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

archives for 04/2013

Apr 2013

Chelsea Green sent me a review copy of Holistic Orcharding with Michael Phillips to peruse, and I enjoyed the way the video rounded out the information found in the companion book.  Even though I'm more of a reader than a watcher (and thus probably wouldn't have spent $50 on the DVD), I was enthralled to see a holistic apple orchard in action.

GraftingThe video mostly covers the same topics as the book, but you'll almost certainly learn something new.  For example, I discovered that Phillips kill mulches with used sheet rock, providing both weed-supression and the addition of gypsum to the soil.  I also enjoyed seeing how he makes his grafting cuts (pulling the knife toward him for more control), and learning that the sugars binding pelleted lime together provide microorganism food that helps the calcium work into the soil faster than unpelleted lime would.

Wolf River appleThe video was five hours long, and I'll admit that my eyes glazed over in places (notably when Phillips started talking about his organic sprays).  But at other times, I felt like I was in his orchard and almost able to take a bite out of the heirloom varieties Phillips was describing as he plucked them crisp from the tree.  I loved that Phillips was wearing his work clothes and had dirty fingers, and I actually wished we'd gotten to meet his wife as well.  A final positive, the DVD is extremely well indexed, so I'll be able to refer back to information on specific topics quickly in later years when I need a refresher on pest insects, herbal teas, or what have you.

Title menuThe short version is --- if you get a chance to watch this DVD, definitely do so.  And, if you're more of a watcher than a reader, it may well be worth the steep price tag.  In fact, at this instant, the DVD seems to be on sale for $32 on Chelsea Green's website  (although I didn't click through to find out if shipping was extra), so it might be more reasonably priced than I thought.

(And now I really want more apple trees.)

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free way to make chicken chores fun.
Posted Mon Apr 1 08:33:17 2013 Tags:

The Earth-shelttered Solar Greenhouse BookThe Earth-Sheltered Solar Greenhouse Book is similar to Mike Oehler's The $50 Underground House Book, with all of the usual self-published pros and cons.  I was a bit more disappointed in the greenhouse book than in the earlier text because I felt the former used large print to extend the page count, and the typos were a little excessive.  But it was interesting to see how the author built a greenhouse for $400 using the same techniques he uses to make underground houses.  (He estimates a greenhouse built using his methods and new supplies would instead cost about $1,250 for a 32-square-foot grow area.)  And I enjoyed the copious illustrations and the anecdotes about happenings at Rainbow Gatherings.

On the other hand, Oehler is clearly more of a builder than he is a gardener.  His greenhouse book is full of theory, but when it comes to the practical elements, it turns out he's only getting about as much out of his greenhouse as we do out of our quick hoops.  Granted, I estimate Oehler lives about one zone colder than us, but if I were to build a greenhouse, I'd want it to do more than provide kale for the winter and tomatoes in early December.  Still, I found some greenhouse-building tips to regale you with for the rest of the week, so stay tuned.

Start your homesteading journey with easy projects in Weekend Homesteader.

Read more about sunrooms in this 99 cent ebook!This post is part of our Earth-Sheltered Solar Greenhouse lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Mon Apr 1 12:02:02 2013 Tags:
Chicken pasture gate with alternative DIY dog door installed

Our first DIY dog door didn't work out so well.

This plastic lattice material is attached at the top with some 16 gauge galvanized wire so that it will hang free and swing whichever way Lucy is going.

Stay tuned to see if this helps keep Lucy from chewing holes in our chicken pasture fence.

Posted Mon Apr 1 16:17:07 2013 Tags:

Callused mulberry cuttingsI sent some Illinois everbearing mulberry cuttings to a reader who wanted to experiment with their propagation, and asked that he give me some details on how his experiments panned out.  Last week, Gary wrote back to tell me:

"On the rootings front, I tried two approaches.  First approach was to just put the cuttings, dipped in rooting hormone, in rooting medium.  I have propagated red mulberry this way in the past without much issue, although more summertime softwood cuttings than hardwood cuttings, but I have just stuck red mulberry hardwood cuttings in the soil and had success in the past.  On the Illinois Everbearing, I had plenty of bud break and early leaf growth but no callus or rooting so far.  I don't think any are going to root in time to survive.

"My second approach was to dip in rooting hormone, wrap in moist newspaper, roll in a black plastic bag and place over a furnace register.  A similar approach that I use successfully for grape vine cuttings.  On inspection last night I have callus starting to form on three of the four I.E. Mulberry cuttings using this method.  [See photo above.]  They are still a few days to a week away from planting in a rooting medium but I am encouraged by good callus formation.

"I'll share another update in a month or so with updates on rooting and with early results from my grafting efforts."

Mulberry budAs a side note, I decided to try my own mulberry experiments at the same time I sent cuttings to Gary.  I soaked them in willow rooting hormone for a day, then put four cuttings in a pot inside and about a dozen straight into the ground outside.

As you can see, one of the cuttings inside is breaking dormancy already, which is actually a bad thing since that cutting shows no signs of growing roots.  On the other hand, a differnt one of the four indoor mulberry cuttings and perhaps three of the outdoor mulberry cuttings show some resistance to the tug test, suggesting they might be growing roots.  I'll post again when the time comes to repot and I know what kind of root growth (if any) comes from my simple propagation method.

Our chicken waterer is safe for chicks from day 1.
Posted Tue Apr 2 08:03:26 2013 Tags:

Underground greenhouseI've written previously about a couple of other insulated greenhouses, so I thought I'd focus here on what makes Oehler's design different.

The most obviously unique feature of Oehler's greenhouse is the cold sink --- a lower aisle near the front.  The original purpose of the cold sink was to give Oehler head space on the downhill side of the greenhouse without requiring so much excavation on the uphill side.  But, as the name suggests, this lower aisle also allows cold air to pool away from the plants.  The cold sink is pushed up against the south wall, an area that is usually in shadow during the winter and is thus of little use for growing plants.

Using the earth as insulation and thermal mass is another difference between Oehler's greenhouse and many others you'll see.  He recommends using either water tanks or masonry to turn the north wall into a heat battery, soaking up the sun's rays during the day and radiating the warmth back out into the greenhouse at night.  Insulating behind the upper three feet of the wall keeps out cold air from above, but Oehler feels you should leave the rest of the north wall uninsulated to let the soil continue the heat-battery concept.  Similarly, he feels that you'll actually get more warmth in the greenhouse over the long run if you sink the east and west walls into the ground rather than covering them with windows.

Greenhouse glazing angleAnother design factor Oehler brought up is the angle of the glazing.  (More on the glazing material in a later post.)  Oehler has found that you get the best light penetration if the sun is perpendicular to the glazing surface, meaning that you'll need to plan for which time(s) of year you want the most light.  One option is to raise the south wall out of the earth at an angle, perhaps matching that to the sun's angle at the winter solstice (around 30 degrees here), then matching the roof glazing to the sun angle at the equinoxes (around 53 degrees here).  Alternatively, you might choose different angles if you're mostly using the greenhouse during the spring, summer, and fall and want full light penetration during those times rather than during the dead of winter.

Finally, Oehler recommends that we learn from his mistakes and provide much more ventilation than he originally planned for.  He's found that plywood at the peak of the roof doesn't shade the interior at all except at the summer solstice (a time when you're likely to have the vents open), and that wood makes vent-construction easier.  With 20/20 hindsight, Oehler recommends covering the entire peak of the greenhouse with these vents, and also including cold-air intake vents somewhere lower down (like at the bottom of the door).

Trailersteading will inspire you to go back to the land on the cheap.

Read more about sunrooms in this 99 cent ebook!This post is part of our Earth-Sheltered Solar Greenhouse lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Tue Apr 2 12:01:36 2013 Tags:
How to make a low budget diy dog door from scrap parts of plastic lattice material

We got the new gate with dog door finished today.

It swings nice and free and feels like it might solve the problem.

