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

archives for 05/2013

May 2013
Rotting oilseed radish

Overwintered oilseed radishThe effects of cover crops are surprisingly long-lasting in the garden.  This spring, I've been finding stunning oilseed radish skeletons littered throughout the garden beds, along with a few roots that must have survived the winter by freezing solid then slowly thawing during our cold spring.  Of course, the most noticeable effect of winter cover crops is soft, dark soil in beds that barely have any weeds, and I've definitely been enjoying the easy spring soil prep that radishes made possible.

Rye cover crop

The rye also seems to be working well, with the tallest plants just starting to bloom.  We'll cut the rye down early next week, once most plants are blooming, and then I'll plant directly into that mostly weed-free soil around the beginning of June.  Rye will provide a homegrown mulch for summer vegetables, and the tall grain outcompeted most weeds over the winter and early spring.

Garden rotation

The cover crop circle continues with buckwheat soon to go into any open beds that won't be used for crops until at least June 1.  I managed to plan out my garden rotation for the rest of the year already, which will make it easy to slip buckwheat into beds that are slated to be used for late plantings of corn, beans, squash, and cucumbers.  A few beds are even due to be left fallow until fall, which, in practice, means back-to-back plantings of buckwheat all summer long. 

My goal is to use an entire 50-pound bag of buckwheat seeds this year, which should add an astonishing amount of organic matter to the soil.  Care to enroll your garden in my Buckwheat Challenge?  You can usually find buckwheat for about 30 cents per pound at the feed store, so you'll likely find buckwheat-produced organic matter cheaper than any storebought soil amendment.

Our chicken waterer streamlines chicken care and keeps coops dry.
Posted Wed May 1 07:46:25 2013 Tags:
Hanging a hammock chair

It took us about four years to find a dry spot for the hammock chair Sheila gave us.  But the actual hanging only took fifteen minutes, including cutting the chain.

Hanging cost: $1.60 quick link plus $2.15 chain.  Watching the first lightning bugs while swinging on the porch: priceless.

Posted Wed May 1 16:02:12 2013 Tags:
Trellis window

Mark looked at me like I was nutty when I told him our core homestead felt smaller this year.  "You do realize we expanded the boundaries in a couple of places, don't you?" he asked.  Well, yes, I do know that our core homestead is actually bigger in a spatial sense, but we seem to be starting to hit the fewer-weeds plateau that established gardens eventually acquire, which gives me tidbits of time for play even during the height of planting season.

Shade trellisThis week's play has consisted of planting two beds of flowers, something I never seem to find time for in the spring, but always regret when summer rolls around flower-free.  One bed is an area I kill-mulched in front of our south-facing bank of windows last fall.  I added a trellis and Dani's mystery beans in the back of the bed, then set out some seedling sunflowers, zinnias, and marigolds that I'd started inside a couple of weeks ago.  I hope the result will be a shady trailer interior this summer, along with a pretty view when we eat on the porch.

The other bed is similar, but minus the beans and located in the forest garden.  That spot is really for the bees since there's no often-used human zone nearby.

Of course, most of my garden time has been spent on more worthwhile pursuits, such as weeding and planting.  Even though we could have a frost anytime during the next two weeks, the 10-day forecast looks freeze-free, so I put in green beans, mung beans, sweet corn, cucumbers, crookneck squash, watermelons, okra, and basil seeds last Friday.  After a weekend of heavy rain, I expect to see sprouts any day now and am hoping our late spring won't mean a late summer after all.  If the weather decides to be tricky and slam us with a late frost, I can just replant --- it's worth risking a couple of dollars' worth of seeds for the chance of early harvests.

The Avian Aqua Miser is a POOP-free watering system for backyard poultry of all types.
Posted Thu May 2 07:06:09 2013 Tags:
mark Bungee net
new bungee net holding 5 gallon bucket on an ATV

We recently ordered 2 bungee nets from Amazon.

They seem to be a perfect size for securing 5 gallon buckets to the ATV.

Posted Thu May 2 16:04:16 2013 Tags:
Fig roots

Rooted fig cuttingRemember my willow rooting hormone experiment?  The three fig cuttings above were the control and the fig to the right is one of the cuttings treated with the willow hormone.  An unscientific observer would probably say: "Clearly the willow rooting hormone did a great job!"  But let me throw a bit of data at you:

Celeste Fig:

  • Willow: 1 awesomely-rooted cutting (shown to the right), 1 well-rooted cutting, and 1 cutting not rooted at all.
  • Control: All three cuttings have small roots (photo above).

Dwarf Fig:

  • Willow: 1 cutting with a small root and three unrooted (photo below).
  • Control: 2 cuttings with small roots and one unrooted.

Black Mission Fig:
I haven't dug into this pot yet.

Rooting experiment

After looking at the data, my conclusions are:

  • Celeste Figs are easier to root than Dwarf Figs.
  • The willow rooting hormone may do nothing, or it might impact different varieties in different ways.  It seems worth trying the willow rooting hormone again with Celeste, but maybe not with the Dwarf.

Cuttings in the shadeAll of this geekery aside, the reason I was delving around in my fig pots is that I noticed the plants with the biggest leaves wilted a bit when I placed them in full sun this week.  Now that I see how few roots most of the cuttings have, I understand why.

I had originally planned to transplant these cuttings into a nursery bed in the garden for the summer, but I opted, instead, to pot them up into individual pots large enough for a full summer's root growth.  That way, I can keep the cuttings in partial shade on the edge of the porch until they've got their feet under them a little more and are ready to go in the ground in permanent locations this fall.  Plus, now I can start rehoming the extras --- the three figs shown here have already moved to our movie-star neighbor's high-class accommodations.

Our chicken waterer starts chicks off on a healthy foot from day 1.
Posted Fri May 3 06:17:51 2013 Tags:
ATV receiver hitch close up with hitch ball

ATV hitch basket cargo carrier

We could've installed the trailer ball directly onto the ATV, but this receiver hitch is reversible to adjust the height.

The main reason we went this route was to provide a hook- in point for a future hitch basket carrier for days when we don't need a trailer but could use a little extra storage.

Posted Fri May 3 15:52:28 2013 Tags:
Bees building comb

It's best to have at least two hives of honeybees, so one of my goals for this year is to double the size of our apiary.  How exactly to do that has been an issue I've been pondering for months.  Here are your main options for getting new bees:

  • Split an existing hive.  I've done this before with good luck, but it does have three downsides.  First, Warre hive enthusiasts believe you shouldn't open the hive more than once a year, and splitting is majorly intrusive.  Second, since we're in the very early stages of developing a chemical-free apiary, splitting wouldn't give us much genetic diversity.  (The queen for the new hive would have the queen from the old hive as her mother, and would likely mate with drones from the old hive since we're pretty isolated back here in the woods.  Inbreeding can be good...or it can be bad.)  And, finally, we probably wouldn't get much, if any honey, this year if we split the hive.
  • Catching a swarm.  This is the Warre-approved method of getting new bees from your current hive.  If we don't split our current hive, chances are it will swarm this spring because the bees seem to have already filled two boxes and are working on their third.  Putting up a swarm-attractant box could help capture that swarm.  This is chancy, of course, and has the same genetic problems as the option above, but is definitely worth a shot.
  • Buying a new package.  After long thought, we've decided to go with a new package this spring.  I found a new source of chemical-free bees in Maryland (whose bees are actually raised in the mountains of Tennessee and Georgia --- pretty close to us).  The proprietors explained that their bees are a mix of Carniolan and Russian varieties that have been raised on small cell and natural comb without chemicals for several years, so the ones that survived are better adapted to living without miticides and other pharmaceuticals. 

In the long run, our goal is for the apiary to be self-sustaining, but since we've only got one hive at the moment, paying for a new package this year makes sense.  Stay tuned for the big install next week!

The Avian Aqua Miser is enjoyed by chickens (and their owners) around the world.
Posted Sat May 4 07:55:14 2013 Tags:
report on missing hardware with no easy help from seller

The Haul-Master trailer cart showed up with a problem.

It's missing all the hardware except a bag of small bolts.

Calling the Harbor Freight tech support line was a joke. No real person to talk to and a frustrating phone tree that just directs folks to the website. The only way to communicate a problem seems to be through email. They claim response time should be between 24 and 48 hours, but I'm going on the third day with no help.

Posted Sat May 4 14:39:29 2013 Tags:

Hanging laundryNearly a decade ago, I got bitten by a dog.  I was helping a friend of a friend move tables out of the cultural center she helped run, and her dog was napping in the corner.  The dog seemed nice, and I assumed the friend of a friend would have warned me if it had a tendency otherwise, so I ignored it and started hauling.  But on my third or fourth trip, the stars aligned wrong and the dog turned its head just as my foot went in its direction, and I bumped the dog's chin with my knee.

The seemingly-friendly dog went nuts, snarled, and bit a big gash into my hand.  My initial reaction (after the usual surprise and terror that a dog bite brings) was to reassure the friend of a friend that it wasn't the dog's fault.  After all, I knocked its chin.  Sure, a dog like Lucy would turn the other cheek in that scenario, but who knows what had happened in the dog's past to put it on such a short fuse?  My motto is: if in doubt, take responsibility.

Meandering creek

And now, ten years later, Mark and I sustained the human equivalent of that dog bite.  It was even more painful this time around, and will probably make me twice as people-shy as that dog bite made me dog-shy.  But it's over now (and, no, I don't plan to hash the issue out in a public forum, although I may write about what I learned in a decade once everyone has moved on).  The upshot is, you won't be seeing B.J. on our blog any more, but you will be seeing the returned truck doing hauling for us without its former master.

Tough nut to crack

Even though our first impulse was to give up on community-building experiments, Mark and I have determined that the issue is a tough nut to crack, but is still worth pursuing.  If it were easy, everyone would be doing it, right?

