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

archives for 03/2013

Mar 2013

March woodshedUnless March changes personalities fast, we're going to run out of dry wood just a hair before we run out of cold weather this year.  While that sounds like a bad thing, this past winter is the first one where I've kept the trailer warm all the time (above 55 most days and above 40 most nights!), so I consider it a major success.

On the other hand, I still don't know how much wood we burn per winter.  As usual, we went into the fall with our woodshed only partially full and had to hire Bradley to cut up a huge standing sycamore to make up the difference.  As we split the sycamore, we stacked it directly on the front porch, so I never got a measurement of the amount of dry wood we started with, either in cords or as a fraction of the woodshed.

My goal is for the winter of 2013-2014 to be the one where I actually get an idea for how much wood we burn.  To that end, we've already got a couple of rows of walnut and box-elder in the back of the shed and will be filling up the rest as soon as the floodplain becomes passable and the golf cart comes back into action.  I've really enjoyed having dry wood all winter this year, so hope to fill the shed in time to have the same luxury next year.

Need to go out of town for a week or weekend?  An automatic chicken waterer keeps your flock hydrated so you don't have to worry.

Posted Fri Mar 1 07:57:48 2013 Tags:
Taking hardwood cuttings

Want to increase your success rate rooting cuttings?  Try out these ten tips.

1. Pay attention to time of day and time of year.  As I mentioned in a previous post, softwood, greenwood, and hardwood cuttings are all taken at different times of year, and different plant species respond better to different seasons.  If you're taking softwood or greenwood cuttings, it's best to actually cut the stems early in the morning when they're full of water and the air is cool to minimize wilting.

2. Skip the tips and blooms.  The actively growing tips of twigs usually have less stored carbohydrates, meaning that they don't have as much food to draw on before they root and start photosynthesizing again.  Similarly, parts of trees that have flower buds are going to be putting their energy elsewhere, so it's best to choose areas that aren't flowering this year.

Cone of juvenility3. Stick to the young.  Within the same tree or bush, certain parts of the plant act younger than others.  The so-called cone of juvenility shows the parts of a tree that are the least mature biologically and most likely to root easily.  If you're trying to propagate lots of plants effectively, it can be worth coppicing the parent plant so that it keeps putting out new growth from within the cone.  And even if you're selecting cuttings from  a mature tree, you can try to get more youthful twigs by finding sprouts low and near the trunk.

4. Choose a good rooting medium.  As long as it's fluffy and able to hold a lot of water, most rooting mediums work pretty well.   Options include sand, peat, perlite, pine bark, pumice, or sandy soil (and I generally use stump dirt).  Remember that your plants don't need much fertility in their rooting medium, although you will probably want to add some kind of fertilizer once they're well rooted and are putting out new leaves.

Fungi on cuttings5. Rooting hormones and fungicides can help.  I wrote a whole post about rooting hormones, some of which include anti-fungicidal agents.  I learned the hard way that cuttings can be the perfect habitat for fungi, but I also suspect that if you do everything else right, you might not need the chemical aids.

6. Wounding isn't always bad.  Difficult-to-root greenwood and hardwood cuttings are sometimes wounded near the base to promote rooting.  Wounding usually consists of scarring the bark (but not the green cambium underneath) for half to one inch of the base.  Similarly, girdling can be used as a preconditioning step for rooting since it concentrates carbohydrates and hormones in small area, which will make roots form better there.

7. Keep cuttings moist but not wet.  Softwood and greenwood cuttings, especially, can dry out by losing too much water through their leaves before they root.  Steps as simple as partial shade or a plastic bag over top of the pot can work, as can more complicated misting setups used in nurseries.  However, be aware that too much moisture can be a problem, especially in the slower-growing hardwood cuttings. 

Heat pad for propagation8. Some like it hot.  Bottom heat can help cuttings root...or it can prompt them to grow leaves, use up their reserves too quickly, and perish.  The most common use of heat is beneath cuttings started outdoors in the winter.  Next most common is using heat to callus hardwood cuttings, which helps precondition them for rooting.  To callus cuttings, apply bottom heat for four weeks, place in plastic bag in the dark at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, bury upside down in soil, sand, or sawdust, or store in a warm, moist place for three to five weeks.  As you can tell from the various methods, it's probably best to look up the species you're considering rooting before deciding whether and how to callus.

9. Don't rush them out of the nursery.  Softwood cuttings, especially, often benefit from spending two years being babied before being planted in their final location.  And a few cuttings even need supplemental light in the fall to prompt them to put out a growth spurt and store enough energy to make it through the winter.  If you're going to go to all the trouble of rooting cuttings, don't let them die on you after the roots form.

10. Keep notes.  So many variables can affect the success or failure of your cuttings that it's essential to write everything down so you can make changes and try again.  And don't feel bad if the techniques that work for someone else don't work for you.  Some varieties within the same species root better than others, so you might not even be on an even playing field.

Jumpstart your homestead adventure with Weekend Homesteader.

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

Posted Fri Mar 1 12:01:49 2013 Tags:
time traveler gets interrogated by the cops

We helped our neighbor with one of his audition tapes today.

I play the part of a reluctant time traveler.

Frankie is playing a hard nosed cop investigating a grizzly murder.

When I was younger I thought the idea of time travel was fun and interesting...but these days I'm inclined to label it dangerous and arrogant. In my opinion the best time to be alive is NOW!

Posted Fri Mar 1 16:44:58 2013 Tags:
"Silas Clark, age 79, of Bristol, VA, went to be with the Lord on Friday, February 22, 2013 at the Wellmont Bristol Regional Medical Center.  Silas was born October 11, 1933 in Mendota, Virginia, a son of the late Burley and Rebecca Clark. He was a lifelong resident of Scott County and Washington County, Virginia where he had worked as a tobacco farmer. Mr. Clark was a member of Willow Branch Baptist Church. He was preceded in death by two sisters, five brothers and brother-in-law, Amos Murray."

Turkey hunterMost of my memories of Silas come from that golden childhood period when I assumed the stars (adults) revolved around the earth (me).  In other words, I really have no idea who he was.  Except for the obvious: farmer, father, salt of the earth, 'seng hunter, Gargamel.

We Pacifist-hippie offspring reacted to Silas's deer- and turkey-slaying with taunts of the worst evil we could imagine --- likening him to the villain in the Smurfs.  And our good-natured neighbor played along, pretended to chase us, and didn't mention our inconsistencies when we took home turkey primaries to cut into quill pens.

By the time I was in sixth grade, my family was still being drawn back to our long-sold farm like moths to a flame.  Silas and Onie's next-door house was a safe resting place in our afternoon journeys.  Mom made us bring shoes --- "You don't have to wear them, but they have to fit in case the car breaks down!"  And sometimes she'd let us sit in the open hatchback and bump our heels on the "dirt" (gravel) road along the way. 

We'd stop and gather berries or persimmons, depending on the season, at favored roadside spots, then I'd hunt minnows, scooping fish out of Silas and Onie's creek with a five-gallon bucket.  Back home, I poured the bucket through a banged-up colander and let our city cats enjoy a country feast as the fish flopped vainly in search of liquid air.

"You'll use all of our fish up!" Silas's grandson complained once.  Adult-Anna agrees, and cringes even more at the use to which we put our creek-caught crawdads, racing them down the gutter into the storm-sewer.  But at the time I was mourning the loss of our own wooded acres, and Silas and Onie tacitly took my side and let me treat their creek as my own.

During my fishing time, Mom was sitting under the spreading catalpa, talking to Onie, who had been a life-line during Mom's ten years on the farm, her own family 800 miles distant in Massachusetts.  I would drop by the shade tree, but soon became bored with adult conversation.  Instead, I ended up coaxing Silas's kittens out of the hole at the bottom of the shed.  There were always new kittens, but the farm didn't become overrun because the road was nearby and lethal.  I remember the passion with which Silas condemned the speeding drivers, and how easily he stroked the soft balls of fur.

Country storeRecently, Mom told me she learned easy family affection from Silas, mentioning how struck she was to find him holding three young daughters on his lap, when her New England parents had kept touch to a minimum.  Love --- so complicated for most of us --- was simple for Silas. 

Years earlier, when my mother-to-be showed up and turned a rented store into a honkey-tonk, Silas's teenage son was attracted to the action.  What did the newly-saved Silas do?  Invited the hippie to dinner, then crammed her into the car with his five kids and wife and brought them all to the fair.  The more the merrier.

My father's relationship to Silas was built around work.  I can only guess how Silas must have taken this overeducated, idealistic, new farmer under his wing and shared ideas as well as equipment.  Silas went so far as to turn Daddy on to the farm being auctioned off next door, which is how we became neighbors when I was a few months old.  Our right-of-way through Silas's land felt like a daily handshake, rather than an intrusion.

But you have to remember that the world still revolved around me then.  That I was intent on capturing tadpoles in Silas's cows' water trough and oohing and ahhing over the year's newest calves in the barn.  I was thrilled to drink from a dipper at the outside faucet, the water so cold it almost hurt, and to sneak stale potato chips discarded from the factory and trucked home to feed Silas's livestock.

GraduationThe truth is that I knew Silas only as the non-astronomers among us know the stars.  He was bright and memorable --- definitely part of Orion's belt --- but I'd be hard-pressed to tell you a fact as simple as the color of his hair before it went gray.  All I knew was the gestalt of Silas --- warm and strong and full of boundless love.

And that's why, I explained to my family, I couldn't begin to eulogize him on the blog.  Because all I really know is how much I miss him and how his death has left a black hole in my life.  And reminded me of a time when the sun revolved around the earth...even though that sun had kids and grandkids of his own.  The more the merrier.

"Survivors include: His beautiful bride of 60 years: Onie Mae Cresong Clark.  Children: Linda Ann Hawkeye & husband Vinny Halil Hawkeye, Larry Wayne Clark, Freda Hall & husband Allen, Christina "Tina" Rehfuss & husband Rafael Vega Laboy and Donna Clark-Wohlford.  Grandchildren: Carl Buttry, Duane Buttry, Alex Hawkeye, Anthony Hawkeye, Joel Tyler Clark, Kyle Aaron Clark, Amanda Hall, James Sitton, William Rehfuss and Heather Maiden.  Great-Grandchildren: Alexia Hawkeye, Alexander Ulysis Clark, Evan Buttry, Corey Ann Buttry, Isa Hawkeye, Yusuf Hawkeye and Maryam Hawkeye.  Sisters: Goldie Clark Murray.  Brother: Howard Clark & wife Vivian.  Numerous Nieces and Nephews."  --- Bristol Herald Courier
Posted Sat Mar 2 07:59:55 2013 Tags:
warming mat update

It's been cold lately, but the new Lectro heated kennel pad is keeping Lucy toasty.