I ended up adding a small piece of wood to the bottom of the dog door to keep the wind from blowing it and inviting chickens through.

Posted Tue Apr 2 15:57:23 2013 Tags:
Frost on dead nettle

We're still getting nights down in the low 20s, but spring decided it had better start anyway.  The buds on the peach trees are just barely starting to show pink, and I finally saw the first spring beauty flowers in the woods last weekend.

Dewy clover

Meanwhile, surprises are popping up around the yard.  I tossed a bunch of red clover seeds in the gully last year after the briars got cleared away, but I assumed they'd bitten the dust since I never saw hide nor hair of the plants.  But while walking through the gully to get to the new dog door gate, I noticed several big clumps of clover coming up in the damp soil of the gully bottom.  Maybe we'll do some soil building down there after all!

New peony leaves

Along the western fence, I'd planted three peonies Mom split from her own collection last summer.  I  kill mulched around them, but didn't give them much love, and the plants soon shriveled up and died.  I let Mark start mowing over the peony patch in mid summer, but while walking past the mulched spot this spring, I saw shiny red leaves.  Two of the three peony plants have come back from the dead --- happy zombie peony day!

Don't you love spring surprises?  What popped up in your garden this year that you'd forgotten about or given up on?

The Avian Aqua Miser keeps daily chicken chores to a minimum while providing fresh water for your flock.
Posted Wed Apr 3 07:38:18 2013 Tags:

Greenhouse-glazing choicesChoosing the glazing for a greenhouse is one of the trickiest parts of the design process.  Most people choose thin sheets of so-called greenhouse plastic, the cheapest of which you can often buy locally at a hardware store.  Unfortunately, Oehler reports that this ultra-low-end plastic usually only lasts about a year.  He finds that the 6 mil, UV-treated plastic available at greenhouse-specialty shops lasts a bit longer (up to four years), but not long enough to be worth the additional price.

Moving into the more expensive but more long-lived choices, there are various types of rigid plastics you can use in greenhouses.  None of these plastics will last as long as glass since they slowly yellow (blocking light) over time, and since scratches will speed up the decline in light penetration.  On the other hand, rigid plastic is safer than glass (especially on roofs) because the plastic won't shatter, and plastic is considerably lighter, making it easier to work with.

At the high end, acrylic (aka plexiglass) lasts the longest (25 to 30 years) and gives you the best visibility if view is important to you.  Polycarbonate is a slightly cheaper choice, staying clear for about a decade, or up to 35 years if you choose a version that's been UV-treated.  Oehler notes that he would probably choose polycarbonate for future roofs.

Earth-sheltered greenhouseFor the walls, Oehler is a fan of scavenging old windows, especially if you can find double-strength B grade.  Glass is much heavier than plastics, which makes installation tougher, especially if you double up windows to provide an insulated air space in between.  But windows can often be found used or cheap, making them the lowest-cost building option.

None of the glazing options have spoken to me in the past, which is one of the big reasons I've been anti-greenhouse.  So I'm curious to hear from readers who have experience with greenhouses.  Which type of glazing did you choose and how long did it last?

Make your garden more productive with easy cover crops.

Read more about sunrooms in this 99 cent ebook!This post is part of our Earth-Sheltered Solar Greenhouse lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Wed Apr 3 12:02:34 2013 Tags:
drilling mushroom log holes with hay field in background

We got some of our new mushroom logs drilled, plugged, and sealed today.

This is the first year we tried doing it with the DeWalt impact driver. It seems to do a fine job as long as the battery holds out and you have one of those bits that slide in.

Posted Wed Apr 3 16:05:37 2013 Tags:
Trailer kitchen

Interior design is one of my worst subjects, mostly because all I really care about is being able to look out windows.  I also like small spaces --- I vividly remember pit-stops during long family car trips where I closed the door on the bathroom stall and just wished I could stay in that tiny space for the rest of the day.  So I was perfectly happy squeezing our tiny table (a coffee table up on cinderblocks) into the spot in the kitchen between the fridge and the sink.  It drove Mark's long-legged self a bit nutty, though, to fold into such a tiny space for two meals a day, so last fall I rearranged everything and put a kitchen island where the table was, moving the table to the bay of south-facing windows.

Dining nook

More room made for a happy Mark, and I liked the new view.  The only real downside was that I'd planted a mass of spring flowers under the kitchen peach tree for us to enjoy at this time of year, and now the flowers are out of sight.

Plant table

PropagationBut then seed-starting time came and I realized the other flaw in my plan --- our dining table is now located where I used to mass plants to enjoy spring sunlight before they moved outside. 

So we rearranged again to make space for a card table that was immediately full of cuttings, seedlings, and perennials.
  These guys are all slated to move outside sooner (weeks ago for the onions, but it kept being too cold) or later (the frost-free date for the cuttings and tindora).  Mark is once again happy to have them out from under the table, off the top of the fridge, and off the edge of the dining table.  Thanks for putting up with my plant hoarding, Mark!

Our chicken waterer keeps brooders dry and chicks growing fast and furious.
Posted Thu Apr 4 07:55:26 2013 Tags:
Plants through a window

So why am I writing a whole lunchtime series about greenhouses when I've been adamantly anti-greenhouse in the past?  Oehler's less-than-exciting results aside, Toensmeier and others have shown that you can get more out of an unheated greenhouse than I'd seen elsewhere.  But, mostly, I'm just trying to figure out how to keep our dwarf lemon tree growing.

In the winter of 2011-2012, our potted lemon tree provided thirty-some lemons from its large pot in the East Wing.  However, a variety of factors worked against our darling tree over the ensuing year, so we only enjoyed four measly lemons this winter.  Part of the problem won't happen again --- the cicadas laid eggs in the stems just like they did in everything else, and I pruned the roots too drastically in an effort to keep the plant from becoming root-bound. 

Sun closetHowever, the biggest issue is that Mark changed his use-patterns and ended up putting a wall in front of the windows in the East Wing so he wouldn't have sun glaring in his eyes while he rested.  To tend to the dwarf citrus at the moment, I first have to climb over a sofa and slip into a three-foot-wide closet, trying not to hit my head on a brace-beam.  Suffice it to say that I've barely given the plants the watering they crave and have completely avoided any extra TLC.  And the citrus show the neglect by sitting there and scowling at me (which makes me want even less to visit their den).

The ailing lemon has dampened my mood this winter, and Mark and I eventually decided we didn't want to go through another year of this.  We'll either give our darling lemon tree away, or make it an accessible home by the end of the year.  Unfortunately, there's no window space in the trailer for a lemon tree, and since the East Wing is now out, any sunny window would have to be in a newly constructed space.

New grow area

Two alternatives are currently in the running.  Option one is to build a little nook in front of the trailer, just like the wood stove alcove but a hair bigger.  Since this area would open into the trailer right by a heat source, it probably wouldn't be take much extra wood to keep the lemon tree above freezing therein.  As an added bonus, a second round of glazing outside our south face of windows would insulate the glass and help hold heat within the trailer itself.  (As a side note, I had written last summer about the possibility of turning our south-facing porch into a sunroom, but a winter of cogitation showed us that we really like that area as a porch and that it feels too big to heat for our small family.)

The second option is to build a passive solar greenhouse into the south-facing side of the gully.  This would be a much larger project, and has the disadvantage that it wouldn't be connected to a building, so if I didn't design it well enough to stay above freezing due to passive solar heating and thermal mass, I'd be heating what's essentially the outdoors.  On the other hand, a greenhouse down there would give me more room to play with other plants --- currently I've completely filled up the area under the table and on top of the fridge with rooting cuttings, and could use more space.  In addition, the gully gets much more sun than the front of the trailer in the winter months.

Luckily, we have plenty of time to ponder the project, and the worst case scenario would consist of one of our friends getting a stellar house plant, so that's not all bad either.  In the meantime, we'll keep thinking....