More on our next experiment in a later post.  Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy these photos from my cheer-up visit to my mom --- the first one is a painting she made as a child of her mother doing laundry, the second is the creek I grew up beside, and the last is a tough nut to crack.  We'll just keep gnawing away like that squirrel until we get it right.

Our chicken waterer makes care of our flock easier so we can try more in-depth experiments like this one.
Posted Sun May 5 07:26:35 2013 Tags:
year update on how well the trough worked

It's been a year since we first installed the DIY chicken feed trough.

One thing I might do different next time would be to make the inside of the trough more of a V shape. It might also help if it was secured in a way that was easy to lift out and clean.

Posted Sun May 5 15:40:54 2013 Tags:
Tiny kitchen

Katie asked for a tour of the inside of our trailer, and while I'm not ready to oblige yet, I thought I'd share a few little-known truths about living in a tiny house (or trailerstead).  These all seem like lemons on the surface, but can be turned into lemonade with a little care.

There are no public spaces in your house.  Those of you who live in large houses probably don't pay much attention to the way your residence has public spaces where you don't mind inviting strangers in, as well as private spaces like your bedroom.  Tiny houses double up functions, which tends to make all spaces feel private (at least to a shy introvert).  Solution: Build a nice porch and only invite people over in the summer.  Silver lining: Small spaces feel cozy during the 99% of the time you spend at home with only your family around.

Only one person can move around in a room at a time.  Small spaces mean that you need to find a spot to settle once you're inside, then stay there.  Solution: I have no clue how families with rowdy kids handle this, but for Mark and me, it generally means treating the trailer like a time-share --- when I'm cooking, he stays out of the kitchen, and vice versa when the dishes are being done.  Silver lining: Not sure whether to mention this since it's PG-13, but you can imagine how this adds to marital harmony.

Walls for storage

Walls are not for art.  Chances are, you'll need every speck of wall space for some combination of windows, shelves, and hanging things.  Solution: Maybe the art should go in the outhouse?  Silver lining: It's much easier to keep your life relatively simple if you look at all of your accumulated possessions every day.

Your smoke detector will go off at least once a week.  Even the best smoke detectors are designed for larger residences, so chances are good you'll set off false alarms quite frequently.  Deglazing a greasy pan for easier cleanup inevitably sets off our smoke detector, as does roasting vegetables under the broiler.  Solution: Learn the right doors and windows to open when broiling to prevent the klaxon.  Silver lining: You don't need to worry about your smoke detector running out of batteries without you noticing.

This is far from an exhaustive list, so I'm curious to hear from others who live in houses smaller than the national average.  What unconventional techniques do you use to make tiny house living fun?

Our chicken waterer turns the tiny coop into a poultry palace by keeping the bedding dry and the water clean.
Posted Mon May 6 07:28:26 2013 Tags:
Backup camera

Anna has enjoyed her Canon Powershot SX20 over the last two and a half years, but the camera finally gave up the ghost.  Dirt has caused an intermittent lens error for most of the camera's life.  Usually, we can simply do a hard reboot and the camera starts working again, but this time around none of the recommended tricks solved the problem.

We plan to see if a camera repair shop can do any better next time we're in the big city, but in the meantime, we decided to upgrade our high-tech camera to a Nikon Coolpix L810.  Until the L810 arrives, my Nikon Coolpix L22 will be the primary blog camera.

The L22 often outperformed the Canon in picture quality, even though it lacked the supermacro features and extensive zoom, and the price and size are both very reasonable.  We hope the Nikon Coolpix L810 will be an upgrade in all departments.

Posted Mon May 6 15:58:28 2013 Tags:
Young gooseberry

A long, gentle rain over Sunday and Monday has increased the lushness factor of our farm by 50%.  I wanted to give you an extensive farm-tour, but I'm working with one hand tied behind my back with our current camera situation.  (Life without supermacro is tough.)  So, instead, I'll just tell you that the first of the summer vegetables (beans and cucumbers) are up, the rye is ready to be cut, and the perennials are growing like crazy.

Young strawberry

The strawberry beds are finally white with blooms, and the first fruits are being set.  Other perennials that already have little berries swelling include nanking cherries, gooseberries, blueberries, and even one of the red currants we planted this spring.

Young peaches

The peaches are bursting out of their faded flower wraps and will soon be big enough to thin.  I can't tell yet whether the apples are hanging onto their fruits this year or not, but I have high hopes.

Iris polyculture

And it looks like this will be the first year we'll enjoy iris flowers.  Our polyculture of irises with thyme seems to be working pretty well --- the trick will be whether the tall iris leaves start to outcompete the low herb now that they're well-rooted.  This is one of my attempts to include a few more flowers in the garden without feeling the space is entirely wasted.

Mushroom logs

Finally, the woody plants are starting to yearn for another round of weeding.  This week, I'll be torn between prepping 31 beds for the big frost-free, spring planting on May 15, and getting a head-start on the weedy, woody perennials.  According to Michael Phillips, the trees will be be putting out a new flush of feeder roots soon once they hit a lull in leaf growth, and I definitely want them to be weeded and mulched down again before then.

Our chicken waterer keeps the coop dry even when a dozen birds are milling around inside on rainy days.
Posted Tue May 7 07:46:50 2013 Tags:

Haul Master trailer cartThanks for all the comments on my Harbor Freight tech support frustration I posted about last week.

I tried calling today but this time I used Edith's suggestion of hitting zero a few times and it worked! I talked to a real person  who was nice and took less than 5 minutes to figure out the problem and start the process to ship out the missing hardware. Not sure why that option was not listed in the menu choices at the start of the call but I'm more than pleased to get this resolved.

Posted Tue May 7 15:58:37 2013 Tags:
Cutting down a Langstroth hve

If you're changing over from Langstroth hives to Warre hives, you're stuck with a conundrum --- should you buy all new equipment, or can those Langstroth boxes be cut down and turned into Warre hives?  I decided to give the latter a try since I was one Warre box short of having equipment on hand for our new package of bees.

Bee box hole

We actually have the parts for multiple Langstroth boxes that were never even put together, so I decided to use those for my experiment.  Step one was to cut two of these pieces to the length of the Warre hive (13.75 inches) and two pieces to that length minus twice the thickness of the wood (12.25 inches).  If you'd like to avoid my mistake, which produces four bee-worthy holes per box, make the longer sides be the pieces without a rabbet (indentation for the frames to rest on).  The photo above shows what happens if you disregard that advice.

Smaller rabbet

Speaking of the rabbet, Warre hives require a smaller indentation there than Langstroth hives do.  Assuming you're cutting down a Langstroth deep, you have plenty of wiggle room in the depth department, so mark your rabbet to 3/8 of an inch and cut off the extra wood.  While you're at it, cut enough wood off the bottom of each side so that your box is 8.25 inches tall.

Bad cutting job

Then it's just a matter of screwing the sides together.  Be sure to use pilot holes and three screws per side.  And do try to cut more exactly than I did the first time around (shown above) or your bees will spend masses of time propolizing all the holes.  (I whittled off the longer sides until they matched up, but next time I'll have Mark do the cutting.)

Cobbled together hive

To be honest, this box is just a stop-gap measure since the new Warre hive I've ordered is likely to arrive after our new package of bees does.  And I suspect I'll keep buying most of  the parts for new hives since top bars, screened bottoms, and roofs feel past my skill level.  However, saving $40 per box by cutting down a Langstroth deep that would otherwise be collecting dust in the barn seems like a good deal if it only takes me half an hour to construct --- sounds like a good compromise between my wish to make all of our equipment and the reality that woodworking is far from my strong point.

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock so easy, you have time to experiment with bees.
Posted Wed May 8 07:25:10 2013 Tags:
cutting Rye cover crop with Stihl trimmer

The Stihl FS-90R trimmer did a great job cutting the latest Rye cover crop experiment at the base,.

We made short work of it with Anna following behind me with a rake to bring back the few plants that fell in the aisle.

Posted Wed May 8 16:37:25 2013 Tags:

Established worm binLast spring, we harvested 9 buckets of worm castings from the bin at the parking area (but figured the yield was only two net buckets since we'd initially seeded the bin with 7 buckets of worms plus mostly-composted castings).  This year, we got 6 buckets of excellent castings out of that bin.  If we'd been desperate, we probably could have harvested another 4 or 5 buckets, but I figured castings that are still full of worms were best pushed to the side to seed the next year's crop.  There is also about a quarter of a bin of uncomposted manure that I'll add to the worm side before filling the rest of the bin back up with manure in preparation for next year's crop.

Meanwhile, I delved into one of the closer-to-home worm bins, and was delighted to see much more worm action than I'd reported in early spring.  I now think that the issue with these bins was partially lack of water (which I've since corrected by leaving the lids open during a few storms), but was also simply lack of time.  Seeding worm bins in early fall doesn't give the worms time to do much before winter puts activity on hold.  In addition, I think that worm bins get better after they've been in place at least one summer and have accumulated all of the partner microorgnisms and invertebrates that pre-digest manure for the worms.  The parking-area worm bin certainly has a much more diverse array of inhabitants, with my harvest turning up hatched snake eggs, black soldier fly exoskeletons, and an array of unidentified critters.

Harvesting worm castingsThe castings from the parking area bin are all going to potted plants --- topdressing the citrus and potting up seedlings and cuttings.  In a perfect world, I'd leave the close-to-home bins alone since the worms are laying eggs and will soon be experiencing a population boom.  However, I need that aged manure for the garden, so I'm carefully shoveling out the untouched manure and pushing the worms (and eggs) to one end, then we'll fill these bins back up once the floodplain is in shape for hauling manure in.  If all goes well, by this time next year, we'll have at least 24 buckets of worm castings to spread around the farm.

