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

archives for 02/2013

Feb 2013

The Cows Are OutThe Cows Are Out by Trudy Chambers Price is a good farm memoir to read on a rainy day.  The author, her husband, and their two sons spent 23 years on a moderate-sized dairy farm (25 to 75 Holsteins) in Maine.  The story itself is very engaging, aided by the frequent family photos and the author's pleasant style, but as Mom told me when she lent me the book, "It's the wrong kind of dairy farm!"

Mom was coming fresh from reading Folks, This Ain't Normal, so she was struck by the amount of time the Prices' cows spent in confinement on concrete floors.  From what I read, though, dairy cows are a whole 'nother ball game, and it takes a lot of extremely careful planning to raise them on pasture alone.  The Prices did have lots of grazing area they turned the cows into in the summer, and I suspect stockpiled winter grazing hadn't hit the forefront during the sixties, seventies, and eighties, so folks didn't have any other option than to feed their cows hay in the barn all winter.

While I'm willing to give the operation a pass on the confinement score, I do think it should be read as a cautionary tale about debt.  First the couple went into debt to buy the farm, then they went further into debt to purchase machinery (and yet more machinery as time wore on).  Two years after moving to the land, the author had to start teaching school to pay the bills, and it was clear that even after 23 years, they had yet to break even.

This cycle of debt is par for the course in mainstream American farming today, but I think it's also what drives the little guy out and turns our farmland over to mammoth agribusinesses.  In the Prices' shoes, I'd like to say that Mark and I would have thought outside the box and dreamed up value-added products so we could keep equipment purchases to a minimum and make a living wage, but it's hard to think straight if you're up at 3:30 every morning to do the milking.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free way to get off to a good start with your new flock this spring.
Posted Fri Feb 1 07:52:24 2013 Tags:
Phosphorus cycle

The last thorny soil issue I want to cover is phosphorus.  Steve Solomon's worksheets aim for an equal amount of phosphorus and potassium in the soil, while Michael Phillips thinks more phosphorus is better and recommends building orchard soil to have twice as much phosphorus as potassium.  On the other hand, Harvey Ussery explained that excessively high phosphorus levels cause a decline in mycorrhizal fungi, which means that plants actually have a harder time finding enough phosphorus and can experience a deficiency.  In a worst case scenario, extra phosphorus can even wash into streams and cause eutrophication.  Fertilizing with manure (especially chicken manure) boosts phosophorus levels in the soil quickly, so the question is --- should I be concerned about phosphorus excesses?

Location lbs P2O5/acre Deficit or excess P
Powerline pasture 56 −237
CP3 and CP4 225 −209
CP5 117 −196
Forest aisles 269 −127
Blueberries 345 unsure
Front berries 778 −21
Forest garden 1136 180
Back garden 1599 354
Front garden 2029 487
Mule garden 2246 551

Using Solomon's recommended phosphorus levels, it's clear that our native soil is low on phosphorus, but that my preferred horse manure fertilizer has increased levels within the vegetable garden beyond the recommended range.  Of course, if I was using Phillips' goal instead of Solomon's, the vegetable garden would actually be considered deficient in phosphorus like the rest of our homestead.

Solomon backs up Phillips by writing that excess phosphorus is seldom a problem since it will actually increase the nutrient density of your produce.  In fact, in a perfect world, Solomon believes our soil would have 2,000 to 5,000 pounds of phosphorus per acre, at which level enough of the mineral would naturally be released each year to feed our crops with no additional applications of fertilizer.  Based on these figures, I suspect we can carry on with my heavy manuring for another five or so years before phosphorus levels in our vegetable garden exceed biologically healthy amounts.

On the other hand, my readings suggest that excess phosphorus can be an issue in the blueberry patch, where the extra phosphorus can cause some of the same deficiency symptoms you'll notice from high pH or high calcium levels.  I doubt that we're anywhere near that level yet, but it might be worth focusing on building acidic, low phosphorus, low calcium compost for that patch for the future.  And, one of these days, I'll probably have to escape my reliance on off-farm manure and bring our homestead into more of a closed loop.  Stay tuned for a lunchtime series based on How to Grow More Vegetables on that very topic soon.

If you need reading matter in the meantime, check out our homesteading-related books.

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

Posted Fri Feb 1 12:00:57 2013 Tags:
installing a new UV filter for the drinking water system

We upgraded our drinking water filter system today.

It comes into the house and enters a sediment filter, and then goes to our new UV filter, which is 3 times bigger than the old one.

The attractive stainless steel container is made in Italy by a company called Minox. We found it on Amazon for 170 dollars.

Posted Fri Feb 1 16:10:50 2013 Tags:
Burying pipeline

It's been nearly a month since I last posted about our partially-completed greywater wetland, but I haven't been entirely idle.  Whenever the water's low enough to cross the creek without hip waders and I don't have anything more pressing to carry in from the parking area, I've tossed a ten-foot section of pipe over my shoulder during my morning walk.  I guess that means the floodplain has been easily passable 6 days out of the last 28.

With all the pipe nearby for channeling water from the trailer to the wetland, I finally dug the last part of the trench.  I'd left two feet of buffer area right where the current pipes discharge so that the soggy mess didn't end up in the trench until I was ready for it, but now I dug on through.


What I discovered underneath our current drain out back was a fascinating system I didn't know existed.  Two feet out from the discharge spot, the clay turned grey --- clearly it had gleyed itself.  Closer in, a band of white...something...had built up right around the base of the pipes but a few inches under the soil.  And atop that white band was an astonishing number of earthworms.

True, the drain out back created a soggy mess in front of our back door, and a mild swampy smell in certain seasons.  But I'm impressed by the earth's ability to take lemons and make lemonaide.  Given how well my non-system works, I have high hopes an actual greywater wetland will work even better.

Our chicken waterer keeps water where you want it --- in your hens' mouths, not turning the coop floor into a swamp.
Posted Sat Feb 2 07:56:49 2013 Tags:
close up image of the new modified Minox stainless steel container

The spigot that came with the new Minox container was nice, but it didn't have a place to attach a hose.

A new brass spigot with matching utility hose cost about 10 dollars and only took a few minutes to install.

I've been thinking about Roland's comment yesterday where he suggested using copper to take advantage of its anti-bacterial effects. Anna and I talked about it for a while and she has an interesting idea to try suspending a mesh bag full of pennies near the middle of the container.

Posted Sat Feb 2 14:40:25 2013 Tags:
Winter birds

No self-respecting groundhog would have been out in yesterday's below-freezing, snowy weather, but a flock of ten cardinals and half a dozen song sparrows dropped by the garden for an afternoon snack.  We don't purposefully feed the birds, but our homestead does seem to provide quite a lot of food for the local wildlife.  I'm going to assume that these seed-eating birds were hunting down grass and plantain seeds, lowering my weeding pressure for the year to come.

The Avian Aqua Miser is the POOP-free alternative to traditional, filthy waterers.
Posted Sun Feb 3 08:01:22 2013 Tags:
modeling the new chest waders

These new chest waders are a bit harder to put on than my old hip waders, but the extra distance and warmth makes up for the small hassle.

The boot tread is better suited for our conditions here compared to the felt bottom on the hip waders.

I went with a neoprene material from Pro Line for 180 dollars.

Posted Sun Feb 3 15:00:56 2013 Tags:
Winter food

This has been our tastiest winter yet, especially when you consider the vegetables we're still eating fresh. 

Sprouting beansWhen the snow and freezes allow access, we're harvesting as many greens as we can eat out of the quick hoops, although the lettuce is starting to fade.  Arugula has turned out to be a quality winter salad green, growing faster than the lettuce and holding up to colder weather, plus the sweet, spicy leaves are delicious when they make up about 10% of a salad.  I'd say we planted just the right amount of lettuce (three beds) and arugula (one bed), and actually grew too much kale (six beds under cover and fifteen more beds of kale and other greens uncovered).  (In case you're keeping track at home, I use "bed" to mean an area about 18 square feet in size.)

Brussels sprouts have been a major boon, especially because they're tall enough that I can harvest the little heads through a deep snow.  We didn't grow nearly enough, with only one bed in full production and three beds finally starting to bear from their shadier spot in the front garden.  Next year, we'll put more plants in the sun as this variety moves off our experimental list and onto our list of mainstays.

ButternutsThat's it for the crops we're still harvesting out of the garden, except for bits of Egyptian onions, thyme, parsley, and celery.  But our other stores are also doing admirably.  The queen has been carrots, which have held up perfectly in the fridge root cellar (where they returned after a week on the kitchen floor covered by a towel during the coldest spell in January).  We've eaten fresh carrots, carroty soups, given away bagsful, and still have plenty to carry us through until the spring crop.  If anything, we could probably get away with planting a little less than six beds next year, but we'll probably hold steady.

We haven't eaten as many butternuts as in previous years because we mostly consume them in butternut pies, which depend on good eggs, and we've started eating eggs for breakfast, so we're perennially short.  The stems are beginning to go a bit hollow and imperfect squashes are starting to rot, so I'm roasting up the many we have remaining to go in the freezer.  I'd say we should grow many fewer butternuts next year, but if we increase our egg supply, that might not be true, and chickens adore the seeds.

Split cabbageWe ate the last cabbage out of the fridge root cellar last week, and it wasn't a pretty sight.  I suspect cabbages would like it just a hair warmer than carrots, or perhaps they just don't have as much keeping power, because the last cabbage split open and started to grow a new head from the crack.  We'll grow the same amount this year because I clearly haven't entirely got a handle on the crop, but I suspect we may scale up at a later date.

Of course, we've still got garlic and sprouting beans and white potatoes (the last of which we hardly eat), though we're a bit low on sweet potatoes (due to this recipe increasing our consumption).  And then there's the contents of the freezer, which seem to be holding up very well despite us eating soup about once a day.  While I won't mind fresh asparagus at all once April rolls around, I don't think we'll be craving it quite as hard as we have in the past.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with clean water.
Posted Mon Feb 4 08:13:03 2013 Tags:

How to grow more vegetablesHow to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons was an interesting read, but I suspect it won't be as helpful to many backyard growers as other gardening guides might be, mostly because How to Grow More Vegetables is one of those books that tells the "one true way" to garden.  Rather than explaining the science behind his gardening choices so you can pick bits and pieces to apply to your own environment, the author assumes you will want to completely mimic his GROW BIOINTENSIVE method in your garden.

(Yes, the term GROW BIOINTENSIVE is in all caps throughout the book.  Yes, this did drive me a little nutty.  No, I won't be repeating the term in all caps throughout this post and those that follow.)

John Jeavons' method is one he and his group, Ecology Action, have been polishing on their California farm since 1971, when they heard about Alan Chadwick's biointensive gardening tehcnique and decided to give it a try.  Chadwick had, in turn, compiled his own methodology from two sources: the French-intensive methods that have inspired others like Eliot Coleman, and Rudolf Steiner's biodynamic system from the 1920s.

I'll write more about the Grow Biointensive method (which is the term Jeavons coined for his own offshoot) in later posts in this lunchtime series, but for now, it's worth understanding the purpose behind his methodology.  Unlike the average backyard gardener who is primarily interested in cutting costs and/or feeding her family the most delicious and nutritious food available, Jeavons' plan is to save the world.  His goal is to reduce the land area, water, and petroleum required to grow food so that we can fit many more people on the earth without starvation.  As a result, you'll see a lot of focus on calories per square foot and much less emphasis on taste and nutrition.