Posted Sat Mar 2 15:23:51 2013 Tags:

Got Sun? Go SolarBrian sent me a copy of Got Sun? Go Solar along with a bunch of scionwood, and I skipped over some other items on my winter reading list to scarf it down.  Rex A. Ewing and Doug Pratt have produced a quick and easy read, with an explanation of the physics of solar that nearly made me understand volts, amps, and watts.  For that alone, the book is worth a read if you're interested in solar, but I know I'll have to delve much deeper to set up our tiny system.

The trouble with the book from a DIY point of view is that it's all about grid-tie systems, which the authors explain average around $20,000 to $25,000.  (You can build a grid-tie solar system for around $5,000, but that "low-end" audience isn't who the authors are aiming for.)  In that price bracket, most people are going to be hiring installers to do all of the hard stuff, so Ewing and Pratt left out nearly all the nitty-gritty.

Next on my list is Photovoltaic Design & Installation for Dummies, which already appears to go too far in the other direction --- assuming I'm going to become a career solar installer putting in other people's multi-thousand-dollar systems.  Hopefully between the two sources, I'll come up with enough information to get our tiny backup system off the ground at long last.

Our chicken waterer keeps things simple and clean in the chicken coop.
Posted Sun Mar 3 08:29:34 2013 Tags:
Dried tomato pie

We're still experimenting with low-carb, tomato-rich recipes, and this one seems like it's a keeper.  A bit like a mix between quiche and lasagna, it's won the approval of both Mark and B.J. so far, mostly because I called it a "tomato pie".


  • 3 ounces cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 3/8 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1/8 tsp paprika
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp water


  • 4 strips of bacon (baked with grease removed)
  • 6 eggs
  • 2/3 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 cup dried tomatoes (soaked in water, but with water poured off)
  • 6 Egyptian onion tops (green onions work too)
  • 2 tbsp pesto
  • 1 tbsp Hollywood sun-dried tomatoes (optional)
  • a bit of salt and pepper
  • 1 cup mozarella cheese (in parts)
  • a bit more grated parmesan cheese

Three hours before you want to eat, soak your dried tomatoes in water to plump them up.  Go away for two hours, then start with the crust.

Mix the crust ingredients in the food processor, then pat into the bottom of a greased pie pan.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes, until cooked but not browned.

Meanwhile, bake the bacon on a cookie sheet.  Discard the grease, then crumble the bacon into a bowl.

Pour the water off the tomatoes and cut them up.  (I used a food processor.)  Then add the tomatoes to the bacon along with the eggs, yogurt, Egyptian onion tops (cut into small pieces), pesto, Hollywood sun-dried tomatoes, salt, pepper, and half a cup of the mozarella cheese. 

Pour the mixture into the crust and bake at 350 degrees until the eggs set (with the time depending on the size and depth of your dish).  Then spread the rest of the mozarella and parmesan on top and continue baking until the cheese is brown (about 10 minutes).

Serves six hungry people.

The Avian Aqua Miser keeps hens healthy so you have more homegrown eggs for recipes like this.
Posted Mon Mar 4 07:29:38 2013 Tags:

Aquaponic gardeningIn the interest of full disclosure, I'm not really a believer in aquaponics.  My gut reaction is that it's not sustainable in most situations, so it annoys me that it's being marketed as a green agriculture solution.  Part of this may be a blind spot because I don't like seafood (although I do love fish ponds), but mostly it's just a knee-jerk reaction not to use electricity to grow things if you don't need to.

On the other hand, Mark has been intrigued by hydroponics ever since he was a kid, imagining austronauts growing their food in water, and he loves the idea of a more sustainable form of hydroponics.  So I decided to hunt down a book and read more about it.

Aquaponic Gardening by Sylvia Bernstein is a good beginners' guide to the subject.  Even though her arguments for sustainability didn't win me over, she did present a very good explanation of how to set up an aquaponics system, including a fascinating look at the ecology involved in growing fish and plants together.  The book has some flaws, but as best I can tell it's the main contender in a very new genre.  I'll write about some of the top points in this week's lunchtime series, but I recommend checking out Bernstein's book to learn more if you actually want to set up an aquaponics system.

Just about any soil can grow good food if you improve it with cover crops.

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

Posted Mon Mar 4 12:02:31 2013 Tags:
catching a medium sized carp with my hands!

We were walking to our car today and I noticed a medium sized fish had somehow got his head stuck in the hole of one of the cinder block stepping stones.

It's possible he was trying to feast on the many snails that have attached themselves to each block and just got a little greedy going for the deeper ones.

We debated having him for dinner, but decided he was too cute to eat.

Posted Mon Mar 4 15:37:11 2013 Tags:
Farm truck

Spreading gravel on a drivewayWhen we first moved to the farm, we teamed up with our movie-star neighbor in a chicken-share arrangement.  I can't say for sure whether our neighbor got enough eggs to make the deal worthwhile, but we certainly benefited.  In fact, our whole business was built around those free chickens.

So when B.J. turned up in our life, lacking transportation, we decided to try the same sort of deal, this time from the other side.  He hunted down a quality used truck, we bought it and paid the first year's insurance and fees, and he'll use that truck to do some much-needed hauling for us.  The truck-share is born!

B.J. tells us her name is Shelley, and, yes, it was love at first sight.  Sure, they had a long-distance relationship for the first couple of weeks, and B.J. put in a lot of time talking Shelley's father around (and dated a few other trucks in the meantime).  But they finally got hitched and are a hard-working team already.  Congratulations, B.J. and Shelley!

Posted Tue Mar 5 07:41:44 2013 Tags:

So, what is aquaponics?  The gist is that you keep a tank of fish, circulating their water through a plant grow bed to clean the water and feed the plants. 

Aquaponic cycleAlthough fish and plants are what most people get excited about, an aquaponic system is actually fuelled by a complex cycle including bacteria and worms.  Fish waste is full of ammonia, which is toxic to fish and which plants can't use, but two types of bacteria convert that ammonia first to nitrites (nitrosomona bacteria) and then into nitrates (nitrospira bacteria).  Plants love nitrates, so when you pump the fish-tank water up to flow around your vegetables' roots, the plants quickly suck up the nitrogen and return clean, aerated water to your fish.

Meanwhile, compost worms in the plant grow bed are cleaning up excess solids.  Without these wrigglers, dead bits of plant roots and larger particles of fish waste would build up Aquaponic exampleand require cleaning.  Luckily, compost worms can handle periodic inundations and do their part to convert particulate matter into chemicals plants can easily suck up.

The fish, bacteria, plants, and worms all work together to give each organism just the food and environment it needs.  I suspect this elegant, created ecosystem is why aquaponics has won so many fans in permaculture circles.

Check out my best-selling ebook, Trailersteading, for radical sustainable housing options.

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

Posted Tue Mar 5 12:02:32 2013 Tags:
How to share a truck with a neighbor

A few relevant details Anna left out of this morning's truck share post.

The new truck is a 1993 Chevy S-10 four wheel drive.

B.J. bought it off a trusted, local mechanic for 1500 dollars who included a brief warranty.

Its got a Chevy Blazer engine with just under 100 thousand miles. The 4 wheel drive won't go in 4 wheel low, but we can live with that. All 4 tires have at least 80 percent life left in them and it came with a nice bed liner.

Posted Tue Mar 5 16:11:58 2013 Tags:

Root cellarWith the worst of the winter's cold over (we hope), I figure I have enough data to finish up my ebook about the fridge root cellar.  For a very low-work and low-cost option, it passed with flying colors, using about 2 kilowatt-hours of electricity to keep a whole winter's-worth of carrots in prime shape.  During a power outage that corresponded to a frigid spell, the interior dropped to 28 degrees Fahrenheit (and I brought our carrots inside for a few days to protect them), but otherwise the fridge root cellar stayed at the perfect temperature all winter long.

Even though I think our fridge root cellar is awesome, I want to round out my ebook with overviews of some more traditional root cellars, so I gave my movie-star neighbor a call.  You'll have to wait for the ebook to hear all about his root cellar that taps into a cave, but I'll regale you with the other highlights of my visit below.  (Meanwhile, the offer's still open to be included in the ebook if you have a root cellar or low-tech root storage technique to share.)

Healed grafts

Our neighbor has been grafting new varieties onto his apples for years, and it was intriguing to see the grafts one to three years after joining.  He even sent me home with two little Colette pear trees grafted onto rootstock last winter --- we tasted some of his homegrown Colettes last year and were blown away by the flavor.

Spring-fed pond

I also dropped by his spring-fed pond to get a bit more inoculant for my tiny water garden (as Sara suggested I call it instead of a puddle).  This pond's water will stay more cold and aerated than mine, so I'm not positive the water snails and water cress will make the transition, but I suspect the forget-me-nots and water mint will do fine.

Pasture golfing

Finally, we gathered a few wild golf balls and I watched my neighbor enjoy pasture golfing.  Isn't that the best part of homesteading --- you can do whatever crazy thing suits your fancy?

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock nearly as easy as a hive of honeybees.
Root cellar ebook
Posted Wed Mar 6 07:50:32 2013 Tags:
Aquaponics electricity cost

If aquaponics is such an elegant, created ecosystem, why am I down on it?  Simple --- electricity use.

Indoor aquaponicsFirst, there's the pump (or pumps) used to push water out of the fish tank and into the grow beds.  Next comes the energy used to heat the water --- to ensure the bacteria and worms stay active enough to convert fish waste into nitrates, most people keep their aquaponics systems running at or above room temperature summer and winter.  And then there are the grow lights since many people run aquaponics systems inside to get more control over the environment.  To be honest, once you pour all that electricity into the system, I'm not so sure aquaponics is any better for the earth than mainstream agriculture.

Next, there's the fish food to consider.  Although aquaponics looks like a closed loop, it really isn't --- nearly everyone just buys large quantities of commercial fish food to nourish their tilapia or goldfish.  Granted, fish are more efficient at converting feed to meat than other forms of livestock, but you're still basically running a fish CAFO (and contributing to overfishing since most fish feed contains wild-caught fish meal.)

Australian aquaponicsAquaponics arose in Australia, and there it makes much more sense.  Throughout most of their continent, Australians experience moderate-enough winter temperatures that they don't need to bring their aquaponics systems indoors.  And rain is scarce enough that minimizing water use may trump minimizing electricity consumption.  Aquaponics also has potential in other subtropical and tropical climates, especially in cities where good soil is scarce.

The other place where aquaponics shines is if you consider it a way of growing high-density fish with the plants just being a side note.  Wild-caught fish and factory-farmed fish both have environmental problems attached, so it makes sense to try to come up with a more sustainable solution.  That assumes, of course, that you actually eat the fish in your aquaponics setup, unlike the author of Aquaponic Gardening who came to regard her tilapia as pets.

Learn to raise chickens on wild food in Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics.

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

Posted Wed Mar 6 12:03:07 2013 Tags:
merits of choosing the proper shovel depending on the task

A coal shovel provides easier scooping and twice the carrying capacity of a regular shovel.

Why did it take me years to figure this out?

We've had a coal shovel since we moved here, but I only recently re-found it behind a pile of stuff in the barn this past summer.