Skip past all the beginner mistakes with my chicken ebooks.

Read more about sunrooms in this 99 cent ebook!This post is part of our Earth-Sheltered Solar Greenhouse lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted Thu Apr 4 12:02:10 2013 Tags:
image of home made gate with dog door

I made another gate with a dog door today.

It started raining before I got a chance to hang it.

Posted Thu Apr 4 16:42:09 2013 Tags:
Putting together a quick hoop

The only thing dependable about the weather this week has been its sheer undependability.  Yes, that's sleet in my hair on a morning that was supposed to be warm and sunny according to Monday's forecast.  I rushed to seed carrots, parsley, lettuce (third planting), and tomatoes (under a quick hoop) before the sleet turned into cold, drenching rains.

Garden scratch protection

Unfortunately, our animals are more dependable than the spring weather.  Lucy hasn't seemed as interested in sitting on our newly seeded beds as she has in past years, but the cats have been busy using the soft ground as a toilet and the chickens have been breaking in to scratch new seedlings out of the soil.  I'm trying an ultra-simple scratch deterrent this year --- just a plastic trellis on each  newly-seeded bed until the plants are up enough to be mulched.  Within a month, our animals will have gotten sick of raising my blood pressure, and I won't have to protect the new beds any longer.

What didn't happen this week was onions, broccoli, and cabbage sets going out into the ground.  I really, really want these seedlings out of the house --- they're already weeks late --- but the forecast low for tonight is 36, which could mean 26 on our north-facing slope, so we'll wait a few more days.  I would like to say next week will be warm and sunny and perfect for transplanting, but those 10-day forecasts are notoriously undependable.

Our chicken waterer keeps our hens in tip-top health, so they have plenty of brain power to spare figuring out how to get into the garden.
Posted Fri Apr 5 07:47:21 2013 Tags:
finishing up a gate with dog door at bottom for Lucy

With any luck this will be the last morning we wake up with chickens in the garden.

It only took Lucy a few minutes to figure out the nose lifting thing.

I made it wide so an ATV and golf cart could fit through.

Posted Fri Apr 5 16:04:13 2013 Tags:
Walking down a steep hillside

I'm always astonished by my ability to think strongly sloping land is flat.  I just don't notice a slope unless it looks like the photo above.

Homestead planning

Luckily, Mark is better at geometry than I am.  Taking a look at the hillside above the pig pasture, he pronounced it too steep for easy pasturing or orcharding.  Sure, the top of the hill is (semi) flat, but there's no way a wheeled vehicle could get up there without a lot of work, so how did I plan to haul the apples home?  Honestly, I'm not sure I'd envisioned the trees getting all the way to bearing age....

So I've taken that hillside off the table as a potential orchard, at least for the near future.  We might still use the slope later if we suddenly have a lot of manpower to terrace it, or if we want to make a hillside pasture.  But for now, I'll have to keep looking for a flat, dry, and not-too-shady spot for more fruit-tree experimentation. 

Cutting up trees

The good news is, ditching the orchard dream up above will expedite the current pasture project since we won't have to take down any more trees.  We got sidetracked by the garden, chicken incursions, and mushrooms this week, but hopefully we'll be back on track with pasture building next week.

The Avian Aqua Miser is the POOP-free alternative to traditional, filthy chicken waterers.
Posted Sat Apr 6 07:53:45 2013 Tags:

pro line chest wadersThe new Pro-Line chest waders have already sprung a leak!

I'm not sure what happened, but my third trip across the creek resulted in my left sock being soaked from the ankle down.

There's a pretty good sized cut in the boot section and I don't recall rubbing up against anything sharp.

The folks we bought them from have already agreed to take them back and pay the shipping, but there're no Federal Express stores in this region and I found out the hard way a location with a drop box won't accept it if it won't fit in the box.

Posted Sat Apr 6 13:55:57 2013 Tags:
Opening peach bud

Spider on dead nettleThis is going to be spring bonanza week --- I can feel it!  I did see a mourning cloak butterfly two weeks ago, but most of the spring insects started showing up Friday when a greater bee fly and eastern tiger swallowtail both flitted across my field of view in a matter of minutes.  The eaters of the spring insects are also coming out in force, like the spider waiting on the dead nettle to the right.

And, sure enough, the pollinators are right --- the main show of flowers is just about to begin.  I found rue anemones and hepatica blooming in the woods Saturday, and the first peach buds are on the verge of unfurling.  It was good of them to wait until after the last 28 degree night for a while.

Spring lettuce

In the garden, we ate the first spring lettuce last week.  The second planting of peas is up, and so are broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, and arugula under quick hoops.

New comfrey leaves

Comfrey leaves are getting big and the Egyptian onions are vibrant with spring vigor.  It's been a late spring, but that just means we enjoy it more after weeks of anticipation!

Our chicken waterer helps the flock enjoy spring weather with refreshing, clean water.
Posted Sun Apr 7 07:56:23 2013 Tags:
On the way to town

Roland asked what was next, a drysuit?  Last week, I just rushed to town before the creek rose too high.

Posted Sun Apr 7 16:13:15 2013 Tags:
Frank Hoyt Taylor

Update: This opportunity is now closed!

Back in the original homesteading days, mail-order brides were a common feature on the frontier, and our movie-star neighbor would like to turn back the clock and find his own.  While he was out adding a super to his bee hive over the weekend, he couldn't help musing that the only thing marring his happiness was the absence of a female partner in his homesteading endeavors.  Hopefully one of you can fill that gap!

Appalachian farmOur neighbor lives in an intentional community with lots of land to make your homesteading dreams come true.  He loves his bees and his garden, is a top-notch cook and a great preserver, and he also likes to play golf, enjoy good movies, and dine out.  He often has the opportunity to travel for work, and hopes his mate would like to go with him.

On a more personal note, our neighbor is a true gentleman and is one of the few people I go out of my way to see on a regular basis.  In the winter, I love dropping by to warm my hands on the water-rounded stones he selects out of the nearby river, and I'm always intrigued by his ingenuity, gripping stories, craftsmanship, kindness, and artistic sense.  Plus, his lemon tree is just plain amazing.

Edited to add: Our neighbor is no longer looking for a mail-order bride, so the contact information has been removed.

If you have a copy of my book, you can read more about our neighbor on pages 3 and 135-137.
Posted Mon Apr 8 08:06:15 2013 Tags:
more details on the new gate
There's been zero chickens in the garden lately thanks to the new gate.
Posted Mon Apr 8 16:21:08 2013 Tags:
Anna Onion day
Spring garden

I feel a bit like a kid who swears the dog ate her homework when year after year I have to report trials and tribulations with our bulb onions.  Unfortunately, this year is no different.

Pot of baby onions

The problems began on February 1 when I started onion seeds saved from last year in the same plastic flats I've been using for seven years now.  Even though my germination test said the onion seeds were pretty good, not very many came up, and most of those that did sprout soon damped off.

I think the problem was partially due to fungi hanging out in the plastic flat, but it was exacerbated by old, unvigorous seeds and by cold weather that prevented me from putting the flats outside to enjoy the sunshine.  Cool, damp, dark conditions were perfect for the damping-off fungus to colonize weakened seedlings, but I was able to get another set of seeds going by putting newly-bought seeds in a pot instead of in the problematic flats.

Onion sets

I had been concerned that a pot of onion seedlings would be trouble to transplant, and I did have to gently tease each seedling apart, doubling my transplant time.  I don't mind the extra minutes, though, as long as these guys take.

Since I'd been counting on the old seeds germinating, I only bought half as many new seeds as I needed, so I was only able to plant seven beds (the same number as last year) instead of the fourteen beds I'd hoped would take us through the year without storebought onions.  Which is all a long way of saying --- I need all of the seedlings I set out Monday to survive!