Grow biointensive gardenMy final major peeve with this book stems from the fact that biodynamic practitioners and I have a different worldview.  Jeavons doesn't write about gnomes, but he does anthropomorphicize his plants (" like to have human companionship..."), and he includes information that is dicey at best (such as his assertion that hummingbirds will hang around to pollinate crops --- I can't think of any major vegetables pollinated by hummingbirds).  You'll find a chapter on planting by the moon along with lots of unsupported companion-planting data, and the scientific-minded reader will soon start to doubt the more relevant parts of Jeavons' method due to their proximity to less scientific assertions.

All of that said, the book is worth a read with a critical eye if you're a serious gardener and feel able to separate the wheat from the chaff.  I'll include a little of both in later posts this week.

For a simpler start on your homesteading adventure, try out my Weekend Homesteader series.

This post is part of our How to Grow More Vegetables lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Feb 4 12:01:19 2013 Tags:
how to carry colored roofing tin the best way

"Fold it up like a taco", was Bradley's advice on the best way to carry in the red roofing tin last week.

To hold it in place tie a rope around each end, which can double as a shoulder strap.

Image credit goes to our new helper BJ.

Posted Mon Feb 4 16:15:56 2013 Tags:
Snowy water

Mark's a big fan of backups, and our dual water system is a good example of why his methodology is perfect for the farm.  As I've written previously, we have two water systems --- one for potable (drinking) water and one for nonpotable water.

Gravity water systemThe nonpotable water system involves pumping water from the creek to a 1,000 gallon tank.  The creek drains a large watershed, so the water is only moderately pure, meaning it's only good for washing and irrigation.  But there's a lot of it, and once we fill the tank, water gravity-feeds to the house with no need for electricity for about a month.  That means during power outage situations, we still have a lot of semi-pure water with little effort that we can use for washing hands, dishes (with a bit of bleach), and clothes.  On the negative side, though, we haven't quite got this waterline to the point where it doesn't freeze when lows drop into the mid-teens, although water does start flowing again pretty quickly once temperatures rise above freezing.  So we spend what amounts to perhaps five full days a year with the nonpotable water inaccessible due to cold weather.

Water tankOur potable water supply is pumped up out of a shallow well (which looks like a dark box in the photo at the top of this post), then is piped through a sediment filter and a UV light, before ending up in the new, larger reservoir Mark recently installed in our kitchen.  The main benefit of the well is that we own its entire (small) watershed and the land is completely wooded, so our well water is almost certainly free of pesticides and herbicides.  There's much less of the well water, though, and it seems wasteful to run water through the UV light (requiring electricity) and a sediment filter (that has to be changed every few months) for uses other than washing and cooking.  On the other hand, the line never freezes, so as long as we have power, we have water of some sort.

Having two systems means we probably spend twice as long fixing things that inevitably go wrong, and it definitely cost more to set up than a single system would have.  But it's nice knowing that our water supply is completely under our own control, and I suspect we end up paying less than neighbors on city water even in a climate where water is plentiful.  There are several other options that could have worked as well --- collecting rainwater off the roof, using different kinds of filters --- but this system seems to suit our farm very well.

Our chicken waterer keeps chickens from fouling their clean drinking water.
Posted Tue Feb 5 07:41:57 2013 Tags:

Burr knot in an apple treeOne of our readers, Brian, sent me an email for help "or harsh reality" about his troubled apple tree.  He wrote:

"I was out pruning the rest of our trees this weekend and found some damage on our apple tree in the front yard that seemed to be caused by the burr knot.  It looks like water was able to get in where the knots were trying to form and it must have frozen and thawed and broke off the bark.

"The tree came from a place I wouldn't buy from again ( and it was a whip that had been topped and was bud grafted with supposedly 5 different varieties.  It appears all the branches have the knots forming and I may just be growing a tree that is the rootstock.

"What do you think?  Do you think I should just cut it down and try cleft grafting the trunk and start over?"

Young apple treeIt's always tough to pull out a fruit tree you paid good money for and babied for multiple years, and I have to admit I know next to nothing about burr knot.  Hopefully one of you can help Brian out.  What do you think --- does the burr knot on the branches mean the whole tree is rootstock?  Is it a goner?

Baby rabbits

(This post is in place of an update on Shannon's rabbits since life is still hectically busy down south.  Shannon does report that "The baby rabbits are eating voraciously," so hopefully he'll have more information in a week kor two.)

Start your orchard the easy way with tips in Weekend Homesteader: December.
Posted Tue Feb 5 12:01:22 2013 Tags:
do it yourself work bench from 2x4's and plywood

This do it yourself workbench went together in about an hour today.

It will function as our new 14 gauge wire cutting station for chicken waterers.

Total material cost is just under 20 dollars.

Posted Tue Feb 5 16:31:53 2013 Tags:
Garden minerals

I did the first round of remineralization of our garden soil this week.  If you haven't been reading along, you can learn how I figured out how much of each mineral I needed here and here, and I also recommend checking out the book The Intelligent Gardener for more information on why we want to remineralize our soil.


After doing the math to calculate amounts, the next step was to come up with the minerals.  I could have asked our feed store to order 50 pound bags of each, saving about 50% per pound.  But we only needed 10 or 15 pounds of several different minerals, and you have to keep moisture out of some of the compounds during storage.  In our wet climate, I figured it made more sense to order smaller quantities online, and Alpha Chemicals seemed to be the cheapest choice for most.

As a side note, I'm 95% sure that even though 20 Mule Team Borax is marketed as a laundry additive, the box contains pure borax.  If my garden starts sudsing up, I'll let you know....

Weighing manganese

I used a scale and some mixing bowls to weigh out the quantities of the minerals I'm adding in small amounts --- manganse sulfate, copper sulfate, zinc sulfate, and borax.  Even though my soil analysis called for salt, my understanding of soil cations talked me into leaving the salt out this year.  Every part of our garden is getting gypsum to flush out excess cations, and sodium is the cation that clings least tenaciously to the soil particles.  My understanding of the chemistry says that if I add salt and gypsum at the same time, I'd be flushing my salt right out of the dirt.

Mixing garden minerals

Solomon recommends mixing all of the trace minerals together, then adding them to the items you use in bulk (like gypsum and lime).  I followed his lead on my first garden area, but I won't in the future.  Our gypsum came from the feed store pelletized, and the other minerals are powders, so the latter tend to sink to the bottom of the wheelbarrow no matter how carefully you mix them together.  Luckily, I spread sparingly, making three passes over the garden, so each garden spot probably got a relatively even helping of the trace minerals as well as the gypsum.  (There's no lime in this garden area, but I plan to mix the lime and gypsum together for areas that use both.)

Spreading garden minerals

I crunched the numbers to include spreading amendments on the aisles as well as on the beds.  I could have saved cash by only treating the latter, but I figure some vegetables probably spread their roots out beyond the bed boundaries, and we sometimes use grass clippings as mulch, so it's best to remineralize everything.

Each garden zone gets its individual prescription, and I've only treated the front garden so far.  I'll let you know how I change my technique as I hit the other areas in turn.  Meanwhile, I should tell you that we've already spent $169 on the trace minerals, and we'll be spending at least that much again on the gypsum and lime, so this isn't a cheap proposition.  If we can taste the results in the first year, though, it'll be worth it.

Our chicken waterer keeps chicks from drowning and consuming their own manure.
Posted Wed Feb 6 06:59:35 2013 Tags:

Grow Biointensive crop areasOne of Jeavons' goals in his Grow Biointensive garden is to create a closed loop, growing all of his compost on-farm.  Finding enough compost can be an issue for sustainable gardeners since you won't get nearly enough organic matter from your garden "waste" to feed next year's plants.  Jeavons solves that problem by focusing a huge proportion of his growing area on grains that not only produce a lot of calories, but also build carbon for the compost pile.

The diagram to the right, from Ecology Action's website, shows how the group breaks their farm down into categories:

  • 60% grains (wheat, rye, oats, barley, triticale, corn, sorghum, amaranth, quinoa, pearl millet, and also non-grains such as fava beans, sunflowers, filberts, and grapes)
  • 30% roots (leeks, garlic, parsnips, sweet potatoes, salsify, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes)
  • 10% vegetables (everything else, including lower-yielding roots like turnips and onions)

Looking at Jeavons numbers, I'm a bit shocked by his ratios --- I'd be concerned if my diet consisted nearly entirely of grains and roots.  Jeavons allots 4,000 square feet of growing area (excluding aisles) to totally feed each person, which means I'd have to grow all of the non-root vegetables the two of us eat in 800 square feet --- a bit less space than we currently commit to tomatoes and leafy greens.  Meanwhile, I'd have to drastically expand the 21% of our garden (and diet) we commit to high-carbohydrate crops (roots and grains), and would actually increase our total vegetable growing area by 45% to match Jeavons' numbers.

Grow Biointensive grainsAs with other parts of How to Grow More Vegetables, I feel like Jeavons' garden divisions are based more on ideology than on reality.  Yes, the concept of creating a closed-loop farm is intellectually interesting, but why is it unsustainable to bring in manures if they're being heaped up in a stack of "waste" by your neighbors?  Alternatively, why not add animals to your own farm --- many studies have shown that small-scale, human-labor systems generally produce more calories per acre if you include animals wisely in multi-layered systems than if you stick to growing plants alone.

On the other hand, Jeavons' system can be considered from another point of view as a way of including cover crops that are useful for more than one purpose.  Rather than planning your grains to be winter-killed or mow-killed, if you've got the space to let them go to seed (and the equipment to process the grain), you'll end up with even more organic matter plus a high-calorie crop.  In traditional farming systems from a century or two ago, this is exactly what most farmers would do...but then they'd feed most of those grains to the chickens, pigs, and milk cow to produce high-quality protein for the family.

For an easy start on cover crops, check out my 99 cent ebook Homegrown Humus.

This post is part of our How to Grow More Vegetables lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Feb 6 12:10:40 2013 Tags:
how to drain the fuel out of a generator

It takes a full hour to drain a gallon of fuel from our Champion generator.

Using an old rag to filter the fuel will hopefully eliminate any particles that may have found their way into the bucket during this operation.

Once the tank is empty I start it up to burn off any remaining fuel.

Posted Wed Feb 6 16:18:16 2013 Tags:
Pruning raspberries

I don't usually let anyone help me with pruning, partly because I'm a control freak but mostly because I'm still feeling my way along and don't feel comfortable enough giving instruction.  The raspberries and blackberries are pretty straightforward, though, and B.J. picked up my pruning method astonishingly quickly Monday.  (Yes, he is shaping up to be indispensible.  No, you can't have him.)

Brush pile

Last year, the brush pile full of pruned-off branches did okay in the middle of the forest garden, so I decided to repeat the experiment.  The previous pile had sunk down to where it was only a few feet tall, so this year's prunings didn't really raise the height up beyond the previous levels.  Hopefully my work eradicating weeds growing up through the pile last summer will make the area semi-weed-free this year, and last year's cuttings should be rotten enough by now that the nearby apple roots can take advantage of the compost.

Pruned blackberries

Here's the finished product --- blackberries, red raspberries, black raspberries, and kiwis are now all pruned.  They look a bit like shorn sheep against the snow, but I've found that heavy pruning is entirely worthwhile with brambles.  You get huge, delicious fruits that are easy to pick, so you eat more of them.

Daffodil leaves in the snow

Song sparrowPlus, it's just fun out to be out in the garden in early February, watching the daffodil leaves poke up through the snow and the song sparrows flit about.  Pruning week is one of my favorite times of the year, so I'm glad I've still got all the fruit trees to go.  Now, if I can just learn to wear gloves so I don't have to bite thorns out of the pads of my fingers all week....