Posted Wed Mar 6 14:52:57 2013 Tags:
Spring snow

At this time of year, you hear a lot of grumbling when the weather turns wintry.  The gist seems to be "Isn't it over yet?!"  But, while I can understand the sentiment, I've learned at the Mark School of Positive Thought that the best place and time to be is right where and when you are.

With that in mind, not only am I cleaning the soot off the wood stove's glass door so I can cherish the last fires, I'm also remembering that a slow spring often means more fruit.  Last year at this time, the peach buds were swelling...and a late freeze wiped out every tree fruit.  Maybe 2013 will be more like 2010 when flowers were slow to open and our peach tree was loaded with luscious orbs a few months later?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to a filthy chicken problem.
Posted Thu Mar 7 07:47:53 2013 Tags:
Pond permaculture system

My challenge to the Walden-Effect hive mind is --- can we take the elegance of an aquaponics system and reinvision it without the unsustainable aspects?  Here are some options I'm considering:

Feeding silkworms to fishFollow the lead of the Chinese.  I've read several tidbits about the way traditional Chinese agriculture integrates fish into their agricultural systems.  One system involves silkworms eating mulberry leaves, fish being fed the sikworm pupae after the silk is removed from the cocoons, and the fish waste being dredged up to fertilize the mulberry trees.  Humans get money from the silk and food from the fish with no outside inputs.

Using pond silt as fertilizerGo back to basics.  A simple pond full of aquatic plants, snails, and insects can feed low populations of fish.  Then you could harvest the aquatic plants to turn into compost or mulch for the garden and eat the fish (or feed them to your chickens if you'd rather).

Take advantage of the water's thermal mass.  If we ever built a passive solar greenhouse, we'd want to include tanks of water as thermal mass.  Turn those tanks into fish tanks, make an integrated ecosystem just like you would in a pond, then scoop out water from time to time to water and lightly fertilize plants in the greenhouse.

What kind of fish-related permaculture systems have you seen or dreamed up that require absolutely no electricity or commercial fish food?

Start with simple steps toward self-sufficiency in The Weekend Homesteader.

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

Posted Thu Mar 7 12:00:47 2013 Tags:
how to install a gate latch on a gate with image of gate

I finally got a latch installed on the new chicken pasture gate.

The plan was to paint it next, but a shelf project and some wood chopping pushed painting down the list.

Posted Thu Mar 7 15:48:36 2013 Tags:
Wringer washer

Greywater wetlandI've been looking forward to laundry day so I could try out my new laundry nook beside the greywater wetland.  And it works like a charm!

I actually thought I might need to add rocks to the slope between the laundry nook and the wetland to prevent erosion, but the water gushes out with such force it ends up right where I want it.

Dishwater hasn't been enough to wet more than the entrance to the wetland, but the washer dumps enough water to inundate the whole depressed area.  Not so much it runs into the pond, though, which is a good thing.

So far, all the greywater wetland does is prevent excess water from souping up the yard.  I keep planting things in the wetland and around the edges, though, so in a few months hopefully leaves will pop out and the whole ecosystem will come together.

We should have chicks hatching this weekend, and our automatic waterer is all ready to keep the brooder dry.
Posted Fri Mar 8 07:14:07 2013 Tags:

Paradise LotParadise Lot is Eric Toensmeier's tale of how he tested the hypotheses he and Dave Jacke set forth in Edible Forest Gardens.  Toensmeier and his friend Jonathan Bates bought a duplex with a tenth of an acre backyard in Holyoke Massachusetts (zone 6) in January 2004, spent a year learning the site and planning out their forest garden, then they dove in and made it happen.  By 2009, salamanders, fungi, and other wild creatures had shown up in what used to be a compacted urban lot, Toensmeier and Bates had both attracted mates, and all four of them were happily grazing on the bounty produced by their forest garden.

Unlike Toensmeier's other books, Paradise Lot is fun, easy to read, and inspiring.  (Don't get me wrong, I think Perennial Vegetables and Edible Forest Gardens are seminal works, but neither is something you'd read entirely for fun, while Paradise Lot is.)  This week, I'm going to include a few highlights in a slightly-truncated lunchtime series, but I recommend you check out Paradise Lot yourself to while away a winter afternoon.  Maybe you'll end up having an epiphany and decide to try out something crazy this year, like raising silkworms for chickens.  Or maybe you'll simply enjoy reading the first book I've seen profiling the growing pains of an actual North American forest garden.  Just be aware that you'll need to keep a handle on your wallet because you'll want to try out several new species by the time the book is done.

Need more time to explore your passions?  Microbusiness Independence explains how we escaped the rat race and started making a living on the homestead.

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

Posted Fri Mar 8 12:00:58 2013 Tags:
cutting osk logs for shitake mushroom inoculation

It's been just over 4 years since we last cut sycamore logs for shitake inoculation.

Some of those logs still produce mushrooms, but not many.

Today we cut off 2 sections of a large oak that fell during a recent storm. We're not ready to cut them up into logs, but it was necessary to cut them off from the main tree so they'll be ready in time to inoculate this Spring.

Posted Fri Mar 8 15:53:26 2013 Tags:
Worm bin

Worms in horse manureFriday, the sun finally came out and the cold weather broke.  A perfect day to check on our invertebrates!  The honeybees were flying busily in and out of their hive and even visiting the crocuses.  But three of our four worm bins were less vibrant.

I'll start out by telling you about the one worm bin that's thriving (pictured above and to the left).  This is our first bin, located at the parking area with a lot of winter sun.  The plywood lid bowed down on one side, so water tends to pool there and seep into the bin.  Sure enough, the area under the pool is full of thriving compost worms, but the rest of the manure has dried out too much to host worm activity. 

I'm sure not sure if the problem with our other three bins is lack of moisture, cold, or both.  We built the lids on those bins at a slant so rain would run off and the wood would last longer.  I started out the winter by saturating the manure and sawdust bedding, but sometime over the cold months, all of the water drained away and left the contents quite dry.  Even after I opened the lid this week and let rain pound down on the manure, there were still lots of dry pockets when I poked around Friday, and very few worms were left.

Harvesting the worm binThe three bins in our core homestead are also in heavy shade during the winter, so the contents probably froze solid a few times.  And there are several other differences between our oldest bins and our three newer bins beyond moisture and temperature.  Looking back at old photos like the one to the right, I notice that the vibrant-worm-area is on the side of the bin where I raked all of the finished compost and worms last August, so maybe they just haven't spread beyond home base due to the cold weather?  Or maybe they don't like the horse-manure-in-sawdust as much as they liked the original horse-manure-in-straw?  Or maybe variety is the deciding factor since the worms that went into the core homestead bins were purchased from a different location than the locally-adapted worms that went into our original bin.

Still, moisture is my best guess, and I have a way to test my hypothesis.  As I empty out the core homestead bins to add manure to the garden, I should eventually hit a wetter area near the bottom of the bins.  If the damp zone is full of worms, I'll know water was the difference between the bin that thrived and the bins that didn't.

Compost worm

Mark's already talking about ways to let rainwater soak in without losing the shade effect of the lid in the summer --- perhaps drilling holes at intervals throughout the lid might work.  Other ideas for hydration that don't require running hoses during freezing weather are appreciated.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for all kinds of poultry from day 1.
Posted Sat Mar 9 07:40:20 2013 Tags:

Toensmeier's forest gardenThe best part of Paradise Lot is that Toensmeier is completely honest about which parts of his forest gardening experiments succeeded and which parts failed.  It turns out that he had nearly as many growing pains building polycultures in the forest garden as I did, and came to some of the same conclusions.  For example, Toensmeier recommends letting trees and shrubs get established for a year or two before adding anything to compete with them, and likes to plant sun-loving annual vegetables in young forest gardens to take advantage of the light before the canopy closes up and to keep your attention tuned to these spots.  He also intentionally places vigorous species in subpar habitat to slow them down so they won't take over the world.

On the other hand, Toensmeier was more tenacious than I've been and came up with some polycultures he considers a success, such as:

  • Hidcote Blue dwarf running comfrey and walking onions under jostaberries.  The jostaberries are tall enough that they can handle the understory, and the comfrey and onions are vigorous enough that neither outcompetes the other.
  • Eric ToensmeierRamps, toothwort, and hog peanuts under pawpaws.  The ramps and toothwort take over in the early spring, then die back just as the hog peanuts begin vining over the ground.
  • Jerusalem artichokes and hog peanuts.  The Jerusalem artichokes are tall enough and grow fast enough in the spring that the nitrogen-fixing hog peanuts don't choke them out, and both need to be dug at the same time in the fall to harvest the tubers.
  • Comfrey and mint.  Toensmeier planted this in his much-travelled alley since the two vigorous growers can handle quite a lot of abuse.

Although it's not a polyculture, I was also intrigued by so-called fodder banks --- dense plantings of trees and shrubs that are coppiced one or more times per year to produce leaves for livestock or people.  Toensmeier planted littleleaf linden, edible-leaf mulberry, and fragrant spring tree to produce people food, but I've been planning a similar system with mulberries to feed the chickens in their pastures.

Learn how to pasture chickens in Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics.

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

Posted Sat Mar 9 12:01:48 2013 Tags:
how to modify the Kobalt neverflat wheelbarrow to avoid handle breakage

We still love both of our Kobalt Neverflat wheelbarrows, but there's a problem.

It seems that rain can drip its way into the hollow portion of the handles if stored outside in the face down position.

I finally got around to adding a drain hole today, which should prevent any further freezing and expansion trouble.

Posted Sat Mar 9 14:57:43 2013 Tags:
Newly hatched chicks

Chick weekend is in full swing!  Friday, the first few hatched.  Above, two chicks are groggily exploring the brooder before sleeping off their efforts.


Saturday morning, I awoke to six fully-fluffed fuzz-balls in the incubator.  And the hatch continued throughout the morning and early afternoon.

Day-old chick

By noon on Saturday, the sun streaming in tempted the older chicks out for a feeding frenzy.  I'm thoroughly enjoying the chicks' company while they're cute and new, but have no illusions I won't be ready to move them to the outdoor brooder before the week is out.

Our chicken waterer keeps our new chicks hydrated without the risk of drowning or disease.

Posted Sun Mar 10 08:53:57 2013 Tags:

Mimosa forest gardenToensmeier didn't only report on his own forest garden in Paradise Lot; he also included tidbits he'd seen in others' gardens around the world.  In his experience, forest gardeners tend to follow one of three main methods of incorporating nitrogen-fixing plants into forest gardens.

The first method is typified by Martin Crawford's forest garden in England.  Crawford includes a tall, open canopy of nitrogen-fixing plants, which in his case is primarily high-pruned alders.  Toensmeier mimicked this technique on a small scale by using a mimosa tree as a nitrogen-fixing canopy species, but he wasn't very interested in using up much of his small backyard with nitrogen-fixing trees.

Another method that works well in extensive forest gardens is to alternate nitrogen-fixing trees with food-producing trees.  In general, Toensmeier wrote, gardeners tend to alternate two or three edibles with one nitrogen-fixer.  Of course, space constraints again make this approach problematic for the urban gardener.