Watering in a transplant

I think next year I may hedge my bets by planting a bed of onion seeds close together under a quick hoop the same way I do broccoli and cabbage.  Planting directly into the ground avoids so many problems with indoor seed-starting, with the only minor inconvenience being that you have to wait on the weather.  But I'll also try to disinfect my flats and will plan to buy new onion seeds every year, which might also solve the problem.  Maybe 2014 will finally be the year of the onion?

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.
Posted Tue Apr 9 07:23:48 2013 Tags:
cutting plastic with jig saw

I first started cutting these DIY plastic lattice dog doors with the miter saw, but figured out today that a jig saw makes the job smooth and easier.

Posted Tue Apr 9 16:26:34 2013 Tags:
Garden weeding

Peach blossomOf course, the arrival of warm weather also means the weeds are starting to grow a mile a minute.  Although quite pretty, I'm sure the dead nettle and chickweed choking out my garlic plants were depriving the vegetables of much-needed nutrients.  So I roped B.J. into helping me weed, and we made short work of about a third of the front garden beds.

And, look, the tree flowers are finally opening!  Nanking cherries and sporadic buds on the peaches have unfurled, but the main event is still a few days off.

I'm reveling in barefoot weather, listening to toads trilling at night, and dreaming of SPRING!

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chickens, ducks, turkeys, and more.
Posted Wed Apr 10 07:41:43 2013 Tags:

non-mortise hinge close up I first started using plain old hinges for the new plastic lattice dog doors.

These non-mortise hinges allow for a full swing in both directions. I'm not sure Lucy would notice, but the exit swing with a regular hinge stops sooner than the entrance side. This could be a factor with bigger dogs, but Lucy just scoots down to get through.

Posted Wed Apr 10 14:17:16 2013 Tags:
Spring laundry

Drinking catWith highs forecast to reach the 80s Wednesday, I figured I might as well steal an hour away from the garden to start on winter laundry.  Sure enough, sheets dried by lunch, in time to fill the line up again!

On an unrelated note, I thought for sure my three tiny goldfish had perished in the cold weather last month, but two were seen swimming around Monday.  Yet another pleasant spring surprise!

Our chicken waterer keeps plenty of fresh water available to our flock on hot spring days.
Posted Thu Apr 11 07:27:20 2013 Tags:
man using chainsaw to clear space for a new pig pasture experiment

More pig pasture clearing today.

The new goal is to clear an ATV path so we can get all this fresh firewood out of the way and in the wood shed.

Yes...that means we've decided to get an ATV. It might even be part of tomorrow's post if everything goes as planned on my Friday trip to St Paul.

Posted Thu Apr 11 15:37:24 2013 Tags:
Inside bee hive

Screened hive quiltUsually, a warre hive wouldn't be opened at all in the spring, but the last time I delved inside, I noticed that I can't change the water-absorbent material in the quilt without bothering the bees because workers have gnawed through the burlap bottom.  So I opted to upgrade the quilt to include a screen bottom, which meant taking the current quilt off to swap.  (I forgot, though, that the real issue was the burlap layer beneath the quilt --- I'll have to upgrade that layer later.)

Spring hive check

Smokers are similarly verboten in warre hives, but I was less than pleased at the bees' reaction to their second nadiring last year, so I decided to go ahead and smoke lightly.  After all, I was only affecting the bees directly under the quilt since I didn't open the rest of the hive up.  With the smoker in hand, the bees were so calm I omitted gloves and could Empty combshave gotten away without any gear at all.

I did take a photo from underneath and a couple down through the bars in the top box to get an idea what's going on inside.  The bottom box (of three) is showing very little activity, but the top box looks like it's got at least some capped honey, which is a great sign for April.  The whole structure was literally buzzing with life.

Winter hive debris

Hive debris closeupMy final task at the hive was to remove the board so that the screened bottom was once again exposed.  Quite a lot of debris had built up over the winter, mostly bee legs, pollen clusters, and capping wax.  The open bottom will allow for much-needed ventilation over the summer, and will also let debris like this fall to the ground, keeping diseases away from our bees.

I'm still on the fence about how to expand our apiary this year.  If I don't make a decision soon, I'll go with the obvious (but less sweet) option of splitting this hive in May.  Stay tuned for further thoughts on the topic in later posts.

Our chicken waterer keeps chicks dry and hens happy.
Posted Fri Apr 12 07:31:36 2013 Tags:
Polaris Xplorer green ATV

We bought a used Polaris Xplorer ATV today.

It's in good shape and runs like a dream.

I think that smile on my face is connected to a memory of being 6 years old and playing with Tonka trucks in the backyard sand box.

Posted Fri Apr 12 16:58:44 2013 Tags:
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on peach tree

This is my favorite time for strolling amid the perennials, supposedly checking up on how they survived the winter, but really dreaming of fruits to come.  (By the way, the bird above is a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher who is hopefully eating bad bugs on the kitchen peach tree.)

Peach flowers

All four of our peaches have bloomed prolifically this year.  A heavy rain Thursday night knocked off some petals and prompted leaves to start pushing out of the buds, so the trees are now past their prime from a beauty perspective.  From a dreaming perspective, though, they're still at their peak --- I'm working hard not to count any peaches until they're ripe.

Song Sparrow on apple tree

Apple flower budsMeanwhile, this may be the year of our first homegrown apple!  The Song Sparrow above is pictured on our Early Transparent, which only has a few flower buds, but the Virginia Beauty is loaded.  I'm hoping we'll see fruit set on the latter, and I wouldn't be shocked if we got one or two Early Transparents and Liberties too.

Our high density apple planting also looks to be loaded with blooms.  Since I just planted these dwarf trees last fall, I'm assuming I should pluck all of the flowers off (perhaps after giving them a chance to pollinate our larger trees), but I'm open to suggestions.

Blueberry flower buds

Honeyberry budsMoving on to small fruits, our brambles plug along with little need for concern, and are happily leafing out.  We had a lot of cicada damage in the blueberry patch, so only about half the plants have limbs old enough to bear, but those seem to be heavy with flower buds.  And the gooseberries are also looking good, although I didn't notice any flowers yet.  Finally, one of our newly-planted honeyberries seems to have come mature enough to flower --- I'll pick those blooms off along with the dwarf apples', even though I'm itching to find out what a honeyberry tastes like.

Nipped pear leaves

I also noticed that the two baby pears I set out during cold weather did get a little nipped, but are happily putting out new leaves.  Our bigger pears are now leafing out too, but I haven't seen any sign of budbreak on the scionwood I grafted onto their limbs.  I'm not overly concerned since buds on scionwood often don't open as quickly as the rootstock buds.

This post is already too long, so you'll have to wait until tomorrow for highlights of nonwoody perennials and the vegetable garden.  I know it doesn't look like it, but I really did edit down the number of photos I was originally going to share with you today....

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution that makes poultry easy and fun.
Posted Sat Apr 13 07:00:09 2013 Tags:
using ATV to ferry passengers across the creek

Yes...there's a clear warning printed on the ATV seat about the dangers of riding with a passenger, but we decided a quick trip across the creek with Anna's sister Dani would be safe enough.

I could see where having a passenger might be hazardous at high speeds or during a tight turn or a steep climb, but today's experiment felt very safe.

Of course Anna and I practiced it once this morning to be sure.

Posted Sat Apr 13 17:03:45 2013 Tags:
New strawberry leaves

Yesterday, I posted about how the woody perennials are coming along.  Although less riveting, the vegetable garden is definitely springing to life as well.

Of course, perennials and over-winterers wake up long before new seedlings make much of a showing.  I've been concerned that my mineral-burned strawberries were worse-off New rhubarb leavesthan I'd first estimated, but it turns out they've simply been running slowly just like everything else this year.  At long last, new leaves are finally starting to turn the strawberry beds green, although flower buds aren't yet evident.