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock easy enough that you have time for a berry patch.
Posted Thu Feb 7 08:31:52 2013 Tags:

Grow Biointensive compostThe chapter in Grow More Vegetables that held up best to scientific scrutiny covered compost.  Jeavons' compost pile is very different from many I've seen because he incorporates a lot of soil and keeps the C:N ratio quite high (44:1) as a way of maximizing humus creation rather than minimizing cooking time.  This is where a lot of the grain leaves and stems from his garden end up, along with kitchen waste, twigs, and small branches, and the lignin in the woodier materials tends to create more humus in the final product.  While Grow Biointensive piles take four months or more to fully cure, the organic matter they produce also lasts much longer in the soil.

Intriguing, but less scientifically supported, compost facts in Jeavon's book include a qualitative analysis of compost types.  He asserts that compost made from plants is four times better than that made from manure, and that roots rotting directly in the soil are twice as good as plant compost.  With no extra information or citation, I'm left guessing that maybe Jeavons means plant roots rotting directly into the soil are most likely to turn directly into humus, but I'd be curious to hear from anyone with more information.

Trailersteading has been termed an "excellent homesteading adventure" and "a great new, old idea."

This post is part of our How to Grow More Vegetables lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Feb 7 12:01:31 2013 Tags:
adding a bottom brace to the DIY work bench

Thank you BSmith for commenting the other day about my lack of bracing on the DIY work bench.

It had a slight wobble, but two 2x4's on the bottom firmed it up and provided a place to install a heavy duty shelf.

I also put an L bracket on one of the rear legs to secure it to the deck.

Posted Thu Feb 7 15:24:15 2013 Tags:

Smoke detectorsWe're zipping right through the easy section of our emergency preparedness goals, with this week's addition being smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.  Even though I put it on the easy list, though, I soon discovered that choosing a smoke detector is quite complex. 

You have to select either a model that relies on ionization to detect open flames, or on a photoelectric sensor to notice smoldering fires.  Although there are some detectors that lead you to believe they do both plus monitor for carbon monoxide, once you read the fine print, none do.

In the end, we chose to pay a bit more to cover all of our bases, getting a First Alert SA320CN smoke detector (photoelectric and ionization) and a First Alert CO400 carbon monoxide detector for the outside of each sleeping area.  Although the versions that hook into your electrical systems do avoid the problem of forgetting to change batteries, we opted for battery-powered models since power-outage situations are when we have more open flames around and need smoke detectors the most.

Installing smoke detectorI would tell you about how and where to install detectors in this post, but each device we bought came with a huge, fine-print-filled instruction sheet that was approximately the size of our kitchen table.  So as long as you take the time to read the instructions that come with your detector, you'll know far more than you ever thought you needed to know about installation and maintenance.

Our chicken waterer saves enough time that you can read that whole smoke detector instruction sheet.
Posted Fri Feb 8 08:06:15 2013 Tags:
Grow Biointensive

Other aspects of Jeavons' Grow Biointensive system are less unique.  Grow More Vegetables sums up the method with seven techniques:

Double-diggingOf the techniques I haven't discussed in earlier posts, the one I'm most on the fence about is double-digging (which is followed by loosening up the soil between crops with broad forks, aka U-bars).  Our oldest garden plot is ready to go into its seventh growing season since the ground was last dug into, and the plants there seem to do better every year, so I can't say that loosening the soil is really essential.  On the other hand, I'm very careful to keep foot traffic on the aisles, and I can see from Grow More Vegetables that Grow Biontensive's wider beds are often impacted by human traffic --- for example, the author actually pictures a board you're supposed to sit or stand on atop the bed while loosening the soil or planting.  If you regularly put human weight on your garden soil, you probably do need to fluff it up from time to time.

Companion planting is another dicey topic, and one I don't really feel expert enough to delve into in depth.  I used to lap up information on companion planting, but my limited trials have shown no improvement when mixing multiple types of vegetables together in the same bed.  Meanwhile, companion planting seems to always make the vegetables harder to harvest and has lowered yields in my garden.  Until I see some side-by-side scientific studies proving that specific types of companion planting work, I'll stick to my diverse garden with each variety segregated in its own little bed.

I know I've been pretty critical of a book that many seem to find ground-breaking, so I thought I'd offer the same exposure to the other side of the argument.  After a similar series about square foot gardening, a reader sent me a lot of photos and an explanation of why the method worked for him.  If there's a Grow Biointensive fan out there who wants to share their side of the story, just email me and I'll set the record straight.

Learn to hatch healthy, homegrown chicks in Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook.

This post is part of our How to Grow More Vegetables lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Feb 8 12:00:57 2013 Tags:
fixing the swamp bridge after a flood caused it to float out of place

It took some wrangling, but we managed to get the swamp bridge back in place.

We added a few more cinder block supports which firmed it up nicely.

The next step will be to anchor it down before the next flood.

Posted Fri Feb 8 16:08:45 2013 Tags:
Spreading minerals

Seed spreaderFor round two of my remineralization campaign, I decided to take Roland's advice and at least prevent skin contact with the copper.  Our first idea was to use a seed spreader, but the mineral powders didn't seem to want to flow out, so I moved on to plan B --- wearing gloves.

We still have to buy more gypsum and lime, but the trace minerals are all in place.  I skipped the blueberries because I couldn't decide what to do there, and I skipped chicken pastures 1 and 2 because I didn't test the soil in those areas. 

The only other area I left out was the three rows in the mule garden currently covered by quick hoops.  We're still eating greens and lettuce out of there daily, and I don't want to risk imbibing a lot of metals accidentally.  I figure the quick-hoop-covered beds can also be my control.  If I see a huge problem everywhere else but none there, I'll know the minerals are at fault.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to worry-free backyard chicken care.
Posted Sat Feb 9 07:54:32 2013 Tags:
anchoring the swamp bridge so it won't float away again

1. Re-attach 2 pieces at the center of the swamp bridge.

2. Pound in metal fence posts on all 4 corners.

3. Secure each post to the side with an exterior screw.

The next flood will be the real test to see if all this prevents it from floating away.

Posted Sat Feb 9 16:06:24 2013 Tags:

Copper sulfateMy father commented to ask what's the difference between remineralization and using chemical fertilizers.  The answer is --- not much in the short term, but hopefully a lot in the long term.

Most (perhaps all?) of the minerals I've been applying are approved for organic gardening because they're mined rocks, but they're really just chemicals.  I don't believe that just because something's "natural" that it's safe for my soil, and I don't kid myself by thinking that there may not be some short-term damage to my soil microorganisms resulting from this winter's application.  I'm hopeful that by spring, though, everything will have evened out.

That's the short-term picture, but what about the long term?  The purpose of remineralization is to correct imbalances in the soil that develop over millenia of rainfall and leaching.  The theory is that if you boost levels of trace minerals that have been washed out of the earth, you can bring your soil back into balance and not have to repeat the endeavor.  (That said, it may take a few years of soil tests and remineralization to return to the optimal levels, especially since Solomon places application limits on several of the minerals, like borax.)

EarthwormIn contrast, the chemical fertilizers used in mainstream farming are generally meant to be applied before every crop, and tend to create a cycle of dependency in the soil.  For example, if you use chemical nitrogen fertilizers, the microorganisms in your soil that usually cycle nitrogen and make it available to plants perish, so you have to keep applying chemical nitrogen fertilizers.  If remineralization works correctly, it does the opposite --- you add minerals that microorganisms will keep cycling in your garden indefinitely.

Whether the theory will stand up to reality is up for debate.  I feel there's a 10% chance I'll regret spreading all these chemicals on the soil, a large chance I won't see any difference, and perhaps a 20% chance my strawberries will taste astonishingly rich this year.  Only time will tell.  (And, yes, it's all about the strawberries.)

Our chicken waterer keeps hens happy with clean water.
Posted Sun Feb 10 08:35:17 2013 Tags:

Gin Seng This is ginseng. What I like to call, Appalachian Gold. I started hunting for the herb two years ago. It was very hard to find at first, but after about a month or so I could spot it very easily. Ginseng, in my personal opinion, is the most beautiful plant in the forest.

'Seng starts off the season with bright green leaves and red berries in the center. Toward the end of the season, the leaves turn to a vibrant yellow and the berries have usually fallen off. A young plant has one or two prongs (branches) and an older plant has three or four prongs. The photo above is about mid-season. You can actually see the color change. Very beautiful!

Ginseng rootIt was my dad, who introduced me to the herb. He, being a master ginseng hunter, has taught me a lot about the herb and its medicinal properties. Have a headache? Simply add about a teaspoon of dry, ground ginseng to some green tea. After brewing is complete, use honey and a dash of cinnamon for sweetening, and you have a natural energy drink that can knock a headache clean out of your head.

I have yet to learn everything about the herb, but I will keep you posted. Feel free to let me know anything you may know about ginseng or any other plants and herbs. I am always wanting to learn new things about plants and herbs.

Posted Sun Feb 10 13:41:53 2013 Tags:
how to build a storage unit for hip waders

Scraps of 2x4's spaced a couple of inches apart is all it takes to store hip and chest waders in a proper vertical fashion to prevent creasing.

Posted Sun Feb 10 15:51:49 2013 Tags:

Steeping willowI've played around with taking advantage of willows' natural rooting hormones in the past, but have never gotten very serious about it.  However, an actual tested recipe in The Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation (combined with some gifted fig cuttings) prompted me to give it another try.

Natural rooting hormone

To make rooting hormone tea from first-year willow twigs, just strip off leaves (if any are present), cut the wood into small pieces, and cover them up with water.  After 24 hours of steeping, pour off the liquid and use it immediately, or store it in your fridge for up to six years.

Since willow rooting hormone isn't as strong as commercial preparations, it's best to let the base of your cuttings sit in the willow juice for a day before moving them to their rooting chamber.  I'm treating half my fig cuttings with willow rooting hormone and letting half sit in water for a day as a control and will let you know if I see a difference in rooting.

Our chicken waterer eliminates the filthiest job of chicken care --- cleaning poopy waterers.
Posted Mon Feb 11 08:01:17 2013 Tags:

Meat by Simon FairlieMeat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie is an excellent book that I recommend to anyone who cares about the environmental impact of your food, whether you're a vegan, a fan of pastured meat, or are somewhere in between.  While the book doesn't touch on health issues or whether the actual act of slaughtering animals is ethical, the author does an admirable job of poring over the literature, crunching the numbers, and figuring out whether we're kidding ourselves when we think we can raise meat in a way that heals the earth. 

My favorite part of Meat is that Fairlie gives both sides of the aisle fair consideration.  He admits up front that he's not a fan of CAFOs from an ethical perspective, and that he spent several years as a vegetarian before beginning to raise his own dairy goats and to eat the male kids.  But he sets his own biases aside and bashes all of the infomercials in which authors twist the numbers to suit their ideology, whether the texts are written by vegans or by industrial agribusinesses.

I put off reading Meat for several months because the inside doesn't look inviting.  There are a lot of footnotes, no pictures, the text is a bit small, and it just looks like a tough, academic read.  Luckily, the author is engaging, and if you ignore the footnotes, the text isn't nearly as dense as it first appears.  Instead, you'll likely have the most trouble translating from British English to American English, and even that's not so hard.  (Just remember that soya is soybeans, ground nuts are peanuts, and lucerne is alfalfa.)

