grown in soil fertilized by silt from volcanic rocks.  This experience led him to the work of Weston Price, who argued that we really need four (or more) times the recommended daily allowance of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and vitamins A, D, and E for best health.  To get those high levels of vitamins and minerals, Albrecht adds, you must garden in well-balanced soil full of minerals.

The conclusions Solomon comes to from studying these older scientists is in stark contrast to conventional organic gardening wisdom, most of which derived from texts published by Rodale Press, so many of us might find parts of Solomon's argument to be heresy.  The Rodale way is to focus on organic matter and pH only, adding compost and lime as necessary until soil is in good shape.  Solomon argues that this focus on lime (often dolomitic, meaning lots of magnesium comes along with the calcium) makes sense for Price on nutritionchemical farmers, since their fertilizers acidify soil and leach calcium, but organic growers need a more nuanced understanding of soil chemistry.  Meanwhile, Solomon posits that too much organic matter actually unbalances your soil.  (More on his solution to both of these issues in later posts.)
While The Intelligent Gardener is easy to read and presents the data very well, I still have questions about the kookiness level of the information itself.  For example, all of the reasoning behind remineralizing soil is based on correlative (not causative) studies, meaning that no one took the time to do a side-by-side comparison of nutrient density of vegetables grown in balanced and unbalanced soil.  Solomon admits this fact freely, when he writes: "Despite Albrecht's brilliance, it is quite possible he succumbed to the same malady many garden writers suffer from --- succeeding in his backyard and expanding it to include the whole continent."  But the information is worth considering with a critical eye, so I'll be regaling you with the highlights of the book as this week's lunchtime series.

"After reading this book, I am genuinely excited for a Trailersteading adventure," wrote one reviewer of my newest ebook.

This post is part of our The Intelligent Gardener lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jan 14 12:01:09 2013 Tags:
update on the experiment to repair leaky boots with silicone patch

The creek flooded last night, which made today silicone patch testing day.

It worked at stopping water, but a close inspection shows the silicone already starting to break apart.

The hip waders are still better than the alternative, especially when you add an outer layer of grocery bags to your socks.

Posted Mon Jan 14 15:26:21 2013 Tags:

Gooseberry sproutEven though my fig cuttings kicked the bucket, things are starting to grow inside.  I went ahead and planted my tip-rooted gooseberry, but have been saving Mom's and Sarah's until I remember to bring their little plants to their new homes.  The seemingly-dead gooseberry cuttings have been sitting in a sunny window, and I just noticed that this little one is starting to leaf out!  That means it will have to wait to go into the ground until after the frost-free date, but also that it will probably have more roots and will bear sooner than if I had stuck it outside last fall.

Next door, another pot of sticks is sprouting leaves.  A kind reader (T) sent me some tindora --- tropical, perennial cucumbers --- to try out, and warm weather this past weekend tempted one to put out leaves.  I'm very curious New tindora leafto see whether this cucurbit will be worth babying over the winter in future years, but it sounds promising, with recipes available for baby fruits, ripe fruits, and leaves.

T explained that he developed this variety by crossing an all-male, ornamental variety with a female plant on his neighbor's fence.  The result was a sterile variety that he reports is non-astringent, with cucumber-like, small, green fruit that become soft, sweet, red fruits when fully ripe.  "In the summer, I cut it down in huge swaths to feed to the goats and birds," he wrote, adding that this variety of tindora "could become a really good forage for homesteaders and their livestock."  We're excited to try it!

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock hydrated between trips to the woods to hunt bugs and greenery.
Posted Tue Jan 15 08:35:55 2013 Tags:

Soil leachingYesterday, I mentioned that Steve Solomon's health improved when he spent six months in Fiji eating nutrient-dense vegetables.  The obvious question is --- why isn't all soil as good as the stuff in Fiji?

When it comes to soil minerals, you need to understand both rocks and rain.  The bedrock that slowly dissolved to make up the soil in your garden will determine which minerals were there to begin with --- some rocks are more well-rounded than others.  But even if your rocks are perfect, lots of rain can still wash those nutrients out of the earth through a process known as leaching.

As with rocks, not every area is equal in terms of leaching potential.  Hot, dry areas like the American southwest have little or no leaching because all of the water that hits the ground is sucked up by plants and transpired back into the air through their leaves, or simply evaporates from the earth's surface.  At the other extreme, New England soils are strongly affected by leaching because cold weather keeps water in the ground once it hits, so water tends to gush through the topsoil and into the groundwater, carrying minerals away with it.  In general, most of the soils in the eastern United States have been depleted by leaching unless careful stewardship has kept organic matter levels high at all times.  (Humus holds onto the same minerals that rain tries to wash away, keeping them cycling even if soils are flushed with water.)

U.S. soil typesAnother factor to consider is age of your soil.  Young soils have lots of minerals, but as soil ages, the rocks dissolve and stop adding extra nutrients to the soil.  In addition, the cation exchange capacity of soils tend to degrade over geologic time.  Here's where the southeast is even worse off than New England --- we haven't had glaciers down here recently to top off our rock reserves, so many soils are old and low on minerals.

Assuming you aren't as lucky as folks in Fiji, you'll need to remineralize your soil to get it back in balance.  This is why Solomon is down on the compost-cures-all-ills approach to gardening.  As he explained: "Fertilizing a garden by composting local vegetation and animal manures derived from that same kind of vegetation will only magnify the regional soil imbalance."  Time to get scientific and figure out exactly what your unique soil really needs.

If you don't know what CEC is, I recommend starting your remineralization journey by reading my ebook on basic soil testing.

This post is part of our The Intelligent Gardener lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jan 15 12:01:09 2013 Tags:

using dome kit to make a better chicken coop
The plans for the new chicken coop upgrade now include an external nest box.

We might add some removable panels that can be installed each Winter to block the cold wind.

I'm still undecided on what type of roofing material to use.

Posted Tue Jan 15 14:59:28 2013 Tags:

Homegrown humusIt's been raining and raining and raining, so I've huddled inside writing up (and through) a storm.  My root cellar ebook still needs a bit more data and photos, but a quick overview of using cover crops in no-till gardens really wanted to see the light of day immediately. 

Homegrown Humus: Cover Crops in a No-till Garden probably won't give you much new information if you've been reading my experiments here on the blog, but it might be worth 99 cents to have all of the data summed up in one place.  I'm hoping the ebook will inspire folks to see how easy it is to boost their organic matter levels in a no-till garden.  Here's the blurb:

Homegrown humus is easy with cover crops!

Cover crops are a simple, cheap way to boost your soil's organic matter, to fight weeds, to prevent erosion, to attract pollinators, and to keep the ecosystem in balance.  Unfortunately, most information on growing cover crops is written for people who plow their soil every year and are willing to spray herbicides.  You can get all of the same benefits in a no-till garden, though, if you're clever.

Homegrown Humus details three no-till winners in depth --- buckwheat, oilseed radishes, and oats.  Profiles of other species suggest gardening conditions when you might want to try out sunflowers, annual ryegrass, barley, rye, Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, or cowpeas as well.

Meanwhile, the book delves into finding cover crop seeds, planting cover crops in a no-till garden, and easily killing cover crops without tilling or herbicide use.  Understanding the C:N ratio of cover crops helps determine how long to wait between killing cover crops and planting vegetables, as well as how to maximize the amount of humus you're adding to your soil.

Cover crops are an advanced gardening technique bound to increase your vegetable yields, but are simple enough for beginners.  Give your garden a treat --- grow some buckwheat!

Next week, I'll post excerpts as a lunchtime series.  To read the rest, you'll need to splurge 99 cents on the ebook (which can be read on nearly any device), or wait until next Friday when I'm setting the price to free so that my loyal readers can pick up a copy without paying.  Those of you who prefer a pdf copy can email me next Friday as well and I'll send your free copy that way instead.  Thanks for reading (and double thanks if you find the time to leave a review on Amazon)!  It's your glowing reviews of Trailersteading that inspired me to whip out this ebook so quickly.

Posted Wed Jan 16 08:01:31 2013 Tags:

Cation exchange capacityBefore I go further into Solomon's remineralization strategies, you have to know more about those minerals I mentioned vaguely in my leaching post.  Although there are a slew of minerals plants use in large and small quantities, Albrecht (and those who have built on his work) are primarily interested in the calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), potassium (K), and sodium (Na).  Albrecht believed that prairie soils provide optimal crop nutrition, so he suggested we mimic the ratio found there: 68:12:4:2.  Other practitioners have suggested slightly different values, such as 62:18:4:2 for sandy soil, or 85:5:2-4:1-2 if you're following the work of Victor Tiedjens and think calcium is of most interest.