Forest gardenThe final technique, which is what Toensmeier mostly follows, is to use Geoff Lawton's chop-and-drop method of coppicing nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs.  Toensmeier also includes a lot of nitrogen-fixers in the groundcover category, notably hog peanut, licorice milk vetch, and groundnut, although these vigorous plants do outcompete some preferred species.  Foot-tolerant groundcovers like clovers and prostrate birdsfoot trefoil in the pathways can also help bring nitrogen into the system.

I'm less of a nitrogen-cycling purist than many permaculture advocates, and I have to admit that if I had a only a tenth of an acre, I'd devote the whole acreage to edibles and bring in my nitrogen as manure or compost.  Even Toensmeier admits at the end of his book that the forest-gardening dream of a do-nothing paradise is unrealistic, and if you're going to have to nurture the garden anyway, why not topdress a little manure from your rabbit hutch or chicken coop?

Take baby steps toward self-sufficiency with The Weekend Hometeader.

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

Posted Sun Mar 10 12:00:15 2013 Tags:
Kobalt wheelbarrow handle modification safety information

I forgot to mention a safety note on the Kobalt wheelbarrow modification.

Avoid drilling at an angle while holding the handle for support. This will help to keep the bit from popping out through the sides and scratching a finger.


Posted Sun Mar 10 14:04:07 2013 Tags:

Secrets of a Buccaneer-ScholarI've had James Marcus Bach's Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar on my reading list for a while just because it sounded interesting, but when B.J. came into our life, the time seemed ripe for giving it a read.  B.J. had trouble with high school (despite being sharp as a whip), and after completing his GED, has considered college.  Although my own experience with college was 90% positive, I can't help feeling that most higher education isn't worth the time and money nowadays, and Mark is even more anti-establishment.  So I opened Bach's book with the question --- are we doing B.J. a disservice by recommending he self-educate rather than enroll?

James Marcus Bach's book covers both his own methods of educating himself and the reasons he was forced to do so.  Bach (son of Richard Bach, who he writes a lot like) ended up living in a motel down the road from his mother's house at 14 due to a falling out with his stepfather, and he later dropped out of high school due to differences of opinion with the administration.  His thesis is that school is great if you enjoy it, but if you're not getting anything out of the experience, you should get out.  Bach had no problem getting a job at Apple Computers and then embarking on his own software-testing consulting business without a high school diploma, and he figures lack of credentials isn't going to sink anyone else's boat either.

Most of the book is engagingly written (and quite funny in parts), but I found Bach's methods of educating himself more dense.  Part of the problem is that Bach clearly thinks and works very differently than I do --- I suspect a type B person would get more out of this book than I did.  On the other hand, I'm not so sure that Bach's tips would really work for a type B person who doesn't have a wife to keep the accounting side of the business In a snowy treegoing (as Bach readily admits he does).  And it also seems a bit unfair to assume that just because the software industry can handle lack of credentials, that all industries can.

I know that I would be a very different person if I hadn't gone to college (but, also, that I wouldn't have gotten nearly as much out of the experience if I hadn't landed in just the right liberal arts setting).  My social education was probably the most important component of my college experience, but I also learned a lot of critical thinking skills as well as how to learn on my own.  That said, I probably was ready to start self-educating after a couple of years of college, and I've vastly preferred my own recent self-directed learning to any classroom work I'd done previously.

I'm curious to hear our readers' take on higher education.  If you had a young person in your life, would you send him to college or mentor him to learn on his own?  Do you feel like college helped you become a more fulfilled person or did you simply enroll to increase your earning potential (or perhaps you skipped college for a particular reason)?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional filthy waterers.
Posted Mon Mar 11 08:24:35 2013 Tags:

Storey's Guide to Raising PigsNow that B.J.'s truck makes us 85% sure we can try pigs this year, I decided it was time to crack open Storey's Guide to Raising Pigs by Kelly Klober.  Although some volumes are better than others, I've enjoyed Storey's Guides to various new livestock we've considered adding to our homestead.  The volume on pigs is no exception, being full of a breadth of firsthand information (although perhaps without as much depth as I'd like in certain areas).

Klober takes the same middle-of-the-road approach in his book that he advocates when breeding hogs.  Sure, crazy permaculturalists like me will have to look elsewhere for in-depth information on pasturing, but so will folks who want to raise swine in confinement settings.  The book has an excellent overview of what to expect when raising a couple of finishing hogs for the family's table, when showing swine, and when starting your own breeding operation.

Overall, I'd highly recommend this book for the complete beginner (like me), but I'm still waiting with baited breath for Walter Jeffries to hurry up and complete his book on pasturing pigs.  In the meantime, I hope you'll enjoy this week's lunchtime series --- an introduction to pigs on the homestead.

Want to start with even easier livestock?  The Working Chicken is a quick introduction to adding a laying flock to your backyard.

This post is part of our Storey's Guide to Raising Pigs lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Mar 11 12:00:30 2013 Tags:
using an ATV to tow the golf cart

Our neighbor has an ATV with a bad battery.

We offered to buy a new battery in exchange for some hauling help.

It's not 4 wheel drive, but it did a fine job towing the golf cart back home today.

Posted Mon Mar 11 15:34:27 2013 Tags:
Fly on crocus

Huckleberry the catI went out to take a photo of our honeybees visiting the crocuses, but instead caught this fly in the act.  In fact, although our honeybees were out working during the past warm days, flies were making up about 80% of the pollinators.

Spring continues to be slow despite the balmy weekend, so there's not all that much blooming yet.  Speedwells and purple dead nettle are in full bloom in the yard, but I haven't seen any dandelions yet.  In the woods, hazels are blooming, but I haven't even seen a spring beauty on the forest floor.  And the first few daffodils are just beginning to open their blooms in the sunniest part of the yard.

Meanwhile, Huckleberry thinks he's definitely pretty enough to be highlighted in a post about flowers.


Our chicken waterer makes it easy and fun to care for a backyard flock.
Posted Tue Mar 12 08:50:22 2013 Tags:

Feeder pigThe first thing I learned from Storey's Guide to Raising Pigs was that my terminology was all wrong.  I wrote previously about my idea of raising two pigs from when they're weaned (feeder pigs) until slaughter, which I now know is known as finishing hogs.  According to Klober, the term "pigs" is used to refer to baby hogs, and piglet is "a layman's term for a young pig, but don't use this around swine producers unless you want to be laughed out of the coffee shop."  After a short time, pigs grow into shoats, than at 125 pounds they are known as hogs.

Except for getting the wording wrong, though, my idea of starting our adventure by finishing two hogs is a good one.  The first step is to find someone who will sell you pigs when they're around two months old and are well weaned, at which time you should expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $200 apiece for the pigs.  I'll write more about selecting your feeder pigs tomorrow, but it's worth noting that if you're skipping the feeder-pig stage and going right into keeping your own breeding herd, you'll need to pay more for top-quality genetics.

When you bring your feeder pigs home, they'll weigh about 40 to 70 pounds, and they'll need a little TLC at first.  Until pigs are eight weeks old, it's best to keep them on unlimited feed, to wire open the doors of self-feeders and -waterers, and to keep littermates together.  Young pigsEven after that, when you move pigs to a new location, they may go off their feed for a few days and need some electrolyte in their water (and, Klober suggests, some flavored gelatin powder sprinkled on their food and in their water to increase consumption).  Walter Jeffries recommends keeping your new pigs in a 16-by-16-foot area for a few days to get them used to you and to the fencing before moving them to pasture.

Three to four months after you bring them home, your pigs should have grown into hogs that weigh more than you do.  Hogs are usually butchered at 220 to 260 pounds, with the lower end of the weight range giving leaner meat and the higher end providing more cost-efficiency at the butcher.  Expect to spend a bit longer growing out your hogs if you're raising them on pasture, especially if the weather is cold.

Stay tuned for later posts in this week's lunchtime series walking you through more of the specifics of raising feeder pigs.

Trailersteading follows the adventures of half a dozen homesteaders who decided to live the simple life in used mobile homes.

This post is part of our Storey's Guide to Raising Pigs lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Mar 12 12:01:12 2013 Tags:
ATV hauling

It took a couple of 2x6's and an old plastic tool box to load up the ATV.

We learned that it needs to go in backwards in order to "drive" it up over the wheel humps.

Getting it out was a lot easier thanks to the help of a hill near our parking area.

Posted Tue Mar 12 16:10:08 2013 Tags:
Mending a row cover

Collapsed quick hoopWhen I made our first quick hoop, I figured the stucture's cost-efficiency would largely depend on how long the row cover fabric lasts.  Luckily, the delicate fabric gets less damaged on quick hoops than it did on cold frames, but the combination of age, snow, and falling branches did result in some serious dings this winter.

I waited to do my mending until it was time to move the quick hoops from the overwintering beds they were protecting to new beds of spring crops.  Although it's possible to mend fabric when stretched over the hoops, it's much easier to take it inside, cut out a piece of fabric from a ruined row cover, and then whip-stitch the patch over the hole.

Patching a quick hoopI figure it cost about $50 to make each of our 25-foot-long quick hoops, and after two years of use, I'd say the fabric will last three years total.  We've also had to replace one of the hoops, and may need to expect to do that every year or so.  If so, our cost to keep a quick hoop going over a decade will be about $75, or $7.50 per year.  Not bad for spring seed-starting, overwintering lettuce and kale, and protecting the last summer crops from early frosts.

Treat your chickens to our POOP-free chicken waterer.
Posted Wed Mar 13 08:17:43 2013 Tags:

Pig varietiesIf you decide to finish a hog or two for your table, your first big choice is what kind of pig(s) to bring home.  Most sources suggest starting with two animals since pigs are sociable, but you'll still need to make decisions about breed, sex, and various medical procedures.  Let's start with breed.

Commercial pigs are generally pure or crossed Duroc, Hampshire, and Yorkshire hogs, but small producers would be hard-pressed to maintain a commercial-style hybrid without keeping two separate parent lines going.  Klober considers purebreds best for small farmers keeping homegrown herds, but my limited research elsewhere suggests that pastured pork producers often work with a single hybrid herd.  For example, Walter Jeffries' hogs are primarily a mixture of Yorkshire, Hampshire, Berkshire, and Tamworth, while a producer local to us is mixing Yorkshire, Hamphsire, Berkshire, and Duroc.

In general, colored breeds may grow faster, taste better, and handle the outdoors better in cold, damp weather, while white breeds are better mothers, are more docile, and do better in heat.  Another factor to consider is that fat flecks in the meat of Duroc and Berkshire hogs are supposed to provide particularly good flavor.  But chances are, if you're just buying feeder pigs, you'll take whatever's available.