This week's lunchtime series will sum up the highlights of Simon Fairlie's book, but this is one that I highly recommend you hunt down and read for yourself.  As usual, I'm looking at the author's information with an eye toward tweaking our own permaculture setup, not to changing society, so I've left out huge portions of Fairlie's argument that will be relevant to those of you who depend more on the grocery store.  If you're interested in the bigger picture, it's worth putting in the time to read Meat yourself.

The Weekend Homesteader walks you through the first year of building a sustainable homestead.

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

Posted Mon Feb 11 12:01:25 2013 Tags:
field report on how long the walnut tree as a fence post lasted before it fell over

This walnut tree functioned as a fence post for about 6 years.

It was in line with other fence posts, so we just trimmed off the lower limbs and attached the fence.

I might think twice about taking a short cut like this in the future and use a treated 4x4 or maybe even a 2x4 which would most likely last decades.

Posted Mon Feb 11 15:49:11 2013 Tags:
Gathering stump dirt

My favorite stump-dirt tree has been good to us this year.  I've already used about six gallons of beetle castings, and B.J. and I easily brought home another seven gallons or so Monday afternoon.  I figure there are even a couple more bucketsful left for later seed starting, and of course the tree will fill back up over the summer, fall, and winter and give us the same again next year.

Praying to the tree

If I look like I'm praying to the tree, I kinda am.  Who wouldn't be grateful for such perfect humus?  This individual tree makes the best potting soil I've ever used --- just the right levels of nutrients and water-holding capacity.  Stump dirt from box-elders isn't even in the same ball park, and tulip-trees and apples are head and shoulders below this beautiful old beech.

Free potting soil

The best stump dirt is really little balls of beetle poop, and nearly everything spilling out of this tree fits the bill.

Stump dirt

More on what I used my stump dirt for in a later post.

The Avian Aqua Miser is an automatic, clean waterer for the modern chicken coop.
Posted Tue Feb 12 07:44:38 2013 Tags:

Feed conversion ratioI've written previously about the argument that eating meat is bad for the environment because it's an inefficient use of land.  The figure most people bring up is that it takes 10 times as much land area to produce meat as to produce grain.  My gut feeling is that the figure seemed too simplistic, so I was very glad to see someone willing to put more time into crunching the numbers and thinking the issue through.

Simon Fairlie began with the basics --- feed conversion ratio for a few types of factory-farmed livestock.  Next, he went a step further and considered the protein conversion ratio, factoring in the figure (agreed on by both pro- and anti-livestock folks) that animal protein is 40% more valuable nutritionally than plant protein.  The results are Homegrown chickenshown in the graph at the top of this post, with beef being very inefficient (14.3:1 energetically and 8.9:1 in terms of protein) and poultry being relatively efficient, especially when it comes to protein (2.3:1).  Personally, I feel that the protein conversion rate is the most important since that's usually the sticking point when trying to feed yourself from a small tract of land.

As I'll explain later posts, there are other mitigating factors that change the feed conversion ratios mentioned above, but this is a good starting point for an unbiased consideration of the value of meat, especially if you just buy your food from the grocery store.  The conclusion Fairlie comes too is that meat is a luxury product...but so are most fruits, vegetables, and oils.  For example, soybean oil actually requires more arable land to produce than pastured dairy, and pigs can often make fats more efficiently than soybeans as well.  If you belive that it's unethical to use more land producing your food than is absolutely necessary, you should probably follow the lead of the Grow Biointensive method and get nearly all of your food from grains.

Trailersteading profiles half a dozen families who dumpster-dove their housing, allowing them to quit their jobs, go off the grid, and more.

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

Posted Tue Feb 12 12:01:22 2013 Tags:
fixing a fallen post with a metal short cut

When the walnut tree fence post fell it took out another one close by.

It pushed back in place, but needed some help staying up.

I've seen the Power Company shore up a pole this way, and with any luck the 14 gauge galvanized wire will hold it in place for many years in the future.

Posted Tue Feb 12 15:39:30 2013 Tags:
Seed starting

Valentine's Day week is when we often achieve the first rumblings of spring lift-off here on the farm.  Sure enough, taking the cover off the newly-seeded lettuce quick hoop just before a big rain resulted in sprouts the next day.

Meanwhile, my three flats of onion seeds are starting to come up, so I've moved them to the porch to capture sunlight on pretty days.  Yes, this year I'm going to be one of those overambitious gardeners who carries flats in and out since she doesn't have enough growing space indoors.  Luckily, onion seedlings can take a light freeze, so they won't be too much bother.

Eggs for the incubatorFinally, there are the eggs waiting to go in the incubator Thursday or Friday.  I was going to start my first round of chicks a little later this year, but Sarah's letting me get in on her chick order to add some good laying genetics to our flock, and I want my chicks to hatch when hers arrive.

Any signs of spring in your garden?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional, filthy waterers.
Posted Wed Feb 13 07:57:47 2013 Tags:

Pastured lambThe efficiency figures in my last post for raising various types of meat make some big assumptions that aren't even true in cultures like ours where most livestock are raised in factory farms, and are even less true in other parts of the world.  For example, the astonishingly inefficient beef figures are mitigated by the fact that most cattle, even in the U.S., are raised on pasture with little or no grain during their youth, and are only moved to feedlots to be fattened before slaughter.  Next, consider that the hides of cows are used for leather, collagen from connective tissue is used to make glue, gelatin is eaten and used in plastic, and fats are used in soaps and other applications.  Factoring in these two new bits of data, Fairlie further crunches the numbers to lower the feed conversion ratio of beef in industrial societies to around 7:1 or 8:1.

Pigs and chickens produce fewer useful side products and don't get as much out of grass, so their feed conversion ratios stand firm if you stick to industrial conditions.  However, if we went back in time even twenty years, before it became illegal to feed wasted human food to livestock, pigs especially would become much more efficient converters of grain to meat.  Fairlie suggests that if we simply used the food thrown away by Americans every day, swill would supply 9% of the diet of the pigs in our current factory farms, and that doesn't factor in other historical feeds such as whey, spoiled produce on farms, and slaughterhouse wastes.  In poorer countries that haven't implemented anti-swill-feeding Milk goatlaws, pigs are often fed only 1.76 pounds of grain for every pound of meat produced, which would be an astonishing feed conversion rate of 1.1:1 calorically, if my math is right.  (I'm guessing 1385 calories per pound of pork and 898 calories per pound of grain.)

While swill is most important when making chickens and pigs more efficient, ruminants like cows and sheep pull their weight in areas with lots of non-arable ground.  For example, most of our farm couldn't be plowed without producing extreme erosion, but if I were willing to cut down trees, we could rotationally graze ruminants on our entire acreage and get food from "unusable" land.  In the UK, dairy cattle were historically raised in spots like this, getting half their protein from grass and half from grain, with a protein conversion rate for the milk of 1.5:1.  Considering that animal protein is thought to be 1.4 times as nutritionally beneficial as plant protein, that sounds like a very efficient use of grain!

Start on the path to self-sufficiency the easy way with The Weekend Homesteader.

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

Posted Wed Feb 13 12:00:34 2013 Tags:
using a metal fence post to anchor the swamp bridge

I first wanted the more heavy duty fence posts to anchor the swamp bridge, but realized we used them all up on the high density orchard experiment.

Turns out the thinner and cheaper metal fence post was a better fit for this application.

The flat side snugged up nicely with the swamp bridge and the pre-drilled holes made securing it easy.

Posted Wed Feb 13 16:21:34 2013 Tags:
Soaking in rooting hormone

Willow rooting hormoneI felt much better about my two previous fig-rooting failures when the experts explained that rooting anything is dependent on a dozen different conditions, so you can think you're doing the same thing and get completely different results from different batches.  Nevertheless, I'm also pretty sure I did several things wrong in my previous fig-rooting experiments, so I'm hopeful I'll see success in round three.

First of all, I didn't use rooting hormones previously, and figs are supposed to be one of the plants that do well with the chemical nudge.  While it would be easy to buy the exact rooting hormone recommended for figs (1,000 ppm IBA in a 5 second dip), I wanted to test out my willow rooting hormone.  So I soaked half my figs in water and half in willow tea the day before potting them up.

Pouring stump dirt

I'm pretty sure my stump dirt is just fine as a rooting medium, so I'm repeating that part of Molded cuttingsthe procedure.  However, I think I was actually keeping things too damp and hot previously, thus the overwhelming fungal growth

The step where someone recommended wrapping the cuttings in wet newspapers and sealing them inside a ziplock bag also appears to have flaws.  My new understanding is that this procedure was meant to callous the cut tissue, but that would have happened better without the damp paper towels.  Rather than modifying it, I decided to completely skip the callousing step this time around.

Fig hardwood cuttings

I'm also opting to leave off the humidity dome (aka plastic bag) I'd previously put over top of my pots.  While necessary for softwood cuttings (if you don't have a misting setup), holding in too much moisture can actually be a bad idea with hardwood cuttings.

Potting fig cuttings

So fig rooting experiment 3 is going to be ultra simple.  I snipped the terminal buds off any cuttings that had them, cut the bottoms of all the cuttings to expose fresh tissue (since they'd been sent through the mail), and pushed them most of the way into a pot of stump dirt.  I put four pots partially on a heating pad on low, and will water them if the soil seems to be drying up.

Labelling a pot

I now know that an absence of leaves is good news early on.  You want the cuttings to be putting all of their energy into root growth, so I won't worry if the twigs don't leaf out for several weeks.  That's also why too much heat is a bad thing --- it can tempt the plants to use up fleeting carbohydrates above ground before they have enough roots to become active.  Our house is pretty cool in the winter, though, so I figure a heating pad on low will help rather than hurt.

Gooseberry cuttings

Now it's just a matter of waiting and hoping.  Maybe three will be the charm?  (By the way, Brian also gave me a few Hinnonomuki Red Gooseberry cuttings, which I'm treating the same way.  Thanks so much for the excellent scionwood, Brian!)

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock clean, easy, and fun.
Posted Thu Feb 14 07:39:10 2013 Tags:

Efficiency of animalsWhat I've been leading up to with my previous two posts is Fairlie's distinction between what he calls "default livestock" and luxury animals.  By Fairlie's definition, default livestock are the animals we could raise primarily on byproducts, food waste, or uncultivable land, with seed meal being a halfway house --- it is a byproduct, but is also valuable by itself.  The chart above shows that if we stuck to default animals, especially if we exempt seed-meal-fed animals from our calculations, we'd be using barely any land at all to produce our meat and dairy products.  Although Fairlie doesn't come right out and say it, I'll go out on a limb and say that at the default animal level, it's more efficient to eat meat than not.  Beyond that, meat is an inefficient use of land.

Butchering a deerSo what would your diet look like if you only ate default livestock?  Each person would get about 40 pounds of meat per year plus about 86 pounds of milk (or 8.6 pounds of cheese).  I don't keep track of how much dairy we buy, but I figure Mark and I currently eat about 100 pounds of meat per year apiece, over twice the default figure but less than the American average of 166 pounds per year.  Of our meat, the 76 pounds of lamb and deer could probably count as default livestock since both graze on non-arable land, but the 60 pounds of chicken meat is grain-fed, as is the storebought bacon and ham we use to round out our diet.

Of course, this is only math until you start considering what default animals would really look like on your homestead.  Stay tuned for more tomorrow.

Learn the basics of chicken-care in The Working Chicken.

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

Posted Thu Feb 14 12:01:33 2013 Tags:
a bigger and better chicken pasture gate frame

I went with a medium sized cedar post we had laying around for today's chicken pasture gate frame rebuild.