Rhubarb is also growing quickly, with stems nearly big enough to eat.  And I found two beautiful spears in asparagus alley --- too bad those plants were started from seed last year and are off limits for picking until 2014.  Hopefully the older (but more shaded) asparagus plants will start popping up soon.

Weedy garden

The most obvious feature about the rest of the vegetable garden is the grain (probably rye) that came along for the ride in last year's straw mulch.  Mark will have to mow the aisles next week simply to whack back the grain along the bed edges, even though the grass isn't really tall enough to need it.  I've been pulling out grain plants in the beds themselves, which is easy in moist soil.

Jewelweed seedlings

Swiss chard seedlingsAnd even though I probably shouldn't find it exciting, I'm even happy to see the first summer weeds sprouting.  Jewelweed (above) will probably be nipped by a late frost, but it clearly thinks the soil is warm enough to gamble.  My planted seeds (like the Swiss chard to the right) agree and are popping up right and left.

My main task in the vegetable garden in April is weeding and refreshing mulch, which is going much more quickly this year than previously.  Three man-hours resulted in 34 beds of garlic, Egyptian onions, herbs, and strawberries weeded, and then another hour added enough new straw to carry them through until summer.  At this time of year, it's a pleasure to be sinking my hands into the earth, but speedy weeding does give me more time to experiment with other projects.

The Avian Aqua Miser is Mark's invention that has been enjoyed by chicken-keepers across the U.S. and around the world.
Posted Sun Apr 14 07:45:30 2013 Tags:
mark Chick race
new chicks strutting around the garden
Our first round of chicks are getting big and almost ready for their own pasture.
Posted Sun Apr 14 15:13:35 2013 Tags:
Colorful beans

Dani brought me a bag of the prettiest dried beans I'd ever seen.  When she explained about Jack beans on the phone ("they grow so fast and tall, it's like Jack and the beanstalk"), I'd assumed the name was just another description for lablab (aka hyacinth beans, Lablab purpureus).  But it turns out Jack beans are completely different --- Canavalia sp. --- although they are edible and have also been used as a living mulch. 

On the other hand, an image search suggests that these beans might actually be scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus).  Many people grow scarlet runner beans purely for their ornamental flowers, but the beans and tubers are both edible.

Scarlet runner beans

Ever since I saw photos (which I included in Trailersteading) of a trailer shaded and spiced up by an arbor covered with fast-growing plants, I've been meaning to follow suit in front of our south-facing windows.  Originally, I'd thought of putting perennials there --- maybe hardy kiwis or hops --- but since we're pondering using that space as a greenhouse addition in the future, annuals look better for 2013.  Mystery beans it is!

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.
Posted Mon Apr 15 07:05:19 2013 Tags:
mowing the Mule garden for the first time of 2013
It's difficult to describe how mechanically excited I get when the old Craftsman lawn mower begins the year by starting on the second pull.
Posted Mon Apr 15 16:30:39 2013 Tags:

I'm only willing to carry so  many pots in and out when the nights are still cold.  But now that we've got at least a week of above-40 nights planned, I figure I can give our sad-looking seedlings a little more space.  The light will do them more good than the room, but both will probably be appreciated for the next month before we can safely set tender vegetables out in the ground.

Separating tindora plants

The one plant that thrived despite low light levels inside was the tindora (perennial cucumber) from a reader.  I had put all of the tubers in one pot when they first came because I wasn't sure how well they'd do, and that decision was fine for most of the winter when the cucumbers sulked through chilly indoor nights.  However, as soon as it started warming up, the tindora took off and started vining across everyone else.  Time to give each plant its own pot.

Perennial cucumber

It's a good thing the tindora is thriving since it's one of the few inside plants that isn't just an early gamble for which I have outdoor backups.  If some of my sad-looking tomato seedlings perk up, they'll probably mean homegrown fruits about a week earlier, but that's not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things since the quick-hoops starts will definitely provide the majority of our harvest.

Our chicken waterer keeps all three of our current sets of chickens well-hydrated, from the day-olds to the month-olds to the laying hens.
Posted Tue Apr 16 07:21:33 2013 Tags:
moving chicks from brooder to coop

How do we move the older chicks from their outdoor brooder to a new coop?

Anna hands me two, and then she scoops up two and we walk them over.

We didn't have an even number today, which meant someone had to stay behind alone for a few minutes. In the future we'll try to avoid that because the little guy kind of freaked out being alone and flew the coop. Luckily all we had to do was open the brood coop door and wait for him to scurry in.

Posted Tue Apr 16 15:44:10 2013 Tags:
Inoculating a mushroom log

Drilling a mushroom logWe finally inoculated the rest of our shiitake logs Monday.  I didn't mean for it to go so late, but it turns out that one drill battery only holds enough juice to prepare one log.  Since we only have two good batteries, that would have meant a lot of walking back and forth between the logs (at the parking area) and the battery charger.  It seemed smarter to wait until Mark had his ATV, allowing us to haul the logs back to the trailer and drill them with the plug-in drill on the porch.

As if to reward us for finally getting the new logs plugged, one of our ancient shiitake logs (inoculated in 2007) pushed out five big fruits.  I would have taken a photo, but felt more inspired to pick kale rapini and saute both treats up in some butter and garlic.  Topped with parmesan, the mushroom and rapini side dish made the meal.

Plugging a mushroom log

As a side note, if you'd like to read more about how to grow shiitake and oyster mushrooms on logs (the easiest method and varieties for backyard growers), check out Weekend Homesteader: March.  I didn't think I liked eating anything in the fungal kingdom before we started growing our own mushrooms, and now oysters and shiitakes are one of my favorite ways to turn a simple meal gourmet.

Our chicken waterer makes chicken care so simple you can branch out into other homesteading adventures.
Posted Wed Apr 17 07:24:45 2013 Tags:
Lucy using her new diy dog door

Lucy has had no problems adjusting to the new DIY dog doors which is keeping the chickens out of the garden and in their pasture where they belong.

Posted Wed Apr 17 15:04:54 2013 Tags:

Blue-winged tealWednesday was the kind of rain day I remember from my visits to various jungles --- a steady, endless shower.  Mark and I were able to stay busy indoors, but the wild birds were less lucky.  This is the middle of spring migration (wood thrushes arrived Tuesday!), and one confused teal clearly figured the weather was too bad to keep flying.  I can just imagine the duck looking down and thinking it saw a pond, then coming in for a landing...only to end up on our pile of cattle panels.

Fake pond

Except for their role as a duck decoy, our cattle panels haven't seen any use yet.  Spring is heating up in the garden and chicken world, and we've been spending most of our energies there, which makes it less and less likely we'll get the new pasture done in time to trial pigs this year.  However, all is not lost --- I'm hopeful we'll have the fencing and shelter ready for spillover chicken pasture during the usual summer lull, and it'll definitely be ready for pigs next spring.  Slow but steady definitely wins the homesteading race.

(If you're dying to see pigs this year, I can't recommend the Sugar Mountain Farm Blog highly enough.  Plus, our friend Sarah is trying pigs this year and her piglets have already arrived!  Hopefully those two sources will tide you over until we get our act together.)

Our chicken waterer keeps coops dry even when the whole flock is milling around inside all day.
Posted Thu Apr 18 07:52:05 2013 Tags:
golf cart status after battery being flooded this past winter

It might be too early to get our hopes up, but over the last week we've been trickle charging each battery back to life and today I hooked them up for a test.

The charger acted normal and shows a steady current flow, which is a lot more than the nothing it was doing back when we first towed her home.

Posted Thu Apr 18 15:49:38 2013 Tags:
Pear graft budding out

Good news from the frameworked pear trees --- the first of the scionwood has broken dormancy, with the rest hopefully soon to follow.  I'm not 100% positive, but I'm pretty sure if scionwood breaks dormancy, that means the graft has taken.  (As opposed to Scionwood breaking dormancyhardwood cuttings where bud break can actually be a bad sign if the cuttings wake up before they manage to root.)