How about choosing between gilts (girls) and boars (boys)?  Gilts are reputed to grow a bit slower, and to end up fatter (according to Jeffries and our local producer) or leaner (according to Klober, who raises his gilts on high-protein rations to speed their growth).  With barrows, the tricky question is whether or not to castrate the pigs --- most sources recommend castrating boars (in which case they become barrows) to prevent a bad taste in the meat known as boar taint.  However, Walter Jeffries believes boar taint is mostly a myth and is only found in certain breeds, which don't include the ones he raises.  If you don't want to castrate and don't want to risk boar taint, gilts might be a good choice.

Boar taintWhile you're deciding whether or not to castrate, you'll also need to decide whether to dock tails and knock out wolf teeth.  Both of these surgeries seem to be similar to clipping the beaks of chickens --- confinement farmers do it so their animals don't kill each other when packed close together, but non-confinement farmers usually skip it.  Similarly, you might get away without deworming your feeder pigs if you're raising them in a rotational pasture arrangement.  (Organic alternatives to chemical dewormers include garlic and diatomaceous earth.)

The last factor to consider when choosing your pigs is the environment that they came from.  If you plan to raise pigs on pasture, don't buy them from heated nurseries.  And, at the other extreme, pastured pigs won't do as well in confinement.

I'd be curious to hear from more experience pig-keepers out there.  Do you recommend gilts or boars?  Do you castrate?  Any other tips for choosing a good pig for the homestead?

With spring just around the corner, now's a perfect time to start at the beginning of my Weekend Homesteader series.  I present one relatively simple project per week so you keep making progress but don't get overwhelmed.

This post is part of our Storey's Guide to Raising Pigs lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Mar 13 12:01:59 2013 Tags:
using the new foot pump for the first time on a flat tire on the Heavy Hauler

I bought this foot pump back in the summer as a backup to the air tank.

We don't have a compressor, which means filling the tank requires a trip to the gas station.

The foot pump worked nicely today on the Heavy Hauler, which we're getting ready for an upcoming feed store delivery.

Posted Wed Mar 13 15:42:04 2013 Tags:
Panel delivery

We'd figured getting pigs was dependent on finding a pickup truck to haul the stock panels home.  But after we considered the sixteen-foot length of the panels, we ended up calling up the feed store and asking if they deliver.  It turns out they were willing to bring panels, posts, and the rest of our gypsum and lime to our parking area for $40, which seemed like a good deal.  I figure it would cost about that much in gas to make the many trips required to ferry all those supplies in a smaller vehicle.

Unloading stock panels

All of B.J.'s hard work adding gravel to the parking area really paid off when the huge truck showed up and barely spun at all maneuvering through our small space.  We did hit a snag, though --- it turns out that most farmers have front loaders even in our backwoods location, so the delivery guy thought I was a bit nuts when I said we were going to unload the panels by hand.  It wasn't really that tough with me, Mark, and him all working together, though.

The next big deal is getting those stock panels back to our core homestead, after which it becomes time to clear some small trees, and make the fences.  I've promised Mark a fence post driver at long last in hopes that a new tool will make this daunting project more palatable, but I'm not sure the bribe is big enough for the amount of work involved.

Our chicken waterer makes our laying flock so easy to care for, we can branch out into broilers and pigs.
Posted Thu Mar 14 08:23:37 2013 Tags:

Feeding pigs wheyNow for the thorny part of pig-raising --- feeding.  As with most other livestock, the modern method is to pour grains (and soybeans) down their throats to produce fast growth.  At the other extreme, diversified farmers like Walter Jeffries raise their pigs with absolutely no purchased grain, counting on fruit-tree-filled pastures, crops planted during fallow periods then grazed rotationally, and byproducts such as whey and brewer's barley to fulfill their hogs' nutritional needs.  Going back in time yet further, a hog was a bit of a farm garbage disposal unit --- you'd keep just one or two pigs and they'd subsist on all of the food waste that came out of a homestead kitchen, plus mast from the forest.

Feeding pigsWhile I'd love to mimic Jeffries' method in the long run, we're in the reclamation stage of our homestead, so I suspect we'll be taking a hybrid approach our first year.  Klober notes that a quarter of an acre of good legume pasture will provide 25% of the nutrition for 10 growing hogs, so I'm hoping a similar amount of poor forest pasture will provide at least a bit of nutrition for 2.  But we'll also supplement with storebought feed (and with our food scraps, which will be much more copious in late summer).  Klober says we should expect to feed each hog 650 to 750 pounds of storebought feed over its short lifetime, and I'll definitely be keeping track to see how much we knock off that estimated total.

Finally, there are two schools of thoughts on how much food to offer growing hogs.  Some farmers provide unlimited feed, which does make pigs grow their fastest.  On the other hand, if you limit feed to 90% of their appetite, you end up with a leaner carcass (although you don't lower your food bill any since the hogs grow more slowly).  Most modern farmers aim for leaner meat, but as Simon Fairlie wrote, farmers used to consider lard one of the most important byproducts of hog production, so the choice is up to you.

Now's the time to start mushrooms!  Learn how in my 99 cent ebook.

This post is part of our Storey's Guide to Raising Pigs lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Mar 14 12:00:26 2013 Tags:

moving stock panels with an ATV

We got all 40 stock panels back to the new pasture area today.

The Heavy Hauler supports part of the load.

I started out doing 3 at a time, but quickly figured out the ATV could handle 7.

Posted Thu Mar 14 16:58:09 2013 Tags:

New pear leavesMy movie-star neighbor kept his grafted pears over the winter in pots in an unheated basement.  However, the bit of heat from the house was enough to prompt them to break open their buds before I brought my two home. 

Afraid that nippy spring weather would hurt the tender buds, I put them in the mostly-unheated end of the trailer, but a week later the buds were yet more unfurled.  I figured there was no stopping the plants' awakening, so I might as well put them in the ground where cool temperatures would at least slow them down. 

Since our main pears have also started to break their buds open (although not in as extreme a fashion), I figured our new pears would probably survive outdoors.  And, sure enough, I don't see any frost-burn even after a frigid night (and a day of flurries).

I plan to keep our little pearlets in our new nursery row for a year, then plant them into the pasture prepared by hog snouts this summer.  Pears are slow to bear, but the taste of my neighbor's fruit is enough to carry me through dreaming about the harvest of 2019.

Our chicken waterer keeps hens healthy so they lay more eggs.
Posted Fri Mar 15 08:00:22 2013 Tags:

Pig fencingThere are a slew of other factors to consider when starting with pigs, but here are the top ones on my radar:

  • Housing --- Each pig needs 8 to 10 square feet of sleeping space, preferably somewhere dry, draft-free, and out of the muck.
  • Feeders and waterers --- Plan on one foot of trough space per hog or one self-feeder hole for three to five feeder pigs.
  • Fencing --- Assuming you're pasturing your pigs, you need to choose a fencing method and pay attention to the where the fencing touches the ground.  Unlike many other farm animals, pigs like to go under rather than over fences (although they'll go through them too if given the chance).  Most folks choose electric fencing, but we're going to go the more-expensive-but-also-more-permanent route of stock panels.  Other options that work for pigs include pallets and woven wire.
  • Pig pasturePreventing damage to the pasture --- Many pastured pork producers put a ring on the end of their hogs' noses to prevent rooting damage.  On the other hand, others use the rooting nature of pigs to their advantage by putting the animals into an area where they want the current plant-life destroyed --- we're using that route this first year.  It's also worth noting that sharp pig hooves will tear up pasture nearly as much as their snouts do, especially in oft-traveled areas like around feed and water stations.
  • Keep them cool --- Hogs are naturally woodland creatures and need some shade in the summer.
  • Plan your butchering before you start --- Many homesteaders skin their hogs nowadays instead of scalding them, but if you go that route, you'll lose most of the lard and won't be able to cure the hams.  (You'll still be able to cure bacon after skinning.)  So, don't buy a gilt and try to get her really fat if you think you're going to skin.

What else would you suggest new pig-keepers consider?

Interested in chickens instead?  Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics walks you through creating a simple pasture for your flock.

This post is part of our Storey's Guide to Raising Pigs lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Mar 15 12:01:52 2013 Tags:
hauling stock panels with an ATV

Our stock panel hauling had one problem.

The dump mechanism won't stay latched, and even though I secured it with bailing wire it still managed to work loose which resulted in a crushed Heavy Hauler.

Removing the offending small stump the panels hung up on was all it took to smooth things out.

Posted Fri Mar 15 15:54:37 2013 Tags:
Da Pimp charging a drill battery

Volt meterBefore we hauled the golf cart back to our core homestead, we were hoping the only problem with it was bad batteries.  As I wrote this winter, we originally bought the golf cart used, and the batteries have had some hard days' work since then, so it's not surprising they weren't holding much of a charge.  Rather than splurging hundreds of dollars on replacement batteries right off the bat, we decided to see if we could recondition the ones we have.

Da Pimp is a battery-saver dreamed up by half of the Holy Scrap Hot Springs duo (who, in the interest of full disclosure, I consider e-friends).  I have a hard time wrapping my head around electricity, so you'll have to go to their site to read how the unit works, but suffice it to say that Da Pimp will extend the life of problematic rechargeable drill batteries, golf cart batteries, and more.

We gave the unit a try on a drill battery that Bradley had pronounced dead --- it wasn't holding a charge like he wanted.  However, it turns out the battery wasn't really dead.  It started out at 16.6 volts, and I charged it to 120% of its rated voltage (per instructions) with Desulfated batteryDa Pimp.  The next day, the battery had only dropped to 19.5 (above its rated voltage of 18), so it seemed to be holding a charge pretty well.  I gave it another charge with Da Pimp just to be on the safe side, and two weeks later, the battery is holding steady at 19.4 volts.

Mark plans to give Da Pimp a real test and workout with our problematic golf cart batteries soon, but I'm already happy with the unit.  It's an elegant little device, easy to use even for electrophobes like me, and I figure if it simply extends the life of our drill batteries, it will pay for itself in a few years.  Plus, I love microbusiness products, especially those produced by homesteaders.  So I have no hesitation giving Da Pimp two thumbs up.

Our own microbusiness product is a POOP-free chicken waterer that has been enjoyed by flocks around the world.
Posted Sat Mar 16 08:22:23 2013 Tags:
Lucy chewing on deer antlers

We've seen deer tracks this winter, but not in the garden.

I've seen a few does in the neighbor's field, but not as many as previous years.

Lucy has been chewing on a rack of deer antlers the last few days. I'm guessing she sniffed out a young buck that was shot and got away from whoever shot it.

Posted Sat Mar 16 14:31:32 2013 Tags:
Digging daffodils

Back before Mark came up with his chicken waterer invention, we were running with every microbusiness idea we could think of.  One of the first was selling the daffodils that had multiplied like rabbits between when the last humans left this farm and when we came to take the land back several decades later.  That March, I sold budding daffodil bulbs for about 25 cents apiece on ebay and thought I was making a killing --- those couple of hundred bucks were much appreciated since we were getting a farm going on about $12,000 per year.