We decided to go with a bigger width for times when we need to push a wheel barrow through.

Posted Thu Feb 14 16:19:14 2013 Tags:

I decided to do things a little differently with our first bed of peas this year.  Rather than just soaking the seeds to get them off to a quick start, I put them in the sprouter and sprinkled Sprouting peasthem with water several times a day until the tiny roots began to push out of the seeds.

I also opted to plant this early bed under the quick hoops, pulling out some declining lettuce to make room.  We'll know in a few months if these slight alterations to our usual pea-planting method produce earlier edible-pod peas.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to a filthy homestead problem.
Posted Fri Feb 15 07:45:30 2013 Tags:

PigFor me, the most interesting part of Fairlie's book is his suggestions for integrating livestock into permaculture systems.  The idea is that if your animals have jobs other than just meat production, they are no longer an inefficient use of land.

The most obvious non-edible use of livestock is collecting the animals' manure to fertilize the garden.  However, Fairlie points out that even there, fertilizing your garden with animal manure is about 10% to 43% less land-efficient per calorie than setting aside a third of the growing area to produce legume and grain compost crops.  (The different percentages depend on what type of animal you're raising to make the manure, and both factor in the value of the meat and/or dairy produced by the animals as well as by the crops.)

While you lose some land-efficiency by depending on animals to concentrate organic matter and nitrogen, traditional societies have long known that livestock are worth the effort in varied landscapes.  Grazers on non-arable land will eat up nitrogen (atmospherically deposited or fixed by legumes) and bring it home when they come to the stable at night, then their manure can be used to fertilize the main growing area.  In other words, animals are acting as self-powered nitrogen-accumulators, a bit like you might plant dynamic accumulators in the garden to bring up minerals from the subsoil that your garden plants can't usually reach.

Meanwhile, livestock can be a good buffer against famine, especially in the absence of refrigeration.  You can fatten a pig during a time of plenty, then kill it and eat the meat when the days get short and not much is growing.  On a larger scale, Fairlie considers eating meat to be a buffer against large-scale problems --- if we're used to the inefficiency of feeding grains to pigs and eating the pigs, when times get tough, we can just eat the grains and have a bit of wiggle room to change what we're doing before we really go hungry.

LambsIn general, though, the biggest bonus of animals if you're trying to save energy is that they move by themselves.  If we used our livestock to transport people and heavy objects, to mow between orchard trees, to clear new land, to turn compost, and to control insects in our gardens, they would probably look a lot more efficient than they do now.  On the other hand, as enticing as it is to consider returning to a previous era when a rugged dairy cow might be expected to give milk and also to haul our supplies through the mud from the parking area, energy is just so cheap at the moment that mechanized transportation seems to make more sense.

Perhaps the real lesson homesteaders should take away from Fairlie's book is that we need to ensure we're using the right default livestock before branching out.  Are all of your food scraps being consumed by an animal?  If not, try adding a few chickens or a pig.  Do you have a lot of rough land and an absence of fertility in your garden?  Maybe you need to graze ruminants and fold them in a barn or fallow field at night to get that manure. 

Rather than planning ahead for an apocalyptic vision where we don't have enough land to feed our population, I think it's more useful to make changes in our lives now to increase sustainability and also bliss.  How would you like to tweak your homestead to make its livestock more effective?

Learn to boost your soil fertility with easy cover crops in my 99 cent ebook.

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

Posted Fri Feb 15 12:01:30 2013 Tags:
troubleshooting the EcoGlow brooder

The bad news is that our Brinsea EcoGlow chick Brooder we love so much stopped working. It's getting power but the indicator light blinks instead of being a steady glow and there's no heat.

The good news is we can send it back to Brinsea to be repaired. How much will it cost? Anna forgot to ask and the lady didn't say. I put it in the mail today with a return authorization number, so I guess we'll find out sometime next week.

We're debating ordering a second EcoGlow chick brooder to make sure we have one ready to go in 3 weeks for our first chicks of 2013 and to have a back up in case we want to increase our hatching numbers in the future.

Posted Fri Feb 15 16:23:45 2013 Tags:

Astute readers will probably notice that B.J. has been around a lot.  Mark and I decided to make him Walden Effect's very first intern, so you'll be seeing more of him in the days to come.

During his first week here, it became clear that B.J. has quite a knack for growing things and for photography, in addition to his deep understanding of the Appalachian tradition of wildcrafting.  I'll admit that part of the reason we keep him around is because listening to him talk is like reading a Foxfire book --- I keep learning things all day long.

Raking back mulch

Plus, B.J. isn't allergic to facebook the way I am.  In the week he's been on the job, B.J. has already spiced up our facebook page into a flourishing community...replacing the stale auto-posting board it used to be.  (Part of this may be because we promised him a bonus of a nice camera when we hit 1,000 fans --- help him along and friend us today.)

The main reason Mark and I decided to go ahead and take the internship plunge, even though we were vacillating last year, is that B.J. is a local guy.  That means we're not responsible for making sure he has a place to stay, food to eat, or friends to hang out with.  So we can be antisocial most of the time and just enjoy his rivetting company three hours a day.

Topdressing peach

Meanwhile, B.J. is our guinea pig in another way.  I hypothesize that Appalachia wouldn't have to be so poverty-stricken if everyone with a passion --- regardless of their level of education --- developed some kind of online empire to bring in money from the outside world.  B.J. clearly has enough knowledge to write a stellar ebook about old timey Appalachian skills, so hopefully you'll see me announce that here before the summer's out.

Our chicken waterer keeps coops dry and hens happy.
Posted Sat Feb 16 07:31:29 2013 Tags:
Old bridge

On my way to Hanging Rock, I passed this very old bridge. I can't tell you much about it, other than it is very old, but it is still an interesting sight. Perhaps someone could inform me on the technique in which this bridge was built?

Little Stoney Creek
When arriving at Hanging Rock Park, located in the Jefferson National Forest, I found a variety of different colors and sounds. You can see the influence from the continuously flowing water. Hundreds of years of eroding rock and soil to form such a beautiful location.

Little Stoney Creek was a popular location for moonshiners back in the day. The frigidly cold water, flowing from the top of High Knob, is said to make the best moonshine around.
Posted Sat Feb 16 12:47:08 2013 Tags:
chopping wood 2013

1. Anna sets them up.

2. I chop with the Chopper 1.

3. Anna collects pieces while I catch my breath.

4. Stack a wheel barrow load on the porch and repeat.

Posted Sat Feb 16 14:18:35 2013 Tags:

Bioshelter greenhouseI've been pretty negative about the idea of a greenhouse in the past because our quick hoops do a great job with cold-hardy crops, and I'm simply not willing to heat a greenhouse to keep tropicals going all winter.  However, Paradise Lot (which I'll review later) included information on what they call bioshelter greenhouses, one of which they report allows citrus to grow without additional heat during Massachusetts winters.  After some web browsing, I realized that bioshelters are really just a rebranding of what was called a passive-solar greenhouse in the 1970s --- both types of structure are designed to keep a greenhouse as warm as possible with no heat source other than the sun.

Passive solar greenhouseWebsites galore sing the praises of bioshelters, which some folks combine with fish ponds, chickens, or rabbits to create a winter permaculture paradise.  However, I didn't find any data on nighttime low temperatures until I stumbled across this excellent page by the Missouri Extension Service.  Eric Lawman built a 12-by-24-foot greenhouse, insulated on the north side and covered with two layers of plastic on the south side, in zone 5 in Missouri.  With the help of twenty 55-gallon barrels, the greenhouse lows hover between about 35 and 45 Fahrenheit all winter long.  The total construction cost was $3,275 in 2005, and electricity is only used to run exhaust fans on hot days and to run another small inflater fan to keep the two layers of plastic spread apart on the south wall.

Read more about sunrooms in this 99 cent ebook!Of course, even with the heat problem dealt with, greenhouses do have the pest issue, but information on such a well-designed passive solar greenhouse does push me closer to considering the option.  Maybe that would be the best use of the sunniest spot in our core homestead --- the vertical bank on the south-facing side of the gully.

Our chicken waterer brings clean water to backyard birds around the world.
Posted Sun Feb 17 07:52:30 2013 Tags:
winter worm bin update

close up of temp in worm bin
The outdoor worm bin soil temperature is below freezing today. We can only hope there's a less freezing spot near the middle to keep them alive till Spring.

I wonder if a small plexiglass window in the door would help to raise the temperature enough to provide a small area of warmth?

Posted Sun Feb 17 13:40:37 2013 Tags:
Apple flower bud

Remember how last year's periodic cicadas laid their eggs in all my young fruit tree branches and wrought havoc?  It turns out even the damage had a silver lining.

Train apple treeI've read that some orchardists get sick of waiting for their apples to bear, so they very carefully and partially girdle twigs to tempt the tree to produce flower buds.  Despite my impatience to taste our first homegrown apple, I haven't really been tempted to give such a dicey technique the time of day.  But our cicadas seem to have done the job for me.

While I was out pruning and training our young apple trees, I noticed that the cicada-damaged twigs seemed to be full of flower buds, while the undamaged twigs weren't.  Perhaps cicadas in 2012 will mean apples in 2013?  I'm not holding my breath, but it's an interesting coincidence if those plump buds do open into flowers.

The Avian Aqua Miser has been enjoyed by chickens, ducks, turkeys, and pigeons world-wide.
Posted Mon Feb 18 07:39:57 2013 Tags:

Children's chicken bookI've got two new chicken books for your reading pleasure this week.  First, the free one....

Hop, Step, Peck...RUN! is a children's picture book I wrote before I learned to self-publish.  It stars Lucy and our first set of chickens, back when we kept them in tractors.

Rather than selling the picture book separately, I added it as a bonus at the end of
The Working Chicken.  If you've bought that ebook on Amazon, you should get an email from them shortly letting you know that you can download the updated version for free.  If you don't have the Amazon ebook, just email and I'll send you a pdf copy to read on your computer.  There are no strings attached, but I will add you to my book email list unless you ask not to be included.

Chicken pasturing ebookThe second ebook is more serious (and is written for adults).  Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics sums up all of my readings and research to make it easy to keep chickens and grass happy together.  I'll post highlights here over the course of the week, or you can splurge 99 cents to get your own copy on Amazon (which
can be read on nearly any device.)  Here's the blurb:

Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics starts at the beginning to help you design the best pasturing setup for your flock and for your homestead.  Great grazing for chickens won't be found in the perfect pasture for sheep or cows --- you need to tweak your design to match a chicken's unique behavior and stomach.

Included in this volume are an explanation of chicken digestion and behavior, pasture specifics like size and shape, a rundown on which traditional pasture plants chickens enjoy, tips on maximizing plant growth during rotation, and an explanation of how to establish new pastures and maintain existing grazing areas.  Cut your feed costs with pastured chickens!

As usual, I'll also make the ebook free on Amazon on Friday for those who want to wait for a free copy, and you can email me Friday for a free pdf copy as well.  Thanks for reading (and double thanks if you find the time to leave a review on Amazon)!

This post is part of our Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Feb 18 12:45:28 2013 Tags:
winching the utility trailer up the hill with Lucy

It took some creative winching, but we managed to get the utility trailer back up the hill.

I think it was about 3 years ago when I was trying to move it and it got away from me and slid down the hill.

We used Bradley's portable winch combined with some elbow grease.