If you remember high school chemistry, you may recall that these four minerals are all cations, meaning they're positively charged and are attracted to negatively-charged clay and humus particles.  The amount of negatively charged spots in the soil isn't unlimited, though, so there's only so much space to go around (measured as the cation exchange capacity), and all cations don't cling equally tenaciously to the spots that are available.  Calcium is strongest, followed by magnesium, potassium, and sodium, in that order, so if you dump masses of lime (calcium) in the soil, calcium will fill all of the spots, bumping off the weaker cations.  Meanwhile, if you only add a moderate amount of calcium, only the lowest cations on the totem pole will be bumped off, so you'll end up with a higher ratio of calcium and a lower ratio of sodium in the soil.

Soil test results

Even though we don't talk about it much, the lowest cation on the totem pole is actually hydrogen, which is pulled out of water to fill empty spots if there aren't enough other cations to go around.  If hydrogen has to fill any negatively charged spots in your soil, that means you're soil is acidic.  Take a look at my soil test results above and notice that the two samples without exchangeable hydrogen (circled in red) are also the samples where the pH is greater than 7, meaning the soil is alkaline instead of acidic.

This is also why adding lime to your soil raises its pH.  The extra calcium in lime knocks hydrogen ions back into solution where they merge with the carbonate ions from the lime to create water and carbon dioxide.  Without those extra hydrogen ions hanging around, the soil is no longer acidic.

Calcium and magnesium in soilThe reason I've spent so long on this chemistry is because it explains how you can change the ratio of cations in your soil.  Adding a stronger cation creates a cascade of other cations being kicked off the negatively charged spots in soil, and as long as you add lots of water to leach the unattached cations from the water, those cations disappear into the subsoil and leave the topsoil different than you found it.  This can be handy if you garden on clay (like I do) and if your soil contains too much magnesium (like mine does), which tightens soil up and makes it waterlogged.  Those of you gardening near the coast who irrigate with water high in salts will also find this handy since excess sodium can be even more harmful to soil than excess magnesium since high sodium levels tighten soil even more and can also be toxic to plants.

Solomon's pet peeve has more to do with nutrient-density than with soil texture, though.  He's found that leached soils are usually excessively high in potassium, especially if you add hay, straw, or wood products to your garden as compost or mulch.  High potassium levels make plants grow fast, but the produce is low in protein, is high in carbohydrates, and is usually deficient in calcium and phosphorus.  Livestock who eat plants grown on high-potassium soil gain weight but don't breed well, and people who eat from that type of soil tend to gain weight and have health problems as well.  Stay tuned for more details on how to rebalance your soil for optimal nutrition.

Need some lighter reading?  Trailersteading shows how half a dozen families achieved. their dreams by living in used mobile homes.

This post is part of our The Intelligent Gardener lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jan 16 12:00:44 2013 Tags:
Lucy on the porch with Muck Boots

My Muck Chore boots are just over a year old.

They're holding up nicely with zero damage and a high comfort rating.

I wouldn't be surprised if they last over 5 years at this rate!

Posted Wed Jan 16 14:56:39 2013 Tags:
Flooded creek

I've stopped reporting on all the little floods --- it barely impacts our lives nowadays when the creek hits the top of its banks.  But when the water starts flowing out of the creek and into the floodplain, the power of water is too inspiring to ignore.

Our movie-star neighbor wants to help us build a swinging bridge and Shannon got us started on a zip-line, but the honest truth is that I doubt either of those projects will ever come to fruition.  The reason?  I really like being flooded in.

Flooded garden

As a side note, the analytical side of me started wondering if there was a pattern to our floods.  I'm sure I'm missing a few that didn't make the blog, but here are the big ones I've recorded:

Isn't it interesting how the dates seem to cluster together?  The second week of January is flood time, and so is the first week of March.

Our chicken waterer keeps water where you want it --- in your chicken's mouth.
Posted Thu Jan 17 08:04:20 2013 Tags:

Soil analysis spreadsheetBefore I dive any deeper into soil science, I thought I'd walk you through filling out Solomon's soil analysis worksheets (which you can download for free here).  You'll notice there are actually six pages of worksheets in that file, which consist of two pages each for acidic soils (pH less than 7), "excess cations" soil (pH 7 to 7.6), and calcareous soil (pH greater than 7.6).   I actually find it much easier to make a spreadsheet page for each soil sample since the program can do the math for me, but I'll fill out a worksheet below to help you get an idea of the process.

Pasture soil analysis

Since I sprang for a test from Logan Labs, as Solomon recommended, it's pretty simple to fill out the column of actual amounts.  The only tricky parts are:

  • You need to convert from ppm (parts per million) to lb/acre (pounds per acre) for certain readings.  Solomon explains that you simply multiply ppm by 2 to get lb/acre, which I'm a little dubious about.  His reasoning is that we sampled our soil to a six inch depth, and soil scientists estimate that amount of earth weighs about two million pounds per acre.  When I start cancelling units in the conversion, though, I feel like there should be something factored in to take the atomic weight of each mineral into account, but I stuck to Solomon's math.  (Roland, help?)
  • Logan labs reports phosphorus pentoxide instead of elemental phosphorus, so you need to multiply their result by 0.44 to get lb/acre for phosphorus.

The target column is a little more complex, but is mostly basic multiplication.  The one portion that might cause a hiccup is potassium (K) --- you get that amount from the chart at the bottom-left of the worksheet based on the TCEC of your sample.  Similarly, boron, iron, and manganese targets are based on TCEC, as is explained in the "calculating target level" column.

Chicken pastureFinally, you subtract the actual amount of each element (in lb/acre) from the target amount to figure out how much excess or deficient you are.  Since Solomon labelled the last column "deficit", I put excesses in parentheses.

The sample I used is a pasture that has been grazed with chickens for a couple of years with no other amendments, so I figure it's probably similar to the soil you might find in a new garden spot.  You'll notice the soil is acidic and a bit low on organic matter, without as much capacity for cations as you'd like, and it has too much of a few nutrients but too little of some others.  Tomorrow, I'll move on to the back side of this worksheet to show you how to deal with those excesses and deficits.

Our chicken waterer never spills on pastures, so it's perfect for permaculture chickens.

This post is part of our The Intelligent Gardener lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jan 17 12:00:38 2013 Tags:
2013 flood details with image of submerged golf cart and floating foot bridge

The Swamp Bridge started to float away today, but got stopped by the now partially submerged golf cart.

This is shaping up to be our biggest flood since moving here!

Posted Thu Jan 17 13:34:15 2013 Tags:
Flood map

I'm pretty sure our current flood is the biggest one since we've moved to the farm, but you shouldn't be alarmed --- we won't be getting our feet wet any time soon.  We live up on an abruptly-raised plateau that allows us to survey the floodwaters, but we'd need an astounding amount of rain for the water to get up this high.  In fact, we aren't even at 100-year flood levels yet.


Old-timers in the area tell me they remember when a flood extended all the way to the old house, which used to sit on the south side of our front garden.  I can't really imagine that much water, and suspect those old-timers might have the house confused with another one back in this holler, but it's possible.

Roosting chickens

Besides the alligator swamp bridge floating out of place (already happened), the most-likely flood event we'd have to deal with is evacuating the chickens from their current coop to the one we usually use for broilers.  During a break in the rain, our flock was out foraging at the edge of the floodwaters, but they soon settled back on their roosts to wait out the storm.

Even chicken-evacuation is unlikely.  Instead, we're hoping the floodwaters recede before we run out of stockpiled fruit and library books, and before our chicken waterer customers get antsy.  Other than those three things, we're pretty much self-sufficient up on our island.

Posted Fri Jan 18 07:01:23 2013 Tags:
Soil prescription

The second page of Solomon's soil worksheet shows how to create a unique prescription of additives to get your soil back in balance.  Once again, I prefer a spreadsheet to do my math for me, but I'll work through the prescription for yesterday's soil sample to help you understand the process.