As you can see, the pear trees have leafed out quite a bit more below the graft union than above, which is quite ordinary.  When you graft onto one-year-old rootstock pieces, you're often told to brush off the opening buds on the rootstock if they wake up before the scionwood has budded out, but that doesn't seem to be as good of an idea on a large, frameworked tree.  If all goes well, I'll let everything grow this summer, then prune back the limbs of the old variety this winter, letting the new varieties take over a bit at a time.  Maybe we'll have extra-tasty pears to enjoy in a few years.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution for poultry of all kinds and all ages.
Posted Fri Apr 19 07:41:27 2013 Tags:
wing clipping tip #1
Hen wing clipping tip #1

Fully secure wing to prevent a surprise Hen Slap.
Posted Fri Apr 19 14:57:31 2013 Tags:
Spring flowers

The shiitakes aren't the only mushrooms who have decided to start fruiting.  I plucked the Blue Dolphin oyster mushroom below off one of our totems, and figured that was a good excuse to go check out wild logs.  It turns out none of the wild oysters were fruiting, but I didn't mind since the wildflowers were in full bloom.

Oyster mushroomNow that our totems have been in place for a couple of years, I feel ready to pass judgement on the totems and/or the easy, gash inoculation method.  I suspect the latter is the reason the bark has flaked off these logs much faster than from our other box-elder mushroom logs, meaning that we're already nearing the end of the totem logs' fruiting life.

Since I started the spawn myself, I'm not out any cash, but I don't think I'd recommend the gash method of inoculation if you're trying to make storebought spawn give you your full money's worth.  Meals from these three logs might have amounted to two or three total, versus box-elder logs inoculated with Blue Dolphin spawn in February 2009 that were still churning out loads of mushrooms last fall.  With mushroom logs, the amount of food you get back does seem to be proportional to the amount of effort you put in.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free treat for healthy chickens and happy chicken-keepers.
Posted Sat Apr 20 07:50:22 2013 Tags:
what type of trailer is best to haul firewood behind an ATV?

I first thought we might need a more sturdy metal trailer to haul stuff with the ATV, but the Heavy Hauler seems to be doing fine.

Backing up is difficult without a hitch ball, which we plan on adding in the near future.

Posted Sat Apr 20 15:21:43 2013 Tags:
Apple blossoms

Potted plantsForecast low --- 37 degrees.  Actual low -- 33 degrees at porch height, light frost in the garden.  Luckily, I know how to read our weather forecast, so I took all of our plants in to spend the weekend on the plant table (and dining table) just in case.  We also ate the first delectable asparagus spears so they wouldn't be damaged by frost.

This may not even count as Dogwood Winter since the dogwoods are barely starting to bloom, but I can't help hoping we've gotten off easy.  Light frost isn't enough to bother any of the copious blooms sprinkled around our homestead, and it might not even nip the hardy kiwi leaves.  Time for a tour of the fruit flowers!

At the top of the post, you can see our first real apple blossoms!  Last year, we had a handful of flowers, but this year, the apple blossoms are turning the Virginia Beauty white and pink.  Lots of flowers means the tree probably feels ready to set fruit, so now I can just start hoping none of the disasters occur that could cause that fruit to fail.

Fruit set on peach tree

Our two older peach trees are already setting fruit, which you can tell from a distance by the color of the tree.  Compare the tree above --- a hazy pink from the sepals left behind after most of the petals fell --- to the younger peach below.

Young peach tree

This guy bloomed profusely, but only a few of the flowers stuck.  No wonder --- this Cresthaven peach has only been in the ground for two years and shouldn't really set fruit until 2014.  I won't turn down an early taste this year, though, if it wants to serve one up.

Strawberry flower

The strawberries are also starting to bloom, at long last.  I was really beginning to worry about them, since at this time last year the plants had set fruit, a few of which were already blushing pink.  They're probably smart to wait out the cold weather this year, but I'm itching for homegrown strawberries.

Gooseberry flower

Last year, we enjoyed a few gooseberries from our Invicta gooseberry (planted in 2010), but nothing from our Poorman gooseberry (planted at the same time).  This year, both seem to be blooming, so hopefully we'll harvest more of these tangy fruits.  Mark had never tasted a gooseberry before last year, but they became an instant favorite.

As you can tell, it's been a sort of strung-out bloom season this year, which probably is good for our bees.  Let's hope it's good for setting fruit as well.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free addition to the classy chicken coop.
Posted Sun Apr 21 07:48:19 2013 Tags:
alternative ATV hitch coupler made from block of wood and wood screw with washer

Turns out a medium sized wood screw with a washer biting into a block of wood holds up pretty good as an alternative hitch pin.

Posted Sun Apr 21 13:01:40 2013 Tags:
Rye cover crop

Around the beginning of April, I started stressing about our rye cover crop.  I'd seeded quite a few beds in rye last fall, figuring the plants would have time to bloom and then be mowed down before vegetables needed to be planted there in late May or early June.  But the late-seeded rye didn't get much more than three inches tall over the winter, and despite other people's claims that the species grows on warm days, our plants mostly sat there.

Then, suddenly, the rye got its feet under it and started to grow.  The plants seemed to be measurably taller every day, with the happiest beds nearing two feet tall already.  Even in the troubled soil of the sodden back garden (pictured above), rye seems to be producing demonstrable biomass.

The real question is --- will the rye bloom and die on schedule?  Only time will tell, but I feel better about the experiment now that growth is finally happening.

The Avian Aqua Miser makes chicken-keeping fun and easy.
Posted Mon Apr 22 07:45:36 2013 Tags:
moving new chicks to the outside brooder

Today our 2nd round of incubated chicks graduated to the outdoor brooder.

The plexiglass window is positioned to get the morning sun.

We'll keep them locked up in there for a while before we let them free range during the day and then they get locked back up at night for protection.

Posted Mon Apr 22 16:03:47 2013 Tags:
Buckwheat at full bloom"I'm confused about rye and buckwheat. I have used them before and tilled them in, but, with the no-till method, how does just cutting them down allow you to plant something else in their place? Would the cut areas not resemble cut grass (for the rye) with the root mass still present? How do you plant in this?"

--- Heather W.

Blooming ryeEven though I've written an entire ebook on the subject, I still get this question quite a bit, so I thought I'd answer it in a post.  The trick with mow-killing cover crops is to understand the plants' life cycle.  Lawn grasses are perennials, but the cover crops I'm writing about are all annuals, meaning that they sprout, grow for a while, then bloom and push all their energy into a seed.  After blooming, annuals naturally die and leave the ground bare for whoever comes next.

While you can wait for these annual cover crops to go to seed and perish on their own, you'll then end up with a weed problem in your garden.  Instead, I recommend mow-killing when cover crops have just reached full bloom, at which point the plants are totally committed to the reproductive process.  Plants that mow-kill easily will die if cut at full bloom, rather than regrowing like a lawn grass would.  You'll still have a lot of root stubble, which I recommend topdressing with a healthy dose of compost and letting sit for a few weeks (for rye) so that microorganisms will turn the roots into humus.  After that, the ground will be bare and ready to plant into.  (Buckwheat is so succulent that you can plant into the stubble nearly immediately.)

Cutting buckwheatNot all annuals mow-kill readily, of course, and if you don't pay attention to their life cycle, your mow-kill attempt will also fail.  For example, many of the annual grains will respond like lawn grasses if you mow them when they're young and in a vegetative growth stage.  And, of course, you shouldn't expect mow-killing to work on perennial cover crops.  I haven't tried all these myself, but Managing Cover Crops Profitably reports you'll have good results mow-killing the following cover crops: annual ryegrass, barley, rye, buckwheat, oilseed radishes, cowpeas (although my experience differed), field peas, hairy vetch, and woollypod vetch.  Finally, if you plan to mow-kill and it fails, there's always kill mulches.