Always the long-term thinker, Mark talked me into planting some of the bulbs out in rows in what was then unused land (and which later became the forest garden).  He figured the plants would divide, and then one day we might become daffodil farmers.  Substitute teaching was getting old fast, and Mark was willing to grasp at any straw that would get him out of the classroom.

Backpack of daffodils

Our current microbusiness derailed the flower plan, but the daffodils multiplied anyway.  So I give away as many as I can every year until it starts to feel like I'm pawning off unwanted kittens on my family and friends.  I was able to talk Mom into taking home a backpack full this weekend, but have many more looking for a home.  If you're local and in need of daffodils, just let me know how many dozen you'd like!

Posted Sun Mar 17 07:40:18 2013 Tags:
Chick swapping on a Sunday afternoon

Today we swapped some homegrown chicks with our friend Sarah for some of her mail order hybrid chicks.

Anna put 2 firewall bricks in the toaster oven on high for an hour, and then wrapped a towel around the bricks to keep everybody warm for the trip.

The bricks were still warm to the touch 4 hours later and all chicks are safe and happy in their new home.

Posted Sun Mar 17 15:11:56 2013 Tags:
ATV hauling

Over supper on Friday, Mark apologized for being a bit surly when the time came to load up the ATV and send it home.  The trouble wasn't what I thought (that he'd had a long day and didn't appreciate working after hours).  Instead, he told me he'd fallen a bit in love and wasn't ready to see her go.

Ramp into truck

I should have known something was going on earlier in the week when I caught Mark patting the hunk of metal fondly as he filled up the tank.  "Good girl," he said under his breath.  Then, catching my eye, he tried to turn the praise over to Lucy.

Backing an ATV up a ramp

I've been adamantly anti-ATV in the past, mostly because of the damage I've seen when recreational riders tear up the woods.  But after days of hauling this week when the floodplain was pretty soggy, I have to say that Mark is starting to change my mind.  I'm willing to admit that I was wrong when I said the golf cart is lighter on the ground than a four-wheeler.  Under Mark's steady hand, the ATV acts like a tractor, creeping across wet terrain and only leaving tread marks rather than ruts.

Loading up an ATV

Does this mean Mark's going to get an ATV to dote on in the near future?  The jury's still out.  I suspect the decision will depend on a lot of factors like whether the golf cart batteries are salvageable and whether her dunking and extended sit in the floodplain ruined other parts of the electrical apparatus.  But the option has finally made its way to the negotiating table, right along with pigs.

Our chicken waterer is the safe and clean way to water chicks from day 1.
Posted Mon Mar 18 08:02:44 2013 Tags:
broody hen in the barn

We're still trying to encourage one of our hens to do the broody thing.

One of the ladies has been sitting in the barn near our straw bales, but she only seems half broody.

Maybe some soft music would help her relax enough to feel like she found a safe spot?

Posted Mon Mar 18 16:14:42 2013 Tags:
Brussels sprouts

A couple of folks have asked me how the garden's doing, so I thought I'd give you a quick rundown.  We're still eating Brussels sprouts and kale, and could have still been eating last fall's lettuce, but I ripped it out since the spring lettuce is nearly ready to eat and I needed the old lettuce's space.  The Egyptian onions are starting to put out lots of new leaves, so I'm adding green onions into nearly every dish, and the chickens are coming back up to speed on their egg-laying.

In the freezer, we've still got enough vegetable soup to last another couple of months.  We're just about out of sweet potatoes (except the ones I'm saving to make slips for this year), but have plenty of carrots, white potatoes, butternut squash, and garlic left.  We're getting low on meat, but still have a few homegrown chickens waiting to be thawed and turned into dinner.

Pea sproutMeanwhile, the spring garden is not edible, but is growing.  The earliest planting of peas (which I pre-sprouted instead of just soaking) came up less spottily than usual, despite cold weather, and I've put in a second planting, which will come up more evenly but will produce a bit later.  As I mentioned above, we'll be eating spring lettuce in a week or two, and I've recently planted (but not yet seen) more lettuce, arugula, tokyo bekana, cabbage and broccoli (under quick hoops), and Swiss chard.

My inside-started onion seedlings are big enough to transplant, but this week turned colder than expected, so I think I'm going to keep putting them on the porch for the day and bringing them in for the night, along with the flat of early broccoli and cabbage.  I just started a flat of early tomatoes and peppers as well, although I raise the main set of transplants under quick hoops (starting those a month from now).

The perennials are what will spring to life first, but beyond the Egyptian onions and a bit of sprouting from the rhubarb, I haven't seen much activity there yet either.  The fruit tree buds have barely begun to swell in what's still a slow, cold spring.  We haven't quite run out of firewood yet, though, so I guess I can wait on the turn of the weather.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day one, through their laying career, and into old age.
Posted Tue Mar 19 07:58:34 2013 Tags:
how I painted the gate frame and the gate on a sunny day

A coat of good exterior paint should give us a few more years on this chicken pasture gate.

I got to thinking after I finished of maybe mounting a piece of scrap roofing tin to the top of the frame which might help to deflect the bulk of the rain from hitting the gate and the posts.

Posted Tue Mar 19 16:01:08 2013 Tags:
Quick hoop cover

The kale no longer needs covering, so I've moved our quick hoops on to spring crops.  After mending the fabric last week, though, I left the covers off because I wanted rain to wet the manure I added to the recently planted beds.  Now cold weather is on its way back, so I figured it was time to put the fabric on.

Shortening a quick hoop

I initially cut my quick hoop fabric to run the entire length of a mule garden bed.  Since the areas that currently need protection aren't quite that long, I ended up untying the knot at one end of the fabric and retying it further in.  This is equivalent to using a safety pin to take up pants for a kid who's going to grow more later.

Spring garden

Despite a bit of wind, it only took about fifteen minutes to get two new beds under cover.  The third quick hoop was already in place covering the earliest planting of lettuce.  Now we're ready for March to go out like a lion.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to dirty chicken chores.
Posted Wed Mar 20 07:28:25 2013 Tags:
adjusting the idle on a Stihl MS211 chainsaw

We had some trouble with our Stihl MS-211chainsaw today.

It starts up fine, but stalls out when trying to idle.

I replaced the spark plug, but it didn't help. Luckily our local mechanic shop was able to squeeze us in for a visit.

Turns out the idle adjustment slot is the one on the upper right side where the access holes are located.

I asked our super friendly mechanic how much for the speedy service? He wanted to charge 5 bucks, I told him it was worth more like 20, and then we settled in the middle at 10.

Posted Wed Mar 20 16:01:42 2013 Tags:
Anna Old news
Old newspaper

Stove adWhile B.J.'s tracking down a few more local root cellars/springhouses for me to include in my $10 Root Cellar ebook, I've started on another project to keep myself occupied.  I feel a bit self-indulgent with this one, so I thought I'd check in and see if any of you are interested.

Several readers have emailed or commented in the last year or two to say that they got sucked into our blog so deeply that they went back into the archives and read through all the way from the beginning.  That reminded me that one of my few regrets is that we didn't start this blog at the same time we started the farm, so even those hard-core readers aren't seeing the true beginning.  On the other hand, I do have some earlier photos and journals that could be turned into an ebook....

What I'm not sure about is whether that ebook would be helpful to anyone, or whether it would be just another farm memoir.  Plus, my working title (Walden Effect: The Early Years) needs serious help.  Suggestions?  Am I wasting my time and should get back to something serious like writing about chicken pastures or tips for selling ebooks on Amazon?  Or are you interested in hearing about my rocky road to farm ownership?

(By the way, the photos here are of old newspapers from the 1930s that coated the walls of the old farmhouse pre-demolition.)

Our chicken waterer is keeping our chicks happy in their outdoor brooder despite high activity levels that knock over traditional waterers.
Posted Thu Mar 21 07:59:23 2013 Tags:
cutting down really big trees

We cleared some space for the future pig pasture today.

Anna counted the rings and figured out she's the same age as this tulip-tree.

Posted Thu Mar 21 15:23:38 2013 Tags:
Pasture map

I realized I'd never shared how the future pig pasture fits into the bigger picture, so here's a map for those of you who enjoy them.  The aerial photo is from around this time last year, before we took down the yurt.  What's hard to see is that our core homestead, the pig pasture, and the yurt are all on little semi-flat plateaus, separated by gullies, but elevated a good distance above the floodplain.  I'm hoping the semi-flat part will mean less erosion from pig feet as they tear up the Japanese honeysuckle.

Sleeping garden

For map-phobes, here's a photo instead.  I'm standing in front of the trailer and looking southwest over the front garden toward the pig pasture.  (Yes, Thursday was a very gray day.)

Clearing ground

Entering the pig pasture from the blueberry patch, Mark had already cut down a few little trees at the time of this picture, but not very many.  You would expect more growth than this for an area that's been vacant for three or four decades, but I suspect over-farming combined with invasive Japanese honeysuckle held trees back.  The vines also make it tough to cut and clear the trees, but we persevered.

Log pile

Here's the result of an afternoon's work.  Trees in this stack will become next year's firewood and include sassafras, box-elder, sourwood (which I would have kept for the bees, but missed IDing until it was already cut), and black birch.  Mark also cut some of the saddest-looking black locusts I've ever seen, but I saved a few nicer-looking ones as nectary plants.  There's one big oak who will also be saved for the acorns, along with some little nut trees I planted here a few years ago.

Brush pile

I always feel a little guilty making brush piles because I know that in some parts of the world, this would be the only wood available for cooking and heating fires.  For us, though, the juice isn't worth the squeeze, so I piled branches up on the edge of the plateau, past where the fence will run.  In a perfect world, the brush might rot down in five or ten years and provide a rich terrace for fruit-tree planting.  Or maybe it'll just keep the songbirds happy.

Looking up the hill

Mark cleared about a third of the plateau in a couple of hours Thursday afternoon, but we've got some big decisions to make today.  I've started eying the hillside just above the pig pasture for orchard expansion --- it flattens out into a little ridge before heading back up the main hillside.  But if I want to clear this area, some of the biggest trees will need to come down now before fences go up downhill.  I've regretted it in the past when I've rushed and left trees like this in place, so I suspect we'll go ahead and take them down, even if that makes it less likely we'll get all of the work done in time to buy pigs this spring.

Our chicken waterer is the clean and easy way to make chicken-care fun.
Posted Fri Mar 22 07:45:33 2013 Tags:
hauling tip for stock panel ATV attachment

There's one thing I would've done different on the stock panel ATV hauling.

Attaching the top part of the panels to the ATV would've been easier and faster with a few sections of small chain with a leash latch for quick connecting.

The problem with using rope was the high pressure. It took extra effort to untie each section when the knot gets that tight.

Posted Fri Mar 22 15:46:24 2013 Tags:

Pig shelterBefore we can cut up the big, straight trees from the pasture clearing expedition, we need to decide whether we want to use them for creating an animal house.  Mark has suggested making a Holzer-like, semi-underground dwelling for this area and I'm intrigued by the idea.