Our chicken waterer keeps hens healthy and chicks worry-free.
Posted Thu May 9 07:37:36 2013 Tags:
worm bin construction tips for improving lid access

The current worm bin design has 2 flaws that I hope to fix on the next generation of bins.

Using a sheet of plywood for the lid seems like it won't last much more than a few years before it warps beyond the comfort level and the hinge placement makes for a long stretch to reach the other side.

I'm thinking of cutting the lid area in half and hinging them on the sides with more of a steeple shape so most of the rain can run off while some of it can be channeled inside depending on the dryness level. Maybe a sheet of thin roofing tin with a wooden frame for support would stand the test of time?

Posted Thu May 9 14:53:00 2013 Tags:
Library talk

There are a few people in my life I just can't say no to, so when our local librarian asked me to give a talk to their Friends of the Library group, I hemmed and I hawed, but I finally agreed.  I didn't announce it here because I figured a smaller group would be less scary, but Mark did record the audio to share with our readers after the fact.

The sound quality is low because the only electrical plug was at the back of the room, but some of you might enjoy listening anyway.  You can either download the file (on the large side) or listen below:

Sorry, long distance readers don't get free Egyptian onions, nor do they get to partake of the amazing spread the library patrons brought to share.  But maybe you'll still get a kick out of hearing me proselytizing about no-till gardening.

Edited to add: Roland did some fancy computer work and filtered out most of the obnoxious buzz, so the file should now sound much better.  Thanks, Roland!

Our chicken waterer was also a hit, although none of the attendees had talked their husbands into letting them get started with their own flock...yet.
Posted Fri May 10 06:46:26 2013 Tags:
Lawn parts express is fast and accurate

I've been getting our lawn mower blades from the same place for the last 4 years.

Every time I order from the right blade is delivered the next day for regular UPS shipping charges.

Posted Fri May 10 16:27:31 2013 Tags:
Top bar
"I'm curious about the frames that you are showing in some of the boxes. Could you post a picture of them?"
--- Mike H.

I haven't mentioned this in a couple of years, so new readers might be interested in learning about how foundationless frames help deter varroa mites.  The absence of foundation can also help promote the health of your bees since chemicals are often embedded in the beeswax that's used to make foundation.  The infrastructure to help bees build regimented combs of honey without frames of foundation is generally referred to as a top bar.

Comb on foundationless framesNow that you know why you might choose top bars, let's talk about the specific frame Mike was asking about.  The photo at the top of this post shows the top bars that came with our premade Warre hive.  You can get these for $1.50 apiece at Beethinking (or at least I think you can --- that's where ours came from in 2012, although the picture on their website shows a different design).  Even though the top bar is only a tiny piece of wood, I think these are worth buying if you can afford them since they're rather complex to build yourself, and this design definitely helped our bees create beautiful, straight comb with no foundation.  We did modify the box slightly to use pins instead of nails, though, in order to make the frames easier to move.

Foundation stripI've seen (and used) various other top bar options, and one of these might be better for you, depending on your situation.  If you're using a Langstroth hive, it's simplest to modify the frames that come with the hive.  You can nail the wooden strip that's usually used to hold foundation on vertically instead of horizontally, but I didn't have luck with getting bees to build from that option.  Instead, thin strips of foundation at the top of each frame worked well for me.  (Of course, you still end up with a bit of foundation in the hive with this method, but much less than if you filled the whole frame with foundation.)

Top barThis image, through a viewing window up into a horizontal top-bar hive, shows the V-shaped top bars that are perhaps the simplest to construct if you're making your own.  The package we installed in our top bar hive absconded, so I can't tell you whether our bees would have built off these top bars, but I believe most top-bar beekeepers use a similar design with good results, so it's worth a try.

No matter what kind of top bar you use, the idea is pretty simple.  You want to make the bottom of the bar come to a point to tempt your bees to draw out comb in a straight line.  And you want to allow the right amount of space between frames (if you're using a vertical hive like a Warre hive or Langstroth hive) so that bees can pass through but won't be tempted to fill in the gap.  In contrast, with a horizontal top-bar hive, you want to have the top bars completey fill the space so that bees don't end up under the roof.  Those two design points in place, a top bar can be pretty much anything you dream up.

Our chicken waterer takes the guesswork out of providing clean water for your backyard flock.
Posted Sat May 11 07:59:43 2013 Tags:
cute kid looking at cute chicks on a nice day

We had our new friend Waylon help out with some chicken care today.

It might be a few more years before he's ready to apply for the intern program, but he seems to have an aptitude for poultry that could give him an advantage over other applicants..

Posted Sat May 11 16:11:55 2013 Tags:

The Great Neighborhood BookDaddy gave me Jay Walljasper's The Great Neighborhood Book a few years ago on the understanding I'd review it on our blog.  Unfortunately, there weren't enough plants and non-human animals in the book to move it out of my slush pile, so it sat there until our failed intern experiment got me thinking that I needed to learn more about community-building.

It turns out I could have sucked the marrow out of The Great Neighborhood book in just a few hours, but the long wait was no big loss because there is, unfortunately, absolutely nothing for rural dwellers in the whole text.  In fact, Walljasper is one of those folks who believes that cities are the only solution to environmental problems (a stance I tend to disagree with since the extra car use in rural areas can easily be offset by working online and growing your own food).

Anyway, rants aside, I love the idea of turning neighborhoods into interconnected villages, and I wish someone would write a similar book for the countryside.  While I'm waiting for The Great Neighborhood: The Rural Edition, a few of Walljasper's tips might carry over to our habitat.  For example, a neighborhood listserv (or, in this day and age, perhaps a facebook page) could help people communicate more, and Mark's always wanted to get folks on our little road together once a month for a potluck.

On the other hand, if you live in a suburb or urban area, I highly recommend at least flipping through this easy-to-read book to get ideas for turning your neighborhood around.  Learn how putting a bench in front of your house or waving at people passing by can turn up new friends, decrease crime, and slow traffic.  Walljasper might change your mind about dogs (good for neighborhoods) and wide roads (bad for neighborhoods), and the case studies will definitely inspire you to get out there and make change.

Do you have a suggestion for a more rural-based community-building book?  I suspect someone out there has done as good a job with that topic as Walljasper did with the city neighborhood.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to a filthy homesteading problem.
Posted Sun May 12 06:49:08 2013 Tags:
baby snapping turtle close up

We installed gutters last year, but have not got around to diverting all the water.

I found this baby snapping turtle in our biggest puddle.

Anna thought about moving him to the new pond, but got concerned he might be too small to climb over its plastic walls. We ended up moving him to a more friendly puddle with no foot traffic.

Posted Sun May 12 13:58:04 2013 Tags:

Swarm Traps and Bait HivesThe only downside of Swarm Traps and Bait Hives by McCartney Taylor is the price --- $6.99 for the ebook or $16.16 for the paperback.  As you've probably noticed, I price ebooks of this length at 99 cents, and I don't make print books available because I figure no one would want to pay $20 for a copy of Incubation Handbook, for example.  However, I went ahead and bought Taylor's paperback because I wanted something I could easily work from, and figured I'd likely lend the text to friends once I'm done.

And I wasn't disappointed.  After an hour perusing the elegant and well-written interior of this 50-page book, I was itching to go out and build a swarm trap.  I'll write some followup posts once I've created my first box, but for now, here are some tips to get you started:

  • Leave your swarm traps up between a couple of weeks before you usually see swarms  (probably April around here) until about July.
  • The best swarm trap is dark inside, has an entrance hole near the bottom about 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter, includes frames with a bit of old wax on one or more, and has a capacity of around 10 gallons.  An 8-frame or 10-frame Langstroth deep with a top and bottom screwed on and a hole in the side makes an instant swarm trap.
  • Lemongrass oil vastly increases your chances of catching a swarm.  (I wonder if lemon balm would work as well?  I recall watching a swarm of ants when I was a kid and being struck by the fact they smelled exactly like lemon balm.)
  • If you include an attractant (like lemongrass oil), you can hang swarm traps as low as six feet off the ground, but do plan to put them in full shade.  Good locations include along fencelines, rivers, and treelines, under a lone tree in a field, or on a lone building in the country --- bees use all these features as landmarks, so they spend more time there than in other areas.
  • Check your swarm box at least twice a month.  (More often is better.)  You know a swarm has moved in if you not only see bees flying in and out but also notice that workers are bringing pollen inside.  Once your box is occupied, visit it at dusk, plug the hole, and bring it to your apiary, where you can transfer the frames to a new hive and then put the swarm box back in its trap location.

Taylor reports that you should have at least a 20% chance of catching a swarm if you make one bait hive, but he recommends building several so you can test different locations.  We'll probably just start with one since we're at the height of garden season right now, and I want to build a slightly more complex version to make transfer to a Warre hive easy.  More on my rendition of Taylor's design in a later post.

Our chicken waterer makes care of your backyard flock nearly as easy as minding honeybees.
Posted Mon May 13 07:05:44 2013 Tags:
swarm trap hive box construction photo

We cobbled together our first swarm trap from some old hive boxes.

It took about an hour with Anna measuring and me cutting and drilling.

Posted Mon May 13 16:10:39 2013 Tags:
Row covers

IrisWhen I planted our first set of tender vegetables at the end of April, the long-term forecast looked frost-free.  But a freeze slipped up on us, so Sunday afternoon I rushed around and put row covers over the strawberries and seedling corn, beans, and squash.

The last frost in our neck of the woods is awfully likely to wipe out young fruits on apples and peaches, but I've figured there's not much you can do there except hope.  Luckily, these fruits usually don't get damaged until at least 28 degrees, and our (hopefully) last freeze of the year clocked in at a mere 32 degrees, leaving patchy frost on the ground but no nippage higher up.  I'm especially pleased to see that our hardy kiwi wasn't harmed this year --- the leaves have been nipped every spring to date, and we've seen no fruits as a result, so I'm hopeful 2013 will be the year the vines have enough vigor to bloom.