For more information on integrating cover crops into a no-till garden, check out Homegrown Humus, only 99 cents on Amazon.

Posted Tue Apr 23 08:02:24 2013 Tags:
using the Stihl weedeater again this year

The Stihl FS-90R trimmer/weedeater begins its third year today and still starts on the first or second pull.

I've always put ethanol free gas in it and have made sure it's bone dry for winter storage.

Posted Tue Apr 23 16:34:25 2013 Tags:
Transplanting broccoli

Every year, I'm astonished at how well the broccoli sets do when I start them directly in the ground under quick hoops.  These guys are about 5 weeks old and are in perfect shape for transplanting.

Seedlings under quick hoops

Despite a cold spring, the broccoli and cabbage sprouted and grew quickly outside.  The quick hoop provided just enough protection to keep heavy frosts from nipping the leaves, and it's easy to pry up a large hunk of dirt with each seedling so they barely notice being transplanted.

Seedling started inside

In contrast, the seedlings I started indoors and planted out into the garden two weeks ago are only in so-so condition.  This is one of the better ones --- still off-color and about half the size of the quick-hoop specimens.  Other of the early-planted seedlings were killed by last weekend's heaviest frost (29 degrees), which wouldn't have been enough to harm a healthy seedling.

Tuesday, I filled in the gaps and used the rest of my quick-hoop starts to plant a few more beds.  Barring a hard freeze in the interim, we should have a tasty crop of broccoli and cabbage in a couple of months.  Broccoli is one of our tastiest, most prolific, and most dependable spring crops as long as I get the seedlings off to a good start, and quick hoops seem to be the best way to make that happen.

The Avian Aqua Miser is the POOP-free solution to a filthy homestead problem.
Posted Wed Apr 24 07:29:30 2013 Tags:
how to clean a chimney with a sweep brush with extension bars

Chimney sweeping day always reminds me of my first day on a ship in the Navy.

A shipmate handed me a broom and said "Meet your new best friend".

I thought he was joking, but soon learned the critical link between our nation's security and a well swept deck.

Posted Wed Apr 24 15:22:04 2013 Tags:
Strawberry blossoms

We've tried six strawberry varieties so far, two of which I wholeheartedly recommend, two of which were okay, and two of which were duds.  Here's the rundown (from best to worst) in case you're looking for excellent strawberries for your own garden:

  • Honeoye --- Honeoyes are very tasty and prolific.  The variety is an early, June-bearing variety and usually gives us our first berries, then continues to ripen huge berries for a couple of weeks.
  • Ozark beauty strawberriesOzark Beauty --- Depending on location in the garden, sometimes these taste even better than the Honeoyes, but I don't like them quite as much because the berries are smaller, so it takes more effort to harvest them.  (The photo above shows a bowlful of Ozark Beauty berries from 2010.)  Although supposedly an everbearing variety, ours simply fruit for about three weeks in spring.  (I got the plants from Wal-mart, though, so they could easily have been mislabeled.) 
  • Jewel --- This is a late, June-bearing variety, meaning that it starts to ripen just as Honeoye comes to an end and turns the strawberry season into at least a month of harvest time.  I ripped out our Jewel strawberries a few years ago because the flavor isn't nearly as good as the previous two varieties, but I've yet to find a tastier, late variety.  Perhaps you have a suggestion for a replacement?
  • Alpine strawberryMignonette --- This is an alpine strawberry, meaning that you can start it from seed, it's everbearing, and the fruits are tiny.  Unfortunately, I don't think alpine strawberries are our style --- I'm just not willing to pick teensy fruits when the garden is so busy, and I didn't think the flavor was as good as my top-notch June-bearers.  (The photo above is a Mignonette strawberry from 2011.)
  • Allstar --- This was supposed to be a replacement for Jewel since it is a late, June-bearer.  However, the fruits tasted like storebought berries.  Beware!
  • Fresca --- This is another variety you can grow from seed, but the fruits were awful.  I ripped it out.

I'd be curious to hear about strawberry varieties you've tried and loved.  We hope to trial yet another late, June-bearing variety this year, but haven't chosen which kind yet.  Meanwhile, you might be interested in reading about other factors that influence flavor of the strawberry patch if you're trying to grow the tastiest berries you've ever eaten.

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock easier than a housecat.
Posted Thu Apr 25 07:35:24 2013 Tags:
comparing new ATV trailer with old Heavy Hauler

We did some research on ATV trailers and settled on the Haul-Master from Harbor Freight.

It'll hold 200 pounds more than a similar trailer available at Lowes and has a removable tailgate with nice reviews.

Posted Thu Apr 25 16:13:27 2013 Tags:

Kale raabEven though I'm now spending most of my work time in the garden, the output is only barely increasing over winter production levels.  We're swimming in lettuce and leafy greens, of course, but the freezer is nearly empty so I'm glad to have some new additions to round out our meals.

One of my favorites is kale raab.  I tried to grow broccoli raab one year, but was disappointed by the flavor and by how quickly the plants went to seed.  The blogosphere (can't remember exactly who) taught me a couple of years ago that you can eat the flower buds of any of our edible crucifers just like broccoli raab, so now I don't plant anything special, yet still enjoy the spring treat.  Kale raab is our favorite this year, brussels sprout raab wasn't bad, but oilseed radish raab was a bit bitter and probably isn't worth repeating.  (Our other crucifers don't survive the winter, so no raab there.)  All raabs can be sauteed, but are even tastier roasted with a light coating of olive oil, salt, and pepper.


Now's also the time to enjoy perennial vegetables.  We've only had one mini-meal of asparagus so far, but are looking forward to more sweet spears.  In the meantime, I harvested rhubarb (even though Mark won't eat it) and roasted some up with sugar, orange peel, and a hint of cinnamon --- delicious with yogurt!


(No, we're not eating Lucy, but I liked this picture too much to let it disappear into my files unseen.)

Although many of you might think it sounds spartan to eat so few types of vegetables in the early spring, we vastly prefer a limited menu of high-quality food to the out-of-season contents of the grocery store.  We do splurge on avocados, though, because I'm addicted and we can't grow them here.

Our chicken waterer provides refreshing drinks of clean water between foraging expeditions.
Posted Fri Apr 26 07:19:30 2013 Tags:
Driving Huckleberry to wherever he wants to go on a Friday morning

We took the morning off to drive Huckleberry to our favorite vet Dr Redwine.

He developed a rash under his chin that was sometimes getting infected. Turns out maybe his food dish is too deep letting the oils from the kibble transfer to his chin. It's also possible he's allergic to the plastic dish.

A smaller glass dish with just a light layer of food on the bottom should fix the problem.

Posted Fri Apr 26 16:02:21 2013 Tags:

Greywater wetlandAs I suspected would happen, the main garden got going before I really finished our greywater wetland and mini-pond.  One of these days, I'll come back to the project --- channeling roof water into the wetland, putting rocks around the pond as edging so it's less obvious the liner is a hunk of plastic, painting the washing machine so it doesn't rust away, and making another cobbled area for a bathtub.  Luckily, nature has been busy smoothing out the rough edges of the project despite neglect on my part.

I'll start your tour with the wetland, which is definitely doing its primary job of soaking up our sink water and keeping Lucy out of the food scraps in the effluent.  The cattails we transplanted near the entrance are coming up too!  The jury's still out on whether this spot will stay wet enough to really support wetland plants, but so far so good.

Tadpole snail

Meanwhile, the little pond is coming to life very quickly now that we're getting some warm days.  I know at least two of the three goldfish are still alive, and my various inoculants have done a good job of introducing more pond life, like the tadpole snail above, a subterranean striped beetle, and some nearly microscopic something-or-others.  Plus, the water is no longer crystal clear, but is instead teeming with algae, and the surface is becoming covered with duckweed.  If we do decide to play with aquaponics, the pond is definitely strong enough now to get a system going.