The first step just consists of copying the numbers from the last column of the other side of the worksheet to the first column of this worksheet.  Anything within 10% of the target amount can be left alone, but we'll need to come up with a plan to decrease larger excesses and fill up larger deficits.  To do so, choose amendments from chapter six of The Intelligent Gardener and add amounts until the final application rate of each element comes out the way you want it to.

Digging in the gardenIt's usually best to start at the bottom of the chart since Solomon recommends using sulfate fertilizers to address any deficiencies in iron, manganese, copper, and zinc.  The sulfur that these fertilizers bring along for the ride will decrease the amount of sulfur you'll need to add at the top of the chart in the form of ag sulfur or gypsum.  Solomon has included a handy reference chart at the bottom of the worksheet showing the percent of each element in various fertilizers, and the last three columns help you keep track of how much sulfur, magnesium, and calcium come along for the ride in fertilizers intended for other purposes.

So, for zinc, you'll notice I'm 17.52 lb/acre short, but Solomon limits applications each year to 14 lb/acre.  To get that 14 lb/acre, I divide 14 by .35 (the percent of elemental zinc in zinc sulfate, shown in the table at the bottom of the worksheet), and come up with an application rate of 40 pounds per acre of zinc sulfate.  I multiply that by .17 to come up with the pounds per acre of sulfur that will come along for the ride, and insert the result (6.8) in the sulfur column as a reminder to myself that I've already met part of the sulfur demand.

If I were going to apply phoshorus to this pasture, I'd hit this row next since most sources of phosphorus also bring along some sulfur.  However, I estimate our ten chickens will add 47 pounds per acre of phosphorus to these pastures each year, and I don't mind a slow-but-steady accumulation of phosphorus, so I'm not going to add any extra.  (All of my vegetable garden areas actually have an excess of phosphorus, suggesting that topdressing with a layer of horse manure would be another good way to increase the phosphorus levels in the chicken pasture while also increasing the low organic matter, so I may consider that if we have extra manure in the spring.)

Zinc in soilNow I head to the top of the chart and decide on the type of sulfur amendment.  This pasture is acidic and low on calcium, so I don't want to add ag sulfur (which would lower the pH further and leach calcium).  Instead, I settle on gypsum.  I've already got 10.3 lb/acre sulfur coming with my zinc and copper fertilizers, so I only need to add another 94 lb/acre elemental sulfur.  Gypsum is 17% sulfur, so I divide 94 by .17 and get 553 lb/acre as my application amount.

Gypsum also contains 20.5% calcium, so I multiply 553 by .205 and get 113 lbs/acre elemental calcium, which I add to the far right column as a note to myself.  Subtract that from the 611 pounds of calcium in which my soil is deficient, and I need 498 more pounds per acre elemental calcium, or 1,277 lb/acre ag lime (assuming a calcium content of 39%).  (Dolomite would be a bad choice for my calcium source since I have too much magnesium in my soil already, but if I had a cheap source of oyster shells, they could work to fill this deficit just as well as ag lime.)

The combination of gypsum and calcium will flush out excess magnesium and potassium from the soil, but I'll want to test again at during the same month (and with the same lab) next year to make sure the soil is getting more in balance.  If I lived in a dry area, I'd also want to water the soil heavily after applying gypsum to ensure the excess cations moved out, but lack of water isn't a problem on our farm.

Meanwhile, Solomon's prescription calls for 114 lb/acre sea salt to deal with my sodium deficiency, but I'm figuring I can just add urine to increase the sodium levels.  (I'm not so sure it makes sense to try to increase these levels right now anyway since sodium is lower on the totem pole than potassium and magnesium and will presumably be washed away at the same time those cations are.)  Finally, 14.2 lb/acre of borax rounds out the soil prescription.

Calculating area of a pastureThe final bit of math is to figure out how large the garden area is and to calculate an actual amount of each fertilizer to add to the pasture.  These two little pastures add up to a twentieth of an acre, so I'd multiply all of my amounts by 0.05. 

Solomon recommends mixing anions (sulfur, phosphorus, and nitrogen) into compost before applying since humus hangs onto these negatively charged particles and releases them slowly into the soil.  Boron is an anion, but it's very easy to accidentally apply too much of this nutrient, so the best option here is to mix the proper amount into water and spray it evenly on the ground.  The cations (including copper and zinc) can be mixed together and spread across the soil surface (or dug in if you till).

Next week, I'm going to continue this lunchtime series with analysis of other parts of our farm, but I do want to add a caveat here.  Solomon recommends adding some fertilizers which aren't organically approved and/or which might cause short-term harm to your soil microorganisms.  Gypsum and lime seem to be relatively innocuous (as long as you check application rates carefully), but I need to do some more research before deciding how I feel about borax, copper sulfate, and zinc sulfate.  On a small scale, choosing dynamic accumulators that concentrate the same nutrients and using them as part of your compost pile could be a more harmless solution, and some people use rock dusts to boost micronutrients (although Solomon thinks they don't provide enough minerals to make the dusts worth your while).  I'm curious to hear from anyone who has done more research than I have about these amendments.

Thanks for hanging in there through all this math.  Hopefully the analyses week after next will have fewer numbers and will help broaden these ideas out so you can see the big picture.  (Next week we're taking a break to talk about cover crops.)

Trailersteading shows how to homestead on the cheap.

This post is part of our The Intelligent Gardener lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Jan 18 12:01:15 2013 Tags:

snow on wires

Anna and Mark have lost power. The last message from Anna during the snowstorm:

8 inches here now! I can hear limbs falling in the woods, but no major crashes like that one year the power was out so long.

Word is the entire county's power is out, and with the flood it could be a while until they're back on this blog. Unless perhaps they get the generator working, or finally set up that Plug and play solar backup.

In the meantime, stay warm! -- Joey

snowy home

Posted Fri Jan 18 17:55:35 2013 Tags:
2013 power failure and getting the generator fixed

We got the generator working today, but we're low on fuel.

The current plan is to run it for about 90 minutes after dinner each night.

No problems with the phone line, which is why we can keep up the blogging.

Plenty of firewood and food along with books and cats should keep us warm and happy. The water seems to be going down and maybe we can get out tomorrow or Sunday for more fuel and fruit.

Posted Fri Jan 18 18:14:36 2013 Tags:
Evening snow

As the eighth inch of snow hit the ground on Thursday evening, the electric line snapped and fell into the yard.  Out went our power.

Snow on barn

Dog in snowy woodsOur first step, in the dwindling evening light, was to assess our power stores.  Laptops were shut down, then Mark assembled all of our rechargeable batteries and lights.  Unlike our last major power outage, we now both have high quality solar flashlights, and Mark had several fully-charged drill batteries that go with a fluorescent light.  We even have candles from friends.  But we still hadn't gotten our solar panels hooked up, and we don't have candlesticks.

Snowy flood

For that first night, light was all we needed.  Wood stoves ensured we stayed warm, and the fridge and freezer would stand one night unopened.  More on phase two of our power outage adventure in another post.

Our heated chicken waterer went down with the rest of our electronics, but the weather stayed warm enough to keep the water thawed for our flock.
Posted Sat Jan 19 07:01:08 2013 Tags:
mark Supply run
Clearing the driveway that has a downed cedar blocking the way

The creek went down enough today for a trip into our nearby town.

Only one tree blocking the driveway...a walk in the park compared to the last time it snowed this much.

Posted Sat Jan 19 18:17:16 2013 Tags:
Blue sky and snow

Appalachian Electric Power's website reported Friday that they had 128,000 customers out of power, 81,508 of whom were in Virginia.  Estimated restoration time for Scott County is supposed to be Monday night, but we know we're on the tail end of the list and figure we'll be lucky if we're plugged back into the grid by Wednesday.

While sobering, knowing the power will be out for an extended period is much less scary now than it was three years ago.  Then, heat consisted of blasting the exterior wood furnace and hoping a bit of warm air would trickle in through the ductwork without a fan.  Cooking on the wood stoveCooking was a complicated, outdoors affair, involving shoveling coals out of the wood stove (which had an insulative sleeve around it, so we couldn't cook on top), then refreshing the coals several times to get things cooked through.  We didn't really have enough blankets to keep warm at night, and it was awfully dark with just a couple of little flashlights to read by.

Fast forward ahead, and while we're not as well prepared as we would like, everything is at least 75% easier.  We have two little wood stoves that keep our living area toasty, it's easy to cook on the burner, and our light situation is an order of magnitude better.  In fact, I feel very lucky because I suspect most of our neighbors are experiencing a lot more deprivation than we are.