Basswood flower buds

Meanwhile, concern about the frost prompted me to test a hypothesis I have --- that the reason basswood trees bloom erratically is simply because the flowers get frost-nipped most springs just like many fruit trees do.  Sure enough, the bloom buds are already in place on the basswood tree, but since our recent freeze was so light, my hypothesis will have to wait until another year for a test.  That's just as well since non-nipped basswood flowers will make this the first year since 2010 that our farm will be enjoying this top-notch June nectar flow.

Technically, we'll be frost-free as of tomorrow, but I can use any weather magic you all have on hand to ensure that will be the case.  The blackberries aren't even blooming and we usually enjoy a blackberry winter....

Our chicken waterer keeps hens happy with clean water.
Posted Mon May 13 16:22:30 2013 Tags:
trailer tongue modification close up photo

It cost 15 dollars to upgrade the Heavy Hauler so it can hook up to a trailer ball.

A scrap piece of 1x3 made the installation smooth and painless.

Backing up is now a dream compared to the other pivot point.

Posted Tue May 14 16:22:45 2013 Tags:
Top-bar hive

Inside unused top-bar hiveOur top-bar hive has been sitting in the yard vacant ever since our package absconded from it this time last year.  I've been leery of giving the structure another try because the Warre hive is working so well, but reading Swarm Traps and Bait Hives suggested another possible use for the top-bar hive --- catching swarms.

The first step in the top-bar-to-swarm-hive conversion involved looking inside and cleaning the hive up.  In the process, I discovered that our top-bar hive wasn't entirely vacant Wasp nestafter all.  An ant colony was living in one corner, a wasp had laid eggs in a new paper nest, and what appeared to be a mouse nest covered most of the hive's bottom.  Once I pulled out the "mouse nest," though, I discovered that it was actually a bird nest, perhaps from the miniscule Blue-gray Gnatcatchers that make such a racket around the edges of our yard in the spring.  There were no eggs present in the bird nest, so I figured it was okay to make the birds find a new home, and I had no qualms about doing the same for the wasp.  (I left the ants alone since it seems like bees and ants can coexist.)

Top-bar follower boards

Volume calculationsNext, I considered the cavity size of the top-bar hive.  The instructions I'd read last year recommended moving the follower boards in so that only twelve top bars were included in the bees' initial living area.  However, my calculations suggest that leaves a cavity volume of only 29 liters, while 40 liters is the optimal size bees look for when choosing a new home.  So I moved the follower boards to the ends of the hive and doubled the interior space.

Top bar hive expanded so bees can make use of the full space
Maximum and minimum temperature

One hypothesis about why our bees absconded last year was that the hive was getting too hot in the sun, so Mark put in a max-min thermometer to see what temperatures the colony would have been dealing with.  Swarm Traps and Bait Hives recommends locating these structures in full shade for best chances of catching bees, and more shade does seem to be merited since the top-bar hive reached 110 Fahrenheit last year.  We may move the structure elsewhere now that it's been reinvisioned as a swarm trap.

Smear bee balm

Finally, I smeared some lemon balm around the inside of the top-bar hive.  My lemongrass oil hasn't arrive in the mail yet, but my gut says lemon balm will work just as well as a swarm attracter.  We'll just have to wait and see.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to a filthy homesteading chore.

Posted Wed May 15 06:45:09 2013 Tags:
START engine help

The ATV was beginning to have trouble starting from a cold stop.

I knew the previous owner used fuel with ethanol, and it was in his garage for at least a few weeks like that, which lead me to suspect that as the problem.

Start is a fuel system revitalizer made by the people who make STA-BIL. It took a few days before I started seeing results, but it seems to have improved starting.

Posted Wed May 15 16:23:51 2013 Tags:

Honeybee swarmI was weeding the mule garden about 15 feet away from the hive when the bees decided to swarm, but I missed the mass flight.  I had walked off to the barn to get another tool, and when I returned I heard a great buzzing overhead and to my left.  By the time I got my eyes turned around, the bees were out of sight.

Luckily, they hadn't flown far.  In fact, they'd settled into the honeysuckle on the exact same sassafras last year's absconded package settled on before flying away.  That means the bees would have been right beside our top-bar-hive-turned-swarm-trap...but I had talked Mark into helping me move that structure behind the barn the day before.  Oops.

We were woefully unprepared for a swarm, despite the fact that I've been blogging about little else all week.  I really should have known it was coming, not just because this is the swarming time of year, but also because the Warre hive's three boxes were getting pretty congested.

Inside hive before and after swarm

I took the top two photos up through the screened bottom the morning before the swarm left, catching the back (left) and front (right) of the hive, and it was evident that the cluster of bees was humongous at that time.  That's why the second photo is out of focus --- the bees were hanging all the way down to the floor.  The hive had been a bit like this (although not quite so extremely crowded) for a couple of weeks, and if I'd wanted to slow down swarming behavior, that would have been a good time to nadir a fourth body into my hive. 

However, I didn't have the spare equipment on hand because the place I ordered from is swamped and hadn't mailed my hive bodies two weeks after I paid for them.  (I haven't figured out how to make top bars yet, so I couldn't just make my own homemade hives.)  We do have a fourth hive body, but I'd been saving that box in case the package shows up before the new hive parts do.  Which is all a long explanation for why I let the bees get so congested that they swarmed before they need to have.  All of that said, Warre theory is that you want your bees to swarm to break the pest and disease cycle, so all I would have been doing with management is slowing down the swarm, not preventing it.

(As a side note, it's interesting to compare the inside of the original hive the morning before (top photos) and the afternoon after the swarm (bottom photos).  The comparison gives you an idea of how much of the hive's population leaves with the swarm and how much stays home to tend the worker brood and baby queens.  Generally, about 10,000 workers and drones (two-thirds of the population) leave, but they're soon replaced by workers hatching out in the old hive.)

Bee swarm closeup

Anyhow, mea culpa's aside, I had a swarm on my hands and I didn't want to lose it.  My first hope was that the bees would find my swarm trap even though the structure was now a couple of hundred feet away, but I soon discovered that the bees were considering another site instead.  How could I tell?  Well, I've spent the last week reading Honeybee Democracy (which I'll review here after finishing the last couple of chapters), and thus had discovered a lot about the behavior of bees in swarms.

It turns out that after a swarm leaves the hive, they always settle just like mine did, not far from the parent hive.  At that point, an astonishing exercise in consensus decision-making occurs.  Most of the bees hang out around the queen, but 300 to 500 workers peel off to survey the surrounding 30 square miles in search of nest sites.  If a worker finds a potential home, she returns to the swarm and performs a waggle dance (shown below) to inform her cohorts of the location.  Other bees go and check it out, dancing about the site if they like it or ignoring it if they don't, and eventually enough bees have settled on one location that the swarm figures they've found what they're looking for.  At that point, they all take off and relocate to their new home.

Waggle danceThis all sounds a bit esoteric, but the truth is that once you have a swarm in front of you, waggle dances are extremely obvious and easy to decipher.  After only a few seconds of observation, I was able to find two workers dancing about the same location, which I videoed above.  The dance's angle away from vertical shows the angle the actual location is away from the sun, and the length of time the bee wiggles her butt shows how far away the site is.  Using this data, I was able to tell that our bees had only found one good site so far, and that it was two miles away to the southwest --- definitely not my swarm trap.
Swarm boss
My first thought was to set up a potential hive on the other side of the yard, smear it with lemon balm, and hope my bees would find the site.  Then I changed my mind and figured I'd set up the potential hive much closer to the swarm tree to ensure the bees found it.  But half an hour of observation showed that only one worker checked out the empty hive, and she didn't even think it was worth crawling inside.  (Scouts looking for potential house sites go inside and measure the cavity volume to ensure the hive is what they're looking for.  When visiting a good site, they'll spend over half an hour buzzing around to check out the cavity from all directions.)

If we were going to lose the swarm otherwise, it seemed worthwhile to try to catch it.  Huckleberry told me to lay out a white sheet underneath the swarm and then cut down the tree to drive the swarm into a box (although I think our spoiled cat might have mostly been thinking about napping in the shade), but I got scared and called my beekeeping mentor (aka our movie-star neighbor).  More on the ensuing action in tomorrow's post....

Our chicken waterer kept our 38 chickens happy so I could focus on the bees.
Posted Thu May 16 07:08:45 2013 Tags:
5 gallon buckets of manure in S-10 truck

The Chevy S-10 truck can hold 20 five gallon buckets of horse manure.

I'm thinking of attaching a 5 inch board on each side to increase capacity to 40.

Posted Thu May 16 16:17:50 2013 Tags:

"Our hive cast a swarm!!  The first one ever!!  What do I do?"

Perhaps it was the excess of exclamation points, but something told our movie-star neighbor he should skip the advice and just come over to lead the capture.

Spraying sugar water

Our neighbor later told us that this was the toughest swarm he'd ever captured because of the masses of honeysuckle encircling the bees.  Mark had suggested we cut away the vines, but I was terrified this swarm would be annoyed by the activity and leave just like last year's package did.  Luckily, our neighbor had a simple solution --- spray the swarm liberally with sugar water so they'd stay put, then clip those vines.

Peach leaves for bees

He also suggested we smear peach leaves along the inside of the boxes we were going to install the honeybees into.  Since our neighbor had just bought some lemongrass oil on my recommendation, we also dabbed a few drops of that fragrant substance on the inner walls of the hive as well.