Posted Mon Feb 18 16:30:57 2013 Tags:
Closed canopy

Bare soil under a yurtRemember the yurt circle?  I've had the patch of bare ground in the back of my mind for the last month.  Planting anything useful there butts up against some severe design restrictions:

  • Full shade.  I mean really full shade, not the kind you'll find under a fruit tree.
  • Deer.  The yurt circle isn't on a particular deer path, but anything outside our core homestead will get nibbled if it's tasty.
  • Lack of attention.  I only walk that way a few times a year and we can't currently even get a wheelbarrow out there.  So anything I plant will need to mostly fend for itself.
Dried ginseng seeds

When B.J. brought over some ginseng seeds, tiny ginseng roots, and goldenseal roots, a plan began to form in my mind....

Yurt circle

Deep shade guildI realized that forest herbs like ginseng, goldenseal, and ramps need no attention except for the harvest and are adapted to heavy shade.  On the other hand, they could get eaten down to the ground by deer if I don't fence the browsers out, but could a ring of thorny gooseberries create an edible fence?

I'm not willing to buy gooseberries to test out my hypothesis, but I did put the ginseng and goldenseal into the ground and will plan to propagate some of my gooseberries this summer.  If I end up with a heaping helping of gooseberries, it'll be worth trying some in deep shade.

The Avian Aqua Miser keeps chicks from drowning and pooping in their water, so you raise healthier birds.
Posted Tue Feb 19 07:14:56 2013 Tags:
Broiler rabbits

It's been a while since we've written a rabbit post.  In that time, we've separated the litter from the mother.  She had started thumping her foot at the kits in early January, and since the mother showed signs of becoming irritable with the kits, we decided it was probably best to go ahead and wean them.  Since then, they've been eating quite voraciously and growing fast.

Rabbit hutchWe bought what is advertised as a 5 lb capacity feeder from tractor supply and we are having to fill it at least once a day, sometimes twice.  We purchased a feeder rather than making another simply due to the lack of time that we've had available as of late.  The purchased feeder holds a volume of two quarts of rabbit feed which seems a bit less than 5 lbs to me.  In addition to rabbit feed, we have been supplementing with clover, hay, lettuce, carrots, and other items from the garden & scraps.  The stereotype of rabbits and carrots seems accurate.  Dawn reports a 4 inch piece of carrot had three young bunnies devouring it at once, and would have been more if they could have fit in the circle. 

The kits have taken to their new accomodations quite well, though some seem a bit skittish.  Perhaps our busy life lately hasn't allowed enough interaction with them.  Individual personalities show through though as some of them will approach the front of the hutch when we open it for feeding, while others crowd to the rear.  Dawn says the runt is the friendliest of the bunch.

White rabbitsSome information sources recommend that kits should be sexed and separated at the time of weaning.  At present, we have all the kits together.  This is partly due to practical reasons - we haven't had time to build another hutch - and partly due to the age at which we weaned them.  At 4-6 weeks, they are difficult to sex.  There are a couple of reasons given for separation of the sexes at an early age.  One being a claim that they mature more quickly when separated by sex.  The other reason is that there should be less fighting as they mature and no chance of breeding when they are past three months of age.

With the way life has been lately, I am quite thankful that our rabbits have required little attention of late.  We still try to interact with them as much as we can so that they remain docile, but also so that hopefully their life is a bit more pleasant with some interaction.

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 Feb 19 12:03:18 2013 Tags:
how to change the oil in a medium sized generator

This post is mainly to record the date when we changed the oil in the generator.

The book says to change it every 8 hours of operation or 6 months, whichever comes first.
Lubricheck device that measure viscosity levels in oil
I'm planning on adding synthetic oil, which should last longer than conventional oil and give the engine more protection. One way to know for sure when the oil needs to be replaced is to measure the viscosity with a new device I saw in Farm Show magazine called Lubricheck. I'm not sure how well it works, but it might pay for itself in a few years at only 40 dollars.

Posted Tue Feb 19 16:51:14 2013 Tags:
Hauling tin

For some reason, we always want to haul a lot of heavy things in and out in February, despite this being the time when the floodplain is muddiest.  In previous years, we've stressed over the transportation issue, but we've gotten a bit more creative this year.

Ruffed GrouseB.J.'s cousin Dillon asked if he could come over and make some spending money for paintball on a couple of snow days, and we quickly turned him into a pack mule.  While I figure we'd save a little cash by running a motorized vehicle in and out, human power is actually pretty efficient monetarily, especially if you have a ninth grader on hand who wants to build his muscles for football.  He didn't grouse at all.

Meanwhile, we're embarking on a truck-share arrangement with B.J.  He needs a vehicle and we want to be able to haul things about once a month.  We figure if we get him a truck and he maintains it, we won't end up with the problem where a good truck goes bad from sitting around most of the time.  There's even a possiblity we might be able to borrow Dillon's four wheeler to haul the golf cart up to the trailer for some TLC.

Raking leaves

All of this means more time for me to do the things I love most --- like raking leaves out of the woods and kill-mulching spots for new berries.  Mark talked me into going a little overboard with our perennial order this year, and I felt confident enough that we'd have time to dote on the new berries that I went ahead and ordered red currants, honeyberries, mulberries, and a Siberian pea shrub.  With berry bushes on their way and a cat in my lap, this is very blissful time of year.

Our chicken waterer has been enjoyed by chickens world-wide.
Posted Wed Feb 20 07:45:35 2013 Tags:

Feeding wild chicksAlthough I've been experimenting with the best way to pasture chickens for about a decade, the real root of my journey began in childhood.  The photo to the left shows my sister feeding some of the chickens that ran wild in our suburban neighborhood, foraging for a living in backyards and in a small wooded lot.

A few people tossed out bird seed for our neighborhood flock from time to time, but the fowl primarily made their own way in the world, roosting in trees, raising their chicks in secluded bramble patches, and hunting through the leaves for dinner.  I figured if these feral chickens could make a living in the city, surely I could replicate their success in a more controlled fashion on my own homestead.

Not counting the wild chickens that roamed our street when I was a child, I began my chicken-keeping career roughly a decade ago Chicken hopping out of coopwith the traditional coop-and-run combo that most old-school chicken-keepers favor.  As you can see in the photo to the right, the run quickly turned into a bare, muddy mess.  In retrospect, I wonder if my flock was any better off than factory-farmed hens, who at least don't have to deal with cold, wet feet.  Lesson learned: you can't pasture a lot of chickens in a small space with no rotation and expect any greenery to remain.

Chicken tractor

After Mark and I moved to our homestead, I read Andy Lee and Patricia Foreman's Chicken Tractor and decided the authors had come up with a brilliant solution to the puzzle of pastured poultry.  Our homemade tractors allowed us to pull the flock to a new patch of lawn every day, ensuring the hens didn't spend long on muddy ground and that they always had something green to enjoy.

Chicken tractor in winterBut the chicken tractor system also turned out to be imperfect for our homestead.  When we decided to scale up past a few laying hens to raise our own meat birds, we learned that roosters and small tractors don't mix, and that big tractors are heavy and hard to move by hand.  Meanwhile, we were becoming discontented with chicken tractors during the winter, not because the chickens couldn't take the cold in an exposed tractor, but because our lawn doesn't grow during the winter months.  So our chickens eventually ended up with the cold, muddy feet I was trying to avoid.

Our next experiment involved rotational chicken pastures, a modified version of which we still use today.  The first year, I raised broilers and a broody hen in the pastures and kept our main laying flock in tractors.  After the meat birds went into the freezer, I added the rest of the layers to the pasture and was struck by the difference in comb color between our broody hen (who had been on pasture all summer) and the tractored layers of the same age.  The truly-pastured Barren chicken runbroody hen had a brilliant red comb, a sure sign of good health, while our tractored hens looked drab in comparison—the rotational pasture had proven its worth.

But, of course, I still had a steep learning curve ahead of me.  The photo to the left shows my first rotational pasture after a summer of hard chicken scratching.  Yes, it did turn into a moonscape nearly as bad as my non-rotational chicken run.  I had a lot left to learn about maintaining a quality rotational-pasture system, a topic that fills the bulk of Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics.

Chickens on pastureAs you can tell, I made a lot of mistakes on my way to chicken self-sufficiency, and I'll be the first to admit that I'm not entirely there yet.  Building any kind of permaculture system is a process of trial and error as you create a cultivated ecosystem that matches your climate and growing area.  But hopefully my experiences will jumpstart your own chicken-pasturing experiments so you reach your goal as quickly as possible.

This post is excerpted from Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics, available for 99 cents on Amazon.

This post is part of our Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Feb 20 12:05:12 2013 Tags:
how to add oil the right way to a Champion generator

It seems like the Champion generator holds half a quart of oil.

Tilting one of the wheels up makes adding the oil easier, but it needs to be level for a dip stick check.

The next emergency power project will be to see if we can find a kit to convert this engine over to using propane.

Posted Wed Feb 20 16:07:12 2013 Tags:
Greywater plumbing

After I carried in all the pipes, I got scared of doing the plumbing and put off finishing our greywater wetland for a couple of weeks.  Mark kindly gave me a hand cutting the existing drain and installing the connectors, and then he helped me lift the world's largest rock to expand the inlet area.

Greywater inlet

We tested the flow before adding extra rocks, and then afterwards.  It looks like it's going to work, but we'll wait a few days before burying the pipes to make sure we didn't forget anything important.

Pond installation

In the meantime, I got a bee in my bonnet and decided to install a tiny pond liner Mark's mom had given us years ago.  I put it at the very end of the wetland, raised up a couple of inches so that water won't flow in unless the whole thing is well inundated.  The pond has no real farming significance and will probably just be home to a couple of goldfish and maybe a lotus, just for fun.

Actually, the whole greywater project feels like fun.  I'm itching to plant into it once we get an idea for which parts will stay sodden and which will just be damp.

Our chicken waterer is the easy way to keep backyard chickens happy and healthy.
Posted Thu Feb 21 08:05:59 2013 Tags:
Chickens in a varied pasture

So what do chickens eat on pasture?  I started out my adventure assuming that a pasture for chickens was the same as a pasture for cows and other ruminants, but I was very wrong, for reasons you'll soon understand.

Optimal chicken dietA good place to start when learning about chicken nutrition is with the birds' wild counterparts.  Most scientists believe that chickens were domesticated from red junglefowl (Gallus gallus), which currently live in southeast Asian.  There may have also been a bit of hybridization between the red junglefowl and their cousin the gray junglefowl  (Gallus sonneratii) when developing the domesticated chicken, but we'll stick with exploring the red junglefowl's diet here.

Neither kind of junglefowl is a vegetarian.  Scientists who cut open the crops of wild junglefowl discovered that more than half of the mashed up food therein typically consisted of insects and other invertebrates (especially termites).  Various plant matter was also represented, with an emphasis on fruits, berries, bamboo seeds, nuts, and young leaves.

Japanese beetleHarvey Ussery sums up this information in a slightly different fashion in The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.  He suggests that we need to consider three food groups when nourishing our flock:

Tender green plants for vitamins and minerals (and some protein).

Seeds and fruits for a high-energy source of carbohydrates and fats (and some protein).

Animals (whether that's bugs or beef liver) for well-rounded protein.

Sounds a lot like a healthy human diet, doesn't it?  If you think of the worms your chickens scratch up as shrimp, the grasshoppers they nab out of the air as beef, the sourgrass as lettuce, and the grass seeds as rice, then you'll realize your chickens are getting a well-rounded meal out of pasture.

This post is excerpted from Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics, available for 99 cents on Amazon.