What's the same is that we're running the generator an hour or so per evening to top off the fridge and freezer, to refill our drinking water reservoir, and to get online.  The cats are terrified of the roar, and I'm not terribly keen either (which is why I'm actually writing this in the quiet earlier in the day, to be uploaded to the internet when the generator keeps thought to a minimum).  Mostly, though, we miss having low-power treats during the course of the day, like internet-on-demand and laptop-charging.  Clearly, that's where we need to focus our post-outage efforts, before the experience recedes from our memories and we forget how useful it is to be prepared.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional filthy waterers.
Posted Sun Jan 20 07:01:09 2013 Tags:

using golf cart batteries for supplemental lightingThe Plug and Play Solar kit came with a pair of 12 volt DC light bulbs. We haven't mounted the solar panels yet, but the 2 golf cart batteries we bought this past summer still had enough charge to power a few nights of reading after dinner.

Hooking up the batteries to a trickle charger during generator time seems to be topping them off enough to keep the lights on.

We actually saw an Electric Company guy today, so maybe we'll be plugged back in before night fall?

Posted Sun Jan 20 16:02:35 2013 Tags:
Powerline worker

My favorite color (this week at least) is fluorescent yellow.  That's the color of line-workers coming to hook us back up Sunday.

Foot logI honestly wasn't expecting anyone to drop by until at least today, and Mark and I both remembered last time when we kept seeing people (and even a helicopter)...then went several more days without power.  But these young men skipped across the (now very scary) log the barn roofers used last spring, snapped splices onto the powerline, then quickly cranked the lines back into place.  We ate Sunday dinner cooked on the electric stove with real lights!

Electric line repair

I've got lots more power outage excitement to relate (like the cheesecake I made on the wood stove), but I'll save that for the days to come.  Later, we'll assess how we did and what we want to change before the next unexpected outage, but for now we're a little giddy over on-demand internet.

Our chicken waterer is the clean solution for pampered backyard hens.
Posted Mon Jan 21 07:54:30 2013 Tags:

Honeybee on buckwheat flower Cover crops are plants purposely sown in the garden to improve the soil's fertility, to fight weeds, to prevent erosion, and to keep the ecosystem in balance.  These crops are sometimes known as "green manure," especially if the plants are tilled into the soil.  Here, I'll be considering cover crops that can be managed without tilling in.

During the last three years that I've experimented with growing cover crops, my garden soil has turned darker and yields of many vegetables have increased dramatically.  Both my own honeybees and wild pollinator populations have been boosted by the copious nectar produced by buckwheat plantings, and my chickens have enjoyed the winter greenery from oilseed radish leaves.  Plus, having cover crops on the ground during the winter prevents erosion, keeps the soil microorganisms humming along, and just makes the garden a more interesting place to be.  Nowadays, I can't imagine doing without my beds of buckwheat, radishes, and oats.

Homegrown HumusPlanting cover crops is a quick and easy afterthought in my current garden, but it wasn't always that way.  I experienced a steep learning curve when I first began growing cover crops in my chemical-free, no-till garden.  Most information on growing cover crops is written for people who plow their soil every year and are willing to spray herbicides, and I had some spectacular failures while selecting the cover crop species that would do well without these disturbances.

This week's lunchtime series and the ebook which it is excerpted from provide tips for growing cover crops in a no-till garden.  The further you live from my zone-6, southwest Virginia garden, or the more your gardening techniques differ from my own, the more of a commitment you'll need to make to figuring out the best way to slide cover crops into your fallow periods.  Luckily, experimentation is half the fun, and my experiences should at least help you set off in the right direction, inspiring you to give cover crops a try.

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

Posted Mon Jan 21 12:00:22 2013 Tags:
refrigerator root cellar winter update 2013

The refrigerator root cellar dropped as low as 28 degrees during the recent power failure.

It doesn't seem like the carrots or cabbage were hurt, but the potatoes might need to be inspected more carefully.

To play it safe we brought everything inside due to an upcoming "Arctic Blast" heading our way tonight. We might need to upgrade the light bulb with a small space heater in the near future.

Posted Mon Jan 21 15:39:05 2013 Tags:
Flood line in the snow

There's an art to managing the kitchen during a power outage.  My control-freak tendencies thrive there, and Mark wisely stays out of the way.

Even with the generator to top off coolth, I know the contents of our fridge have a limited lifespan.  So we focus our meals around eating the lamb roast I made just before the outage, making squash pancakes from the butternut pulp that was going to be a pie, and frying up lots of bacon on top of the wood stove.

Cooking a cheesecake on a wood stoveMeanwhile, my chocolate cravings (and the yogurt, cream cheese, and butter hanging onto edibility by a thread in the fridge) tempt me to make a chocolate cheesecake.  Two fire bricks on top of the stove, the pan of batter, and another pan for a lid create a cheesecake-like dish eighty minutes later.

Heating water for dishes is easy, but I take over that task (usually Mark's job) because the water tank is only half full and I know my washing method is more sparing of water.  (Don't worry --- Mark is doing far more than his fair share in other areas.)  For the first few days, we also ration fruit, unsure when we'll be able to reach town for more.

All told, power-outage cooking is a fun thought-problem, but everything does take twice as long (and uses a third again as much firewood).  I read somewhere that being hooked up to the electric grid is akin to having dozens (or was it hundreds?) of servants at our beck and call, and while I only feel like I've lost one or two helpers, the analogy is apt.  As Mom handily pointed out on the phone, at least I have something to do during those hours I would usually be spending on the internet.

I switched over to one of our premade chicken waterers for easy carrying in at night when the heated version is out of commission.
Posted Tue Jan 22 07:33:36 2013 Tags:

Hit by a FarmShannon is too busy to regale you with tales of cute bunnies this week, so I'm filling the gap with a review of one of the many books I read while the power was out.

Hit by a Farm, by Catherine Friend, feels more genuine than other farm memoirs I've read recently, although it's not quite so gripping as some since it's written like a series of short stories.  Catherine and her partner decide to buy a farm and 100 ewe lambs, while starting a one-acre vineyard, pasturing chickens, and embarking on several other adventures.  In the process, their relationship suffers from farm-related stress and the duo nearly splits up.

Sheep were an integral part of the book, and I definitely felt like I experienced shepherding in all of its glory (and pain).  I was intrigued to learn that guard llamas actually pulled their weight on Catherine's farm --- I've always considered llamas to be one of the pyramid-scheme livestock.  (You know, a few breeders make big bucks selling breeding stock to others, then eventually the market crashes and the llamas are worthless.)  Equally interesting was learning how essential it was to have a milk goat around to feed orphaned lambs.

On the relationship front, I think Hit by a Farm covers a topic that most homesteaders try to ignore (at their peril).  As Back from the Land details, more failed farms seem to stem from broken relationships than from anything else, so I was heartened to read about one very established couple who eventually figured out how to stay in love despite the farm.  I don't want to ruin the ending, so I'll let you read for yourself how Catherine and her partner made farming work for them.

Homegrown Humus is my 99 cent introduction to a healthier garden through cover crops.
Posted Tue Jan 22 12:00:59 2013 Tags:

installing a small space heater in the refrigerator root cellar

Even though the carrots are safe inside we thought this cold spell was a good time to upgrade the light bulb with a small space heater.

The heater comes with a built in thermostat, but I'm leaving it plugged into the Thermo Cube for a more accurate control of the temperature.

Root cellar ebook
Posted Tue Jan 22 16:50:32 2013 Tags:
Winter lettuce

One of the biggest culinary shocks of our power outage had nothing to do with electricity.  We've gotten so spoiled with our quick hoops of greens and lettuce that I'm used to trotting out to the garden for at least one vegetable meal a day even in the dead of winter.

Mustard greens in the snow

But the  uncovered beds currently look like the photo above.  And, on Friday morning, the quick hoops looked like the photo below.

Snowy quick hoop

Despite  being inaccessible, the winter greens and herbs do mostly seem to be in good shape under the snow.  However, one of the three quick hoops collapsed, pulling out a stake and even breaking a pole:

Quick hoops in the snow

I suspect it's no coincidence that the collapsee is the quick hoop covering lettuce, meaning that I've been slipping under the sides of the structure constantly for the last couple of months.  (Our uncovered kale has been doing so well that I've only broached the other quick hoops once.)  Perhaps if I'd taken the time to reseat the fabric and to stake and tighten everything down more carefully before the snow, even this collapse would have been averted.