Swarm bracket

"Are we going to scoop the bees into a bucket?" I asked.  (Imagine this sentence uttered with the intonation of the classic "Are we there yet?")  We'd very carefully cut all of the vines underneath the swarm, but left one in the middle to make the mass of bees easy to shake.  But into what?

My neighbor didn't like the bucket idea, and planned to instead levitate a hive body under the swarm and knock the bees directly into their new home.  Here's where Mark's ingenuity shone.  "Why don't we put a couple of brackets on the tree, add a board on top, and then put the hive there?"

Hive box under swarm

Swarm bookNearly as easily done as said!  Too bad our hive was a cobbled-together version of Langstroth and Warre equipment since we want the bees to eventually live in the latter but have much more of the former on hand.  It seemed to form a relatively solid container, though.

Unfortunately, the tree grew at a bit of a slant, so there was a good chance the bees would fall into the gap between the hive and the trunk.  Perhaps a bee book would make a good ramp to guide them in the right direction?

Here's where activity got heated and we stopped taking pictures (except the last one below).  Our neighbor and I suited up, I stood on a bucket with a brush, and he stood on the ground with a hoe.

"On three, I'll yank this vine and shake the bees into the hive, then you start brushing any stragglers down," he ordered.  "One, two, THREE!"

Shaking a swarm out of a treeWhoosh!  Bees were everywhere!  Even though bees in a swarm are supposed to be very polite, I was ultra-glad I'd donned a bee suit since I'm positive I'd otherwise have ended up with several ladies stuck in my hair.  I put on the lid, then we stepped back and waited.

At first, we thought we'd been successful, but when I checked on the hive just before dark, the swarm had reformed in the narrow gap between tree and box.  I guess our bee book wasn't as good of a ramp as I'd thought and the queen fell into the gap, then everyone else followed.  Downhearted, I figured the experiment had been a failure, but by the next morning, I'd figured out a solution.

Mark and I headed out to the swarm first thing the next day and I sprayed all the bees I could reach with sugar water.  Then Mark gently eased the second box away from the tree, figuring at least some of the bees would adhere to the surface and end up dangling above the cavity below.  Sure enough, his gentle motion combined with my brushing got at least half of the swarm into the lower box, then we pushed the hive back together.

This time, I was sure we'd failed since bees nearly immediately began clustering between the box and the tree again.  But a few hours later, the bees were streaming into the hive box instead.  I can only guess that, at first, that gap smelled like queen, but as her scent dissipated, the workers discovered the queen herself, ensconced in her new hive.

Golf cart at the riverUnfortunately, this happy sight was not the ending of the story.  On our neighbor's recommendation, we left the hive in place that afternoon so any stragglers would join their queen, and I went off-farm to monitor the quality of our nearby river.  It was a blazingly hot day, reaching nearly 90 in the shade, and perhaps the heat was too much for the bees (or they really wanted to live in that site two miles away).  Because when I came home, the hive was empty, the swarm gone.

So, we didn't catch our first swarm after all, but I did get a lot of hands-on experience and I feel much more confident that I'll know what to do next time.  I'll probably move the hive to a good location right away if we catch another swarm, and I should definitely get our ducks in a row so we always have extra equipment on hand for swarm catching. 

Of course, catching swarms is always chancy, so we'll continue to experiment with setting up swarm traps, the sooner the better.  Honeybee Democracy explains that the scouts who go out looking for a new homesite are usually the hive's oldest foragers, which suggests they may be househunting on the sly for weeks before they leave their old home (meaning that a swarm trap set up the day before a swarm emerges may be too late).  And even though I haven't read any data to this effect, I also wouldn't be surprised if honeybees preferentially choose new house sites further from their home colony, since they'd then have less competition for resources and less chance of catching pests and diseases.  Perhaps bees would be most likely to move into a swarm trap at the parking area, a third of a mile from our other hive?

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock clean, easy, and fun.
Posted Fri May 17 07:37:47 2013 Tags:
fixing the heavy hauler so it won't ever dump again

A scrap piece of decking board wedged and secured like above should be enough to prevent any future unexpected dumping in the middle of hauling.

Posted Fri May 17 16:28:40 2013 Tags:
Pea flower

Even though I've spent all week talking about bees, most of my efforts have been in the garden.  The elongated spring has put us behind where we were in years past, but this week turned into summer, prompting me to play catch up.

Sweet potato slips

First on the agenda --- planting out everything that has been waiting in the wings until our last chance of frost passed.  Thirty beautiful tomatoes are now in the ground, all but three gifts and two homegrown Stupice started under quick hoops.  I had sprouted some tomatoes inside, but the outside starts were vastly larger and more vibrant, as usual, so the insiders went on the compost pile.

Meanwhile, I planted the first eight sweet potato slips.  I generally set these out a few at a time since they're homegrown and don't all root at once.  My garden plan tells me I only need four more slips to reach this year's quota, but I think I'm going to plant some extras in gaps in the forest garden as a summer cover crop.  Sweet potato vines definitely seem to produce at least as much biomass per unit area as buckwheat does, plus the tubers make great gifts.

Thinning peaches

I stole a few hours away from the vegetables to get the apples and peaches thinned.  Thinning and pruning are two of the most important factors in getting delectable fruits, but are the most often overlooked by home gardeners.  Sure, it's tough to pluck five baby peaches off the tree for every one I keep, but I've learned the hard way that peaches left too close together end up touching and are more prone to brown rot infestations.  In addition, breaking off young fruits damaged by Oriental fruit moths has helped decrease that pest's population, and also prevents the tree from pouring energy into fruits that will end up in the compost bucket due to maggot frass in the middle.  (Okay, I just cut out the bad spots, but still.) 

Thinning also helps prevent the tree from breaking branches under heavy fruit loads, and reduces your chances for biennial bearing.  Finally, thinned trees produce bigger, tastier fruits.  I figure it's well worth the hour I spent on our largest tree, and the few minutes on each smaller tree, to get all of those benefits.

Garlic and kale flowers

What didn't I have time for this week?  Weeding and mulching around seedlings planted earlier in the year and catching those weeds in the woody perennials before they get really rooted and hard to pull.  Luckily, next week begins the late May planting lull, so I should have time to catch up in the areas I got behind on this week while playing catch up from the weather.

Our chicken waterer is a POOP-free treat for pampered backyard hens.
Posted Sat May 18 08:04:02 2013 Tags:
how to prevent carpenter bee damage?

Our front porch is being attacked by carpenter bees!

I just found out they dig a 90 degree tunnel that can expand after each year of nesting.

Painting or varnish usually prevents this kind of damage. I think we'll be using treated lumber for any future porch projects.

Posted Sat May 18 14:36:31 2013 Tags:
Dandelion fluff
"But the wonderful thing about simplicity is its ability to give us contentment.  Do you undersand what a freedom this is?  To live in contentment means we can opt out of the status race and the maddening pace that is its necessary partner.  We can shout 'No!' to the insanity which chants, 'More, more, more!'"
--- Richard J. Foster, 1981.

As Everett once wrote on his blog, voluntary simplicity is far from simple.  It's tough to wrap your head around why you might choose to embrace simplicity in your life, and equally tough to figure out how to be simple when mainstream society considers simplicity Garter snakeclose to a sin.  On the other hand, when I achieve simplicity in bits and spurts, I understand the importance of the measure --- the word "simple" in the phrase refers to the peace you feel when you've cut that cord to consumer culture.

Despite believing in the philosophy, I haven't done much reading about simplicity because writers like Thoreau generally make my eyes roll.  But when a copy of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)'s Faith and Practice: First Reading (2012) fell into my lap, I flipped through the sections on simplicity and found some helpful advice.  Here's an example:

"For Friends, the purpose of a simple life is to remove the distractions that interfere with our conversations with the Divine....  John Woolman reduced the size of his business three times because it had grown so big that it took too much time away from his being with God....  A simple life style is useful in this connection since the pursuit of excessive material wealth or power may entail exploitation of others....  StriderHistory has shown that when a future outcome, however noble, seems of greater worth than the human being before us, any means, any atrocity, is possible.

"We need to think of simplicity not as an impossible demand, but as an invitation to a more centered, intentional, and fulfilling Spirit-led life.  Simplicity flows from well-ordered living.  It is less a matter of doing without, than a spiritual quality that simplifies our lives by putting first things first....  This does not mean that life is to be poor and bare, destitute of joy and beauty.  Each must determine...what promotes and what hinders the compelling search for inner peace...."


Long-time readers will be aware that I'm not religious, but it's pretty easy to replace "God" and "the Divine" with whatever's most important to you.  Of course, the hardest part for many who seek non-religiously-affiliated simplicity is figuring out what you want to replace mainstream culture with.  Mark's goal is always to find more time, while for me, the objective is to end up with the mental energy and space to focus on what I care about.  I've noticed in my own life and in the lives of people around me that many of the worst aspects of modern living are intentional distractions that prevent us from having to decipher our own passions.

Frog amid duckweed

I'll close with one last quote found in Faith and Practice:

"Too many of us have too many irons in the fire....  Quaker simplicity needs to be the structure of a relatively simplified and coordinated life-program of social responsibilities."
--- Thomas R. Kelly, 1941

Raspberry flower

What do you think about voluntary simplicity?

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.
Posted Sun May 19 07:55:58 2013 Tags:

Chevy S-10 load limit Thanks for all the comments on last week's post about respecting the load limits of a small truck.

Our conclusion is to be happy with 20 buckets. The truck is over 20 years old, and she sometimes creaks on turns with a full load, which is a message I'm getting load and clear.

Posted Sun May 19 17:31:39 2013 Tags:
Cedar apple rust

Apples are a magnet for pests and diseases, and there are various responses to this reality.  Conventional growers just dose the trees with chemicals, while organic growers tend to use less-noxious-but-still-problematic sprays.  Those of us who eschew even the organic sprays, though, have to get a bit more clever, and I start that cleverness off with variety selection.