This post is part of our Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Feb 21 12:02:19 2013 Tags:
scrounging sink parts for the greywater project

We've had this second hand sink for years(Thanks Silas), and today it came in handy for parts.

The greywater project required some sink modifications, and I didn't want to drop everything for a hardware store trip so I shifted into scavenger mode.

It was tricky getting the huge nut to turn without oversized channel locks and took several coordinated wacks with a hammer and screwdriver to free up.

Posted Thu Feb 21 16:20:05 2013 Tags:

The positive side of our topworking failure last year is that the pear trees produced lots of small twigs at just the right spot to do the easier whip-and-tongue graft this year.  I've been swapping scionwood with several readers, too, so I have plenty to graft onto every twig in the right size range, meaning that I was really frameworking this year instead of topworking.


I also splurged on real grafting supplies this winter, which made the project easier.  Hopefully at least a few of the twelve grafts I made will take this summer, at which point I can prune away wood of the old variety.  Here's hoping we'll have tastier pears in a few years!

Our chicken waterer keeps coops dry and hens happy.
Posted Fri Feb 22 07:42:47 2013 Tags:
Chcikens on spring pasture

The gist of my last post is—a chicken cannot live on grass alone.  But why not, if a cow can?

Chick in the grassA cow's digestive system is very different from that of a chicken.  Cows are ruminants with a four-chambered stomach and with the ability to chew their cud (regurgitating swallowed food to grind it up further at their leisure).  In addition, the cow's gut contains a large quantity of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa that help digest the cellulose that makes up such a large percentage of the grass leaf.  That means a cow can get energy from tough, woody blades of grass (or from hay, which is nearly entirely cellulose), while most other animals can't.

Chickens don't have any of those digestive assets.  The birds don't even have teeth (although they do grind up food in their gizzards), so they can't break apart tougher blades of grass in order to swallow them.  And chickens wouldn't want to eat tough grass anyway, since they'd quickly fill up their small gizzards with low-quality food and go hungry.  Instead, if you watch a chicken on pasture, you'll see the birds nibbling on tender young grass leaves, but spending more time snapping up bugs, pecking apart easily-digestible broadleaf plants, and swallowing seeds.

To read more about pasturing chickens, check out my ebook Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics, which is free on Amazon today.  If you enjoy the read, please consider taking a few minutes to leave a review so strangers will take a chance on my ebook.  Thanks for reading!

This post is part of our Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Feb 22 12:01:40 2013 Tags:
close up of new gold fish and Huckleberry the cat
The new gold fish are for fun and future aquaponic experiments.

Don't tell Huckleberry that. He seems to think they're a surprise birthday gift.
Posted Fri Feb 22 16:12:27 2013 Tags:

Map gardenI'm lavishing a lot of love on the greywater wetland because (with the addition of a porch allowing access to the back door) that spot will likely become a summer living area.  I figured I should put in a bit of time to plan out the elements I wanted to include rather than tossing them together willy-nilly.

I started out by making a mostly-to-scale map on graph paper, then cut out a summer dining area, a laundry nook, and a bathtub.  I tossed in some fruiting shrubs, too, since I have some on the way that can go here just as well as in the blueberry patch.  A bit of moving pieces around resulted in the diagram to the left.

I decided to start with the laundry nook, which I'm envisioning as a cobbled area right next to the greywater wetland.  That way we won't have to mow around the wringer washer any more, and I'll be able to just pour the water onto the stones to run into the wetland with our dishwater.  The result turned out so pretty that I may be forced to paint our rusting wringer to fit in.

Putting down bricks

I'm well aware I did several things wrong with my brick-laying, but I suspect the results will be just fine.  I didn't have enough rocks to go around, so I used the best-looking hand-made bricks from the old chimney even though they'll probably crumble with age.  I also didn't lay Planting cattailsdown any sand underneath, although I did have a pretty even bed of bare soil to work with.  Still, adding big stones from the old house around the edges will probably hold it all together, and I like the idea of a bumpy, ancient-looking surface.

The next step was to add some wetland plants to the damp spot where dishwater enters the swamp.  B.J. did an excellent job finding cattails and horsetails in the woods from my vague directions, but the other plants weren't yet showing above the ground.  I'll add more species later, to the pond as well as the swampy ground.


There's lots more fun to be had with my greywater wetland, but for now I'll close with a photo showing the night's dishwater running out into the swamp.  Yes, it was already dark so I had to use the flash, but you can see that the cattails will probably thrive with daily inundations of high-nutrient water.

The Avian Aqua Miser allows you to fill your chicken waterer and forget it.
Posted Sat Feb 23 07:38:27 2013 Tags:
fixing up the old chicken tractor

This chicken tractor is going on 4 years old.

The original frame for the door was made with cedar branches, but they started breaking down sometime last year.

We've been using it lately to nurse a sick hen back to health.

Posted Sat Feb 23 16:17:44 2013 Tags:

Until I sat down on Friday afternoon to watch my three tiny goldfish soar through their watery environment, I'd forgotten how much joy I used to get from the three little ponds I built in my city backyard as a high-school kid.  Yes, while normal people were out doing whatever teenagers do, I was building a resilient pond ecosystem (a success), trying to get moss to grow on concrete (a failure), and making daily sketches of whatever caught my eye.

Pond fish

I flipped back through the sketchbooks this weekend to refresh my memory about what exactly was in that pond ecosystem.  The fish, of course, got top billing.  I tried to add minnows out of a nearby creek, but most died immediately due to low dissolved oxygen levels in the unmoving water, and the last ones froze over the winter.  Koi were beautiful, but really too big for my "mud puddles" (as annoyed siblings were known to call them), and not winter hardy.  On the other hand, I'm pretty sure my feeder goldfish froze solid one winter and came back to life that spring.  They even got big enough to fill the ponds with tiny goldfish fry!

Submerged plants

AnacharisEven though the fish were the most eye-catching, what I wanted to recall were the details about my submerged plants.  I suspect it was my trio of parrot's feather, anacharis, and hornwort that kept oxygen levels high enough for the fish to survive, and also gave them plenty of places to hide.  Hornwort was the most cold hardy and the one I want to add to my current pondlet, but I didn't make any notes in my sketchbooks about where the plants came from.  (I'm pretty sure the other two species came from the pet store, so maybe the hornwort did too?)

DuckweedDuckweed was another secret ingredient to successful pond culture.  I included two species, one of which came from the aquarium store, was fuzzy on top, and died out eventually.  The other was a good, hardy native that is still present in the remaining pond in my mother's backyard twenty years later.  (Unfortunately, despite internet claims to the contrary, my chickens think hardy duckweed is for losers.  Maybe they would have liked the cultivated species better?)

Of course, there were more photogenic plants too.  I played with just about everything from lilies to flags to forget-me-nots, and most of them slowly petered out when the pond froze Damselflythrough.  Having some emergent plants was handy, though, because it seemed to attract insect life --- damselflies, dragonflies, and water striders all showed up and bred.  Frogs arrived too, one of whom actually sat on a lily pad, to my extreme surprise --- I thought that behavior was only a characteristic of cartoon animals.  I even learned to identify song sparrows when they came to bathe at the pond on warm afternoons.

Snail surface tension

I'm not sure where the water snails came from, but they were real winners.  I identified them (rightly or wrongly) as tadpole snails, and they laid gelatinous masses of eggs on the submerged plants, creating a host of mini-snails who grew like gangbusters.  The snails kept things clean, and as I discovered one still day, could even slide across the underside of the water surface using water tension, like a water strider in reverse.  (I think these guys have a potential for chicken feed, if we can figure out how to prepare them properly.)

Pond inoculant

Laughing buddhaIf I had built my guilds perfectly, you'd think the pond would still contain just as much diversity 16.5 years after I graduated and left the aquatic ecosystem to its own devices.  Instead, everything seems to have disappeared except the duckweed (and possibly the tadpole snails).  I mostly blame the decline in biodiversity on the small scale --- it's tough to keep a fifteen-gallon world in balance.

On the bright side, I do seem to have finally managed to grow moss on my laughing Buddha.  Too bad he needs to stand guard over the first generation and can't move to my new digs.  Maybe I'll find a new mascot for my twenty-first century pondlet?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock's drinking water clean so I can focus on growing wild foods.
Posted Sun Feb 24 08:26:56 2013 Tags:

PVC 3 inch pipe connecting at a slight angleWe wanted the 3 inch PVC pipe for the new greywater wetland system to have a slight downhill slope.

There's no glue holding the pieces together to take advantage of a little wiggle room that allows the pipe to point a shade downward instead of straight ahead.

A brick underneath holds it in place without any leaks.

Posted Sun Feb 24 14:47:10 2013 Tags:
Anna Windfall
Windfall oak

Oak trunkThis oak tree is both literally and figuratively a windfall.  Oaks are an extremely handy genus, but we have few of them on our property, mostly because oak trees like it high and dry and our property is low and wet.  So having a huge oak tumble down near our parking area set me to pondering what's the best use for this quality wood.

My first thought was to saw the trunk into boards.  The trouble is that it's not worth most sawyers' while to cut up a single trunk, no matter how tall and straight it is.  We could possibly do it ourself with the chainsaw log mill, but that procedure was slow as molasses, exhausting, and not very precise last time we tried it.

Mark had the permaculture suggestion of turning the oak into mushroom logs.  "Shiitake" literally means "oak mushroom," and even though the fungal species will grow on other types of trees, they like oak best.  I'm wondering if inoculating the 28-foot-long main trunk with shiitakes wouldn't result in harvests lasting a decade or longer (although we might get sick of pounding in 1,400 plugs), or we could just cut logs from the medium-sized limbs.  Another option would be to try out maitakes (aka hen of the woods) on the big root mass.

Root mass

Finally, there's always firewood.  I suspect that even cutting up the "little" limbs that aren't much use for anything else would keep us warm for a whole winter.

In the meantime, the raccoons (or maybe foxes?) have already marked the trunk as their own, and I can't help thinking the water-filled root pit will be perfect habitat for the frogs who have just started to call.  It will be intriguing to see how this disturbed area changes over the years.

The Avian Aqua Miser is a POOP-free chicken waterer, perfect for chicks, laying hens, broilers, and more.
Posted Mon Feb 25 07:58:57 2013 Tags:

Reference Manual of Woody Plant PropagationThe Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation by Michael Dirr and Charles Heuser, Jr., is an excellent reference for plant geeks to have on their shelves.  Yes, you can read between the lines there and figure that if you're a dabbler, this book can easily go over your head, but that's part of the fun and you'll likely grow into it.

The book is divided into two parts --- an explanation of general propagation techniques (about 90 pages of relatively easy reading) and an encyclopedic review of the literature detailing the best way to propagate many woody plants.  You really need to read the first part to understand the second part --- for example, here's what they say about fig cuttings:

"In several tests, 1000ppm IBA-5 second dip proved optimum.  February, terminal bud removed, 50 ppm lanolin paste (control) rooted 50% with an average of 4 roots; 770 ppm IAA-lanolin paste rooted 100% with 23 roots per cutting in 28 days.  March, untreated, rooted 80% with an average of 13 roots per cutting, 200 ppm IBA-24 hour soak rooted 100% with 61 roots per cutting.  Girdling 30 days before taking cuttings increased rooting from 55 to 100% and hastened rooting to 28 days versus about 90 days.  In a Brazilian study, 10" long cuttings rooted 97% and gave best shoot and root development.  Summer firm wood should root as well but no literature was found.  Hardwood cuttings were successful."