Holzer creates open-fronted shelters using logs as the walls and roof, puts on a pond liner sandwiched between two layers of building felt, then piles dirt on top.  Heavy equipment means he can create a shelter like this in a day, but it seems feasible to do it by hand over a longer time period with three workers.  I estimate the total cost would be about $300 for the pond liner and maybe another $30 or $40 for the building felt for a 6-or-7-foot-square structure.

Waterproofing an underground buildingThe question is --- would it be a lot more work than an aboveground shelter?  Would soft tulip-trees stand up for at least a decade or two in the ground if the liner extends out on all sides for a couple of feet and we try to channel the water away from the structure?  (Holzer apparently uses tamarack, which as best I can tell is naturally rot-resistant, a bit like cedar.)  Would it be better to make the building log-cabin-style with the few red cedars we have as the bottom layer to lower the rot potential?  At the other extreme, is it worth saving a couple of hundred dollars by using cheaper plastic (as Mike Oehler does in his underground houses), perhaps with a pond liner for the roof only?  And, since this structure would probably also be home to chickens, would birds enjoy a cave-like dwelling as much as pigs and cows apparently do? 

I'd be very curious to hear from anyone who has tried to make a Holzer-like underground animal shelter on the backyard scale.  What worked and didn't work for you?

Our chicken waterer keeps coops dry and hens happy.
Posted Sat Mar 23 07:46:02 2013 Tags:
new 16 gauge wire rack for completed avian aqua misers

Spring cleaning this year is focused around new ways to store chicken waterers.

Posted Sat Mar 23 15:15:30 2013 Tags:
Cutting firewood

How many warm bodies does it take for optimal efficiency on clearing day?  I was going to say three for the first phase (Mark felling, me and B.J. clearing brush), then one for the second phase (B.J. sawing logs into firewood). 

Dog dragging firewood

But pictorial evidence suggests otherwise.  Clearly phase two also benefits from a dog dragging away logs to chew on them.  If we were able to train Lucy to carry firewood into the pile instead of away from it, we'd use about 5% less wood over the course of each year.

Our chicken waterer makes your homestead chores more efficient --- more more cleaning out filthy waterers.
Posted Sun Mar 24 08:49:44 2013 Tags:

Stihl funny oil cap trick
The only thing I don't like about our
Stihl MS-211 chainsaw is the bar oil cap.

It has a funny final click that if you don't get right will seem like it's closed but may open up without you noticing.

I've found it's important to take note of how the cap comes off and put it back on in that same position before tightening.

Posted Sun Mar 24 15:21:59 2013 Tags:
Mineral-burned strawberry leaves

When I spread the first round of minerals on the front garden, my gut feeling was that adding the trace minerals to the gypsum was a bad idea, and apparently I was right.  Since the trace minerals tended to settle to the bottom of the wheelbarrow, it was tough to get them spread evenly, and I'm pretty sure I overdosed certain parts of the garden.  Within a week or two, the overwintering strawberry leaves had turned brown and dried up.  Yikes!

Overwintered strawberry plant

In contrast, the photo above shows what our strawberry plants should look like at this time of year.  Sure, over-wintered leaves aren't vibrant, but they shouldn't be dessicated either.  I did spread minerals in the area where this photo was taken, but it was during the second round when I carefuly scattered the trace minerals first, then went back over the ground with gypsum.  I'd say the living plants got very mildly nipped in these regions, but trouble was barely evident within a few days.

New strawberry leaf

Luckily, the mineral-burn on the front garden strawberries seems to have only affected the leaves, not the entire plants.  New green leaves are poking up from the centers, so I hope the damage will be equivalent to a herd of deer tromping through the garden and eating their fill (which used to happen regularly in years past --- we still got crops, albeit smaller ones).

The take-home message is --- spread trace minerals very carefully.  And, while you're at it, try to pick a dormant season for mineral-spreading, although that's not really possible in a hard-working garden like ours.  Finally, strawberries are more sensitive to minerals than any of our other over-winterers (like garlic and herbs) are, so it might be worth holding off on remineralizing strawberries until you're getting ready to start a new bed.

Our chicken waterer makes chicken-care fun and clean so you can enjoy your flock.
Posted Mon Mar 25 08:20:22 2013 Tags:

The $50 and Up Underground House BookWhen I mentioned that one of our long-term plans is to have a flood/tornado/guest underground shelter up on the hillside, a couple of you recommended Mike Oehler's The $50 and Up Underground House Book.  I'm glad I checked it out, even though (for reasons I'll mention in a later post), we probably won't use this technique for that structure.

My first reaction is that Mike Oehler's book feels like Walden for the twentieth century, both in good and bad ways.  I enjoyed the under-building principle, but noticed that the author put in an enormous amount of physical effort to create a structure that focuses more than I think necessary on elegance.  Oehler's writing is also opinionated verging on snarky, which some folks (especially those who enjoy Salatin's later writing) might find amusing, but which turns me off.  Finally, there's quite a bit of theorizing that isn't necessarily backed up by experience or data.

On the other hand, if you throw out 25% of what Oehler writes, the remaining 75% is thought-provoking and helpful.  In fact, I could see the book being entertaining reading even if you're not thinking of building an underground house and would simply like to see how one back-to-the-lander from the 1970s made his home.  Stay tuned for the tips I took away from the book in later posts in this lunchtime series.

To read more about my theories on underbuilding and simple housing, check out Trailersteading.

This post is part of our The $50 and Up Underground House Book lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Mar 25 12:01:57 2013 Tags:
letting chicks free range

We've been letting the new chicks free range on nice days, rainy days we keep the door closed so nobody gets wet and cold.

Posted Mon Mar 25 16:04:52 2013 Tags:

Fig budThe figs, gooseberries, and mulberries sitting in pots under our table are starting to root!  Some cuttings are as-yet inconclusive, which I suspect means they're growing roots, but more slowly than their peers, while others are sturdily held into the soil and are already beginning to leaf out.

Even though I can't proclaim this experiment a success until I repot the cuttings and see good root growth, I'm ready to pass judgement on the two different hypotheses I was roughly testing with this project.  Hypothesis A said that I can root hardwood fig cuttings by placing them directly into a pot with no covering, using a heat pad underneath for a week or two, then treating them just like any other potted plant (water lightly as needed to keep soil moist but otherwise ignore).  So far, I'd say this method of rooting figs is definitely preferable to any I've tried in the past --- easy and effective.

Experimental cuttings and control cuttingsHypothesis B said that a willow-extract rooting hormone would make fig cuttings root in greater numbers.  This doesn't seem to be the case...but only because both the control and hormone-treated cuttings have already rooted at 78 to 100%.  (The range in numbers is because I'm not positive whether the ones that feel like they're loosely rooted actually are.)

The great part of this experiment in fig rooting is that I'll probably end up with at least a dozen baby fig trees in the nursery row this summer and in the orchard next year.  Thanks so much, Brian, for sharing such vibrant cuttings!  Sarah, you can definitely have a few of these figlets if they keep thriving at the rate they're going.

Our chicken waterer keeps hens happy with clean water.
Posted Tue Mar 26 07:38:27 2013 Tags:

Cheap underground houseMike Oehler built his first underground house for $50 in 1971.  He used mostly scavenged materials, which he summed up in a very Thoreau-like table:

  • Beams and post - free
  • Millends (lumber) - free
  • Polyethylene - $15
  • Nails - $0.50
  • Flooring - free
  • Insulation - free
  • Paint - $2
  • Chairs - free
  • Tables - $2.20
  • Door - free
  • Cooler - free
  • Lamp - $4
  • Stove, stove pipes, and damper - $22
  • Windows - $4

The initial structure was only 120 square feet, and even though he lived there for four years, he admits he was on the lecture circuit for three of the four winters.

In an effort to turn the structure into a good place to spend a northern Idaho winter, Oehler added on in 1975 to produce what he calls the $500 house (costing about $2,000 in today's dollars).  The new structure (which includes the original $50 house) covers 370 square feet across three levels.  In addition to living in the $500 house since 1975, Mike Oehler has expanded his experience by running an underground-house consulting business where he designed and/or built several other houses using his methods.  (You can see more photos of the houses he inspired and built on his website, which is where I found the pictures in today's post.)

Homemade underground houseThere's a lot to like about Oehler's houses, but I want to throw in a few caveats up front (since you won't find most of these issues mentioned until nearly the end of his book).  The fact his houses won't pass code doesn't really bother me, but I am much more concerned by Oehler's update about the parts of his houses that have and haven't failed structurally over the years --- it sounds like root cellars built using his methods are problematic, as are non-full-time residences that aren't aired and warmed on a regular basis.  You also should be prepared to put in huge amounts of labor if you build using Oehler's methods on the cheap --- his original, 120-square-foot house took about 105 man-hours simply for the initial excavation.  Finally, Oehler admits that you might need to work harder to keep water out of your underground house if you live in an area like the Pacific Northwest (or, presumably, here) with "ridiculous rain."

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post where I begin to show you what sets Oehler's houses apart from mainstream underground structures.

The Weekend Homesteader is finally back in stock on Amazon, just in time for you to get started on the first spring projects!

This post is part of our The $50 and Up Underground House Book lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Mar 26 12:00:49 2013 Tags:
2 plastic fuel containers sitting on a worm bin with hay field in background

We wanted to cut down trees today for the new pig pasture, but ran out of fuel.

There's a gas station 10 miles away, but they put ethanol in their product.
older Stihl chainsaw closeup
It turns out the closest ethanol free station is 20.1 miles away. I debated just getting some higher octane gas at the nearby station to save time, but decided against it since our Stihl MS-211 is only 2 years old and might be more vulnerable to the negative effects of ethanol.

Our local mechanic has a chainsaw that's 15 years old and he uses regular fuel with no problems, but agrees that the newer chainsaws might need to stay away from ethanol.

Posted Tue Mar 26 16:12:16 2013 Tags:
Snow on daffodils

Last year at this time, the strawberries were blooming, we were mowing the lawn for the first time, and we even watered a few garden beds to get seeds to come up quicker.  In contrast, the last week has brought two days of snow, more days of cold rain, and a fifteen-degree night.
Early spring grass
You can see what our grass currently looks like --- just barely starting to regrow in spots, but mostly winter-brown.  The only cultivated plants blooming are daffodils and crocuses, and I'm wishing I'd been more sparing of firewood  earlier in the year since I'm enjoying the warmth from the last of our dry wood as I type.

Warre hive entrance

The honeybees are just starting to have enough food to make it worth their while to be out flying.  In addition to the hazel bushes, other wild, wind-pollinated trees are starting to open their flowers, providing quite a bit of the high-value protein and fat source (pollen), if no ready sugars (nectar).  In the yard, purple dead-nettle, speedwell, and a few dandelions are serving up the earliest nectar, but it's a foraging expedition not a buffet.  Mostly, though, the bees are staying put because the temperatures have been too cold for hunting.

Gooseberry leaf

The Invicta Gooseberry is starting to leaf out, and a few pear buds have broken, but most of the rest of our perennials are barely accepting that spring is supposed to be here.