Our high-density-apple planting gave me a chance to try a lot more varieties than I could otherwise cram into our core homestead, and I'm taking advantage of that opportunity to see how each type of apple performs in our climate.  The apple disease that's been our biggest bugaboo in the past is cedar apple rust, and I tried to select only varieties that show resistance to the fungus.  Still, I've seen the pretty (but problematic) orange spots on several of our new trees --- Sweet Sixteen, Grimes Golden, Pristine (ironic, huh?), Mammoth Black Twig, one of our two Zestars, and Summer Rambo.  All infestations are light to moderate, so I'll ignore it for now and consider ripping out these varieties if the fungus seems to be unduly affecting the trees' growth in the future.

Woolly aphid

A new problem is woolly apple aphid, which showed up on the last year's cicada wounds on some of our older trees.  Once I realized the white fuzz wasn't a fungus, I stopped Yellowing apple leavesbeing as concerned, since I'm quite good at squishing bugs.  Woolly apple aphids only become really problematic when they get into the roots of the trees and cause leaf yellowing, which may be the case in the Pristine leaves shown to the left.  (All of Pristine's neighbors have darker leaves, or I would have assumed the yellowing was simply a nitrogen deficiency, but the issue could also be due to something else I've yet to figure out.)

Mating ladybugs

Ladybug eggs

Possible root damage aside, I suspect the woolly apple aphids will be long gone soon.  I started noticing the white fuzz less than a week ago, and when I went out to visit the trees Sunday, I saw mating ladybugs and eggs --- the predator insects are on the job.

Ant tending aphid

While we're on the topic of aphids, it's worth noting that the woolly apple aphids weren't on all the trees with cicada damage, just the Virginia Beauty.  On the other hand, our Yellow Transparent, Winesap, and Enterprise sported a few curled leaves like the one above, which closer inspection showed were full of fuzz-less aphids being tended by large black ants.  Once again, I'll let nature take its course here.  I've never known aphids to be more than a passing inconvenience in our diverse garden.

Apple fire blight

More troubling is the dead leaf tips like the one shown above, which I'm guessing is the apple version of fire blight.  As with cedar apple rust, I tried to select only resistant varieties, but apparently Enterprise is more prone to fire blight than the internet lets on.

Blackened apple leafI'm not sure what to think about the few blackened leaves like the one shown to the left, which I discovered on our Winesap.  Ideas?

In case you're keeping track at home, all of this leaves just a few varieties completely untouched by insects and disease so far this spring --- Liberty, the dwarf Yellow Transparent, and Red Empire.  So far, the following varieties have set fruit --- Virginia Beauty, Liberty, Yellow Transparent (the elder and the the younger), Enterprise, and Pristine.  I'll keep you posted on how the variety selection pans out later in the year once we've seen how our trees hold up under their various stresses.

Our chicken waterer isn't just for chickens.  Ducks, peafowl, guineas, quail, turkeys, and even pigeons have enjoyed the POOP-free water.
Posted Mon May 20 07:39:26 2013 Tags:
fixing an old chicken pasture gate with Lccy in background

This chicken pasture gate got damaged last year because it couldn't get out of the way from the golf cart backing up at full speed.

The latest batch of chickens from the incubator are starting to get big enough to threaten our strawberry crop, which is what motivated today's gate repair.

We plan to relocate them into this pasture tomorrow if we can figure out an easy way to move the outdoor brooder without shaking the chickens too much.

Posted Mon May 20 15:58:13 2013 Tags:
Mulched baby squash plants

Planting always seems like the most pressing part of starting the summer vegetable garden, but equally important is following up a week or two later to make sure the crops Parsley seedlingsare off to a good start.  This week, I'm taking a close look at each of our seedling beds and:

  • Taking off the cat-repellant covers.
  • Thinning if necessary, then weeding and mulching around each seedling.
  • Replanting individual plants (like beans) in gaps, or replanting whole beds that didn't come up due to cold soil or that got eaten by hungry early-spring critters.

Some no-till gardeners start everything in pots and transplant to avoid this dance (and the bare soil that goes along with it).  But I prefer the cat-weed-mulch-replant waltz to the potted-plant polka.

Our chicken waterer tempts pastured poultry to the other end of the pasture so they don't all hang out around the coop door.
Posted Tue May 21 07:40:25 2013 Tags:
brooder moving day

It only took about 10 minutes to get the outdoor brooder to the new pasture.

Posted Tue May 21 16:24:54 2013 Tags:
Healing graft

Topworked pearThere's nothing like failing the first time around to make your ultimate success that much sweeter.  That's right --- the grafts on my frameworked pears are healing up well, and the growth from the scionwood is really taking off.  I've been ripping off new shoots below the graft union as I pass the trees by for the past couple of weeks, ensuring all energy in each grafted twig goes into the new wood, and now it seems to be time to take off the parafilm before the twigs burst free of their wrappings.

The Seckel scionwood I grafted onto our Keiffer pear is doing an excellent job, with nine out of ten grafts having taken.  The other pear --- with an unknown variety and Comice replacing the Orient twigs --- isn't as perfect, but enough grafts have taken there to make the variety changeover. 

Failed graft

Grafting onto a watersproutI'm not quite sure what the big difference is between the two trees, but I've got some guesses.  The most obvious factor that determined the success or failure of a graft was the orientation of the twig I grafted onto --- vertical watersprouts resulted in fast and prolific growth from the scionwood (photo to the left) while horizontal twigs (photo above) often failed to take or started growing late.  All of the twigs I used for the Seckel pear were waterpsprouts, while a lot more of the other tree's twigs were horizontal.

I also forgot to dab a bit of grafting wax on the ends of the scionwood on the non-Seckel tree, so those twigs might have dried out (although they don't look like it).  And it's also quite possible the Orient pear just isn't as amenable of a rootstock --- several of the grafts that did take on that tree have yellowing leaves on the scionwood and haven't put out much new wood, while the Seckel scionwood has shoots that are often nearly a foot long.  (This isn't a crazy idea --- some varieties are incompatible with each other and will simply die if grafted together.)

The tricky part will be keeping track of which twigs are the new variety and which belong to the rootstock, so I can slowly let the former take over the latter.  For now, the graft unions are very visible, but I suspect they'll disappear into the wood before long.  And maybe all this vigorous growth means we'll enjoy pears of the new varieties by 2015?

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution to a filthy homesteading problem.
Posted Wed May 22 06:40:13 2013 Tags:
how many bales of straw can an ATV haul?

golf cart haulingWe learned today that 6 bales of straw is the ATV's limit.

The truck can hold 12, which makes an even number of trips back to the barn.

Readers from last year will remember when I was hauling 10 with the golf cart, but had trouble getting up the hill and decreased it to 7.

Posted Wed May 22 16:03:14 2013 Tags:
Rough Green Snake

Green snake on lumber"Do you want to see the cutest snake in the world?" I called down to Mark from the edge of the pig pasture.  I had found a Rough Green Snake (the first one I've ever seen!) in the lumber we'd stacked for our new coop/pig shed, and Mark was very willing to walk up the hill for the chance of a peek.

Which is all a long way of telling you that we're back at work on the new pasture.  Not that things have slowed down at all --- the weeds are growing a mile a minute --- but the broilers are too.  We plan to keep about ten of this year's first batch of broilers to replace our two-year-old layers, and those pullets need somewhere to live between when the new broilers get their pasture and then they begin to lay.  (At laying time, our new flock will take over the quarters of our current laying flock, while the old hens go into our tummies.)

Ripening strawberry

In completely unrelated, but delectable, news, we ate the first strawberry of 2013 on Tuesday.  I suspect the floodgates will open soon, since lots of half-ripe fruits like this one are scattered amid the beds.  Our long wait is finally over!

Our chicken waterer keeps chores to a minimum even though we're currently juggling three flocks.
Posted Thu May 23 06:16:46 2013 Tags:

using star plates to build a chicken coop
There's a small learning curve on this new star plate building method.

We plan to level up the downhill side when we get the roof frame on.

Posted Thu May 23 16:06:53 2013 Tags:

Double-header apple treeI wrote last fall that high-density apples yield early and prolifically, but that you have to commit to lots of summer pruning and training to make that dream a reality.  With fruits well set on trees that are going to produce this year, the plants are now turning their energy to shoot growth.  Time to honor my commitment and give those dwarf trees some TLC.

The first thing I'm looking for at this time of year is double headers like the one shown to the left.  Since the nursery I bought the trees from headed (cut the tops off) the apples before shipping them, multiple shoots have a tendency to spring up right below the cut.  I want one central leader, so I pick my favorite, then rip the other one(s) off.

Side shoots are also starting to elongate at this time of year, and many varieties have a tendency to send that growth vertically, straight to the sun.  I don't want side branches competing with my Tall-spindle applecentral leader, and I also want to make the branches as horizontal as possible to promote early fruiting, so I took another pass through the planting to tie down branches so they look like the photo to the right.

Even if you don't have a dwarf apple tree that you're pruning in a high density system, now's a great season to spend a little time with your fruit trees.  Weighing down a few branches now or yanking off watersprouts before they harden off really pays off by prompting the tree to put all of its energy into the wood you want.  Just remember that for most trees, you won't want to make the side branches completely horizontal the way I'm doing for my high-density apples --- that's a way of keeping the plants compact and tempting out early fruits at the expense of a large canopy and longevity.

The Avian Aqua Miser is a POOP-free treat for healthy backyard chickens.
Posted Fri May 24 07:14:26 2013 Tags:
putting up roof frame on star plate building

We finished up the StarPlate chicken coop frame today.

Next up is to fill in the walls and decide on roofing material.