Collapsed quick hoop

Looking more closely at the collapsed quick hoop, I see that one pole bent double and the fabric was breached in a few places, but the lettuce underneath is still good (as you can see from the first photo in this post).  When I brushed snow off one end, that pole bounced back from its bent position, so I suspect we may only have to replace the one bent hoop and do a little fabric mending.

The experience does remind me that folks in the far north who deal with snow cover for extended periods of time probably won't be as thrilled with quick hoops as I am.  Sure, the garden protection devices may stand up under the snow, and the greens underneath may thrive, but if you can't get to your lettuce, what's the point?  I'm looking forward to this sunny spot melting away all of its snow so we can continue to enjoy fresh lettuce and greens every day.

Our chicken waterer provides clean water for healthy hens.
Posted Wed Jan 23 07:51:34 2013 Tags:

Nitrogen-fixing nodulesWhen choosing cover crops, it's handy to look at broad categories to find out which one (or ones) best fit your needs.  The first distinction to consider is whether your plants are annuals (meaning they'll go to seed and die in less than a year) or perennials (meaning they will live for many years).  Perennial cover crops have a place in pastures or tilled-garden settings, but, for our purposes, you'll be better off sticking to annuals.

It's also helpful to break cover crops down into two other categories—legumes and non-legumes.  Legumes are members of the bean family, and cover crop legumes include clovers, cowpeas, field peas, vetch, and medics.  Legumes differ from most other kinds of plants because they've teamed up with soil bacteria to enable them to pull nitrogen out of the air.  As a result, legumes are able to grow in soil that hasn't been recently dosed with manure, compost, or other nitrogen fertilizers, and (when managed correctly) legume cover crops can reduce your need to apply compost to the soil.

Buckwheat going to seed

Cover Crop ebookNon-legumes include all other types of cover crops, notably grains and crucifers (the latter of which are members of the same family as cabbage and mustard).  While legumes can make their own nitrogen and act as quick fertilizers for the soil, non-legumes make more organic matter and enrich the soil longer-term.

I explain more about how to maximize the amount of organic matter you get from your cover crops in Homegrown Humus, but for now, it's worth considering why you want to grow cover crops.  Are you trying to replace the compost or manure used to fertilize your garden annually?  If so, go for legumes.  On the other hand, if you're like me and are trying to improve the quality of your garden soil, you'll want to stick to grains and crucifers.

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

Posted Wed Jan 23 12:01:25 2013 Tags:
crossing creek with Stihl chainsaw in carry bag

The chainsaw protective carrying bag really earns its ticket price on days like Saturday when we needed to lug the saw all the way to our parking area.

Posted Wed Jan 23 15:21:40 2013 Tags:
Sorting seeds

Storebought, homegrown, and gifted seeds all intermingle in my seed box.  Before ordering for the next year, I always sort through, removing packets that are too old or are filled with varieties I tried and didn't like.  Next, I pull out saved seeds from two years ago and put them in a to-go-soon pile --- these are insurance just in case the ones I saved in 2012 don't turn out quite right.

Meanwhile, I set up a germination test for seeds that might no longer be viable.  I often buy seed packets that hold more than one year's supply if I know I like the variety, but it's worth testing these older seeds to ensure they'll still sprout the next spring.

With all those ducks in a row, my seed bill is always under $100 (and often considerably less) for a vegetable garden large enough to feed us year-round.  I do spend a lot more on straw and cover crop seeds, but we still consider the delicious food a bargain.

I soak old bean and pea seeds for the chickens, rounding off their healthy diet with a POOP-free chicken waterer.
Posted Thu Jan 24 08:02:42 2013 Tags:

Resprouted oatsAfter deciding between growing nitrogen and growing organic matter, the other main factor to consider when choosing cover crops for a no-till garden is—how will you ensure your cover crop doesn't keep growing as a weed and outcompete your vegetables?  While you can dig up cover crops or till them in if you're desperate, it's better to choose crops that are easy to kill without disturbing the ground.

In the summer, mowing is the best way to kill cover crops in a no-till garden.  Only a few cover crops are easily mow-killed, and even with those that mow-kill well, you'll want to plan your garden season so you can allow the crops to reach full bloom (but not set seed) before cutting them down.  Depending on the size of your garden, you may use a lawnmower or a scythe to do the mowing, or might simply yank up handfuls then lay the roots on top of the leaves on a sunny day.  The latter method is actually my favorite with buckwheat in the summer garden since I can often pull up a bed of buckwheat by hand in the same amount of time it would take to put the blade on my scythe or to get the gas mower started.

My other favorite method of killing cover crops in a no-till garden is to let winter do the work for me.  Here's where those of you gardening much further north or south than my zone-6 garden will have to do some experimenting (although Managing Cover Crops Profitably does provide zone-related tips on where certain crops will winter-kill).  When I Laying down a kill mulchplant oilseed radishes and oats in the fall, cold weather naturally wipes out nearly all the plants during the winter, producing a mulch that rots into the soil by early spring (for oilseed radishes) or by early summer (for oats).  Homegrown Humus provides planting dates for those of you who want to experiment with winter-killing.

Although mow-killing and winter-killing are my favorite ways to kill cover crops, it's worth having a couple of other techniques up your sleeve in case your experiments don't go as planned.  A kill mulch is an easy way to kill just about any plants as long as you have a month or two to wait before planting the next crop.  Simply mow your cover crops as close to the ground as you can, lay down corrugated cardboard (being sure to overlap the edges by at least four inches so plants can't sneak up between layers), then top it all off with straw (or another vegetable-garden-appropriate mulch).  Lack of sunlight will kill all but the most ornery plants in short order, at which point you can either cut holes in the cardboard to plant directly into the soil, or can move the cardboard to kill mulch a new garden area.

Weeding up cover cropsIf you don't have time to kill mulch and you really need to get rid of those cover crops, you'll be forced to pull them up by the roots.  I actually use this method often with buckwheat, which is very simple to tear out of the soil, but weeding out most other cover crops will be a lesson in patience.  Good planning ensures you won't need to pull up cover crops by hand very often.

Learn more about cover crops that are easy to kill in a no-till garden in my 99 cent ebook!

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

Posted Thu Jan 24 12:00:34 2013 Tags:
a lot easier than carrying a bucket from the creek!

Our tank is only half full, which made today's water exercise more difficult.

One of these days I might try to figure out a mechanism that will detect when the tank gets low, turn the pump on and then off when it fills up.

Like I always say, this method is still easier than carrying water from the creek.

Posted Thu Jan 24 16:42:51 2013 Tags:
Snowy garden

I write about our north-facing hillside a lot, but I only realized a few weeks ago that the term isn't self-explanatory to all our readers.  Basically, a north-facing north.  That means if you're standing on the hill and looking down, you're looking to the north, so in the northern hemisphere, you'll end up with a lot more shade in this type of landscape compared to on a south-facing hillside.  In the winter, especially, it's much colder the closer you are to the steep slope of a north-facing hill since the higher land blocks morning and evening sun for areas at the hill's feet (due to sun angles).

To illustrate my point, I walked up on the powerline pasture terrace and took some shots of our homestead from above.  The first photo in this post is what we call the front garden, which is closest to the hillside.  A week after the big snow, this area is still deeply covered because there's barely been any direct sun hitting the ground.

Melting snow

The second photo shows the mule garden and the southern chicken pastures.  This is at the southern extreme of our core homestead, meaning it's as far away from the hillside as possible.  I took both of these photos at the same time so you can tell that being further away from the hillside is a major boon in terms of winter sun.  (You can also tell that the quick hoop on the right has mostly bounced back with a little TLC.)

North- and south-facing hillsides both have their advantages and disadvantages (and southern hemisphere readers should, obviously, flip the terms around for their homesteads).  I nestle summer chicken pastures up against our hillside, but put the winter chicken pastures down in the sunniest spot, along with our winter garden.  Cool-loving plants like currants and gooseberries enjoy the cool microclimate of the north-facing hillside, and I keep meaning to try some peaches up there to see if the cold will retard bloom enough to miss late frosts.  If I had a south-facing hillside, it would be great for solar panels and fungus-prone plants.