Swelling blueberry buds

Swelling peach budBlueberry buds are swelling, but not so much they seem daunted by the cold weather.  Similarly, peach flower buds are just barely starting to break dormancy, although many have clearly been nipped by the cold winter before this point.  (The photo to the left shows a dead flower bud on the far left, a living leaf bud in the center, and a living flower bud on the right.)

The moral of the story is that the garden is telling me to slow things down, so I am.  Even though I have broccoli and onion sets ready to go into the garden, there's no point transplanting them until the lows rise to the high 20s at least.  Maybe next week....

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock contented while they wait for spring.
Posted Wed Mar 27 08:28:25 2013 Tags:

First-Thought houseOne of the biggest differences between Mike Oehler's underground house and many other designs is that he faces his buildings uphill.  While houses opening downhill have a better view (and better potential for passive solar gain if you choose the right hillside), Oehler concluded they also have poor drainage, ventilation, and light.  In addition, this type of building (which he calls a "First-Thought House") has to be shored up very carefully since the weight of the hillside above is constantly pushing down on the structure.  Finally, First-Thought Houses generally have doors only on one side of the structure, which can be a fire hazard.

Underground house diagramIn contrast, Oehler's buildings are bright, sunny and well-ventilated inside due to his unique design.  In addition to digging out the house itself, he also excavates an uphill patio, which sucks up moisture flowing down the hill, holds back the hillside with terraces (that are easier to replace than walls of a house), and provides a shady garden area right outside the front door.  Then Oehler adds in an excavation for a side door (not shown in this diagram), which brings in light and air from the other side of the structure.  There's much more to the design than this, so you'll obviously want to check out the book if you want to give the technique a try, but this is the gist.

My caveats in the last post have much more to do with Oehler's construction methods (which I'll mention in later posts) than with the design (which I find fascinating).  On the other hand, I'm not so sure I see how his design promotes better drainage --- it looks to me like water running down the hillside would pool right at the front door (where Oehler adds French drains to move water around to the back).  Wouldn't you get better drainage from a First-Thought House, especially if you slant the roof down toward the front?

See if the Weekend Homesteader system is right for you by trying the first month for 99 cents.

This post is part of our The $50 and Up Underground House Book lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Mar 27 12:01:28 2013 Tags:
Lucy helping on truck creek crossing day

Lucy can often sense when a big event is going on and tries her best to lend a hand.

We've been improving the "driveway" up to the point of the creek and today was the day for crossing to the other side.

We got a little stuck, but the hand winch made short work of pulling it free.

Posted Wed Mar 27 15:19:40 2013 Tags:
Flying squirrel

Flying squirrel snagWhile working on clearing the pig pasture Wednesday, we flushed this flying squirrel out of its day-time hiding spot.  The squirrel scurried across the ground into the brush pile, but ten minutes later, B.J. caught it climbing up into a holey snag.  After deliberation (would the snag fall on the fence and ruin it?), we opted to leave the tree in place rather than cutting it down and forcing the flying squirrel to find a new home.

Flying squirrels are nocturnal, so day-dwellers are unlikely to see them.  I spent several evenings a decade or so ago staking out a spot where flying squirrels were known to live, hoping to catch a glimpse.  No luck then, so I was thrilled to see this wide-eyed rodent now.

Our chicken waterer keeps brooders dry even if you have to overcrowd chicks' quarters on cold spring days.
Posted Thu Mar 28 08:20:48 2013 Tags:

PSP constructionIn addition to the orientation of the house, Oehler's underground buildings are unique because of their building methods.  He calls his system PSP, which stands for Post/Shoring/Polyethylene.  I'll write about the polyethylene tomorrow, but will explain the framework today.

Basically, Oehler's houses are timber-frame structures sunk underground.  He uses dried and de-barked trees (western cedar and lodgepole pine) that are six to twelve inches in diameter to form posts and beams, notching them together so they create a rigid framework.  The Installing house postsinter-connected timbers hold back the force of the hillside because each wall is braced against the opposite side.

The polyethylene layer that I'll mention tomorrow keeps most of the wood dry, but the bottom 2.5 to 3 feet of the posts are exposed to soil moisture.  Oehler built his first houses by impregnating those portions of the wood with penta (a chemical preservative), which he no longer advocates.  Now, he prefers to char the wood, cool it, then wrap each end with five layers of garbage bags.  Unfortunately, his new method doesn't have as much longevity behind it, so you can't be sure how long it will last, but he does provide instructions for changing out the posts in an existing house if necessary.

Homegrown Humus sums up my experiments with using cover crops to increase fertility in a no-till garden.

This post is part of our The $50 and Up Underground House Book lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Mar 28 12:02:10 2013 Tags:
how to fix a leaking faucet

It's only been 2 months since we installed the new Minox stainless steel drinking water container and in that short time we've really grown to appreciate the increase in storage and attractive good looks.

The brass spigot we added to it developed a leak a few weeks ago. Once I took it apart the problem was obvious. It got overtightened once just before the leak, and I'm guessing the rubber washer got pinched and then dislodged.

It only took a few minutes to re-seat the washer where it belongs, which stopped the leak.

Posted Thu Mar 28 15:53:40 2013 Tags:
Change of plans

For the vegetable garden, I keep most of my data on a spreadsheet, which makes it easy to deal with variety changes.  It's much tougher to grid off trees and berries into permanently named regions, though, so I end up keeping variety locations on paper maps like the one above (with other data like source and planting date on a spreadsheet).  Paper maps are all good and well at first, but when trees die and new ones are planted, the maps start to get confusing.  Plus, I have a tendency to draw new maps but leave the old ones in the binder, so I often don't know which page is the most up to date.

Berry patch map

Planting a red currantI decided to take an hour on a snowy morning to get my notes in order so I knew what was where.  First stop was the blueberry patch, which is getting extra beds and species this winter.  In case you're reading the map above carefully, the mulberries have tiny little zones because I plan to keep them small via coppicing, using the leaves for silkworms.  The honeyberries, Siberian pea shrub, and mulberries haven't actually arrived yet, but should be here any day now, and the currants went in the ground Friday.

Tree map

And here's a zoomed-out map showing current tree locations, a printed copy of which will form the base for the next few years' annotations.  There's not much room for more perennials, but I hope to fill in the few gaps and then add trees into a new location or two --- perhaps the hill above the pig pasture, the shady zone north of the barn, or the equally shady valley south of the well.  Hopefully by the time I need to make the next revised map, all of the oldest trees will be in full fruit.

Our chicken waterer is the safe way to water chicks from day 1.
Posted Fri Mar 29 08:06:15 2013 Tags:

PSP constructionThe outer skin of Oehler's houses is a layer of polyethylene which is used as a moisture barrier to keep the walls from rotting.  Initially, he was using 4 to 6 mil plastic, but had upped that thickness to 6 to 10 mil by the time he wrote his book about greenhouses, and noted that he's now using EPDM pond liners for one of the two roof layers.

After making the framework of the house out of posts and beams, Oehler digs another narrow trench behind the walls and layers mill-ends (or other cheap boards) against the outside of the posts.  The plastic goes directly outside the mill-ends, and the whole wall is held together by the force of the earth rather than by any fasteners.

The roof gets a bit more fancy treatment, starting with a layer of building paper and polyethylene, covered by four inches of earth, another layer of plastic, then fourteen more inches of earth.  Eventually, plants will take hold there Living roofand create a living roof.

While a thin layer of plastic doesn't seem like much to keep an underground house dry, the design seems to be working, at least in Oehler's location.  As he points out in his book, you have to take his system as a whole rather than pick and choose if you want it to work --- presumably polyethylene wouldn't be enough to keep water out if you didn't plan the entire structure so water's always flowing away from the walls.

Stay tuned for another lunchtime series soon about his followup book, covering earth-sheltered greenhouses.

Escape the rat race with Microbusiness Independence.

This post is part of our The $50 and Up Underground House Book lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Fri Mar 29 12:00:44 2013 Tags:
cutting a large tree into firewood with wagon in background

All this pig pasture clearing is yielding some serious firewood.

BJ brought his brother and cousin over today who are pushing a wagon full in the background.

They also helped carry all the stock panels to the new pasture area.

Posted Fri Mar 29 16:11:39 2013 Tags:
Up the gully

Haul cattle panelsMark's got a useful saying for every occasion, and two of these gems came to mind on Friday.  Can "work smart not hard" involve paying someone else to do the impossible task of carrying 41 cattle panels and 82 fenceposts through a swamp and up a gully to the pig pasture?  (It's smart because we didn't have to do it!)

B.J.'s brother and step-cousin-once-removed (if I got that relationship right) did an amazing job of plugging along through the back-breaking labor.  A passel of these awesome cookies helped.  (I'd lower the sugar content by 25% to 50% for adults, but the kids ate about 70% of the batch as-is.)

"If you're going to break a man do it on a Friday."  Yep, this one definitely applies.  The question is, if you break a man on a Friday, will he come back Monday to continue working through the rest of his spring break?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to traditional, filthy chicken waterers.
Posted Sat Mar 30 07:39:54 2013 Tags:
MeetUp plant swap Saturday at Tractor Supply in Kingsport TN
Thanks goes out to everybody who showed up for our 2nd MeetUp Plant Swap today.
Posted Sat Mar 30 16:13:37 2013 Tags:

We piggy-backed on the nearest Tractor Supply Animal Swap for our most recent meetup in hopes that we'd get more random strangers dropping by.  And the location was successful in that I spread Egyptian onions to another half dozen homes and met some interesting people.  Unfortunately, I don't think any of those people are interested in our our meetup group.


Sarah, Mark, and I brainstormed over lunch afterwards and concluded that our meetups have had too high of a barrier to participation.  After all, even if I say that you can come to a swap with nothing to share, most folks would feel odd about showing up to take if they don't bring something to give.  So we're going to try more of a traditional meetup next time, with everyone converging on Sarah's place just to hang out and get to know each other.  (Date to be announced --- join our group if you'd like to hear more details as they come down the pike.)  Mark's also promised to come up with a more melodious name that still gets the point across.


Building like-minded community is tricky if you're extremely picky and antisocial, but we'll keep plugging away.  After all, B.J. is proof that interesting and interested people live right down the road --- our job is to find them.

Our chicken waterer is the perfect gift to go along with those Easter chicks.
Posted Sun Mar 31 08:34:21 2013 Tags:

what's the best way to start a chainsaw?When we asked BJ to cut up some firewood last week I noticed he was starting the Stihl MS-211 chainsaw on the ground with his foot on the handle.

It's a Stihl approved method, the handle is made for foot placement, but a little awkward.

I showed him the stand up starting method and he likes it better, but we had some trouble on the second lesson. It took him a while to get the hang of holding the rope end while "pushing" the saw downward resulting in a flooded engine. I tried taking the spark plug out and drying it, but we had to end up waiting till the next day for more tree cutting.

Posted Sun Mar 31 15:05:09 2013 Tags:

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

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