Posted Fri May 24 16:31:02 2013 Tags:

Honeybee DemocracyI had originally planned to write a lunchtime series about Thomas Seeley's Honeybee Democracy, but I ended up regaling you with most of the salient facts in my posts about our first swarm and our attempts to catch said swarm.  Plus, you can read the cliff-notes version of the parts most relevant to beekeepers in Swarm Traps and Bait Hives.

Even though I'm sticking to writing only one post about the book, I do heartily recommend that anyone interested in honeybees check it out, especially the first half before the text gets technical.  The author studied under E.O. Wilson, and his work was also informed by the methods of Karl von Frisch, so Seeley's work is based on sound science, and is carefully explained so it's understandable by laypeople.

As you probably gathered, the book is all about swarm behavior of honeybees, but the author interjects observations about how the bees' version of democracy can inform our own.  The last chapter (which you can read as a stand-alone ebook) considers five lessons we can learn from the bees:

  • Build decision-making groups out of individuals who share interests and mutual respect.  (The bees do this the easy way --- the swarm only has one egg-layer, so if the queen perishes, so does all of their DNA.)
  • Minimize the leader's influence on the group's thinking.  (Although we think of the queen bee as a leader, she really doesn't make any decisions.)
  • Seek diverse solutions to the problem.  (When looking for a new home, a swarm usually sends out 300 to 500 scouts to search for possibilities, turning up around 13 to 34 potentials.)
  • Aggregate the group's knowledge through debate.  (Bees dance to show other bees the potential hive they've found, then those bees go out and look it over and decide whether to throw their support behind the site.)
  • Use quorum responses for cohesion, accuracy, and speed.  (The swarm chooses to lift off and fly to a new site only after about twenty to thirty bees are present at that site at any given time, which means that most (but not necessarily all) scouts have come over to their point of view.)

So, what do you think --- would these bee lessons carry over to human groups?

The Avian Aqua Miser keeps your chickens' water clean and your coop dry.
Posted Sat May 25 07:04:30 2013 Tags:
early silk worm on mullberr leaf

Silkworms seem to be easy livestock so far, just feed fresh mulberry leaves.

Once they get to be about 2 inches long they'll become protein snacks for the chickens or we'll have to start making home made pajamas.

Posted Sat May 25 16:29:35 2013 Tags:
Farm fog

It seemed a bit unfair to have a freeze watch in effect 10 days after our frost-free date.  I'd set out everything frost-sensitive except our peppers, so it took about an hour Friday to put buckets over each tomato plant and row covers over the strawberries and vegetable seedlings.  I had to leave about half the tender vegetables uncovered, though, because I ran out of fabric (and gumption), and, of course, the hardy kiwis and fruit trees are always at risk.

Frost protection

Luckily, the low only dropped to 34, and we didn't even see frost in the cold air drainage path (back garden and gully) that usually seems to get hit first.  I did hear a round of dripping off our metal roof and into the gutters just as the sun hit this morning, though, suggesting that we saw a light frost on that conductive surface.

Our local weather guru says there's a good chance that our area has set itself up in a feedback loop of cool, wet conditions that may last all summer, and the slowness of the garden this year does seem to support his hypothesis.  I can't quite figure out what I should change in that case, although I know it means we're likely to lose our tomatoes to blight quickly and our peachs to brown rot.  Perhaps I should seed a few flats of summer broccoli and brussels sprouts as a consolation prize?  Or start doing sun dances?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock happy with clean water rain or shine.
Posted Sun May 26 08:06:14 2013 Tags:
broody hen with newborn chicks

We've been missing a hen for weeks.

Turns out she's been on maternity leave. She found a nice spot in the barn and is now taking care of 8 new bonus chickens.

Maybe we'll make this location more chicken friendly for any future nesting.

Posted Sun May 26 15:33:27 2013 Tags:
Second-instar silkworms

Even though we didn't get pigs this year, we do have a few hundred new animals on the farm --- silkworms!  I haven't been posting about our inesect adventures here because I've been pouring out my enthusiasm over on our chicken blog, specifically:

But I wanted to hit up this larger audience for ideas on designing a silkworm experiment this spring.  Silk producers end up with a lot of dead silkworm pupae, which they feed to chickens, pigs, and people, but it's clear that silkworms aren't at their nutritional best at the pupal stage.  Since I don't care about silk, I can feed my silkworms to chickens at any age, but when is the best time?

Baby silkwormsBefore pupating, silkworms go through five instars (caterpillar stages between molts).  During each instar, the catperillars are larger than they were before, but so is their silk gland in proportion to their body, and silk isn't terribly tasty or nutritious.  My goal is to find the silkworm age at which the caterpillars are as large as possible before their nutritional value declines.

I assume chickens can tell the difference between a subpar and a top-notch silkworm just like I can tell the difference between an old, woody kale leaf versus a tender, young leaf.  But how do I analyze taste-test data from a chicken?  I could put out a tray of 30 silkworms each week and see how long it takes the flock to gulp them down, but that plan has issues since the silkworms will be bigger each week (presumably meaning they'd take longer to eat).  More importantly, we breed our chickens to be non-pets in an effort to keep the flock out of the garden, so it would probably take a while for them to even come up and discover a dish of silkworms.  How would you go about deciphering silkworm palatability to your flock?

The first step in peak chicken nutrition is to provide copious clean water, after which you can move on to homegrown feeds.
Posted Mon May 27 07:37:35 2013 Tags:

Free online permaculture courseWithout an intern, Mark and I are back on the job of not only fulfilling chicken waterer orders, but also building the kits and premade units ourselves.  We've really streamlined the operation over the last year, so the actual construction only takes us each two or three hours per week.  Still, those hours always call to me to work on my weaknesses since my mind is free and my hands are busy. 

This summer, I've opted to use my construction time to take a refresher course on basic permaculture while also improving my shoddy listening comprehension skills.  North Carolina State University's free online permaculture class seemed like the perfect way to kill both birds with one stone since the course format is videos and the information is pretty local (from about 280 miles southeast of us).  As an added bonus, the required texts for the course are two books I skimmed years ago and have been meaning to reread with a fine-tooth Will Hooker Permaculturecomb --- Gaia's Garden and Introduction to Permaculture

I'm not committing to listening to all 38 lectures since I think the summer may be long over before that happens, but I'll post about the tidbits from the lectures I do make it through.  Feel free to listen along and comment with your own thoughts!

(As a side note, Regenerative Leadership Institute also has a free online permaculture course.  I chose NCSU's instead because they're physically closer to me, plus RLI's videos weren't online when I began listening (although a beta version is up now).  I'd be curious to hear from anyone who chooses RLI's course instead, or listens to both and would like to compare and contrast.  Or perhaps you've found yet another free online course you prefer?  Or maybe you paid for an online course and thought it was worth the money?  Please do comment if any of those possibilities sound like you!)

And don't forget to tune back in tomorrow at lunchtime to read my thoughts after listening to lectures 1 and 2....

If you'd rather catch up on your reading this summer, my paperback The Weekend Homesteader walks you through getting started on a permaculture homestead.
Posted Mon May 27 12:01:08 2013 Tags:
winter rye cover crop cutting with weed trimmer

Discovered today that really long rye wants to get tangled up and clogs the trimmer.

It's not too hard to dislodge, but usually can be avoided by running at full speed.

Posted Mon May 27 15:44:30 2013 Tags:

2011 tomatoesThis year's tomatoes went in the ground less than two weeks ago, and I'm already planning ahead for next year.  I've had good luck for the last two years choosing a subirrigated spot as a blight-control measure, but I want to keep the tomato patches on at least a three year rotation, which means I needed to find yet one more garden area with high groundwater.

The back garden is the obvious solution.  Unfortunately, previous owners let that area's topsoil completely erode away, so it's a bit more like a swamp than like a true subirrigated garden.  Which is all a long way of explaining why the back garden is in the midst of a 12-month cover-crop rotation to get ready for tomato season 2014.

Rye cover cropMuch of the back garden has actually already been in cover crops for over a year.  I sowed annual ryegrass in early March 2012, kill-mulched in early summer, then planted buckwheat in any beds that weren't needed to reach last year's vegetable quota.  At the end of October, the whole area went into rye, which grew up over my head despite sodden and poor soil.

Before Mark cut the rye this week, I scattered buckwheat seeds amid the standing stalks, and I plan to ask Mark to pee on each bed in turn to add nitrogen to the soil.  This is my Dewy pea flowerversion of Fukuoka's do-nothing grain rotation, except that I don't let the grains go to seed and instead grow them for biomass production.  I figure I'll have enough summer to plant buckwheat three more times in these beds, before either repeating the winter rye experiment or using oilseed radishes there for the winter instead.

My hope is that by this time next year, I'll stop thinking of the back garden as terrible soil, and can upgrade it to "good soil as long as I add a lot of manure every year."

(In case you're wondering, the pea flower has absolutely nothing to do with tomatoes.  I just thought it was pretty and wanted to share.)

Like subirrigation, our chicken waterer keeps water where you want it (in your hens' beaks) without turning the surroundings into a swamp.
Posted Tue May 28 06:54:28 2013 Tags:

Encouraging birds in the gardenAs I mentioned yesterday, I'm trying out Will Hooker's free online permaculture class.  The course was originally taught once a week, with each day's lecture cut in half and put on the web in two pieces.  Since it makes sense to review and react to each pair of lectures together, this post contains my take on lectures 1 and 2.

First of all, our internet was running terribly slowly when I started listening, which made it painful to jump to a spot in a video if I got interrupted partway through.  Luckily, the university didn't protect against visitors simply right-clicking and saving each video to their computers, so I recommend you do that first.  After downloading, it'll be easy to skip past all of the information that's really only relevant to local students --- like the getting-to-know you half hour that made up most of lesson 1.  In fact, if you know anything at all about permaculture you might skip lesson 1 entirely and maybe even lesson 2 (which covers permaculture ethics and principles).  The only really interesting tidbit I took away from these two lessons is the idea of adding bird perches to the tops of garden-trellis-and-staking posts to make it easier for our feathered friends to hang out and deposit manure below.