In general, it's easier to take sun away (with shade trees) than to add sun, so unless you live in a very hot region, south-facing hillsides are preferred for most homesteaders.  But if you're picking an ugly duckling property, north-facing hillsides aren't so bad.

Weekend Homesteader: April provides other tips for finding the best spot on your homestead for various plants, animals, and more.
Posted Fri Jan 25 07:51:41 2013 Tags:
Fitting cover crops into the garden

Even if you allot absolutely no extra growing area to cover crops, chances are you can slide them into gaps and grow an appreciable amount of organic matter.  I didn't expand my garden after learning about cover crops, but I soon found I could fit buckwheat into summer gaps and oats and oilseed radishes into winter gaps without taking away space from my vegetables.  In fact, as organic matter levels increased in my garden beds, I realized I was getting higher yields from the plots in vegetable production, and was able to cut back my planting area and grow more cover crops.   The cycle of soil improvement continues.

In your own garden, I recommend starting small until you learn the intricacies of each cover-crop species you're using.  Once you settle on a few species that work for you, you'll become adept at keeping an eye out for garden areas going to waste.  Did your cucumbers succumb to blight a month before you'd planned to pull them out and seed fall carrots?  A perfect opportunity for a round of buckwheat!  Is a bed of green beans eaten up by potato beetles?  Go ahead and pull it out and plant some oilseed radishes for winter biomass accumulation.

Oilseed radish

As you add cover crops to your planting cycle, you'll probably begin to see improvements in your garden ecosystem that far exceed the effects of organic matter accumulation.  I've noticed that spring seedlings seem to be healthier in beds that have grown oats or oilseed radishes over the winter than in beds that have simply been mulched with straw.  Perhaps the reason is that the living soil web—microorganisms that feed on the sugars put off by plant roots and, in return, provide micronutrients to the plants—is heartier in beds where something has been green and growing recently.  Or maybe the effect is the result of sulfur-related compounds emitted by radishes that kill nematodes and other bad microorganisms in the soil.  The increase in pollinators around the farm as a result of buckwheat flowers is easier to decipher, but who knows how many other relationships like this are active in the garden ecosystem while being invisible to our untrained eyes?

Chicks eating oilseed radishes

Cover Crop ebookAs much as I've enjoyed my cover crop journey over the last few years, I'm sure I still have a lot to learn.  Are there cover crops chickens will enjoy even more than oilseed radishes?  Can I close the homestead fertility loop by growing my own straw and compost in addition to using my current, simple methods of increasing organic matter right in the garden beds? 

Homegrown Humus sums up my experiences to date, but I'm sure there's more to learn.  Download the ebook free on Amazon today (or email me for a free pdf copy), then send me updates on your own cover crop experiments.  I'm looking forward to updating this draft with many more cover crop adventures in years to come.

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

Posted Fri Jan 25 12:01:23 2013 Tags:
ice on a walk way and the best way to scrape it

A thick layer of ice on our new walk way was no match for the wimpy snow shovel.

This coal shovel broke it up nicely, but turned out to be more work than chopping wood.

Maybe someone should make a hand ice scraper that snugs up on the toe of your boot? That way you could kick away at the ice with leg muscles instead of straining the back.

Posted Fri Jan 25 14:48:18 2013 Tags:

Just in CaseJust in Case: How to be Self-sufficient When the Unexpected Happens, by Kathy Harrison, is a good introduction to preparedness, especially for those of us who don't particularly expect an apocalypse and just want to make sure we're ready for more mainstream disasters.  As with any book of this type, you have to tweak the information to match your own lifestyle --- I ignored all of the information about teaching your kids to go down fire ladders and so forth, and I wouldn't use any of her very-grainy recipes.  On the other hand, I especially enjoyed the few tidbits the author presented about her own childhood, during which children bathed infrequently and were expected to rinse out their own underwear and socks in the sink every night.  And I think she was wise to focus on learning skills, since stocking up on emergency supplies does little good if you don't know how to use them.

I'll make another post later about some changes we plan to make to our own lives in response to this book (and to our recent power outage), but for now, I thought you might enjoy thinking through which disasters you're likely to have to deal with.  Power outages Historic floodare a matter of course for us (since we've spent about 1% of our time on the farm in the dark), and a thousand-year flood could potentially impact our core homestead.  Tornadoes hit our area with moderate regularity (although they seldom dip down into coves like ours) and house fires are always a possibility.  Other disasters Harrison suggests we consider (although Mark and I are less concerned about them) include heat waves, winter storms, wildfires, thunderstorms, landslides, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, chemical hazards, nuclear hazards, pandemics, and terrorism.  Which kinds of emergencies do you prepare for?

(The photograph above is from a neighbor who reports that a flood in 1977 made it up to our barn.  This barn isn't ours, though, but one that once stood across from our mailbox.)

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional, filthy waterers.
Posted Sat Jan 26 08:11:04 2013 Tags:

refrigerator root cellar upgrade update about space heater failureI went to check on the refrigerator root cellar upgrade today and realized the new space heater wasn't turning on.

Turns out there's a switch on the bottom that prevents it from activating if it's not seated properly.

Maybe this will teach me to start reading directions more carefully?

Root cellar ebook
Posted Sat Jan 26 13:57:28 2013 Tags:

Cats in front of the fireMark and I have a very hit-or-miss approach to emergency preparedness.  We've covered the basics --- storing drinking water, making sure we have enough food for a few weeks, staying warm during outages, and keeping the lights on without electricity (all of which I write about in more depth in The Weekend Homesteader).  But each new disaster we face reminds us of a few ways we'd like to keep comfort levels higher, and Just in Case gave us some extra ideas as well.  So here's our new preparedness plan, which we'll be pecking away at over the next few years.

Now or soon:

  • Make sure we have cash on hand at all times.  Like many modern Americans, we use plastic nearly exclusively, but Harrison makes a good point that credit cards don't work without power.
  • Check to make sure our car has a spare tire.  Neither Mark nor I could recall if we did this when we bought our "new" (1994-model) car a year and a half ago.
  • Stock up on toiletries.  If we didn't have access to stores for a month or two, we'd be fine in the food line, but we'd run low on soap and toilet paper.  Since neither is perishable, it wouldn't hurt to have a couple of extra packages on a shelf in the barn.
  • Put up smoke/carbon dioxide detectors.  I'm ashamed to admit that we don't have a smoke detector in our trailer.  When we moved in, various friends and family members gave us bags-full, but the devices were all cheap and went off whenever I cooked (not even burning anything), so we gave up on them.  I suspect that if I get a better model and read up on placement, we could have the benefit of a smoke detector without constant false alarms.
  • Fire extinguisherReplace our fire extinguisher with one rated for class A, B, and C fires.  We do have a fire extinguisher easy to grab in the kitchen, but it's only good for class B (gasoline and grease) and C (electrical) fires.  Granted, class A (paper and some plastics) fires can probably be put out with water, but I want to add an extinguisher to the East Wing as well where there's not water on demand.
  • Buy a cat carrier.  If we had to evacuate with pets, Lucy would be easy, but my usual cat-wrangling method (just wrap whoever needs to go to the vet in a towel and then in my arms) wouldn't work with two cats.  For our chickens, we'd probably either turn them loose with extra food, or move them to the barn.
  • Replace my tents.  We've got all the camping gear we would need to spend a couple of weeks in the woods, except that my twelve-year-old tents have finally bitten the dust.

Longer term projects tentatively include:

  • Add a hood over our cook stove and redo the cabinets so they're higher up.  When researching Trailersteading, I learned that a huge proportion of trailer fires are due to the cabinet above the stove catching fire since it's flammable and too close to the range surface.  An ounce of prevention here is worth a pound of cure.
  • Get our solar setup to the point where it fuels ordinary, daily activities.  What's been standing in the way here is that I keep waiting for someone else (Bradley, Mark, Huckleberry) to do the research and figure out whether batteries need to be outdoors or indoors, what kind of inverter to buy, etc.  I think I need to buy a good book and learn more about solar myself --- does anyone have a basic solar book suggestion?
  • Generator tuneupConvert our generator to propane.  Having fuel on hand for our generator is tricky since gas goes bad quickly in our humid climate.  Although you can add fuel stabilizer to gas, Mark thinks converting the generator over to propane would be a better solution.
  • Hook up a second solar setup so we can have one for the main trailer and one for the East Wing.
  • This may just be at the dreaming stage, but we're also considering a little underground shelter up the hillside, beyond flood range, that could be used during floods and tornadoes, and as guest quarters and a root cellar.  I probably should get an underground house book to expedite my research --- any favorites there?