Got all that?  These summaries made a lot more sense once I brushed up the best techniques for taking cuttings, which I'll summarize in this week's lunchtime series.

In addition to the book's density, I've already found a few species not listed in the manual, most notably grapes and gooseberries.  I suspect no manual is 100% complete, but if you've found a reference you like better for this type of information, I hope you'll leave a comment and let me know.  In the meantime, this is the book I'll be recommending to intermediate-level homesteaders who want to turn one mulberry tree into a dozen, or to sprout weird seeds that need intense stratification and scarification.

If you're not quite ready for rooting hormones and humidity chambers, The Weekend Homesteader starts with easy steps on the path to self-sufficiency.

This post is part of our Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Feb 25 12:02:24 2013 Tags:
the view from near the Mendota firetower late Winter 2013

We took the day off to attend a funeral on the other side of the mountain.

Rest In Peace Silas.

The view from the top is always worth stopping for.

Posted Mon Feb 25 16:27:21 2013 Tags:
Pruning a peach tree

With our largest fruit trees, we're starting to move out of training mode and into maintenance mode.  We finally hit summer pruning at the right time, so there wasn't terribly much to cut off, but I did a lot of nitpicky snipping to remove branches that were hidden underneath their neighbors.

Cutting off a peach limbI did cut off two main scaffold limbs on our biggest peach, which was a bit scary but seemed like the right thing to do.  Over time, these branches had bent down under the weight of fruit and were now well within the fungal zone (the moist area right above the soil surface).  Luckily, higher branches had filled in over top, so removing the low branches didn't leave a gap in the tree.

We've missed eating peaches for two years now.  Hopefully 2013 will once again be the year of the peach?

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to leave town for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Tue Feb 26 08:11:02 2013 Tags:

Tree seedsThe Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation begins with a discussion of the four main methods you can use to take one plant and make several.  Each has its pros and cons, so it's worth taking a look at all four before you decide which one(s) you want to use.

For those of us used to working with annuals, the most obvious form of propagation is to grow plants from seed.  The great thing about growing from seed is that you end up with lots of new plants quickly and at a low cost.  The bad part is that every seedling is going to be a little different --- very few woody plants have been line bred to the point where you can save the seeds and end up with similar offspring the way you could with an heirloom tomato.  On the homestead, it's most handy to grow woody plants from seed if you're working with species likely to breed true (often self-pollinators like peaches), if there aren't many named varieties (often the case for nuts, Nanking cherries, etc.), or if you're just producing rootstocks to graft onto.

Which brings us to grafting.  As I explained in my lunchtime series about The Grafter's Handbook, grafting is a method of producing a clone of a variety you like, such as a winesap apple.  The major advantage of grafting is that it's fast and dependable once you know what you're doing.  The downside is that you either have to buy or grow rootstocks (produced from seed or by rooting cuttings), so grafting tends to be more expensive than most other types of propagation.

Rooting cuttingsRooting is the poor man's grafting.  Once again, you end up with an exact clone of the plant you like, but the process can cost absolutely nothing in many cases.  The Reference of Woody Plant Propagation notes that it's cheaper to root cuttings than to graft if your rooting success rate is at least 50%, but on the downside, rooting generally takes a year or two longer to produce fruit than if you grafted.  I'll spend most of the rest of this week's lunchtime series writing about rooting cuttings, but it's also worth noting that many plants self-root automatically at the tips of their branches.

The final method of propagation --- tissue culture --- requires lots of lab equipment, so I won't write about it here.  The benefit of tissue culture is that you can produce lots of clones very quickly, but there is a large price tag attached.

Before you plant your perennials, be sure to boost your soil organic matter with cover crops.  Learn how in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Feb 26 12:02:28 2013 Tags:
another chopper 1 spring home repair

The last Chopper 1 spring repair lasted over two years.

I guess all that pounding took its toll on the adhesive bond and caused the support pin to work its way loose. Luckily it stayed attached to the spring and all I needed to do was re-seat the pin, glue it in place and hook the spring back up.

Posted Tue Feb 26 16:14:37 2013 Tags:
Laundry area

B.J. helped me move our old wringer washer onto its new stone patio.  Now the question is, what color(s) should we paint it?  With honeybees on his mind, B.J. suggested black and yellow stripes.

We like having a few extra chicken waterers on hand so we can put one in with any hen in isolation, have a separate one for chicks, and still keep the main flock going.
Posted Wed Feb 27 08:21:22 2013 Tags:

Types of cuttingsI've only taken two types of cuttings in the past, but it turns out there are five options.  Leaf cuttings are more often used with non-woody plants, although if you want to root rhododendrons, magnolia, red maple, or clematis, you may want to check out this technique.  The other seldom-used technique is root cuttings, which take a lot of time and attention, so are often tried after all else fails.

The last three types are all stem cuttings, which are distinguished by the time of year at which you take the cutting.  The one I've found easiest is hardwood cuttings, which involve taking six to twenty inches of last year's growth in the fall or winter (just like you'd cut scionwood for grafting).  It's important to discard the tips of the cuttings and to keep hardwood cuttings cool so they don't start growing before roots form.  (If the cuttings leaf out too soon, they'll use up all the energy stored in the wood and then die.)  I'll write in a later post about techniques you can use to increase your success rate, but in general, hardwood cuttings are sometimes treated with rooting hormones, are sometimes callused, and then are generally just stuck in the ground to go about their business.

Softwood cuttings are more finnicky than hardwood cuttings, but this method works on some species that don't respond well to the previous method.  Softwood cuttings are taken from tender wood that's newly grown that spring, usually before it hardens to the point where you can't bruise the twig with your fingernail.  On the other hand, you don't want Softwood cuttingsthe cutting to be so tender that it wilts immediately.  Time of year is also critically important, with a few species rooting from softwood cuttings throughout the growing season, but with most refusing to respond after July or August.  (The authors of The Manual of Woody Plant Propagation note that you will see much better results for most species if you take the cutting as early as possible.)

When taking softwood cuttings, cut a two to five inch piece of twig that includes several leaves, treat with rooting hormone (usually), and be sure to keep the cutting moist with a misting apparatus or humidity dome.  You'll know when your cutting has rooted because a gentle tug will meet with resistance --- at that point, wean the plant off the mist (or the humidity dome), but keep it in your nursery area for quite a bit longer.  Some softwood cuttings can be planted out the first fall, but most do better if you overwinter them under protection and then plant in the spring, or even let them stay in rooting bed for two years.  This is where I've had trouble with softwood cuttings in the past --- I want to rush them out to the real world, where they inevitably peter out and die.

The final type of cutting is a semi-hardwood cutting, sometimes known as a greenwood cutting.  This is a niche technique, a bit like stem and root cuttings, with most species responding better to either softwood or hardwood cuttings.  However, evergreens (both broadleaf and needle) seem to enjoy greenwood cuttings.  To take a greenwood cutting, cut your twigs after the wood has firmed up, the leaves have matured, and growth has ceased, usually between mid July and early September.  Remove the tip if it's soft, Rooted grape cuttingthen cut your twig down to three to six inches long and remove leaves from the lower half.  Wounding (which I'll cover in a later post) is sometimes used to promote rooting, and hormones are usually used, as well as mist.  Greenwood cuttings usually root in one to three months.

Each kind of plant responds well to one or more method of rooting, so it's useful to do a bit of research before choosing your technique.  If you have a choice, though, I recommend trying out hardwood (and now's a good time to do so).  I'm experimenting with rooting grapes, mulberries, figs, and gooseberries this winter and know that at least the first will do well since I've had success with them before.

More interested in animals?  My 99 cent ebook walks you through developing a perfect pasture for your chickens.

This post is part of our Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Feb 27 12:02:12 2013 Tags:
How to make a simple and low budget gate

This new chicken pasture gate may be the biggest one yet.

Enough clearance for a wheel barrow plus some elbow room.

Posted Wed Feb 27 16:07:14 2013 Tags:

I finished up the last of the grafting and pruning Wednesday when another round of scionwood came in the mail.  The first pear I frameworked last week has been converted to Seckel, but I frameworked the second pear with two separate varieties.  One was Comice and the other was described as follows:

"I'll also include an unknown pear that was marked as Comice and no one yet even in pear country can identify and most think it is the best they have ever tasted."
--- Darshan

(How could I turn something like that down?)

Stretching parafilm

Meanwhile, I changed two other trees into fruit cocktail trees by grafting a new variety onto one limb apiece.  Both trees were already pretty big, so I don't know how tough it'll be to make sure the newly grafted twigs have adequate growing area, especially since I added a plum limb to a peach in one case.  (I had swapped for plum scionwood thinking I'd add it to Grafting waxmy Methley plum, but she's ailing and might get yanked out, and I didn't want the scionwood to go to waste.)

Here's what I learned during my grafting afternoon:

  • Slowly but surely, I'm getting better at making the right cuts.  It is tougher to graft onto a tree in the ground than to bench graft, though.
  • Grafting knives are sharp!  See bandaid.  (Don't worry, Mom, it's only the equivalent of a paper cut.)
  • Parafilm grafting tape is easiest to use if you prestretch it before starting to bind your grafting wound.
  • Trowbridge's grafting wax is excellent around a little cleft graft and not bad on the tips of scionwood.

Now I just have to pretend to be patient until everything starts to leaf out.

Our chicken waterer keeps chicks, turkeys, ducks, and more happy and healthy.
Posted Thu Feb 28 07:37:17 2013 Tags:

Rooted fig cuttingsOne of the main tricks horticulturalists use to increase their success rooting cuttings is to treat the twig with the proper rooting hormone.  Rooting hormones feel a bit strong to me, so I usually try without them first, and am currently experimenting with a much weaker solution made from willow twigs.  That said, certain species are unlikely to root without the extra help.

Using rooting hormones is much more complicated than I'd at first thought, with various options existing for the type and concentration of hormone, the solvent, and the application method.  In terms of types of hormones, most people use either IBA or NAA, with gamma form of first and alpha form of the last being most effective.  Although some plants prefer one hormone over the other, most will root quite well with either, in which case you might be inclined to go for NAA since it's much cheaper.  On the other hand, NAA is more prone to burn plants if you don't get the concentration just right.

Speaking of concentration, that's a point where you either need to search the literature or use a lot of trial and error since each plant likes their rooting hormone at a different strength.  The stronger your hormone, the less time you want to allow your cutting to sit in the solution, with a five minute dip working for strong solutions of rooting hormones, but with up to 24 hours necessary if they're diluted.

Kiwi rootingAnother factor influencing how effective a rooting hormone will be is the solvent it's dissolved in.  Although some people dip into powdered hormones, the solid is apparently much less effective than if you dissolve the rooting hormones in water or in some form of alcohol.  Alcohol is more effective at ensuring the rooting hormone actually works its way into the plant, but some species get shocked by having their stems stuck in alcohol and can drop their leaves or die.  If you do want to use alcohol, you can buy rooting hormone already dissolved in ethanol, or can make some yourself using rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol).

I'll keep you posted if I decide to change over to chemical rooting hormones in the future.  In the meantime, a gentle tug on my fig cuttings suggests both the control and the willow-treated stems might already be starting to root ten days after placing them in pots.  So maybe I don't need the chemicals?

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This post is part of our Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Feb 28 12:02:22 2013 Tags:
how to hang a homemade gate for a chicken pasture opening

We got the new chicken pasture gate hung today.

I'm thinking a coat of paint might make it last a few years longer.

Posted Thu Feb 28 15:50:31 2013 Tags:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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