Or maybe it'll just sit there through the summer and keep me happy whenever I look out the back door.  Either way works.

Keep your hens cool this summer with a POOP-free waterer.
Posted Sat Apr 27 08:34:31 2013 Tags:

plans on how and why to modify the new ATV trailerThanks to Mak and Marco for the useful comments on my ATV trailer research post.

The current plan is to leave the walls off  when we put it together so I can build a frame that will hold 5 gallon buckets. My thinking is the way it is might hold 6 buckets, but if we had a frame that allowed each bucket to extend out then the total goes up to 9.

Posted Sat Apr 27 14:14:18 2013 Tags:
Fig winter protection

Fig protection last fallWe fell in love with homegrown figs last year, so I put a bit of extra effort into protecting our tree from winter's cold.  We live on the edge of even the hardiest figs' survival zone, and in the past, a lot of our tree's top growth has died back over the winter despite various forms of protection.  The more top growth that makes it through the winter, the more figs we get to enjoy, so last fall I built a cage out of plastic trellis material, stuffed the cage full of leaves, and topped it off with a tarp to prevent rain from beating the leaves down.

Fig bud break

Unfortunately, over time, the leaves settled just like the contents of a cereal box.  Since I didn't notice the problem until after some very cold snaps, I figured the damage was already done and left it alone.  I was expecting to have to cut back dead wood this spring, but as I was walking by, I noticed buds breaking dormancy in the uncovered wood!

Rooted fig cutting

It's not entirely surprising that the tops of the fig survived the winter unprotected.  We did choose one of the hardiest fig varieties --- Chicago Hardy --- and I've also read that figs become more cold hardy with age.  But it's still very heartening to think that our figs will need less winter protection as they age...because that one fig tree spawned two babies last fall, Mark picked up a Celeste on a whim over the summer, and this winter I've been having great results propagating hardwood cuttings of three more varieties.  If all goes as planned, we may have a dozen or more figs in the ground this time next year.  The only question is, how will I fit them all into our core homestead?  Eating the fruits shouldn't be a problem.

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to go out of town for the weekend without worrying about your flock.
Posted Sun Apr 28 07:43:58 2013 Tags:
Roosting pullet

We had fun in the big city visiting with Sheila, but we're always glad to come home to roost.
Posted Sun Apr 28 17:33:22 2013 Tags:
Apple blossoms

The apple blossoms are so beautiful, they've been tempting me to take lots of extra strolls through the forest garden.  It's inspiring to see how this waterlogged, terrible soil has turned from a weed pit into a budding forest garden in just a few years.

Forest garden

Broccoli seedlingAdding vegetable beds beyond the trees' canopies is the real root of the current success.  Last year, we grew tomatoes and butternuts in these extra spaces, with broccoli and cabbage taking their place this spring.  My usual pre-crop topdressing of composted manure is helping build soil that tree roots will eventually fill, and the immediate gratification of vegetables prevents the forest garden from becoming neglected.

Hazel and comfrey

Young comfreyAll of my trees and shrubs are planted on mounds so they don't perish during the winter, when lower parts of the forest garden turn into a swamp.  The unkillable comfrey gets to live at ground level, though.

I've taken to planting comfrey at what will be the eventual edge of the fruit trees' canopies.  I've learned the hard way that comfrey can kill my fruit trees if planted too close, and that a bed planted in comfrey will always be planted in comfrey.  The little comfrey leaves in the photo above pushed up through a kill mulch two years ago, had every root I could find transplanted out last winter, and are still coming up copiously.  I suspect this bed will be as full of comfrey as ever in a few months, and it has also seeded approximately 50 new spots in my garden and beyond this spring.

Young forest garden

Rotting brush pilesSince the soil is terrible, one of my top forest-gardening priorities is to add humus to areas where tree roots will soon reach.  Piles of prunings from fruit trees, berry bushes, and brush clearing are rotting down and creating eventual spots of raised, rich soil.  Rye is doing a similar job in the short term.

Discarded tin

Of course, the forest garden still has issues.  For example, the old tin off the barn roof is still sitting in a pile waiting to go to the scrap yard.  If I were a true permaculturalist, I'd say the tin is a protected habitat for snakes that eat the voles that inevitably spring up in heavy-mulch situations, but since Lucy kills snakes on sight, that theory doesn't hold much water.  Instead, I can only say that the floodplain allows hauling only a few times a year, and junk tin has yet to reach the top priority list.  Maybe in 2013....

The Avian Aqua Miser is Mark's invention that brings clean water to backyard flocks.
Posted Mon Apr 29 07:34:38 2013 Tags:
Anna with her new post driver and Lucy in the background

We purchased a new post driver recently for the new pig pasture.

They had one with a spring, but we decided to skip the pogo version.

I've thought about welding some weight to the top to increase the pounding factor.

Posted Mon Apr 29 16:31:52 2013 Tags:
Solar a steal

Mark and I are focusing in on the idea of a small greenhouse addition on the south side of our trailer to keep our dwarf citrus happy next winter, so I was thrilled when Daddy sent me an envelope of clippings.  Back when I was in diapers, Daddy was working for a non-profit (Scott County Rural Areas Develoment Association, or RADA) that helped low-income residents of southwest Virginia build greenhouse additions to lower heating bills.

Add-on greenhousesAfter some experimentation, RADA came up with a way to build eight-by-eight-foot greenhouse add-ons for $400 (about $994 in today's dollars).  To keep costs low, they used unskilled labor and simple construction techniques:

"The $400 greenhouse is well built and well insulated.  Railroad ties or treated four-by-fours are used for the foundation, which is insulated with two-inch polystyrene at a depth of two feet.  Walls are standard framed, with four to six inches of insulation.  The tin roof is supported by site built trusses which allow for 12 inches of insulation and a well ventilated air space.  Costs are kept down by using sawmill lumber or used lumber for framing, leaving more of the $400 for insulation and glazing.  The glazing consists of an outer layer of kalwall or similar material and an inner layer of six mil UV plastic.  A movable shutter of foam board cut to fit the spaces between the two-by-four uprights is used for night insulation."
--- "Solar a 'steal' in Virginia."  August 1981.  A.T. Times.

As you can tell from the description, Daddy's greenhouses were really sunrooms, with solid roofs and glazed walls.  I've been pondering how to keep our add-on greenhouse from turning the trailer into a solar cooker in the summer, so this idea might make sense.  On the other hand, you would obviously get less winter solar gain using the sunroom concept than if you glazed the roof as well.

Greenhouses provide heat

Another article provided data on how well one of the greenhouses functioned:

"Only on January 11 when the mercury dropped to zero did Pauline [Bishop] turn on a small electric heater to protect her plants.  On this particular occasion, the thermometer inside the greenhouse registered 38 degrees." 
--- "Greenhouses Provide Heat."  June 9, 1982.  Scott County Herald-Virginian.

Read more about sunrooms in this 99 cent ebook!The article went on to say that Pauline reported a decrease in her heating bills due to the greenhouse add-on.  She found it easy to manage how much heat moved from the greenhouse into the kitchen since she could simply open and close a window between the two structures.  (As a side note, most of the greenhouses built during this project used black water barrels as thermal mass, but Pauline installed a brick floor instead so she could use all of the greenhouse space for plants.)

If I were a real reporter, I'd try to track down some of the recipients of RADA's greenhouses to see how long the structures lasted and how the owners ended up feeling about them in the long run.  Since I'm instead a lazy homestead blogger, I'll just followup with some more construction techniques that Daddy's promised me --- stay tuned!

Our chicken waterer decreases farm angst by 25% with POOP-free water.
Posted Tue Apr 30 07:56:57 2013 Tags:
cutting a thick chain with battery powered reciprocating saw

The DeWalt reciprocating saw seems to do a better job with a metal blade cutting through a thick chain compared to using the wood blade for tree limbs.

Posted Tue Apr 30 16:31:05 2013 Tags:

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

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