As usual, some of these plans are quite ambitious, but it helps to have them all laid out from easy to hard.  After all, I know I can buy soap and toilet paper and take some money out of the bank in small bills this week, putting us 16% of the way to our goal immediately.  What is on your preparedness list for the near and far future?

Sick of dirty water?  Your hens are too.  Treat your flock to an Avian Aqua Miser.
Posted Sun Jan 27 07:49:16 2013 Tags:

rooster from WikipediaSome people say chickens are dumb, but I'm not so sure.

I made a post over at Avian Aqua Miser about Brad Krueger's pet rooster alerting him and his wife that the house was on fire.

Maybe chickens have a hidden skill that can function as a backup smoke detector?

Posted Sun Jan 27 14:11:06 2013 Tags:

Sometime in January, I generally recover my love of the garden.  In early winter, I relish the ability to loll in front of a fire reading and writing, but before long, I've forgotten what it's like to fall behind on weeding in a blisteringly hot July.  I look outside at the snow and ice and wish I could plant something now!

Germination testIn some years, I do manage to begin planting on the first of February --- lettuce under quick hoops.  But this year, even the mule garden is still under quite a bit of snow, and I know the soil temperature hasn't risen above freezing yet.

Instead, I tide myself over by checking on my germination test.  The only seeds that didn't want to sprout were broccoli, parsley, and peppers, although some others showed reduced germination percentages.  (I'll just seed thicker.)

Rather than tossing the sprouted peas, I stuck them in a pot to feed me tendrils on our salads in February.  So I guess I did plant something after all.

Gearing up for chickens this spring?  Don't forget to add a POOP-free chicken waterer to your gear list.
Posted Mon Jan 28 07:49:40 2013 Tags:

Forest gardenWeek before last was the uncritical summary of Steve Solomon's The Intelligent Gardener, but this week I want to look at his claims in more depth.  For example, Solomon wrote that potassium is found in large amounts in woody stems of trees and in lignified stalks of grasses, so if you practice hugelkultur or mulch with straw, your potassium levels are going to be too high.  Sure enough, my potassium levels are higher than recommended, but is it due to the wood and straw?

To test Solomon's hypothesis, I compared the forest garden aisles with the forest garden Hugelkultur donutbeds.  The aisles haven't been treated in any way except for constant mowing (plus chicken tractoring from 2006 to 2010, which was also done in the areas that are now beds).  Since this spot is our most waterlogged part of the garden, the beds were built up above the ground using horse manure, wood chips, rotting wood, and other odds and ends of organic matter.  If Solomon's hypothesis is correct, the potassium levels in the beds should be off the charts, with lower levels found in the aisles.

Aisles Beds
CEC 6.2 10.92
pH 6.3 7.2
%OM 5.43 9.95
S 40 36
P 118.36 499.84
1305 2596
261 654
592 918
Na 55 31
Ca % sat 52.66 59.45
Mg % sat 17.55 24.96
K % sat 12.25 10.78
Na % sat 1.94 0.63
other % sat 5.1 4.2
H % sat 10.5 0
B 0 0.98
Fe 354 430
Mn 48 62
Cu 4.16 5.08
Zn 8.2 16.84
Al 654 432

As you can see in the table above, the absolute amount of potassium in the soil is higher in the beds, but potassium's percent saturation is lower.  If your head is whirling, remember that the cation exchange capacity (CEC) determines how many positively charged ions can stay put in the soil, and CEC is increased by adding organic matter.  The higher CEC in the forest garden beds gives room for many more cations, so even though using lots of woody amendments increased the absolute amount of potassium in the bed, the cations are actually more in balance in the beds than they are in the untreated aisles.

In fact, my new hypothesis is that organic matter acts as a buffer in the soil, evening out all kinds of imbalances.  I've read that adding lots of organic matter to your soil acidifies it, but in my own garden, areas with more organic matter are more alkaline and seem to have a better ratio of the big three cations.  Perhaps the Rodale-based organic gardening method is right after all?

My paperback walks you through the basics of soil testing and starting a vegetable garden.

This post is part of our The Intelligent Gardener lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Jan 28 12:01:20 2013 Tags:
mark Cold feet
trying to repair swamp bridge and getting cold feet

We tried getting the swamp bridge back in place today.

It was going good until I stepped in a spot that dunked me past the hip waders.

Brrrrr....I wimped out and went back for dry socks. Maybe we'll try tomorrow.

Posted Mon Jan 28 15:40:23 2013 Tags:

If you read between the lines in my Homesteading year post, you'll figure out that late January or early February is a good time to collect scionwood.  It's handy to cut scionwood before you start pruning so you take only wood the plant doesn't need for the year ahead, and, of course, you need to get your scionwood before buds begin to break.

Icy peachI'm swapping scionwood (and cuttings) with several readers this year and am enjoying the subtly beautiful colors and patterns.  I come in from the garden with twigs in all my pockets to add to those already in labeled ziploc bags.  So I guess I'm not staying out of the garden in this icy weather after all (although I did wait until the rime melted off the twigs before cutting any).

Our chicken waterer keeps hens happy and chicken-keepers sane.
Posted Tue Jan 29 08:08:18 2013 Tags:

Soil high in organic matterMy findings that adding lots of organic matter actually helped equalize cation levels in the forest garden leads me into a discussion of the most controversial part of Steve Solomon's book.  He agrees with the organic status quo to a certain point, recommending that we add organic matter until our soil contains 4% organic matter in the south and 7% in the north, and until our CEC is at least 7, levels that are achieved through topdressing half an inch of compost per year.  However, Solomon argues that after you reach your organic matter goal, you should back off to topdressing with only a quarter inch of compost per year since adding too much organic matter unbalances your soil.

Organic matter is closely linked to nitrogen, and that was my first concern when I considered Solomon's low-compost policy.  Each 1% organic matter in your soil releases about 15 to 25 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year, and high-demand vegetables need around 200 pounds per acre.  If you run your garden hard, like I do, you might end up growing two low-demand crops and one high-demand crop each year, for a total requirement of 400 pounds of nitrogen per acre, but a more average yearly demand would be 200 to 300 pounds.

Time for some math.  The 8.95% organic matter already in my front garden (which is my best soil) would release 179 pounds of nitrogen per acre annually, but I need another 100 pounds or so.  How do I make up the nitrogen deficit if not with compost?  Solomon uses purchased additions of seed meals, feather meal, and fish meal to bring his nitrogen levels up to par.

Location %OM pH Ca % sat Mg % sat K % sat
Powerline pasture 2.74 5.1 29.23 13.57 6.96
CP5 4.27 5.9 48.26 16.23 10.63
Mule garden 4.87 6.9 70.58 17.94 5.06
Forest aisles 5.43 6.3 52.66 17.55 12.25
CP3 and CP4 5.48 5.9 52.56 14.77 7.96
Front berries 6.53 7.1 66.25 20.12 8.7
Back garden 7.82 7.1 69.78 19.35 5.92
Blueberries 8.49 6.5 61.16 19.04 6.6
Front garden 8.95 7.3 68.47 19.92 7.08
Forest garden 9.95 7.2 59.45 24.96 10.78

Soil samplesWhile I'm not adamantly opposed to buying nitrogen amendments if it would make my garden healthier, my soil tests bring that assertion into question.  In the table above, higher organic matter levels seem to match up with sweeter soil and with a better ratio of cations.  The exception is the mule garden, which I think must have had the organic matter levels mismeasured this year.  My previous year's results showed the mule garden as having the highest organic matter levels, and my eyes back up that claim.

Granted, there is a limit to how much nitrogen vegetables can use each year, but I estimate you'd have to raise your soil up to 20% organic matter before nitrogen would start washing out into the groundwater.  I think I'll stick to my Rodale approach to nitrogen and organic matter until someone presents a stronger argument for seed meals.

Trailersteading is a look at how several homesteaders used old mobile homes to achieve their dreams.