Your homework before delving into lesson three includes:

  • In Grave Danger of Falling Food --- This 50 minute video about Bill Mollison is interesting, but drags a bit, especially since you're likely to have heard everything he's talking about before.  It's intriguing, though, to hear permaculture-related stances straight from the horse's mouth, and to guess how current-day forest gardening grew out of Mollison's mixed-species garden.
  • Earth Day Ecological Footprint Quiz and Carbon Footprint Quiz --- These quizzes are fun, but suffer from a very narrow worldview.  I can understand why they don't give you the option to say you use a composting toilet and why they can't delve into the complexities of when meat-eating makes sense, but how hard would it be to let you input your actual electricity usage per year?
  • Gaia's Garden chapters 1 and 2 and Introduction to Permaculture chapter 1 --- These Introduction to Permaculturetwo books are the required texts for the course (with other books offering optional reading).  I skimmed both of these books when I first got started with permaculture many moons ago, but recent reading (with a more experienced eye) changed my review of each dramatically.  Now that I've tried a lot of permaculture techniques on the ground, I find parts of Gaia's Garden naive and overly enthusiastic, plus the book is obviously geared towards rich suburban Americans who don't really need to grow any of their own food.  On the other hand, Bill Mollison's Introduction to Permaculture has improved with age, and I can't quite figure out why such an excellent book is out of print.  Sure, it's based in subtropical and tropical Australia, so you have to use completely different plants than Mollison recommends, but the underlying themes are thoughtful and rooted in experience (and the drawings are beautiful and informative).

I'll write more specifics about the reading when I listen to the relevant lectures (3 and 4).  That post probably won't show up here until next week, so you've got plenty of time to catch up if you want to join this year's version of last summer's book club.  The more the merrier!

For a deeper look at birds in a permaculture homestead, check out my chicken ebooks, all just 99 cents apiece.
Posted Tue May 28 12:01:27 2013 Tags:
Kolpin ATV hitch update

hitchI made a mistake installing the ATV receiver hitch.

The star washer should've been sandwiched between the Receiver and the ATV.

It came loose, even though I re-installed the star washer where it should be. I thought about trying some epoxy, but might just weld it on.

Posted Tue May 28 15:13:41 2013 Tags:
Cucumber plant

Have you ever been wandering through the garden, and for a split second you can actually taste that cucumber that hasn't even bloomed yet?  Okay, maybe I just have a very vivid imagination....

Ripening strawberries

Gustatory hallucinations aside, the actual garden produce is starting to expand out into summer bounty.  Tuesday officially began strawberry week, when we stopped rationing those delectable fruits and started gorging.  Tuesday also would have been the first tasting of sugar snap peas in 2013, but Mark was at an inventor's conference and I didn't want to partake without him, so I saved the first crunchy duo for today.

Garlic scape

Baby fig
We're still eating asparagus, although I've let each plant unfurl one stalk to recharge their root batteries, and that's slowed production down.  Kale raab is also slowing down, but it looks like garlic scapes will be joining our menu this week, and we're already eating the spring planting of Swiss chard.  There's still plenty of lettuce, although it's going a bit bitter and will probably be off the menu soon.  And, look!, the Chicago Hardy fig has already set its first fruit!

Pollarded mulberry

And then there are my thrice-daily pickings of mulberry leaves.  Oh, wait, those are for our silkworms, not for us....

Our chicken waterer provides POOP-free water for our flock so they can feed us healthy eggs and meat.
Posted Wed May 29 07:19:42 2013 Tags:

Garden ecology lectureI told you yesterday that I wouldn't write a reaction post to lectures 3 and 4 until next week, but it turned out that those lectures (especially the latter) were much more interesting and took me less time to finish up.  So here's a rather rambling series of thoughts on those lectures and the associated readings.

The third lecture in the online permaculture course is about garden ecology, and I felt it was a bit light (even after the first 35 minutes of student observations ended).  The only useful tidbit I came up with was the idea of focusing on multiple-kingdom guilds in our climate rather than on the plant-plant guilds that you read about in tropical books (like Mollison's).  I think Hooker is spot-on with this assessment --- mixing chickens and trees or fungi and plants has worked much better for me than companion planting.

Greywater catchment systemLecture 4 is where the online course begins to really shine, since it's basically an overview of the professor's own urban homestead.  Hooker shows us his Belgian fence of apples, a grape-covered chicken run (allowing him to shake the vines to feed Japanese beetles to his flock), and a great rainwater-collection system (pictured to the right).  On the other hand, you also begin to get a feel for Will Hooker's limitations in this lecture, especially when you learn that he doesn't eat his chickens (giving away the roosters and presumably letting his hens die of old age).  Hooker also puts a lot more effort into aesthetics than into producing an edible harvest.

Most of the reading that went along with these lectures was information I already knew, but there were a few gems in Mollison's Introduction to Permaculture:

"Although permaculture may seem to be labour-intensive to start with, it is not a return to peasant systems of annual crops, endless drudgery, and total dependence on human labour.  Rather it focuses on designing the farm (or garden, or town) to best advantage, using a certain amount of human labour (which can include friends and neighbours), a gradual buildup of productive perennial plants, mulching for weed control, the use of biological resources, alternative technologies that generate and save energy, and a moderate use of machinery, as appropriate."


"The golden rule is to develop the nearest area first, get it under control, and then expand the edges.  Too often, the beginner chooses a garden far from the house, and neither harvests the plants efficiently, nor cares for them well enough.  Any soil can be developed for a garden over time, so stay close to the home when placing the garden and orchard."

Finally, your reading assignment before enjoying lectures 5 and 6 is:

  • "Orchards, Farm Forestry, and Grain Crops" in Introduction to Permaculture.  (The book I finally tracked down is the first edition, in which this is chapter 5, but I understand it is chapter 6 in later editions.)
  • "Growing a Food Forest" in Gaia's Garden.

If you're watching and reading along with me, did other parts of these two lectures jump out at you?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Trailersteading shows how we ended up with a liveable structure for $2,000, and how other trailersteaders have turned mobile homes into vibrant homesteads.
Posted Wed May 29 12:01:21 2013 Tags:
Starplate walls

The easiest way to fill in the walls of a starplate chicken coop is using plywood...but only if you don't have to haul the wood to a remote location.  1"x8" boards are much easier to haul, and are not hard to cut to size on location.

No wood will be wasted.  The bitter ends will match back up to form the comparable portion of the next triangle over.

Posted Wed May 29 16:20:47 2013 Tags:
Elderberry leaf mulch

Summer leaf mulchThis is the time of year when the weeding starts to get ahead of me and I have to cut corners.  For example, a couple of spots in the forest garden had turned into such weed pits that I figured the understory plants were detrimental to the trees above.  Without an hour per tree to root out each weed, I hunted down cardboard and paper feed bags to lay down a quick-and-dirty kill mulch instead.  But what organic matter could I put on top to weigh the kill mulch down and give it some longevity?

Our core homestead was entirely wooded when we got here, and many stumps are still sprouting back from the base annually.  At this time of year, new sprouts are easy to rip loose --- one minute of yanking and I had enough box-elder branches to mulch the little apple tree to the left.

Forest garden

For the forest garden, I instead turned to elderberries.  It's actually part of traditional Guatemalan agriculture to allow elderberries in your fields, then to coppice them regularly to mulch the plants you care about.  Our damp homestead means elderberries spring up everywhere, and I cut down all of last year's stems from the patch in front of the barn in just a couple of minutes.  At this time of year, elderberries are easy to snap across your knee, so the leafy stems are what I ended up topping off my forest garden kill mulches with.  Since I left this year's stems on the trees, they should have plenty of gumption to keep growing, allowing me to repeat the easy mulch-gathering next year.

Last year, I made a similar mulch out of wingstem and ragweed, and the berries mulched thusly stayed much more weed-free than I would have thought, considering that leafy stems tend to dessicate down into a very thin mulch within a few days.  I'm hoping my forest-garden quick fix will have similar results.

Our chicken waterer makes chicken chores clean, easy, and fun.
Posted Thu May 30 07:02:14 2013 Tags:
star plate wall construction image

Our local lumber store was out of 1x8's so we switched to 6 inch boards, which takes a bit longer for each wall.

I started putting the scrap pieces on one of the triangles, but will wait till tomorrow to share those details and pictures.

Posted Thu May 30 15:58:26 2013 Tags:
Watering the garden

Some years, we bring out the hoses and hook up the sprinklers in April; this year it's nearly June.  That said, my sun dances seem to have been working --- highs up to 90 and a week without rain has started cracking the earth as it shrinks and dries.  Garden growth is slowing down too --- thus hauling out the sprinklers.

Sprinkler and barnYou can read all about the reason we designed our irrigation system the way we did here.  The initial setup cost a couple of hundred bucks, but the sprinklers and hoses have been going strong for four years now without an end in sight.  I did take a minute to grease each sprinkler before getting started this spring, which should prevent the trouble I had with a couple of sprinklers getting stuck in one spot previously.  That small bit of maintenance aside, irrigation of the vegetable garden is now nearly trouble-free --- just flip a switch and change a valve every few hours.

Our chicken waterer makes watering the backyard flock even easier than watering the garden.
Posted Fri May 31 07:17:13 2013 Tags:
moving chicks with the garden wagon

We left the TC1840H garden wagon in place when we moved the chicks recently.

Now changing pastures is easier and fun.

Posted Fri May 31 16:14:53 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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