This post is part of our The Intelligent Gardener lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Jan 29 12:01:21 2013 Tags:
replacing old tin with new red tin

Got some roofing done today thanks to the Spring like weather.
Posted Tue Jan 29 15:38:18 2013 Tags:
On the roof

Fewer people buy chicken waterers in the winter, so we had to let Bradley return to the real world last fall.  While he was away, he worked on a roofing crew, and in the process he accumulated quite a bit of roofing metal that was extra and headed to the dump.  When we asked him if he could fix Mark's skylight, Bradley came prepared with enough free red tin to replace all of the rusty metal on the roof of the East Wing!

Carrying tin

We still had to carry it in using hip waders because the creek is a bit over knee-high at the moment.  While each sheet of roofing tin might not weigh much, we were definitely worn out by the end of the day, even with the help of B.J. --- Bradley's brother's ex-wife's cousin (who, as Gerry astutely noticed, took the photos of us working in the swamp yesterday).  Mark and I carried groups of three pieces of metal tied into a tin burrito from the parking area across the creek, then Bradley and B.J. took them to our fenceline, and finally we all carried the tin one piece at a time up the gully to the trailer.

Red roof

As a side note, Bradley says he loves installing skylights because he always gets paid twice --- once when he puts them in, and once when he takes them out.  I'd read lots of reports of skylights leaking back before we installed ours, but Mark really wanted to be able to lie in bed and gaze up at the stars.  And even though the skylight did have to be removed, I'm actually very glad we went ahead and gave it a try --- I'd much rather have tried the skylight than to have Mark always wondering what it might be like to have a window above his bed.  In my opinion, a failure is only a negative if you didn't learn anything in the process.

Posted Tue Jan 29 18:32:55 2013 Tags:

Clay diagramI've been writing about how organic matter increases your cation exchange capacity (CEC), but, while that's true, there's more to the story.  Clay also increases your CEC, and some clays have a higher CEC than others.  A very young clay has a low CEC, middle-aged clays can have a CEC as high as 100, and very old clays have filled up all of those negatively charged sites with hydrated aluminum oxide and have a CEC as low as 5.

A good way to figure out what kind of clay you have is to dig down to your subsoil and do a separate test of that ground.  (This only works if you live in an area wet enough that the subsoil is clay.)  I didn't perform a separate subsoil test, but both the soil I pulled out of the powerline pasture terrace and the soil in the forest garden aisles is pretty low in organic matter and pretty high in clay, so I thought I'd take a look:

Powerline pasture Forest aisles
CEC 7.65 6.2
pH 5.1 6.3
%OM 2.74 5.43
S 30 40
P 24.64 118.36
Ca found 894 1305
Mg found 249 261
K found 415 592
Na 37 55
Ca % sat 29.23 52.66
Mg % sat 13.57 17.55
K % sat 6.96 12.25
Na % sat 1.04 1.94
other % sat 7.2 5.1
H % sat 42 10.5
B 0 0
Fe 184 354
Mn 84 48
Cu 2.64 4.16
Zn 2.34 8.2
Al 804 654

As a side note before we look at the quality of my clay, Solomon explains that plant roots often stay out of the subsoil because it's too acidic and generally all out of whack.  My powerline pasture test results support this hypothesis --- who wants to grow in a pH of 5 with barely any calcium?

Soil typeNow, back to CEC and clay.  Interestingly, the powerline pasture has a higher CEC than the forest garden aisles do, even though the latter are higher in organic matter and have received more love.  Soil surveys show a dividing line between two soil types just north of our trailer, and the front garden soil (on the same side of the line as the powerline pasture) is much higher quality than the back garden soil (on the same side of the line as the forest garden).  Perhaps part of the reason the front garden is so nifty is that its clay has a higher CEC?

Lest you think this post is sheer geekery, there is a hands-on point.  Solomon explains that humus also has varying cation exchange capacities, ranging from 100 to 400.  He writes that organic matter only changes into humus if there's some clay available, then he goes on to hypothesize that higher CEC clay creates higher CEC humus.  While Solomon admits his hypothesis is untested, it makes me wonder whether it would be worth adding a bit of our higher CEC clay to the worm bin to see if we can't create even more awesome castings.

As a final note on subsoil, Solomon recommends that those of us who really want to put down roots in our garden (both literally and metaphorically) should focus on rebalancing our subsoil at the same time we fix our topsoil.  Adding gypsum to the topsoil leaches cations down into the subsoil, where they can increase the pH and bring the soil more into balance so it's more inviting to roots.  Wouldn't it be fascinating if you could double your growing area by simply making the subsoil a better place to live?

While you're planning ahead for spring, check out my 99 cent ebook to learn how to get the most out of your incubator.

This post is part of our The Intelligent Gardener lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Jan 30 12:00:53 2013 Tags:
The new red roof as seen from on top of a nearby hillside

We got our 2nd flood of 2013 today.

A good test for the new red roof.

The only homesteading that got done today was when Anna climbed up our hillside and snapped this shot.

Posted Wed Jan 30 15:35:40 2013 Tags:
Spring planting

After posting that it was going to be too cold to make my traditional lettuce planting this week, a warm rain Monday night washed away the snow.  Tuesday morning, soil temperatures under the quick hoops in the mule garden were 40 degrees!  So I cleared out some old kale (the good leaves went in our bellies, the rest went to the chickens), added a layer of horse manure (stockpiled last fall), and scattered some seeds.

And by Wednesday morning, something had come up...just not in the lettuce bed.  The first crocus of the year!  Our crocuses bloom whenever they feel like it, but I'm pretty sure this is the earliest bloom date since we've been on the farm.  On the other hand, I only see the one flower --- everyone else seems to have paid attention to the long range forecast which consists of seasonal weather in the week to come.

Our POOP-free chicken waterers have been enjoyed by thousands of flocks across the U.S. and around the world.
Posted Thu Jan 31 08:32:57 2013 Tags:
Blueberry bush

My next thorny question was --- how closely can I apply Solomon's soil analysis guidelines to woody plants?  Refreshing my memory of The Holistic Orchard suggests most woody plants might enjoy the same soil conditions Solomon guides us toward.  But blueberries are another matter.

Optimal vegetable garden pH is supposed to be around 6.0 to 6.5, but blueberries like it more acidic --- 4.5 to 5.5, with 6.0 being permissible for the easier-to-please rabbiteyes.  And despite lots of pine needle mulch, pine logs edging the beds, pine humus in the root zone, and even sulfur given to half the plants their first season, the pH in my blueberry patch is 6.5.

Micronutrients and pHWhile 6.5 sounds bad for blueberries, Solomon and Phillips both suggest that higher pH may not be as much of a problem as other writers suggest.  With vegetables, Solomon finds a pH of 7.5 is fine as long as you even out cation excesses, and he reminds us that the pH of our soil may appear much lower to our plants than it does in the testing lab since plant roots hang out around organic matter and organic matter creates pockets of acidity.  (Microorganisms eat organic matter and exude carbon dioxide as a waste product, and the gas mixes with water to form carbonic acid.)  But can blueberries really handle a pH of 6.5 even if the soil has a CEC of 12.6?

The trouble with high pH in the blueberry patch is that it makes it tough for blueberries to find iron, especially if excess calcium is around.  Some sources suggest balancing blueberry soil with less calcium and more magnesium than you'd allow in your vegetable garden, Blueberry iron deficiencyespecially since magnesium can also be hard for blueberries to find.  Luckily, my soil already trends toward low calcium and high magnesium levels, so all I have to do is leave it alone to achieve that goal.

Iron deficiencies are usually pretty easy to see in blueberry leaves during the growing season, as you can see in the photo to the left.  I recall noticing yellowed leaves during the blueberries' first year or two, but not more recently...but I also tend to ignore the blueberries while the vegetable garden is calling my name.  So I think I'm going to table this issue for now and check over the patch once the leaves come back out.  I definitely won't be adding any lime to the blueberries' soil, though, and if I do decide to boost the sulfur levels, I'll do so with ag sulfur instead of with gypsum.

Find out how to escape the rat race and spend full time homesteading in our 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our The Intelligent Gardener lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Jan 31 12:00:25 2013 Tags:

measuring the power used by the smal space heater in the refrigerator root cellar

The new space heater is performing nicely in the refrigerator root cellar.

It seems to be using less energy than the light bulb. This might be due to the less time it takes to heat up with the help of a fan blowing the air around.

We did notice a few sprouts on the carrots that were most likely caused by the light bulb, which is another reason to choose a space heater for this application.

Posted Thu Jan 31 14:54:31 2013 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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